Are self-given titles valid? | John Beckett


I saw a great question and conversation on a friend’s Facebook pate last weekend. It’s locked for friends only, so I can’t access it, but I can pitch the question and then give my opinion on it. Because I have a few.

Ursa Sylvest asked this question:

I have seen posts in different groups debating whether to claim a spiritual title for oneself. I wonder what is the opinion of my local community on claiming title? I have a few opinions myself, especially when it comes to culture-specific titles that don’t apply to most people raised in the US, like “shaman”.

Do you have a title by which you refer to yourself? Was it given to you by your community or did you ask for it?

I don’t trust titles. Some people are obsessed with getting them, either through outside nomination or by claiming them for themselves. Some people are more concerned with putting another line on their badge than actually performing the duties associated with the title.

I’m more concerned with what I do than what you call me. I only claim two titles: Druid and Priest. The other words I use to describe myself are part of my religious and spiritual identity – they are descriptors rather than titles.

Still, titles can be meaningful and useful if used correctly.

Your identity – not a title – is who you are

Much of the desire for titles is actually a desire for identity – to understand who and what you are.

“Who am I?” is one of those eternal philosophical and metaphysical questions that each of us must wrestle with. If we don’t struggle with this, we’re likely to accept the identity imposed on us by the dominant society – and that’s rarely a good thing.

In 2018 I wrote about paganism as an orientation. If you look at where, how, and when I grew up, you’d think I’d be some kind of Christian. Or if I rejected it, an atheist. But I’m a heathen, and being a heathen is part of who I am. The same goes for being a polytheist, animist, magician and all other elements of my religious and spiritual practice.

But these are descriptors, not titles. Their value comes from embodying them in your life, not having them as a label.

Focus on work

As you begin to explore the depths of your religious and spiritual identities, you will begin to encounter titles: Priest, Soothsayer, Sorcerer, Hedge Witch, High Priestess, Shaman, and many more. These are not identities, they are roles. These are job descriptions. And the need – for our communities and for ourselves as individuals – is to get the job done.

Different traditions have slightly different job descriptions for the “priest”, but in general, a priest 1) serves his God or gods, 2) serves as a mediator for his god or gods, and 3) serves his co-religionists. Do you want to be a priest? Then focus on those things.

Byron Ballard says if you want to know who the High Priestess is, find out who sweeps the floor and locks up the building at the end of the night. The older I get, the harder it is, but I’m almost always part of the group that’s the last to leave after a ritual. It is part of my obligations, whether I have a title or not.

There is more than that. Priesthood is a formal relationship that involves callings, oaths, and commitments. But if you want to call yourself a priest – or any other religious title – focus on what priests do.

Titles are earned

Honesty is one of the most important virtues. Don’t pretend to be something you’re not.

Are you doing the work? Does what you do match the job description? Are your skills adequate in all areas of responsibility?

Some titles can only be obtained in a specific way and can only be awarded by certain organizations and authorities. I could gather all the necessary items and recite Mass in Latin every morning and I still wouldn’t be a Catholic priest.

This is especially true when talking about titles that are closely associated with specific traditions and cultures. The word “shaman” traced its origins back to the Tunguskan people of Siberia. It now generally means “spiritual worker in an indigenous tradition” – although most indigenous traditions have their own words for their spiritual workers.

But if you’re not doing spiritual work in an indigenous context, then you’re not a shaman – you haven’t earned that title.

If you do then you are

There’s something to be said for “fake it until you make it”. I refused to call myself a priest during my first years of practice – I didn’t feel like I deserved the title. But I functioned as a priest on a regular basis – I didn’t let the lack of a title prevent me from doing the work that needed to be done. Then, when I was spiritually ready to take priesthood vows at Cernunnos, I already had the technical skills to do the job.

Our dominant culture places too much emphasis on certification. Among other things, we use college degrees as cultural selection tools when they have little relevance to a job description. That’s another rant for another time. What’s relevant here is that too many pagans and other spiritually non-traditional people feel like they have to have a title before they can do the job.

It’s upside down. To do work. The title will come in time.

And when it does – whether from yourself, an outside authority, or a group – then you can claim it with confidence.

do what a priest does – Beltane 2022

Understand the title you claim

What does it mean to be a priest or a shaman or a druid or a person who has another religious title?

What is the job description?

What do people with these titles do?

In what context are they doing it?

Too many people claim a title without understanding what it is. They just wanna be thisso the call themselves this, without questioning whether it suits them or not. Do research and study first – and self-reflection.

The worst I’ve seen is when someone chooses a word in a language that seems exotic to them – sometimes Latin, sometimes Irish (which is a living language) – and says “that’s what I am”. Even if they choose a relevant word, it has no real connection to what they do or who speaks that language. It just sounds cool.

If you feel the need to come up with a title to describe what you do, you probably need to do a lot more research on your tradition and a lot more reading about comparative religions. And then choose a word in your own language.

Self-given titles have no authority

Around the world, titles often come with authority. The elected head of OBOD has near absolute authority over matters concerning the structure and program of the Order. The Archdruid of ADF has much more limited authority, but still has considerable power within a democratic organization. The authority of the two chiefs comes from their Orders and exists only within these Orders.

Self-given titles have no authority beyond the person claiming them. You’d think it would be obvious, but I’ve met a lot of people who act as if, because they call themselves priests or priestesses, everyone should defer to them. It doesn’t work that way.

So, are self-given titles valid?

For me, it boils down to one simple thing: do the actions match the words?

Do you do the things that other people with this title do, and do you do them with an appropriate degree of skill and commitment? Do you do them in a comparable context?

If the answer is yes, then the title is valid.

If the answer is no, then it probably isn’t.

If a self-assigned title gives someone the confidence they need to take on new or additional responsibilities, that’s a good thing. If he recognizes that someone is already doing the work, that’s a good thing.

If it gives someone an excuse for narcissistic and controlling behavior, then that’s a bad thing.

Focus on work. The titles will take care of themselves.


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