In Ancient Egypt, People Paid to Become Temple Servants

Rather than face forced labor, some ancient Egyptians gave up their futures and their coin to become temple servants

Give your future and your coin to Anubis, and you’ll be spared the rigors of hard labor.
Give your future and your coin to Anubis, and you’ll be spared the rigors of hard labor. gstei

Ancient Egypt was fueled by forced labor. Not the construction of the pyramids, mind you, but other grand projects, such as quarries and roads and water infrastructure. Most Egyptians, says the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, were drawn in for forced labor duty, a process known as corvée: “forced labor as a form of taxation.”

But not everyone.

Some people, says research by Kim Ryholt at the University of Copenhagen, bought their way out of the hard life by turning themselves into temple servants.

In Nature, Hazem Zohny describes the ancient Egyptians as volunteering themselves—in fact, paying their own way—to become temple slaves. Ryholt’s research describes the situation a bit differently, suggesting they were making “self-dedications” to become a temple “servant.”

One of these pledges, translated, reads:

Ptolemy, living
great god, ..,
whose mother is Tahôr:
servant from this day onwards until eternity, and I
shall give
as servant fee before Anubis, the great god.
t, an ancient one, a demon, a great one,
, any on earth
to exercise authority over her <apart from> you
until <eternity>. Written in regnal-year
23, second month of shemu, day 1.

The reason anyone would volunteer themselves—and pay for the privilege—to become a temple servant, says Nature‘s Zohny, comes back to Egypt’s forced labor taxation, the corvée:

While these contracts bound them as slaves, they also protected them from being subject to forced labours such as digging canals and other harsh and often fatal projects. However, as temple slaves, they were mainly engaged in agriculture and were exempt from forced labour.

According to researcher Ryholt, the people who made these pledges were generally from lower class families.

In view of this and the low social status of the majority of supplicants, it may be argued that the self-dedications were the legal instruments of a symbiotic relationship. On one hand, certain people able to pay a monthly fee could exploit the law by acquiring the status of temple servants in order to avoid compulsory labor, this apparently being considered the lesser of two evils. On the other, temples could in turn exploit this circumstance and generate both a modest income and enjoy the benefits of an expanded workforce. In effect the temples thus came to provide a form of asylum – against payment! –for individuals that might be subjected to hard forced labor.

Obviously not everyone working at the temple was fleeing from forced labor, but the symbiotic benefit would be attractive for many.

According to Zohny, however, “This loophole for escaping forced labour was likely only open during a 60 year period from around 190 BC to 130 BC, with no other evidence that this practice existed during other periods in ancient Egypt. Ryholt speculates that this is because reigning monarchs could not afford losing too many potential labourers to temples in the long-run.”

More from

Four Places to Worship Isis That Aren’t In Egypt
Ponder the Pyramids of Giza

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.