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What is the term for someone who speaks on behalf of a deity? Not that the deity speaks through them or channels through them1, but that they speak on behalf of the deity. Like when an angel speaks on behalf of God. Here, an angel conveys God's message for Him. God Himself does not convey the message.

I've thought of mouthpiece:

a person or organization who speaks on behalf of another person or organization.
the media acts as a mouthpiece for the Party

(Lexico)

But I would like to know if there are other more suitable words.


1 Clarification: When God speaks through a being (for example, a donkey), He is projecting His voice through the being to convey His message; that is, God Himself is delivering the message, not appointing someone to deliver the message for Him. This is not what I'm looking for.

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    Messenger can apply to both humans and angels.
    – nnnnnn
    Jul 10 at 14:56
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    No, pontiff ultimately means 'bridge-maker', the name for the head of the Roman priesthoods, pontifex maximus. A pontifex made bridges between men and gods. And often spoke on their behalf, though practices varied. Most gods didn't talk to men much, and when they did the other gods would often interrupt and argue, or rather their priests would. Gods are a surly lot; comes of having your own way too often. Jul 10 at 17:01
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    Technically, a priest spoke (interceded) to gods on behalf of men, while a prophet typically spoke to men on behalf of gods. So priest and pontiff are not quite right. Jul 10 at 19:09
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    Which deity? There's three correct answers below, depending on what religion.
    – Mazura
    Jul 10 at 23:35
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    @Mazura there are approximately 10000 distinct religions on Earth. I suppose there are more than 3 possible answers. Jul 12 at 12:15

7 Answers 7

72

When applied to humans, a more suitable term would be prophet:

In religion, a prophet is an individual who is regarded as being in contact with a divine being and is said to speak on behalf of that being, serving as an intermediary with humanity by delivering messages or teachings from the supernatural source to other people.

(From Wikipedia)

The word angel comes from the Latin angelus, borrowed from the Greek angelos, which literally means messenger. Hence, a more general term, which can be applied to both humans and angels, would be messenger.

From the OED (second edition) entry for messenger:

a. One who carries a message or goes on an errand; [...]

(God's) messenger: (a) used for angel n., as representing the etymological sense of that word, and as expressing the function assigned to angels in Scripture; (b) applied to a prophet, or to a clergyman, as charged with a message from God to mankind.

  • 1558  Knox First Blast (Arb.) 6   The especiall dutie of Goddes messagers is to preache repentance.

b. The bearer of (a specified message).

  • 1583  Golding Calvin on Deut. cix. 672   Yet doth God appoint vs to be‥ messagers of his vnfallible trueth.

So a prophet is a human messenger and an angel is a spiritual messenger, both of whom are sent to convey a message / speak on behalf of a deity.

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    Angel has an interesting origin indeed. Its Latin etymon angelus assumed quite a few meanings throughout the history. Here are them (from earliest to latest) per OED: evil spirit, demon, good spirit, messenger, ministering spirit, spiritual being, messenger of God, preacher, prophet, gold coin (from 1509 in British sources). Many of these senses are from Vulgate, the principal Latin version of the Bible. Good answer.
    – ermanen
    Jul 11 at 6:52
39

An alternative to the rightly suggested prophet is oracle.
Definition by Lexico:

A priest or priestess acting as a medium through whom advice or prophecy was sought from the gods in classical antiquity.

Dictionary.com offers a more open definition:

The agency or medium giving [the response of a god to an inquiry].

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  • "The word oracle comes from the Latin verb ōrāre, "to speak" and properly refers to the priest or priestess uttering the prediction. " - medium "a means by which something is communicated or expressed."
    – Mazura
    Jul 10 at 23:33
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    Oracle has a very strong predictive connotation. I really only hear the word oracle and think of ancient Greek myths, like the Oracle of Delphi, who foretold the future in a number of different myths (Minotaur's labyrinth & Oedipus to name two) Jul 12 at 17:52
31

I believe you're looking for the word herald.

Merriam-Webster's usage example matches your case exactly:

: an official crier or messenger
Mercury was the gods' herald.

The word isn't restricted to deities and doesn't invoke speaking for a deity implicitly, but it's commonly understood in the sense you're looking for when a deity is mentioned explicitly.

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    "Hark! The herald angels sing"
    – Mazura
    Jul 10 at 23:27
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    “Hark the Herald Tribune sins / Advertising wondrous things Jul 11 at 14:52
  • Herald has the further advantage of specifying that they are collaborating with the deity in question, but are independently creating a statement to speak on behalf. Prophet connotes that they are sharing the unedited message of the deity rather than drafting their own. Jul 12 at 20:10
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In Hinduism, there's the concept of an avatar. Someone who is the earthly incarnation of a god. They can be considered to be the actor on behalf of that god:

Avatar (Sanskrit: अवतार, avatāra; pronounced [ɐʋɐtaːrɐ]), is a concept within Hinduism that in Sanskrit literally means "descent". It signifies the material appearance or incarnation of a deity on Earth.

In Buddhism, there's the concept of a bodhisattva. Buddha himself is considred to be one:

In Buddhism, a bodhisattva (/ˌboʊdiːˈsʌtvə/ BOH-dee-SUT-və; Sanskrit: 𑀩𑁄𑀥𑀺𑀲𑀢𑁆𑀢𑁆𑀯 (Brahmī), romanized: bodhisattva)2 or bodhisatva is any person who is on the path towards bodhi ('awakening') or Buddhahood.

In Catholicism, the pope is considered the earthly embodiment of God's authority, particularly when they make a pronouncement "ex-cathedra":

Papal infallibility is a dogma of the Catholic Church which states that, in virtue of the promise of Jesus to Peter, the pope when he speaks ex cathedra is preserved from the possibility of error on doctrine "initially given to the apostolic Church and handed down in Scripture and tradition".

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    +1 since avatar and bodhisattva are certainly relevant and good to have in the range or comparison, but I think these are not what OP is looking for. Both of these are the deity inhabiting a mortal being and speaking through it; the question explicitly clarifies that OP wants not this, but a mortal speaking on behalf of the deity.
    – PLL
    Jul 12 at 8:49
  • @PLL - I'll concede the point on avatar but I'm far from certain that a bodhisattva would be considered to be a god by most Buddhists. I think they would tend to see them more as an especially knowledgeable prophet. One granted particular insight but speaking their own words in teaching that insight. Do you have any references for your position? Jul 12 at 11:29
  • Right, my earlier comment was sloppily written, and the second half only really applies to avatars. I agree, as I understand it, a bodhisattva or Buddha isn’t usually considered a deity (though this is a subtle point, and as much about translation between traditions as anything else). But what I had in mind was that as far as I know, there’s no sense in which a Buddha or bodhisattva is speaking on behalf of someone/something else. Insofar as there’s any analogue of a deity in the picture at all, it’s the Buddha/boddhisattva themself.
    – PLL
    Jul 12 at 11:51
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    That's an interesting point of view. I do know that some Buddhists do revere bodhisattvas as something close to (if not) a deity but my thought was that their teachings were pointing to some external reality outside of themselves. Something that would exist even if they themselves did not: a way of living that minimizes suffering for all and an external reality to ascend to. Maybe I'm taking a too christian-centric a view of a god being central to reality. Thanks for a good discussion! Jul 12 at 14:29
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Another word that comes to mind is emissary.

While Merriam-Webster mainly highlights the usage for someone who is "send out" in a political context, I also remember cases where it's used in a religious context (e.g. in Star Trek).

The concept of a divine emissary seems to be common enough that it has its own entry on tvtropes.org.

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Some words used less often, with quotes from the Wikipedia entry for Metatron (emphasis added)

Metatron appears in the movie Dogma as an angel and the voice of God ....

Metatron appears as an angel and the spokesperson of God in the book Good Omens ....

In the New International Version translation of Jeremiah 15:19, we have:

Therefore this is what the LORD says:

“[...] if you utter worthy, not worthless, words,

        you will be my spokesman.

Other translations say either “spokesman” or “as my mouth.”

Until the late twentieth-century, a woman could also be a “spokesman,” but the exclusively-female forms prophetess and spokeswoman also exist. They are rarely used today. The Greek word Angela, meaning a female messenger, is used only as a given name in English.

Another possibility is mouthpiece. In some religious traditions, you might use loanwords such as, for example, navi from Hebrew.

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  • Interestingly, biblical use of the word navi to mean "prophet" specifically refers to the aspect of speaking God's word to people (as opposed to other terms that roughly translate to "seer" or similar). It's even used to refer to a "spokesperson" rather than a prophet in Exodus 7:1
    – Esther
    Jul 11 at 20:27
  • @Esther this is getting a bit off-topic (but very interesting!) Exodus 4:16 provides some context for the unusual usage you cite (the only use of the form neviecha, “your (m. sg.) prophet,” in the Hebrew Bible).
    – Davislor
    Jul 11 at 20:49
  • Metatron makes his first appearance in the talmud
    – mcalex
    Jul 13 at 7:31
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Just in case this person merely pretends to speak on behalf of a deity, e.g. to gain some power, control or money, you could use :

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  • Downvoter: constructive criticism is welcome. Jul 12 at 10:56
  • this is clearly not the point, no need to throw your own opinions/beliefs into this. Not the downvoter, but somewhat annoyed.
    – Esther
    Jul 12 at 16:13
  • of course there are many such impostors. I assume that the implication that "speaking on behalf of deity" necessarily = "con artist/ etc" is what annoyed someone.
    – Esther
    Jul 12 at 20:20
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    If the OP wanted a word for "pretend prophet" they would have said that, no?
    – Esther
    Jul 12 at 20:39
  • @Esther: answers are supposed to be informative for the whole community, not just for OP. I'll delete my comments. Jul 12 at 20:42

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