Have you ever wanted to talk about something that you have experienced, but you don’t have the language to accurately describe it? Lately I have been thinking about the differences between shills and supporting priestesses in pagan ritual, and how those differences are really important. I think supporting priestesses are so important that their presence or absence can make or break a ritual…but I couldn’t find the words to say why I feel that way, or how a supporting priestess differs from a shill.
Thankfully, I have Elizabeth Wilson to help me. I met Elizabeth many years ago at Diana’s Grove, a community near St. Louis focused on community, leadership training and personal development; she continues this work with Expanding Inward, a team that creates, facilitates and celebrates opportunities to gather in a safe, supportive and healthy community context, encouraging deeply personal positive life transformation through Earth-based, ecstatic ritual.
It was at Diana’s Grove that I first experienced supporting priestesses, and Elizabeth was a Rites of Passage team mentor there that I highly respected, so it felt natural to ask her: how would you describe the difference between a shill and a supporting priestess? Elizabeth was gracious enough to write a guest blog post with her thoughts, and they are below.
Supporting Priestess vs. being a Shill
by Elizabeth Wilson
I’ve been asked to share how I see the difference between being a supportive priestess and being a shill in ritual. Sure. I can do that. It sounded simple, at first.
Then I remembered rituals are happening all the time. The ritual of a small group sitting around a table. The ritual of preparing a meal with others. The ritual of being in a meeting with my coworkers. The ritual of grocery shopping. The ritual of free time at an event. My mind was buzzing with all the ritual opportunities.
I can’t talk about all of them in one post so let’s talk about these two different roles in the more classical type of ritual. The kind that typically includes a circle, elements, and often deities. The role of a shill is typically simple and straightforward in this type of ritual. The people planning the ritual have something they want to have happen, often at a particular time and they ask someone before ritual begins if they will do it. The planners choose someone they trust and can be depended on. Someone who has the necessary skill set. The shill is told what is needed, what to do, and what their cue will be. A shill can be a very valuable resource in ritual.
The role of a supporting priestess is more complex. Their role begins well before the ritual starts. A supporting priestess has been doing their personal work at home. They may or may not know the ritual plan but they arrive for ritual with a willingness to serve the group and the ritual intention. They hold a dual awareness during ritual. Observing the group and the leader and then responding with what is needed out of a place of authenticity. They make each interaction a sacred one. They listen with their intuition and respond in a way that deepens the work. They know when to be visible and when to be invisible. When to speak and when to hold silent. A supporting priestess has studied, refined, and enhanced their abilities and they welcome feedback.
A supporting priestess will sing during a chant regardless of whether they think they have a “good” voice or not. For instance, I am unlikely to ever be asked to sing a solo because honestly sometimes I just can’t carry a tune all that well. But if I sing during ritual it might just let someone else who is shy or at ritual for the first time feel like they can take part too. If there is a place in ritual where participants are encouraged to interact with each other, a supporting priestess will notice if there is someone who no one is with and interact with them rather than someone they know well. They will notice if those leading the ritual are attempting to shift what is happening and support that shift. A supporting priestess also pays attention to what is happening in the time before the ritual officially begins. They don’t just hang with their friends. They help build the community container, taking time to make eye contact and acknowledge in some way many of the people present because they know the more connected the group is, the more powerful the magic will be for everyone. These are but a few examples of the complexity of being a supporting priestess.
My philosophy and approach to priestessing comes from my years at Diana’s Grove where I was honored to serve as staff and as Rites of Passage team mentor.
Elizabeth was formerly on staff at Diana’s Grove Mystery School where she also served as Rites of Passage team mentor. She is currently carrying those philosophies forward as one of the co-conspirators at Expanding Inward. Elizabeth’s is especially passionate about Community Arts and exploring how our bodies share wisdom when we learn to listen.
Image: Foundation by VasalisaTheWitch; all rights reserved