Elite Control

A common theme woven into the religious fabric is this idea of an elite intermediary between the living and the divine. It is a practice that can be seen cross-culturally as well as spanning the continuum of time. Most presently in contemporary times we see this display in the Roman Catholic Church. It is the idea that a holy and pious priest intercedes on behalf on his parish to atone for the transgressions of many. However this is a practice that also dates back to early civilizations and may be chiefly exemplified in the ancient state of Mesoamerica, namely in San Jose Mogote at approximately 1300BC. At the time increasingly elaborate rituals were unifying a diversified population in the early highlands of Mesoamerica.  During this time the local rural population was servicing a powerful elite and in return the elite would provide retribution of iniquity to the gods.


This raises an interesting question regarding power dynamics and how it is promoted and reinforced through religious and ritualistic practices. I am especially curious in the rationale employed in needing an elite intermediary. Although I believe that this was an ingenious mechanism in place to maintain power and control I wonder how those in power justified this need to the masses.


One hypothesis I believe that supported this power structure was the perceived need for material to offer as sacrifice. In most cases in early ancient states it was essential to offer up material goods to the gods. This was done through many different avenues. It could be precious jewels or metals, opulent fabrics, livestock, the first yield of crops, or in some cases, human life. The wealthy are obviously the most viable and feasible population to provide these material goods. Therefore since they provided the sacrifice, they got to experience the divine contact. Another hypothesis is that the elite had more relational contact with the priests and religious officials. Hence, since they presided over this group the elites had more direct power in shaping the customs and practices of their given community. My last hypothesis is that religious practices were a highly guarded and protected cultural capital and was therefore maintained within the powerful circles. Accordingly, these groups were able to protect the construction of their religious practices.


Overall, religion is a very significant institution and in many cases considered very personal. Therefore it is logical that the community, particularly the elite, takes measures to preserve the integrity of this holy institution. Conversely, because it does exhibit a highly personalized nature it also makes sense that even those considered as part of the general population would have access to who or what they consider divine. Religion and ritual is something that is typically practiced on a daily basis and therefore needs continual performance and reinforcement. Due to the ongoing need to religion to be promoted throughout an individual’s lifetime rather than isolated incidents I would advocate against the position of needing an elite intermediary. Perhaps this is my Marxist thinking tendencies but I believe that in a small group of powerful individuals controlling the interactions with the divine they are also controlling the beliefs and practices at large of that community.