Many years ago a good teacher and elder of mine shared that there is a significant difference between the shaman and the priest. He was a priest who understood shamanism. This difference has struck me more and more with time and experience. I worked for about a decade within the Catholic Church and have walked a shamanic path for years prior and many more since leaving that job. The distinctions can be some of the fundamental reasons that there is an archaic revival and a return to something more connected. From the outset the distinction can come down to one being past focused and the other future…
Shamans work with and for the people, often tribes or small groups. Priests (I include Rabbi and Imams in this word for sake of simplicity) work for a hierarchy, most often an organization. This distinction does not mean that in many cases, church groups, temples and organizations are not small or not almost like a tribe in size. The priest will often be hired and fired by church elders and the like, but his/her authority and approval comes from organization or sect which blesses this person to care for the organization and thus the people within the individual units that make up the whole.
A shaman ventures out and in for knowledge and awareness, the realms of dream, the jungle, the spirit world or some “other.” They gain authority to practice ceremonies from lineages or visions. The people who they serve are attracted to that shaman for the quality of knowledge, teachings or ceremony that they offer. If the individual does not like or approve, they move on to find another shaman to work with. Shamans in training seek out other shaman, elders, and learn from them, but do not copy the words or songs or other chants in a direct manner like reading from a book of approved prayers. The shaman must become these ceremonial parts, understand and connect to them in the unique and visionary method that comes to them. The chants maybe memorized but they are not read or recited during ceremony from a text. Their teachers or lineal holders free them to do what is necessary for the people, not what is necessary for the organization or hierarchy.
A shaman works with spirits often of nature, plants or creation. By comparison, a priest works only with one spirit, their concept of the one god. Spirits and angels, nature energies and often the numerous things that make up our world are oppressed or suppressed in favor of an overarching unity. This oneness is often quiet distant, and thus the priest acts as the intermediary with the answers based on the organization or structures or teachings passed down in schools or a book. A priest who says they see spirits or ghosts has to be careful. This talent has been relegated to the possessed or witches. The priest can feel the call to serve, even some will have dreams of angels, but this is still submitted to and dominated by the greater authority structure of the organization. A shaman may become possessed of a specific spirit within a ceremony; they may act as intermediary between the people and the spirit world. They find answers through trial and error; often these answers are new and different in each moment for the future of the tribe or person’s well being. While some of the shamanic traditions are passed down through memorization and story, the key is the present and the future of the tribe, not maintaining the past and the right answers all the time. The shaman must balance within the times. The priest preserves the passage time and a link to the past.
The shaman gains authority from the success of his visions and or methods they use to treat, heal and take care of the people. The priest gains authority from other priests and from the structure they work within. If there is an error made, the priest is subject to the authoritarian structure, which will often hide the truth in the name of organizational survival. The shaman who makes a serious error looses the respect and authority from the people he serves and takes care of. The people are free to go somewhere else or reject the shaman. In extreme cases in the past, the shaman in a tribe may be killed off or replaced with another. The shaman can never lie in the face of this reality. This would break the trust that is needed for the current times he serves. There is no organization to fall back into or hide within. He must have integrity in everything he does or he loses his personal power from spirit, the people move on.
The last distinction is the priest will often, though not always, get to a point where they are granted authority and from that point on change very little… this is because the answers to all the questions are answered in a book or set of rules or beliefs… there is no challenge to these rules, he must uphold them. The shaman must constantly grow, nurture their relationship with spirit and maybe completely change because the vision changes which means the rules and ceremonies they work with must change. For many shaman, when they work within a fluid vision, they do not think of them in terms of generations long but rather a few months or years to fulfill the needs of their tribe. And they must always refresh that visionary connection. The priest is working as the leader in a structure of someone else’s vision or idea. The organization is responsible for preservation of the future from the past not the current visions of a single priest.
I like to make this significant distinction for many reasons; there are creators and there are sustainers. This idea comes from my Navaho teachers. Though with time, I have seen how true it is and incorporated this into a deeper understanding than can be completely illuminated here. The creators are shaman, constantly creating the moment, healing the times they are in, being of service to spirit and the tribe. The priests are sustainers of the vision(s) of someone else. They use what already works, has always worked. This has always worked so they maintain this hard and fast link to that past through maintaining the unfolding of an ancient vision of a creator they only believe they know. The shaman is dancing in the now with the knowledge that works with the present creation unfolding.
Both creators and sustainers are necessary in our world. At times a priest may be essential, yet at other times the shaman is critical. I see in our world today a drastic need to return to creating new and refreshed visions… for this reason I understand why shamanism has such a pull on our world and our consciousness. Not everyone becomes a shaman, it takes a lifetime. And the best priest I knew were Jesuits who commit to a lifelong path of continual spiritual examination and deepening commitment. The best priests, in my mind, were in some manner shamanistic. The best shamans were those that understood the necessities of the traditions of the priestly leaders and knew what they knew.
We are dancing on the head of a pin as a global culture. It is too easy to lose the real efficacy of these two and think they are the same… they are wholly different for these and certainly more reasons I see the necessity of both, but rely most on our shaman creators for what is coming.