Origins and Ideas

by Robert Brow

Priests, Priestcraft and Magic

WE HAVE OUTLINED THE biblical picture of man's original religion based on God as Creator, and sinful man approaching him through animal sacrifice. If this is true it is evident that the world's religions have in fact strayed from this original concept. In this chapter we shall examine the emergence of priestcraft as an institution common to ancient India, China, Egypt, classical Greece and Rome, many other civilizations, and even the medieval Christian church.

First we must try to picture worship based on animal sacrifice in its simplest form. To modern man the very idea of animal sacrifice conjures up revolting images of dark, superstitious rites and gory victims. It is important to realize that before the rise of Jainism and Buddhism in the sixth century BC men were meat-eaters, as they still are in most parts of the world. If animals are to be eaten, they have to be killed, and most races have agreed that the blood should be drained out from the carcass. This happens in our Western civilization in thousands of slaughter-houses. We turn away our eyes, but for early man each 'sacrifice'[1] had a spiritual significance. When we read of thousands of animals being sacrificed by Solomon, we could simply paraphrase 'he gave a big feast for all the people'.

Now the important thing about animal sacrifice in the Bible is that God used the joyous occasions of eating meat as visual aids to teach spiritual truths. There is nothing more primitive or obnoxious about attaching spiritual truths to animal sacrifice than to bread and wine. The animal sacrifices looked forward to Christ's death and resurrection, and our Christian Communion Services look back. That a wide variety of spiritual meanings was attached to animal sacrifice is evident from the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers. These various rites can be seen as different facets of the death of Christ and the same facets of his death are now expressed in the Communion Service.

Even before Moses we find four aspects of sacrifice which were common knowledge to the Hebrew patriarchs, the Aryans of India, the ancient Greeks, and probably many other races. The most common was the sacrificial fellowship meal, whenever men sat down to eat joyfully before God. An extension of this was the idea of a covenant, based on eating together, witnessed by the blood of the animal. The covenant might be between two men or tribes, or between men and God. Then there were occasional whole burnt offerings, usually presented by a king or patriarch to indicate worship, consecration, or thanksgiving to God. And when there was conscience of sin, or a flagrant breaking of the moral order, a sin offering or expiatory sacrifice was required.

The earliest sacrificial worship was conducted by the head of the family or tribe. In settled conditions the development of a regular priesthood was inevitable, especially with the growth of cities and the increasing pomp of a royal court. There were dangers, but nothing inherently wrong, in having a full-time or even a hereditary priesthood. Moses appointed his own brother Aaron as the head of a hereditary, exclusive line of priests. His own tribe, the Levites, became full-time attendants on the service of God, and were supported by the tithes of the other tribes.

Similarly in the settled conditions of city life the building of permanent facilities for sacrificial worship was acceptable to God. A temple with altars for large numbers of people, together with the attendant buildings, was required in the reign of Solomon. It is interesting, however, that the argument of the Epistle to the Hebrews goes back to the mobile tabernacle rather than the elaborate temple. There were certainly great dangers in the use of temple and elaborate altars, as there were in the development of a full-time priesthood, and the prophets constantly had to fight priestly rapacity and the misconceptions of the people. Where there were no prophets, priesthood and temple worship always degenerated into the ugliness of priestcraft.

The clearest documented account of this degeneration appears in the history of the Brahmin priesthood of India. The earliest group of Vedic hymns called the Rig Veda[2] were first collected in an oral form, say about 1500 BC, as the Aryan tribes were invading north-western India. The collection may have been the work of the first regular priests. At this time sacrifice could still be offered by any Aryan, and priesthood was by inclination, probably on a part-time basis. Under settled conditions the power of the priests tended to increase. They suggested that unless the right sacrifices were offered the gods would be displeased, and therefore only highly trained priests could learn the prayers and rituals which were necessary.

Some specialization began, and a school of singing priests (Udgatri) arose who chanted the special hymns for each sacrificial occasion. Their collection of 1,225 hymns (the Sama Veda) were all from the Rig Veda, except for 75 new ones. Then a third book called the Yajur Veda was produced by a class of priests who did the actual offering of sacrifice. Their collection was mainly the . ritual formulas muttered in a low voice during the various stages of the sacrifice. Thus by about 900 BC there were at least three groups of priests with their own special duties and training schools. The priests had leisure to study and teach, and knowledge brought power. It was only natural that the priestly schools should produce notes and commentaries on their books (the same kind of thing happens today). The material is called Brahmanas, which includes explanation of the hymns, the rituals of sacrifice, the duties of the priests, etc. The study of this material produced an elaborate scholasticism.

By the time of the Brahmanas (C. 800-700 BC) the Brahmins had become a hereditary priesthood in charge of all sacrificial duties, for which they were paid fees by the people. The Brahmins were now suggesting that by the right sacrifices, which they alone could offer, they could procure the favours of the gods, various temporal blessings, and a good place in heaven. Gods, men, governments, all were under priestly control.

About the same time as the Brahmanas, a fourth Veda was compiled called the Atharva Veda. Because of its lateness and the low ethical quality of its contents, this Veda is still not recognized in some parts of South India. The Atharva Veda has 6,000 stanzas, of which 1,200 are taken from the Rig Veda. Most of the remaining stanzas consist of charms and incantations for magical purposes. This shows how easily priestcraft degenerates into magic. Once sacrifice becomes a meritorious act which forces God to give blessings, it can be used to obtain benefits for oneself and harm for one's enemies. Obviously we are now only one stage removed from the witch-doctor. He still uses sacrifice, but it is directed to spirits instead of to God and all ethical or worship content has disappeared.

The progress of modern cultural anthropology indicates that virtually all animistic tribes still use animal sacrifice, and there is growing evidence to show that their sacrificial practices are a degeneration from one of the ancient priesthoods, just as those are a degeneration from the original religion of man.

Our next chapter surveys the great movements of revolt against priestcraft in the sixth and fifth centuries BC. The resulting great world religions and the rise of Christianity largely obliterated animal sacrifice as a significant stream in the history of religion. Before leaving the subject, however, we must note how prevalent priestcraft was in all civilizations, and how it even threatened to throttle the Christian church.

Marx said that religion was the opium of the people, and he spoke truly if priestcraft was his target, The essence of priestcraft is the rise of a group of people who claim to control access to God, and who suggest that the offering of sacrifice is a meritorious act which forces God to grant favours. Priestcraft always takes away the joy of worship. It stifles individual piety, truth and justice, and divorces morality from religion. Its tragedy is that it forces honest and true men to fight against God, since God appears to be the ally of the priests. This explains the-strange alliance of poets, philosophers, Marxists, continental Freemasons, Humanists, Pietists, university students, and the middle-class conscience against that `opium'.

Many learned treatises have described early religion before 3000 BC, but without written records such dogmatism is guesswork based on less than one per cent of the evidence. If all our modern books were destroyed, what would an archaeologist be able to make of our religion from our ruins and graves? As I have already said, a Creator-God worshipped through animal sacrifice leaves no archaeological evidence. We must therefore confine ourselves to civilizations which have left written documents.

The most ancient religion accessible in a deciphered script is that of Sumer.[3] Hundreds of documents list sacrifices to the gods at the temples of Ur, Nippur and other cities. By about 2500 BC we know that the city temples had acquired vast lands, and there was a fierce rivalry between the priests and the government. Already Enlil, the god of creation, had been joined by numerous other gods who lied, lusted and fought against each other. A corrupt priestcraft serving degenerate gods heralded the overthrow of this city-state civilization by Semites from Babylonia.

The Babylonians also had an elaborate priesthood with vast temples and hordes of temple servants. The main difference was that the priests were mostly of the royal family, and the supreme head was a priest-king. This may reflect the original nomadic practice of having the head of the tribe act as priest. For the Babylonians the supreme God was An (who corresponded to the Semitic El, Hebrew Elohim and Arabic Allah), but many extra divinities were absorbed from the conquered Sumerians.

Where the priesthood is a department of state and the high priest is also king, the running battle between government and religion is avoided. It is also possible that the vicious effects of priestcraft are tempered by the needs of maintaining an ordered government. On the other hand, when religion has become a department of government, a seeker after the city of God, like Abraham has no alternative but to leave. The Bible pictures Abraham as a man who abandoned the city-state religion of Ur to follow and serve God. Wherever he stopped he built an altar of uncut stones and worshipped with the primitive simplicity of animal sacrifice.

In Egypt we find the priesthood of the sun-god Re overshadowing the king from about 2400 BC. This was followed by a revolt of the barons who divided Egypt into a collection of warring states, and brought the priests under control. After the expulsion of the Hyksos about 1570 BC Egypt attained her greatest political power. The secret was that, instead of one powerful priesthood, there were several (the priesthoods of Amun, Ptah, and Re) which the Pharaohs played off against each other. That the priesthood had degenerated to magic not far removed from the witch-doctor is evidenced both from Egyptian records and from the account of the Exodus in the Bible.

The early religion of Crete may be clarified when the linear A script is deciphered. We know from Greek sources, however, that it was centred on the sacrifice of a bull and was attended by a priesthood. The earliest Greek epics describe animal sacrifice on numerous occasions, very similar to the worship of Abraham in Palestine and the Aryans in India. The Greek priesthood was weakened by being attached to a particular deity at a particular shrine and none other. The priesthood was not necessarily hereditary, and no intellectual qualifications nor elaborate teaching were required. The priesthood was often laughed at, but its scattered weakness meant that the Greek thinkers never engaged the ancient religion in open battle. The supreme place of Zeus indicates that before the inventive period of Greek mythology, the Creator was worshipped through animal sacrifice as among the other Indo-European nations.

The only other ancient priesthoods of which we have written evidence before 500 BC are the Persians and the Chinese. Zoroaster of Persia and Confucius of China were contemporaries, and they both proclaimed ethical religions in opposition to the degenerate priesthood and Polytheism which existed before them. We know as little about the Magi priesthood of Persia as about the Wu priesthood of China. Both practised animal sacrifice, presumably without any ethical content, and both failed to satisfy the questions of thinking men. As we shall see in the next chapter, Zoroaster and Confucius were part of a great movement of freedom for the human mind from priestcraft in the sixth century BC. Its importance for world history may be compared with that of the Renaissance and Reformation in Europe 2,000 years later.

Passing over the many other priesthoods, such as the Roman Flamens, who sacrificed white lambs on the ides of the month, the Aztecs, who offered human victims, and the Nordics and Germans, whose altars were overthrown by the early Christian missionaries, we must briefly examine the phenomenon of the emergence of the vast system of medieval priestcraft within Christendom. The Epistle to the Hebrews makes it clear that all the Old Testament sacrifices were fulfilled in Christ. From the death of Christ onwards there could be no more animal sacrifices looking forward to the cross; the bread and wine of the Communion Service were to look back. There could be no more high priest, since Christ himself was the High Priest who had offered himself as Victim and entered the holy place. All Christians were now to be priests, a holy nation. How then did the medieval priesthood arise?

Whereas in the beginning any Christian could preside at the Eucharist, in the course of time the bishop of each small town was expected to preside or to delegate his function to a presbyter (elder). Originally the Communion Service was to express the ideas of a fellowship meal, and was a reminder of forgiveness through the sacrifice of Christ and an occasion of joyful praise and dedication to God. But just as the true meaning of animal sacrifice always tended to be transformed into a meritorious act which had merit in itself and forced God to be gracious, so with the Communion Service. Then, gradually, it was suggested that without a properly ordained priest a Communion Service was not valid. Meanwhile the services became more elaborate and required special training.

By the end of the Middle Ages all the characteristics of priestcraft were evident. Masses were offered with intent to obtain specific favours from God such as victory in war, diminution of the pains of purgatory, indulgences for past sin, or just additional merit in place of a righteous life. The hierarchy of priests, bishops, archbishops, and the pope as supreme dominated every aspect of life and interfered in politics. The complete absence of justice or common ethics in such a system forced thinking men into the same kind of revolt as had occurred in the sixth century BC. There was a political revolt against priestly pretensions in the conduct of government; there was an intellectual revolt against the shackles of priestly domination in the sciences and humanities; an ethical revolt inflamed the middle classes against the doctrines of indulgences and masses for the wicked dead; and a spiritual longing for man to read the Bible and know God for himself ushered in the Reformation. judgment had to begin with the church before the Christian faith could presume to make converts from other religions.

Chapter 3...


1. In both Greek and Hebrew the same word is used for sacrifice and killing animals.

2. For information about Hindu scriptures see J.N. Farquhar, Outline of the Religious Literature of India (Oxford University Press, 1920), or The Encyclopaedia Britannica under 'Hinduism'.

3. See The New Bible Dictionary (Inter-Varsity Press, 1962) under `Sumer,' 'Babylonia', 'Egypt', etc. for further information and bibliography.

Chapter 3...