Channels of Pagan Practice

Alison Lilly, chief cat herder at No Unsacred Place, has a piece at her own Meadowsweet and Myrrh blog where she says “I found myself striving to become an Expert In All Things Pagan.” Alison explains in detail the many and varied expectations she felt as she grew beyond beginning Paganism. She suspects she isn’t alone, and I agree.

Even if you ignore the difference in “flavors” of Paganism (Wicca, Druidry, Heathenry, etc.), there are still multiple ideas about what it means to be an “advanced” or “expert” or “mature” or “deep” practitioner. Each of those multiple ideas (we can call them “areas of emphasis” or “channels of practice”) has multiple advocates – people who are doing them, doing them well, writing and talking about them, and either directly or indirectly encouraging others to follow in their footsteps.

Here’s a brief outline of the major channels of practice, or at least, the ones that occur to me. If you think of some I missed, let me know in the comments.

Mystics. These are the people who are walking between the worlds: the shamans and hedgewitches. They experience gods, spirits and the Otherworld directly, and some of those experiences are as real to them as your experience of today’s lunch.

Magicians. From the high magic ceremonialists to the low magic kitchen witches, these people are all about causing change in conformance with Will.

Environmentalists. Whether they see the Earth as a living being or simply as the only planet we’ve got, these people emphasize living sustainably and with deep concern and respect for other creatures and ecosystems.

Advocates for Justice. The political Pagans, questing for the rights of religious minorities and for an end to exploitation of the environment and of the poor.

Artists. Writers, poets, musicians, dancers, painters, film makers, sculptors, liturgists, costume designers and all the people who articulate Pagan concepts and practices and who make them beautiful.

Culturists. Historians, anthropologists, folklorists, linguists and others who study what our pagan ancestors believed and did. Some attempt to re-create or re-imagine ancient practices, while others simply try to understand our ancestors so we can better honor them.

Priests. Priests and priestesses serve their gods and goddesses and they serve their religious communities. They are the glue that holds covens, groves and other groups together. They do the planning, organizing and leading of our seasonal celebrations and other rites.

Theologians and Philosophers. (added on prompting from Alison Lilly) The people who study our beliefs and practices and organize them into a rational framework that helps us understand and explain our experiences.

This is a very general, very brief look at some very deep practices. I’m sure you can find something to add or expand. The point is that if you spend any time in the Pagan community and on the Pagan internet you will encounter people in all of these areas who argue – explicitly or implicitly – that their particular channel is of critical importance, either for your personal development, for the future of Paganism as a religion or religions, or for the future of Life On Earth.

If you take your religion religiously, this can be overwhelming. Do you need to be an expert in every channel of practice? Is that even possible?

Isaac Bonewits

I don’t know of anyone who’s an expert in all these areas. Isaac Bonewits might have been – certainly he was competent in all of them. But Isaac was arguably the greatest Pagan leader of the past 40 years, and he was a “professional Pagan” who worked full time in his practice (and who accepted the subsistence level of material success that brought).

At one time or another I’ve practiced in all these channels. I’ve written about them all and I’ve advocated for them all. I’ve felt the impulse to dive deeper into all of them. They’re all important – Paganism can’t be the mature and vibrant religion we need it to be without them.

Here’s the good news – none of us have to be experts in all these areas. Our community already has them. I can rattle off names of people who are experts in one channel or another – you probably can too.

By all means, dip your toe into all these channels. Learn enough to be conversant in each. Study, experiment, and play.

Which one best matches your skills and interests? Which one can you not set down? Which one calls to you?

The future of Pagan leadership doesn’t rest with a few people who are Experts In All Things Pagan. It rests with many people who are experts in one or two Things Pagan. Find the one that calls to you, and when you do, dive in as deeply as you can go.

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  • Insightful as usual, John. 🙂

    One group you forgot: theologians and philosophers! They serve a different purpose than priests and priestesses, they don't necessarily work in the same ways as the mystics and artists do, and they are not merely culturalists studying ancient traditions from an academic perspective…. though I think they have something in common with all of these others to one degree or another.

    I think that this particular role of philosopher or theologian is treated somewhat ambivalently in the Pagan community, actually. I completely agree that specialization is a welcomed step along the path of growth in modern Paganism…. but when it comes to theology, I think a lot of modern Pagans still feel like somehow theological or philosophical work can be accomplished as an after-thought by anyone in any of these other roles, so that what you get is a hodge-podge of experiences and perceptions that can be vastly different.

    Maybe it's because people associate theology with doctrine and dogma, and philosophy with skepticism (or maybe just with boredom!). But theological and philosophical work is like all of these other fields – an area of exploration and ever-evolving exchange of expertise and cultivated skill. I think the next challenge that a growing Pagan community will face will be the realization that you can have theology without dogma. At least, I hope so.

  • Alison, you're right on both counts: I forgot theologians and philosophers, and Pagans tend to undervalue that work.

    There are a number of good Pagan philosophers (Brendan Myers and Michael York come to mind immediately), but there are very few Pagan theologians and good works of Pagan theology. I suspect that will come in time as our religion matures.

  • Let me add another level to your commentary with a quote from the feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether, from her work Women-Church (1985)

    "A religious community needs enablers in at least five areas: (1) liturgical creators – poets, artists, musicians, choreographers, who can help the community bring forth in creative expression its symbolic life; (2) teachers who know the history of religious thought systems and their relation to social systems and can help the community reflect on and reconstruct its inherited symbols; (3) administrators, organizers, in some cases a lawyer, who can oversee the material resources of the community; (4) social justice experts who can critically analyze different structures of social oppression, the interface of poverty, sexism, racism, and militarism, and help the community focus its energies and resources on some particular areas of action; (5) spiritual counselors who have a wisdom in the inner life and its relation to life in community and can be guides in this journey of psychic-spiritual development."

    Individuals can cover multiple roles, but if these roles are not addressed, the community will struggle to survive.

  • Thanks for the addition, Phaedra. I think I had the first four covered, but I missed spiritual counselors. Both in my Pagan work and in my more general UU work, I've seen the need for them… and I've seen what can happen when people try to act as counselors when they don't have "wisdom in the inner life".