Priests and Priestesses of Ancient Egypt

The ancient Egyptians understood that their gods had prevailed over the forces of chaos through the creation of the world and relied upon humanity’s help to maintain it. The people of Mesopotamia held this same belief but felt they were co-workers with the gods, laboring daily to hold back chaos through even the simplest acts, but the Egyptians believed all they had to do was recognize how the world worked, who was responsible for its operation, and behave accordingly.

This behavior was directed by the central cultural value, ma’at (harmony and balance) which was sustained by an underlying force known as heka (magic). Heka (personified as the god Heka) had been present at the creation of the world, pre-existing the gods, and allowed those gods to perform their duties. All the people, by observing ma’at, helped to maintain the order established by the gods through heka, but a special class was responsible for honoring and caring for the gods daily, and this was the priesthood.

The clergy of ancient Egypt did not preach, interpret scripture, proselytize, or conduct weekly services; their sole responsibility was to care for the god in the temple. Men and women could be clergy, performed the same functions, and received the same pay. Women were more often priestesses of female deities while men served males, but this was not always the case as evidenced by the priests of the goddess Serket (Selket), who were doctors and both female and male, and those of the god Amun. The position of God’s Wife of Amun, held by a woman, would eventually become as powerful as that of the king.

High priests were chosen by the king, who was considered the high priest of Egypt, the mediator between the people and their gods, and so this position had political as well as religious authority. The priesthood was already established in the Early Dynastic Period in Egypt (c. 3150-2613 BCE) but developed in the Old Kingdom (c. 2613-2181 BCE) at the same time as the great mortuary complexes like Giza and Saqqara were being constructed. Throughout Egypt’s history, the priesthood would serve a vital role in maintaining religious belief and tradition while, at the same time, consistently challenge the authority of the king by amassing wealth and power which at times rivaled that of the crown.

Sources: World History Encyclopedia

Heka & Akhu: Ancient Egyptian Magic

Heka (magic) was already at the heart of Egyptian beliefs by 4000 BCE. Creator deities such as Nu (the watery abyss) were said to have used heka to bring the world into existence from primordial chaos. In doing so, they subdued the forces of chaos, but the forces constantly sought to return and could only be stopped by heka. For the ancient Egyptians, it was not just the gods that handled magic. Lesser supernatural beings, pharaohs, and the dead were thought to possess an element of heka, which they could channel through the use of spells to deflect the attention of malevolent spirits.

The ancient Egyptians also believed in another form of magic power called akhu, which was malign and closely associated with beings of the underworld. To protect against akhu magical practitioners such as priests, scribes in the “Houses of Life”—which held the manuscript collections of Egyptian temples—sunu (doctors), and sau (amulet-makers) employed heka spells, rituals, and magical objects. Indeed, faith in heka was so widespread that ancient Egyptians used it in all aspects of life from matters of state to the delivery of oracles and more mundane village affairs, such as love matches, protection during childbirth, and curing minor illnesses. As well as being an abstract force, there was a god called Heka who personified magic. Heka helped ensure the harmony of the cosmos and acted as a conduit through whom worshippers could seek divine favors. He had a female counterpart, Weret-hekau (Great of Magic), who was depicted in the form of a cobra. It is thought that the snake-headed staffs often used by ancient Egyptian magicians may have represented her.

Sources: A History of Magic, Witchcraft and the Occult

The Djed

The djed is an ancient Egyptian symbol for stability which features prominently in Egyptian art and architecture throughout the country’s history. `Stability’ should be understood to mean not only a firm footing but immutability and permanance. The symbol is a column with a broad base which narrows as it rises to a capital and is crossed by four parallel lines. The column and the lines are sometimes brightly painted and other times monochrome. The djed first appears in the Predynastic Period in Egypt (c. 6000-3150 BCE) and continues through the Ptolemaic Dynasty (323-30 BCE), the last dynasty to rule Egypt before it became a province of the Roman Empire.

The djed is often overlooked in Egyptian art, and especially in architecture, simply because it is so ubiquitous; the djed is featured on pillars, tomb walls, architraves (the main beam which rests on pillars), palace walls, sheets of painted papyrus, and especially sarcophagi. Once one is aware of the djed and its importance to ancient Egyptian culture it is impossible to miss. It is a potent symbol associated with the god Osiris and his return from the dead. The symbol has been interpreted to represent different objects such as the god Osiris’ backbone, the tamarisk tree which enclosed the god, four pillars rising one behind another, and a fertility pole raised at festivals. `Stability’, however, seems to have been its prime meaning and the one which the ancient Egyptians attached the greatest importance to.

The precise origin of the djed is unknown but it was associated with the god Ptah, an early creator god in the Predynastic Period whose attributes were later assumed by the deities Atum and Osiris. According to historian Clare Gibson, the djed was an early phonogram which could also act as a pictogram or ideogram. A phonogram is a symbol representing a sound and a pictogram a symbol for a specific word or phrase while an ideogram is a symbol of a thing itself without reference to words or sounds (such as numerals where one recognizes the symbol 10 as representing a certain quantity). The djed symbolized the spoken word-concept for stability, was the written word for stability, and stood for the concept itself.

Sources: World History Encyclopedia

Cannabis in Ancient Egyptian Religion and Culture

When the mummy of Pharaoh Ramesses II was uncovered and examined back in 1881, traces of cannabis in the remains was the last thing anyone was expecting, but it was there. Since then, a lot of the uncovered mummies have shown similar traces of the herb in their systems, confirming the suspicion that cannabis was indeed a part of the regular culture in ancient Egypt.

In ancient Egypt, cannabis was used for medicinal, religious, and cultural purposes.

Seshat, the goddess of wisdom, was often depicted with a leaf of the cannabis plant above her head in paintings from thousands of years ago. Bastet, the feline goddess of war, was also related to the use of cannabis in the region, but more in terms of witchcraft. Evidence also suggests that worshippers may have consumed marijuana in one form or the other during certain religious festivities and rituals.

Sources: Ancient Origins (Robert Brusco)

Neferneferuaten Nefertiti (1370 – 1330 BC)

Neferneferuaten Nefertiti (1370 – 1330 BC)

“Beautiful are the Beauties of Aten, the Beautiful one has come”

Egyptian queen and the Great Royal Wife (chief consort) of Akhenaten, an Egyptian Pharaoh. Nefertiti and her husband were known for a religious revolution, in which they worshiped one god only, Aten, or the sun disc. Akhenaten and Nefertiti were responsible for the creation of a whole new religion which changed the ways of religion within Egypt. With her husband, she reigned at what was arguably the wealthiest period of Ancient Egyptian history.

Some scholars believe that Nefertiti ruled briefly as Neferneferuaten after her husband’s death and before the accession of Tutankhamun, although this is still an ongoing debate.

Rosetta Stone Discovered

Today in Egyptian history —> On this day in 1799, French Captain Pierre-François Bouchard found the Rosetta Stone in an Egyptian village. The stone was inscribed with hieroglyphics, demotic script and Greek script in 196 BC but was lost during the Medieval period. After its rediscovery, it prompted widespread excitement as scientists raced to be the first to decipher the ancient text. It was eventually translated by Jean-François Champollion, a French scholar, in 1822!

The inscription, by the way, is about the divine status of Ptolemy V.

The Egyptians want it returned for their new Grand Egyptian Museum (opening later this year), but the British Museum says no as it’s the most visited artifact in the museum.

Ankh

One of the most recognizable ancient Egyptian symbols, the ankh, is one of the few vestiges to survive the decay of the old religions and still be in use today.

What Is the Ankh?

The ankh is an ancient Egyptian hieroglyph or symbol known as the cross of life or key of life and dates back to the Early Dynastic period (3150 BC – 2613 BC). The symbol resembles a cross with a loop on the top. The ankh is seen in the hands of almost every deity, carried by the loop or with arms crossed and one in each hand. The symbol was found as far afield as Persia and Mesopotamia in dig sites and was said to connote both mortal existence as well as eternal life.

Origin

Various theories exist about the origin of the symbol, but popular opinion suggests the origin is unknown. In 1869, mythologist Thomas Inman believed the ankh was a sexual symbol, and Egyptologist E. A. Wallis Budge similarly thought it may symbolize the belt buckle of Isis or Tyet. The ceremonial girdle or Knot of Isis, was alleged to represent female genitalia and fertility. Egyptologist Alan Gardiner posited it represented a sandal strap, as the word sandal and ankh came from the same root word. His theory was further affirmed by the fact that the sandal was a part of daily life in Egypt and the ankh also represented life. In a more recent publication, The Quick and the Dead, the authors claim the ankh ties to ancient cattle culture.

Usage

The symbol was portrayed on amulets, with the Djed (meaning stability) or Was (meaning strength) – symbols which were said to provide the protection of the gods to the wearer. Ptah is also seen making offerings with these three symbols in images representing him. The ankh was associated with the purifying power of water. This was evident on numerous temples where the king was depicted with two gods pouring a stream of ankhs over his head to cleanse him.

Gods and kings are frequently depicted holding the ankh to show their immortality and command over life and death. For those that had passed into the afterlife, the symbol was carried when their souls were weighed or aboard the boat of the Sun God, indicating their desire for immortality like the gods. According to the Dictionary of Symbols by Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant, it also represents the spring of eternal life and divine virtues. When it was held by the loop, usually in funeral rites, it may have been perceived as the key to opening the gateway to the Fields of Aalu, the Egyptian version of the Elysium Fields. Chevalier and Gheerbrant further postulated that when the ankh was placed between the eyes, it symbolized the duty of the person to keep the mystery he was initiated into a secret.

Early Dynastic and Old Kingdom Period

In the Early Dynastic period, the symbol became popular through the rise of the cult of Isis and Osiris. Isis is seen holding the ankh more frequently than other deities. Since the cult of Isis promised immortality through personal resurrection, the symbol became imbued with greater meaning and potency.

During the Old Kingdom Period, the ankh was well known as a symbol of eternal life. The dead were called ankhu and the symbol appeared frequently on sarcophagi and caskets.

Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom Period

The word ’nkh became associated with mirrors, from the Middle Kingdom Period onward. The Egyptians believed mirrors were magical and used them in divination. An ankh-shaped gilded mirror was found in Tutankhamun’s tomb. The Egyptians believed the afterlife was a perfect reflection of life on earth – a mirror image. During a particular festival, called the Festival of Lanterns, the Egyptians would light oil lamps to create a night sky of stars on earth to mirror the stars in the sky and the afterlife. When they did this, it was said to help them commune with the dead who had passed on the Fields of Aalu or Field of Reeds.

During the New Kingdom, the ankh was used in ceremonies and became associated with the cult of Amun. During the Amarna period, images of Aten the sun-disk often contained ankhs at the end of the sun’s rays.

Knot of Isis

The Tyet, or Knot of Isis, is very similar to the ankh. The arms of the cross are bent downward, differentiating the Knot of Isis from its counterpart, but it similarly means life or welfare. Sources claim the Tyet combines the concept of life and immortality with the knots which fasten mortal life to earth. To savor immortal life, the knot purportedly needs to be unraveled.

Modern Use

The symbol is used by modern Pagans as a symbol of faith, in healing and to promote psychic communication. It is viewed as a symbol of life by various new age religions. Thelemites, followers of the religion created by Aleister Crowley, also make use of the ankh as a union of opposites, a symbol of advancing one’s destiny or of divinity.

On Anubis

“Anubis was the guardian of all kinds of magical secrets. In the Papyrus Jumilhac, he appears as the leader of the armed followers of Horus. His ferocity is a match for the violence of Seth. In magical texts of a similar date, Anubis is named as ‘Lord of the Bau’. Whole battalions of messenger demons are under his command. In the magical papyri dating to Roman times, Anubis acts as the main enforcer of curses. The gracious deities of the cult temples are scarcely recognizable in the pitiless gods and goddesses encountered in everyday magic. (…) A story in Papyrus Jumilhac (c. 300 BC) explains the custom by relating how Seth once turned himself into a panther after attacking the body of Osiris. Anubis captured and branded the panther, creating the leopard’s spots. The jackal god decreed that leopard skins should be worn by priests in memory of his victory over Seth.”

~ Geraldine Pinch, Egyptologist

Harpokrates Stelae

An amuletic plaque of the god Harpokrates (Horus the Child) standing in the center on the heads of two crocodiles and beneath a mask of Bes, a god especially associated with the protection of children and of pregnant women and those giving birth. In each hand Harpokrates clutches a scorpion by the stinger as well as two serpents. He also grasps a quadruped by the horns with his right while his left grips a lion by the tail. In addition, he is flanked by standards in the form of lotus and papyrus columns.

The plaque is extensively inscribed with magical spells to protect against scorpions, snakes, and the other noxious forces subdued by the god, and to heal the stings and bites of wild creatures.

The object is made of chlorite schist and is dated to the Ptolemaic Period (304-30 BCE). This type of stelae was often set up in homes, but examples have also been found in burials. This suggests that they were believed to extend their protective powers to the deceased.

This piece is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA.

3500 years old Ancient Egyptian Lost City Discovered

Archaeologists have announced the discovery of a 3500 years old Ancient Egyptian city near Luxor in Egypt.

The Egyptian Expedition under Dr Zahi Hawass made the discovery whilst excavating an area between Rameses III’s temple at Medinet Habu, and Amenhotep III’s temple at Memnon in search of Tutankhamun’s Mortuary Temple.

The city dates from the period of Amenhotep III (also known as Amenhotep the Magnificent – the ninth pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty) based on a large number of archaeological finds, such as rings, scarabs, coloured pottery vessels, and mud bricks bearing seals of King Amenhotep III’s cartouche.

Excavations which first started in September 2020 have revealed several streets flanked by houses that extend all the way to Deir el-Medina, the village of artisans who worked on the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. Many of the houses have relatively intact walls, whilst the interior contains everyday tools and domestic items.

Several districts have been identified, with a southern area being used for the storage and production of food items, a residential and administrative district, and an industrial district for the manufacturing of mud bricks and decorative jewelry.

One notable find is a storage vessel containing 10kg of dried meat that has the inscription: “Year 37, dressed meat for the third Heb Sed festival from the slaughterhouse of the stockyard of Kha made by the butcher luwy.”

Another discovery is a mud seal inscription that reads: “gm pa Aton” – meaning “the domain of the dazzling Aten”, the name of a temple built by King Akhenaten at Karnak.

Betsy Brian, Professor of Egyptology at John Hopkins University in Baltimore USA, said ‘The discovery of this lost city is the second most important archaeological discovery since the tomb of Tutankhamun”.

“The discovery of the Lost City not only gives us a rare glimpse into the life of the Ancient Egyptians at the time when the Empire was at his wealthiest, but it will help us shed light on one of history’s greatest mystery: why did Akhenaten & Nefertiti decide to move to Amarna,” Brian added.

Sources: Heritage Daily, Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities