It’s no secret that we live in a youth-oriented society. There’s the Maiden, and the Mother, and…who’s that old biddy over there?
As Pagans, we tend talk a lot about respecting the elder folks among us. But our actions often fall short. For the health of our communities, and out of kindness to those who have served before us, we all should work toward understanding and appreciating our Pagan elders.
What is an elder? In some groups, it is a formal title earned after some years of doing clergy work or rising within a degree system. Occasionally it is used to describe any senior citizen who is Pagan, regardless of their length of experience or service within the community. More often, it is a general term of respect for someone who has been active in Paganism for a long time, and who has attained some measure of wisdom.
Just as Pagans struggle to escape the mainstream culture’s obsession with youth, we can also get stuck on celebrity. We tend to lionize just a few nationally known and much-quoted elders and call upon them over and over again. But not every Pagan elder is a community organizer, famous author, or High Priestess/Priest. Most move quietly through their communities, lending their knowledge and spiritual expertise where it is needed and recognized.
There is a lot of talk online about who should bear the title of “elder,” and discussion on whether such language is culturally appropriative. In the interest of brevity, I’ll leave that argument to the blogosphere. (Okay, okay—here’s my hot take: You can call anyone a Pagan elder who you deem to be one, but never apply the term to yourself, unless it appears verbatim in your Wikipedia bio.)
Here are five ways to support and honor Pagan elders, however you define them:
1. Listen to their stories.
There is a common saying when a Pagan elder’s life has ended: “What is remembered, lives.” But why wait until someone has died to remember them or celebrate their accomplishments?
As Pagans, we are all indebted to the courageous and magickal souls who go before us. However, you don’t have to reserve your gratitude for the ancestors or Mighty Dead. You can pour out a little love right now upon the people who are still among us.
Consider getting involved with an interviewing or archiving project that preserves the history of Pagan elders. At the very least, just listen to their life stories. A common desire of every human being is to have our lives appreciated, and to feel that we’ve spent our time well. A friendly ear and an open heart are gifts that anyone can give.
Lots of things about Paganism have changed in the past few decades—namely, perspectives on sex, gender, and race. The world moves fast…and that’s a good thing. But be a gentle listener when you hear about rituals and revels of bygone days. One of the reasons that Pagan communities lose contact with their elder teachers is a small contingent of social justice warriors who go into attack mode at the slightest provocation.
There’s no reason to stay silent on issues you feel strongly about. But you can be part of a more fair, more inclusive Paganism without blaming people who learned their magick in different times.
2. Embrace rituals that celebrate aging and death.
It’s a fact that everyone’s body will age and eventually die. I’d like to imagine that Pagan are more accepting of the inevitable than non-Pagans, but I don’t really think that’s the case. Death is a difficult topic for everyone—that’s just part of being human.
Mainstream religions have scripts for eulogizing the dead and consoling the bereaved. They offer comforting, familiar rituals in times of grief or shock. In contrast, Pagans pretty much have to make it up as we go along. The result is that not all Pagans are memorialized or buried according to their wishes.
As Pagans, we need to get better about talking about death before it happens. Most of us are uncomfortable broaching the subject—especially with older folks—but you might be surprised how many are eager to share their thoughts on death and the aging process. Being willing to have those conversations helps bridge the gap between young and old.
Try participating in rituals that celebrate death as a rite of passage, reading different views on the afterlife, talking with elders who have encountered death, and basically familiarizing yourself with the Pagan experience of death and dying. (Samhain is a great time to attend a symbolic funeral procession or dumb supper, for example.) If you’d like a Pagan funeral/burial for yourself, visualize what that might look like (and perhaps participate in planning one for someone else).
3. Make your events accessible to the elderly.
Most Pagan groups will eventually witness a falling-off in participation as their membership ages. That is a shame. Old feuds, leader burnout, health and money issues, and communication gaps are common reasons for elder attrition. Whatever the reasons, the result is that Pagan lose the valuable insight and perspective that elders bring, and the elders lose their connection to communities they helped to build.
Pagans often hold events in outdoor or rural settings—but that, too, is a problem when it comes to retaining elders. Old Pagans don’t lose their love of nature, but their bodies do become less mobile and less tolerant of heat and cold. Many campsites, parks, and groves are not easy to reach for the old or infirm. Or, these venues may be too far from emergency medical services to be a safe choice for those with health concerns. Many, many Pagan elders have told me that they miss their friends sorely, but that their camping days are in the past.
Part of loving our elders, then, is finding alternatives and accommodations for them. Offering to carpool, assisting with travel gear, or hosting an indoor ritual are all small gestures that can allow more elders to participate in Pagan gatherings.
Another thing to consider as an event planner/promoter is how you spread the word. In the last decade, social media has been a transformative force in bringing Pagans together. But too many organizers rely on Facebook as their only outreach strategy. According to a 2018 Gallup poll, 78 percent of people over 65 aren’t on Facebook. In other words, don’t just fire off a post and assume senior Pagans will see it. Remember to spare some effort for offline networking, too.
The isolation of the elderly is a big social problem. As people who profess to honor all stages of life, Pagans should be leading the charge to include elders in our communities. This could be as simple as making sure there are chairs available at your ritual, or contacting elders personally to make sure they know about an upcoming event.
4. Support their work.
Financially, if you can. Late-in-life poverty is all too common among individuals who have given decades of their lives in service to the Pagan community. Retiring comfortably is a daunting prospect for most of us…for writers, teachers, ministers, and activists it’s damn near impossible.
So if you have the means to do so, buy the book, sponsor the workshop, furnish forth the ritual feast. Offer whatever you can to ease the burden on those who have retired from work (but not from The Work). If all you can do is volunteer, say “thank you,” or share their work with others, that counts as support, too.
5. Think about representation.
In our youth-obsessed culture, it’s rare to find images and stories that portray aging in a positive light. Pagan media sources are marginally better about this, but we’re not perfect. Sue Curewitz Arthen wrote in 1989, “We may have moved away from the days when all the illustrations in Pagan publications looked like Barbie dolls, but we have not reached a time when many of them are over 40.” It’s sad that a whole generation later, crones and sages are still under-represented in favor of young and conventionally attractive examples of humanity (and deity).
Representation of elders is not only the responsibility of artists and journalists. Everyone can participate in representing elders positively and preserving their life experiences: Take pictures, tell their stories, introduce them to potential friends of all ages. Most importantly, learn to respect the aging process in yourself, and let the years transform you into a radiant and inspiring Pagan elder.
Read more articles in the archive.