Pythias, Priestesses, Beguines, and Tantrikas – In Celebration of Women’s History Month
March is Women’s History Month, and so each year at this time I like to add to my Historical Women’s Mystics series. After reading an article about the U.S. Presidency being the final political glass ceiling, I found myself thinking about the religious glass ceiling – all five major world religions, and most smaller ones too, still deny women top level leadership roles. Of course the mystic’s journey is a personal one, and we can bypass religious hierarchy to commune directly with spirit/Source/awakening/God. All of the women I’ve featured in this series did so, and many emerged as prominent teachers and spiritual leaders within their time. But how many more might have followed their lead had more women leaders been present? What message is sent today to the vast majority of women who seek within Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism by the fact that top organizational positions are still not available to them? How many women seekers internalize the message that their relationship to spirit must be mediated by men?
Of course there have always been women’s spiritual communities, with their own leadership structures, many of which existed simultaneously with, or even within, patriarchal traditions. So I decided this month to highlight just a few. May you draw inspiration and guidance from them (and perhaps glimpse a past life!)
The guild associated with the Oracle of Delphi is one of the few Greek priestess guilds we have credible historical information on. The Oracle functioned in some form for well over a thousand years, from approximately the 8th century BC to 4th AD. While we think of the Pythia (the Oracle at any given time) as one woman, in fact three women were usually rotating between the position. A guild of priestesses cared for them, while others cared for the associated Apollo temple and trained the novices. The position was an exhausting one, with the trances required to function as Pythia for hours on end wearing on the body. The training was rigorous and esoteric, and only passed from woman to woman.
At its heyday, to be a member of the guild offered a freedom and status not accorded to other women, such as the right to income and property, freedom from taxation, and the freedom to live untethered to any man. This is in fact the original meaning of the word ‘virgin’ – living a life unattached to a man, although it later was extended to sexual virginity. While in its declining years the temple was run by priests, there’s a lot of evidence that for many hundreds of years prior to this the guild was an all-female mystery school focused on divine vision and prophecy. Other such guilds likely existed throughout early Ancient Greek society, particularly in Athens.
Another pre-Christian women’s priestess community was that of the ‘keepers of the flame of Brigid’ in Kildare, Ireland. Possibly part of a Druid tradition, or possibly their own independent tradition, the shrine at Kildare served as a training center for priestesses studying the healing and occult arts. A deep connection to nature was at the heart of this tradition, and many of the graduating priestesses seem to have traveled to other parts of the country to tend sacred groves, caves, or hills, or to serve as healers and priestesses in service to the goddess Brigid. Some believe a 30 year commitment was typical, with ten years of receiving training, ten years of fulfilling duties, and ten years of teaching others, followed by the freedom to continue on with the temple or marry and leave.
A sacred flame was tended day and night by the priestesses in Kildare, one that was adopted centuries later by nuns when a convent dedicated to St. Brigid (a Christianization of the goddess) was built. The nuns still tend this flame today, which means it has burned (mostly) continuously for thousands of years.
Christian convents, particularly in the medieval ages, formed their own unique women’s spiritual communities, and many appear to have functioned autonomously from the male-dominated church hierarchy. However, there were other interesting spiritual options for women during this time as well, most notably the Beguines. Inspired by two late twelfth century Belgium women, Ivetta of Huy and Mary of Oignies, the Beguines were groups of women within Northern European cities who belonged to a cloister but lived alone and dedicated their lives to good works without taking lifelong vows. At the movement’s height, a noviate would typically train with a ‘Grand Mistress’ along with other women, and make vows of chastity. After training she would live alone but travel out in the city to help the sick and poor. She might continue this way throughout her life, or eventually decide to marry and return to lay life.
Beguines were one of the few Christian communal structures entirely founded and run by women. The largest beguinage, in Ghent, had over a thousand members at one point. Some were later incorporated into the Third Order of St. Francis, while others eventually developed a more mystic bent, emphasizing mystic experience more than good works as the foundation for the religious path.
Sixteenth century Safed, Israel was site of one of the most important periods in the development of Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism. Isaac Luria, sometimes called the father of modern Kabbalah, lived and taught there during this time, along with many fellow rabbis and students. But as Tirzah Firestone covers in her book The Receiving, a group of female visionaries also lived within Safed at this time, studying and receiving prophetic visions. Francesca Sarah was the most prominent of these women, and several surviving stories document the tremendous respect accorded her seeing. Other stories indicate that a group of such women existed and that they may have developed their own mystic practices together. In any case, they were definitely central to the development of Kabbalah, which is particularly notable in light of the fact that at the same time throughout Europe women were being burned at the stake for similar mystic visions.
I’ve saved my favorite historical women’s spiritual community for last – the Tantrikas of the Pala Period in India (8th-13th century.) As Miranda Shaw outlines in her excellent Passionate Enlightenment, during this time Tantric yoginis lived independently and in small communities of their own engaged in spiritual practice based on principles of embodiment, and the sacredness of the senses and all experience. This of course famously included Tantric practices of sacred sexuality, and some historians have tended to see these women as merely sexual partners for yogi counterparts. But in fact the women were often the teachers, and the union (on all levels!) of male Buddhist scholars and female Tantrikas birthed Tantric Buddhism at this time. Women were able to activate the kundalini more readily, and to become a conduit for divine energies. They studied these on their own, living independent lives devoted to spiritual practice, and emphasizing the divinity of daily life and experience, as opposed to considering monastic life the pinnacle of spiritual living. Their teachings and practices heavily influenced both the development of Buddhism and yoga in India at the time.
There are so, so many more fascinating women’s spiritual communities to explore – Ancient Egyptian priestesses, Druidess orders, female Sufi dervishes, Native American female shamans, the female-dominated Japanese religion of Oomoto, among many others. As we continue to surface and retell religious history with an eye to the women involved, may we all draw inspiration from their stories and questing. May it bring us closer to realizing the light within each of us, which exists beyond gender, beyond culture, beyond religion.
Namaste, and feel free to share any information about your own favorite historical women’s spiritual communities in the comments.