Becoming a High Priestess

Over the weekend one of my circle-mates sent me a text message that complimented my wife after our Friday night ritual. “Is she one gifted natural Witch and High Priestess or what? She amazes me,” my friend wrote. The comment made me smile from head to toe because my wife is a pretty amazing Witch and High Priestess. What made the comment so unusual were the circumstances that brought it about.

This past Friday night my wife and I had a rare night off from running the show. Our group tends to circle about twice a month, and writing two esbats, a new moon ritual, and a sabbat rite every sixty days gets to be a bit much, so it’s nice when folks take over for us. This particular ritual was a nice mixture of hoodoo (High John the Conqueror Root!) and British Traditional Witchcraft. After preparing our roots we placed them in pouches and then tied them up using some knot magic(k).

My wife dipped her Conqueror Root in whiskey and anointed it with oil like the rest of us but then she closed up her bag without thinking before anyone else. While we were all tying up our bags as a group led by our acting High Priest she just sat in the circle quietly admitting after we were done that she had already tied hers up, using the same nine knots as the rest of us and all without being instructed to do so. She then admitted to three extra knots, which she said is how she ends every spell involving strings or cords. Quietly and with all humility she shared her final three knots with us: “one for who I was, two for who I am, and three for who I will be.” The rest of us just sat there with our mouths open for a minute before our ritual leaders then led us in my wife’s final three knots.

It was a little moment, but perfectly captured my wife as a High Priestess. She’s not a “book Pagan” and almost everything she does is completely intuitive. In the middle of a ritual she will pull out just the right spell, grounding exercise, or chant; adding exactly what’s needed, no more no less. While I write most of the rituals we do, she’s the one who fixes them. She fills in the holes and keeps me from over-reaching. She may not have my appetite for Pagan history and mythology, but she has a feel for oils, stones, and plants that I will never have. She’s the perfect compliment, and while I tend to draw the attention in our relationship, our circle is beginning to figure out just how talented she is.

My wife wears the title of High Priestess because she earned it. She knows her Craft, she knows how to handle people, she knows her gods, and the people who circle with us realize that. No one put a crown on her head and said “now you are a High Priestess,” she’s a High Priestess because people recognize her as one. There are many paths one can take that lead to the title of High Priestess or High Priest, but a legitimate “High” Priestess or Priest bears that honorific because the people in their community decided it was fitting.

In many ways everyone who sets out upon a Pagan path is a priest or priestess. There are no boundaries between us mere mortals and the gods, so we have no need of a figure in a white collar to interpret divine will. Obviously certain traditions have rules and practices that need to be explained, but your personal spirituality is yours alone. We are all free to interpret our collective myths as we see fit. We don’t employ someone else to do it for us.

Piddling around on line today I came across as an advertisement for a class designed to teach someone how to be a High Priestess. “Classes to be a High Priestess?” the idea just strikes me as absurd. There are things one can learn that will help pave the way towards becoming a High Priest or Priestess, but there’s no class you can take that’s going to teach you everything. Do you get a paper certificate at the end of the twelve week course and a coven of your very own? The idea just seems preposterous. A great High Priestess is a rare mix of intelligence, presence, training, poise, knowledge, and communion with the gods. There are a lot of things that go into Priestessing that can be taught, but there are many more that can only be gained through experience.

In my estimation the title “High” comes with a certain amount of responsibility. It implies that you are clergy and can do all of the things we expect a member of the clergy to do. Many of those are obvious: overseeing rites of passage (most specifically handfastings and funerals), teaching one’s tradition, and being able to give counsel, but there’s more to it than that. A good High Priest or Priestess understands humility and puts their practice before their hubris. When I see someone advertising themselves as a High Priestess I’m immediately wary. The best High Priestesses I’ve ever been around don’t announce themselves that way on Facebook. If someone has to tell everyone around them that they are a High Priest, they may not really be one.

A true High Priest or Priestess can point to a body of work that backs up their title. Sometimes that’s a second or third degree elevation in an established tradition, other times it comes from simply doing the work over a number of years. It’s one thing to start a circle or a coven and lead ritual, it’s another thing entirely to have earned the respect of not only those you circle with, but the greater Pagan community as well. If we want our spiritualities to be taken seriously, our titles have to mean something.

Not everyone needs to be a High Priestess or Priest either. I know all sorts of people who are content to simply be a part of ritual, or just don’t have the time to dedicate to leadership. The ultimate end-goal of a Pagan group shouldn’t be for every member to end up in a leadership position, it should simply be for every member to grow in some way, whether personally or spiritually. I sometimes feel as if there’s an unrealistic expectation in many Modern Pagan traditions that everyone should aspire to be a High Priest or Priestess. Not every Methodist wants to be a pastor, why should we be so radically different?

In our own practice becoming a High Priestess and Priest was not something we aspired to. It came about because people viewed the two of us that way. I’ll admit to even being uncomfortable with the title on occasion. I have a thirst for knowledge and history and write pretty good rituals, but there are many Witches and Pagans who know so much more than I ever will. That a few people think of me in such august company is flattering, but I often feel like I don’t belong. (I got weirded out when one of our coven members referred to me as “a spiritual leader,” I’m much more comfortable just being the guy who drinks cider and listens to 80′s hair metal.)

Even with my occasional reservations about the title I feel like I’ve earned it, and I know my wife has earned her title of High Priestess. How do you know you’ve earned the right to call yourself a High Priestess or High Priest? You’ve earned the title when someone asks you to officiate their handfasting or wedding. You’ve earned the title when every eye in the circle glances your way looking for instruction or guidance. You’ve earned the title when your High Priestess deems you ready for elevation. It’s an honor that finds you, and it finds you when you are ready.

About Jason Mankey

Jason Mankey has been involved with Paganism for the last twenty years, and has spent the last ten of those years as a speaker, writer, and High Priest. Jason can often be found lecturing on the Pagan Festival circuit, so you might just bump into him. When not reading and researching Pagan history he likes to crank up the Led Zeppelin, do rituals in honor of Jim Morrison (of The Doors), and sing numerous praises to Pan, Dionysus, and Aphrodite. He lives in Sunnyvale CA with his wife Ari and two hyper-kinetic cats.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

    This is very good, Jason. What you didn’t explicitly state but strongly implied is that becoming a High Priestess or Priest requires a group – it’s not something you can do on your own. You can be a powerful Witch, a knowledgeable Druid, or a devout Pagan in a solitary setting, but the group provides opportunities for leadership and clergy work, and the group recognizes when a certain level of competence has been reached.

    • JasonMankey

      I didn’t even think of the “group requirement” while writing this, but I don’t see any way around it. How could one be a High Priestess or Priest and be completely solitary? You could certainly call yourself a “High Priest” in your own solitary practice, but if you aren’t doing “High Priest things” are you really a High Priest?

  • Vision_From_Afar

    Just like Heathenism, though they’re a bit more Viking about it: The Godhi test. If you can stand in a group of Heathens and say you’re a Godhi without anyone laughing, then you’re good.

    • JasonMankey

      I would love to see this is a sort of initiation ritual for anyone who thinks of themselves as a High Priest or Priestess.

  • Anna H.

    You become a High Priest/ess which you can set your own ego aside and let God/dess speak and work through you for the needs of His/Her people. That may happen in ritual, in counseling, or in the middle of a mundane phone conversation with someone when suddenly you feel that prickle and the air seems brighter, and you *know* what needs to be said.

    For example, the extra knots your wife did. It was not only her High Priestess skills that channeled the three extra knots and what they meant. It was her courage in saying out loud that she had done this. Far easier it would have been to let ego rule and think, “oh no, I’ve done something different than everyone else, best to keep my mouth shut.” But she opened her mouth and brought through what She wanted to be brought.

  • Asa

    Thanks so much for writing this. I’ve been looking into training programs, which are reputable and legit but cost way more for tuition, travel, and room and board than I can pay any time soon. I think there *is* value in a structured program, and who knows? Maybe I’ll go for it someday. But it’s a relief to read that they aren’t the only, or even preferred, way to train.


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