Witch at Large: Ruminations from a Grey Perspective

Seeing Paganism in terms of being a movement, explorations of our history, societal context, comparisons to other religious movements, and general Pagan culture.

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Who Are Your People?

When I was a kid I remember that whenever a new person entered our lives, especially whenever one of us children brought a new friend home, my mother would ask, "Who are your people?"  This used to really bug me.  She did it in a challenging, even accusatory, way, like you had to prove yourself worthy of her attention or of being in her child's life before she'd accept you.

Now that so many years have past, and my mother is gone, I'm revising my attitude towards her question.  Who are my people?  Who are your people?  Who are our people?  

Certainly our blood relatives are "our people."  However, in today's world, at least here in the United States, families are smaller than they were in the past, and often widely dispersed in different locations.  Further, there are so many more blended families, step-families, half-siblings, co-parents, that make sorting and defining kin groups complicated. Plus, since the years following World War II American society (read 'real estate developers') began promoting the idea of isolated nuclear families, a phenomenon I consider detrimental in many ways, one being that it separates extended families from one another.

Families being what they are, we also define our belonging to groups of "our people" in many different ways.  Humans are hard-wired to need community of some kind.  We cannot survive as a species alone, and we never could.  It may be that some individuals prefer their own company to that of others and withdraw from society as much as possible.  They can proclaim, "I'm not a people person," or "I'm not a joiner" all they want. But they cannot survive without society.  

When we humans first emerged as a species, we banded together in small hunter-gatherer groups -- extended families, clans, and tribes.  We had no doubt as to who "our people" were: they were those we lived with, hunted with, and ate with, those we helped in birthing and dying, those we huddled round the fire in the cold with; those we danced and drummed with.

As we grew and expanded across the globe, we formed distinct cultures, with their unique languages, cuisines, clothing, and architecture.  We gathered into villages and later cities, where we knew who "our people" were.  They were the people we lived with and shared the cultivation of food and livestock, offense and defense.

For much of Euro-American history, we have formed communities around churches.  In fact, it was religious disputes that led Europeans to venture across the Atlantic with the hope of establishing communities that were more in line with their particular vision of Christianity.  Everyone in a village attended church every Sunday, and often more frequently.  Even in communities with no schools or civic administration they had their church.

Even in the larger cities, people settled in neighborhoods of related people, sometimes around a church and sometimes shared ethnicity.  We belonged to the place where we lived: we lived in Harlem or Hollywood, near the stockyards or along the waterfront.  We had homies from our 'hood.

Fast-forward to 2012 C.E.  Today we live in a diverse society, mostly urban rather than rural, where people practice many religions or no religion at all.  So the village chapel no longer serves as a unifying force where all the families of a town gather on a regular basis.

Some of this need for belonging to a group, for feeling a sense of identification with a group, is satisfied by sports -- playing on teams, being a fan of one team or another.  Other people join fraternal or service organizations such as the Lions Club or the Knights of Columbus (two groups, besides family and parish, my father belonged to), or participate in organizations related to how they earn their livelihood such as bar associations, teachers organizations, guilds and trade unions.  Or they work in political parties or civic groups.  Others join groups connected with their interests and hobbies: kennel clubs; boating, golf, fishing, or hunting clubs; needlework guilds; car clubs; dance troupes; choruses and other musical groups; museums.  Newer immigrants often form cultural centers where they can preserve their language and customs and teach them to their children.

We Pagans are also new on the scene.  Who are "our" people?  Are they our covens, circles, nests, small working groups?  Yes, for those of us who have them I think we would consider them "our people."  Certainly not all of "our people," but some with whom we share a group identity.

Beyond circles, we may identify with our tradition.  We may even consider ourselves kin to everyone who has undergone the rites that that particular tradition considers effective to confirm formal admittance to the group.

For the most part Pagans have nothing in the way of institutions for us to consider belonging to.  In fact, having arisen from the counter-culture of the 1960s and '70s, we tend to have a aversion to organizing ourselves into institutions.  Many of us have negative feelings about organized groups because of our disillusionment with those we grew up in, especially if we might be veterans of repressive, authoritarian, and/or hardline denominations.

Like every other human on the planet, we encounter unpleasantness and discord within the groups we join.  Some of us walk away from them, not wanting to endure the efforts it takes to restore group health and viability.  Our groups come and go.  They may grow and thrive for many years, but eventually they nearly always encounter problems, either with individual members who seem incompatible with the group's goals or purpose, or with group dynamics, or both.  Volumes have been written about how to address these problems when they arise.

So when we find ourselves having reached a point were continued efforts towards making a group more reflective of who we believe ourselves to be, or of finding a group that we see as being more reflective of who we are, and we leave, then who are our people?

I write this as I seek the answer for myself to my mother's constant question, "Who are your people?"

Who are your people?


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Aline O’Brien (M. Macha NightMare), Witch at Large, has circled with people of diverse Pagan paths throughout the U.S., and in Canada and Brazil.  Author of Witchcraft and the Web (2001) and Pagan Pride (2004), and co-author, with Starhawk, of The Pagan Book of Living and Dying (1997), Macha has also contributed to anthologies, periodicals, textbooks, and encyclopedias.  A member of the American Academy of Religion, the Marin Interfaith Council, and the Nature Religion Scholars Network, Macha also serves as a national interfaith representative for the Covenant of the Goddess (CoG) and on the Advisory Board of the Sacred Dying Foundation.  Having spent the last eleven years developing and teaching at Cherry Hill Seminary, the first and only seminary serving the Neopagan community, Macha now serves on its Board of Directors. An all-round Pagan webweaver, she speaks on behalf of Paganism to news media and academic researchers, and lectures at colleges, universities and seminaries. www.machanightmare.com


  • Tom Terrific
    Tom Terrific Sunday, 02 December 2012

    I like your observations.

    I’ve thought a lot about spiritual community, because I’ve so longed for it and yet never found it. Groups I’ve been connected with have been either social clubs masquerading as spiritual communities or else the private preserve of some controlling individual or group of individuals. I’ve encountered as much intolerance among Pagans as I ever encountered among Christians; and nowhere have I found a group of people tolerant of diversity yet united in their search for the wonder of what is – a group where that wonder was more important than the egos of the people composing it. To be fair, this same spirit of egotistical intolerance is rife in the culture at large, particularly in academia where the demands for political correctness at times ascends to Stalinesque levels.

    I suspect our culture is close to getting a wake-up call. I think that post-WW2 affluence is what made it possible for us to become such an anti-social society; when people don’t need each other to get by, they become more selfish, demanding and intolerant. With the waning of that affluence and the onset of harsher times, people will either minimize those differences that once seemed so important and learn to be more accepting of one another or face the consequences.

  • Aline "Macha" O'Brien
    Aline "Macha" O'Brien Sunday, 02 December 2012

    Wow, Tom! Thanks for your observation. I hadn't thought of this in quite this way. I'd considered undue affluence and its effects on individual personalities, and in groups in the most general way, but it hadn't occurred to me that this swing towards leaner times might also bring with it a renewed spirit of cooperation, togetherness, group bonding and loyalty, freely shared resources, etc. Thanks.

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