I was really surprised about the popularity of my latest blog Money, Magick, & Bullshit: Do the F**king Work! This had led me to think about leadership and the Laws of Magick.
I often refer to Bonewits when I discuss the Laws of Magick because he was the first person I ever read on the topic and, in truth, the only author I knew who reviewed and discussed them in such length.
One of the arguments that seems to have rankled many around pagan leadership is the term Elder. These arguments have come around a discussion of a person who teaches at Cherry Hill Seminary and this persons stance against transwomen, stating blatantly that transwomen aren’t really “women,” but men attempting to use some ruse to steal power from women. (Wild Hunt; June 12, 2016)
I do not support this particular person’s claim to eldership, leadership or, even priestess-hood. The exclusion of transwomen in women’s mysteries and rites is simply unacceptable and contrary to paganism as I practice and teach. I would call such an exclusion an “act unbecoming,” negative behavior that I find to be outside the boundaries of spiritual calling and rooted in ego and unresolved personal issues.
What is curious to me is how the Laws of Magick get twisted and used to support acts unbecoming and those who teach them. The most common law is The Law of Names.
The Law of Names
Turning once again to Bonewits, we receive this information:
This works because a name is a definition (yes, even “Harold,” “Marie,” “Xunte,” and “Jasmine” were at one time) as well as a contagion link. Perhaps more importantly, it works because knowing the complete and “true” name of something or someone means that you have achieved a complete understanding of its or his [or her] nature. This is why, in most pre-industrial cultures, people are given “secret names” as well as “public names,” and why the sharing of a secret name is such an act of trust – because the secret name is consider to be very close to, if not identical with, the person’s true name.
The generation before mine was and can still be very stuck upon names like High Priestess and High Priest and Elder. These names were more than a title, following the Laws of Magick, they were an admission of a definition. At the heart of this definition is the suggestion of knowledge, power and correctness or rightness. If we defer to someone as an “elder” or a “high priest” or a “high priestess” we are in essence feeding into the energy that suggests, according to the laws of magick, that a person is literally powerful, correct and knowledgeable.
There are two inherent errors with this type of thinking, one on the part of those who wield the terms for themselves and one on the part of those who use these terms for others.
Not My Elder
Courtney Weber, author and pagan journalist, wrote a rebuttal against transphobic elders called Not My Elder. At the time, even I cringed, at the thought. Here in the South, titles have a distinct cultural significance that goes well beyond how someone acts and speaks and is related to Southern hospitality. Elder, in the South is any person of an older age, who by virtue of their age alone, has earned the right to a little respect. It is the antithesis of being mean to someone who is old just because they are old and pass their “prime.”
However, when we move into magickal circles, the term Elder becomes something more and those of us who were indoctrinated to have manners first and think it through later, have to pull ourselves up short and look critically at our conditioning.
About Religion has an excellent article on a definition of Pagan Elder that is worth a read; however, it too is linked to age. The Elder title that someone like Weber talks about isn’t necessarily linked to age, it is linked to perceived and real contributions to paganism in some form. When researching the person above, I expected the person to have many actual degrees. In actuality, the person only holds one in Folk History from 1976. The person is also a founding member of a significant pagan tradition that is feminist based and has a long history of artistic work and writings around feminism and spirituality. The term “elder” has been applied to her based upon this body work.
Here is the thing. Elder in the pagan community is based upon the idea that the person has given a significant contribution to the pagan community. The person reference above has. Agree with the person or not, you cannot deny that contribution.
And, yet, pagan elder, also implies power and right and correctness. It is this implication of rightness and correctness that Weber is addressing.
Weber brings us to an understanding that the power the term Elder can have when applied to the above person, can be diminished by public outcry. The verbal denial of that type of speech is an active magickal act. The person above may be accepted by many feminist pagans as an elder, and as Weber so eloquently states, this doesn’t make that person Weber’s Elder. Weber is using the Laws of Magick to fight trans-phobic speech that has no place of acceptance in the paganism Weber practices. Weber is actively fighting the idea that the person in question has any power, right, or correctness.
But The Person is an ELDER! Presidency v Ladyship
Let’s break this down some. Titles can be honorific or denote a sacred office. I agreed with nothing President George W. Bush ever said on foreign policy. I actively demonstrated against what I saw as illegal military action by the United States in direct defiance and disagreement with the Command In Chief. However, if I had met or ever met President Bush, I would not say, “Yo, George, you are an f**cking asshole personally responsible for the loss of American military personnel and innocent people in an unjustified military conflict that you actively lied to the American people about, you f**cking dickhead.”
I would still address him with good manners and by the title President because the American people voted for him, their bad judgement not withstanding, and the office of President has also been held by past and living persons whom I admire and respect. It isn’t because I like President Bush that I refer to him as President Bush. It is because I respect the office of the Presidency and what it magickally represents for the republic of America.
When dealing with pagan elders, high priests and high priestess, we should remember the totality of what the title means. The Law of Names tells us that by giving someone a title we are energetically imbuing them with the power of that office as we perceive it. We are saying that someone is demonstrating holy spiritual knowledge, power and correctness on behalf of our religious representation. This is how Act Unbecoming came to be.
There is no central body that puts out pagan elders and verifies that they are actual qualified to do jack. Given that, the titles adopted by pagan leaders are honorary and only have the power we ascribe. However, most of us have met people we would gladly give the title Lord or Lady or Elder to.
It is because these people, for each of us individually, represent what a person would behave like if they had been ordained by Divinity as we understand Divinity. This also means that there will be plenty of leaders of all types that we do not recognize as being worthy that other people will. I reject evangelical teachings and find that most of what they teach is dangerous and divisive; however, this doesn’t negate that evangelical leaders have a falling that far surpasses mine mostly because they are followed by people or spiritually and politically agree with them. Still not my reverend.
This is the beautiful, complicated and difficult part bound up in freedom of religion and speech.
Mistake of Pagan “Elders” “High Priests” “High Priestesses” or “Clergy”
There is a belief among some pagan leadership that the title makes the person.
The title doesn’t make you.
An emphasis on legitimacy in The Craft through the ordination or recognition by outside human sources has lead to a clamoring of persons demanding to be recognized as an “elder,” “high priest,” or “high priestess.” It has also lead to those who have the suggested “legitimacy” of elevation by a Wiccan or witchcraft tradition or sect, demanding everyone honor their title and elevations.
Because these human sources are often NOT regulated at all and vary wildly from group to group, what one person did to earn the title “high priestess” is NOT going to comparable to what someone else did to earn the same title. The general pagan population knows this.
Further, even if you have a masters or doctorate in some specialty, it isn’t your knowledge that people are worried about, it is your presentation.
How you behave. How you handle conflict. How you deal with people who disagree with you adamantly. How you process and empower people who are under educated about the topic you teach.
Paganism values inclusivity. What today’s pagan leaders are trying to wrangle is how we can remain inclusive while paganism as a culture defines acceptable and unacceptable behavior. This means, the general pagan population is not going to wowed and ahhed by the enforcement of titles, degrees or education unless the above are wielded with a deft hand.
“The athame should be use like a scalpel,” a former high priestess told me, “When too often it is used just to maim.”
The athame represents a leaders knowledge, power, and righteousness given to them by the gods and goddesses they serve. Too often, our pagan leaders look to conquer through the force of their words and their divisive and demeaning rhetoric. All this type of behavior does is suggest the pagan leader is unbecoming any title they claim.
I would assert, and many pagan leaders do, that no title should be necessary. If a pagan is an elder, high priest or high priestess there is no need for them to announce it. Their very life will do that for them. The Law of Knowledge, Power, and Self Knowledge will be all the magickal confirmation they will ever need of their title.
Still Not My Elder: Bringing Back Public Shunning
You read this whole blog and are thinking, “Okay, Dia, I agree with you and I still don’t like that woman you mentioned above and can think of several other pagans whose behavior I abhor. What do I do?”
There are for me personally, a couple of leaders who fall into a category of “beyond redemption.” Their acts unbecoming are so heinous that their association with The Craft is dangerous to the craft and to pagans. I have a little list going in my head. I personally, have decided that not only will I not feed their power by agreeing they are an elder, high priest, or high priestess, I will literally deny them any energy at all.
If I were to ever see these people, I will simply behave as if they do not exist. I won’t speak their names unless I am absolutely forced to for the safety of others. I will not acknowledge their existence except in relationship to discussing other more important issues. I will not name them.
I will send them private letters with my concerns and give a list of things I think the person should do in order to find my acceptance in the future. I will not engage in public open bashing of them as a human being or person.
Now, really, who cares what I do? I am just one person in Georgia.
Imagine a speech given by the person I fail to mention by name in this article. People show up, stand in mass and literally give their back to the speaker while putting on head phones. An act of civil disobedience that actively works against transphobia while silently holding signs of support for our trans-sisters and trans-brothers?
Imagine a seminar at your favorite gathering where a well known and married couple are forced to deal with persons in headphones, holding signs exposing the dangers of a pagan consent culture and demanding pagan leadership that teach responsibility when it comes to sexuality and paganism.
Imagine picketing a Red Tent that is trans-exclusive. Silent protesters with head phones filled with chants to the Goddess and signs that say exclusivity should be behavior, not gender based.
Imagine civil disobedience that doesn’t rely on trolling but is active and real and impactful. Civil disobedience where your voice and place in shaping pagan values is assured while allowing groups to continue to hold great festivals and not be penalized by the teachings of gatherings’ poor seminar choices?
At each of these places and times, a clear list of how to end the shunning is displayed. For the person above it might read: “Stop your transphobic speech and saying that that hate speech is holy and spiritual and feminist.”
The married couple might be asked to “Admit past teachings have had a real detrimental effect on sexual consent in paganism and on individuals who have been assaulted in the name of The Craft. Freely admit that you do not have any training in sexuality as it pertains to assault victims and are not qualified to teach sexuality due to your lack of psychological understanding and training.”
To Asatru groups who exclude specefic races it might read: “Stop spreading racism in the name of paganism and saying that racism is holy and sacred.”
Imagine memes that take over your social media feeds that say:
“Real Pagans Are Not Racist.”
“Real Goddess Worshipers Worship with Transwomen.”
“Real Pagans do not condone or teach rape.”
“Real Pagans say, “If you cannot dance in the circle – we will push you or give you a chair and drum!”
One More Thing
Real pagans also create communities where trans acceptance is an actual communal out put. Communities where many races and cultures are represented. Communities where sexuality is taught in healthy and psychological sound ways. Communities where protecting the community is the top priority and making room for those who come in love and trust and honor is also a priority.
As we wrangle with this difficult time in Paganism where pagan values as a culture are identified and refined, we must also be focused on community creation.
If we aren’t tending to the inclusiveness of pagan communities there is no energy powerful enough to counteract the useless jesters our empty words become.