I don’t think it is any sort of secret that I am an Episcopal priest, or that I’m female.
And those two things means that often my colleagues and I have interesting conversations about what we are called, and how we introduce ourselves. I am not a terribly prickly sort of person, and the diocese in which I was raised and formed is rather low church and casual. Even my ordaining bishop is quite clear that he prefers to be called by his name. And I prefer the same. (If it’s good enough for She who made me, it’s good enough for you.)
But in conversation recently a group of women clergy were discussing how they introduce themselves, or what others tend to call them and someone said that when she had introduced herself as priest a non-churched person replied “wouldn’t that be priestess?” I wasn’t there, so I do not know what tone was used for the question, but the priest in question took offense as did the majority of the women in the conversation. “Ess” they agreed was a diminutive, dismissing, degrading and less than “priest.”
I am not only an Episcopal priest but a horse woman and board my horse at a lovely barn full of truly lovely people, most of whom have no connection to Christianity of any sort. I dare say most of my horse friends are much more in tune with Mystery and the Divine in the form of the natural world, given their passion. If you want to meet Beauty in perhaps Her purest form go meet a horse. If you want to commune with her, dedicate your life to building a relationship.
While my mare and I were working in the arena this afternoon, the barn owner walked past and called out “how’s our high priestess today?” I know many who would take offense, but spending time with strong horsewomen will teach you things. For example: “ess” is not a diminutive. Or at least to us it isn’t.
I am descended from Scots, from highland Scots at that. I’m a member of Clan Donnachaidh. I grew up hearing the story of how the English called us “howling naked barbarians,” because the Scots would remove their yards long kilts, tie their shirt tails between their legs, and then charge into battle (all that wool got in the way of lopping off English heads after all.) The English meant it as an insult (obviously), but the way my family tells the story we Scots grabbed hold of that appellation and turned it into a point of pride. “Why yes, we are howling naked barbarians” my ancestors would say with a dangerous smile on their faces. I learned to say it with the same sort of devious glee as a little girl.
I have never been against the term priestess, perhaps because I have pagan friends for whom the term has never been less than the male term. But if there were any doubt, a group of tough ass horse women would put that doubt to rest. No one who has met a horse woman would ever call her less than a man. Neither would they call such women weak, or diminutive. We tend to be stubborn, tough, opinionated, tender, quiet, and very occasionally difficult. We come by it honestly. You see we live, work, and recreate with creatures that outweigh us by anything from six hundred to over a thousand pounds. Creatures who can kill us with a single well placed kick. Who can launch us from their backs an impressive distance, who with one moment of inattention could smash our foot with their’s, or break our nose or jaw with their heads. All without meaning to, and sometimes they mean to.
These are women who will sleep outside their horse’s stall and get up every hour to walk them, change a dressing, check on a pregnant mare. Who will calm the fears of a thousand pound flight animal with the subtlest of body language, and who will after being kicked hard by said animal turn around and slug them while growling like tiger. Horse women have grit, and they are intimately familiar with Beauty. They are her priestesses, they connect with Her horses in a way few men ever do.
Legend says that to at least one people the Divine was known as Epona, that She wore the body of a shining coated grey mare and that only a woman could ride her. That woman was her priestess. For anyone who could ride the Mare without bit or bridle, with love and relationship rather than coercion, her title is a thing to be proud of.
Priestess has always been, for me, intimately connected with wild power, with the sort of relationship with Mystery that cannot be contained within a neat, structured institution of rules and hierarchy. Priestess embodies the primal link between humanity and the Power we can only barely grasp; that we can if we are very lucky and very brave ride grinning into the far horizon. Always knowing that at any moment that Power and Beauty can send us flying, can shatter us, can crush us: but doesn’t. Instead it nickers our name, it nuzzles our shoulder gently, it willingly follows our tentative steps and allows us to climb our slow clumsy bodies onto it’s back and fly.
If we believe that Goddess is less than God, or priestess less than priest it is because our patriarchal cultures has trained us that the feminine is missing something, that without a phallus the feminine is less than, diminished, lacking. We have been convinced that to be equal we must become male. That to be priestess is not as good as priest, and so we cram ourselves into the trappings of a male role in a male system and call it progress. But that way lies the continuation of patriarchy, the continuation of the lie that to be female is to be less. Flip the script.
If anything God is missing what Goddess possesses. Priest as a word is quite literally missing something that priestess possesses.* And while a phallus might be visible that doesn’t make it more than what is hidden and deep and powerfully mysterious. While many female creatures can produce offspring without the help of any male organism (parthenogenesis) from their own deep fertileness; the male of any species is utterly incapable of bringing about life without help. I suspect it is what has stuck in their craw for so long, and required so much diminishing of the terrifying power of the feminine. It is long past time we stopped this thinking that -ess is somehow less complete, diminutive, reduced. When it is in fact so much more. When in fact no concept of all that is Holy can be complete without God/Goddess.
When I am called priestess I smile, and it is the wild secret smile of my barbarian ancestors grasping the power of a word and defining it for themselves. It is the smile of the first woman to be still and quiet enough to slip onto the back of a wild mare, to move her body with Hers, and learn to fly. It is the smile of all the women throughout the ages who have wielded the sort of quiet power that erodes mountains. It is the same smile a priestess of Epona once wore as she sat proud and tall on the back of the Mare knowing that no man would ever be allowed such privilege.
When I am called priestess I smile the smile of a woman who knows that the male form of a title is not normative nor is it more powerful; though the world around seems to have convinced itself that this is so. Poor world.
It is the smile of a woman who knows that a stallion does not have a harem; a sisterhood of mares has a stallion they consider worthy of fathering their offspring, for now. It is the smile of a woman who sits the back of a shining grey mare with fire in her eyes because she has been allowed that great privilege.
When I am riding my beautiful, stubborn lead epona with all her power, her fury, her gentleness and someone calls me priestess:
* Patriarchy is so deeply ingrained that for many of you the immediate response to those two sentences was a visceral reaction of: Goddess and priestess are not Christian. However, if you would agree that God is not in fact male then it’s time to rethink that first reaction.