In ancient Greece, religion was central to every aspect of daily life. Priests and priestesses played a crucial role in ensuring the peace, health, and prosperity of the state by intervening with the powerful—and often capricious—gods on behalf of human beings. The responsibilities of priesthood were taken very seriously, and priests and priestesses were important and highly respected individuals in Greece.
Qualifications for Priesthood. Greek priests and priestesses needed little or no special training. According to the Greek philosopher* Plato, the primary qualification was “good birth”—that is, being a member of a respected priestly or political family. Many in the priesthood were therefore restricted to the elite of Greek society.
Age also determined eligibility for many in the priesthood. For example, some cults* of the goddess Athena required that the priests be boys, not men. In contrast, only elderly Athenian women were eligible to become gerairai, who served the god Dionysus in the Anthesteria festival. The oracle* of the god Apollo at Delphi was originally a young girl, but later elderly women filled the post. Cults devoted to virgin deities*, such as the goddess Artemis, usually required that their priests and priestesses remain celibate*, sometimes for life. Similarly, married priests and priestesses served the cults of the goddess Hera and other married deities.
The oldest and most common method of becoming a priest was by inheritance. Families and clans controlled such priesthoods, which were passed down from one generation to the next. For example, the two important Athenian priesthoods of Athena Polias and Poseidon Erechtheus were held by two separate branches of the same clan, the Eteoboutads.
In democratic Athens, some priesthoods were filled by drawing lots. Some people understood this as a way of allowing the deity to make the choice of who would serve. Even priesthoods that required expertise in religious procedures were occasionally chosen by lot. Priests and priestesses were sometimes elected or appointed to their position, although election was less common than other methods. Outside the Greek mainland, wealthy individuals often purchased priesthoods, especially those in mystery cults and organizations known as “worshiper associations.”
* philosopher scholar or thinker concerned with the study of ideas, including science
* cult group bound together by devotion to a particular person, belief, or god
* oracle priest or priestess through whom a god is believed to speak; also the location (such as a shrine) where such utterances are made
* deity god or goddess
* celibate unmarried and abstaining from sexual intercourse
The Role of Priests. Sacrifices* were the most important rituals* in most Greek religious festivals. While either a public official or the head of a family presided at a sacrifice, priests assisted in the ceremony and made sure that it was carried out correctly. The priest was responsible for dedicating the sacrifice to the god or goddess, killing the animal in accordance with proper procedure, and preparing the meat for eating. Because the priest or priestess was believed to have a special relationship with the god, he or she offered prayers on behalf of the congregation.
Priests and priestesses also handled other duties and responsibilities. They administered the affairs of the cult, fined members for improper behavior, made loans and maintained finances, prepared for festivals, maintained temples and shrines, and provided housing for priests and visitors. Priests also handled religious duties for individuals, such as purifying homes following a birth or death, officiating at weddings, and administering oaths.
If the priesthood in ancient Greece carried with it large responsibilities, it also provided many economic benefits and social rewards. All priests received an income from their religious activities. They were entitled to a share of the offerings placed on the altar of the deity, as well as a portion of the dues required of cult members. Regardless of the financial benefits of the priesthood, most priests were motivated by the religious and social importance of their position. Priests wielded great authority long after Greece had been conquered by the Roman Empire, and the cults they served flourished until pagan* faiths were banned by the Roman emperor Theodosius I in A.D. 391. (See also Death and Burial; Divinities; Festivals and Feasts, Greek; Omens; Oracles; Priesthood, Roman; Religion, Greek; Ritual and Sacrifice; Votive Offerings.)
* sacrifice sacred offering made to a god or goddess, usually of an animal such as a sheep or goat
* ritual regularly followed routine, especially religious
* pagan referring to a belief in more than one god; non-Christian
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Like the virgin priestesses of Artemis, Greek priests and priestesses often shared similar characteristics with the deities they served. Some scholars argue that this was the result of an ancient belief that the priest actually embodied the spirit of the deity during rituals. Descriptions of some prehistoric rites support this theory. For example, priests of Heracles wore lionskin robes, and the "bear-girls" of Artemis in the city of Brauron wore bearskins while performing ritual dances.