Posted by: aediculaantinoi | September 11, 2013

Conceptual Progress in Wider Paganism…

Things have been busier in the last few days than expected (though not always productively); and, they’re likely to get worse over the next five days or so as well…

So, just a short reflection today on something else out there in the Pagan Blogosphere. It’s something I’ve touched on in various degrees before, but a new dimension of the question has come forward, and I wanted to highlight the importance of it.

Peter Dybing made a post recently on “The Burned Out Priestess.” He makes a good point that I think is still largely lost on many modern pagans, whether in fact or in misplaced ideals.

To put it bluntly, the way that Joseph Kramer did (paraphrased slightly) in relation to sacred intimate training: no one should aspire to be all things to all people–it’s impossible.

And yet, too many pagans speak about wanting their leaders to be not only trained in ritual praxis, magic, energy working, and a variety of things that would be traditionally associated with clerical or priestly vocations, but also theology and scholarship, pastoral counseling, crisis management, financial planning, event planning, and also probably dancing, singing, cooking, and a variety of other things.

While I’d be the first one–as an Enneagram Seven–to say that it’s great to try and do as many of those things as possible, another part of me that has learned the hard way over the years that being everything and knowing everything is not only impractical but also actively harmful quite a lot of the time, I can’t really support such statements in the future. I do think that people should stick to what they’re good at, and not try to be everything to everyone; and, furthermore, I think people in general (and I’m much better about this for myself than I would have been several years back) need to also stop having such high expectations for others as well, particularly those in leadership roles within modern paganism.

Part of the problem, I think, is theological in a sense. Because so much mainstream Wiccan-derived paganism is somewhat Celtic in its inspiration, there are a few rather tall orders that come through within that cultural tradition as far as leadership is concerned. Consider the Dagda, Brigid (one of his three daughters), and Lug, for example. All of them are good at many things, and in fact with the Dagda and Lug in particular, this multi- (or even omni-) proficiency leads to their most common epithets: an Dagda because he’s “good” at so many things, and Samildanach for Lug because he is the summer/flower/summit of all the arts. They are portrayed as some of the most important deities and as exemplary leaders…so, should our leaders likewise do as they do?

But, people forget: these are gods, and most humans, I’m sad to say (and yet, not at all!), aren’t. We shouldn’t expect people to be like gods, then.

Or, to put it in other terms that many pagans not only recognize and understand, but also actively admire and quote with approval: Robert Heinlein once wrote:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

And yet, I must point out, many insects have existed in the forms they’re in now for many millions of years longer than humans have existed on the planet. If it’s not broke, don’t evolve it! 😉

With all fairness to the Church of All Worlds, Oberon Zell Ravenheart and co., I don’t think Heinlein–who, let’s remember, was writing science fiction here!–can be taken as exactly expounding a practical ideal or outcome here. I don’t know a single individual who can do all of those things, and very few who can do most of them. And yet, this unrealistic ideal is repeated, quoted, and admired so frequently within modern paganism, and amongst many alternatively-minded individuals in a variety of subcultures today, that it makes many people far more confused than they ought to be, and likewise disperses so much effort for some people who really are trying to be all of those things and do all of those things, when there may not even be much use in them doing so.

I like having friends who have specialized knowledge, because then I can ask them about things that they know about, and they can shine, and I can trust their opinion on the matter because of all the time and energy and study they’ve put into a given pursuit. That means that there is a niche they can fill which few others can, and which I don’t need to compete with them over or within. They’re that much more likely to then rely on me in the areas in which I excel when they are interested in my opinion on them, rather than trying to likewise spend what little time they have trying to get the same level of knowledge or experience that I have.

In what I’ve seen in modern paganism, some people are really good at particular skills: ritual leadership/officiation, ritual planning, particular divination methods, particular technologies of spirit-work, particular arts, areas or certain sources within different bodies of lore, general theology, particular types of theology (e.g. liberation, feminist, process, etc.), specific areas of scholarship, etc. Some skills that have wider applicability are also present in some pagans: event planning, financial management, counseling, etc. Many hands make lighter work, the old saying goes, and thus to have many people with many different specializations is a good thing.

We often forget that in Cath Maige Tuired, in which both the Dagda and Lug have the opportunity to show off how great they are at “everything,” there are also many other individuals who are good at just one thing. The Dagda and Lug don’t by any means replace all of those other individuals by their omniproficiency, they instead then know how best to utilize the skills of those other individuals where they would best be invested.

I’m pretty good at theology; I’m quite learned in several areas of ancient cultures and religions; I’m a decent-enough poet; I’m a fairly good ritual writer and a fairly good ritual leader. But, I suck at financial matters, and motivating people, and event planning, and at many roles that involve leadership in terms of getting people to do things and support causes. I am good (or good enough) at a variety of other activities, and I’m poor to awful at a great many more. All things considered, I’d prefer to have someone more capable than me in certain areas be the leader of the Ekklesía Antínoou, but since I am the elected “leader” for the moment, I’m blessed to be given that duty, and will do the best I can with it. However, when my term as Magistratum is up in seven years, I’ll be very happy to turn over the active leadership of the group to someone else, so that I can continue doing what I’m best at, and leave the day-to-day running of it to someone who has a better knack with those active leadership types of skills. I hope that in the meantime, a large variety of individuals with a diverse body of skills, knowledge, and experience will become involved with the group, so that everyone can potentially contribute in the future in as many ways as possible.

I hope that wider paganism does take the hints given by Peter Dybing on these matters…from the comments on his post, I suspect many people are still missing the point. Oh well…


  1. This has been something I’ve actually been thinking about for a while. I think that this goes beyond just the expectations for Pagan leaders, though. If you pick up a basic Pagan 101 book, chances are high that it’s going to try to teach you a little bit of everything, too. You’re average Pagan is expected to have a massive “spiritual toolkit” for every possible eventuality. Specialization in general seems to be frowned upon in the Pagan community. Hell, even having people who specialize in pure theology seems to be looked down upon.

    • Yes, that’s very true…

      While, on the one hand, I’m of the opinion that almost everyone “does theology” in some sense when they talk about their religion/spirituality, at the same time, that doesn’t mean that everyone is automatically “a theologian.” (Just as me flushing a toilet doesn’t make me a plumber; toasting some bread doesn’t make me a chef; etc.) Too many pagans, I think, assume that because “everyone is their own priest” that therefore they’re also a theologian, magician, and a variety of other things as well. It’s not true, first and foremost; but it’s also not realistic or healthy to be aspiring to do all of those things.

  2. […] when I wrote about conceptual progress in paganism in response to Peter Dybing’s article on leadership and de-coupling some of the concepts from […]

  3. It might be more useful to look at the structure of Celtic society rather than rely solely on the myths. Your point about the omni-talented gods vs mere mortals is well made. Irish Gaelic society was very specialized with its groupings like ollamh (trades’ masters), filidh (poets), and breitheamh (judiciary). There was even the distinction made between the drui and the fáithe where druí could be priests, teachers, poets, but divining was left to the fáithe. Our mortal lives are too brief to be able to build competencies in all things. (This, by the way, might be exactly why insects specialize. With lifespans sometimes ranging in weeks, they have to get up to speed on their vital tasks very quickly.)

    • Although, with the Irish drui, I’m not entirely convinced that they did all of those things, even. We’ve been far too convinced, with very little evidence to support it, that they were exactly like what the Greeks and Romans say of the Gaulish druids, whereas looking at the narrative texts on the matter (as well as the laws), they might have just been “magicians” and very little else. They are said to have been in priest-like roles in the tales that are so late that we can’t discount that they were written with the classical accounts in mind/in front of the authors.

      But anyway…

      It’s also a very excellent point about lifespan and insects.

      Thanks for commenting! 🙂

  4. From my background (trained as Christian clergy with an Master of Divinity, even) I can attest that this problem is not limited to Paganism. Christian clergy professionals are, in my experience, the most burned out set of professionals known to humanity. I used to hang out with these folks every week (as a clergy-in-training I was a junior member of this “club”) and believe me, they were the nicest people you could ask to meet — and very, very crispy critters.

    No one should have to be a generalist “Pastor” in today’s world, it’s just WAY too big a job.

    Oh, and rumors of Christian pastors getting rich are wildly exaggerated, at least in mainstream Protestantism; given the 24/7 nature of the job, it’s probably paid at pennies on the hour.

    • Indeed–and thank you for pointing that out.

      In my M.A. program, I was with loads of people preparing to either be Catholic priests or (mostly) Catholic lay ministers. The lay ministers were usually more dedicated, and would end up doing a lot more work than the priests…which, on the one hand, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But, still, it’s a tall order to expect of either of those vocations to be all things to all people, and likewise with modern pagans.

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