The Historical Role of the Intercessor


Author’s Note: This is the first of three articles exploring the historical role of a spiritual intercessor to bridge man to the Divine, the transition of these intercession duties as they evolved into our modern-day spiritual practices, and the role of the individual in creating and maintaining his own connection.

In this First Article we will explore what man’s life looked like prior to the emergence of a spiritual leader or intercessor, how life changed once the concept of a spiritual world and a higher spiritual Power arose, and what type of duties these intercessors were expected to perform.


What is a Spiritual Intercessor?

A spiritual intercessor is someone whose primary role is to mediate between the human and spiritual worlds and act as messengers, healers, and counselors to a community whose members all share a common spiritual tradition.

Today, if asked who fulfills the role of a spiritual intercessor, many would answer that this is the responsibility of the clergy, and therefore is fulfilled by our pastor, minister, rabbi, or priest.

In the Ancient world, many terms were used to describe this role. Examples include: Holy Man, Guru, Yogi, Lama, Elder, Prophet, Medicine Man/Woman, Shaman, Diviner, Sangoma, Inyanga, Witch Doctor and High Priest/Priestess. The indigenous tribes in which these Intercessor roles surfaced were scattered throughout numerous cultures and traditions and found on every continent of the globe. The variations in title are immaterial. The shared functions of these spiritual leaders define the Intercessor role.

Modern Day Interpretations

Unfortunately, the Ancient meaning and wisdom of intercession has been lost over time. Some of the labels defined above were never used by these ancient tribes but were instead assigned by Europeans with limited understanding of the spiritual beliefs and traditions of these groups. Therefore, terms imposed by outsiders do not accurately capture the significance of the spiritual intercessor when viewed through the lenses of their own cultures and traditions.

Two classic examples are Witch Doctor and Shaman: roles meant to signify that these individuals were skilled in making remedies to protect others against witchcraft and not to imply that these individuals were witches themselves.  Tribes with these intercessors often viewed them as their best hope to counter spells or curses cast by their enemies or brought into their lives through malignant spirits or cursed objects.

Regardless of the names used to describe these intercessors, or our modern-day interpretations (or misinterpretations) of each, nearly every culture on Earth had individuals who filled this necessary place in society. Clearly, men have recognized for centuries the value of those chosen to serve as channels and provide insights to the spiritual realm.  

The Emergence of Intercessors in History

At what point did early men recognize the existence of a higher Power, and when did the role of Intercessor come into being?  

Early Totemic Traditions

The findings reported by anthropologists who have studied the traditions of Middle Paleolithic peoples who lived between 300,000 to 50,000 years ago indicate that early human societies had no concept of a higher spiritual Power or a life after death.

The emerging metaphysical practices of ancient people were based in totemism. This form of spiritualism emphasized the mystical relationship of an individual with a personal spirit animal; this custom no doubt is tied to their hunting rites.  The successes or failures of their daily lives appear to have been viewed as the results of pleased or displeased totems. The direct link of each person with their personal spirit guide meant that intercessors were as yet not required.  

Early burial practices provide additional evidence that Paleolithic man had not developed the concept of a spiritual Power. Though the burial of their dead shows some ceremony in the use of sacred red ochre, a pigment thought to have symbolic value, all graves appear to have been handled in the same way. Tribal members did not include artifacts for the burials of community members or even key leaders. Together, such evidence suggests that prehistoric man had yet to develop a belief in an afterlife or spiritual Power.  

The Concept of the Spiritual Realm Begins

Beginning with the Upper Paleolithic Period about 40,000 years ago, widespread evidence of religious ceremonies suggests that ancient peoples now recognized the existence of a spiritual plane. In particular, spiritual practices seem to have evolved from individual-oriented rituals to tribal-based celebrations.

Unlike earlier prehistoric periods, cave art now clearly shows mythological or anthropomorphic images depicting human-animal hybrid figures. Anthropologists believe these images represent supernatural beings, reflecting recognition of a higher spiritual being or beings and the presence of a spiritual realm.

Artifacts suggest that tribal observances appeared to be egalitarian events in which all members of the tribe could participate. The commonplace nature of these rites shows that intervention by religious authorities or ritual specialists was not needed. Thus, the role of Spiritual Intercessor was not required as yet since each could reach out to the higher Power on their own behalf.

The Emergence of the Intercessor

Anthropological evidence indicates that the role of Spiritual Intercessor finally was recognized by approximately 12,000 years ago. At this time, a unique grave in a tribal cemetery in Israel had distinct construction, contents and arrangements relative to other nearby graves. These differences clearly indicate that the woman buried within had a distinct societal position.  The presence of many animal parts in her burial, including tortoise shells and eagle wings, has been attributed to her close relationship with these animals’ spirits—possibly as an extension of early totemic beliefs in the community. For this reason, this grave is considered to be the first known burial site of a tribal Shaman.

By 10,000 years ago, archaeological evidence has been discovered throughout the globe that supports the now-special place of spiritual leaders as Intercessors in indigenous tribes.

The Role of the Intercessor

So, if Intercessors have been in place in human societies for the last 10,000 to 30,000 years, let’s look at the ways different cultures have defined their roles and what duties a member of the tribe could expected an Intercessor to perform for them.  

Divination – Intercessors communed with the spirit world. Common means were meditation, channeling, trances or journeying. The intent of such actions was to provide instruction and advice to heal illness, balance social disharmony, and battle spiritual entities that were not supporting the tribe’s best interests.

Healing – Intercessors were responsible for treating the sick. Medicines made from plants, minerals, or animals were used to battle the bad spirits, which were blamed for bringing diseases afflicting the body, mind or spirit. To these ancient healers, all health battles were spiritual in nature.

Directing Rituals – Intercessors kept the traditions. Tasks of this kind focused on ensuring that the tribe maintained the good graces of their protective or guiding spirits and also the good will of their ancestors. These rituals could be purely celebratory or held in the spirit of gratitude or contrition.  Their main purposes were to replenish harmony with the spirit world, the tribe’s physical world, and the Divine.

Protecting Warriors – Intercessors shielded those who guarded the tribal lands and peoples. Supplication was made to helping spirits, guiding entities, the tribe’s ancestors, and the warrior’s own protective guides to ensure success in their duties. Such protection was sought to aid warriors  whether in hunting, in battle, or the quest for a suitable mate.

Counteracting Witchcraft – Intercessors also shielded the people. Their tools included charms, mystical objects, chants, dances, rituals, and spiritual surgery to battle evil spirits and remove curses, hexes or dark spells cast by those intent to see harm or misfortune befall a member of their tribe.

Removing Spiritual intrusions – Intercessors thwarted malign spiritual powers. In this role, Intercessors utilized their connection to the spirit world and their helping guides to remove harmful spirits from their patients’ spiritual bodies.  These intrusions were believed to be caused, intentionally or unintentionally, when people launched harsh thoughts at one another.  Such intrusions could lead to disorder, disease, and even death if not countered.

Historian – Intercessors preserved the tribe’s past. In this capacity, they served as teachers who mentored and educated the young, and often the old. Facts were relayed in stories, as oral histories, myths, and legends. In this fashion, shared tribal knowledge was passed down to ensure that important traditions were maintained.

Ancestral Worship / Veneration of the Dead – Intercessors honored the ancestors on whose efforts the tribe’s well-being was founded. In this regard, Intercessors directed ceremonies for tribal families to offer prayers, libations, foods, and gifts to their dead ancestors so that they would remain restful and at peace. The ancestral spirits might then use their existence and connection to the divine realm to bless the living with gifts such as good weather, fertility, happiness, and good fortune.

Dream Interpretation – Intercessors helped tribe members to interpret messages from the spiritual realm. Intercessors utilized their knowledge of the spiritual world to interpret dreams, as these visions were considered to result from the person’s soul leaving their body during sleep, visiting the spirit world, and interacting with their spirit helpers to solve real-world problems. The spirit helpers’ complex imagery often required assistance from those more learned in decoding their communication.

Prophecy – Intercessors forecast the future. Spiritual practitioners used their connection to the spirit world to seek and deliver predictions of benefit to the tribe.  These prophecies could be as focused as where to hunt in a given season, or as impactful as revelations on future threats to the tribe’s health or existence.

Clearly, the role of Intercessor in prehistoric and early historical times required a full-time commitment as well as great knowledge, considerable energy, and unceasing dedication. Because of this, the entire community ensured that the Intercessor’s basic needs of food, clothing and shelter were provided to these key tribal leaders.  

Ancient tribes did not have the luxury of free time, and thus the dedication of the Intercessor to remain focused on the spiritual needs, ceremonies, rituals and the tribal health of all members was a role not to be underestimated in its importance. Additionally, in bad times, the Intercessor and not the tribe’s regular leaders were expected to provide the essential guidance necessary to bolster the tribe’s spirits.

Who Fulfills these Ancient Intercessor Roles Today?

Giving each of these ancient duties a modern facelift, who would you say is now responsible to fulfill each of these tasks in our modern societies? Such questions are complex since many communities today are not tribal, or are virtual tribes supported by electronic rather than physical connections.

Divination – Who today has built a strong communion with the spirit world to provide people with instruction or advice on how to handle misfortune, treat illness, and remove disharmony from our lives?

Healing – Medical and Holistic doctors have taken over the role of physical healers, and Psychologists and Counselors specialize in treating discord centered in the mind. Who acts as Intercessor when we are suffering from illnesses of the spirit?

Directing Rituals – When seeking to invoke a higher Power, who directs our celebratory events, and what do we do to mark moments of gratitude or contrition?  What actions typify our intention to remain in harmony with the spirit world, and maintain a connection with the Divine?

Protecting Warriors and Leaders – What ceremonies do we perform today that request assistance from the spirit world to help us ensure success in our lives?  What talismans of protection do we use over loved ones today when travelling or going into possible danger?  How do we protect our warriors and leaders, and who is responsible for ensuring that protection?

Counteracting Witchcraft – Whether we consider this concept as negative energy, toxic relationships, or actual spells or curses, who is responsible for combating the harmful effects of those attempting to manipulate us against our best and highest good?  Who would we say is responsible to first identify that such undesirable influences are occurring?  How are they to communicate their concerns to us?  How are such injuries to be treated or resolved?

Removing Spiritual intrusions – Whether created by traumatic events, others’ angry thoughts toward us, or our own limiting belief systems, who is responsible for isolating these negative influences in our lives and replacing them with more positive forces?  How do we know that they are impacting us, and how do we differentiate these spiritual factors from today’s physically-oriented model for understanding the basis of somatic and mental diseases?

Historian – Who currently mentors our youth, and what are the educational vehicles that pass on man’s tribal wisdom today?  How much value do we give traditional knowledge today?

Ancestor Worship / Veneration of the Dead – What do we do today to honor our ancestors and to ensure they use their higher spiritual connection to the Divine to intercede on our behalf?  What terminology do we use to describe those who have passed before us but seem to remain connected to guide us? In what ways do our predecessors pass us messages from a higher realm?

Dream Interpretation – Where do we find assistance in understanding disturbing images from our dreams and to help translate their deeper meaning?  Do we believe these images have merit or meaning today?

Prophet – What is our modern-day vehicle for receiving messages from our future? How do these messages get communicated to us?  What would someone have to do to convince us they are a prophet today?

The Historical Role of the Individual in Connecting with the Divine

In reviewing the evolution of man’s attunement to a higher Power and the emergence of a role in human societies for those specializing in communing with the spiritual realm on behalf of community members, it is clear that many of the mystical and beautiful duties of the Spiritual Intercessor did not transition to today’s modern clerical roles.  

This lack, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that these spiritual roles have been lost to the hands of time.

In the Second article in this series, we will investigate the historical role of the individual in forging and maintaining their own direct connection to the Divine and explore the critical balance between strong Intercessors in the community and spirit-aligned individuals so that all tribal members would be able to commune freely with the spiritual realm and the Power centered there.


Tedlock, Barbara. 2005. The Woman in the Shaman’s Body: Reclaiming the Feminine in Religion and Medicine. New York: Bantam.

Eliade, Mircea, and Joan P. Culianu. The HarperCollins Concise Guide to World Religion: The A-to-Z Encyclopedia of All the Major Religious Traditions (1999) covers 33 principal religions, including Buddhism, Christianity, Jainism, Judaism, Islam, Shinto, Shamanism, Taoism, South American religions, Baltic and Slavic religions, Confucianism, and the religions of Africa and Oceania.

Southeastern Louisiana University The Religious Mind and the Evolution of Religion Matt J. Rossano

Paleolithic Religion –