There are several types of religious practitioners or people who specialize in religious behaviors. These are individuals who specialize in the use of spiritual power to influence others. A shaman is an individual who has access to supernatural power that can then be used for the benefit of specific clients. Found in indigenous cultures, shamans may be part-time specialists, but is usually the only person in the group that can access the supernatural. They have specialized knowledge that is deemed too dangerous for everyone to know because they do not have the training to handle the knowledge. Oftentimes, shamans train their replacement in the ways of contacting and utilizing the supernatural. Shamans are often innovative in their practices, using trance states to contact the supernatural.
The term shaman originated with the Tungus peoples of eastern Siberia. Anthropologists debate the ethics of using the term to apply to all indigenous religious practitioners. Some think that we should use each cultures’ name for their religious practitioners; others take the position that use of the term is not meant to be disrespectful but is simply a way for all anthropologists to categorize a cultural trait much like we use the names of several cultures for the anthropological kinship terminology systems. There is also public debate about the increasing number of so-called white shamans, especially in the United States where there is still heated debate about the plight of Native Americans. For more information on this debate, check out the video White Shamans and Plastic Medicine Men on YouTube.
Priests are another type of religious practitioner who are trained to perform rituals for benefit of a group. Priests differ from shamans in a couple of important ways. For priests, rituals are key—innovation and creativity are generally not prized or encouraged. Priests are found in most organized religions, e.g., Buddhism, Christianity and Judaism, although they have a different name such as monks, ministers, or rabbis.
Sorcerers and witches, unlike shamans and priests who have high status in their cultures, usually have low status because their abilities are seen in a negative manner. Both sorcerers and witches have the ability to connect with the supernatural for ill purposes. Sorcerers often take on a role similar to law enforcement in the United States; they are used by people to punish someone who has violated socially proscribed rules. Witches are believed to have an innate connection to the supernatural, one that they often cannot control. Because witches may inadvertently hurt people because they cannot control their power, if discovered, they are often ostracized or forced to leave their group. It is important to differentiate witches in some cultures from Wiccans. While Christianity makes no distinction between Wiccans and witches as described above, Wicca has clear mandates against using magic to harm others. The Wiccan rede states, “An’ it harm none, do what ye will.”
Mediums are part-time practitioners who use trance and possession to heal and divine. Oftentimes after a trance or possession, the medium remembers nothing about the experience or their actions.
Anthropologists have identified a pattern linking the type and number of practitioners with social complexity: the more complex the society, the more variety of religious practitioners. Foraging cultures tend to have only one practitioner, a shaman. If a culture has two practitioners, a shaman and a priest, chances are that they are agriculturalists, albeit without complex political and social organization. Agriculturalists and pastoralists with more complex political organization that goes beyond the immediate community, generally have at least three types of practitioners, shamans, priests and a sorcerer, witch or medium. Cultures with complex political organization, agriculture, and complex social organization usually have all four practitioners (Bonvillain 2010).
Bonvillain, Nancy. 2010. Cultural Anthropology, 2nd edition. Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.
Lavenda Robert H. and Emily A. Schultz. 2010. Core Concepts in Cultural Anthropology, 4th edition. Boston: McGraw Hill Higher Education.
Laufer, Berthold. 1917. Origin of the word shaman. American Anthropologist 19 (3): 361-371. Also, DOI: 10.1525/aa.1917.19.3.02a00020 (October 28, 2009).
Warms, Richard. 2008. Sacred Realms: Readings in the Anthropology of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press.