Sacerdotal roles

What title do you use, or prefer? What archetypes do you associate with it? Priestex, Priestess, Priest?

Although I am nonbinary, I like the title priestess, for various reasons:

  • I don’t associate it with motherhood (I’m not the motherly type).
  • It makes me think of the High Priestess card in the Tarot (particularly the one created by Pamela Colman-Smith).
  • I gather that the Reclaiming Tradition use the title priestess for everyone, regardless of gender.
  • It has only ever been used to refer to Pagan ritual roles (at least, that is true for the English language).

I’m okay with ‘priestex’ for other people, but it just doesn’t give me the warm fuzzy feeling I get from the word priestess, and to me, ‘priestex’ seems like a weird way to indicate gender neutrality. If someone wanted to be referred to by that title at appropriate moments in ritual, of course I would oblige, because people’s lived experience of gender is more important than being an offended grammar nerd.

A much better gender-neutral word would be sacerdos (pronounced /saˈker.doːs/): one who makes things sacred (which is essentially the role of a priest or priestess). It’s better because it is a real word and not a badly-put-together modern coinage. And rest assured that it is genuinely gender neutral.

I toyed with creating a hybrid of gothi and gythja (the Norse words for priest and priestess respectively), but it would probably sound just as bad to Norse-language speakers as priestex does to me (sorry, priestex fans). For what it’s worth, my hybrid was gotha or gythi. I think I prefer gythi. Another alternative would be to use the plural form, by analogy with using ‘they’ as a gender neutral pronoun. The plural is gothar.

The word ‘priest’ comes from Latin presbyter (elder), of which the feminine form is presbyterissa. The root of presbyter is from Greek and means “old man”.

According to Wikipedia: “The feminine English noun, priestess, was coined in the 17th century, to refer to female priests of the pre-Christian religions of classical antiquity.” I suppose people in the 17th century thought it sounded weird, too.

Anyway, it would be nice if sacerdos became a choice, as it’s a genuinely Pagan word, as far as I can tell, that actually referred to a Pagan priestly role in antiquity.

Another alternative is flamen and flaminia, which were ancient Roman priestly roles. The plural is flamines, so the gender neutral word could be flamine. Unfortunately every time I mention this to anyone, they automatically start thinking about burgers. (“It’s flaming good”). Ah well.

So, whatever titles you use in your traditions, I hope that we can agree on some gender neutral options for people who want them. I was very pleased when the Assembly of the Sacred Wheel announced that they were officially embracing the title priestex for use in their organization.

Addendum

It has just occurred to me that one of the biggest issues with Indo-European languages is that the masculine word is always considered the default or root word, and then you have to add a prefix or a suffix to make it gender neutral or feminine (examples include: man, woman, human; priestess, priest, priestex; this also applies in German, e.g. Artzt, Ärtztin) or you have to switch to a different linguistic root to get a gender-neutral word (e.g. god, goddess, deity).

9 thoughts on “Sacerdotal roles

  1. I use “priest”, at least in part for the same issue of usage but the opposite purpose: because priest has been used as a term the major religions in English, it implies to me that my role has the same spiritual significance rather than being an other.

    As someone whose map is drawn heavily from Northern Europe, I have considered goði but the sources suggest political and economic aspects as well as a spiritual one so it didn’t feel like a good fit.

    Regarding gender-neutral terms, I wonder if it will resolve itself one non-masculine priesthood has been in the public eye a little longer; in the same way all teachers became educators long enough ago that most people don’t recall educatrix. Of course, until it does we are morally required to heed the choices of those who do find an inaccurate gender/sex resonance in certain titles and seek others.

    Which I think is why I don’t agree with Reclaiming’s choice to call everyone Priestess: while I understand the motivation, using a single term with feminine resonance doesn’t feel like the ideal path to deal with the issue of gendered resonance.

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    • RE: ” … while I understand the motivation, using a single term with feminine resonance doesn’t feel like the ideal path to deal with the issue of gendered resonance.”

      I make the same argument, though, for the use of masculine resonant role terminology as the default, too. Language is hard 😢

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      • One of the biggest issues with Indo-European languages is that the masculine word is always considered the default or root word, and then you have to add a prefix or a suffix to make it gender neutral or feminine (examples include: man, woman, human; priestess, priest, priestex; this also applies in German, e.g. Artzt, Ärtztin) or you have to switch to a different linguistic root to get a gender-neutral word (e.g. god, goddess, deity).

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      • That’s my point: if they avoid priest because it’s gender-resonant, then priestess isn’t a great choice to mandate for everyone in the religion.

        The difficulty of language is tricky: we don’t want to perpetuate gender absolutism, but we also want to communicate. So, do we seek a term that has never been gendered and risk it becoming a barrier to wider understanding, or do we take a gendered term and claim it (in the same process as some minorities have claimed slurs for their own).

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      • Well, I think there’s an argument for taking a gendered term and reclaiming it or redefining it— in which case why not do that with priestess?

        The reason I like priestess is because of the imagery it conjures up for me. YMMV, of course.

        As I said in reply to Dash and in my addendum to the post, it’s a pity that Indo-European languages have the masculine as the default / “gender neutral” option and the masculine does not require a suffix or prefix to distinguish it.

        The logical thing would be as follows:

        Priest (gender neutral noun)
        Priester / Prester (masculine noun)
        Priestess (feminine noun)

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    • Amen to respecting choices. I’m just constantly disappointed that the grammatically masculine term always becomes the default one. And the reason I like Reclaiming’s use of priestess is that, although the word was coined around 1690, it was coined specifically to refer to Pagan priestesses.

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  2. Practicing Druidry helps with that for me – I just use “Druid”. I know some Druids have clergy and call themselves priests, but it’s not for me, I’m habitually anti-clerical. I also like using Witch as a gender-neutral term and reminding people that it doesn’t just mean female.

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