Seeking a better definition: Pagans explore manhood

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Paganism, together with the many subcultures that are often associated with it, is a place where strong women are both common and respected for their power. The challenge this poses for men is finding a way to relate to, and partner with, women and others without falling back on a stereotypical bag of tricks that relies upon physical strength, aggressiveness, and an implicit threat of violence.

Opting to be subservient is not an option for many self-identified men, who desire to use their masculine gifts positively rather than deny them. The other extreme, embracing the take-no-prisoners macho approach that contributes to undercurrents of misogyny and an implicit acceptance of rape culture, is even more distasteful. The Wild Hunt spoke with several men with experience working through these issues.  Perhaps not surprisingly, those explorations are often in the context of ritual.

Wrestling members of the Brotherhood of the Stag and Wolf (photo credit Lyle Hawthorne)

Wrestling members of the Brotherhood of the Stag and Wolf [Photo Credit: Lyle Hawthorne]

One of the ways that the overculture falls short — for men and women alike — is in the diminished value given to rites of passage. For many American youths, obtaining a driver’s license is the only acknowledged transition into adult life, and it’s a poor one. Pagan boys and men who recognize a need for something more may be able to undergo a rite of passage with more spiritual depth.

Pagan Spirit Gathering and Rites of Spring each have such ceremonies available, but they are not alike. PSG actually has two distinct tracks, one for boys who are growing into adulthood, and another for adult men who are seeking a rite-of-passage experience that wasn’t available to them earlier in life. The children who grow up in and around the EarthSpirit Community can choose to undergo a rite of passage at RoS when they come of age.

We spoke to the organizers of the two PSG rites to learn more about how they differ from each other. Bob Paxton coordinated the Young Men’s Rite of Passage for four years, and said that “there are two components to this: 1) orienting the young men and their parents toward their impending independence, and 2) giving them some context about what their communities will start to ask of them.”

Parental involvement is required, and the process begins by interviewing the boys and their parents separately. “We ask them probing questions and record their answers, and we compare notes afterwards.This tells us a great deal about how synced up the young men & their parents are, and reveals much about any frustrations with the family dynamic.” Both the parents and the boy must be on board for this process to unfold, he added:

We push them pretty hard on this — sometimes they’re only there because the parent made them, and it’s our job as facilitators to tell them it’s not the parent’s decision to make. Sometimes the boy chooses not to go ahead then, and that’s for the best. At the end of that interview, we go through a ritual separation process, which sends the parents off to reflect on this change while plugging the young men into a community of other young men who have been through this in prior years & can act as peer mentors.

The notes from those interviews are reviewed by Sages, who prepare what Paxton called individually tailored “wisdom packages” for the young men. “In the final rite, which is held at night-time, we send the young men through a mentally and physically-challenging ritual journey where they receive challenges from the 3 Fates, a Warrior archetype, and the panel of Sages, then I deliver some final words about community expectations and send them off howling into the night with the tribe of slightly-older young men who then expand their ranks to include them. That group of young men commonly stay in touch year-round.”

The encounter with the Fates, he said, is designed to directly challenge societal gender roles. Paxton explained, “Those three manifestations of feminine divinity are sharp, strong, direct and uncompromising, and that’s a core part of the Mystery. How does that impact a young man’s journey of discovery? It directly counters the common masculine ‘power-over’ teaching, at a place in his life where he’s primed for change.”

He summarized the process:

We pick our coordinators carefully, from people we know to be good and fierce and gentle men. We get to know each person who comes to us for passage rites, and we personalize what we pass on as much as possible — and, having sent them through these extended explorations of themselves while primed with the things they need to hear, we acknowledge them publicly within the community as men who have made commitments to our shared values.

For adults who missed the opportunity for such an experience, there is also the Men’s Personal Rite of Passage Experience (MPROPE). Zero, one of the current coordinators, spoke about what drives men to participate:

The most common thing I hear from our men is how they want to do better in their family role, whatever that may be. Some men want to be a more understanding or stronger husband, while others a more patient or confident father. Some of the younger have more commonality in that they really want to be seen as a man. They want to accomplish and endure things to earn respect from those they care about, and from themselves. We try to be sure that the men share their thoughts with each other, so they know that there is no one true way to be a man. Not every man does his part by mowing the grass, fixing the car, being the tough guy, or working in the factory all day. And it would seem, for the most part, that they are able to see that.

That informs the underlying goals of the MPROPE. Zero said, “We do not believe that if you deviate from the role society says you should be in, that you are not a man. Being the homemaker is just as valuable as being the breadwinner. You can be the comforter and nurturer, and still be a man. It is when you accept yourself, better yourself, and do your part that you truly become a man.”

The adult men’s experience involves community service, sleeping in the woods alone with one’s thoughts and one’s gods, guided meditation, and both brotherhood and solitude. “We offer them a safe space to speak of their strengths and insecurities. We give them opportunities to reflect on how they see their role in their families, as well as communities, and how they can strengthen that role by strengthening themselves,” Zero said. The men are also pushed to their physical limits, but that is individualized to ensure no one is excluded. “I’d rather push them through mud in a wheelchair myself than to have them feel like they couldn’t take part,” Zero added.

Public Domain / Pixabay

Public Domain / Pixabay

Even as participants in these rites seek to define their own manhood, no external definitions of what makes one a man are imposed. However, that was only made explicit recently. “Before this year, no one had asked about transgendered men,” Zero said. “No one had stepped up for the rite itself. I didn’t know if it had just never come up, or if there was a precedent. So, I spoke with my co-facilitator, and we were in immediate agreement. A ritual that is meant to be a tool for a man to find his inner strength, to realize their potential as a man, can be perfect for someone making that transition. To deny them that chance would not only be unfair to them, but it would go against the very reason we keep this going.”

Paxton is in full agreement, and said, “In short, we don’t check equipment. Whenever I’ve done any men’s-specific programming (be it rites of passage or things like the Men’s Ritual at PSG), my approach has always been that anyone who identifies as a man and wants to hear what I’ve got to say about manhood is welcome.”

While a powerful, ritual experience to set the stage for manhood as a Pagan is important, that role can be chipped away by societal norms and expectations. Ongoing support is also important for men who don’t wish to fall into uncomplimentary stereotypes when they are not in the company of other Pagans. That piece of the puzzle is the focus of the Brotherhood of the Stag & Wolf, a group which was formed by a group of young men who had undergone rites of passage in the EarthSpirit Community.

Donovan Arthen, one of the founders, spoke about what these men do, and why:

In 2003, a group of seven of us came together because we all had this shared desire to explore what it meant to be young, strong, and present men in our community, which was and is a community that is deeply connected and rooted in powerful women. The sacred feminine is part of the Pagan world, and growing up with that was really wonderful. For me, it gave a different perspective on what it meant to be a woman, and a man.

At 15 years of age, Arthen was one of the youngest in a group that included others nearly 30 years old. Together, they asked, “What does it mean to be a man in this community? Strong, present, not an oppressor or a predator? How can we be partners and peers, stand next to amazing women in our community, and be together without being dominant? How can we help each other to be that?”

Those explorations started on the beach at Rites of Spring, guided by one of the first points they agreed upon: men’s groups often petered out, and these men felt it was because there was too much talking. The solution was to bring in exercises from martial arts. They started with a variant on a Tai Chi exercise of touching hands: two men, eyes closed, touch hands and keep them in contact as they move. “We move around with our hands, feel the energy, and try to score a touch on chest. There are so many ways to do that,” Arthen explained. “We quickly learned how we can pull, or use stiff arms to keep you away, maybe encourage you to touch, or be totally fluid so you never know where they were going to be.”

Next, they added sumo-style wresting, where one bests one’s opponent by forcing them from the ring drawn in the sand, or getting them to touch the ground with anything other than the soles of their feet. Their activities started drawing more interest, both participants and audience, and it became clear that a change of philosophy was in order. Arthen said:

Some people got hurt, it didn’t feel like success, because it reduced trust, not built it. We re-investigated and came up with cooperative competition. The root is we are creating a space for men of all ages — some who were fathers, some older we wanted to learn from — creating a place where men could come together and build trust, camaraderie, develop understanding of each other and sensitivity in themselves to better walk in the world as a man in their definition. It’s about instead of pushing someone out or down, both people pushing each other up. In every interaction I see you, I respect you. I see some of who you can be, and are. I want you to push yourself to be who you can be.

Those watching the wrestling were told that neither cheering nor jeering was acceptable, and instead they simply stood witness to the struggle of two men, while also standing ready to catch either if needed. That idea dovetailed with the rule of 80%, which Arthen describes as, “Use only 80% of your strength; save the other 20% to catch your brother.” The emotional connections flow from the physical ones. “They push through physical and emotional processes, talking and deeply sharing, and there are opportunities to ask for help in a safe space from peopl they can rely on. When someone goes flying, three people are there to catch him. It’s a group for safe space to explore and encounter different kinds of men. One man can express his own manliness in so many different ways. This group gives that opportunity.” And again, the only requirement to participate in these annual activities is adulthood by rite of passage or not, and self-identification as male.

The brotherhood itself is not men wrestling on the beach, however. The core membership gave some care to select totems which would reflect their spirituality. Arthen explained:

The stag in so many cultures is epitome of maleness, the archetype of man.” The mythological king stag emerges from the herd for the season to lead. “We see that each one has the king stag inside of us, and it emerges and the others follow. You don’t have to be the leader all the time, you must trust in the power and skill of each other in different situations. We don’t have a leader or a leadership council. We are all peers, and leaders emerge in moments. It’s about shining, taking a role in leadership, and being in the front.

On the other hand, “The wolf is only as strong as its pack, and is symbol of brotherhood, interdependence, and interreliance. A lone wolf is a dangerous wolf, starving and cast out for some reason, sick and scared. A pack is healthy, looks and watches, takes care of each other, works in concert males and females, offering a place for those who identify as men.”

Shrine of the Brotherhood of the Stag and Wolf

Shrine of the Brotherhood of the Stag and Wolf

Upon those foundations they have spent the intervening years learning how to meld their role as men with their beliefs as Pagans. That includes the development of seven balances, pair of conflicting values which men should strive to embrace in equal measure, such as persistence and mutability. Much of that work is done in in a shrine of megalithic stones that the brotherhood built in Massachusetts after raising money via a crowdfunding campaign. With a permanent home, only recently did the founding members start discussing how and if their work could be replicated in other Pagan communities. “We are so rooted in EarthSpirit, we’ve had to ask, if we share or lead an experience elsewhere, what would that look like?” Arthen asked. Much of the group’s values have been unspoken until recently, when they started thinking about a defined pathway for accepting new members.

Defining and living healthy roles of manhood is a continuing struggle in a society where the denigration of women is still often acceptable, and the deference given to men is unconscious. The roles, which are clear while circling a sacred fire at a Pagan festival, become much murkier in the office, the locker room, and the political arena. While there are some opportunities to explore, and support a healthy and supportive role as a man within Paganism, the communities still are small compared to the mores of the over-culture, which still blatantly denied women the right to vote less than a century ago.

It is, however, a good start.