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Monday, September 27, 2010

Monday Ground Up: Characteristics Distinguishing Priests, Prophets, Shamans, and Mediums

The symbolism and structure of ritual can be a confusing subject for anyone. As a culture, if we subscribe to a particular religion, it's often hard to put our ethnocentric views in our pocket and appreciate religion for what it is. What is religion you ask?

According to the Dictionary,

"Religion is a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs."

Is this accurate? Would you agree with this statement?

My goal with these questions is to access how you view the world of religion and the religious specialists guiding you through your religious path. If you have one that is. My views are based upon a recent article by Victor Turner, noted for his contributions to the study of symbolism and the structure of rituals.

Turner refers to the most commonly used terns for religious specialists, although in the case of the word "shaman", anthropologists disagree about the use of this word in different contexts.

What Are The Distinguishing Characteristics of Priests, Prophets, Shamans, and Mediums


The priest’s calling is by sacred tradition, ordained by God, and highly structured. Using published literary texts to administer sacred rites and the word, once established by their own predecessors. The enterprise of a religion governed by a priest is permanent and influences the gods, where as a prophet is distinguished by a personal calling or a message from their god. A priest is an institutional messenger, whereas his words may not be, in fact, to inspire, rather to teach or manipulate symbolic objects in view of his congregation.


A Prophet is concerned, not so much with appeasing the gods, but with the individual (person to person). The prophet’s calling is derived from revelation and personal “charisma”.  A prophet then delivers himself as a charismatic vessel (seeking to inspire), rather than a representative (priest) of the sacred tradition (a manipulator of symbolic objects). Weber explains prophets are often rational and use a “systematic and distinctively religious ethics based upon a constant and stable doctrine which purports to be a revelation”.


A shaman connects with the spiritual world on a face to face to basis. Shamans can alleviate traumas affecting the soul or perform curing rites for a family or individual depending on the illness. Shamanism is regarded as a type of spirit medium who can exert power or control over spirits. He can become possessed or controlled by a spirit and communicate the word of those spirits to the human world.


Shaman and Mediums are one in the same, although a spirit medium does not exert control or power over spirits, rather they are the “vessel of the transhuman identity”.  Communication is via person to person. A priest can communicate with transhuman entities (similar to a medium), although he uses objects and materials to convey this message.

What is the relationship between the scale of society & the type of religious specialist likely to be found?

Turner's methodology seeks to understand religious beliefs which seems to correspond with the nature of reality itself. Therefore the small scale community almost always represents a breaking in social norms and institutionalized religious rituals.

In this regard:

The shaman is often found in small scale multifunctional societies of food gathers (foragers), who are flexible and mobile. There’s a belief in a multitude of gods, deities, nature spirits, or ancestral shades, making a shaman a perfectly suited vessel for societies with low moral density and segmental organization. Whereas the shaman is found in small scale, loosely structured, societies, the prophet is found in diminishing large-scale societies, incapable of cross cultural relationships with small scale communities. This does, once again, represent a person who resides in a large scale society who breaks from the accepted institution to represent the small scale society. In that aspect, inspirational functionaries can reside in large scale societies.

In simple societies, there’s a tendency towards a specialization is herbal remedies, trance like states, communication with spirits, and bleeding. Therefore, many women and elders are responsible for their own religious capacity. This means, of course, we can see shamans and spirit mediums present in socially fragmented and unsophisticated societies. This can be seen in Michael Gelfand’s research with the Shona nganga, translated as “medicine man” or “witch doctor”, who is an herbalist, diviner, and medium. This exemplifies the sociocultural situation of similar practitioners in very many preliterate societies.

Priests can be found in complex and literate societies, which have the resources to support a non-working class. Not everyone has to devote themselves to getting or producing food. (Mod 2.3) In this particular setting, the individuals have the right to opt out of an affiliation with the organized religious sector. The structure is highly impersonal and includes several religious specialists, perfect example being the Catholic Church.

Consequently, this is not to say Priests cannot be found in medium scale societies who often recruit mediums, or rather they control the medium’s experience of possessions. This can be found in several West African cults. Of course you have to consider, if there are national gods, then there will be national priests, found in temples or shrines.

Final Thoughts

Religion can be viewed in different historical and social contexts, leading us to question the roles of religious specialists over the centuries. Do they have a defined status? Do they hold power, whether supernatural or personal? All these questions are interpretive, so what's your opinion?

Related Articles

In a recent Religion class, I was asked to take a quiz on the site Belief.net. The idea was to compare and contrast one of the top five and one of the bottom five religions assigned to me by the quiz. To be quite honest, I was a bit surprised at the results. I wasn’t expecting my religious beliefs to be packaged up in one perfect little box, however this site claims to do it with only 20 questions.

Belief.net Religion Quiz 

The Cro Magnon people left no written records about themselves, however they replaced the Neanderthals over 30,000 years ago. So what do we know about this prehistoric forerunner to the Homo sapiens?

The Cro Magnon Religion

In the late 14th century and after the death of Pope Gregory XI, the college of cardinals met to elect a new pope. The citizens of Rome feared the return to a French Papacy if a Frenchman were elected. Not only that, the cardinals would open themselves up to attacks if they didn’t choose an Italian.

Causes of the Great Schism


"Victor Turner." MNSU. MNSU, n.d. Web. 11 Sep 2010. .

Moro, Pamela, and James Myers. Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion. 8th ed. New York, NY: McGraw Hill, 2010. 142-148. Print.

Priest Picture
Prophet Picture
Medium Picture

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