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The Role of the Priestess


What makes a priestess?  Who decides?  Who is the contemporary priestess?  Where do we find her?  How do we recognize her in ourselves?  What does it mean to be a priestess in a patriarchal world?  Because our culture does not recognize the feminine counterpart to “priest,” and with few exceptions initiation into priesthood is not an option for women in mainstream religions, even the word priestess needs defining.  Contemporary priestesses of many different spiritual paths continue to carry on the legacy of their ancestral foremothers throughout history and pre-history—women whose “specialties we would say today fell under such varied pursuits as religion, philosophy, prophecy, ethics, writing, dance, temple construction and maintenance, ritual, fund raising, tourism, social work, and medicine."[1]   Often the priestesses among us go unrecognized, as we lack a common terminology and understanding of their existence.  


Contemporary priestesses are diverse in their background, training and devotion to spirit. Some have received formal initiations and taken vows within a traditional or organized forum; whereas others have created their own vows and initiations.  While many different practices and traditions co-exist under the umbrella of Women’s Spirituality, there are essential similarities between them.  Women’s Spirituality is a way of perceiving and interacting with the world, not merely a philosophy, a doctrine, or something learned from a book.  There are multiple ways of gaining knowledge and accessing the Divine.  


Embodied knowledge is highly valued and may manifest itself in a variety of ways that include, but are not limited to, visual, auditory, and sensory perception.  Often this knowledge may appear in the form of a dream, or a plant medicine journey, or is activated by other forms of sacred arts such as meditation, yoga, dance, or ritual. Despite apparent differences of geography, race, language, lineage, socio-economic status, and religion, the essence of these rituals performed by priestesses is very much the same. Ritual can be understood cross-culturally because it taps into the mytho-cosmological reality of human experience.  A fundamental tenet of Women’s Spirituality is that anyone can have direct and deeply meaningful contact with the Divine.


This matristic worldview understands time as cyclical, or spiral, rather than linear, honoring the seasons, cycles and the process of transformation.  The only thing promised to us in life is transformation, divinely symbolized by the Goddess in all of Her various (actual and symbolic) guises—life, death, and rebirth.  Embracing Women’s Spirituality means consecrating women’s cycles, with their connection to cycles of the moon, the tides, and the seasons.  Of course men have cycles too.  All living beings do.  Perhaps if our 21stcentury fathers, brothers, lovers, and friends were able to embrace, celebrate, consecrate, and honor their own cycles, they would recognize their interconnectedness to all life, instead of standing outside of nature and attempting to control it. 


A priestess deeply venerates this interconnectedness of life, and is dedicated to healing herself, others, and the planet.  She knows that all things have a purpose, and thus reveres all that patriarchal religions have dichotomized as the sacred and the profane.  She strives to balance light and dark, both within and without; for to fail to recognize one without the other has sent the world spinning out of kilter.  A priestess draws much of her strength from the Underworld, domain of the Dark Goddess.  She realizes that although the chthonic realm has been demonized, suppressed, or neglected by most religions, The Dark Goddess holds the power to bestow many gifts; among them treasures such as creativity, passion, sacred sexuality, protection, ferocity, courage, and death of the ego.


The priestess communes with spirit and the ancestors, performing rituals and divining for herself and others.  “The High Priestess is the original Sybil, whose ability to enter the trance state and divine the future made her the mouthpiece of the Goddess.”[2]  She may consult the oracle through reading tarot, throwing coconut or cowry shells, swinging a pendulum, trance states, dream work, palm reading, numerology, astrology, I Ching, scrying, reading coffee grounds, tea leaves or eggs.  While there are countless methods of divination originating in various cultures, their intention is usually the same quest for Divine guidance.  The priestess listens with her entire being—to herself, to the Divine, to the earth, to her community.


”Fundamentally speaking, a priestess is one who mediates the Goddess by making Her power available to all creation.  A priestess guards the mysteries of the Mother and helps initiate other travelers on the road to the spiritual home.  A priestess changes things, concepts, people.”[3]  A priestess navigates the space between the worlds, accepting her fate as portal or a doorway to the Divine.  She is a resource for knowledge, information, and healing in her community.  She knows how to dance with these forces—ancestors, gods and goddesses, spirits, and the natural elements.  She resists the urge to believe that she is the power, while trusting herself as a vessel for transformation and healing. 


There are countless reasons women self-initiate or undergo initiation into various spiritual traditions today.  Because women continue to be absent in roles of authority in all of the world’s primary religions, we find women’s spiritual leadership more often at a grass-roots level and in alternative communities.  Reasons for undertaking initiation may include the need for personal and/or planetary health and healing, response to divination, desire for status, and many, myself included, are interested in fine-tuning their vehicle (meaning the physical, emotional and spiritual self) to better open to, receive, and channel the Divine in order to serve community.


I believe that priestesses hold the keys to unlocking the gates of internalized oppression.  By this I mean the healing that the priestess facilitates in the world, as well as each individual woman awakening to, and embracing, what my friend Jessica calls The Wild Divine—the witch within. 


[1]  Goodrich, Norma Lorre.  Priestesses.  New York: Harper Perennial, 1989.

[2]  Noble, Vicki.  Motherpeace: A Way to the Goddess Through Myth, Art, and Tarot.  San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1983.

[3]  Matthews, Caitlin, ed. Voices of the Goddess: A Chorus of Sibyls. Northamptonshire,England: The Aquarian Press, 1990.



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