“I try to let it pass,” my friend said. “Everyone’s experience is different – but dragons are the thing I really can’t let go. I heard her, and I just had to interrupt, because that’s not how dragons work.” He grinned at me, inviting me into the joke. “You know?”
I have an eclectic practice, so most things are fair game to me. There are only a few topics where my suspension of disbelief crashes to the ground with a screech of bending metal, and I tend to give those topics a wide berth when they come up in conversation – which means I’ve never worked with a dragon or learned much about the people who do.
Still, this seemed unfair. “I dunno if there’s one way that dragons have to work,” I started, thinking of the fire breathing dragon of St. George, the poisonous wyrm of Beowulf, the wise water dragons I’d seen in museums. “I mean, how do you think they work?”
He shook his head, every inch a teacher. “I was taught that they’re earth spirits,” he said. “Huge spirits of nature that we can connect to in order to-“
“Oh!” I nodded vigorously. “Like jotnar.”
He paused, then shook his head. “No, they’re dragons. You know. They work in really specific ways.”
“Oh,” I repeated, and sat back, and wondered how this stranger he had spoken to worked with her dragons.
I have looked at the problem for years, turned it over and examined it from the other side, worried at it and discussed it, and come back to it repeatedly as I moved through different communities.
The problem is this: how, in a spiritual community where so much of our practice is individual and experiential, do we know that we’re interacting with the same beings?
For some, this is a very real question of safety. People that treat spirits as real and potentially powerful beings have plenty of reasons to want to know exactly who they are working with. For them, checking a spirit’s references by touching base with the community is a practical concern, much the same as checking the credentials of a new hire. For others, it’s more of an external resource, a way of learning more about their friends.
In either case, as philosophy goes, the question has always struck me as the nastier version of the old “how do we know we’re both perceiving the same colors” saw. In theory, it’s impossible to know – I can explain the color green for ages, describe the feelings it gives me and the things that I see which are green, but short of analyzing the cones and rods of my eyes I cannot be sure that the sense experience translated into my brain is the same for me as it is for others.
How much harder is it, then, to be sure that the spirits I work with are the same as the ones my friends talk about? I can’t point to anything scientific, can’t explain color theory or references in nature. All I can do is try to capture a feeling, a relationship carried out in signs and symbols, and explain the sense of personality and care I get from half-remembered dreams.
That’s an unsteady thing to build a practice on, especially in a culture that values facts and valorizes science – as most of my friends, thankfully, also do. It’s even harder to communicate. So it makes sense that discernment has become such a key skill, mentioned in almost every class I’ve taken or book I’ve read. They all teach tips for telling wishful thinking, self-reflection, and neurodivergence apart from “real” religious work. At the end of the day, they seem to agree, the only authority on my own spiritual experience is my own self.
This means that nobody can tell me I’m wrong, either. That’s a slight oversimplification – get enough Pagans into a room together and someone will manifest who is willing to fight on the various textual and revelatory versions of the hair color of your god of choice. But the circles in which I travel look to unverified personal gnosis and, more rarely, shared personal gnosis as the main venues through which we conduct our religious lives. These sorts of revelatory truths are personal in ways that mean arguments against them are almost nonsensical. Nobody can disprove my own emotional experiences.
On the other hand, this means that there is no other authority that I can push against. The myths I use in my practice are flawed sources, compiled by people from another religion and another century. The archaeological evidence is incomplete or argued over, unreliable in what it claims to tell me. The history is a patchwork of legends and propaganda, as all history must be. As I bring my own experiences into these contexts and try to cobble together my practice, the only resource outside of myself on how it all fits into a living spirituality is my community. But what good are they?
“You know,” says Bat, “for the Norse, dragons were probably just really big snakes.”
I pause the video we are watching, because it’s impossible for me to read subtitles and process conversation at the same time, and my German is not good enough to follow even a basic conversation. “Snakes,” I repeat. “Like wyrms? Like, big legless dragony things?”
“No,” ze says with a grin. On the screen, Fafnir – neither a dragon nor a snake at this point – grasps his chest as he is betrayed. “Just snakes. The idea is that there weren’t a lot of snakes the original storytellers would have met near home, so when they traveled and saw one – that’s a dragon. Sort of like how mistletoe doesn’t grow in Iceland.”
I think about the sorts of snakes I imagine would be accessible along the trade routes of the first millennia, and the unholy scream I once heard my aunt make after seeing a blacksnake sunning. “I mean – I guess that makes sense. Just snakes, huh?”
“Just snakes.” Ze points towards the screen. “Fafnir’s sort of a jotun, and sort of a dwarf, and sort of a dragon. But probably a snake.”
The other part of this conundrum, for me, the one I watch with a very specific kind of fear, is the consequence of living in an echo chamber.
When I have an experience, naturally I believe it. I build my practice on it, I grow with it as the root of myself. Why else would I be the way I am? As far as I can tell, everyone thinks that they are right. But letting that remain unchallenged for too long seems dangerous to me. That’s the pattern I see in people who have “done their research,” and, hearing only their own echo, have become anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, and conspiracy theorists. That’s the pattern I see in the various Pagan elders who, unchecked in their beliefs, have fallen into antisemitism, Islamophobia, and white nationalism.
There is value in validating experience, and in allowing people to live with a personal understanding of their practice. But there’s also a line, somewhere here, where a diverse community that is willing and capable of arguing with me seems to become not just useful but necessary. I struggle with that line. I struggle with building and keeping community. I am not even sure what I would want it to look like.
There are models for this, for a religious community that sharpens each other rather than fighting to a standstill. I know that they exist, but I haven’t lived them. It is hard to imagine them, sometimes, when the nebulous and hard-won thing that is my own practice feels as though it is under threat. In those moments, I get the urge to wade in and fight the people who are, to my eyes, self-evidently wrong, who have an image of the universe that seems dangerous and malign to me.
The thing that draws me back is knowing there is value in having someone check my work. I have friends who can bring curiosity and compassion to our conversations, even across a huge divide of experience. Occasionally I get glimpses of a group that seems to do this for all of their members. I wonder if Paganism can become a place that harbors shared values and builds an infrastructure offering support to people from across the many different beliefs and interpretations. I wonder what that change would require, and what it would lead to.
Once, there were five people, each with their hand on a different part of an invisible beast. Each, touching a different part, had a different understanding of the monster that they were touching. A furnace, a wall, a snake, a sail. Meanwhile, the dragon sat, with infinite patience, and waited to be seen.