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A priestess, under the broadest definition, is a female religious officiant corresponding to the male term "priest." However, usage of this term in the contemporary United States is more restricted than this. Female religious officiants in Protestant traditions are generally called ministers or worship leaders; in Asian religions they are typically given traditional Asian titles. In some priestly religions, such as Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, women are not ordained, but in those that do ordain women (such as Episcopalianism), women have become known as "priests" rather than "priestesses." It seems that women occupying traditional male religious roles take traditional titles along with these roles. It is only when women hold religious roles that are thought to be uniquely female that they are deemed priestesses. Thus the term is most commonly found among alternative religions in the United States that emphasize femaleness in the divine or regard certain religious states (such as possession) as being the special province of women. Neopaganism and Afro-Caribbean religions such as vodun (voodoo) and santerıa, for example, regularly make reference to priestesses.

Priestesses in these religions serve in a variety of roles: They are always ritual leaders; their counsel is sought in preparing magical spells or in establishing spiritual or meditative practices; they may be regarded as the "mother" of a religious community; and important decisions about the group may be referred to them. They are often thought to embody female divine power directly. A priestess, at least during ritual, may be the living representative of the Goddess; she may be the devoted servant of a particular goddess; or she may be possessed by various deities while in trance.

In neopaganism, ideas about who a priestess is and what functions she serves are related to the priestesses of classical antiquity. This era of pre-Christian paganism is often the model for neopaganism, and the fact that women officiated as priestesses in some of antiquity's most important rites is carried over in the neopagan assumption that some, if not all, ritual requires female leadership. Some neopagans believe that goddesses (or the Goddess) are more important than male deities (or male aspects of the Goddess) and that only women can represent her. Others stress balanced roles for the genders but insist that just as men must be present in ritual to represent the divine male, so must women represent the divine female. In some neopagan traditions, priestesshood must be earned through study, practice, and initiation by another priestess, but more often women become priestesses simply by taking on the role.

Afro-Caribbean religions draw on a different tradition in assigning priestesshood to women, namely that of West African religions. Spirit possession is more common in these religions, and priestesses are often connected to the worship of a specific deity. Admission to the priestesshood is generally more rigorous, and lines of spiritual authority are given greater emphasis. Priestesses may maintain a house where rituals are held and where people may come to consult with them or with the deities they represent.

See alsoAfro-Cuban Religions; Feminist Theology; Goddess; Neopaganism; Santería; Voudou.


Budapest, Zsuzsanna. The Holy Book of Women'sMysteries. 1989.

Goodrich, Norma Lorre. Priestesses. 1989.

Tiesh, Luisah. Jambalaya: The Natural Woman'sBookofPersonal Charms and Practical Rituals. 1985.

Cynthia Eller

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