Practice of Voluntary Temple Slavery in Ancient Egypt

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About one hundred of 2,200-year-old papyrus slave contracts have revealed that ancient Egyptians voluntarily entered into slave contracts with a local temple in the Egyptian city Tebtunis for all eternity, and even paid a monthly fee for the privilege.


2,200-year-old contract comprised of fragments from Papyrus Carlsberg and British Museum (University of Copenhagen)

“I am your servant from this day onwards, and I shall pay 2,5 copper-pieces every month as my slave-fee before Soknebtunis, the great god,” say the papyri from the temple city of Tebtunis, as translated by egyptologist Dr Kim Ryholt of the University of Copenhagen.

Dr Ryholt, who reports the discovery in his article in the forthcoming publication Lotus and Laurel – Studies on Egyptian Language and Religion, said: “90 per cent of the people who entered into these slave contracts were unable to name their fathers, although this was normally required. They were presumably children of prostitutes. This is a clear indication that they belonged to the lower classes which the king could subject to forced labor, for example digging canals, if he so desired. However, we know from other contemporary records that temple slaves were exempt from forced labor.”

“Many therefore chose to live as temple slaves because it was the only way of avoiding the harsh and possibly even deadly alternative; the temple was simply the lesser of two evils for these people. And for the temples, this was a lucrative practice that gave them extra resources and money.”

According to Kim Ryholt, the practice of avoiding forced labor by entering into slave contracts with temples was limited to a 60-year-period – from roughly 190 BC to 130 BC. There is no indication that the practice existed in any other period in ancient Egypt; probably because the royal family could not, in the long run, afford to yield that many resources to the temples.

The papyrus slave contracts were found in a rubbish dump next to the Tebtunis temple during excavations and were subsequently scattered across Egypt, Europe and the United States. So it has taken Dr Ryholt years to collect and analyze the contracts.

“The Papyrus Carlsberg Collection at the University of Copenhagen contains a large number of contracts, but many are fragmentary, and in order to study the whole material I have had to visit many other collections where there would be a chance to find Tebtunis contracts, including the British Museum, university collections in New Haven, Michigan and Florence, and not least Tebtunis itself where I participate in the modern excavations.”

“In some cases, a contract might be physically divided between, for instance, Copenhagen and the British Museum, and the fragments are then scanned and put together virtually on the computer,” Dr Ryholt said.