Women and the temple (from: “Dancing for Hathor: Women in Ancient Egypt”, by Carolyn Graves-Brown)
From the Old Kingdom until the Middle Kingdom, large numbers of elite women were servants of the gods, or priestesses. The title was not inherited but its allocation, whether given according to aptitude, or purchased, is unclear. It seems most likely that it depended on knowing the ‘right’ people, as is the case throughout history.
‘No woman holds priestly office, either in the service of gods or god; only men are
priests in both cases’. — (Herodotus)
This may have been the case for Egyptian women in the time of Herodotus, but Herodotus contradicts himself elsewhere in texts by referring to women priests.
Certainly, it is true that, with a few exceptions, men held the administrative posts in the temples. This could in part be due to the fact that these roles were full-time, but is also probably predicated upon the fact that men were generally the literate ones and literacy was the key to office. However, for most of Egyptian history, women held a variety of priestly posts. In the Old Kingdom, they seem to have taken similar roles to men as ‘Servants of the Gods’ and were involved in providing for the cult statue. While it is true that women gradually lost such roles, for most of Egyptian history they held the important function of providing music and dance with which to revive the gods and the deceased. This task was largely, though not exclusively, carried out by women. Additionally, from the New Kingdom on, two important female sacerdotal roles emerge from the royal family, having the titles, ‘God’s Wife of Amun’ and ‘Divine Adoratrice’. Women with these titles become particularly powerful in the Third Intermediate Period, so that postholders are almost rulers of Upper Egypt in their own right.In understanding the function of women priests, we need to realize that the role of ancient Egyptian priests was not the same as that of modern priests. In ancient Egypt, priests did not preach or care for groups of people, nor were they ‘messengers of God’. The term ‘priest’, when applied to ancient Egypt, is a modern term covering a variety of religious offi ces connected with the temple or with funerary practice. There is a further problem in understanding the role of women in religion, in that while a number of women were connected with the temple, we cannot always be sure that their roles were similar to those of men, even when they appear to have held similar titles.
A female hmt nt-r (‘Servant of the God’), would be responsible for looking after the cult statues in the temple; she would give offerings, perform liturgies, dress, anoint and feed the god. As far as we can tell, this title appears to be a female equivalent of a male role, which in the Old and Middle Kingdoms was not necessarily a full-time occupation. It is possible that some of the women seem to have kept the night vigil in the same way as men. At the Temple of Min at Akhmim, both men and women kept the night vigil. The male equivalent, hm nt-r, is somewhat rarer than the female title and women seem to have been under the authority of men.
In the Old Kingdom until the Middle Kingdom, a large number of elite women were servants of the gods. Usually, ladies were servants of female gods, rather than male gods, and particularly of Hathor. Less often, they were priestesses of the archer goddess, Neith. At Beni Hasan, a priestess of the lioness goddess, Pakhet, is known. Even less frequently, there are occasional priestesses of male gods. Queen Meresankh was known to be a priestess of Thoth, the god of wisdom.
At Sixth Dynasty Akhmim, there was a lady who was a priestess of Min, a god of fertility, and another who was a priestess of Ptah, a god of craftsmen. There were also female priests of the mortuary cult of King Khufu.
Quoted from: “Dancing for Hathor: Women in Ancient Egypt”, © Carolyn Graves-Brown 2010