Alice C. Linsley
Review of contemporary religious literature reveals that people often confuse the offices priest and shaman. This is evidenced by Christian priests calling themselves "shamans" and employing shamanic practices as if these were consistent with the Christian worldview. It is evidenced also in the World Religions textbook that I am required to use at the college where I teach. The author of that text fails to make a distinction between the two offices, a distinct that is significant for those who wish to understand world religions.
Both offices are extremely ancient, but emerge from different cultural contexts. The priesthood can be traced back to Abraham's Nilo-Saharan ancestors. They represent the oldest known order of priests and they spread their religious views and practices across the Afro-Asiatic world.
In this essay we will look at the etiologies of the offices of priest and shaman from an anthropological perspective.
Binary Distinctions Characterize Ancient Peoples
A prominent feature of primitive societies is division of labor along gender lines. This division represents a binary worldview where reality is ordered by binary distinctions such as sun-moon, male-female, hot-cold, raw-cooked. When we consider primitive societies we note almost universally that hunting, war and decisions about punishment were male responsibilities. Archaic man hunted, waged war and deliberated judicial questions in a council of elders. These actions were performed by men, and women were not present during the deliberations. The tribal council is the first know form of governement and it consisted of a ruler, elders and a holy man who was either a priest or a shaman. Historically, females never functioned as priests due to the contact with blood in animal sacrifice. Women have functioned as shamans.
Among the elders there was one who was regarded as having special spiritual gifts. He is referred to by various names, including “the holy man” or “the medicine man.” Depending on the cultural group, this man was either a shaman or as a priest. Shamanism is generally found in the more northern regions and especially among peoples in the Ural-Altaic language group. The priesthood is found in the more southern regions, especially among peoples of the Afro-Asiatic language family. Shamans and priests serve a similar function in their societies but represent different worldviews.
The Pattern of Shamanism
Underlying shamanism is the belief that there is a powerful spirit world that requires an intermediary to balance benevolent and malevolent energies. This is a dualistic and animistic worldview. When sickness, sudden death, or a great calamity such as flooding or plague affects a tribal group, the shaman’s job is to investigate and determine the cause and seek to restore the natural equilibrium. This is essentially a symmetrical binary view of the world. The male cannot survive without the female. The female cannot survive without the male. Male and female are complements and responsible for different realms; males for taking of life and females for giving and nurturing life. But what if a male has violated the code of men, or a female the code of women? This may be the cause of sickness in the community. The shaman must discover if the male principle has become dominant, thus throwing off the balance, or if the female principle has become dominant. The shaman gains this knowledge by putting himself in a trance through the use of drums, rituals and hallucinogens.
Once the shaman has determined the cause of the imbalance, he must find a way to restore the balance. This may mean offering something to the spirits, performing a ritual exactly as it was taught to him, or disciplining the individual who has caused offense and disturbed the balance. This is the work of the shaman, and it is different than the work of the priest.
The Pattern of Priesthood
Underlying the priesthood is the belief that there is a supreme benevolent Being in charge of all things and to whom humans must give an accounting, especially for the shedding of blood. In this view, the one Great Spirit, God, holds the world in balance. This is not an animistic and dualistic worldview. The priesthood is intrinsically linked to blood sacrifice for atonement and also is the functionary who addresses the guilt and dread that accompany the shedding of blood.
There are two types of blood anxiety: blood shed by killing and blood related to menstruation and birthing. To archaic peoples both types were regarded as powerful and potentially dangerous, requiring priestly ministry to deal with bloodguilt through animal sacrifice and/or to deal with blood contamination through purification rites. This is why we find a linguistic connection between the Hebrew root ‘thr’ = to be pure, the Hausa/Hahm ‘toro’ = clean, and the Tamil ‘tiru’ = holy. All are related to the proto-Dravidian ‘tor’ = blood. And those who did this work were called 'sarki', an ancient word for priest. Sarki also refers to red ochre powder, a symbol of blood, used in the burial of rulers between 80,000 and 20,000 years ago.
Blood represents both life and pollution. Because of this, it is the custom among many peoples that women about to give birth are isolated from the rest of the community, often remaining in a birthing hut until they are restored to the community. The period of isolation depends on the gender of the child, the condition of the mother and the preparations for the mother and child to be re-introduced to the community. This practice is observed in many cultures, especially among the Afro-Asiatics. The "churching of women" after childbirth is a vestige of this practice and reflects this worldview.
Sacred law prohibited the blood shed in taking life (male) and the blood shed in giving life (female) to share the same space. God doesn't want confusion about the distinctions of life and death. The same distinction of life-taking and life-giving is behind the prohibition against boiling the young goat in its mother’s milk (Exodus 23:19, Exodus 34:26 and Deut. 14:21, ).
From earliest times man observed that when an animal or human bled heavily, death resulted. Blood was recognized as the liquid of life. Among the Hebrews and other people of the ancient Near East there was a prohibition against eating flesh that still had blood in it. This taboo is widely found. All hunters drain the blood from the animal before butchering it for consumption. When archaic man took life, the priest offered prayers with animal sacrifice, which sacrifice preserved the life of the guilty and protected the community. Prayers and sacrifices were performed according to sacred law, which appears to have been established as early as 12,000 years ago. So the priest symbolizes prayer, sacrifice and law. The spread of the Afro-Asiatic worldview is largely due to the ruler-priests who controlled the ancient water systems and who intermarried within their priestly lines according to a specific kinship pattern. This observed and well documented reality stands behind the tradition of male spiritual leaders in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
In the West the male priesthood has come under attack from feminists, theological revisionists and academics. In this debate little attention has been given to the distinctive pattern of the priesthood. Instead the focus has been on interpretations of gender that are informed by the language of civil rights, employment law and status. It is helpful, therefore, to clarify the difference between and reciprocal nature of “ascribed status” and “achieved status”.
Ascribed Status Versus Achieved Status
Status assigned to a task depends on whether males or females do the work. Higher status is ascribed to males. The status associated with the hunt is ascribed, not achieved. However, if a man distinguishes himself as a great hunter, he has both ascribed and achieved status. Likewise, lower status is ascribed to agriculture and gathering, but that does not mean that every female is without achieved status. Higher status is ascribed to males, but there exists a reciprocal dynamic between male and female roles. Both hunting and agriculture are regarded as essential to the survival for the community, but hunting is the labor of men and agriculture is the labor of women. Even here we see that the lines of division do not represent a strict dichotomy because men participate in the harvest and women participate in the hunt when portioning out the butchered game and preparing it to be eaten.
Ascribed status and achieved status are separate but related. While status of the labor depends on whether it is done by males or females, an individual male often does not achieve as high a status as a female. Likewise, lower status is ascribed to females but that does not mean that every female is without achieved status. The status of the Delphic Oracle (often referred to as a "priestess") was ascribed as she was always chosen by a male priest of the oracle. Some of the Sybils were so charismatic that they achieved status beyond what was ascribed to their function.
In ancient Israel women never served as priests but some achieved such great spiritual status that they were consulted by rulers and priests. Huldah is an example.
Related reading: Women Rulers in Ancient Israel; Shamanic Practice and the Priesthood; The Horite Ancestry of Jesus Christ; Why Women Were Never Priests