BMCR 2021.10.34

The Egyptian priests of the Graeco-Roman period

, The Egyptian priests of the Graeco-Roman period: an analysis on the basis of the Egyptian and Graeco-Roman literary and paraliterary sources. Studien zur spätägyptischen Religion, Band 29. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2020. Pp. xiii, 395. ISBN 9783447114257. €98,00.

Marina Escolano-Poveda’s The Egyptian Priests of the Graeco-Roman Period, a version of her doctoral thesis defended in 2017, enters academic discourse at a time of unprecedented interest in the principal ritual and technical practitioners of Graeco-Roman Egypt – the “priests” of Egyptian temple institutions. In doing so, Escolano-Poveda’s study fills a considerable gap by engaging comprehensively with the literary and paraliterary sources argued to present images of Egyptian priests and their temple milieux during the Graeco-Roman Period, and by analyzing them from an “Egyptological point of view” (327). A treatment of these sources concerns Part One (four-fifths of the monograph), divided between “Demotic narratives”, “Graeco-Egyptian literature”, and “Graeco-Roman literature”, followed by an analysis of the characteristics of the Egyptian priesthood discernible in those sources. Part Two comprises an engagement with and counter-argumentation to the principal models concerning priestly temple milieux during the Roman Period: temple decline, “priest to magician”, and “stereotype appropriation”.

Chapter Two comprises the first comprehensive survey of the extant, known “narratives” in Demotic argued to be “creation[s] by priests for priests” (21). From the little-known Story of Petese to the celebrated Setne Cycles, and all fragmentary tales in between, Escolano-Poveda describes their events, casts, and the ritual and “magical” practices narrated, often providing reinterpretations from close (re-)readings of the sources. For any reader unfamiliar with this varied corpus, Escolano-Poveda’s treatment now provides the starting-point.

Chapter Three utilizes this same approach in a treatment of “Graeco-Egyptian” literature – Greek-language “narratives” argued to have been composed in Egyptian priestly milieux. From the priestly portrayal of Nectanebo in the Alexander Romance, and its overlap with Nectanebo’s Dream (extant in Demotic and Greek), to the writings of Manetho and Chaeremon, Escolano-Poveda highlights Egyptian features in literary works whose ‘Greekness’ has long been overstated due to the philologically Hellenocentric approaches of prior studies. Engaging briefly with Bull’s (2018) recent tome, which argues the Hermetica are the products of Egyptian priests of the Roman Period adapting Egyptian wisdom into a Hellenized idiom for philosophically-inclined non-priestly Grecophones, Escolano-Poveda highlights Egyptian features in the “technical” and “philosophical” Hermetica. Deconstructing various long-standing Hellenocentric assumptions, Escolano-Poveda argues that all Hermetica are to be situated among temple priestly milieux created, contrary to Bull, not for a “clientele” but as “an internal phenomenon” of the “House of Life (sic)” (157).

Chapter Four treats the Graeco-Roman literature providing “images of Egyptian priests from a non-Egyptian context” which can be contrasted with “native” ones (159) – from “fictional priestly characters” such as Kalasiris to the “real Egyptian priest” Harnuphis. A comprehensive survey is again provided, while previously overlooked Egyptian features and parallels to the portrayals of priests in Demotic and Graeco-Egyptian sources are highlighted that provide a renewed starting-point for any future engagement with this well-known corpus.

Chapter 5 analyses the characteristics of the Egyptian priesthood in each of the preceding corpora, from ages and epithets to “magical” practices and ‘morality’.  The “image” of the priests interpreted is then compared with that reached by Dieleman (2005: §6), producing a list of nine features – three shared with Dieleman, six not – tabulated as a potential “literary type”, some of which are valid, and others which may strike the reader as problematic: point nine, for example, that the “magical” practices described are “also prescribed and explained in extant contemporary magic handbooks” (264) is erroneous (Love 2020).

Fundamental to Escolano-Poveda’s argumentation in Part Two is that Frankfurter’s “priest to magician” and “stereotype appropriation” models, formulated principally in Frankfurter 1997, and since furthered by Dieleman (2005: §6), Moyer (2011: §4), and Bull (2018: §§7-9), were based upon a model of temple decline stemming from the opposition “State vs. Temple”, and therefore that if the latter model is shown to be invalid, then so are the former two.

Escolano-Poveda begins by interrogating the “State vs. Temple” model, counter-arguing this with reference to revisionist studies which have demonstrated the prior overinterpretation of limited, ambiguous primary sources, and that administrative reform during the Roman Period does not bear out state-directed suppression of the temple economy – reclassification rather than confiscation, regulation rather than subjugation.

Deconstructing the “priest to magician” model, Escolano-Poveda argues against the four principal pillars: decentralization of cult, adaptation of temple ritual to private use, mercantilization of ritual expertise, and itineracy of ritual experts (297). The first has already been refuted by Quack (2009), and is further undermined by Escolano-Poveda’s new reading of Thessalos’ proem, which was mis- and over-interpreted in the study by Smith (1978) that formed the basis of Frankfurter’s model. Escolano-Poveda demonstrates further how the second was not based on any familiarity with the Egyptian magical tradition, and that adaptations of temple rituals to private use were no novelty of the Roman Period. Finally, Escolano-Poveda elucidates how the third and fourth are simply not evidenced in primary sources but are derived from over-interpretations of literary sources, which are shown to have become so fallaciously reified within academic discourse that the entire thesis has become circular, with proponents simply citing each other.

Interrogating the “stereotype appropriation” model which maintains that “Egyptian priests adopted the image of the exotic magos from Graeco-Roman literature” (7-8), Escolano-Poveda highlights how this is dependent on the assumption that priests had to sell their ritual expertise to a private clientele due to a declining temple economy. Escolano-Poveda concludes that the “continuity” seen in the images of priests “does not support the idea that a particular stereotype was created” in those literary corpora (316), while the proposed “marketing techniques” found in the Graeco-Egyptian magical papyri (GEMP) are not for a clientele, but for the practitioners themselves (321).

In the last chapter, findings are summarized as the question “What is an Egyptian priest?” is finally addressed. To do so, certain primary, historical sources and studies thereon are cited, as is the contentious question of which roles belonged to a temple’s priesthood and which to its (uninitiated, illiterate) personnel. Ultimately, Escolano-Poveda sees the specialists who did not rotate in a priestly phyle but who worked essentially full-time in the temple precinct as the composers, copiers, and readers of the literature studied (330). The proposed roles of these individuals are then summarized: as “ritualists” (initiated, literate), “philosophers” (as suggested by certain Teachings and the Book of Thoth), and “magicians” (practitioners of the GEMP).

As conceded by Escolano-Poveda, certain hypotheses remain tentative, yet tantalizing, such as the suggestion that Plutarch’s presentation of Egyptian theology through the lens of Platonism might instead have been an innovation of priests adopted by Plutarch, while many questions remain open. Nevertheless, given that the number of academics who could study these sources in the original can be counted on one hand, Escolano-Poveda’s monograph provides a watershed for any future engagement with these corpora, counter-arguing or refuting prior theses and demonstrating to be untenable the philologically Hellenocentric approaches to the study of Graeco-Roman Egypt that have persisted up until now.

Notwithstanding the value of Escolano-Poveda’s study, I must now address issues of approach and analysis which introduce various problems.

Regarding approach, while theory for theory’s sake is to be avoided, it may nevertheless surprise readers that there is precisely no engagement with approaches from literary analysis, criticism, and theory, nor with how literary studies have been adopted into Egyptological discourse. As a result, Escolano-Poveda’s study is characterized by a matter-of-fact description and interpretation of the narratives devoid of the nuance required when dealing with multifaceted fictions, (re-)written over centuries. It is also unclear why “paraliterary” texts in Greek, such as the Hermetica (not extant from their proposed historical context), were included but primary sources in Egyptian by priests (extant from Roman Period temple contexts), such as the Book of Thoth and its fundamental reinterpretation by Quack (most recently, 2016/17), were barely engaged with. The Book of the Temple and Statutes of the Temple were also left undiscussed, and, despite being proposed as the nexus of the priestly practitioners fundamental to Escolano-Poveda’s thesis, the treatment of the “House of Life (sic)” was also underdeveloped (for these, see now Love 2021: §

Regarding analysis, the assumption that the protagonists who practice “magic” in Demotic narratives are priests – despite lacking priestly titles –, and thereby that priestly writers deliberately cast themselves as such and priestly readers would have actively identified with them is discussed at 242  but never adequately justified. Indeed, Egyptian-Demotic literature shows continuity in portraying characters – whether old sages (from Djedi to Petese), child geniuses (such as Siusire), or even divine reincarnations (such as the Hor-son-of-Paneshe) – who lack priestly titles. Indeed, in a recent study (Love 2020), I have demonstrated numerous profound differences between the “literary” and “literal” practitioners of “magic” and their practices: protagonists are often the children of legendary kings, or even divine; certain titles given – such as sẖꜣ nfr – are found exclusively in the literary sphere; a host of “magical” practices in Demotic literature do not appear in the GEMP – such as making a giant vault of stone materialize in mid-air –, and where there is overlap – such as the reading of sealed bookrolls – literary protagonists do this not by consulting “magical” handbooks as a historical practitioner would have done, but through an innate ability, i.e., their divine characteristics.

As for the retort that Demotic and Graeco-Egyptian literature was “by priests, for priests”: one should note that, while the circulation of textual culture in Demotic was limited to priestly communities during the Roman Period, this was not the case during the Late and Ptolemaic Period. Further, Escolano-Poveda does not engage sufficiently with the question of when the studied Demotic “narratives” were composed. For example, certain escapades of Horus-son-of-the-wolf (pꜣ-wnš), aka Horus-son-of-Pa-neshe (pꜣ-nše) in Setne II, appear in an Aramaic translation dating to the 5th century BCE (P. CVI AB). The significance of this manuscript, though mentioned at 68, is entirely overlooked – given its date, it fundamentally undermines the assumption that the sources studied were compositions about priests, by priests, for priests relevant to their Roman Period roles. What’s more, the episodes given a historical frame are set in deep time, e.g., the 19thDynasty (13th century BCE), and so clearly do not even intend to portray Egyptian practitioners of the Roman Period any more than a contemporary copy of the Legend of King Arthur is meant to portray English royalty of the 21st century.

Finally, there is a fundamental dissonance within the volume. Escolano-Poveda’s study is a study of secondary, literary representations of “priests”, and so does not engage with the primary, historical evidence for “priests”. As a result, the arguments of Part Two do not follow the findings of Part One because those sources simply do not inform the historical questions being asked. In seeking to “refute” the models Historians of Religion built based on these sources, Escolano-Poveda appears to have fallen into the same trap: literary texts – multifaceted fictions composed centuries before or extant only centuries after the Roman Period – cannot evidence concretely the historical realities of Roman Period priestly practitioners.

For example, while Escolano-Poveda’s rebuttal to the “State vs. Temple” model is valid, a focus on the express intentions of the Roman administration results in superficial conclusions: although Escolano-Poveda asserts that during the 2nd century CE “the temples were not experiencing any kind of general process of decline” (298), this is simply not borne out by documentary evidence (Love 2021: §1.2.2): for example, given the latest dated reference to priests of the cult at Tebtunis is 211 CE (Rathbone 2003: 24) and at Narmouthis is 206 CE (Vandorpe and Verreth 2012: 4), the idea that those priesthoods were entirely vital until the end of the 2nd century CE is simply untenable – irrespective of the precise causes of that ‘decline’. Indeed, if the Hermetica are, as Escolano-Poveda argues, to be situated in temple priestly milieux, that they were composed in Greek is in fact prime evidence of this ‘decline’, whereby millennia of textual culture production in Egyptian was abandoned in favor of that in Greek due to pressure on priestly populations and resulting language shift (Love 2021: §9) – a shift that was not sudden, but began before the 2nd century CE. These issues cannot be resolved by a consideration of only literary and para-literary sources, and so I look forward to the findings of Escolano-Poveda’s announced research project on the “The Greek Hermetica as a Product of the Egyptian Priestly Milieu of Graeco-Roman Egypt”, as no doubt will other readers. In sum, while Escolano-Poveda’s monograph provides a watershed for any future engagement with the literary and para-literary corpora studied, whether they inform historical questions must be considered critically against documentary evidence.

Works Cited

Bull, C. H., 2018, The tradition of Hermes Trismegistus, Leiden.

Dieleman, J., 2005, Priests, tongues, and rites, Leiden.

Frankfurter, D., 1997, “Ritual Expertise in Roman Egypt and the Problem of the Category ‘Magician’” in: P. Schäfer and H. G. Kippenberg, (eds.), Envisioning magic, 115-135.

Love, E. O. D., 2020, “The Literary vs The Literal”, in Franziska Naether (ed.), Cult Practices in Ancient Literatures at NYU Library, Ancient World Digital Library.

Love, E. O. D., 2021, Script Switching in Roman Egypt, Berlin.

Moyer, I. S., 2011, Egypt and the limits of Hellenism, Cambridge.

Quack, J. F., 2009, “Miniaturisierung als Schlüssel zum Verständnis Römerzeitlicher Ägyptischer Rituale?”, in: O. Hekster, S. Schmidt-Hofner, and C. Witschel, (eds.), Ritual Dynamics and Religious Change in the Roman Empire, 349-366.

Quack, J. F., 2016/17, Review: R. Jasnow and K.-Th. Zauzich, Conversations in the House of Life, Enchoria 35, 215-230.

Rathbone, D., 2003, “A Town Full of Gods: Imagining Religious Experience in Roman Tebtunis (Egypt)” at Berkeley: The Center for the Testunis Papyri.

Smith, J. Z., 1978, “The Temple and the Magician”, in J. Z. Smith (ed.), Map Is Not Territory, 172–189.

Vandorpe, K., Verreth, H., 2012, “Temple of Narmouthis: House of the ostraca”, Leuven Homepage of Payrus Collections.