The original title for this essay was going to be “Religious Leaders,” but I changed it because the extent to which religions exhibit a hierarchy can vary pretty widely. It’s extremely common, though, for there to be people with specialized religious roles, whether those people are seen as leaders by the laity or just useful individuals.
Even among hunter-gatherers, where society tends to be egalitarian and specialization tends to be limited, it isn’t uncommon to find someone whose role is to serve as a conduit to supernatural forces. Terminology here gets contentious, and I don’t want to sink into the bog of the debates over it, but in a general sense I’ll say that shamans operate as intermediaries to the spirit world; they practice techniques to cultivate an ecstatic state in which they can communicate with the spirits or gods, or enter the spirit world themselves to seek out knowledge. Not only does this often encompass some of the things you think of when you hear the word “religion” — propitiating angry forces and asking for blessings — but it also extends to matters like healing individuals or communities, because ailments there are often seen as arising from imbalances or foreign influences on a spiritual level.
That notion of “specialist as conduit” isn’t always egalitarian, though. Many societies, especially those which ascribe divine qualities to their leader, have seen that leader as a point of contact with the gods. In such cases it may be the responsibility of the king or emperor to conduct certain rituals and make key sacrifices, essentially standing as an intermediary between two worlds. In ancient Mayan cities, sacrifices included not just the stereotypical rites like cutting out someone’s heart, but ritual (and often painful) blood-letting by the king, shedding his own blood and burning it to create a connection with the world of the divine.
This shades over into the role of “priest” as we usually think of it: the person in charge of leading rituals for the laity. The more esoteric those rituals are, the more likely it is you’ll have a formal class of priests, because learning that material requires training — more on that in a bit — and having that training becomes a form of social, political, and spiritual power. Exoteric knowledge, on the other hand — meaning that which is public rather than secret — doesn’t require a specialist, as it’s available to anyone.
You can see those dynamics playing out in the Protestant Reformation. The early Christian church was very egalitarian and relatively devoid of elaborate ritual, but as it evolved into the Catholic Church, it became more hierarchical and esoteric, with layers of priests and bishops and cardinals and complex rites conducted in a language no longer spoken by the mass of worshippers. One of the drives of the Protestant Reformation was to reverse that trend, translating the scriptures into vernacular languages so that they could be read by the laity and breaking down the hierarchy on the grounds that any Christian could communicate with God, without needing a priest to intercede on their behalf.
Being able to read (or even possess) scripture may be a big deal. These days people may talk about how information wants to be free, but that’s a concept that would have horrified many people in the past, and still horrifies some today. Have you ever seen someone read a complicated article and take away from it a simple and wildly wrong conclusion? The same thing can happen with religious texts. Specialists undertake long study of those texts in order to understand them fully and interpret them for a non-specialist audience. Sometimes that can be a good thing; sometimes it can be a bad one. It depends on the specialists and the situation.
And then you have your monastics: people who withdraw from society to contemplate spiritual matters. In societies that believe in reincarnation, sometimes this is seen as the ideal endpoint, the role every person should take up when they’re ready to escape the cycle. But people usually ascribe a broader benefit to the practice as well; monastics aren’t just improving their own spiritual state, but acting on behalf of others as well. They can, through their prayers and other efforts, mitigate the sins and corruption of the world, and serve as a model of true virtue to those in secular life.
(In theory. In practice, of course, not all religious specialists of any stripe are as virtuous and faithful as they should be.)
Finally, there are all the other roles religious specialists can fill, which aren’t directly religious in nature. I mentioned healing above; divination is another possibility, whether that’s oracles who sit above a volcanic vent and relate their visions or haruspices who divine from the entrails of sacrificed animals. They can be advisers and teachers, midwives and funerary technicians . . . anything where a sacred touch seems relevant and useful.
Who gets to join the ranks of these people? Just about anybody, depending on local circumstances. Sometimes it’s a matter of training, especially where spiritual knowledge is esoteric; this can take the form of a master/apprentice pairing or a formal school with masses of students. Sometimes a person has to be consecrated before they can perform rites and have them carry the desired effect — an unconsecrated person doing the exact same things will accomplish nothing at all.
But it’s by no means a given that training is required, and sometimes the calling to a religious life is present from birth or early childhood. Birthmarks or defects might be valorized as a signal that the person is destined for a particular role. In Nepal, the goddess Durga is repeatedly incarnated in a young girl, who lives in a temple until the signs show that Durga has left her, at which point she returns to secular society. Shamans may be drawn from the ranks of those nearly died of illness, on the grounds that they have drawn close to the spirit world.
Or maybe only members of particular bloodlines are allowed to serve. The Tribe of Levi traditionally had this role in Hebrew society (and still retain some aspects of it in Orthodox Jewish communities), and in Japan, the supreme priestess of Ise Grand Shrine must come from the Imperial House. Such associations last for life; others, based on specialists maintaining the requisite qualities or behaviors (such as chastity or not touching unclean things), may go away when those qualities are lost.
Anywhere there’s religion, you’re likely to have people who specialize in its practice. But it isn’t always a clear hierarchy, and it’s useful to keep that in mind.