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Sunday, May 12, 2019

Priesthood in Service to the Other - Part 3: the trouble with terms

I began this series inspired by conversations I was seeing in the wider pagan community about clergy. I felt that it would be good to add my voice into this as someone who serves a different role but one which has been identified as a 'priestess' and willingly took on that word and its associations. This has opened a fascinating dialogue on social media that has given me a lot of insight about how other people perceive the ideas of clergy and priesthood in contrast to my own existing ideas. This dialogue has affirmed certain things for me and also made me reassess other things.

In part 3 I'd like to look at some of the things I've learned about the way the ideas of clergy are viewed, how those really don't apply to me (quite frankly) and discuss the difficulty that we face in witchcraft and paganism seeking accurate terms and labels for things we do. And yes, as much as we might not want to have to deal with them, labels really are useful and even necessary in interacting with others.

Crossroads at Derreen Gardens, co Cork, Ireland
So, confession. I wasn't raised Christian and while I studied Christianity later as an adult I don't have the best grasp on its nuances. In point of fact I wasn't raised with any formal religion but with a loose secular agnosticism. Because of this my understanding of the words 'clergy' and 'priesthood' come from a wider view of the words as they are used across world religions and the dictionary definitions; this is well enough in itself but it does lack the nuanced associations that come with understanding a word in specific contexts.
  After my first post about priesthood in service to the Other there were several comments made across social media where people were, from my perspective, reading in different things to what I'd said than I had intended. This came from the disconnect between my admittedly simple use of the words versus the way people who have grown up using the terms think of them. There were assumptions that I was implying an authority for myself over other human beings or that I was trying to make myself seem special. My understanding of what clergy was implied that they would only have authority of those specific people who chose to adhere to that religious tradition - a catholic priest doesn't have authority over Baptists, and an Imam wouldn't have authority over Sikhs. By my logic I didn't think anyone would assume I had any authority over other humans, which as far as I'm concerned I don't. I will advise people, I will answer people's questions, I will teach. In extreme circumstances I might intervene directly. But as I once said to some friends in the context of a Fairy Ball (riffing off the idea of a designated driver) "I am no one's designated dark court fairy". In other words I'm not responsible for other people's safety or fate in relation to the Good Folk. I have no spiritual authority over human beings and I don't want any.
I also want to clarify, since this also seemed to have caused some confusion, that my service may in part involve teaching and relaying messages but I am in no way the voice of the Other. That is impossible. No one person can speak for the Other in toto and I wouldn't trust anyone who claimed otherwise. Also while I may speak of the Other generally I am tied to a very specific group and that is where my service lies; I may have some knowledge or experience with those outside that group but my focus is specific in practice not general.

 I used the term clergy because it's a nice gender neutral term that seemed to loosely fit - by the dictionary definition of clergy* - and its one that's used in often enough in neopaganism. To say clergy or priest is something that people understand and there is an ease in that. I do create and share rituals for Themselves, and I do in some circumstances engage in group ceremonies. I was proclaimed a priestess of the aos sidhe in a ritual setting, which was one of the most profound moments of my life and feel obligated to acknowledge that. So there are aspects of the words that I did feel applied to me and which I associated with.
However the conversation which ensued after the initial blog highlighted an aspect of the term clergy that doesn't fit what I do at all. I'm starting to realize that the English words clergy and priest might not be adequate even though they are the default equivalents. I admit I was missing nuances with the words which many people clearly inherently associate with them. Its fascinating to see the layers and life the terms take on even in neopaganism because of external assumptions beyond the dictionary meanings.

In short as I explained in part 2 there are specific ways that I serve the Other - and I am not unique in this. I know other people who do the same or similar and I firmly believe They are increasingly active in the human world and seeking people to connect to, including witches. Some of the ways that I serve them do overlap with aspects of priesthood, although perhaps not enough for me to continue using the word; I am currently debating whether I will or not. I am really grateful for the discussion that was opened up by these posts and how much its made me think - I would much rather use these terms consciously than by default.

ruins of a porridge house, Ireland, 2018


If I decide not to use clergy or priesthood what then would I call what I do? I am a witch of course but that is such a broad word as to be almost meaningless without further context applied. In specific I'm a bantúaithech but most people aren't familiar with that older Irish term - it doesn't exist in modern Irish. It does describe my witchcraft much better though with its connotations of the Good Folk and of tuathail movement. There are a few modern Irish terms that partially fit what I do but firstly I don't want to apply cultural terms to myself that were usually given by community members (not self labelled) and also even these specific terms don't fully fit. Most are meant with the intent of a person who serves the human community by intervening and mitigating harm caused by the Other. As my friend Steve rightly pointed out, my actual purpose is "primarily to keep [humans] from annoying the Other" and he's not wrong there, although there's some additional layers as well. 

The term for what I do in relation to the Daoine Maithe, as they told me, is echlach (modern irish eachlach). It means an attendant and also a courier or messenger. I've been hesitant to use this generally in part because I know most Americans won't understand it at all, and in part because I'm not sure I should use a modern Irish term for myself (just not wanting to seem presumptuous). There is no easy English equivalent though and there's a...shall we say...humorous or humbling double meaning built into eachlach that can't be conveyed in English.
The Good Folk have a sharp sense of humour.

So I don't know if I should use the term echlach, or not, or bantuáithech, or try to find another term that accurately defines what I do for Themselves in context. I have yet to find any English language word that is close at all. I hesitate to use the Irish but perhaps I need to accept that Irish is the only place to find the accuracy I want. There will always be situations where priestess will be the default because people do understand it better although I think I may avoid clergy and priest now due to the nuances so many people have for the words. In the same way I default to neopaganism to define my community although that too may be more habit and comfort than accuracy. 

As our community moves forward I think these discussions are important and we do need to work out for ourselves what words we are going to use for the varying roles we fill. This is an ongoing conversation and I am looking forward to continuing to explore these concepts and terms. I have really appreciated the  feedback and diverse points of view being shared with me. 
 


*clergy - a person ordained to perform sacred or ceremonial functions in a religion

5 comments:

  1. I am cutting and pasting everything that I agree is central to polytheistic practice in general and to mine, Hellenic specifically. These traditions are totally different than those of people who grew up in Christian religions. I can make that statement because I was a "High Church Christian" in name only who knew the beliefs and the mistaken beliefs by members of a congregation. In regard to pastorship, not priesthood,"By my logic I didn't think anyone would assume I had any authority over other humans, which as far as I'm concerned I don't. I will advise people, I will answer people's questions, I will teach. In extreme circumstances I might intervene directly. But as I once said to some friends in the context of a Fairy Ball (riffing off the idea of a designated driver) "I am no one's designated dark court fairy". In other words I'm not responsible for other people's safety or fate in relation to the Good Folk. I have no spiritual authority over human beings and I don't want any." This is also the point of view of most if not all classical priesthoods. They and usually their greater family took care of the temple precinct, organized the festivals and thusias (major offerings/sacrifices). It was not the usual thing to have the State build the temples, except for the Parthenon of Athens and the Temple to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva in Rome.
    "I also want to clarify, since this also seemed to have caused some confusion, that my service may in part involve teaching and relaying messages but I am in no way the voice of the Other. That is impossible. No one person can speak for the Other in toto and I wouldn't trust anyone who claimed otherwise. Also while I may speak of the Other generally I am tied to a very specific group and that is where my service lies; I may have some knowledge or experience with those outside that group but my focus is specific in practice not general." There were only specific oracles who could contact a specific deity -- only after specific cleansings and other rituals as well as going into a trance state. These people, like shamen, had been trained for many years to be able to do this. Others had been trained to read certain kinds of omens, such as haruspicy (reading the liver of a sacrificed animal). None of these things were easy and you took an oath to the Deity for whom you did this. It was only for the glory of the God involved. The POV of ancient people was very,very different than that of modern people and you really have to throw away much of what you think you know about religion.

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  2. I wonder if herald might be a useful English translation for echlach in this context?

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    1. possibly. That's closer in context than messenger.

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  3. I read the three parts and it seems that you are basically their slave. So my question would be: Why? why you agree to serve them? Is it for the greater good of all or is it out of fear?

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    1. well, I wouldn't use the term slave because I do still have free will and ability to negotiate for myself.
      As to why I agree to serve them, honestly because it needs to be done.

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