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ASK YOUR MAMA: What is the difference Bewteen a Priest/ess and a Shaman?

Dear Mama Donna,

What is the difference between a priest or priestess and a shaman?

Just Wondering in Wichita

Dear Wondering,

Priest/ess cultures are usually hierarchical. Someone is always above someone who is above someone else. Those at the top of the pyramid have the authority to tell those below what to do and how to do it. Most of the Western world today operates on this model. Organized religions, corporations, schools and the nuclear family system are all models of priest/ess traditions. Power in these structured establishments is generated from the top down.

Most priest/ess systems have a traditional framework that is perpetuated, unchanged, from generation to generation through time. Holidays, ceremonies, particular prayer practices and ways of doing things, ways of living — rules, regulations, and taboos — tend to get passed on as is. Customs are handed down through the ages without question. When someone asks why something is done in a certain manner, the answer will invariably be, “Because that is how it has always been done.”

There is a wonderful joke that perfectly describes this path:

A young bride was preparing her first holiday ham. (The Jewish version talks about a brisket!) She seasoned and sauced it. And just before placing it into the baking pan, she cut the end off of the roast.

“Why did you do that?” Asked her new husband, who had been observing with pr the operation with pride and fascination.

“Because that’s how you are supposed make a ham. That’s how my mother always made ham,” explained the wife.

“But, why?” persisted her curious spouse. “Call your mother and ask her.”

The young woman dialed her mother. “Mom, you know when you make a ham and you cut the end off of it before you put it into the pan? Why do you do that?”

“I don’t know, I never thought about. That’s just how you make a ham. That’s the way my mother always did it.”

“But why?” asked her by-now-perplexed daughter. “Call grandma and ask her.”

So the mother called her mother. “Ma, why is it you always cut off the end of the ham before baking it? What do you do that for?”

“Well, dear, when your father and I were first married, all we had was just one small roasting pan.”

This family custom of ham cutting had developed from a very real and practical need. And although the original, logical reason for the practice was now lost to the daughter and the granddaughter, the nostalgic pleasure of repeating comforting scenes from their childhood served their emotional needs.

The three major priest (now patriarchal and totally forgetting/suppressing their priestess pasts) religions of the West have survived, altered perhaps, but basically intact, for thousands of years. Judaism is nearly 5800-years-old, Christianity is 2003-years-old and Islam is almost 1500-years-old. They have lasted so long, because their religious calendars of repeated cycles of repeated rituals have been able to satisfy at least some of the spiritual, emotional, and philosophical requirements of people.

It is only in recent decades that great numbers of people have begun question religious authority and to look outside of their own inherited priestly religious pasts to find new ways of worship that speak more directly to their contemporary needs. In this quest for a more responsive spirituality, many people have begun to investigate older forms of relating to the divine.

Shamanic cultures predate organized religions. They encourage a more immediate, intimate, personal relationship with the sacred. Worship and devotion are deemed to be immediate and uninterrupted, and usually without the intercession of an intermediary.

This is not to say that there are not traditional community rituals in shamanic cultures that have been performed throughout many generations. But it is commonly understood that each individual is capable of enjoying a unique and private relationship with the Powers That Be. That anyone can design and perform a personally relevant ritual.

Don, a friend of a friend, an Apache from Oklahoma, was for several decades a dedicated student of spiritual traditions from around the world and a fervent collector of religious books of every genre. When Don was on his deathbed, his friend Louie paid him a visit. Louie wanted to know if Don wished for a traditional shaman to counsel him through his final passage. He did not. Louie then asked him if he wanted to talk to a priest? No. A minister? No. A rabbi? A monk? A guru? No. No. No. Finally Don informed him, “I think I’ll just go direct!”

A shaman serves as a spiritual leader, but not an ordained director. S/he leads through the power of her/his own direct experience with spirit, and not because someone above her/him on the power ladder has granted her the authority to do so. As a shaman, I can teach through example, but not through dictum. I can encourage, inspire and support my constituents, but I can not — dare not — pass judgement or pass laws. I can and do pat my students on the back, kick them in the butt or let them cry on my shoulder when they need help. I can tell them what I did, how I learned this or that lesson, but I cannot tell them what they should do. How do I know what their soul needs to do? I can, of course, aid them in reaching into their own wisdom and help them to learn from their own inner best self.

The shamanic assumption is that every person has her/his own mission in this life time. Her own dreams. His own way. Her own path. His own sensibility. Her own visions and designs. His own hard-won lessons. That we each have our own singular life to live, that every one of us must figure out for ourselves the fullest, richest, most effective, ethical, and satisfying way in which to do it, and moreover, that we all own the power and the response-ability to make it so.

Yours till Niagara Falls,

xxMama Donna

*Are you cyclically confused? In a ceremonial quandary? Completely clueless? Wonder no more. Send your questions about seasons, cycles, ANDcelebrations to

About the author:
Donna Henes is an internationally renowned urban shaman, ritual expert, award-winning author, popular speaker and workshop leader. She has published four books, a CD and an acclaimed journal. In addition to teaching and lecturing worldwide, Mama Donna, as she is affectionately called, maintains a ceremonial center, spirit shop, ritual practice and consultancy in exotic Brooklyn, NY where she works with individuals, groups, institutions, municipalities and corporations to create meaningful ceremonies for every imaginable occasion.


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Venus - July 17th 2010 09:54:11 AM
I love aspects of this article - truly. And I would love to meet the author when I return to my beautiful city just north of brooklyn, but I have several questions I would pose in juxtaposition to this stance on hierarchies and priest/ess paths. First, the article presumes that the traditions are static and outdated. I agree in some parts, in theory. What was not included was that buddhism is also this way as well as most other teacher based spiritual paths. Even in Shamanism, traditionally, this is the case both within the culture (status of the shaman) as well as there are often apprentices to shamans. And there is a hierarchy within this as well. Also part of the hierarchy is creating a listening to the teachings so that the student can understand the teachings not through ego but through sacredness. Now I can raise anyones hackles but saying,"these people are sheep to a master" and we are "free" people not subject to ownership or other such inflammatory writings - and draw beautiful examples, but I would simply be creating one negative brush stroke in a masterwork. Anything can be provide a ripe and fertile place for corruption to take place - including being without a teacher. What most of this talk leaves out is that ego must be surrendered and there must be "detachment". This is the other side of following a teacher. If you are not being empowered - then the system is broken. One other note: besides the Dalai Lama being one of the teachers that would be cast out in this article, it does not take into account living teachers: where the knowledge is fluid and changing based on the student, the time and the energies. I happen to follow a shaman. And I open myself myself to his knowledge as deeply and profoundly as I can: I hope in this process to free myself of the sufferings I have felt due to my ego and personality. A true shaman has become free of the trappings of the mind. This is now my path and if I thought I could navigate it without becoming embroiled in my own circles of imagination and power, I might consider going it alone - it would certainly be more "comfortable". But all the spiritual leaders and healers of note, historically, or in this time, have had teachers including the buddha. I hope this offers another point of view. Thank you.

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