Ask Your Mama™
A Question of Roles and Definitions
Dear Mama Donna,
What is the difference between a priestess and a shaman?
Priest/ess cultures are usually hierarchical. Someone is always above someone who is above someone else. Those at the top of the pyramid have the authority to tell those below what to do and how to do it. Most of the Western world today operates on this model. Organized religions, corporations, schools, and the nuclear family system are all models of priest/ess traditions. Power in these structured establishments is generated from the top down.
Most priest/ess systems have a traditional framework that is perpetuated, unchanged, from generation to generation through time. Holidays, ceremonies, particular prayer practices, and ways of doing things, ways of living — rules, regulations, and taboos — tend to get passed on as is. Customs are handed down through the ages without question. When someone asks why something is done in a certain manner, the answer will invariably be, “Because that is how it has always been done.”
There is a wonderful joke that perfectly describes this path:
A young bride was preparing her first holiday ham. (In the Jewish version, it is a brisket!) She seasoned and sauced it. And just before placing it into the baking pan, she cut the end off of the roast.
“Why did you do that?” Asked her new husband, who had been observing the operation with pride and fascination.
“Because that’s how you are supposed make a ham. That’s how my mother always made ham,” explained the wife.
“But, why?” persisted her curious spouse. “Call your mother and ask her.”
The young woman dialed her mother. “Mom, you know when you make a ham and you cut the end off of it before you put it into the pan? Why do you do that?”
“I don’t know, I never thought about. That’s just how you make a ham. That’s the way my mother always did it.”
“But why?” asked her by-now-perplexed daughter. “Call grandma and ask her.”
So the mother called her mother. “Ma, why is it you always cut off the end of the ham before baking it? What do you do that for?”
“Well, dear, when your father and I were first married, all we had was just one small roasting pan.”
This family custom of ham cutting had developed from a very real and practical need. And although the original, logical reason for the practice was now lost to the daughter and the granddaughter, the nostalgic pleasure of repeating comforting scenes from their childhood served their emotional needs.
The three major priest (now patriarchal and totally forgetting/suppressing their priestess pasts) religions of the West have survived, altered perhaps, but basically intact, for thousands of years. Judaism is more than 3000-years-old, Christianity is 2017-years-old and Islam is almost 1400-years-old. They have lasted so long, because their religious calendars of repeated cycles of repeated rituals have been able to satisfy at least some of the spiritual, emotional, and philosophical requirements of people.
It is only in recent decades that great numbers of people have begun question religious authority and to look outside of their own inherited priestly religious pasts to find new ways of worship that speak more directly to their contemporary needs. In this quest for a more responsive spirituality, many people have begun to investigate older forms of relating to the divine.
Shamanic cultures predate organized religions. They encourage a more immediate, intimate, personal relationship with the sacred. Worship and devotion are deemed to be immediate and uninterrupted, and usually without the intercession of an intermediary.
This is not to say that there are not traditional community rituals in shamanic cultures that have been performed throughout many generations. But it is commonly understood that each individual is capable of enjoying a unique and private relationship with the Powers That Be. That anyone can design and perform a personally relevant ritual.
Don, a friend of a friend, an Apache from Oklahoma, was for several decades a dedicated student of spiritual traditions from around the world, and a fervent collector of religious books of every genre. When Don was on his deathbed, his friend Louie paid him a visit. Louie wanted to know if Don wished for a traditional shaman to counsel him through his final passage. He did not. Louie then asked him if he wanted to talk to a priest? No. A minister? No. A rabbi? A monk? A guru? No. No. No. Finally Don informed him, “I think I’ll just go direct!”
A shaman serves as a spiritual leader, but not an ordained director. S/he leads through the power of her/his own direct experience with spirit, and not because someone above her/him on the power ladder has granted her the authority to do so. As a shaman, I can teach through example, but not through dictum. I can encourage, inspire and support my constituents, but I can not — dare not — pass judgement or pass laws. I can and do pat my clients and students on the back, kick them in the butt or let them cry on my shoulder when they need help. I can tell them what I did, how I learned this or that lesson, but I cannot tell them what they should do. How do I know what their soul needs to do? I can, of course, aid them in reaching into their own wisdom and help them to learn from their own inner best self.
The shamanic assumption is that every person has her/his own mission in this life time. Her own dreams. His own way. Her own path. His own sensibility. Her own visions and designs. His own hard-won lessons. That we each have our own singular life to live, that every one of us must figure out for ourselves the fullest, richest, most effective, ethical, and satisfying way in which to do it, and moreover, that we all own the power and the response-ability to make it so.
Yours till Niagara Falls,
*Are you cyclically confused? In a ceremonial quandary? Completely clueless? Wonder no more. Send your questions about seasons, cycles, and celebrations to
Donna Henes is an internationally renowned urban shaman, ritual expert, author, popular speaker and workshop leader whose joyful celebrations of celestial events have introduced ancient traditional rituals and contemporary ceremonies to millions since 1972. She has published four books, a CD, an acclaimed Ezine and writes for The HuffPost, Beliefnet and UPI Religion and Spirituality Forum. A noted ritual expert, she serves as a ritual consultant for the television and film industry. Mama Donna, as she is affectionately called, maintains a ceremonial center, spirit shop, ritual practice and consultancy in Exotic Brooklyn, NY where she offers intuitive tarot readings, spiritual counseling and works with individuals, groups, institutions, municipalities and corporations to create meaningful ceremonies for every imaginable occasion.