© Copyright 2000 by Jalaja Bonheim. All Rights Reserved.

Initiation Into an Ancient Tradition

What is a priest? What is a priestess? Images of stiff-robed men who show up in church on Sundays, or of exotically clad women making offerings to strange, bizarre looking gods would suggest that they inhabit a world other than our own and have little impact on our lives.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. To understand the essence of priest and priestess, we must look beyond the clichés to reconnect with the inner archetype—the vortex of power in the depths of our own psyche. Since the beginning of human history, this archetype found expression in countless religious traditions. However, since archetypes are ever evolving, never static, contemporary priests and priestesses will look nothing like their ancient Indian, or Sumerian, or Egyptian counterparts. As human society unfolds, so do archetypes, appearing in ever-new guises. In fact, priests and priestesses are everywhere in our midst—they just don't look the way we might expect. Rarely do they wear special robes, and many of them have no ties with organized religion. And yet, as we shall see, their contributions are crucial to our welfare and our very survival. As priests and priestesses have always done, they serve the spiritual life of their community and hold open the lines of communication between the human and the spirit worlds.

Over the years, I have worked with thousands of people in whom this archetype has awakened and have formed my own understanding of what it means to be a priest or a priestess. Here, I would like to share some of my thoughts with you and above all, invite you to explore the meaning of this archetype for you personally. Let me start by telling you the story of how the priestess awakened in my own life.

It began with my decision, one dreary night in Birmingham, England, to go see the performance of a young Indian dancer. Within no time, I had fallen in love. What affected me so powerfully were not just the brilliant silk brocade costumes, the exquisite grace of the dancer's movements and the raw power with which her bare feet stamped the ground as if playing a giant drum. It was something else, a compelling spiritual presence that radiated through the dance, endowing it with a luminosity that kindled a kindred light within my soul. By the time I stumbled out of the auditorium I was determined to learn this art, and learn it in India.

On the face of it, going to India to study dance seemed insane. I was not a dancer, nor had I ever studied dance in any formal way. How could I reconcile this strange desire with my identity as an intellectual, or think of any sensible way to justify the journey I was about to embark on? Still, there it was—some infinitely stubborn, determined force insisted I must quit my job and go to India—not sometime in the future, but now. I had received a calling I could not ignore.

And so, in June of 1981, I gave up my job at a British university and boarded a plane to India. I laugh to think that I saw it as a sabbatical of sorts. I certainly expected my life to be enriched, but I did not anticipate its total and irreversible transformation. In fact, I was about to be initiated into a tradition so old that its origins are shrouded in mystery, maintained throughout the centuries by priestesses who passed their knowledge from generation to generation. At the time, however, I understood none of this. All I knew was that I was being dragged off to India by some force I couldn't explain.

After arriving in India, I happily immersed myself in the study of what today is called Bharatanatyam. I soon found that the gestures and poses catapulted me into states of consciousness that felt ancient, powerful, utterly natural, and strangely familiar, as if I was merely remembering a language I once knew but had since forgotten. As I pondered the amazing power of this dance within my own body I understood why temple dance is known as a fifth Veda, or sacred scripture. Unlike the other four Vedas, which form a sort of Hindu Bible, this fifth Veda is recorded not in words but in the universal language of movement. Yet, like all true scripture, it communicates an awareness of unseen dimensions beyond the visible, tangible world.

Indian temple dance, I learned, is a relic of a complex, highly sophisticated but extinct culture. In ancient India, every major temple supported a number of priestesses who worshipped the deities through their ritual dances. These women were known as Devadasis, a word meaning "female servants of God." As in many other places, these priestesses were the most highly educated women. Besides dancing, they studied reading, writing, scripture, mythology, mantras, rituals, meditation, singing, music, and healing.

Indian temple dance is one of the most beautiful fruits of the Tantric tradition. According to Tantric mythology, this universe is the loveplay of a divine Being which split itself in two, a male and a female half, so that it might know the ecstasy of love. All men are splinters of this original god, all women of the goddess, and through their lovemaking, God experiences the rapture of reunion. Revered as embodiments of the goddess, the Devadasis were highly skilled in the erotic arts, and men vied to make love to them, for to make love to a Devadasi was to reenact the sacred ritual of creation.

In the ancient Indian temples, priests and priestesses lived and worked side by side, sometimes becoming lovers. However, in the rituals designed to celebrated God's lovemaking with the world, the priestess seems to have played a very different role than the priest. Joseph Campbell once said "The male's job is to relate to life. The female's job is to become it." And also, "The man's function is to act. The woman's function is to be." A similar view seems to have prevailed in ancient India. Priests were defined by their actions—maintaining the rituals, maintaining the temple compound, and so on. Priestesses were primarily defined by their female being, and by their knowledge of the triple mysteries of the physical body—birth, sex, and death.

With the advent of patriarchy, the sexual customs of the priestesses contributed to their downfall. In a culture that valued female chastity and submissiveness, there was no place for these non-monogamous, proud, independent priestesses. Gradually, their tradition deteriorated, and the British eventually finalized its demise by cutting off financial support to the temples, defaming the priestesses as prostitutes, and making their dances illegal, which they remained until India gained its independence in 1947. Current literature often refers to the sexual priestesses of ancient India and other cultures as "sacred prostitutes." An unfortunate misnomer, this echoes the prude Victorian dismissal of "heathen" priestesses as prostitutes. In fact, the Devadasis were not prostitutes but, as their name denotes, servants of divinity.

The Voice of the Priestess

It soon became clear to me that going to India was the easy part. The far more difficult challenge was to integrate what I had learned into my life in the West. Shortly after my return from India I started having dreams in which ancient priestesses demanded that I transmit their consciousness to a modern Western audience—a daunting task, considering how radically different our world is from theirs. In my bewilderment I began dialoguing with these inner figures, hoping to gain a clearer understanding of their path. The following is an excerpt from their response to my question, "How will it benefit people to hear your voices?" Their words helped me understand that to be a priest or a priestess one does not need to have a temple, to do rituals, recite mantras, or dance. The essence of the priest and the priestess lies less in what they do than in the attitude with which they do it. They teach us how to perceive the spiritual within the ordinary, and the sacred within the mundane. Here's what they said:

Many of you have forgotten how to listen to the soul, how to speak to it, how to give it the food it hungers for. Communities, too, have souls that must be nourished. Most of your communities are ravaged by spiritual famine. We want to remind you how to nourish your souls. Within you is a deep well of truth and peace and strength. We walk among you reminding you of that place, inspiring you to remember what you already know. We bring you the gift of sacred sight, so that you see the light that shines through all beings, animate and inanimate.

We come from many places, many times, each one of us bearing her own special gifts. But there is one thing we all have in common. For thousands upon thousands of years, we have all joined in the one practice of performing ordinary worldly acts as worship. When we pull a baby into the light of the world, it is worship. When we cradle a dying man in our arms, guiding his spirit into the embrace of spirit, it is worship. When we sweep the floor, it is worship. It is worship when we dance, when we sing, when we light the candles. Weeding the herb garden, resolving disputes, cooking rice—all these things and a million more we have practiced, always searching for the light of the Beloved within each moment, always questioning—is it here? Yes, it is. And here? Yes, here too... And here... And here... So that now, we can say to you with complete assurance that there is nowhere where Spirit is not to be found.

Now, as you know, is a time of danger, a time of crisis. Do you really believe your puny human consciousness can solve the problems you face? Do you really believe the solutions will come out of that fraction of your brain that you use? We don't. We feel concerned. We feel compassion. We feel an urgency. We are hear to teach you how to commune with spirit in all its myriad forms, how to align yourself with the greater whole so that healing can occur on this exquisitely fragile blue green planet.

The Four Marks of Contemporary Priests and Priestesses

As I continued to explore this path, I found that four essential elements define the path of the contemporary priest or priestess. These four elements are ordinariness, ecstatic communion with God's presence in the world, reverence for gender and sexuality, and commitment to community service.


The Devadasis were what you might call "spiritual professionals." Today, the demarcation between the "ordinary" man or woman and the professional priest or priestess has vanished. Of course we still have our spiritual professionals, but the majority of contemporary priests and priestesses are ordinary men and women who use lap top computers, wear well-tailored clothing and follow the stock market. Some have affiliations with organized religion, but many do not.

The bad news is that we are on our own, and since our culture provides little in the way of support and validation for its priests and priestesses, many struggle to get by. On the other hand, the good news is that we are free—unbeholden to any outer authorities, in a way our ancestors never were. Nobody dictates to us what we are to believe, think, or do. Instead of allowing outer authorities to disempower us, we have license to seek the source of authority within. And though the lack of social acknowledgment and support can be painful, it also helps prevent the arrogance which often arises when priests and priestesses form a special class of their own—a class, so to speak, of professional mystics. In our times, those who do the work of a priest or a priestess are rarely made to feel "special," and that is as it should be. Today, the privilege of expressing the priest/priestess archetype belongs to all of us.

Because the work of contemporary priests and priestesses is so interwoven with their daily lives, it is easy to overlook their presence and the value of their contributions. Often, the service and the spiritual nourishment they provide goes unnoticed and unappreciated. And yet, just as in former times, the priests and priestesses among us are the guardians and caretakers of our spiritual life. One gardener communes with plants, the other does not. One kindergarten teacher honors children as the wise spirits they are, another treats them as immature, imperfect adults. For one person, singing is a performance art, for another, it is a form of prayer. One of my clients never answers the phone without first reminding himself to mentally honor the caller as the Buddha, the Christ, the Holy Mother. Another murmurs blessings into her soups and stews. Like a weaver brightens her cloth with strands of golden thread, so priests and priestesses weave small acts of devotion and prayerful remembrance into their daily lives.

Many women feel a natural sense of kinship with this path. Millennia of motherhood have guided the feminine path towards practices that could be done anywhere, at any time. If women wanted to lead a spiritual life, they usually had to find to do so in the midst of changing diapers and comforting their children. We all know women whose homes are oases of beauty and serenity. Intuitively, they sense the healing power of beauty, and know the sense of peace and well-being that an ordered, well-appointed environment can create. As the priestesses of ancient times offered flowers on the altar, purified the air with incense, and prayed that all who enter the temple be blessed, so these contemporary women too are creators and guardians of sacred space.

Ecstatic Communion

As contemporary priests and priestesses, we are mystics and ecstatics who perceive God as an immanent power within the world—in mountains and rivers, animals and plants, and within ourselves. The notion of transcendence is alien to this path—Spirit surrounds us as the air we breathe and the ground we walk on. The song of a bird, the fragrance of a rose, and the diamond glint of sunlight on fresh snow are God's loveletters to us. If God is right here, why transcend the world? Where would we go, and why?

Just as a Devadasi felt the goddess moving and acting through her, so contemporary priests and priestesses honor themselves as embodiments of the divine. My Catholic clients often struggle with this idea—it seems heretical to them, even blasphemous. "I was raised to think of myself sinner," one woman objected. Yet as I reminded her, Jesus himself always emphasized each person's innate divinity. "Ye are gods," he said, and "To connect with our inner divinity is the deepest healing we can aspire to. Far from making us arrogant, any encounter with the divine utterly crushes our arrogance. At the same time, it heals the wounds of low self-esteem and banishes the demons of self-doubt, judgment, and shame.

This emphasis on God's immediate presence, and of God's desire to make love with us, infuses spiritual life with a great sense of tenderness, creative play, and deep appreciation for all the sensuous pleasures life has to offer. Our path becomes one of ecstasy born of intimacy with the divine.

Reverence for Gender and Sexuality

We have become strangely inured to the absence of priestesses in our churches. Yet in a balanced religion, the ordination of priests without priestesses, or vice versa, would be unthinkable, as would the worship of God in only male or only female form. When God assumes human form, the sacred couple appears—the One becoming two, male and female, who in their union celebrate their original oneness.

All priests and priestesses are lovers—lovers of God, but also lovers of the world, and of men and women. Regardless of whether they chose to be sexually active or not, they celebrate the dance of life through their bodies. The priestess derives power from her female body, as the priest does from his male body, and both rejoice in the beauty and the perfection of what they are separately, and of what they can create jointly.

Priestesses are not female priests, any more than priests are male priestesses. Rather, they follow two different but complementary paths. Simply put, they differ in the same way men and women differ, and in the way God's masculine face differs from God's feminine face. We are talking, here, not about clear-cut, black and white polarities or clichés ("men are strong and women are nurturing"), but about a spectrum of tendencies, within which each individual occupies their own unique place.

Just thirty years ago, this was a loaded subject to broach, especially for women, who had been called inferior to men for so long that they were determined to prove themselves equal in every respect. Now that women have gained a certain degree of power, we can explore our differences without fearing they will be used to prove the supposed superiority of one gender over the other. We can let go of the unisex myth and acknowledge the obvious—we are different, yet equal. Once we accept this fact, we can get on with the exciting and joyous work of sharing our gifts with one another.

Serving our Community

Last but not least, priests and priestesses share a deep commitment to the welfare of their community. Their work is to guard its soul, so that its ears stay open to the song of spirit, its heart to the love of spirit, its eyes to the beauty of spirit.

One of the main ways we serve our community is through our daily work. When we take a job, the inner priest is not interested in how much money it makes or how much prestige it carries. His concern is whether this work will nourish his soul, and the soul of his community. If so, the doctor will feel awe for the mystery of the life he serves. The mother will know the value of her efforts, and the cashier will sense that the thousand daily interactions he has with his customers matter, and have meaning.

My hairdresser June is an example of a woman in who is very much in touch with her inner priestess and who performs her work as what can only be called an act of worship. She is quite aware of doing far more than just cutting hair. "I make people feel better about themselves," she tells me. "I help them feel beautiful, and cared for." Of course one might say that she merely caters to people's vanity. But June knows better. As a priestess, she knows that beauty is food for the soul. She also knows the healing power of gentle touch, caring attention, and of a sympathetic listener.

In India, there is an annual festival day on which everyone blesses the instruments and tools they use for work. Dentists bless their drills, clerks bless their typewriters, and tailors bless their sewing machines. On this day, my dancer teacher would bless the wooden block and stick on which she beat out the rhythms for dance practice. In a wonderfully simple way, this ritual brings home the message that our work is a form of worship, of prayer, and of spiritual practice. If the dentist can fill a cavity with as much devotion as a priest invoking the divine presence, then his work can bring him the same spiritual fulfillment.

Welcoming the Priest and Priestess

After the publication of Aphrodite's Daughters, I received dozens of letters from readers who wrote about their own experiences with the priest/priestess within. Like small, powerful generators, archetypes may lie dormant until the time is ripe for their resurgence. Today, our inner priests and priestesses are knocking loudly on the doors of our psyche, demanding to be recognized, integrated into our spiritual life. If we listen, they will show us the way towards a new yet ancient kind of spirituality, one that is world-affirming and joyful, that does not depend on the structures of organized religion and does not fragment our lives and our selves. Today as in ancient times, they are the gatekeepers to other worlds, and the guardians of this one.

Jalaja Bonheim


This page last updated: 03/01/2018