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IE Studies 2, Requirement 4

Describe and compare the role of the priest in two cultures. (100 words for each culture)

The role of the priest (indeed, the role of the entire first Dumezilian function) varies from culture to culture in the Indo-Euoprean world. This can be seen best by comparing the role of the priest in Vedic and Norse cultures, where we have strong references.

The priest in the Vedic culture was held in great reverence (which led to corruption over time, creating opportunity for the overthrow of the priesthood and the establishment of several modern religions, particularly Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, each of which is a direct reaction to Vedism). Here, the priest was held up as the only way to reach the heavenly world, and the method of obtaining that world was to pay a fee to the priest to make sacrifice, called the daksina. There was even an entire hymn in the Rgveda for the daksina, hymn X.107. This payment was described as a "broad path" to heaven (mirroring other eastern IE cultures afterlife descriptions), and was considered a sacrifice in its own right. It was through the gift of a daksina that the warrior acheived victory in battle, the giver earned a beautiful woman, the drunk excellent drink. (Maurer, 299-300) Most importantly, though, the priest was a required part of ascending into the afterlife, as described in the Satapatha Brahmana

Truly, the heaven-bound boat is the Agnihotra sacrifice. The two sides of that heaven-bound boat are the Ahavaniua and the Garpahatay altars. Truly , the steersman of that boat is the milk-pouring priest.

In contrast, the priest in the Nordic world was second to the warriors, or the so-called second Dumezilian function. There, paradise comes, no through sacrifice and piety, but through valour in combat, which is rewarded with Valhalla. While the priest was still a reasonably important person involved in seership, law-giving, and historical/genealogical functions, their lack of a "gateway to heaven" function indicates that Germanic societies placed more importance on other social functions, particularly the warband and other warrior initiations. It is particularly of interest that not only did priests not control access to the idealized heaven of Valhalla, but also that they did not control initiation into the comitatus or warband: this, too, was controlled by the warriors who led them. (Enright, 70)

Between these two examples, we find one culture in which the priest was pre-eminent, and one where the priest was relegated to the back rows of society. While in both cultures priests are important and serve specific functions, they do not serve the same set of functions, nor have the same importance within society.


  • Enright, Michael J. Lady With a Mead Cup: Ritual, Prophecy and Lordship in the European Warband from La Tene to the Viking Age. Portland, OR: Four Courts Press. 1996
  • MacDonnell, A. A. Vedic Mythology.
  • Maurer, Walter. Pinacles of India's Past: Selections from the Rgveda.
  • Puhvel, Jaan. Comparative Mythology. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins. 1987


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