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Avoiding Authority and Self Important Gurus

Blind belief in authority is the greatest enemy of truth.

Albert Einstein

Most Pagans dislike authority in the sense of not wanting to be told what to do by someone else. A big part of the point with going Pagan is the self-determination. We each walk our own path, on our own terms and in our own way. Figuring out how to do that step by step is a big part of what makes us who we are. Other religions have leaders who stand at the front and issue instructions and who are allowed to tell us we’re doing it all wrong. Paganism is not supposed to be like that. At the same time, some of us–by luck, intent, accident, or just by dint of being the most experienced Pagan in the village–end up in positions of prominence. Here I am with this blog. I write books about Druidry; I’ve led Druid groups, I’ve acted as a celebrant, and people e-mail me for advice. How can I not be an authority?

Wales, UK

I try very hard not to be, as it happens. Here are some things I’ve come up with that have helped me feel that I’m not turning into something that I loathe on principle.

  • Where it’s in any way personal, I do try and make it more of a conversation than a lecture. The wisdom from counselling is to try and help people find answers to their own problems by being a sounding board. So if it’s a personal rather than a practical problem, I’ll try to give people a space in which to find their own way through. I might throw ideas into the mix, but never a ‘you should’. Instead… “you could, you might… had you considered?”
  • I’m perfectly happy to admit when I have no bloody idea. I know very well when I have no relevant insight and experience. If I wanted to seem important, I’d dish out some ‘wisdom’ anyway, but if I don’t have a clue, I’ll admit that, see if I can suggest someone better to talk to, or make encouraging noises instead.
  • I don’t offer negative feedback unless someone has clearly asked me to try and pick holes in a thing. It’s not my place to judge, in most situations. I’d rather make encouraging noises, and I don’t want to set myself up as an authority by handing out judgements. If I like something, I’m going to say so because I believe in praise culture.
  • If I do someone a favour, I don’t make them feel like they owe me anything. I don’t need regular reminders of how terribly grateful they are, or how they could never have amounted to anything without me. That’s sick, and crappy. If I give, I give freely. If I do manage to help you, to teach you something or to inspire you, I’m not going to try and own that – what you do is yours. If I contribute to making that happen, I’ll take some pride and joy in that, but I won’t use it to diminish you or to own your achievement.
  • I avoid titles. Job descriptions are fine. If a person is doing a job (chair of the trustees, organiser of the grove), it helps if that’s easy to spot. If you’re doing it, you need to own it. Titles for the sake of it seem to me to be far too much about being important. You can also do that by giving other people titles, if you’re pretending not to be wildly into authority but really actually love it… If you have no title, but talk about your minions, acolytes, fan girls, apprentices, if you make sure people know who your students are, owning them and making that power difference visible… then you are still using titles to express authority.
  • If you have to be centre stage or you won’t show up, that’s another way of conveying a sense that you are terribly important. All of my favourite teachers are likely to turn up in the back for other people’s talks and workshops. If you come along to stuff, join in like some kind of normal person, it’s probably because you think you’re some kind of normal person, which is undoubtedly good for you. The person who does not have to feel important all the time has space to learn, play, experiment, mess up, laugh and have a life. It’s win all round really.

Most of human society is full of power structures, authority, hierarchy, and people whose job it is to tell you what your job is. We might want very different things from Paganism, but we bring along our lifetimes of training and habit, our weakness for charismatic leadership, and that lingering suspicion that we can’t be good enough and we need someone to tell us how to do it right. It’s worth cutting ourselves some slack over this, but at the same time, not so much slack that we either let someone tell us what to do, or end up followed round by a flock of eager acolytes who are waiting for us to spill mystical insights that we don’t actually have. There are good teachers in all Pagan paths. There are also folk who will take your money and spin self-important rubbish that will be of little use to you. How do you tell what you’re looking at?

Cost. A good teacher may or may not charge. They probably won’t charge for things that cost them little time or effort, but they will charge you for books, and may well charge for formal teaching. You will be able to see some correlation between innate costs (time, room hire, etc.) and what you are paying. A Plastic Pagan Guru will tend to charge way over the odds, or, won’t charge but will then try and persuade you to part with money in a less structured and on-going way.

Claims. A good teacher will not make wild claims about the power and knowledge you will have at the end of the course. The promises of wealth, power, inner peace and so forth are enticing, but also rubbish. No one can give you that in a short time frame, you will only achieve such things with a lot of hard work. If it sounds too good to be true, it is, and you’ll pay a lot for very little.

Humiliation: A good teacher does not humiliate their students. A person who is in it to feel powerful and important will do exactly that: either by making impossible demands, asking questions you could not possibly answer, or otherwise showing you up, the Plastic Pagan Guru will make sure you feel small, unworthy, and in awe of them.

Great Mysteries: The Plastic Pagan Guru will make it clear they have access to secret knowledge, insight into mysteries and special power. Nothing they teach you will allow you to get anywhere near that. Ever. There will never be proper detail or clear information, only the message of their innate superiority. Your not managing to learn the mysteries will be ascribed to your shortcomings.

Self Promotion: Your Plastic Pagan Guru expends a lot of effort on image, on looking the part, and talking themselves up. Everything revolves around them. Sycophants are welcome, people who ask questions will be called unreasonable and unspiritual and sent packing. If only blind adoration is acceptable, you do not have a good teacher. What they say sounds amazing, so long as you do not try and poke beneath the surface. Grandiose statements, incredible claims, stunning achievements and adoring followers are all part of the parcel for your Plastic Pagan Guru. Good teachers often have more requests to teach than they have time, and do not therefore spend much time marketing themselves.

All images are public domain.

Great Enemies: Normal people don’t go around collecting enemies and having on-going magical wars with them. Plastic Pagan Gurus quite often have a dreadful nemesis who fights them on the astral planes. You are to understand from this that the PPG is not to be messed with and has recourse to serious power if attacked or offended in any way.

Unnamed teachers: Regular Pagans are a mix of self-taught, book taught and people taught, maybe with some divine inspiration in the mix, and they will usually happily tell you how that mix works. The PPG has mystical teachers who are alluded to but never described. They may be spirits, or gods, or something of that ilk, but there won’t be much detail, and certainly nothing will be said that could allow you to ask questions. The teachers give them special authority. They may claim an ancient tradition of family knowledge, access to some special resource or another, but you will never see it and you will never hear any details, never be able to learn from it, and you won’t know enough to be able to question the veracity, either.

Titles: Regular Pagans do end up with titles, usually ones that are effectively job descriptions. Functional titles are sane and fine. PPGs collect titles like other people collect stamps. Expect multiple titles implying status and connecting them to a whole host of different traditions. You will hear about these titles; they will not be a secret. You will not hear much about what the PPG did to earn them.

Answering Questions: Good teachers welcome questions, and aren’t afraid to admit when they do not know. Good teachers enjoy independently minded students who want to think for themselves. Plastic Pagan Gurus hate being asked questions, unless those questions are along the lines of ‘how did you get to be so amazing?’. The more difficult the question, the less popular you will be. The PPG always makes it clear they know the answer, but will imply that knowledge rather than sharing it.

Plastic Pagan Gurus hate competition. Anyone doing anything in an area they have designated as ‘their territory’ will be an affront to them and they will try to shut it down. Methods vary but are seldom pleasant.

On the surface, Plastic Pagan Gurus are convincing. They appear to be everything we want Pagan leaders to be, and they play to those desires. It can take a long time to realise that you’re being sold a pile of nothing wrapped in PR. None of us enjoys the moment of realising we’ve gone along with something, so watch out for those ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ scenarios. If we all stop feeding the egos of the Plastic Pagan Gurus, they will have no reason to keep peddling their goods.

Nimue Brown is an author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. She has her own blog as well as patreon. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. She has published many renowned books on Druidry including Druidry and the Ancestors: Finding our place in our own history and Druidry and Meditation.

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