Culture and Community: The Person Behind The Name

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Our society often equates popularity with worth or with power. The status system created by celebrity culture is not something new, and it exists in many societies. One of the unfortunate side effects of living in a modern day celebrity culture is that it often separates people from the humanity of one another. We see this with celebrities within popular mainstream culture, and we also experience this in the much smaller segments of our own interconnected communities.

Dancing the maypole (courtesy EarthSpirit Community)

(Courtesy EarthSpirit Community)

Modern Pagan communities have their own definitions for popularity status. There are even varying categories that distinguish where people fall on the continuum.Author, Blogger, Ritualist, High Priest(ess), Artist, Musician, Academic or Leader. All of these are not only functional roles within the Pagan and modern Polytheist world, but they are also titles that come with expectations, a bit of status, and some relative privilege. The common use of the internet within Paganism makes it that much easier to know who people are, who is doing what, and where people will be at any given time. Articles go viral in our community, and it can be one of the most effective ways that someone’s name gets recognition.

What does this carry-over of culture mean in our community though? How does this kind of celebrity culture challenge true connection within such a small, overlapping grouping of individuals?

This past weekend several thousand Pagans, Heathens and Polytheists convened once again to the west coast for the annual PantheaCon convention. It is a time where people get to meet, learn and experience the teaching and the works of artists and leaders from around the country. This year’s con embodied many of the people, activities and things that most of us go there to experience. Author and Priest Devin Hunter explained this well in saying:

Pantheacon 2016 was powerful, drama free, and really fun. We were a bunch of Pagans and Witches getting together to share our work and support our common goals as modern mystics. My tradition, Black Rose, hosted a suite all weekend and we presented a deep ritual working on Friday night (The Sacrament of Hecate Triodia). I got to discuss some of the amazing things the Temple Of Witchcraft (Salem,NH) has been doing with their founders, meet fellow authors from all over the country, and host two amazing parties. Only at Pantheacon can you manage to do all of this! This was my fifth consecutive Pantheacon and my favorite!

This was very much like my own experience. It was a wonderful time of meeting, engaging and sharing with others that I would not normally have the opportunity to do so with. But in all the business of the weekend, I continued to think about how the many ways in which we support each other also serve as barriers to equity in voices and genuine relationships with those who are in different places on the continuum. Do we really get to know one another, or are we just familiar with what each person does, or what they stand for?

Lack of genuine connection with the people behind the names can lead to misconceptions about who they are and project unattainable expectations on these leaders, authors and artists. Social media and the workings of the internet make it easier to know a face or a name, but not the person behind those things.

Since I find that I have had to confront some misconceptions about myself, I thought it would be interesting to reach out to several different people within the community to see what misconceptions they often face from others.

Christopher Penczak

Christopher Penczak

Probably the biggest misconception about me and pretty much many of my peers is misconceptions of motivations and just because you are deemed successful what success looks like and how it translates into everyday life. When someone takes the leap to be an author, teacher, healing facilitator, reader, artist or pagan minister, it’s because we feel a call to it from a deep power. We feel a great love for the teachings, the gods and the community and often against our personal preferences and desires, feel guided to act upon it and do.

While there are great rewards and blessing, and I treasure my life and opportunities, there are also hardships.No one really enters this world to make easy money. I could make more in a regular office job with health insurance and vacation time. I’ve gotten a lot of freedom on one hand but miss out on time with friends and family and a lot of the regular security I crave. When folks are off and free I’m often working. Travel is fun but also gets tough when you are away a few times a month. It’s only through the many hats that I wear that I can make a full time vocation and it takes a lot of planning and juggling. When I switched from my first publisher to a larger publisher, I was accused of “selling out” and someone made comment that I bought a house with the advance for that book. The advance could barely cover a month’s rent. And my first publisher rejected the book while my new publisher was interested in a five book series with CDs. But those are critiques I hear directly and indirectly often about well know teachers and authors. – Christopher Penczak

Niki Whiting

Niki Whiting

If I am well known, then I assume it is because of co-founding and putting on Many Gods West. I think people assume that I am the sole person behind this event and that isn’t true! There are others working behind the scenes, but Syren Nagakyrie is a strong force keeping us on track. I have no desire to be the “voice” of polytheism – I don’t think that is even possible! I just want to encourage and support our communities, and by extension find the support and camaraderie I need as well.” – Niki Whiting

Well, I think that the biggest misconception wouldn’t be about me (people don’t really know me personally that much) but about our company. A lot of folks think that we are a) a coven/circle/commune-based community or b) a huge corporate behemoth. We are actually a small family business run entirely by me, my husband, and our kids. – Anne Newkirk Niven

Beverley Smith

Beverley Smith

I’d say that some of those who have known me as a long-time Druid priestess are surprised by my passion for social activism. They are somewhat taken aback to see that I’m very involved in civil and human rights causes. They are sometimes put off by the idea that I actually care. It always surprises and irritates me that many people prefer their spirituality easy and watered down: Witchcraft Lite. And because that’s how they roll, that’s how they expect me to approach my spirituality also.

I don’t believe that we separate our spiritual lives from other aspects of our reality. I don’t feel that sitting in sacred space, smudging, anointing myself with oils, meditating or participating in rituals are any more uplifting or inherently sacred than bringing awareness of injustice, standing in solidarity with the marginalized, and protesting in the street. My sacred space is the space I’m holding as we chant “no justice, no peace”. Nothing can be more sacred to me than to fight for a fellow human’s rights and stand up to evil together.

I am a Pagan. I am a priestess. I am a child, a daughter of the Earth and social justice is my creed. And yes, I am unabashedly, fearlessly, and unapologetically Black.- Beverley Smith

Devin Hunter

Devin Hunter

I think the largest misconception about me is that I am competitive. Competition has it’s time and place in life but I think being a comrade is much more important. I don’t view other practitioners, teachers, or leaders as competition, I view them as members of a big team of people who are on a journey with both shared and separate paths. I think those that know me know that I will bend over backwards to help when I can, especially when it comes to professional advice. I am a pretty simple guy, if you’re my friend I’m always there, if you’re someone I have never met from the internet, chances are I am not going to give you the same degree of energy as those I am close with. That doesn’t mean I view you as competition, I just don’t know you that well. – Devin Hunter

I’m an initiated Witch and a former First Officer of CoG. I am Pagan theurgist. I am a Thelemite, a member of Ordo Templi Orientis and ordained priestess of Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica. The connections between these systems make them compatible; I’ve dubbed this connection “Western Traditional Magic.” However the increasing tendency to pigeonhole practitioners leads people to know my work in only one silo. Witches don’t know my work in O.T.O., Thelemites have no idea I am a Witch. So it’s hard to talk to them about the whole of my work and how the several parts feed each other.

Brandy Williams

Brandy Williams

I’m also seeing the effects of ageism. “In your day that was true, but now…” We associate people with the era of their early adulthood and reject their continuing contributions at right about my age. The Pagan community has just as marked a tendency as the dominant culture to devalue accumulated experience. The local Suquamish tell me “we honor our elders” while Pagans tell me “we don’t need elders.” I find myself longing to be as honored by my own people as my neighbors are by theirs.

It’s especially frustrating to be dismissed as a “second wave feminist.” I’m quite proud that I was active in feminist community as a very young woman and that reforms I fought for have made women’s lives better for decades. Third wave feminism has taught me the importance of intersectionality, especially that that feminist progress depends on confronting racism. Presently the development of feminist thought is framed as generational antagonism –  third wave feminists are “daughters” of the second wave, fourth wave their “granddaughters”, rejecting the feminism of their “mothers” to form their own ideas. This framework hampers our ability to accumulate power over time by building on each other’s work. I don’t see the “waves” as generational but as a sequential development of critical thought structures. I am a feminist who will never stop learning! – Brandy Williams

If we had a chance to get to know one another without the filters of status, or the preconceived notions that we have about our various positions, what would we know about one another? What would we want others to know about us? Here are some answers from those in the community.

Anne Newkirk Niven

Anne Newkirk Niven

One thing for people to know about me as a person? I guess that I care deeply about our many communities, and I don’t have any kind of delusions of grandeur. Honestly, I don’t think of myself as a “well-known personality” at all. But I hope that the work we do is well-known, and, occasionally at least, well-regarded. – Anne Niven

In truth, despite my hard practiced ability to teach and lead ritual in front of groups, I’m a homebody and an introvert. I find big groups overwhelming. I like smaller quiet socialization. I can be social and in groups due to my musical performance and magickal training, but it takes great effort, so if I seem less friendly at the end of the night at an event it’s usually because I’m at the end of my energetic reserves and want some quiet alone time. People are often shocked about that but it’s true.” – Christopher Penczak

Lasara Firefox Allen

Lasara Firefox Allen

I have invisible illnesses. I don’t always have the ability to interact gracefully. Sometimes I just need to be able to chill out. I don’t want people to take it personally if I don’t have the bandwidth for an interaction. Something that will make me warm to someone is when they ask for consent for an interaction. Maybe even making sure there’s space to sit down if we are going to talk for more than a few minutes.

At PantheaCon this year my body was being very cranky and demanding. I had limited time out in the Con because I had to take so much downtime to maintain myself. That made it so that my time was very precious to me. I had to teach and take care of my other duties, and still fit in time with my family, and try to see some friends. Honestly I ended up missing out on most friend time, which bummed me out. – Lasara Firefox Allen

It is most important to me to be kind. My feminist and social justice work is about advocating for increased kindness. To be kind is not to be weak but to be fiercely honest and strong. When people talk to me I want them to feel that they are heard and respected. I celebrate the courage and success of the people around me. It makes me happiest to hear people say “you would be proud of me!” – Brandy Williams

I am really dedicated to helping people find their power, whatever it is. The drive to help others is behind everything that I do.” – Devin Hunter

My older brother is a dancer and grew up attending his classes, recitals, and competitions. I took classes as well and I think in a different version of my life I would have continued. Sometimes at night I think about the possible realities where I am the dancer, perfumer, lawyer, or biochemist; and reflect on how those experiences continue to inform my work.- Lou Florez

Lou Florez, invokes the ancestors, during the interfaith service. [photo credit Clark Sullivan]

Lou Florez invokes the ancestors during the interfaith service. [Photo Credit Clark Sullivan]

We operate in a world where profile pictures are one of our primary ways of identifying who we virtually rub shoulders with in the world. Likewise, we often see one another through the small lenses of roles, jobs and titles instead of human beings with much more in common than not. Our ability to decrease the multidimensional layers of humanity into a two-sided depiction of a person fits right into the fame game of modern society but does not allow for us to sustain meaningful connections.

When people see me in the hallways of a convention or read my article online, they may not know that I get anxious in front of crowds or when I publish an article, and that I am very driven but also very sensitive.

The persona of a person is often seen before the personality; sometimes a name travels further than we imagine. But our ability to see the person behind the name or the title might be the most magical thing we can do for one another.

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This column was made possible by the generous support of the members of Come As You Are (CAYA) Coven, an eclectic, open, drop-in Pagan community in the San Francisco Bay Area.