Shamans Versus Priests

Published under: Shamanism

While con­duct­ing research for my doc­u­men­tary, I’ve fre­quently been asked about the dif­fer­ence between priests and shamans.

Many schol­ars have the­o­rized that all of the major world reli­gions have shaman­ism at their very foun­da­tion.  So, whether the founder was Abra­ham, Moses, Jesus, Muham­mad, the Bud­dha, et al.…

these reli­gions grew out of attempts to describe, depict, and explain the super­nat­ural expe­ri­ences of their founders – who were, by any stan­dard, shamans of the high­est order. 1

Shaman's Mask

Shaman’s Mask

And, as the anthro­pol­o­gist Weston La Barre asserted: 

all our knowl­edge of the super­nat­ural derives de facto from the state­ments made by reli­gious vision­ar­ies and ecsta­t­ics (i.e. prophets and shamans) – the Priests only admin­is­trate the eccle­sia estab­lished on this super­nat­ural basis. 2

A fur­ther review of the anthro­po­log­i­cal lit­er­a­ture indi­cates that while some over­lap may occur as to what con­sti­tutes a shaman ver­sus a priest — shamans pri­mar­ily obtain their pow­ers from direct con­tact with spir­its — and priests earn their cre­den­tials through spe­cial train­ing asso­ci­ated with their par­tic­u­lar reli­gion. 3

Bot­tom line, shamans have the direct expe­ri­ence and priests are part of the reli­gious bureau­cracy that begins to build over time…although there are always exceptions.


  1. Gra­ham Han­cock, Super­nat­ural: Meet­ings with the Ancient Teach­ers of Mankind, Dis­in­for­ma­tion Books, San Fran­cisco, 2007, p. 309.
  2. Weston La Barry, “Hal­lu­cino­gens and the Shamanic Ori­gins of Reli­gion” in Peter Furst (Ed.), Flesh of the Gods: The Rit­ual Use of Hal­lu­cino­gens, Praeger Pub­lish­ers, New York, 1972, p. 261.
  3. Ger­ald Weiss, “Shaman­ism and Priest­hood in the Light of the Campa Ayahuasca Cer­e­mony” in Hal­lu­cino­gens and Shaman­ism, edited by Michael J. Harner, Oxford Uni­ver­sity Press,  Oxford, 1973.

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