REVIEW: Desert Priestess by Anne Key
Desert Priestess: a memoir by Anne Key (Goddess Ink 2011), trade paperback, 192 pages
Anne Key, priestess of the Temple of Goddess Spirituality Dedicated to Sekhmet from 2004 to 2007, has written a candid and intriguing book about her 3 years at this temple in the Nevada desert. The book also gives insight into the history of the temple. Founded and funded by Genevieve Vaughan, founder also of The Gift Economy , this Temple is probably one of the few today able to provide salary and housing to a full-time priestess.
In the Introduction, Key describes how she learned of the position opening while writing her dissertation for a PhD in Philosophy and Religion with an emphasis on Women’s Spirituality from the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS). Although confident that she had the stated requirements for the priestess position, later in the book she describes her nervousness about the interview in Las Vegas with the then current priestess, Patricia Pearlman, who had served at the Temple for 10 years. Key’s description of why she felt nervous is just one of the places in the book where she is excruciatingly honest about her feelings of inadequacy, especially in relation to the spiritual aspects of the position; she sometimes characterizes this as feeling like "fraud." In the chapter on "Initiation and Personal Evolution, Key writes:
I had to rid my mind of the continual message that I was a fraudThis "message" was coming from within herself, from her own thoughts and her interpretation of other’s attitudes and questions. She continues:
I began wondering why I kept thinking I was a fraud. I had never thought of myself as a fraud when I was a college faculty member or administrator....But there is no universally recognized governing body that designates priestesses....I could not depend on outside help and strength with respect to this role. My convictions and assurance had to come from withinOf course she wasn’t and isn’t a fraud. Rather, her self-examination and honesty in describing her feelings show her to be authentic. This honesty and openness are unusual and valuable hallmarks of this book. Also valuable is Key’s description of the steps she took to overcome her negative feelings, including the body modification she decided should be part of her initiation.
Key also writes of moving to the desert from the moister climate of her Oregon home, and of the unusual surroundings of the temple, located about 50 miles from Las Vegas. To the north of the Temple is Creech Air Force Base and its test bombing range, where, Key writes,
The planes actually use the temple to line up their approach to the runway.Because the desert is similar to the land in Afghanistan, it has been used to train troops before deployment there. Also to the north are the Yucca Mountains, a proposed nuclear waste dumping site. To the west is the Nevada Test site, best known for its use in above-ground testing of the atom bomb. Key notes the irony:
A Temple dedicated to peace sits in a place were one can never forget war.To the east is a large prison complex. She notes that the location of the temple, together with its dedication to Sekhmet, a Goddess associated with both creation and destruction, emphasizes the tension between aggression and protection. The temple is also sits on land of the Newe (aka Western Shoshone), whose ancestors are buried on Snake Mountain (aka Yucca Mountain) and who consider the water in the area, including the water of Cactus Springs near the Temple, sacred. Key explains that after Vaughan purchased 20 acres of land there, she realized she would not need all of it for the Temple and ceded back a substantial portion to the Newe. The open-air Temple was built in 1993, with permission from the Newe. Today the Temple and the Newe enjoy a good relationship, with the Newe sometimes using the Temple for their activities.
In a chapter on "The Folk" who frequent the Temple, Key defines "Pagan" as including "anyone who is not Jewish, Christian, or Muslim." While this may be consistent with the use of the term "pagan" or "heathen" or similar terms in the Bible or even in some forms of Abrahamic religions today, I wonder if Buddhists, Taoists, Sikhs, followers of Confucius, for instance, consider themselves Pagan. Do the Newe and other indigenous peoples consider themselves Pagan? And what about agnostics and atheists? While you are thinking about that, let me return to my main point: Key’s fascinating description of the various Temple visitors. In addition to Goddess folk, they include include peace activists involved with the Temple because it is close to places they protest. Some of these peace activists are critical of Sekhmet because of she is associated with war. Other visitors include "a variety of atheistic and theistic grassroots groups" advocating for social justice, such as the Nevada Desert Experience and the Catholic Workers; feminists who are not necessarily Goddess feminists; Pagans who don’t like combining the political and spiritual; Kemetic Reconstructionists drawn to the temple’s dedication to Sekhmet, some Wiccans who are not shy about trying to foist their opinion that having a Temple dedicated to a Goddess (as well as having altars to other goddesses) without any accompanying gods is "absurd," or even "sacrilegious"; the individuals and groups, fortunately rare, whose intent is to disrupt rituals; the merely curious, and some who are in a class by themselves.
Key also describes the role her husband played in her years at the Temple, the relationship she and the Temple have with the land on which it is built, and the flora and fauna that exist there. . Woven into this book are passages describing Key’s trance journeys and a variety of rituals held at the Temple, and the myths and mysteries of Sekhmet, including their relevance to her, the Temple location, and its visitors.
Desert Priestess is a very valuable book about priestessing at a contemporary Goddess Temple, both from the standpoint of its openness in revealing a personal story and in its place as part of our shared herstory.