Temple slavery in Ancient Egypt

Related Articles

Related Articles

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

HeritageDaily : Archaeology News : Archaeology Press Releases

Download the HeritageDaily mobile application on iOS and Android

More on this topic


“Woodhenge” Discovered in the Iberian Peninsula

Archaeologists conducting research in the Perdigões complex in the Évora district of the Iberian Peninsula has uncovered a “Woodhenge” monument.

New Fossil Discovery Shows How Ancient ‘Hell Ants’ Hunted With Headgear

Researchers from New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), Chinese Academy of Sciences and University of Rennes in France have unveiled a stunning 99-million-year-old fossil pristinely preserving an enigmatic insect predator from the Cretaceous Period -- a 'hell ant' (haidomyrmecine) -- as it embraced its unsuspecting final victim, an extinct relative of the cockroach known as Caputoraptor elegans.

New Algorithm Suggests That Early Humans and Related Species Interbred Early and Often

A new analysis of ancient genomes suggests that different branches of the human family tree interbred multiple times, and that some humans carry DNA from an archaic, unknown ancestor.

Long Neck Helped Reptile Hunt Underwater

Its neck was three times as long as its torso, but had only 13 extremely elongated vertebrae: Tanystropheus, a bizarre giraffe-necked reptile which lived 242 million years ago, is a paleontological absurdity.

A New Look at Mars’ Eerie, Ultraviolet Nighttime Glow

Every night on Mars, when the sun sets and temperatures fall to minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit and below, an eerie phenomenon spreads across much of the planet's sky: a soft glow created by chemical reactions occurring tens of miles above the surface.

Global Magnetic Field of the Solar Corona Measured for the First Time

An international team of solar physicists, including academics from Northumbria University, in Newcastle upon Tyne, has recently measured the global magnetic field of the outer most layer of the Sun’s atmosphere, the solar corona, for the first time.

New Insight Into The Evolution of Complex Life on Earth

A novel connection between primordial organisms and complex life has been discovered, as new evidence sheds light on the evolutionary origins of the cell division process that is fundamental to complex life on Earth.

NASA Data Helps Uncover Our Solar System’s Shape

Scientists have developed a new prediction of the shape of the bubble surrounding our solar system using a model developed with data from NASA missions.

Popular stories

Port Royal – The Sodom of the New World

Port Royal, originally named Cagway was an English harbour town and base of operations for buccaneers and privateers (pirates) until the great earthquake of 1692.

Matthew Hopkins – The Real Witch-Hunter

Matthew Hopkins was an infamous witch-hunter during the 17th century, who published “The Discovery of Witches” in 1647, and whose witch-hunting methods were applied during the notorious Salem Witch Trials in colonial Massachusetts.

Did Corn Fuel Cahokia’s Rise?

A new study suggests that corn was the staple subsistence crop that allowed the pre-Columbian city of Cahokia to rise to prominence and flourish for nearly 300 years.

The Real Dracula?

“Dracula”, published in 1897 by the Irish Author Bram Stoker, introduced audiences to the infamous Count and his dark world of sired vampiric minions.