Sunday, March 17, 2013

Killing the Big Name Pagans

Recently I was listening to a pod cast that delved into the naming of “Big Name Pagans” known to us all as BNP’s.  This experience rubbed me the wrong way and has been bubbling in my own personal cauldron of discontent for quite some time.

The term is not helpful, it serves to disconnect some of our most productive community servants from the very communities they serve and has little meaning beyond creating unnecessary stratification in our community.

Frankly, most of the individuals I know who have been so named bristle at the label and many actively disavow such labeling. These individuals understand that we are a community and that their service is of no more import to the community than the service of thousands of others that occurs every day.

As a community we must learn to value the contributions of the entire tribe. Each of us is interdependent on the other within our community. Some may argue that these individuals are more influential and we need a way to codify their contributions. It is my belief that this does not stand to reason.

During my years in the community the most influential people on my path have always been community members who are doing the work, those organizing, moving chairs, singing songs, caring for our children during ritual, etc.  For my self personally, the poems of a little known Pagan have touched me on a deeper level than all the books I have read and classes I have taken.

Individuals living in harmony with the land, standing for the environment, engaging in needed service of all types, living the ethics that their faith embraces are the heroes of my pagan path.

So lets metaphorically kill the BNP’s, embrace the servants that they are as equals in our community of teachers, midwives, writers, farmers, builders, administrators. warriors, parents, cooks, counselors and planners.

Lets be a tribe and let go of the need to label writers, bloggers, activists and speakers as something other than what they are: Pagans just like you and me!


Oriana said...

Reminds me of this quote: “We're all human, aren't we? Every human life is worth the same, and worth saving.”

― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Sarsen said...

I agree with you. However, I think it's also important to acknowledge that it's not just a matter of people applying the label to the unwilling. Many people cultivate BNP status...whether or not they admit it. It's not as simple as just treating them like equals, because some of them don't want to be. At best, other people defer to them and they allow it. I personally have been very frustrated when interacting with some well-known Pagans whom I personally like but who just can't seem to come down off the pedestal...even while protesting that they are one among equals.

Pagan In Paradise said...


In my day I have had to knock a few down. Interestingly enough they thanked me after some time for reflection. Confronting ones own privilege and rejecting it can be a painful process. But we do need to get rid of this term in the community. The term its self is counterproductive!
Thanks for responding to the post!.

sarenth said...

I am going to take another tack. Sometimes admitting that you are a teacher is a hard enough process. Realizing that the idea of teacher applies to another person, let alone more than ten, I can imagine, may be hard to swallow at first.

While I am not saying "Hey, anyone who wants to be called a BNP sign right up", acknowledging that you have a pull, an influence on the Pagan community and, more importantly, acting in a responsible manner within such a role, is deeply important.

Whether one is important to a local community, or you have having any kind of influence on another, even if you do not choose the label others stick you with, acknowledging the power of that label, and attending it and those people respect is as much a service as leading a ritual or hearing someone's problems because it:
1) Recognizes potential or real power structures in play.
2) Allows you to acknowledge dynamics in play that, comfortable or not with them, exist.
3) Acknowledging that others see/experience you in a position of authority/power/aid can empower you to be very mindful, cultivating care, due diligence, and discernment in anything that is, or may sound like advice.
4) You have an opportunity if you are recognized as any sort of authority figure, BNP or no, to address problems within the community in leading by example.

If the term BNP is going to be a part of Pagan dialogue it behooves all of us to hold those people to higher standards if for no other reason than their visibility is higher. Whether we like it or not, those people, for good or ill, are how many people outside our religions, as well as those new to them, come to understand our religious communities. We have it within our power to make good, lasting first impressions and powerful relationships between those who, initially willing or not, help to lead, grow, and deepen our Pagan communities.

John Beckett said...

When a community grows beyond the size of an intimate local group, pure egalitarianism is no longer possible. Leaders must and will emerge, whether they are writers, musicians, ritualists, teachers, organizers, or anything else.

I absolutely agree the term "Big Name Pagan" is not helpful. I usually hear it used in a lighthearted sense, but it carries the implication of "celebrity" and all the baggage that brings from pop culture and its twisted values.

How do we as Pagans learn to acknowledge our leaders and support those who are leading in a positive direction? How do we weed out those who want to promote themselves more than they want to serve?

I don't have any easy answers, but it's a discussion we need to have.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to have to disagree with the last comment, but it is possible to acknowledge dynamics in groups and communities without having 'leading lights' or big names. We are all responsible for mindfulness, able to demonstrate by example. There is no need for those with more visibility to take on the mantle of leadership and be held to 'higher' standards, however one measures that. We are all in it together, equally, and if we are to learn anything as a community, it is to steer away from boosting some people, holding some people in higher status than others, or having leaders when we are all capable of taking responsibility for ourselves, with help from our friends.

Ann-Marie Gallagher

Skye Ranger said...

I lean in the direction of what you have said Sarenth; albeit a mouthful to say, and layers to wade through.

We have authors, musicians, group leaders, event organizers, and organization heads. Many Pagans are accomplished in their own fields of endeavor.

I wager that most accomplished Pagans (usually older folk) are not on the "speaker's bureau" list of Pagans with the most broadly recognizable names; and who regularly appear as speakers at events, etc.

We definitely need role models. We definitely need experienced individuals to step forward and be there for less experienced folk ~ that is the way the world works; there is a whole range of levels of experience, and we share with one another accordingly.

And yes, most of all we need additional (new) role names and definitions; roles to fill and accomplishments to become. It is all work, lots of work, lifetimes of work.

Keeping the titles of authors, musicians, speakers, group leaders, organization heads, event coordinators, etc., is fine. Experienced ritual facilitators are important, as are counselors, first responders, wilderness guides, physicians, diplomats, and astronauts.

Taking the step to acknowledge one's own value to community and to history is a big step and is a commitment to work; a lot of work.

Skye Ranger said...

If I wanted to have a barn built on my farm, I would look to people who have experience to lead and guide the endeavor. I would not ask or expect the people who have just discovered what a hammer is to guide the process. Each person plays a different role in the process at different points in their lives. There are always beginners and there are always those with lots more experience.

Not only is this how life unfolds in our immediate group (and for ourselves as individuals), but over time, we all evolve as a community (and humanity), meeting and exceeding previous generations.

Margot Adler said...

I never heard this term until ten years ago. It clearly comes from fandom and BNF. I think it never was used until the leaders became authors not leaders of groves or covens. I found it really weird to be referred to as a BNP, and retiring the term would be lovely

Manic Lady said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Frau Spinne said...

I am thankful for this post and all of the comments that people have contributed. I'm still on a path of learning and seeking, though that never really ends for anyone... This is the first time I've heard the acronym BNP, so I've learned something new today! The concept is not new to me, however, I just didn't realize there was a common phrase that developed to describe these people. In fact, I was talking with a Spiritualist Reverend/Medium this morning, who had touched on this subject. He had used to be placed on a pedestal some time ago, and had broken away from that, opening up to teaching and being taught in return, accepting that people come and go, wherever their path leads them, and that we all have something to contribute. I thought that was beautiful.

Pagan In Paradise said...

Thanks to all who participate in this conversation. As always I learn much from my readers!

T. Thorn Coyle said...

What's funny to me about this conversation is that BNP - if I recall my history correctly - came from Isaac Bonewits and stood for "Big Nosed Pagans" as a lighthearted reminder to himself and others not to take ourselves so seriously, and not to look down our noses at others. That it shifted into Big Name Pagans has the opposite effect.

That said, I've seen well known people act generously, graciously and well, and I've seen well known people act horribly. I've also seen not well known people on both sides of the equation. I've seen people that encourage sychophants and those who don't. I don't think calling or not calling them BNPs makes much difference.

Some people are more publicly known. Oh well. What matters to me is how they treat others on a regular basis, and the quality of their words and how well they line up with their actions.

Also, Paganism is a pretty small pond, so what does being a Big Name Pagan really mean in the world at large? What matters at the end of the day is how we treat those around us, not how many people know our name.

I've seen people bashed and knocked around simply because they are more well known. They actually put in the work that earned them the good esteem of others, and someone decided that because they now considered them to be a BNP, they must be pushed off a pedestal.

In other words, in the dismantling of false hierarchies, we need to be careful not to eat our leaders. This happens. It isn't pretty or helpful.

Peg A said...

Thorn is correct, this term was known as "Big Nosed Pagans" for a long time. I think the internet has had a great deal of impact on our community's knowledge of pagan "movers and shakers" whether they be authors, performers, activists, clergy, etc. Social media is like wildfire in that it can cause discussion or awareness to spread quickly and often ignite destruction (of reputations, of communities, of the truth, of common sense, etc.) Public opinion, if you want to call it that, of our community's "celebrities" or more well-known personages is a fickle animal and people's public images and personae can become controversial or larger than life in a matter of hours. Add the 24-7 news cycle to that, and the general fast-food vibe of the blogosphere, and what we seem to be devolving into is a big crumbling colosseum of captive bottom feeders wherein we occasionally throw one of our "teachers" or "leaders" into the ring and watch as they get torn apart.

At least, that's what it seems like to me sometimes.

It'd be nice if we put our energies to more productive use.

Anonymous said...

I follow no one and wont follow anyone but my Lord and Lady! Any one in this physical life is of no higher power or status than I, we are equal and we should learn to walk together not ahead or behind another. Lets have true brother and sisterhood shall we?

Deirdre Hebert said...

From what I've seen, there are many sorts of people. Among the well-known are the humble as well as the self-promoting. There are, Peter, people like you, Thorn, Margot and so many others, whose work and dedication speak for themselves. The "Big Name" is merely a result of an association with the work you've accomplished, and the way you've helped the community.

On the other hand, there are those who are more self-promoting, and seeking public attention more than anything lese. You might say there are the "shamans" and the "showmans".

The name might be well-known in both cases, but the way those names have become known are via very different routes.

I know shop owners and business-people who have, through promotion, got their names out. Their point is to be known in order to make more sales and more money. I don't wish to deny them an ability to make a living, but they are known for a very different reason than our dedicated teachers and those who have lived lives of service.

The "size" of the name matters far less than what that name is known for. There may be some manner of fame attached to various names, and once we've been around for a while, we all recognize those among us who are the scholars, the teachers, the wise, the elders, and those who are the salesmen and saleswomen and the self-promoters. We know those who offer something of substance, and those who are more fluff.

In the end, I don't like the term "Big Name Pagan", and agree with Isaac Bonewits. I was once chatting with someone who was nervous about interviewing a "Big Name Pagan", and reminded them that they were well-known in their own right. We all have those to whom we look up. What really matters is our own integrity.

Pagan In Paradise said...

I fully agree T. My approach is more lets respect them for who they are writers, teachers, ect, and respect that they are an important part of our community just as are all the other great Pagans engaging in their paths as HPS,, organizers healers etc.

Elizabeth McNally said...

I, personally, have not used the term BNP. I often refer to people as "highly respected in the Pagan Community" (albeit it does not roll of the tongue as well). These are the people in the community who have become known to us through their excellent writing, their untiring work and their activism on behalf of the community.
If I were holding a protest in DC for Pagan rights, I would hope to entice a multitude to accompany me, and all would be valued. If, however, I was meeting with "officials" with the intent of implementing policy, would I hope to have Selena Fox accompany me? Oh ya, I would!
I was unabashedly delighted and honored to meet Margot Adler. To shake her hand and tell her how much I admired her writing.
I admire and enjoy watching new members of the Pagan community step up to the plate and speculate that they too, no doubt, will be known and respected widely.
Perhaps there is some hero worship, but these individuals inspire us, and I am certain they entice others to step forward and find the courage to be more than they would have.
I don't like the term BNP as it places the individual out of reach, and there are very few I have encountered who do not reach back towards us. They make themselves available to the community. They need us as much or more than we need them. Highly respected, IMO, describes them better.

Crystal Blanton said...

I love this conversation. I see both sides and I don't equate leadership with the label of BNP. In line with what Margot said, I feel that leadership in covens, groves and other venues is different than the way that BNP is often applied.
I have never liked the term. The way that the community uses it is in a way that does separate people from others, as if they are in a different category besides the Pagan community. And there is an assumption when someone becomes a writer or artist, that they are trying to achieve this false heirarchy of importance, that was not and is not the case for me and many others I know.

It mimics the US value system that is in place, distorted values that are very harmful to the true concept of community, where everyone has value.

When I first started writing, I was in 4th grade. When I started writing again, as an adult, it was to process a trauma I had in my first coven experience. It was my theraputic tool.... I continued to write after that. It wasn't about some small time fame or a need for the spotlight. It was about finding my own light, and I was successful in that personal goal.

Today I write because it is my calling. I work in the various areas that I am charged to by the Gods. Sometimes that requires a avenue for gettign the message out there. I dislike self promotion but it is one of the tools that writers, artists and muscians have to embrace at some point in order to share the work.

I would love Pagan culture to include respects for our many experts of all kinds, valuing everyone for what they bring to the table. I am a leader in my area of expertise but I am a leader among leaders. I learn from others just as much as I teach, sometimes more.

The bottom line is that we need to continue to have the conversations, as a community, that allows us all to recognize one another for what we bring to the table, stop destroying eachother, empower eachother to be leaders and stop finding ways to separate eachother into these factions that are not really relevant or helpful. Then we might change culture here and beyond.

Broomstick Chronicles said...

I agree with Thorn, Peg and Elizabeth. Here are few factoids that inform my opinion:

* How one conducts oneself is more important to me than how high one's public profile is.

* Leaders happen. Some people have leadership qualities, like initiative, and others have less or none at all. And just because someone takes on a leadership role doesn't mean that others have to follow. With no followers, one is not leading anything or anyone. But the emergence of more informed and/or influential and/or accomplished individuals is natural. Nature, is Nature not our teacher?

* There is a big difference, IMO, between those who see an opportunity to be of service, to do something worthwhile and that probably benefits many, and those who are building a career out of being some 'Pagan personage.' Whether it's selling books, acquiring teaching gigs for money, whatever, that's somewhat different from leadership, per se. Which is not to say that one cannot be and do both -- be of service and sell books. My point is that motivations may be different. If you have to make some money to pay the rent and what you do to earn money is sell books and give workshops, you have a different motivation from someone who's just doing some kind of labor-intensive and responsibility-laden Pagan-oriented work (like organizing a festival or keeping the account books) that I would also view as a leadership role.

* Lastly, we live in a celebrity culture. No matter how 'different' and unaffected by mainstream mores we may claim to be, every one of us lives within, and is affected and informed by, the overculture.

Having said all that, I will conclude by mentioning that when you see Pagans doing work you consider beneficial or worthwhile, it's nice to give them some word of appreciation. As a sometime-recipient of words of encouragement, I can tell you it really feels good. Conversely, it doesn't feel so good to be overlooked.

By the same token, if someone is doing something publicly on behalf of Paganism and you think what they're doing is not good, it's appropriate to address the things you think are problematic or those with which you don't agree. To hold that person accountable, at least to the community/organization on whose behalf that person acts. That does not mean trashing the person. It only means speaking to specific issues.

And if you really hate what someone is doing in the public forum, you really disagree, well, jump into that sandbox and build your own castle; put your own ideas in motion.

nuannaarpoq said...

I have used the term from time to time, so I don't really have a problem with it. The simple fact is that some people, either by design or accident are more well known than others in the Pagan community. Their names simply have a bigger recognition factor, whether they want them to or not.

I don't think this is necessarily a problem...the problem arises when people with that name recognition think that it equates to a level or authority or importance greater than little name Pagans such as myself AND when others elevate them to a status of authority and importance that they do not want or do not "deserve".

"Deserve", of course, being a somewhat loaded word...but I can't really think of a suitable alternative at the moment.

Josephine said...

Thankyou Mr Pagan in Paradise for posting this and for the wonderful and varied comments, I have learned a lot in the last 30 mins of reading this. I lived in California in the 90's at the height of the mega BPN era and that was a good education for me to see just what twats humans can become when they think they have a little power over people.
The way I look at it is; there is a good plumber that lives in our village and he fixes things really well. Do I put him on a pedestal and hero worship him? no... but I respect his skills and am thankful that he is there when things go wrong. So why treat a teacher, writer, artist etc any different than you would a good plumber?

Rev. Christa Landon, D.Min. said...

Jungian psychologists Robert Moore and Doug Gillette have something to contribute to this discussion from their book KING, WARRIOR, MAGICIAN, WIZARD, Archetypes of the Mature Masculine.

The function of the Good King (or Queen) is to create a generative order which supports the growth of the entire community. One important aspect of that is by recognizing OTHER people in the community, encouraging them, and exemplifying the virtues which makes community possible. The Good King multiplies power and empowers others.

The Shadow King uses influence and privilege to serve only himself. This is the abusive parent, partner, teacher, priest/ess who often uses the lack of formal structure in our community to accomplish his/her ends.

As the community understands the difference between Power Within, Power Over, and Power With, the Shadow King has less opportunity.

The immature Shadow King is psychologically adolescent, resentful of the accomplishments of others.

One of the problems in our community has long been a disproportionate number of folks who are still working through their psychological adolescence, pulling away from dependency to create their own identities. Ritual Elders can be important allies in this.

However, the Shadow Prince resents accomplishment, sometimes even to the point of "griefing" the community servants around them. While many of these folks claim to be doing the important work of fighting Shadow Kings, they are Antagonists (Kenneth Haugh).

As the folksong, "The Cutty Wren" prophesied, the work of the Aquarian Age will not be accomplished by "four strong men" but by "hands without number." ALL the work is important; ALL the people have contributions to make. The mark of one who carries the archetype of the Good King/Queen will be how s/he encourages, equips, and empowers others.

Christa Landon,

nwlorax said...

As members of a democracy and not a theocracy, we have neither kings nor queens. With all apologies to the SCA (and the work its members do in preserving useful skills), I think it is inherently dysfunctional to promote a Quasi-Jungian Monarchical Hierarchy as a desirable thing. I do not find Starhawk's often cited modelling of power to be useful in most situations.

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