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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Patrons and Priestesshood

     Recently I was reading John Beckett's essay "Hearing the Call" and I think he raises several good points about the way that modern pagans approach the ideas of patron* deities and dedication. Obviously I can only speak about this from a more Reconstructionist-flavored viewpoint, but I do think its a valuable discussion to have. I want to say up front though that this is a topic that I'm very ambivalent about. Despite being dedicated to a Norse God and Irish Goddess, and having a relationship with the daoine sidhe that is very similar, I am not a big advocate of patronage or dedication.
   Firstly modern pagans do tend to immediately assume everyone should have a patron. One of the most common questions I see asked on discussion groups and in classes is how a person can find their patron or know who their patron is. The common perception seems to be that all pagans have patrons or are dedicated to a specific deity and that, therefore, finding and declaring yours somehow makes you more pagan. Of course that isn't true; many polytheists don't have patrons, some don't even believe in the concept, and whether one has one or not has nothing to do with how pagan a person is or isn't. 
   Secondary to this is a pervasive idea that a person's patron is simply the deity they happen to like the most or, in some cases, feel is the most impressive. I think this comes from a common misunderstanding because people who have patrons do tend to talk more about their patrons than other deities they may honor, giving an impression that their patron is their favorite deity. In this case though it isn't a case of choosing the one you liked the most, but rather that a certain one is the closest to you and so gives the impression of being a favorite. It's also not as simple as choosing your own patron in some cases, unless you are choosing one based on a career or specific activity; there are some people who choose to permanently or temporarily oath to a patron of a certain activity that they participate in, usually with a formal ritual contract. Outside of that though many people believe that you should not choose your patron they should choose you; I can say that I did not choose mine, nor was I looking for patronage of any sort. I believe that, ideally, patronage should be something that grows organically as a person develops their personal practice, rather than a matter of selecting deity x from column b. It's also important to remember that the choice to enter into patronage requires agreement on both sides. Just because you want a deity to be your patron does not mean that the deity will actually be, anymore than asking a famous person to show up at your house means they will be knocking on your door. Of course the flip side to that is sometimes you can enter into such a situation blindly or without enough thought, the deity will accept the offer, and you may regret your impetuousness.
   The reality is that polytheism does often have general patrons for trades or careers, but the idea of personal patrons is more complex. Does it happen? Yes - historically as well as now - but so often the modern view lacks the understanding of service that goes along with it. Patronage, like so many other things, is a reciprocal relationship. To have a personal patron means to be give something back to that deity. Patronage can also be either temporary or permanent, and it is generally a good idea to clearly specify which one you intend. 
    Beyond patronage, and something that is often confused or conflated with it, is dedication. To me dedication is the choice to enter into the service of a deity; in modern pagan terms this might be described as being the clergy - the priestess or priest - of that deity. In my experience many people who talk about having a patron deity are not actually talking about having a deity that is a special guide or protector, but are actually talking about being or wanting to be a priestess of that deity. It is true that patronage can and sometimes does evolve into dedication, and perhaps this contributes to the confusion between the two, but whereas patronage (in my opinion) is like having a good friend among many casual friends, dedication is like joining the military, at least in as much as you are turning part of your life over to the service of that deity. 
    Being dedicated to Macha, and Odin, makes my life very very complicated and means that I serve their purpose as best I can. Being dedicated to a deity on a personal level, to me, means acting as clergy for that deity, especially. It means making offerings, conducting rituals, prayers, and generally being willing to fill whatever role ultimately serves that deity. I have done many, many things in service I never would have done otherwise, from writing and teaching certain subjects, to officiating weddings and founding groups, to helping total strangers. Service has been about literal blood, sweat, and tears at times. Its part of being a Druid in my opinion, beyond serving the community as clergy, but it isn't simple or easy. Its not something to choose lightly and it changes you. There's a price to be paid, and its hard to understand what that price will be until you are living it. I don't think its possible to fully understand what it means to be dedicated (just like you can't know what its like to join the military) until you're on the other side of it. Its always, at best, a leap of faith. Some people take that leap with as much preparation as possible. Others do it on a whim. The one's motivated by whim baffle me, in a way, especially when its purely human motivation - no "calling" from the God, the person just decides it's super cool - because whatever the motivation is the offer can be accepted. And sometimes it is. 
 Quite frankly I don't know why anyone would want to do it, except that obviously it has to be done. The idea that its glamorous or makes a personal special (or should I say Speshul?) just strikes me as ridiculous. I am not special; I am utilitarian, serving a purpose in the world. It's work, and the work never ends.

*Patron: 1 a :  a person chosen, named, or honored as a special guardian, protector, or supporter This is the definition most closely in line with the modern pagan usage of the term; a deity who is believed to have a special connection to a person through the person's dedication or oath which forms a reciprocal relationship

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