Aerial view of Medinet Habu by Grethe.Denmark – flickr.
The Greek author Strabo wrote his voluminous Geography during the reign of emperor Augustus when Pax Romana made it relatively safe to travel throughout the extensive Roman empire. He visited Thebes (Luxor) in Upper Egypt and records how the once great capital had, since Homer’s time, declined to a collection of villages on either side of the river. Although not mentioned by name one can assume that on the west bank of the Nile these are Qurna & Bayrat.
Strabo’s account is marred by what some say is a “remarkable example of the perverted meaning of a religious custom, by the ignorance of the Greeks and Roman writers”. These remarks are from early 19th century explorer and pioneer Egyptologist Gardner Wilkinson. His work, still remarkably current and readable, is perhaps one reason why Egyptologists, unlike other historians of ancient history, have never really accepted the existence of sacred prostitution in Egypt.
Strabo wrote that for “Zeus (Amon) whom is held in the highest honour, they dedicate a maiden of greatest beauty and most illustrious family (such maidens are called “pallades” (virgin-priestesses) or pallacide (harlots) by the Greeks); and she prostitutes herself, and cohabits with whatever men she wishes until the natural cleansing of her body takes place; (menstruation) and after her cleansing she is given in marriage to a man; but before she is married, after the time of her prostitution, a rite of mourning is celebrated for her.”(4)
This and other passages are largely responsible for the myth of sacred prostitution in antiquity. (2) Strabo visited Thebes (Luxor), travelling to its west bank, “The Libyan Suburb” (Contemporary land sales refer to it as such (1)) Strabo viewed the so-called Colossus of Memnon, actually colossal statues of Amenhotep III that fronted his enormous mortuary temple, now largely destroyed. He may also have visited the remains of Medinet Habu before passing on to the Theban necropolis.
The Colossus of Memnon (photo by the author)
The sacred precinct at Medinet Habu is a large complex of sacred buildings less than a mile from the Colossus of Memnon. Uvo Hölscher’s 1954 archaeological survey confirms that the small 18th dynasty temple of Amun was still functioning in Roman times. There was in fact a small Roman village built around it whose inhabitants buried their dead in a cemetery just south-west of the great girdle wall or temenos. The temple of Amun continued to function until the rise of the Coptic religion when it was remodelled for Christian use. (7) The temple enclosure was eventually submerged beneath the streets of the Coptic town of Jeme whose citizens reused the standing temple walls for a church, monastic cells and secular dwelling houses. This town of Jeme was eventually abandoned by the 8th or 9th century, which is some time after the Arab conquest of Egypt circa 640AD.
One question arises here is whether Strabo recorded any authentic Egyptian religious practice or was it, as Wilkinson wisely understood, merely “typical Greek and Roman perversity”, obsessed with the construction of an oriental “other”? (5) Stephanie Budin, in her recent study of the topic (2) opines that previous scholars have misunderstood Strabo, who is really only recording the existence of local virgin priestesses, female temple functionaries, perhaps prophetesses. There is apparently nothing in his language to imply they were also “sacred prostitutes”. Stephanie Budin’s more neutral retranslation of the passage reads:
“But for Zeus, whom they [the Thebans] honour most, a beautiful girl maiden of most illustrious family serves as priestess, [girls] whom the Greek called pallades; she serves as a functionary (prophetess) and accompanies whomever/attends whatever [rites] she wishes until the natural cleansing of her body; after her cleansing she is given to a man/husband but before she is given, a rite of morning is celebrated for her after the time of her religious service.” (Budin 2008: 199)
The idea of sacred prostitution, she says, whether in Egypt or elsewhere is a complete myth with absolutely no evidence other than biased Greek accounts, often repeated by subsequent authors up to the present day.
Strabo says these priestesses “must receive some sort of rite of mourning before resuming normal & married life”. I suspect this is a garbled account of the existence of the Tombs of the Divine Votaresses that can still be visited within the walls of the sacred precinct of Medinet Habu. The entrances to these tomb-chapels are conspicuous and face the Small Temple of Amun, the god whom these women all served. In my opinion, what one reads in Strabo is a memory of the existence of these high-ranking priestesses in Egyptian religion. Their cult was obviously still a living memory when Strabo visited and one can speculate that their tombs-chapels continued to receive cult offerings of some sort. Did their spirits continued to inspire those who served the god Amun in an Egypt under Roman rule? Priestesses of one kind or another had an active role in temple life although as with their male counterparts the end was nigh. Perhaps in difficult times they felt an affinity with their ancient forebears?
Before Strabo, in the 1st century BCE, Diodorus Siculus also described tombs of the [supposed] “concubines of Zeus” (ta pallakidas tou Dios) saying they were 10 stades (approximately one mile) from the monument of the king known as Osymandyas. (1.47.1). This King Osymandyas is actually Ramses II. His colossal statue lies in great fragments in the forecourt of his mortuary temple, these days widely known as the Ramesseum. There has been some confusion over the distances mentioned in Diodorus Siculus’ account; 10 Stades (one mile) seems to underestimate the distance between the Ramesseum and the valley of the Queens or Kings. But it does fit with the distance to the far closer Tombs of the Divine Adoratrices or Votaresses.
Ozymandyas (Ramses II at Ramesseum)
A votary is an uncommon word in English meaning someone who is devoted to the service of the deity, usually a monk or a nun. In ancient Egyptian the term used is “Duat Neter”- meaning divine adoratrice. Approximately thirty such tombs have been discovered in the temple precinct. None of them is intact. They cluster in three groups – the most significant are a dozen or so buried in crypts associated with the tomb-chapels of the divine votaresses. A second group of less elegant tombs are near the enclosure wall of the small temple of Amun and the third group lie beneath the floors of rooms in the main temple. Where names are known they are all women.
There are three Egyptian terms used to designate these special priestesses. The earliest,“divine consort” (Hemet Neter) is first encountered and is perhaps an innovation of 18th dynasty. The word hemet means womb (see N40 in standard sign list). To us the most famous bearer of this title is Queen Hatshepsut (circa 1479-1458BCE), who was married to Amun and at the same time was favourite wife of king Thutmose II. She also bore the title “hand of the god” (djedet neter) and “divine votaress” (duat-neter). She was not celibate or if so perhaps only so on sacerdotal days. Her role was something to do with the fertility of the god Amun-Min. Was this, as some speculate, some sort of gross sexual stimulation of the ithyphallic god? Gay Robins doubts the necessity of manual stimulation for a god almost permanently aroused. . . but there again? She prefers to focus on the other possible connotations of “hand of god” as someone who hold executive power on behalf of the king.(3)
Over time the lifestyle of the divine adoratrice evolved and changed. By the time of what Egyptologists designate Egypt’s Third Intermediate period (1000-700BCE) no single dynasty ruled the whole of the land. What we call dynasties overlapped. In 25th and 26th dynasties the institution of Divine Adoratrice was revived at Thebes (Luxor). Amun’s divine consort were now a royal princess who never married. Their husband was Amun. They were treated like queens and had royal titulary. The succession passed from adoptive “mother” to “daughter” – coronation followed the mother’s death.
She exercised some executive power as representative of the king in the Theban state. She also had great priestly power on a par with the high priest at Karnak, until that post was itself abolished around the time of Soror Niticris.
Names of the first group of Votaresses are
Shepnupet I (daughter of “Libyan” Osorkon III – last of the Bubastite line c 718BC)
Amerirdis – (daughter of Ethiopian king Shabaka adopted by Shepnupet )
Shepnupet II – (daughter of Ethiopian king Piankh, cousin of Taharka (adopted by Amenirdis)
*Amenirdis II – (daughter of Ethiopian king Taharka – although she never served )
Nitocris – (daughter of Saitic King Psamtik I and Mehenusekhet (c655BC) Nitocris died in 584BC – 70years after her adoption)
Ankhenes-Neferibre’ – (Saitic grand niece of Nitocris, daughter of Psamtik II -The last divine consort before the Persian invasion of 525BC)
The tomb chapels for these women are orientated with their northern facade facing the small temple of Amun at Medinet Habu. This temple was far less grand than the adjacent mortuary temple of Ramses III. Even so it was the most important centre on the west bank, the djeset-shet, of the god Amun. The tombs of the high priests of Amun are also nearby, as is that of 22nd dynasty Theban priest-king Horsiese. All are buried in association with the small temple of Amun.
Above ground the stone structures of the chapels of the Votaresses have interconnecting doorways. This suggests some interaction between the different priestesses both during and after life. One can imagine the newly adopted priestess served firstly as understudy to the older woman during the latter’s final years of life. The new priestess was responsible for continuing the cult of her predecessor in the corresponding tomb chapel and this no doubt included consulting the ka of the deceased. Her function was complex, serving the cult of Amun but also that of her departed predecessor, making daily food offerings and channelling the messages of her ghostly ka spirit, perhaps also making prophesy. Each priestess had her own chapel-tomb, some of the oldest were of mud brick, although these were swept away in the 19th century clearance (déblaiement). The easternmost of these would have been the most ancient. Unfortunately no record was made of the appearance of the mud brick structures before their demolition.
From the above arrangement, we gain insight into how a group of priestesses interacted and one can deduce quite a lot concerning the mechanics of ancient religious practice. One thing that seems obvious is the need for the living priestess to interact with her dead ancestor, presumably for on-going inspiration. This mirrors the way every Egyptian interacted with their own ancestors and how most tombs was designed to facilitate such a dialogue.
Uvo Hölscher says of the tomb-chapels at Medinet Habu that they are unique in design; nothing similar has yet been found. To him their uniqueness is coincidental; other examples may well exist awaiting discovery. A ceremonial gateway leads to a courtyard, open to the sky. Here stood a standard offering table. A short stairway leads to a windowless room; the architectural term is a “cellar” meaning storage room. A corridor, presumably to facilitate circumambulation, runs around the windowless inner sanctuary. The tomb spaces are in crypts below this windowless room. There is something in this arrangement that to me suggests the pre-dynastic tent shrines whose remains were discovered at Hieronkonpolis.
In both instances the living offer food and other supplies to the dead. Every important Egyptian temple was linked to a priestly scriptorium or “house of life” – perhaps this too enabled interaction between living and dead priests, a relationship they may have been initiated between living mentor and student? It’s a “technique” that one can envisage would still work in a contemporary religious setting such as one finds in neo-paganism.
Also buried nearby as the remains of the priestesses’ female relatives and retainers. Hence there is a lady Neith (T(omb) 5); Ankhshepnubet (T17a); Nestor (T21); Ankhamenirdis (T24); Disnub (T13); Diese-hebsed (T4) (Lady in waiting of Shepnupet II); and Mehetnusekhet (mother of Nitocris).
A careful reading of Strabo’s much abused account of life on the west bank of the Nile at Thebes does yield some useful information. His account of a special class of ancient priestesses is borne out by archaeology evidence from Medinet Habu. The fortunes of the village that grew around the sacred precinct has ebbed and flowed over the centuries, sometime seemingly completely abandoned then repopulated by others. Even today the sanctity of the site continues as evidenced by local “folk practices” many of which appear to be survivals or archaeological memories of these ancient times.
(1.) Thomas Young (1823) An Account of Some Recent Discoveries in Hieroglyphical Literature and Egyptian Antiquities Including the Author’s Original Alphabet, as Extended by Mr. Champollion, with a Translation of Five Unpublished Greek and Egyptian Manuscripts – p60sq is a translation of a papyrus fragment collected George Francis Grey
(1) Stephanie Budin (2008) Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity, Cambridge jii 45 b
(2) B Lesko “Women and Religion in Ancient Egypt” in Diotima http://www/stao.org
(3) Gay Robins (1983) “God’s Wife of Amun in the 18th Dynasty” in Images of Women in Antiquity edited by Averil Cameron & Amelie Kuhrt
(4) Strabo, Geography 17.46 translated by Jones 1959  : 125
(5) Wilkinson on pallacides see his Ancient Egyptians vol I p 203 – “The remarkable example of the perverted meaning of a religious custom, by the ignorance of the Greeks and Roman writers.”
(7) Uvo Hölscher The Excavation of Medinet Habu Vol V Post-Ramesside Remains Chicago 1954