-adapted from SoNGS teaching materials
Many Pagans have come into the public arena over the past year. Some are new to the craft, and are beginning to interact with other pagans before they begin to understand the various pagan paths and traditions. Others seem to have never received proper etiquette training. Without knowing the basic behaviors expected, you may find yourself creating bad first impressions. A few already have. A refresher course in Pagan Etiquette seems in order.
Etiquette is VERY important. Within the Pagan community, there are behaviors that are expected and others that are to be avoided. Etiquette keeps us civilized; it aids us in how we interact among ourselves, and with the outside world. Etiquette can be summed up in three concepts:
- Be Respectful
- Be Courteous
- Be Cautious
When we speak of ethics and etiquette in relation to Paganism, what are we referring to? We define etiquette as the customary code of polite behavior among members of a particular profession or group, while morality is ethical principles that govern that group's behavior. Ethics are guidelines by which we try to live our lives, shaping our actions in relation to each other, and ourselves.
If ethics are codes of personal and community conduct, then etiquette is a code of social conduct. Etiquette is simply defined as the forms of conduct prescribed by polite society, with established standards of manners or behavior. In addition to the mundane world’s social etiquette – the majority of which is still required within the Pagan community - let’s take a look at some things that are common among Pagans.
We are a small community. The way you live reflects on our whole community. Do nothing to harm the Craft. You should always respect others, no matter their path. You should be courteous to everyone. Inside your own religion there is a certain higher respect given each other, as Children of the Universe. This comes from a basic understanding of the hardships we all go through in some way to evolve spiritually. It can be equated to any secret society and its initiation process and path of self-discovery. This path is not for everyone, and if you take it seriously, it will change your life in ways you could never imagine. Any path that causes growth can be difficult. We link with others who are going through or have gone through the same sorts of things as us and take strength from and learn from them. When you don’t know someone, err on the side of caution.
Respect for the Paths of Others
We endeavor to hold ourselves to a higher standard: that of living our spiritual lives with authenticity and responsibility in ways that the mundane world typically does not. Therefore we support each other, lending a hand when the pitfalls of life come about. Do not struggle to make your way the right way! I once gave a presentation where one member of the audience argued vociferously that his path was right and mine was wrong (even though I was presenting a theoretical treatise). To me this showed bad manners, even though he didn’t realize that was what he was doing. We should not forget the very basic teaching: that we are all connected and that all paths are valid as long as they fulfill our spiritual needs and minimize harm to others. Respect the paths of others; be courteous to those not on your path. Err on the side of caution.
Respect for Elders and Teachers
Those who have been recognized as Elders in our community should be given a large amount of respect. The wisdom that is gained from following a spiritual path for 10, 20 or 30 years is an asset to our community, and we should respect the Elders of the community for what they have learned and what they teach us.
When you meet Teachers, treat them with respect as people, and doubly so if they are an Elder, because the path can be and often is hard. The Gods and the Old Ways require a lot of those who serve them. As children we were taught to respect our elders, and that is still a valid lesson. The Elders of this path can teach us many great things. Be courteous to them – even if they are less than perfect people.
When someone gives of themselves to teach or guide, we recognize that person's giving, and respect it. If you are there as a student your need is to learn, not to argue. Wait for discussion time rather than constantly interrupting your instructor. Not all of us are called to teach, and those who are offer a valuable service that should not be taken for granted or abused.
If you respect your teachers then you support them - publicly if necessary. There will be internal disagreements, but never should these disagreements be made public. They need to be resolved within your Circle.
If you are a teacher do not recruit - let your students come to you. Do not try to recruit students away from other covens - it is not only rude, but shows a lack of respect for other covens.
Respect Your Students
Similarly, as a teacher, you should always remember what it was like to take your first stumbling steps on this path and how you may have longed for some guidance. It is just as impolite for Elders to act as if they know everything, or to treat someone who is only 20 or whatever age as something less than a spiritual person. Spiritual growth does not always follow chronological maturation.
If you are a teacher, you are held to an even higher standard of conduct. You must never involve yourself in anything that could cause harm to your students or to the Craft. You should never do anything that would bring a bad light on Paganism. For instance, you should never become romantically involved with one of your students. You should not condone the use of illegal drugs, or alcohol if the person is a minor. You should not use your position to control your students, or make them dependent on you. The goal is to guide a person on their path. You supply the seed as a teacher. You need to nurture that seed. You need to be honest with your students, handing out both praise and criticism when appropriate, and in appropriate amounts. Respect your students. Be courteous to them, even when handing out criticism.
You also have a responsibility to the Pagan community to ensure that those not ready to advance, are not advanced until ready. Even more critical, you need to be careful of whom you are teaching. What is it that they are interested in? Power or Enlightenment? Err on the side of caution. SoNGS will teach some of the very basics to beginners, but it takes at least a year and a day before SoNGS will allow someone to dedicate to them - and sometimes not even then.
The majority of pagans practice the Craft in small study groups or as solitary practitioners. It is a severe breach of etiquette to “out” a Pagan that prefers to remain private. If someone asks you for example “is So and So a witch?” The only polite answer is to say “you’ll have to ask So-and-So.” There can be any number of reasons why a Pagan prefers to be discreet about their religious beliefs. You must respect these reasons whether you know them or not, whether you agree with them or not.
Some Seekers may find that they are called to practice their spirituality in a private group setting such as a coven. Most covens extract an oath of secrecy from their Dedicants during the Dedication ceremony. Violation of this oath is considered serious enough a breach of ethics that the person in question can be expelled from the coven. Similarly, if you are not a member of the coven and you are invited to a ritual and asked to keep the workings (or even the existence) of the ritual secret, you should either do so or not go. If you cannot respect other peoples request for privacy, you’re unlikely to be invited back.
Never assume people know less than you do just because you have never met them before. You have no idea what the path of the person you have just met is! When you make this faux pas, expect that word will get around. You will end up getting a reputation as being presumptuous - not respectful, nor courteous, nor cautious.
Do Not Touch!
This is probably one of the few absolute rules of Paganism. Do not touch other people’s stuff without their permission! It shows a lack of respect. People who follow this path typically charge their belongings, especially jewelry and spiritual tools, with spiritual energy. You likely won’t know what is sacred to a Pagan and what is not. Therefore err on the side of caution. To just walk up and grabs one’s necklace or athame without permission is not only discourteous, but proof positive that you are untrained or poorly trained and in some cases worthy of snubbing. And you might be – snubbed that is.
In spite of this warning almost every one of us has probably breached this simple rule at some point. So don’t be afraid to tell somebody to back off and leave your stuff alone, if necessary.
There will be times when you may feel the urge to touch a person with your own energy. Except in the most dire of circumstances - ask! In fact, us Pagans are usually a touchy-huggy kind of group - but not all are. Make sure you respect a person's "space."
Upon entering another Pagan’s Home
Other Pagan homes can be really neat places. They are often filled with statues and statuettes to the Gods and Goddesses, candles, figurines, crystals, and other accouterments that a Pagan uses as part of his daily spiritual activities. Most Pagans have an altar set up somewhere in their homes. The altar can contain a number of Pagan tools including but not limited to a ritual knife, symbols at the cardinal points representing Earth, Air, Fire and Water, and candles honoring various Deities. Other people may have their spiritual tools scattered about the home or in some specific order that makes sense only to them.
The bottom line is that another’s home is not an interactive children’s museum. It should be treated like an antique store with an abundance of “DO NOT TOUCH” signs. Many of the Pagan’s tools can be rare or irreplaceable and they should be treated with respect. If you don’t know if something is a tool, err on the side of caution.
Almost all people practicing the Craft have a number of talismans, amulets or other types of tools that they use to help focus and direct energy. The tools are not necessarily where the magic resides but often tools are charged with spiritual energy much like a battery is charged with electrical energy. It takes a certain amount of time and effort for a practitioner to cleanse, consecrate and charge their tools. Many will not allow others to touch their tools at all. Their wishes should be respected and never taken personally. Pagan etiquette dictates that one never handles any tool or piece of jewelry without first asking permission, no matter what the relationship is with the person who owns that tool. Always ask, and be prepared to take “NO” for an answer without being offended. My wife has tools that I do not touch, just as I have tools she does not touch.
If you own a magical tool you should never let someone you don’t feel comfortable with handle it. The interaction between them and your tool may require that you have to re-cleanse and re-purify your tool.
Etiquette within ritual varies from group to group and often from ritual to ritual within a group. Rituals can be thought of as a combination of Divine Mirth and reverence. It should be pointed out however that Divine Mirth is not comedy. Divine Mirth is taking a lighthearted approach toward the ceremony. Ceremonial cast members when they slip on a line do not go running from the Circle as if that was the most dishonorable thing they ever did. They have to continue, even with the Gods chuckling at them!
The most important rule for Celebrants is that once Circle is cast, you are in the Circle for the duration, so long as you are healthy. You don’t get to leave Circle because you are bored. That would disrespect not only your fellow Celebrants, but Deity as well. There are going to be some times when a Circle must be broken. Say someone collapses with a heart attack. In a well-planned ceremony, the first responder is already in Circle and knows to go to a victim’s aid immediately. Many Pagans have emergency training or CPR training and will respond out of instinct. The exterior Warden will already be calling emergency services. A member of the Ritual Court or the Circle Caster will quickly open Circle and dismiss Quarters. In case of emergency, take instructions from the Priest or Priestess (unless they are one of the ones down, then look toward the next highest member of the Ritual Court).
The behavior of participants is important. Do not bring negativity with you into the Circle. It is discourteous and disrupts the flow of energy. When in Circle, refrain from making disapproving gestures, faces or other behaviors. Each of us enters Circle to honor Deity in our own fashion: not to judge. The fact that the group producing the ritual might do so differently than the way we do, should not be surprising, nor should it occasion negativity. The time for constructive commentary is in private after the ritual is finished and even then only if asked for.
Similarly other Celebrants should refrain from expressing disapproval of another’s misbehavior with faces or gestures at others who may be misbehaving. Responding to another person’s negativity only creates more negativity within the Circle and makes it hard for the Ritual Court to control and direct the positive energy that is there. A well-planned ritual often has an interior Warden who is responsible for containing any Celebrant’s negative energy. Most Celebrants won’t even know who that person is. Finally, in many rituals especially where a script is being followed, it is most impolite to talk out of turn or make comments based on what is happening during the ceremony. It is just too distracting and you may end up not being invited to future events. Remember you are in Sacred Space! Act with courtesy and respect!
Normal etiquette is that hosts serve guests first. However, in a post-ritual setting, it is more polite to allow those who expended the most energy in Circle to eat first. Post-ritual feasts help ground you, and those who expended the most energy need to ground quickly. So when attending ritual, it is more polite to allow the Priesting couple to be served first, followed by the Magist, the Quarter Callers, Circle Caster, and anyone else who expended energy on your behalf before other Participants are served. Not every group does it this way, but it is the most polite way.
Many ritual groups do not permit photos at their events. Some may take photos or videos as a means of internal quality control to check their own movements and to see how well they were heard. In cases where photos are taken, it is up to the group to tell everyone that photos will be taken, to say whether or not they will be published in the public (and where), to identify those people who do not want to be included in the photos and to respect their wishes by not publishing photos depicting them.
Many people especially at public events prefer not to have their picture taken while in ritual. If you plan to take photographs during a Pagan event, it is first best to obtain permission of the Priest and Priestess and then announce your intention to everyone else and ask those who do not wish to be in photos to identify themselves so that they can be kept out of the pictures or videos.
Sky Clad refers to the practice of participating in ritual in the nude. These types of rituals are very rare in the Spokane area, and it is unlikely you will encounter one, but if you do and of you decide to participate, there are rules. For some, this is an intensely personal way of interacting with Deity. These people are not interviewing for Thunder Down Under! So that guy that looks like Adonis without a loincloth is not there to be ogled over or photographed in erotic poses. Be courteous: don’t ogle!
Equally, try not to be too turned off by that woman that makes Jabba the Hutt look anorexic. She too is interacting with Deity in an intensely personal fashion.
Similarly, if you are planning a Sky Clad or even a “spicy” Tantric ritual, it is courteous to let all Celebrants know in advance if there will be nudity. That way they can decide for themselves whether or not to attend. Certainly be sure to make note that the ritual will not be “family-friendly.” The last thing the Pagan community needs is a shocked parent going public about perverted Pagans masturbating in the woods. You need to have balance between free expression and harming the Craft, especially if you live in a more conservative community like ours. Be cautious.
Many rituals include a Sacred Fire. Sacred Fires honor the Divine and are not a receptacle for trash. Sacred Fire pits are used only for what has been specifically gathered for the intent of ritual celebrations. No one should ever throw garbage, cigarette butts or any other types of material into the Sacred Fire. Only the Ritual Cast should be putting anything into the sacred fire unless the Celebrants are instructed to do so.
If you are hosting a Pagan event, it is always good to prepare your guests for what will ensue. That way people can decide whether to participate or observe. For example, a big deal was made several years ago about using a blade to challenge Celebrants as they entered Circle. The use of a blade as a challenge is acceptable in many traditions, especially in some of the Reconstructionist paths, but it is an uncommon way of doing things in most Pagan Circles in the area, especially at family-friendly ones. Much ado could have been avoided had the Celebrants been forewarned. If you are planning something that might be offensive to some, explain what you are doing in advance.
I don’t know of a single Pagan who has not broken at least some of these guidelines: in some cases many times. While we might strive to be the best person we can be, we are human and we do make mistakes. When you do breach etiquette, it is your responsibility to fix it with the person or group that you have offended, no matter how slight the offense. Most of the time, Pagans can be a very forgiving bunch, especially when you’re as honest with them as you want them to be with you. Just remember the three basic rules:
- Be Respectful
- Be Courteous
- Be Cautious