Archives For Shauna Aura Knight

The journey to report on the Sacred Space/Between the Worlds conference was difficult. What would have taken four hours on the road on a clear day was seven through a late-winter snowstorm on the Eastern seaboard, driving forty miles an hour past at least a dozen vehicles which hadn’t fared very well in those conditions. Journey’s end, however, included welcomes from familiar faces, introductions to local luminaries, and an invitation to lunch with a group of Southern witches who simply wanted to show some hospitality. Those warm gestures led to this question: what role does hospitality play in your tradition? Those who were able to respond created a rich tapestry of perspectives.

[Photo Credit: Fernando Gonzaga, Flickr]

[Photo Credit: Fernando Gonzaga, Flickr]

Byron Ballard, Mother Grove Goddess Temple:

I always cringe in interfaith circles when we try so hard to find That One Thing that we all do. There’s a poster that made the rounds a few years ago that had variations on the Golden Rule. I don’t hold with the “Law of Return” but that fits for rather a lot of Pagan folk. Yeah, I had nothing.

In the wild world of interfaith, I actually think it’s more helpful to dive fully into all the stuff we don’t have in common because it affords us an opportunity on one hand to explain our position and on the other to work at understanding someone else’s. But I have given it a lot of thought and I’ve come up with what I think is the most ancient and sacred act that we do have in common — hospitality. The offering of bread or water, or even clean feet, to someone who is not like us. It shows a largeness of spirit as well as a generous nature. It is an act of courage. It should be offered without grudging, as a duty and obligation that we owe the Earth, our Divines and our ancestors. To accept hospitality is also an act of courage — are you then indebted to the host in some meaningful way? Will your return of hospitality when it’s your turn compromise you in some way?

And there is obviously something biologically driven in the act of hospitality. By welcoming the “stranger” or the “enemy” into your camp, your village, your home, you are potentially improving the gene pool for your family and tribe, resulting in some hybrid vigor (if we’re lucky) and a political alliance, too.

So, yes, I practice it as both a Pagan and a Southerner. And there have been times when I’ve not broken bread with those who wish me ill because I believe the duty of hospitality — the giving and the receiving — is holy.

Lilith Dorsey, Voodoo Universe blogger:

All the African traditional religions (Haitian Vodou, New Orleans Voodoo, Lucumi/Santeria, and others) place hospitality at the top of the list of necessary ways of conduct for devotees. This is an outcropping of respect… respect for all living beings, the ancestors, and the Lwa or Orisha (thought of as divinities by some). Everyone and everything contains a divine repository of Ashe, the sacred energy forces of the universe. When individuals honor this energy by offering food, drink, prayers or kindness to those on this plane and the next they serve both themselves and the religion.

Rev. Edward Livingston, Fire Dance Church:

As we are a legal 501(c)3 church and a not-for-profit in the state of Florida, our rituals are open to the general public, so we are always have hospitality for those who come and attend our services. Outside of that we owe nothing more. I do hear people out about their personal ideas, but hospitality ends when you harm my space, or are rude, or don’t follow directions.

Archdruid Kirk Thomas of Ár nDraíocht Féin (ADF):

Hospitality is key in ADF Druidry. It is one of our Nine Virtues (the others being Wisdom, Piety, Vision, Courage, Integrity, Perseverance, Moderation, and Fertility). And it embodies one of the basic traits of our religion, reciprocity.

Hospitality is governed by the obligations of the guest-host relationship.These obligations are a two-way street, where each party owes something to the other. In its simplest form, the host offers a place to stay for a certain amount of time, perhaps food and drink, and entertainment of some kind, even if only good conversation. In return, the guest agrees not to overstay his or her welcome, to respect the inhabitants of the house or office, and to be congenial.

In the ancient world, the giving of hospitality was required by the Gods. In the literature of many ancient cultures there are tales of what might happen if hospitality were to be refused — examples include Odysseus and the Cyclops in the Odyssey, the Roman tale of Baucis and Philemon in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, and even the Irish tale of Bres and the Tuatha Dé in the Cath Maige Tuired. In all cases those folks who refused to give good hospitality came to a sticky end.

Hospitality is a form of reciprocity, which underlies most human interactions. The Roman ritual phrase, do ut des (I give so that you may give) sums it up nicely. It’s all about give and take, which is also part of what hospitality is all about. In ritual, we are, in essence, hosting the Gods and Spirits at our rites, giving offerings to them that they might give us blessings in return, just as the ancients did. Reciprocity through hospitality — a great way to commune with the Gods.

Owl Grove performing Lughnasadh Ritual [Photo Still: Sacred Sites Ireland]

Druids of Owl Grove performing Lughnasadh Ritual [Photo Still: Sacred Sites Ireland]

Solitary practitioner Star Bustamonte:

I’m not really a part of any Pagan or other religious tradition, at least not formally. I do, however, believe that being hospitable is behavior that is important both inside and outside of spiritual practices. While personally I tend to lean heavily towards sarcasm and humour in my interactions with the many people I encounter daily, I also would not hesitate to offer whatever comforts I have available.

I have 3 different types of magical work I engage in:

1) The Mother Grove Goddess Temple: I serve the Temple as Head of The Green Circle (fundraising) and as member of The Circle of Council (administrative). Part of my duties involve greeting participants who arrive and making them feel welcome and at ease. While this is mostly a mundane activity, it sets the stage for how freely and easily participants respond once in ritual space.

2) I do a lot of personal work with the Fae, and working with the Fae requires a great deal of hospitality. I have always offered to them a comfortable space to operate as they see fit in general harmony with my own efforts. Negotiation plays a big role and hospitality is very important to that aspect.

3) Much of the magical work I do is more of a thaumaturgical variety. In this regard, I would say hospitality is more akin to respect for the energies you are working with, but isn’t that the very root of hospitality, anyway? Respect?

In short, any energy I work with is treated with respect. In all magical work, be it working with deity or the pure mechanics of thaumaturgy, I try to be conscious of what I am asking of the energies I am working with and providing whatever might be helpful and or kind in furthering the work.

Josh Heath, co-founder of the Open Halls Project:

Hospitality is grossly misunderstood in heathenry, I think. Hospitality is the expected behavior we show those who have explicitly been invited and it also includes the behavior of those who have themselves accepted an invitation. Hospitality requires a level of respect and service to the people you are opening your home or space to. That respect, like all gifts, must be reciprocated. As it stands, hospitality is often seen in heathen circles as an onus only on the individuals hosting, those who are guests are not always held to a standard of behavior. If we view hospitality as the basic structure of gift giving it is, then it makes the process a bit more stable. I open my home to others, they respect my home and family, perhaps they bring gifts which then create deeper bonds with other gifts returned. It’s one of the core aspects of the reciprocal agreement culture that is central to the heathen worldview.

Yeshe Rabbit, presiding high priestess of Come As You Are Coven:

For a dharma pagan, hospitality is a dearly-held and widely-practiced virtue. It is considered one of the key perfections of wisdom, or paramitas, and is known as “dana-paramita.” When we practice dana, especially toward those who have given their lives to the dharma, we give of ourselves in a special, spiritual way, not simply because it’s polite, or expected as part of our social code. Rather, it is an enlightened generosity that comes from the purest part of ourselves. When we do this, whatever we provide for a guest is not merely food, shelter, or another resource; it is a sacred offering to the divine nature of the other being with whom we share it. Interestingly, dana cuts through a lot of our own preferential ego trips because we learn to give in a holy manner, regardless of what we might receive in return or what’s expected of us or how we feel about the person to whom we are giving. It doesn’t mean we have to like the person, but we still honor that some part of them is divine and deserving of our hospitality (unless that person is seeking to harm us in some way, in which case it’s appropriate to move away from that person and decline to offer hospitality.)

The best way for me to explain the everyday concept of generosity according to the dharma view is to describe something I saw in Tibet when I was there: the thermos of tea. Everywhere we went, Tibetan people were carrying a big thermos of tea with them. In their pockets or bags, they might also carry a cup or two, so that they are always ready to sit down with someone and share a cup of butter tea. It did not matter if they knew you or not, it did not matter if you gave them anything in return (we always did), there was always tea anyway. That generosity, particularly expressed toward pilgrims they did not know, was really so much more than just a hot beverage when we were road-weary.

By Alpha [CC lic.  via Wikimedia]

“Butter Tea” By Alpha [CC lic. via Wikimedia]

Author T Thorn Coyle submitted this portion of her previous blog post on the subject:

The Goddess Athena came to the door in disguise.
Telemachus welcomed her in.

Who is a stranger? What is the unknown? Whom do we choose to welcome? Whom do we choose to spurn?

The Goddess Athena came to the door in disguise.
Telemachus welcomed her in.

We gather with our families. We hold each other close. We sit out in the cold, feeling desperate and alone. We feel sorrow in the midst of others. We are the gay kid who fears to come out. We are the chronic user afraid of judgement. We are the Pagan in the midst of Christians. We are mobility impaired and looking up a flight of stairs. We’ve just lost our job. We’re secret dancers. We are ashamed to tell our friends we can’t go out because we need all our money to pay rent. We have dark skin in a culture that privileges the pale. We go without food so our kid can have shoes. We are in love. Our father just died. Our child was killed. Our partner left us. We have big dreams.

The Goddess Athena came to the door in disguise.
Telemachus welcomed her in.

While scrubbing pots at the soup kitchen, I realized this truth: we are all strangers to one another. Then I realized: we can all welcome one another home.

I welcome you, stranger, Athena, Goddess in disguise. May you find warmth and light, good food, a place to sleep, and someone who will listen. What is the tale you have to share?

Ritual facilitator and author, Shauna Aura Knight:

I can’t really speak to any one tradition, but I can speak to the work I do facilitating workshops and rituals for the broader Pagan community. Hospitality is one of my core values as a facilitator. Sometimes it’s just in the form of what you might call “customer service.” This is often an element that is lacking in public rituals and events. Have you ever arrived to a public ritual and found that there’s no one around to greet you or let you know what’s going on, the ritual leaders are bustling around getting ready, snapping at people, and then the ritual starts and you’re not sure what to do? After, people break out into cliques to socialize and you’re left out. Or worse, have you ever tried to attend a ritual but the directions provided were so poor that they had you spiraling around a forest preserve trying to find the right park shelter? When you finally arrive, people say, “Oh, we do ritual here all the time, everyone knows where it was.”

For me, hospitality is clear communication as an organizer about what’s going to happen at the event and ensuring there are good directions if that’s needed. It’s greeting people when they arrive. It’s working to ensure that everyone has enough information to proceed in the ritual. It’s also ensuring that new folks aren’t shut out of cliques of friends after a ritual. When I’m facilitating a workshop, I work hard to make everyone feel welcome and respected. Hospitality for me is also reflected in how I work to make my workshops and rituals participatory and inclusive. I work hard to make my rituals and workshops accessible, open to all genders, and welcoming. Hospitality isn’t always easy; I’ve made mistakes and I’ll make more in the future, but it’s work that I feel is important.

katwoodhouse1 On Feb. 16, tragedy hit Katwood, a 40-acre Pagan sanctuary and sacred retreat nestled in rural southern Virginia. The homestead and all its contents were completely burned to the ground, leaving its full-time occupants, Priest Daniel and his wife Sue, without a place to live. Katwood has been the couple’s home for decades. Daniel, now in his 60s, is the founder and priest of Oak Tree Clan, a group that considers Katwood Sanctuary its spiritual center.

With the help of neighbors, Daniel and Sue moved into a motel and then a friend’s home. However, they miss Katwood, and do plan to rebuild. After the fire, several members of the Oak Tree Clan set up a GoFundMe campaign and a Katwood Rebuild Facebook group to help support the process. One member, Belinda, told The Wild Hunt, “These people are my family, and they have been for a good many years. This place is my spiritual home … I pray that I shall live to see the day I can return there and spend time with them. In the interim, I’ll be planning on visiting my people… my CLAN… in other locations until Katwood is restored.”

Yesterday, it was announced that progress has been made. Friends and neighbors will soon be installing a temporary home on the land so the couple can return by the end of Summer.

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[Courtesy Photo]

From Moonspell, Shekhinah.net

The Shekinah Mountainwater Memorial Fund has officially launched its website and program. This fund has been established “to ensure that … women are able to complete the work that calls to them during their lifetime.” The spirit of the mission comes straight from the group’s namesake, Shekinah Mountainwater. Organizers explain, “Shekhinah Mountainwater (1939 – 2007) is a foremother of the Womanspirit movement … Shekhinah struggled with financial support during her lifetime. She died envisioning a world in which women were supported for their skills and gifts.”

The memorial fund will be managed by a council of 3-7 women, who either knew Shekhinah or hold true to her vision and work. The founders are currently looking for volunteers to serve on the council. Money raised will be administered through an application process and be used to “support self-identified women doing the spiritual work that calls to them. Projects may include research, publications, events and rituals, music and art, spiritual activism, or anything that provides service or education to enrich the Goddess community.” The application and directions will be posted on the website by late summer.

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Judy Harrow

Judy Harrow

On March 13, Judy Harrow will be honored by The Counselors for Social Justice (CSJ) division of the American Counseling Association (ACA). Harrow was nominated in January by Michael Reeder LCPC, a holistic counselor and therapist. In his submission, Reeder had to demonstrate how Harrow’s work fulfilled the award’s requirements. As noted by CSJ, a recipient’s work in counseling must “affirm diversity and advocate for social justice in the spirit of nine elements of the indigenous Hawai’ian concept of ‘Ohana or extended family,” which include “Malama: Caring, Aloha: Unconditional Love, Ha’aha’a: Humility, Mana: Spiritual Power, Na’auuo: Intelligence, ‘Olu’olu: Courtesy, Lokomaika’i: Generosity, Koa: Courage, Kupono: Integrity, Honesty.

Reeder detailed the many ways that Harrow fulfilled the requirements, including her devotion to Wicca, teaching, counseling, and the Pagan community, as well as her bravery in confronting religious bigotry, her perseverance and her roles in various socio-political movements. He also noted that she had founded her own Wiccan tradition and authored “the best book on pastoral counseling.”

On Feb. 12, Reeder received notification that Harrow had been accepted to receive the 2015 ‘Ohana award. Harrow and her work will be honored this Friday “at the ACA conference in Orlando, Florida from 11:00am to 1:00pm at the Hyatt Regency Orlando.”

In Other News:

  • Paganicon begins this weekend in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Organized and run by Twin Cities Pagan Pride, the event is now in its 5th year and includes “workshops, panels, discussions, social space, live music, a ball, vendors and more.” Rev. Selena Fox is the 2015 guest speaker. In a special Sunday ceremony, Fox, assisted by others from Circle Sanctuary, “will be honoring Pagans who have served and are serving in the U.S. Military” with Circle’s Pagan Military Service Ribbon. Paganicon will be held in the Doubletree Park Place hotel from March 13-15.
  • Covenant of the Unitarian Universalist Pagans has announced its “Second Sermon Contest.” This year’s theme is “Re-enchantment.” The Winner receives $500. According to the announcement, “you do not need to be an ordained minister or a seminary student, nor do you need to be a member of CUUPS” to enter. However, it goes on to say, “you do have to have deliver your sermon, live and in person, to a UU congregation between October 31, 2014 and October 31, 2015.”
  • In other CUUPS news, the organization has relaunched its popular Podcast after a winter hiatus.
  • The new journal Walking the World is still seeking submissions for its next issue. The theme is: “Building Regional Cultus.” As noted on the website,”What does this mean to you? Why is it important to polytheism today? How does one go about doing this? How are you personally maintaining cultus? What problems can arise and how can they best be met? What does it mean to restore and build cultus in the modern world?” The journal premiered at beginning of January with 13 articles focused on the theme of “Ancestors and Hero Cultus.” Submission guidelines for issue 2 can be found on the website.

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  • Author and teacher, Shauna Aura Knight has expanded her writing to include two more blogs. Along with Pagan Activist, Knight will be contributing to a new Agora column, called Seeking the Grail,  published at Patheos’ Pagan Channel. Additionally, she will be blogging about Leadership and related subjects at Pagan Square.
  • In Florida, Pagans will be gathering for a brand new outdoor festival, Equinox in the Oaks, to celebrate the return of Spring. This new event is being held on private land about 30 minutes west of Ormond and Daytona beaches.Organizers have put together four full days of workshops, classes, speakers, rituals, drumming and entertainment. Pagan Bard and folk arist Mama Gina is performing Thursday night and a firewalking event will be held Friday night. Equinox in the Oaks begins March 12 and runs through noon on March 15.

That’s it for now. Have a nice day!

What is PantheaCon?

Heather Greene —  February 18, 2015 — 22 Comments

SAN JOSE – This past weekend, close to 3000 Pagans, Heathens, Polytheists and others of diverse religious beliefs descended on Double Tree Hotel in San Jose, California to attend the annual PantheaCon event. This is the largest indoor conference of its kind in the United States. Held over President’s weekend in mid-February, PantheaCon boasts “more than 200 presentations that range from rituals to workshops and from classes to concerts.”

pantheaconWhile PantheaCon is very popular and attracts an international following, there are far more people who do not know what it is, don’t care to attend, or do not have the time and means to attend. As observed by Jason Mankey in his post “Pagan Festivals and the .25%,” the number of people who actually attend PantheaCon and other community-based large events is relatively small compared to the number of Pagans and Heathens in world. While it is impossible at this point to assess whether his figure of .25% is statistically correct, Mankey’s assessment provides a perspective on the place of large festivals and conferences within the global Pagan movement and within our collective communities.

So for those who wonder “What is this PantheaCon?” Here is look at this year’s event.

PantheaCon is held in a Doubletree Hotel near the airport in San Jose, a city located in California’s Bay Area. For decades, this region has been the birthplace of and provided the nurturing soil for many influential American Pagan works and organizations. It is, therefore, not surprising that the largest such conference has grown up in this area.

Krampus with author and Wild Hunt columnist Crystal Blanton

Krampus with author and Wild Hunt columnist Crystal Blanton

PantheaCon began as a small, local event, but quickly expanded under skilled, experienced management and teamwork. Today, the conference fills nearly the entire hotel, including 48,000 square feet of “function space,” guest rooms and hospitality suites. There are only a few people roaming around the hotel, outside of the staff and personnel, who are not with the conference. And, these people could easily feel overwhelmed by the conference’s crowds, bewildered by the community, or just simply confused when Krampus strolls by their breakfast table.

This year’s theme was Pagan Visions of the Future: Building Pagan Safety & Social Nets. PantheaCon didn’t always have a theme, and the event is so large and diverse in its offerings that it really doesn’t necessarily need one. As organizers will say, this diversity is very calculated and scheduled. They aim to provide a healthy range of representation – a little bit of something for everyone who attends. For example, this year the events ranged from practical application workshops, such as A Witch’s Guide to Wands by Gypsey Teague, to intense panel discussions, such as Honoring or Appropriation? What is the Difference? hosted by T. Thorn Coyle. There were many rituals, such as CAYA Coven’s Wake up to Spirit, Ekklesia Antinoou’s Teenage Gods and Heroes, and Victoria Slind-Flor “Grandmother Ritual.”

There are also a significant number of hospitality suites offering their own workshops, presentations, rituals and parties. Organizations and religious groups, such as Coru Cathubodua, Church of All Worlds, Ár nDraíocht Féin: A Druid Fellowship, Covenant of the Goddess, The New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn, The Order of Bards, Ovates & Druids, The Temple of Witchcraft, provide a comfortable place for their members to relax, connect and greet visitors. In addition, there are non-group affiliated hospitality suites that serve as a safe spaces or learning centers. Such rooms included the Pagans of Color suite, Reiki Explorers, Pagans in Recovery, Pagan Scholars Den and more.

PantheaCon officially opens at noon on Friday with a ritual led by Glenn Turner and friends. After that, attendees make their way from scheduled event to event, through meals, socializing, and shopping in a packed vendor room. The bustle of activity begins at 9 am and doesn’t end until well after midnight. The entire conference comes to a close on Monday at 3:30, when Turner leads the final ritual.

Over the course of the next week, many bloggers will detail their personal experiences from PantheaCon 2015 and share their takeaways from the weekend. Social media is currently flooded with talk of PantheaCon; what happened and what didn’t. Each attendee’s experience is different because there is no way for one single person to absorb the conference as a whole.

Despite the weekend only just having ended, there are a few posts already published. P. Sufenas Virius Lupus has posted several articles written throughout the weekend, all of which detail the ups and downs of eir experience as both a presenter and attendee. On Saturday, John Halstead published an inspirational post from his hotel room at 5 a.m.

Patheos Pagan Channel’s Niki Whiting and Jason Mankey have both shared their accounts of this year’s conference, including highlights from presenting and socializing. Whiting wrote, “But Pantheacon, guys. I’m still high as a kite, giddy, and ready to fall asleep on my feet after five days of friends and travel and provocation and heart-expanding discussion.” Whiting plans to expand her PantheaCon discussion over the next few weeks, as many others will.

In addition, three other writers have published PantheaCon inspired articles, but in all of these cases, the writing is on a single, very focused topic and event. These blog posts include Jonathan Korman’s “open letter” to the “mysterious writers of the PantyCon schedule” and Taylor Ellwood’s “Pantheacon, Bringing Race to the Table, and Racism.” Finally, Shauna Aura Knight also published an article on this topic. For The Pagan Activist blog, she wrote:

This weekend I was proud to be part of a panel discussing Racism within the community. Unfortunately, that panel began on a sour note as I learned that there had been something hurtful and racist written in one of the various newsletters distributed at Pantheacon.

What happened? This discussion panel was called Bringing Race to the Table and inspired by Immanion/Megalithica’s newly published book of the same name. However before the panel began, a PantheaCon volunteer informed the panelists and attendees about a problematic write-up in a satirical newsletter called PantyCon. This flyer, written and published each year by an anonymous group, is a mock-up of the convention schedule and pokes fun at the entire event and the community itself. Although originally created by PantheaCon, PantyCon was abandoned by the organizers years ago. It was, then, picked up by an anonymous group and has no affiliation, sponsorship or association with the organization.

The offending write-up in the satirical PantyCon schedule was titled: Ignoring Racism: A Workshop for White Pagans. As noted by both Korman, Ellwood and Knight, many attendees and the PantheaCon organizers felt the joke was simply not funny and that it had violated the conference’s strict anti-harassment policies. Organizers very quickly attempted to collect and remove all copies, and they also welcomed everyone to an impromptu discussion session on Monday at 11am. Detailed in Knight’s post, the Monday talk allowed for a far deeper discussion of the issues at hand.

Luna Pantera [Courtesy Photo]

Luna Pantera [Courtesy Photo]

After the announcement and apology was made, the schedule panel, “Bringing Race to the Table,” was able to continue successfully. However, it ended with Luna Pantera standing up and delivering an emotionally powerful speech on safe spaces, race and the pain she experienced, specifically caused by PantyCon. When she was finished, the room of attendees rose up in speechless applause and support.

Through his post, Korman is now asking for the anonymous writers to apologize. He has also welcomed others to sign their names to the letter in the comments.

As is seen from the multitude of accounts both in social media and in these blogs, PantheaCon is not always easy and not always fun. Although it can be both of those things as well as many others. While only a small percentage of the population attend the conference, the experiences are carried back into the smaller regional communities, through the travelers, blogs and social media. In this way PantheaCon becomes bigger and more influential than ever would be possible with the limitations of its actual time and space.

For those few who can attend each year, the journey to San Jose is a type of pilgrimage, as noted by Whiting. Through this pilgrimage, one can meet old and new friends; network and share experiences; learn and expand horizons; be put in uncomfortable situations and comfortable ones; find a connection through religious culture; and possibly even build an extended community.

UNITED STATES — It’s become fairly commonplace for articles about “Blue Monday” to come up at this time of year. According to a formula concocted for a now-defunct travel network, the third Monday in January is the most depressing day of the year. While that designation was most likely created to sell vacation packages, it does serve to focus attention on a complex, often intractable condition.

[public domain]

[public domain]

Pagans are certainly not unusual in suffering from depression, but since their worldviews can differ widely from that of the overculture, the tools and techniques for treating depression may also differ. To learn more, The Wild Hunt spoke with Pagan mental health professionals, as well as those who have struggled with depression.

Reverend Selena Fox, founder of Circle Sanctuary, has been a practicing psychotherapist for most of her adult life, and most of the people she works with in that context are Pagan. “It’s important one takes a holistic approach to healing and wellness,” she said. For Pagans, she added, that means “to be able to tap into their spirituality as part of working on getting better.”  That is only one part of a successful treatment plan for depression, she stressed, for two main reasons:

  • Selena Fox

    Selena Fox.

    A biochemical imbalance may be contributing to one’s depression, and often the best treatment in such cases involves biochemical support. “It’s really important to deal with the physical-plane dimensions of the condition, as well as the spiritual ones,” Fox said. That may mean medication, or one of the many herbal supplements which are used to lift mood. Determining which is best should be left to a trained professional.

  • There is a tendency among depression sufferers to constrict one’s social life as these interactions and activities stop giving pleasure. “It’s important to be aware of those tendencies and get help shifting out of holing up like that,” said Fox. Again, that help can take the form of a professional, such as a social worker, counselor, or therapist, or that help can be observant loved ones who are able to recognize depressed behavior.

Fox actually likened depression to a common cold in that it’s a relatively common condition, which should be resolved within a couple of weeks with self-care. Like the cold, though, if it persists longer than that, outside treatment should be sought. She recalled working in a clinic where some patients would only decide to seek help after having suffered for six or eight months. “It’s much easier to treat depression when it’s addressed earlier,” she said, noting that there are always treatment options available, no matter how serious the condition has become.

Some ways to find a suitable mental health professional include asking for references from Pagan friends and organizations in the local area, or contacting a professional association, such as the Association for Transpersonal Psychology that recognizes the importance of holistic approaches.

Tony Rella.

Taking all of that into account, there are Pagan-specific approaches to handling depression; all of which can be incorporated into a larger treatment plan. Both Fox and Tony Rella, a mental health counselor in the Seattle area and a student-mentor at the Morningstar Mystery School, use the elements of earth, water, air, and fire in their treatment plans.  Fox also includes spirit in her approach.

While not every Pagan incorporates these concepts into their own religious practice, these elements can be used to present the information and recommendations that we have gathered from Fox, Rella and others.

Earth

Earth, the body, can take a beating during depression. Sleep patterns can be disrupted, and an attitude of, “What difference does it make?” can lead to poor self-care. Fox likens this to a passive form of suicidal ideation. “Someone who has the flu might not have the energy to get it treated, and it turns into pneumonia,” she explained.

Rella said activity and diet are very important earth aspects. “Am I getting exercise? Am I spending time outside? Am I getting regular doses of sunlight or Vitamin D? (A big problem in the Pacific Northwest!) Is my diet promoting health? There is emerging research that indicates a relationship between depression and inflammation in the body, leading some professionals to suggest experimenting with reducing or eliminating foods that might promote inflammation, like foods high in sugar.”

Foods are an important part of Shauna Aura Knight‘s personal strategy:

About a decade ago, I started noticing certain foods seemed to impact me. I was focusing more on reducing my migraines and acne, but (as it turned out) those foods also impacted my depression. I used to live off hot pockets, mini pizzas, and soda. Carbs, sugar, dairy. It took years to finally make the switch to a (roughly) paleo diet. No grains, no added sugars, no dairy, no calorie free sweeteners. Part of what helped me to make the switch was my belief that the divine is in each person, and that my body is divine. ‘My body is a living temple of love’ is a line from one of my favorite chants. My sacred body is worth the extra effort. Eliminating certain foods reduced the exhaustion/depression symptoms, and helped me to lose a hundred pounds which has significantly reduced my foot pain and joint pain. Taking Vitamin D, B, and my prescribed thyroid medication also helped.

Factors like sunlight and physical activity can be difficult to manage in northern climes. When reached for this story, Fox reported that it was 40 below outside her Wisconsin home. “Some days, sitting by a sunny window is all you can do,” she acknowledged, but she suggests supplementing limited exposure to sunlight with full-spectrum light boxes, and visualization exercises. Weather permitting, she also recommends nature walks for a number of reasons:  exercise is known to improve depression in its own right, changing one’s environment can interrupt a cycle of negative thinking, and Pagans in particular tend to respond well to exposure to the natural world.

One very pragmatic approach comes from Heathen Cara Freyasdaughter.

I take my depression meds regularly. I also get them refilled and checked on a regular basis by doctors who are qualified to do this. I see this as part of a larger technique for dealing with depression called “taking care of myself.” My Goddess has Strong Opinions on whether I (or others) take care of ourselves enough or love ourselves enough. It’s a constant message that I, and others who work with Her, get. So I find that when I take care of myself, I honor Her as well.”

Water

Regarding the element of water, Rella asks questions that are tied to mood, including “Can I give space and permission for painful emotional experiences to emerge? What deeper wisdom might these feelings point toward? What difficult truths can I see in my heart?”

Feelings about others also feed into the water element. Fox pointed out that loved ones can be among the first to recognize depression. “If you are encouraging a loved one who seems to be in the funks and talks negatively day in and out, it’s a really good idea to have some conversations with that person hoping it will encourage or motivate them to get some additional help.”

Blogger Alyxander Folmer, writing about his own struggles with depression, said that his loved ones serve as a source of motivation:

Alyxander Folmer

Alyxander Folmer

. . . during the hardest points of depression just mustering the energy required to express emotion can be daunting. When just getting out of bed feels like it takes more energy than you’ve got in the tank, it’s hard to care enough to put on music (or fight laundry monsters). On those days, the only thing that gets me moving is remembering that people need me. I have a wife who deserves a functioning partner. I have approximately 1/3 of a child who needs me to to provide a safe and stable life for it to grow. I have friends that need to know they can call on me when times are hard. This has become my morning mantra for those days when I’m just to exhausted to muster up will to function. It doesn’t matter how I feel, or how little I care about anything else. That one thought will get me moving.

Jolene Poseidonae spoke about a technique she developed for herself:

Detached compassion is something I developed not initially to cope with depression but as part of shadow work years ago as I learned how to drop the tools that had helped me survive a violent, abusive upbringing but were then getting in the way of my being a functional adult with healthy relationships. It was something I developed so that I could trust in my gods and in the people who loved me, and it spilled over into dealing with depression. It’s a sort of stepping back from the emotional ups and downs that hit so fast they leave me dizzy, it’s the practice of disengaging from one’s emotions. Emotions are always in a state of flux for me, and they are often untrustworthy. It’s harder when the emotion is a constant, steady stream of a conviction of unworth, of wretchedness, and the knowing that nothing will ever get better, and this burning desire to cease existing will go on and on and on with no relief, but having the practice in place helps me turn my connection to those emotions off. It’s like I sort of side-step them. I watch them, I hear them, and I feel them, but I turn aside so that the feeling of them isn’t as direct. I’m not as engaged with them. Usually, this helps shorten the duration of my being mired in the black. The days I have when I lose all interest in my projects are fewer, and it’s been a long time since I’ve lost months like I used to.

Knight noted, “When my depression was at its worst, I couldn’t acknowledge I had depression because that would mean I was ‘bad,’ ‘worthless,’ ‘hopeless.’ Admitting I had a problem — looking into that dark, shadowy mirror of my own fears — was the first big step. Getting help was more difficult as I have no health insurance, and I was alone without much income. I did manage to get some help via therapy at a cheap clinic, but even that cost too much. I was introduced to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, though, and I realized that I had done personal work similar to that when I was doing leadership training at Diana’s Grove.”

Air

Air is associated with the intellect and thoughts. “What kind of story is my depression telling about me?” asks Rella. “What harmful self-beliefs are coming to light? How could I rewrite those stories to promote more ease and self-acceptance?”

Fox suggests monitoring self-talk to identify the onset of depression, which can otherwise begin without detection. On paper or electronically, jot down one’s thoughts over the course of a day. “If a person is finding a great propensity for negative thinking that is often an indicator that there’s some kind of depression going on. Phrases such as, ‘Well, what’s the point, I’m failing at this, nothing’s ever going to get better.’ If there’s ideation indicating hopelessness, sorrow, putting oneself down, that’s a sign you need some help.”

512px-Depression-loss_of_loved_one

[public domain]

S. Jade Gribanov said that distracting herself from negative thoughts works for her. She added, “Music. Anything that makes me feel good. A brainless inconsequential activity to occupy my conscious mind. My brain will run itself in circles for a few hours. Most of it will be garbage but I always come up with a couple of things to keep me going for a while longer.”

Music works for Knight, as well. “I sometimes also sing to manage depression, and I’m trying to work singing into a daily practice. While I still struggle with occasional ‘pit of despair’ days where I am utterly exhausted, and I am still trying to find ways to feel emotions like joy and happiness, my life is far better than it was.”

Freyasdaughter embraces her own thoughts from times when she felt better. “I read my past writings. There are times when I am full of faith and trust in the Gods completely, and when depression hits I lose most of that. So it’s good for me to go back and see these hopeful things, written by my own hand, and remember that the depressive funk I’m in can and will pass. It has before.”

Poseidonae also uses her writing, but slightly differently. “Writing is a huge part of coping. Going easy with myself when I need to is also a part of it. Losing myself in fiction. Sometimes throwing myself into my devotional acts helps, and sometimes it makes it worse. Sometimes I have to retreat away from all my gods — Poseidon being the sole exception — and just be.”

Fire

“In my observation, qualities of Fire are particularly challenging for people with depression,” said Rella. “The depression says, ‘I don’t care about anything and I don’t have the strength to do anything.’ Engaging the will to act on something important to me is a powerful coping strategy. Sustaining a daily practice, even when you don’t ‘feel it,’ helps. For some people at the height of depression, getting out of bed to take a shower is a tremendous act of will, and worth validating. Those who have never experienced a deep depression might have trouble understanding how much courage and strength it takes to do these daily tasks, and it is the enactment of these that helps the person work through and move out of their depression.”

For Fox, action can often break the patterns that feed depression, as has been touched upon earlier. Fire can also be utilized literally, in the form of candles or exposure to sunlight and other full-spectrum lighting.

Spirit

Fox uses spirit in the context of “one’s practices and understandings” when speaking about depression. “Some daily spiritual practice can be a really important component,” she said. That could take the form of “being at a home altar calling on the Divine, Goddess, God, Great Spirit, or a particular pantheon, depending on the tradition. Actually call on the sacred and ask for assistance as one goes through life and the day.” Further, “a ritual for self-healing involving chanting, candlelight, incense, [or] affirmations . . . is really a complement to whatever else one is doing.”

Sable Aradia

Sable Aradia

Sable Aradia, a Pagan clergyperson, provided some specific actions for depressed Pagans to take in her second post on The Downward Spiral — Depression and Suicide in Paganism, including the use of banishing pentagrams to dispel negative moods, witch bottles to get rid of bad luck, and seeking council of the gods.

I believe that if you keep your eyes open for them, the gods send you signs also. When my husband was in a major car accident and in the ICU for a month, the phrase “this too shall pass” continued to be sent to me. People would say it on the bus to me; I saw it tattooed on the wrist of one of the kinder nurses. You get the idea.

Hellenist Conor Davis finds that religious ritual sometimes works for him. “I have found that, when I can manage it, prayers and devotionals can help me with some of the milder symptoms of depression. On bad days where I don’t want to get out of bed much less leave the house, nothing seems to help and everything seems feeble.”

Freyasdaughter said, “I make a gratitude list. By that point or so, I’m in a place where I can move easily into a state of worshipping my Goddess, and in return She gives me back love. It’s a great feedback loop. When I’m depressed it’s often very difficult to reach out to the gods and trust that they are there, or to trust that anything I’m feeling or hearing from them is real or true. So, the gratitude list, where I sit myself down and make myself look at the things that are going well in my life, helps me to get back into that connected, hopeful headspace again.”

Dver, a spirit-worker on the margins of Hellenic polytheism, made this observation: “I have come to the conclusion over the years that my chronic depression is actually a recurring shaman sickness, essentially (I’m not actually a shaman, but a spirit-worker, and this concept seems to apply to various sorts of mystics). When I hit my worst point many years ago, I began delving into spirit-work (though I didn’t call it that at the time) and things got much better. To this day, when I am experiencing any longish stretch of depression (more than a few days), it is almost always a call to pay attention to what I am neglecting, and once I begin doing my Work again, the depression lifts.”

[Photo Credit: Martin Gommel/Flickr]

[Photo Credit: Martin Gommel/Flickr]

Many of those who reached out or wrote about this topic have compared depression to an underworld journey, in which the traveler must confront difficult truths, or even discern truth from self-lies. Given the complex and powerful symbolism in this area, it’s worth further study.

Depression is a condition which can alter one’s own perceptions of self-worth, which can lead to neglect of the physical, emotional, and spiritual aspects of life. A holistic approach to treatment might include physical activity, monitoring self-talk, performing regular spiritual practice even if it seems pointless, and changes in diet and medication. Because it can be a serious illness, and particularly because it changes self-perception, outside help should be sought for any depression which lasts for more than a few days.

The English language is in the midst of a gender revolution – one that began the first time someone questioned why the default state of every noun and pronoun was masculine. Since that point, “humankind” has gradually replaced “mankind,” and the male-centric generic “his” has given way to “hers or his” or (the still grammatically incorrect) “theirs.” Gradually, the language has moved toward treating both genders equitably.

Wordle: Pronouns

However, the preceding statement presumes that there are only two genders, and highlights a very real gender gap remaining in the language: the presumption that gender has only two variants, and thus requires two, or perhaps three, pronouns to reflect reality. Like the generic “he,” the use of these gendered pronouns is so commonplace that it’s all but invisible, except to the people who don’t fit either one and their allies. These people have chosen a more suitable set of pronouns, either based on existing words or new ones that have been invented for the purpose.

Perhaps it makes more sense to call it an evolution than a revolution, since it has been in-progress for decades and isn’t likely to be settled in the near future. To get a sense of what the language might look like once the question of pronoun use is settled, The Wild Hunt asked a number of Pagans and polytheists about their own use of, and attitudes about, pronouns in English. Because the Polytheist and Pagan communities are generally more supportive of transgender people, than what is seen in the overculture, it is possible to speak to a selection of people who have, at least, a passing familiarity with the issues involved.

Generally, it’s considered polite to ask a trans* person what pronoun e prefers. E, em, and eir comprise one set, the old Spivak pronouns, which have the advantage of sounding similar to common English pronouns, unlike zie and hir, which are also deemed too feminine-sounding by some. On the other end of the spectrum is the use of the word “one” to denote a person without referencing gender. While this has been argued as perfectly practical, no one interviewed for this article uses that form. There are those who use “they,” despite the fact that it sounds incorrect to many a grammarian’s ear, and others think “it” is the most appropriate descriptor.

P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

While seemingly inconsequential to the cisgendered, binary-gender pronouns have a very real impact on those who don’t identify as one, or the other. P. Sufenas Virius Lupus, a metagender person, said that the simple act of filling out an online form can be incredibly frustrating. E explained:

[A]ny online form that forces me to choose either male/man or female/woman for a gender, and does not allow me to proceed without making that choice, isn’t something I can fill out … I do not mark them on forms at doctor’s offices and such any longer, either.  Any online forum, survey, or anything else which requires it isn’t something I can participate in. This is what kept me from joining the Polytheism Without Borders project last year when it started; when I raised this point with the creator of the group, I was told, ‘Can’t you just pick one for convenience?’ Nope.

To take this trend to its natural conclusion, the expectation would be that all people have the right to choose the pronouns that are most suitable, and the assumption that the preference is “he” or “she” unless otherwise stated would have to fall away. Is that a realistic or practical outcome?

Melissa ra Karit, a genderqueer priest/ess in CAYA Coven’s Wildflower tradition, said:

Personally, I would love to see preferred pronouns becoming an automatic part of introductions. ‘Hi, I’m Mary, I use she/her pronouns,’ and, ‘I’m John, I use e/eir pronouns’ seem simple enough to add. I don’t actually think remembering someone’s pronouns would be much if a stretch once we got beyond the assumption that someone who appears female uses female pronouns and someone who appears male uses male pronouns. (What do we mean by “appears female/male” anyway?) We routinely remember all sorts of information about people, such as jobs, their families, their food allergies, their birthdays, and so on. For those who tend to forget such details, I imagine they would use the same sorts of memory aids, such a cell phones and calendar reminders, that they do for everything else. (Can you imagine if your phone popped up a message that said ‘John, e/eir, is texting you?’ I can!)

While zir may feel that learning preferred pronouns is simple, not everyone agrees. Autumn Pulstar, who identifies as a cisgender woman, admits, “I find it hard to use the nonstandard pronouns, even when referring to someone who prefers them. Being in my 50s, old habits die hard. I’m not trying to be disrespectful, but it is something that does not come naturally … and the awkward pause is often more unsettling than saying what comes natural. Fortunately, I have very cool friends.”

Shauna Aura Knight

Shauna Aura Knight

Speaker and ritualist Shauna Aura Knight, a ciswoman, also admitted that she finds the various pronouns confusing. She added, “One piece of advice I was given by a genderqueer activist was to just use people’s names.” That advice is helpful, but Knight has other limitations that reduce its usefulness: she’s not terribly good remembering names. And while she didn’t say so, avoiding all pronouns in lieu of a person’s name can lead to speech or writing that feels clunky or contrived.

Lupus recalled a relationship that went south over eir desire to use Spivak pronouns to describe emself. It was a surprising case, e said, involving “a trans*woman, who was also not going to go through with any surgical interventions or procedures, who said that I confused her and that the mental gymnastics required to conceptualize my gender as non-binary were not of enough interest to her to do to make any effort toward, and therefore she’d just consider me however she wanted to despite my asking otherwise.”

Diane Verocchi, a cisgender woman, does make sure she uses pronouns of choice, although some of them feel more awkward to her than others. “I don’t know if ‘hir’ would stand out less to me if it were in common use,” she wrote. “I encounter zie/zir online a lot, so they don’t particularly jump out at me. Hir looks like a typo for either him or her and sounds closer to her, so I find it puzzling that some prefer it, but if I know that is their preference, that is what I’ll use.”

Familiarity breeds comfort to ciswoman and writer Jolene Poseidonae, who acknowledges that she doesn’t have much occasion to become familiar with alternative pronouns. She said:

If they were more widely used, I certainly believe that gender-neutral pronouns would be easier for me to see and use and not feel like I’m making up words. If they were something that were more widely used just in my own life, it would be easier — but again, it’s not a huge issue. I won’t say that most of my friends are cisgendered, but those who are not have expressed the desire to be referred to by one of the two gender specific pronouns. That very well may be because those are what’s available, but I couldn’t say for sure.

Jaina Bee, a metagender priest/ess of the CAYA Wildflower tradition, added, “If we really care about each other, we will pay attention to the things that matter to each individual, whether it be a religious observation, a dietary restriction, a differently-abled physical or mental condition, or a set of pronouns. This is not inconvenience, this is common courtesy.”

Wordle: pronouns

An alternative to personalizing pronoun choice is to adopt a more inclusive set, one that either ignores or more fully embraces gender variation. Given that the spectrum of gender includes metagender, intersex, feminine cismales and masculine cisfemales, androgynes, genderqueers, and gender-fluid people, among others, a theoretical group of pronouns that acknowledged all possible genders may be too large to be manageable. Pronouns that do not acknowledge gender at all can also be used if the gender of the person is not known or is irrelevant, but that doesn’t mean there is anything like a consensus to adopt that particular standard. And which ones should become the norm?

“When I look at myself in the mirror and think of what I’d most like to be, I don’t see ‘he’ or ‘she,'” said Lupus, “nor do I see ‘ze/sie,’ I see ‘e.'” Others, however, “prefer the plural-as-singular, which actually has Victorian precedents. Still others I know prefer to be called ‘it,’ since that is a de facto neutral pronoun.”

Hearthstone, a ciswoman writer, remarked, “You’d think it would be possible to adopt a neutral pronoun since English uses natural gender rather than grammatical gender.” She added that she would be fine with being addressed using a neutral pronoun, “if it was a pronoun understood to mean a human being. I would feel dehumanized if someone called me ‘it,’ but that’s because “it” is so strongly contextualized as non-human.” Pulstar also said she would be offended if someone were to call her “it.”

Poseidonae was mindful that, as part of the cisgendered majority, she has choices others do not. She said:

In theory, I’m not sure that I would care if someone referred to me with a gender-neutral pronoun. As much as I’m cisgendered, it is mostly something I’m not overly attached to — which I understand is part and parcel of the privilege of being cisgendered. I wouldn’t hate for us to be more gender neutral when talking about people we don’t know well, but that’s me wanting more of a clear delineation between the public and private realms in our lives than what society currently tolerates.

Verocchi said that her reaction would “depend entirely on situation and context.”  She said:

If they didn’t know which pronouns I prefer, then it I think it would be no different than correcting the pronunciation of my last name (something I do all the time) to respond to that, if I even felt it was worth doing so.  If they knew that I am a cisgender female who prefers feminine pronouns and were using neutral pronouns with the intent of misgendering me, I’d be annoyed or possibly offended.  In either case, I don’t think I’d be as offended” as transgender people have told her they feel when others misgender them, out of disinterest or malice, “probably because I don’t experience it on a regular basis.

A cisgender woman who identified herself as Juni also didn’t want to be misgendered, saying, “I would be fine with it if someone used [a neutral pronoun] to refer to me, though it would probably feel a little odd; I think the only pronoun that would actually make me uncomfortable would be he/his. I would be perfectly comfortable with gender-free pronouns as a general rule.”

Knight agreed that context is important in accepting someone’s use of a gender-free pronoun for herself. She said:

For instance, when I’ve gone to a store or answered the phone and been referred to as ‘sir,’ I’ve been offended. I don’t think I particularly look male, but I’m pretty tall and I have a deeper voice. In retrospect, I’m aware that that has much more to do with my body image issues around weight/attractiveness to men. It was a hit to my self esteem since it told me, in a nutshell, that I was obviously not attractive (as a woman) to these men.

If I were at a Pagan, spiritual, or activist event and I were referred to by gender-free pronouns, I probably wouldn’t necessarily have any negative feelings around it, since it doesn’t really impact my identity in that context. I grew up in a gender binary environment so using the gender-free pronouns might itch a little. That’s the best word I can use to describe it.  It’s not me being offended so much as me not being used to something.  It’s like moving into a new house and I’m not sure where things are and I have to think about everything more.

Knight also said that she wrestles with how to incorporate gendered language into ritual. “There’s a general axiom that multi-syllable words that come from a Latin root tend to have a more clinical sound than the more onomatopoetic words that come from the Germanic,” she explained. “The problem is that Latin has better gender neutral words.” The Germanic words are more primal, and help participants get out of “thinky headspace” but are less inclusive. She cited examples such as “parent” instead of “mother” or “father,” and “siblings” as a more clinical but also more inclusive substitute for “brothers and sisters.”

CAYA Coven Wildflower initiate Verity Blue said:

I would love to see us collectively move to a inclusive/neutral set of pronouns. I think the hard part would be changing habits, but we aren’t really getting any useful info out of she/he her/him. Gender is not the physical sex of a person, it is not the chromosomal sex of a person, it is a complexly layered part of identity that is often beyond describing. Basically our current system is ones and zeros when what we need is more a robust, elegant language. Personally, I enjoy what I call ‘zednouns.’ Zie walked down the street singing zir favorite song quietly to zirself. In my understanding it is the evolution of creating pronouns that start with xy, like the human sex chromosomes. Zie is the collective of all gender expression.

Others are not so sure that separating gender from pronouns is preferable, much less possible. “As for moving the language toward an all-inclusive, neutral-gender pronoun system, there are many considerations that lead me to think this goal is not only improbable, it is also undesirable for many reasons,” said Bee.  “As we’ve seen in recent public discussions of racial issues … [there has been] essentially a denial of the distinctions between people, their diverse concerns and needs, and tends, in practice, to lead to a default that erases those who don’t fit into the conventional definition.”

Ruadhán J McElroy

Ruadhán J McElroy

Trans*man Ruadhán J McElroy also isn’t sold on divorcing gender from pronouns.

Every language [that] I have some familiarity with acknowledges gender, and most societies pre-Christianity, in some way, recognise more than two genders. Ergo, it really upsets me when I see others, especially my fellow trans people, talk about abolishing gender from society. While different cultures recognise a different range of non-cis genders, and hold different standards for all genders recognised, one thing is clear: human beings are a gendered species …

Furthermore, it strikes me as highly dismissive of the issues faced by people based on gender, and the suggestion to ‘abolish gender’ as little more than a cop-out to justify doing nothing; it’s ridiculous and potentially evidence of deep internalised transphobia coming from other trans and non-binary people, and infuriating coming from cis people — the former people are saying that gender for non-cis people only makes life harder, potentially to the point that giving up on a central aspect of a person seems preferable to the headache it causes, but the latter group is basically saying that the former group’s concerns aren’t worth addressing in any way, much less a productive one.

Like the use of preferred pronouns, adopting a set that does not take gender into consideration would require buy-in from the cisgendered majority to gain traction. Hearthstone pointed out, “There needs first to be willingness on the part of cis-folks to use nongendered pronouns and so forth for ourselves, I think, rather than only using them for non-binary folks. Otherwise, it’s still exclusionary.”

Karit agreed, saying that even zir idea of introductions that include pronoun preference that ze imagines needs a generic option. “I see the second part of such a system as moving to a gender-neutral set of pronouns to describe anyone whose pronouns we don’t know. That, I think, would take a big cultural shift. I think anything like that is a ways off in the future.”

Knight looks to altering the entrenched rules of accepted sentence construction. She said:

I think that one part is doing whatever is necessary to change the rules of grammar that say that his/her is appropriate and ‘their’ is not. Going further, if we’re going to use gender neutral pronouns, I really feel that there needs to be a consensus on which ones.  I see ‘hir’ with some frequency, probably because it’s the most [common], but that doesn’t bear up in speech because hir and her are virtually indistinguishable. I kind of like the old Spivak ones because they sound like ‘their,’ but without the consonant. Speaking as a language nerd, the lack of initial consonant makes it a little more difficult for English speakers, or more specifically, it’ll sound like we’re mispronouncing him/her, etc. However, to my eye they look and sound good.

High-school English teacher and ciswoman Robin Ward resists the idea that “their” can or should be used as a singular pronoun, but pointed out the important role teachers play in any change in the language. “People didn’t start accepting ‘his or her’ in place of ‘his’ until teachers started expecting it,” she said. “I’ve thought about introducing my students to alternative pronouns, but to be honest I’m worried about pushback from the parents.”

Changing language changes how the speakers of that language think. Whether those thoughts are guided by an implicit assumption that individuals get to control what pronouns are associated with em, a widespread agreement to adopt one set of pronouns over all others, or a combination of these approaches, it seems apparent that such change will only occur when the cisgendered majority adopts it with intent. So long as these alternatives are only utilized by transgender people and a few allies when referring to those trans* people, it will not be a movement, but the quirk of a small subculture.

The Satanic Temple logoTALLAHASSEE, FLORIDA —The Satanic Temple struck another blow for religious equality when it secured the right to erect a Satanic holiday display in Florida’s capitol. It will sit alongside a display celebrating the birth of Jesus, the noodly appendages of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and a pole marking Festivus. This is the same Satanic organization that has previously offered to make a bronze statue of Baphoment for the Oklahoma capitol, announced it would distribute Satanic literature to Florida schoolchildren, and performed same-sex weddings over the grave of Fred Phelps’ mother. Reviled by stalwart Christians and mistrusted by other Satanists, The Satanic Temple invariably makes a media splash when it comments on the separation of church and state.

So many Pagans have spent time either rehearsing or actually having conversations explaining how Paganism differs from Satanism. Therefore it is no surprise that The Satanic Temple has received negative reactions from Pagans. But is there anything this group can teach Pagans about public relations or defending religious freedom?

To find out, we first asked how this organization relates to Pagans, if at all. The spokesperson for the temple, who goes by the name Lucien Greaves, explained that there’s always been a bit of push back from Pagans:

It happens less now — probably because of our apparent successes — but in the beginning, we would receive occasional messages from Pagans and Atheists, both concerned that our activities were attaching their own values or symbols to a caricature of ultimate evil. The concern seems to be that, by invoking Satanism, we serve to justify the worst fears born of superstitious bigotry.

The notion that we should coddle such divisive witch-hunting impulses by maintaining a taboo against Satanism is, I feel, a completely backward approach. In fact, there is a culture of Satanism, culled from various elements, including Pagan symbols. The identification with Satanism isn’t arbitrary to the point that we feel it could simply be exchanged for a more palatable label. Satan symbolizes unsilenced inquiry, rebellion against tyranny, and personal freedom.

For a Pagan, or any other minority religion, to openly engage in efforts to distance themselves from Satanism serves only to affirm the misguided notion that Satanism stands for cruelty, abject depravity, and unabashed evil. As Satan, mythologically, stands in opposition to the Biblical God’s authority, Satanism too is feared to challenge Biblical doctrines of faith. To concede that such opposition must, by its nature, be corrupt and criminal is to conversely affirm that traditional religious institutions hold a monopoly on moral virtue.

In fact, we feel our campaigns embrace the highest of moral callings — from gay rights, to women’s rights, to the protection of children against institutionalized abuse. In each of these cases, we fight against regressive mainstream religious thinking. I think that by embracing Satanism, we represent another phase in our civilization’s social growth. This is another step toward ensuring that each individual is judged for his or her actual actions in the real world, free of fear from persecution for symbolic crimes and/or “blasphemy.” If our past has taught us anything, it’s that the most cruel and evil acts are committed not at the hands of secret religious minorities, but by the witch-hunters whose paranoia allows them to imagine such minorities are willfully acting against the common good.

With that background, we asked a few Pagans and Polytheists the following question. What can Pagans learn from The Satanic Temple? It turns out that they had a lot to say.

Author and activist T. Thorn Coyle recognizes the activism in the temple’s work:

T. Thorn Coyle

T. Thorn Coyle

The Satanic Temple is approaching the public square head on, with no apologies. I appreciate that. Their take on things is, “OK. Religious materials in schools? Here’s an educational children’s book that we are handing out. You ruled that it was fine,” and, “Monumental religious statues at the state capitol? Here is one of our own.” They are also mobilizing around issues such as reproductive rights and the rights of children to not suffer corporal punishment.

The Satanic Temple are unapologetically themselves and move ahead by assuming they already have the same civil rights as other religions. In approaching the public sphere in this way, they serve to highlight where the real cracks in the wall of “separation of church and state” are. The Satanic Temple, by acting forthrightly, are taking a hammer and chisel to those cracks. For this, I applaud them.

Philosopher Hannah Arendt spoke of the need to become ‘conscious pariahs’ rather than parvenues (assimilationists) or pariahs outcast by society. The conscious pariah rejects and directly challenges the status quo, not from petulant rebellion, but because the status quo is corrupt. There is great power in choosing to be a conscious pariah. I see some Pagan groups wishing to be “just like everyone else” and that can take away some of the power and bite we have in not being like everyone else. The role of the conscious challenger is important to society. I think that Pagans could take some lessons from the ways the Satanic Temple are issuing their challenges and refusing to assimilate. They are acting from their power, rather than begging for it or giving it away.

Their most recent holiday display, though? I find it offensive. Why? It’s bad art.

Kirk White, author and (now unaffiliated) founder of Cherry Hill Seminary also appreciates that The Satanic Temple is true to its path:

Rev. Kirk White

Rev. Kirk White

I have long been an advocate for Pagans walking a middle path. On the one hand, I think it behooves and benefits us to resist being cast as ‘other, outcast, the antithesis of normal.’ On the other hand we absolutely must retain our integrity and not sell out those features of our beliefs and practices that define and distinguish us just to gain respectability and acceptance. And of course, we must always be willing to stand up against institutional oppression.

What the Satanic Temple is doing greatly benefits religious freedom across the spectrum and Pagans should support those and similar efforts. Their outrageous, funny, ‘in your face’ approach is proving effective. But they do so purposefully building on their otherness and with no expectation of being accepted or even taken seriously as a religion. Their social power is in their marginality and their oppositional approach. If Pagans decide to replicate their ‘in your face’ approach we allow the overculture to define us in contrast to themselves rather on our own unique qualities and merits. We become the enemy rather than the neighbors. We should support them, but I do not believe that we should replicate their methods.

Boeotian polytheist and Neo-Cyrenaic Ruadhán J McElroy would like to see more people pushing boundaries:

Ruadhán J McElroy

Ruadhán J McElroy

I pretty much only know the highly publicized activities of The Satanic Temple, but from that alone, I think between that and the later, philosophy-focused writings of LaVey, it would do the Pagan Community, and all pagans, polytheists, and others involved in alternative religion, a lot of good to do more questioning of the status quo and pushing boundaries of both society and oneself. Sometimes comfort zones exist for a reason, but a lot of times we construct them as a crutch, which does us no good.

If a person who can walk chooses to instead live in a wheelchair, their muscles atrophy and they come to need extensive physical therapy to be able to walk again, and if a wheelchair bound person doesn’t get certain physical therapies and daily time in a standing frame, they open themselves up to all sorts of health issues, from muscle spasms to potentially fatal blood clots. With my chronic back pain, you have no idea how much I want to just give up and get a wheelchair, some days, but if I can at all walk through the pain, I make myself cos it’s better for me to walk than to not. Since we clearly need to do physical things every day that push our boundaries, lest we risk atrophy or worse, we also have to push our boundaries mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and of the culture we are in. Or as the Cyreniacs might say, sometimes you gotta make a little rough motion to make a big smooth motion.

It’s good that The Satanic Temple is willing to push those boundaries of the culture in such a public way, though I wish I could say at this point that I’m disappointed that I’ve not seen as many pagans and polytheists doing similar –I’m too used to pagans (and especially Pagans) who are content with the status quo and too fearful of rocking any boats, even if someone set the starboard on fire and you gotta douse it (like what’s been going on in Missouri), to be disappointed in pagans, anymore.

Ritualist and speaker Shauna Aura Knight thinks it’s worth learning how The Satanic Temple handles the media:

Shauna Aura Knight

Shauna Aura Knight

The Satanic Temple effectively uses shock and the legal system to their advantage. There are few Pagan groups out there with much media savvy, and fewer still able bankroll lawyers. I have a background in marketing work, and I’d say that The Satanic Temple is cleverly using the fact that many people think that Satanists are about the worst thing ever. Specifically, they’re using the outrage to call attention to infringements on the separation between church and state.

It’s pretty clear that the dominant religions want those infringements—so long as it’s their own religion. When TST introduces themselves into that infringement they appall people. It’s incredibly effective tactic as an activist. You want prayers before city council meetings… religious holiday scenes…statuary at public buildings? You want to give out religious texts at school? You want your religion to provide a legal loophole supporting your beliefs on contraception and abortion?

Ok. Then Satanists can do that too. People rarely see a problem with the status quo until provoked.

This strategy of contrast doesn’t work quite as well for Pagans because most Pagans have been trying hard to put out the PR that we’re not that bad, we’re good people. Satanists don’t seem afraid of their own bad press and use it to further their goals.

However, Pagans can still effect the same legal pressuring which could provoke the, “If I have to include you, then we just won’t have any prayers at all.” However, that still requires us to have professional media and PR folks as well as lawyers on retainer.

What we can learn from The Satanic Temple is that with trained media professionals and a legal budget, we too can combat the system. TST understands a strategic aspect of activism; sometimes you have to play the legal game. TST grasps the rules of the system and is willing to exploit those rules and find the loopholes. We can do this too with enough budget and expertise.

Knight’s comments about being able to “bankroll lawyers” was not a unique sentiment, but Greaves says it’s not entirely deserved.

Our cadre of lawyers (from Americans United for the Separation of Church and State) representing us in Florida were pro bono, working for us at no charge, simply because they believed strongly in our position. To be clear, it would be a mistake to think that these lawyers were motivated by the prospect of receiving compensation in the form of monetary damages from the lawsuit. In fact, we weren’t seeking monetary damages at all, only to secure the right to place our holiday display in the Capitol Rotunda. And this, largely, is how we’ve managed to get so many things done: our campaigns have resonated deeply with people who support our positions, to the point that they will volunteer their efforts, even if many of them don’t care to identify as Satanists themselves.

In the case of the Baphomet monument, we crowd-funded around $30k through Indiegogo, after which we found an amazing sculptor who was willing to work on the project at-cost. Even with that solid foundation, the monument ended up costing 10s of thousands more. I, and the other core membership of The Satanic Temple, have consistently put significant amounts of our own money into our campaigns. It seems we’re always scraping up the bottom dollar to push things through, but we keep moving forward. Despite the heavy burden this imposes, we think that the imposition of dues for religious affiliation is inappropriate. We sell merchandise in hopes of generating revenue toward our campaigns, but this hasn’t proven lucrative by any means. We clearly have the beginnings of some enormous legal battles now in the works, for which we have set up a legal fund.

As for Greaves’ advice for Pagans talking to the media, he recommends, “Stay on point and control the dialogue. Don’t be pulled into superfluous and irrelevant arguments. If you’re asked an unreasonable question, simply answer with whatever message you wish to put forward, whether it addresses the question in any way or not.” He might file all questions about theology under ‘unreasonable,’ because he also says, “Move away from meticulously describing what it is you believe and practice. Your material has long been publicly available to the genuinely curious. You simply do not have to justify your religious perspective to anybody to assert your rights as equally regarded citizen[s].”

[Sam Webster is one of our talented monthly columnists. If you like his articles and want to support his writing at The Wild Hunt, please consider donating to our fall fundraising campaign and sharing our IndieGoGo link. It is your continued support that had made it possible for us to feature Sam and his work each month. Will you donate now?Thank you.]

Accountability is a critical aspect of leadership in any community. For Pagans, this is a special challenge because our structure and power dynamics are neither the norm, nor easily shaped to produce accountability.

Ordinarily, there is a strong dimension of economic and regulatory reciprocity in the relationship between leaders and the communities they serve.The CEO is hired by the board of directors. The minister is called by the congregation (in congregational polity) or placed by the hierarchy. The president is elected by the people. If a leader does not perform to expectation or to standard, he or she can be fired or replaced. In the case of the president, the standards for malfeasance are high, but so are the consequences: impeachment, removal from office, or simply not being reelected.

[Graphic by lumaxart - CC lic. via Wikimedia ]

[Graphic by lumaxart – CC lic. via Wikimedia ]

Pagan leaders are unusual in that they are often ‘self-called’ to their role. They decide to form a group and do so by collecting people around them. They are generally not paid, and often the group meets at the leader’s home. Generally, they are the principal teacher, and likewise, the sole initiator. This makes censuring or dismissing the leader very difficult. It usually disbands the group and, only sometimes, will a fraction of the group continue without the leader. The usual penalty of loss of pay simply does not apply.

Shauna Aura Knight recently wrote about the difficulty of holding leaders, or ‘elders’ in her frame, to account. In a previous and cited work on whistleblowers, Shauna describes the painful reality of individuals speaking out against the abuse of leaders and elders.They are regularly disbelieved and punished, while the accused is often powerfully defended. Many instead choose to remain silent.

The economic dimension of mutual control is only the most obvious lack in Pagan groups. When viewed per their power dynamics, most groups are (hopefully) benevolent and consensual autocracies. Besides being the founders of the group or the event, the leaders are the bottom line, and the one who maintains the commitment to making it all happen. Flakey and unreliable as many Pagans are, without firm leadership events fail and groups fade away.

Basic funding for them also tends to come out of the pockets of the leaders as well, bringing back the economic aspect, but without checks and balances. On the other end of the political spectrum, in consensus-based groups there can be a problem assigning accountability (not to say blame).  However, there can be an advantage in being accustomed to group decision-making, which provides its own kind of accountability. But when the consent breaks down, so do the groups.

There are alternatives but these require significant effort on the part of the group-members and real courage on the part of the leaders. In the Facebook thread on her page commenting on Shauna’s above mentioned post, Samuel Wagar (09122014) pointed to the way our society as a whole has worked out how to solve this problem:

I have created lasting groups (the festival now twenty years old, the church ten years), using democracy and congregationalism as the keys. And one such group fired a leader, and has disciplined others. It can be done, with a model that is not centered on the charismatic leader.

Here, democracy is the power structure, congregationalism is the social structure and ownership model, and not being centered on the charismatic or celebrity leader is crucial to long term success. Since groups of all kinds are most commonly started by charismatic leaders because they are the ones with the chutzpah to make it happen, we need to build models for migrating start-ups into long standing organizations. The leaders themselves need to take the lead in this transformation, and the members have to step up and take on the load.

[Photo Credit: Chris Beckett/Flickr]

[Photo Credit: Chris Beckett/Flickr]

This is not easy in a corporatocratic and consumer society. We don’t believe we have the power to govern the institutions in which we are embedded and, in many senses, we believe we should just be delivered good services without our having to work to make them good. This is reinforced by the belief that the ‘invisible hand of the market’ will just provide.

Experience does not support this notion. The iron law of oligarchy (Robert Michels, 1911) painfully shows that, without considerable will, power and authority accrue to the few or the one. The challenge is that leaders need to empower the membership and then give up power and authority to those they empower. Then the membership needs to not develop a new oligarchy. It’s not easy.

We can begin by building feedback-mechanisms. Starting with something as simple, if challenging, as setting up a council of advisers, leaders can begin to establish true two-way communication with committed members. Asking the difficult questions like, “What am I doing wrong?” and “What is the worst thing I have done?” are not fun to ask, hear, or even reply to. Doing this before crisis and developing a de-escalated methodology in a low emotional charge atmosphere can be a significant part of building an organization that learns, corrects its mistakes, and figures out what it is doing well so it can do more of that.

A powerful technique used in businesses committed to being learning organizations is to perform “Plus/Deltas” at the end of each meeting. It is often worthwhile for someone other than the meeting’s facilitator to run. A fresh facilitator steps up at the end of the meeting, draws a line down the middle of the note-taking surface (e.g., white board or easel pad) headed by a plus sign (+) on one side, and a triangle (∆) for the Greek letter Delta on the other. Then the facilitator asks the group what went well in the meeting (plusses) and what should be changed (deltas). Even simply taking down the list of these plusses and deltas  and seeing them on the page leads to improvement.

Building feedback and accountability into organizational structures is a serious challenge, but the laws of our country support a powerful means. This is the board of directors in a corporation. Corporate structure allows for the design of governance structures that can reflect the values of the community that creates the organization and give them the force of law. The community owns the corporation, selects the board of directors, who then empowers the executive officer(s) to run the operation.

[Photo Credit: rrafson CC-BY-SA-3.0  via Wikimedia Commons]

[Photo Credit: rrafson CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons]

How this is done is up to the community. The board can be elected with a limited term. The executives could have very specifically defined powers. The Unitarian Universalist Association and its member churches are built this way, and something like this structure is what Samuel Wager is referring to in his above comment. When started by a charismatic leader, the leader has the task of setting up the organizational structure on behalf of the future, designing in democracy, and then subordinating themselves to its authority. Incidentally, this is what the Founders of the United States of America did, and why they deserve the honor in which are held. They easily could have set up an oligarchy.

Besides having the right structures, when there is a (potential) problem or abuse, the right procedures have to be in place. There is a reason why we have developed the justice system that we have in the meta-society. Humans are awful at determining guilt. Due process, worked out over innumerable errors and injustices, has produced the body of jurisprudence that governs our courts. While we neither need nor want that level of complexity, we do need to learn from its wisdom. Besides the general idea of innocent until proven guilty, three specific items are critical:

  1. If someone is accused of malfeasance, the person bringing the accusation has to have ‘standing’“ the ability of a party to demonstrate to the court sufficient connection to and harm from the law or action challenged to support that party’s participation in the case.” This protects the system from frivolous suits and acts of power from outside of the community in which the offense occurred. This is where the whistleblowers are crucial; they alone have the standing to bring accusation. It also means they need to have access to proper representation and counsel.
  2. The body (court) to which the case is brought must have ‘jurisdiction,’ meaning “the practical authority granted to a formally constituted…body or to a…leader to deal with and make pronouncements on legal matters and, by implication, to administer justice within a defined area of responsibility.” They must have authority over the parties involved and the actions claimed to have been done. Otherwise, one organization is asked to rule over another organization’s problem, without explicit agreements that they can. Naturally, all parties may ask an otherwise outside group to adjudicate a matter but, in that case, they are intentionally submitting to that authority.
  3. A case must be presented. The accuser must produce a defined accusation, preferably in writing, which states that the accused did some specified action at a particular time and place. Without this, the accusation can be a vague claim of misbehavior or abuse which becomes impossible to prove or counter. What is left is a vague air of impropriety; the besmirching of a reputation. No resolution is possible without a specific and clear case.

Instituting structures and procedures like these, appropriately informed by our Pagan culture and values, is part of the long process of maturation that we are undergoing as a community. Our increasing diversity also signals the need to find ways of working out our differences as well as managing conflict and misbehavior. Building the right structures and procedures are foundational to justice and fairness. By Maat, Themis, and Forseti, justice must be duly applied or it becomes a vendetta when we bring accusations against anyone, leader, follower or whistleblower. With time, I pray we can find our way to suitable means in which we can live in justice, correct our errors, and find methods that helpfully support and hold our leaders to account.

Accountability is a mutual relationship. It is not automatic or assured except with effort. Organizations have to be designed with built-in accountability. All parties in the system must fulfill their roles with energy and diligence. The ad hoc approaches that we have used in our small-group religion are reaching their limits, and our community is showing the strain. Hopefully this brief exploration of the common means of accountability and adjudication can provide some guidance for advancing the quality of Pagan leadership.

Perspectives: Pagan Elders

Rynn Fox —  September 12, 2014 — 21 Comments

Perspectives is a monthly column dedicated toward presenting the wide variety of thought across the Pagan/Polytheist communities’ various Paganisms.

The Wild Hunt asked four members of the community their opinion on the subject of elders. These community members include Taylor Ellwood, managing non-fiction editor of Immanion Press and author of Magical Experiments; Cara Freyaswoman, Freya priestess, co-founder of the Vanic Conspiracy and blogger; Glenwaerd, a Commissioned Army Officer, witch, current board member of The Gathering for Life on Earth and former member and leader of The Order of Scathach; and Shauna Aura Knight, author, teacher and activist.

Do you use the term ‘Pagan elder’? Why or why not? And if so, what’s your personal criteria for defining a Pagan elder? If not, what’s your alternative and why?

Taylor Ellwood

Taylor Ellwood

“I have used the term Pagan elder before. I’ve used it because it is used by other people and is descriptive of certain people who might be considered “leaders” of the community. Though I also think the term is sometimes synonymous with “Big Name Pagans” as it seems that many of the Pagan elders are people who have published books or put together conventions. I’m not entirely convinced that this term should be connected to Big Name Pagans. For that I also don’t think the term should be applied to someone just because they have gray or white in their hair.

My personal criteria for defining a Pagan elder really comes down to service. How is this person serving their community? What activities is this person doing to actually help the community? How does this person balance their own self-interests with their desire to serve the community and what do they do to make sure they aren’t actually harming the community with their actions? I think of a Pagan elder as a leader, as someone who takes a service based approaches to leadership, recognizing that what they do is for the good the community as opposed to serving their own agenda.” — Taylor Ellwood, managing non-fiction editor of Immanion Press and author at Magical Experiments

“Though I’m a Heathen polytheist, I still consider myself an integral part of the larger Pagan community. As such I have heard the term ‘Pagan elder’ used, and I myself have used it on occasion, often when interacting with people from other spiritual traditions. Personally, though, the term does not resonate with me nearly as much as the term ‘Pagan leader.’ What ‘Pagan elder’ conveys to me is that a person has been active in their specific tradition (or in a multiplicity of traditions) for a significant amount of time. Time spent, however, does not necessarily equate with level of service a person has given to their community/communities, nor does it equate to the leadership skill or teaching ability a person has to offer. I’d prefer the use of the term ‘Pagan leader.’ To me this term contains within it service, experience and a willingness and ability to lead, which the generic term ‘Pagan elder’ doesn’t encapsulate. I know that recently the term ‘Pagan leader’ has come under attack—and understandably so—as many high profile Pagans are often considered to be ‘Pagan leaders’ whether or not they have the skills, ethics and experience to go along with leadership. Though problematic, I still prefer this term over ‘Pagan elders.’ When I think of the Pagans/Heathens/Polytheists/Wiccans/spirit workers that I respect the most, not all of them are ‘elders’ and not all ‘Pagan elders’ have my respect.”— Cara Freyaswoman, Freya priestess, co-founder of the Vanic Conspiracy and blogger

Glenwaerd

Glenwaerd

“I define a Pagan elder as being a recognized and accomplished member of their Pagan community. They are a spiritually powerful person in their own right, for whom the connection with deity is strong and vivid and present. For me to personally accept someone as an Elder in something more than a passing sense, it’s a case of seeing is believing. So there needs to be clear homage paid to that Elder by the surrounding community or alternately, the elder themselves must be convincing in that first moment of contact, that moment of truth, that they are someone who has a store of wisdom or experience that I can respect. You might call it a spark that they are willing to share. In this sense, a Pagan elder can be a solitary mystic uncomfortable with the mantle of leadership as easily as they can be a populist leader of a larger group. The key aspect for me is that the elder’s actions must support the notion of who and what they are. Saying you are something is easy, but only through deeds and the recognition of them by others does one actually earn such the mantle of elder.

The word elder of course implies that one is of an advanced age, but I don’t necessarily subscribe to the notion that one must have white hair and be using a walker to be honored with the title of elder. That level of respect can also be given to a person who has accomplished much within a few decades, but who may not be the eldest within a particular community. Perhaps they are even middle aged. It’s about the experiences that they have had, the things they have learned along the path and how they pass them on to future generations, not their physical years.

Because the label of Pagan elder is most often bestowed upon respected members of the community rather than assumed, the most important aspect of their subsequent position within the community is that a Pagan elder acts with integrity and avoids becoming the center, intentionally or not, of a personality or hero cult. Not that elders are supposed to be make no errors at all, but they should be wise and experienced enough to have seen that particular trap before and be willing to take steps to avoid it.”Glenwaerd, a Commissioned Army Officer, witch, current board member of The Gathering for Life on Earth and former member and leader of The Order of Scathach

Shauna Aura Knight

Shauna Aura Knight

“Most of the time I hear the word “elder” referred to in Pagan communities, it’s someone rolling their eyes in reference to something horrible a Pagan leader has done (again.) Or it’s an egomaniacal Pagan leader trying to enforce their title. Thus, I typically don’t use the word because of its poor connotation. But here’s the thing. I really value the idea of Pagan elders—older, experienced community leaders who have the experience to guide younger group members and other leaders. I wouldn’t be leading and teaching without the benefit of the mentorship of wiser and more educated leaders who guided me.

My personal criteria for an elder starts with wisdom, experience and integrity. It’s about actually serving community. It’s not enough to be older. It’s not enough to lead a group for 30 years–some of the worst things I’ve ever heard about Pagan leaders and misconduct or abuse are from long time leaders. It’s not enough to have a high-ranking degree in a tradition or even a Master’s or Ph.D. Sometimes contrast is useful; an elder is not abusive, bigoted, or known throughout the community as a stubborn jerk. Pagan leaders and elders don’t need to be perfect, but they should set the bar to help the next generation.

Alsohere’s an anecdote. Once I was doing leadership mentoring and workshops for Pagans in Milwaukee. Some local folks had come to me with a problemsome of their long time local group leaders were really causing some problems. They told me about a leader with thirty-some years under his belt who would sometimes engage new local leaders in what was referred to as an “Eldering Ceremony.” Apparently when a local leader had been around for a bit and seemed to generally agree with this guy, he’d clap them on the shoulder and say, “It’s time for us to make you an elder.” There was a ritual for this (in his tradition, of course) wherein the new “elder” was asked to swear fealty and kiss his ring. No joke. Any local leader who did things in a way he didn’t like was ostracized as much as he and his group could manage. Nowthere’s tons of additional context in thisbut I think it goes to show how some of these things start to become a problem.”Shauna Aura Knight, author, teacher and activist

Do you use the term elder in your practice? How is it used?

In the wake of recent discussions about security and safety at Pagan events, a new organization has formed to directly handle such issues. The Council of the Phoenix is a group of professional counselors, abuse survivors, and concerned individuals who are “motivated to keep the sex-positive community of Pagans safe through educations and guidelines.”

[Courtesy of Council of the Phoenix]

[Courtesy of Council of the Phoenix]

The Council of the Phoenix was initially created by Green Egg Magazine editor Ariel Monserrat. For 16 years, Ariel has worked as a professional psychotherapist for abuse survivors, pedophiles and families experiencing the harrowing affects of abusive situations. When news of Kenny Klein’s arrest was made public, Ariel began formulating a plan. For days she combed through articles and comments on the subject. She said:

I realized that the community as a whole was hurting and that we all needed to have a place to talk about this and to do something to protect our children in the future … [Since] I’ve worked with this a lot and I figured this was something I could do.

On April 2 Ariel posted an open letter to the Pagan community on Green Egg’s home page. In that letter she “put out a call for anyone wishing to participate.” The letter reads:

 I have chosen to spearhead a campaign to establish a central committee for reporting child sexual abuse in our Pagan community. I don’t have a complete plan yet, and I need the input from the Pagan community at large.

Now one month later the Council has “quite a few people on board” with more joining each day. Two of its earliest contributors were Green Egg Web Manager Sylveey Selu, and Klein’s ex-wife and the founding Priestess of Blue Star Tzipora Katz. Ariel considers them both council founders. Sylveey is responsible for much of the groundwork and logistics. Tzipora has contributed “valuable ideas from her own experience” to help with programming. Tzipora says:

[This is] something that I had wanted to see some 22 years ago. When Ariel reached out to me I was only too happy to add whatever support I could so that no one else ever had to feel the isolation and abandonment my own family experienced.

Shauna Aura Knight

Shauna Aura Knight [Photo Credit: S.A.Knight]

Shortly after the open letter was published, Shauna Aura Knight joined the Council in order to connect with others who are “looking for ways to help solve these problems.” As both a teacher and writer, Shauna is often confronted by stories of abuse. She says:

Sexual abuse in the Pagan community wasn’t news to me … Mostly I hear about egomaniacal, emotionally abusive leaders, but I also hear about group leaders and teachers pressuring people for sex, as well as rape, harassment and other abuse. Most of that gets swept under the carpet as “You’re starting a Witch War” or “It’s sour grapes,” or “That’s just he said/she said,” and so people keep quiet. Actually—I’ve been through it myself with an abusive ex who was also my co-teacher. Many times I’ve thought, “How do we change this?”

Casey's picture

Casey Whitworth [Photo Credit: C. Whitworth]

Other founding members include Blue Star Priestess Kristin Barton who has “training in community violence prevention, human services administration and domestic abuse advocacy;” author Tish Owen who has nearly two decades of experience operating a large alternative-religion festival; graphic designer Casey Whitworth who wants her experience as a survivor to help others.

Many of those involved were unable to give their names due to the sensitive nature of their professional work. Ariel says:

We have several people with professional experience who have been counselors or at a management level in social work, and who are familiar with domestic violence and molesting. We also have a [consulting] psychotherapist who has decades of experience in working with sex offenders … We also have several top notch researchers who can do background checks and the like on individuals in our community.

Along with these professionals, Council members also include survivors of domestic and sexual abuse. According to Ariel, these people are invaluable because “they know what is needed in order for healing to take place.” One of these survivors is Donald Bates. He says:

There are too many walking wounded out there … I want to be there for the walking wounded and the children. I have firsthand knowledge of being abused. I was sexually abused, by my uncle for nine years and I personally know how alone and ugly you can feel. The council will be able to open up these avenues for communication, so we can find and connect with the walking wounded and help those that are being abused. That is why I want to be part of the council.

[Courtesy of The Council of the Phoenix]

[Courtesy of The Council of the Phoenix]

While its currently only at the very beginning stages of development, the Council of the Phoenix will eventually offer both professional and peer counseling services as well as education and training for event coordinators and leaders; awareness building; assistance at events for maintaining safe space. Shauna adds that part of that education will be teaching “what consent means and what sex positive actually means.”

The founders are also developing “safe zone kits” that will assist festival organizers work “proactively against violence by promoting a consent culture and healthy relationships in the Pagan community.” A “safe zone” is a private location within the festival that is open to anyone needing to escape an uncomfortable or abusive situation. The zone ideally would be staffed by a counselor or other similar professional who has the training to handle sensitive situations with compassion and clarity.

In addition the Council also hopes to “act as an information clearinghouse” for suspicious behavior; a place to report problems. Ariel says:

We are not trying to start a witch hunt; this info will be kept within our council and only when we have sufficient evidence or very strong suspicion due to a number of reports, will we disseminate this info … We are still working out the details on this, as we all feel strongly that we never want to accuse anyone falsely.

Over the next few months the Council plans to contact festival leaders and organizations in hopes of working in tandem for a safer community. As the program develops and grows, the Council will update its new website and Facebook fan page. It has also set up a crowdsourcing campaign to help fund the project.

Ariel and the other founding Council members are excited about the Council’s huge potential to benefit so many people in so many places. Shauna adds, “I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I believe that some of the steps the Council is looking at are a place to start.”

Correction: The original article said that Tish Owen had been operating a festival for 10 years. The Pagan Unity Festival of Tennessee is now in its 17th year. 

As the immediate shock regarding the arrest of Pagan author and musician Kenny Klein on possession of child pornography wears off, a wider conversation in the Pagan community on event safety and sexual predators begins. Festival and convention organizers consider possible changes in policies while attendees ask for greater protection. Yet it’s unclear if this focus is a lasting trend or a short lived reaction. MerryMeet, a yearly convention hosted by different Covenant of the Goddess Chapters, and CONvergence, a science fiction and fantasy convention lauded internationally for their anti-harassment policies, offer best practices which aim to protect attendees while still allowing an open, diverse event.

Evolving conversation
Kenny Klein’s arrest on March 25th affected the Pagan community deeply due to his decades of traveling the Pagan convention and festival circuit, bringing him into contact with thousands of children and teens. Almost immediately conversations on social media sites and blogs moved from focusing on Klein to looking at how the Pagan community deals with sexual violence and harassment. “I’m far more concerned with, can we look at this as a wake up call for how to deal with sexual abuse, and other abuse, within the Pagan community? Can we call someone out for bad behavior without it turning into a witch war? Can we make it safer for victims to come forward? And at the same time, can we find ways so that Pagans are not wrongfully convicted in the court of public opinion by people who have made untrue allegations?” Shauna Aura Knight in a March 27th post on Facebook.

By April 1st the Pagan community had its first opportunity to deal with conflict between a festival and attendee over scheduled guests. Florida Pagan Gathering had, as they had done in the past, invited controversial Pagan elders Gavin and Yvonne Frost to speak at their festival. Attendees and Florida Pagans, once again, objected to the Frosts due to their book, “The Witches Bible”, which appears to advocate ritual sexual initiation of minors just entering puberty. An organized protest developed and called for the “removal of the Frosts as presenters at FPG and a ban on any distribution or vending of their materials. It’s past time that our beloved community take a stand against those who advocate abuse. Silence = complicity.” Also as in the past, the festival initially stood firm in keeping the Frosts as presenters, noting they expected to maintain high attendance numbers in spite of the controversy. All that changed and the FPG felt compelled to remove the Frosts from the line up after the venue was made aware of the situation and became involved.

Culture change or fleeting interest
Was the stronger, more organized and successful stance by Florida Pagans an outlier or a glimpse at a future trend?

That’s it! If a convention or a festival doesn’t have clear policies, that they actually follow, which protect women and men from creepers, I’m not going. They won’t get another dollar from me.” – Brenna Summer, a Midwest Pagan who says she attends at least one festival or convention per year.

Pagan festival and convention attendees have now spent weeks online discussing past instances where event organizers failed or succeeded in addressing attendee concerns about sexual predators. They’re talking about what worked, what didn’t, and suggestions for event organizers. “I’d like to see confidential feedback about predators made public. Festival goers have a right to know what has happened with other attendees and personnel as delivered in feedback from people who were witness to or on the receiving end,” says Tasha Rose, who attends events in Minnesota.

Other attendees have been on both sides of sexual predator allegations. OtterDancing said she witnessed a man harassing women at a local festival and the man was quietly asked to leave. Yet she’s also seen allegations handled poorly at the same festival. “Six men stormed into our campsite and accused my husband of harassing a 13 year old and verbally assaulted him with out proof. This greatly traumatized my husband and probably lead to his subsequent physical downward spiral. My husband was innocent. It turned out that it was another bald middle-aged fat man that had done this. Of course there were no apologies and I refused to ever go back to that particular gather again.”

As many cases of sexual harassment or sexual abuse happen without witnesses, how are organizers to balance keeping attendees safe without destroying the reputation of persons’ wrongly accused? What steps should workshop presenters take? They can look at best practices both within the Pagan community and outside of it.

Best practices for presenters
David Salisbury, whose books and workshops are often geared towards teens and young adults, says he is rethinking everything in relation to how he presents to minors. Although he feels he has a good system in place, he is making one important change, “I will not teach youth without one or more other adults present.” He also plans to spend more time explaining to adults why he does this so it becomes a more commonplace practice.

David Salisbury

David Salisbury

Salisbury says Pagans need to stop trusting anyone with a book or CD out and encourages parents to ask questions about who is spending time with their children. “If I’m giving a talk to teens, I hope that the adults of that event will ask me who I am, what material will be covered, and the extent of any communication, if any, that will happen beyond the event. Although I don’t want to see our youth cut off from resources out of a sense of paranoia, I think open communication is a must.”

In the world of science fiction and fantasy, over 500 presenters, artists, attendees, and vendors have joined best selling author John Scalzi in announcing they will not attend, present, or vend at conferences that do not have, or will not enforce, written harassment policies.

They require
1.  That the convention has a harassment policy, and that the harassment policy is clear on what is unacceptable behavior, as well as to whom those who feel harassed, or see others engaging in harassing behavior, can go for help and action.
2.  That the convention make this policy obvious by at least one and preferably more than one of the following: posting the policy on their website, placing it in their written and electronic programs, putting up flyers in the common areas, discussing the policy at opening ceremonies or at other well-attended common events.
3.   In cases when I am invited as a Guest of Honor, personal affirmation from the convention chair that a harassment policy exists, that it will be adequately publicized to conventiongoers, and that all harassment complaints will be dealt with promptly and fairly, with no excuses or rationalizations for delaying action when such becomes necessary.

Best practices at CONvergence
Science Fiction and Fantasy (SF/F) conventions have many of the same challenges as Pagan events face. They have a sex positive culture. Attendees may be naked or wearing very little clothing. Pagans may have sex magic, but SF/F conventions have Furries, Vampire: The Masquerade, and other sexual subcultures. Add in alcohol and the carnival like atmosphere of a convention and problems can arise.

CONvergence, a SF/F convention held in Minnesota, is considered something of a gold standard when it comes to safe space conventions. Unlike some other SF/F conventions, CONvergence has never had the reputation of a creeper’s paradise, where attendees are regularly groped and verbally harassed. Yet, while rare, there have been instances where attendees haven’t felt safe or were sexually harassed. When that happens, CONvergence attendees and staff know exactly what to do.

If people tell you “no” or to leave them alone, your business with them is done. – from CONvergence policy on harassment

The policy not only outlines what is unacceptable behavior in clear and simple terms, it outlines what attendees should do to report the behavior and what steps are taken if an individual “stalks, harasses, or attempts to assault you at the convention itself, you may report that individual to a member of Operations (they will report it to the hotel’s security staff who will get the police involved if necessary) or you may report it to hotel security directly, and the appropriate action will be taken. Conversely, any attempt to have an innocent person removed from the convention by falsely accusing him or her of threats will be itself treated as an act of harassment and will be dealt with appropriately.”

Brian Etchieson, a SubHead in Operations for CONvergence, says the con also has a constant patrol of Wandering Hosts throughout the hotel. These volunteers assist the con goers with questions, problems, and troubleshooting. They also have a team of First Advisers on hand who can assess any potential medical emergency and the con has an excellent relationship with the local police department.

Etchieson says they deal with allegations of harassment on a case by case basis. “If it is a case of that guy is looking at me funny, said guy may just get a ‘hey, what gives?’ talk from a Wandering Host. He won’t stop taking my picture is going to get him a walk to The Bridge and he’ll be asked to cease said behavior. Small infractions like this usually get The Talk. Repeat offenders, or Mr. He’s Clearly Hammered may have their badge taken away for the night, effectively banning them from the convention. Said badge only gets returned in the morning at the discretion of an Ops Head. In cases of physical assault, the perp will have their badge pulled immediately. The police will be summoned if necessary or if requested by the member who has been assaulted. The perp may be placed on the Permanent Ban list.”

costumes-are-not-consent-750x1024Along with a clear policy, CONvergence instituted a public awareness campaign, called “Costumes Are Not Consent.” Etchieson says,”The idea of putting on an ‘anti-creeper’ campaign has been bandied about for some time. Ishmael Williams, Director of [CONvergence] HOME Division, threw out the idea of putting out posters. The Ops crew held a brainstorming session and came up with the designs.” It was Etchieson who came up with the “Costumes Are Not Consent” concept.

Christin LeXi Davis, Communications Director for CONvergence, said the the reaction by con goers has been enormously positive. “They love it. We are blessed to have so many talented and creative individuals to help create catchy ways to get sensitive messages out that is positive and fun.”

It was so catchy and fun it went viral. Charmaine Parnell, CoHead of Hotel for CONvergence, said, “The reaction to the campaign has been stunning. When it went viral, we just couldn’t believe how fandom reacted to it. Exceeded all of our expectations. You don’t expect to see your work trending on Twitter or being mentioned at a convention in London during their closing ceremonies.” Parnell said she was also surprised at how it opened up a conversation about women harassing men at conventions by performing ‘kilt checks.’

The Costumes Are Not Consent campaign was targeted to three main groups, which Etchieson labeled as Socially Awkward Fans, Your Actual Scumbags, and I’m Creeped Out. The convention used posters, buttons, video, live performances, and word of mouth to get the campaign’s message out. Etchieson says the Socially Awkward Fans may not understand they are causing anyone discomfort. They need clear rules and a reminder to think about their social approach. Your Actual Scumbags are predators who think a convention is easy pickings. Etchieson says the convention is watching for them and they will take strong action against them.The third group, I’m Creeped Out, is the group that most concerns Etchieson. “We want to make sure our membership knows that it is not OK to let someone creeper on you and, if they do, the Con staff and the rest of the membership have your back. We will listen to you and fix the problem. Because it’s not your fault, and you shouldn’t have to put up with it.”

Best practices at Covenant of the Goddess’s MerryMeet 2014
So how does a Pagan conference compare to CONvergence’s example of best practices? Although the weekend conference MerryMeet is held in different locations and hosted by different Covenant of the Goddess chapters, they rely heavily on CoG’s bylaws for standards of conduct at events. While CoG‘s bylaws may not specifically address sexual abuse, the Merry Meet 2014 committee is considering adding such language to its own convention agreement.

For MerryMeet 2014, the convention committee is requiring each participant to sign an acknowledgement of the rules and regulations for both the event and the hotel. Similar to CONvergence, they are working to have clear and accessible rules of conduct.

Green-Faiths-3ALady Mehurt, Second Officer of Covenant of the Goddess and Registrar for MerryMeet 2014, says they also have a clear way to address onsite complaints. “The Merry Meet 2014 Committee has its own security team led by a professional law enforcement officer. In addition the hotel has its own security force. If any guest has concerns or complaints of any kind, our security team with the help of hotel security will address the situation immediately.”  Lady Mehurt also says they would not allow a speaker or attendee “…who has been formally accused, convicted or arrested of sexual abuse at our Merry Meet Atlanta event. The safety of our guests is of the utmost importance.”

Yet dealing with claims of sexual harassment or violence are very difficult for organizers because the acts are often committed in a private area, without witnesses. Lady Mehurt says there are additional difficulties. “The violations can bring shame to the abused or fear of retaliation. In addition, people have different expectations and definitions of ‘good touch’ and ‘bad touch.’ Those boundaries can change in altered states – either by alcohol, drugs or even spiritual practice.” She says that organizers need to address all accusations and situations carefully, slowly, and compassionately, “for all parties involved until the truth can be ascertained and the best course of action, legal or otherwise, be taken.”