Women’s Roles in Ancient Egyptian Religion

The religious titles and duties held by ancient Egyptian women seemed to give them status in their society. Yet many religious duties were closed to women. Except in extreme cases of emergency and one takeover by female pharaoh Hatchepsut, pharaohs were always male; this had important consequences for religious Egyptian women. The pharaoh stood atop the Egyptian hierarchy in government as well as religion. Since the pharaoh was considered half god and half man, he functioned as an intermediary between the gods and the people and he was also the only official priest of all the gods. Women could never aspire to the rank of chief priest, but they held other respected positions such as priestess. Although large numbers of women in the Old and Middle Kingdoms served as priestesses of the goddess Hathor, their role remained limited. For example, priestesses carried out rituals and feasts, but unlike male priests, did not hold administrative positions. The priestesses were the wives of important officials—mayors, senior civil servants—positions only held by men.  Ultimately, priestesses owed their position not to their abilities or religious faith, but to their husbands.    


Another title women held in ancient Egyptian religion was God’s Wife of Amen, the main god of the ancient Egyptians. New Kingdom queens did not tend to serve as priestesses but they often held the title of God’s Wife of Amen. By the beginning of the New Kingdom, the title was handed down to kings’ daughters.  In contrast to the priestesses of the Old and Middle Kingdoms, the God’s Wife of Amen wielded considerable power. On the one hand, she occupied a respected religious position. Her power is described from a scene in one of Pharaoh Hatshepsut’s chapels:  “She [the God’s Wife of Amun] is shown leading a group of male priests to the sacred lake of the temple for the ritual purification before entering the temple courts. They then proceeded to the sanctuary of the god where Hatshepsut as king performed the ceremonies in front of Amun with the god’s wife of Amun in attendance.” The God’s Wife of Amun was clearly the most powerful female religious figure at that time, since it was very unusual for a woman to lead male priests in their rituals and even more unusual for a woman to enter the inner sanctuary of a god. On the other hand, the God’s Wife of Amen also occupied an administrative position. For example, she controlled acres of land. Despite her privileges, the role of God’s Wife of Amen was limited—women could only acquire it by being a king’s daughter.


In addition to the titles of priestess and God’s Wife of Amen, ancient Egyptian women also became professional mourners and songstresses. The profession of mourner was open only to women. They were hired to express grief at funerals by beating their breasts, tearing at their hair and wailing. The fact that this position was reserved for women suggests that only women were capable of this kind of excessive grief which would be incompatible with the man’s role in Egyptian society.  


Women of high birth had another option in religious life of the New Kingdom—they could become songstresses. This office gave considerable respect to its bearer. The title shemayet or chantress was the most common one for elite women in the New Kingdom. For example, every woman of status at Thebes was a “chantress of Amen.” This was not a position that any woman could acquire without a wealthy husband. The job of the songstresses was to please the gods and goddesses and to communicate with them but not much is known about their duties. Considering the positions of priestess, God’s Wife of Amen, and professional mourners, the temple songstresses probably had no more authority in this male-dominated society than they did.


Recommended books: Daughters of Isis by Joyce Tyldesley and Silent Images by Zahi Hawass


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