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Why women can be priests – and bishops (according to Paula Coston)

February 26, 2015
Snake priestess, priestess of fertility with dominion over nature, in Heraklion Archaeological Museum, Greece; from Knossos, New Palace Period (1600 BC)

Snake priestess, priestess of fertility with dominion over nature, in Heraklion Archaeological Museum, Greece; from Knossos, New Palace Period (1600 BC)

There are absolutely no unreconstructed patriarchists reading this blog (at least, I hope not). So the arguments for women bishops and priests (I’m talking especially, but not exclusively, in Christian practice) are obvious to all of you, yes? Still, I’m going to spell out some of them, just in case.

For starters, there have been women priests since earliest times. Statues of Greek priestesses have survived from the fourth century or earlier. From the Archaic to the Hellenistic Periods, if she was of good birth and had financial resources a woman could be a priestess. The priestess of Demeter and Kore at Eleusis and of Athena Polias at Athens (the latter a lifetime, inherited role for a married woman) were so respected that important events were dated according to their names.

Fascinating if useless fact: Greek priestesses held special temple keys, bent twice, at right-angles. They also prayed, poured libations, and took part in animal sacrifices and religious processions. Some wore white, some purple. They enjoyed economic advantages, legal benefits, social prestige, front row seats at competitions, and on occasion freedom from taxation, the right to own property, and special access to the Delphic Oracle. Unlike most women, they were accorded public burial. (Fascinating, saddening and highly relevant fact: Although in the early Christian Church – according to many, though not all – there were women elders/presbyters, deacons, deaconnesses and prophetesses, it was the coming of Christianity, from the Synod of Laodikeia in the mid-fourth century, that gradually eroded the status of women.)(See the summary of Joan Breton Connelly’s book Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece, at The concept of priestess blurred into that of goddess, and vice-versa, the illustration to this post being one such case.

Study ancient Egypt, and many high-class women of the Old Kingdom were priestesses of Hathor. At the enactment of the so-called Mysteries, women played the goddesses Nephthys and Isis. In the 6th century BC, Queen Ahmose Nerfertari became the Second God’s Servant of Amun, a title she later swapped for ‘Wife’ or ‘Adoratrice’ of the God. In the 23rd Dynasty, the Chantresses at Karnak were equal in power to the High Priest. Between 779 and 749 BC Shepenwepet I, a celibate God’s Wife, lived in Thebes and devoted herself completely to the Karnak temples and cults, receiving all the estates and property due to a High Priest – a kind of female Pope. If you were the God’s Wife of Amun, you held exalted office, especially during later Pharonic periods (

Then there’s ancient Rome. In accounts of Roman women’s religious status, chroniclers differ, in a covert tug of war between two feminist/egalitarian stances. So one side,, complains that

‘The Romans had an official state cult of Vesta, goddess of the hearth, of domesticity and continuity of family and state. The head… was the pontifex maximus. Under him there was a college of pontiffs. There is no feminine form of the word pontifex. Women were excluded from the highest office in Roman religion.’

But the Wikipedia entry (yes, I’m that superficial) celebrates that

‘Women priests played a prominent and crucial role in the official religion of Rome…. The six women of the college of Vestals were Rome’s only “full-time professional clergy”. [They] possessed unique religious distinction, public status and privileges, [and it was also] possible for them to amass “considerable wealth”.’

Elisabeth M. Tetlow at concedes that some Roman cults admitted only women (there was even a cult of Virile Fortune, reserved for prostitutes); but, she declares, ‘Even [these] were frequently used by the male authorities to reinforce the subordinate role of women.’

When we know that Christian hierarchies and power bases have come down to us through an ancient Roman filter, the limitations on womanly roles within the modern-day Church, especially as leaders, begin to make illuminating sense.

Yet women leaders from history have often been spiritual leaders, too: prophets and priestesses. Veleda, head of the Bructerii tribe in the lower Rhine valley, who led a rebellion against the Roman Empire, was a seer. In England, Queen Boudicca (Boadicea) of the Celtic Iceni people, not only led them in valiant, ferocious battle but performed divination ceremonies prior to fighting, appealing to the goddess Andraste for good fortune. The seventh-century Dahia al-Kahina, known as ‘the priestess’, was the woman who roused Tunisia against the Arab conquest of North Africa. (From Priestesses, Power and Politics at

As the centuries roll on, across the globe high-status female spiritual figures continually feature. How about Joan of Arc, who led the liberation of France (1430)? The ‘old’ women (according to Spanish colonisers) who were discovered by the explorers conducting most religious ceremonies in the Philippines (16th century)? The wu or female shamans whose thousands of shrines were destroyed by a mandarin (in China, during the Han dynasty)? The Beguines, the Free Spirit heretics, the Spanish ‘blessed’ and ‘illuminated’ women? The Indian temple dancers, whose children were named and inherited matrilineally to manifest the high esteem in which they were held? The youthful Toypurina, a visionary who inspired her Indian people to overturn the mission system in southern California (1780s)? The Chumash, who built shrines and conducted rituals in preparation for the Santa Barbara rebellion (1824)?

Priestesses, Power, and Politics reports erosion, though: a ‘male takeover of women’s rites and mysteries’ up to the present day that slanted religious practice and hierarchies as far afield as Australia, Melanesia, the Amazon basin, Tierra del Fuego, Kenya, Sierra Leone and more, beside the Mediterranean basin, tarring female religious figures as barbaric and inferior. (Much of women’s spiritual leadership ‘burrowed underground’ into white, not just black, witchcraft and folk religion, and religions – labelled by many as ‘cults’ – that often engage in drumming, spiritual dancing and various forms of communion with nature.)

Yet today, the high priestess remains a figure of power (political, religious, societal, artistic) as well as more unconscious potency. In cultures throughout the world she casts a metaphorical spell, not just in the Way Back When but in the Here, Right Now. The ‘Upright High Priestess’ in the Tarot cards, still widely used,

‘is also known as Persepheno, Isis, the Corn Maiden and Artemis. She sits at the gate before the great Mystery, as indicated by the Tree of Life in the background…. [She] represents wisdom, serenity, knowledge and understanding…. For a male especially, the … card indicates that he must learn of his “anima” or female side, or he will fail to grow.’ (

Tellingly, the card was originally named La Papessa, ‘The Popess’. And in Protestant European countries after the religious Reformation, it bore depictions of ‘Pope Joan’ of legend (Joan was supposedly elected to the papacy in male disguise, being uncovered as a man only when she gave birth).

OK, OK, I hear you cry: we get it. So there’s a history of religious women as priest-leaders and leader-priests, a stubborn thread of spiritual anima, as opposed to animus, from time immemorial, that refuses to be broken.

But what other arguments could I possibly turn out? Well, dear readers, in my next post I’ll bring more arguments on.

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