In Egyptian Mythology Qetesh (also known as Kadesh, Qaudeshet) was a goddess of sexuality rather than love or fertility. Although thought to be a Semetic goddess from Caldean mythology she was adopted into the Egyptian pantheon as early as the New Kingdom. Once adopted she was re-named as Knt (pronounced Kenet). Her lover was Resheph, a married god from Caldean myth and she also took Min as a lover. Min was the god of Fertility and Sexual Prowess so seemed an obvious choice as her lover.
She was nearly always depicted as a naked woman riding on the back of a lion, with the crescent moon representing the moon as her headdress. She is also shown holding Snakes in her right hand to represent the penis, and in her left hand she holds Lotus Flowers to represent the vulva. Among her many natures she was worshiped as a Nature Goddess and a Goddess of Sexual Energy and Pleasure. She is also a deity of Law, Happiness, Dance & Music. Most importantly I see Qetesh as the Protector of Women, and this last nature made her a popular choice with women who victims of rape & abuse by men.
The Daughters of Qetesh is an Iseum with the Fellowship of Isis.
What it Means to be A Priestess of Qetesh –
An Aspect of Isis. Re-printed with kind permission from Isidora:
In the earlier days of the Neo-Pagan community, there was often a general assumption that “we are all priestesses or priests of the Deities.” It was meant to combat “high priestess disease,” assert our equality before the Divine, and empower the individual.
All worthy goals, indeed.
While I have always been sympathetic to that position, I don’t fully agree with it. I believe we all have the potential to be priestesses or priests. I believe we can all have a deeply meaningful personal relationship with the Deity or Deities of our choice. But being a priestess or priest is a particular kind of relationship; a particularly worthwhile one if you find yourself attracted to Isis.
If you are already a priestess or priest of a particular Deity or in a particular tradition, you have, no doubt, done some thinking on this topic. If you are not, then you may decide, sometime in the future, that you’d like to have a deeper, more formal relationship with Isis as Her priestess or priest.
But what does it mean to be a priestess or priest of Isis? The glib answer is that it means different things to different people. The more difficult, and truer, answer is that we each have to figure out for ourselves what it means to us.
So how do we do that?
A priestess shakes the sistrum to please the Goddess
A good place to start is with what it has meant to be a priestess or priest. So over the next few posts, we’ll talk about some of the things we know about ancient priestesses and priests of Isis and then some of the ways we can discover for ourselves what being a priestess or priest of Isis may mean to us today.
Key #1: Serving the Goddess
Service has been part of a priestess or priest’s job description as far back as we know. In one sense “one who serves” is the very definition of a priestess or priest; it is certainly true of the word “minister.” To minister is to serve. Generally, that service goes two ways: to the Divine and to the greater circle of worshippers.
For people in mainstream religions, which have very prescribed ways to serve, things are—in at least this way—easier. For example, if you are a Catholic priest (you can’t be a Catholic priestess), you would have a very clear idea of what it meant in your particular religion to “serve God.” You would have gone through specific training meant to teach you precisely this.
A priest of Isis carries a sacred vessel in veiled hands
That was true in ancient temples of Isis. Besides the upkeep and maintenance of the temple complex, there are precise ritual acts that had to be performed every day; for example, opening the shrine of the sacred image of Isis each morning and “putting Her to bed” each night. I imagined this daily opening of the shrine in the introduction to Offering to Isis. And of course, there were offerings to be made, festivals to be celebrated, and funerals to conduct. A priestess of Isis might play the role of the Goddess in certain rituals. Both priestesses and priests would learn the words to the sacred songs and invocations and how to perform them properly in the rites. Some served as sacred musicians. Interestingly, we know of a priestess named Isis (Iset) who was the God’s Wife (High Priestess) of Amun in the 20th dynasty. She was a royal princess and served as priestess for 25 years.
But this type of formal structure of service is not available to us today. In a non-mainstream, more informal type of spirituality—such as those of the modern pagan-polytheist-wiccan-insert-your-identifier-of-choice-here communities—things are less clear. It means that this path, if truly and deeply followed, is more difficult than those of mainstream religions because we have to blaze our own trail. It also requires a significant degree of perseverance and self-honesty to be able to make the important decisions that we must make when creating a personal path.
A priestess carries a sacred vessel in veiled hands
To take this alternative path, we need perseverance because we will not always know which branch of the path to take…or it will be dark…or it will even be boring. We need self-honesty because we often walk this path alone. And walking alone, with no one to consult, we can sometimes take a wrong turn. We can delude ourselves into not seeing things about ourselves that we should be seeing.
On the other hand, this path can be extremely rewarding precisely because it is difficult. Whereas in mainstream religions there tend to be established answers to the Great Questions, we must find our own answers—fresh and new every time. What happens after death? What does it mean to serve Isis? Why is there evil in the world? What is the nature of reality? What is the nature of humanity? What is the nature of the Divine?
All these are important questions that spiritual people have tried to answer from the beginning of time, and for which we still seek answers today. It is worth our time, as lovers of Isis, to seek our own answers to these questions.
Roman priestesses and priests of Isis in sacred procession
Some will define service as “doing Goddess’ will on earth.” That’s a valuable insight; but how do you know if you’re doing Her will? Is it as simple as listening to your inner voice? Perhaps. Yet how do you know you’re hearing correctly and not colouring it with your own personal psychology or desires? I can tell you for a fact, it will ALWAYS be coloured by your own personal psychology and desires. Which brings us back to that self-honesty thing.
How do you get around yourself? Discovering how to do that is part of the work a priestess or priest of Isis. For some, it may be the key part. So I’m going to come back and talk about this some more when I come to the topic of personal spiritual development in a later post. For now, back to service.
What about the other kind of service—service to the greater circle of worshippers?
A modern priestess of Isis enters the temple at Isis Oasis
You’ll find a wide variety of expressions of service in this area. Some priestesses are always available to help those in their circle, whether with spiritual or personal problems. Some take the responsibility of organizing a circle and keeping it running as their service, but don’t expect to be called on the solve personal problems. Some represent their tradition to the greater Pagan community by organizing large festivals. Some organize or moderate blog communities. Some teach. Some don’t.
Again, it is a personal decision as to how a priestess or priest of Isis intends to serve. Yet I do think that a priestess or priest of Isis is obligated to do some service of this type. By serving other people in these ways, we acknowledge the importance, the value, of other people. By serving people, we integrate this knowledge in a deep, intimate, and personal way. (I hear some of you moaning right now. People are SO difficult. Yes. Yes, they are. And complicated. You bet they are. But they are also very worth your time and care. So very, very worth it.)
“A Votary of Isis” by Edwin Long
The same is true of service to others who are not a part of your circle; humanity as a whole. Many religions—most religions, actually—place value on helping those in need. Feeding the hungry. Clothing the cold. Sheltering those without shelter. This sort of service is appropriate for the priestess or priest of Isis as well. Caring in this way makes us aware of other people and their needs and problems. It encourages our compassion and discourages our ego-centeredness. At the very least a priestess or priest of Isis should give money to charity—anonymously, if possible. Do other good deeds. Help people. And be aware of doing whatever it is you are doing in the spirit of service—with an open, compassionate heart. In this, we do our best to imitate the compassion of Isis Herself when She healed the child of the woman who refused Her shelter or withdrew the spear from Set even as He threatened Her own son, Horus.
Ultimately, serving others makes this world a better place one person at a time. Spread kindness and you will serve Isis.
Next Time, Key #2: A Responsibility to Gain Knowledge
There is a saying in the western esoteric initiatory tradition that seems particularly apt for the priestess or priest of Isis: “I desire to know in order that I may serve.” In means that we are not entering into our priest/esshood simply because we’re greedy for secrets or status. It means that we seek knowledge so that we can better serve the Goddess, our communities, and our world.
Since priest/essly service is essentially about giving, improving our own knowledge base and experience also means we will have something valuable to give.
Of course, priestesses and priests have always been expected to have some special knowledge, for example, knowing how to properly conduct the rites required to create and maintain a relationship with Isis. But priest/essly devotion to learning goes beyond that, too. The Greek philosopher, Porphyry, in his work On Abstinence, paraphrases the Stoic philosopher Chaeremon’s observations on the Egyptian priesthood:
“But they divided the night into the observation of the celestial bodies, and sometimes devoted a part of it to offices of purification; and they distributed the day into the worship of the Gods, according to which they celebrated them with hymns thrice or four times, viz. in the morning and evening, when the sun is at his meridian altitude, and when he is declining to the west. The rest of their time they devoted to arithmetical and geometrical speculations, always labouring to effect something, and to make some new discovery, and, in short, continually exercising their skill. In winter nights also they were occupied in the same employments, being vigilantly engaged in literary pursuits…” (Porphyry, On Abstinence, book 4, section 8)
Seshat, Goddess of Wisdom, Knowledge, and Writing, shown with Her stylus
Thus, being a priestess or priest means not only knowing the proper rites, but also pursuing knowledge of all kinds, striving always to “make some new discovery.” There can be no doubt that teaching went on in the Egyptian temples. Of course, this was knowledge only for a very select group of people. Yet it informed the work of the priesthood so that they could be more effective in their service on behalf of Egypt and her people as a whole.
The Mysteries, such as the Mysteries of Isis or the Mysteries of Eleusis, were open to a wider group of people—as long as you could afford the travel and other expenses. Here, too, the priestesses and priests who officiated were expected to have special knowledge and understanding. Furthermore, they were expected to share that information with the initiates.
It was, in part, for this special knowledge that one undertook the Mystery rites. Initiates might expect the revelation of certain secrets regarding the Deities of the Mysteries. They might learn about new aspects of the Deities or be taught secrets of myth or ritual. Many would have been given important information about how to ensure a happy afterlife, as were Orphic initiates who were instructed on the proper spring from which to drink on their journey toward rebirth. In fact, it was quite commonly expected that the priests and priestesses of the Mysteries led their clients to knowledge.
Young scribes learning their trade
You may recall that in Apuleius’ tale of initiation into the Mysteries of Isis, he was shown certain books (seemingly in hieroglyphs) that contained the instructions for his preparations for initiation. In fact, one of Isis’ late epithets is Lady of the Book. The Aretalogy from Oxyrhynchus says that She was called Understanding at the town of Apis; and Isis has always been a Lady of Wisdom. Isis is a Goddess Who encourages learning and wisdom in Her devotees, and especially in Her priestesses and priests.
Alas, modern Isiacs have no great temples in which to study or established Mysteries of our Goddess in which to serve.
As is our path in general, our course of study in Her honour must be more individualized. As a priestess or priest of Isis, there are things we should know. As far as it is possible, we should know the history of Her worship, how people honoured Her in the past, what they thought and said about Her. That is one of the reasons I wrote Isis Magic. To be Her priestess, I needed to know these things; and then, I needed to pass them on. That was one of Her tasks for me. Acquiring that knowledge formed a large part of my personal training. Even so, there is much Isis-related scholarship out there in the world and I still find out new things about Her and how people have related to Her throughout history. I try to share those new discoveries here on Isiopolis.
As a priestess or priest of Isis, you will likely be in a position to influence others. If you are teaching, you will need to know something in order to be able to teach it. As your students learn, you will have to continue learning so that you may always have something new to teach them. If we don’t keep on learning, we become dry vessels—not only for any thirsty students we may have the privilege to teach, but for ourselves as well. To keep our intellectual and spiritual juices flowing, we must keep learning.
May you experience Her holy wings
But “book learning” is just one of the priest/essly ways of knowing. The other is experience. This means we must develop our personal relationship with Isis; we must experience Her. This is a subtle kind of learning. It is different for each individual. And yet, there are commonalities. It is these subtle commonalities that let us know we’re connecting with Isis specifically.
This is even trickier when it comes to Isis because She is a Great Goddess. She has many, many aspects and different priestesses and priests may connect with different aspects. Still, there is a feeling commonality. I’m pretty sure that if you connected with Isis as Great Mother and I connected with Her as Great of Magic—and we could share each other’s feelings—as Her priestesses, we would know that we were both experiencing Isis.
In the grand scheme of explaining things, that doesn’t help much, does it? Yet that’s what experience does. As a priestess or priest of Isis, you should be able to tell. On the other hand, we can’t let our experiential knowledge be used to deny someone else’s experience, even if we don’t agree with it, or to boost our own egos because we have the “right” answer. Our experience should be used to guide, and only with the permission of the guided (as in a teaching relationship).
A priest purifying
The Pagan blogosphere has recently been lit up with a good deal of theological soul-searching about the nature of the Divine and our relationship to the Divine. It is very exciting that we have grown to the extent that it is time to have these discussions; I just wish we could have them without so many arguments.
Our experiences as priestesses and priests of Isis will lead us to find our own answers to these important questions. Our experiences can add value to the on going discussion about the nature of the Divine and our relationship with It. Our experiences may be used to guide others as they begin their own paths and until they find their own answers. But we must use our experiences wisely. Developing that wisdom is part of our Work as priestesses and priests of Isis.
Next time, Key 3: The Art of Ritual