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ministers of religion revered as intermediaries in the communication of men with the imaginary world of gods and spirits. The Russian word for priest, zhrets, derives from the Old Slavic verb zhr’ti, to sacrifice.

The emergence of a priesthood was linked with the development of religion. Among primitive tribes and among some contemporary peoples such as the Australian aborigines, Papuans, Vedda, and Indians of Tierra del Fuego, there were no special ministers of religion. Religious and magical rituals were generally performed by the heads of kinship groups on behalf of the whole clan or by persons whose personal qualities had earned them the reputation of “knowing” the ways of influencing the imaginary world of spirits and gods (sorcerers, magicians, shamans).

With the disintegration of primitive communal society, professional priests emerged as part of the general social differentiation, appropriating for themselves the exclusive right of communication with the spirits and gods. A system of priestly succession evolved, often on the basis of direct inheritance of the priestly title. Special organized bodies of priests gradually appeared, which in their origin and status bore a close resemblance to rulers, who themselves often performed priestly functions (holy rulers, “priest kings”).

In slaveholding and feudal class societies the priesthood usually made up part of the ruling class. In ancient Egypt, Babylon, and Iran, the temple priesthood possessed an enormous amount of wealth, land, and slaves and exercised a great deal of political power. Priests were also the guardians of learning. In ancient and medieval India, the Brahman priests, competing with the secular authorities, constituted the highest caste. Such was the position of priests in the ancient states of America, especially in Mexico and Peru. In Judea, between the sixth and first centuries B.C. when there were no longer any secular authorities (kings), all political, economic, and ideological power was vested in the priests of Jerusalem, forming a theocratic state. Only in classical Greece and Rome, where priestly offices were elective and usually held by citizens, did the priesthood not play an independent role. Still, even in these states priests enjoyed important prerogatives and exercised considerable influence on political life. A similar situation developed in Japan.

In China, the Taoist religion was headed by a numerous priesthood, but Confucianism was always controlled by the laity, from the emperor to the heads of clans. The religious, mythological, and theological speculations of priests contributed to the growing complexity of religion, to the creation of new myths, dogmas, and systems. In most class societies, the religion of the priests differed markedly from the beliefs of the common people. In the world religions of Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, the clergy is the successor of the priesthood.


Engels, F. Proiskhoihdenie sem’i, chastnoi sobstvennosti i gosudarstva.
Marx, K., and F. Engels. Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 21.
Frazer, J. Zolotaia vetv’, vols. 1–2. Moscow-Leningrad, 1928. (Translation from English.)
Lippert,LAllgemeineGeschichtedesPriesterthums, vols. 1–2. Berlin, 1883–84.


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