Perspectives: Pagan Elders

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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?


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21 thoughts on “Perspectives: Pagan Elders

  1. Here’s a portion of an essay I wrote on the question of elders a number of years ago. I’ve seen little if anything since then that would make me want me to change what I wrote then:

    “The answer is simple enough: people who want to be elders are almost certainly precisely the wrong people for the job. Most elders fight like grim death to keep people from treating them like elders. Kicking. Screaming. Some of them have a rather nasty bite, too. They’ve got things to be doing that are far more important than letting themselves be propped up on that elder’s pedestal. So what is it that they do that is so all-fired important?

    They give stuff away. Really valuable stuff. For free. How stupid is that?

    What makes elders valuable, what makes elders important, is their wealth of knowledge and experience. And knowledge and experience are the only forms of wealth I know of that can be given away to others without being diminished. Elders teach. They advise and counsel. They cash people’s reality checks: ‘You know, George, that really wasn’t quite the smartest thing you could have done, now, was it?’ They will point out that the Emperor is in fact parading down the street
    stark nekkid, and like as not they’ll already have a blanket handy to
    throw over things so the sight won’t upset the livestock, because they
    remember what it was like the last time something like this happened.

    They’re kind of uncomfortable people to be around, because they because
    they do inconvenient things like setting an example for people, like it
    wasn’t any big deal to live their entire life, both the mundane part as
    well as the esoteric side, with integrity and honor. And elders will tell you what you need to hear, even if you don’t want to hear it.”

  2. Well said, Blaketn, and just what I would have replied. I confess, too, that I’ve always had a bit of resistance to the term because, to me, it comes out of a particular swath of conservative Christianity.

  3. Context is everything. I have the same problem with and objections to the general usage of “shaman”. If the word is not qualified strictly and explicitly, it really has no meaning. Speaking of context, a quick clarification: One can validly make use of shamanic practices, but one cannot claim the title thereby.

    My first rebuttal to the anyone using the title elder is “name the community which elevated you to that status and to whom in your turn you devote your service?” If I have no membership in or affiliation with that community, I am not motivated to offer that person recognition or respect beyond my personal acquaintance with that person.

    Claiming the wider Pagan (or Heathen) population as that community carries a very high standard with it, starting with a public and documented track record demonstrating that the title was earned. Personally, I would offer two examples that meet the standard: Margot Adler and Selena Fox.

    I would also point out that to my knowledge neither Lady sought out that status. In that, I wholeheartedly agree with blakektn on every point he makes.

    • Some people get fairly universal nods for what they’ve done, irregardless to whether they’re precisely of the same tradition or not, but that’s fairly rare to deserve. People who really put in the time and work for years on end are not common anywhere. Both your examples, and a few others come to mind for me, and it’d probably be agreed upon here, but I wouldn’t presume to call them “Elders” here in case they don’t want to be called that. And I can’t blame them if they won’t. Also, frankly, the best tend to be humble, and always striving. Don’t tend to pat themselves on the back and tell everyone they need the best camp site and exclusive meets.
      IA with much you’ve said – I pretty much think it’s kind of off-putting to deputize someone as “Elder” just becuase of age, becuase they’d self-stated, or because they’re tops in their chosen clique. The concept of “Elder Councils” is awkward when there isn’t shared history, training, and aims (and for that “good of all” or “for peace” or similar is nice, but too vague). An “Elder” in one tradition may have not managed even any equivalent of preliminaries in another group, no matter how long they’ve been in practice. A group may have a tradition, a way of view, and there’s a reason there’s such a variety. It doesn’t make sense for one to make decisions about those in another one, for most stuff.

      • Personal story, offered as is…

        My first career was in a rarified but growing industry that served employers with pension plans. Out of professional necessity I became expert in a (very large) section of the Internal Revenue Code (ERISA, for those wishing to explore on their own), and over time acquired a national reputation in the field. Near the end of my career, having decided to not pursue it beyond my current level — requiring a three-or-more year-long certification process — I found myself arguing with my boss about my title.

        “I can’t use ‘actuary’, I don’t have the credentials!” I finally said. He said, paraphrasing, that if I do the work of an actuary, if my clients benefit from my expertise and accuracy, and if my colleagues in the industry recognize me, then I damn well deserve to call myself “pension actuary” and to hell with the credentials.

        I won’t presume to draw that as an analogy to our “elder” debate. I will offer the personal opinion that if a person demonstrates her or his expertise, objectively proves her or his commitment to the beliefs and wisdom of the path, and serves the community thereby, she or he damn well deserves to be seen as an elder whether that word is spoken out loud or not. Ahem. 😀

        • IA-! Starting to wonder if there’s Pagans suffering of “Imposter Syndrome” leading to people being easily swayed and held under ridiculously by those who self-proclaim the credentials of deciding who really is wise, holds eldership?
          I think the Discordian Pope card and Jason Pitzl-Waters cards are applicable (forever) – “Here, you’re an Elder. Go. LIve your life, and meet your g-ds freely with no need for another M/Patriarchal middleperson deciding you can or not, or at what times. Nor do you need someone else to decide what you need to do or your will. Go on, get a life”.
          Again, within a specific tradition, somebody will likely know about another in the group what work they have done that causes them respect. That’s different. 🙂

  4. I did a survey on Pagan elders a few years ago — to see what folks thought of the idea, who thinks they are or aren’t, etc. I left plenty of space for narratives and boy! did I get them. Some vastly different ideas about who’s an elder and what the role of an elder is. Had about 850 responses, which offers a pretty fair sampling, IMO. Have presented it here and there to those interested. It’s possibly a bit dated now, but still available for mining. I speak as a septuagenarian in the meta-community of Paganism, and not as a member of any particular tradition or path.

    • As a frustrated wanted-to-be academic, I’d be very grateful to be able to peruse your “elder” responses. However dated it might be, I believe it could inform the present in valuable ways.

  5. I was at the workshop[ Shauna describes and in that community …. she exaggerates not in the slightest. A person who had been in the community for 5 years got “eldered”

    • For a time in the Chicago area community, it seemed like you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting a self-appointed “elder.” Everyone over 24 was somehow a “High Priestess.” I don’t let that sort of thing bother me anymore. The folks who merit that respect stand out with or without titles, and the rest can lay claim to their delusions of grandeur.

  6. i am 64 this year, i lead my grandchildren, with love as i did with my children -this is my first post here, -i question why anyone would want to lead anyone into any path of belief? tis for each of us to discover on our own -duh, -yes i am a pagan, and am thankful to have found my path through my self, and i thoughtfully leave it up to all others with blessings to find theirs

    • Maura, you ask an important question. My perspective is from personal experience and witness and from the stories told to me by others (second-hand witness, I’d call it), and it comes down to a simple demographic reality: the vast majority of people are not seekers, they are followers.

      Established and mainstream religions bypass the question. They convey their beliefs to the next generation (and newcomers from afar) as a part of their cultural day-to-day life. They fail to challenge; instead, they teach and sometimes impose and take for granted that belief will come.

      Modern Pagans break that chain, naturally and quietly. We create a vacuum of sorts into which most followers find that challenge and do one of two things: they seek an easier path and become followers of another sort; or they find within themselves the seeds of something they can’t name but are motivated to find.

      In both cases, a leader — an elder — is key. It becomes another binary choice between the type of leader, and that is where we get into the debates and arguments about titles and whether they are deserved.

  7. My personal standards for recognizing someone as an elder are similar to Glenweard’s.

    Along those lines, I recall a gathering years ago where a bunch of witches of various traditions, ages, and levels of experience were discussing some topic. One of the less experienced witches asked the whole group, “How can you tell who is an elder?” People gave a variety of answers. The two that stuck with me are 1) “The elders are the ones in street clothes.” (In other words, they don’t call attention to themselves.) and 2) “Elders are the ones that other people ask for advice.”

    The witch who offered #2 gave a corollary, which probably makes the most sense to people who are treated by their communities as elders. This is a rough paraphrase of what she said: “How do you know when you have become an elder? It’s when you need some advice, look around and can’t find anyone to ask except yourself and some people who know about as much as you do.”

  8. Other people have made this point, that eldership recognized by the wider community does not equate to or necessarily require attaining a particular rank or title in some tradition or group.

    Within a group that is organized hierarchically, you may be required to study A, do B and demonstrate your knowledge of C before being awarded the rank/title R, which gives you authority to do S, T, and U. Two things to remember about those ranks and titles. First, the people who legitimately hold them are not necessarily held in equal esteem within the group. Some of them may be right twits, but they fulfilled the minimum requirements.

    Second, titles and ranks have comparable meaning and weight outside the group only for people who belong to a similar sort of group. The rank of lieutenant implies a similar level of authority and expertise in the US Army and Navy. The captain of a charter fishing boat and a captain in the Navy are not at all the same, except that they both command a crew and are expected not to run aground. I may have studied C for twenty years in preparation to do U to my tradition’s standards. If your tradition does V instead of U, I may be an ignoramus by your trad’s standards.

    • (Since I find it likely you’ve been invited to join a few before) What do you think of “Elder Councils”?
      I think they are where selected people in different traditions are asked to confer on stuff and set it to a vote ie. “Elder of X” has a junior member of X who is dealing with a situation, and chooses to ask what to do with said situation up to a vote with “Elders” of Z, D, V, F, B, etc. (all separate traditions)
      Identity of junior member of X is supposedly kept anonymous from most of the Council, but Pagans are a small community and really everybody would know who was being talked about.
      I think it’d be awkward for junior member of X to learn their situation was decided by people who have very little common ground really ideologically with their own tradition or common training with their experience.
      But I think that’s what “Elder Councils” are about.
      I’m just curious if you found them a good idea or have other viewpoints to share

      • I like your question, Mees, so I’m going to add my two cents (change accepted).

        Elder Councils, like American democracy, is a terrible idea until you examine the alternatives. It can’t be worse, and it could be better.

        I hold to the (mediation term) consensus model. I also hold to the notion that a group who wants to be represented must be left to decide who that representative should be according to the criteria they consider pertinent and valuable. If that person for any given group is an erudite teenager, then upon convening the rest of such a Council is expected and required to respect that person as a bona fide representative regardless of their personal or group’s criteria.

      • I’ve never been invited to join an Elder Council of the kind you describe. We don’t have them around here, and I’m not a big enough name to be on any kind of national pagan leadership list.

        I’ve been an active member of the San Francisco Bay Area pagan community since 1973 and have had opportunities to hear how things were done back to the mid-Sixties when the community began. Up until the present, the SFBA community has always had multiple influential leaders and several active organizations, with no person or group being dominant. There’s a lot of cooperation and collegiality. There are also people and groups that don’t care for each other; they pretty much ignore and avoid each other.

        Organizations handle problems with their own people internally. It puzzles me why any organization would think that it needs to go to an outside authority to mediate conflicts or enforce rules among its own members.

        Occasionally a problem does come up that could have a wider effect and seems to require action from a broader group. Many of our elders are active in more than one pagan organization and they have opportunities to get to know each other and work together. If there is a problem, usually some elders who know and respect each other get together quietly, discuss it, and do something informal to handle it. I’ve not been invited to be involved in that kind of action, and that’s okay with me. Treating the local pagan community as if it had some kind of formal government would go against our norms.

        At one time, the Covenant of the Goddess had a committee to investigate charges of ethics violations made by CoG members against other CoG members. It operated partly anonymously. The existence of this committee turned out to be an attractor of conflict rather than settling it, so CoG dumped that procedure and went to a different system which discourages minor complaints.

        • I’m glad to know that it isn’t widespread (I had assumed otherwise) and from my view, CoG was right to drop a similar system, because yes, attractor of conflict, oh geez.
          Thank you.

          • I don’t know whether that kind of thing is widespread or not. All I can say is that I’ve not observed, participated in or heard gossip about it, from my home out here on the Left Coast. I once wrote an essay proposing something similar to an Elders Council. It was roundly ignored by my Craft elders, who IMO had more life experience and common sense than I did at the time.

            It would be useful for someone to do research about the history of such attempts, and do case studies of them.