I have this tattoo on my right forearm that I got about six years ago, at Loki’s behest. It’s supposed to be in Old Norse, but uses Anglo-Saxon runes to spell out the word (because nothing I do can ever be historically accurate, it seems). It says LOKAGYDJA, meaning “Loki’s priestess.” When I had it put onto my arm, I had no idea what, exactly, earning this title would entail.
Yes, I had to earn it, something which I feel I didn’t manage to do until fairly recently. Being a priest* isn’t just a matter of doing more devotional work than most Pagans — monastics do that every day, and so do those who are passionately devoted to their gods, but refrain from making a vocation of it. It isn’t just a matter of running a Sabbat ritual or faining every now and then, although some more formal Pagan traditions don’t allow people without the proper training to do those things anyway. It isn’t about one day deciding that you’re going to be a gydja or a godhi** or other priestly person, and doling out advice from on high as if merely assuming the title confers your authority and grants you wisdom. Hell, it isn’t even as simple as having your god tell you that’s what He wants you to be, as I learned for myself. What being a priest is about is work, and I don’t just mean reading a lot of stuffy academic tomes or spending an entire weekend making costumes for a May Eve procession.
Before I go any further, I should note that here, I’m speaking of people who are self-taught or god-taught, or who otherwise have the title of “priest” conferred upon them by their personal circumstances, rather than those who have undergone a formal training program in priestcraft from an extant Pagan tradition. It is easier when you have a human mentor to guide you, no doubt. That hasn’t been my experience; I haven’t taken any classes, nor do I hold a degree in pastoral counseling or ministerial work. However, after twenty-five years of practicing Paganism as my religion, the last nine of which involved intense contact with my gods, and five years of running a Northern Tradition kindred, I think I have some useful insights to offer on what becoming a priest means. Even those who have undergone formal religious training may find that what I’ve said below is applicable to them, too.
The first thing that must be dealt with in one’s journey as a priest is the internal work of knowing yourself. Do you have issues? Unhealthy behaviors or behavior patterns? Do you have unresolved feelings about past relationships or situations? Were you abused, physically, sexually, verbally? Are you lazy, inconsiderate, selfish, closed-minded, intolerant, impatient, desperate for attention, lacking in compassion, unable to see others’ points of view? Do you think too highly of yourself and too little of others, or pay far too much attention to what others think of you? Are you convinced that there is a right way and a wrong way to do everything, and never the twain shall meet? If you are called to be a priest, be prepared to be confronted with all of this (and more) which applies to you. No matter how hard you’re shaking your head and saying to yourself, “No, I’m not like that,” I’d be surprised if at least some of the above doesn’t apply to every single person reading this right now, including other clergy. Those who have become experienced in priestcraft, however, are keenly aware of their faults and have taken steps to ensure that these don’t interfere too much with their work. (And if they aren’t, they will be soon.)
Part of the work of a Pagan priest usually involves guiding others as a spiritual counselor, to some degree. But you have to know yourself, inside and out, before you can help other people know themselves, and this means accepting and controlling the not-so-nice bits. You’ll always be flawed, don’t get me wrong — but you don’t have to let your flaws rule you. It is imperative that you do not let your own issues influence things when you are guiding others through their spiritual difficulties. For one thing, it’s unfair to expect someone undergoing a crisis to trust you when your own life is in constant turmoil and you haven’t owned your baggage. For another, being able to see yourself as you really are, and to allow yourself to be imperfect without judgment and with compassion for yourself, grants you the ability to give that gift to other people — and it is an important gift.
Getting your own shit together can take years. In my case, it involved the often humiliating realization that I had let some old wounds hold me back for far too long, and that I had allowed myself to fall into a pattern of escaping situations when they became difficult, rather than sticking around to sort things out. That was just the beginning. I had to undergo a great deal of sorrow, the loss of a dear friend, and the destruction of my previous self-image before I understood myself clearly. But dealing with all of that allowed me to grow as a person and accept my own limitations, which I needed to do before I could move on, even though I probably would’ve been happy not knowing some of the things I know now. It’s not about our personal convenience — there is more than enough work to go around, and being called or chosen to become a priest (or any other spiritual job) is most definitely not about being more “worthy” than others — just, perhaps, more useful.
That leads me to the second thing one quickly learns about being a priest: it isn’t all about you. It isn’t about being more important than lesser devotees of your gods. It isn’t about having other people do your bidding all the time, and getting to dictate their lives. It’s about service, which means more work. You are there to serve your gods, true, but you are also there to serve your people — not the other way around. You are not always free to do whatever you want, but must act with others’ needs in mind, at least some of the time. This often means doing or saying things you would rather not do or say, or forgoing desired plans because you have other responsibilities to meet. If anybody had told me years ago that one day I’d be a Pagan monastic and priestess, living in the attic of a shaman, I’d have no doubt recoiled in horror — I was going to be either an archaeologist, or a food writer who roamed around recklessly entering pie-eating contests and haggis-throwing championships. But alas, neither of these things happened, and while I don’t regret the way my life has turned out, I really dislike some of the things I’ve had to do in pursuit of my gods’ goals.
If all this makes you feel disgruntled because you feel you’re going to be being treated as a commodity or cosmic messenger rather than a special snowflake, don’t worry — you’ll likely be too busy, what with answering frantic phone calls in the dead of night, stacking firewood for that night’s ritual because everyone else sneaked off to drink, or writing a letter dismissing someone from your group and dreading the resultant drama, to worry about feeling used. The sad fact is that becoming the priest of a god or set of gods, especially when They have done the choosing, is not a sign that you are more evolved than other people. It’s merely a sign that They find you fit for the job; your evolution is still your responsibility, just like everybody else. Now, that doesn’t mean that the gods don’t love Their priests as much as we love Them; I am sure They do. But in my experience, gods seldom have just one reason for doing anything, and even when They love you dearly, if you are the sort of person whom They think can be forged into a fine tool or even a weapon, that’s probably what They will do.
As for choosing to become a priest of one’s own free will, owning up to our own fatal flaws isn’t something most of us are wont to do on our own (I sure as hell wasn’t), and is not always addressed by human teachers. At least when They do the choosing, They also have a way of forcing you into situations where you cannot ignore the things about yourself that need fixing, or at least open acknowledgement. It can be hard to feel gratitude for this, admittedly. On the other hand, becoming a priest or a gydja or whatever you want to call it means taking on an archetypal role with considerable mythic resonance all its own. If you haven’t got a reliable connection, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to be running the whole show yourself. Even without the intervention of gods or spirits, the universe may very well just hand you whatever lessons go with that archetypal role, whether you actively pursue them or not.
Either way, if you are serious about priesthood, you can’t avoid the fact that the process of becoming is going to leave you humbler as well as wiser. I can say from experience that there is little that humbles someone more than realizing that the Powers That Be will have them serve some people for whom they themselves ordinarily wouldn’t spare the time of day — because as little as we might like those folks, the Powers care about their welfare as much as They care for ours. And it isn’t all up to us.
This leads me to my third point: as priests, we have to learn to see the gods as They really are, not as we would have Them be. Whether one is dedicated to one deity or to many, the ability to help others understand the gods means able to understand Them oneself. Even if divination isn’t involved, knowing how one’s gods operate is key, and the only way to acquire that knowledge is to get rid of preconceived notions of how the gods are “supposed” to be, and let Them speak for themselves — metaphorically or literally, or both. There are many ways to go about doing this; talking directly to Them is one way, but depends on having utter clarity without one’s ego getting in the way. Reading and researching Their myths and the ways people in the past worshiped Them is another, although that can be difficult for those of us whose deities hail from a tradition without much written evidence left, as with the Norse and Germanic. Learning to cultivate mindfulness, to see Them in the world around us and to become sensitive to Their presence and influence, is yet a third way, and is something useful and good all on its own. Often, getting to know one’s gods involves all three, but the most important thing to remember in this is to let the gods be as They are.
It’s also important to remember that, although we might occasionally speak on Their behalf, we are not Them. If I had a quarter for every time I’ve heard someone say that such-and-such deity was going to strike someone else down for supposedly disobeying or irritating Them, I’d have built my own convent by now. Attributing one’s own feelings and opinions to the gods is one of the most common and least useful traps a priest can fall into, and it’s important that the difference is acknowledged when necessary, and that one doesn’t allow one’s own fears, prejudices, or hangups to speak for the Holy Ones. Ego and a lack of understanding of one’s own ulterior motives and weaknesses is usually to blame for this, which is why self-knowledge is so important, and why I have seen or heard of Them driving every priest I know through the ordeal of acquiring that knowledge. I’m not talking here about differences of opinion on what the gods are like with each one of Their devotees, however. That can be even trickier to parse out.
I’ve heard people say that Loki is an irredeemable asshole, and people who claimed that Loki would never do anything to hurt anybody else. I have heard others report that Loki is constantly talking, has a short attention span, and is always pulling jokes and making faces at them, while others have said that He is different — serious, needy, conflicted, uncertain, or conversely, even crazed and dangerous. I have experienced Him as the barely-leashed, wildfire-bright consort of Angrboda, as Sigyn’s gentle and protective husband, as the daring and fleet of foot Sky-treader, and as the terrifying Breaker of Worlds. I know Him best and most often as my Beloved, the fiery, passionate, beautiful god whom I married nine years ago, and for whom I would give up much more than I already have. Are some of these impressions false? Probably, in a consensual reality sense, but they can also all be said to be true for each of the people who had them.
One of the hardest tasks of a priest is to acknowledge that others’ ties to the gods may reflect an entirely different side of Them with which you are unfamiliar or even uncomfortable. You may well need a lot of clear-sightedness to be able to find the middle ground between your interpretation of things and someone else’s. Sometimes, you’ve got to be able to point out when someone just has it wrong; Thor isn’t a lunar rabbit goddess, no matter what anybody claims, nor is Sekhmet a great proponent of nonviolence and pacifism. Some things are beyond argument. In any case, you’re still going to have to find a way to get your point across, even if what the person says makes you annoyed, sad, or even jealous. You owe them, and the gods whom you serve, nothing less.
Unless you don’t owe them. My last point is that being a priest requires discernment. Not every problem is yours to fix or even address. Not everybody who asks is someone you are capable of helping. There will be times when you’ll have to admit that you cannot help someone, either because they won’t help themselves, or because you are simply not qualified to do it. You can’t be all things to all people, and those who try will either rapidly burn out or else get slapped with some harsh reminder that arrogance has no place in priestcraft. You also have to guard against talking out of turn — people may tell you things in confidence that are not your secrets to share, and you may be privy to other information that would be unwise to share with others, out of privacy concerns. And sadly, there will be those who seek you out or show up at your rituals or events who are only looking for spiritual-ish thrills, who are seriously deluded due to wishful thinking or mental illness, or who are just trying to find someone else to solve their problems for them. You have to learn what is and what isn’t really your responsibility, and that can be hardest of all for those who genuinely want to help other people and don’t like turning folks away.
You will probably also spend a great deal of time wrangling other people in your community, coven, or kindred, if you have an active role in leading group worship or planning events. I’ll say this right now: no matter how well you get along with people or how well everyone gets along with each other, there will doubtless be drama from time to time. That’s just human nature, and it’s inevitable in any group, unless you have been blessed with the sort of group where everyone is mature, open, responsible, and willing to acknowledge their blind spots. If drama happens all the time, you as a priest are in a position to do something about it, and see that you yourself are not the cause. But even if it’s occasional, people who have acknowledged you as a priest are probably still going to look to you to quell the sturm und drang, reconcile all parties, and, if necessary, get rid of whatever (or whoever) is unhealthy for the survival group as a whole. Again, you are the one serving here, not the one being served, and although some conflicts are unavoidable, you’re going to need all that discernment to avoid making things worse than they are already.
These four attributes, or lessons, if you will — self-understanding, humility and knowing one’s worth, understanding the gods’ truth, and discernment — are things that I feel no amount of ritual training, study, or recitations of the Charge of the Goddess from memory are going to replace. There are others which I’ve not mentioned here, but these are the ones which have figured most prominently in my own development, which is still progressing. As always, this post is reflective only of my own experience and understanding; others on this path may differ, and I invite those engaged in priestcraft to comment and share their own experiences. I’d love to hear from you.
* I use “priest” to denote both male and female persons when not using another term like “gydja”.
** “Gydja” is pronounced gith’-ya, and “godhi” is pronounced go’-thee; translated, these terms mean “godwo/man” in Old Norse. There is some debate on what exactly that meant to the heathens of ancient times. In modern Norse Paganism, they may be used to denote a person who acts as a spiritual mentor to a kindred or ritual group, who serves as a spokesperson for the community to the gods, who leads rituals such as sumbels and fainings, or all of the above.