There is so much to say about women’s spiritual leadership. In this time of fragmented and toxic culture, we don’t even have words adequate to describe the breadth of heritages and practices. Most people would define priestess as a woman who leads ritual. But there are a range of names and culturally-defined meanings, including shaman, medicine woman, diviner, spirit-medium, oracle, sibyl and wisewoman. Countless ethnic titles such as machi, sangoma, eem, babaylan and mae de santo provide even more textured glimpses of a vast global picture.
We can’t really draw sharp divisions between these categories. The shaman may be a ritual leader, but also a solitary practitioner. The visionary can act as healer, the medicine woman speak prophetically. The ceremonial role of the priestess does not preclude her from entering into trance or shamanic spiritual journeys; sometimes it actually requires her to achieve these altered states. Above all, the ritual specialist has skills, special ability, even powers, but every member of the spiritual community has power. In shamanic cultures, the group commonly participates in raising spirit through chant, music, dance, clapping and drumming.
It’s this question of accessing and exerting power that makes the spiritual political, and explains the importance of religion in instituting social controls. When power hierarchies of men over women, conquerors over aboriginal peoples and rich over poor are at stake, priestesshood has political ramifications. Priestesses often lead liberation movements. Veleda (“seeress”) of the Bructerii led a valiant tribal insurrection against the Roman empire in the lower Rhine valley. So did her British counterpart Boudicca of the Iceni, a Celtic tribe. This queen presided over divinations of battle outcomes and ceremonies appealing to the goddess Andraste for victory.In the 7th century, Dahia al-Kahina (“the priestess”) galvanized Tunisia to resist the Arab conquest of north Africa. And a little over a century ago, the diviner Nehanda Nyakasikana roused the Shona to fight back against the Rhodesian takeover of Zimbabwe.
When the colonial Spanish tore down the temple Maria Candelaria had founded, she organized the 1712 Maya rebellion of Chiapas. Some seventy years later, the young visionary Toypurina inspired her Indian people to rise up against the mission system in southern California. In 1801 a Chumash woman had a vision of Chupu, Mother Earth, telling the people to throw off baptism by bathing in the “tears of the sun.” The Santa Barbara Mission persecuted this spiritual movement, but the Chumash kept building shrines and holding ceremonies in preparation for the rebellion of 1824. [See Daniel Fogel, Junipero Serra, the Vatican and Enslavement Theology, San Francisco: Ism Press, 1988, pp. 138-9, 141, 152]
Many indigenous cultures uphold female spiritual leadership — the Mapuche of Chile, the Karok and Yurok of California, for example, as well as others in South Africa, Siberia, and Indonesia — while imperial and feudal societies generally suppress women’s open exercise of religious authority. So the temple women gradually disappear from west Asia, patrician Rome tries to stamp out the Women’s Mysteries, witches are burned in Europe, and mandarins persecute the Wu. Still, female resistance bubbles under the surface of “major” religions, in forms officially dismissed as “cults.” Sacramental dance, drumming, and other ways of entering altered states of consciousness often play an important role in these rites that bypass and subvert socially decreed hierarchies. So do animistic consciousness and nature sanctuaries.
Holy women are more visible historically, and more likely to be accorded honor and power in their own right than most women in patriarchal societies. Their authority tends to transcend division of society into religious and political spheres. We can observe this pattern over large ranges of time and place, and in very different kinds of societies, whether they are early Sumerian priestesses or female shamans acting as village chieftains in 19th century Siberia. A number of mikogami (female shamans) governed southwestern Japan in ancient times. Old histories report that the old shaman Himiko (or Pimiko) was chosen to rule the realm of Wa during a period of military anarchy, and succeeded in restoring the peace. Woman shamans were important spiritual and social forces in many east Asian cultures, including ancient China. In modern Korea, they still are.
Barring women from ritual leadership and religious authority has been a key focus in the drive to undermine female power. Scriptures of the”major” religions often ban priestesses and female religious authority, either explicitly or through stories demonizing their power. Over centuries, male authorities carefully selected and edited the religious canon so as to erase traditions of female leadership (such as the Gnostic scriptures naming Mary Magdalene as the foremost Christian disciple). They also expunged female images of the Divine. This happened with an early saying of Muhammad that embraced the three great goddesses of Arabia as “daughters of Allah.” The original version of this hadith was denounced as “the Satanic verses,” and was revised in the written Quran.
A male takeover of women’s rites and mysteries is described in oral histories from Australia, Melanesia, the Amazon basin, Tierra del Fuego, Kenya, Sierra Leone, and elsewhere. Encroachments on the sphere of priestesses are also attested in the pagan Mediterranean. The priests of Apollo took control of oracular shrines at Delphi and Didyma, interpreting the women’s ecstatic utterances and forbidding women the right to consult the Pythias. Male hierophants also gradually consolidated their control of the Mysteries at Eleusis, where legal records show the Melissa priestess contested masculine trespasses on her traditional rights in the 4th century. And although ancient oral history says that Amazon queens founded the great temple of Artemis at Ephesus, women were later forbidden entry to its holy of holies, according to the Roman-era writer Artemidorus.
Conversely, priestesses in patriarchal cultures often enjoyed rights and liberties denied to most women, such as their own property and income, freedom of movement and the prestige of public office. Some Greek priestesses received a share of the harvest and other wealth. The priestesses of Demeter were the only women allowed to attend the Olympic games, sitting on an ancient altar of the goddess. The Vestals of Rome enjoyed freedom from male oversight in managing their affairs.
While male-dominated cultures often required priestesses to be celibate, sometimes they escaped the sexual constraints on ordinary women. In India, the devadasi (temple dancers) were subject to no husband and their children were named and inherited matrilineally. The laws of Hammurabi heavily favored men over women, but priestesses could inherit and control property. Babylonian titles of priestesses include such names as: zer mashitum, “woman who forgets the sperm,” and zinishtum zikrum, “male woman,” both of whom had a degree of independence derived from paternal inheritance in their own right. Their self-determination threatened the doctrine of male supremacy. One Babylonian writer warned, “Do not marry a prostitute, whose husbands are legion, An ishtaritu woman who is dedicated to a god, a kulmashitu woman whose… is much. When you have trouble, she will not support you, When you have a dispute she will be a mocker. There is no reverence or submissiveness within her…” [See James Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, Princeton, 1969]
The history of priestesses is full of stories about women defying artificial limits and hierarchies. Again and again, they made a way across multiple obstacles, somehow, to lead, teach, counsel and inspire, often outside of official structures of authority, and usually in spite of them. In Europe, the Church prohibited women’s religious leadership, but it persisted for centuries in witchcraft and folk religion. It also bubbled up among the Beguines and Free Spirit heretics and the Spanish beatas and alumbradas (“blessed” and “illuminated” women).
Female seers led popular movements like the liberation of France in 1430. Perceptions of supernatural power followed Jeanne d’Arc from the very beginning of her charismatic leadership. Charges of witchcraft arose in her initial contact with the aristocracy, years before her Inquisitorial trial, and her stance of prophetic power and divine inspiration played a role in her execution. Into modern times, Europeans continued to seek out female healers, fairy doctors and seers, in the wake of endless campaigns by bishops and councils, destruction of animistic shrines, and witch persecutions by both church and state.
Very often priestesshood functions to carve out space for women in patriarchal societies. A strand of this feminist subversion runs through some of the European witch trials, with healer-diviners counseling deserted or battered women. It survives in living African lineages like the bori magadjiyar of the Hausa. Its devotees, richly adorned with cowrie-strand headdresses, dance to the ancient pre-Islamic deities (bori). Most of the magadjas are marginalized women (divorcees, single or barren women, perhaps lesbians, and others who don’t fit into the male-dominated social order). The zar religion is even more widespread, and cuts across both Muslim and Christian cultures of northern Africa. Here again we find mostly women dancing and singing in honor of spirits which the society does not formally recognize as deities, but nevertheless must acknowledge, and even pay tribute to, as women make demands in their name.
The female-empowerment aspect of priestesshood also shows up in the Pacific. A Marquesan legend tells about the priestess Vehine-atua (“woman-god”) at Hiva Oa. A chief asked her to help collect stones (a ritual act) for a marae shrine for his deceased father. She agreed on condition that she would travel back to Nukuhiva in his canoe, defying a tradition that prohibited women from riding in canoes. The chief agreed, but on the trip back he threw Vehine-atua and her husband into the ocean. She instructed her mate to break a gourd full of sandflies, causing a great storm to destroy the canoes. Her priestly staff took the couple safely to shore. [Nicole Thomas, “The Contradictions of Hierarchy: Myths, Women and Power in Eastern Polynesia,” in Deborah Gewertz, ed. Myths of Matriarchy, 1988]
Patriarchal colonizers stigmatized cultures that honored female spiritual leadership, calling them barbaric and inferior. A Han mandarin bragged that he had destroyed thousands of shrines of the wu (female shamans) in southern China. In the 16th century, Spanish colonizers were stunned to see that “old women” led most ceremonies in the Philippines. Missionary priests called these female shamans “diabolical witches,” and for centuries struggled to stamp them out. They did manage to catholicize the islands, but the babaylan are still around. [See Carolyn Brewer, Holy Confrontation: Religion, Gender, and Sexuality in the Philippines, 1521-1685, Institute of Women’s Studies, Manila, 2001]
The same dynamic played itself out in the colonization of the Americas. The Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions persecuted priestesses and curanderas from Peru to Colombia to Brazil to Mexico, targeting Africans as well as First Nations peoples. In Venezuela, Mauricia la Bruja (“the witch”) faced inquistors for holding gatherings in a cave “to sing and shake the little rattle.” A voice from the darkness cried like a bird and told the people to keep the ways of the old ones, says her trial record. [Carlos Contramaestre, La Mudanza del Encanto, Academia Nacional de la Historia and Universidad de los Andes, Caracas, 1979, p. 28]
In the 1600s, the Peruvian Inquisition targeted Quechua and Aymara wisewomen, who kept Indian religion alive and often acted to empower their communities and to protect them from colonial masters and officials. One priest explained that “they encouraged the whole village to mutiny and riot through their reputation as witches” who challenged church and state authorities. Juana Icha was hauled before inquisitors for making offerings to the ancient deities and healing with their power. An informer told the monks that she “worships the earth and the stars and cries to the water.” [Irene Silverblatt, Moon, Sun, and Witches: Gender Ideologies and Class in Inca and Colonial Peru, Princeton, 1987, pp. 184-90]
In 1591, the Brazilian Inquisition tried the Portuguese witch Maria Goncalves (also known as “Burn-tail”) for sexual witchcraft and making powders from forest herbs. She defied the bishop, saying that if he preached from the pulpit, she preached from the cadeira (priestess-chair) Afro-Brazilian priestesses came under heavy fire in the 1700s. Inquisitors tried Antonia Luzia for calling together “black and brown women to adore dances,” and seeking the ancestors’ help in “dominating the masters’ wills.” The calundureira Luzia Pinta presided over divinatory dances in Angolan garb and an Indian-style feathered headdress. Tall and heavy, middle-aged, with tribal marks on her cheeks, she danced until she entered trance, her body trembling with power. Then “the winds” entered her ears, she prophesied and answered questions, laid people on the ground and leaped over them to cure them, and prescribed forest leaves for healing while holding a dagger. [Laura de Mello e Souza, O Diablo e a Terra de Santa Cruz: Feiticaria e Religiosidade Popular no Brasil Colonial, Companhia das Letras, Sao Paolo, 1987]
In 19th century Iran, the poet Qurrat al-Ayn cut a daring figure in the Baha’i movement, astonishing, impressing and scaring the men around her, as she spoke prophetically for the cause of liberation. Later, an Afghani princess fled an arranged marriage in purdah to live under a tree in India as the mystic sage Hazrat Babajan. She initiated several Sufi masters including Meher Baba. Before her, India offered the precedent of a long line of yoginis and avadhutas, including Karaikkalamba, Mira Bai, and the Kashmiri mystic Lalla. Many of these women refused or broke out of marriages in order to freely pursue spiritual realization, dance and chant the divine names.
Female leadership and symbolism were never choked out of indigenous traditions, and persisted even as these cultures absorbed elements of colonial religions. For example, the Baluchis of Pakistan/Iran modified the Muslim creed to say, “There is no god but Allah and the mother of Muhammad is his prophet.” Mazatec curandera Mar’a Sabina subverted patriarchal theology by invoking the Female Divine in her entrancing chants. She revised the prescribed masculine identity of the Christian god as padre santisima — “most holy (feminine) father.” Such challenges have always been raised, even if they don’t make it into the historical record — or are omitted by scholarly gatekeepers who interpret the primary sources to everyone else.
All over the world women are mounting powerful challenges to masculine domination of religious institutions. Catholic and Hindu and Buddhist women are campaigning for full female ordination in their traditions. Muslim feminists are asserting their right to interpret the Quran and hadiths. The daughters of Sarah are demanding to be counted as Jews (literally) in the minyan and rabbinate, and for women’s right to lead services at the Western Wall of the ancient temple of Jerusalem. Loud voices are crying out against sexual abuse by clergy (and the institutional coverups that protect the rapists). The case for restoring female authority gathers strength by the breaking of these age-old silences.
The burgeoning pagan and feminist spirituality movements are laying new foundations of Goddess veneration and female spiritual leadership. American Indian women are reclaiming the right to sit at the powwow drum, and sistahs of the African diaspora have retaken the conga and djembe for their own. Lucumi priestesses are reinvigorating female power in the orisa traditions of west Africa, and breaking down gender barriers to initiation as prestigious diviners of Ifa: female iyanifa now stand beside the male babalawo.