Paganism for Beginners: Group Dynamics

The subject of group dynamics is complex, but one way of observing group dynamics is to ask the simple question, “Where does the power go in the group?” In other words, who is wielding the power?

In many groups, there is an elected or appointed leader. In most churches, the minister is officially the leader – but woe betide her or him if they upset the committee. In Wiccan covens, the leader is usually the high priestess. In a Druid grove or a Heathen hearth, there may be a small group of leaders, or a single leader. Quaker meetings usually have a group of elders.

In a small group, it can be an excellent idea to rotate the leadership role. Different members of the group take it in turns to write and facilitate a ritual. Most progressive and/or inclusive covens encourage their members to create and lead rituals.

Most people find that working in a group with a flat hierarchy is preferable to working in one with a very top-down hierarchy. Flat hierarchies are characterised by shared decision making and informal communication between team members.

Hierarchy in the gull world Two gulls at Ingelwidden, Cadgwith. No prizes for guessing which one is boss!

Hierarchy in the gull world
Two gulls at Ingelwidden, Cadgwith.
© Copyright Brian Whittle and
licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Groups often go through a process of forming, storming, norming, and performing. First the group comes together (forming). Then there is a struggle to resolve the group’s differences (storming). Once that has been resolved, the group’s values, goals, and beliefs converge (norming). Once that process is complete, the group is ready to perform. These stages can actually be a cycle rather than a linear process.

During the formation of the group and the convergence of its ideas, who is in the group, and who is outside the group, will become apparent. This is known as the in-group / out-group dynamic. The formation of the in-group can be a positive thing, in that it makes the group feel closer together, but it can be dangerous, because if the in-group projects its shadow onto the out-group, this can result in persecution of the out-group.

The projection of group members’ shadows onto other people in the group can be a dangerous dynamic. If you are the leader of a group, this a thing to watch out for, as you don’t want one person to be demonised or outcast by the rest of the group. The shadow is the aspect of our psyches that we have repressed because we don’t like that aspect of ourselves, and we often project it onto other people, especially if they resemble the repressed aspect of personality.

Another interesting dynamic in groups is “somebody has to do it” syndrome. This is where one person takes on more responsibility than the others, and an expectation is created that they will always do the task that they have taken on. This might be always being the one who leads the visualisations, or always being the one who calls the quarters, or something else less obvious, like being the person who provides a ritual if no-one else is feeling inspired. The way to break out of this dynamic is for the person who always does the thing to let go of feeling responsible for it, and for the people who never do the thing to have a go at doing it. It also means breaking the ritual tasks down into small manageable chunks so that people who might find it daunting to take on the management of a whole ritual can build up gradually by doing a small piece at a time. Luckily, Wiccan ritual lends itself well to being broken down into manageable chunks.

It is a good idea if the locus of power in a group is visible. If it is not obvious who holds the power, then it will default to the person with the loudest voice or the most stubborn resistance to new ideas.

One way to ensure a fair and balanced approach within your group is to make the rules by consensus. In this exercise (preferably on the first session of the group), ask members to suggest what the rules should be. The purpose of the rules is to make sure that everyone has the power to ask questions, to feel safe in the group, to ensure confidentiality, and to prevent conflict.

The role of the leader of a coven is to empower others and enable them to develop as priestesses or priests. This model is sometimes known as servant leadership – because the leader is mindful that the group is not there to serve them; rather they are there to create safe space for the group, to hold the space, and to empower others to be creative in that space.

Further reading

In my book, All Acts of Love and Pleasure: inclusive Wicca, I explore the issue of group dynamics extensively in the chapter on running a coven.

Inclusive Wicca is not just about including LGBTQIA people; it is also about including people of colour, people with disabilities (both visible and invisible), and working the rituals in a way that includes everyone and enables all participants to contribute.

Wiccan ethics

Model policies, group guidelines, etc

Paganism for Beginners: Finding a group

So you want someone to celebrate festivals with, and to learn from and bounce ideas off. Personally I love having a magical group, because it gives me the opportunity to do ritual with other people, to exchange ideas, and to have conversations about stuff that never normally gets talked about,  and to experience those moments when all the energies of the group flow together and become more than the sum of their parts.

Groups can be awesome if you find the right people to celebrate with; they can also be a bit dysfunctional. The trick is to go about finding a group with your eyes open. If you experience warning signs and feel that the group you are considering joining does not fit your needs, proceed with caution. Finding the right group for your needs can be really tricky. Most people are either incredibly cautious about approaching groups, or touchingly enthusiastic and hence vulnerable.

"Ivankupala" by Henryk Siemiradzki - http://www.abcgallery.com/S/semiradsky/semiradsky7.html. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ivankupala.jpg#/media/File:Ivankupala.jpg

Night on the Eve of Ivan Kupala” by Henryk Siemiradzki. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

It is all too tempting to assume that the group you have found was somehow meant for you, and to ignore the warning signs – but sometimes that is not the way life works, and it is just a really excellent idea to run a mile. If the group you are considering joining tries to tell you that they are the One True Way and that all the other groups have it wrong – run away. Even if the group doesn’t exhibit the classic warning signs, but their approach and philosophy is just not a good fit with yours, then maybe they are not the right group for you, and you are not the right new member for them.

I often come across people who say that they don’t want to join a group for various reasons. Some of them have had a bad experience of being in a group that has put them off. That’s understandable, but not every group is the same. I had a couple of bad experiences, but that didn’t put me off groups completely – it just made me more cautious. Others say that they need to do more work on themselves before joining a group. My answer to that one would be that a group is a great place to work on yourself, because social interaction with others is where personal change and growth usually happens. Another reason for not wanting to join a group that I have come across is being an introvert. That seems like a valid reason. But joining a group doesn’t necessarily mean you have to reveal your deepest secrets or spend vast amounts of time with others; it does mean engaging with them on a quest for meaning and connection.

When you are approaching a group, ask lots of questions.

  • Does the group have ground rules?
  • How often do they meet?
  • Do they expect you to copy out rituals by hand?
  • What is their attitude to disagreement – theological or magical or political? Are they prepared to learn from other people?
  • How do they feel about members being involved with other traditions?
  • Do they value previous experience?
  • Do they value creativity and extemporisation, or do they prefer more formal rituals?
  • Can you meet the existing members?
  • Is there a training process prior to initiation?
  • Can you attend an open ritual before deciding whether to embark on the training?
  • Do they work skyclad?
  • Do they have initiations? How far into the training do these happen?

You should also ask yourself a similar set of questions.

  • Do you want a group that has ground-rules?
  • How far are you prepared to travel for meetings?
  • How many meetings per year are you willing to commit to?
  • Do you want to copy out rituals by hand?
  • How do you feel about people with different opinions from yours? Are you prepared to be challenged in your thinking?
  • Do you have the time and energy to be involved with more than one tradition?
  • What skills and experiences can you bring to the group?
  • What style of ritual do you prefer?
  • Are you prepared to put in the effort of engaging with the training process and learning new things?
  • Are you comfortable with the idea of working skyclad?
  • Are you comfortable with the idea of initiation?

The answers to these questions will vary from one individual to another, and from one group to another. Hopefully, you can find a group whose answers to the questions are a fairly close match with your answers.

Further reading

  • Patti Wiginton, How to find a coven – some excellent advice on networking and how to identify a compatible group
  • Phil Hine (1998), Approaching groups. An excellent article with a really good set of guidelines and a list of warning signals for dodgy groups.
  • Patti Wiginton, Warning Signs in Prospective Covens – excellent checklist of warning signs of dodgy groups, and groups that may be OK, but just not a good fit for you personally.
  • Patti Wiginton, Should I Join a Coven I Found Online? – points out that you should follow all the same guidelines for meeting prospective groups that you found online that you should follow for internet dating.
  • Patti Wiginton, Are you an older newbie Pagan? – for people who are new to Paganism but feel as if all the other Pagans their age are very experienced.

 


This post is part of a series, Paganism for Beginners. All the posts in this series will appear in the category ‘A Beginner’s Guide‘. You can find them by clicking on the ‘FILED UNDER’  link at the foot of the blogpost.

 

Paganism for Beginners: Organisations

Pagan organisations are important because they represent Pagan organisations to the wider world, and connect members of the Pagan movement together. Through them you can find out more about your chosen tradition, and meet other Pagans to celebrate with. Pagan organisations do not claim to represent all Pagans, only their members – but the more people who join these organisations, the stronger, and the more diverse, the Pagan voice in the public square will be.

Pagan handfasting ceremony at Avebury (Beltane 2005) - source: ShahMai Network

Pagan handfasting ceremony at Avebury (Beltane 2005)

Organisations

ADF – Ár nDraíocht Féin: A Druid Fellowship (USA)

The ADF is a Pagan church based on ancient Indo-European traditions expressed through public worship, study, and fellowship.  ADF is working to combine in-depth scholarship with the inspiration of artistry and spiritual practice to create a powerful modern Paganism. They research and interpret sound modern scholarship (rather than romantic fantasies) about the ancient Indo-European Pagans — the Celts, Norse, Slavs, Balts, Greeks, Romans, Persians, Vedics, and others. Upon these cultural foundations, they are working to build a religion that these ancient people would appreciate and understand yet one which has depth and power for modern people. They seek to developing genuine skills in composition and presentation in the musical, dramatic, graphic, textile and other arts. They bring together people trained in ritual, psychic skills and applied mythology to bring the remnants of the old ways to life, and to create a nonsexist, non-racist, organic, flexible and publicly available religion to practice as a way of life and to hand on to future generations.

CoG – Covenant of the Goddess (USA)

The Covenant of the Goddess is one of the largest and oldest Wiccan religious organizations. CoG was incorporated as a nonprofit religious organization on October 31, 1975. The Covenant is an umbrella organization of cooperating autonomous Witchcraft congregations and individual practitioners with the power to confer credentials on its qualified clergy. It fosters cooperation and mutual support among Witches and secures for them the legal protections enjoyed by members of other religions. The Covenant is non-hierarchical and governed by consensus. Two-thirds of its clergy are women.

CUUPS – Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans (USA)

The Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans (CUUPS) is an organization dedicated to networking Pagan-identified Unitarian Universalists (UUs), educating people about Paganism, promoting interfaith dialogue, developing Pagan liturgies and theologies, and supporting Pagan-identified UU religious professionals. CUUPS was chartered by the Unitarian Universalist Association at the General Assembly in 1987.

OBOD – Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids (UK, international)

The Order of Bards, Ovates & Druids is a worldwide group dedicated to practising, teaching, and developing Druidry as a valuable and inspiring spirituality. The Order was founded in Britain 50 years ago by the historian and poet Ross Nichols, aided by the writer and founder of the Tolkien Society Vera Chapman, and fellow members of the Ancient Druid Order, which developed during the early years of the last century out of the Druid Revival which began about three hundred years ago. Read more

Pagan Federation (UK)

Founded in 1971, the PF seeks to support all Pagans to ensure they have the same rights as the followers of other beliefs and religions. It aims to promote a positive profile for Pagans and Paganism and to provide information on Pagan beliefs to the media, official bodies and the greater community. The Pagan Federation regards membership of any organisations that refuse to support freedom of religion and equality of race, gender, and sexual orientation, as incompatible with their aims, objectives and values.

Pagan Federation (Scotland)

The Pagan Federation (Scotland) is a democratic organisation whose membership is drawn from all the Pagan traditions including Wicca and other forms of Pagan Witchcraft, Druidry, Heathenry, Celtic Paganism, Shamanism and Goddess-Spirituality. It is an autonomous national body within the Pagan Federation, Europe’s largest and most active Pagan organisation.

Pagan Federation International (PFI)

One of the main aims of Pagan Federation International is to enable Pagans to network, using the internet and email. It is however also important to be able to contact Pagans in our own countries and to communicate in our own languages.

The PFI  communicates internationally using English as our common language and at a local level we are building up regional contacts in local languages. A number of countries have coordinators who provide regular newsletters, advertising events of interest to PFI members and also including news of local pub moots. Most countries with a substantial amount of members are now also providing websites with the various information packs provided by the PF and translated into the local languages.

Pagan Life Rites (Ireland)

Pagan Life Rites Ireland is a non-profit organisation, operated by a nationwide network of Priests and Priestesses, which offers a range of services to the greater Pagan community of Ireland, including Naming and Welcoming Rituals, Coming of Age Rituals, Handfasting (Marriage) Rituals, Separation Rituals, Croning Rituals, Funerary Rituals, courses and training offered in the various traditions, and events hosted for the community. They offer their services to the public regardless of practice, race, gender or sexual orientation.

Pagan Heathen Symposium (UK)

The Pagan Heathen Symposium is a group of Pagan and Heathen Organisations that actively co-operate on a variety of issues and projects.

Unitarian Earth Spirit Network (UK)

The Unitarian Earth Spirit Network (UESN) is an association of Unitarians based in the UK that seeks to represent a Nature/Earth/Creation centred religious voice within the Unitarian church. The UESN provides a forum for this group and is a recognised, credible part of the British Unitarian movement.

Websites

Gardnerian Wicca

An unofficial and informative website about Gardnerian Wicca, with articles by various Gardnerian Wiccans about various aspects of Wicca and Paganism, with links to other Wiccan and Pagan sites.

Gods and Radicals

A site of beautiful resistance. We Pagans are trying to re-enchant the world, to bring back the magic of the forests and the mountains. We are trying to hear and revere the wild places the sacred forgotten places, the spirits of ocean and rivers and lakes. And yet Capitalism is always poisoning these places because it considers nothing sacred except profit, nothing holy except wealth. To Re-enchant the world, we must destroy Capitalism.

Patheos Pagan

Patheos is a multi-faith blogging platform with channels for different religious traditions. Patheos Pagan is the Pagan channel, with blogs by Pagans and polytheists of many different traditions.

Polytheist.com

For some time, many Polytheists have been seeking a place for discussing their religions, their divine relations, and their living lineages in such a way that effectively maximizes the vastness of the all-connecting technologies of the internet age to reach out to and commune with other like-minded and like-religioned groups and individuals.  In a “manifold” universe populated by myriad entities, autonomies, consciousnesses and willed layers-upon-layers of complex relations, animist sensibilities, and ancestral connections, Polytheist.com acknowledges not only the many gods and goddesses and Their sacred agency, but also the agency of the many cultic communities, devotional disciplines and worshipful fellowships, war-bands, sects and circles. 

The Wild Hunt

The Wild Hunt is the Pagan news blog. It is a daily updated news blog that concerns itself with the events of interest to or happening within the modern Pagan, Polytheist and Heathen communities. Their mission is to raise the standard of journalistic discourse regarding our religions from within and without. Consider it an exercise in advocacy journalism, where a decidedly “pro-Paganism” view is exercised.

The Witches’ Voice / Witchvox

A community resource for Paganism since 1997, Witchvox hosts hundreds of articles and listings of Pagan groups. The Witches’ Voice is a proactive educational network providing news, information services and resources for and about Pagans, Heathens, Witches and Wiccans.

Witches and Pagans / Pagan Square

A collection of blogs and magazines devoted to various Pagan paths and aspects of Pagan culture.

Did I miss someone?

Did I miss out your Pagan organisation or website? Add the details in the comments – please include the name of the organisation, the URL of its website, where their activities are focused (a specific country, or international) and a summary of what they do.

This post is part of a series, Paganism for Beginners. All the posts in this series will appear in the category ‘A Beginner’s Guide‘. You can find them by clicking on the ‘FILED UNDER’  link at the foot of the blogpost. 

Aspects of initiation

Not all Pagan traditions have initiations, but some do. Not all these initiations will include all six of the features listed below. I originally wrote this article in a Wiccan context, but I would have thought it was at least applicable to other initiatory traditions.

In my view, there are six distinct aspects to initiation.

  • There is the inner process of transformation;
  • the initiation by the gods and goddesses (making contact with the numinous);
  • experiencing the Mysteries (that which cannot be spoken, or Arrheton);
  • being given the secrets of the initiating group (that which must not be spoken, or Aporrheton);
  • joining the group mind of the initiating group;
  • and the joining of the lineage or tradition of which the coven is part.

Some of these aspects can be conferred by self-initiation – but the group and lineage-related aspects cannot, and that is the main difference between self-initiation and group initiation. It is not that a self-initiation cannot confer genuine contact with the deities and genuine inner transformation; it is that the coven and lineage-related aspects can’t be part of self-initiation by its very definition. Similarly, if the group into which someone is initiated is not part of a lineage or tradition, then the initiation cannot confer membership of a lineage. (I would like to thank James Butler for pointing out the Arrheton and Aporrheton distinction.)

At this point it might be helpful to lay out the aspects of initiation in a table:

Aspect

Self-initiation

Group initiation
(no lineage)

Group initiation
with a lineage

Inner process of transformation

Yes

Yes

Yes

Initiation by the gods and goddesses

Yes

Yes

Yes

Experiencing the mysteries – Arrheton

Yes

Yes

Yes

Being given secrets – Aporrheton

No

Yes

Yes

Joining the group mind of the coven

No

Yes

Yes

Joining the lineage or tradition

No

No

Yes


In the Eleusinian mysteries, Arrheton was that which could not be spoken of, and Aporrheton was that which must not be spoken of by the initiates.

All six aspects of initiation might not happen at the same time – the timing of the initiation by the gods and goddesses is up to them, and the inner process of transformation is an ongoing process, both leading up to the initiation ritual and continuing after it. After all, to initiate means to begin something.

Let’s now look at each of the six aspects in more detail.


Inner process of transformation

“Know thyself” said the inscription at Delphi, and initiation is a significant step – sometimes the first step – on a journey of self-knowledge: understanding one’s inner processes; finding out what archetypes one identifies with, but then rounding them off into real personality traits by bringing them into conflict with other archetypes. This last idea comes from an excellent book called 45 Master Characters by Victoria Lynn Schmidt; it’s actually a book about using archetypes to write better fictional characters, but it’s also useful from a self-development point of view.

We also need to be aware of the contents of our shadow and golden shadow, bringing them into conscious awareness.

The golden shadow is the characteristics of people you admire, but which you do not recognise in yourself. For example, if you admire someone who is brave, then you probably are brave as well, though you might not realise it.

The shadow is all the aspects of people you dislike, but which you do not recognise in yourself. For example, you might dislike someone because they are lazy, but in fact this might be because you are projecting your own laziness onto them.


Initiation of the gods and goddesses

The deities are both a real experience and a metaphor for some ineffable process – an expression of our relationship with the world of archetypes, the land and the collective unconscious. According to many Hindu schools of thought, the deities are just forms and faces of the Infinite – Brahman at play in the universe.

When we encounter the divine in an initiatory experience, it can be as a result of an initiation ritual, or it can happen when the deities decide it will happen – it’s not really under our conscious control. But the experience is one of great power and energy, of connectedness to all that is – perhaps a vision in which it’s suddenly clear how everything fits together, or maybe a sense that everything is full of gods and illuminated from within.


Experiencing the mysteries (Arrheton)

The awareness of the ineffable nature of the divine – that which underlies what is manifest – cannot be communicated in words. It may be experienced as a result of an initiation ritual, or as a result of some other experience or inner process.


Being given secrets (Aporrheton)

The secrets of a group or lineage are by definition only available from people who already know them. The reasons given for why they must not be spoken vary. Carl Gustav Jung said that people need secrets to create a sense of group identity. My own view is that it is because they are private and can only be understood in the context of the whole culture and symbolism of the initiatory tradition. There is also the argument that the mysteries are revealed in a certain order because they make more sense that way, and people can’t have the secrets till they have reached the right level of initiation. However, we must be careful not to act as if being given access to the secrets was the whole purpose of initiation – it is not, and the idea of getting access to secret knowledge is not a good motive for a candidate for initiation.


Joining the group mind 

Most magical groups seem to have had experiences of the group mind – knowing what is coming in a visualisation before the person leading it has said it; being able to sense where the other participants are in a visualisation; all turning up with the right food to make a feast; and so on.

Joining the group mind is obviously not available through self-initiation, because that is a solitary experience. The sense of a group mind develops gradually through working together, but if a new person joins, perhaps the jolt administered by the initiation ritual, and the shared experience of it, may be what inducts them into the group mind.


Joining the lineage or tradition

The idea of a lineage is that you inherit and have transmitted to you a particular current of energy that is special to your particular lineage, presumably because it has been modified by the people it has passed through, giving it a particular flavour.

There is also the possibility that you become part of the egregore or group mind of the tradition when you have been initiated. This is much more nebulous than the group mind of the working group.

The idea of a lineage may be related to the Christian idea of apostolic succession – but maybe it is older than that. The title of Pontifex Maximus used by the Pope originally belonged to the Roman emperors, as chief priests of the cult of the deities of Rome. Also, many ancient pagan priests became Christian priests, so the apostolic succession of the Christian church also contains lineages from pre-Christian traditions (both Jewish and pagan). More detail on this subject can be found in an excellent article by Tau Apiryon (1997), The role and function of Thelemic Clergy in the Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica.

Again, joining the lineage, tradition or egregore is obviously not possible through self-initiation, because it is a solitary act.


Conclusion

Initiation is a multi-faceted experience and part of a process of transformation. It is not just about the ritual itself, but the experiences leading up to it, and the ongoing processes following it. Some of the transformation is internal and personal, and some of it is bestowed by the deities.