Cat Treadwell — professional Druid and nature-mystic - gives us a perspective from the English countryside.
Do you remember when you first stepped onto the Pagan path? Perhaps more years ago than you care to recall, perhaps only recently. But no doubt books and websites were raided for information, ideas, ways to practice, paths to investigate. We truly are blessed with a wealth of information these days, after all.
My quest began before the Internet. My recollection is of picking up 'A Witch's Bible' - that lovely, slightly scary-looking black tome, scavenged easily enough from the shelves of Borders bookstore - and seeing the pictures inside. The photographs from the 1970s of Janet Farrar, beautiful and resplendent in ritual, performing the symbolic Great Rite proudly and publicly. And, of course, very very naked.
Then came that word: 'Priestess'. Not just in Wicca, but everywhere I looked, the goal of all Pagans appeared to be the Priesthood. You were still just learning until you had finally achieved the right to that title. This was just around the time when folks were starting to self-initiate, so the controversy was relatively new.
As I found the Internet, I saw the arguments for and against, the validity of Priests not initiated by coven, or able to claim direct lineage from anywhere. It appeared that even if you passed the tests, it wasn't a straightforward title to gain, but a target to aspire to. And people certainly did.
'Priestess', of course, was itself a fairly glamorous term. If you'd been brought up with the Christian faith, it was all about men in the pulpit, so 'PriestESS' seemed exotic, otherworldly (and yes, perhaps a little dangerous). Ultimate occult secrets to be learned.
Nowhere do I remember reading about the responsibilities of Pagan Clergy. Nothing about their roles in the wider community, the hard work they undertook, the late-night phone calls, the getting arrested for carrying knives in public or protesting on picket lines.
In recent months, I've come across quite a few books and articles (old and new) that are actually taking a look at what it means to be a Priest or Priestess, both historically and in the Pagan community today. We're still very much growing, I think, finding out feet as we realize our numbers and subsequent responsibilities that reach beyond titles, robes and jewellery. I have no doubt that every freshly-minted young clergyperson is still as nervous about taking on public or group ritual for the first time - no matter what their faith (or how 'cool' they might look).
In the UK, Pagans are starting to seek that validation in the 'regular' world as well. There are groups seeking to allow the legalisation of Handfastings and other Pagan rites. I get called upon more and more as a professional Druid Priest/ess, with respect and curiosity more than flaming torches and abuse (I'm very glad to say!). I'm constantly challenging myself to live up to expectations and responsibilities contained within that one little word. It's really not at all glamorous, and at the heart of it all, I'm still just me.
I think the true daily challenge comes, however, in - to coin a very modern phrase - 'keeping it real.'
People call upon Priests at times of need. To celebrate or mourn, in times of crisis or doubt. For blessings, prayers, teachings, and just a hand to hold sometimes. This isn't all about ritual theatrics and high magick - this is about real life. As there are more Pagans and Pagan-minded folk, so more clergy are sought to minister when needed.
These are Priestesses, to me:
Patricia Crowther and Doreen Valiente. Dressed for ritual... yet with wicked smiles on their faces and glints in their eyes, real women both, with real lives and families. Doreen famously offered to do the washing-up after a gathering; both freely shared their knowledge with those who asked.
This week, I received a certificate from the Doreen Valiente Foundation. I've recently been made an Honorary Member, and have a certificate from Doreen's Priest and successor, John Belham-Payne: 'In Recognition of Unselfish, Continued Commitment and Dedication to the Wide Pagan Community.' An honour indeed.
That's being a Pagan Priest. Recognising yourself as part of a wider (and still young) community, and taking up the challenge of serving it to the best of your ability. There should actually be warnings about this in the books - it really is not easy, with constant shape-shifting in ways you can never anticipate to simply keep up with the vagaries of both Paganism and the wider world. Our society has lost the relationship with its Priests, no longer supporting them as valued, skilled individuals, but we carry on regardless. Because so long as we keep getting the calls and messages, we're needed.
Is it worth it? Something to work hard to achieve, something to aspire to?
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