Paths Between the Pillars

prayer1-277x300I’m about to let you in on one of my dirty little secrets.

Back in high school, and even college, I was “blessed” with the ability to be good in just about any area I chose. I became very used to success: being concert master of not one but two high school orchestras, getting into the college of my choice, getting grants to fund my studies, graduating from said college (one of the Seven Sisters) magna cum laude with departmental honors. Chalk it up to my double Capricorn nature, but I love titles. If I believed in sin, this would probably be one of mine. I’m driven by a (often unhealthy) need to be the best, running at the front of the pack.

Now, at the ripe ol’ age of 32, I’ve been forced to confront that this is not the reality of my life. I do many things well, but I’m not a leader. Not any more.

I’m an awesome beta.

You need a ritual written? Let me get out my pen. You need some props for a ceremony? Hold on, I’ve got some papier mache, duct tape, and extra fabric around here somewhere. You need a divination about your job? I have my cards right here. A protection charm? Let me get my origami paper. How about an editor? I can do that, too. Let me support you in your vision, let me help you create something magical, wonderful, grand. Hel, I can even delegate on good days.

Sometimes, I’d like to think I could be a priest, maybe when I’ve grown up a little more–maybe even clergy. The question is, how much of this comes from a desire to help and serve others, and how much is because “clergy” is seen as the “terminal degree” in the land of Paganistan. (See? There’s that darned Capricorn tendency again.)  It’s a rough and ugly question to ask, but if you’re not asking it of yourself, and you’re on a cleric’s path…well, frankly, you’re not a person I’d want mediating between me and my gods. Nornoriel Lokason wrote a great piece on boundaries and belonging. The following quote particularly struck me:

It is unrealistic to expect and *demand* that everybody immolate their entire beings and become some robot-priest/ess where their entire life is about the gods. This is why there are too many people who feel inadequate as laypeople, by the way, because some folks pontificating from on high are calling for standards that would be taxing even for full-time dedicated priests, never mind Average Jane or Joe.  There’s something to be said about having a work/life balance, and the sort of devotionalism in others that inspired me some years ago now admittedly squicks me the fuck out, because it looks extremely unbalanced, unhealthily so.

That sort of fanatical, “look at meeee!” devotionalism is hurtful, not only to the attention seekers themselves, but to those who would draw inspiration from their experiences. Public displays of piety polarize Pagans and Polytheists into those who would be king, I mean, clergy, and the rest of us hoi polloi. These are not leaders elected out of love by their communities. These are self-proclaimed hierophants, whose One True Way smacks of the worst qualities of paternalistic Evangelical  Protestantism.  It’s a crying shame, because the devotional path could have been viable for the lay person, a way to be close to the gods without having to serve anyone other than oneself and maybe one’s family. That’s not the tenor of the most recent conversations, though, and it’s the reason why I break out in spots at the phrase “devotional Polytheist.” Devotion is quickly becoming the purview of so-called priests, leaving the rest of us where, precisely?

I don’t know that I can truly offer any solutions to the disease of devotion. Perhaps it’s all just semantics, but more and more “devotion” has come to mean an all-consuming obsession with the gods, to the exclusion of a balanced and healthy lifestyle. For my own practice, I use the term “veneration” or “adoration” to describe what I do. When I venerate my ancestors of blood and soul, I invite them into my life to participate in my world as it is, complete with children, pets, housemates, and neighbors. I adore my gods, experience ecstasy with my spirits, all within the container of this very real, very mundane existence.

Blogging and social media create difficulties for the ego. “Likes” and comments and followers create a subconscious popularity contest.  Self-worth becomes attached to the approval of strangers sitting on the other side of the webs of light that connect our keyboards and screens to one another. Maybe inherent nature of the blogosphere itself is one reason why again and again issues are couched in terms of either/or, black/white, chicken/fish. I’ve got to believe there’s another road between the two pillars of “priest” and “lay.”  Maybe there’s a whole highway system in there, just waiting to be discovered. We’re Pagans. We’re Polytheists. We can break the binary patterns of our mother culture and create a true plurality of belief and praxis.

There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground; there are a thousand ways to go home again. ~Rumi

30 DoA #16: Values

16. How do you think this deity represents the values of their pantheon and cultural origins? Whew, well, if you’re going by the Nine Noble Virtues (a modern contrivance, but more than occasionally a useful one), Wayland hit just about every. Single. One. Because the graphic is pretty, we’ll be using this version of the list:


1. Courage. I don’t think anyone would ever argue that Wayland did not demonstrate courage during his ordeal at the hands of Nidud (I don’t think I’ve spelled this guy’s name the same way twice throughout this series, but hopefully y’all know he’s the evil king by this point!). From being captured, to being lamed, to trusting that his swan wife would eventually return to him, the Smith’s got courage in spades.

2. Truth. Ok, this is the one that he probably falls a bit short on, being something of a trickster–tricking the boys to their deaths, tricking Bodvild in drinking the rufied wine, tricking the king into believing that Egil shot him down with an arrow. However, when the time comes, he does reveal the truth to the king, in all its terribleness.

3. Honor. Wayland preserves his own honor by exacting revenge for his captivity; oddly enough, it could be argued that he defends that of Bodvild as well, when he makes her father promise not to harm any offspring of his.

4. Fidelity. Waiting for his swan-bride. ‘Nuff said.

5. Discipline. Crafting 700+ rings? ‘Nuff said.

6. Hospitality. In this instance, Wayland is an example of how not to treat one’s guests, i.e., by laming, inflicting forced labor, and theft, just to name a few.

7. Self-Reliance. For the record, I hardly believe that this was an ancient Heathen value, and more a reflection of Americans’ obsession with rugged individualism. That being said, Wayland is quite ingenious when it comes to getting what he wants. It should be noted, however, that no Smith is an island, and even he relied on his brother Egil to shoot down the birds from which he created his marvelous wings of escape.

8. Industriousness. See 700+ rings ‘n’ things, previously mentioned.

9. Perseverance. Wayland never gives up, even when tortured and forced to work for the king. Holding fast under these circumstances is probably one of the best examples of perseverance in the extant lore.


30 DoA #13: Cultural Issues

Wayland the Chick?

13. What modern cultural issues are closest to this deity’s heart? This strikes me as a rather odd prompt, but then again, I’m not usually one to project my ideals for social justice onto my spiritual practice. However, if there were anything Wayland would be concerned with in our present day American culture, it would be the desire for instant gratification. Perhaps this tendency could even be expanded to a general lack of foresight.

American think they know what they want, and they want it NOW. Sometimes with a “please,” more often with a foot stomp. The tantrums will only increase a resources inevitably become more scarce. Wayland is the embodiment of patience, and of attention to detail. Though I’ve never asked him, I’ve often wondered what he thinks of our “give it to me now” culture. This is a being who first waited for his wife to return, then waited again, biding his time to escape his captors and wreak his vengeance. He is focused, determined and not easily swayed in his path.

In more ways than one, Wayland’s behavior in the lore is anathema to our current modus operandi. If traffic isn’t going fast enough, we indulge in road rage. If we’re sad, we medicate ourselves with food, alcohol, and drugs. We act as if this age of abundance is never going to end, cracking open our Mother’s bones to suck the marrow in a frantic attempt to preserve an unsustainable status quo. We care little about the world we will leave for our children, or more importantly our children’s children’s children. Even Wayland, in his thirst for justice made provisions that his unborn child would not be harmed. That’s more than can be said for the rest of us, blind to the consequences of our momentary satisfaction.

If we are to survive, if any part of our great stores of information and knowledge (notice that I do not include wisdom here) is to be preserved, we must learn the lessons of patience and perseverance on an intimate, physical level. Hone your tools, learn a pre-industrial craft, put some of this amazing opportunity to good use. Practice patience as you persevere against these challenges, cultivate diligence alongside your cabbages.  The slow and steady may not be as glamorous in the short term, but those who heed the Smith’s tale, and others like it, will have a head start–maybe even enough to save a species, if not a world.

Too Many Alphas

The pagan community needs fewer leaders.

As usual, scandal has set the ol’ brain to boiling—in this case the allegations against Kenny Klein. Happily, I came across these thoughtful posts by Yvonne Aburrow and Sarah Lawless (an oldy but goody), which made me consider this idea again, that we actually suffer from too many leaders rather than a dearth.

Throughout the blogosphere I read, “We need more teachers!” Or, “We need to train the High Priestesses and Grove Fathers of tomorrow!” Or, worst of all, “We want everyone to be a leader!”*

No. No, we really don’t.

First of all, not everyone can, should, or wants to be a leader. That’s fine, and frankly, it’s the natural order of things. Leaders provide the public face of a group—having a single point of contact is a proven way to interact effectively with the broader culture. With any luck, a pagan/polytheist leader will also converse with leaders from other spiritual traditions and with government as necessary. They spearhead events, found publishing houses, and raise temples. They have tough, tough jobs, and frankly, I don’t envy them.

However, we have plenty of people for the leadership role already. The problem is not that we need newer, better, more leaders (with frickin’ lazer beams!). The problem is that we need to support the ones we do have. And part of that support includes calling our beloved elders on their shit.

This brings me to my main point: what we desperately do need are good betas.

Often called second-in-commands, or right-hands (or left-hands if you’re a Themelite), these are the people who can act as both assistant to and conscience for our leaders. This requires a certain strength all its own, one that is not generally fostered or recognized in our communities. Betas aren’t flashy. There’s little name recognition for them. A good beta must not be a yes-man or -woman to the resident alpha or Big Name Pagan. They know the rules of the group, and will enforce them equally across the board.

So how do we encourage betas? I wish I had a good answer for that. I think the most important thing is to realize that they are not simply failed alphas. They have their own skill sets that need to be nurtured. Often, betas are the people that the a group member will feel most comfortable approaching if they have a problem. This is where betas can use the most support, in learning how to receive accusations against other group members and not automatically dismiss them because of a power differential. With them rests the responsibility for ensuring that complaints are heard and survivors/victims are supported, especially if those complaints are against a community leader or BNP. The beta is in that rare position of being able to call out a community leader when they’ve violated the rules of the group. It can be with kindness and love, but it still must be done for the bonds of trust within the community to remain strong.

Coming back to the opening sentence of this post, “The pagan community needs fewer leaders,” when accusations are brought, the accuser needs to feel heard and respected regardless of whom they are accusing. If the accuser wants to, support them in filing charges with the authorities. If those accusations are substantiated and convictions are made, we need to act to remove the convicted from positions of leadership within our communities—let’s take a lesson from the Catholics here, and not cover up abuse when it happens.

If supporting survivors means that means we end up with a lack of leaders for a little while, so be it. I’ll take fewer leaders and BNPs of quality over the alternative any day.


*To be clear, if you are solitary, then by default you have sovereignty over your practice. The whole “every man is a priest, every woman is a priestess” (filched from Martin Luther, by the way) is absolutely true when it comes to personal practice, or practice within a family unit—take ye olde pater familias model for example.


Ok, here’s another entry I kinda made up. There’s been a ton written on xenophobia–in fact our agricultural practices show how deeply rooted the fear of the other is in our culture. Part of my own goal when it comes to both my spiritual and physical gardens is to promote diversity as much as possible, i.e., to not exist in a monoculture.

Most uses of the term xenophilia are not necessarily complementary, especially in regards to cultural interactions. In biology, however, it can be used to describe the introduction of a new species which is accepted in the same niche as another species. And this is where those of us who practice traditions rooted in other lands can benefit from the example. Some species that are important to Druidry in Britain and Ireland simply don’t grow in New England. Take yew, for example. There are North American yews, but they are a completely different critter from the long-lived giants of England and Wales. So in my own practice, I see the Eastern Hemlock as fulfilling a very similar niche.

Thus, there are many different ways to incorporate the biodiversity of our surroundings into our spiritual practices in responsible ways. Maybe it’s as simple as substituting rosemary for white sage if you’re not in the desert. Or perhaps it’s fighting the way mechanized agriculture is conducted by growing your own Spiritual Victory Garden. Whatever form your xenophilia takes, embrace the other and live in all the colors of the spectrum.