Priesthood in Paganism

The idea of priesthood come up a lot in various pagan fora, message boards, and blogs. In my experience, many disdain the notions of priesthood, especially if they aren’t the priest. Of course, this isn’t a new issue. Egoism has plagued paganism since it first started waking up and the (damned, dirty, no-good, smelly hippie) counter-culture movement picked it up in the late fifties and early sixties. It goes back farther than even the hippies, however. In his Letter to a Priest, the Emperor Julian the Faithful lamented the decline of paganism as partially the fault of the priests, who were seen as living lavish, corrupt lifestyles. In fact, it is partially the mistrust and indignation at a corrupt priesthood held by a young Jewish scholar that gave us Christianity (remember the parable of Jesus and the money-changers?).

The problem, of course, is not priests at all. It’s our concept of priesthood. It has warped over time into something sad and malignant. It doesn’t start that way, however, at least not historically. Where now we generally see priests as people who minister to people, it didn’t start out that way, and I believe was never intended to end up that way. While I firmly disagree with modern pagans that attest “priests aren’t intermediaries”, I believe that we’ve simply lost sight of which direction that intermission flows. Priests aren’t supposed to represent gods; they’re here to represent people.

Now, I can already see a lot of people’s panties slowly twisting into uncomfortable knots. Relax, and listen. Do you need someone to pray on your behalf? Can you have your own relationship with the gods without anyone else’s input? The answer to both is “yes”. Of course you don’t need anyone to come before an altar and make an offering. You’re a big kid, you can do that all on your own. That’s not what priests do. And if that isn’t what they do, what do they do?

Lemme ask you a personal question. Are you a polytheist? Most people reading this will answer in the affirmative. Now let me ask you this: have you looked at a liturgical (religious) calendar lately? Just jumping over to Hellenion’s calendar, you will see there are four festivals this month (five if you count the Areia). Do you celebrate all the festivals? Would you know what to do if you did? Do you know what is appropriate and inappropriate to offer a god at any given time (because this can change from place to place and time to time). Do you worship every single god known to you? If you answered “no” to any of these questions, then congratulations,  you’re like the rest of us. That’s why, in society, we have these people called priests to make sure these events do occur, and that this knowledge is saved and passed down to others.

See, the ancients didn’t have the time, resources, or will to learn every sacrifice, every hymn, every ritual for every god. Potters needed to make pots. Soldiers needed to protect the homeland and go to war. Farmers needed to farm, or there wouldn’t be -any- sacrifices to give. So, they put their trust into a person who would remember the sacrifices, hymns, and rituals for them, with the expectation they’d get these things done even if they weren’t there. This was important, because even though not everyone might be able to participate in a festival, the festivals still needed to be performed, and they needed to be performed correctly. Doing so was considered vital to the healthy growth and continuation of the community, as many inscriptions thanking priests bear out.

So what does this mean to us now? Well, as our communities mature and grow, we will finally be able to refill those much-needed roles in our communities. However, not just anyone should (or to be more correct, can) be a priest. Sure, some ancient cities held lotteries or allowed individuals to buy the priesthood, or passed down the duty through a family line (which was very common in Ares’ priesthood in Attica). However, I think the best method here will always be election. I’m not one for democracy, but when someone goes before a god on my behalf, I want he or she to know their stuff. Joe Hellene might be a good guy, but I’d rather ask someone with experience I can trust, and who holds the trust of the community. Becoming a priest is a lot like becoming a military officer: you study your butt off at college, and if you make the cut, the government (i.e. the community) invites you to represent their interests and invests you with their trust with the expectation you will both get results and do so in an efficient, ethical manner.

Will this always work? No. We’re human, and no human thing lasts forever, and nor does it always work from the outset. Sometimes, you get burned, and then have to take the medicine (Benedictus is finding this one out right now). If a thing can fail, does this mean we should abandon it? No. Have courage, and have faith. If you should ever gain the esteem of the community and be called to perform such a task, good luck. Don’t f**k up. The gods are always watching, and so is everyone else. Hail Ares.

11 comments on “Priesthood in Paganism

  1. Reblogged this on A Heathen's Path and commented:
    I like where this train of thought leads. Something we Pagans and Heathens should consider as we push towards building more and more communities and reaching out to the public.

  2. As our numbers continue to grow and especially where that growth is from within the community instead of refugees from the monotheistic faiths, a priesthood of some description is inevitable. The primary obstacles now are ones of proximity and resistance from within.

    • pthelms says:

      You sort of mentioned a topic that gets my goat in a round-about way: the notion of primary community growth. We need more breeders in the polytheist community, and those that are willing to actually raise their children within their religion. There are many vocal members of the greater community that decry bringing up a child in any set way, and I feel that is extremely harmful to both the child and the community. Of course, that’s another post for another day, but I’m glad you mentioned it.

  3. Tess Dawson says:

    Yes-yes-and-yes. However, I would say that the matter of “election,” is often informal, and I don’t think it should be formalized: priesthood shouldn’t be boiled down to a popularity contest. I would hate to see community politics getting in the way of true service to the deities. I will say, though, community often finds and supports those who have knowledge in these matters. And often, the deities have a way of choosing a person.
    Just a few words from your friendly local Canaanite…

    • pthelms says:

      Yes, I agree about the informality thing. However, at least in ancient Greece (and to a much greater extent, Rome), politics and religion were inseparable, because they cannot be logically separated. But yes, I agree that it would be best to at least attempt avoiding such politicking. Hopefully, as the groups grow, politics won’t matter because there will be enough priests to go around, so to speak.

      Also, I do agree that an individual needs that calling to accept a priesthood. The community can pick someone who might be good at the job, but doesn’t really have their heart in it (think Jimmy Carter). If that specific harmony isn’t met, the whole thing can go to hell in a hand basket post haste…

      • Tess Dawson says:

        Indeed in the Canaanite languages, there is no separate word for religion. Religion was an integral and integrated part of life. Texts from the city of Ugarit, circa 1200 BCE, demonstrate that religion and the government there were intertwined. So I certainly agree with you there and I believe that this is something Greek religion and Canaanite religion have in common. But I do have horrific visions of modern priestly elections degenerating–perhaps I should chock that up to it being an election year in the U.S. I’ve just simply noticed that sometimes the better qualified and more knowledgeable person, even though well liked, may not be the most popular, the best well known, or have the best connection to the deity or deities. There’s no easy answer, but I think it is a worthy and useful conversation and I thank you for beginning it.

  4. One of the best pieces I’ve seen written yet on this controversial topic.

  5. pthelms says:

    With the buzz this post generated, I’m considering using it as the topic for the first ever AoA hangout on Google +. If anyone is amicable to the idea, let me know and we can hammer out a time and date.

  6. […] Helms has some important thoughts on priesthood in paganism: Lemme ask you a personal question. Are you a polytheist? Most people reading this will answer in […]

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