Prophetic Women
Seven seeresses, dreamers, spiritual leaders

Max Dashu

­­Prophecy is often understood as meaning “predicting the future,” but that is only one aspect of how the ancients understood this spiritual power. Prophecy encompasses speaking truth, providing guidance and solutions, warnings and reminders, to make meaning. It uses origin stories to interpret the past and understand futurity, and to place their society and its dilemmas within a larger cosmological framework.

The dominant societies of this world think of prophets as men. Nearly all of the named prophets in scriptural traditions are male, with exceptions like the fragmentary accounts of Devorah and Huldah in the Hebrew Bible. Women are not named as prophets in the Qur’an, which recognizes the male line of previous Abrahamic traditions. Some of the Gnostics thought of Mary Magdelene as a woman who had attained cosmic understanding. The afterglow of pagan priestesses meant that the earliest Christian women leaders were called “prophetess” — before that title was turned inadmissable and unthinkable by the all-male Catholic and Orthodox priesthoods.

All-male priesthoods and institutions also took hold in India and some other Asian countries. Female sages are marginal figures in Hindu scriptures; the philosopher Gargī was esteemed enough to preside over debates between men, but not for men to preserve her own teachings in their own right. In Buddhism Tara famously contested the doctrine that women could not attain enlightenment unless they assumed a male body in a future life

The situation often looks very different in Indigenous contexts where women were recognized as dreamers and seers. The babaylan of the Philippines, the machi of Chile, the izangoma of South Africa, are just a few examples of cultures where the majority of seers were female. The Shona had a prophetess known as The Voice of God and many female diviners on the local level, who went into trance and communed with ancestors. This was not a matriarchal society, no more than the ancient Hellenic societies were, yet they had the Pythias and other female oracles, priestesses and sibyls.

Even in patriarchal societies, spirit-called women often sustained or recreated female spheres of power, Thus, though they were barred from the monkish hierarchy, women managed to prophesy, speaking in the voice of spirits in trance ceremonies, on an ad hoc basis in Nepal, Burma, Vietnam and other Buddhist countries. They came out of the grassroots, and their support came because of the effectiveness of their seership, divination, or healing. The literate record is not concerned with them, and so they remain submerged from historical view to a great extent.

We know about many women prophets— including here in Tunisia, California, Uganda, Venezuela, and Mexico—because they led Indigenous anti-colonial movements. Legend describes the Czech seeress as trying to ward off patriarchy and feudalism, while the Hawaiian kaula wahine gave refuge to a man fleeing his brother’s dynastic bullying.

At least two of the women in this poster, Essie Parrish and Teresa Urrea, were also renowned for their healing power. Most of the women depicted in the Prophetic Women poster were also ceremonial leaders, since all these powers overlap in the larger global picture. Read more about these female prophets:

Dahia al-Kahina, Amazigh prophetess, Aurès mountains, Tunisia

Essie Parrish, yomta and Bole Maru Dreamer, Kashaya Pomo, Stewarts Point, California

Muhumusa, exiled Rwandan queen, oracle of Nyabingi in Uganda

Mauricia la Bruja, prophetess of the Old Ways, Venezuela

Teresa Urrea, la Santa de Cabora, healer and revolutionary seeress, Sonora, Mexico, El Paso, Texas, and Clinton, Arizona.

Libuše, prophetess, tribal judge, and founder of Prague, Czechia

Pau, kaula wahine / seeress, Hawai'i

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