Throughout the world, one of the most important positions in society for women was that of the priestess. Here a woman, usually unable to hold property or to vote in many ancient cultures, became not only an important member of society that was respected, but she became a symbol of that particular deity.
Ancient Egypt woman had very few functional titles throughout her long history, but the title of ‘hm-ntr-Hthr’, or ‘Priestess of Hathor’, was much celebrated and respected. However, the Priestesses of Hathor flourish only from the middle of the Old Kingdom to the early Middle Kingdom. After this, only such figures as the daughter of Ramesses II held the title before they disappeared from history altogether.
The priestesses served in the temples of the goddess Hathor, the goddess of love, childbirth, song and dance. Initially, only women from the elite social classes served in Egyptian temples as ‘musician priestess’ where they held the title ‘hmt-ntjr’. Here they could take participate in the ceremonies by providing the divine music and choreographic accompaniment, they could no longer perform the role of the ‘hm-ntr’ or god’s servant, assigned to a male priest, who fed and clothed the divine image every day. This role required purity and since women’s bodies were considered impure, due to menstruation and childbirth, rendered them unsuitable for the role as their unclean state could pose ritual danger.
The rise of the priestesses came about in the Old Kingdom (2575 – 2150 BCE), where they served the local cult of Hathor Mistress of the Valley Mouth near present day Tehneh. There have been over 400 priestesses that have been found throughout the Old and the Middle Kingdoms.
The first woman to hold the title is Neferhetepes, the daughter of the pharaoh Djedefre, also known as Radjede. On a statue base on in his temple at Abu Roasch, she was described as the ‘Priestess of Hathor, mistress of the sycamore’. Before this time, there are hardly any references to the goddess.
Both Hathor and her priestesses rose to prominence with the reign of Menkaure. There are famous triads which depict the king with the goddess and personifications of selected upper Egyptian nomes (administrative regions) identify her as Hathor, mistress of the Sycamore in all her places. Menkaure was also responsible for the foundation of the priesthood of Hathor at Tehneh where a number of seals record Menkaure as ‘beloved of’ and ‘one who worships’ Hathor.
During the 5th Dynasty, the rulers began to worship Hathor even more fervently than previously. Not only did the goddess have priesthoods in the temples of Userkaf, Sahure, Menkaure and Isosi, but her cult gained prominence in the royal mortuary temples where both priests and priestesses served her.
The main focus of her sanctuary of the royal cult was at the Giza necropolis, but the Hathor of the Southern Sycamore sanctuary at Memphis was just as important. This second sanctuary existed as early as the late Old Kingdom. It is believed that the priestesses of Hathor Saqqara are connected with the southern sanctuary. At Giza 51 out of a total of 81 women hold the title of ‘hm-ntr-Hthr’, and at Saqqara 53 out of 65.
During the 6th Dynasty, the central government was reorganised, and power was held by influential viziers. It was these viziers that controlled the pyramid city of the current ruler and during this time, Hathor’s cult continued to flourish, producing more priestesses than before. It was the intense worship of Pepy I that was probably responsible for most of the centres of Hathor’s worship in Upper Egypt.
By the 12th Dynasty, however, her priestesses and temples had dwindled to a few provincial cult centres where the goddess was worshipped. At Cusae, one of Hathor’s most important sanctuaries in Upper Egypt, there is only one priestess of Hathor known for the entire Middle Kingdom. In addition to this, there was only one person connected with the royal court (wife of Antefoker, the vizier of Senwosret I) who served as a priestess.
The last important priestess was the wife of the vizier of Senwosret I. There have been other priestesses identified from this period, but they were all found in the households of provincial governors, and, even here, their numbers are greatly diminished. After this, the priestesses disappeared from history.
It has been suggested that the priestesses of Hathor originated with the 4th Dynasty rulers to certify the religious authority and continuation of their authority. Since all the rulers of the Old Kingdom were part of a single extensive family line, the ideology of the king-making goddess and her sect remained unaffected while they held power. However, when this line disappeared more striking and substantial verification of the right to rule had to be shown and it was due to this reason that the priestesses of Hathor began to disappear.