How do neo-pagans create priesthoods from nothing (ex nihilo)?
I often talk to people who see this as an issue facing modern pagans. We don’t have an “apostolic succession” going back to the ancient priests. The interrupted transmission is a barrier to the legitimacy and credibility of pagan priests in modern times.
Elsewhere, in some Indo-European cultures we see hereditary priests, but we don’t have that either, not in Norse history and not as a survival in our modern world.
Everyone’s answer seems to be self-initiation. Someone studies up, initiates themself, then initiates others, founding a new priestly line. I’m not sure whether the missing element is thought to be some kind of laying on of hands or some kind of training, but this seems to be the only thing anyone knows that can fix it.
But why is this even a problem? It seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding. When I reached a point where I was beginning to struggle with this issue, my mother brought me back to earth. She pointed out that we’re all born pagans. That’s the whole point of being baptized into Christianity. If you never get baptized, you’re yet another heathen soul.
Not only that, we’re all born into the particular paganism(s) of our ancestors. There wouldn’t be a way to be born into any other paganism, now would there?
Along the same lines, it’s a minority opinion but some Indians tell me that everyone on earth is born into the Sanatama Dharma. By definition it’s the eternal truth. There cannot be any other. Each child is born to it, and every religion on earth is some form of it. Or so goes this line of thinking.
It becomes much easier to think about the question of authentic priesthood after we’re clear about our natural status as pagans. Bear with me for a minute while I digress into some Christian theology. I think the point will become clear.
There is a Protestant idea about the priesthood of all believers. The way I learned it as a kid in the Lutheran church, all Christians hold the priesthood by virtue of their baptism. Martin Luther wrote in The Epistles of St. Peter and St. Jude: Preached and Explained that “this word priest should become as common as the word Christian” because all Christians are priests.
The thing that sets apart the professional clergy among Protestants is that they have been trained to exercise priesthood, and called by the congregation they serve to exercise priestly functions on behalf of the congregation. Any baptized Christian could, say, perform a baptism or officiate at a wedding or funeral but for the sake of good order it’s better if we let a professional do it.
Roman Catholics have a similar idea bout a priesthood of the faithful but nevertheless they set off ordained priests as a higher order. “The ministerial priesthood differs in essence from the common priesthood of the faithful because it confers a sacred power for the service of the faithful” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1592). “The sacrament of Holy Orders communicates a ‘sacred power’ which is none other than that of Christ” (Catechism, 1551). “‘In the name of the whole Church’ does not mean that priests are the delegates of the community. . . . It is because the ministerial priesthood represents Christ that it can represent the Church” (Catechism, 1553).
These differing ideas about priesthood between Protestants and Catholics are exactly on point for the debate about pagan priesthoods.
The Protestant idea of priests being called by a community and authorized by them to act in a priestly capacity is perfectly adaptable to the situation of modern pagans. It is also fully consistent with a traditional pagan world where the head of household is responsible for its ritual observances, as being consistent with the mingling of priestly and magisterial functions in societies as far apart as Rome and Iceland.
There is also an interesting footnote here. One of the boasts of the 19th German nationalists was that the Protestant Reformation was specifically successful in northern Europe because the Germanic soul had traditions of freedom and brotherhood that southern Europeans lacked. One of the proofs advanced for this idea was that the Protestants rejected the notion of priests as a higher order in favor of a model that emphasized the essential equality of believers.
There is much more to be unpacked here. For example, whether Roman Catholic ideas of priesthood correspond to something important in the traditional pagan world, and whether there would be any reason for trying to attach modern priesthoods to a Brahman caste.
- Boaz Vilallonga, “On Pagan Priesthood and Public Worship“, YouTube (Sep. 4, 2019).
- Chris Aldridge, “Becoming Hellenic and Pagan Clergy – Problems and Paths“, YouTube (Feb. 8, 2017).
- Tom Rowsell, “Jive Talk: The Role of the Pagan Priest“, Survive the Jive at YouTube (Aug. 5, 2019).
- Spirit of our Forefathers, “Reconstructing a Pagan Priesthood“, YouTube (Sept. 7, 2019).