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Power in the Craft

Copyright 1990 by Lynna Landstreet.
Originally appeared in The Wiccan Candle, Lughnasadh, 1990.

One of the most divisive issues in the Craft community at large is that of power. It crops up under various other names, such as authority and hierarchy, and also rears its head more subtly in various other controversies, such as the role of priesthood, the importance of tradition, the validity of self-initiation, and magical ethics, to name but a few.

To try to fully address all of these issues would take at least a book, if not several, so this article will attempt to simply clarify a few basic ideas and principles relating to power.

There are two major tendencies in looking at power, which can roughly be aligned with what a recent article in the Candle referred to as British Traditional Craft and West Coast Ecological-Political Craft. The former tends not to worry much about the issue at all, being pretty unabashedly hierarchal in their structure. The latter, coming generally from an anarchist-feminist perspective, tend to worry about it a great deal.

Most of those who do deal with the issue tend to start by breaking down the fairly vague concept of power into more specific types. Probably the best-known are Starhawk's "power-over" and "power-from-within," although in her latest book she's recognized a third type, "power-with", which seems to be a sort of collective power-from-within.

In my grade 13 Women's Studies class, power-over was divided into "legitimate power", meaning power over someone with their consent, and "illegitimate power", power over someone without their consent.

And in Riane Eisler's book The Chalice and the Blade (be warned, she doesn't use these symbols the way we do!), she distinguishes between "domination hierarchies", or "force-backed hierarchies", and what she calls "actualization hierarchies" -- natural hierarchies that tend to develop when each being is allowed to fulfill its potential.

Of these various writers, Starhawk is the only one who has developed or applied her ideas specifically in a Craft context. To her, the Craft is fundamentally based on power-from-within -- the God/dess within all of us. Power-over, according to her, is more characteristic of monotheistic religions with a transcendant (external) concept of divinity, and is alien to the Craft.

This theory makes the concept of priesthood somewhat problematic. She gets around this partly by saying that the Craft is a "religion of clergy". in which every Initiate is a priest/ess (Initiation in her tradition being roughly equivalent to Dedication, or perhaps Neophyting, in ours).

In her earlier books, she still accepted the idea of a High Priest/ess leading each group, although the role was rotated frequently. Later, she became more adamantly non-hierarchal, with covens operating on a strictly collective basis.

Many groups basing themselves on Starhawk's books have interpreted her ideas more strictly than she would probably have intended. (This is a common phenomenon -- just look at fundamentalist Christians' attitudes in contrast to Christ's. Freud's last words on his death bed are rumoured to have been "I am not a Freudian.").

The situation is complicated further by the fact that she has tended to present the philosophy and practises of her tradition as being those of the Craft as a whole, although, to be fair, she is neither the first nor the last Wiccan author to do that. In fact, those few authors who don't write about their own tradition by saying "Witches do this" or "Pagans believe that" are more the exception than the rule.

Anyway, the result is that there are a fair number of Pagans who believe that having a priesthood and a laity is absolutely antithetical to the Craft, and that those groups that do (i.e., the Wiccan Church of Canada -- us) are simply not Wiccan.

Personally, although my own philosophy/politics/whatever are pretty anti-authoritarian, I don't have a problem with the WCC's system of initiation. I think it's definitely what Eisler refers to as an actualization hierarchy -- the result of each person being able to work to whatever level he or she is willing and able to function at, rather than imposing an artificial egalitarianism by, say, forcing each member of a group to take their "turn" at leading circle whether that's something they want to do or not.

Strangely, most of these groups who are so paranoid about "authoritarianism" creeping into the Craft are less aware of the genuine authoritarianism of telling other traditions what they can and cannot do among themselves, or assuming that there is One True Right And Only Way to practise the Craft.

And that leads to another, much-neglected aspect of power and authority in the Craft community: authoritarian thinking. A lot of this can be traced to the residue of Judaeo-Christian "hostile dualism" as discussed in the last installment of this column ("Dealing With Dualism", in the Midsummer issue of the Candle).

In essence, this type of thinking assumes that, wherever there is polarity, one pole must be good and the other evil. It would be nice if this sort of thing was confined to the fundamentalist Christians who are certainly its most obvious practitioners, but unfortunately, it affects most of our society to some extent, including a lot of Pagans.

And, ironically, it seems to be a lot of the self-professed "Radical Pagans" who have it the worst. But perhaps that's not so strange after all. Most radical movements in our society, coming from the same Judaeo-Christian background as everything else, have traditionally based themselves around confrontation and opposition, which in turn are based on hostile dualism.

In doing so, they could be said to have alienated themselves from their own purpose. The word "radical" itself comes from the Latin word for "root", and implies attempting to go to the root of social problems rather than relying on superficial Band-Aid solutions. And, as most of these groups will be quick to tell you, the root of many of our society's current problems can be traced to the destructive patterns of thought and action that we've inherited from the institutionalized monotheistic religions that have dominated much of the world for the past few thousand years. So how come these groups haven't managed, or in many cases, even attempted to dig out those authoritarian "roots" in their own minds?

None of this, by the way, should be taken to imply that the "Radical Pagans" are the only ones with this sort of problem, or, in particular, that we have a clean slate ourselves. One of the risks of having a more formal and structured system of training than most Craft groups is the increased risk of people taking what they learn in Monday Night Class or elsewhere as Holy Writ.

Yes, it's that old problem of "Witches do this" again. Sometimes this is due to the teacher in question unconsciously making it sound like "this is the way it is," rather than "this is the way we like to do things around here." Sometimes, the fault lies more with students who are so used to being told what to think that they automatically take everything they're taught here in the same dogmatic sense. And sometimes, it's that people genuinely don't know that things are done differently elsewhere due to lack of contact with other traditions.

I think flexibility, openness, and acceptance of diversity are part of what make the Craft what it is. Those of us who are in a position to teach have an obligation to practise these virtues and to ensure that our teaching style reflects and encourages them. And all of us (since no one ever stops learning) need to be careful to question everything we hear, to maintain a balanced view at all times, and to avoid taking anything as absolute dogma.

For myself, I don't care if it's Pagans for Peace saying that any group with both a priesthood and a laity isn't really Wiccan, or Scott Cunningham saying that your magic won't work if there are any synthetic oils in your incense, or a (now ex-) WCC priest saying that the elementals won't respond if you use any elemental colours other than the ones we teach in this tradition, or Lady Sheba saying that the curse of the Goddess will fall on anyone who teaches a student of the same sex, it's the same basic mindset.

We all need to seriously examine our patterns of thought and action in a truly radical way -- at the roots. At its deepest level, every religion is defined by its concept of power in the sense of Divine power -- God/dess. The challenge is to make the rest of the religion, in the sense of the worldview, beliefs, and practises of its followers -- fit with that basic model.

As Wiccans, we see Divinity in a (holistic-)dualistic and polytheistic form. The former aspect I went into in my previous article, but the latter perhaps requires some explanation. A religion which honours many Gods and Goddesses, drawn from many different cultures, must of necessity have a different way of thinking from one in which "The Lord Thy God is a jealous God," who commands his followers to kill and/or enslave everyone who doesn't worship Him (if you think I'm exaggerating, read the Old Testament).

Thus, in addition to the viewing of (most) polarities as complementary rather than antagonistic, we have the element of polytheism setting an example of valuing and honouring, rather than suppressing, diversity. And we owe it to ourselves and each other to actively work on putting this into practise, by making sure that our ways of thinking and acting, of teaching and learning, of speaking and listening, reflect the basic principles of our religion, and our concept of the Divine.


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