Superficially, priests vary wildly with their culture and faith. They range from total pacifists who literally would not hurt a fly to folk who will skin you alive as a sacrifice to their god. They believe completely different things, dress wildly differently, speak and read ancient and esoteric tongues (or at least use some obscure vocabulary), dress in all sorts of (often elaborate) ways, and more. There are warrior-priests, scholar-priests, pantheistic priests, monotheistic priests, weird cultists, and a thousand other variants.
Fortunately, being a priest is pretty simple. It boils down to a few simple but essential items.
A Classical Priest is someone who:
- Believes in a supernatural entity or group of entities. If they don’t believe they may be scholars of myths or religious con artists – but they’re not priests.
- Believes that said entity or group of entities is both aware of, and exerts influence on, the mortal world – although the extent of that awareness and influence may be open to discussion. If they don’t believe that the entities they believe in and study actually affect the world, they’re philosophers, not priests.
- Practices rituals, behaviors, and taboos* that he or she believes can influence the action of that entity or group of entities – whether through simply getting them to provide information (through vague divinations, prophecies, and oracular pronouncements) or through outright supernatural intervention. After all, if all you can do is catalog the activities of impersonal forces that you can’t influence, you’re a scientist, not a priest.
- Sees himself or herself as having a pretty decent social status. After all, if supernatural entities exist, and powerfully influence the world, then few things are going to be more important than keeping them happy. Ergo, the advice of an appropriate priest was a pretty vital part of virtually any undertaking – often more important than most of the secular considerations.
- Has made a fairly extensive study of that entity or group of entities. If someone hasn’t studied the entities they believe in, they may be a prophet, shaman, or madman – but they are not a priest.
*On some occasions such practices have practical effects as well as religious ones. A fair number of religious rules serve valuable health, nutritional, or social-justice-and-stability purposes. Why? Because a rule that actually helps tends to encourage the survival and growth of the people who follow it tends to spread with the population applying it, while harmful rules hinder that spread – and so tend to be overwhelmed by competing traditions. Regardless of the source of such rules, faiths evolve.
With the Classical Priest it wasn’t so much a calling (that was reserved for the people who had visions and heard voices without doing anything to provoke them) as a job. People came to you when they wanted something – an explanation for something weird, a bit of divination, advice as to how to influence the gods, or a religious ritual – and you did it for them. You became a priest by serving under a parental priest, by paying someone to train you, or by setting up on your own – and it was a pretty good job.
Given that, a few other things wound up being associated with classical priests.
- Being a priest wasn’t much use unless people knew you were a priest – so you wore special clothing, practiced private rituals, and spoke in strange and mysterious ways.
- You gathered in groups to keep down the competition. You can take a look at the organization of any classical guild to see how that worked.
- You made your places of worship as impressive as possible. That not only brought in business, but it encouraged people to pay higher prices (by tithing or sacrificing more).
After all, there was no fighting what every one could see – and, classically, it was obvious to everyone that here were many gods and that they didn’t agree on much. Otherwise the world would be a lot more stable.
Just as importantly, it was equally obvious that most supernatural entities only influenced a limited range of events. Otherwise, fortune in all matters would be consistent. As it was, when you did marvelously well on a trading expedition but came home to find that a couple of your kids had died of some disease, the explanation was quite simple; the god of trade had favored you, the god of disease had not.
Thus most people went from priest to priest as their needs changed. After all, there was no use in trying to get Poseidon to help with a childbirth. That was easy though; a Classical Priest didn’t usually claim any great moral authority, or that their god or gods was the one-and-only god or set of gods, or usually even that the gods has specifically chosen them – and so they had no objections to people visiting priests of other gods when they needed to. It wasn’t like any of the priests had vast magical powers to bring to bear.
Eventually, however, the archetype started to change as the world saw the growth of monotheism.
Unfortunately, to take a look at that, we’re going to have to take a look at religion.
Religion is always a touchy subject – but it’s hard to avoid thinking about religion when you’re discussing the “Priest” archetype. Fortunately, there’s one thing that virtually all religions agree on; most of the others are wrong. Ergo, we can safely take a look at how all the ones that are wrong grow, maintain themselves, change over time, and fail – and we can go ahead and presume that those faiths stole most of their social “techniques” from the one true faith.
In the beginning, there was shamanism, as is discussed at length HERE.
Now shamanism is probably the worlds only agnostic, personalized, faith. It’s only when a shaman comes up with an organized body of lore about the spirit world and starts passing it on as “truth” – rather than as their own personal relationship with the greater universe – that they turn into priest.
But once you have some stabilized, consistent, notions about the supernatural entities at play around you, you have to answer a few questions about “what they’re like”.
- Some are scary. When it comes to deities, the “propitiate the deity, and keep it from doing nasty things” routine is an easy one to start – and may well be the oldest form of organized worship; If the population is reasonably contented, they worry about things going wrong. Assuage that worry, and you can pull in the offerings. If something goes wrong anyway, then obviously there were not ENOUGH offerings or someone did something to upset the gods – explanation and scapegoat in one easy package.
Of course, the weakness here is when the populace notices that the neighbors aren’t paying any attention to the boogeyman and nothing is happening to them. Then the protection-racket deities go downhill until something really nasty DOES happen to the unbelievers.
Given that nasty things happen all the time, something will happen that you can point at eventually – but sometimes the peace and quiet goes on too long, the frightening deity gets forgotten, and another protection-racket faith winds up in the great dustbin of forgotten historical curiosities.
- Nobody bothers with truly indifferent deities. There’s no point. You can try for a vague sense of gratitude to a creator god – but unless he or she does something for people NOW, he or she is going to be just a footnote in very short order.
- Some deities are helpful. The “worship the deity and it will help us” approach tends to do best in hard times, when people really need help. If and when things get better, the deity gets the credit. If things aren’t better yet, obviously you haven’t worshiped hard enough yet – and if you get wiped out, well, there are always more desperate groups out there who will be willing to listen to anything that might help them out.
The problem with this sort of theology is threefold. When times are good, people tend to get lazy and to forget about things until they go downhill again. Worse, when times are good for the neighbors who aren’t worshipping the deity, people start wondering if their worship is actually doing them any good. Worst of all is when the neighbors are doing well and the faithful are NOT – which is when the helpful deity tends to wind up being forgotten in favor of belief systems that, at least at the moment, seem to work.
Polytheistic faiths are easy. They can easily account for all the randomness in the world; the gods are of limited power, squabble a lot, and make mistakes. They’re often selfish brats as well. Who’s going to make them grow up?
Monotheism had to wait for some explanations to be invented.
The first step towards monotheism was to combine “scary” and “helpful” in one deity – and to make that deity somewhat capricious. There’s always SOMETHING that makes each particular case a little different to use as an excuse.
So, if you had angered the god, sometimes his wrath would fall upon you. Other times, it would fall on your children, or grandchildren, or relatives, or something you liked. Perhaps something else entirely would be destroyed, or invaders would be sent. Perhaps you’d have a chance to make up for your error, and disaster would not fall!
After all, there are few easier “miracles” for a priest to produce than to have some really unlikely disaster not happen.
If you had pleased the god, good things would presumably happen – to somebody.
That wasn’t quite good enough of course. It gave your god appeal in both good and bad times, but it still didn’t cover why things didn’t always go right for you if you knew so much or why people got good luck in one field simultaneously with bad luck in another.
The next religious advance was the creation of a complex body of theology and sacred writings. You needed a mass of requirements and taboos (some reasonable, and some purely arbitrary), a selection of vague “prophecies” that could be interpreted in a hundred different ways, and (all too soon) a selection of after-the-fact “predictions”. That way most people could make a good effort to live up to what the god expected, and could usually feel like they were doing a pretty good job at it (even if they weren’t) – but there was always room for doubt, and the priests could justify, or claim to have predicted, pretty much anything that happened.
Now you had an explanation for good fortune in one field coupled with ill fortune in another. That just meant that the god was levying specific punishments for specific infringements, while rewarding the things that pleased him, her, or it.
As a side-benefit, those inventions put even kings, mighty warriors, and the very, very, rich within the reach of effective priestly condemnation. Things went wrong for any dynasty or combatant eventually. That was the price of making yourself a target – and a good AND bad times religion could afford to wait.
That made monotheism workable – and monotheism had major advantages. Monotheism kept ALL the offerings, and attention, and followers coming your way. By claiming that all other beliefs were mere ignorant errors, you discouraged people from leaving, or shopping around at the temples of speciality gods. You could give your deity the credit for anything and everything, including the creation of the entire universe – and it was hard to get more impressive than THAT.
That left only one problem; sometimes even a complex body of doctrine and intricate reasoning couldn’t convince people that some outcomes made any sense. Someone opposed the faith, did everything it opposed, and fulfilled none of its commandments, pulled off a lifetime of successes against the faithful, and saw his or her children and grandchildren do well? Now that was a tough one.
The addition of a detailed afterlife, filled with gruesome punishments for the unworthy and great rewards for the worthy, sufficed to explain away that problem – and the promise of eternal bliss now belonged exclusively to your particular faith.
With a tight body of doctrine, you needed a tight hierarchy to expound upon that doctrine and to supervise additions to it – which also let you incite a hatred of heretics and rival faiths and imbue your faithful with a fierce desire to convert the rest of the world.
With those key inventions added to its religious arsenal, a monotheistic faith could easily sweep over polytheistic realms, easily driving out loosely-organized polytheistic priests and absorbing any beliefs that were too deeply-embedded to easily eliminate as folk traditions.
Which takes us to the Modern Priest – an archetype which places less value on rituals, taboos, and study and a great deal more on fervent belief, dedication to the faith, and striking out against every other belief that challenges that faith. How can you have spiritual warriors without spiritual enemies?
The Modern Priest may specialize in debate, in rooting out cults and heretics, in spreading the faith, in setting a good example (according to the precepts of his or her faith), or even in literal spiritual warfare, confronting whatever supernatural opponents of the faith his or her beliefs include – but those are sufficiently minor as variations that no one sees much of a problem with the same fictional character shifting from role to role as the author and the situation demands.
Now there is one major problem with including either major version of the Priest archetype in a setting. If you intend for them to play a major role, they usually need to have actual powers over and above moral suasion and the backing of a religious hierarchy. Even if they can call in a few ecclesiastical troops, that won’t help them much when the swords and guns come out.
Worse, if you go with the kind of miraculous powers reported for various faiths in reality, you’ll have to drastically tone them down (to avoid the “A deity smites you. You lose” aspect of such interventions), make them a LOT more common (so as to give the priest something to do), and use a pantheon (so as to avoid the “There’s no argument! Everyone knows that this is what god wants! Problem).
Which pretty much takes us back to… giving your priests at least one pantheon to draw power from and a selection of reasonably reliable, moderately-scaled, and fairly readily accessible miracles.
In other words, a speciality spellcaster working for a far-less-than-perfect and certainly not all-powerful member of a pantheistic faith.
That sounds familiar somehow. A LOT of games work in priests like that.
It’s easy enough to see that the Classical Priest works pretty well in most game systems. It’s just that – unlike the real world – they generally have no doubts about what their deity approves and disapproves of and have personal power to go with their social influence.
The Modern Priest, however, has problems. Unless you just establish that “They’re right, and there isn’t much objection to that obvious fact outside of by-definition supernatural foes”, they just don’t fit in well with most settings. That doesn’t mean that you can’t make it work – but it does mean that either the entire world is going to fall under the “one true way” syndrome or that you’re going to have a demonstrably polytheistic world filled with priests who are, rather absurdly, trying to pretend otherwise.
As Brian suggests, perhaps that could be the price of gaining spiritual powers. To gain them, you must fervently believe in one of the many gods who each claim to be the One True God – and, once their power begins to flow through you, you can no longer rationally consider any evidence that suggests otherwise. Thus the various priesthoods can then battle it out before the bemused nobles and peasants…
Actually, that does sound rather like fun.