Review of Desert Priestess: A Memoir by Anne Key
I confess that I was not prepared for how much I liked this book. I thought it was going to be full of the type of spiritual babble that New Age priestesses are often prone to. But this is a beautiful spiritual memoir; it is earthy, amusing, thoughtful, and observant, with lush descriptions of the Nevada desert, as well as an intimate chronicle of the life of a priestess and guardian of a goddess shrine. (However atavistic that might sound——images of Grecian sibyls and all that——I’m personally thrilled that there is still such a possibility in the world!)
The book is also deeply self-revealing and self-reflective in an engaging way that gives the reader a genuine glimpse into the life of an intelligent, struggling, and deeply spiritual woman. It actually made me want to get to know the author Anne Key, to sit down with her and talk, and to participate in the rituals that she created out there in the desert over the three year period when she was a priestess.
Here’s how her story started. Anne Key was a college administrator with a PhD in Philosophy and Religion (emphasis in Women’s Spirituality) from California Institute for Integral Studies in 2004 when she answered an ad for the position of priestess at the Temple of Goddess Spirituality Dedicated to Sekhmet. The temple is located just outside of Las Vegas, Nevada, in the middle of the desert near a natural spring. It’s a modest white building made of straw bales and plaster, with a sculptured metal dome open to the sky, and is surrounded by untended, wild desert land.
The temple has an interesting history. Genevieve Vaughan, a feminist and peace activist, built it as the fulfillment of a promise she made to the goddess Sekhmet on a visit to Egypt. Not actually being a devotee of goddess spirituality at the time, Vaughan vowed that if the goddess would grant her a pregnancy, she would build Sekhmet a temple. Three children later, Vaughan kept her promise and not only built the sanctuary, but provided salary and shelter for a full-time priestess, as well as a guesthouse for visitors to the shrine.
The temple has had several priestesses over the years, but Anne Key was the third one. She arrived with only a small amount of experience in leading rituals, and struggled at first to gain confidence in her ability to fill the shoes of her well-loved successor at the temple. Immediately, she was plunged into dealing with all the different groups that used the temple, giving her a wide range of political challenges: ethnic, religious, and political. These groups included the Shoshone Native Americans who owned the land (given to them by Vaughan), the peace activists who considered the land a perfect launching place for their protests since it was surrounded by military installations, and various local pagan groups, each with their own desires and prejudices about the proper use of the space. What was particularly moving was how Anne used these challenges to question her own assumptions as a white woman, an academic, and a human being with flaws that called for insight and adjustment.
The other major obstacle was that Anne was not well acquainted with the goddess Sekhmet. True to her training, she immediately started on an academic quest to find out everything she could. But her real knowledge of the goddess came once she surrendered both to the desert surroundings and to the palpable Presence of the feline/woman divine being to whom the temple was dedicated.
This is one of the things that so fascinated me about Anne. She is a trained academic, with a well-developed rational left brain that is evident throughout the book. But she is wondrously capable of surrendering to the “other side” and having profound, beautiful experiences with the Numinous through the process of shamanic journeying. And she can describe those experiences in vivid, immediate language. Here’s how she writes about one such journey, taken while her husband was drumming for her:
On this journey, Sekhmet meets me again. We are in the temple, and I am lying on the sun-warmed stones. She looks at me with her great amber eyes, lion jaws huge. She is in full lioness form, and she puts her giant paw on my chest. Wow. It is big. And the claws are massive. I looked up at her with a bit of trepidation. “Your heart, it needs to be malleable.” She places her other paw on my chest and kneads. Yes, just like a cat, only a very large cat with very large paws. I look down and realize my chest is open, and she is kneading my heart. . . . .
Rounds and rounds and rounds of kneading, until finally my heart remains supple, strong, open, and brave.
See what I mean?
This is a book well worth reading. If you’re interested, you can get it through Goddess Ink Press at goddess-ink.com. where Anne Key is one of the founders and editors.