Throughout history the role of the Priestess, as an emmisary of the Goddess or Great Mother, has changed greatly. In the great civilizations of the Greeks, Romans and Egyptians she played an essential role in the function of all of the great temples and was often engaged in healing and tending to the spiritual needs of the local populace.
With the advent of patriarchal religions her role diminshed and was eventually iradicated altogther until she started to make a dramatic re-appearance in the teachings of a great deal of 20th century estoric doctrine of the Western Tradition.
In her book The Priestess & the Pen, Sonja Sadovsky explores the development of the Priestess archetype and reveals the way in which it has been re-established, re-developed and fermented through twentieth-century occult fiction.
Sadovsky has chosen specific examples of occult-orientated women who have focussed upon establishing a powerful feminine role for Pagan-orientated women and for those who seek to acting as an effective conduit for the Goddess.
The author identifies three well-known, and highly-respected writers, who have integrated the priestess into their literary works. These are the occultist Dion Fortune (6 December 1890 – 8 January 1946), writer Marion Zimmer Bradley (June 3, 1930 – September 25, 1999) and writer Diana Paxson (1943–Present Day).
Sadovsky also includes the occultist H P Blavatsky (31 July 1831 – 8 May 1891) in her assessment of the occult roots of the priestess and marks the early development of the priestess archetype back to her Theosophical Society from which were spawned a number of important occult societies and influential periodicals.
These became fertile ground for the expression of feminist ideas. Up until that point both the role and perceived persona of women was wholly disempowering and invariably disrespectful.
In more recent times, the author also credits science fiction and the birth of the heroic woman that rose from within it as instrumental in re-enforcing a more positive perspective of women.
In chapter two, the author explores in greater detail the work of Dion Fortune and includes biographical details of her magickal/occult career. Here she specifically references two of Fortune’s greatest works of occult fiction: The Sea Priestess and Moon Magic.
At this point, the author adds some critcal appraisal and commentary on these novels and their main character—the mysterious and alluring Vivian le Fay Morgan.
Sadovsky identifies two different types of priestess in Fortune’s work. These are the Earth Mother and the Moon Mistress. Later, she examines the appearance and development through Bradleys’s works another two; namely, the Witch Queen and a the Warrior Queen.
The Priestess & the Pen then explores the work and career of Marion Zimmer Bradley with an introduction to her early literary works and her initial successes as a writer of the Darkover novels, two of which—Thendara House and City of Sorcery—contain the initial seeds of the theme of the college of priestesses which later appeared in Bradley’s best-selling book, The Mists of Avalon novel that launched her literary career into the big time.
Based around a reconstruction of the Arthurian legend, the book presents the idea of Goddess worship in the British Isles in a similar way to that which Dion Fortune’s had initiated some fifty years earlier.
Whilsy Bradley died of a heart attack in 1999 her unfinished works continue to be published and supplemented by her editor Diana L Paxson and it is Paxson that the author of Priestess and the Pen examines next.
Diana L Paxson, is revealed as an active Pagan who joined the Aquarian Order of the Restoration—a group dedicated to follow the theories and ideas of Dion Fortune. In her book Sadovsky book includes a lengthy and in-depth interview with Paxson in which she explores her role in the continued development of the priestess archetype.
Later on, Sadovsky, refers to a process that she describes as ‘The Magic of Biological Determinism’ in which she identifies Fortunes’ attempt to associate her female character with the cutting edge in occult and scientific thought at that time.
The theory of biological determinism also permeates Western Esotericism and can be traced as far back as the works of Blavatsky.
In the final chapter, the author sums up her own personal thoughts on the various images of the priestess as expressed and developed within the literary works that she has studied, along with their increasingly significant relationship to the Goddess.
In particular, she discusses the archetype of the Triple Goddess—a theme that is so popular in mainstream Paganism today and explains how it is that she sees it as often failing to provide a completely supporting and applicable theme for many women, including herself.
Finally she sums up her relationship to the Priestess archetype by recognizing that it is an ever expanding and developing one in which she looks forward to new derivations and interpretations of it by future generations.
In something rather unique and a departure from orthodox book authoring the final Appendix includes a type of key-point questionnaire regarding each pertinent or key commentary found within the book. A final exercise includes guidance on the way to explore the process of automatic writing in connection with the Goddess.
The assumption held by many practitioners in the Wiccan and Pagan movements that they are upholding an ancient tradition that is, in the West at least, an integral part of our culture happens to be unsubstantiable.
In fact, a little investigation reveals that a great deal of modern Witchcraft; as well as no small amount of general Western occultism, is relatively recent and is certainly less than a century old.
Sonja Sadovsky demonstrates that the central figure to Goddess worship, namely that of the Western version of the priestess, is in many ways a fictional creation that can be dated back to the works of Dion Fortune.
Today, it has transcended into something quite different from the way that she was originally concieved by Fortune and which currently appears in films, books and even computer games in a more aggressive and self-determining role.
Many traditionalists will not take kindly to this book and the way in which its writer has delicately unwoven the various strands of feminist philosophy, Pagan ideals and sexual proclivities that many take to be accurate assimulations of the priestess character.
However, whether people like Sadavsky’s literay appraisal of this off-shoot of Goddess worship or not it somewhat immaterial for this is a book that desparately needed to be written.
Written it was and astonishingly well for a debut work at that!
Throughout The Priestess & the Pen, its author digs deeper into the archetypal form and persona of the priestess than anyone else would probably be prepared to go.
This is a book that challenges, provokes, questions, exposes and demystifies a great deal of the common assumptions that one finds in many contemporary books about Paganism.
It does so in an intelligent and balanced way—though, the author clearly has a little of the priestess in herself in the dramatic way that she sometimes expresses her thoughts and ideas!
Later on, in summing up section, the author admits that this was no easy book to write and I can well believe that! Nevertheless the result, I am pleased to say is not just a good publication but a great one whose inherent importance and significance will be evident to any researcher digging into the roots of occult tradition.
As a literary critique, historical analysis and in depth exposé of one of the key features of Goddess worship, The Priestess & the Pen is a triumphant tour de force and a testament to its writer’s tenacity.