Seekers and Guides: A Balm for a Pagan Plague – High Priestess’ Disease (Part 1)

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

If you’ve been at all active in the Pagan community, you have probably heard of this particular ailment.  It describes the spiritual malaise that causes some of us to develop an inflated sense of our importance and “power trip” on being a Wiccan Priest(ess).  Over the next couple of columns I’m going to discuss this problem frankly, explore its possible causes, and suggest solutions for it.


Symptoms of High Priestess’ Disease include:  arrogance, inability to accept criticism, emotional explosions, a compulsive need for control, feelings of abandonment, impatience, a sense of not being taken seriously or of your accomplishments being disregarded, and becoming frustrated when people disobey or disregard your requests or instructions.  Recognizing these indicators in yourself, or in your students, is the first step to recovery.


Contrary to popular belief, I don’t think that this epidemic is due to defects of character.  I believe it is a natural part of the process in the study of the Craft and that some of us handle it better than others.  It is caused by the nature of the Work that we do as Witches.

Learning to Manage Power

I like to joke that in Wicca, women learn how to take their power, and men learn how to give it up.  What I mean by this is that Wicca is a space where the traditional roles of power are broken down or deliberately remodeled.  The gender divide is only one of the most obvious examples of this.  When I do public rituals with my husband and Priest, the newspaper reporters always go to talk to him first, because they assume that he is the one in charge.  When someone has been involved with Pagans for a while, they come to talk to me first, because they know that the odds are that the person in charge is me.

While I certainly will agree that this perception is changing in Western culture, the unconscious bias still exists.  And so many women come to the Craft from a disadvantaged place, attracted by the feminist viewpoint and the lack of a glass ceiling.  I was no exception.  I am probably a Witch today because I was always mystically-inclined and I felt that most churches did not want female religious leaders.  And since women are often not taken as seriously as men are, when they find a role that gives them leadership, they often become a little drunk on it.  This is probably why we call it “High Priestess’ Disease.”

But this is hardly the only example of power intoxication in those who come from disadvantaged groups.  Wicca is, by definition, a counter-cultural movement.  We attract all kinds of outsiders, minority groups, and just plain “weirdos” (and I mean that with all the due affection of being one of those “weirdos” myself.)  We attract GLBT men and women, geeks, nerds, rebels, and people with disabilities.  We attract more than our fair share of scholars and people with anxiety disorders.[1]  Whenever people who have lacked power are suddenly given it, there is always a chance that they can run away with the headiness of it.

Breaking the Ego

Wicca is a mystic’s path.  Ultimately, its greatest mystery is union with the Divine; what we call “Drawing Down the Moon” and “Drawing Down the Sun.”  In order to achieve that, we must break down the dross of our personalities.  Not all of our personality, just the stuff that interferes with our ability to channel our Divine Selves.  Think of it as a refining process.  We are trying to become better conductors.  Pure gold is the best conductor for electricity, and pure copper follows that, but elements are rarely pure in nature and so they must be melted, tempered, and beaten in order to reach that state of purity.  We are no different; and frankly, the process hurts and we resist.  However, the more we resist, the greater the pain.  Someone who is suffering from High Priestess’ Disease is having their ego challenged and they are resisting alchemical transformation of the spirit.  That is why Wicca demands that we choose this path of our own free will.

We don’t handle this process very well as Witches.  I believe that’s because this form of our religion is so young.  It may help to look to the teachings and practices of other spiritual paths for ways to deal with this complex and confusing process.

Growing Up

Growing up is the process of coming into our own; defining our personalities and our innermost selves as being different from that of our parents; testing our limits; and ultimately, accepting responsibility for our own lives.  Becoming a High Priestess or Priest is no different.  We must define our spiritual selves as being different from that of our “Craft parents”; we must define ourselves as spiritual people; we must test our limits; and the Rede demands that we accept responsibility for all of our actions, intentional or not.  In other words, those new to being Wiccan clergy often have the exact same arrogant swagger that teenagers do, who are convinced that their parents are the world’s biggest idiots and they have invented new and better ways to do everything.  As any parent could tell you, if they are in that space, there is simply no talking to them.

In the next article, I will suggest ways to cope, as well as methods of prevention and treatment.

Next column: A Balm for a Pagan Plague:  High Priestess’ Disease (Part 2).

Seekers and Guides is published on alternate Mondays. Follow it via RSS or e-mail!

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About Sable Aradia

Sable Aradia (Diane Morrison) has been a traditional witch most of her life, and she is also a licensed Wiccan minister and a Third Degree initiated Wiccan priestess in the Star Sapphire tradition. She makes her living doing psychic and Tarot readings, writing, and teaching workshops, and she is also a speculative fiction writer and a musician. Sable is the author of "The Witch's Eight Paths of Power: A Complete Course in Magick and Witchcraft" (Red Wheel/Weiser, 2014). She continues to write "Seekers and Guides" at her new blog Between the Shadows here at Patheos Pagan, and she also writes a column called "49 Degrees: Canadian Pagan Perspectives" at PaganSquare. For further information, please visit her website

  • kenofken

    I won’t even deal with anyone who identifies themselves as a “High Priestess.” I went through that nonsense and drama in my first coven, and never again. I don’t have any problem with people who in fact attained that degree, but if it’s important for them to wear that title everywhere and establish themselves as “HP” in any room, that’s sure sign that they have nothing but drama to share. I don’t much care for the concept of having a separate caste of clergy in Wicca or in paganism generally. I work with a very fine woman who happens to have an HP ordination from a prior group, but we work as colleagues, and we don’t get hung up on titles. We learn and grow from practice and from the wisdom of any who have it to share.

    • Sable Aradia

      I see your point. One of the most beautiful things about Paganism is that we need no intermediaries between ourselves and the Divine. On the other hand, consider this: Judy Harrow says in her excellent book “Wicca Covens” that it takes an average of seven to ten years for someone in an initiatory tradition to go from Dedicant to Third Degree initiate. It takes seven years to study for a doctorate in any subject that offers one, including the practice of medicine, as well as the recognition of one’s learned peers in the field. If you are wise in today’s health care system, you recognize that your doctor is a human being who can screw up, and that only you really know what’s going on with your own body, but you still go see the doc for advice and recommendations when you don’t understand what’s going on, and you take the doc’s opinion pretty seriously. I think the problem is really that anyone can declare themselves to be a HP(s) and they use it as a status symbol. People who have genuinely done the study know that this is not a privilege, it’s a responsibility, and if they call themselves by these labels, it is a way of making themselves available and offering their help in finding your path, because the gods call them to it. That’s what I mean when I append it to my name, personally. But it won’t be the first thing I say to you, and I won’t bring it up all the time. For the most part I agree with you; if someone introduces themselves as “High Priestess Raven” you know you’re in trouble. Thanks for your thoughts!

  • Freeman

    It would be nice if you would use the term “Wiccan” when discussing Wicca and save “Pagan” for when you’re being inclusive. #justsayin’

    • Sable Aradia

      That’s a slippery slope. Not all “Pagan” traditions based in what was originally “Wiccan” practice like to use that term for themselves, but the pattern of “High Priestess’ Disease” still remains. If you read my blog and some of my other posts, you will see that I know better than to assume that all Pagans are Wiccans (I have a lot of great Druid and Heathen friends who are leaders in their communities too.) But I don’t know what happens in their paths, because I am not a Druid or a Heathen. What I do know is that this issue affects the Pagan community as a whole (hence “Pagan Plague” in my title,) but I’m pretty sure, sad to say, that much of the problem originates in Wiccan groups; and I can only offer a Wiccan perspective on how it works and what to do about it. I am sorry if I have not been clear. Thanks for your comment!

  • Shauna Aura Knight

    As someone who has studied leadership, and who tries to teach leadership and community building skills to Pagans, I’m excited to see the next article in the series. For my part, I don’t see this as an issue that happens with just women leaders within Paganism. I see this happen all the time with leaders of all genders and sexual preferences.

    I can see how some women are judged more harshly; when women leaders stand in their power they are considered bossy, whereas a man might be considered authoritative.

    I do think that some of the behaviors come from a place of innocence or at least, best intentions; people are trained in a *tradition* and given no actual leadership training, or maybe they don’t even have training in a tradition but they decided to try and run a Pagan Pride event, and then all the leadership and group dynamics issues crop up and they blow their cork. Or the power rushes to their head.

    However, in my experience, most of the people with “High Priestess Disease,” whatever gender they happen to be, seem to have irreparable issues of egotism, arrogance, or even major personality disorders. These are the folks that hold onto power in their groups and will release that power with their cold dead fingers.

    What I hear from other group leaders and community builders working with folks like that is, “Why doesn’t ___ retire? S/he is such a jerk…I mean, I know s/he has been running a coven for 30 years, but when I tried to organize a festival/Pagan Pride/open sabbats, s/he attacked me and now half the community hates me.”

    I think that more leadership and community building training can help with some of this…but some of it is just people who are not cut out to be leaders who step in, and because we have no Pagan Authoritah to defrock them, they keep on engaging in damaging, or even sometimes unethical or illegal behaviors.

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