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Ancient Priests

Practical impacts of early experts

Eleanor Konik
Written by Eleanor Konik

I write stories & articles inspired by all eras of history & science... so I wind up putting notetaking software like Obsidian & Readwise thru their paces.

9 min read.
Priests in ancient societies performed many important roles.
A priest in a white robe overseeing a burial, painting in the classical style.

I often think about the role of ancient priests and how temples helped early civilizations thrive. As a culture, we do a pretty poor job of looking beyond the rituals and beliefs involved in religion. We regularly fail to analyze the practical impact religious institutions have on different societies. Most students get a superficial understanding of religion, focused on narrative events, gods, and rituals shared by religious organizations. Schools typically don’t teach the practical, tangible things temples and churches provide for society.

A friend lent me his copy of Religions of Rome by Mary Beard, John North, and Simon Price. I quite enjoyed it. I loved information like this:

“Priests in Rome had traditionally kept records to which they could refer to establish points of law; and the pontifices, in particular, were said to have kept an annual record of events, including, but not confined to, the sphere of religion. Writing down and recording was a significant function on the part of the priests.”

Ancient religions weren’t just about doctrine and dogma and structuring the belief systems of the peasantry. The ancient priests also stored grain against famine, kept records of the best planting dates, and served a critical role in balancing governmental power.

Tragically, I didn’t come to realize this until after I finished my minor in religious studies.

It should have been obvious. After all, most societies can’t afford to devote huge sections of their economy to organizations that don’t support peoples’ basic needs. Such organizations exist in the modern era, and people view things like “the arts” as worth supporting. Similarly, it makes sense that ancient civilizations might support a social class devoted to strictly godly pursuits. After all, Socrates managed to earn a living as a philosopher.

So, I didn’t think too hard about it. I spent my religious studies classes learning about doctrine and belief systems and myths. I never thought much about the other contributions ancient priests and temples made to their civilizations … until now.

Ancient Priests Alleviate Unemployment

Public entities normally fund and initiate public infrastructure projects like public works. The greater community uses public works for recreation, employment, and health and safety. Investment in public works can lower unemployment and keep a populace productive when the private sector economy is weak or unsupportive. Private companies often will not take on public works if there is a lack of revenue or where the risk is too great to reasonably take on.

This is not a new phenomenon. Among other things, building pyramids kept the peasant class of Egypt busy while the Nile’s floodwaters ran too high for farming. The medieval church employed large numbers of people and offered a location for community building, sanctuary, charity, record storage, etc. They were one of the economic hearts of medieval Europe, performing the same role as Mesopotamian ziggurats thousands of years earlier.

Ziggurats were part of a temple complex, a set of buildings devoted to the care of the gods and to all the businesses of the temple. The temple complex was one of the economic centers of the city. Large temples employed hundreds or even thousands of people, from priests and priestesses to humble shepherds, carpenters and weavers. The ziggurat, however, was dedicated to the city’s patron god or goddess; it was sacred ground, off limits to any but the hierarchy of priests. — History on the Net

Charitable Giving, a.k.a. Redistribution of Wealth

Most religious entities impose a tithe (religious tax) on their followers. This is, of course, how ancient priests funded their great public works and employed thousands of people. But the tithe wasn’t always financial; in the time before metal coinage, tithes were offered in the form of goods. Sometimes this was a formal tithe, and sometimes it was characterized as a “sacrifice” to the gods. But, I assure you, when the ancients sacrificed a bull to Zeus, the meat didn’t go to waste. Typically, it was consumed in a festival after being cooked over a “sacred” (community) fire. Early Mesopotamian temples controlled the granaries, and when floods or famines left farmers destitute, they were able to turn to the local temple for charity.

This has its echoes in the giving required of members of the early Christian cults, Jewish charity boxes, etc.

Ancient Temples, Heart of the Community

We often forget that rituals are a great way to build community. In secular societies, these rituals look like getting together every Sunday to watch football. Or, like restorative justice talking circles in a middle school classroom. In religious societies, though, the church (or temple) is frequently at the center of social life.

There is a reason that marriages and funerals are handled through the religious center of the community, from the Indus Valley to the Incan mountains. People, by nature social creatures, find excuses to gather for potlucks, or for performances. It’s not just the modern church’s children’s play that provides entertainment to the people, however. The Theater of Dionysus, for example, was the birthplace of the Greek tragedy. It provided an enormous podium for members of the priesthood. And, it was the site of annual festivals. As a result, the Theater was as important for uniting the city into a coherent entity. It ensured people were willing to fight for the same goals and were proud of their identity. A modern example of the same is Germany’s modern-day Oktoberfest.

Common festivals even united societies with decentralized religion, like the pre-Christian Norse. Evidence exists of great national religious festivals, even though the Norse faith was tied to the village and the family, rather than a centralized church.

Priestly Advisers as Proxy Government

Mesopotamia was one of the earliest complex civilization known in human history. The very first Mesopotamian city-states were ruled outright by the priestly class.

Individual villages would have been very vulnerable in these circumstances, and the trend would all have been towards greater power shifting to the temple priests, now transformed into something like a ruling class. — TimeMaps

This continued until, eventually, the duties were split between the religious and secular classes, who ranked equally in society. Even then, though, diviners evaluated animal entrails for signs from the gods and offered advice. Their political acumen was such that several such that members of the religious class (exorcists, priests, diviners, etc.) managed to transition into the role of king. It’s unclear whether they were usurpers or elected, but they certainly weren’t ineffectual.

This situation is not unique. The most important person in the Phoenician city of Tyre was its monarch. The second most important person was the high priest of the temple of Melkarth. The fact that these two people were often siblings shows just how deeply intertwined temple leadership and overall governance was in ancient societies.

The Norse vǫlur and Greek oracles — often women — were not directly involved in running a large financial district the way the Mesopotamian priesthood was. But each did serve a significant role in governing their respective societies. These women of the priestly class were highly respected advisers. Their impact on society was of prime significance and importance. Pythia, for example,  seems consistently to have advocated peaceful actions instead of violence. She offered reasonable advice from a wise female adviser to a young king.

Most early, highly religious, stratified societies were ruled by monarchies. While monarchies have certain advantages over democracy in training their leaders, it’s also common for monarchs to be focused on military endeavors. Not every soldier is a statesman. Therefore, it made sense that they would turn to a reliable source for advice. It is a rare king who shows his nobles (read: rivals) weakness.

The counterpart to this in organized religion is the Catholic Church. Throughout much of its history, it functioned as a sort of “federal government” of Europe. The Church arbitrated disputes between Christian countries, collected taxes from communities, and chivied monarchs into defending its domain, “Christendom.”

Priestly Keepers of Knowledge

One of the most important things ancient priests did was keep records. The Mayan calendars are a perfect example of this, though Egyptian priests kept records about the Nile as well. The Mayans considered certain days lucky and unlucky, according to the Mayan Calendar. It’s easy to dismiss this as mere superstition. However, in reality, this was likely a great deal closer to the way modern-day farmers have used the Farmer’s Almanac to decide when it’s safe to plant seedlings. Such knowledge aimed to prevent famine and death due to a late frost or early rainstorm.

Maya priests were the keepers of knowledge. They learned and taught reading and writing. Priests had many roles and duties including performing religious ceremonies, instructing sons of nobles, keeping the calendars, studying astronomy and astrology, divining for the king, nobles and commoners and prophecy. Priests kept track of genealogies and lineages. — History on the Net

This record-keeping role continued, past pre-Classical civilizations. During the Middle Ages, Catholic monks spent a fairly large amount of time recording the histories of areas local to their monasteries. This included, by the way, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the ultimate source of the ever-popular (and highly informative) King Arthur cycle.

Ancient Priests as Judges

The ancient priests of Egypt sometimes served as judges for the local people. This was common in Rome as well; priests of the god Terminus were responsible for resolving boundary disputes. Moses and Deborah functioned as Judges as well as Prophets. Yet, most scholars don’t focus on this eminently practical service those priests (and later priests of Jupiter) provided to the small farmers who fed early Rome. Instead, they track things like the origin of the worship of this god (the Sabines). Many seem to prefer debating whether it represents an animist bent in the Roman religious tradition, rather than focusing on the practical implications.

Although law, written and unwritten, was originally a rather secretive monopoly of the college of pontiffs, or priests, a recognizable class of legal advisers, juris consulti or prudentes, had developed by the early 3rd century BCE. — Encyclopedia Britannica

Mesopotamia, one of the earliest recorded civilizations, explicitly employed local priests as judges as well. Priests settled arguments because they were educated and kept records, and were respected as leaders of their local communities.

To resolve these disputes they turned more and more to the local temple, with its (at that time small) group of priests, whose religious prestige thus gradually evolved into a judicial authority covering a locality. — TimeMaps

Historic Health Care: Ancient Priests & Medieval Midwives

Priests and priestesses were literate and served as healers. The first doctors and dentists were temple priestesses who cared for the ill. They treated their patients in the temple’s outer court. — History on the Net

In fact, even during the Middle Ages nuns acted as midwives. I am certain that the priestesses of various ancient goddesses of childbirth — like Artemis, Ilithyia, Ixchel — acted as midwives in their role as intercedents for the goddess, both spiritually and practically. We have evidence of this as far back as Mesopotamia. So, it makes no sense that these practices wouldn’t be continued. In fact, it makes more sense that many religious scholars have simply focused so much on the mythological stories that they have lost sight of the more practical idea that priests of a god of medicine (like the Egyptian goddess Sekhmet) also practiced medicine using their “sacred” knowledge.

This was certainly true in the case of the Greek temples of Asclepius.

It is tempting to dismiss the ritual healing performed by ancient priests as superstitious nonsense, relying on snakes and the interpretation of dreams. However, the sacred dogs trained to lick the open wounds of supplicants probably did help. Babylon’s physicians held a priestly role, but they were effective surgeons and pharmacologists. The rituals they employed to quarantine and keep out plague did important work in warning people away from contaminated houses. The interior area of the temples was not necessarily more sanitary than the homes of the injured and ill. But it certainly was better able to quarantine the sick from the young and elderly in the community, those most at risk from contagion.

Priests held roles as healers in parts of the world other than Eurasia, as well. In South America, for instance, Incan priests performed much the same role.

Healing the sick were one of the main jobs the priests did. The priests were seen as doctors because it was believed that they had the power to heal because they were able to be in direct contact with the Inca gods and know what to do. Other than healing, the priests attended deaths and helped pregnant mothers to deliver. — Incan Civilization

The Impact of the Secularization of Power

Arguably the most secular society in known history was Ancient Greece. They certainly had mythology and temples and oracles. Many Greeks were godly people who followed the theism required by local laws. Yet, history tells us the entire Sophist movement questioned belief in the gods. The first known atheist was probably a Greek philosopher. Arguably, the philosophers of Greece sought to supplant the temple, pushing back against religion with science. Picture Galileo, during the Renaissance.

In early Virginia, the government required posted new laws in the church and, therefore, required citizens of the colony to attend at least once a month. In the modern day, government has taken over many of the tasks “traditionally” left to the priesthood. Government has absorbed life-cycle licensing, if not the ritual aspects of marriages and funerals. Food stamps are much more reliable than church charity, although even modern-day churches sponsor charities and food banks.

There is a tension in American society as it goes through the process of secularization. Cultural diffusion over the decades alters the role of priests in our society. This happened to ancient priests too, of course. In Mesopotamia, for example, the ancient priests gradually lost power to the government. And Henry VIII took power back from the church in a big way.

Ancient priests served as important experts. The Church in the Middle Ages unarguably became corrupt. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s inevitable that power corrupts, but there’s certainly a spectrum to think about when it comes to evaluating the usefulness religious institutions bring to a society, quite outside their role in advising people about how to keep god(s) happy.

World-building & Religion

If you were creating a society from the ground up, what role would religion play?

One solution is to disavow religion, as the French did after the French Revolution. This is the path Anne McCaffrey took with her Pern books as well. The founders of the colony specifically left it behind, unsurprising given McCaffrey’s experiences with the religious strife in Ireland. Another solution is to have a State Religion. David Weber’s Safehold series goes this route.

Middle grounds are messy. Can you think of a book about a colony that strikes an interesting (purposeful) balance between religious control and deliberate atheism? Let me know in the comments 👇

Note: There are a couple of affiliate links & codes scattered around, but these always come from links I was already recommending and usually I share them because they benefit you too (i.e. getting you extra time on trials).

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