Chapter 11. Religious Specialists

Amanda Zunner-Keating
14 min readDec 2, 2020


Who has the authority to engage with the divine?

An image of a person dancing in front of fire.
Photo by Joshua Newton on Unsplash.

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11.1 Religious Specialists

As you have learned in previous chapters, reinforcement of a society’s beliefs in the forms of its rituals and practices offer cohesiveness and guidance and solidify community bonds. Therefore, prescribed rituals and practices often require the leadership and authority of those who are willing and able to guide the community and its willing participants. Because the beliefs and ceremonies of religions will vary considerably from society to society and culture to culture, so do the people that guide others in the religious rituals.

All societies include people who guide and nurture the religious practices of others. People who are sought after for guidance and reassurance in an ever-changing world. Anthropologists call these people “religious specialists” and this category includes religious devotees, priests, rabbis, imams, monks, nuns, religious teachers, shamans, tarot card readers and self-help gurus, etc; all of these individuals are those that have people who seek them out for a sense of spiritual nourishment and reassurance.

These individuals are seen as being highly skilled and/or learned professionals who are seen as experts in contacting and/or influencing supernatural beings and manipulating and connecting to supernatural forces. They are also seen as being able to convey messages to or from the supernatural being to assist their human clients. These ‘religious specialists’ may often display certain distinctive personality traits that make them well suited to offer guidance and perform the prescribed task or ritual.

11.2 Who Should We Call A “Shaman?”

The term “shaman” is a term — and concept — that is widely misappropriated. To be perfectly accurate, the word “shaman” is the culturally specific word used in the Tungus culture of Central Siberia to refer to their spiritual leaders (Stein and Stein 120). Shamans are Siberian healers who utilize drums and reach out to the spirit realm in order to achieve good health, knowledge, and luck for the community.

A variety of other world religions and cultures also have religious specialists with similar characteristics to the shamanistic tradition of Central Siberia which causes some anthropologists — and lay people alike — to apply the term “shaman” broadly across multiple cultures. It’s important, however, to understand that each culture has its own word to reflect spiritual leaders and that broadly calling them all “shamans” is not an accurate reflection of the diversity and reality of spiritual leadership across the world.

We refer to people who define and/or lead a religious community as “religious specialists.” A religious specialist is typically viewed as an authority on religious and/or spiritual life. In many cases, a religious specialist is a gatekeeper to the religious community or, in other words, the religious specialist is someone who defines religious practice and spiritual life.

This can be a contentious area within the cultural realm as religious specialists might have more power than their followers to define morality, to establish facts/truths, and to decide who belongs (and doesn’t belong) to the religious identity.

As we discussed in the beginning of the semester, anthropologists use the term “enculturation” to refer to the process through which we learn our cultures. Religious specialists play a huge role in enculturation: they inform the public about “right vs wrong,” often share knowledge of the divine and the people’s history and shape the community’s overall worldview.

So, who, exactly, is a religious specialist? Religious specialists exist with great diversity. Some religious specialists hold a professional role in society while others may define a more unique path for themselves. And, as societies and religions evolve, new forms of religious specialists are emerging (we will examine some of these cases).

As is explained in “The Anthropology of Religion, Magic, and Witchcraft” by Rebecca and Phillip Stein,

A religious specialist may:

  • Receive their power directly from the divine (for example: through visions, from spirits, from direct messages from God)
  • Receive their power from a formal institution (for example: Rabbinical school, the Vatican, etc.)
  • Have a respected status in their society
  • Be viewed as dangerous, too powerful, engaging with dark forces, or mentally ill
  • Exclusively work in religious leadership; be a full-time religious specialist. This is typically true in a society where religious life is clearly defined as separate from secular life.
  • Engage in religious rituals on the side; be a part-time religious specialist. This is typically true in a society where religious life is not clearly separated from other parts of life.
  • Be viewed as acting on behalf of the divine.
  • Perform prescribed rituals for the community at pre-determined points throughout the year.
  • Perform unique rituals as-needed based on demand from the community.
  • Be responsible for moral guidance for the community; may be considered to personify the ideal type of person.
  • Need to memorize vast amounts of knowledge and religious texts.

In anthropological work, we often use 4 different terms to refer to different kinds of religious specialists including:

  • Healer: Usually a religious specialist who is asked to cure illness or injury.
  • Herbalist: Specialists in the use of plants and other materials as cures.
  • Diviner: Someone who practices divination to gain knowledge of the future, supernatural, etc. Usually focusing on practical questions.
  • Prophets: Considered to be a mouthpiece for the divine. Their role is to share the words and will of the divine to her or his community.

Please note that these terms are not mutually exclusive. For example, a person can be an herbalist and a healer at the same time.

11.3 Comparing Religious Specialists

Consider, on the one hand, the lengthy and arduous process through which a Catholic priest achieves his rank in society. Priests typically must attend college, then attend seminary school and then go through the process of ordination (this process can take a decade to complete). In order to achieve their high status, priests are expected to embody the culture’s highest moral values, must perfectly maintain religious traditions, and must continuously study and engage with religious texts. Catholic priests are expected to hold structured mass regularly, to celebrate particular holidays on a strict calendar, and must assist the community through pre-determined rites of passage.

On the other hand, we can turn once again to Haitian Voodoo to better understand how the religious specialist, or Bokor, practices in the context of that culture. In “Travesty in Haiti,” anthropologist Timothy Schwartz recounts his time spent with a Voodoo priest named Ram. In Ram’s case, he became a religious specialist in Voodoo due to a series of altered states of consciousness (induced by heavy alcohol use) through which he was able to reach and communicate with the spirit realm. His home is viewed by the community as a powerful but dangerous place because Ram is known to interact with dark forces. People come to Ram for help through ritual and he meets their needs on a case-by-case basis without any type of formal instruction or pre-determined ritual process. Ram is largely viewed as an outcast in the society which is often the case for religious specialists; he’s not considered to be a moral leader of the society and he also runs a small shop which is his primary source of income.

11.4 The Priest in Patriarchal Society

The priest is a non-denominational term in Anthropology. When we speak of a ‘priest’ — we mean a male religious practitioner that holds that role as defined above. This role is a familiar figure in Western societies: he is the priest, the minister, the bishop, the deacon, the imam, lama or rabbi — or whatever the official title may be in the organized religious denomination. Patriarchal systems are a feature of Western societies, so it is not surprising with the god of Western societies generally defined historically in the masculine and authoritarian terms that in the Judaic, Christian, and Islamic religions, the most important positions traditionally have been filled by men. However, in more gender-neutral egalitarian societies, males may serve as priests along-side priestesses, such as is the tradition in voodoo.

Males traditionally have occupied the role of a priest as an authority figure. This individual is seen as the guiding force in the community with the authority to administer religious rites and perform rituals. Much reverence is shown to the male authority figure who is generally an esteemed member of the community and held to very high standards. The priest is traditionally a ‘holy’ figure — whose conduct much matches those worthy of the deity. Since patriarchal societies are typically stratified and are those traditionally with male deities, the priest figure often works to maintain the social order; supporting the social hierarchy and male authority.

Current trends have seen that in recent years, male religious practitioners have undergone somewhat of a transformation in Western society. Many have had a ‘fall from grace’ by not conforming to the ideals of chosen religion (i.e. sexual, monetarily, behaviorally, politically). In some cases, legal actions have been taken and scandals have ensued. These include, but have not been limited to the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal that emerged in 2001–2010 and continues today. More than 3,000 cases have been reviewed by the Holy See and more cases continue to emerge. Often, these cases are highlighted publically in the media. Other denominations have also been affected such as the Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker scandal and Jimmy Swaggart who reportedly lived a high profile multimillion dollar lifestyle as a result of donations from their parishioners only to be ceremoniously removed from their public life by their own sexual misconduct. Remember that the authority of the religious specialist does not truly rest with the priest — it also rests in the religious followers and religious authority who may have the power to remove an religious specialist from their position.

With changing attitudes and values in Western society, some priests are trying to assert a less dominant and less authoritarian position. Marketing techniques meant to reach younger people (millennials), have depicted the priest as more of a friend, mentor, or coach. Phil Cooke comments on the casual nature of the modern Christian Church in his article, “Has church become too casual?”. He states the following, “Pastors are now preaching in T-shirts and torn jeans, and many large, contemporary churches today look more like concert arenas than churches.” He laments that this may have gone too far more removing spirituality in favor of secularism.

So we have definitely seen the traditional personality of this position change — though the conforming of moral behavior is still watched with scrutiny. This is likely because in recent years, there has been a distrust of a male authority in Western society as a result of the rise of feminism and varying attitudes on gender. We will take a look at this a little bit later.

Traditional concepts of gender often dictated that the religious practitioner on earth be the embodiment and representative of the deity — and therefore the gender of the religious practitioner often was one that matched the deity. Therefore, if a male god is worshipped — its prominent religious practitioners would be male. An understanding of the ancient gendered Hebrew language indicates that while some have noted that the name Elohim can be both male and female it is also noted in the ancient Hebrew in the book of Genesis that the word bara for ‘created’ is a masculine form — i.e He created.

In addition, the verb ‘to say’ in ancient Hebrew is the masculine form of ‘He said’ rather than ‘she said’. Therefore, the assumption is that YWHW is considered to be a ‘masculine energy’ though gender concepts can be fluid through time. If we consider the traditional concepts of Judaism — we see that although mysticism and transcendental thought may dis-engender the deity — in traditional common thought the Hebrew God has been considered primarily one embodying a masculine or male energy.

Concepts of male supernatural power and authority — in heaven and on earth — often reside in societies where traditional male labor is considered important to the infrastructure of society — such as those with a dependence on intensive agriculture and technology.

11.5 The Priestess

The female version of a religious leader in society is the priestess. Priestesses generally occupy a position of authority as religious practitioners in societies where women are acknowledged to contribute in significant ways to the economy and infrastructure. This individual is seen as the guiding force in the community with the authority to administer religious rites and perform rituals.

Such societies could be those that are traditional horticulture societies like the Mosuo in China and the White Mountain Apache of Arizona. Not surprisingly, these societies are also matriarchal and believe in a supreme goddess (female deity). Male gods can be recognized, but as the practitioner matches the supreme deity — we see that correlation here as well. Priestesses, matriarchy, and the belief of a female deity are nothing new — in fact, they belong to the oldest of spiritual traditions. Since paleolithic (old stone age) times, people have viewed birth, life, and by default — abundance and renewal as particularly female characteristics. It is no surprise then that the supreme giver of life was seen in the female form and by connection the earth itself. These are the oldest recorded spiritual and religious traditions from the archaeological record.

Some of these ancient societies include ancient Sumeria and Akkadian societies. The Sumerian and Akkadian EN were top-ranking priestesses who were distinguished by special ceremonial attire and held equal to the status of the high priests. The priestesses owned property, conducted business, and initiated the hieros gamos ceremony with priests and kings. The hieros gamos was a sacred marriage ceremony that played out between a god and goddess, especially and was re-enacted in a symbolic ritual with human participants representing the deities.

11.6 The Voodoo Priestess

Modern priestesses are found within the Voodoo religion of Haiti and Benin. A Voodoo priestess is a called a mambo (also written as manbo). Voodoo priestess are called upon to perform ritual, hold social standing in society and also can perform ceremony where a participant is ceremoniously married to their loas or goddess of choice. Haitian Voodoo’s conceptions of priesthood stem from the religious traditions of enslaved people from Dahomey, in what is today Benin.

Mambos are female leaders in Voodoo temples who perform healing work and guide others during complex rituals. This form of female leadership is common in urban cities such Port a Prince (the capital of Haiti). Typically, there is no hierarchy among mambos and houngans (male priest). These priestesses and priests serve as the heads of autonomous religious groups and exert their authority over the devotees or spiritual servants in their hounfo (temples). Mambos and houngans are called into power via spirit possession or through the revelations they receive in dreams. They go through a period of learning where they perform several initiation rituals and training exercises before becoming qualified.

The role of the mambos is to mediate between the physical and spiritual realms. They use sacred information to call upon the spirits through song, dance, prayer, offerings, and/or the drawing of spiritual symbols, which are then interpreted. During these rituals, mambos may either be possessed by spirits or may oversee the spirit possession of other devotees. Spirit possession plays an important role in Voodoo because it establishes a connection between human beings and the Voodoo deities and spirits. It is believed that a spirit can “mount” whomever they choose, but the Voodoo priestesses and priests must serve as the vehicle for this possession, since those outside of the priesthood are not considered qualified to initiate possession. This is because the human body is merely flesh, which the spirits can borrow to reveal themselves via possession. Mambos, however, can speak to and hear from the Voodoo spirits. They can interpret the advice or warnings sent by a spirit to specific individuals or communities.

Famous Voodoo priestesses include Cecile Fatiman, who was a Haitian mambo famously known for sacrificing a black pig in August of 1791 that initiated the Haitain Revolution. In the US, notable mambos include Marie Laveau (1801–1888), for example, gained fame in New Orleans, Louisiana for her Voodoo practices and is known as Louisiana’s “voodoo queen”. In American popular culture her legacy has been depicted in the American television series American Horror Story: Coven.

Another prominent mambo and Voodoo spiritual leader in the United States is Mama Lola. She rose to fame after the publication of Karen McCarthy Brown’s Mama Lola: A Voodoo Priestess in Brooklyn. Mama Lola’s success provided her with a platform to challenge Western misconceptions of Haitian Voodoo and make television appearances.

Today, in Western societies and their traditional patriarchal religions we have seen an increase in the allowance of female religious practitioners. Though not technically ‘priestesses’ they perform the duties of priests. This however, is met with some controversy in Judeo Christian faiths and is the topic of much debate.

11.7 Religious Specialists and Altered States of Consciousness

When we use the term, “shaman” we are often loosely applying the term to any number of religious specialists found primarily in animistic religious traditions (or, religious traditions that focus on nature and spirits). Traditionally, this is a person who enters an altered state of consciousness-at will- to contact and utilize an ordinarily hidden reality in order to acquire knowledge, power, and to help others. These religious specialists pass through stages of learning that takes many years. Often this knowledge includes extensive knowledge of the natural world including extensive knowledge of plants, those used for medicine and those used as hallucinogenics.

These religious practices are rooted in altered states of consciousness whereby the religious leaders induce an altered state of consciousness through the use of a hallucinogenic to contact a normally hidden reality. These religious traditions are based on the belief of a normally hidden reality that exists alongside human reality. Religious leaders, in these traditions, connect to the hidden reality and then meanings are ascribed to experiences.

10.4 “Dark Side of the Shaman”

Before continuing, please read and take notes on “Dark Side of the Shaman” by Michael Fobes Brown.



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Brandeis, Amanda. (25 September 2020)

Brown, Karen McCarthy (2001). Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. The University Press Group Ltd. ISBN 9780520224759.

Brown, Michael. “Dark Side of Shaman.” Natural History Magazine, Nov. 1989.

Carlos Castaneda. The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqi Way of Knowledge.

Cooke, Phil.

Cosentino, Donald J., 1941- (1995). Sacred arts of Haitian vodou. UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History. ISBN 0930741463. OCLC 906668425.

D’Angelo, Rafi (January 30, 2014). “Is There Justice for Marie Laveau?”. Slate. Retrieved May 11, 2019.

Sarah Dening (1996), The Mythology of Sex Archived 2010–09–01 at the Wayback Machine, Macmillan, ISBN 978–0–02–861207–2. Ch.3.

Effron, Lauren, Andrew Paparella and Jeca Taudte. (20 December 2019)

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Holden, Emily. (5 July 2020). The Guardian.

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McAlister, Elizabeth (2018), “The Rite of Baptism in Haitian Vodou”, Religions of the United States in Practice, Volume 2, Princeton University Press, pp. 362–372, doi:10.2307/j.ctv346rkb.34, ISBN 9780691188133

Métraux, Alfred (2016). Voodoo in Haiti. Pickle Partners Publishing. ISBN 9781787201668. OCLC 969020248.

“Petroglyph Thefts near Bishop Stun Federal Authorities, Paiutes.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 18 Nov. 2012.

Schwartz, Timothy T. Travesty in Haiti: a True Account of Christian Missions, Orphanages, Fraud, Food Aid, and Drug Trafficking. BookSurge Publishing, 2010.

Stein, Rebecca L., and Philip L. Stein. The Anthropology of Religion, Magic, and Witchcraft. Routledge, 2016.

“Stolen Petroglyphs Mysteriously Reappear.” The News Review — Ridgecrest CA.

Ward, Martha (2004). Voodoo queen : the spirited lives of Marie Laveau. University Press of Mississippi. ISBN 1578066298. OCLC 896142435.

Watkins, Angela Denise. Mambos, priestesses, and goddesses (Thesis). The University of Iowa. doi:10.17077/etd.putbe084.



“Dark Side of the Shaman” comes from Natural History, November 1989, copyright © Natural History Magazine, Inc., 1989.

This is part of “Beliefs: An Open Invitation to the Anthropology of Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion.” This chapter is written by Laurie Solis (College of the Canyons) and Amanda Zunner-Keating for Los Angeles Valley College. Recorded by Amanda Zunner-Keating. Photo by Joshua Newton on Unsplash. Published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.



Amanda Zunner-Keating

Cultural Anthropologist in Los Angeles