Monday, August 6, 2007

The Origins of the Priesthood

Alice C. Linsley
Chrismation in the Orthdox Church

The priesthood is verifiably the oldest known religious institution and appears to have originated in the Upper Nille region. Despite what feminists, theological revisionists and politically-correct academics might say, the priest was from the beginning and has continued to be exclusively the work of men, and not all men.  In the most ancient times the office was unique to the priestly castes which in Genesis are represented by the priestly lines descending from Kain and Seth and Ham and Shem.

Before turning to the pertinent texts in Genesis, it would be helpful to briefly explore gender roles in primitive societies. We must also examine another principle of cultural anthropology that can help us to understand the primeval origins of the priesthood.

Statuses and Roles in Primitive Societies

In primitive societies (where we find the origins of today’s primary religious systems) division of labor along gender lines is very evident. The more important the task to the community’s welfare, the more status is ascribed to the task. 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 dichotomy because men may participate in the harvest and women may participate in the hunt when portioning out the butchered game and preparing it to be eaten.

Tasks of lesser importance to the survival of the community are not fixed as to gender. Basket weaving, an important aspect of many primitive societies, is not essential for survival. Among the Hopi basket weaving is a female task whereas among the Navaho, it is a male task. (Grunlan and Myers, Cultural Anthropology, Zondervan, 1979, p. 137)

Status assigned to a task depends on whether males or females do the work. Higher status is ascribed to males. This does not mean that males achieve higher status. 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.

For Christians this relates to the blessed Theotokos, to whom God ascribes the status of Queen among saints, an unachieved glory. In Mary we find realization of these words of the Magnificat: “He has exalted the low and brought low the mighty.” In Mary, God fulfilled the first promise of the Bible, the Edenic Promise of Genesis 3:15.

In exploration of the primeval origins of the priesthood the difference between ascribed and achieved statuses is important. Ascribed status is assigned by society whereas achieved status involves the individual’s accomplishments. Status may be ascribed on the basis of birth order, hereditary office, age, special circumstances surrounding one’s birth, unusual physical appearance or body marks, and social class or caste.

While roles and statuses are different there exists between them a reciprocity that suggests the existence of sacred laws or rules. No strict separation or dichotomy exists since roles are always complementary and rules exist so that some plants require being killed by both males and females and some animals require protection and nurture by both males and females.

An Important Principle of Cultural Anthropology

Primitive societies are characterized by division of labor. Universally hunting is a male task whereas cultivation of plots near residences is a female task. Both hunting and cultivation require physical strength, but the spiritual danger associated with bloodletting requires that hunting be undertaken by the physically stronger. Among every primitive society that has been studied anthropologists have noted the belief that here is power in the blood and this power is spiritual and potentially dangerous. Those who carry the young and tend the home fires are not to be exposed to the blood shed in war and hunting. The division of labor applies to the sacrifice of animals.

This brings us to an important anthropological principle that states: “The older the trait, the wider the distribution.” Since this anxiety about the shedding of blood is universal, we conclude that it is also very old. It is in fact primeval, and from the first day that man shed blood, the priesthood has existed to address this anxiety.

When archaic man took life in the hunt, the spiritual leader of the community offered prayers for the sacrifice of the animal. The ritual act of sacrifice and prayer is apparent from the beginning. The sacrifice gave the community life and the prayer protected it from bloodguilt. The prayers and the sacrifice of the hunt were performed according to sacred law. The spiritual leader symbolizes prayer, sacrifice and law. This observed and well documented reality stands behind the Church’s tradition of a male priesthood.

This anthropological information helps us to understand the primeval origins of the priesthood as it is developed in Genesis.

Related reading:  What is a Priest?Who Were the Horites?; Why Women Were Never Priests; The Origins of Animal Sacrifice


TLF+ said...

Here in South Dakota the traditional religion of the D/N/Lakota assumes that women are connected to the divine through their capacity as life givers. Ceremonies are optional for women but mandatory for men.

The "White Buffalo Calf Woman" delivered the pipe and the sacred ceremonies, according to the sacred stories.

Women exercise a strong leadership role in the community. They are primary teachers of lore and right behavior. Even today, women make crucial decisions (for example, a hospital staff will normally ask a spouse or parents about a "do not resuscitate" decision - and things get uncomfortable because the people being asked really need to consult with various aunts and grandmothers to make the decision in a traditional way).

Men, however, are traditional protectors of the community. This is true in terms of warfare, provision via hunting, and spirituality, via vision and "medicine."

The most overtly "male" of all the ceremonies is the Sun Dance, a ritual in which the male participants undergo great deprivation and pain, offering their sacrifices for the good of the people. It is one of the best interpretive tools when attempting to explain the crucifixion (although it is easy to see its limitations, since the Sun Dance involves a sacrifice offered over and over again).

Anyway, I am an ignorant person learning this as I go. I don't have any sweeping interpretation to offer, except to note that males are charged with spiritual protection of the people, not because they are superior, but because that is their assigned role. And while the feminine is pronounced in the tribal spirituality and culture, their cosmology still invokes the "Sky Father".

Alice C. Linsley said...

Women are life-givers and men are life-takers. Both involve blood, a powerful thing. This is part of a larger binary structure to the Dakota/Lakota cosmology. It is seen also in the fact that there are separate sweat lodges for males and females.

In another binary complement, we find the calumet/pipe is the female counter to the medicine bundle which is made of hide. Among the Pueblo the hide medicine bundle is kept with ears of Indian corn. The corn symbolizes the female.

Ruth Benedict wrote an interesting book: Patterns of Culture, in which she observes that tribal peoples have their own way of speaking of the end of life. Anything that resembles the Anglo idea of suicide is regarded as beyond imagination. Likewise artificial extension of life is problematic. So for these people the "do not resuscitate" decision is indeed uncomfortable.

I appreciate your comments, Father. Your knowledge of the Dakota/Lakota seems pretty extensive to me! I am especially impressed by your observation that "males are charged with spiritual protection of the people, not because they are superior, but because that is their assigned role."

Hopie said...

I am taking Cultural Anthropology in Seminary this semester, having taken it in at a foreign university fifty years ago. Your blog is helping to span the years with reminders of some of the discipline's "principles" and also some of it's spiritual applications. I will definitely refer to this blog throughout the semester. Thank you...

Chip Johnson+, SF, CoJ said...


This is, so far, very informative series on cultural anthropology and I am looking forward to more expositions.

And Fr. Fountain is 'dead on' with the dichotomy in L/Dakota spirituality. We have a Lakota pipe-bearer in our mission, who is very active with his tiospiye (extended family, community group)on the Rosebud and Pine Ridge Reservations. Even though he is the youngest of his siblings, and was away for over 20 years on active duty with the USAF, he returned to South Dakota to fill his 'place', and we have been privileged to assist him with some of his efforts for that extended family over the four years we have known them.

Uncle Les said...

I'm reading your blog, Alice. I appreciate the insights. Keep it up. I'll try and keep up with your erudite writings.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Les, I'm glad your reading the blog. It is good to hear fromyou. I hope things are going well for you and your family Down Under.