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10.5: Religious Specialists

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    Since rituals can be extremely complicated and the outcome is of vital importance to the community, specialist practitioners are often charged with responsibility for supervising the details. In many settings, religious specialists have a high social status and are treated with great respect. Some may become relatively wealthy by charging for their services while others may be impoverished, sometimes deliberately as a rejection of the material world. There is no universal terminology for religious practitioners, but there are three important categories: priests, prophets, and shamans.

    Priests, who may be of any gender, are full-time religious practitioners. The position of priest emerges only in societies with substantial occupational specialization. Priests are the intermediaries between God (or the gods) and humans. Religious traditions vary in terms of the qualifications required for individuals entering the priesthood. In Christian traditions, it is common for priests to complete a program of formal higher education. Hindu priests, known as pujari, must learn the sacred language Sanskrit and spend many years becoming proficient in Hindu ceremonies. They must also follow strict lifestyle restrictions such as a vegetarian diet. Traditionally, only men from the Brahmin caste were eligible to become pujari, but this is changing. Today, people from other castes, as well as women, are joining the priesthood. One notable feature of societies that utilize full-time spiritual practitioners is a separation between ordinary believers and the God or gods. As intermediaries, priests have substantial authority to set the rules associated with worship practice and to control access to religious rites.[45]

    Definition: priests

    Full-time religious practitioners

    The term shaman has been used for hundreds of years to refer to a part-time religious practitioner. Shamans carry out religious rituals when needed, but also participate in the normal work of the community. A shaman’s religious practice depends on an ability to engage in direct communication with the spirits, gods, or supernatural realm. An important quality of a shaman is the ability to transcend normal reality in order to communicate with and perhaps even manipulate supernatural forces in an alternate world. This ability can be inherited or learned.[46] Transcending from the ordinary to the spiritual realm gives shamans the ability to do many things such as locate lost people or animals or heal the sick by identifying the spiritual cause of illness.

    Definition: shaman

    A part-time religious practitioner who carries out religious rituals when needed, but also participates in the normal work of the community.

    Among the Chukchi, who live in northern Russia, the role of the shaman is thought to be a special calling, one that may be especially appropriate for people whose personality traits seem abnormal in the context of the community. Young people who suffer from nervousness, anxiety, or moodiness, for example may feel a call to take up shamanistic practice.[47] There has been some research suggesting that shamanism may be a culturally accepted way to deal with conditions like schizophrenia.[48] If true, this might be because achieving an altered state of consciousness is essential for shamanic work. Entering an altered state, which can be achieved through dreams, hallucinogenic drugs, rhythmic music, exhaustion through dance, or other means, makes it possible for shamans to directly engage with the supernatural realm.

    Shamans of the upper Amazon in South America have been using ayahuasca, a drink made from plants that have hallucinogenic effects, for centuries. The effects of ayahuasca start with the nervous system:

    One under the control of the narcotic sees unroll before him quite a spectacle: most lovely landscapes, monstrous animals, vipers which approach and wind down his body or are entwined like rolls of thick cable, at a few centimeters distance; as well, one sees who are true friends and those who betray him or who have done him ill; he observes the cause of the illness which he sustains, at the same time being presented with the most advantageous remedy; he takes part in fantastic hunts; the things which he most dearly loves or abhors acquire in these moments extraordinary vividness and color, and the scenes in which his life normally develop adopt the most beautiful and emotional expression.[49]

    Among the Shipibo people of Peru, ayahuasca is thought to be the substance that allows the soul of a shaman to leave his body in order to retrieve a soul that has been lost or stolen. In many cultures, soul loss is the predominant explanation for illness. The Shipibo believe that the soul is a separate entity from the body, one that is capable of leaving and returning at will. Shamans can also steal souls. The community shaman, under the influence of ayahuasca, is able to find and retrieve a soul, perhaps even killing the enemy as revenge.[50]

    Anthropologist Scott Hutson (2000) has described similarities between the altered state of consciousness achieved by shamans and the mental states induced during a rave, a large dance party characterized by loud music with repetitive patterns. In a rave, bright lights, exhausting dance, and sometimes the use of hallucinogenic drugs, induce similar psychological effects to shamanic trancing. Hutson argues that through the rave individuals are able to enter altered states of consciousness characterized by a “self-forgetfulness” and an ability to transcend the ordinary self. The DJ at these events is often called a “techno-shaman,” an interesting allusion to the guiding role traditional shamans play in their cultures.[51]

    A prophet is a person who claims to have direct communication with the supernatural realm and who can communicate divine messages to others. Many religious communities originated with prophecies, including Islam which is based on teachings revealed to the prophet Muhammad by God. In Christianity and Judaism, Moses is an example of a prophet who received direct revelations from God. Another example of a historically significant prophet is Joseph Smith who founded the Church of Latter Day Saints, after receiving a prophecy from an angel named Moroni who guided him to the location of a buried set of golden plates. The information from the golden plates became the basis for the Book of Mormon.

    Definition: prophet

    A person who claims to have direct communication with the supernatural realm and who can communicate divine messages to others.

    The major distinction between a priest and the prophet is the source of their authority. A priest gets his or her authority from the scripture and occupational position in a formally organized religious institution. A prophet derives authority from his or her direct connection to the divine and ability to convince others of his or her legitimacy through charisma. The kind of insight and guidance prophets offer can be extremely compelling, particularly in times of social upheaval or suffering.

    One prophet who had enormous influence was David Koresh, the leader of the Branch Davidians, a schism of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. The Branch Davidians were millenarians, people who believe that major transformations of the world are imminent. David Koresh was extremely charismatic; he was handsome and an eloquent speaker. He offered refuge and solace to people in need and in the process he preached about the coming of an apocalypse, which he believed would be caused by the intrusion of the United States government on the Branch Davidian’s lifestyle. Koresh was so influential that when the United States government did eventually try to enter the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas in 1993 to search for illegal weapons, members of the group resisted and exchanged gunfire with federal agents. Eventually, under circumstances that are still disputed, a fire erupted in the compound and eighty-six people, including Koresh, were killed.[52] Ultimately, the U.S. government helped to fulfill the apocalyptic vision of the group and David Koresh became a martyr. The Branch Davidians evolved into a new group, “Branch, Lord our Righteousness,” and today many await Koresh’s return.[53]


    Religion is of central importance to the lives of people in the majority of the world’s cultures; more than eight-in-ten people worldwide identify with a religious group.[54] However, it is also true that the number of people who say that they have no religious affiliation is growing. There are now about as many people in the world who consider themselves religiously “unaffiliated” as there are Roman Catholics.[55] This is an important reminder that religions, like culture itself, are highly dynamic and subject to constant changes in interpretation and allegiance. Anthropology offers a unique perspective for the study of religious beliefs, the way people think about the supernatural, and how the values and behaviors these beliefs inspire contribute to the lives of individuals and communities. No single set of theories or vocabulary can completely capture the richness of the religious diversity that exists in the world today, but cultural anthropology provides a toolkit for understanding the emotional, social, and spiritual contributions that religion makes to the human experience.


    1. Victor W. Turner, “Religious Specialists,” International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 13(1972): 437-444.
    2. Piers Vitebsky, “Shamanism,” Indigenous Religions: A Companion, ed. Graham Harvey(New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2000).
    3. Waldemar G. Bogoras, The Chukchi of Northeastern Asia American Anthropologist 3 no. 1(1901):80-108.
    4. Rick Strassman, DMT: The Spirit Molecule (South Paris, ME: Park Street Press, 2000).
    5. Avencio Villarejo, Asi es la selva (Lima, Peru: Centro de Estudios Teologicos de la Amazonia, 1988).
    6. Robert L. Carneiro, “The Amahuaca and the Spirit World” Ethnology 3(1964): 6-11.
    7. Scott R. Hutson, “The Rave: Spiritual Healing in Modern Western Subcultures,” Anthropological Quarterly 73(2000): 35-49.
    8. Kenneth G.C. Newport, The Branch Davidians of Waco: The History and Beliefs of an Apocalyptic Movement (London: Oxford University Press, 2006).
    9. John Burnett, “Two Decades Later: Some Branch Davidians Still Believe,” National Public Radio
    10. Pew Research Center, “The Global Religious Landscape,” December 18, 2012.
    11. Ibid.

    Adapted From

    "Religion" by Sashur Henninger-Rener, Pasadena City College. In Perspectives: An Open Invitation to Cultural Anthropology, 2nd Edition, Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges, 2020, under CC BY-NC 4.0.

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