I started writing this post in mid-February because I wanted to explain why I consider myself a “priest” and what I specifically mean by this term. Explaining this requires that I mention a few things about the ancient Egyptian Pharaohs, and it just so happens that the Kemetic Round Table has chosen the following question for this month’s round of discussion:
Does the concept of Kingship/Pharaoh impact your practice, and if so, how?
It seems to me that a lot of Egyptian polytheists have been discussing this particular subject lately (even on the Kemetic Independent YouTube channel). Perhaps it’s a sign from the Gods (though I can’t offer any suggestions as to what that sign might mean). Or perhaps it’s always being discussed somewhere and I just don’t pay enough attention to notice. In any case, this post doesn’t focus directly on the above question, but it does contain my answer.
That being said…
Priests in ancient Egypt were not like the priests we have in most religions today. To really understand what they were like, we must first understand the Pharaohs, who were more than just kings in their society. In theory, they were the only priests in the entire Two Lands, which meant that there was only ever one priest in Egypt at any given time. Only a Pharaoh, the human incarnation of Horus, could act as an intermediate between Gods and mortals. This required making offerings to images of the Gods in each of Their temples, which were stationed in different cities throughout the country. But the Egyptians believed in more Deities than anyone can count, and no Pharaoh had enough time to go and make offerings to every single Deity on that list. (Not if he was to take care of his more secular duties, like enforcing laws and protecting his people from foreign invasions.) So the Pharaoh had to deputize certain people to make offerings to all the Deities for him, and such is how the priesthoods came to be.
An ancient Egyptian priest
Different priesthoods were assigned to worship and make offerings to different Deities in different cities. For instance, the priests of Heliopolis were devoted to Ra, and the priests of Hermopolis were devoted to Thoth. The interesting thing is that for much of Egyptian history, people didn’t serve as priests for their entire lives; they were only expected to serve once every four months. For the rest of the year, they were free to raise families and live normal lives. It was only later that the priesthoods became independent of the Pharaohs and that being a priest became a lifelong career. Unlike most religious clergy today, Egyptian priests didn’t serve the spiritual needs of the common people; they didn’t preach sermons or perform any public rituals. Their job was to take care of the temples, to collect taxes of food from the people, and to offer the collected food to images of their assigned Gods in daily rituals. Their rituals were strictly private and could only be witnessed by the Pharaohs or by other priests; common people weren’t even allowed in the temples. In fact, peasants were largely left to interact with the Gods by themselves at household shrines, and because they couldn’t write, very little is known of their practices in this regard.
After the Pharaohs were overthrown by foreign conquerors, the state religion was forced to take more personalized forms, which led to the development of Hermeticism and the Greco-Roman mysteries of Isis and Osiris. The ancient infrastructure of the Pharaohs and their priestly deputies is long gone, and if the Egyptian Gods are to be worshiped at all today, They usually have to be worshiped by individuals in the privacy of their own homes. This has led modern Egyptian polytheists to wonder just how clerical authority should be conceived and measured today. Some groups have leaders who claim to be Pharaohs (or Nisutu, which is the indigenous Egyptian term). These people try to reconstruct the original infrastructure as best they can in a modern context (with varying levels of success). They often define priests in terms of who is qualified to practice what rituals and how frequently they’re required to do so. Other groups have infrastructures that more often resemble those of the Greco-Roman mystery cults; here, the priests are typically defined in terms of who has attained what level of esoteric knowledge. Then there are the solitary practitioners who operate without any kind of infrastructure at all.
As in other forms of Paganism that struggle with similar questions of ecclesiastical authority, this situation has led to some problematic results in modern Egyptian polytheism. Virtually anyone can claim to be a “priest” or even a “Pharaoh,” and there’s almost always someone else who’s ready to go along with whatever they say. Some of these people seem to have good heads on their shoulders, while others seem…well, questionable at best. But how can any of us be absolutely certain as to who speaks for the Gods and who doesn’t? There’s no universal standard for credibility here. Truth be told, this problem isn’t exactly “unique” to Paganism; every religion has the exact same issue. Even the Roman Catholic Church’s claim to authority rests solely on the premise that it is what its leadership claims it to be. (And if they had ever been able to prove such an unfalsifiable claim, there never would have been a Protestant Reformation.)
A Bedouin traveler
In the LV-426 Tradition, our approach to this matter is more “Deshretic” than “Kemetic.” The desert nomads of ancient Egypt were strongly associated with Seth by their urban agrarian counterparts, and historically, such people have often engaged in “tribal democracy.” For them, authority usually begins with the self and expands outward through the family to the greater tribe (as in the old Bedouin saying: “I against my brother, my brothers and I against my cousins, then my cousins and I against strangers”). Issues among tribes are usually decided by consensus between tribal leaders; no single individual (e.g., a Pharaoh) has absolute power over the entire people. In LV-426, we consider ourselves to be a “tribe” that Seth Himself has brought together, and no one outside of this “tribe” can tell us what to do. We also make all of our group decisions by consensus, for there is no division between clergy and laity among ourselves. (Or to put it another way, each LV-426 initiate is trained to act as a priest of Seth according to our standards.)
We consider ourselves priests because we’re the only people in the world who are qualified to instruct others in the praxis that Seth has helped us develop. People also have a tendency to approach us for spiritual counsel, even if they aren’t followers of Big Red. When this happens, we provide as much guidance as we can (while admitting that we’re biased and that the seeker should compare what we say and do to what others say and do.) The point is to help others find the paths that work best for them (if possible), not to expand our own numbers. Furthermore, each of us is driven to disseminate as much information about Seth as we can, preferably in creative and artistic ways (e.g., music, writing, etc.). We don’t seek converts; we just seek to improve the “common knowledge” about Seth that Westerners typically have (i.e., that He’s “evil”). We may not have degrees in Egyptology and we might not be the Grand High Poobahs of some gigantic organized megachurch, but we’re still priests within the spheres of our own lives, and we do our best. (Outsiders, of course, are more than welcome to think we aren’t authentic, and we reserve the right to exercise the very same skepticism toward them as well.)
I’ve been asked to perform banishings, blessings and weddings for people over the years, but thankfully I haven’t needed to officiate any funerals just yet. To ensure that my wedding ceremonies are legally binding, I decided to get myself ordained in the Universal Life Church Monastery. (This isn’t a requirement in LV-426; I just chose to do it.) Some people snicker at this institution because it doesn’t require any kind of religious education to join; all you have to do is fill out a form on the website. But I fully agree with the Monastery’s stance that people of all faiths should be able to get ordained so they can minister to people in a legal capacity (whether their faith is practiced by millions of people or just three). I even agree that people of no faith should be able to join. The point here is that I don’t consider myself a priest because I’m ordained in the Monastery; I’m ordained in the Monastery because I consider myself a priest.
An LV-426 priest in action
And now for one final thought on the Pharaohs. I think it’s extremely important for us to understand who and what they were, and I think the Pharaohs who are now residing in our modern museums as mummies have provided a very important service to us (since it was the discovery of their corpses that brought Egyptian spirituality into the modern world). But while having a totalitarian priest-king might have been necessary in the days of Imhotep and Hatshepsut (for many people at least), it’s certainly not necessary today. I think the Gods have a gigantic Master Plan, and the breakdown of Pharaonic collectivism was just as much a part of that Plan as the historical unification of the Two Lands. The Pharaohs did their jobs well and they deserve to be remembered and honored, but I also think we can get along just fine without them nowadays.