Not Her Priest

Not Her Priest March 13, 2014
Priestess of Delphi by John Collier (1891)

I wear many religious hats and fill many religious roles.  One of them is priest.  I occasionally talk about being a priest of Cernunnos and a priest of Danu, and I’m ordained as a priest in the Universal Gnostic Fellowship.

If you’ve read Under the Ancient Oaks for a while, you might get the idea I’m also a priest of Morrigan.  I’ve probably written more about Morrigan than any other deity.  I’ve made offerings to Her, made requests of Her and received Her blessings.  I’ve delivered messages for Her, I’ve led rituals in Her honor, and I’ve participated in the initiation of one of Her priestesses.  I pray to Her every night.

But I am not Her priest.

Our mainstream culture has two primary ideas about priesthood, flowing from the two major strands of Christianity, which is still the dominant religion in the West.  The Catholic model says there are some things only a priest can do:  according to the Catholic Encyclopedia “by his ordination a priest is invested with powers rather than with rights.”  The Protestant model says that while the clergy has certain rights and responsibilities, any Christian can approach their God about anything.  In particular, no intermediary is needed to forgive sins.  Both of these ideas influence Pagan thinking about priesthood but neither is adequate.

You can find devotees of various deities going back into the 19th century (and maybe earlier – this isn’t a historical thesis), and in Gerald Gardner’s original Book of Shadows (dated 1949) the first degree initiate is proclaimed “Priestess and Witch of the Gods.”  That’s another (rather Protestant) concept, but it’s not the same as being a sworn priest or priestess of a particular God or Goddess.

In her recent essay on Women in Religious Leadership, Niki Whiting pointed out that “Priest/ess is a skill that may or may not be necessary for one’s tradition!”  Last year, Jason Mankey wrote this excellent piece on what it means to be a High Priestess in a Wiccan setting.  One of these days I’m going to clean up an essay on “what is a priest?” I did for my ordination studies and post it here.

For now, and speaking as a devotional polytheist, let me simply say that priesthood is defined not only by what a priest does but also by the nature and structure of the relationship between the priest and the God.

Our differing examples of priesthood (Catholic, Protestant, Wiccan) create confusion for some people coming into devotional polytheism from our wider culture, or even from other forms of Paganism.  I hear many people say they feel like they should be a priest, or that if they don’t have a patron deity there must be something wrong with them.

I’m a proponent of forming and maintaining strong reciprocal relationships with Gods, and with ancestors and other spirits.  But you don’t have to be a priest to pour a libation.  You don’t have to be a priest to tell the stories of a Goddess.  You don’t have to be a priest to make a request, or to pay your debts if that request is granted.  You don’t have to be a priest to hear the call of a God and to respond.

serving as priest of the Neteru

You don’t even have to be a priest to fill the role of a priest in a ritual.  Every Summer Solstice for the past ten years I’ve helped lead a temple ritual in honor of the Neteru, the Gods of ancient Egypt.  Most years, none of the participants have been priests of any of the Egyptian deities.  Based on the results of and responses from these rituals, I’m pretty sure They don’t mind.  For reasons known only to Them, They have not claimed any of us as a priest.

When I began working with Cernunnos and later with Danu, the call was early and clear:  “be My priest.”  I took vows to Them.  When I read those vows now, they seem simple and unsophisticated… which is appropriate, given my understanding of Them at the time.  (I still wouldn’t call my understanding of the Gods “sophisticated” but at least now I have a clue as to how much I don’t know.)  I have obligations to Them and They have given me a geis – a minor thing, but it’s important to remember it.  There was no explicitly stated time frame for my service, but the expectation was – and is – that this relationship will continue for the rest of this life.

When I began working with heavily with Morrigan, I assumed She would also call me to be Her priest.  That call has never come.

For a long time that bothered me.  I honored Her, I did good work for Her, and I spread Her message of sovereignty.  Why was that not good enough to be a priest of the Lady of Sovereignty?

Eventually the answer came.  The Battle Raven wants warriors, and I am no warrior.

I’m a Druid: a bard, a seer, a counselor, at times even a healer.  I can support allies with invocations and blessings and I can oppose enemies with satires and imprecations.  If it comes down to it I can fight, but not well and certainly not enthusiastically (I trust you understand fighting means more than physical combat).

I am what I am.  Not everyone can be a warrior.  Not everyone can be a priest of Morrigan.

If She has called you and you are not a warrior, that’s between you and Her.  Like all the Gods, She calls who She calls.  For me, Her priesthood and warriorship go hand in hand – accepting one means accepting both… and trying to become something I’m not.

My debts to Morrigan were squared some time ago.  Since then, She’s been less active in my life… at least in part because the deities who did call me to their priesthood have had work for me to do.  But I think – no, I am certain – I haven’t seen the last of the Great Queen.

I’ll continue to make offerings to Her, lead rituals in Her honor, tell Her stories, and spread the message of sovereignty.  I’ll continue to honor Her in my nightly prayers, and I’ll continue to listen for Her call.

Even though I’m not Her priest.

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  • Morpheus Ravenna

    I also feel that there’s a lot of misapprehension in the Pagan world as to what actually constitutes priesthood. Many people seem to base their definition on the relationship of the priest to the deity, completely missing what I think is the most important dimension of priesthood, the service aspect. Being devoted or even sworn to a deity doesn’t make you a priest if that continues to function as a private devotional relationship. That makes you a dedicant. Priesthood is a service role that is defined by work to use your knowledge and intimacy with the deity to assist others in connecting with Them. If a person’s practice is primarily self-development focused and there isn’t this prominent service aspect, I don’t see that as priesthood no matter how deep the relationship may run. Something I’ve been meaning to blog about myself. 🙂

    • yewtree

      The service aspect of priest(ess)hood could be service to a community rather than to a deity or deities, though.

      • Morpheus Ravenna

        That is precisely what I’m saying that it is! Service to a community in connection with the deities.

    • I really do need to rework and post that essay on priesthood. Basically, I see three main aspects to priesthood: service to the deity, service to the community, and mediation between the deity and the community. The mixture of those three aspects can vary widely from tradition to tradition.

      I strongly agree that self development is not priesthood.

      • Morpheus Ravenna

        Yes – all those three aspects are necessary in priesthood. Though I would not call the work of Pagan priesthood mediation between deity and community; I think that suggests the Christian model where the priest is a necessary intermediary. In the Pagan model, we can have direct communion with the Gods on our own. The role of priests is not in being an intermediary between community and Gods, but in facilitating that direct contact, providing language, context, and tools for developing it more fully. Might seem like hair-splitting but for me the distinction is relevant.

        • So you’re a Protestant Pagan and not a Catholic Pagan? 🙂

          I agree with you we can have direct communion with the Gods and that the primary job of the Pagan priest-as-mediator is to facilitate that communion. But there is also the case of ritual possession – call it Drawing Down or whatever – where the priest serves as the vessel for the deity to give Him or Her a physical voice to speak to the community. That’s not something just anyone can do.

          • Morpheus Ravenna

            Yes, definitely true. But that’s a special case, a very context- and tradition-specific practice. In my experience, as a priest who practices possession, the vast majority of the work I do is helping people make that direct connection on their own; acting as an intermediary via possession is not the usual MO for priest work that I do with communities. I would venture to say that this is probably true of most other Pagan priests who do possession as well. And plenty of trads don’t practice possession at all. Thus, if we’re talking general statements about the nature/requirements of Pagan priesthood, I don’t think mediation is one of them.

          • KhalilaRedBird

            Protestant? Catholic? Try Quaker…. In coming to terms with my call and dedication and initiation, I came to the conclusion that a minister does good things for people; a chaplain helps people access the strengths they forgot they have; a priest changes reality. That’s the simplistic version (meanwhile agreeing with all you have said, John).

            The work of a priest involves not so much mediation between God and community but being God’s hands that change things: change two individuals into a bonded couple; change a cluttered living room into a holy temple; change a neophyte into a Witch. I can only function as a priest to you if you accept me your priest, but if you do accept me, I have power from the God whose priest I am.

  • yewtree

    Thanks for this John. It makes me feel better about not being the priestess of any specific deity.

  • Thanks for the shout out. I like that you clarified what I did not: that being a priest/ess isn’t just what one does, it’s also a living relationship between a person and their god. I hope I didn’t muddy the waters by simplifying the role.

    Edited to add, that I completely agree that there is an outer service aspect to being a priest/ess that Morpheus outlines below.

  • Interesting discussion! I am a priestess. I feel it deeply as a vocational calling. I spend a lot of time, energy, study, and thought with regard to the role. I primarily define it in relationship to service to my community and circle of women, rather than to a specific deity. And, indeed, though I was “called” by Brigid with increasing intensity over the last year, it became clear to me that I was not being called as her priestess. Interestingly, “dedicant” was the word I got. It was clear that my work for her is not priestess work. My priestess work is not actually in service to a specific goddess (I am a “goddess priestess” rather than a “priestess of…”), and I was first called priestess by the trees and the rocks, the Earth itself. So, that’s who I am.

    • Oh, and this is somewhat tangential, but I am increasingly frustrated by the trend to self-defining as “priestess” in the sense of having “activated the priestess within,” because personally I am so serious about the real *work* of serving well and wholeheartedly as a priestess. I’ve studied for years, facilitated rituals and classes for years, am a D.Min student (in a dual program of both ministerial and academic concentration), and I’m ordained by Global Goddess, and I only became “brave” enough to own “priestess” publicly in the last two years. However, I see women who do some free teleclasses to “activate the priestess” and then they’re priestesses…hmm. But, that’s my own peeve/issue and now I feel like a petty complainer after typing it out! 😉

    • Asa

      Molly, thank you for saying what I’ve been having trouble articulating in my own journey. I wonder if we use the word “priestess” too often, and could use the word “dedicant” much more! I think it’s a really useful way to describe those of us who priestess (or are training to priestess, like me) for the Goddess, but are also dedicated to specific deities.

  • AnantaAndroscoggin

    There’s one area (or group of areas) of priestly duty seldom mentioned, which is in service to members of the community who are in crisis of any kind. This is one time one cannot be one’s own priest/ess. One cannot really give comfort to oneself when in the middle of an exceptionally bad patch, at least not with any convincing sincerity.

    And sometimes there is also the task of mediating between members of the community.

  • Joseph M

    I wan’t to say thank you for this post as it has helped me articulate some thoughts i have regarding current contention in my own (LDS – Mormon) Tradition regarding ordination ad Priesthood.

    Regarding the nature of priesthood (or priestesshood for that mater) I like your articulation of the difference between the Catholic and Protestant conceptions. Priesthood in the Mormon tradition is more Catholic in conception but is Protestant in that is (ideally) conferred on all males age 12 and up. As such we have a lot of material on what priesthood is and means, as lots of people need to be trained for that calling.

    I look forward to reading your essay on ‘what is a priest’ and hope you might find some thoughts of value in what we have produced on the subject.
    Below is the divine instruction we have received on the spirit in which priesthood is to be exercised.
    34 Behold, there are many called, but few are chosen. And why are they not chosen?

    35 Because their hearts are set so much upon the things of this world, and aspire to the honors of men, that they do not learn this one lesson—

    36 That the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and that the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness.

    37 That they may be conferred upon us, it is true; but when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man.

    38 Behold, ere he is aware, he is left unto himself, to kick against the pricks, to persecute the saints, and to fight against God.

    39 We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.

    40 Hence many are called, but few are chosen.

    41 No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;

    42 By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile—

    • As a Pagan, I obviously have issues with some of the assumptions behind this scripture, but it contains much wisdom. Thank you for posting it.