Where Do Clerics Come From?

In most games, it always seemed that the cleric was a healer, but was more than willing to take out a mace and smash someone’s face in. I wondered if the games I played were just confused in their theme, trying to give clerics the ability to be involved in combat, to be in the game, even if it meant giving a priest a bludgeoning weapon. Why would a person of a holy order enact any violence? Aren’t they more concerned with proselytizing the tales of a God?

Which Cleric domain should you pick? (DnD 5E)

In looking through the history of clerics, I started to see why clerics have such a broad list of characteristics. You can find clerics in the position of a doctor, a scribe, military leader, banker, or a deviant rogue. This started to make sense when I looked at where clerics come from, and what gave them their name in the first place.

Casting Lots

I’m usually tempted to try and understand something by first looking at what a dictionary would describe it as. Clerics are an exception, because “learned man” won’t mean much until you look at the ritual of casting lots. We have all done something similar to casting lots, but most likely know it by a different name: drawing straws, drawing names, etc. To cast a lot was to draw a task from an urn or bucket, and the people who got to do so were called clerics.

Ok, but why? It seemed like poor leadership to randomly assign tasks to people like this, tasks such as banking, doctor, scribe, etc. Why not focus on what we know people are better at? It’s because it was better that God decided that! Not man! If you were to write tasks onto objects and have people draw them without being able to see them, then it was God deciding the outcome! Of course, this makes sense considering how dominant religion has been, and how much Romans love to tell the future from looking at stuff that they throw on the floor. Divining God’s will was done through many means, like bird watching (Augury), the weather (Aeromancy), or playing with organs (Haruspex). Casting lots was just another way of doing this, but when interpreting how God wanted to assign work for the church, it was called cleromancy.

What are these lots? They are called sortes, and they weren’t much more than stick shaped stone, inscribed with random tasks for the church, or the girls that might have a crush on you. You didn’t always have to draw them from a bucket, as you could also roll them like dice, and giggle together as you hope that Patricks’ name comes up. The clerics most likely did this from a very pretty situla, which would be like a bucket, but decorated with your favourite story about your God.

Right, so what does “cleric” mean then? Quite simply, it’s Greek/Latin roots come from being a learned man, ordained by God to do his bidding. Considering how people of the church were more likely to be educated, socially integrated, and in a position of authority, anyone able to cast a lot would have to be rather skilled in various concepts. Hence, the clergy of men to draw lots for God’s tasks were learned men.

Priest Using Weapons Though?

It always seemed odd to me that a priest, who was typically interested in the spread of peace, was easy to imagine drawing a mace from behind their back, coupled with a far reaching grin, especially if you refused to accept their pamphlet about their God. Were clerics allowed to be violent?

Well, yes and no.

Looking through historical records, I found a lot of back and forth on barring violence from priests, but then absolution for violence committed. It seems that there is not a definitive source. There are some rumours that they aren’t allowed to spill blood, or to “penetrate” people with blades, because that is just so un-Godly! Most sources point to one guy to exemplify this, and his name is Bishop Odo of Bayeux.

Bayeux Tapestry

He’s got a big club, while the others all have swords, bows, or javelins/spears/halberds/those that choose identify as some variation as a blade on a stick. Thanks to that club, he has really stuck out. But why use a club?

My theory is in relation to the scepter. For as far back as we go in history, humans love to wave around scepters. Having a big ball on the end of a stick felt really satisfying: it was large, fulfilling, powerful, and strong. You could say that the big ball on the end represented the world, and your God’s symbol on it demonstrated how it was King of the world. But everyone knew that you just had fun waving it around to feel cool and powerful.

So scepters were popular, and people of authority were the only ones to use them. You wouldn’t let a common knight wield around a scepter. People would get confused about who had the power! Imagine if a woman held a scepter! Oh dear! You best keep that scepter to men in power, that way people know who to look to and take instruction from. Oh, and if you happen to be leading an army, then you could probably wave it around in a direction that you think is best, which I suspect is precisely what Odo did.

But, scepters are kinda weak! If I’m a powerful guy and like waving around my stick, I should be able to better hurt people if I want to!


If you got your cool scepter and you need to hurt people with it, just make it heavy, spiked, or sharp. You might have a crown on the end, so just make the arches of the crown bladed. You could also just make it heavier, so you could really drive it into other people how important it is that they believe in your God. Or, hey, add more spikes to it, and just write the symbol of your God on the sides.

Did the Pope say that it is wrong to engage in violence and use weapons? No problem: this is your scepter, and it just happens to weight 50 lbs. If you’re a man in a position of authority and people are willing to kill you, you’ve got to be prepared for anything, so you better find a loophole to ensure you have a contingency plan. Make it spiked. More spikes.

Rogue Clerics?

Games like Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) have many ways to customize your cleric, but they do seem to be rooted in our history. In the fifth edition of D&D, there is a wide selection of subclass options, and many of them make sense: knowledge, life, nature, war, tempest, and trickster. Trickster? I wondered where Wizards of the Coast might have got this idea.

Santa Claus. It’s totally from Santa Claus. Well, maybe not intentionally or directly, but hear me out.

Clerics were in a position of authority, and they were exclusively male. The balance of power and distribution of resources throughout history was definitely privileged for some more than others. Thankfully, there were some nice people in these positions, and St. Nicholas was probably one of them.

A common tradition through December holidays is to give gifts, but it seems that a lot of the gifts were in your socks or shoes. Why? Why not your blanket, pillow, or just give it to me directly, huh? Why all stealthy and tricky… You see where I’m going?

St Nicholas saw some women did not have any money, or couldn’t get a dowry to get married. It would have definitely been a scandal to be seen with women, let alone gifting them money for “no reason”. So, ensure no one sees you and give them some coins. Leave money in their shoes or socks that they leave out while they sleep. Keep giving them gifts and you can spread good will.

Wait, how do we know this story about St. Nicholas then? I’m really not sure, please let me know if you know!

The Rest

Clerics were everywhere, just as religion was. It conducted life, social structure, and daily rituals. Only those men in ordained positions were ones to draw tasks to do for the church, and therefore God. So don’t try and pester them, or they’ll break your stuff with their obnoxiously heavy mace, I mean scepter. Thankfully, the most violent ones were more than likely to work in military clerical orders, like the Knights Templar or Knights Hospitaller. But if you had to talk to someone about anything academic, financial, health related, or just general safety, you were most likely to talk to a cleric who just happened to pull that lot.

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