Sem Priests of Ancient Egypt: Their Role and Impact in Funerary Contexts—Part I

Sem Priests of Ancient Egypt: Their Role and Impact in Funerary Contexts—Part I

The office of sem or setem priest of Ptah, the patron god of the craftsmen in Memphis, Lower Egypt, was a prestigious one. Considered a sacred feline with a connection to the Heliopolitan cult via the priests who wore cloaks fashioned out of their pelts, leopards were much sought after beasts. Even though they ceased to exist in the country by the New Kingdom Period, annual tributes from Nubia ensured a steady supply of both live animals and their skins; several examples of symbolic portrayals of leopards have been discovered in the tombs of royals and nobles alike. This animal was most closely identified with sem priests and burial rituals.

Relief of a funeral procession from the tomb of Merymery, who was the Custodian of the Treasury of Memphis, shows women mourners, shaven-headed priests and workers carrying burial goods to the tomb. The fourth figure (from left) in the lower register is a sem priest wearing the leopard-skin robe. Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden. (Photo: Rob Koopman / CC by SA 2.0 )

Mortuary Rites and the Sem Priest

The Opening of the Mouth (“wepet-er”) ceremony was the most important part of the burial ritual and was conducted by the sem priest whilst dressed in leopard skin robes. Dr Geraldine Pinch writes, “Real or artificial leopard-skins were worn by sem priests when they officiated at funerals and by the High Priest of Ra at Heliopolis, whose title was ‘The Seer’.” In her description of a scene from the Tomb of Seti I at Thebes, Dr Emily Teeter explains the attire of priests performing the Opening of the Mouth ritual further, “The sem priest is recognizable by his leopard-skin robe and by his hair, which is worn in a distinctive sidelock.”

“Sem priests were the embalmers who mummified the corpse and recited the incantations while wrapping the mummy. The sem priests were highly respected because they were responsible for the precise utterance of the spells which would guarantee eternal life to the deceased,” writes Egyptological scholar, Joshua J. Mark .

One of the many splendid vignettes from the Book of the Dead of Hunefer, a scribe from the 19th Dynasty (reign of Seti I). While Anubis supports the mummy of Hunefer, the sem priest who wears the leopard-skin garb (extreme left), along with two other priests, performs the “Opening of the Mouth” ritual. British Museum .

When participating in the funerary ceremony, the sem priest wore the leopard-skin mantle that covered most of the otherwise bare upper part of his body and extended downward over his skirt. The robe was worn in a manner such that the head of the leopard fell over the priest’s chest. The Opening of the Mouth ritual transformed the deceased into an akh, the reanimated spirit that was a crucial element of the ancient Egyptian concept of the soul. Performing this rite on a mummy enabled the spirit of the deceased to breathe, speak, see, hear, and receive offerings of food and drink.

Pharaoh Djoser’s Ka statue peers through the hole in his serdab, ready to receive the soul of the deceased and also offerings presented to it. 3rd Dynasty. Saqqara. (Photo: Neithsabes / public domain )

When conducted on a statue (or a coffin, from the New Kingdom period onward), it permitted that sculpture to function as a substitute for the deceased’s body in the event the mortal remains were destroyed or despoiled. To prevent such occurrences, many tombs built during the Old Kingdom included a statue of the dead person placed in a closed chamber or cellar known as a serdab. The haunting image of a seated statue of Pharaoh Djoser of the Third Dynasty that peers from a serdab in the necropolis complex of his Step Pyramid is one of the most famous of them all.

Leopard Mythology and Clergy

What was the true meaning and significance of leopards and their skins that fascinated the ancient Egyptians to such an extent that they incorporated it in vital religious beliefs? Dr Emily Teeter explains the mythology behind the practice, “Papyrus Jumilhac, dating to the Ptolemaic Period (ca. 300 BC), attempts to explain the significance of the leopard skin through a myth that relates the misdeeds of the god Seth. As told in the papyrus, Seth attacked Osiris and then transformed himself into a leopard. The god Anubis defeated Seth and then branded his pelt with spots, hence the robe commemorates the defeat of Seth.” And so, in the Egyptian language, the leopard head hieroglyph is used as a determinative or abbreviation for words relating to ‘strength’.

This exquisite alabaster handle of a cosmetic spoon in the form of a leaping leopard was discovered in the Malqata Palace of Amenhotep III in western Thebes. 18th Dynasty. ( Metropolitan Museum of Art )

“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,” explains Joshua Mark.

[The public archives of the Metropolitan Museum of Art can be accessed here.]

(Read Part 2 )


The Healer Priests of Ancient Egyptian Temples

In ancient Egypt, the priests of temples were also involved in healing people of their ailments. (Image: Chipdawes at English Wikipedia/Public domain)

Priests as Physicians

We know that in ancient Egypt the physicians came from the temples because of the titles they had—for example, the physician of the temple of Sekhmet or the physician of the temple of Isis. These priests/physicians were so famous or good at their jobs that kings of other nations would request their Egyptian counterparts to send them across on occasions when they were unwell.

But, where did the common people go for healing? It is very clear that these physicians did not visit homes. They were not like traveling physicians. They were basically priests. So if one wanted to be healed, they had to go to a temple the temples in Egypt were like clinics.

And Dendera was one temple that was associated with such healing. This temple, situated in the south of Egypt, was dedicated to Hathor who was also connected with the goddess Isis. So, in case you were sick, you could go to the Dendera temple. The temple had small rooms where to sleep overnight on the sacred grounds. And the dreams you saw there would tell you that what was it that you needed to do if you wanted to get cured.

This is a transcript from the video series History of Ancient Egypt. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Temples Not For Ordinary People

The temple of Hathor in Dendera was associated with healing. (Image: Ijanderson977/Public domain)

Temples were very sacred in ancient Egypt. We have always been taught that we can go to the church or the synagogue on a certain day. But in Egypt, that was not the practice. Temples in Egypt were not for the common people, they were not meant for ordinary people in any way. These temples were only for the priests.

These places were secret and special. So it was a big deal if you went to a temple and slept for the night. It was in no way similar to sleeping in the back of a church. Therefore, one could hope for some great dreams. And, that’s why the practice of sleeping in the temples to hear dreams that would tell them how to get healed.

Healing with Water

Then there was also the cure by water. And we can say that this is the origin of the concept of the holy water.

These temples in Egypt had statues that were called cippi. These statues were like stela or small stelae, something with a round top that had a carving of Horus, the infant Horus who, no doubt, eventually became very powerful. Horus was seen standing on a crocodile and holding scorpions. The idea depicted here was that Horus has everything under his control.

So in order to cure someone, what priests did was that they would pour water over the top of this little statue. This water would be collected at the bottom of the statue. It was supposed to be the holy water. One could be cured after drinking this holy water.

So, just by being associated with the statue, the water became magical. But that was the most important part of the process of healing.

Healing at the Deir el-Bahri Temple

The temple at Deir el-Bahri is an example of a place where one could go for healing. The temple was dedicated to Queen Hatshepsut. It was a beautiful temple where Queen Hatshepsut had put scenes of obelisk being moved and expedition to the Punt on the walls.

Many centuries after Queen Hatshepsut had died, in the late period of Egyptian history, this temple was being used as a clinic. One can find inscriptions by Greeks on the walls on the top of the temple which gives us an idea that these temples were indeed used for healing. For example, one such inscription says: “I came here, I asked God for help and I was cured. Farewell.”

Famous Physician-Priests of Ancient Egypt

These temples in ancient Egypt were associated with many famous physicians.

Imhotep, who, way back in the third dynasty during the Old Kingdom, was the architect of the step pyramid of Zoser. Although Imhotep was the royal architect, he was also the royal physician. He later became a god and was named Asklepios, or the Greek god of healing. So it was the god Imhotep who was associated with this temple. Then there was another architect physician Amenhotep who was the son of Hapu.

Thus, in ancient Egypt, people visited temples not for praying, but to get healed. People would come to the temples to seek the blessings of the famous healer priests. That was the most important thing to do if they were sick, and, probably, their only hope to get cured.

Common Questions about the Healer Priests of the Ancient Egyptian Temples

No . In ancient Egypt , ordinary people were not allowed inside the temples.

In ancient Egypt , one had to visit a temple to get healed. They had to sleep in the temple, and their dreams would help them in getting cured.

There were statues of Horus in some temples of ancient Egypt . The priest would pour water on these statues, and the water collected at the bottom was considered to be magical and helped in curing those who were sick.


Crete and Greece

  • Priest’s Animal Skin
    The Egyptian Priests wore the pelts of leopards because they believed wearing the skin of such a powerful predator would spiritually give them the same strength and power. The pelts were worn by the priests in several religious acts such as the mummification of the royals.
    “Sem priests were the embalmers who mummified the corpse and recited the incantations while wrapping the mummy. The sem priests were highly respected because they were responsible for the precise utterance of the spells which would guarantee eternal life to the deceased,” writes Egyptological scholar,Joshua J. Mark
  • .

  • Tortora, P. G. & Eubank, K. (2010). Survey of Historic Costume (5th edition). Fairchild Books. Apr 28, 2020
  • Apr 28 at 8:09pm
  • This is awesome! I love that you showed some modern day examples. I think this look has definitely stuck around and been used as a base for many creative patterns. Apr 28, 2020
  • Apr 28 at 8:24pm
  • This is cool! I wonder if they are where ‘togas’ come from.

A diplax was a smaller rectangle of fabric worn by women, especially over the Ionic Chilton (type of tunic style). The diplax was a form of outer clothing, a type of cloak, which rapped around the body for more warmth and protection. Diplax gets its name from the Greek word double, was generally large to wrap around the shoulders over the chiton for warmth and modesty. It was sometimes designed with decorative geometric patterns around the borders or dyed in bright colors.

The himation was basically a large rectangle of cloth that was wrapped around the body. It was worn by both men and women in by the late 5th century, either alone or over a chiton. It was easy to put on and take off, which might have been used in athletic events. It was wrapped in different ways–as pictured, as a shawl, cloak, or even a head covering.
The length to which it was worn varied. Men could wear it either long or short, but not passed the ankles. Women would wear it ankle length. Philosophers and older gods were shown wearing the himation without a chiton underneath.

  • Tortora, P. G. & Eubank, K. (2010). Survey of Historic Costume (5th edition). Fairchild Books.
  • Our textbook
  • Sinos, R. H., Oakley, J. H. (1993). The Wedding in Ancient Athens. United Kingdom: University of Wisconsin Press.

Ancient status with a Pilos hat

Pilos or Pileus as it is spelled by the Romans was worn by all types of people. Many who wore it were freed slaves, Sailors, and simple commoners. It was usually made of felt or leather. As you can see above, it could have been pointed or a simple cap on the head.

A peplos (Greek: ὁ πέπλος) is a body-length garment established as typical attire for women in ancient Greece by 500 BC (the Classical period). It was a long, tubular cloth with the top edge folded down about halfway, so that what was the top of the tube was now draped below the waist, and the bottom of the tube was at the ankle. The garment was then gathered about the waist and the folded top edge pinned over the shoulders. The folded-down top of the tube provided the appearance of a second piece of clothing.


First Published in 1998. This volume brings together for the first time in a single volume the highly significant works on ancient Egyptian religion by Aylward Manley Blackman (1883-1956).

This volume brings together for the first time in a single volume the highly significant works on ancient Egyptian religion by Aylward Manley Blackman (1883-1956). Blackman's knowledge of Egyptian religion was unrivalled. He was best known for his series of studies on Egyptian religion which have long been regarded as essential reading in the subject, and which forms the content of the present collection. Unusually, Blackman did not publish his writings in book form, but preferred to place them in a wide range of publications that are extremely difficult to obtain. Blackman's studies on Egyptian religious belief and particularly religious practice focus on areas of fundamental concern and are models of meticulous, sympathetic and penetrating scholarship. They should remain required reading for all students of Egyptian religion well into the next century. All those with an interest in the subject should welcome this volume which makes Blackman's writings accessible in a convenient form. A select bibliography provides an update and key to more recent work on topics discussed by Blackman.


New Egyptian Priests

New Egyptian Priests were often chosen by the Pharaoh. Often, the Pharaoh would choose relatives to fill positions in the most powerful and influential temples. Priests were transferred and promoted by the Pharaoh. Priests had certain requirements to meet while they performed their duty. Ritual purity was important.

They were only allowed to wear linens or clothing made of plants. Articles of clothing that were made from animals were not permitted. They were required to shave their heads and bodies daily.

Temples were adjoined by lakes from where they had to take cold water baths. During temple duty, a priest had to shave off all his bodily hair, even the eyebrows. They had to practice sexual abstinence.

The sacred scrolls are read out loud by the “Kher Heb”, the lector priest, who is obliged to read them directly from the papyrus book held open in his hands. He has to recite them exactly as they are written. Hem Netjar or the high priest was to take care of the god and the god´s needs, to act as a servant of the god.

Women from noble families were accepted as “Hemet Netjers” already in the Old Kingdom. Usually, they were attached to the goddesses. The High Priest is also called the First Prophet and could in his turn delegate Second, Third and Fourth Prophets as deputies.

The priesthood was divided into four phyles, i.e. groups, and each phyle worked one month out of three. The god, in the form of a statue, was housed in a shrine, the naos, which was built of stone or wood and was located in the innermost chamber of the temple. The statue could be made of stone, gold or gilded wood, inlaid with semi-precious stones.

Then food and drink were put before the god. This was a display of the best that could be found joints of meat, roasted fowl, bread, fruits, vegetables, beer, wine, and everything in large quantities, out of the temple´s own kitchens, gardens, and farms, and of superior quality. The offerings always included flowers.


Evolution of the Priesthood

In time, however, the priests began to serve themselves more than either. There is evidence of this tendency beginning in the Old Kingdom of Egypt, actually, after the establishment of the grand royal necropolis at Giza. Giza in the Old Kingdom was not the lonely, wind-swept plateau of sand it is today, but a thriving community of state workers, merchants, craftsmen, and priests. These priests were responsible for providing the daily offerings and conducting the rituals which allowed for the continued journey in the afterlife of the kings.

One of the contributing factors to the collapse of the central government at the end of the Old Kingdom was that the king had exempted the priesthood from paying taxes. The priests not only lived off the offerings given to the gods but were able to profit from the land they owned, whose bounty was out of reach of the royal treasury. There is not a single period in Egyptian history in which this paradigm is not evident. It has been suggested, and is entirely probable, that the religious reforms of Akhenaten (1353-1336 BCE) in the New Kingdom were more of a political maneuver to undercut the power of the priesthood than a sincere effort at religious reform.

A stele depicting Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten (r. 1353-1336 BCE) and his family worshipping the Aten or sun disk. / Wikimedia Commons

By the time of Akhenaten, the cult of Amun had grown so powerful and wealthy that they rivaled the king. The position of God’s Wife of Amun, held by royal women at the Temple of Karnak at Thebes, had begun as an honorary title in the late Middle Kingdom of Egypt (2040-1782 BCE) but, by the New Kingdom, was a powerful post, and in the Third Intermediate Period (c. 1069-525 BCE), the daughter of King Kashta (c. 750 BCE), Amenirdis I, effectively ruled Upper Egypt from Thebes as God’s Wife. Akhenaten, who was probably not as mystically-inclined nor as politically inept as he is depicted, recognized the danger of the cult of Amun becoming too powerful and so tried to prevent this through the establishment of monotheism.

His efforts were in vain, however, not only because he was fighting against over 2,000 years of religious tradition but, on the purely practical level, too many people owed their livelihood to the temple and worship of the gods. After his death, his son Tutankhamun (c. 1336-1327 BCE) abolished his father’s religion and returned to the old ways, and these reforms were completed by Horemheb (1320-1292 BCE) who erased Akhenaten’s name from history in outrage at his impiety.


Scribes in Ancient Egypt

Scribes were important people in Ancient Egypt. They carried out both administrative and religious function and were highly prized for their skills.

The role of a scribe was an important one in Ancient Egypt. They were part of a large task force which helped keep track of taxes, censuses and building projects. It took great skill to become a scribe and they were highly valued throughout Ancient Egypt.

Being a Scribe in Ancient Egypt

The most important part of a scribe’s job was keeping records of the running of the Ancient Egyptian civilization. They also wrote and copied religious texts and participated in temple life. Some became priests and taught students in the scribal arts. There were many advantages in Ancient Egypt in becoming a scribe. Scribes were given the opportunity to live a wealthy, upper class life. Ancient Egyptian Scribes did not have to participate in manual labour and didn’t have to pay any form of taxes. They were able to live a wealthy lifestyle and were highly respected in every day life.

Scribal Schools in Ancient Egypt

Scribes were usually trained in an apprenticeship by older, experienced scribes. There were also however schools for the more wealthy to train to become scribes at court. Scribes were taught two kinds of writing. One type was viewed as sacred and was to be only used for religious or funerary purposes and another more common form to be used in administration. They were also taught mathematics and astronomy.

Pharaohs’ were expected be literate and had at least basic scribal training. Studies would usually last for four years and then the student could officially become known as a scribe or get further training in an apprenticeship. Lessons were learnt through recitation and copying from instruction booklets. Students were given potsherds to write on in the beginning, in case mistakes were made. Only when they had reached a certain level of efficiency were they allowed to use papyrus. Students were also expected to participate in a form of physical training. Swimming, archery and self defence were taught along with the lessons.

Thoth: The God of the Scribes in Ancient Egypt

Thoth was sacred to the scribes of Ancient Egypt. Depicted as the Ibis or a baboon, Thoth was said to have invented writing and was said to have a power over words. When a person was sick the magicians used a spoken formula, given to them by Thoth to cure the ailing person. To the Ancient Egyptians words had power. He was one of the eight original Gods who spoke the world into being. When a soul was being judged on it’s suitability to the afterlife, Thoth was said to be there recording it all. The importance of Thoth and his duties, show the importance of scribes in administering Ancient Egypt.


Sem Priests of Ancient Egypt: Their Role and Impact in Funerary Contexts—Part I - History

Why did they build temples?

The pharaohs of Egypt built the temples as houses for the Egyptian gods. Inside the temples, priests performed rituals in hopes of gaining the favor of the gods and to protect Egypt from the forces of chaos.

There were two main types of temples built in Ancient Egypt. The first type is called a Cultus temple and was built to house a specific god or gods. The second type is called a Mortuary temple and was built to worship a dead pharaoh.

Over time, the temples of Ancient Egypt grew into large complexes with many buildings. At the center of the temple was the inner chambers and the sanctuary which housed a statue of the god. This is where the high priest would hold rituals and give offerings to the god. Only the priests could enter these sacred buildings.

Around the sanctuary, other smaller rooms would hold lesser gods and companions to the primary god of the temple. Outside the inner chambers would be other buildings including large halls filled with columns and open courts. The entrance to the temple often had tall pylons that served as guardians to the temples.

Working in the temples were the priests and priestesses. There was typically a high priest that was assigned by the pharaoh. The high priest performed the most important rituals and managed the business of the temple. Working as a priest was considered a good job and was a sought after position by wealthy and powerful Egyptians.

Priests had to be pure in order to serve the gods. They washed twice a day, shaved their heads, and wore only the cleanest linen clothing and leopard skins.

Priests performed daily rituals in the temples. Every morning the high priest would enter the sanctuary and anoint the god's statue with sacred oil and perfume. He would then put ceremonial clothing and paint on the statue. After that he would make offerings of food such as bread, meat, and fruit.

Other rituals and offerings would be made throughout the day in shrines outside the inner sanctuary. Rituals sometimes included music and hymns.

Throughout the year, the temples would celebrate events with festivals. Many festivals were open to the local people and not just the priests. Some of the festivals involved large processions where one god would visit the temple of another god.

The larger temple complexes were major economic hubs in Ancient Egypt. They employed thousands of workers to supply food, jewelry, and clothing for the offerings as well as the many priests. The temples often owned land and collected grain, gold, perfumes, and other gifts from people wanting to earn the favor of the gods.


Sem Priests of Ancient Egypt: Their Role and Impact in Funerary Contexts—Part I - History

Religion and priests were central to everyday life in ancient Egypt. The long history of the priesthood meant that it played a crucial part in maintaining religious institutions, old traditions and the social structure.

Working up the ladder

For most priests, daily life and duties depended largely on their gender and their rank within the hierarchy of priests.

At the top of the tree was the high priest, or 'sem priest', the 'First Prophet of the God'. He was usually old and wise, and would have been a political advisor to the pharaoh as well as religious leader.

Interpreting the universe

On the next rung down were priests who specialized in watching the universe and interpreting its movements. Some were horologists, measuring the hours in the day. Others studied astrology, a discipline which was central to Egyptian mythology, architecture and medicine. The movements of the universe determined temple opening times, crop planting and the level of the river Nile.

One of the most holy jobs a priest could have was to care for an oracle, which usually took the form of a statue. The importance of the job required these priests (known as 'stolists') to keep themselves as pure as possible. To do this, they would shave off all their body hair.

The quest for purity also extended to the afterlife. Stolists were responsible for tending to the needs of the gods, making them symbolic offers of food and sealing the temple shut every night.

Part-time priests

The most common types of priests were called 'wab' or 'lector'. These priests were often in charge of funerals. They are usually pictured reciting prayers or carrying offerings for the dead.

Most only worked part-time, perhaps for just one month a year. When they had finished their duties as priests, they would get on with normal life and go back to their other jobs.

Rules of the game

Whatever their position all priests had to obey a number of strict rules. They could not eat fish (which was seen as peasant food) or wear wool, because most animal products were viewed as unclean. Many priests took three or four baths a day in sacred pools in order to keep themselves pure and male priests were usually circumcised.

Amenhotep III
Money, money, money

The priesthood in Egypt had started out quite simply, with only a few temples for priests to look after. But as the empire expanded and the money began pouring in, the number of temples increased dramatically. This made the priesthood more important and far wealthier than ever before. In particular, the priests responsible for the major gods, such as Amen Re, held a lot of power. By the time Amenhotep III came to power, they were arguably more important than the pharaoh himself. This is because only they could interpret the will of a god and the pharaoh had a duty to fulfill that will.

Something new under the sun

The increased power of the priesthood helps explain why Akenhaten decided to build a new capital at Amarna and change religion. Instead of worshipping many gods, he decreed that the only god was Aten, the sun god, and that only the pharaoh himself could interpret his will.

But Akenhaten's religious fervor brought the empire to the brink of disaster. After his death, his son, Tutankhamen, denounced him as a heretic. The old religion was brought back and, once again, powerful and wealthy priests controlled much of the country.


Where to next:
Religion in the New Kingdom
Pharaohs - Akenhaten


Chantresses and Chanters of the Temples

From the New Kingdom on, the title of a temple-chantress is held in great esteem and held by women of high social status.

Coffins of Temple Chantress Henettawy, 21st dynasty, about 1039-991 BC (New York, Metropolitan Museum). Henettawy was buried in a looted older grave and was not even mummified. Coffins and pearl cloth of Temple Chantress Ankhshepenwepet, 25th dynasty, about 690-656 BC (aus Theben, New York, Metropolitan Museum).

Men also served as chanters and musicians in the temples:

Coffin of Ankh-Hap, Chanter, Ptolemaic time (London, British Museum)

Another tomb of a male temple singer has been discovered in West Thebes in 2014. It belongs to the 3rd Intermediate Period: Article in der Luxor Time.

  • Kees, H.: Die Hohenpriester des Amun von Karnak von Herihor bis zum Ende der Äthiopenzeit (Probleme der Ägyptologie IV) Leiden 1964, S. 29ff.
  • Strudwick, N.: The British Museum. Masterpieces. Ancient Egypt, 2012.
  • Wilkinson, R. H.: The complete temples of Ancient Egypt, 2000.

The "God's Wife of Amun"

The title "hemet netjer net Imen" (God's Wife of Amun) already appears in the 18th dynasty. For instance queen Hatshepsut bore that title. In the time of the Theocracy, the title gained new importance. The first woman holding this rank was probably Maatkare, daughter of High Priest - King Pinodjem I. Probably since Schepenupet I, the "God's Wifes" were bound to chastity. They had wide religious functions, eventually shadowing the ones of the High Priests of Amun. The "God's Wifes" adopted their respective successor. They had their own huge household including female and male members for religious and administrative purpose. Perhaps this (re-)creation of the title and office had the aim to set a more religious counterweight, after the office of the High Priests had become a more political and military one. Maybe this was also the attempt to hinder the forming of priestly dynasties that could, in time, evolve into a concurrence to the pharao again. However, during the 8th century B.C. the "God's Wife" Schepenupet managed to take over the lordship in Upper Egypt. With Nitokris I., daugther of Pharaoh Psammetich (664-610 B.C.) the power of the "God's Wifes" reached its summit. Nitokris' successor even held the title and rank of a "First Servant of Amun" - fulfilling all ritual duties connected with the rank - and royal titles as well. With the Persian occupation of Egypt the political influence of the "God's Wifes" was gone, their religious prestige rested.

Ceremonial Clothing of a God's Wife - the feather crown is lost (Source: Pirelli, Queens of Ancient Egypt)

Sphinx of Schepenupet II. (Berlin, Neues Museum, Ägyptische Sammlungen)

A God's Wife with feather crown, Tomb of the God's Wife Amenirdis (Medinet Habu, 8th cent.B.C.)

Their last "cultural influence" unfolded in the late 19th century, when August Mariette, founder of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, designed a character for an opera, based on the "God's Wife" Amenirdis. Later Guiseppe Verdi used this in his famous "Aida".


Watch the video: Performance and Ritual in Ancient Egyptian Funerary Practice