Friday, March 9, 2012

E is for Elitism, Ego and the Eclectic

Elitism, in the sense of someone saying "Our way is the ONLY way" I tend to disagree with. And when I say "Our Way Only", I'm not referring to, say, maintaining that there's only one way to perform a particular ritual or pronounce a particular name. There are occasions where this is so. I mean more the sort of person who thinks their religion is the only valid religion, or objectively the very best religion, and everyone else's ways of doing things - even if those things are totally different in construct - are wrong, inferior or invalid. And these people do exist in Paganism. 

You get some people who say the only way to learn witchcraft is face to face. You get people who say you can't be Heathen if you're not white or straight. You get others who say the only way to be a witch is to be a Wiccan (lol?). Others still will maintain that you can't be a witch if you don't follow the Rede or believe in particular gods. This sort of thing, either about a wide term associated with a large number of different spiritual traditions and practices (such as "witch" or "pagan) is ridiculous. Likewise concepts unsupported by historical precedence or lore. I've seen people be snide bitches about non-coven-trained witches as if there's no way they could properly know anything about magic without that coven access. There are a great number of things you probably couldn't know without coven access, depending on coven, but magic isn't one of them.

Elitism in the sense of only allowing certain people into your group? That I'm fine with - although to be honest, it doesn't really fit the definition. If you had a group of people with whom you wanted to feel spiritually and emotionally comfortable, with whom you may well be naked, with whom you would be sharing sacred rituals and exchanging energies - wouldn't you want to know and trust them? Wouldn't you be selective about membership? But hey, if people feel that not allowing everyone access to religious Mysteries via your group is elitist, fine. It's elitist. But I don't have a problem with that. Nor do I have a problem with correcting someone - and that is certainly not elitist, and frankly it's anti-intellectual to insist it is.

Two types of religions within Paganism tend to be scathingly referred to as "elitist". First, the initiatory religions, which require you to join a particular group in order to access their Mysteries, their core teachings, or even their gods. Second, the reconstructionist religions, who tend to get frowny and cross when someone refers to one of their gods in a way contradicted by lore, worships them in a way that from their perspective seems alien or bizarre, or treats something sacred in a way they consider frivolous.

In both of these types of religion you will get "Our Way Only" types. You will also get people who are closed-minded, hide-bound, aggressive or silly. You will get bigots, racists, and jerks. It happens; all people are people. The issue is when someone is not being any of these things, and is still referred to as "elitist", usually because they won't "let" someone have something.

This accusation comes nearly always from someone whose own faith tends towards the Ego-Driven Eclectic. This is in contrast to what we might call the Responsible Eclectic, someone who is conscious in their eclecticism and tries to be wise and thoughtful about what they adopt, and how and why. The Ego-Driven Eclectic, on the other hand, is not conscious, and does not think. They see something and they adopt it. They worship a god because the god might benefit them in some way - the spell in their book calls for invoking a god of love so that's what they do. They like the way Ogham looks - and anyway it's Celtic which is cool - so they use it. The Ego-Driven Eclectic is a magpie, picking up everything that looks shiny and sticking it in the nest without first looking at it in the context in which they find it. And whenever someone says "hey, stop! what are you doing?" that person is elitist.

Religions like Wicca, that are initiate-only religions, get accused of things like elitism and being (another E) exclusionary for two main reasons: first that they don't release all their sacred knowledge for general consumption, and second because they don't let everyone and their dog join in. The issue I think isn't that these religions are "elitist" as such; I haven't yet met a Wiccan who thinks Wicca is the best religion and everyone else is "lower" than they. On the contrary, most Wiccans seem to believe that Wicca simply isn't for everyone, and that Wicca is simply one religion among many.

Maybe it's an aspect of Western churches and Christian thought filtering down through our cultures. There's this idea that if there's a religious meeting, or a church group or a Mystery, everyone should have access to it. I don't think that's even true for Christianity; there's certain Mysteries women know that men will never understand and vice versa. A Nun will have access to Christian Mysteries that a priest will not that a layman will not. And that's before we even take a look at the Heretical and Gnostic groups! But for the most part, the idea is that everyone is Damned, and so everyone should be given access to a church and a priest and the religion itself in order to be Saved.

Most Pagan religions don't work like that. If there are many gods there are many options. You come from over the horizon, with different gods? Neat. These are our ones. Historically, and nowadays as well, polytheism carries with it this assumption that different people will end up with different gods or different religions, and there's no problem with adding - as the Viking traders did with Jesus or the Romans with local deities they met on their journey across Europe - another one to the bunch. If there are many gods, indeed many pantheons, then there are many truths. Not having access to one of these truths isn't a death sentence for your immortal soul. And not every religion suits everyone. Many Wiccans, being of a priesthood and in a role of service to their deities, recognise that not everyone will be suited to that role or to those deities, or indeed to a religion with such a stress on fertility, and don't mind if their religion is not for you. What does tend to annoy is when their refusal to share their sacred things is referred to as "elitist", and someone nicks off with the name of their religion. 

Reconstructionist and recon-derived religions, such as Heathenry, Hellenic polytheism, CR and Kemet, get similarly upset when they see their sacred things misused. And the response is "why is it their sacred thing, but not mine? It's sacred to me too". There's an element of education, an element of understanding and an element of context. Germanic cultures tend to be open; technically, you can take what you like, so long as you do so with respect and awareness. Not every culture or Pagan religion will work this way. Some are closed cultures, and you can't take this or that. Others had Mysteries that are actually lost to us now. And open or closed, all aspects of these religions will have things, taken and modified by eclectics for their own use, that rely very much on context and other elements of the faith to make sense. Regardless of whether a culture is open or closed there will be sacred things in those religions and  it can be jarring and offensive to see, for example, Runes plastered all over someone's ritual knife in glitter.

"Well why can't I have them? Why can't I learn the Runes?" Actually, you can. You can. If you put the effort in. They're not just pretty symbols, they're not just a writing system, not just the Norse equivalent of the Tarot. In order to learn them, actually learn them, you need to Take Them up. You need to learn about Norse culture and religion, and you need to at least respect Oðinn, as he's the god who won them for you in the first place. So learn them. Don't just use them and say it's OK because you have a book by Sirona Knight or Ralph Blum, actually learn them. Don't just buy a set drawn with gold marker on a bunch of tumbled amethysts, actually carve your own and blood them. That's the difference between responsible eclecticism and stealing sacred things from another religion because you like the look of them. If you want to say "this is sacred to me too", treat it like it's sacred. That means a lot more than just putting it on your altar in pride of place. That means putting in the effort to truly understand it.

Treating what you call sacred like it is actually sacred is something you don't see much in Ego-Driven Eclecticism. For the Ego-Driven Eclectic, the only thing that's sacred is the Self. Everything else serves the self, regardless of where it comes from or who it belongs to. And if you give them a telling off, or even calmly point out where they have gone wrong, you are an Elitist, or even (oh hilarity) Closed-Minded. 

The Ego-Driven Eclectic is not rare. Often they're unaware of what they're doing or why it might be wrong. And this is due to cultural mindsets of want-take-have, encouragement from ethics-poor authors like Ravenwolf and Starhawk, who paint Paganism as this magical soup of whatever-you-want where everyone is Nice. And since you are a Pagan, you must be Nice, and if you are Nice and doing as Mama Silver says, nothing you are doing could be wrong. Right?

And, ironically, in the end, many of these people end up being the most elitist. Disagree with them, hold an opposing viewpoint, even dare to correct them and the insults fly, the defences go up, the troops are rallied around. You're banned from the forum or the chat room, called "elitist bitch" or "closed-minded". Phrases like "I expect this sort of thing from Christians, not from other Pagans!!", as if Christians were the ultimate hateful inferior (talk about Our Way Only). You aren't just Different, you're Wrong. It's quite possible you're even Evil. 

It can be a stage. I think many Pagans go through it if they discover Paganism young. It could be a teen thing, a sort of self-obsession and tunnel-viewed awareness that takes you a while to get through. Many people come out the other side, as more aware, more conscious, and much more passionately aware of the Sacred and what it means to use sacred things. On the other side is deeper spirituality, deeper respect for others, deeper self-knowledge. But you also get a lot of Pagans, even ones who have been practising upwards of 30 years and consider themselves "elders", who never get through that juvenile stage. And it's a great shame, because with experience and community they teach others not to respect the sacred and one another, but to want-take-have. And then to shout down anyone who tries to protest.


  1. Very wisely written and many thoughts worth taking in consideration. Thank you for sharing!

    Blessed be!

    1. Thanks very much, I'm glad you liked it! :D I hope it all makes sense. I wrote it in segments and then filled in the gaps and I think I had to edit it about three times when I realised I'd left sentences half-finished XD

  2. I happened to write my post this week on eclecticism too, and I really appreciate your view on it. I consider myself eclectic, for a number of reasons, but I've been doing so for 13 years and am constantly learning and testing new ideas. I haven't encountered many Ego-Driven Eclectics, as you put it, but I suppose that's a good thing! When I do encounter someone new to paganism and witchcraft, I do so with an open mind, for them as well as for me. Every opportunity is an opportunity to learn!

    Thanks for the post, and how you acknowledge two different types of eclectics.

  3. This reminds me very much of some things I've been posting in my blog :-D (And my name is Sanna too :-D)

    But - one of my pet peeves is the use of "ego" and blaming the ego of everything that is wrong with the world... I happen to disagree, but I'm Finnish, and in the Finnish shamanism "ego-self" is the self-esteem, self-image, consciousness... Anyway, I've received "the treatment" too, for different reasons, and one has been my attitude to "ego" and the usage of it in the Spiritual community on-line.

    I think it's easy to understand how someone who has been denied the access to the group feels slighted and hurt and deemed "less than", and thus also feels being discriminated by people who think they are "better than" - that is, elitists.

    I have to say that I suppose you'd consider me one of these "ego-driven eclectics". I take what pleases me and what suits my highly egocentric purposes and adjust it to that. Just the way the Christians stole Yule :-D
    But I have also been told that "that's fine, there's nothing to get bothered about, because what ever anyone else celebrates and how ever they do that is none of my business. It's not like they are taking anything away from me, is it?". I've been told I'm "mean" when I talk about it and other things like that. So - being a magpie is OK.

    I wouldn't say "whenever someone says: "hey, stop!", he/she's elitist. I'd say it depends on how he/she reacts on me crumbling about how Christians stole Yule... and act accordingly. If one shouldn't bother about magpieing when Christians do it, then you shouldn't bother about magpieing when Pagans do it. If you do, then you're bigoted. But - I can understand that people don't know the difference between the words.

    I think Christianity is very elitist in it's "everyone is damned (and our way is the only way to save you)" thinking.

    Germanic cultures are not "you can take what you like, as long as you do so with respect and awareness". They are very much "I see, I like, I take", Just like Romans. They don't care one bit of what YOU like or with what YOU do things. They tend to be rather protective of things they consider theirs while having no respect of what is others'. Talk about elitism and imperialism... Roman empire, the Anglo-saxon empire on which the sun never set, the Third Empire of Nazi Germany... But - I am Finnish, not Germanic, so who am I to say. That's my view from outside, as the victim of the Germanic imperialism.

    "They're not just pretty symbols, they're not just a writing system, not just the Norse equivalent of the Tarot."
    Well... actually, they are. To some people. To some people symbols are more than marks, whether appealing or not; to some people writing systems are more than symbols; to some people Tarot is very much more than ANYTHING "just"... and more than runes.
    And it is ok to use them because you have a book. It is ok to buy a set of runes of any kind and use them. It is ok to regard them as you seem to regard the tarot cards. It is ok to plaster runes all over a glittery ritual knife you own just because you are supposed to have a ritual knife because you like to think of yourself as a witch. Why wouldn't it be ok?
    Do you really think Oden and the runes won't know the difference?

    Most people don't have the slightest idea of what is sacred and wouldn't know how to treat something like it is sacred. So - I would say this person treats the sacred things the same way she treats anything else she holds sacred.

    To me the problem arises when someone REALLY STEALS something ike the Christians have done. They see something appealing and sacred, take it and then say "this is mine, not yours!"

    1. Ego means a few different inter-related things in English. It's not always a negative thing... sometimes it just refers to the self.

      Being denied access to a group isn't always a "less than" thing, which I hoped I'd made clear (but apparently didn't). The idea is that you may not be right *for that group*.

      The Christians didn't "steal Yule". The Christians celebrated Christmas around the same time as Saturnalia because it was a time of celebration, and being executed by the Romans probably wasn't fun. When they spread North, those who converted to Christianity would have wanted to keep their cultural traditions - and why not? It's their cultural inheritance. It's not like a mass of people came in, killed all the Pagans and took their stuff. It's the same people who were Pagan who became Christian.

      I'm sorry, I forgot that the palaeo-Pagans were 100% ethical all the time. Oh wait! they weren't. The reason cultures like the Germanics are "open" is because they *were* invaders. Cultures that were shat upon for centuries, like Native American cultures and Celtic cultures, tend to be closed. But just because a culture spread itself wide doesn't mean you get to be a disrespectful cunt, steal all their shit and demean it. OK?

      I'm not seeing what the difference is between the Christians taking something sacred and saying "this is mine, not yours" and taking the runes and saying "lol they are just like the tarot FOR SOME PEOPLE so you are wrong". What you are doing is very offensive.

      It's NOT OK to just buy some book from Blum and think you're a runecaster. Not only is it offensive to these sacred Mysteries, but these are actually powerful energies. You could cause damage to yourself or someone else if you fuck around with them without understanding what they are. It's not OK to draw them all over things because you think they're neat and witchy. It's disgusting, and it's what's wrong with Neo-Paganism, and I am ashamed to share a religious umbrella with people who act this way.

      Keep your bigotry and your disrespect for the sacred from my blog, please, person. You shame yourself.

  4. Thank you Sanna. Love your response 100%.