DARLINGTON, Md. — Beneath a tree at Ramblewood, Grandmother Elspeth regales a cluster of students with her stories and philosophy. While she did not discover Paganism until middle age, she’s been living a Pagan life for 46 years, more than half of her existence, and has touched countless others with her rituals, stories, books, and outspoken attitude.
Elspeth Odbert, better known as Grandmother Elspeth, has been traveling to different Pagan festivals and conferences for decades. In recent years her longtime partner Nybor has curtailed his own travel for health reasons, but many a Pagan will still say “Elspeth and Nybor” as if it’s a single word.
At 87 years old, Elspeth recognizes that her days as the “Crone on the Road” are numbered. “I probably only have about 15 good years left,” she told attendees at one of her workshops.
While she doesn’t use the phrase “born again,” Elspeth does speak about coming to Paganism as the beginning of a new life. She was 41 years old; her marriage of 23 years had just ended, and the only material possession she got out of it was the car.
“We lived pretty precariously in those days,” she said, and that might have shaped her attitude about money. She believes that “making peace with money” is something all Pagans must try to do.
“The power of money is trust,” she said, which is an accurate way to describe any of the modern fiat currencies, which are backed not by gold or a commodity, but promises issued by governments.
“I grew up loving Camelot and fairies and the unreal,” she recalled, but didn’t have the language to express those passions at first. “I was wrong all my life,” she said, growing up in a time and place where women were frequently dismissed and sidelined.
At that critical moment in her life, Elspeth decided not to take a corporate job, one which would have provided “more physical comforts,” but not without a price. “I would have gone insane,” she said.
Instead she adopted Paganism as she saw it as a lifestyle, one that depends on interdependence and thoughtful choices. “The first requirement of a free person is to throw your television out the window.”
One can easily see an argument that magic runs through Elspeth’s life. After her divorce, she fell in love, but death took her Joseph from her after just ten years.
As she said in a 2015 PNC Minnesota interview, “one of the founders of Lothloriën came to me with my second beloved who was dying and he sat and talked to us and said, ‘The old gods are alive.’ My Joseph was so thrilled, he always wanted to travel with Pan.”
That thought of the old gods stuck with her. She met Nybor before Joseph’s passing, and one thing he told her, “The natural world is full of magic.” That is how he introduced her to the burgeoning Pagan renaissance.
With Nybor at her side, she got to see much of the revival unfold around her. Elspeth was initiated by Pete Pathfinder, founder of the Aquarian Tabernacle Church. She remembers when Judy Harrow formed the Proteus coven in New York City, and she and Nybor were among the first members of ADF.
“I helped make the robes,” she said. She has many stories and memories that include many of the well-known founders of traditions and organizations; some she tells and some not.
Crisscrossing the country in various campers and RVs, Elspeth has seen Paganism’s rebirth up close and personal. “I was privileged to be around when a lot of stuff happened,” she said.
In terms of theology, Elspeth has much in common with Humanist and Atheist Pagans, although she doesn’t use those labels for herself. There is an “undifferentiated divinity” in the universe, as she sees it; and “we create [the gods]” from that source.
“We need something powerful, because it’s very frightening to be top dog,” she explained. It’s an idea she compares to the ancient Celtic tendency to “personal storms and forces” to connect with them. While she considers gods to be thought forms, “that is not imaginary,” she said. “The gods echo the people around them, and can act on us once created.”
Abrahamic religion took this in a bad direction, Elsepth believes, but it’s a mistake any humans could make. “Once we become dogmatic, we lose touch, separating ourselves with priests.”
However, she finds wisdom in some Biblical teachings, such as the warning that if Adam and Eve consumed that mythical fruit “they would become as gods. My way is not to deny divinity, but to build a personal relationship” with those gods, she said.
Elspeth looks to a time, not very far off to her mind, when human evolution will have progressed to the point where we interact with, and on a level with, deities. Unpacking science, which she considers simply magic that’s been discovered, is but one step in that process.
“A god is one who interacts with all consciousness,” she said. There was a time when humans interacted more easily through techniques such as shape-shifting, but now those lessons are being relearned through the lens of science. “Physics is making us question the nature of reality,” she pointed out.
She does not identify as member of any particular Pagan or polytheist tradition, although she and Nybor did attempt to create an intentional community called Haven at one time. The rituals and tenets of that experiment were non-hierarchical, and often turned Witchcraft traditions on their heads.
“We had eight points of learning, but no degrees,” she recalled. “We got out from the power of the priestess by sharing responsibilities.” For example, it was typical for Elspeth to carry the knife, and Nybor the chalice, when performing the traditional Wiccan great rite.
“Priesthood never appealed to me,” she said, but recognizing the seed of each gender in every person very much did.
The non-hierarchical philosophy went deeper, as well: elemental forces were invited to their rituals, never summoned. Circles were cast hand to hand, not by a single facilitator.
Where these views about gods and science and equality come together, Elspeth explained, comes down to one point: “We are the people we’ve been waiting for.”
For her, Pagans hold the keys to the future in their hands, and “we must focus on the Earth as a relation, not a god or a power.” To bring the planet into community is to save it from the depredations — intentional or not — of human existence.
The 2015 PNC interview ends with a poem she wrote titled “The Challenge.” It lays out those responsibilities as she sees them. “It presents our dream of what we could become in 200-300 years,” she said.
While she and Nybor have both written copiously, she admits that one failing from a business perspective is that she doesn’t have a web site to market their work. She’s been selling on the road in one form or another since 1974, and has focused on what she knows.
In fact, her next book is going to be all about what she knows; it’s going to be called Crone on the Road.
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The work of journalist Terence P. Ward was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth.