Egyptian Society during the Ramesside period, Dynasties XIX and XX

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Religion, death and burial

4.1 Gods, goddesses, cults and priesthoods: Amun, Re, Ptah, Osiris

See also Isabel's presentation for this topic

(See also 2.1 – The king as a god.)

A link to April McDevitt's Egyptian Mythology website

The ascendancy of Amun and the influence of his priesthood

In the 19th Dynasty there was a return to traditional religious belief and practices following the changes made by Akhenaten in the 18th Dynasty.

Amun had been worshipped since the 11th Dynasty. Originally a god of war, he became associated with Re, the sun god, the creator, and protector of the king. This new variation was called Amun-Re, and new creation mythology was developed to include the changed nature of the god.

It was Amun who permitted a campaign, who gave his sword to pharaoh, whose standard the soldiers followed into battle and who brought victory to the king, his son, giving him the strength of thou­sands of men and protecting him in the midst of battle.

As Egypt's supremacy in western Asia became well‑established from the middle of the Eighteenth Dynasty, the priests of Amun‑Re emphasised the universal creative nature of their god. He was not only regarded as supreme in Egypt but throughout the empire. Thebes became the religious centre of Egypt and the empire. The Theban cult centre of the god was the great temple complex at Karnak, although other temples to Amun were built throughout Egypt.

The pharaohs of the New Kingdom did not forget the debt which they believed they owed the god Amun‑Re. Each king of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth dynasty, except Akhenaten, added a new building, colon­nade, court, columned hall, obelisk, pylon or sphinx‑lined avenue to the original Temple of Amun built in the Twelfth Dynasty.

The following hymn of Amun to the king, presumably written by the priests, reminded the kings what they owed the god.

When I turn my face to the South, I work a wonder for you:
I make the princes of the wretched Kush come to you,
Carrying all their tribute on their backs.
When I turn my face to the North, I work a wonder for you:
I make the countries of the ends of Asia come to you,
Bearing all their tribute on their backs.
They themselves present their children to you,
In order that you may give them the breath of life.

The priesthood of Amun (Amun‑Re)

From the time of Hatshepsut, the status of Amun was raised above all other gods and his priesthood acquired great religious, economic and political influence.

The position of high priest or first prophet of Amun was a political appointment. Until the time of Ramesses II the person appointed by the pharaoh was someone who had a high profile and a distinguished career at court. A number of high priests held the position of vizier or at least had the powers that went with the vizierate. The exception to this was Bakerikhons, appointed by Ramesses II. He had entered the temple in his youth, passed through successive grades of the priesthood, holding the positions of third and second prophet before being rewarded with the prestigious position of high priest.

The high priest was not only the king's representative in the cult of Amun, but he eventually claimed the right to supervise the cults of other gods such as Ptah of Memphis and Re of Heliopolis, frequently holding the title of overseer of prophets of all the gods of Upper and Lower Egypt.

He led a hierarchy of permanent and part‑time priests, some of whom, from time to time, held important posts within the pharaoh's household and the government bureaucracy. The permanent priests were referred to as second, third and fourth prophets. Below them in importance was a college of god's fathers. The body of part‑time priests or pure ones served in the temple three times a year and then returned to their own profession or craft inside or outside the temple precincts.

Although the high priest was the pharaoh's representative in securing the favours of the god, it is likely that he only officiated on special occa­sions and during festivals. He probably left the daily rituals to his imme­diate subordinates.

The economic and political influence of the priesthood

Part of the booty taken during military campaigns, a large proportion of the annual tribute from subject rulers, raw materials acquired through trade, and personal gifts from other kings went into Amun's treasury. Although the temples and priesthoods of the other great gods also received these benefits, Amun‑Re received by far the lion's share. This powerful civilian priesthood controlled one of the largest and richest establishments in Egypt.

Huge estates all over Egypt and some in conquered territory were cul­tivated either by temple labourers, temple agents or rented out to offi­cials and small farmers. The temple also owned huge herds of animals, extensive vineyards, beehives, and fishing and fowling rights along the river.

The priesthood controlled mining deposits from which many of the raw materials used in the temple workshops came, and collected taxes in the form of grain, beer, wine, metals and other goods from all over Egypt. These products were transported in the god's own fleet of ships and stored in massive warehouses within the temple precincts.

At the end of the Nineteenth Dynasty, the Temple of Amun‑Re at Thebes owned approximately 90 000 slaves, 500 000 head of cattle, 400 orchards, 80 ships and 50 workshops as well as receiving revenue from 65 towns in Egypt and Palestine/Syria. The king, by royal decree, also granted the priesthood of Amun special privileges such as exemption from certain taxes.

Some officials under Ramesses II:
Head of the outline‑draughtsmen in the house of gold on the estate of Amun
Herdsman of Amen‑Re
Chief watchman of the granary of the estate of Amun
Counter of the cattle of the estate of Amun
Chiseller of Amun

The Temple of Amun‑Re was the greatest single employer of labour in the country. As its wealth increased, so too did the number of temple staff which the priesthood controlled. As well as singers, musicians and dancers, there was a huge body of scribes employed to carry out the daily administrative and financial affairs of the god. Enormous numbers of slaves, agricultural labourers, unskilled workmen and skilled crafts­ men worked on the temple estates, in the workshops, slaughterhouses, bakeries, breweries, storehouses and temple treasury as well as on the temple's fleet of ships. Even traders were employed to exchange some of the temple's surplus produce.

Some of the wealth of Amun and the personnel employed by the tem­ple can be gauged by titles found in the tombs of a number of the New Kingdom officials.

The power and influence of the priesthood was further enhanced by Amun's contribution to the warrior image of the pharaohs.

The priesthood also played a part in the succession of the pharaohs. This was especially the case when there was a controversy, a question of legitimacy or the introduction of 'new blood' into the royal line. The god's approval of a particular monarch was often made known via the 'miracle' of an oracle. This occurred during one of the public appearances of the god when the portable barque of Amun was taken from its sanctuary and carried on the shoulders of the priests. A slight dipping of the shrine in the direction of a particular individual indicat­ed the god's choice of the next monarch.

Important political decisions were made through oracu­lar judgments during the two chief festivals of Amun ‑ the Opet and Valley festivals. The pharaohs often associated their Sed festival and mortuary cult with Amun. During the Sed festival, 'which had no historical connection with either Thebes or its gods', the pharaoh built a special festival hall or palace.

New Kingdom pharaohs dedicated their own mortuary temples, on the west bank at Thebes, to 'a specific form of the god Amun with whom they became fused ... Each of the mortuary temples was really an Amun temple'. As part of the annual Valley festival, the image of Amun was transported across the river where it spent the night at the mortuary temple of the reigning king.

Control over the influential priesthood of Amun

Although the priesthood of Amun was very influential, the kings of the Eighteenth and early Nineteenth dynasties were able to maintain con­trol over them.

The king not only appointed the high priest of Amun but usually chose one of his trusted officials for the post. Occasionally he appointed a nonentity who owed everything to the king's favour.

When it appeared to some pharaohs that the power of Amun and his priests could jeopardise their absolute control, they discreetly placed more emphasis on the cults of Re and Ptah in Egypt. Some also pro­moted a royal cult, particularly in Nubia, in order to re‑emphasise the importance of kingship. Ramesses II balanced the power of Amun's priests by openly linking himself with Re and Ptah as well as Amun.

The cult of the king

Although the pharaohs were regarded as divine, it was not until the time of Amenhotep Ill that a cult of a living king was instituted. It may have seemed to Amenhotep that the powerful role of Amun threatened his absolute authority so he ‘sought to redress the balance, firmly but discreetly’. He did this in three ways:
  1. By continuing a trend which was under way during the reigns of his father and grandfather ‑ identifying the Aten or sun‑disk (an aspect of the sun god Re) with the cult of the king.
  2. By linking himself with the gods in the temples of Nubia. The temple of Soleb in Nubia was dedicated to the divine Neb‑ma‑re (Amenhotep III) and on a relief from that temple, the king is shown making an offering to himself.
  3. By erecting colossal statues of himself and placing them in front of the temples. These statues embodied some divine aspect of the king. They were placed in such a way that they could be honoured by the common people (the common people did not usually enter the temple, so for them to worship the king and be reminded of his divinity, huge statues had to be placed outside the temple pylons). The giant statue outside Amun's temple at Karnak was called Neb‑ma‑re, Montu (the war god) of Rulers. Another was referred to as Neb‑ma‑re, Ruler of Rulers.

Seti I and Ramesses II continued the cult of the king as instituted by Amenhotep III. Ramesses affiliated his own cult with that of Amun at Thebes while in his temple at Abu Simbel in Nubia, he was depicted and worshipped as a form of the sun god, Re. Also in Nubia he dedi­cated a temple at Aksha to his divine kingship. In all the Nubian tem­ples which Ramesses built to Amun, Re and Ptah, it was actually the image of himself as a god which was in the sanctuary.

He erected colossal statues of himself in front of the great temples throughout Egypt and gave them names which reflected some divine aspect of the kingship such as Montu in the Two Lands and Ruler of Rulers.

These New Kingdom pharaohs attempted to set the monarchy in the centre of Egyptian religious practice.