The Path of the Avalonian Priestess

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Woman in Celtic Countryside

There nine sisters rule by a pleasing set of laws those who come to them from our country. She who is first of them is more skilled in the healing art and excels her sisters in the beauty of her person. Morgen is her name, and she has learned what useful proprties all the herbs contain, so that she can cure sick bodies. She also knows an art by which to change her shape, and to cleave the air on new wings like Daedalus; when she wishes she is at Brest, Chartres, or Pavia, and when she wills she slips down from the air onto your shores. And men say that she has taught mathematics to her sisters, Moronoe, Mazoe, Gliten, Glitonea, Gliton, Tyronoe, Thitis; Thitis is best known for her zither. 1

Across Celtic lands, we find accounts of holy and learned women who often dwelt together in groupings of nine; they possessed many gifts, including the power to heal, to serve as oracles, and to change their shapes. Some worked weather magic and could calm the ocean. Others engaged in ecstatic rites, and were devotees of a divinity whose temple they tended. Some lived on islands surrounded by dangerous waters or deep in forests dripping with enchantments. Others dwelt in sacred enclosures or in Otherworldly fortresses. Some of these groups, which I collectively call Ninefold Sisterhoods, are known to us from the historical record, while others are found only in legend and folklore. All told, while we know very little about these holy women, we can discern patterns of connection between them.

Roman histories speak of two groups of Gaulish Celtic priestesses—the ninefold Gallizenae (Pomponeus Mela, 1st century CE) and the Namnitae (Strabo, after Posidonius, 1st century BCE)—dwelling in isolation on Holy Islands off the coast of France. Their cloistered collectivity, their possession of a variety of powers and skills, their service to their people even in their isolation, the necessity of undertaking a perilous journey to consult with them, bear similarities to Ninefold Sisterhoods found in later lore.

Groupings of nine women are found in a variety of magical and religious contexts in Celtic lands—some historical, some legendary. These include: the Nine Sorceresses of Larzac whose names were inscribed upon a Gallo-Roman curse tablet; the Nine Witches of Ystawingu and the Nine Sorceresses of Caer Lowy, both from early Arthurian tradition; the Nine Maidens of Annwn from Welsh mythology, and the Nine Maidens of Donegal who were the sainted daughters of Saint Donald in Scotland. Germanic tradition features the Nine Daughters of Ran (also called the Nine Wave Sisters), the Nine Mothers of Heimdallr, and the Nine Giantesses of the Mill. Finally, the Nine Muses of Greek mythology is probably the most well-known iteration of these Ninefold Sisterhoods.

There is no clear explanation for the widespread existence of these Ninefold groups, and, it is possible that they are culturally specific iterations of a religious expression—whether originally a grouping of deities or a specific devotional manifestation featuring enclaves of nine priestesses—that originated in the Indo-European Mother Culture from which the Celtic, Germanic, Greek, and Roman cultures (among others) arose. Alternatively, this religious expression may have arisen among one of these cultural groups and spread to the others long after they split off from from their culture of origin. However, I believe it is more likely that these groupings reflected cultural associations with the number nine that likely has its roots in the Indo-European Mother Culture.

Perhaps the nine months of gestation that precedes childbirth explains nine's apparent link with women and magic, which expanded to inform a cultural connection between the number nine and concepts of completion. This in turn seems to have underscored a cultural understanding that nine represents a full set of something, perfection, and a wholeness. Groupings of nine occur over and over again in various IE-derived cultures—from the number of people in an Irish war band to the number of component areas that make up a medieval Welsh household, to the Nine Worlds that define Germanic cosmology.

The number nine is has been connected to Avalon since the very beginning. Avalon entered the literary record through the writings of the Welsh-Norman historian Geoffrey of Monmouth. In his 1150 poem „Vita Merlini“ („The Life of Merlin“), he describes Avalon as a paradisiacal island that is ruled fairly by nine learned sisters. They possess the powers of healing and shapeshifting, and are well-versed in mathematics and music. Chief among these nine sisters is Morgen, who receives the mortally-wounded Arthur into her care.

As the Arthurian story tradition evolved over time, these nine sisters faded into obscurity as Morgen increasingly took center stage as the character better known as Morgan le Fay. Avalon remained a place of women's magic, however, and is described in various tales as being home to Otherworldly Ladies of the Lake, or the dwelling place of enchantresses—and always as the Island of Healing that receives Arthur at the end of his life. And yet, it is this Ninefold Sisterhood of Avalon appearing in the earliest accounts of Avalon that serves to connect it with a powerful stream of tradition that is related to historical and mythological accounts from other Celtic lands and beyond.

The idea of the number nine representing a wholeness is powerfully resonant with Avalon; Geoffrey of Monmouth describes the island as being able to produce all that it needs of its own accord, without anyone having to work the soil. Those that dwelt on Avalon were whole in body—youthful and long-lived. Likewise, being able to meet one's own needs—physically, mentally, and emotionally—is very suggestive of being whole and complete in and of ourselves. This in turn relates to the concept of Sovereignty.

A motif found primarily in Irish, Welsh, and Arthurian tales, the Sovereignty figure (typically a tutelary Goddess her proxy) grants the right to rule over her lands to the kingly candidate that she finds worthy; this rulership can also be rescinded should the king become unworthy. In his Historia Regum Britanniae, Geoffrey writes that Caliburn—the sword of kings that would eventually become known as Excalibur— forged on the Island of Avalon. Later Arthurian tales show Arthur receiving Excalibur from the hand of the Lady of the Lake herself, and after his last battle at Camlan, the mortally wounded king instructs Sir Bedevere to cast the sword into a nearby lake, where it is received into the hand of the Lady of the Lake once more.

Just as Avalon appears to have played a role in the conference of Sovereignty, so is the modern Avalonian Tradition (as practiced by the Sisterhood of Avalon) rooted in the concept of personal Sovereignty, which we define as „conscious self-determination.“ This ethic of individual and collective empowerment guides our approach to our spiritual work and the ways we seek to engage in devotional relationships with the Holy Isle, its Guardians, and its Gods. Nowhere is this commitment to Sovereignty more pronounced than in the manner by which we undertake our service as priestesses.

When we consider what we know about the gifts and powers that have been attributed to the women of the Ninefold Sisterhoods, we can see that, fundamentally, their roles are to serve as as bridges—to cross, and to help others cross, thresholds of various kinds. As seers, shapeshifters, and vessels of prophecy, they cross between this world and the Otherworld in order to bring back guidance in service to others. As healers and midwives, and receivers of the dead they harness liminalities of sickness and health, death and rebirth. As inciters to battle, intoxicators of kings, and weavers of peace they bridge the spaces that shift one socio-political reality into another. As muses and initiators and granters of Awen they open the doors between the worlds to allow the creative essence of the Universe to flow forth, and catalyze change.

Thus informed by ancient precedent, and centering the attainment of personal Sovereignty as our primary guiding principle, the Avalonian Tradition recognizes that there are many ways to be in service as a priestess of the Holy Isle. When we look at ourselves through the lens of the Ninefold—a powerful organizing principle that, by its very nature and definition, encourages wholeness—it serves as a transformative that assists us in the work of self knowledge necessary to obtain personal Sovereignty. Likewise, when we apply the Ninefold to our work in the world and to our service to the Divine, it helps us to reveal the authentic path of priestessing that is unique to each person and is a reflection of our Sovereign selves. This is possible because, for me, the word „priestess“ is a verb: it is something that we do, rather than something that we are.

What follows is an overview of each of the Nine Paths of Avalon, which includes an example of the ways in which the energies of each path can be reflected within. By necessity, this just a brief taste of the Nine Paths, intended to highlight their primary energetics, give examples of their manifestations of service, and demonstrate how this system can be used to guide inner growth and manifest outer change.

The Nine Paths

  1. Path of the Lorekeeper: This is the path of the priestess-scholar; the bard and poet who serves to preserve and transmit sacred and cultural memory, building bridges into knowledge. This is the sacred work of the historian and genealogist, the linguist and the librarian, the story singer and the satirist—those who cross the threshold between ignorance and learning. When reflected within, the Path of the Lorekeeper calls us to reclaim the story of our lives, to learn from our past so that we may sing the future of our choosing into being, and to study the components of our inner culture—the traditions we've inherited and the habits we've learned—so that we may release what does not serve us.
  2. Path of the Lawspeaker: This is the path of the priestess-mediator; the judge and ethicist who serves as a pillar of integrity and a mirror of truth, building bridges into equity. This is the sacred work of the teacher and the tester, the lawyer and the legislator, the layer of fates and the enforcer of contracts—those who cross the threshold between chaos and order. When reflected within, the Path of the Lawspeaker calls us to examine our biases and blind spots, to align our moral compass with a set of values that is an authentic reflection of our sovereignty, and to live a life of virtue that is motivated by justice.
  3. Path of the Emissary: This is the path of the priestess-counsellor; the networker and communicator who serves as a facilitator of relationships founded on trust and understanding, building bridges into harmony. This is the sacred work of the peace-weaver and the negotiator, the advisor and the ambassador, the messenger and the eloquent speaker—those who cross the threshold between conflict and peace. When reflected within, the Path of the Emissary calls us to communicate with clarity, listen with sincerity, and strive to be in right relationship with ourselves, the world, and the Divine.
  4. Path of the Artisan: This is the path of the priestess-creator; the craftsperson and artist who serves to inspire through skill and dedication to authentic vocation, building bridges into mastery. This is the sacred work of the spinner and the smith, the innovator and the inventor, the alchemist and the magician—those who cross the threshold between essence and form. When reflected within, the Path of the Artisan calls us to heed the creative impulses that seek expression through us, to engage in right work and joyful avocation, and to commit ourselves to the discipline required to transform our skills into true art.
  5. Path of the Hearthtender:This is the path of the priestess-sustainer; the benefactor and host who serves to support group spaces and those that gather within them, building bridges into community. This is the sacred work of hearth and home, food and feasting, patronage and hospitality—those who cross the threshold between need and fulfillment. When reflected within, the Path of the Hearthtender calls us to identify our deficits and share from our abundance, to center ourselves in love so that we may practice sustainable generosity, and to build up a reserve of inner strength to support us as we strive to meet our inner and outer needs.
  6. Path of the Guardian: This is the path of the priestess-champion; the activist and soldier who serves as a shield and a catalyst of change, building bridges into sovereignty. This is the sacred work of the advocate and the inciter, the protector and protester, the warrior and the whistleblower—those who cross the threshold between vulnerability and safety. When reflected within, the Path of the Guardian calls us to establish and maintain healthy boundaries, to advocate for ourselves and others, and to dedicate our lives to a cause greater than ourselves.
  7. Path of the Seer: This is the path of the priestess-oracle; the visionary and speaker of prophecy who serves as a vessel for divine guidance through discernment, building bridges into wisdom. This is the sacred work of the augur and diviner, the mystic and the medium, the shapeshifter and the walker between the worlds—those cross the threshold between present and future. When reflected within, the Path of the Seer calls us to acknowledge our and inner wisdom, to pay attention to the patterns in our lives and in the world around us, and to actively work to clear our vision of the distortions of illusion.
  8. Path of the Healer: This is the path of the priestess-healer; the physician and psychopomp who serves as a compassionate caregiver, building bridges into wholeness. This is the sacred work of the mediciner and the midwife, the therapist and the trainer, the death doula and the keener—those who cross the threshold between dissolution and wholeness. When reflected within, the Path of the Healer calls us to engage in compassionate self-care, to live a life of balanced moderation, and to work towards a state of authentic wholeness rather than illusory perfection.
  9. Path of the Ritualist: This is the path of the priestess-celebrant; the initiator and facilitator who serves as a performer of rites and keeper of the mysteries, building bridges into Oneness. This is the sacred work of the ceremonialist and the chaplain, the votary and the devotee, the keeper of the calendar and the performer of the sacrifice—those who cross the threshold between the individual and the All. When reflected within, the Path of the Ritualist calls us to celebrate the shifting seasons of our lives and the world around us, to build devotional relationships with the Divine and the embodied world, and to honor all that is sacred—within us, around us, and beyond us.

The Ninefold Way of Avalon is a path of priestessing that acknowledges and encourages the full spectrum of our spiritual gifts; it honors a diversity of service to the Goddesses of the Holy Isle, the communities in which we work, and the Sovereign selves we seek to actualize. Becoming the person we are meant to be—authentic, empowered, and whole—is the ultimate manifestation of our service to the Divine, because it permits us to be clear vessels of service through which the creative energies of the Universe can flow in conscious acts of co-creation.

1Geoffrey of Monmouth, „The Life of Merlin,“ trans. John Jay Parry, Vita Merlini: The Life of Merlin (Sacred Texts), accessed August 26, 2022, https://www.sacred-texts .com/neu/eng/vm/index.htm, lines 916–928

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