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Priestess of Cloth: Naming the Terms

priestess in kali-cloth robe
Ritual Garment; a priestess at work
courtesy of Denise Martine.
All rights reserved.

This is the first installment in a series written exclusively for Matrifocus. My focus in this series is to explore and define what it means to be a woman who gives her hands and heart to the practice of the earthly work of the great Cloth-Making Goddesses. This series is dedicated to those women who weave, spin, sew, knit, and otherwise work with the creative energy of making, manipulating, and embellishing cloth.

This series consists of four installments:
Naming the Terms
Defining the term Priestess of Cloth
The Goddess She Serves
An overview of weaver and spinner goddesses from several cultures
Metaform and Magic
Priestess of Cloth as metaformist and the work of cloth-making as magic
Craft and Practice
A sampling of the craft and practice of modern Priestesses of Cloth.

Why Priestess of Cloth?

All of my life, I've sewn, designed, crocheted, and worked with fabric. I am also a writer, storyteller, and lifelong student of mythology and mystery. When I decided to enter my master's degree program seven years ago, I chose to study the creation and use of ritual garments because it brought together all of my interests in a creatively rich way.

The term Priestess of Cloth came to me during my first semester in Goddard College's Interdisciplinary MFA program. My first task during that semester was to begin the process of naming myself as artist/crafter and locating my art/craft within a larger cultural and historical context. No small endeavor! In truth, as I understand very well now, a creative person takes her entire lifetime to name herself and locate her work. But a student must begin somewhere. I was a writer, so my logical "somewhere" was — words.

The Power of Naming

To name is a way to take power. It is a way to own and honor that which you name. But it is not enough to simply take the definitions handed to us by culture at face value. It is vitally important for all people, but particularly for women in male-dominated cultures, to question definitions, find and name one's own terms, and claim the power that comes as a result of that work.

What is a Priestess?

In my early adulthood, I earned money by designing and making wedding gowns. During this time in my life, I accepted the name that was given to one who does that type of work: dressmaker; a worker paid hourly to produce garments. It was only after several years of doing this work that I realized I was doing much more than that.

As I met with more and more women to design and fit their gowns, I began to realize that I was participating in a very important rite of passage for those women and their families. I also began to see that the gowns I made for them became part of the ritual of that passage. Further, I began to feel that my role as the creator of that ritual object was really in service to that which is sacred. I began to say little prayers over the cloth as I cut and sewed and embellished. And when the gown was finished, I released it with blessings for the couple and their future.

Growing up in a culture devoid of priestesses, I had no name for what I was doing. It was simply that weird little "thing" I did. But when I began to study mythology and found the cloth-making goddesses, the weavers and spinners of fate and life and death, I understood that being named a dressmaker in a culture where that name actually means: "underpaid laborer who produces a product and nothing more," was no longer alright with me. It was no longer a definition that fit.

I had, without realizing it, begun working as a priestess. I had stepped out of the mental and spiritual detachment of laborer and into the deeper realm of performing sacred rites — I needed a new name.

body of the Goddess in handpainted silk veilAs I sought to claim the term priestess for myself, I found two definitions that resonated with me: the first originating from a neo-pagan way of thinking which assumes divinity is immanent (indwelling), the second from our current consensual reality which assumes that divinity is transcendent (outside our "selves"):

1) A priestess reflects back to the world an image of the goddess she serves. [Anon.]

2) Priestess: 1: a woman authorized to perform the sacred rites of a religion. 2: a woman regarded as a leader (as of a movement)" [Webster]

Both definitions were meaningful to me because I include both immanence and transcendence in my understanding of the terms "goddess" and "religion." However, neither definition felt complete by itself.

The first definition shows the yin or receptive function of a priestess: she reflects, serves, she is a mirror — she works passively and inwardly. The second definition shows the more active, yang function: she performs with authority, and acts as a leader — she works actively and outwardly. And it became clear to me that it was not a matter of choice between definitions, but a marriage of the two.

After much pondering on how these two sides of a priestess work in tandem, equally but differently, I brought the two definitions together and formed my own personal definition of what a priestess is:

A woman authorized, by both immanent and transcendent authority, to reflect the image and perform the sacred rites of the Goddess she serves.

What is Cloth?

detail: dye release on vevelteenCloth is made into clothing to announce our status and personality, banners to inform us of messages, tapestries to tell a visual story, veils to cover and conceal, and so forth. Cloth is the foundation upon which human beings have communicated messages for centuries. But cloth holds a more elemental symbolism as well.

Elizabeth Wayland Barber suggests that the preeminent goddess image of our current culture, Venus de Milo herself, was a spinner goddess:

She was holding both arms out. The left held high and a little back, counterbalancing its weight by curving her body. The other she held out in front of herself at about chest level; her gaze rests where the hand would be. The musculature of what is left of her arms suggests that she stood in the typical position for spinning thread in the Greek manner. Spinning was a common symbol for the creation of new life in Greece and elsewhere. [Barber]

Barber then poses the question, "Why should the goddess of love and protection be a spinner?" To which she postulates that early people began to make a connection between the "women's work" of spinning and women's ability to birth and nurture life:

Women create thread; they somehow pull it out of nowhere, just as they produce babies (and the nourishment for babies) out of nowhere. [Barber]

From thread pulled out of nowhere, a wholeness appears. To the ancients, cloth was the product of the goddesses of fate, a creative child made by and birthed from the original Mothers; it was their gift to us and also their message. So, even deeper than cloth's ability to be a blank canvas, a message carrier, cloth is a symbol in itself.

Working with cloth all my life, I came to understand that cloth, at its most elemental, stands for the living me and you — all of us, children of the Goddess. Cloth then, is an existential symbol, a symbol of elemental primacy, a symbol of life, given to us by She Who Creates (the spinner/weaver/fate goddesses). Cloth, and the methods by which cloth is made, speak eloquently of our mysterious origins, our destinies, and everything in between.

Hence, my personal definition of cloth:

A unity of form symbolizing the wholeness of life.

What is a Priestess of Cloth?

When I took on the practice of making ritual garments with conscious intent and full awareness of the symbolisms and energies I worked with, a whole new world opened up to me, along with an entirely new responsibility. I was no longer an anonymous dressmaker producing a product without context or connection. I had become, by my own definition, a woman in service to life; a Priestess of Cloth:

A woman authorized, by both immanent and transcendent authority, to reflect the image and perform the sacred rites of … Life.

References

    [Anon]
  • Anonymous sources, various phrasings.
  • [Barber]
  • Barber, Elizabeth Wayland. Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years. New York: Norton, 1990. Pp. 237-238.
  • [Webster]
  • Webster's Dictionary Online at http://www.m-w.com/home.htm

Graphics Credits

  • Ritual Garment; a priestess at work, image of the author's cloth work courtesy of Denise Martine. All rights reserved.
  • Body of the Goddess; handpainted silk veil, image of the author's cloth work courtesy of Denise Martine. All rights reserved.
  • Detail of Surface Design; dye release on cotton velveteen, image of the author's cloth work courtesy of Denise Martine. All rights reserved.
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