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?
“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
“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
“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.
Also—here’s an anecdote. Once I was doing leadership mentoring and workshops for Pagans in Milwaukee. Some local folks had come to me with a problem—some 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. Now—there’s tons of additional context in this—but 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?