I’m about to finish my first year studying Druidry through OBOD. One of the Gwersu (lessons) has a caveat in it, suggesting that so much stuff has been gone through, so many transformations and ritual workings, that it might be wise to consider a bit of a break, or at least a contemplation on what has changed.
While not every profound alteration of my soul and life has been related necessarily to my Druidry courses, looking back, I note that, uh, yeah. There’s been a lot. Unlike ADF, one can study with OBOD without being a polytheist; if anything, at least the Bardic grade is more aimed towards training the soul and mind with rituals and practices which make one more able to handle (that is, make sense of or even survive) interactions with the gods, a path one can take through the forests of the gods (though maybe not meet any in those woods) with guides who help you avoid getting lost but don’t actually interpret your experiences and interactions for you.
One of the more profound things for me, why I’m utterly glad I’ve been studying Druidry as opposed to, say, one of the many witch-traditions is its strong emphasis on both justice and peace. If one’s seeking power over the elements, spirits, gods, or people, OBOD’s a futile waste of money and time. From what I understand of ADF and AODA, they are similar–what you are taught is for something other than your own self-enlightenment.
This exists certainly in other traditions, and I do not bring this up necessarily as an indictment against any tradition or another, but rather to bring up something that I think needs to be considered in Paganism generally–the question of power.
Powers or Gifts?
I’ve noted two major differences within Pagan traditions regarding magic and working with the gods and spirits. One, evident in both Druidry and many of the gods-worshiping traditions, is that magic and power are gifts bestowed from the Other onto the worshiper in order to work on behalf of the Other. Gods might grant particular insights and tools (including divination, enchantment, visions, etc) to a person so that the recipient might become more useful in doing the gods’ work. Similar with animal and land spirits, ancestors, guides, guardians: each gift, blessing, or act of aid comes with a sense that something ought to be returned, not necessarily as an act of exchange but as a gift in return. When a human helps me out, I want to help them out in return when the time comes. People who give me gifts inspire me to give them gifts in return. Capitalism and certain strands of evolutionary psychology (both derived from the same Protestant view of the world) has unfortunately made it difficult for us to understand gift economies and mutual aid without thinking about obligation or strategy (if I give a person this, they’ll give me that), but we shouldn’t allow cynical readings of human relations to change the beneficent character of human relations in such cases.
There are times, of course, when I feel obligated to someone who has done something incredible for me, as if I am “in their debt.” I feel this way with the gods often, but I’ve noted that this isn’t always the most helpful way of approaching worship and offerings, in the same way that being over-extravagant with gratitude to someone can actually cheapen the thing they’ve done for you. But still, if it helps, one can look upon such relations as “indebtedness”, as it’s still pretty close to the notion of mutual aid of this first strand of thinking.
The other strand is that of “commanding” the powers of nature and the spirits. I’m inclined to call this Crowley-ism, but it’s older than him, though he’s an easy example to call forward of this tendency. By “commanding,” we should not merely think though of the ceremonial magician who binds spirits, but also of anyone who is looking at spirituality as a way of becoming powerful in their life, gaining control of things around them (spirits, elements, people) and, if they believe in the existence of gods at all, looking at them as “channels” for certain powers that they can wield towards their own will and desires.
I’m disinclined to call out any particular tradition, because none of them are monolithic. There are ceremonialists who approach the (other)world humbly, and probably Druids who crave power (though, really, Druidry’s a shit place to look for that sort of thing, and I’m glad of it). And I think each of these strands exists in each tradition to some degree, though I’ve noted some traditions take extra care to weave in a morality against such things, while others either remain ambivalent or rely on personal pressure to keep power-hungry people from rising too high within the teachings, which didn’t help The Golden Dawn in Crowley’s case.
And speaking of Crowley, there’s something awfully big I should mention here.
Sex Is Also About Power
In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a sex scandal in Paganism currently. It isn’t the first, nor will it be the last. It’s awfully tragic and repulsive, and I’m far from comfortable with all the reactions about it. But I’m not going to address that matter specifically, because there’s a root problem that we may be forgetting in these debates.
You’ve no doubt heard about all the abuse within a certain massive, ancient european get-up with funny hats and a pope. And you’ve probably also heard maybe about a sports-team coach that made little boys bleed in the shower for years without getting turned in by fellow coaches. And, of course, there’s all the stories in other institutions, schools and churches (I dislike the man and his politics greatly, but Dan Savage’s Youth Pastor Watch will help catch you up if you need more stories of this sort of thing) of sexual abuse of children and subordinates.
What’s common to all of this? In every case, the offender is in a position of power over others, whether it be as a spiritual leader or physical superior (work, school, etc.), and has “authority,” either real or perceived.
That is, what makes every single one of these instances so horrifying to us and so damaging to the victim is the power the abuser has, not only over the victim (be it a child or a spiritual seeker) but also over others. Their perceived authority within each context is precisely what disarms the victim the ability to get redress for the wrongs done to them. In the case of a child, the adult is stronger and more physically powerful (even worse if it’s a parent or relative), in the case of a worker, the manager has the ability to take away the victim’s livelihood, and in the case of a spiritual leader, the victim’s spiritual enlightenment or standing in a tradition or community is at stake, not just their physical and sexual boundaries.
There are other power relationships that come into play beside those between victim and abuser. If the abuser is part of a institution that relies upon him or her heavily, then there’s more impetus for others who learn about the abuse to cover up the situation or ignore the crime. This occurs in families very often, as well as the aforementioned sports coach (whose colleagues knew about the abuse for years but didn’t want the team to suffer).
In religion, it is no different. In fact, the fate of an entire tradition can rely very heavily on just a few people at the top, and such power relations are made worse when the founders or leaders guard their secrets and influence jealously. Benevolent dictators certainly exist in many scenarios, but they are rare.
Against Self-Centered* Spirituality
I’ve friends who have told me horror stories of teachers who possessed amazing powers and skills and all but enslaved some of their followers. Thus far these stories are more common within “New Age” -inspired traditions than within Paganism, at least to my knowledge, but the stories that have been coming out from this latest scandal are showing that Paganism is far from immune.
There’s no denying, at least to my mind, that it is possible for someone to become very powerful by approaching the spirits and even gods from a position of will-to-power. I don’t know why this is so, though I’ve got a sense that, at least with some entities, humans are not any more easily understood to the otherworld as we are to each other. I don’t believe in anything approximating a omniscient Divine, which makes such questions as “why would the gods allow such a thing to happen” not even an issue at all. This, more than anything, has been one of the more difficult moral transitions for me to comprehend into polytheism, having had only monotheism’s everywhere-at-once god as a reference point. It’s much easier to understand such questions now with a better understanding of the myriad of gods and their power.
There’s also no denying that one can become just as powerful otherwise, particularly when one isn’t even wanting it. I’ve the worst trouble accepting gifts from friends, particularly money (even when I’m painfully aware I need it), and yet they’ve given it to me anyway, because it’s a gift. Just before I went on Pilgrimage last year, I was inundated with gifts from people: money, books, blessings, and very useful magical items, things I didn’t “deserve” (you don’t deserve gifts, otherwise they’re not gifts) but things dear people gave to me because they thought I’d need it, and my gratitude to them is still profound.
I’ve had the same thing happen from the gods and spirits and other gods-worshipers, insights, uncanny turns of fortune, synchronous events and strange and beautiful people, blessings, rituals, etc.., and in every case, I’ve had the sense that it wasn’t because I deserved it, but instead a sense that I’m supposed to use what was suddenly at hand, as if the gods said, “here–I think you’ll need this.”
Need it for what, though? That’s sort of the crux of all of this, and the question I hope more people might ask when approaching the matter of power, particularly spiritual power. If a god gives you something, it’s probably gonna be useful for something, like a mother arming her son for a war to defend her land. Maybe the gods don’t always even always know they’ve given it. In the case of Arianrhod and her child, she was tricked, and maybe Gwydion and Crowley have the same sorts of students.
As I see it, one can either use power for others or for oneself. Pushing for a gods-centric Paganism may be rather damn useful to help avoid these problems, particularly if it comes with a focus on justice and peace like Druidry, or a clear code of ethics that states all gifts given should be to benefit the gods and the earth, rather than the person to whom they’re given.
That’s one path, and maybe I’m an idealist. At the very least, though, I think Paganism should have a really, really intense look at power and spirituality. Too much power concentrated in a leader means ill (that’s not just my anarchism talking), and so does the pursuit of power. And in both cases, the devastation to communities and particularly the victims of the powerful can be staggering and faith-crushing.
*Edit: The original language I used here was “Self-Centric Spirituality. Please see my clarification here.