Wiccans are not witches, exactly, although they and the historical sorcerers are often confused. There are striking similarities between the old magical practices and the rites of current Wiccans, who may follow the guidance of a high priestess. But today's Wiccan coven might be a democratic community where all practitioners are priestesses, an organized hierarchy with a high priestess as undisputed leader, or something in-between.
Origins of Wicca
Wicca, a Neopagan religion, is based partly on ancient goddess worship dating from the Lower Paleolithic Age, about 500,000 B.C.. Noted anthropologist Marija Gimbutas studied goddess cultures that flourished around 25,000 B.C. and details the archaeological evidence that predates modern interpretations of matriarchal religions. The goddess was venerated as life-giving and life-destroying and associated with nature, fertility, and powerful animals like snakes and vultures. Groups of female oracles, enchantresses and prophets, led by a high priestess, worshiped her. Down through history, women who channeled the powers of nature, primarily for healing or forecasting, were both valued and marginalized by their communities. The witches, vilified and burned at the stake during the Inquisition, were likely all healers who followed the old Pagan ways. Modern Wiccans developed their practices from 19th- and 20th-century writings heavily influenced by this history, such as the work of British Wiccan Gerald Gardner.
Configuration of the Coven
The high priestess is a job description inseparable from the existence of the Wiccan coven. In "A History of Witchcraft," Jeffrey B. Russell writes about gatherings where Wiccans meet to cast a sacred circle, prepare an altar with gifts for the goddess, symbolic candles, a chalice to hold wine or water, a pentacle emblem and an athame or ritual knife. The objects are used in a ceremony to call on the power of the goddess to bestow blessings on the land, the coven and particular petitions of coven members. The organization of a traditional coven and the summoning of the goddess are the responsibilities of the high priestess.
Role of the High Priestess
The role of high priestess is not rigidly defined and varies, depending on tradition. Gardnerian Wiccans designate a high priestess as the leader of a coven and the chief celebrant of all rites. Newer branches of Wicca may have specialists who act as high priestess, depending on which rite is enacted. No one person takes on all roles. In the ceremony to draw down the moon, the high priestess stands in the center of the sacred circle and the goddess-as-moon is drawn into her so that she becomes the incarnation of the goddess. This is most likely to happen during a sabbat, a meeting on a great Wiccan feast such as Samhain or a solstice. The high priestess of a large, traditional coven may initiate secondary high priestesses for smaller regional covens. Many contemporary covens reject the concept of high priestess, preferring to regard each member as the priestess of her own religious progress.
Symbolism of High Priestess
Shared role or solitary responsibility, the position of high priestess is first a symbolic one. In the Tarot, the High Priestess guards the liminal realm between this world and the Otherworld of profound inner wisdom. The priestess embodies the attributes of intuition, creativity, dream knowledge and the divine feminine. She is an ecstatic, entranced character, connected to the deep stillness of the moon, the goddess, the inner world and all of nature. In the "Druid Craft Tarot," by Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm, leaders of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, the Wiccan High Priestess is pictured with the athame and chalice for male and female energy, her Book of Shadows that contains all of her wisdom and sacred rites, and a pentacle, an ancient goddess symbol. She draws down the power and illumination of the moon and the goddess, as a high priestess does in Wiccan rites.
- Alexandrian & Gardnerian Book of Shadows; Athena Gardner; p. 8
- Spiral Dance: Starhawk; 1989
- Drawing Down the Moon; Margot Adler; 1986
- A History of Witchcraft; Jeffrey B. Russell; 1991; pp. 166-171
- The Druid Craft Tarot; Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm; 2004; p.107
- The Civilization of the Goddess; Marija Gimbutas; 1991; pp. 342-349
- Religious Tolerance: The History of Wicca
- Religious Tolerance: Pentacles and Pentagrams
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