Priesthoods, Priests, and Priestesses

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Priesthoods, Priests, and Priestesses

The priest's specialized role in social life has been addressed in many studies, but the exact nature of the priest has remained elusive to many. The idea that the priest reflects some universal construct was apparent to the ancients and is a widely employed scholarly concept for analyzing religious practices. In their consideration of the priests of pagan Rome, however, contemporary scholars (e.g., Beard and North 1990) find that a single term that encompassed all types of priests was lacking among the Romans. Nonetheless, the cross-cultural utility of such a concept is reflected in a frequently used Roman term for a priest, the flamen, which is associated with the Sanskrit word for priest, brahman. Roman priests occupied a diversity of specialized roles, duties, organizational structures, and functions that had foundations in the very early history of Rome. Nonetheless, there was a basic similarity in the religious roles of the Pontif, rex sacrorum, kings, magistrates, and others responsible for rituals of the state cult (Winkelman 1992). What Roman priests share in common is belonging to a cult, which is a social group that operates as a collective entity with specialized knowledge in managing rituals "mediating between men and gods" (Beard and North 1990, p. 7). This mediation of priests involves regulation of the human approach to and communication with the divine. Originally the role of the priest was reserved for members of patrician families, but later became more widely accessible to those with the financial resources to join the cults. The basic ritual functions of the priests were also carried out by many others who performed some priestly acts, such as the paterfamilias, the master of the house or family who was responsible for propitiation of the spirits of the ancestors. One of the most ancient and general images of priestly activities involves sacrifice, the killing, offering, and consumption of domestic animals.

These priestly cults or colleges of Rome distinguished themselves most fundamentally in contrasting the pontifices and the augures, the mediators with the community, and the communicators with the gods, respectively (Beard 1990, Gordon 1990). The principal focus of priestly mediation in Rome was in the Senate, which decided on valid divine communication and the permissible human rituals to deities, mediating human responses and relations with deities, and so offering an intermediary role between the citizenry and the government. Priests provided the required rituals in the Senate, where they served as consultants on matters of law and interpretation and also regulated the ritual life of families through their official roles in burials.

In their analysis of the priests of pagan Rome, Beard and North (1990) note the interpenetration of religion with politics, commenting that it was assumed that a political career included participation in the priesthoods of the state. The most powerful figures of Rome's public life (e.g., the Caesars) achieved this through combining the priestly and political roles. It was the priestly colleges that provided the most important integrative functions during the Roman Republic (Gordon 1990), creating a wide diffusion of power among the elite class, as well as a permanent political presence by virtue of the prestige conferred by official membership. The lack of permanency in political power created by one-year terms in the Senate was superseded by religious cult memberships and priesthoods that generally were permanent. The integration of the powers derived from the religious ritual system of priests with the power derived from the political system allowed for processes of domination by the elite in ways not generally apparent to the masses.


The characteristics of the Roman priests are not unique but reflect a cross-culturally valid conceptual type, according to the research of ethnologist Michael Winkelman (1992), whose analyses illustrate similarities of priests found in different societies around the world. His study sample included the priests of major religions, such as clergy of the Ethiopian Coptic Church, the Buddhist priests, and the Islamic murids and mullahs, as well as others such as the Roman Pontiff and priests of the state cult and practices of ancestor worship found there and in other societies around the world.

Priests are not found in all societies, but do appear universal in societies with a primary reliance on agriculture. Priests are found in societies with political systems with two or more levels of political integration beyond local communities (i.e., villages organized into districts organized into states). The priest exemplifies male power in society, with female involvement in activities typically only as assistants or servants; the occasional empress or queen serving in the role of a high priestess is an unusual exception to exclusively male functionaries. Although priests may represent preeminent power on earth, being members of the elite classes, they do not control the gods but, rather, serve as intermediaries who petition the gods on behalf of the people. Priests may also have personal religious power in ritual knowledge or control of an impersonal power, such as mana.

Priests typically acquire their positions by virtue of inheritance, typified in ancestors' cults, in which the reigning member of the lineage is also the chief priest; this post, is passed on to a son upon the priest's death. Priests typically exercise control over considerable economic resources and hold important political positions either as consultants or as the supreme political leader such as chief or king. Priests generally hold formal judicial power, ruling on everyday disputes as well as life-and-death decisions. Priests were often members of legislative bodies and are generally considered to be the moral authorities of society.

Priests are typically in charge of a permanent institution (e.g., a church). Priesthoods are organized in a hierarchically ranked group that provides a system of administrative control over society. The highest level of the priesthood may involve the king, emperor, or chief. Official duties, sacred and secular, generally take up all of a priest's time.

Priestly religious activities involve collective propitiation of group's deities with sacrifices and feasts, particularly public rituals associated with particular parts of the agricultural cycle (e.g., planting and harvesting). These rites of intensification are to aid the general fertility of animals and crops as well as to provide thanks for the abundance provided. Harvest rituals typically sacrifice some portion of the harvest to the gods, but the sacrifice may be consumed by the priest and participants. Sacrificial offerings generally involve domestic animals (e.g., cows, pigs, chickens), which are typically first sacrificed to the gods before their consumption by participants, which emphasizes the importance of the priests as a controller of ecological relations (Rappaport 1967, Lansing 1991).

The role of the priest provides the most important contrast with the primordial religious functionary, the shaman. This contrast emphasizes the priest as an intermediary with the spiritual world who petitions the intervention of deities rather than someone who enters into a direct relationship with the deity or presumes to control them. Priests are leaders of what anthropologist Anthony Wallace (1966) called communal cults. These communal religious activities involve heads of clans or other kinship groups organizing activities related to ancestor worship and specialist professional associations of ecclesiastical cults that organize the worship of collective deities. The dual political-religious role characteristic of the priest is emphasized in the role of the divine king who holds supreme secular and religious power and is a deity as well.

Male priests are a typical feature of the gender restrictions found in religions worldwide. Although female participation in specialized religious roles is widespread if not universal, women have not typically been allowed to serve as priests. The leadership roles in religions where women are dominant may be called priestesses, but their characteristics differ significantly from those of priests. Female-dominant religions involve mediums. Mediums reflect adaptations of more complex societies to the therapeutic potentials of altered states of consciousness and local community healing rituals that were first manifested in shamanism. In contrast, priests organize society-wide rituals involving integration of separate community groups into larger political hierarchies. Thus, gender plays an important role in the human division of labor in accessing supernatural power.

Functional Perspectives on Priests

The role or position of the priest is found in sedentary agricultural societies (and some pastoral societies that depend on herd animals such as cows, camels, and reindeer for subsistence). These roles have a functional relationship to the leadership needs of these more complex societies. When found in societies without complex political hierarchies, priests are still associated with ritual activities intended to ensure the success of agriculture and to occupy positions of political leadership based on succession. It appears that the role of priests evolved in response to the needs of agricultural societies but that their origins may lie in the organizational principles of clan structures and ancestor worship. Winkelman's cross-cultural research found that when religious practitioners are selected for their roles on the basis of social inheritance or social succession, they exercise judicial and political power as well and engage in collective rituals of propitiation. These are the priests reflecting an adaptive aspect of religion in which the biological and social power of kinship groups is united in religious practices of ancestor worship. A hierarchy linking heaven and earth places one's living kin in supernatural positions of authority.


How did this new form of religiosity represented by priests come to supplant shamanism as the central feature of religiosity in society? Archeologist Brian Hayden (2003) reviews evidence of the emergence of this new form of ritual development during the early Upper Paleolithic period (approximately 15,000 years ago) when hunter-gatherer groups developed more complex organizations called trans-egalitarian societies. Their rituals emphasized accumulation and storage of large amounts of food for use in extravagant ritual displays focused on enhancing group fertility, worship of ancestors, and integration of large groups of people.

These public displays of prestige and success may have been a turning point in the evolution of religion—a dramatic shift from popular cults focused on earlier communal healing practices of shamanism to that of elite cults that manipulated their communities through religious rituals and symbols. Food, art, and monumental architecture were resources for exercising ritual control and influence by the elite. These new fertility religions used animals to represent their clans and lineages, ancestor cults to elevate their ancestors as group gods, megalithic architecture as public places to make ritual statements of their power, public feasting for solidification of alliances and kinship-based political systems, and commodity items in gift giving, exchange, and tribute to increase wealth, power, and prestige.

The public cult activities of these religions focused on fertility, epitomized in the Venus figurines, stone and clay depictions of pregnant women. The exaggerated female features (e.g., broad hips, large breasts and buttocks, and prominent genitalia) indicate a fertility cult. The involvement of specialists in their production and their role as prestige items is indicated by the high quality of the depictions, the extensive work involved in their production, and the standardization of their features. Hayden views the fertility cults as elite families' prestige competition in attracting females as wives who could produce children, who represent the ultimate long-term strength in kinship-based political systems. Fertility cults, marriage, and feasting were all part of a system that helped to ensure production of future food surpluses.

During the Neolithic period (approximately 12,000 years ago), these kinds of rituals became dominant social institutions. Their focus was on animal cults and the line-ages and ancestor worship they represented. Ancestor cults and veneration are suggested by the special care given to the burial of a few elderly men, who were interred with elaborate grave goods and offerings that indicated their elevated status. These offerings that were found in their graves seem to indicate people with unusually important social positions, such as the heads of clans. Their skulls were often removed and used as ritual objects, reflecting the continued importance of these individuals in their afterlife roles. Central to these elite-focused religions were warfare, human sacrifice, and megalithic architecture. These manifested a chief's ability to organize groups to achieve goals that, while often viewed as collective (i.e., protecting our village), generally served the interests of the elite. Hayden postulates that the emergence of the more complex priestly religions was a consequence of increased competition for economic resources. Increased resources contributed to social stratification and contests between the elite and communities.

The new Megalithic societies can be regarded as similar in activity to near-modern chiefdoms in which leaders ruled by virtue of their positions in kinship systems. Public rituals involved wealth exchanges and prestige competition as mechanisms for differentiating the chiefly elite from the nonelite. Through ritual exchange the elite control social life—wealth exchanges, bride exchanges, arranged marriages, social alliances, debt payments, and allocation of resources in times of scarcity. The gods, embodied in the elite's ancestors, are believed to be key actors in ensuring group well-being, particularly in issues related to fertility. Their key roles in managing political needs of complex societies are exemplified in the role of the divine king.


A fundamental function of priests is a concern with the fecundity of the earth and its crops in particular. The role of the priest is exemplified in the divine king, a supreme leader whose life and health are intimately related to fertility of all of society and nature. Priests' rituals of intensification involve symbolic depictions of the connection of the king with the fecundity of the earth. The roles of these divine figures were explored by the Scottish anthropologist and folklorist James G. Frazer (1935) in his considerations of divine sacrifice, making the king himself a sacrificial offering to the gods as a scapegoat for famine or drought. The king theoretically offers his life as a sacrifice for the good of the community or is sacrificed by his own people, particularly his counselors, when the his health or that of the community in general has declined. Frazer characterized regicide and human sacrifice as reflective of an early development of religion in which people saw human life and nature as intimately interconnected. The sacrifice of a human life fed the energy of nature and restored the fecundity of the earth. These rituals are part of a general effort to perpetuate the cycle of life and to ensure the fertility and prosperity of both the agricultural fields and domestic animals.

Frazer's concept of the divine king, a supreme priest who in failing health is sacrificed for a renewal of nature, is not typical. Most divine kings were not sacrificed. As David Hicks (1996) describes in the ritual regicide in Timor, a substitute for the king is put through the motions of sacrifice, a feigned blow to the head preceding the ritual act of tying the individual up in fishnets at the shore of the lagoon. This substitute, however, is not killed either; rather, a pig or buffalo is ritually offered as a substitute for the king. This sacrifice is thought to reestablish relations between the spiritual and human populations, regenerate the divinity, and induce the spirits to give fecundity to the world. These rituals are generally performed in August during the shifting from the dry season to the rainy season. The sacrificial offering of the lifeblood of an animal is seen as helping ensure the fecundity of nature and this seasonal change from the male season to the female season.

These rituals reflect the fundamental role of priestly religions in mediating relationships with the environment. This is exemplified in anthropologist Roy Rappaport's (1967) discussion of Tsembaga ancestor rituals and the ecological relations maintained through the sacrifice of pigs. These ritual festivities also allow these groups to assess their allies' fitness for the warfare that begins soon after the pig festivals have ended. Because there are no political authorities that command these groups, the ability of a group to effectively exercise warfare depends on attracting kinsmen in other groups to join them in their fight. An invitation to attend a dance is tantamount to a request for military support, and that support is solidified in the context of the festivals and feasting.


The characteristic of priests as mediators with the supernatural world rather than entering the spirit world is reflected in their general lack of notably altered states of consciousness (ASC). Unlike shamans who enter into an ecstatic relationship with the spirit world, priests remain in this world. The priest may nonetheless experience some less profound ways of altering consciousness produced by social isolation, restrictions involving fasting and sexual prohibitions, and prolonged prayer. ASC rituals of priests also generally involve consumption of alcoholic beverages by priests and congregations. Drinking alcohol may not seem like a religious activity, but the notion of alcohol as spirits reflects a past where alcohol was a sacred beverage. The connections among public ritual, consumption of alcoholic liquids and food, and power found its way into the religions of medieval and modern times in Judaism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism, for example. This sacred role of alcohol is exemplified in the Roman Catholic Church, where the priests consume wine during the Mass, considered a symbolic representation of the blood of Jesus. Sacred consumption of alcohol is associated with rituals for integration of the community, particularly formation of alliances.


Priests were part of prehistoric public festivals of alcohol use involving rituals that reinforced community solidarity, social cohesion and rapport, and internal hierarchies. Alcohol's central role in the religious life of pre-Christian European and of Jewish ceremonial uses led to its continuation as a central sacrament of Christianity, where it was viewed as creating a spiritual connection and enhancing community solidarity. The continued importance of wine in the Christian traditions was reinforced in accounts of the drinking of wine by Christ at the Last Supper, which came to be a symbol of Jesus's own blood and his sacrifice for humanity. Early Christian communities consumed wine to bring joy to life in communal ritual celebrations.

Anthropologist Terrance McKenna (1992) suggests that in social evolution from premodern societies, alcohol cults played a central role in the development of dominator exploiter cultures. These weakened male-female relations in enhancing tendencies toward ego obsession and immediate gratification, reflecting anxiety produced by alienation from the feminine qualities of nature. During the Neolithic period alcohol cults spread as agriculture made large amounts of sugar-producing plants available for the fermentation process involved in the production of alcohol. This accompanied periods of rapid social and economic change and new political structures that developed to meet the needs of complex agrarian societies.

Winkelman and Keith Bletzer (2005) review research revealing elite male warrior cults that were key components of alcohol cults. Their central roles in society are attested to by the prominent inclusion of drinking vessels found in graves of the elite by Richard Rudgley (1993). According to archaeologist Bettina Arnold (1999), alcohol was central to religious ritual and political life of Europe during the Iron Age (c. 900 bce–100 ce), a key element in establishing relationships between rulers and their supporters and maintaining the latter's allegiance. Consumption of alcohol provided a social lubricant for important rituals used to moderate intragroup competition and establish relations of power. Alcohol was consumed at feasts organized by nobles, where followers made public commitments to provide military defense for their noble benefactors.

Alcohol rituals are exemplified in feasts provided by Celtic kings of the British Isles. These feasts were expressions of the king's generosity, and bonds of friendship were enhanced by bountiful consumption of alcoholic beverages. This ritual consumption became an exclusive practice of the high elite as these festivals became dominated by the consumption of wine that was acquired through overseas trade connections with the Mediterranean world. Wine was capable of being stored for long periods without spoilage, unlike beer. This storable commodity enhanced the power of political aggrandizers who rose by replacing beer with wine as a source of alcohol in public religious feasts. These ostentatious public ceremonies provided contexts for the rulers to carry out political and judicial processes and allowed for competition in military games to establish a hierarchy among their supporters. These public rituals also involved supporters making public declarations of their loyalty to the ruler, supporting long-term political alliances. This was a domain of men, not women.


Although not normally functioning as priests, women are not absent from religion. In Priestess, Mother, Sacred Sister, anthropologist Susan Sered (1994) used a cross-cultural case study to characterize religions in which women are dominant figures, illustrating their similarities with cases from the Okiinawa shrine maiden and traditional women's societies of Africa, the Korean household rituals of shamanism, as well as more modern examples, such as the North American Shakers and the development of Christian Science. Although conventionally referred to as priestess, roles in female-dominant religions are much more like those of shamans than of male priests. Sered's research illustrates how the leadership roles in religions dominated by women differ from the leadership roles involved in the practices of priests.

In female-dominant religions, those who occupy roles of authority do so through their personality or supernatural power rather than from acquisition of a position within a formal hierarchy. Nonetheless, these religious leadership roles are dominated by older women. Sered points out that these groups may have unequal statuses among women and may promulgate ideas of gender inequality, endorsing prevalent masculine notions of male dominance and female subordination. Sered also notes that societies in which women's religions are present, women tended to have a relatively high level of autonomy. Their societies are likely to be matrilineal or matrilocal. These religions enhance women's roles within these societies, particularly in activities related to their responsibilities as mothers.

Women's religions emphasize the interpenetration of public and domestic spheres, incorporating ritual spaces and processes into the home. Female-dominant religions focus more on the needs of the individual rather that the broader societal concerns emphasized in the activities of male priests. Rituals of women's religions focus on domestic areas and involve food rituals as a central element. In contrast to priestly religions, female-dominant religions generally did not involve animal sacrifice. These are not proselytizing religions and are not focused on the rules of moral behavior and their enforcement. Women's religions are not centralized and institutionalized but, rather, integrated around individuals who are closely related by kinship and care a lot about one another. It is not morals that are codified but rather relationships that have important implications for the community: enhancement of interpersonal relations and familial bonds and providing nurturance and support for the family, particularly those who are ill or suffering.

According to Sered, "what does receive attention and elaboration in these religions is women's social roles as nurturers and healers, women's rights and responsibilities as primary child care providers, women's emotional experiences of pain at the illness and death of children, women's social ties with other mothers, a matrifocality and women's proclivity for discovering the sacred which is evident in the everyday world of care and relationship" (p. 286).

Women's religions are characterized by high levels of emotionality and broadly appeal to those of marginal economic and social circumstances. Female-dominant religious groups emphasize an emotional dynamics of brotherly love and sisterhood in the strengthening of family and community. Female-dominant religions' concerns focus on their role as mothers and domestic issues of children, health, and home, particularly with the explanation of illness and other forms of misfortunes and the provision of solutions for problems of the practical world. These female-dominant religions have a significant emphasis on illness in the process of selection and development of healers. Spirit possession characterizes the emotional ASC that typify female-dominant religions. The concept of possession is rooted in the belief that spirits can enter into the bodies of people and take over their personality and behavior. According t Sered, "possession trance is a pivotal component in the majority of women's religions" (p. 181).

These possession experiences are a consequence of how women's marginalized and subordinated position affects their material, emotional, and social relations in ways that facilitate dissociative altered states of consciousness. Possession allows for the adoption of the persona of dominant males exhibited by their possessing spirits. The frequent belief that possession involves a sexual relationship with spirits is reinforced by erotic gestures and other sexual elements frequently noted in ecstatic possession trances. Sered further notes a central feature of women's religions that involves spirit possession of predominantly female audiences, as well as the professional mediums who become possessed in order to heal the afflicted. These possession states are induced through a variety of techniques, including singing, chanting, drumming, dancing, and sometimes the use of alcohol or other drugs. In a height of frenzy the spirit mounts or enters the woman, whose body then becomes the medium through which the possessing spirit communicates with the community. These possession relationships are central to the religious experience in women's religions although not in the ecstatic soul flight of shamans.

Priestesses as Mediums

The term priestess has been applied to female religious practitioners without regard to whether they engage in typical activities of priests. The term has been generally applied to what Winkelman (1992) has characterized as mediums, another type of religious practitioner identified cross-culturally. Mediums are found in societies with complex political hierarchies. Their characteristic possession experiences reflect an adaptation to the shamanistic potentials associated with ASC under the powerful influences imposed on individual psychology by the interpersonal and personal conditions derived from considerable social and economic stratification and oppression.

Like priests, mediums are generally believed to be moral people and protectors, acting against the influences of sorcerers, witches, and evil spirits. Also like priests they engage in worship and propitiation of spirits. But unlike priests mediums are typically women and of lower social and economic status, being subordinate to the power of the priests, the dominant religious practitioners in their societies. Mediums may nonetheless have a relatively greater prestige than others in the society as well as some informal social power. This social power is reflected in their ability to designate sorcerers and witches as the cause of their patients' illness and in their relationships to powerful spiritual entities manifest in their possession.

The medium's possession states of consciousness generally begin as spontaneous seizures that occur in late adolescence or early adulthood, experiences outside of their personal control that are seen as constituting a call to the profession. These possession episodes are interpreted as the personality and will of the individual being taken over by a spirit entity. The training and religious rituals of mediums involve a deliberate induction of spirit possession that often manifests powerful male deities that enable mediums to exert important social influences. The belief that the spirits control the medium's body and communicate through the medium makes their proclamations divine demands that others are obliged to follow.

This is exemplified in the functions of the priestesses in the Near East discussed by Savina Teubal (1984) in Sarah the Priestess: The First Matriarchs of Genesis. The priestess was supposed to supply information about current or future events, to act as oracular prophets of the deities, and to provide military and political advice to rulers. The priestess was an inspired figure, giving utterance to divine revelations that were the will of the deity, not her own.

The psychodynamics of possession ASC have been interpreted as providing mechanisms for control of the person's emotions and attachments through the concept of outside possessing forces that act on the patient's body and consciousness. Possessing spirits provide opportunities to engage in alternate selves that express socially prohibited roles and emotions and a displacement of responsibility for feelings and behaviors from the patient to the possessing spirit entities. By considering the possessing spirits responsible for emotional expressions and behaviors, possession allows for indirect influences on others' behavior and perceptions.


The societies in which mediums are found as exemplifications of female-dominant religions have male priests as representatives of the more powerful religious institutions dominating the politics and economy of society. This copresence of mediums with priests reflects female and male specializations in religiosity. Male priests lead rituals that are related to the broader sociopolitical needs of society, whereas women address the domestic dynamics of the health and well-being of the family and intimate community.

Men and women in most cultures have access to some form of religious position with leadership roles. These commonly accessed statuses and roles involve using the shamanistic therapeutic potentials involving collective rituals with altered states of consciousness. Although men predominate in many of these shamanistic religious traditions, female-dominant religions are found cross-culturally in stratified societies in forms of shamanistic healing known as mediums and possession trance. These women, often called priestesses, are the dominant participants and leaders in rituals focused on the well-being and health of family and community. Men are virtually exclusive occupants of the position of priests, the most important societal religious activities. These traditional restrictions on female access to the powerful positions of priests persist throughout the modern world but are increasingly challenged. Even in the early twenty-first century, the Roman Catholic clergy remains exclusively male; so, too, in Zoroastrianism where the magi are all men who inherited their positions. The situation in Orthodox Judaism is similar. Only by the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Protestant denominations are female ministers or pastors gradually becoming part of the church hierarchy. In Conservative (1984) and Reform (1972) Judaism, women have been accepted in rabbinical roles by certain congregations. Although women serving as priests remains a highly controversial concept, their acceptance reflects broader societal trends of increasing gender equality in professional spheres.

see also Baha'i Faith; Buddhism; Celibacy; Christianity, Early and Medieval; Christianity, Reformation to Modern; Confucianism; Daoism (Taoism); Egypt, Pharaonic; Gnosticism; Goddess Worship; Hinduism; Islam; Jainism; Judaism; Menstruation; Mysticism; Protestantism; Shamanism; Shintoism; Sikhism; Yoga; Zoroastrianism.


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                                      Michael Winkelman

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