High Priestess in Absentia

High Priestess in Absentia May 8, 2018

This Beltane sabbat I had an epiphany. It was perhaps the most significant realization I’ve ever had at a sabbat….and I wasn’t even there.  I was the High Priestess in absentia, and I know deep down in my soul that not being at our coven’s ritual was exactly the magickal move I needed to make.

High Priestess in Absentia - Witch on Fire
Beltane Altar 2018 – Photo by Webweaver, used with permission

Just for context, this is the first sabbat rite I’ve missed since Mabon of 2010, making 62 consecutive holy days that I’ve turned the witching wheel of the year. My perfect attendance was because I happened to be the one who wrote, hosted and/or led most of the rituals at my house. More sabbats than I will even count I also provided most of the crafting materials, and prepared for countless hours in hopes that other witches would choose to join me.

Some witches consider themselves to be solitary practitioners. Even when I was alone, I knew I was temporarily a covener without a coven.

The good news is that if you teach witchcraft long enough, and enough of those seekers jump the besom of initiation to don the brass bra* for themselves, then eventually you can form a proper coven and share in the joys of leadership. People ask me all the time how it is possible that there is such a large, active witchcraft community in our eastern North Carolina town (of all places) and this is the answer: sometimes you have to grow one from scratch. That is what witches do; they create the world they want to live in.

So, after a bunch of years we had enough witches to write and ratify a charter, hold elections, and divide up the duties on a yearly basis. After doing the de facto Priestess job for six years (whether I was truly ready or not…mostly not) I was honored to be elected the first *official* High Priestess. Then came the GREAT days, when I could participate in rites led by OTHER witches I’d helped to train. That swelling pride in what we’ve accomplished was a bit like climbing a spiral stair… much like the stairs in a tower…<ahem>

As I had long dreamed, I am finally in a busy and ambitious coven…always there…every.single.time. Even when I was NOT leading, I likely had a significant role to play, or I just felt this obligation to be present for no other reason than because I had always been present. Folks expect me to be there, I’d tell myself.  Plus, I’m one of those over-achiever types whose greatest fear is letting anyone down.

The Tower card in the Thoth Tarot – Photo by Heron

The Tower

I love our rituals. I adore convening on the cross-roads every 6 1/2 weeks. I cherish greeting all my favorite witches, and cavorting between the worlds, in a time out of time.  Beltane is one of my personal favorites, and the last few years it was my pet project held over a three-day camping event, but organizing at that level is exhausting.

Understand that this witchy shop-keeper business is a full time job. The Priestess business of teaching year-round, organizing the coven and offering private divination and healing services became another full-time job. Then the writing-about-witching-and-priestessing-business became another full-time job. Add in single-motherhood of two teenagers and the requisite home-maintenance, and it damn near broke me. This witch was burning her candle from both ends for entirely too long. By Samhain last year, I knew I was stretched too thin, and my heart wasn’t in it like it needed to be. In every way a witch can hear divine messages, mine were on repeat: withdraw.

The Priestess card in the Thoth Tarot – Photo by Heron

The High Priestess

I’ve spent several years now studying the mysteries of the Priest/esshood from the Wiccan point of view. I especially like the Jungian psychology approach of High Priestess Vivianne Crowley in her book Wicca: The Old Religion in the New Millenium. She writes about the steep path between second and third degree initiation that is associated with the tower card in the tarot.

The tower represents the edifice of ego brought tumbling down so that one’s personal will and Highest Divine Will can at last be aligned. Generally speaking, the tower means that times are going to suck. Your world will feel like a dumpster fire as all impediment to your sacred mission burn down.

The tower path in Qabala (Kabbalah) is between Netzach and Hod, between Venus and Mercury, between emotions and the mind. As it happens, at my second degree initiation rites three years ago, I pledged my service to both Venus/Aphrodite and Mercury/Hermes. Go figure.

If you don’t know any better, the title “high priestess” certainly might look like an ascension – a rising up – or attaining a revered status that sets one above others in an old-world style of hierarchy. Equating a High Priest/ess with greater than other priest/esses is a false assumption, when attained appropriately.

To find the gates of third degree initiation** is a descent into the underworld, where all hubris is stripped away. Like the mythic tale of the Mesopotamian Goddess Inanna laying aside her jewels, robes, crowns and comforts at seven gates, until at last she faces her sister, Ereshkigal, Queen of the Underworld, to be judged. She must arrive completely naked, powerless and alone.

The Hermit

When I began the “the steep path,” I visualized an up hill trek, like “taking the highroad,” being the responsible person, but that metaphor is only partially useful. Before any such high road may be found, you must first take the treacherous spiral downward into your own shadowy depths to face your fears. Like the Hermit, you must leave the light of admiration, and the safety of the herd. You turn your ears away from the comfortable chorus, and for a time, forsake the support of others so you can hear your own divine voice.

“If that which you seek you find not within, you will never find it without.” Charge of the Goddess

The Hermit card in the Thoth Tarot – Photo by Heron

End of last year, I announced that I was taking a hiatus from Heron Rising Spiritual Services: no more tarot readings, past-life retrievals or Reiki healing sessions for a while. I’ve channeled all my clients to another member of our coven. My clients are in much better hands now, than when I was vainly stretching myself too thin to be effective.

Since January, I’ve also delegated leadership of the Mystery School I founded back in 2010. I joke that I now have a “McGonagall” (we are Harry Potter fans around here.) Webweaver is now a deputized headmistress of the Modern Witchcraft 366 Training program, and is the primary instructor. She is a professional educator with years of classroom experience. Her new energy has been a joy to behold, and her large class of seekers this year is a powerhouse!

Last year I also made sure that everyone knew that this would be my last year as elected High Priestess of our coven, come what may. Webweaver and her husband, Coyote, accepted the nomination to become our Maiden and Summoner this turning, and we are actively transferring everything into their good stewardship. By Yule, I will happily cast my vote for them to assume the positions of our “high” priest and priestess, and with glee pass over the chalice and athame***. I can’t tell you how grateful I am to them.

The Epiphany

So, what was the big deal epiphany I had this Beltane?

This weekend, I faced a conflict in scheduling. It was East Carolina University’s spring graduation, and the city was flooded with family and friends of the 5400 some-odd new graduates.  All week, so many of them were coming into the shop to say goodbye, make final purchases before they move away, introduce me to their parents, etc. Many expressed how happy they were to catch ME there, specifically. ECU is our bread and butter, folks. This is what makes my full-time witchery possible. Serving these people is important Witchcraft, too.

I have two staff, and both of them are also in the coven. Every previous year, one of them would draw the short straw and have to work this shift during the sabbat, OR we would close the shop that afternoon and disappoint countless customers. Every other year, I got a free pass because I was running the show, but not this year….

It took me a bit to work through the logic, so tunnel-visioned I’ve become. I KNEW that I needed to keep the doors open. I also knew how important the rites were to my two staff members.

Then it finally dawned on me that I didn’t actually have a role in this ritual. HUZZAH! Neither were my teenagers planning to go. Webweaver and Coyote had everything taken care of, both leadership and hosting at their house. However, my staff DID have an important role to play in the ritual, and an excited child to bring.

GONG Rings the Cosmic School Bell

With more clarity than I’ve had in a year, I realized that my presence was unnecessary.

THESE WITCHES ARE THE FUTURE

I am the past.

I am not this coven. This coven isn’t me.

I texted Webweaver and explained the situation: She answered, “I’m sure we could cover it. You would be missed.”

The reigns are now in their capable hands, so the Great Work of Magick will happen WITHOUT ME. 

Hallelujah!

I was later told that their Maypole Dance was the most successful one this coven has ever enacted. More importantly than my own realizations, I hope that all 22 of those witches also realized that they’ve totally got this…the training wheels have long been gone. As much as I missed them, and I’m glad they like it when I’m around, there is such sweet relief that I am no longer obligated to have perfect attendance.

My Beltane didn’t much look like witchcraft from the outside, but internally I shed that blinder of self-importance so I could kneel naked before the Dark Queen in full gratitude.  Great opportunities are opening before me this season, and I now feel like I can accept the time-demands of that exciting new Work. As far as I’m concerned, passing this torch and rendering myself unnecessary is my greatest accomplishment. I am deeply satisfied.

After that Saturday at the shop ran me ragged, I showed up late to sabbat and helped Webweaver clean up her kitchen from feast. I collected garbage, and our up-and-coming priestess washed the dishes, because that is what this gig is mostly about: humble service.

Blessèd Beltane,

~Heron


*This is a joke, y’all. Ever heard the colloquialism, “It’s colder than a witch’s titty in a brass brassier?” I think it has more to do with cannon balls stacked on old ships, but it is funny, and every time we get a freak temperature dip, someone is bound to ask, “Which one of you witches put on your brass bra?”

**To study these mysteries in depth, I suggest this training program by Christopher Penczak in his book Living Temple of Witchcraft  Volume One: The Descent of the Goddess.

***In the Sojourner Tradition of Modern Witchcraft, the High Priestess is keeper of the Chalice, and High Priest is bearer of the athame, ceremonially. I should write a blog about how we do that someday…

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