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The Role Of Priests

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1.0 Introduction

According to the 1911 Britannica article on the priesthood and to the Wikipedia article on the “Priest,” a priest could be defined as someone who holds the power or who was given mandate to render and conduct religious rites. It is usually the case that these religious rites involve offering sacrifices and reparation to the gods (2007).

Priests have had considerable reputation among the most basic of communities throughout human history, particularly as oracles or shamans. They have existed and performed significant roles in various religions, respected by the majority of their populace due to their intimate connection with the gods of their religion. Usually, they perform roles such as interpreter of events and natural phenomena, leader of religious rituals, and spiritual adviser to believers (“Priest,” 2007).

In most religions, priesthood is permanent and priests do not have careers other than performing the roles of a priest. In other religions, priesthood is auxiliary and does not entail any special education or ordination. In other being a priest could be through family inheritance (“Priest,” 2007).

Of particular concern and importance to the history of world religions is that of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, to whom, it could be considered, the world civilization and culture owes much. Thus, it is also of particular interest and significance to delve on the role of priests and holy men in Ancient Greek and Roman religions.

2.0 Priests in the Ancient Greek Religion

Before the roles of the priests and holy men in Ancient Greek religion could be discussed, the details of the religion itself should first be established so as to provide a background upon which the priests could be perceived to perform their roles.

2.1 Ancient Greek Religion

In The Greeks and the Irrational, written by E.R. Dodds, it was discussed in a scholarly fashion the belief that early Greek religion either branched out from, or has been significantly under the influence of, shamanistic practices from the Central Asian steppe (“Ancient Greek Religion,” 2007).

Scholars contend that the Ancient Greek religion could in fact be misleading to be termed as a “religion.” Primarily, the Greeks did not have a concept of a dimension of existence that is distinctive from the rest. The basic tenet of their beliefs was that the gods had power over the fate of men. Thus, recognizing the gods was a requisite for salvation (“Ancient Greek Religion,” 2007).

Further, there did not exist a universally accepted and practiced manner in treating the deities. The belief did not have a solid core. Every city administered its own temples and sacrifices. However, the wealthy were the ones who sponsored the “leitourgeiai,” which literally means, “works for the people.” Included in this were the festivals, dramas, processions, choruses, and games held in reverence of the gods.

The “Phratries,” who were members of a dominant ancestral group, managed the practices that involved the whole group. However, it was the fathers that must take responsibility for the sacrifices which ought to be done in their own households. Women, on the other hand, commonly had autonomous religious rites (“Ancient Greek Religion,” 2007).

The individual citizens Ancient Greece had a great deal of liberty in dealing with the gods. For instance, in order to bestow a new title upon a god, or declare some particular site as sacred it only calls for some particularly striking experience on the part of any Greek citizen. The individual who does such a thing accrues no authority and anyone else accrues no obligation. The only thing that changes is the rise of a new opportunity or possibility to the already immense and poorly defined repertoire for nomizeining the gods (“Ancient Greek Religion,” 2007).

It is also notable that for the Ancient Greeks, the lines between divinity and humanity were ambiguous in some ways. The genealogies were complicated in that gods sired children upon human women whilst goddesses bore the children of human lovers. Moreover, people who had their place of glory in history were venerated by cults upon having died. Even during life, Olympics winners, and men of such feat, have been revered for having acquired extraordinary power (“Ancient Greek Religion,” 2007).

All in all, it could be deduced that in Ancient Greece, religion was merely the collection of local practices to honour the local gods. The primal role of religion was to authenticate the culture and identity of each society. They treated as history their religious myths, and regarded as certification to proclaim their divine right to the land they occupied and to validate their exalted position in the social order their embedded genealogies (“Ancient Greek Religion,” 2007).

Amidst this seeming disarray were the Ancient Greek priests in performance of their roles.

2.2 The Roles of Priests

Since the Greek religion did not have any central organization, numerous holy places existed. These holy places, or temples, usually have a priest or priests. However, most places did not have professional or full-time priests. This was because priests in Ancient Greece were at the same time local officials. Thus, their priesthoods were not full time jobs. As time went by, popular religious sites such as the oracles of pilgrimage attracted spiritual tourism immense enough to manifest the need for a full time clerical staff (“Ancient Greek Religion,” 2007).

Temple priests performed the role of interpreting the opinions and wishes of the gods. However, this role was rendered for those petitioners who have the money to compensate the services. This was for private sacrifice offered for personal intentions (The Academy of Evolutionary Metaphysics, 2005).

Much of the practical role of the priests in ancient Greek religion was to lead public worships that were aimed at pleasing the gods in order that they might send rain, victory in wars, bountiful harvest, and such public blessings. The priests hold the knowledge in highly formulaic and ritualized prayers, thus they are the ones authorized to perform such. The most dominant public act of worship at the time was sacrifice, which could be of grain or the sacrificial blood of animals, and in earlier periods, of humans (“Ancient Greek Religion,” 2007).

The Ancient Greeks made distinctions with their sacrifices, with regards to whom and to what end do they sacrifice for. Isocrates explains the distinction in simple terms:

Those of the gods who are the source to us of good things have the title of Olympians, those whose department is that of calamities and punishments have harsher titles; to the first class both private persons and states erect altars and temples; the second is not worshipped either with prayers or burnt-sacrifices, but in their case we perform ceremonies of riddance (Oration v.117, quoted in Harrison, Prolegomena p. 8)

What was termed as “ceremonies of riddance” were rituals to send away bad spirits, somewhat similar to exorcism. This was known to the Greeks as apopompai.

Moreover, sacrifices were done to serve several functions. These include: prelude to important undertakings, introduction of a new-born child to the phratry or district, and introduction of a young man who is about to enter into manhood to the political society.

The priests answer to these needs. Believers would also give votive gifts as offertory to the divinities for favors that were bestowed or in expectation of forthcoming blessings. They are also offered to propitiate the gods for crimes involving impiety, blood-guilt, or the transgression of religious practices. Either the priests facilitate the offertory of votive gifts are by voluntary request from a donor, or the priests demand that the donor honor some religious custom or fulfill a religious vow (“Ancient Greek Religion,” 2007).

Indeed, at the time, there was no powerful priesthood. Yet in recognition of the role of the Ancient religion in the provision of moral enlightenment for the society, the traditional political institution respected what it has to say. Thus, the role of the priests in Ancient Greek religion was not of political nature in itself as they did not have direct authority over politics as priests.

However, they seem to have indirect authority and role in the political activities of the community in the sense that they could influence the decision of political leaders towards what they deem the morally right decisions. Other priests who were part-time politicians had powers over politics, but in performance of their roles as politicians, not as priests (The Academy of Evolutionary Metaphysics, 2005).

One example of the influential role of holy men in Ancient Greece is exemplified at the time when speculations about the natural phenomena caused people to doubt the existence of the gods, and were thus considered subversion of religious morality. At the time, the influence of priests and conservatives resulted in the prosecution and eventual exile or execution of several early Greek thinkers on the charge of corrupting the public morals (The Academy of Evolutionary Metaphysics, 2005).

3.0 Priests in the Ancient Roman Religion

In the same way that the roles of the priests and holy men in Ancient Greek religion could be discussed effectively only upon the establishment of the details of the religion itself, this would be instituted for the Roman side of the discussion also.

3.1 Ancient Roman Religion

It is the usual case that the religion of societies coincides with whatever happens to the political and cultural aspects of that society. Thus, with the division of the Ancient Roman civilization between the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire timeframes, so does the discussion of their Ancient religion would be distinctly discussed.

3.1.1 Religion during the Roman Republic

The Ancient Roman Religion was a mixture of various cult practices and embraced numerous sets of beliefs. Originally, the belief of the Romans were of rural animistic tradition. They believed that several spirits held individual responsibilities for specific, limited aspects of the human activities and the cosmos, such as ploughing. The early Romans pertained to these gods as “numina.” This animistic belief also entailed the belief in the ancestor, or genius, exemplified by individual family’s practice of honouring their own dead by their own rites (“Ancient Roman religion,” 2007).

The development of the interaction between the Romans and the Greeks resulted in the escalating influence of the Ancient Greek religion over the original Ancient Roman religion. Thus, the original Roman gods were associated and even made in consonance with Greek gods. For instance, the Roman god Jupiter became perceived to be one and the same with Zeus. Other Roman gods were associated with Greek counterparts such as Neptune with Poseidon , Mars with Ares, and the likes. It can therefore be assumed that the Roman gods somehow absorbed the attributes and histories of Greek gods, or were associated with them, though not always completely (“Ancient Roman religion,” 2007).

This transference of the anthropomorphic characteristics to the Roman gods, along with the increasing predominance of Greek philosophy among Romans who received sound education, brought about an increasing disregard of the old rites of the Ancient Roman religion (“Ancient Roman religion,” 2007).

3.1.2 Changes under the Roman Empire

In the advent of the Roman Empire, the Ancient Roman religion experienced significant evolution. While previously rooted mainly in the foundations of Greek and Etruscan mythology, it eventually came to incorporate hundreds of other religions, integrating everything into a rich and very complex mythology. Several distinct cults from foreign origins increased in popularity, including the veneration of Persia’ Mithras and Egypt’s Isis.

Moreover, an Imperial cult added Julius Caesar and a handful of other emperors in the pantheon. This Imperial cult steadily gained importance until it reached its peak during the Crisis of the Third Century. At the time, Roman religion in the empire centered increasingly on the imperial house, so that many emperors became perceived as gods after they died (“Ancient Roman religion,” 2007).

Later during the period, Christianity started to spread in the Roman Empire, with the second century seeing the its rapid rise to dominance. Though early Christians were persecuted, the religion steadily gained converts until it was able to take the place of the older pantheon as the state religion of Rome. It was under Constantine I that Christianity became an officially supported religion in the Roman empire.

With this, the original Roman religion deteriorated, though several aspects of its theocracy were kept entrenched in Christian ritual and tradition. By 391, all cults, meaning those included in the previous Roman religion, except Christianity were forbidden by a decree of Emperor Theodosius I. However, the previous Roman religion, then called Roman paganism, remained potent until the fourth and fifth century. Ancient Roman temples still received frequent visitors, while ancient beliefs and practices were maintained (“Ancient Roman religion,” 2007).

3.2 The Roles of Priests

At the time of the Roman Republic, a strict system of priestly offices existed under the control of the College of Pontiffs. It was headed by the “Pontifex maximus,” which was the most important office. The “Flamens” performed the role of facilitating the cults of many different gods, while the “augurs” performed the role of taking the auspices. Meanwhile, the sacrificial king, or “rex sacrorum,” performed the religious responsibilities of the deposed kings (“Ancient Roman religion,” 2007).

Other specific holy men include the augurs, vestals and haruspices. The “Augur” performs the role of both priest and official. However, his fundamental function is the interpretation of the divine will via observation of birds’ flight. Meanwhile, a “haruspex” is a holy man who has knowledge in the divinations of hepatomancy, hepatoscopy, or haruspicy, which involves the examination of the innards of animals that were offered.

At the time, the pontifex maximus was also heralded as the expert on “problems of sacred law and procedure within their province.” As such, they performed the role of mediating in matters including sacrifices and vows, the games, tombs and burial law, the sacra connected with Vesta and the Vestals, and the inheritance of sacred obligations. They facilitated all marriages, took care of state archives, facilitated the building of bridges in early days, kept the official minutes of elected magistrates, list of magistrates, as well as records of their own decisions and of every year’s main happenings. They also held responsibility over the calendar. This is why when Julius Caesar held the office, he was able to take hold of the authority for his calendar reform (Stadter, 2001).

In 12 B.C., after Augustus became pontifex maximus, he made it “the keystone of the religious system.” Every emperor was able to hold the office after him. After two centuries, Dio Cassius has written of the emperors:

from the fact that they are enrolled in all the priesthoods and moreover can grant most of the priesthoods to others, and that one of them, even if two or three emperors are ruling jointly, is pontifex maximus, they control all sacred and religious matters.

The records of Plutarch imply that the pontifex maximus also had special relations to the Vestals and performed the role of punishing, which entails execution when guilty with sexual immorality, as well as helping them as charged under its responsibility (Stadter, 2001).

In an important writing by P. Brown in 1971 entitled “The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity,” the significant roles of the holy man in the society and politics in late antiquity, particularly in Syria, were noted. Plutarch’s biography of the Roman priest-king Numa takes account of the roles of the priest and holy men in Ancient Roman religion (Stadter, 2001).

Taking from Plutarch’s description of Numa as a “holy man,” several characteristics and roles of the holy men and priests in their time could be deduced. First, holy men had private connection with thedivinities, which is why they acquire special wisdom. However, the holy men were, in some ways, outsiders to the society. Their intimate relations with the gods, usually acquired through extreme acts of penance, endow them a perceived power, allowing them to act with authority when times get turbulent. Since the holy men are perceived as outsiders, they are also perceived above the conflicts of the community (Stadter, 2001).

Holy men such as Apollonius of Tyana performed roles the roles of magicians and wonder-workers. Holy men use their relation with the gods to awe and sway the populace, at times performing the role of mediators to political and social problems. Holy men also performed the role of arbitration and judgment to conflicts in the community and to resolve disputes. Plutarch also describes the holy men’s role of performing religious rituals to lead the community away from war or towards peace.  The Roman holy men also performed the ritualistic roles that Greek priests perform such as offering sacrifices and conducting processions, dances, dramas and the like (Stadter, 2001).

Plutarch also signal that the perceived basic role of holy men was to honor the gods, to uplift justice, to teach the Romans to hate violence and war, in other words, “taming men to become pious.” The role of the holy men was to act in order to achieve the “goal of leading men to better their lives” (Stadter, 2001).

As was mentioned in the discussion of the fate of the Ancient Roman religion under the Roman empire, the growing predominance of Greek philosophy among well-educated Romans resulted in the increasing abandonment of the old rites. Thus, in the1st century BC, there was a rapid decline in the religious significance of the old priestly offices. However, the civic importance and political influence of such old priestly offices were maintained. Meanwhile, the positions of pontifex maximus and augur still remained the political posts that were most sought after (Stadter, 2001).

Later on, however, the Ancient Roman religion met the same fate as the Ancient Greek religion. The hostility of Christianity towards other beliefs somehow extinguished the other religions, or decreased them to become pagan rituals. As Christianity grew to become the prevailing religion in all of Rome and much of the known world, much of the Ancient Roman and Greek believers were strained to avoid utter persecution by the Christians by fleeing to nations in the east, such as Syria.

Eventually, the ancient religions died down and were replaced by Christian ones. So were their priests and holy men, along with their roles in the temples and in the society. Only after almost a thousand years, at the time of the crusades, that the remnants of the Ancient Greek and Roman religions, along with their holy men, were rediscovered by the Greek and Roman worlds (The Academy of Evolutionary Metaphysics, 2005).


“Ancient Greek Religion.” 2007. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Viewed 27 Mar 2007 at <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Greek_Religion>.

“Ancient Roman religion.” 2007. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Viewed 27 Mar 2007 at <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Roman_religion>.

Constantelos, Demetrios. “Byzantine and Ancient Greek Religiosity.” Christian Hellenism. Viewed 27 Mar 2007 at <http://www.myriobiblos.gr/texts/english/Constantelos_3.html>.

Frankfurter, David. 2002. Bryn Mawr Classical Review. 26 Feb 2002. Viewed 27 Mar 2007 at <http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/bmcr/2002/2002-02-26.html>.

“Persecution of Roman religion.” 2007. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Viewed 27 Mar 2007 at <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Persecution_of_Roman_religion>.

“Priest.” 2007. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Viewed 27 Mar 2007 at <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Priest >.

Stadter, Philip. 2001. “Paidagogia pros to theion: Plutarch’s Numa.” A Festschrift in Honor of Eugene N. Lane. Stoa Consortium. Viewed 27 Mar 2007 at <http://www.stoa.org/hopper/text.jsp?doc=Stoa:text:2001.01.0002>.

The Academy of Evolutionary Metaphysics. 2005. “Ancient Greek Philosophy.” Shattering the Sacred Myths. Chapter 5. Viewed 27 Mar 2007 at <http://www.evolutionary-metaphysics.net/ancient_greek_philosophy.html>.

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