As a kid, I attended a Methodist church and I can remember sitting beside my mother during the [boring] sermon on more than a handful of occasions. If I wasn’t busy trying to play hang man by myself or staring up at the architecture (it was that church, to be honest, that made me appreciate Gothic architecture as that was what it was modeled after when built), I was so busy trying to figure out what was so special about the person in the pulpit that gave them the ability to shepherd my soul and my faith onto its path to redeem the inherent sinner that I, as a Methodist, clearly was.
I got that the person in question went to specialty school and had been indoctrinated in all the things that were required in order to perform rituals and services under the teachings and dogma of the Methodist church. And I understood that the role of that minister was to take my hand (so to speak) and guide me on my path in my relationship with Jesus, the Holy Ghost, and God. But I couldn’t really figure out why I needed that person over there, pulpit or not, ritual officiant or not, to guide me. I constantly had to ask myself, but why?
While sitting at the front of the church with the other acolytes, admiring the really ornate altar that I got to light and put out the candles for, I still wondered. I went to Sunday school and when I wasn’t dawdling on my millionth bathroom break back into church, I was always trying to figure out why there had to any person between me and my relationship with God. Didn’t I have the ability to pray just as well as the priest? Was there something in the induction from any ole human to priest type human that made their prayers, on my behalf, that much more clear? Or was it all just a bunch of hype?
It doesn’t matter what answers, if any, that I may have come up with. I’ll be honest, I can’t think of any damn things that I came up with to explain why the person in the pulpit, who wore the garments ascribed to our sect, had the right and the wherewithal to shepherd my soul. I kept coming back down to the fundamental question of: but why? Maybe that makes me a bit of a troublemaker or maybe I missed something in Sunday school that I should have paid attention to. Whatever the case may be, I had nothing but the ongoing ramble of but why why why why why? in my head enough times to seriously side eye the whole fucking concept.
Frankly, changing my faith from monotheistic to polytheistic hasn’t really stopped the whole, but why?
I started looking up things about the ancient Egyptian priesthood a few years ago when I got a card reading that was kind of like, “hahaha, you’re going to be a priest!” And I just about flipped my shit and sulked about it for a while. I knew a sum total of this about the priesthood in ancient Egypt: (a) they were everywhere, (b) they got up really early, (c) there was some ritual purity standards or something, and (d) they stood in for the pharaoh for everything who was the Big Cheese as far as the religion was concerned. So, realizing that if this was going to end up happening, I decided I should look a little further beyond what I knew.
And I found out a lot things about the priesthood and none of them were even remotely what I had come to believe a priest was for. I was coming at this point-of-view, of course, from the Christian faith I was raised in. I was informed that the minister was supposed to be a sort of intermediary of sorts between myself and my relationship to God. The minister officiated at really important rituals like baptism, marriage, and communion. These are things that they did for the parishioners. Again, in my limited information regarding what I had figured out over the years, it was this shepherd thing (something hearkening back to Jesus’ image of the Good Shepherd, iirc) that the priests and ministers and whatnot were supposed to do.
That was so not even the case in ancient Egypt.
The entire point in the priesthood in ancient Egypt was to serve the gods in whatever capacity that particular priest had been hired for (or bribed to get the position for). There were numerous priests within the priesthood hierarchy – not just one guy at the top of a pulpit, preaching on about whatever the case may be. The priests who maintained the temples and completed the rituals did so on behalf of the gods that the temples were for and to maintain ma’at by providing for those gods – not to shepherd the laity on their bumbling path with their faith and offer them spiritual guidance on how to proceed. While they did complete things on behalf of the laity, such as writing things, providing healing, and/or interpreting dreams, this was only if the person had paid for those services. As far as I could discern, it seemed like how the temples’ functionaries (the priests) worked with the laity was minimal.
Another thing to consider was that since the duties of the priests were twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, there were no breaks. They did not stop and take a week vacation from their job. They had four months of doing the job and then they were off the rotation to do whatever it was their personal lives required of them. But when they were in rotation, the outside world was immaterial to the duties that they had to perform on behalf of the temple and the gods. The priests I grew up with only were around for Sunday services and the Methodist specific rituals, which in my experience tended to take place on Sundays.
Even remotely looking at the ancient Egyptian priesthood with the perspective of someone born and raised within the Methodist church was hard to handle. It was like two polar opposites had crashed head-on in my brain and I honestly couldn’t even begin to reconcile it. And that was kind of when I realized that viewing the priesthood from a Christian heavy perspective was probably not a good idea.
So, I tried to view it from a modern-day Kemetic perspective and had to admit that the nagging question come back in spades: but why?
In order for a priesthood to exist in any context akin to what had been established in antiquity, there would have to be an established temple. And frankly, I haven’t joined any of the established temples because I don’t want a theocracy regarding my religion, which would need to be the case in order for it to bear any resemblance to antiquity. I don’t want someone from on high – like the people in the pulpit – to tell me what my function was. I wouldn’t want someone to give me a position, which I may not feel suited my abilities or my personal desires for what I wanted my personal relationship with my gods to look like, and have to turn it into, well, a job. That seems like such a terrible idea on so many different levels.
If I remove the idea of an established temple and all of the possible hazards and pitfalls that could occur with an established temple, I have to admit that the nagging question of but why comes up louder and louder. If there is no temple, why in the world would a priesthood be needed? I mean, after all, isn’t that what most of the solitaries are doing?
Think about it:
They’re maintaining their relationships with the gods, seeing that the gods are pleased with offerings and any rituals they feel like doing, and doing their damned best to both live in and maintain ma’at. From that perspective, it kind of looks like those of us who fall under the “solitary Kemetic” persuasion may already be what the ancient Egyptian priesthood was… without all of the in-fighting, politics, full-time work, and bribery.
If looked in that particular way, then technically, all of us are our own priests… so then what’s all the hype about?
How often do I see people going on about priesthood like it’s the top echelon of super religious achievement? I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve seen people just spout on and on about how great the whole idea of a priesthood totally would be if only we could do X, Y, Z. Well, I hate to break it to all the “ra ra priest” cheerleaders out there, but it’s kind of already in existence from a solitary perspective. And many of us don’t even want to look at the fucking word priest, much less, use it in any context to describe what we’re going. The word has some serious baggage; it’s a dirty word; it’s blown up and blown out of proportion; and did I mention the baggage?
To be perfectly frank, I’m kind of tired of people looking at the whole priesthood thing like it’s something that we should all strive for. Let’s not forget that the priesthood of antiquity was a hierarchy from scribes to prophets, from high priests to cooks in the kitchen. By stating that “priesthood” is the be-all, end-all, we are definitively stating that we need to create strata within our community. And by so doing, we could quite easily make it seem like there is a clique for the haves and an exclusionary circle around the have nots, which should not be the case for a religion that is as community centric as ours. Besides, we see how destructive such things can be within the wider Tumblr pagan community – the constant battle cry of “speshul snowflake” – so why the fuck are we going to invite the conflagration to our party before we really have gotten our feet under us?
I think the more important thing is focusing on the personal path that we are all walking on and how it relates to us as human beings and how it relates to the gods to whom we cultivate these relationships for. Priesthood was a many splendored pain in the ass in antiquity from what I’ve read and frankly, I don’t want to be associated with it… even though I am, for all intents and purposes, doing precisely what the ancient priests did in my position… only without the conniving and bribing of other people (I’ll totally bribe and connive with my gods though).
I truly believe that people who push this idea that priesthood should be or will be the highest point that one can aim for on their path is detrimental to the fomenting of the individual paths we all walk down. I think that it leaves a lot of people feeling inadequate, people who may be frightened of the term priest or who may look askance and distrustful of the terminology priesthood. The focus on a religion that is so widespread and predominantly made up of solitary practitioners should be less on something that requires a temple to work properly and should be more focused on boat paddling, community, and what each individual needs from both in order to establish themselves on their path.
So if the whole point in the ancient Egyptian priesthood was to do what each modern person building a personal relationship with their gods is already doing (in whatever context that particular relationship requires or ends up becoming), then I go right back to point A, which is the question, but why?
Maybe if there was a temple that had more of a “it’s okay to be laity” point-of-view and less of a “the priesthood are super awesome” mentality, I could answer that question. In the mean time, I shy away from the word even if I really am doing the job of a priest and I continue to think that at this stage, modern priesthood really just isn’t important.