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On the notion of Pagan “Elders”

The term “Pagan Elders” has never rested well with me as a cultural convention.  Believe me, I am grateful for those who have gone before, those who have courageously blazed the trails, taught, led and agitated.  I am so delighted to honor these people, but I do so at my own judgment, not because I am compelled to by convention.  I find this term, elders, problematic in that it apes our perceptions of “respected tribal elders”, and thus smacks to me of appropriation.  Similarly, the term “ancestors” to reference contemporary Pagan thinkers who have made important contributions and who have passed on also rubs me the wrong way. I know many Pagans for whom ancestor worship/ritual is an important and useful concept, and I’m not saying I don’t resonate with that term when appropriate (for me it is related to my actual family).  As the term is becoming more widely used in Pagan cultural discourse rather than being tradition specific, as suggested by the Cherry Hill Seminary “Pagan Elders and Ancestors” series of courses, there seems to be a movement toward a type of institutionalization of the term that could do with some closer consideration.

What is wrong with the terms “teacher”, “thinker”, “theorist”, “philosopher”?  Not only do I think those are very fine titles, but then I choose my associations to schools and teachings without feeling coerced by some sort of imagined notion of kinship.  I certainly wouldn’t go around referring to Aleister Crowley as my “magickal ancestor”. That would just feel…weird to me.  When someone has philosophical positions I admire, in my view, it empowers both of us when I affiliate with their teachings based on their merit.  I also simply like the concept of encouraging contemporary Pagan philosophers, and despite my critiques of traditionality in general, something in me likes the continuity it suggests.  It also suggests that someone’s life work is worthy of respect for reasons aside from their longevity. Additionally, I think the term “elders” has the added effect of downplaying the significant intellectual and cultural contributions of women within modern Paganism.  I just think the very act of publically recognizing women as thinkers, agents and leaders is critically important.   Simply referring to these women as “elders” says very little about actual achievement, certainly not to the world outside of modern Pagan culture.

But the real point here is actually the one about appropriation.  There are currently some quite seriously misguided, in my view, attempts to legitimize contemporary Paganism by associating it with the world’s indigenous religions.  Claiming that modern Pagans are struggling under the same conditions as, say, the Native Americans or Native Australians is highly disingenuous and also disrespectful.  Of course, European Pagans suffered under the spread of Christianity,  but to claim that we today are those people, or frankly even historically or culturally equivalent, is a real twist of history, and is also massively disrespectful to peoples today who are struggling so directly with colonization, displacement, and the effects of genocide.  Furthermore, in having worked as an anthropologist with an indigenous population for nearly 20 years, I find that the conflation of religion with indigenaity is also problematic and reductive.  Many Native Americans are, in fact, Christian, and this makes them no less Native American, just as some of the people I work with are Pagan, Methodist, Anglican, Buddhist, the list goes on. Certainly there are places where our rights to worship are being challenged, and some may be outright persecuted, but I think that in the modern world the intellectual idea of freedom of religion alone should be sufficient to justify our practice.  We don’t need to be hitching our wagon to dispossessed peoples who have genuinely earned the voices they have.

I realize that the notion of modern Pagan elders and ancestors probably emerged from the counterculture of the 1970s, and reflects a spirit of egalitarianism and the values we want to see, including respect for people who have contributed a lifetime of work to their tradition. However, times have changed, and the suggestions of tribalism that such language suggests carries different associations now, some of which may not be appropriate or sensible to adopt. As Pagans, we should feel confident enough to simply be who we are in the modern world, and be sensitive enough to choose our words wisely.





  1. R.M. McGrath
    Posted May 31st 2011 at 11:55 pm | Permalink

    I agree with the term ‘elder’. It does sound like an appropriation.

    But at a certain point, isn’t most of Paganism appropriation? The appropriation of Celtic celebrations as “sabbats”? The appropriation of Masonic terms used in Wicca? The appropriation of ceremonial magic/occult terms and symbolism?

    Not to mention the appropriation of the ‘witch’ stereotype and associated terms. Unless you’re a strict Reconstructionist, everything in Paganism is appropriated from somewhere else, is it not?

    How or why is the use of the term “elder” different from that? Because it’s appropriating something Native American?

    • Amy Hale
      Posted June 1st 2011 at 12:07 am | Permalink

      Good points, but I think there is a real difference between borrowing and appropriation. With appropriation, you generally find a context of political, social and economic disparity surrounding the activity, where the stronger group appropriates from the weaker, generally in order to increase their cultural capital. Borrowing when done under conditions of greater equity is a perfectly normal cultural act, and it’s not like the Masons are going to be disempowered by other groups borrowing their ritual structures (although if I’m wrong I’d love to see that argument!). Aside from that, I’m not convinced one can really be a strict reconstructionist of anything. The contexts for practice are too different.

      • R.M. McGrath
        Posted June 1st 2011 at 12:22 am | Permalink

        Thanks for your reply! I’ll have to mull this over.

  2. MichaelOsirisSnuffin
    Posted June 1st 2011 at 4:46 am | Permalink

    Well said!

    The problem I have with the term “elder” is that it is extremely subjective. There is no clear definition of the qualifications necessary to attain the title, other than you have to be old. Furthermore, a person who qualifies as an elder in one pagan group may not be recognized by other similar groups. I’ve seen it happen among Wiccan groups, and I’ve also seen it happen in the OTO. Membership in the elder club is often non-transferable.

    One must also consider the words of the great philosopher-bard Robert Halford: “You don’t have to be old to be wise.”

  3. Moses
    Posted June 1st 2011 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    Thank you, this is certainly food for thought. I actually like the term ‘elder’ in a pagan context. To me, it is about honouring experienced practitioners from whom I learn, and whom I appreciate, not specifically for their teaching, but for their attitudes, opinions, storytelling skills and so on. I attribute great importance to community – for me it is more ‘village elder’ than ‘tribal elder’.

  4. Phil Hine
    Posted June 1st 2011 at 11:48 am | Permalink


    Back in the late 1980s, there was a move to form a “Pagan Council of Elders” from within PaganLink – a large pagan networking alliance which was very active in the UK in the late 1980s-early 1990s. I forget offhand what prompted it initially, but I’ve probably got some of the original arguments in a box somewhere. I recall that it was going to be vote-based, and there was some kind of “election” procedure, but it ultimately came to nothing.

  5. elnigma
    Posted June 1st 2011 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    Howdy! got here from Lupa’s journal. “Ancestor” as alternative doesn’t work unless someone is passed on. I haven’t found any Ancestors who don’t appreciate the notice, but not all Elders are in any rush to become said.
    I’m okay with “teacher”. Some traditions don’t call their senior members “Elders” and haven’t since before the “Elder” tag began, and use of the term would get a glance like “you saying I’m old?”
    Then I remember people jockeying to be called an “Elder” at a gathering where those accepted officially in said clique would get special housing, etc. And not all said “Elders” had any group that trusted them or tolerated their presence let alone anyone learning anything other than “this person’s rude and sociopathic, avoid them”. They were good at self-promotion for all of five minutes, then their personality would show out. (How are said title qualifications like “Elder” set, if nobody that can point to them and say “that person taught me in x tradition”? )
    Accuracy or usefulness aside, I don’t think of “Elder” in this context as necessarily use from Native Americans. I know some who are deep enough in their lore that would use it in respect and response to the tree and what She represents.

  6. Alison Goodchap
    Posted June 1st 2011 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    The term Elder is NOT a Native American approbation, it IS a term that has been used in my life time in my living society outside of Paganism. I am 60+ I was born in Wales in the UK.

    However I do not like the term Elder not because it has tribal associations, as it hasn’t to those who were brought up outside of the States, but because too many of us old farts are using it to boss others around, when they have no business to do so.

    You don’t deserve respect just because you’ve been in Paganism for a long time, you get it for who you are and what you’ve done. So in this case while I don’t agree with how you got to your conclusions, I do agree with the result.

    • Amy Hale
      Posted June 1st 2011 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

      Thanks, Alison, for this perspective. I appreciate it. I can’t say exactly where the term comes from within Pagan usage, but I do think that it is suggestive of a particular type of imagined tribalism–could be Native American, could be African, could be early European. For some it may have Christian resonances. I think my point is really more whether or not those associations are working for us at this point in our cultural history.

      • Alison Goodchap
        Posted June 2nd 2011 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

        Yes I find this worrying too, I also find the beginings of our many traditions being ‘set in stone’ as it where. It is particularly irritating when a so called Elder assumes superiourity over the younger members of a different tradition. Or that the other tradition isn’t real because it’s newer or not Intiatiated Wicca.

        Seekers do need guides but they need guides who will direct them to think for themselves, read scholarly books and not pop culture witchcraft, above all ask questions and be suspicious of those who don’t like to be questioned.

        NO matter how old we are, we are all seekers.

  7. Alistair Livingston
    Posted June 1st 2011 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    My impression/ recollection is that after the banning of Stonehenge Festival/ access to Stonehenge in 1985, a (relatively) large number of people decided that they were pagans in order to claim right of access to the Stones as part of their (new-found) religion.

    Before 1985 only a few festival go-ers paid much attention to the Druids Solstice dawn rituals and only a hundred or so (out of several thousand) would wander over to the Stones to watch Sid Rawles and others do their stuff later on in the day.

    The sudden upsurge of interest in paganism post-1985 unsettled existing pagans (Druids, Wiccans) and led to the attempt to create the ‘Pagan Council of Elders’ to try and keep a lid on things/ distance ‘proper pagans’ from the hippy travellers/ Peace Convoy types.

    Don’t forget that the Battle of the Beanfield and continuing conflicts over access to Stonehenge had a very high media profile which shifted attention away from the Festival to ‘pagans’ trying to get to the Stones every summer solstice. There were definite concerns, esp. with the Druid Order who needed access for their rites, that the ‘new age pagans’ were making life/ negotiations with English Heritage harder for law-abiding straight pagans.

    • Phil Hine
      Posted June 1st 2011 at 5:24 pm | Permalink


      I can certainly remember “proper pagans” writing to me when I edited Pagan News informing me about pagan gatherings, but requesting that we not publish the venue’s address because they didn’t want “travellers” turning up.

    • Amy Hale
      Posted June 2nd 2011 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

      This is really interesting, Alistair. I’m familiar with the context from having worked in the UK for so long, but it really is another great example of the ways in which Pagans respond to challenges of social legitimacy. Fascinating!

  8. sam webster
    Posted June 1st 2011 at 8:38 pm | Permalink

    My issue with ‘elder’ as a term is that it is non-democratic (who elected you?), non-transparent (how did you come up with that policy?) and non-accountable (who do you answer to?). It can be claimed by anyone and does get used to boss others around, or to keep initiatives from happening.

    For me it is a matter of proper governance, a significant problem in a community as diverse as ours, especially as it is maturing and needs to develop trans-generational institutions. If you track our history from the 1480s you can see build-ups and collapses, cycling quicker as we come to the freedom we have today. How are we planning and building for the future? How will we be led?

    The ‘elders’ paradigm has a Christian manifestation, and we all know how well that worked for us, not exactly an accountable or transparent institution. The Christan word is Presbyter, meaning elder, and the origin of our word ‘priest’.

    I think we better figure out how we are going to do this for ourselves or it will be decided for us. )O+

  9. P. S. Virius Lupus
    Posted June 2nd 2011 at 2:52 am | Permalink

    Excellent piece! (Would love another 2,000 words on it from you, to be honest…but, I understand time constraints!)

    There’s a lot wrong with the term “elder,” I think, including a kind of “cult of age,” with the same implications as there are in discussions of religion (i.e. the older something is in a tradition, the more “right” it is), to the effect that often older/elder people are “right” no matter what and either can’t be challenged or feel they are above reproach.

    If what we’re doing in the Ekklesía is a “tradition,” then that makes me an elder of the tradition; BUT, we’ve not even been around a decade yet, and I’m only 35! And yet, I’ve seen instances of people my age, or a bit older or younger, saying they are elders of a tradition…which just feels so Mormon to me. 😉

    • Arkady Rose
      Posted June 3rd 2011 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

      I was involved (briefly) a few years back with a small group of women who were trying to found their own coven; they got very excited when they attracted the attention of an “elder” who had offered to teach them and be their high priest. The problem with this so-called “elder” is that he was a callow lad of 19 who claimed to be 3rd Degree Gardnerian. They couldn’t understand why I, a woman who’d been a practicing Pagan for about 20 years at that point, would be so unenthusiastic about him or refuse to call him “elder”. In my experience, most of the Pagans I’ve encountered that called themselves elders were just attention whores and charlatans; the ones most deserving of such a title are invariably the most reluctant to accept it.

  10. J D
    Posted June 3rd 2011 at 6:11 am | Permalink

    Hi Amy
    I find the term Elder disagreeable outside of it’s traditional use in African etc. Unless I’m adopted into a tribe, I doubt there is much use for that term for me.
    We have teachers, mentors etc. in the west. Seems okay. What do we want?

    In magic, many in the west practice and talk with a mentor or friends.

    It sounds to me like many people who want Elders, want community and perhaps even a set of beliefs, essentially. That feels a little close to religion for me.
    And there seems a desire to belong to something. It seems less about doing magic also maybe.
    I know there is a strong push to find more community for many who practice magic, in the west.
    Maybe this will come from greater honestly and sharing among people: more spontaneous gathering, rather than trying to create a tribe with Elders etc.
    Maybe the western world will develop community is a somewhat fresh new way.

  11. Sue Dorney
    Posted June 4th 2011 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    I wonder if people are actually putting too much power into the term Elder? As there is no formal hierarchical structure within ‘Paganism’ then there are no Elders that hold any power unless people give it to them.

    Elder is simply a term given to the ‘older’ members of groups, and as such it holds no power, or respect come to that, outside of that group. Just as the HPs of a coven has no authority outside of her Coven.

    Someone else pointed out, that respect has to be earned and is not, and should not be freely given with a title.

    The term can be interchangeable with Crone or Sage, it’s a phase of life, no more no less. If people allow others to hold power by the use of this title outside of the group that gave it to them, then they are at fault.

    Of course there are always those that give themselves titles, and IMO you can call yourself whatever you like, even; The Queen Galadrial of the Sacred Fairy Harpic Realm’ but it doesn’t come with automatic entitlement to respect, only to have the michael extracted from you mercilessly.

  12. Cat C-B
    Posted June 4th 2011 at 10:21 pm | Permalink

    I’m afraid the notion that the word “elder” reflects a coopting of Native American religion doesn’t carry much weight with me. I am Quaker as well as Pagan, and I think it is worth noting that Quakers have been recognizing “elders” (as something of a polar balance to “ministers” in some understandings) for around 300 years, and their usage began in Britain, not America.

    I admit, I like the term, but I’d like us to be more thoughtful in using it. Gray hair alone doesn’t make an elder, but neither will there be many of us capable of serving in that function in our early twenties.

    I’d also love for us to find measures other than celebrity with which to gauge who is an “elder,” but that’s a story for another day.

    • Amy Hale
      Posted June 4th 2011 at 10:50 pm | Permalink

      Hi Cat and others,

      Thank you for these very useful and apt comments. I never actually stated that Pagans directly appropriated this term from Native Americans, but since people have interpreted this post in this way, I think some further clarification is necessary. This response is based on a private reply composed to another party, and I hope it clarifies my position.

      I absolutely agree that the topic of cultural appropriation within Paganism is a difficult one. I find that I am personally uncomfortable with much that comes out of those discussions. At the heart of them, they generally serve to reify notions of cultural purity and isolation which I find to be deeply
      problematic (and that, as someone who has a PhD in Folklore, I believe my field has a lot to answer for). Cultural borrowing is an important activity. It is a creative act and keeps cultures alive, vibrant and flowing.

      The problem of course comes when this occurs in a context of a power differential and when one group is gaining some type of cultural capital from that borrowing. One misreading of the piece that I wrote is that I claimed that Pagans appropriated the term from Native Americans. That is not my assertion, and I think the situation is actually far more complex. I think there is a difference between actual appropriation and perceived appropriation. I think the use of the term “elders” as it originated in Pagan culture, especially when used within specific Pagan traditions, does reflect an origin within religious usage. However, I do contend that the wider cultural use of
      terms such as “elders” and “ancestors” genuinely reflects a popular notion of an imagined tribal structure–be that Native American, African, Asian, Australian, Pre Modern European. As most people using that term today within a wider Pagan cultural context (meaning aside from tradition specific religious usage) do not come from a culture where we have an acknowledged social category for “elders”, I think it’s fair to consider adopting that usage a cultural borrowing, or even an inspired invention, both of which I’m generally just fine with.

      My problem is that I do see this move to label modern Pagan traditions as “indigenous” as an appropriation of a very specific cultural category that does afford for protection of minority cultures. I have worked intimately on this issue in a European policy context with the Cornish over the past 15 years, so in hearing the ways in which some Pagans are currently using discourses of indigenaity as a tactic for gaining legitimacy, it really sits poorly with me. I also think it’s divisive, but that’s another matter entirely. In this context, the use of “elders” as a cultural, not a religious term, takes on a slightly different connotation. People really do have a popular understanding of this term as it relates to embedded values within a
      social structure, and we need to acknowledge this. In fact, in
      promoting this strategy of recasting ourselves as indigenous
      practitioners, Andras Corben-Arthen has referred to Pagans as the “Indians of Old Europe” which I find deeply problematic. So if an *unconsidered* adoption of the terms “elder” and “ancestor” are potentially reinforcing that strategy, I think we may find ourselves being open to accusations of appropriation.

      • Leaves
        Posted June 6th 2011 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

        The idea that use of terms such as elder and ancestor “potentially reinforce that strategy” is a huge leap that I don’t buy. The human species evolved as tribes; at some point back in time (and/or place) we were all indigenous. Elder and ancestor have been part of the cultural legacy of the human species, in its many diversities, for millenia. If modern Pagans want to claim that legacy, it does not mean cultural appropriation.

        To say that use of the term elder is potentially reinforcing a strategy (a la “Indians of Old Europe” – yes, a fine example of icky cultural appropriation) is like saying that me needing to get a car is reinforcing a strategy of grand theft auto. No, I don’t buy it.

        • Amy Hale
          Posted June 6th 2011 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

          I’m just not sure I agree with your logic, I’m afraid, especially since most of us just don’t live under that social structure now. If people want to be emotionally attached to the notion of having elders, that’s fine, but I don’t think that we can justify it with recourse to “traditional” societies in which “our ancestors” may or may not have lived in the far distant past. I think my point remains that we have choices of terminology that are potentially far more empowering.

  13. Dana Corby
    Posted June 5th 2011 at 1:00 am | Permalink

    The term “elder,” like much else, has oozed into the general pagan lexicon from traditional Wicca. In Wicca, it means (as it does in some denominations of Christianity) a leader and/or teacher. Some Traditions bestow the title of elder at a specific point in your Wicca “career” (for want of a better word) and in others it just sort of creeps up on you over time.

    Then there are “community elders,” those who do or have done the work of organizing, leading, and publicizing pagan organizations and public pagan events and who thus both earn the respect of the community and become the people the press and such-like go to for information. “Elder” is not (or should not be) a title one takes to oneself, but one that bestowed out of respect for one’s accomplishments.

    Either way, it’s not at all an undemocratic usage — when used properly. It’s when it’s bastardized that it becomes a problem

    As for “magical ancestors,” in traditional Wicca we call those who’ve gone before us the Mighty Dead. “Ancestors” are — as many here have noted, blood family.

  14. Ravan Asteris
    Posted June 5th 2011 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    “Elder” is hardly a culture stealing term – various christian churches have had it (church elders – like the Mormons) and have a very European origin. It denotes someone who is old and experienced in the practice of the religion. Also, as a child I was raised to “respect my elders” even outside a religious context, just regarding age and life experience, and that certainly wasn’t some sort of “Native American” thing – I was raised Baptist!

    You claim to not have accused paganism of appropriation in using the term, but you say ‘I find this term, elders, problematic in that it apes our perceptions of “respected tribal elders”, and thus smacks to me of appropriation. ‘ I call that an accusation, nothing less.

    I do take issue with the idea that you can have ‘elders’ who have been practicing for less than ten years. There, at least, we agree.

  15. Mary K. Davis
    Posted June 5th 2011 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    I for one, at age 65, have no problem with the use of elder. The term is not exclusive to any cultural group and cannot be “appropriated”. I was taught as a child to “respect my elders” with absolutely no tribal implication. We women can be Crones as well as elders, but what about our male counterparts? With the current climate of elder bashing in the political arena, I think it important that we, as a community affirm the worth of those who have devoted their lives to serving our deities and coreligionists. I think this discussion smacks of gratuitous political correctness. Elder is a term of respect… I prefer it to senior.

  16. Artor
    Posted June 5th 2011 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

    What exactly is the word “Elder,” being appropriated from? The Native Americans never used the word until they started speaking English. Each tribe used whatever the word was in their language. The Romans used the word Senex, which means Elder. It’s where we get the word Senator. Sensei means Elder/Teacher in Japanese, but generally refers to those “elder” in experience. You can have a sensei who is chronologically younger than you.
    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the use of the word, but rather with HOW it’s used.

  17. Obsidian
    Posted June 5th 2011 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

    I see things a little differently. The term “elder” means, to me, an older person. Elders, in this sense, deserve our respect…simply because they have stayed long on the land.

    This doesn’t mean we always have to agree with them or do what they say, if we believe that is the wrong thing for us to do.

    I have known some elders who misled the young ones….not really on purpose, but simply because they were trying to be helpful. We must always evaluate the advice of others. We cannot accept anything just because someone says it with authority. We must be the authors of our own lives, and that means waiting for affirmation and learning from our own experience and the experience of others.

    I enjoy elders the most when they tell me their stories…..

  18. Deborah Bender
    Posted June 6th 2011 at 4:10 am | Permalink

    As others have pointed out, elder is a term of honor or authority used in several Protestant denominations, a practice going back at least to the mid nineteenth century. I believe it’s particularly popular in denominations that wish to model themselves after the more democratic practices of the early Christians, before the dominant Church adopted a formal hierarchy based on apostolic succession. In that respect, I think it’s quite an appropriate usage for Pagans.

    The way the term is used in my primary tradition (NROOGD) and my local community (San Francisco Bay Area) is similar to what Dana Corby wrote above. Within NROOGD, it’s a shortcut to refer to initiates who have attained our equivalent of second and third degree. The only authority or status we wish it to carry outside the tradition is what NROOGD elders are authorized to do to represent the tradition.

    The larger SFBA Pagan community tends to apply the term elder not to any old Pagan, but for people whose experience, contributions to the community and general good sense result in their being sought out for advice. As Dana says, the title is awarded by others, not claimed by an individual. It doesn’t garner any special privileges other than being invited more often to gatherings outside your group, and maybe having a younger person offer you their seat once in awhile.

    The question about associating with indigenous groups to garner legitimacy is complicated. I have friends who do national and international interfaith work, and they can point to at least a few instances where practitioners of indigenous religions have gained legitimacy and rights by associating with Wiccans. Fifty-plus years of steady public education have put Wiccans in some countries in the position of being able to speak in defense of other minority religions and actually help them out.

    We certainly have to be aware of cultural appropriation by the privileged. OTOH there is evidence that post-contact borrowing of ideas and practice has gone both ways for at least five centuries, and not every indigenous adoption of a European religious practice or idea was involuntary. Consequently, the fact that an indigenous religion employs a term, idea or practice does not automatically mean that the source of it was indigenous. And if the indigenous group passes on its religion orally, it only takes about three generations to lose track of where they got it from originally.

    • Amy Hale
      Posted June 6th 2011 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

      I’m wondering why you feel that adopting a term from Christian church structure is a good thing for Pagans? Just curious. Also, I’m Bay Area based 🙂

  19. lynn
    Posted June 6th 2011 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    I am black American, and have heard the term “elders” used to describe our old folks for as long as I can remember. It’s used in and out of the church setting. And not just by Christians, I’ve also heard it used in a secular context, and by black people practicing alternative traditions (like Maat). I’ve heard it referred to intellectuals like Alice Walker and entertainers like Bill Cosby.

    And I personally don’t care which communities use this term, whether they have a history of using it or not. It’s a lovely and respectful way to describe old people.

  20. Holli Emore
    Posted June 6th 2011 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

    Dear Amy,

    Thank you for reminding all of the important issue of cultural appropriation. This is a subject that is taught in our core courses for master’s students at Cherry Hill Seminary.

    I am surprised, however, to hear your concern about the titling for our four-week courses, designed for the general public, not degree programs. To date, the only individuals studied in this new series have been Doreen Valiente, Dion Fortune and Starhawk. This fall we will offer an overview of Aleister Crowley and his impact.

    Like others who have posted here, from the earliest age I can remember, I was admonished to respect my elders. This region (the South) is also the butt of many “ancestor worship” jokes because of southerners’ fixation on genealogy. As the child of two genealogists, I can confirm that there was a great deal of focus on ancestors in my home. I myself never heard the word elder used in any other context until I was an adult because I did not belong to a church or religion that used the term, and was unfamiliar with Native American practice.

    While definition of some kind of formal elder role may be a brisk topic of current discussion, that is a very specific use of the word by specific communities or groups. Most assuredly, Cherry Hill Seminary has no need or cause to feign association with any indigenous tribe through our choice of marketing language. Our mission is to provide education and nurture scholarship, not to define the prevailing culture.


    Holli S. Emore
    Executive Director
    Cherry Hill Seminary

    • Amy Hale
      Posted June 7th 2011 at 7:43 am | Permalink

      Hi Holli,

      While I support so many of Cherry Hill’s efforts, as you know, I do feel that Cherry Hill is, intentionally or unintentionally, in the development of its curriculum speaking to the notion of a generalized Pagan culture. The fact that the courses in the Elders and Ancestors series is meant for a general audience to me reinforces this wider usage of these terms. Of course, I wonder the degree to which Dion Fortune or Crowley would have identified as Pagan, despite their impact, but that is another simply amusing question to play with. I think Cherry Hill is in a tough spot in this regard, trying to develop a Pagan based curriculum with respect to the diversity of Pagan and magickal communities without being prescriptive. We need Pagan institutions desperately (although I’m sure some might disagree with me on that), and Cherry Hill has come forward to address this need. Yet how do we start to address Pagan cultural needs without defining on some level what Pagan values, culture and history are? I think this is a crucial moment for us in that respect. Some cultural features, values and groups will be included, others will not. This is a natural part of the identity formation process, and institutions play a significant role in this. You can’t help but define the subject.

      I also want to state again that I did not claim in this piece that Pagans appropriated the term elders from Native Americans, but that it *suggests* it given that we don’t have a *formal* category for elders in our wider society. Yes, there are a variety of casual cultural and religious usages, but to me that is different than the institutional social categories to which I am referring. I want to again reemphasize that my concern here is stemming from a very specific and recent cultural and political shift that I am noting within Paganism that should cause us all to be generally more reflective.


  21. Melinda E. Hewlett
    Posted June 8th 2011 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    I am an American Indian and an Anthropologist and I am Pagan. I take no offense with Cherry Hill’s use of the terms Elders and Ancestors. While these are terms in use in Indian communities, I don’t see them as specifically “ours.” I believe Cherry Hill is using them slmply as a matter of respect and I further believe a little more respect to our Elders and Ancestors is appropriate. You might find Indians wo disagree with me, but I for one am comfortable with Cherry Hill’s word usage. Thank you for your sensitivity to Indigenous issues. We appreciate your intentions.

    Melinda “Two Rivers Woman” Hewlett
    Hamilton College
    University of South Carolina
    Columbia, SC 29208

  22. Amy Hale
    Posted June 8th 2011 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

    Hi Melinda,

    Thanks for your comment. You might want to read my comments which further clarify my position here. I did not claim that the term was appropriated or that is is specifically Native American. I was making a much broader point.


  23. Anna Korn
    Posted June 13th 2011 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

    The term “Elder” has been in use in the Gardnerian community for more than a half-century, so I really don’t think appropriation
    is at work. “Elder” has been a preferred term for Pagans of various sorts in the Interfaith context for more than thirty years, and only risks us being confused for Mormons– until they meet us!

  24. Macha NightMare
    Posted June 17th 2011 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

    I’ve read comments here with interest, since I’ve been exploring the notion of Pagan elders for some time now. I created a survey on Survey Monkey that got over 500 responses, and which I used in a presentation at the Claremont Conference on Current Pagan Studies in January.

    For one thing, I have been exposed to the use of the term elder for my entire life, meaning, usually, respected older folks. I grew up on the East Coast and have, at this point in my life, reached an age considered post-retirement age.

    I wrote an article for the Green Egg about 15 years ago on elders in the Pagan community that’s now published in The Green Egg Omelette. The main point I tried to make is that elders are made so by their community; they are the older people that younger people turn to for advice and counsel, and sometimes other problems.

    So what really surprises me about this post and ensuing comments is that no one has mentioned the roles that elders play, may play, or can play, in their communities. I say that because several times over the years I have been consulted and asked to play some sort of “elder” role: listening to gripes; possibly resolving the causes of same; community relations with problematic members; dealing with super-sensitive and difficult issues involving children, secular authorities; all manner of difficulties.

    I don’t think a movement like ours can survive without elders, no more than it can survive without dreams, babies, children, youth, young adults, parents, families (of whatever configuration), older folks (whether or not they function as elders), and ancestors. Without the full spectrum of the cycle of life, we are merely a passing fad.

    Obviously I have much more to say about this that will wait for another time, but for now I just wanted to mention how struck I was that no one has mentioned the functions of an eldership.

  25. Amy Hale
    Posted June 17th 2011 at 11:30 pm | Permalink

    I think you are right, Macha, and one of the reasons is because as the term has developed among Pagans it has still been based on what we “think” elders should do based on imagined notions from societies we consider to be “traditional”. Of course in the US we have “elders”, meaning, as you mention, old folks we respect, but I maintain this is very different from an institutionalized category of elders, such as you might find in tribal societies of the middle east or some Native American tribes where they frequently function as a Senate. We do not have that category in our culture. This may be why within Paganism we have such differing notions of what an elder is, or who should be one.

    Of course I think, as I stated, that we should honor the older members of our communities both those who are the Big Names and those who aren’t, and who have quietly worked behind the scenes. It’s the *term* I find problematic. I do wonder if maybe those whose feathers have been ruffled by this discussion may associate with the term elder a little too much as a denotation of status. I still don’t see what’s wrong with teacher or leader.

  26. Macha NightMare
    Posted June 18th 2011 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    Amy sez: “I maintain this is very different from an institutionalized category of elders, such as you might find in tribal societies of the middle east or some Native American tribes where they frequently function as a Senate. We do not have that category in our culture.”

    I agree it’s different. And we Pagans have adopted the conceit that we are tribal. How many times have you heard Pagans express a sense of belonging to their tribe? Yet we do not have a “tribal tradition,” for want of a better term, of elders.

    This is exactly why I created that survey and have been exploring this notion — because we have elders, regardless of what we call them, (and they are not 18-yo LDS youth), we seek their services, and we have no format, no agreement, no accountability, no body/corpus that bestows “authority” …

    Amy sez: “I do wonder if maybe those whose feathers have been ruffled by this discussion may associate with the term elder a little too much as a denotation of status. I still don’t see what’s wrong with teacher or leader.”

    No doubt, except that there are (older) Pagans who have earned that status, and not based on how well known they are, either.

    Personally, I like the term elders very much. To me it conveys something of the concept I’m trying to get at. Not all elders may be teachers or leaders. They may be those who’ve always tended the fire, listened, witnessed, participated, and learned. They may be those who’ve kept the cauldron a-brewing, listened, witnessed, participated, and learned. They may be ticket-takers, registrars, bookkeepers, quiet folks more or less in the background yet possessed of valuable viewpoints based on long experience. And willing to share them and involve themselves in counsel, and sometimes resolution of conflicts, if and when consulted.

    OTOH, it’s known to those at CHS who decide what to call programs and courses and what ones to offer that I’m not very comfortable with the title of the series that seems to have provoked this discussion. I’m great with ancestors. But I don’t necessarily see all prominent Pagans — and it’s prominent ones I think they anticipate studying — as being elders. For one thing, some of them aren’t even very old (some authors, for instance, who may sell lots and lots of books and teach popular workshops), and for another, calling someone an elder can get you into trad or group politics, which is a whole other can o’ worms. Just my tuppence, tho. I respect the authority of the CHS academic staff.