Sem Priests of Ancient Egypt: In the Service of King and Country—Part II
An appointee of the Pharaoh himself, the role of the sem priest carried immense political and religious weightage. In many ways, this class of priest served as the bridge between the ruler and the ruled. Over and above, funerals in ancient Egypt were officiated by the sem priest who recited spells from the Book of the Dead during the all-important Opening of the Mouth ritual to ensure the safe passage of the newly deceased persons in their journey into the other realm. These incantations also granted the soul (or akh) the ability to make use of the five senses as it had done here on earth.
This scene on the north wall in KV62 shows King Aye, who wears the Blue Crown and the leopard-skin robe of sem priest, perform the “Opening of the Mouth” ritual on the mummy of Tutankhamun. 18th Dynasty. (Photo: Meretseger Books)
Hated Setems of Amarna
The solemn funeral procession that consisted of family and friends headed to the tomb amidst scenes of intense mourning. At the entrance to the crypt, the sem priest would fall into a trance, before being symbolically awoken by the other priests in his group. Then, he would declare, “I have seen my father in all his forms”— and the team of priests would respond in unison beseeching him to take the place of Horus and protect his father Osiris (the dead person).
In this rather extraordinary scene of a funeral procession in the 6th Dynasty tomb of Ankhmahor at Saqqara, a mourner is shown on the ground, collapsed in grief. Even though the ancient Egyptians believed that death was not the end, they were human after all, and hence, mourned the departed just as we do today.
Barring a brief phase during the Amarna era when depictions of sem priests wearing leopard skins were banned, such representations flourished otherwise. “For reasons not fully understood, the setem was considered anathema in the Amarna Period, or at least his cloak was, and many figures of setems in tombs have been damaged. In Tutankhamun’s reign, the old order being re-established, priests with leopard skins were again allowed to function,” explains, T.G.H. James. The Opening of the Mouth ceremony is depicted in the well-recognized scene on the north wall in the Tomb of Tutankhamun – where the newly-crowned King Aye performs the ritual for the deceased ruler. In fact, through this act of burying the dead pharaoh, the aged Vizier legitimized his claim to the throne.
Leaded bronze statuette of a sem priest wearing a leopard-skin cloak with an image of the god of the Underworld, Osiris, on his skirt. Third Intermediate Period or later. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (CCO 1.0)
Favored Skin of Gods and Men
Aanen, the brother of Queen Tiye, wife of Amenhotep III (18th Dynasty) was a prominent sem priest. In a statue made of granodiorite, he is shown in the garb of the second priest of Amun wearing a wig, a long gown, and the leopard skin. Aanen possessed the title “Chief of the Seers” of Heliopolis of Upper Egypt (Thebes). So, the starred leopard-skin that he wears is doubtless a reflection of his mantle of office. In fact, post the Amarna interlude, as king, Tutankhamun adopted the epithet “Ruler of Heliopolis of Upper Egypt”, thereby signaling his devotion to the ancient Heliopolitan cult.
Aanen, an astronomer priest, “one who knows the procession of the sky”, was the brother of the powerful Queen Tiye, wife of Amenhotep III. Here, as the second priest of Amun, he is portrayed wearing the leopard-skin of office. 18th Dynasty. Museo Egizio, Turin, Italy.
However, it was not just the priests who wore leopard skins during rituals—the iconography of a few gods and goddesses too shows them dressed in this manner, as Richard Wilkinson reveals, “Seshat was depicted in anthropomorphic form as a woman often wearing a leopard skin over her robe and with a headdress consisting of a headband with a tall extension upon which was an obscure emblem resembling a rosette or seven-pointed star.” After, the New Kingdom, the iconography of the lion-headed dwarf deity, Bes, whose role was primarily as protector of women and children against all manner of evil - underwent a transformation and is shown adorning the leopard skin worn in ritualistic settings.
An elegant relief of goddess Seshat carved on the walls of Karnak Temple shows her dressed in her characteristic leopard-skin outfit. A scribe and record-keeper, she was worshipped as the deity of wisdom, knowledge, and writing.
The grand ceremonial gold dagger found in the Tomb of Tutankhamun was a most unique object upon which leopards are depicted. This dagger, weighing 32 ounces (907 grams), was one of two discovered on the mummy of the king. The sheath depicts lions and a leopard attacking antelopes and a dog attacking a calf. However, it is speculated that the intricate designs are Mycenaean rather than Egyptian in origin; and could thereby reflect the trade links which existed with the Mediterranean kingdoms at that time.
Top Image: Relief of a funeral procession from the tomb of Merymery in Saqqara; design by Anand Balaji (Photo credit: Rob Koopman); 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.
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