Sem Priests of Ancient Egypt: Their Role and Impact in Funerary Contexts—Part I
The office of sem or setem priest of Ptah, the patron god of the craftsmen in Memphis, Lower Egypt, was a prestigious one. Considered a sacred feline with a connection to the Heliopolitan cult via the priests who wore cloaks fashioned out of their pelts, leopards were much sought after beasts. Even though they ceased to exist in the country by the New Kingdom Period, annual tributes from Nubia ensured a steady supply of both live animals and their skins; several examples of symbolic portrayals of leopards have been discovered in the tombs of royals and nobles alike. This animal was most closely identified with sem priests and burial rituals.
Relief of a funeral procession from the tomb of Merymery, who was the Custodian of the Treasury of Memphis, shows women mourners, shaven-headed priests and workers carrying burial goods to the tomb. The fourth figure (from left) in the lower register is a sem priest wearing the leopard-skin robe. Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden. (Photo: Rob Koopman / CC by SA 2.0 )
Mortuary Rites and the Sem Priest
The Opening of the Mouth (“wepet-er”) ceremony was the most important part of the burial ritual and was conducted by the sem priest whilst dressed in leopard skin robes. Dr Geraldine Pinch writes, “Real or artificial leopard-skins were worn by sem priests when they officiated at funerals and by the High Priest of Ra at Heliopolis, whose title was ‘The Seer’.” In her description of a scene from the Tomb of Seti I at Thebes, Dr Emily Teeter explains the attire of priests performing the Opening of the Mouth ritual further, “The sem priest is recognizable by his leopard-skin robe and by his hair, which is worn in a distinctive sidelock.”
“Sem priests were the embalmers who mummified the corpse and recited the incantations while wrapping the mummy. The sem priests were highly respected because they were responsible for the precise utterance of the spells which would guarantee eternal life to the deceased,” writes Egyptological scholar, Joshua J. Mark .
One of the many splendid vignettes from the Book of the Dead of Hunefer, a scribe from the 19th Dynasty (reign of Seti I). While Anubis supports the mummy of Hunefer, the sem priest who wears the leopard-skin garb (extreme left), along with two other priests, performs the “Opening of the Mouth” ritual. British Museum ( public domain ).
When participating in the funerary ceremony, the sem priest wore the leopard-skin mantle that covered most of the otherwise bare upper part of his body and extended downward over his skirt. The robe was worn in a manner such that the head of the leopard fell over the priest’s chest. The Opening of the Mouth ritual transformed the deceased into an akh, the reanimated spirit that was a crucial element of the ancient Egyptian concept of the soul. Performing this rite on a mummy enabled the spirit of the deceased to breathe, speak, see, hear, and receive offerings of food and drink.
Pharaoh Djoser’s Ka statue peers through the hole in his serdab, ready to receive the soul of the deceased and also offerings presented to it. 3rd Dynasty. Saqqara. (Photo: Neithsabes / public domain )
When conducted on a statue (or a coffin, from the New Kingdom period onward), it permitted that sculpture to function as a substitute for the deceased’s body in the event the mortal remains were destroyed or despoiled. To prevent such occurrences, many tombs built during the Old Kingdom included a statue of the dead person placed in a closed chamber or cellar known as a serdab. The haunting image of a seated statue of Pharaoh Djoser of the Third Dynasty that peers from a serdab in the necropolis complex of his Step Pyramid is one of the most famous of them all.
Leopard Mythology and Clergy
What was the true meaning and significance of leopards and their skins that fascinated the ancient Egyptians to such an extent that they incorporated it in vital religious beliefs? Dr Emily Teeter explains the mythology behind the practice, “Papyrus Jumilhac, dating to the Ptolemaic Period (ca. 300 BC), attempts to explain the significance of the leopard skin through a myth that relates the misdeeds of the god Seth. As told in the papyrus, Seth attacked Osiris and then transformed himself into a leopard. The god Anubis defeated Seth and then branded his pelt with spots, hence the robe commemorates the defeat of Seth.” And so, in the Egyptian language, the leopard head hieroglyph is used as a determinative or abbreviation for words relating to ‘strength’.
This exquisite alabaster handle of a cosmetic spoon in the form of a leaping leopard was discovered in the Malqata Palace of Amenhotep III in western Thebes. 18th Dynasty. ( Metropolitan Museum of Art )
“The clergy of ancient Egypt did not preach, interpret scripture, proselytize, or conduct weekly services; their sole responsibility was to care for the god in the temple. Men and women could be clergy, performed the same functions, and received the same pay. Women were more often priestesses of female deities while men served males, but this was not always the case as evidenced by the priests of the goddess Serket (Selket), who were doctors and both female and male, and those of the god Amun.
“The position of God's Wife of Amun, held by a woman, would eventually become as powerful as that of the king. High priests were chosen by the king, who was considered the high priest of Egypt, the mediator between the people and their gods, and so this position had political as well as religious authority. The priesthood was already established in the Early Dynastic Period in Egypt (c. 3150-2613 BCE) but developed in the Old Kingdom (c. 2613-2181 BCE) at the same time as the great mortuary complexes like Giza and Saqqara were being constructed,” explains Joshua Mark.
[The public archives of the Metropolitan Museum of Art can be accessed here.]
(Read Part 2 )
Top Image: Scene on the north wall in KV62 shows King Aye as sem priest, performing the “Opening of the Mouth” ritual on the mummy of Tutankhamun; design by Anand Balaji (Photo credit: Meretseger Books); Deriv.
By Anand Balaji
Independent researcher and playwright Anand Balaji, is an Ancient Origins guest writer and author of Sands of Amarna: End of Akhenaten .
Nicholas Reeves, The Complete Tutankhamun: The King, the Tomb, the Royal Treasure , 1990
I. E. S. Edwards, Tutankhamun (His Tomb and Its Treasures) , Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1977
Joshua J. Mark, Clergy, Priests & Priestesses in Ancient Egypt , Ancient History Encyclopedia, 2017
Emily Teeter, Religion and Ritual in Ancient Egypt , 2011
William H. Peck and John G. Ross, Egyptian Drawings , 1978
T.G.H. James, Tutankhamun (Treasures of Ancient Egypt) , 2006
Cow of Gold: An Encyclopedia of Egyptian Mythology, The Leopard in Ancient Egypt
Nicholas Reeves and Richard H. Wilkinson, The Complete Valley of the Kings , 2008
Richard H. Wilkinson, The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt , 2003
Geraldine Pinch, Magic in Ancient Egypt , 1994