Priesthood in Heathendom

Two weeks ago Amanda at A Heathen Naturalist posted about the need for a priesthood:

One of the recurring debates that comes up in pagan blogs and forums is the question of pagan clergy. Do we even need a distinction between clergy and laypeople, and if so, what would their roles be?

Well, I’m a layperson who really wishes there were some good pagan clergy available, but what are clergy for anyway? Why can’t we all be our own priests and priestesses? One common thing I see is that the distinction between clergy and laypeople is that clergy can “hear the gods” and laypeople can’t.

It’s a good piece. I haven’t always agreed with her work, but I found myself nodding quite a bit while reading this. Let’s quote another bit that I liked:

I know this is sometimes used as a slur, but you know what I think we primarily need good pagan priests for? Marrying and burying!

This is painfully true. When I was married in April 2013, it was not by a Heathen or even some generic pagan, as I know no such people. It was a justice of the peace and the words spoken by her were completely secular, as we wanted to make sure that no references to Yahweh would slip in if we allowed her to mention religion. My vows, which are still saved on my computer to this day, came the closest to mentioning religion when I swore an oath to stand by my husband. That was it. I knew that any attempted Heathen things would be botched or not understood by the justice of the peace.

When my grandmother died a few months ago, there was no funeral. Admittedly, she had no friends up here, so it would have come down to my mother and me. There was no priest of any sort who could help. My mother received no comforting from such a person. I conducted rites by myself in private once I received the ashes; this was hardly a comfort for me. My grandmother was my last grandparent and her death marked a sudden, irreversible loss of family history that I didn’t yet have recorded.

At the rate Heathendom has done anything right, I can safely say that there also won’t be a priest for my first child’s birth once such a day happens.

Egos and Individualism

Amanda touches upon another issue that bothers me:

I’ve seen self-proclaimed pagan priests say they don’t serve people, they serve the gods. A lot of them seem to not really like people at all. Well, I don’t like people either, but I think that withdrawing from humans and focusing all your attention on communing with your deity isn’t actually being a priest. It’s more like being a monk or nun. And the monastic life is perfectly fine if that’s your calling, but being a priest is about serving humans AND the gods by helping humans connect with the spirit world. And that requires priests to be compassionate and trustworthy individuals who are really good with people. After all, you’re talking about taking care of people’s souls here.

Within Heathendom I haven’t seen too many people proclaiming themselves priests, but I’ve definitely seen it, especially in other pagan religions. It’s remarkable how often these people care nothing about the needs of the people. For Heathendom, a religion that is supposedly about the community and its wellbeing, there’s so little help for that very community. People would rather elevate themselves and feel needed as an exalted intermediary between the gods and man or, perhaps even worse, simply stay uninvolved.

Marc at Of Axe and Plough, which is an awesome name for a website, has written about people’s need to feel special:

Because we, as a society, are dedicated to the idea of extreme individualism, we seek to try to find something that represents ourselves; something that can differentiate us from the mass of our fellows.  Something that is, in effect, a large neon sign proclaiming who or what we are.  I have a few thoughts why people strive so hard to make Paganism seem like such a big deal:

  • They might come from a religious background where they were simply one practitioner among hundreds of others, their voices drowned out in the back of the church and no longer want to feel like “one of the herd”.
  • They require external validation because they’re coming from a largely secularist society which, founded upon reason and logic, innately positions them against an expenditure of time or energy on “unfounded ideals” on something like religion or spiritualism.
  • They simply want something to differentiate themselves from the mundane.

In response to such people, lubutu had a fantastic way of describing historical priests in just how mundane they could be:

Besides which, it’s clearly not about social stratification: the clergy are not ‘higher’ in any sense, they’re pretty much just the caretakers of the pagan temple, as it were.

The other side of this worthless coin, however, is the belief that everyone is his own priest. This is incorrect. People bring in baggage from Christianity that they don’t even understand. Broadly this comes from the idea of forming a close, personal relationship with Jesus. More specifically it comes from Protestantism, where it is a foundational concept known as “universal priesthood” or “priesthood of all believers”. Martin Luther brought up the idea in 1520.

At least the Protestants had a possible theological basis for this belief. They also still have people in positions of power, just not as a spiritual authority necessarily. These preachers teach, direct, and help people in theory. We don’t have that at all; we have a foreign concept taken to an extreme that does not work in the slightest.

It’s quite clear that Heathens of the past did not have this idea of a universal priesthood. If everyone were his own priest, we wouldn’t have words for the concept and records of people holding such offices. In Old English, for example, we have heargweard and wēofodþegn, while Old Norse has goði and Gothic has gudja. Bede in Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum even mentioned a curious thing that implies a hierarchy, if accurate:

This place where the idols were is still shown, not far from York, to the eastward, beyond the river Derwent, and is now called Godmundinghan, where the high priest, by the inspiration of the true God, profaned and destroyed the altars which he had himself consecrated.

We have no other such reference and it’s possible that Bede was simply mistaken, but it’s also a fact that he had access to information that we’ll never know again. I’m inclined to believe it. Once you start having large populations, a level of organisation is both likely and often needed to a degree.

Today’s Organisations

Many have issues with hierarchies as polytheists. People are opposed to the structure seen in Christianity, but they falsely assume that it’s all or nothing. The world is never so black and white. There is nothing wrong with a network of qualified priests with regional leadership. Similar things were common enough in the past and it still works now. It provides goals and organisation that we sorely lack today.

Unfortunately, we don’t have such hierarchies even loosely. We have self-serving organisations that act as a platform for the leadership. A glance through the Troth’s lore programme bibliography shows a stunning number of authors who are or were directly affiliated with the organisation, even though many of those books are no longer easily found and/or just outright full of misinformation. One of the most often updated parts of the site is the Troth Authors and Musicians page, which suffers similarly. There are 31 books by eighteen authors. Of these, I know fourteen of the books to be junk and they’re by just five of the authors. Of those five authors, I know that four of them served in an official capacity in the organisation and are known for poor scholarship. Several other authors are questionable without even having to buy their books, while a few try to be scholarly, but fail at basic academic rigour.

The AFA has very similar issues. Their online store is a joke. Their website has a stunningly egotistical photo of Stephen McNallen right on the main page.

What sort of leadership is this? How is this helping the religion and not lining someone’s pockets instead? It’s no wonder that we have no meaningful priesthood for Heathendom.

It gets murkier from this point. The AFA has the courtesy to spell out some of their requirements and costs ($100 for the training itself) on their clergy programme page, which then goes into much greater depth on the application. It becomes a bit more of a mess when it requires two references from AFA members, which to me encourages cliques. I would go so far as to say that we should discourage such a thing in a clergy programme for such a small religion.

Sadly, none of the material used by the programme is available, so I cannot comment on its educational merits. It’s probably right to assume that the required readings aren’t impressive, but I hope that I’m wrong.

The Troth seemingly doesn’t have any clergy programme right now, as they no longer provide information on it publicly; presumably there’s more information available for members. I do know that the lore programme is a prerequisite. The aforementioned issues with the lore programme’s bibliography is reason enough for concern. The required readings, as currently presented, are even more worrying. Not counting the Eddas, which are available online obviously, there are fourteen required texts. Of these, ten are written by key people in the Troth’s history and leadership, plus one more by a Troth member whose role in things is unknown to me. Six of these are written by Stephan Grundy under his pen name, Kveldulf Gundarsson. Stephen Flowers, writing as Edred Thorsson, is somehow an authority on magic. (A third book by him is a required reading, but is no longer available and has an alternative on the list. This missing book is not counted in the above totals.)

Even more shocking is the final price for these texts. Again ignoring the Eddas, these books would come to $280 as of this writing. Some of them are barely available at the current prices; other purchasing options are considerably more expensive. This could easily be $400 if some of these texts become less available. And most of it comes from Stephen Grundy, whose knowledge is laughable, abysmal, incorrect, and uncited.

It’s unknown what other books the clergy programme would need in addition to these texts. Prices for being a part of both programmes are also unknown. Expectations are absent in available information, but surely things are similar to previously published information, despite an overhaul to the clergy programme a few years ago. The old handbook is still online, for example. In fact, the entire clergy page from days of yore is archived. The required books list adds two more over what the lore programme of today expects, plus some more that are in the public domain. The recommended book list is much larger and replete with awful things, although I cannot comment on quite a few of them.

For the sake of comparison,  let’s take a look at Ár nDraíocht Féin (henceforth the ADF), a rather fluffy group that likes to conflate cultures. This organisation has multiple programmes available. It starts with the Dedicant Path, a prerequisite for all later courses. From there one may join the Generalist Study Program, various guilds, the Initiate Program, or the Clergy Training Program; the Initiate Program is a stepping stone between the Dedicant Path and the Clergy Training Program, but is not required for the latter. All of these are free to dues-paid members, with the exception of some guilds apparently. It’s a good start.

Kevin Silverstag went through the Dedicant Path and partially through the Initiate Program before quitting; he’s my primary source for the ADF’s current programmes. The Dedicant Path is somewhat basic and suffers from the inclusion of worthless things, such as the “nine pagan virtues” and the Wiccan Wheel of the Year. It correctly has the student do book reviews. It sets up a basis for understanding nature and the ancestors, but thankfully doesn’t delve into the gods much. (Heathendom could definitely learn from that.) The Initiate Program is a bit more involved and—at least from what I can see of it—requires comparisons with other Indo-European cultures. It gets into ritual and important topics, although it brings up a bit of Wiccan nonsense.

What immediately jumps out to me is the lack of required reading. There’s a recommended reading list that is primarily scholarly works; these are good books from my experience. Out-of-print books have their own list. Some recommendations on a third list are wholly inappropriate, such as Diana Paxson’s books on runes or Stephen Grundy’s books from the ’90s. For some reason Galina Krasskova is on the list, even though that person is insane. This is where things start to fall apart. A fourth listing has members’ books. These are painfully fluffy and not always Celtic; three of them are Germanic. One of them is so bad that I have literally nothing but scathing remarks for the author.

Outside the immediate training programmes is the ritual listing. It’s painfully bad and surely it comes up later while training. A lot of it is very silly and inaccurate. The Proto-Indo-European rituals are a joke. The Norse rituals hurt my sides from sheer laughter. The álfablót ritual is stunningly awful. One page has a song that is in Middle English; I don’t know how that relates to the Norse. If these are any indication, any training that deals with complex topics, which a clergy programme would have, would be awful. And I’ve never heard anything but jokes when people discuss the ADF, which doesn’t help. At least everything started out well enough.

An Ideal Way

A proper priesthood is good and needed. It needn’t have a singular head like the Pope or the Ecumenical Patriarch. Its governing body should probably be a council of sorts with an odd number of members in order to avoid ties; the members should probably be regional leaders in some capacity. Its bylaws should be publicly viewable; this is a requirement for incorporation in most, if not all, US states, I believe. All meetings should have minutes published, if not also public for attendance.

The training of said priests should be rather involved. Applicants should have background checks done in order to weed out the less desirable people, although they should have the right to explain themselves before dismissal. A nominal fee should at least cover the background checks, but probably also some materials. A higher fee would be reasonable only if the course provides more, such as entire books.

The topics taught should be rather varied. A firm grasp of lore, archeology, and history should be instilled in the applicants. The locations and contexts for everything should be discussed; Norse topics must be clearly marked as distinct from Anglo-Saxon topics when appropriate.

Like the ADF, the initial groundwork should help the applicant develop an understanding of the ancestors and wights, while the gods should come last in order to provide a hint that the gods aren’t everything in one’s religious life. This would help to correct a common issue in Heathendom.

Of utmost importance should be the teaching of comparative mythology. Understanding the neighbouring Indo-European religions goes a long way in understanding our own practices and provides a basis for both interfaith work and reconstruction efforts for Heathendom. This would place our priests as experts of a sort on the topic and would hopefully encourage additional research for the community as a whole.

Marriage and death rites would need to be emphasised; these are major life events that need proper support. In that vein, counselling skills must be taught in order to help people make transitions in their lives. Additional rites of passage should be encouraged and developed.

Rudimentary language skills should be encouraged at the least. Having a basic understanding of Old Norse, Old English, or Old High German goes a long way in understanding older works that are of importance in our modern research. Modern Germanic languages would be very useful as well because of the speakers’ increased awareness of different communities and research abroad.

Educational materials must be thorough, well written, and full of citations. Books and articles must come from scholars as often as possible in order to limit an echo chamber effect. Materials from members of the priesthood (or a supporting organisation’s leadership) must be reviewed for historical accuracy. No one author should have a majority of the required readings. Modern research should be as recent as possible, but anthropological work from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries should be reviewed as well. Books like Sir James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough are important, as they show local, recent practices that may very well be survivals of an earlier time.

Expectations, required readings, recommended readings, and prices should all be public in order to encourage transparency and feedback. Periodically these should be reviewed and updated as new discoveries are made and better writing becomes available.


We’re more than capable of setting up something amazing for ourselves, but egos and individualism get in the way. The current organisations definitely need to be more open about what they do and teach. Indeed, they should probably relinquish their programmes entirely and do what they pretend to do now already: outreach. A separate, nonpartisan organisation would be useful in getting rid of some of the nonsense in our community.

We have a community with an unfulfilled need. If we are to grow as a religion, this must be fixed in a proper manner. Maintaining our islands of disparate, partisan organisations, never sharing information without fighting in some way, won’t help us in the long run. I would like to hope that we won’t just be a footnote in the history of twentieth and twenty-first century religions.

Correction: I had erroneously stated that Amanda is UsurpedLettuce on reddit, but it is, in fact, Marc. See comments.

4 Replies to “Priesthood in Heathendom”

  1. Hey, just a quick note of correction: I (Marc) am /u/usurpedlettuce. I shared Amanda’s article on /r/Pagan because I felt it was meritorious. As a moderator of that forum I don’t share my own blog (Of Axe and Plough).

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