It happens all the time. You get involved with a local Pagan community and everyone seems really nice. You’re meeting for rituals, sharing incense blends, and even thinking of starting a formal group. Then out of nowhere, some person pops up who declares themselves an “Elder” and proceeds to offer (unsolicited) advice on what you’re doing wrong and how you should really be doing things. Often they are not even part of your particular Pagan path, but instead are part of some nebulous “Old Ways”. They seem to enjoy telling you about their accomplishments more than they do helping out in the community, and nobody knows where they came from.
The following is a list of five reasons why you don’t need to pay any attention to these self-declared “Elders”, and why it would probably be best for the Pagan community as a whole if we stopped using that term.
1. The qualification has become simply “be old”.
People in the Pagan community have become so eager to reach that mythical next rung on the ladder of power and stand at the front of the line during the Beltane potluck that they can’t wait to tell you how “old” they are and how now they’re an “Elder”. I’ve read cases where women in their late 40’s were throwing croning rituals for themselves, even though their youngest child was still on formula. I’ve seen men declare themselves “Elders” because they found some grey hairs. Let’s be clear…growing old, being put on disability, or receiving early retirement from your employment does not qualify you as being a “Pagan Elder”, suddenly possessed of the wisdom and experiences necessary to guide the next generation.
2. They have no references to back up their claims of accomplishments and initiated traditions.
At this time, I am aware of a man who will let you know within the first ten minutes of meeting you that he is an “Elder in the Pagan community”, has been practicing for at least thirty-five years, knows every Big Name Pagan there is personally, and has degrees in eight magical traditions. Though he is happy to spout all this off at a moment’s notice and posts it everywhere in his profiles, when asked for verification of any of these claims he will claim “oathbound silence”, vows which apparently do not apply to self-promotion. If we would not take someone’s word for it when making big claims anywhere else in life, why start here? Anyone claiming such prominence should have a list of verifiable references, and at the very least should appear in a Google search with a history you can trace longer than five years.
3. They use it as a platform for hate speech/sexual harassment/ racist remarks.
Sometimes “Elders” have an outdated way of thinking when it comes to social progress and acceptance. Talking over the host of a meetup to begin a lecture on how homosexuality is “an unnatural choice” and how you “convert lesbians” is not called “offering advice to the community.” The proper terms for this sort of conduct are “hate speech” and “sexual harassment”, and the “Elder” in question has no right to try to guide anyone with such inflammatory and, quite frankly, rude behavior. Over and over again, however, I see “Elders” shoving this hateful way of thinking in people’s faces claiming that they’re speaking for the “Old Ways”. Maybe some of these ways of thinking got left behind for a reason. This type of behavior is exclusionary to people in the Pagan community and only seeks to divide and belittle others.
4. We may both be “Pagan”, but that doesn’t mean we’ve studied each other’s paths.
Most people would agree that it would be ridiculous for an old Baptist preacher to walk into the middle of a Catholic mass and start telling the priests how to conduct their business and what the proper way was to distribute the Eucharist. Why, then, are we accepting it when an old person claiming to be a Third Degree Gardnerian plops down in the middle of a Hellenic group and starts bossing people around, or tells the Kemetics that they’re not honoring Aset properly? Paganism is such a diverse collection of people that it is ridiculous to think that just because you’re an old practitioner in one group, that you’ll hold the same rank or privilege in another group. You certainly can’t claim it for a whole community of people with different beliefs.
5. It’s not about how long you’ve been Pagan, it’s about what you’ve done for the community.
This touches back on “being old”, but another claim I often hear from so-called “Pagan Elders” is that they’ve been practicing Paganism for longer than anyone else. I think we can all agree, though, that ten or twenty years of lighting candles and chanting under the moon will not prepare a person for putting together a funeral, organizing a community service program, or counseling someone with religious problems; these are leadership qualities that have to be learned and trained like any other job, religious or otherwise. The number of years you’ve practiced tell me nothing about the CONTENT of those years. Someone can be new to the Pagan community and accomplish more for that community in five years than an “Elder” has in twenty, and that new person is going to be who I turn to because action is worth more than years or talk.