I’ve always liked the line from Spider-man: “With Great Power comes Great Responsibility.” There’s a lot of truth to that axiom. In several responses to my previous post about Big Name Pagans, commenters made the point that if someone has influence, they need to recognize the responsibility that comes with that influence. I agree with their stance. When you have influence, it’s important not to let it go to your head and to also acknowledge that you have a responsibility to use that influence wisely. That recognition can only come from within you. While the communities you are part of can scrutinize your behavior and call you on your actions, it’s ultimately up to each person to recognize the responsibility they have for their choices. In a recent interview on Pagan Musings Podcast, we discussed the topic of leadership and BNPs at further length, particularly the difference between fame and leadership.

When you are in a position of leadership, this becomes even more important, because people look to a leader for guidance, advice, and direction. I don’t know of any Pagan community that doesn’t have some type of leadership. Even without declared leaders, the spiritual structure of a tradition can create a leadership dynamic. People who occupy such roles necessarily need to be working for the good of the community that they are part of. Unfortunately, we have examples of people in positions of leadership (both in and out of the Pagan community) who have misused their authority. But there are also good examples of people who’ve used the authority vested in them responsibly.

If you are a leader in the Pagan community, it’s important to ask yourself what that really means to the community and to yourself. For example, let’s consider what a leader in the Pagan community is. A leader in such a community may or may not be elected, but is typically is in a spiritual role and/or helping to run a community space. This person might help to organize a festival or conference as well as other community events. Sometimes this person may be a BNP to the larger Pagan community. This doesn’t provide a definition of leadership, though; all I’ve really defined here is that a leader is someone who shows up for a leadership role. We still don’t know what that leadership means to that person, both in the context of his/her sense of self and in the context of the community. To define leadership necessarily requires something more than just looking at the activities that involve leadership.

So what defines leadership? The following are my own ideas on what makes good leadership.

  • Responsibility is a trait all leaders should have. Responsibility can involve the ability to follow through on promises, but I think it goes much deeper than that. A leader recognizes the need to be responsible for their own thoughts and actions, which means understanding the potential consequences for their choices. They recognize their influence and understand the need to be responsible for it, especially when it comes to how people in the community will respond. The leader also feels responsible to the community, recognizing that what s/he does in the community is scrutinized and observed.
  • Humility is what keeps the leader grounded. The leader may have people who try to put them on a pedestal, but a good leader insists on getting rid of the pedestal and making sure that people treat him/her in the same way they’d treat anyone else. The leader understands the importance of keeping grounded by being humble, acknowledging that people look to the leader because of the role, not so much because of the person in and of him/herself. A person who is a leader also has people who will call out any inappropriate behavior and make sure that the leader is grounded in reality.
  • Caring is an important aspect of leader. A person who is going to lead a community should care about the community as opposed to just caring about certain people in it. A leader wants the best for the community and is there for people in the community that are in need.
  • The leader is aware of and honors the boundaries of other people. At the same time, the leader is aware of his/her own boundaries and is able to express them in a respectful manner. The leader also helps the community define boundaries and appropriate behavior at community events and makes sure that those boundaries and behaviors are observed.
  • The leader is objective. Being objective means being able to be impartial, when needed, for situations that call for it. The leader doesn’t take sides and if s/he is taking sides, recognizes it and brings someone else in who can be objective.
  • The leader is open-minded, willing to consider the world from multiple perspectives and actively seeking to encourage such perspectives in him/herself as well as others. The leader recognizes that the cultivation of multiple perspectives can help him/her see different situations from a multitude of angles.

There are undoubtedly other traits that also define a good leader (feel free to share some below). It may seem like some of these traits are hard to implement. However, I think a good leader does the best s/he can to implement these traits and live them. And while such work isn’t always easy, its necessary for any person who would be in a position of leadership within their own community or the Pagan community at large.

Socially Responsible Magic is published on alternate Wednesdays. Subscribe via RSS or e-mail!

As the year shifts toward darkness and we gear up for October, I’m really excited to be participating in a cross-blog initiative here at Patheos. I’ve teamed up with Jamie Schwoerer over at Loving the Journey to share some of the ways I use this dark time of the year to connect with those who’ve gone before. I’m really excited for the project, and Jamie and I have already had some great conversations about how to get started.

This will be an interesting month for me, because despite blogging here for almost two years, I’m still rather insular when it comes to talking about my Pagan practices; it’s rare that I engage in direct, personal dialogue with people I don’t know well about my faith (old habits of over a decade spent in the broom closet die hard!), but I’m really enjoying stepping out of my comfort zone and sharing what I know.

As many of you know, I’m sometimes quite lazy about my rituals and observances, and fall is no exception. Despite it being my favorite season (and despite the fact that Halloween is my favorite holiday), the dark time of the year is always hard for me, and it’s much easier for me to step back and let things slide past me in the darkness. I’ve always struggled with a bit of seasonally induced depression, although that’s improved dramatically since moving from the cloudy Midwest to the sun-drenched South, but I still sink into stillness from Mabon until Imbolc.

shutterstock_218828827Often, my practice of ancestor remembrance is confined to the days surrounding Halloween, where I’ll dress my altar in somber colors, pull out the framed photos of my maternal great-grandmother and my paternal grandparents, and light a candle in honor of their lives. This year, because of the blogging project, I’ll be pushing myself to make deeper connections with the people who’ve come before me, through both writing and ritual, and instead of only spending a day or two remembering, I’m committing to an entire month of reflection and dialogue with Jamie on our beloved dead. It’s a daunting process, but one I’m really looking forward to.

The darkness has been growing steadily since the equinox last week; it almost feels like someone flicked a switch on both the speed of night and the suddenly crisp weather. Although my first impulse is to snuggle into the darkness and shut down for a few months, I’m ready to cycle through reflections, remembrances, and rituals to honor both my named and unnamed ancestors. I’m thrilled to be walking through this process with another writer, and I can’t wait to see what Jamie and I experience in the next month!

photo courtesy of shutterstock: shutterstock.com

The Busy Witch is published on alternate Tuesdays. Follow it via RSS or e-mail!

This post is part of the Patheos Pagan Ancestor Remembrance Project.

I’ve been there.  Staring into a bleak abyss of misery, with no hope and no prospect of any; wondering whether I should slit my wrists, eat a bottle of pills, or jump off of my hometown’s only parkade.

I’ve been there.  Curled in a heap on the floor, sniffling as the police carried the unconscious form of my best friend out of the apartment next door to me, where he’d swallowed a whole bottle of Tylenol 3s while I hosted a New Year’s Eve party he’d been invited to.

I’ve been there.  Standing at a Samhain altar, about to priestess for my community for the very first time, when we were told that Jodi, a sweet woman who was always smiling, was not late; she was dead by her own hand, and just that morning.

I’ve been there.  Seven o’clock in the morning, sitting in the hospital, keeping a woman in my congregation company as she awaited shock treatments for her severe depression while delicate hands below scar-mangled wrists fidgeted anxiously in her lap.

I’ve been there.  Four years old, hiding under the couch with my little brother while a police officer talked quietly with our dad; then Dad explaining to us that Mom needed a rest from all of us and she would be in the hospital for the next month.  And it seemed like forever when I was that young.

The Insidious Nature of Depression

Let’s start by dispelling some myths.  Depression is the result of a chemical deficiency.  It’s an illness; no different than, say, the hemoglobin deficiency that causes sickle cell anemia.  It can be hereditary.  It’s as dangerous as diabetes.  It’s not a character flaw.  It’s not something you can just turn off if you want to.  It’s not that easy, and urging suffers to “cheer up,” or pointing out why their situation isn’t that bad, only serves to minimize and demean their trials, and makes them less likely to reach out to other people for help.  And that’s when people succumb to the illness.

Where the problem and confusion come in is that it often has triggers.  Stress, grief, poverty, life changes (even childbirth or menopause), loneliness, feelings of alienation, a history of abuse or trauma, catastrophic injury, concurrent mental illnesses and addictions can all contribute to triggering or deepening depression.  So can purely biological causes, like neurological disorders, hormonal fluctuations, shift work, not getting enough sleep, or not getting proper nutrition in one’s diet.

Statistically, Pagans are more likely to experience many of the risk factors than the average population.  Most of us have suffered from feeling like black sheep; those who come from homes with opposing faiths, struggle with gender identity or practice alternate lifestyles are even more likely to experience this.  We tend to be working class people, whose education often outstrips our financial circumstances, leading to frustrated ambitions and debt.  We are more likely than the average population to come from abusive backgrounds and suffer from neuroses or anxiety disorders.  Pagan leaders are almost guaranteed to encounter someone who looks to them for guidance that struggles with this illness.  And if you’ve got a diagnosis of a depressive disorder – at least you know you know you’re not alone!

When an addiction comes into play it ups the ante.  Therapists now call this deadly combination a “complex addiction,” “dual diagnosis” or “comorbidity” and they’ve learned that you have to treat both concurrently, since an addict is almost always self-medicating.

Not all depression is clinical.  Sometimes it is a reaction to life’s events.  This is why so many people insist upon the “cheer up” prescription.  But often, it’s a pre-existing vulnerability that is activated by life’s events.  And it’s dangerous.  In the US, 3.4 percent of those with major depressive disorder commit suicide and 60% of suicide victims have major depression or another mood disorder.


If you’re worried that you or someone you know may be suffering from depression, some of the symptoms include:

  • Significant changes in sleeping or eating habits.
  • Changes in body weight.
  • Social withdrawal.
  • Stressed relationships with loved ones.
  • Reduced sex drive.
  • Low mood.
  • Fatigue, headache, or digestive problems.
  • Chronic generalized pain.
  • Agitation or lethargy.
  • Neglect of personal hygiene and other aspects of self-care.
  • Cognitive changes (loss of short term memory, inability to do simple math, etc.)
  • Poor concentration.
  • Anxiety.
  • Irritability.
  • Preoccupation with feelings of worthlessness, helplessness, hopelessness and self-hatred.
  • Preoccupation with inappropriate levels of guilt or regret.
  • Psychosis or delusions.
  • Thoughts of self-harm or suicide.

Sometimes a person tries too hard to laugh it off.  In this case, they avoid conversation about their difficulties entirely and instead put on a happy demeanor. Often the class clown is laughing so s/he won’t cry. This unwillingness to be vulnerable, even with one’s closest friends, can be a warning sign also.  Humor could be biting and bitter.

It should be noted that children especially may display agitation and irritability rather than lethargy.  They often lose interest in school and their grades decline.  They might become clingy, dependent, demanding or insecure.  They are often misdiagnosed as having attention deficit disorder or a learning disability.

Emergency First Aid

I realize that there are many of us who don’t like doctors and don’t like medication.  But listen: this is no small matter.  Just like with any other life-threatening illness, the first priority is to get out of the danger zone.  The first step is to reach out.  The second step is often meds.  At least for now, at least for a while.  Please, if you’ve entertained the thought of suicide for more than a second, reach out to someone, anyone.  A friend, a guide, a family member; and also a professional.

I can hear the negative self-talk now.  “Oh, nobody wants to hear about my problems.”  “I don’t have anyone I can reach out to.”  “I have to be strong for everyone else.”  “People tell me I should get over it, but I just can’t.”

I’m sure you’re wrong.  I’m sure there’s somebody who cares about your problems.  Sometimes just having a listening ear can be amazingly helpful.  If you can’t find a friend to talk to, most areas have support groups you can join.  And if you’re on that edge, the suicide hotline number in the US and Canada is 1-800-273-TALK (8255); in the UK you can find a full list of contacts at http://www.samaritans.org; and in Australia it is 13 11 14 and New Zealand it is 09 5222 999 within Auckland and 0800 543 354 outside of Auckland.

In the next few subsequent columns, I will discuss a Pagan spiritual perspective, self-care, alternative or complimentary therapies, professional resources for sufferers, resources for those suffering from dual diagnosis, how you can help others, and resources for teachers of the Craft.  The next installment will be appearing next week, not in two weeks!

Next column: The Downward Spiral – Depression and Suicide in Paganism (Part 2)

Seekers and Guides is published on alternate Mondays. Follow it via RSS or e-mail!

I admit to being a huge football fan — well, until the most recent scandal was thrust into the forefront of everyone’s mind by video cameras and TMZ. Many watched in horrified fascination as Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens struck his then-fiancée (whom he has now married) to unconsciousness during an argument. Rice’s two-game suspension created a backlash against the National Football League and placed a spotlight on spousal and child abuse of immediate family members of NFL players.

itsonusThe NFL, with its multimillion dollar players and multi-billion dollar bottom line, is a convenient target. While this media storm continues, the president with celebrities last Friday launched the It’s On Us campaign. The campaign’s goal is four-fold:

  1. To recognize that all non-consensual sex is sexual assault, even when alcohol is involved.
  2. To identify situations where sexual assault may occur.
  3. To intervene in situations where consent has not or cannot be given.
  4. To create an environment in which sexual assault is unacceptable and survivors are supported.

There is an online pledge that college students can take and educational material around when assaults are likely to be perpetrated or experienced on campus (IT’S ON US Campaign Website, 2014).

Rutgers University is a featured campus in conjunction with this campaign. The White House commended Rutgers University as a college campus where progressive actions are being taken to combat sexual violence. Rutgers is one of the top five colleges with unprecedented sexual assault cases reported in the United States in 2010 (Monmouth (1st), Princeton (2nd), Ramapo College, New Jersey (3rd) and Rutgers University (4th)). Around fifty-five colleges or universities around the country, including Rutgers University, are under federal investigation regarding possible violations around the reporting and handling of sexual assault cases on campus (Serrano, 2014).

However, Rutgers University is leading the fight with their mandatory orientation campaign presented for incoming freshman called “Let’s Talk About It.” In this graphic depiction, upper classman improvise a scene where two people drink alcohol, and eventually the male overpowers the female actor. The orientation attempts to illustrate and begin conversations around sexual assault and how that intersects with college campus life. (Rutgers University Web, 2014) Their free interactive seminar is available to nonprofit, educational, and government institutions.

What never escapes my mind, as a mother and a pagan, is that these discussions were once led by a Council of Mothers. In many indigenous tribes, the council of mothers were the quiet power behind any leader. They appointed tribal leaders they had raised and groomed for the position. The Council of Mothers could even remove leadership should their choice be proven unwise.

As tribal societies have broken down, so has the influence of the council of mothers. As the natural keepers of the earth and indigenous traditions, women have long worked behind the shield and sword in tribal society to keep the peace and bring civilization and balance to men whose very lives were shaped by the animals they hunted and killed. Their prowess as warriors relied upon their ability to violently protect the village and women within. Women, however, unflaggingly required male leaders to find compassion, honor, humility and grace in societies whose very existence were violently held.

Some of our most popular games are the most violent–notably rugby, whose origins are linked to the clan culture of the Celtic Race; lacrosse, whose origins are linked to the American Indian ball game; the Scottish game of shinty; tī rakau from the indigenous people of New Zealand; and soccer, whose origins are traced by some historians back to the ancient Mayans’ Ball Game involving two stone hoops, one ball, and two teams. The link between tribal and clan violence and these games is most eloquently experienced on YouTube between the Iroquois National Lacrosse Team and the New Zealand Lacrosse team through chant and dance (LAX.com, 2014). You cannot look at the warriors of New Zealand’s lacrosse team and not envision the ancient warriors of that nation preparing for war in a similar manner.

Yet, even here, the council of mothers is missing. There are no women on the sidelines supporting the fighters. The honor and glory of the game is diminished by the lack of female presence and praise. This need to have both genders reflected, honored, and praised for their unique contributions to society often gets shuttled to the side and drowned in the shouting for sexual equality. I have never taught my son that the sexes were truly equal. He doesn’t need me to tell him that his nearly six-foot frame of lean teenage muscle could easily overpower me if he wanted to. He knows this.

No, what he was taught from a young age was that I am part of his Council of Mothers. We represent to him that all should be EQUALLY VALUED, including the persons of other genders who have taken residence on the council with me. I may not be able to overpower him physically, but that apparent weakness is part of my strength. That I can rise and overcome physical difficulties to cook for him, do his laundry, and shuttle him around as he needs is a testament to a strength of spirit he has not needed to possess yet.

His Council of Mothers includes his Aunt Yannu. Another High Priestess and devote of Frigga, she is the mother of four children (three girls, one boy), and when I must travel and he cannot be with me, it is into her care I commend my child. It includes Laurie, his step-mother, a high priestess and devotee to the path of Stregga. I know from his talks that she brings a fierce Italian womanhood to bear when dealing with our son. It includes his Aunt Crystal, High Priestess and devote of Yemaya. This black goddess, advocate, and activist features prominently in any conversation we may have around race and privilege. There is his Aunt Katie, whose maiden love of his brother Nate is a journey he has witnessed firsthand. Through it he has discovered a new appreciation for the strength that can occur when two opposing forces agree to walk together. Aunt Nancy is the oldest mother he bears witness to, and recently he said to me that she was the one he was most afraid of: “After all, she was the one that decided to pet a wild black bear and got away with it. I wouldn’t mess with her.”

My boy’s council of mothers also includes Uncle Jerrett and Uncle Kyler, gay men who advocate for tolerance for all manifestations of maleness and femaleness, even that energy that may seem to be both at once. Along with Uncle Nate, my boy has found that he is not ashamed of being openly bisexual and readily accepting of other variations of genders.

I encourage Family Covens to seek out and name a Council of Mothers for their children, male and female. Seek out various ages, genders, sexual orientations, races, classes, and opinions. Ask them to help you raise your child as a guiding lights. Then look around you. What children are in your sphere of influence? Are there children you could become part of the council of mothers for? Is there a tween child that you could take out for ice cream and encourage them to talk about healthy boundaries when dating and healthy views about sexuality and violence?

Post-tribal society, we can all move to form council around children being raised in our communities. We can volunteer to support, through word and deed, parents raising children. Because it isn’t the White House, Rutgers University, or the NFL that will have the greatest impact in lowering the rate of sexual violence. It is the council of mothers that forms the landscape of children’s lives. It is the quiet word and seemingly off-handed comment. It is the praise of physical prowess tempered by the principle that physical abuse of others is not acceptable. It is the equal value placed upon children of all genders that ensures their own feelings of equality.

Who are your children’s council of mothers? What children are you serving as part of their council of mothers?

Birthing Hereditary Witchcraft is published occasionally on Agora. Subscribe via RSS or e-mail!

10687897_10152301914421024_8570443596171641878_oWhen I look our into the world, what I see beyond the horizon of humanity’s need is Earth Mother. She is the precious jewel that is ever luminous even when she frightens. What might it be like had the Charge of the Goddess started with, Listen to the words of the Great Mother, Who of old was called Earth Mother, Mother Nature, Stone Mother, Dream Giver, Soothing River, Steadfast Tree, Gentle Breeze and by many other names”?  What if we truly allowed ourself to lean into that? To the primordial Goddess who is all Goddess, She who is Earth with her many faces, ever generative?

One of the faces of Earth I consider most resplendent is during a hurricane. Whereas many fear the potential of destruction, with winds howling, there was (and still is) for me an immense comfort.  I remember being eight years old, and watching wide eyed the giant tree in my backyard completely uproot and crash though my neighbor’s house. It was terrifyingly awesome, the sheer ferocity. The storm had a fieriness that once it passed through became a stillness unparalleled by anything else I’ve known.  I often have thought that life is like that hurricane, and we are the trees. It seems the more limber trees move with the wind, yet the seemingly rigid-rooted don’t always fare so well.

For years, I heard the Christian expression to ‘lean on God’ in times of struggle, strife, and turmoil. But for many, and for centuries, that God isn’t or wasn’t an option. What if there was  another option? What if we leaned on Earth and instead of the cup of salvation that Christianity offers, we sought to nurture the healing vessel of a Earth Mother?  

Earth Mother is the primal and supreme deity of the ancient world, the oldest and most universally worshiped entity known. For thousands of years, before there were any male gods, there was The Goddess, and Her devotion was observed and held. There are a lot of theories around matriarchal prehistory, exactly what it was and was not, yet what is accepted as known is that Earth as generative Mother was held in esteem.

From history, she is known by many names, from Pachamama to IxChel. Her indigenous and aboriginal face takes on many transcendent names. She is the commonly named Goddesses like Isis and Lakshmi, and when we trace her ancestry, they all seem to dwell in earth. This primordial Earth Mother is both darkness and light, and her devotion is the reconciliation of all. She is the creatrix that continues to build upon Herself. Destruction (like in the hurricane) is part of the natural cycle as night follows day, and we accept it with grace as Her ultimate gift; when we are born, our first inhale is on Her exhale, and when we return, She inhales our last breath. She that flows in, among, and around is Earth Mother; the Goddess in the Dirt! This is the all-encompassing energy of life itself, her womb the vessel from where  all energy pours into creation. Her all-devouring mouth is the vessel through which all matter is consumed to be reborn. In swirling patterns of pure love,  she ignites, becoming the Star Goddess of whom Starhawk writes, “alone and awesome, complete within herself.”

The Goddess is Earth, and She is you. She is Earth Mother. She is not abstract or a mystical metaphor, but rather the giant rocks that spring forth from the soil. She is the wind and the soft caresses and the howl. She is not “in our heads” as consciousness or an archetype. We can wade in her waters by the sea and be soothed in her rich earth. Her body is of substance as material as is our own. All Goddess, All Earth, All Earth Mother.

There is a belief among indigenous peoples that “We walk lightly on the bosom of the Earth Mother.” In the chaos of busy lives, I find that we often forget that immanent love surrounds us and is as close as the dirt at our feet.  This dirt, rich in nutrient, is the body of a single vast living being–Earth Mother. This is the fertile crescent where we can find the vessel of our most sacred self. Here we are invited to observe. Maybe it is the lesson of the pliant trees in the hurricane. Maybe the lesson is in the cultivation of sacredness. And maybe it is as simple as sitting ourselves down in the dirt for a moment of breath. Earth Mother invites us to experience an unfolding of a self that is capable of manifesting the lives we want to live. When we touch the dirt, we are awakening to consciousness.

It is this consciousness that is interdependent cultivation to build our life’s great work. This is the place where we return, the earth as a vessel. In weeks to come, this column will explore how to manifest a relationship with Earth Mother and invite the mysteries that continue to unfold. How can the Goddess who is all Goddess realign our lives and bring us into greater peace, harmony, and communion with the deep ecosystem that for centuries has always been spinning love? It starts with touching the dirt.

Alone In Her Presence is published on alternate Wednesdays! Subscribe via RSS or e-mail.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the Shema: the twice-daily declaration of faith. This week I’m going to describe the rest of my daily devotionals. I love reading about people’s daily practices, and I want to add mine to the mix with the thought that, as we all rebuild this big, messy, beautiful thing called Paganism, it’s better for everyone to have more access to diverse devotional practices.

There’s actually more to the Shema than that one line. The rest of the prayer consists of a few key passages from Deuteronomy and Numbers. Here’s my version, very heavily adapted from Marcia Falk’s Book of Blessings:

I will do your work, my Goddess, throughout the cycles of the day; I will mark you in my mind and on my hands; I will teach you to my children; I will remember you in my home and on my journeys.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

For awhile I fretted a little about the nature of the work–what exactly was I promising to do?–and at one point I even tried to define it myself, but gradually I learned to let the work reveal itself to me. It pops up in little, unglamorous ways: giving a spontaneous offering to a deity or the fey folk, sticking up for someone who’s being bullied, showing compassion to a difficult person at work, cleaning up litter. The constant repetition every morning and evening (or, at least, that’s what I aim for) helps me remember to keep my eyes open for ways to serve. Once, my phone rang a second after I said the word “work,” and it turned out to be a wrong number. Still a little high from my prayers (I got into a real groove that night), I wished the person a good night. He paused, seemingly surprised, and then said it back. Did I make some tiny difference in his life? Or was it just a coincidence, his surprise a figment of my imagination? I’ll never know. Such is the humble nature of the work.

Which isn’t to say the work is never exciting. I serve on the ritual planning circle for Reclaiming LA and priestess at public rituals. Right now I’m writing a series of hymns to the Morrígan. The more exciting work requires constantly distinguishing genuine service from my own ego (“Lookit me, I’m a priestess!”), but when I do it well, I enjoy it.

My devotionals have a structure loosely based on the elements: my declaration to the Goddess, followed by devotionals to the deities I’m working with (both temporarily and on a long-term basis), then a hello to the fey folk and ancestors and spirits of the land, a lovingkindness chant, and finally a few moments of silent meditation. The latter three always feel pretty straightforward, if sometimes a little challenging; my devotion to the land and all its people is at the center of my Witchcraft, and Buddhist meditation is simple, yet profound.

The deity devotions tend to give me trouble, though. I still find it hard to break away from a monotheistic mindset that dictates that one god should be able to give me everything I need spiritually. I still have trouble with the idea that I can work with Deity A without Deity B automatically getting offended. Part of the problem, of course, is that the Morrígan is very big and very strong and demands a lot of attention. A friend of mine who started working with the Morrígan around the same time I did told me that she periodically has to put away her statue because the energy is just too much for her. I’ve found myself in the same boat more than once. Recently I had to take my Morrígan totems off my altar because she was swallowing up my entire practice, and my spirituality was suffering for it. I hesitated because I was afraid of pulling a Cu Chulainn…but then I realized that any devotional practice based on fear is a practice that will benefit no one. Now my devotion to her consists of writing her hymns while I try to build up my daily practice with Cernunnos again. I’m slowly learning that you can love and serve a deity while being clear about your boundaries. And despite her reputation, I think a goddess of sovereignty understands that.

Also, last weekend I took an Aphrodite intensive workshop, and I’ve started doing devotionals to her. I’ve never really felt like Aphrodite and I had much to offer each other, but that may be all the more reason to approach her. The knee-jerk reaction I’ve always had to her–“Love and beauty? Yuck! Frivolous! Not for me!”–is, I know, a veiled expression of a void in my life. I won’t get into the particulars; suffice it to say that I have a lot of work ahead of me that neither Cernunnos nor the Morrígan can help me with. Aphrodite is a power every bit as big and deep and ancient as the more “serious” deities.

My daily practice takes other forms, too: drumming, singing, running the Iron and Pearl Pentacles, aligning my triple soul, reading the cards, or aspecting. Sometimes sitting at my altar and performing formal devotionals feels right. Other times, I’m called to take my drum out to the patio and sing. And still other times, I just want to whisper to the plants in my garden. When I took my first Reclaiming class, one of the teachers advised us to “hold it lightly.” Don’t let your practice get dogmatic and joyless. Don’t start believing there’s only one right way to do it. That way of thinking will never pay off.

May your devotionals, if you perform them, be light as a feather and deep as the ocean, as bright as a flame and dark as the earth.

Jewish Witch is published on alternate Tuesdays. Subscribe via RSS or e-mail!

A few weeks ago, I wrote about what it means to honor our ancestors. As the autumn air settles in and October approaches, I would like to take this opportunity to expand on it, since this time of year brings about much discussion on the thinning veil between the living and the dead and remembering those who have gone before us.

When honoring our ancestors, there can be a tendency to reach only towards our pre-Christian ancestors – to those who venerated the heathen gods. I think it’s important, however, to bring our more recent deceased relatives into the fold, as some of these people were those who knew us in life. For instance, my grandmother’s recipes saved me from possible starvation when I rented my first apartment. To this day, I am still able to stretch a dollar at the grocery store thanks to her frugal and clever ways of cooking wholesome, affordable meals. My father taught me how to properly care for a car, while my uncles are fondly remembered for gathering after the big family meal every Saturday on the back porch of my great-grandmother’s home. These are some of my earliest memories of building familial connections.

My grandparents, those uncles, and my father are now deceased, but I keep their pictures in frames on my mantle. Along with my brothers and cousins, I help to make sure their grave sites are properly cared for and maintained. When I’m seeking additional emotional support and guidance from family members, it is these people that I call on.

Why would I honor these individuals instead of reaching far back into my heathen ancestry? Why not call on a past hero or even a king? The answers to those questions stem from my knowing these family members personally. My most recently deceased ancestors knew my flaws and gifts, and I knew theirs. There was a personal bond.

This isn’t to say that I exclude my ancient ancestors. I surely appreciate who they were, and had it not been for their persistence and survival, I would not be here. I also have family members who I did not know, but who are recent enough in the family line that their lives are recorded in the family book that my mother keeps. These included my great-grandparents (x 3) who raised horses – a tradition that they learned from their parents and passed down to my grandparents. However, I cannot maintain their grave sites (caring for a family member’s grave mound was once a common practice) or recall any stories, which have been lost to time. Was this ancestor the tribe comedian? Did that ancestor like beef but not venison? What other preferences did they have that defined their personalities? I can’t answer those questions. I can, however, look at how people lived in those days and remain mindful of them in my own traditions and practices. In this way, I am honoring those more ancient ancestors according to their worldview and activities, and I have the choice of implementing those ways in my life and rituals.

Sometimes the question arises as to how best to honor our ancestors who were not heathen. For a variety of historical reasons, many members of a person’s family may have practiced another religion. This can sometimes be contentious for those who don’t want to offend a family member by including them in heathen practices. Religious affiliation does not have to cause a sticky situation, though. A family member’s religion of choice is not their only defining characteristic. The same can be said for less than savory family members who have passed on. It may be prudent to seek out whatever qualities they had that were helpful to the family. Did they build their own homes? Were they involved in community organizations? Were they known for certain qualities that are positive, such as determination? Perhaps they were artistic, creative, or chose a profession similar to the one that you have chosen. These are all aspects of an ancestor that can be celebrated when they are remembered.

This type of remembrance does require drawing on a few facts about one’s family line, which is why it can be helpful to focus on more recently deceased ancestors as opposed to those who lived in the eleventh century. In some cases, however, there may be a famous ancestor who accomplished great deeds and about whom much is known. It is not necessary to only honor those ancestors who made a name for themselves. An especially honorable person may also come from a family who fulfilled ordinary responsibilities in an extraordinary way. They may not have been famous, but their dedication to their community and ingenuity may have contributed greatly to the preservation and success of the family line. They are equally worthy of being remembered.

Eventually we ourselves will be someone’s ancestor. Building a good name for ourselves is an important part of keeping the frith in our homes and building up our individual communities. Our deeds and commitments will be reflected, and hopefully remembered, down the road. Our ancestors, then, hold the keys to our family history. In honoring the Desir, we might ritually offer items specific to the women in our family. Likewise, we may choose to display or offer things that are special to our family on a mantle or altar that is dedicated just to our ancestors. However we choose to honor those who walked before us, may we include them in a way that expresses gratefulness for their perseverance.

Heathen Woman is published on alternate Fridays. Subscribe via RSS or e-mail!

Greetings, and welcome to the 1 year anniversary of Wyrd Words.

Keeping the Thor in Thursdays, every other week here on Agora!

Wyrd Words has now been running for a solid YEAR, and nobody has put an end to our antics yet. This is both fantastic and, quite frankly, surprising. Looking back on my time here, it’s been an interesting year. We’ve covered a pretty wide variety of topics in this column, and it always fascinating to see which articles go viral for inexplicable reasons, and which ones end up gathering dust in the back of Agora’s proverbial closet. In a way, we can learn about ourselves as a community by exploring which topics seem to generate the most interest. Thus, in the spirit of exploration, I present the top 5 articles of the year!

#5 Faces of Odin – Soldier, Scholar, Skald, and Skeptic
 photo 140416131740-odin-ruler-of-asgard-story-top_zps8cfd77f2.jpgÓðinn, as he is depicted by the Lore, is very complex and multidimensional. To simply label him as a “God of War” is not only an inadequate descriptor, it’s a disservice to the depth of his personality. The Allfather wears many faces, and all of them are important to the Sagas he weaves. [Read more…]

This is one of my rare “theological” articles, and because of that I never expected it to do so well. I often focus on the “big picture” of our community and forget that so many of us are really just looking for our own connection with the gods. Missing the trees for the forest, so to speak.


 #4 Pagan Relationships – Building a Lasting Community

 photo bonfire-dance_zps00607fbc.jpgIn a recent article, I mentioned the relatively short lifespan of many of our kindreds, covens, and groves. I believe that the reason for this can be broken down into three major problems: size, distribution, and (most importantly) the types of relationships we build within our local communities. [Read more…]

Our community is still young, and we spend a LOT of time trying to figure ourselves out. You can talk about herding cats all you want, but I have seen firsthand how much the majority of our community wants to see us achieve a real structure and stability. 


#3 Drawing The Line – Heathens Against White Supremacists
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There is a small segment of the modern Heathen community that co-opts our religion for racist purposes. I refuse to allow them to abuse and dishonor our faith, our community, and our gods. [Read more…]

I don’t know if this article was the best thing I’ve ever written, but I believe it was by far the most IMPORTANT. I am ashamed that, in this day and age, this article still needed to be written. I am proud to be part of a community that so strongly stands up against bigotry and racism. 


 #2 Pointless Arguments (Part 1) – The Polytheism Debate

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We could all argue about theology until we’re blue in the face, but in the end we’re only debating a matter of faith, as none of us has any objective evidence with which to support our case. This is a dilemma I like to call “Schrodinger’s God.” Read on for awesome stick figure illustrations. [Read more…]

This was probably the most fun I’ve ever had writing a blog article. I learned two things about our community based on how this article was received. First, we are perfectly willing to admit our faults and point out when we’re being silly. Second, stickfigures are remarkably entertaining and can be surprisingly educational. *shrug* Who knew?


#1   10 Pieces of Practical Advice from the Hávamál (Part 2)
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More practical advice from the Havamal: How to Party Like a Viking! Remember, the party’s no fun if you can’t remember enough of it to know where you put your pants! [Read more…]

Coming in at #1: Practical advice from the Havamal. The fact that this piece is the MOST POPULAR THING I’VE EVER WRITTEN, is why I love this community. Say what you will about us, but we know how to laugh at ourselves!


It’s been a great year, and hopefully we have a great year to come!

Wyrd Words is published on alternate Thursdays. Subscribe via RSS or e-mail!


Recently I was asked by The Wild Hunt about what makes a person a Pagan Elder. In my response, I noted that  didn’t feel that a Big Name Pagan (BNP) was automatically an elder. Indeed, this year the Pagan community has struggled with a number of incidents where BNPs engaged in questionable behavior. (You don’t have to be a BNP to engage in questionable leadership, though, as Shauna Aura Knight explains in this post). However, I want to focus on BNPs because I think that the Pagan community invests authority in BNPs that is unwarranted. Let’s take a moment and define what a BNP typically looks like.

A Big Name Pagan usually has written books or produced music or has organized festivals and is well known for one of those activities. Many BNPs teach classes and some even create mystery schools through which they offer those particular classes. They also travel and present at festivals. They are interviewed in magazines and podcasts. They write articles for sites such as this one. Some of them are part of specific magical traditions and have even founded those traditions. All of them have some degree of fame in the Pagan pond. I would probably be considered a BNP, though certainly not one of the more famous ones.

So now we have a definition of a BNP. There are a few reasons BNPs are considered to be leaders. The first reason is because they usually teach some type of class. The role of teacher carries with it some authority, which in turn can be associated with leadership. However, just because a person is good at teaching doesn’t mean that same person is a leader. Teaching isn’t the same as being a leader, though the roles can draw on similar skills. And while it can be argued that a teacher should be responsible for what they teach, that responsibility doesn’t automatically transfer over to leadership skills.

Another reason a BNP might be thought of as being a leader is if s/he founds a tradition or holds a position of authority in a tradition. This is a legitimate reason for thinking such a person is a leader, but one of the questions we should ask is whether or not leadership skills have been taught to the BNP (or anyone else occupying such a role). If leadership skills aren’t taught, then the person won’t become a leader by default. They will still have to learn the lessons everyone else has to learn, and they’ll likely learn them the hard way. A person doesn’t become a good leader without proper training, and just because someone has founded a tradition or belongs to one doesn’t automatically mean they have leadership skills. It just means they occupy a position of authority. The question to ask when finding yourself in this role is: “What have I done to earn that authority?”

Yet another reason a BNP is associated with leadership is fame. While that person may not be as famous as celebrity or a politician, within the Pagan community such fame can have a similar effect. For example, I was once told a story about a BNP and his wife who referred to themselves as occult royalty. They seemed to think that being famous made them something special. The problem with such fame is that it can be addictive and misleading. We live in a culture at large where fame is often equated with authority and leadership, even though the majority of people who are famous tend to make fools out of themselves on a regular basis. What we should remember is that just because a person is famous doesn’t mean s/he is a leader. And if that person seems to indulge in the fame, we should consider it a red flag.

One of the recent scandals involved Christian Day, the author and bookstore owner. A BNP posted a long complaint on his Facebook wall about how people had asked him to take a stand and say something about a recent scandal. These people wanted him to denounce Christian Day. In his complaint, the BNP explained why he wouldn’t do that and also explained why he wasn’t a leader and didn’t want people expecting him to lead them. This is a fair enough request, but what it highlighted to me was the expectation that people have that fame equates to leadership, without really considering whether or not a famous person is fit to be a leader, or if s/he wants to be one. Just because someone is famous doesn’t mean that person is automatically a leader.

I think the Pagan community needs to be more discerning when it comes to associating BNPs with leadership. We need to ask what makes a person a good leader and then weigh that against what the person is doing. Is the person visible for the right reasons or the wrong ones? Shauna and I got into a conversation about visibility vs. fame, and she pointed out that a leader does need to be visible, but the leader should not encourage fame. Instead, what a leader does is make sure that people see who s/he really is, faults and virtues included. By keeping it real, the leader stays grounded and recognizes that his/her authority has more to do with the role s/he has taken on than anything inherent in him/herself.

I also think a leader operates from a place of service. What that means is that the person is choosing to serve the community over his/her own interests. As such, fame is not important. What is important is being able to serve the community by becoming a good leader. Becoming a good leader involves learning and applying leadership skills as well as sticking to a code of behavior that reflects those skills. In other words you have to walk the talk… not just talk it.

I think some BNPs are good leaders. But I think as a community, Pagans need to carefully look at our standards of leadership and ask if those standards are really being fulfilled by the people who are put into positions of leadership (BNP or not). Let us not buy into the cult of the BNP, but instead question that cult carefully and ask ourselves if we really want a BNP to be a leader just because that person wrote a book or put out an album. There’s nothing wrong with recognizing a talent for writing or art or something else, but let’s not make the mistake that such talent automatically makes a person a leader. While we can appreciate talent, we also need to appreciate the difference between it and the qualities required for good leadership.

Socially Responsible Magic is published on alternate Wednesdays. Subscribe via RSS or e-mail!

When I first tell people that I’m a witch, their eyes inevitably drift to the lotus pendant around my neck, and I can see them squinting, trying to figure out if it’s a strange form of pentacle that they’ve never seen before. If they ask, I’ll explain that I usually only wear my star during rituals, which sometimes leads to other questions about my practice. It’s getting easier for me to speak openly about these tangible reminders of my spiritual practice after spending much of the last decade within the safe confines of the broom closet, but there’s one place I still find it difficult to put thoughts into words:

It’s hard to express the sense of wonder that is part of my path.

I can talk about nuts and bolts, myths and archetypes, festivals and full moons to anyone who will listen, but I’ve found that it’s harder to put into words the deep, child-like wonder that infuses so much of my daily life. The more I’ve worked with magic, the more I’ve come to appreciate the most mundane things.

For me, magical practice isn’t just about the spells and rituals (although I love those aspects, too). It’s in the sound of wind chimes dancing outside my window; the brush of the wind through my hair, reminding me to be present; the warmth of the sun on my shoulders or the rough earth beneath my feet. The magic of mindfulness is something I’m still learning to listen to, but that sense of paying attention to the world with wonder and delight have become more and more vital to my spirituality over the years, and I hope I continue to look on both the mundane and the highly ritualistic as sacred, magical acts.


Every breath is a spell, and every step part of the dance.

Starhawk wrote of the importance of “child self” in her transformative work The Spiral Dance, and over the years, that childlike sense of belief, anticipation, and wonder have become more and more central to my own practice. It can be hard to explain “child self” to a non-Pagan, however; when I try, I often find myself searching for words, before I finally smile and point outside to a beautiful patch of sunshine.

I think it’s so hard to explain wonderment because we all express it in different ways; for me, it’s a very sensory experience, taking in the scents and sounds and feelings associated with each place and each moment. For others, wonder comes from internal conviction, or reading of signs in the world, or from works of man-made art. There are countless ways to feel wonder, just as there are countless ways children play and learn to make sense of the world around them, and for me, that sense of awe is the crux of my faith. I don’t need to wear my pentacle every day to know I’m deeply bound to the elements; all I must do is open my eyes and remember to breathe.


photo courtesy of shutterstock: shutterstock.com

The Busy Witch is published on alternate Tuesdays. Follow it via RSS or e-mail!

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