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

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.

Dorling Kindersley, From “The Mythology Book”

“Myths had a great influence on the societal fabric of history’s greatest civilizations. The rich and complex mythology of ancient Egypt emphasized the creation of order out of chaos. Such stories validated the governance of society and legitimized a status quo in which the pharaoh himself was viewed as divine and therefore worthy of being served. The Egyptians also saw time as cyclical; events that happened in their society were merely repeating what had happened before and had been recorded in their myths.”

~ Dorling Kindersley, From “The Mythology Book”

Archaeological Finds 2020: Over 100 Ancient Sarcophagi

Egyptian antiquities officials have announced the discovery of almost 100 ancient sealed sarcophagi, which were buried more than 2,500 years ago in the Pharaonic necropolis and around 40 golden statues in south Cairo.

Archaeologists discovered a well-preserved mummy wrapped in cloth – which they later X-rayed to find out how the body had been conserved.

Tourism and antiquities minister Khaled el-Anany said the items date back to the Ptolemaic dynasty that ruled Egypt for 300 years – from around 320BC to around 30BC and the Late Period (664-332BC).

Since September, antiquities experts have found around 140 sealed sarcophagi, featuring mummies inside almost all of them.

The Sphinx and Its Meaning

The Sphinx is said to be associated with Khafre during 2558-2532 BC, and it lines up with the Pyramid of Khafre at the foot of its causeway.

The Sphinx has the body of lion and the head of a king or god. In 1905 the sand was cleared away from the sculpture base to reveal how massive the Sphinx really is. The paws alone are 50 feet long and the entire body equals out to 150 feet long. The head is proportionally a lot smaller at only 30 feet long and 14 feet wide. The Sphinx is believed to have been quite colorfully painted at one time. Unfortunately, the bedrock it is carved into is sandstone so it does not hold up well to the elements and a lot of erosion has occurred.

The Sphinx lost its nose because Muhammad Sa’Im Al-Dahr was angered by peasants making offerings to it, so he destroyed the nose then was promptly hanged for vandalism. Other stories such as the claim that Turks shot off its nose during target practice or even Napoleon. More mystery surrounding the Sphinx is who it resembles. Some believe that the face resembles that of Khafre’s older brother, Pharaoh Djedefre. A German Egyptologist has also suggested that the Sphinx was built by King Khufu, Khafre’s father. So many rumors circulate around the Sphinx, but I do not think we will ever truly know what it’s true purpose was.

The Dream Stele is between the paws of the Sphinx. The stele tells the story of when Thutmosis IV fell asleep under the Sphinx, which at the time was covered in sand up to its neck. He had a dream that the Sphinx talked to him and told him that if he freed the Sphinx from the sand then he would become king. Some people do believe that the Sphinx has magical powers or that it has hidden passageways under it. But none of these have been confirmed.

Ancient Egyptian Concept of the Soul

To the Ancient Egyptians, the soul was the most important part of a person and it was separated into different parts making up it’s vehicle (the human, in this case).  There was one physical form and eight semi-divine parts which made up one’s soul. These parts are as follows:

~ Kha: The physical body of the human which decayed after death, according to the Egyptians, only if it was not mummified and persevered properly.

~ Ka: The double that lingered on in the tomb inhabiting the body or even statues of the dead, but was also independent of the deceased body and could move, eat and drink at will.

~ Akhu: This was the immortal part, the radiant and shining being that lived on in the Sahu, the intellect, will and intentions of the deceased that transfigured death and ascended to the heavens to live with the gods.

~ Sahu: The incorruptible spiritual body of man that could exist in the heavens, appearing from the physical body after the judgement of the dead was passed (if successful) with all of the mental and spiritual abilities of a living body.

~ Sekhem : This was the incorporeal personification of the life force of man, which lived in heaven with the Akhu, after death.

~ Khaibit: The shadow of a man, it could partake of funerary offerings and was able to detach itself from the body and travel at will, though it always was thought to stay near the Ba.

~ Ba: The human headed bird flitted around in the tomb during the day bringing air and and food to the deceased, but traveled with Ra on the Solar Barque during the evenings.

~ Ab: The heart, this was the source of good and evil within a person, the moral awareness and center of thought that could leave the body at will, and live with the gods after death, or be eaten by Ammut as the final death if it failed to weigh equally against Ma’at.

~ Ren: The true name, a vital part to man on his journey through life and the afterlife, a magical part that could destroy a man if his name was obliterated or could give power of the man if someone knew his Ren.

Duat: Ancient Egyptian Underworld

In ancient Egyptian mythology, the Duat is the underworld or the realm of the dead. It is the home of the god Osiris, Anubis, Thoth, Horus, Hathor, and Ma’at, and many grotesque spirits controlled by them. Ra, the sun god, also travels through the Duat every night and battles the serpent monster Apep.

The most important function of the Duat however is that it is where people’s souls go for judgment after death. Their tombs were viewed to be entrances into the Duat, and they could travel back and forth from the underworld through these burial chambers.

Within the Duat are many impressive geographical features. There are normal features like islands, fields, caverns, rivers, and mounds – but also unrealistic structures like lakes of fire, trees of turquoise, and walls of iron. Once someone had passed away, it was up to them to navigate this tricky landscape to become an akh, or blessed spirit. They had to pass through a series of gates protected by grotesque spirits with human bodies and heads of animals, knives, torches, or insects. Along the way were also mounds and caverns filled with animals or gods who would threaten the dead as they passed.

Once the dead passed all of these unpleasant spirits, if they did, they would reach the Weighing of the Heart. This ritual involved weighing the heart of the deceased against a feather, representing Ma’at – the goddess of truth and justice. This ritual was performed by Anubis. If the heart was out of balance, due to failure to follow Ma’at, then the heart would be devoured by Ammit, the Devourer of Souls. Those who did pass would travel to the paradise of Aaru.

** All we know about the Duat and the afterlife comes from funerary texts like the Book of the Dead, Pyramid Texts, Coffin Texts. **