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Oliver St. John is the author of fifteen books covering Hermetic and Thelemic philosophy, Qabalah, operative magical Theurgy, the Tarot and astrology. He is a founding member of the Thelemic Magical Collegium, Ordo Astri, and has been a member of the Typhonian Order since 2000 e.v.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

The Ancient Egyptian Priesthood

In the Philosophus 4=7 of degree of Ordo Astri we continue the tradition of Bhakti Yoga, or devotional mysticism. The following article, a general overview of the ancient Egyptian Priesthood, is taken from the Third (Revised and Expanded) Edition of Ritual Magick—The Rites and Ceremonies of Hermetic Light.

The ancient Egyptians understood the gods, as we know them, to be Neteru, divine Principles that are everywhere manifested and visible in nature. Since divinity is everywhere and at all times present, the Egyptians had no word for “religion” in their language. A Temple built in honour of a Neter is a special abode and dwelling place for the god. Only a priest or priestess was allowed to enter the shrine of the god or goddess in the Holy of Holies. The people could pray at the gate, or in the court to the Pharaoh—for the Pharaoh was a living incarnation of Horus on earth. However, it was common for every home to have a shrine to deity, usually the local one.

Sem Priest: Adoration

Ancient Egyptian Priesthood: Sem Priest: Adoration

The priest’s first role was to serve the Neter. The Egyptians understood that the priest played a vital role in serving the gods. If the duties of the priest were neglected, discord and strife would come about. An Egyptian name for a priest is therefore Sem Neter, Servant of the God. The word sem denotes vigilance and observance, and also has the meaning of “image” and of being united or joined with the deity. There were many ranks and classes of priests, involving different duties and levels of knowledge. Priests were often chosen by royal appointment, but could be chosen from any level of society.

The high priest was called Hem Neteru, “Prophet of the Gods”. The word hem denotes “voice” or “sound”, for the true meaning of prophecy is “first to give voice”. A high priest was not young in years, and was revered as very wise. He often acted as chief advisor to the Pharaoh in political and other matters, as well as being the Magister in charge of all ceremonies and rites in the various Temples that he belonged to. Women also fulfilled this role, and were often chosen from noble families by royal appointment.

Below the rank of high priest but nonetheless very important were priestly roles such as that of scribe. Scribes had a very high standing, which can be demonstrated by the fact that the pharaoh was sometimes depicted as a scribe. The work of the hieroglyphs took many years to perfect. The Keeper of the Hours had the important duty of accurately counting the hours through the day, as these were linked to ceremonial observances, civic rites and duties. Astrologers or astronomers (there was no difference) marked the times of year and cyclical motions of the stars and planets, also vital in ceremonial and civic functions as well as agriculture. The annual flooding of the Nile, for example, was linked to the rising of the star Sirius.

A lay priest served ceremonial roles only some of the time and would hold a mundane job, often serving in government or local council administration. Lay priests served a rota system between four equally staffed groups. Each group served for a month and then returned to their other occupation for the following three months.

Priests had certain requirements to meet while they were doing service. According to ancient sources, articles of clothing that were made from animals were not permitted. Priests were only allowed to wear linen or clothing made of plants. They were required to shave their heads and bodies daily, and take several cold-water baths for purification every day while serving their rota.

The duties of a priest involved tending the image of the god in the shrine, invoking the presence of the god, and in other ways uniting their self to the deity through love and devotion. The priests and priestesses had to practice sexual abstinence during the time they served in the Temple. This has an occult significance, for the control and direction of the vital force is essential in practical magick. The three planetary chakras of Venus, Mercury and the Moon, when placed on the Hermetic Tree of Life, correspond to the lower triad or astral triangle of Netzach, Hod and Yesod. Images are created in Hod, ensouled with vitality from Netzach, and are reflected and animated in the mirror of the Moon, or Yesod, which has its correspondence with the field of the human subconscious.

The Initiation of a priest required first baptism in a sacred pool, identified hieroglyphically and in other ways with the waters of Nu, the cosmic sea. The candidate was then sprinkled with lustral water for further purification, and anointed with holy oil before being led to the shrine of the Neter and instructed in the secret ways of working with the deity. The candidate then undertook a ten day fast, at the end of which the mysteries were revealed through direct experience of the deity.

The priest would care for the god in the following ways:

In the morning, after the requisite purifications, the high priest broke the seal and opened the bolts of the doors of the sanctuary.

The priest would light a torch to walk with the god, recite prayers and invocations and light the incense.

The priest would wash the statue of the god and dress it with fresh clothing and jewels.

The priest would place offerings of food and drink before the statue of the god.

Priestesses would offer songs, music and hymns of praise to the god.

At the end of the day, the priest would back out of the shrine, sweeping away his footprints as he went. He would then seal up the sacred area again.

For much of the long history of ancient Egypt, priestesses were equal to priests in status or importance. They were frequently associated with Hathoor and Isis, and were the leaders and creators of all music and dance in the Temples. Priestesses were considered the consorts of the gods, as were the priests. It should not be thought that specialisation in arts in any way relegated the role of the priestess as secondary to that of priest or scribe. The subjection of music, art and, of course, the magical arts, to the greater power and importance of science and the knowledge of material facts is a product of modern societal and governmental conventions. During some of the dynastic times the power of the priestesses was very great indeed, to the extent they were the governors of the priesthood and of society as a whole. This is almost inconceivable from the perspective of Western civilisation in developed industrial nations.

© Oliver St. John 2014