Friday, January 10, 2014

Priestesses in Ancient Egypt

The Obsequies of an Egyptian Cat (1886) JohnWeguelin

Many scholars say that women were not allowed to participate in the most holy forms of worship in ancient Egypt, such as that of a priest. Although there is evidence that women did actually hold many prominent roles within the temples of the ancient Egyptian religion. It has been said that the role of the priestess was purely for sexual reasons such as that of a sacred prostitute with only the purpose of consorting with the sacred priests in the temple. Although in ancient Egyptian society women filled many different roles within the temples such as that of a priestess, chantress, healer and God's Wife of Amun.

Some of the most well known priestesses in ancient Egypt were those of the Goddesses Hathor, Isis and Neith. The priestesses of Hathor were given the title of Mrt and were said to play music to greet the king as well as the Goddess. They were also said to manage the fields, the estate and the financial security of the temple. The priestesses of Hathor were noted for their musical abilities and beautiful dances especially during ritual. They were said to play the sistrum, a form of a rattle, sing and dance until they reached a trance-like state which was thought to lead to prophecy. It is said that the temples of Hathor and Neith had nearly no male priests. The priestesses of Isis were said to be healers and midwives.

The chantress was a title given to women who chanted ritual for the Gods and were involved in daily ritual. They were said to sing the Gods awake in the morning and sing them back to sleep in the evening. They were also given titles such as "shemayet" meaning musician and "heset" meaning singer. The role of chantress is said to come mostly from upper class women and even queens served the sacred role such as the Gods wife of Amun. These mystical musicians accompanied their ritualistic singing with the sistrum, the sacred instrument of Hathor. The chantress was quite an honored role in ancient Egypt.

The role of "Gods Wife of Amun" was a prestigious role indeed and was held by queens and other royal women. They were seen as the highest ranking priestess in the cult of the God Amun. The Gods Wife of Amun was seen as the consort of the God and the earthly incarnation of the Goddess Mut. It was also a title given to the mother of a Pharaoh which would imply the king to be a "demigod" when he was born being that his father was perceived to be the God Amun himself. The first royal wife to hold this title was Ahmose-Nefertari wife to Ahmose I. She passed it down to her daughter Meritatem who handed it over to Hatshepsut who then passed it down to her daughter, Neferure.

The title was lost at the start of the reign of Akhenaten and Nefertiti but returned again under the guise of "Divine Adoratrice of Amun" in the 20th Dynasty. The last known woman to hold the role of "God's Wife of Amun" or "Divine Adoratrice of Amun" was Nitokris II but it said that she never got to fill her role due to the Persian invasion. After the invasion women were no longer allowed to fill sacred temple roles in ancient Egypt.

For more information about ancient Egyptian priestesses check out the book Women in Ancient Egypt by Barbara Watterson.

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