What makes you a priest/ess?

Michael asked, Am I a real priest?

Short answer, if you feel a calling to be one, then you probably are one, even if you’re on the beginner slopes.

My working definition of a priest or priestess is a person who can facilitate contact between the other-than-human and the human, and/or who can create meaning, community, and a sense of connectedness for others. Note that this definition includes atheists and animists.

Priest/ess as mediator

Traditionally a priest/ess is a person who makes contact between the divine realm and the human. The divine realm can include deities, spirits, and the numinous in general. From an animist perspective, deities and spirits include genii loci, tree spirits, rock spirits, water spirits, and so on. The priest/ess or shaman is a specialist in communication between the human and the other-than-human, using trance, spirit travel, invocation, evocation, and other techniques. They create a sense of connectedness for others.

Creating community

One of my tests of who is a priest/ess is, can you produce an atmosphere of calm and safety in a roomful of distraught or agitated people. If you can, you’re a priest/ess.

A priest/ess builds community, creates safe spaces, resolves conflicts. They serve the community, and in exchange, the community values their efforts.

Creating meaning

The priest/ess is also a storyteller and lore-keeper for the community. They keep track of traditions, stories, rituals, lore, and the history of the community, lineage, or tradition. They interpret the cosmology and symbolism of the tradition for others. In short, they help to create meaning.

Of course, meaning is co-created by the whole community, but the priest/ess keeps track of the changing lore and rituals, and offers expert input.

What makes a priest/ess?

Probably the most important aspect of the making of a priest/ess is the person experiencing a vocation or call to be a priest/ess. Without that call, you wouldn’t set foot on the path towards priest(ess)hood.

A formal initiation can be valuable for the creation or formation of a priest/ess, but it is neither necessary nor sufficient. The inner transformation has to occur, and that’s an alchemical mystery. An initiation can trigger that transformation, but it can be triggered by an encounter with a deity, or with the numinous, or a sense of the awesomeness of Nature.

There are three levels of Wiccan initiation. The first degree initiation is generally held to make you a priest/ess unto yourself. The second degree makes you a priest/ess to others in your coven. The third makes you a priest/ess for the wider community.

Druidry also has a system of three levels: Bard, Ovate, and Druid. The Bard creates meaning by creating stories and songs. The Ovate communicates with spirits and deities. The Druid is more community-based (I think). The Ovate incorporates the functions of the Bard. The Druid incorporates the functions of the other two.

Each of these levels is conferred by your ability and calling. The initiation may just be a recognition that you have already achieved that level.

Obviously real priests and priestesses exist outside of formal systems of recognition and training, but within those systems, you’re not going to be recognized as a priest/ess of that system without going through the required training and initiations. That is not a comment on your general competence or priestly status, only about your validity within that specific system.

There are many different types and modes of priest(ess)hood, and this post is a general description of all of them. Some priest(esse)s focus on a specific path within the general set of priestly functions described here. They are still valid as priest(esse)s.

All photos in this post by me.

Licensed under CC-BY-SA 4.0.

Apologies for the gender binary language here, but I don’t find the word priest to be gender-neutral, and haven’t yet seen or invented a gender neutral word for the role. Suggestions welcome.

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4 thoughts on “What makes you a priest/ess?

  1. I stopped worrying about gendered nouns when I realized “authoress” was once a thing, and that now “actress” is also on the decline. It’s those feminine versions which I find problematic because they create a gender context where none is needed. I now avoid goddess, priestess and similar terms; if a person’s gender is relevant in context, it need not be expressed in such nouns and pronouns; just mention the gender and move on. Much of English grammar is unwieldy due to embedded gender, and I’m ready to move past that.


    • I totally agree about authoress, poetess, and actress (the first two are particularly awful).

      But for various reasons, I prefer priestess to priest, and I like goddess. I gather Reclaiming solves this by calling everyone a priestess regardless of gender.

      I think we still need goddess and priestess because both god and priest were associated with maleness for so long. (Though god, like man, was gender neutral in the original Anglo-Saxon, there’s been a lot of history since then.)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting thoughts, I must confess to discomfort over the word “priest” in a Pagan context, but that’s just my ex-Catholic trauma bleeding through I guess! “Priestess” doesn’t have the same associations, but it does feel unnecessarily gendered. I quite like simply using words from Pagan traditions to describe a person who does the “priest” functions: call them a Druid, or a Witch, or a Gothi, or a Flamen, or whatever is appropriate in their trad (I know for some Wiccans that still leaves you with “High Priest” and “High Priestess”, but I’m not sure what would replace that).

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    • I’m so used to using the words in a Wiccan context that I regard them as ours now. But then I wasn’t brought up a Catholic.

      It took me a lot longer to reclaim the words holy and heaven (meaning sky).

      It makes Christians (especially nonconformists) squirm if you refer to a high priestess or high priest. Quite gratifying really.

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