“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.
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.”
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.
– Max Dashu