Role of the High Priestess

[The following is something I’ve written up for internal coven documents, because I wanted to spell out what I thought my role was. I’ve run most of it by my covenmate, and included some other thoughts at her suggestion.]

Or, rather, I should say roles: I think there are a number of things going on here. To many people, the HPS is the one responsible for making sure the spiritual and religious stuff happens. At a basic level, there’s three parts to this, in my eyes: anchoring the spiritual core, providing direction, and making sure the practical details fall into place.

Anchoring the core:

No one group – no matter how fantastic, or how skilled the leadership – can be all things to all people. Part of creating the spiritual core is deciding what the core focus of the group will be – and what things are not on that group’s map, or are lesser parts of their work together. We have and must make choices. There are only 24 hours in the day.

Are we going to focus on being a working coven, with relationships developed over significant time? Or are we going to focus on training new witches? Are we going to focus on the use of music and dance in ritual, or something else? Are we going to be a small group, where everyone can fit around one table – or a larger community, with lots of people to talk to, but maybe less time to talk to each other one on one?

There isn’t one right answer here. While Phoenix Song is aiming at being a small working coven with a heavy emphasis on music and other arts in ritual, I deeply enjoyed my time in the group I trained in – what has now become a larger, enthusiastic training coven with many wonderful people.

Providing direction:

Rather than seeing or feeling energy, I ‘hear’ it – what you’d expect from a music major and composition geek. One thing that’s fascinated me since I started taking on various ritual roles is how the different roles sound to me.

Priestessing often sounds to me not like the melody (as you might assume), but like the bass line: the foundation that everyone else builds off of. Musically, these are things like what key and harmony we’re working within, or setting the pace we go at. Magically, It’s setting the basic functions, what possibilities might fit in the large cauldron of the song. As in music, everyone else gets some input – but we need to agree on some basic things, or it’s going to sound chaotic. And someone needs to make sure we’re all staying more or less on the same beat, and in the same key.

(Incidentally, I ‘hear’ the priest’s role as the melody: it is also crucial to the nature of the song, but it solidifies a particular line of potentials into something more clear-cut: it is a specific iteration, rather than the well of possibility. Consider also the elements of ‘conductor’ and ‘artistic director’ which are roles I think are more easily split by ritual leaders.)

There’s also the question of style. There are many types of music: most of us are good at some, but not all. The HPS who trained me, and who I love dearly, is such a Leo. She adores the shiny, and she radiates warmth and love and acceptance, and community simply by being there.

I tried, honestly, for about six months, to do what she did. It was always a struggle, always a constant effort. It was such an effort it got in the way of other important things. Details fell out of my head. I couldn’t relax and experience in ritual. By the end of six months, I could manage it for short periods, if I kept some of my concentration and focus on being open and welcoming in that style (and away from other needs). It never really got easier.

Me? I’m the water (and air) type. Where my former HPS is the fire at the center of the hearth, I’m the pool of water, or the well. I want to stand around it, and talk to you, and watch the dragonflies and the birds, and the ripples in the pool . Oh, but I want to talk. Talking to people, engaging the mind, is the way I best create and strengthen relationships. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the quiet presence, or the simple touch, or other modes – but the one that’s easiest for, the one that’s instinctual, is what’s going on in my head, and what’s going on in your head, and which bits we want to share, and why they’re interesting and linked to this other interesting thing.

Part of my hiving, therefore, was realizing that to be the best priestess I could be, to do the things that called to me, I needed to be working in a different bass line, a different song. One song isn’t better than another – but some fit us more closely than others.

Practical details:

This is the simplest of the functions in theory, though complex in practice. When and where are we gathering? What do we need for this ritual? Is anyone going to be absent? What needs to happen in order for all the spiritual work to go forward? What training or experience or skills do people need to participate most fully?

The priestess is not the only one taking care of these details. Delegation (and healthy delegation) is critical here. But if the priestess is responsible for keeping the spiritual work on track, then she’s got to keep an eye on these things.

That said, there are some other important roles here.

Incluer:

One of my friends, Jo Walton, is an SF author who coined the word ‘incluing’. She uses it to describe the process by which you tell the reader about details of your created world in small ways, without ever sitting down and dumping information on them.

I’ve thought a lot about the implications for coven work. Imagine that someone walks into a group I’m leading, (often a new and sometimes strange culture for newcomers.) In this case, people look for context. They are going to look at how I behave, and at how people behave towards me. A lot of that, in some ways, is seeking incluing: they are looking for small cues and details that help put what I’m doing into some sort of context they understand.

Now, making assumptions based only on these clues can be a bit dangerous – you may misinterpret something, or assume something is more or less important than it actually is. But the basic idea remains: what I do, how I behave, how I set that bass line and tone and key for the group is going to echo out in ripple effects.

It’s my job as priestess – as one of the people who most clearly have direct influence on the nature of the group – to be as careful as possible to be aware of those interactions, of what information I’m putting out for other people to pick up. It’s not just what I say, or how I respond to someone – it’s also in my body language, in the pauses in my speech, in all sorts of unconscious details. It’s also in how things like a problematic comment by someone else is handled. Are they slapped down in public, or quietly redirected in a gentle way? Which one’s appropriate in that setting?

I am obviously imperfect at tracking many of these things. I’m human, after all. But I do keep an eye on it, and I do think it’s important.

The one person who can’t simply walk away:

In some ways, the priestess is the one person who absolutely can’t walk away without fundamental change. If, as noted above, she’s the one who sets the spiritual work in place (and in many traditions, you can function, if needed, without a priest, but not the other way round), then there’s a logical outgrowth.

Anyone else up to and arguably including the high priest of the group, can theoretically decide to go do something else. There will be consequences if they do, of course, depending on how they handle it. But fundamentally, they have an easier time walking away: it’s elements of harmony and variation on the melody, rather than deciding which song we’re singing together and setting the foundation.

This is not to say that priestesses are irreplaceable. We are replaceable.

First, there is no one true perfect priestess. And second, it’s obviously a good idea to have a backup in case of illness or other emergency. But it is to say that they’re not interchangeable: the fundamental experience is – and really, *should* be – different, depending on who is running ritual.

Priestess and the Gods:

When I sent the first draft of this to my covenmate, she pointed out that I hadn’t talked a lot about the actual ritual steps: does the priestess mediate between participants and the Gods? Is there some other role? In many witchcraft traditions, people are considered to be their own priests and priestesses when it comes to their relationship with the Gods. I strongly agree with that: there is an element of personal responsibility and interaction that I think it is crucial.

Ritual is song, ritual is theatre, ritual is art: my job as priestess is to make sure it happens, and to keep it going, but I think it’s up to everyone else there to share in keeping the song going, to step into the experience, and to see what they will take away from it this time. One person might make a decision, another might decide a hard conversation with a loved one is needed. Someone else might feel comforted or enfolded. A fourth person may feel nudged to try something new. Very different answers, but all from the same basic situation.

That goes for people’s interactions with the Gods as well: my greatest hope is that I will help create and hold spaces where that happens regularly – but whether it does is not just about what I do, but about what other participants in the ritual do. I want to help – and Gods know, I will offer advice and analysis and theory discussion at the drop of a hat. But I also don’t have all the answers. I’d much rather help people figure out how to find them on their own.

Outside of ritual:

The other question my excellent covenmate asked me was about what happens outside of ritual.

I have this theory: inside of ritual, you may have different people than usual taking on specific ritual roles (priestess or priest for a given ritual, act as handmaiden or summoner, Draw Down, etc.) all of which depend on lots of other factors. In the training-centered group I hived from, this is an obviously important part of training.

But likewise, the HPS and HP over the overall group set a lot of the tone for group interaction outside of ritual. Done well, this creates a welcoming and thoughtful and caring space. Done poorly, people can feel left out, as the currents of the ritual group swirl around them, or even attacked or scapegoated. All of these things spill over into ritual: we are constantly changed and affected by our lives, and what happens in a coven meal after ritual is certainly part of that, no less than the ritual itself.

So, boiling this down, I feel I, as high priestess (and shared with the group’s high priest), am responsible for:

1) Setting the guidelines for the space:

I’m a big fan of the Greek idea of xenia or the guest/host relationship. In that, both sides have benefits – but they also have specific responsibilities. In all communities, there are some things that are utterly unacceptable, a lot of things that are iffy but possibly okay, and a bunch of things that are just fine. Some of these are big – murder, abuse. They’re obvious.

But many are small. How do you get into a conversation if people are talking rapidly and energetically without interrupting? Is it rude to correct a factual error someone’s made, or polite? (I spend time in communities where each of these is true.)

The trick is that the standards in Pagan settings are not always the same as in other places we spend time. I believe it’s part of the HPS’s job to help set the standards, and then to make sure the community standards are held to (as well as modeling and explaining them to new folks as needed.) I think everyone else in the community has responsibility for the group culture, as well, but it’s important to set the tone.

2) For generally modeling how I’d like people in the coven to treat each other

Beyond the above, I also think there are models of behavior. Someone studying, seeking to go through initiatory experiences, is often reshaping many of the ways they see the world. It’s important while that process is going on to have models to work from.

I thought a lot about this while I was in the process of getting divorced. I ended up talking a lot with several friends and acquaintances who’d been divorced, and looking at how people I respected and whose opinions I valued helped me handle some things better, and to deal with bouts of misery far more easily.

3) For setting the tone before and after ritual

I believe that a ritual event doesn’t just begin when we all form up in a circle, and end with the ‘merry meet and merry part and merry meet again’. It also begins when we’re setting up, when we’re talking beforehand, when we’re clearing things away, when we’re eating.

Phoenix Song has already made some steps in this direction: we’ve deliberately simplified our set-up so that it’s easy and stress-free for us, so we can focus on the details if we wish, but don’t feel overwhelmed. But it also can mean everything from drawing people out and asking questions, to making sure everyone gets a chance to speak. (This is, incidentally, the part I’m probably most nervous about.)

4) For making sure that people in crisis have a reliable, thoughtful, competent source to turn to if something goes wrong.

I don’t think that always has to be the HPS or HP: certainly it may make sense for someone to turn to a mentor, or to a covenmate with specific experience. But because all of these things come back into ritual eventually, if we’re doing this right, I do think the HPS and HP need to be aware of major concerns, etc. to balance and adjust appropriately in the planning.

This is a work in progress: there things I don’t know how I want to handle yet, because they haven’t come up in that specific way. On the other hand, I think this is a fairly clear idea of what I see my role as being – and how I see it playing out. The key with much of this is not about dictating something, or demanding something – but about being the kind of person that people who want that kind of space want to be around. Being that person consistently, even if I’m stressed or tired or crabby.

This is true of everyone, naturally. Just, the ripple effects are more obvious when there’s a clear group attached. What I do always has consequences, and the more I’m attentive to that, the better.

It’s also, of course, something that changes over time. The steps that are most important right now, when there are two of us looking at adding new people, are different than where we’ll be focusing (I hope!) in a few years with a stable small group who’ve worked together for a while. Which is the final role, I think: adapting gracefully and maturely to change.

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  • Thanks for this unusually concrete and coherent description of the role of HPs (or at least, one way to conceive the role).

    FWIW, I’ve posted this entry to Metapagan, a blog aggregator service for especially interesting Pagan blogging. It will take an hour or two before it shows up in our Widgebox feed, but once it does, it will show up on quite a number of Facebook, Live Journal, and blog pages around the Web.

    I’m hoping more people get a chance to enjoy this piece!

  • Jenett

    Thank you for the compliments! I posted it in the hope it might be useful to others (while being aware that a lot of it is very much about how I see the world.)

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