Celebrity Pagans

    This is an article that appeared in the 2011 Witches’ Companion.  I wanted to point out a phenomenon that has been a part of the the pagan community for many years and ask people to think about what they do and how they hold certain people in respect to their spirituality.  Again, it is a think piece, and I hope you give this some time to consider.

    When we think about celebrities, do we necessarily consider other pagans as celebrities?  We have all heard the expression “Big Name Pagan” or BNP being thrown around when we attend pagan festivals.  Usually this is a well known writer or author who will be speaking at the event.   This author is probably the reason you came out to the event to begin with; to hear your favorite author speak about their books or experiences.  Or maybe your favorite pagan band is playing.  Yes, we have our own bands and we look at them sometimes as we might look at the mainstream bands.  They even have their groupies who follow them around.  We also have community artists that many of us will travel to an event to purchase a piece of their art, or look at their new works.

    While these authors and artists are not what mainstream would consider celebrities, we do have a tendency to hold some of our own authors, community leaders, musicians and artists up to the same standards we hold other celebrities.   Yet, this is a spiritual path we are following.  We have celebrities in our spiritual path?  This phenomenon is not really unique in the pagan culture, but it does provide interesting discussion when examined a bit more closely.

    A celebrity is a well known person.  How do we know these people?  Well, mostly we know them from their works.  We have an advantage over many other religions – many of the authors of the books we learn from are very much alive.  The painters of our experiences are mostly present day writers or artists and their works are often mass produced, unlike, say, Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel.  The makers of our music are much more in tune with the now, and our music is reflective of the many cultures of the pagan community today.  These people are perceived as the movers and shakers within our community and many of them become role models for our culture and our spiritual practices

    It seems we need role models that we can look up to, especially in the pagan community.  There are so many practitioners who will never have a real spiritual teacher, and the book in their hands may be the only way they will come to know their path.  The author who wrote the book becomes the person they lean on for what they need spiritually.   This can present some dilemmas for the authors if the practitioner becomes too reliant on the “pagan celebrity”.   The practitioners can become a problem to themselves as they rely more upon the experiences of the author and do not pay attention to their own spiritual experiences.

    What is needed is some way to see if the person taking our hand has already walked that path and is sharing personal experience, or if this is a book that was written for the royalty it will eventually provide to the author.   Yes, there are authors who write strictly to provide themselves with a living.  Why else would some people write?  In the pagan community, we have given the “pagan celebrities” a special kind of influence over us that you do not find with conventional authors or artists.  This is as dangerous as it is enchanting.

    In other religious communities we see something akin to what is going on in the pagan community.  We see religious leaders, Billy Graham as an example, who people make it a point of traveling long distances to hear speak.  Mr. Graham’s speeches were free to attend, by the way.  Donations were optional.   There are many of us who would love to hear the Dalai Lama talk about some of his philosophies to us personally.  We respect these people, admire their teachings and their philosophies and we are drawn to sit at the masters feet and learn.

    We also see a parallel in the followers of certain Christian bands these days.  These bands started out small but have taken on new proportions, when the likes of Amy Grant made it big by crossing over into the pop genre.    They have made their way from the choir to the recording studio.  We see pagan bands starting in the same way, becoming a draw to the spirituality and the culture for outsiders.   We also have seen the same kind of progress being made in the pagan bands, such as the group GodSmack, whose video “Voodoo” made a big splash with the listening public because of the inclusion of a pagan ritual and a Celebrity Pagan.

    But in the pagan community, the phenomenon can become more like a three ring circus, depending on the event and the speaker or band.   I’ve seen BNP’s walking through an event with a small crowd of followers’ right on their coat tails.  They seem to beckon and people seem to fall in line.  Those following many times even mimic the unique appearance of their BNP leader, like head wear or dress.  I’ve seen “mini-me’s” following BNP’s and it is a comical as it is sad.   To allow someone to influence you to the point of losing your originality is like allowing yourself to become part of a cult.  The control should be exercised by the individual, not the BNP, and this can be a sign of some kind of emotional illness in the individual.  That the BNP allows and even encourages this kind of behavior suggests that there is something wrong with the BNP as well.

    Then there are events where people pay big bucks to sit in an auditorium to hear their favorite author speak.  The room will be hushed and you can hear a pin drop as the speaker weaves their stories of personal experiences or magical happenings for the audience.  You get the feeling of empowerment from some of these workshops, and that is what the author is shooting for.   You can also feel the dead thud of a speaking engagement gone bad.  Depending on the individual, the experience can be moving, or it can drive people away.  You have to wonder sometimes how the author managed to write their book.  And you also have to wonder if the event organizers knew what they were signing onto when they signed in that particular poor speaker.

    I remember the first time I met Dorothy Morrison.  We had been corresponding in emails, my husband was doing an interview with her on her new book at the time, and I had discussed some of her books with her briefly.   From the emails, she sounded like a very sharp woman, on the ball and part of today’s culture.  However, when I stood at the reception table at Blessed Be and Meet Me in DC, and she handed me her registration, she was not what I was expecting.  The southern drawl, her very tasteful clothing and perfectly done hair and makeup – this was not what most of the “witchy” people in our community were dressing like.  I was still seeing the pale skin and dark hair and caked makeup of other witches I had encountered and Dorothy was a refreshing change – and one that was most welcome in my book.  The professional witch could not be differentiated from the professional woman.  We are an integrated part of our communities, not something to be pointed at and amused by.  This was a person worth investigating further.

    Listening to her speak in an impromptu workshop she did for our benefit, she was not touting the centuries of oppression or the burning times.  She was, rather, discussing the here and now, personal empowerment from our Deity’s today and how to make magic work for you now!  Oh, it was so refreshing; it was so wondrous – a 21st Century Witch.  Now there was a person I could call a Pagan Celebrity!

    I remember running into Kerr Cuhulain at that same event.  I had just picked up my dinner and was killing some time before the rituals on the Mall.  Someone had forgotten to get some food for Kerr!  I shared my Chinese with him, and we sat talking about the differences between Canadian police and police from larger urban centers like New York and LA.  He discussed what he did for a living.  The man spoke deliberately, the discussion was serious. And he wore a jacket and tie! The discussion became more lighthearted as we discussed the event and the people we were meeting.   It was a great “getting to know you” session.  Later, at his workshop, he projected the same kind of persona to his audience, and people listened as he spoke about being a Warrior in the pagan path.  He is a person planted in the here and now, not preaching but discussing the pagan path.  Another person I could call a Pagan Celebrity!

    Reading the books by these people, you can get some kind of feeling for the types of people they are.  But nothing says it better than meeting them in person.  That’s when you really get to know them.

    The same holds true for a few well known authors and artists I’ve met over the years and hope never to meet again.   While their books are full of information, meeting these people in person makes you wonder how they managed to sell their book to anyone!  Such nasty dispositions, so needy, so “above” everyone else – how could they ever manage to convince anyone that they have a spiritual life that is meaningful and worth exemplifying?

    I’ve met and worked with some very unreliable BNP’s.  They promise to do an event, and never show up, or they show up and you wish they hadn’t.  They look like they have been on a binger for the last month and then their “handler” remembered the engagement, scooped them out of the gutter and dropped them off at the hotel or park.  Or they are so crass as to suggest that they be provided with a “companion” for the night.

    Then you have someone like Kristen Madden, who is a pleasure to talk to and her workshops are always a delight to attend.  She comes prepared, she listens to the questions, addresses the members of her workshop personally and is just as lovely a person as you can imagine.    Her books are as gentle and informative as she is, and the books reflect someone who has done the research and who shares her experiences honestly.

    Just so you don’t think I only work with the really Big Name Pagans, I have to mention that I ran into Tannin Schwartzstein, co-author of “Urban Primitive” and other titles since then.  She was quietly setting up her vending table, and we got some chances to talk one on one during the event.  Yes, we are different generations, and yes, we are very different cultures, but I found her to be intelligent, interesting, well spoken and very much part of and in touch with her own cultural base.  It was a pleasure to talk with her, and those discussions stood out as memorable, well above some of the other discussions I had that weekend with some other so called BNPs.

    What we read in the books by our favorite authors, or what we see in the art painted by an artist, or hear in the music of our favorite pagan bands is not necessarily reflective of the person behind the work.  Some of these people are “professionals”, meaning they are authors or artists who know what the public wants and gives it to them.  There is no assurance that they practice what they preach.  And this is where we get into trouble with how we idolize our celebrities.   We take it for granted that these people know what they are doing or what they are talking about and therefore we follow them, sometimes blindly.   We are so accustomed to having professionals entertain us that when we come to spirituality, we have a problem differentiating between the entertainers and the practitioners.   We have a difficult time telling who is living in our communities and who is living off our communities.

    I had heard a lot of things about Selena Fox over the years, some of it good, some of it not so good.  Selena has made her mark in the pagan world by fostering several organizations that have done consistently well in purpose as well as financially.  But for every success, there are those who will say things because – well, who knows why?   Jealousy?   More often than not, yes.  Sometimes it’s because someone just didn’t think of it first.   Other times it could be because Selena succeeded where other people have failed.

    But my own experiences with Selena suggest she is a very experienced businesswoman who has her sights set on success and knows how to achieve it.  She goes the distance to get what she wants done, and she has left a very positive mark on the pagan community.   My own experience working with her on the Pagan Headstone Campaign gave me some insights into who this woman is and how she works.  And believe me, she works!  She gives more than lip service to the pagan community.  She puts her heart into it, and my experience working with her is nothing but positive.

    We need to remember that these people are exactly that – people.  I remember the first time I met M. R. Sellars.  He was standing outside a store in Columbus, a cigar in one hand, a flask of scotch in the other.  He had a long pony-tail and wore a flak jacket.   I was enchanted by him the moment I saw him, and he has proven to be not just a really great mystery writer, but a “roll up your sleeves” community worker as well.    We do have some excellent role models within our own community, and they usually shine above the rest.

    All communities have the good with the bad.  The pagan community is no exception.  As we watch authors and artists and musicians come and go in our community, we need to really get to know who they are, and see if they really deserve the celebrity status we automatically want to shower on them.  What we really need to do is to learn to separate our spirituality and culture from that of the people who help us with our everyday practices.

    But there are those who are worth mentioning, who have the ability to be a role model if we would like to think of them as such.   They are most definitely Pagan Celebrities and they deserve the attention we lavish on them.  But again, we must remember that they are not personal counselors, they are not psychiatric practitioners and they cannot solve all our problems for us.  They are human, they can make mistakes and they put their pants on one leg at a time.  They can be cultural icons as long as we do not elevate them to the status of a god.  We know from our history what happens when we endow mere mortals with god-like qualities.  We end up shooting ourselves in the foot.

    We have some really wonderful Pagan Celebrities in our community, and ones who are worthy of the title.   We have others that maybe we should get to know better.  And the best way to do that is to meet them in person, listen to them speak, and follow what they DO, not just what they say.  Actions have always spoken louder than words.

    Copyright © 2009 Boudica Foster



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