Q of the Week: What if you don’t have any Elders?

Wow, it’s been a long while since I posted a Question of the Week, hasn’t it?

Sorry about that. It seems that Sunday is no longer the most convenient day of the week for me to be doing this. I’ve also started on some of those big changes in my life that I’ve hinted at. I’m blogging to you now from the fine locality of Barrhaven, a suburb of Ottawa. I also finished Book the Fifth (which I suppose I should start calling by its proper title now).

Some of you noted that I was a guest blogger on The Wild Hunt, during the week that Jason was occupied with moving. My contribution, posted a few days ago, was entitled “Who are the Elders?” I received a number of kind comments to this post. Among them, a friend of mine drew my attention to a post on her own blog from a few months ago which seemed very relevant. Here’s a quote from it:

For many of us, there are no Elders where we live. The only Elders are the ones in the books we order online and pay high shipping costs to get, or on web pages we must look at using slow speed dail-up. And this makes these elders and teachers barely tangible.

Read the whole post here.

When I got started in my teens, the only “elder” I knew was a huckster and a fraud. When I left his circle, I didn’t have anyone at all for a few years. I read books, mostly borrowed from friends, and I participated in discussions on the internet. The internet was still text-only then. (Wow, that puts a date on me!)

I joined my first pagan group around the age of 20 or 21, and some of its members were already in their 40s. The use of the word Elder was not yet in vogue at that time, but that’s effectively what they were, and how we treated them. Or, at any rate, that is how I looked up to them, and still do. (Curious to know if any of them are reading this blog!) I think it’s fair to say that I’ve had pagan elders around me one way or another ever since then. That is effectively all my adult life.

But as Juniper pointed out, this isn’t everyone’s experience. Well, friends, instead of listening to me pontificate, let me ask all of you: What, if anything, should those who have no Elders do? Who should they turn to? If anyone? Although I characterise the Elder as a person whose path is largely a path of service, can Elders be expected to drive hours and hours to remote places to meet with individuals or small groups? (To say nothing of the economics involved: the cost of fuel, etc.) Also, and I think importantly, might the recent interest in pagan elders be inadvertantly alienating those who don’t have access to Elders?

Honestly, I’m not even sure how to phrase the question, let alone suggest an answer. But I do think this is an important matter, and that where I am at a loss, others might be able to help.

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13 Responses to Q of the Week: What if you don’t have any Elders?

  1. darakat_ewr says:

    What, if anything, should those who have no Elders do?

    An interesting question, which really has a subjective answer, it depends on the person really what they should do. Its of no question that Elders should be respected, but in the same manner authority still needs to be questioned. One also has to recognize the fact that those that sometimes appear to be Eldars are not always actually real Eldars a problem that is particularly prominent in a religion with no central organization.
    Our individuality is something we treasure but it is also a big weakness when it comes to how easily we can be segregated and turned against each other, especially when our enemies (and we do have them) would very much like the bad stuff to be what people see of us. In a way its up to the Eldars to try and control this, with the help of others, however its weather or not our community is polarized enough to do this.
    I have a vastly different experience of the pagan community, one that is not big, not able to organize festivals easily, or gather funds to run them, one that can barely keep its local public circles and meet-ups going. I think the experience in big pagan city or community is very much different.

  2. alfrecht says:

    It’s an interesting issue…

    At PantheaCon ’07, several of us involved in putting on a few events at that sort of had a strange realization: we had been doing Antinoan activities and work and devotion for about five years at that point, and we were the originators of it in the form that most people present knew it through (since June of ’02), which meant that we were the most senior people in the tradition, and therefore the “elders,” and yet all of us were under the age of 35, and at the time, I was 30. (I had personally started in with all of it about a month after my 26th birthday.) As one of the cornerstones of our ideas is that there is (or, rather, there can potentially be) a great and important type of wisdom found in and associated with youth, we were attempting to be examples of that whenever/wherever possible. And, oddly enough, a lot of older people (by that I mean age 50 and up, not that 50 is “old”!) seemed to find it appealing, and the great majority of membership in the groups which resulted is of the 40 and over crowd; there are hardly any 20-somethings in, and even fewer under the age of 20.

    But, unfortunately, since this means there aren’t a lot of local groups, and instead we’re far-flung across the world, the internet provides the only means of communication and connection, generally. In such a situation, access to “elders” is quite democratized, and even though in-person interactions aren’t plentiful nor frequent, discussion is always possible, as long as there is enough time…

    (There may, of course, be the added dimension of there being a difference between being a “group founder/leader” and a “tradition founder,” and whether or not either or both of these things constitutes elder-hood…for which I can’t honestly say I have an answer, but in any case, knowing that they are areas of concern and question might be good enough for now, and for not deciding upon any conclusions by fiat, which is the mistake that the other major Antinoan group has made, in my opinion, but anyway, that gets into religious politics of a very sordid and silly sort…!?!)

    There are always ways to find elders, though, for those who are interested. Lots of people that I think of as elders are not even part of my various pagan traditions, they’re involved in other types of polytheism (e.g. Elisheva Nesher), or they’re not “pagan” (as generally understood) at all (e.g. Guji Koichi Barrish Sensei, out at the Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America Shinto shrine…).

    To turn some of the matters you raised in your penultimate paragraph around a bit, I think it might not be the best thing to consider elders as those people who make sacrifices to get to other people in their service of them–to expect that of anyone/everyone in such a position is rather a lot, and often far beyond the means for the people involved, whether time-wise or resource-wise. I think it might be more accurate to say that elders are people that others drive long distances to come and see. While elders can be people who help out in that direct and tangible way on occasion, I think the essential thing is that others think of them as important enough that they are willing to go to great lengths themselves to get to where those elders are…Does that make sense?

  3. Anonymous says:

    Making do without Elders

    I am very interested in how other respond to these questions.

    Since you asked and since you already quoted my blog once (thanks btw!) I’ll direct you to another post I had made on the subject titled “making Do Without Elders’ Which is mostly me rambling and ranting on frustrations of being pagan in a tiny community.

    As for your question “Might the recent interest in pagan elders be inadvertently alienating those who don’t have access to Elders?”

    I have to say in my experience wandering from small town to rural hamlet in western Canada and the USA over the lat ten years or so.. Yes sadly, it does alienate us.

    I’m 29 and I look 23, if it slips out that I’ve taught workshops or lead open rituals or hosted small events in front of pagans accustomed to a larger, and more mature, community I may very well find myself having to defend those actions.
    How dare such a young and untried woman do such things??

    Here’s one I and a few others I have known have found themselves wondering:

    I’m only late-twenties to early thirties, Ive only been practicing for 8 to 13 years, but somehow in my small town I have the most experience in the community. Even the one crone has only been practicing for 3 years and has barely read any books!
    What do I do? What would you do?

    ~ Juniper

    (I am a little disappointed my blog doesn’t offer me a OpenID *sigh* I shall have to be anonymous)

    • Re: Making do without Elders

      > Yes sadly, it does alienate us.

      I don’t think you’ve proven your case, unless you’ve chosen to interpret Brendan’s question very broadly. The people you describe here and in your two posts are demonstrating not a mere “interest” in Elders, but a dogmatic reliance on Elders, working in tandem with other forms of ignorance such as ageism. And it’s sure not “inadvertent” either.

      My answer to the quesion would be “I can’t see how.” Since “interest” is a matter of personal choice or preference, and Elder discussions are generally private, I wouldn’t expect a person’s interest in Elders to extend outward and be noticed by others, except for the occasional public ritual or other celebration dedicated to them.


  4. I think that alfrecht’s comments at the very end are very important. Elders should be people whom you think are worthy enough to go great distances to see and interact with. There is an old Muslim/Arab saying which goes something like “go look (ask) for knowledge even if it is in China” meaning even if it is far away from you.

    Having said that, I’m an example of a person who like your friend said had books and internet pages as Elders. The internet has certainly played an important part in my education because through it I met someone who was and still is willing to help me get my act together spiritual wise just by asking the right questions at the right times. Some times we learned together and sometimes she already knew the answer and was just waiting for me to catch up. I consider her an elder because she is willing to teach and also learn. Other elders in my life have nothing to do with paganism but rather people in general who TEACH sometimes without even realizing that they are doing it…I am not sure I am making much sense here, I hope I am…

  5. Anonymous says:


    To be honest, when i was first starting out, it was about seven years along the Neopagan pathways for me before I even met my first Other Pagan (about 1977), who was a bit younger than me. However, his significant other was several years older than I was and turned out (took me way too long to realize it) to be a real sociopathic type of HPs. A user and emotional abuser of others.

    Now I’m facing the 17th anniversary of my 39th birthday (counting in Jack Benny Years). It has only been since 1998 that I began to meet Pagans in any numbers at all, and it has been illuminating.

    I don’t think in terms of any kind of “elderhood” about myself, as I’ve never had a teacher, and have never had a student. Actually, every time I meet up with a Pagan who is more than 5 years older than me, it startles me all over again.

    But we do have such things now as Cherry Hill Seminary http://cherryhillseminary.org/ as well as institutions like the Maine Pagan Clergy Association http://www.mainepaganclergy.org/ that are striving to bring some level of professionalism to those Pagans who receive the call to such work.

    Blessings, both Bright and Dark,
    Ananta Androscoggin

  6. I don’t think it’s a Pagan problem, I think it’s a modern problem.

    Being a 58 yr-old woman, I would phrase it as “People are lacking Grannies”. In my daily life, I granny for quite a number of people who are lacking other Grannies and have elected me. They are largely not Pagan and are not asking about strictly religious problems but are discussing/ acknowledging/ examining their life-problems with a non-peer and expecting me to have a different point of view.

    I also do divination professionally. When I have a booth at the Expo, I set all my cards out in a square and invite people who want to know more about them to point to the card that attracts their attention and then I tell them about it.

    Some years ago, I asked my sister (who fronts for me) why she thought so many of the under-25 women kept asking me to explicate the Granny card (Hawthorne– think before you act).
    “They have no Grannies,” she said, “And they need them.”

    I think that young people in general are so used to old people’s knowledge being outdated and useless that young Pagans have trouble 1)acknowledging old Pagans as being a naturally-occurring storehouse of useful information and 2) wrapping their modern minds around the concept of timeless knowledge and accepting ‘Pagan Elders’ unless they are markedly different (Native, Foreign, glowing, culturally other) from undistinguished ‘old people’.

    Actually I think that Pagan Young People have an advantage over non-Pagan post-moderns– by and large they already think there’s more to life than what they see on tv and many of them are interested in the lessons of history.

    • I’m happy to say I’ve never witnessed a young pagan treat someone (visibly) over 50 with anything other than respect and a willingness to listen.

      This extends from simple behaviour – such as as inviting the eldest to begin the beat in a drumming circle, or stepping aside to allow them to go first at the post-ritual buffet – to more demanding actions such as continuing to acknowledging the other’s experience in heated online debate. Even, I might add, after the older person has used the “you are young and therefore stupid” argument.


  7. jdhobbes says:

    Personally, I am always suspicious of anyone calling themselves an “Elder”. The title of Elder is something that other people call someone: it is not a title that you give yourself. The closest thing you can do is say “Others call me an Elder”.

    Elders take all shapes, sizes, and religions. Just because their are only a few pagans in your area, that doesn’t mean you can’t glean truth from a parent, a friend, a pastor (yes, even a spiritual leader from another faith), a storyteller, or even an old feller sitting beneath a lemon tree.

    If you think there are no Elders in your area, stop searching for only the ones with pointy hats.

    • admin says:

      Hiya Hobbes,

      The title of Elder is something that other people call someone: it is not a title that you give yourself.

      Well I agree, and I raised that very point in my blog post on The Wild Hunt. 🙂

      See you at KG!

    • This is akin to the point I was going to make, which is that learning, wisdom, and guidance can come from many sources, to those who are open and listen.

      Admittedly, one-on-one discussion has some strong advantages over all of the following, but if Elders aren’t available one can still choose from introspection, non-pagan-specific non-fiction, divination, meditation, literature (my wisdom font of choice), even discussion with non-Elders.

      After all, when the first folks got the ball rolling, there weren’t any Elders around yet.


  8. “Don’t interrupt them when they speak; don’t jump the queue in front of them; don’t speak poorly about them behind their backs.”

    Isn’t everyone entitled to this? When I was young wasn’t it called (perhaps erroneously) Common Courtesy?


  9. alvita_felis says:

    Very relevant in some areas

    This is a very important point in countries like Czech Republic where there is no pre-war or pre-1990’s Neopagan continuity. Our elders – the council of our umbrella organization for example – are people who mostly are not 30 yet. Frankly I don’t wish anybody this situation where you have no elders to look up to.

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