Temple slavery in Ancient Egypt

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Temple slave contract : Image Credit : University of Copenhagen

In the University of Copenhagen’s Papyrus Carlsberg Collection there are more than 100 papyri dedications to the god, Soknebtunis.

These documents are legal contracts that place the supplicant under the authority of the named god, and prevent any power, human or otherwise, from commanding them. In legal terms the supplicants volunteer themselves as slaves to the temple.


The documents were found during illicit excavations during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries and have since been collected in the Papyrus Carlsberg Collection, established in the 1930’s. Professor Kim Ryholt of the University of Copenhagen has been studying these contracts and puts forth an argument that these contracts represent acts of self-slavery.

The temple slave contracts from Tebtunis bear resemblance to the Oracular Amuletic Decrees, a practice whereby the bearer is contractually protected by a god against malign spirits, which were believed to be the cause of illness, for a monthly fee. Professor Ryholt stresses that the papyri from Tebtunis and other cities differ in that they place a strict emphasis on subjugation rather than divine protection, raising the question: what did the supplicants get in return?

In his paper, Professor Ryholt points out that in around 90% of the documents, the supplicant could not name their fathers. He suggests that this is because these are the offspring of prostitutes. This would mean that these children belonged to the poorest class, and as a result were at the mercy of the king. The king had the power to levy the poorest classes to aid in public works ranging from constructing temples to digging canals. These public works were arduous, potentially dangerous tasks that could even result in death. As a way around this, these fatherless offspring sold themselves to the only power higher than the king: the gods, legally exempting them from royal levy.

Professor Ryholt explains that many of these contracts abound in grammatical errors, and that some are even written on reused papyrus scraps, further suggesting they were for lower classes that could not afford a fully trained scribe. There is one aspect of the practice that seems particularly confusing, that the supplicant paid a monthly fee to the temple for the privilege of being a slave. This in turn poses a new question, how did these slaves afford to pay for protection?

The practice of selling oneself into temple slavery was short-lived. It is estimated it had a brief lifespan of 60 years under the reign of Ptolemy V, from 190-130 BC. If widespread throughout the Ptolemic Empire, the practice of temple slavery would have been damaging to the royal economy, as greater numbers sold themselves into temple slavery in a bid to avoid the levies.

Written by Jonathan Hutchings

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