My first foray into pagan communities was in the early 90s. Back then the spirituality du jour was Wicca, and covens made up a bulk of the pagan communities. There was the occasional sprinkling of heathens, but the ones that I knew well really didn’t do any worship of their deities like they do now. (To be honest, many of them were scared shitless of their Gods and basically worshipped in hopes they wouldn’t piss them off.)
So roles back then were pretty simple; either you were a priest or priestess, a high priest or high priestess (as in, ran your own group), a member of a coven or you were a solitary practitioner. That was about it. Many covens at the time, including my own, had a lot of training going on to ensure the laypeople would be able to participate and run circles of their own. This made a natural transition for more people to step up and be a priest or priestess in time, and in a lot of ways was expected.
When I finally returned to being a physical member of a pagan community about 14ish years ago, I found a very different place than the one I left. Gone were the ‘plug and play’ days of simply invoking different deities in a common ritual and calling it a specific genre or culture of witchcraft. Now there are specific rituals and traditions for specific cultures, complete with their own hierarchical organizations. Ancestral veneration is a huge part of practice, along with more flavors of beliefs in the pagan community than there are stars in the sky.
Because of this diversity, trying to group people together by a specific belief is pretty much impossible. There are too many versions of ways to venerate a specific pantheon of Gods to even comprehend trying to find a universal way to worship.
So instead of trying to come together by belief, perhaps we should consider coming together by traits of beliefs.
I’ve referenced John Beckett’s Big Tent of Paganism a lot because it’s really the only way I have found to recognize differences, yet unite within a specific pagan community. These are clear ideas that we can see where we ‘fit’, something that is still necessary in this pagan environment full of individuality. Pagans still want to feel like they belong and by looking at this tent set up, they can see the ways where they do. So in essence, moving forward with other possible traits to compare and discuss personal beliefs is a good next step. Perhaps it isn’t an additional rallying point for unification for Paganism itself, but it at least is something to discuss.
So in an effort to discuss common traits, I wondered about the clarification of roles; not by using specific cultural words, but using actual traits of roles that could span across multiple cultural differences. The reason is that when we use specific cultural words to describe our pagan identity, the intent of those words is so watered down that their true definition doesn’t match what the person is intending to convey.
For an example, consider words like “Shaman” or “Witch”. They describe intent of work, but what specific type of work? Are the people using the word “Shaman” to describe a core Shamanistic style of belief? Are they lineaged, or are they a hybrid of both lineage and core beliefs? It’s the same with the word “Witch” – are you Wiccan, or are you another breed of witch from a different lineage, or do you use the term differently than it is currently defined?
So ultimately, when describing yourself, the cultural words being used end up describing very little about who we are, leaving confusion regarding personal belief and level of activity in a pagan community. Another big issue is that utilizing cultural words to describe who we are could also be ‘fighting words’ to some who feel they were culturally appropriated in the first place (and that could very well be true).
Is it Time for Clearer Roles?
When trying to explain what role I play in a pagan community, I try to discuss the traits of my beliefs instead of discussing culture or using cultural words. Many times the trait itself translates well across multiple cultures and also allows clearer communication of what it is I actually do. The only time this isn’t the case is when I or someone else is discussing a specific title from a specific tradition, but I’m finding this to be more uncommon as the new norm of pagan spirituality seems to be that pagans are drawn to Gods and Goddesses of multiple cultures. This can further confuse the situation.
In an effort to further look into the possibilities of defining roles based on traits instead of cultural references, I have written a draft of what those roles may look like, complete with my opinions and observations on each. Many times these roles will most likely change as someone learns and grows, which is expected. Our roles can also change because our Gods drag us into the new one kicking and screaming. It’s also possible to stay in one or many of these specific roles for your entire life. Either way is dependent on your relationship with your Gods, your personal goals and the needs of your community.
It is important to note that none of these roles are more important than the other. I see many Pagans thinking that being a priest or priestess for deity is the ultimate goal that is to be strived for and that it will immediately gain the person a high status in the community. This isn’t the case. There are way too many complexities in today’s paganism for us to all be reaching out to be a priest or priestess, and in many ways, it’s a thankless job. Further, in order to serve a healthy pagan community, we need to be striving to have the most variety as possible.
While the role of priest and priestess are necessary, in many ways I feel like the titles have baggage left over from Abrahamic religions. In Christian religions especially, a priest is someone who intercedes on your behalf to the Christian God. A Christian priest is also someone of high status who is looked upon in times of need for wisdom and guidance. In short, they tend their ‘flock’ of believers. In paganism, we don’t NEED to have someone intercede (most of the time). Yet, possibly because of the Christian example, these two titles are coveted and used by many pagans even though they aren’t really ready for them.
I believe a person calling themselves a priest or priestess should have a very strong amount of training. It is best that parts of this training come from an organized and established group or mentor-ship with a well-known teacher. This is not a role that can be easily undertaken with information just gleaned by reading books. A priest or priestess is not only a servant of the Gods they have oathed to, but they are also a servant of the pagan community as a whole. Because of this, their training shouldn’t stop with just learning pagan ritual. They should also have a solid understanding of mental health, training in techniques of nonviolent communication and learning differences (at the very least), and be familiar with mental health and physical resources in their local communities.
Priests and priestesses of a deity also have the responsibility of putting their own ego aside as much as possible. Someone who claims the title of priest or priestess must be able to serve others the way their God wants, or there could be serious consequences. As a priest or priestess, you are now a spokesperson for your God – what they want is now what you need to do. If this means that you have to approach something a different way to ensure unity of a group, then so be it. Most of the people that claim this title that I know also do significant amounts of work in this role…LOTS of work.
Being a priest or priestess is not a status that will quickly bring honor and prestige. By accepting that title you are choosing to do the dirty work of the God you work with. It means being there when someone calls at all hours of the day and night because they are afraid of some sort of sign they see. It means understanding and soothing fears, or working with someone in order to help them recognize their own shortcomings in a manner that they can learn and grow from. It could mean you are now leading a group and expected to teach in that leadership role. It could also mean you are going to be the one called to the hospital for spiritual aid when an emergency strikes (I have seen this happen!) or called to do the work of fellowship in a jail situation. (Yep! Seen this happen too!) Priests and priestesses need to also have patience, as there will be a significant amount of drama that they have to deal with on a regular basis.
Finally, if you call yourself a priest or priestess, you better know the legal ramifications in your state or country for reporting abuse or crimes. Many states require reporting of specific issues, and you may be found liable if you do not report something you were told by someone you were counseling.
If it sounds like I’m pushing back on using the titles of Priest or Priestess, I am. You have to know your stuff. I’ve seen way too many people use that title over the years but then not be able to back it up.
I believe a majority of the pagans in the US today could fit under this role. Many people aren’t called to a leadership role in the community. Instead, they are comfortable in a background role. They are devoted to one or many Gods and Goddesses, and do offerings and work with that deity either in a group or alone. They may or may not have a specific oath to a God or Goddess, but if they do, it’s a personal one that most likely doesn’t include extensive outreach and leadership in a pagan community.
There is nothing wrong with not being in a specific leadership role, being a lay member of a group or just being focused on solitary work. In my opinion, it is the people who are in the role of devoted practitioners that are the most valuable, as it is their needs that leaders need to understand in order to better focus the group as a whole. Without this insight, we who take leadership roles in our communities wouldn’t know how to properly meet the needs of the members, ultimately causing communities to splinter and break up.
Those who are devoted are the ones that show up and make the difference. They are the ones who are willing to engage and send energies. They allow their energies in group settings to be crafted and weaved together to make things happen. These are the ones in the blot who form the bond of family, who make people feel included. And these are the ones that show up and make fellowship happen, even if it is in a simple social media group. Many times it is the devotees of a particular God or Goddess that become the initial contact for many new people coming into this religion, which is a very important role to be in as without new blood, groups grow to stagnate.
There are a lot of people that I see binding themselves to a deity without even realizing it. Loki is a great example of this. Many times I think that has a lot to do with Tom easy-on-the-eyes Hiddleston, who plays Loki for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. People who don’t quite understand what they are getting into decide to become a Loki follower, thanks to his portrayal. They pledge themselves to Loki thinking they are binding themselves to what they see in the comics. And then the flame-haired one appears.
I’m sure the phenomenon also happens thanks to Chris Hemsworth, Anthony Hopkins and probably Ian McShane too (American Gods is a pretty well-known novel after all). But even if you didn’t mean the words in that manner or are surprised at the results, once you have oathed to a God or Goddess you will need to do a lot of work to get out of what you said you would do.
Oaths are very important in the eyes of the Gods. They are not meant to be taken lightly. However, they do have their place, and many people take them for many different reasons. In my own case, the first oath I took to my God was one of intimacy. My God opened me up and looked deep within my spirit, for part of my oath meant that nothing I had within my spirit was kept from him. In return, I learned from him how to transform those pieces of me that were broken and tortured. And by doing so, I gained strength, knowledge about myself, wisdom, self-worth and a sense of peace that I never thought I would ever have.
Oathbound doesn’t always mean intimacy or even free will. Other forms of binding include the God requiring it whether or not the person wanted it. It seems to me that it’s rare when a God ‘claims’ someone, but it does happen, especially in instances of karmic issues or of oaths that had been broken previously. In these cases, the oath a person takes toward a God could be a way of reducing a karmic burden they carry. Another situation could be that the person may have a specific trait that the God or Goddess needs or requests to be used for a specific purpose. In those cases, if you can, negotiate heavily for what you get out of the deal.
No matter the reason, someone who is bound to a God or Goddess will be working heavily with that source of divinity for a long time. They may be pushed into situations they are not comfortable due to their God or Goddess wanting or needing something for them to do. And at times, those situations could mean they are working within the community to connect, protect, or to help others in other ways. At the very least, they may find themselves saying something to someone else without any idea where the thought came from.
This is also not a role or status to be taken lightly. Regular discipline will be required to continue to nurture the connection between the devoted and devotee. The job isn’t glamorous by any stretch of the imagination but in many ways, those who are oathbound receive significant satisfaction through their connections, even if originally they were not given a choice.
This is a category that I put myself into frequently. As an intuitive reader, it is my job to be able to see things that others cannot. It is also my job to be able to communicate those things to the requestor or client in the best manner possible. This also means I and other seers are of service to the community. This can also mean that, like the role of a priest or priestess, there are times when someone is in need that I have to find a way to make it work to help, even if it means moving my schedule around to do it.
Seers help bring solace, understanding, healing, and connections to someone who (at times, desperately) needs it. Seers can help guide people when they are lost, connect them to their loved ones and make them feel like they have control of their lives. It is a hard job at times, especially when there is troubling news to share. But it is still a worthy role.
You don’t have to be reading cards, runes or doing astrological charts to be a seer. My husband is a great example. He has a seeing gift, but it only comes in spurts, which suits him just fine. Every once in a while he will pipe up with a saying or respond with a statement that isn’t ‘his’. It’s during those times I know he’s using his seeing gifts to bring necessary messages (that I’m probably not hearing because I don’t want to).
Although there are many fine, gifted seers out there, getting some sort of training in your preferred medium is an excellent idea. A seer only gets better by doing their craft and honing their skills. They also get better by receiving feedback from their clients and the community they serve. Seers are also another role that encounters people new to paganism, and they have to understand that and adjust their mannerisms appropriately. Finally, If the seer cannot provide additional help or information about the topic their client needs to discuss, it is very important for them to identify other contacts in the pagan community that the client can go to for aid.
Seers should also be aware of the local laws regarding obtained knowledge about situations that could be unlawful. Not only is it unethical to not report this information, but it could seriously wreck your karma by not doing so.
Additional roles could be added, or some could be considered a sub-role to one of the categories above. I’m not certain where a Ceremonial Magician would fall, although I think they may be almost in the middle of all four. I myself recognize that I’ve fallen into every one of these roles sometime during my pagan work and sometimes more than one role at a time. It’s all about what the community, the specific God or Goddess you work with and what your needs are.
I offer these thoughts as a possible way to connect with a fellow pagan; to more easily identify what your identity is without the utilization of possible cultural backlash.
I’d love to have other’s input, as always, and thanks for reading.