What does it mean when we say we are a priest?
“Death is the King of Terrors yet it is the greatest teacher of our race. Without it, humankind could never have learned the difference between body and spirit, and without the idea of spirit, God could never have been conceived, and religion would have been impossible.” (Spiritism and the Cult of the Dead in Antiquity, Lewis Bayles Paton.
Perhaps the only force in Nature equal to death in how it shaped ritual and religion, would be birth. The mystery of fertility, mating, conception, pregnancy and birth as well as the survival of the child, were equally primal and wrought with danger and a profound mystery to early humans. No doubt, the first priests held sway over both life and death for their tribes and their community.
The priesthood today is a descendent of the tribal shaman. Shamanic practices are named for the medicine men of the ancient indigenous people of the Russian lands. The word shamanism probably derives from the Manchu-Tungus word šaman, meaning "one who knows". The word shaman may also have originated from the Evenki word šamán, most likely from the southwestern dialect spoken by the Sym Evenki peoples. The Tungusic term was subsequently adopted by Russians interacting with the Indigenous peoples in Siberia. Today it is a word anthropologists use to denote certain practices shared by indigenous people everywhere. The shamans, male or female, serve as the intermediary between the tribe and the animal kingdom and spirit world. The shaman is present in cultures around the world, wherever people still followed the “original instructions’ of living in harmony with their environment, and followed nomadic, hunter gatherer type lifestyles. Called medicine men, witches, etc., these people developed methods and technology to harness and connect with the energy of the unseen world for healing of community members, guidance to leaders, prophecy, and transcendence of the earthly realm. By the time civilizations became more advanced during the shift to agriculture and settlements, these practices were later incorporated into more formal priesthoods.
During the early Neolithic and with the rise of agricultural communities, it is also apparent that the first deity was a life-giving Mother Goddess, and the first priests were her priestesses.
“The first God, Mother Earth, was a human concept – or the sign of a human response to an experienced fact. The first arts and religion, the first crafts and social patterns, were designed in recognition and celebration of Her. But what were real human females thinking and feeling? We can only see the attributes of the Great Goddess as projections of women’s experiences of themselves. As we read the powerful magic of the Great Mother’s celebration, we can read these first women’s powerful discoveries of themselves. The religious beliefs, the mysteries and rites developed by ancient women, grew organically out of women’s supreme roles as cultural producers, mothers, and prime communicators with the spirit world. The mysteries of creation, transformation and recurrence – the primal mysteries of all religions – emerged from women’s direct physical and psychic experiences of the mysteries of bleeding, growing a child, nursing, working with fire, making a pot and planting a seed.” (“The Great Cosmic Mother – Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth”, Monica Sjoo and Barbara Mor)
Over the development of the modern world in Europe, there have been cultures who practiced both a formal priesthood, as well as an embrace of the more primitive shamanic ways of the ancestors.such as the Druids of the Celts. Druids were more than just priests and advisors to their communities. Anthropologists believe that the Celts’ may have absorbed some of the earlier indigenous beliefs of the people they conquered but at the height of their religion, the Druid class encompassed both Druid warrior, learned man, counselor to the king and the community, bard, judge, soothsayer and shaman. (The Druids, Celtic Priests of Nature, Jean Markale). And what of the Indigenous Traditions which the Celts supplanted after the arrived in Northern Europe? For these we must look even further back to the Wicce or wise ones, to the Saami of the Nordic races and midwives, herbwives, dowsers, and shamans of the earliest European tribes. These are the people who left behind carved images of a White Goddess, Among the Yakut shamans of Siberia, the World Tree is a great fir that grows in the farthest north. In the branches of the tree nest the Bird of Prey Mother, who has iron feathers, and iron beak, hooked claws and the head of an eagle. Shamans are born from the eggs she lays in the World Tree. It is she who brings the shaman back to life after his ritual death. In her myths it is she who gathers up the bones of the dead and brings them back to life. This female figure, a bird Goddess, appears in various forms throughout the mythology and spiritual practices of Europe, Tibet and India. She is met almost everywhere in Old Europe, in a splendid variety of shapes and characters. Marija Gimbutas, professor of archaeology at UCLA, devoted a great deal of her research tracing the Goddess throughout Neolithic Europe. Her legacy remained for centuries in myth, legend and the practices of European wise women and their shamanic ways until it was stamped out violently from the 15-17th century by the Roman Catholic Imperialist Church in the Inquisition and the Witch Craze. (Kenneth Johnson, North Star Road: Shamanism, Witchcraft and the Otherworldly Journey)
The role of the Shaman was mirrored in other spiritual traditions around the world. “Shamanism is not a religion, it is a technique of spiritual practice. As such, it is far older than any formal religion on the planet” (Kenneth Johnson, North Star Road: Shamanism, Witchcraft and the Otherworldly Journey).
In Africa, shamanic practices are part of the indigenous ways of native people In Yoruba religion, and the traditional priest is also a shaman or medicine man. In addition to learning the use and application of natural medicine and healing, they lead their communities in ceremony and prayer. But it is said, “It is not necessary to kneel, although it has always been the Yoruba way. Prayer is especially important in the Yoruba religion. To make supplications to one’s ori (higher self, “Head”) ancestors, the Orisha and to Oldumare (God) is viewed as an essential aspect of Yoruba worship. It is to be understood that prayers to the divinities in Yoruba religion is for the elevation and purification of baser human qualities. The highest form of prayer is for the devotees asking nothing transcendence and protection from negative forces. By means of sincere prayer the devotee is better able to pass through the lower realms and attain the heavenly states. Yoruba priests and priestesses are directed to assist devotees in their heavenly and earthly trials. (The Handbook of Yoruba Religious Concepts, Baba Ifa Karade)
In traditional First Nation Beliefs, each tribe had elders who served as medicine women and men to these people. As with the witches, shamans and early Druids, these elders were the keepers of knowledge, tradition as well as the healers, seers, diviners. They know the ways of the Earth, the knowledge of the plants and the ceremonies which connected their people with the animal spirits they depended on for survival. The missionaries and Priests of the European settlers of course, were determined to stamp out their ways, killing and demonizing the medicine people, and teaching the children in the reservation schools their ways were evil. “The Teachers at Catholic School dismissed all my traditional ways as witchcraft, but they could not cause me to abandon my heritage.” (Prayers of Smoke, Barbara Means Adams.)
In the Far East in China, the earliest priests and priestesses to the people were also Nature priests. In Siberia, the female priestesses were known as “Shamankas.” The earliest available material from the Chinese Bronze Age, the Shamanka played a highly spiritual role. She was closely related to the fecund mother, the fertile soil, to the receptive earth. In Shang and Chou times, the shamankas were regularly employed in the interests of human and natural fertility, above all, in bringing rain to parched farmlands – a responsibility shared with the ancient kings.” (The Divine Woman: Dragon Ladies and Rain Maidens, Edward Schafer)
It is a fact that many of the ways of earlier people of native and indigenous people included primitive rites such as human sacrifice at very early dates. However, the Patriarchal Church, while correctly condemning these practices, managed to destroy the more beneficial knowledge and ways of their own ancestors by condemning all, thus severing their connection to their ancestors, to the ancient knowledge and spiritual technology and losing their own heritage. In the end, a great sacrifice of human lives took place for four centuries in the name of this new religion of “peace.” With the worldwide rise in power of the Patriarchal Church and state, the practices, ceremonies, and priests of the old ways were exterminated and stamped out. Over time and through history, wherever indigenous ways were met by the New World Order of the Patriarchy, bloodshed, slavery, genocide and cultural genocide wiped out the former ways. And with this, a new type of Priest emerged.
Under Patriarchy, the character of priests became united to the authority of the State. The Priest upheld the State and vice versa. The priest now was tasked with controlling the body, mind and most of all spiritual lives of the congregation in order to mold them to be controlled. Any freedom of thought, freedom of belief or spiritual gifts that couldn’t be controlled were crushed. These included Shamanic practices that fell outside the realm of what the Priest could permit, as well as the work of the midwife. Jealous of her initial role in birth, the priests relentlessly persecuted midwives, torturing and killing them in the hundreds and thousands over four centuries of religious persecution. It was from the death of the Witches during this time, that modern science and medicine was born. And that became the work of the male doctor and scientist up until this day. The Authority of the Church rested on that given to them by the Bible or Word of God, a heavily edited collection of stories and myths from Judaism and Early Christian Fathers, traditions which were inherently patriarchal. Despite the fact that Jesus himself had female disciples in Mary Madelene and her sister Martha, any equality of the early Christian Church was violently stamped out.
“There was an era before the Patriarchal Revolution took effect, when women and men cooperated in equality, producing and creating and worshipping together. The Son of the Mother was her mature lover and mate. Wherever the worship of the Great Mother occurred, ritual emphasis was on the sacredness of life. Sexual union fuses the separate emanations of the Divine. And so sexual rites, worship, and ceremonial union – not to be confused with fertility rites – were a part of Her mysteries everywhere. The Heiros Gamos (“Sacred Marriage”) between a High Priestess representing the Goddess, and the Sacrificial Year King (later permanent King) is, however, no older than circa 6500 B.C., to our knowledge. But the idea of a sacred mating between new initiates and the ritual priestess or priest still lives among some Witches. With Patriarchy, this ceremonial view of sexual union ends. Patriarchy is based on secular not sacred relationships, and on property possession, which utterly excludes the experience of ecstatic communion. It is also, of course, based on the sexual passivity, weakness, and dependence of women. The Sacred Marriage becomes the ugly business of domination and humiliation between the sheets – or in the harem, the male Paradise filled with sexual slaves. And now the sacred relation of Mother/Child is closed indoors, psychologized and publicly diminished, as the child comes to be viewed like the wife, as part as the father’s property – neither having social, economic, or political rights except through him. (“The Great Cosmic Mother – Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth”, Monica Sjoo and Barbara Mor)
The Patriarchal concept of religion is Authoritarian. No longer is it accessible to the common person, it must be accessed by a privilege class – usually and exclusively male. And so this new male God must be enforced, on the people, by punitive and guilt-projecting ideologies of a privileged priesthood. In their writings and doctrines, flooding the Bronze Age, creation now comes to be seen as Evil – the Creator is above and apart from his Creation, and while He is perfect, the world is flawed. And so the idea of Original Sin can be conceived, for the first time, to rationalize the unnatural new relation between the human soul and the aloof God. This lays the basis for all further alienated relationships – between people and God, between people and people, between people and the Natural World. Between rulers and the ruled.
“This is the why the Father’s way – in all Patriarchal religions – is Absolute. It’s the root of Authoritarianism. So pure, it is separable from us and from the world, and perceptible only through largely verbal abstractions that attempt to describe His emanations or manifested attributes. He is “perfect, good,” disembodied Spirit. (The Logos). He is seen as purely “spiritual generation,” totally freed from matter (because the Priests must insist he is “free” from the Great Mother), and having no participation in material processes. It then becomes difficult to explain the existence of Death, illness, pain, and decay – since they have nothing to do with “God”!
To this day, Christian Ministers are predominately male, and even when they are not, they uphold the traditional Western Patriarchal values. These values are anti-woman, anti-sex, anti-mysticism and anti-spirit. The nature of the afterlife is a remote heaven for only the very pure and a burning eternal hell for the rest of us, especially those who refuse to conform to their teachings. Priests are expected to love the sin, but hate the sinner, yet so many are caught up themselves in sexual deviant behavior such as child molestation and even the sexual slavery of nuns.
So what does that mean for non-traditional Priests? How do we reconcile these divergent ideas about what does it mean to be a holy person? What I have experienced is, our society projects onto anyone with the title “Rev.” a certain constellation of ideas. For many it’s someone who is a Christian Minister, someone who embraces the Bible as the Word and Authority of God, someone who lives in a way that is self-denying, submissive, quiet, contemplative, obedient, asexual and isn’t given to passions or even swearing. This is what our society views what a Priest should be. If you say you are a Priestess, you often encounter either disbelief or mockery or a patronizing dismissal.
So, through education, example and reclaiming of terms like “Witch” or “Priestess” one can access the deep well of shamanic nature tradition and mystical heritage that came before and stand firmly in their right to claim the term “Priest”. Even for those who through ordination and choice continue to identify and uphold Christian or other Patriarchal traditions, the challenge is to be truthful. Denounce propaganda and lies and be honest on where practices, holidays, traditions began, realizing that the true magic and power of being predated your tradition. It began deep within our collective human prehistory with roots very deep and ancient. For those of us who have left these traditions, the challenge is to learn to incorporate traditional teachings in service to our modern communities and be open to new expressions and beliefs. While I am an interfaith and interspiritual Reverend and Minister, I also am a Priestess and a Witch. The reality is we cannot go backwards to a dimly forgotten past, nor can we completely erase the mistakes of centuries of human error, but we can learn from them. May we move forward taking the best of what we have learned in order to be of service to a future and better humanity.