I read a good post from Donald Engstrom-Reese about Elders that brought up something I was thinking about lately. Donald talks about how a true elder does not declare themselves as such; it is a title conferred upon them by others in their community. The same is true for many other special roles, such as shaman, noidi, sangoma, etc. But in our modern culture, there is virtually no sense of community. As Donald suggested, people need to be in a close, intimate setting to really get to know each other to be able to recognize each others’ talents and roles without the use of self-recognition and promotion. But our Pagan community is more similar to a diaspora than a community, except for the fact that we didn’t originate from a cohesive community before the diaspora. Most don’t see each other any more regularly than once or twice/month, even when they are of the same religious group. And many people in our community don’t spend time together more than a few times per year. We live in an age where we communicate electronically and impersonally rather than directly like a traditional community.
So what do those called by ancestral spirits do? Many think it’s inappropriate to declare and recognize oneself as a shaman, but instead that is a role that must be recognized by the community. But which community? My wife was recognized by a Tsataan shaman to be a shaman in the Mongolian tradition, which she has studied for many years. But the Tsataan shaman is not part of the community in which we live. On the other hand, does the American Pagan community have any authority to recognize her as a shaman? If so, under what authority? She doesn’t really know anyone in the US personally who follows the Mongolian path. So which community needs to recognize her, for such recognition to be considered authentic?
Another aspect of this problem is with Native Americans. It is a common belief of theirs that only someone of sufficient native blood quantum can be recognized as medicine people, and only if recognized as such by a person of their tribe. But what if their tribe has dwindled so much that nobody is left to officially recognize any new medicine people? Or what if someone’s tribe no longer follows the old religion, as many have been forcibly converted to Christianity or converted to alcohol.
I understand the importance of having someone else recognize another with a special spiritual role, but my concern with that being the only criterion is that it places more emphasis on the authority of people than the authority of the spirits and Gods who are worshiped and honored. If we lived in an age and place where there was a vibrant community who can recognize new healers, the old tradition of community recognition would have no problem. I was part of the Tsataan ritual where my wife was recognized and the manner in which it was conducted showed that the recognition was truly coming from the spirits, not from the shaman himself. But those people are rare and most Americans who may be called by the spirits cannot travel across the world and be blessed to meet someone who is able and willing to help them. What do those people do? What do the spirits do who are truly calling them?
If we say that you must be recognized by another incarnated human as a healer or other special role in a tradition for it to be authentic, there will be many people excluded simply because they live in western society, which is Humanist. The spirits may be calling them, but there is nobody around who has the capacity or authority to recognize them. It is like the spirits trying to grow a plant in the spiritual desolation akin to the salts of Death Valley. But if the spirits have their own will and their own independent existence, who are we to say that they cannot be calling these people?
On the other hand, if anyone who thinks they might be called by the spirits of a tradition, or maybe just wishes it were so, could claim such a role on simply the merits of their belief, that can lead to problems such as delusion and at the extreme, dangerous cult behavior. Who is real and who is not? Who is to say when we all live in a culture dominated by the religion of Secular Humanism, the religious vacuum devoid of spiritual acceptance for that which is not understood?
Considering the dire situation our spiritual culture is in (even His Holiness Dalai Lama suggested that he may break with tradition and reincarnate outside of Tibet), I have a tendency to lean on the side of the spirits being able to break with their old traditions and call to those outside of their traditional blood-lines, tribes, and regions. Like everything, they wish to live and adapt to the situation the world is in. I do believe that spirits can call on anyone they wish, such as Mongolian spirits calling my wife, and more recently, the Saami spirits have been calling to me as well. However, not everyone can be a shaman and it is very dangerous for someone who is not a shaman to be doing the rituals of one, but anyone can worship, honor, and respect the spirits without being a shaman.
So then the question goes back to whether one must travel to meet with a recognized shaman, or similar role, in order to be tested and recognized themselves for that role, or does one need to be recognized independently within one’s own community? What if it is not feasible to travel, due to medical, financial, political, or similar issues? What if one’s immediate community does not have anyone who can give recognition? What if there are no recognized leaders who can give such a recognition left, such as the case with many disappearing traditions?
What recognition, if any, can be conferred upon or claimed by someone if there is no human community able to do the conferring? I believe some titles, such as “elder,” are purely a human title, and can only be conferred by other humans. Spirits and Gods don’t recognize “elders” because they see such things as time, age, and wisdom in a very different manner than we humans do. But special spiritual roles like shaman, noidi, sangoma, medicine person, etc. must be granted by the spirits. I believe a human or human community cannot grant such a recognition without the spirits, since it is the spirits who ultimately choose who they wish to work through. As a result, I have come to believe that the spirits can confer such a role without the use of a human community if necessary, though it is not ideal for either party. It is important that if one is recognized by the spirits and initiated into such a role, one must be willing to offer their services and aid to other humans who are in need of help. That is where the community comes into the picture. If the spirits initiated you as a shaman or other, similar role, and a stranger knocks on your door asking for spiritual aid, you have an obligation to assist them in whatever way you are able.
So let’s say you are not a spiritual healer. How do you know if someone who claims to be initiated by the spirits as a spiritual healer is authentic? I think this is where everyone needs to use their own gifts, which the Gods gave to all people. Does your intuition say this person is a good person who can help you? Or does your intuition raise red flags about the other person? Are your personal spirit guides suggesting you work with them? Do you have a good feeling when around the person? Do they help you see your problems and questions in a new light, to guide you on how to find the answers? Does your gut tell you they are offering to help for the right reasons? If so, regardless of what they call themselves, I suggest working with them and learning from them for what they can offer that you are in need of. If you don’t get a strong, positive feeling, then don’t work with them, regardless of how many people confirm the person to be a famous, recognized healer. They may be a good healer for others, but not right for you, and that is ok. Work with those who are right for you and don’t worry about human titles and degrees.
Over the last couple generations our society has become obsessed with non-commitment. Businesses offer money-back guarantees and easy returns, even without a receipt in many cases. Don’t like your pet? Bring them to a pet shelter. Your church pushing your comfort level too much? Don’t worry, just change to another church, or even religion. No harm, no foul. We are sold on the idea of infinite choices, with the safety of being able to back out of nearly every decision we make.
The problem is this leads to a society that is unable to commit to anything serious, so everything becomes trivial and amusing. More and more couples are deciding to not have children, simply because they don’t want to commit their next score to raising them. Many couples are choosing to not even marry because they are afraid of the lifetime commitment to their partner. More people are afraid to take risk, since there is a point at which you are committed to the risky decision, regardless of the consequences.
I am a firm believer in commitment. I believe in marriage for life, regardless of the circumstances. Only the Gods can break a marriage bond, regardless of what lawyers may say. I believe in committing to children, whether they are your birth children or not, as they are gifts from the Gods. I believe in committing to a spiritual path and religion, especially when it becomes uncomfortable. Commitment is what strengthens the soul and gives it substance.
Commitment is part of the Great Mystery. By nature, you never really know what you’re committing to when you are at the point of making that all-changing decision. You can’t go back later and say, “I didn’t know that would happen!” or “I had no idea this is what I was getting myself into!” The Gods don’t care what you thought you were getting into. You were mistaken in your understanding, but that does not negate the commitment, nor the obligation.
In any solid religion or spiritual path, there is always a requirement to commit to that path, an initiation. Many Pagans see initiation as simply a membership card, like a fraternity or sorority hazing rite. It is what you get when you’ve been with the group for a year and a day. It means you are a full member, at least until you decide to quit showing up because you’ve come to dislike one of the other members. Or when a spirit attracts you to a different group. This is not initiation, not really.
True initiations are life-changing commitments. That is the test of initiation. Are you going to commit to that path for the rest of your current life (and possibly future lifetimes as well)? Everyone has initiations, and either passes them or fails them. If they fail, they are sometimes offered second chances, sometimes not. For example, when you are born, you are committing to the new lifetime. When you get married, you are committing to that marriage bond (though the bond might not be exclusive, depending on the nature of you and your spouse’s mutual commitment). When you have sex with someone, you are committing to a shared bond that will last the rest of your life (and possibly a child). When you offer yourself in service to a God, you are committing to focusing your life on furthering Their influence in the world.
All of this is scary, for you may end up with consequences that are completely not what you want. That is ok; everyone gets scared. That can be a healthy fear if you push yourself to explore it. Sometimes this is a warning to not start down that path. But you need to not let it stop you from making the commitments that are in accordance with your Will and your Great Work. If you let it stop you from that, your life will be wasted in triviality and at the end, you will have accomplished nothing of value.
If the commitment you’re being asked to make is in accordance with your Will, you must make that commitment, especially when you don’t know what will happen as a result. This is how the Gods help you along. You have heard that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Everything comes with a price. Gifts from the Gods also come with a price. That price is commitment to follow through completely to the end. Use the gift They provided to its fullest and not waste it on hedging your risk.
The biggest question you should have when confronted with a question of commitment is this: “Is it in accordance with my Will?” When you know the answer to that question, the choice of commitment is obvious, though it may not comfortable. If it is in accordance with your Will, you must commit and you must commit fully to the endeavor. Otherwise, you should not do it at all. Do not “try it out.”
Since the question of whether to make a commitment relies on knowing your True Will, you need to have that known. If you have not achieved that yet, then you need to discover it and commit to it. Here is an article on Discovering Your Will to get you started.
Let’s begin with a scripture reading from Hesiod:
Work! Work, and then Hunger will not be your companion,
while fair-wreathed and sublime Demeter
will favor you and fill your barn with her blessings.
Hunger and the idling man are bosom friends.
Both gods and mortals resent the lazy man,
a man no more ambitious than the stingless drones
that feed on the bees’ labor in wasteful sloth.
Let there be order and measure in your own work
until your barns are filled with the season’s harvest.
Riches and flocks of sheep go to those who work.
If you work, you will be dearer to immortals
and mortals; they both loathe the indolent.
No shame in work, but plenty of it in sloth.
If your work brings you wealth, you will be envied by the slothful,
because glory and excellence follow riches.
Whatever your lot, nothing will be as good as work,
if you take my advice and turn your foolish mind
away from the possessions of your fellow men
to labor in the service of what is your own.
Shame of the useless kind attends the poor,
and shame can either harm or profit men;
shame brings poverty while boldness leads to riches
–not stolen wealth, god-given is much better.
— Works and Days, 299-319 (tr. Apostolos N. Athanassakis)
There is a fear and a resistance to work in our society, including inside the Pagan community. Many believe that if they think positive thoughts, good things will just come to them on the power of their thoughts alone. Good things will come because you deserve it. Just think and grow rich.
Hesiod firmly stood in the “The Gods Help Those Who Help Themselves” camp. He even explicitly said this, when he said, “If you work, you will be dearer to immortals/and mortals; they both loathe the indolent.” This goes against the common belief today that poverty is a disease that is inflicted upon you by external forces, such as the Gods, completely out of your control. It is thought of as being similar to catching the flu or some other malaise. As a result, most people fall into the “Society Will Take Care of Me” camp, as they lack the faith to believe that the “Gods Will Provide.” Now, many people think of themselves as not being the recipient of social care, but they believe that if bad times come to them, society should take care of them. Note, when they say “society,” they mean “government.”
The problem with this thought is that there must be a way to pay for this care that “society” provides. It has to be directly provided by someone. If “society” is providing for your health care, then there needs to be a doctor or nurse in the room with you providing this care. This person needs to be paid to provide for their livelihood. Who pays for this? Today, the government generally does if you don’t have your own health insurance. In the near future in the US, the government will be paying, even if you have your own health insurance, through the new subsidies. But from where does the government get the money to do this? It generally comes from the “rich.” This is a particularly popular thought today, as most want to make the rich pay even more to the government, so it can in-turn be given to the poor to provide for them. Hesiod discusses this in the aforementioned passage. He said, “If your work brings you wealth, you will be envied by the slothful,/because glory and excellence follow riches.”
So does that mean that we are all to be selfish and ignore those who are in need, and deserve aid? What are we to do with our wealth? How should we be helped when we fall upon hard times ourselves, if not through “society” (i.e. the government)?
Hesiod addresses this too:
In proportion to your means, offer the gods sacrifices
that are pure and unblemished, and burn choice thighs for them.
At other times seek their favor with burnings and libations
when you go to sleep and when the holy light looms on the horizon
Invite your friends to dinner and leave your enemies out
and remember that neighbors come first.
If misfortune strikes your house, neighbors will come
in their bedclothes; kinsmen will dress up.
Neighbors should measure well, and you must give back
no less than you take, and even more if you can,
that you may find enough when you are in need again.
— Works and Days, 336-350 (tr. Apostolos N. Athanassakis)
Through this, Hesiod says that we should work to help ourselves and gather wealth so we may not starve, but we also need to help others as well. This is voluntary charity; directly giving aid and succor to your neighbors in need instead of assuming that “society” will do this for you. If you give to those who are in need, and offer regular sacrifices to the Gods, then they will help you in your times of need.
Let’s relate this back to the three camps I mentioned at the beginning. Through Hesiod’s wisdom, we learn that all three actually combine into one cohesive thought, if we think about them through his words.
- The Gods Will Provide as They Will. Hesiod says to change this idea, as we know we can influence this through regular offerings and sacrifices. Offer the first, choice, portion of each meal to the Gods. Offer some milk or alcohol daily. Offer the burning of candles or incense regularly. All of these things are from the wealth you received through your work and Their grace.
- Society Will Take Care of Me. Hesiod says to change this thought to “My Neighbors and Friends Will Take Care of Me, as I Offer Care to Them.” Your neighbors and friends know you best and will be there for you when you are in need, provided you offer them aid as well. Giving, not just money but time and other resources too, is a much more loving, personal and reliable way to help others in need than relying on the government coercing others to do it for you. The goodwill you generate will pay you back later when you’re in need and your friends and neighbors help you out as you did them.
- The Gods Help Those Who Help Themselves. This is Hesiod’s main point in Works and Days. You need to work hard for what you want, save for what you may need later in hard times, offer some to the Gods in thanks, and offer as you can to others in need.
These are the things we can all work on improving in our lives today and everyday. Work hard to build up your own wealth so you will not later hunger. Give to others who deserve your help and are in need of it. If you don’t have enough, work hard to get more. If you do have enough, work hard to give more to others. And regardless of whether you feel you have enough or not, give tangible sacrifice to the Gods.
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