Shapeshifting, Autism and The Little Mermaid

The Little Mermaid was …autistic?

Could be. Could be.

Once upon a time, there was a little mermaid who fell in love with a human prince. She traded her tongue to the sea witch, who gave her legs in return. When the mute girl failed to win the prince’s love, she lost her life and turned to air. –So says Hans Christian Anderson.

Once there was an Undine who fell in love with a knight. She bore him a child and gained a mortal soul, but in time he proved false, betraying her and leaving her stranded in a hot, dry world. –So says Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué.

Once there was a selkie woman whose skin was stolen by a fisherman. Trapped in human form, she bore him a child, but as soon as she recovered her skin, she returned to her home in the sea. So say the folktales.

All three of these tales—three faces of one story—involve water creatures shape shifting into human form, rather than humans transforming into animal form. What a curious emotional stunting we see on the part of humans—in these stories, we do not return love, we do not recognize love, we betray love, we mistake coercion for love. In the little mermaid’s case, there is an inability to communicate…the symbolic loss of her tongue could equally describe the inability of the prince to understand or register her voice.

In the past, when I’ve thought about the figure of the mermaid, the Undine, it has seemed to me an allegory for gender difference. After my four week shapeshifting class, however, I’ve come to understand the value of these stories as tales of shapeshifting.

Shapeshifting is a huge topic, and one four week class can hardly scratch the surface. But one thing that occurs to me even after only four weeks: the trope of shapeshifting gives people a way to frame difference within a population.

The expert-textperts will frame difference another way. They’ll tell you, for instance, that autistic people are emotionally less connected, that they experience a smaller range of emotions and do not feel or understand empathy for others.

Those of us who know and love autistic folk know that they feel all and more than we do, often, and register every emotional shading in the room—they simply don’t have the language to speak it. Or we don’t have the ears to hear.

These stories of the waterfolk who occasionally rise to the surface and mingle with us remind me to stay alert for the variety of intelligences that nudge and stretch our concept of what it is to be human, to be normal. What would it be if we reframed mental difference, psychological outliers, as filled with potential? Gifted, rather than different, strange, wrong, needing to be fixed?

What a curious emotional stunting we see on the part of (neurotypical) humans.

Surviving Climate Change Requires Collective Action

Editors’ Note: This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Pagan community here.

Did Pagan environmentalism fail? I proposed this as a frame for the Patheos Pagan summer series on climate change because the question haunts me. Surely it was too much to expect that the tiny, idealistic Pagan movement of the 1960s and 1970s would utterly change the course of global culture. But I’m not sure we’ve even significantly managed to change ourselves. John Beckett cites a recent study by anthropologist Kimberley Kirner suggesting that though Pagans are somewhat more politically active than average on behalf of the environment, but our sustainability practices are no better.

Why is this?

The most straightforward answer is that, like our neighbors of many faiths, we are subject to economic and social demands and pressures over which we have little control. For-profit corporations have a tremendous influence on United States’ national policy, and few of us feel that our elected representatives are responsive or have their constituents’ best interest at heart. Even those of us who believe in our representatives are disappointed time and time again by the difficulty of making change through legislative means. Feeling disenfranchised by government, Pagans and other environmentalists have often turned to emphasizing individual choices, like recycling, composting, or taking public transportation.

These activities are not entirely useless – especially when public desire for them leads local governments to create structures for doing them more easily and more universally. And yet I can’t help but see the intense focus on individual action as wrongheaded. Ultimately, it makes little difference if one person decides to take the bus rather than driving to the store. We remain part of a society that operates as if our economy will never stop growing, as if our consumption of resources need never cease. Within that framework, we make choices not out of our deeply held values, but out of a need to survive.

Many of us went to college, or trained for a trade, and came out with debt. We sought jobs in a flagging economy and took what we could get, knowing that many of those around us were unemployed. Jobs are concentrated in cities, and many of those jobs require commuting by car, because housing near our jobs is not affordable; and so we increase our debt with car payments. Going forward, we hang on to stressful or meaningless jobs so that we have resources to care for children or elderly or ill family members, because we do not have community resources to help us with these tasks. In our state of isolation and overwork, we buy gadgets and trinkets to give ourselves a little pleasure, pleasure that might once have been provided by social time spent with family and friends. Once trapped within this web of debt and consumption, it is very difficult to get out; removing oneself may mean risking bankruptcy, the loss of access to health care, or threats to the safety and well-being of dependents. These are not conditions we can change through individual action alone.

I do not say that Pagan environmentalism is failing because we are not all already living in self-sufficient co-operatives, traveling by bike, and growing our own food. Nor do I say it because there are no Pagan leaders – Starhawk and John Michael Greer probably being the most visible – who have been working to draw attention to climate change and other environmental issues. Nor is it because there are not Pagans who are modeling sustainable practices like permaculture, or reclaiming practical skills like gardening and weaving to prepare for a resource-scarce future.

Somehow, however, this has resulted in relatively little effective, sustained collective action – by which I mean, the kind of action that creates concrete community support for freeing oneself from the web of debt and consumption. Some of you reading this may (for example) already be growing your own food in self-sufficient co-operatives, to which I say: more power to you; and, do you live in California? Because I’ve been in the Pagan movement for fifteen years, mostly in Texas and New England, and though I’ve seen Pagan families attempting to radically change their lifestyles, it seems like most of them have been forced, over and over, to do so on their own. Perhaps it’s our rabid individualism that’s pulling us down. And yet I find it misguided to condemn Pagans who, by themselves, can’t see their way out of their economic trap. We can free ourselves much more successfully if we work together.

Barn raising. Image by Alexander W. Galbraith via Wikipedia. Public domain.My efforts have begun to focus on collaborative projects that are too small and flexible to be called “institutions,” but still potentially involve more people than my immediate family. If you looked in my recent browser history, you’d find articles about biodiesel cars, raising livestock, real estate prices, yurts, water reclamation systems, and solar energy. I am engaged in collective real estate ownership and am involved with group starting a cooperative living arrangement. I also serve on the board of a self-directed learning center for students aged 10-19. The center provides scholarships for low-income families seeking a creative alternative to traditional schools, and it also offers a robust outdoor program that includes wilderness survival skills – good preparation for kids entering an unstable future. And finally, I try, every day, to talk to someone about climate change in the most low-key way possible… just so they can hear those words from a person they consider reasonable and sane.

This is what I’d like to see from Pagan environmentalism now, a collective action that doesn’t require us to immediately jump out of the web of debt and consumption without a safety net: let’s say the words “climate change” every day. Let’s make climate change the context for all our conversations – about theology, social justice, ritual, cooking and crafts. Planning for the future can no longer be about retirement funds and cute condos in Florida; that era is over. We need to look back to historical crises of the past, like the Depression or World War II, for models of how to survive these changes – with no promise of success. And, knowing we cannot free ourselves from our economic bondage alone, we need to join forces with relatively like-minded people and – horror of horrors – learn to compromise, forgive, and be patient with each other. Our –isms and our desire that our groups or traditions be ideologically perfect will not serve us now. Our efforts must be both intrafaith and interfaith, and we must focus on what we can concretely achieve, not on how we theoretically differ.

Whether we are ready to face it or not, we are in a life or death situation. It is time to embrace our imperfect allies, because that is all we have, and all we are.

A tangled web

This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Pagan community here.

Whenever I confront my personal ethical choices around sustainability and ecology, I realise that everything depends on everything else. One choice may be more sustainable than another, but it may have other deleterious effects. You fix one part of the ecosystem, another gets broken. You try to fix poverty by donating clothes to charity shops (thrift stores) and then discover you have undermined small-scale indigenous clothing manufacture. You buy fair trade goods and then discover that they have been shipped over vast distances.

This interconnectedness of everything shows that we need a massive global paradigm shift, not merely a cosmetic fix to our already broken system. Capitalism – the practice of creaming off profits to give to shareholders and investors who do not contribute directly to the enterprise – created the opportunity to exploit people and resources, and got us into the mess we are in now. I recently watched a documentary on the origins of the industrial revolution, and it was very clear that it could not have got started without capitalism to fund it, and consumerism to drive demand for the commodities that were produced. Manufacturing snowballed in response to the stimuli of investment and consumer demand.

As others have already outlined, we are in a huge mess right now, and we need action. Climate change is already happening, sea levels are rising, species are dying off. It might be worse if there had not been an environmental movement, and if Pagans had not existed. This is also the premise of the excellent book Hope in the dark: The Untold History of People Power, by Rebecca Solnit.

Two things give me hope: deep ecology and trophic cascade.

Deep Ecology is the radical idea that all life has the right to exist, that no one species is more important than another.

According to Judi Bari, “Nature does not exist to serve humans. Rather, humans are a part of nature, one species among many. All species have the right to exist for their own sake, regardless of their usefulness to humans”.

Biodiversity is essential for the continued existence of the living Earth. As part of this biodiversity, humans must learn to live within nature, according to nature’s laws, and learn to accept our role as one among many.
Centre for Deep Ecology

Environmental justice and social justice go hand-in-hand. You can’t solve world poverty unless we are all in right relationship with the Earth:

‘Deep ecological solutions are the only viable solutions to ensuring that every person on this planet has enough food, has enough water, has adequate shelter, has dignity and has a cultural meaning in life. If we don’t follow the path of living in ways that we leave enough space for other species, that paradigm also ensures that most human beings will be denied their right to existence. A system that denies the intrinsic value of other species denies eighty percent of humanity, their right to a dignified survival and a dignified life. It only pretends that is solving the problems of poverty, it is actually at the root of poverty. And the only real solution to poverty is to embrace the right to life of all on this planet, all humans and all species.’

Vandana Shiva

So we all need  to change our perspective to one of deep ecology, rather than seeing environmentalism as some kind of ‘add-on’ to our existing lifestyles.

How will this change of perspective come about? Like any paradigm shift, it started with individuals who were ahead of their time, and has gradually been building momentum. Sadly, so has climate change, but this means more people will wake up and smell the coffee. We can take action to speed up the process of change. We can re-enchant the world that capitalism and the industrial revolution disenchanted.

There are also interventions that can be made to restore ecosystems.

One of the most interesting discoveries of recent years has been trophic cascade. This is the discovery that if you restore a major predator to an ecosystem, other species recover.

For example, restoring wolves to Yellowstone Park resulted in a decrease in elk, but an increase in the tree species that elk would otherwise have eaten, and consequently an increase in beaver and bison, as well as carrion birds which benefit from the remains of the wolves’ kills.

Restoring beavers to river systems has resulted in the creation of more pools, and hence more habitats for fish and plants.

The problems that climate change has brought, is bringing, and will bring will be severe and disastrous. Maybe we can ride out the storm; maybe it is too late; but if we despair and do not act, it will definitely be too late.

Moving Beyond “Environmentalism”

Editors’ Note: This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Pagan community here.

“Has Pagan Environmentalism Failed?” the prompt asks us to consider.

I don’t even know what “Pagan” environmentalism is.

But the question is moot. The “isms” can be thrown away. The world is alive and aware and we are part of it. The world is not dying, but it is possible that we, along with so many other species, are.

Traditional environmentalism will tell you that agriculture in the Midwest in the 19-20th centuries destroyed the great prairie ecosystem. But there is another story, from another culture, that says the prairie is waiting, just under the surface, and will come back when our relation to the land changes.

What does that mean?


Each morning I go down to my office and share a cup of coffee with whatever gods and spirits the day will bring my way, whichever wights the night has left me. Now, you can laugh (and I’m quite sure some of my friends and family do, yes) at the thought of me slopping a couple of tablespoons of coffee into a mug each morning in my office. What’s it gonna get you? What is it for? Nothing happens.  That is missing the point. Through our gift, we acknowledge we have already received, simply by being alive, being present, being part of the pattern.  Through our gift, we weave ourselves a little more deeply into that pattern. We establish connection, relation.

So nothing is supposed to “happen” (except hopefully the coffee wakes me up).

Gift economies have been found the world over. The European settlers misinterpreted the Native Americans’ pattern of gift giving in early contact and hence the offensive and mistaken term “Indian giver” came into being. For that matter, we (for I am descended from those settlers and am planted firmly in this culture) also misheard and misunderstood “potlatch”—a feast where wealth is given away and honor accrued through the giving—turning it into “potluck,” at best a church supper and at worst “luck of the draw.”

We misunderstand the nature of religious offerings if we mistake what is a gift economy for a notion of simple reciprocity or a “prosperity gospel.”  This gift economy emphasizes establishing and maintaining good relation. It’s also about passing the gift forward.


We brought our culture with us… and we were curiously un-curious about the cultures already here—plant, animal, human — for far too long.

We’re still curiously un-curious in how we approach our place in the world. The failure of environmentalism, Pagan-identified or not, as far as I can tell, is—it has not been radical enough. We have understood ourselves as humans as somehow separate and separated from the environment—it is our specifically human footprint  upon a passive and receptive “nature” that traditional environmentalism addresses. If we can “lessen our impact” we can save the world.

I am not interested in saving this world—I don’t even know what that would mean, outside of me trying to protect my privileged lifestyle, which given the reality of most peoples across the globe I have no right to do. I do hope that humans will survive this wave of extinctions because I have a soft spot for our species. But I’m convinced in order to survive our relation to the land must change. We must listen harder, respond more thoughtfully and also more immediately.

The world is alive and aware and we are part of it. The world is not dying, but it is possible that we, along with so many other species, are. “In the midst of life we are in death. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Given this reality, what does it mean to pay the gift forward now?

I say: in the midst of death we are in life—let’s not forget that. We can honor our beloved dead and mourn extinctions personal and monumental, but our allegiance in the gift economy is to the living and those to come.  Listen, grow. Stay flexible. Recognize what symbiotic relationships you are part of, what permacultures you participate in. Play your role. Nurture those around you, be they human, plant, animal, mineral, other.

We must remember our places. We must remember ourselves within these places. What would it be to acknowledge and embrace our own immersion in the land, and our own vulnerability? As someone who is more an indoor than outdoor person, what I’m saying here challenges me. I’m not advocating for some nostalgic back-to-the-land movement. So what do I think must happen?

I don’t have any easy or quick answers tonight, but somewhat vaguely, I can say: the word “pagan” for me is not a question of believing one thing or another. And it’s not a set of practices or rituals. If it’s anything at all, “pagan” signifies  an altered orientation to the world we inhabit. Who  do you listen to and for? Are you willing to attune yourself to river bend? To the passerine? This summer’s rampant Queen Anne’s lace?

We are in life, meshed, snared, scared and dancing still, and have a responsibility to act like it.

Finding Our Differences: My Experience of the Polytheist Leadership Conference

“The witches have departed, leaving no addresses ; the last of them is now somewhere diminishing into distance, headed for the fields of amaranth and asphodel…” (Innes, 1984, p. 37).

As the Polytheist Leadership Conference drew nearer, I realized that the whole affair was an unknown quantity. I had no idea what to expect. I had spent the months prior preparing my presentation, itself a much more arduous process than I had anticipated, and so I had left myself with only the final week before the conference to actually consider just what I was doing. At this point in the game, it was far too late for me to be afraid, but I was certainly apprehensive. I had made a commitment, and had received so much support that I certainly could not back out. Anyway, I had done all of this work, and I would not allow myself to squander it.

Those who are familiar with my writing will know that community is my persistent refrain. It was exactly that which gave me pause. When we speak about community, the thing that we rarely speak about is love. When we do allude to love, it tends to be in a hidden or occluded way, as if this, too, we have surrendered. My fascination with community has been caught up for quite some time in the way that we tend to use the word to mean so many different things, and how we collapse all levels of community into one generic monolith, particularly when discussing religious experience. As recent debates surrounding the apparent unification of Polytheism have shown, Pagan community manifests its own hidden orthodoxies – community acts as normalizing force, a homogenization of spirituality. Is this a manifestation of love?

As the conference drew nearer, I could only return to my most disappointing experience with Pagan community – my trip to PantheaCon in 2013 with my husband and roommate. We found ourselves entirely adrift. It did not take long for us to realize that what we anticipated and hoped for was simply not to be found there. The few discussions that we did manage to strike up with other con-goers quickly guttered, and we were shocked to discover the hospitality suites to be quite astoundingly inhospitable. It seemed that this community was actually quite solidly gated, and that we had simply paid for the privilege of peeking through the fence into someone else’s party.

With all of this in mind, I sat in the terminal, listening to the Pines of Rome playing over the airport radio, waiting to board my flight. More than anything else, I simply felt vulnerable.

 “And so much for the fantasy of the thing. What of its sober reason? One departs from one place because one designs –  or because somebody else designs –  that one should arrive in another” (Innes, 1984, p. 37).

When Sannion told me about the Polytheist Leadership Conference and invited me, back sometime in January or February, I felt as though I had only one option and must, of course, commit to going. My initial fit of vacillation was kept blessedly short by a strong sense of urgency: here was work that needed doing, how could I refuse? This was, for me, the call of community. Yet, community has always been something unsettlingly ambiguous.

Mallory and I spent the drive from the airport discussing politics, one of our favorite pastimes. For a while now, I have had a very hard time disentangling my spirituality from my politics, from my simple way of being in the world. When I express a political view, I am expressing a manifestation of my theology. Yet, this is really not the way that our nation is supposed to work. Politics and religion are inviolate, each in their own domain: we all know the rhetoric of separation, however ineffectual. Yet, how do we construct community outside of politics and religion?

The thrust of my presentation was that we, in America, despite our claims to the contrary, do essentially maintain a civic religion, and that religion is monotheistic. All we have accomplished in our pursuit of religious neutrality is the transfiguration of religion’s central term: no longer are we held in obeisance to God the Father, now we are bound by an image of Truth. My words seemed to be well received. Rhyd and I had been joking, leading up to the conference, that we would be very bad radicals indeed if, between the two of us, we were not responsible for causing at least one bloody nose. It was rather strange, then, to be met with so much agreement.

Religion and politics get so tangled up. Maybe it is time for us, then, to admit that our religious beliefs have profound ramifications. If I believe, deeply, then how can I keep that separate from everything else that I do? Religion, spirituality, are political. Yet, this produces a deep sense of anxiety.

Several times now, I have reflected on how egalitarian the Polytheist Leadership Conference was. There was manifested, in I what I can only describe as an intimate group, a broad range of backgrounds and experiences. While the demographics of the conference did most certainly reflect the demographics of Paganism in general, there was still a great deal of variation. There were people who had been practicing their traditions for decades, and others who were quite new. There were people with advanced degrees, and people with little formal education to speak of. None of that seemed to matter. We had come, and that was enough.

If this was a community, this cluster of less than a hundred people, it was an incredibly heterodox one. We had been gathered together by one single theological principle, the presence of many Gods. Yet, once we had arrived, it seemed to me that this single unifying factor quickly became the least interesting thing about us. Our differences ruled. I think, perhaps, that we began to see, there, a manifestation of love.



Innes, M. (1984). The Daffodil Affair. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, Ltd.

Embodiment and Woundedness: Owning Up to Being an Animal


It’s my birthday month, and I’m sorry to say I got a crown.

Not a sparkly one from some kid-friendly chain restaurant. Not a crown of branches or horns from a Neo-Pagan ceremony. No, I won one of those plastic, temporary tops for a cracked tooth that will soon enough be replaced by porcelain.

Happy Birthday. Feeling older, much?

 I should have taken a page out of your book, Wayland, lord, and asked
if the dentist would carve me a tooth out of bone.


So I’m feeling a little vulnerable, tonight. Aware of my body, more than I usually am, and its tender places, its wounds and scars. This is probably doubly true because I just started a shapeshifting class at Cherry Hill Seminary. Here are the very first sentences of the very first reading assignment:

Owning up to being an animal, a creature of earth. Tuning our animal senses to the sensible terrain: blending our skin with the rain-rippled surface of rivers, mingling our ears with the thunder and the thrumming of frogs, and our eyes with the molten sky. Feeling the polyrhythmic pulse of this place—this huge windswept body of water and stone. This vexed being in whose flesh we’re entangled.

From Becoming Animal, David Abram

What does that mean? What is “shapeshifting” anyway? my friends ask me. For me, the concept of shapeshifting offers (I hope) a way to enter the experience(s) of world more deeply, more fluidly. I’ve been looking forward to the start of class for weeks. But after the first Google+ chat session, I feel more trepidation than anything. The teacher emphasized what a personal journey this is going to be for us.

It’s clear that in order to learn how to move even an inch or a minute away from the usual mundane experience, I’ll have to become a little (or a lot) vulnerable. The adult layers of defense and protection I worked so hard to create? Peeled away.

Shields down, friends. It’s about to get real.


For years, no matter what term/s I called myself—poet, theologian, at-home-parent-trying-to-survive, polytheist, or (as I used to say in a whisper) just a vague-ish pagan-ish sort—my practice has been pretty much the same: a shifting triangulation between historical source/text, poetry, and myth. With this class, it looks like NATURE may be about to assert itself as the fourth leg of that practice. That includes (especially) my own human animal nature, bag of skin and muscle and bone, hair and bacteria. I welcome that. And I fear it too, a little. Abram knows this:

Corporeal life is indeed difficult. To identify with the sheer physicality of one’s flesh may well seem lunatic. The body is an imperfect and breakable entity vulnerable to a thousand and one insults…Small wonder then that we prefer to abstract ourselves whenever we can, imagining ourselves into theoretical spaces less fraught with insecurity, conjuring dimensions more amenable to calculation and control…

It’s completely appropriate and serendipitous that we’re also just back from our annual camping trip up on Madeline Island, in Lake Superior. I have some coastal friends who scoff at the idea of the Great Lakes—it’s not the ocean, they say with a shrug of a shoulder. Of course not. The ocean is endless, absolute.

The Great Lakes are something else again—interior seas. And so they fit differently into the psyche. There have been a couple of blog posts I’ve seen, here and here, in which the authors map out their spiritual geographies. I find the idea fascinating—and I tried it one night with my crayons and sketchpad. It’s not finished yet, but already off to one side, there’s a lake. A large one. When I stepped into the waters of Lake Superior, I recognized the sensation exactly. I’ve swum here before.

Remember when we pitched our tents,
young as we were, above Superior’s gray shore,
and discovered there a steep path to the back
we hadn’t seen before?

On my own map, it’s labeled the Lake of Sorrows, and there have been times when I have had to swim it, ready or no. Maybe someday I’ll write about that. About the temptation to stay there, in the water. Under the water. It was one chapter of a longer journey. Maybe someday I’ll write the rest.

credit: Yinan Chen via Wikimedia CommonsIt was a journey of healing, after a wounding of my own that was a little more serious than a cracked molar. And it’s important to tell our stories, to ourselves and others. But today I wonder—when I move in this essay from Lake Superior itself to my Lake of Sorrows, am I merely imagining myself into one of Abram’s “theoretical spaces less fraught with insecurity”? I’m willing to consider the possibility, although admittedly nothing about swimming that interior Lake feels “more amenable to calculation and control.” Not at all.

Here there be dragons.

You aren’t kidding.


Shapeshifting is partly about knowing yourself intimately, and all your wounds and weaknesses. In the Northern pantheon that I am learning about, woundedness is a common theme. These gods are for the most part not young and beautiful—they have their scars. I’m far from an expert in the lore but off the top of my head: Tyr gives up a hand to bind Fenrir, the wolf that represents Chaos. Sif’s beautiful hair is hacked off (and we all know what that represents, right?). Both Frigga and Sigyn lose their children. Sigyn is burned, scarred by the poison she protects her husband Loki from. Odin the Allfather sacrifices an eye for wisdom, hangs himself for nine days in order to win the runes. And Wayland the Smith is hobbled, and held captive for years. 

He looks at the pictures of Lake Superior on my computer screen.
We call it the Quench.

 Lake Superior?

 Shaking his head. Water. We use water to quench
the hot blade. That is the moment of testing, to see
if what we made will be true, or if it will torque, twist, corrupt.


Any blessing carries its shadow, sometimes for years,
folded like the wings of a bat at noon.
How grateful I am, friends, for that shared memory,
now that I have reached another interior shore,
this time alone, and again to strip down…

We all have our scars and wounds, not all of them visible. Not even remembered, some of them, maybe, until that sudden plunge into a new element. Wish me luck.

 Don’t trust to luck.




Notes and References

The whole poem, “Youth Was Armor Enough” can be found here.

Abram, D. (2010). Becoming Animal. New York, NY: Random House (Vintage)

How to do interfaith dialogue

In the wake of a recent controversy at Patheos, I thought it might be worth revisiting the concept of best practice for interfaith dialogue.

Step 1. Learn everything you can about the other religion or belief system – its history, different movements within it, how it differs from one culture to another.

Don’t look at the most fundamentalist manifestation of the religion and assume that all its adherents are like that; equally, don’t look at the most liberal manifestation and assume that all its adherents are like that. Most religions contain a spectrum of views, from liberal to conservative. Don’t lump all the adherents of a religion together and assume they are all exactly the same.

For example, there are many different types of Islam. The extremists are mostly Wahhabis or Wahhabi-influenced. The Wahhabists are the Islamic equivalent of the Westboro Baptist church.  So saying that all Muslims are like the Wahhabis is like saying all Christians are like the Westboro Baptist Church – patently false and a disservice to all the liberal ones who don’t espouse the hate-filled rhetoric of the Wahhabis or the Westboro group. The Shi’ites and the Sunnis are generally much more moderate than the Wahhabis, who are an extremist sect within the Sunnis. And the Sufis are the mystical ones who were historically persecuted by the other more legalistic Muslims. They cannot all be lumped together. What is more, how Islam is practiced (and what Sharia is like) differs from one Islamic country to another, and from one sect of Islam to another.

Try not to look at the religion through the lens of your own tradition. For example, it may be the case that in your tradition (e.g. atheism, Protestantism) belief, or lack of it, is the most important thing. However, in Paganism and Judaism, practice is the most important thing. A Jewish person will not ask if someone is a believer, they will ask if they are an observant Jew (that is, observing the mitzvot).

Don’t assume that there are exact parallels between something in your tradition and something in the other tradition. Christianity has a saviour; other religions don’t. Some religions have prayer; others have meditation and/or visualisation. Some religions include the practice of magic; others don’t. Pagans have rituals; Christians have services.

Step 2: approach the other religion with respect. Do not belittle its theology or practices or adherents, just because they are different from yours. Don’t assume that people must be crazy to believe in the tenets of the other tradition. And don’t assume that all adherents of any given religion (including your own) all believe the same thing, or follow the same set of practices. (This is the “seventh commandment” of Leonard Swidler’s Decalogue for Dialogue – that religious traditions must come as equals to dialogue.)

The Guidelines for Interfaith Dialogue offered by the Religion Communicators Council offer the following prerequisites for dialogue:

Interfaith dialogue is possible only when two convictions pre-exist in the participants:

  1. No participant is seeking to proselytize any other participant.

  2. The participants are persuaded of the inherent validity and integrity of all the faith groups involved in the dialogue and are persuaded that no group possesses total and absolute knowledge regarding the nature and works of God and human involvement with the Divine.

Step 3: Religions are complicated. Don’t assume that whatever it says in the scriptures of the other religion is the “correct” version of it. Most religions and belief systems have scriptures (yes, even atheism, though opinions may vary as to whether its Holy Writ is The God Delusion or some other book). On top of the scriptures of a particular religion, there are layered, like a palimpsest, hundreds or even thousands of years of practice, rituals, scriptural exegesis (interpretation), commentary, law, breakaway sects, liberalising impulses, conservative impulses, schools of thought, regional variations, misinterpretations, heresies, and general fuzziness, muddle, and fudge.

In addition to the Tanakh (Torah, Nevi’im, Kethuvim – the Hebrew Bible), there is also the Talmud and the Mishnah, both very important in understanding Jewish interpretation of the Torah.

Step 4. Compare like with like: Don’t compare the ideals of your religion with the practices of someone else’s – compare ideals with ideals, and practices with practices.  (This is the “fourth commandment” of Leonard Swidler’s Decalogue for Dialogue.)

Step 5. Follow the ground rules for dialogue and respectful listening that would prevail in any group situation. It is possible to disagree without denigrating the other person’s views.

I don’t think it is necessary to seek agreement, though it is a good idea to start the process of dialogue by establishing areas of common ground in order to establish trust. Religions are very different ways of approaching the numinous, and cannot be reduced to a single paradigm.  Your mountain is not my mountain, and that’s just fine.

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Pagan leadership

“I think it is absolutely essential that people think for themselves because unless they make their own contact with the inner planes, they won’t have any power. This is enormously important that people do not slavishly follow anyone’s lead. I hope witchcraft never has any gurus or leaders. I know that people have criticised Gerald Gardner; I have myself but he once told me, the power is in you and you have to bring that power out.” – Doreen Valiente 1

Does the Pagan movement have leaders? Do we need them? What is a good model of leadership?

I don’t think there is anything wrong with having leaders, but it depends what you mean by leaders. If you mean the kind of people who empower, nurture and teach others, those are the leaders we want. If you mean the kind of people who block others’ access to the numinous, and fleece them of large amounts of money, we don’t want those in the Pagan community – but frankly they would not get very far anyway. Even those paid leaders who work hard and serve others don’t make a lot of money.


Moina Mathers in priestess garb

We might have a lot of leaders, but I don’t see a lot of followers. Pagans are not sheep, we are goats. We don’t really have congregations (which is basically Latin for “flock”); we are more like tribes. There are many people who serve the Pagan community in an administrative or representative capacity. There are many people who share their thoughts on blogs and in books. There are some leaders who want power, admiration, and followers (fortunately these are fairly few and far between). But I don’t think leaders who want to get rich quick or have a lot of followers will get very far within the Pagan community.  Pagans are too independent-minded.

Sometimes Pagans’ independent-mindedness can backfire, as any time someone looks even vaguely like they are on a pedestal, someone will come along and knock them off it. It is good to check first whether the person actually wants to be on the pedestal, or whether they would rather get off it.

Incidentally, I have a small team of people with instructions to kick me up the backside if ever I start exhibiting the symptoms of a Big Name Pagan with a lot of neophytes in tow. This is unlikely, as I am too lazy to organise my own life, let alone anyone else’s.

My approach to leadership is to seek to empower others, and enable them to write and facilitate ritual and so on. However, not everyone who joins a coven wants to write and facilitate rituals, and that is alright. They may have other abilities which could be nurtured.

In Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wicca, every initiated Wiccan is a priestess or priest in their own right. However, a first degree is a priestess or priest unto themselves; a second degree can be a priestess or priest to others; and a third degree to the rest of the community. This is not a hard and fast rule – it is just that the degrees are not expected to take on being a priestess or priest for others until they attain the higher degrees. It is also worth remembering that in Wicca, witches are held to be ‘the hidden children of the Goddess’ – in other words, we do our public service covertly, not necessarily advertising that we are witches. If someone asks me for help, they do so because I have a sympathetic manner, not necessarily because they know that I am a witch. We don’t need to wear a special hat – if we are any good, people will recognise the qualities of witchiness in us, and seek our help.  I don’t hide the fact that I am a Wiccan, but I don’t advertise either.

In OBOD Druidry, there are also three grades – Bard, Ovate, and Druid.  The Bard is a storyteller and uses words to enchant. The Ovate is more shamanic and prophetic. The Druid is more of an all-round magical practitioner. It is worth reading OBOD’s explanations of what each grade does, as it is more complex than I have suggested with my simple summary.

In Heathenry, there are goði and gyðja (priests and priestesses) who are generally selected by acclaim of their group, because of their experience, or end up leading rituals because they are the most experienced.

In Religio Romana, priestesses and priests are expected to have a sincere calling to the deity for whom they wish to be a priestess or priest, and to carry out research on their chosen deity, and to worship the chosen deity in their home.

In my experience, even if some leaders of Pagan groups let it go to their head for a while, they soon learn that they are leader by consent of the group, and if they do not care for the needs of all the members of the group, and nurture and empower their members, people will leave.

The best Pagan leaders are those who listen – both to the promptings of spirit, and to their group members. A Pagan leader should not regard their community as serving them, but feel that they are serving the community (which includes other-than-human beings). Those who think they are elders are probably not elders; one gets that title by being acclaimed by others (and not just by virtue of being old, either, but by having wisdom and experience). In return, the community should value those who serve. They should not be expected to cover their expenses from their own pocket; if they spend time preparing a day or weekend workshop, and travelling long distance to deliver it, then they should be remunerated for their time, skill, and expenses.  I do not think people should ever pay for coven training in Wicca, but I do think leaders of public workshops should be adequately remunerated. We need an organic approach to paying clergy.

When I was high priestess of my coven, I was in that role because I was the most experienced member of the group. As high priestess, I encouraged members of my coven to develop their skills in ritual and magic, so that they could also design and facilitate ritual. If a new member wanted to join, every member of the group had to agree that they could join (it was not just on my say-so).

What are your thoughts on Pagan leadership? How is it in your tradition? Please share in the comments.

Thanks to Julie W for posting the Doreen Valiente quote in the Centre for Pagan Studies Facebook group – as you can see, it inspired this post.

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A Hereford Lantern corn dolly

A Hereford Lantern corn dolly (Wikipedia)

It is surprisingly hard to design rituals for large numbers of people that can involve everyone in the ritual.

Some of my more successful attempts at creating ritual involving large numbers of active participants have happened at Lammas.

 Doing vs. Observing

“Ritual has to be more than just theatre, and that’s often where things go awry in larger rituals. It often feels like there’s one group of people doing the ritual while everyone else is simply observing it. The quarters are called but the only people who are a part of the process are the six or so folks standing in the center of the circle. What are the other thirty supposed to be doing? Are they even clued in to what’s happening? Ritual shouldn’t be passive, and if you find yourself or those around you passive during ritual something’s not working.”

 Jason Mankey, quoted by John Halstead in a post on ritual design.

Traditionally, Lughnasadh was celebrated with games in honour of the goddess Tailtiu (pronounced Tahl-tee), the mother of Lugh. So it seems appropriate to have a game in one’s Lammas ritual. Obviously the origins of Lammas (Hlaf-mass in Anglo-Saxon) are different from Lughnasadh, but in contemporary Pagan practice, the two festivals are often splurged into one, in much the same way as Yule and Christmas are a glorious smorgasbord of customs and traditions.

The Harvest Game

I got the idea for my Lammas game from J G Frazer’s The Golden Bough – so of course it is of highly dubious historical authenticity. It is also great fun.  Frazer says that harvest traditions in many regions of Europe involved the reapers cutting the corn (wheat) with their scythes, until they reached the last clump of wheat in the field. At this point, the corn-spirit that inhabited the field was believed to have taken refuge in the last sheaf of corn, and this was cut with a special ritual, and bound up to be made into corn dollies.  (Note for North American readers: when I write corn, I do not mean maize, I mean wheat.)

The Harvest Game involves two teams, the reapers and the corn. There is also the hare, who is the Corn Spirit. The job of the corn team is to try to protect the hare. The job of the reapers is to try to catch the hare. The reapers chase the hare, and the hare hides amongst the corn. If a reaper touches a member of the corn team, they are out and can no longer take part in the game. Eventually the reapers catch the hare, and then they throw grass heads or stems at him or her.

The Lammas mime

The other ritual for Lammas that I devised for large numbers of people was to divide the participants into small groups of about six or seven people. They were then asked to come up with a simple and silent mime to represent the story of Lammas. They had about ten minutes to devise this. Then the groups took it in turns to perform their mime. One group mimed the death of the Corn King; another mimed the cutting of wheat; one mimed the funeral of the Corn King. All the mimes were different, and it was a surprisingly effective way of experiencing the harvest theme of Lammas.

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