I’m working on a write-up of how being trained as a w’ab priest has changed my outlook and daily life, but I got a little side-tracked in the process and wanted to give those sideways thoughts voice too.
(Some context: In Kemetic Orthodoxy, a w’ab priest is a lay priest who is responsible for performing private daily rituals, maintaining a shrine to their gods, and assisting in larger public rituals. In antiquity, a w’ab priest would have been similar – not acting to maintain a shrine in their home, but the local temple, and not performing rites privately, but with a group of priests.)
Within a more solitary, isolated religious practice, the word ‘priest’ tends to be a synonym for a conduit or emissary for the gods. These people do Work for their gods – divination and oracular work, magic, spirit and ancestor work, devotional artwork. They carry the messages of the gods into the world and are ridden hard by the demands their patron deities put upon them. This is an incredibly difficult space to occupy, because the Divine butts in on every mundane aspect of your life. I have touched a fraction of this role and found it wonderful and terrifyingly draining. Living in the modern world, completing homework, commuting, remembering to make lunch and still honoring the urgent call of the gods is confounding.
In the community of a religion, such as Kemetic Orthodoxy or ancient Kemet, it seems that while that mystic role exists it is different from the priesthood of the community. I would not say it is one anyone should necessarily fill indefinitely. The demands are practical and are not made by the gods but by other priests, the members of the community, and the job description. W’ab priests are technicians. We are the ones laying out offerings, organizing altars, making sure there is enough space for the participants, and formulating contingency plans for unforeseen happenings. That is far removed from being the conduit to bring the Divine into the Seen world. It has its own devotional elements, but doesn’t contain the same unfathomable connection.
In my (very aimless) wanderings through the pagan world, I have often encountered the idea that priesthood is the culmination of devotion, the result of being more perfectly in tune with the will of the gods. I’ve seen enough of a difference between priests of a community and priests of a deity that I would say it is not. Nor are these priesthoods exclusive. There is a time and a place to become lost in the presence of the Divine, and a time to scurry about behind the scenes, preparing candles, collecting water for offerings and in case of emergency, cleaning ritual space, running crowd control and so on.
I guess the point that I am meandering toward is that priesthood within a community is an entirely different animal than priesthood outside of a community, because the needs are different. Outside a community, it is just devotee and deity; inside, there are hundreds of devotees with different needs. I’ve heard the argument that priesthood outside a community is redundant, because there is no one to serve as a priest – I would disagree. There is absolutely a need and a space for people who are servants of the gods above all else. It’s just a different kind of priesthood – in purpose and in function.