Egyptian perspectives: Chairemon on Egyptian temple functionaries (first century CE)

Authors: Chairemon as cited by Porphyry, On Abstinence from Killing Animals 4.6-8.

Comments: The neo-Platonic philosopher Porphyry of Tyre (third century CE) preserves for us this excerpt from a writing by the Egyptian sacred scribe Chairemon (first century CE). As a result, we have here a somewhat detailed description of the practices of Egyptian temple functionaries by one of their own. As a trained Stoic philosopher, Chairemon presents the material in a way that fits with ideals of Greek philosophy (e.g. self-control), portraying the priests overall as ultimate wise men engaged in a wide-range of sacred knowledge and practice. Chairemon’s Egyptian perspective means that the more common Greek, negative caricature of Egyptian “animal worship” is not a factor here.

Source of the translation: Gillian Clark, Porphyry: On Abstinence from Killing Animals (London: Bloomsbury, 2010), 104-106, reproduced (with minor adjustments) with permission from Gillian Clark, the copyright holder.


Book 4

6 (1) Chairemon the Stoic, in his account of Egyptian priests who are, he says, regarded as philosophers by the Egyptians, explains that they have chosen temples as a place for engaging in philosophy. (2) Living beside the shrines of the gods was akin to their whole desire for contemplation. It provided them with safety, because everyone, out of reverence for the gods, honoured philosophers as if they were a kind of sacred animal. It also allowed them to be undisturbed, because contact with other people occurs only at festivals and feasts, but otherwise the temples are almost forbidden ground to others, for they had to approach in a state of purity and of abstinence from many things. This is a kind of common ordinance of the temples of Egypt. (3) The priests, having renounced all other occupation and human labour, devoted their whole life to contemplation and vision of things divine. By vision they achieve honour, safety and piety, by contemplation knowledge, and through both a discipline of lifestyle which is secret and has the dignity of antiquity. (4) Living always with divine knowledge and inspiration puts one beyond all greed, restrains the passions, and makes life alert for understanding. They practised simplicity, restraint, self-control, perseverance and in everything justice and absence of greed. (5) Their resistance to social contact also made them revered: at the time of what they called ‘holiness’, they did not associate with their closest kin and compatriots. They were hardly even seen by anyone else, except, for necessities, by those who were also engaged in holiness, because they lived in enclosures which were inaccessible to those who were not pure, and which were sacred to holy rites. (6) At other times they associated more freely with their fellows, but they did not share their lives with anyone outside the cult. They were always to be seen close to the gods or to their images, either carrying them or processing before them or arranging them with order and reverence: none of these rites was empty display, but each was an indication of some natural principle. (7) Their behaviour also showed them to be reverend. Their walk was disciplined, and they practised controlling their gaze, so that if they chose they did not blink. Their laughter was rare, and if it did happen, did not go beyond a smile. They kept their hands always within their clothing. Each had a visible sign of the rank he had in the rites, for there were several ranks. (8) Their lifestyle was frugal and simple. Some tasted no wine at all, others a very little: they accused it of causing damage to the nerves and a fullness in the head which impedes research, and of producing desire for sex. (9) In the same way they also treated other foods with caution, and in their times of holiness did not eat bread at all. When they were not in a state of holiness they ate it with chopped hyssop, for they said that hyssop eliminated most of the force of bread. Some of them abstained from oil most of the time, but the majority did so entirely. If they used it with vegetables, it was only a very little, just enough to make the taste milder.

7 (1) It was not lawful for them to touch food or drink produced outside Egypt, and thereby a great area of luxury was closed to them. (2) They abstained from all fish found in Egypt itself, and from quadrupeds that have solid hooves or hooves with fissures or have no horns, and from all birds that eat flesh. Many abstained altogether from animate foods, and all of them did in times of holiness, when they did not even eat eggs. (3) They also refused some of the animals which had not been declared unfit: for instance, they refused female cattle, and also males that were twins, spotted, varied in colour, deformed in shape or accustomed to the yoke (because they were already consecrated by their labours) or resembled sacred cattle (whatever kind of similarity appeared) or one-eyed or suggesting some resemblance to humans. (4) There are thousands of other observations in the art of those called “the ones who mark calves with a seal” (moschosphragistai): these have led to book-length compilations. Their precautions about birds are even more extreme: for instance, not to eat turtle-doves, because, they say, a falcon that has caught one often lets it go alive, granting survival as a reward for intercourse. So, in case they unwittingly come upon such a dove, they avoid the entire species. (5) Some of their rituals are common to all, but differ according to the kinds of priest and are appropriate to each god; but times of holiness cleanse them all. (6) This is the time when they are to carry out some ritual and abstain for a certain number of days in advance (some for forty-two, some for more or less, but never less than seven) from every animate creature, from all vegetables and pulses, and especially from sexual intercourse with women; they have none with males even at other times.584 (7) Three times each day they bathe in cold water, when they get up, before their meal and on their way to sleep. If they happen to have a seminal emission, they immediately purify the body by washing. They also wash in cold water at other periods of their lives, but not so often. (8) Their bed is woven from palm-branches, which they call ‘bais’, and a well-polished half-cylinder of wood supports the head. They practised thirst, hunger and eating little throughout their lives.

8 (1) It is evidence of their self-control that, without taking walks or using passive exercise, they remained free from illness and vigorous in comparison with average strength: at least, in the course of the rituals they undertook many heavy tasks and forms of service which are too much for everyday strength. (2) They divided the night into times for observation of the heavens, and sometimes for ritual, and the day into times for worship of the gods: they sang hymns to the gods three or four times, at dawn and evening, when the sun is at noon and when it is setting. For the rest of the time they were engaged in the study of arithmetic or geometry, always working at it and adding to their discoveries, and altogether committed to practising it. (3) They did the same even on winter nights, staying awake for love of scholarship, for they gave no thought to making a profit and were liberated from the bad master, Extravagance. This unwearying and consistent work testifies to the perseverance of the men, and the lack of appetites testifies to their self-control. (4) They reckoned that sailing away from Egypt was one of the most impious acts, because they were always wary of foreign luxury and customs. They thought it holy only for those who were obliged to do so on the king’s service, and even those laid great stress on abiding by ancestral custom: if they were discovered to have transgressed even in a minor matter, they were expelled. (5) True philosophy was practised by prophets (prophētai), by those in charge of the sacred robes of the deity (hierostolistai), by sacred scribes (hierogrammateis), and also by astronomers (hōrologoi). The other priests (hiereis) and shrine-bearers (pastophoroi), and the mass of temple-wardens (neōkoroi) and servants of the gods (hypourgoi), observed the same rules of purity, but without the same strictness and self-control.

9 (1) Such is the testimony about the Egyptians given by a truth-loving and accurate man who was deeply engaged in the practice of Stoic philosophy. . .

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