Priestess in a savage country

I’ve talked about how the world is not safe for women. We are routinely harassed in our daily lives. Harassment ranges from catcalling to comments on our bodies to groping, beating, and rape, in a continuum which reinforces the worldwide value that every woman’s body and sexuality belongs to any man.

In this environment, imagine what it takes for a priestess to take her clothes off in public! How dangerous is that? Yet that’s exactly what priestesses do in the Gnostic Mass. Of course Witches and Pagans of various traditions worship sky-clad. This is usually done in small groups of people who know each other or with co-religionists. While the Mass is performed privately for closed groups, it is also performed as a public ritual, open to anyone who is interested in checking it out.

There is a moment in the Mass when the priestess retreats behind a veil, usually a curtain strung between poles. Later the priest opens the veil to reveal the priestess. When the veil opens the priestess may be clothed or she may be nude. It was shocking in Victorian times and it can be shocking today to see a naked woman sitting on an altar, not ashamed or guilty, but proud, powerful, and acting as an agent of the sacred.

How does the priestess come to be naked? She goes behind the veil recites a speech which begins “But to love me is better than all things.” The Gnostic Mass script says, “During this speech the PRIESTESS must have divested herself completely of her robe. See CCXX I:62.” That’s a reference to the Book of the Law:

“At all my meetings with you shall the priestess say — and her eyes shall burn with desire as she stands bare and rejoicing in my secret temple — To me! To me! calling forth the flame of the hearts of all in her love-chant.” –Liber AL I:62

The decision to leave her robes off when the veil opens rests entirely with the priestess. The Gnostic Mass script says, “The PRIEST parts the veil with his lance. During the previous speeches the PRIESTESS has, if necessary, as in savage countries, resumed her robe.”

What does that mean in practice? The Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica Manual spells out this policy:

Before the opening of the veil, the Priestess may resume her robe if such re-robing is determined to be “necessary”. The officiating Priestess may, at any time, and for any reason, determine such re-robing to be necessary. For public celebrations of the Gnostic Mass, the Master of the Local Body, or a Bishop or Auxiliary Bishop, may also determine such re-robing to be necessary on the basis of applicable law; or, if minors are present, on the basis of prevailing local community standards.

So while other officers of the Mass or the Church might require the priestess to re-robe, no one can require her to be nude. When I was a novice the priestesses in my area met to trade notes on our experiences, and this topic came up. There was the time Mass was held in a hall rented from the Masons who came to check it out and were shocked by the nude priestess and asked us not to have non-savage Mass. We discussed whether a nude woman in the presence of a child was considered corrupting by our community. The nudity often felt transgressive and sometimes dangerous.

The church and the fraternity understand the need to protect priestesses. The nudity policy is one example. The leadership of O.T.O. also explicitly combats sexual harassment. In the national newsletter an article called Sexual Harassment: Approaches to a Reported Problem Paul R. Hume detailed what sexual harassment is and how to handle it when it comes up. The national organization is very serious about this and encourages anyone experiencing harassment to report it to the local master or U.S.G.L. Ombudsman, ombudsman [at] oto-usa.org. The women in my local (Northwest) community are fierce about this. Any woman reporting an issue of harassment will find one or more tigers at her side. I know this because I’ve experienced this; I’ve seen us defend each other and have myself defended women and reported harassment up the chain.

So while I am assured that sexual harassment is not tolerated, and my sisters and brothers have my back, I have only left the robe off after the veil opens once. It was the occasion on which I looked out at the congregation and realized there was no one there who had ever said to me, “Can’t wait to see your non-savage Mass! Be sure to let me know when you’re going to do it.”

Comments of the “hubba hubba priestess” variety don’t rise to the level of actionable harassment. Men who say they look forward to seeing me naked think they are being charming and appreciative. Whatever the intent, though, the statement is a reinforcement of the idea that women’s bodies belong to men’s gaze. It frames the nudity of the priestess not as a powerful display of the sacred but as a titillating image of female sexuality. It is that comment exactly, exercising the power to talk to women about our bodies, that creates the condition of the savage country. For those of us who are not approaching the Mass as a form of peep show, but instead as a form of powerful magical ritual, knowing that someone out there wants to see us naked may be enough to cause us to pick up our robes.

The problem here is not that priestesses are prudes or body shy or timid and need training in how to be braver. The problem is not with the priestess at all. It is up to everyone in the local Thelemic community and in the congregation to create an atmosphere of respect, to challenge off-color comments directly, to treat the priestess as a powerful magician working on our behalf. It is up to all of us to create the conditions in which the priestess can fulfill her office safely, without fear and with joy.

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