This past week I traveled back to New York City, where I had lived in my 20s, for the first time since I left. While I was there, I visited the Museum of Natural History, where I had first experienced a worldview that included women as sacred. Back in the 80s, Diane Wolkstein had brought her performance of the Inanna story from ancient Sumer there. I didn’t know it then, but that may be the closest I will ever come to experiencing an ancient religious rite involving a female deity. Thousands of years ago, the celebrations and ceremonies frequently included re-enactments of stories about goddesses like Inanna.
When I unpacked after I returned home, I took my jewelry out of a little silk bag and put back into it a mirror that had been sent to me by my friend Marione. I had written a story in which one of the characters shows another her reflection in a mirror as part of a ritual and Marione sent me that gift in response. After I wrote the story, I found out that this is indeed one of those spiritual acts that have been done by priestesses for millennia all over world. Once again, a modern woman had enriched my life by acting as a priestess.
What if we were all to take it upon ourselves as a sacred duty to act as priestesses for each other? We live in a world in which women do not see themselves as worthy and are treated as soulless objects by others, leaving us subject to violence, abuse, and exploitation with horrendous results for women and all of society. To me, as I study the functions that priestesses held in ancient times and witness what seems to be lacking in our world, a priestess is anyone who reflects back to others her own sacredness and who heals. When we forget that we are sacred and others are also, we open the door to violence, abuse, and exploitation. When we heal, we make ourselves and other whole and bring ourselves and others back into the web of all being.
Everyone has her own way of being a priestess, but here are the ways that I have thought of to bring this essential function to our everyday lives:
Make every job that of being a priestess. One common thread among the women I know who I would consider “priestessly” is that they view their jobs – whether as a checker at Walmart, a teacher, a nurse, an administrator, or a stay-at-home mom – as a means to show others that they are sacred. They do whatever they do in a way that responds to each person they encounter as unique, important, and worthy. With their family and friends, they encourage dreams, listen to ideas and opinions, mend broken self-respect. They provide opportunities for others to find the sacred in themselves by letting them take chances, by allowing the other person to take care of the priestess as well as the other way around, by listening with genuine interest as people talk about their lives and burdens.
Our lives are the stuff of the sacred. What happens to us everyday is just as valuable, more really, for wisdom and life lessons, as any ancient story. Be a priestess by telling your stories, expressing your thoughts, giving others the benefit of what you have been through. Your life, both the good and the bad, is a gift to you from the universe, and priestesses share what they have been given.
Create beauty and celebrate the joy in life. Music, dance, poetry, magnificent architecture and paintings have always been part of our spiritual experience whether in temples or churches or in rituals. Something about beauty makes us into spiritual beings. So often our creative work is put on the back burner for what we may think of as more important things, like making a salary or fulfilling social obligations. As a priestess, I will try to make creative endeavors a priority, maybe even blogging more often…
Finally, priestesses of old would often dress, speak, and behave like the goddesses who they celebrated. To be a priestess, we must reflect whatever reflects the best within us, whatever that may be. For many women, the most important aspect of this is expressing compassion for all those who come across their path. They “hear the cries of the world,” as do so many goddesses and other female divine beings. Maybe for me it is storytelling or making visions of the future. Maybe today it will be one thing and tomorrow another.
Being a priestess everyday most likely won’t change much about what you do, but maybe it will change the way you perceive yourself and your role in it. Maybe it will help you get through a tedious day at work, or re-evaluate what you see as important, or remind you in a new way that you are sacred and worthy of being treated as well as the highest spiritual leader. The Delphic oracle, the priestesses who dreamed healing visions at the Hypogeum, the women who over thousands of years have led their communities as spiritual leaders, they are all women just like we are, and, no matter who we are, we can be like them, too, everyday.
~ Carolyn Lee Boyd