Priestess of Avalon follows the life of Helena, daughter of the Lady of Avalon and a British prince, from age ten to her mid-eighties. In the chronology of the books, it surrounds Part II of Lady of Avalon.
Helena’s aunt Ganeda, who is now Lady of Avalon, sees her as competition for her own daughter and her granddaughter Dierna, and treats her harshly. Nonetheless, she passes the tests for initiation and takes her pace in a community increasingly disturbed by visions of a leader, born of the line of Avalon, who will change the world. Helena is guided to seek the Roman who is destined to sire this hero, and brings a young officer called Constantius to the holy isle. But when her best friend is chosen as the mother, Helena takes her place in the rite, for her own visions have shown her fate linked with his. Her punishment is exile from Avalon.
As the wife of Constantius, she rejoins the Roman world, following him to Army posts all over the empire. The first son she bears him dies, but the second lives, and she believes he is the child of the prophecy. As he grows, Constantine shows talent as a leader. Constantius, too, is rising in power, surviving war and palace coups. Constantine is nearly grown when his father is selected as one of the junior emperors. It is the opportunity he and Helena have dreamed of, but the price is a marriage between him and the daughter of one of the senior emperors. To refuse would put both him and Constantine in danger, and so he and Helena part.
Helena returns to Londinium, starts a school for girls, and lives quietly through the rebellion of Carausius. When it fails, she helps Teleri (see Lady of Avalon, Part Two) to escape. Constantius is hailed as the savior of Britannia. Helena is reunited with her son, but does not meet her beloved again until he lies dying in York. When he is gone, Constantine is hailed as emperor in his place.
Helena, raised to high status once more as Empress-Mother, makes a home for him and his growing family as Constantine deals with his rivals to eventually become ruler of both the Eastern and Western Empire. Constantine not only stops the persecution of Christians, but makes it the State Church. Helena works with the bishop of Rome to help the poor, but does not actually join the Church.
Although Constantine’s wife, Fausta, bears him several sons, Helena’s favorite grandchild is the illegitimate Crispus, who has his father’s talents without his pride. His abilities eventually arouse his father’s jealousy, and when Fausta accuses him of treason, he has his son killed, only to condemn his wife in turn when it is proved that she lied.
Racked by guilt, Constantine asks Helena to go to Palestine, and recognizing this as a place she has seen in vision, she goes. Her task is to identify the historical sites associated with Jesus and found churches there. As she visits them, she comes to understand the truth behind the version given by the Church. Eventually, another vision leads her to the site of Jesus’ tomb.
Returning to Rome, she realizes that she cannot continue to live as a loving mother to Constantine. Faking her own death, she flees with her British maid, rescues the wife and daughter of Crispus, and takes them all back to Britannia. Though she is now both old and ill, she insists on continuing on to seek Avalon. In the village of the Lake folk, she meets Dierna, who welcomes her.
But Ganeda had cast her out. Does she have the right to return to Avalon? As the barge crosses the lake, Helena finds the power to part the mists, and becomes once more a priestess of Avalon.
In Priestess of Avalon, I was able to address the story of Helena/Eilan that I had wanted to tell for many years, both because her love for Constantius was the stuff of high romance, and because I hoped that to explore her life would help me to understand the process by which Christianity changed from a persecuted cult to the official religion of the Empire. My research enabled me to trace the history of the transition as well as the biography of the Emperor Constantine, whom I liked less and less the more I learned about him. Writing the book also helped me to understand Marion.
By the time I began work, Marion had been in and out of the hospital a number of times with congestive heart failure. She was living with her household in a rented house while her own was being renovated to make it easier to take care of her. I consulted with her about the plot, but there was no point in even asking her to write anything. And then, when I was about halfway through the book, she died.
For a time, I stopped work entirely. Without the protection of Marion’s name, how could I continue to write about Avalon? But the publishers were expecting a book, and presently I realized that I could not only make Priestess a tribute to Marion, but use it to try and explain her spiritual journey.
When she wrote Mists of Avalon, Marion was deeply involved in Goddess-spirituality. The year before Mists was published we had been consecrated as priestesses together, and together we had founded Darkmoon Circle (which, in time, spun into The Fellowship of the Spiral Path, but that’s another story). Marion was a pagan very much in the tradition of Dion Fortune, and like Fortune, she sought for the truth behind all religions. She saw no problem with practicing both paganism and esoteric Christianity. As her health failed, Marion withdrew from active participation in the pagan community, and by the end of her life, her major religious activity was attending the local Episcopal Church (which did, however, have a female rector).
When she died, two memorial services were planned. The first, at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, was attended mostly by pagans. It was a lovely service, conducted by female priests in beautiful vestments, with gorgeous music, including a solo by her daughter Moira Breen. The second was a pagan ceremony conducted by women who had worked with Marion in Darkmoon Circle. As I was looking through my files, I found a short essay that Marion had written on the stages of a woman’s life, probably, from the style, around the same time that she was writing Mists of Avalon. It was perfect for the ceremony, but no single person could have read the whole thing without breaking down entirely, so I divided it up into sections and gave them to different priestesses.
After the memorial, I realized that the reflections also applied to Helena. I inserted them into the book at appropriate points, and thus, Priestess of Avalon does include some of Marion’s writing after all. The final section was particularly significant:
In our old age, what we lose in infancy is miraculously given back. Instead of crying in the dark for the mother who abandoned us before we were able to stand alone, now, with children and kindred having come and gone, we are free. In our darker moments we feel ourselves wholly alone, weak, aged. But in the end, the Mother is given back to us and we are reborn, going back to infancy, lying in trust on the breasts of our daughters. Everything is taken from us, even God; we spend ourselves to the death. And then the Goddess comes back to us. From becoming the Goddess, the mother, we have created the Goddess in our daughters, our sisters, as we turn to Her, knowing that even if we must die still not knowing anything else, we die in Her arms and on Her breast.”
And that’s what happened. Though Marion’s strength failed, the inspiration of her books continued to spread through the world, and the community she had helped to found grew so that she did indeed create priestesses who comforted her and still carry on the work she began.
In Chapter Ten, Helena dreams she is at the funeral of her aunt Ganeda. For the words of the ceremony, I drew on the memorial service I had written for Marion. At the end, the wind scatters the ashes from Ganeda’s pyre across the Tor at Avalon, just as Marion’s ashes were eventually scattered on Glastonbury Tor.