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What is a temple priestess any way?

When I think of the term Priestess, I often think of a woman performing ceremonial rites within the walls of an ancient holy place devoted to a specific God or Goddess. And while that may be true, the role of a Temple Priestess in antiquity and beyond is actually so much greater. I'm going to focus on DREAMS, DEATH, SEX, and BIRTH in this article. I'm going to get a bit "academic" and "technical" and then I'm going to break it down after.

There are records of Temple Priestesses from a multitude of civilizations and cultures going back to places like Mesopotamia and Babylon. According to M. Stol, the documentary evidence of women in Mesopotamia, in general, is impressive. In an article titled, Women in Mesopotamia, Stol tells us that the main documentary evidence regarding women and their lives comes to us from family archives and letters "... written in cuneiform writing on clay tablets that have withstood the hazards of time... Collections of laws often allow us a deeper insight into the position of women in society." These collections of texts also show us that ruling kings would often appoint their daughters as High Priestesses who would then reside inside the temple walls. Texts from Old Babylonian Elam and from Middle Babylonian Nippur, Nuzi, and the West "... show us that women were involved in funerary rituals." Queens from Ur also performed rites at the end of every month that were thought to both ward of the dangers of moonless nights and honor the dead. "Women also consulted the spirits of the dead and were dream interpreters or even prophets." In Ancient Greece, Pythia was the name given to the Priestesses and Oracles at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. The Pythia channeled prophecies in a dream-like state, speaking for the God Apollo himself.

We also see many functions of Priestesses outside the realm of death and dream interpretation in other civilizations such as ancient Egypt, for example. In an article titled, Priestesses of Hathor: Their Function, Decline, and Disappearance, author Robyn A. Gillam tells us that there are few titles held by women that were so celebrated as being a Priestess of Hathor. Hathor is the Goddess of love, childbirth, song and dance. There's a tablet of service that exists that was drawn up for those in service to Hathor that clearly states that both women and children had duties in the temple. Later texts tell us that the king would celebrate his regenerative potency by being in union with Hathor through the use of Priestesses acting as the Goddess' conduit. So, to put it simply, a scared sexual rite would take place that would solidify the king's godly status and legitimacy.

According to Old Babylonian legal texts, the Temple Priestesses participated in the sacred act of creation (by way of performing sacred sex rites as a conduit for the Goddess) and presided over the spiritual requirements of childbirth. In the Babylonian story of the creation of man, Atra-hasis, we get an interesting passage that potentially tells us of the Priestesses role as spiritual advisor to the midwife. It says: "... let the midwife rejoice in the house of the qadistu-woman where the pregnant wife gives birth." (Qadistu is believed to be the term given to a sacred sex or cultic sex Priestess.) Joan Goodnick Westenholz theorizes that this passage demonstrates that the home of the Priestess was sacred and secluded and, perhaps, "... while the midwife tended to the physical needs of the woman in childbirth, the qadistu presided over the spiritual requirements of the birthing."

Finally, in ancient Sumer, we encounter the Goddess Inanna who scholars define as a Goddess of sexuality. I will add that Inanna, the Queen of Heaven and Earth, is also a fierce warrior and protector. Scholars have denoted that the term nu-gig, found in many legal texts, refers to an individual in service to Inanna. The term also refers to a profession therefore making the Priestess role her work throughout life. In pre-Sargonic Lagash, "... the nu-gig appears in ration lists with important members of society..." We also have references to the "... nu-gig of the nigin, the birthing place." In the temple hymn to Inanna, the Goddess herself is described as the nu-gig and her temple is described as "... clad in the jewels of the nu-gig and designated the nigin-gar, a sacred room, possible the sacred birthing place." Furthermore, Westenholz tells us that the role of the nu-gig was one of the "mes", or the divine gifts of civilization to man. Me number 47 is the sacred birthing place itself. Thus, we can establish that in Ancient Sumer, the main activities of the Temple Priestess involved childbirth.

I could go on and on with HUNDREDS of texts that discuss different cults, different Goddess worshippers and their rites and rituals. I would be here for quite some time getting into the particulars of priesthood, priestess-hood, legal texts, literature, and mythology as it pertains to the realms of dreaming, dying, birth and rebirth and bleeding. I could also get into a lengthy conversation of God-centered societies and Goddess-centered societies and how that changed the landscape of women's rights in general and how we think about sex and bleeding. But, that's a topic for another day. Of course, there is some debate over the legitimacy of sacred or cultic sexual practices and the actual role of Temple Priestesses throughout history, but I ask you this: who better than to preside over the activities of dreams, death, birth, and sex than a woman? These are our realms after all.

To bring this role current, let's talk about Red Tent Temple Priestesses and the role of a modern Priestess. What is a Red Tent? "The Red Tent (1997) is a novel by Anita Diamant that retells the biblical rape story of Dinah. “The Rape of Dinah” (Genesis, chapter 34) was recounted not by Dinah, but by her brothers. Diamant provided a fictional feminist retelling of the tale, giving Dinah her own voice. She also gave the women a menstrual hut, a form of women’s community. The book is presented through Dinah’s eyes and those of the women around her. The Red Tent is rooted in its feminist retelling of this ancient biblical story, in which the idea of a menstrual hut has struck a cord with modern women." The Red Tent movement began in the early 2000's and has since grown to encompass communities of women coming together in circles all over the world. The Red Tent itself is "... a womb-like red fabric space, it is a place where women gather, it is an icon, and it is a state of mind... Some women create red fabric spaces specifically to honor their menstruation. Others create spaces where they can take care of themselves, promote women’s conversations, and/or hold workshops and other events for women." The idea of the Red Tent itself can be whatever you need it to be.

To be a modern-day Priestess is to come together to support our own needs and the needs of other women. It's to be a listening ear, a gentle touch or voice of comfort. It is someone who will hold a sister's hand through a difficult time or to be there to rejoice with her. A Priestess holds space for young girls to come into womanhood, for women to come into motherhood or cronehood, and for a woman's journey into the next life. A Priestess is a pillar of support and community. She taps into her own sacred sexuality and life-giving properties and creates a better world for those around her. She is divine and wild. She is you. She is me. She is every woman you know. She is the young girl who was kind to a student on the playground. She is the older woman offering you a friendly smile when you've had a horrible day. She's your best friend who brings you ice cream after a break-up or your therapist who gives you some honest but difficult advice. She is everywhere you look... including the mirror.

While the origins of the Temple Priestess were created long ago, I ask you to remember the Temple within you and step into your own Priestess-hood.

Images by: Yekaterina Gyadu

Model: Akdeniz Marat

Sources: Tamar, Qedesa, Qadistu, and Sacred Prostitution in Mesopotamia by Joan Goodnick Westenholz

Women in Mesopotamia by M. Stol

Priestesses of Hathor: Their Function, Decline and Disappearance by Robyn A. Gillam


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