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.