A priest or priestess is a person having the authority or power to administer religious rites; in particular, rites of sacrifice to, and propitiation of, a deity or deities. Their office or position is the priesthood, a term which may also apply to such persons collectively.

Priests and priestesses have been known since the earliest of times and in the simplest societies. They exist in some branches of Christianity, Shintoism, Hinduism, and many other religions, as well, and are generally regarded as having good contact with the deities of the religion to which he or she ascribes, often interpreting the meaning of events, performing the rituals of the religion, and to whom other believers often will turn for advice on spiritual matters.

In many religions, being a priest or priestess is a full-time assignment, ruling out any other career. In other cases it is an auxiliary role. For example in early Icelandic history the chieftains were entitled "goði", a word that conveyed "priest", but as in the saga of Hrafnkell Freysgoði, this consisted merely of offering periodic sacrifices to the Norse gods and goddesses, and it was not a full time occupation, nor did it involve ordination. In some religions, priesthood is a position inherited in familial lines.

The term "priestess" is often used for women officiating in ancient religious temples and oracles and who, in some cultures, would have exceeded priests in authority.

Women officiating in modern Paganism, Neopagan religions such as Wicca, and various Polytheistic Reconstructionism faiths are referred to as priestesses, however, in contemporary Christian churches that ordain women, such as those of the Anglican Communion or the Christian Community, ordained women are called priests.

Those officiating in Judaism, both men and women, are called Rabbi.

Ancient religions

Although the historical records are fragmentary and archaeological artifacts are sometimes difficult to interpret without written records, the earliest historical records, those of Egypt indicate that the fertility cults were officiated by women for a great length of time before priests are evident.

Even into historical times there were cult centers officiated by priestesses for Isis as far away as in Brittan, transplanted by Romans and Greeks into the 600s A.D.

A similar situation seems to prevail in other Mediterranean cultures. Those of Crete show priestesses almost exclusively in what appear to be ceremonial rituals.

The Ancient Greeks recorded the predominance of priestesses in certain cults such as for Athene even after the major cultural change to male deities. Their early myths relate many mystery cults that involved large numbers of women as participants. Once the paternalistic religions of the east dominated the religions of Greece, however, the oldest oracles remained officiated by a priestess.

The religious practices of the Romans passed through similar phases and also retained the vestiges of the past at their oracles and with the Vestal Virgins retaining their official status without change.

The Yoruba people of western Nigeria practice an indigenous religion with a religious hierarchy of priests and priestesses that dates to A.D. 800-1000. Ifá priests and priestesses bear the titles Babalowo for men and Iyanifa for females. Priests and priestess of the varied Orisha are titled Babalorisa for men and Iyalorisa for women. Initiates are also given an Orisa or Ifá name that signifies under which deity they are initiated. For example a Priestess of Oshun may be named Osunyemi and a Priest of Ifá may be named Ifáyemi. This ancient culture continues to this day as initiates from all around the world return to Nigeria for initiation into the traditional priesthood.

In Judaism

In Judaism, the Kohanim (singular כּהן "kohen", plural כּהנִים "kohanim", whence the family names "Cohen", "Cahn", "Kahn", "Kohn", "Kogan", etc.) are hereditary priests through paternal descent. These families are from the tribe of the Levi'im (Levites) (whence the family names "Levy", "Levi", "Levin", "Lewin", "Lewis", etc.), and are traditionally accepted as the descendants of Aaron.

During the times of the two Jewish Temples in Jerusalem, they were responsible for daily and special Jewish holiday offerings and sacrifices within the temples known as the "korbanot".

Since the demise of the Second Temple, and therefore the cessation of the daily and seasonal temple ceremonies and sacrifices, Kohanim in traditional Judaism (Orthodox Judaism and to some extent, Conservative Judaism) have continued to perform a number of priestly ceremonies and roles such as the Pidyon HaBen (redemption of a first-born son) ceremony and the Priestly Blessing, and have remained subject, particularly in Orthodox Judaism, to a number of special rules, including restrictions on marriage, ritual purity, and other requirements. Orthodox Judaism regards the Kohanim as being held in reserve for a future restored Temple. In all branches of Judaism, Rabbis do not perform such priestly roles as propitiation, sacrifice, or sacrament. Rather, a Rabbi's principal religious function is to serve as an authoritative judge and expositor of Jewish law. Rabbis have also generally come to perform clerical and social leadership roles such as congregational leadership and pastoral counseling. Judaism does not, however, reserve such roles to rabbis.

In Christianity

Two different Greek words have traditionally been translated into English as "priest" (Greek was the language in which the New Testament was composed, hence its importance in understanding early Christian practice). Both words occur in the New Testament, which draws a distinction not always observed in English. The first, "presbyteros" (Ancient Greek: "πρεσβύτερος"), Latinized as "presbyter", is traditionally translated "priest" and the English word "priest" is indeed etymologically derived from this word; literally, however, this word means "elder", and is used in neutral and non-religious contexts in Greek to refer to seniority or relative age. It is the term used in Anglicanism, Catholicism, and Orthodoxy to refer to one given the sacrament of Holy Orders in that degree.

The second word, "hiereus" (Ancient Greek: "ιερεύς"), Latin "sacerdos", refers to priests who offer sacrifice, such as the priesthood of the Jewish Temple, or the priests of pagan gods. The New Testament Epistle to the Hebrews draws a distinction between the Jewish priesthood and that of Christ; it teaches that the sacrificial atonement by Jesus Christ on Calvary has made the Jewish priesthood redundant. Thus, for Christians, Christ himself is uniquely "hiereus". Roman Catholics, the Orthodox, and Anglicans (especially Anglo-Catholics) therefore, believe that priests and bishops share in the one priesthood of Christ through the sacrament of Holy Orders, and are empowered to offer the one sacrifice of Jesus in the Eucharist which, as the Book of Hebrews says, is offered "once for all" (] [cite news
url =
title = Peoria diocese ordains its first married priest
page = C8
last = Miller
first = Michael
work = Peoria Journal Star
date = Saturday, May 17, 2008
accessdate = 2008-05-17
quote = About 100 Episcopal priests, many of them married, have become Catholic priests since a "pastoral provision" was created by Pope John Paul II in 1980, said [Doug] Grandon, director of catechetics for the diocese. [...] His family life will remain the same, he said. Contrary to popular misunderstandings, he won't have to be celibate.
] Married men may become priests in Eastern Orthodoxy and the Eastern Catholic Churches but in neither case may they marry after ordination, even if they become widowed. It is also important to note that candidates for the episcopacy are only chosen from among the celibate.

Anglican or Episcopalian

The role of a priest in the Anglican Communion is largely the same as within the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Christianity, save that Canon Law in almost every Province of Anglicanism restricts the administration of confirmation to the bishop, just as with ordination. Whilst Anglican priests who are members of religious orders must remain celibate, the secular clergy (bishops, priests, and deacons who are not members of religious orders) are permitted to marry before or after ordination. The Anglican Church, unlike the Roman Catholic or Eastern Christian traditions, has allowed the ordination of women as priests in some provinces since the late 20th century. This practice remains controversial, however, and a number of provinces retain an all-male priesthood. As Anglicanism represents a broad range of theological opinion, its presbyterate includes priests who consider themselves no different in any respect from those of the Roman Catholic Church, and a minority who prefer to use the title "presbyter" in order to distance themselves from the more sacrificial theological implications which they associate with the word "priest". Whilst priest is the official title of a member of the presbyterate in every Anglican province worldwide, the ordination rite of certain provinces (including the Church of England) recognizes the breadth of opinion by adopting the title "The Ordination of Priests (also called Presbyters)".


The general priesthood or the priesthood of all believers, is a Christian doctrine derived from several passages of the New Testament. It is a foundational concept of Protestantism. ["Protestantism originated in the 16th-century Reformation, and its basic doctrines, in addition to those of the ancient Christian creeds, are justification by grace alone through faith, the priesthood of all believers, and the supremacy of Holy Scripture in matters of faith and order" ("The Protestant Heritage." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 20 September 2007 [] ] It is this doctrine that Martin Luther adduces in his 1520 "To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation" in order to dismiss the medieval Christian belief that Christians were to be divided into two classes: "spiritual" and "temporal" or non-spiritual.

Ordained Protestant clergy often have the title of pastor, minister, etc. In Scandinavian Lutheran national Churches which have episcopal polity, ordained clergy are called priests.


The dress of religious workers in ancient times may be demonstrated in frescoes and artifacts from the cultures. The dress is presumed to be related to the customary clothing of the culture, with some symbol of the deity worn on the head or held by the person. Sometimes special colors, materials, or patterns distinguish celebrants, as the white wool veil draped on the head of the Vestal Virgins. Occasionally the celebrants at religious ceremonies shed all clothes in a symbolic gesture of purity. This was often the case in ancient times. An example of this is shown to the left on a Kylix dating from c. 500 BC where a priestess is featured. Modern religious groups tend to avoid such symbolism and some may be quite uncomfortable with the concept.

The retention of long skirts and vestments among many ranks of contemporary priests when they officiate may be interpreted to express the ancient traditions of the cultures from which their religious practices arose.

In most Christian traditions, priests wear clerical clothing, a distinctive form of street dress. Even within individual traditions it varies considerably in form, depending on the specific occasion. In Western Christianity, the stiff white clerical collar has become the nearly universal feature of priestly clerical clothing, worn either with a cassock or a clergy shirt. The collar may be either a full collar or a vestigial tab displayed through a square cutout in the shirt collar.

Eastern Christian priests mostly retain the traditional dress of two layers of differently cut cassock: the "rasson" (Greek) or "podriasnik" (Russian) beneath the outer "exorasson" (Greek) or "riasa" (Russian). If a pectoral cross has been awarded it is usually worn with street clothes in the Russian tradition, but not so often in the Greek tradition.

Distinctive clerical clothing is less often worn in modern times than formerly, and in many cases it is rare for a priest to wear it when not acting in a pastoral capacity, especially in countries that view themselves as largely secular in nature. There are frequent exceptions to this however, and many priests rarely if ever go out in public without it, especially in countries where their religion makes up a clear majority of the population. Pope John Paul II often instructed Catholic priests and religious to always wear their distinctive (clerical) clothing, unless wearing it would result in persecution or grave verbal attacks.

Christian traditions that retain the title of priest also retain the tradition of special liturgical vestments worn only during services. Vestments vary widely among the different Christian traditions.

Assistant priest

An assistant priest is a priest in the Anglican and Episcopal churches who is not the senior member of clergy of the parish to which they are appointed, but is nonetheless in priests' orders; there is no difference in function or theology, merely in 'grade' or 'rank'. Some assistant priests have a "sector ministry", that is to say that they specialize in a certain area of ministry within the local church, for example youth work, hospital work, or ministry to local light industry. They may also hold some diocesan appointment part-time. In most (though not all) cases an assistant priest has the legal status of assistant curate, although it should also be noted that not all assistant curates are priests, as this legal status also applies to many deacons working as assistants in a parochial setting.

The corresponding term in the Roman Catholic Church is "parochial vicar" - an ordained priest assigned to assist the pastor (Latin: "parochus") of a parish in the pastoral care of parishioners. Normally, all pastors are also ordained priests although occasionally an auxiliary bishop will be assigned that role.

ee also


* Clergy
* Holy Orders

Priestly offices of various religions and denominations


* Brahmin
* Vedic priesthood
* Archpriest
* Hieromonk
* Vicar
* Priesthood (Community of Christ)
* Priesthood (Latter Day Saints)
* Shaman
* Mobad


* Goði
* Druid
* Oracle
* Vestal Virgin
* Pontifex Maximus
* Flamen
* Hierodule


* Presbyterorum Ordinis, decree on the priesthood from the Second Vatican Council
* Ordination of women
* Priest shortage
* Ritualism
* Sacerdotalism


* Priesthood of all believers
* Pastor
* List of fictional clergy and religious figures


External links

* [ Description] of the problem of Roman Catholic and Old Catholic reunion with respect to the female priesthood
* [ 1911 Britannica article on the priesthood]
* [] A site by an initiated priestess of Osun, with blogs, documentaries and details about initiating in Nigeria.

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