Priests - What an Anthropologist Means When She Calls Someone a Priest

What Do Anthropologists and Archaeologists Mean by the Term "Priest"?

Incense and Candles at Yingiang Temple, China
Incense and Candles at Yingiang Temple, China. Xiao Lu Chu / Getty Images News / Getty Images

The English word "priest" is defined in several ways in various dictionaries. The Oxford English Dictionary, my go-to choice for understanding words in the language, includes a handful: but the most salient is either an ordained minister in a specific church, or as a person who performs religious ceremonies in a non-Christian religion.

To archaeologists and anthropologists, however, a "priest" has a more specific meaning, especially in comparison to the terms "shaman" and "magician".

All of these terms are used by social scientists to refer to individuals who make contact with the non-secular world. Furthermore, all of these roles are craft-specialist roles in a community; that is to say, not everyone in a community can commune with spirits, a priest or shaman or magician is a person with a special, separate and significant role. In anthropology, these terms typically are defined on the basis of how that contact is made and how the individual stands with respect to the deity and the people s/he serves.

Supernatural Priest-Like Behavior

A priest, in the anthropological sense, is a full-time religious specialist who acts as a representative or go-between for a society's deity or deities. Priests are generally associated with societies that have attained at least the complexity associated with the regular practice of farming.

Priests perform regular or cyclical rituals that ease the supernatural relationship between humans and god.

Those ceremonies communicate the requests of the people to their gods or goddesses and vice-versa. Unlike shamans, priests don't typically address issues between individuals and deities, but rather speak as a mediator between the entire society and the gods which rule the earth.

Priest Tools of the Trade

Priests commonly have a liturgy—a specific text or set of texts that they follow, which may include creation stories, rules of behavior and ritual calendars.

Priests produce or use statues or carvings of the deities; they have standardized ritual paraphenalia that is found within a broad region. Music and incense are tools facilitating that communication often associated with priests.

Priests use public spaces, like plazas or churches which the community constructs and participates in regular rituals.

But Let's Get Real

However, we have to be realistic. The definitions of priest and shaman and magician are simply tools themselves, at least partly arbitrary categories used by anthropologists to put a name on something that is eccentric to each social group. Priests are at one end of a defined spectrum of religious specialists; shamans are at the other. Societies create the religious specialists they use, and they don't use anthropological rules to tell them how to do it.


Compare: Shaman

This article is a part of the guide to the Temples and Shrines, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Kokan S. 1990. Priest, Shaman, King. Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 17(2/3):105-128.

Liberty M. 1970. Priest and Shaman on the Plains: A False Dichotomy? Plains Anthropologist 15(48):73-79.

VanPool CS. 2003. The Shaman-Priests of the Casas Grandes Region, Chihuahua, Mexico.

American Antiquity 68(4):696-717.

VanPool CS. 2009. The signs of the sacred: Identifying shamans using archaeological evidence. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 28(2):177-190.

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Hirst, K. Kris. "Priests - What an Anthropologist Means When She Calls Someone a Priest." ThoughtCo, Nov. 8, 2015, Hirst, K. Kris. (2015, November 8). Priests - What an Anthropologist Means When She Calls Someone a Priest. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "Priests - What an Anthropologist Means When She Calls Someone a Priest." ThoughtCo. (accessed December 16, 2017).