The Gods of My Ancestors

A Beautiful Resistance: Left Sacred comes out 1 February. This essay by Anthony Rella is one of the many works featured in this edition.


“I got an image of you,” he said lying next to me. We were naked and enjoying the luminescence of limerence, those early days of high hormones, great sex, and mutual fascination. His hand passed over the length of me, not touching me, sensing my subtle body. “I think it’s a past life. You’re in ancient Egypt. You’re wearing simple clothes, like you’re a peasant.”

I’d been Pagan for about two years and was still figuring out what that meant. After years of seeking connection with spirituality through Catholicism, I’d found in Reclaiming witchcraft a welcoming, queer-affirming, ecstatic community that offered me tools and practices that were waking me up in new and powerful ways. What I continued to long for was a connection to the divine, to the Gods.

“That’s interesting,” I mused. “We all did this meditation once to our Places of Power. Mine was all black, black skies and black sands, with a giant black pyramid in it. And I was in jackal form. It seemed very Egyptian.”

Not only did it seem Egyptian, but when eventually I pushed myself to start doing actual research, I learned that the older name of Egypt, Kemet, translated as “the Black Lands.” Every time I went back to that Place of Power, I saw images of Anubis: hearts growing on trees, jackals.

A few months after the bedtime vision with my lover, I took another trance and met Anubis, who said, “I’m waiting for you.” I’d been waiting for a God to “claim” me, assuming that’s how it worked, and still it took me a while to get what Anubis was trying to tell me: the Netjeru had been waiting for me all along, giving me gigantic flashing neon signs pointing in Their direction, but it would be my job to follow the signs.

Part of my confusion and unwillingness to answer the call came from not knowing “which” gods I was “supposed” to honor. Some liberal and conservative pagans suggested I should start by “honoring the gods of your ancestors.”

The Delta of Many Legacies

I am a white man. My known ancestry is German, Irish, and Italian with some Sicilian. My paternal Italian and Sicilian ancestors were the most recent to come to the United States during the early twentieth century. My grandparents were the first generation to be born in the United States. My grandfather enlisted to fight in World War II. Fortunately for him the war was coming to a close, so he was deployed to Germany to oversee the postwar peace process. There he became interested in German culture and tried to learn the language. He’d tell us about the women who laughed at him when he mispronounced “Ich heisse” (My name is) as “Ich scheisse” (I shit). Much later in life, after retirement, my grandparents traveled to Germany and Austria, and grandpa ended up president of his local German club.

Their son, my dad, grew up in New York and Connecticut, as most Italian-Americans do, but decided to go to college in Indiana. As an adult, now knowing Indiana and New York, I do not understand his choice, but I get the urge to branch out from your family for a time. There he met and ended up with my mother, an Irish-German-American who grew up in Indiana.

On her side, we have records of the German family in the United States going back to the 1700s. At one point they were Pennsylvania Dutch, so for a long time I thought that meant we had Dutch ancestors too. Apparently it’s a misnomer. They were actually Deutsch which is German for “German.” United States whiteness mutated their language and names, as it does. The family ended up owning farmland in northern Indiana in a town with a road still named after them. My grandfather from that lineage grew up Lutheran but converted to Catholicism for my Irish grandmother, herself a Maloney, a surname translated as “descendent of a servant of the Church.”

My mother’s father, too, served in World War II, though his fortune was quite different. He was deployed to the Pacific to fight the Japanese and involved in Iwo Jima. Our grandmother told us a story about being at a party while the men were deployed, during which they broke plates because they had been made in Japan. My grandfather returned with several hallmarks of post-traumatic stress disorder and rarely spoke of his experience. Unlike my other grandfather’s expansive relationship with culture, my mother’s parents had an insular nativism and unquestioned prejudices against nonwhite people, freely using bigoted language even when it shocked my generation.

Catholicism gave my parents common ground, though Irish and Italian Catholicisms are quite different. Irish Catholicism brings a lot of the influences we negatively associate with Catholicism in terms of severity and denial of the body and sexuality, though it also evokes a high level of mysticism and awareness of the spiritual dimensions of reality. Italian Catholics seem far more about the culture, the pageantry, and the rituals that unite. In my experience, Italian Catholics listened to the guidance of their priests, bishops, and the Pope; then, they went to do whatever the hell they wanted; then, they came back for Confession and called it good.

The God of my recent ancestors has been Jehovah, the Christian God. My immediate ancestors prayed for the dead and honored a version of the divine feminine in Mary. Some of them believed that God, Mary, and Satan truly walk this earth at times, intervening directly in our lives. Some of them believe that Mary blesses her faithful, turning their rosaries gold to signify their devotion. Yet how could I honor a God whose churches said I was objectively disordered and living in sin as a gay man, whose teachings seemed increasingly out of alignment with my own truth? Yet if I did not honor that God, how could I feel at home with my family, who prays the rosary together in times of great need and crisis? These days, when Pagans and Polytheists say to “Worship the gods of your ancestors,” most seem to include an unspoken parenthesis of “(except the Abrahamic one).”

Heritage, Seeking, and the Gods

I’d not had a particular interest in Egypt outside of my childhood, when I loved all the stories of the old gods. For one school project, I did a report in which I listed all the Norse gods I could find and what they were “god of,” which I understand now is oversimplified and problematic but I was ten and not as wise at the time. The Greek myths, the Graeco-Roman overlaps, the stories of Christianity all intrigued me. As a baby witch trying to connect to ancestry, I looked to the Celtic, Norse, and Roman pantheons and myths to see if any of those Gods were interested in me. My community honored Brigid during Imbolc, and I felt a friendly affinity toward her. Another community that I worked with has a deep relationship with the Norse, but Freya and her kin seemed uninterested in me.

Roman religion was of a distant, intellectual curiosity, more for the questions it raised than the practices and deities associated. The Roman religion included practices of empire, in which distant gods were uprooted and brought to the capitol to ensure the empire’s dominion over its outlying people. Gods whose lineages, teachings, and practices originated across the known world, reaching back even to Egypt, worshipping Isis, an Egyptian Netjeru who became exalted upon the world stage. Indeed, images of Isis nursing her infant Horus preceded or perhaps inspired later images of Mary with her infant Jesus.

The more I thought about it, the less it made sense to me to think I had any idea who the Gods of my ancestors were. Given shifting migratory, economic, and political histories, I couldn’t say for sure that I don’t have any ancestors that trace back to Egypt. Or maybe my soul reincarnated from a past life in which it was dedicated to the Netjeru.

At this point I’m less concerned about the explanatory models. I simply know these are the Gods who call to my soul, to whom I am called, and studying what I can of Kemetic history and practice inspires and nourishes me. What concerns me more is the need to argue with these explanatory models and teachings that ended up having little to do with my experience.

The other unspoken parenthesis comes into play when white Pagans talk about people of color working with their ancestral practices. Some white pagans think that if you have any Black, Native, Asian, or Pacific Islander heritage then “the gods of your ancestors” absolutely cannot be the European ones. As though the descendants of slaves, who were forcibly brought to this continent and experienced years of servitude and sexual violence by white masters that produced children, have no genetic lineage to Europe! This has nothing to do with spirituality and everything to do with a false attachment to ethnic “purity,” a whiteness so fragile that any known drop of other ancestry pulls it out of the realm of whiteness. My father’s sister has two kids with a Black man. Though we share the same Italian-Sicilian grandparents, would a white Pagan counsel them to study Italian witchcraft?

My Italian and my Irish ancestors were only granted access to whiteness relatively recently. Italians were subject to racism and lynching even into the earliest twentieth century.1 The Irish experienced racial discrimination and oppression for years in the United States, until they were able to leverage white supremacy and political influence at the expense of people of color.2

I recognize, and get reminded when I forget, that I must humble myself in study and contemplation of a world and society for which I have little understanding. The Two Lands thrived for millennia, its remains still standing strong, but the teachings and ways of its people are very little like the life I have in the Pacific Northwest today. The Netjeru were as much entities of place as they are connected to the larger principles of life, the cosmos, and humanity. The inundation of the Nile is distant, I cannot comprehend its significance in a deep and direct way.

Transforming the Legacy of Whiteness

Not long after I began my courtship with Anubis, my father and his wife went to Italy so he could immerse himself in the language and research our family heritage. My sister and I were able to visit him in Florence. I marveled at walking the same streets as Dante Aligheri. Perhaps I even walked the same streets as my ancestors, though the ones we knew of came from small towns. At the Baptistery of San Giovanni, my sister was surprised when I pointed out the Zodiac imagery painted in its interior. The same Zodiac whose symbols have been found inscribed in Kemetic sarcophagi, symbols whose roots go back to Babylon. Inside the neighboring Duomo, we lit candles and knelt in prayer. I knelt awkwardly, the old prayers feeling a poor fit in my mouth, but I knew I was in the house of the God of my ancestors.

“Dear God, I’m not happy with you,” I prayed. “Your priests don’t think much of me. But if you care for my family, then I will honor you for that.”

After a few minutes I felt myself soften and begin to offer gratitude and respect for what I could. As much as I can bad-talk the Christian God and that religion’s impact on my life, I’d never felt like I was at war with Him so much as with His followers. I sensed a beam of spiritual energy touching my heart, emanating from the altar. It was not a conversion or a moment of divine ecstasy; it was a rapprochement. I felt we were at peace with each other.

Looking at the depictions of saints and holy beings around me, noticing their own halos, I wondered if my Work wasn’t so different from that of my Catholic ancestors and relatives. In my core witchcraft practice, we have a notion of what we call Self-possession, when the God Soul descends to permanently and immanently connect with the body and other parts of soul. Descriptions of this are of a sphere surrounding and intersecting the top and back of the head.

Here I am, though, being problematic again. As a white inheritor of Western culture, I’ve also gotten its legacy of attempting to erase difference and find some universal, transcendent culture that I can adhere to. This makes me more likely to look at foreign contexts and project my biases onto them, rather than humble myself to their difference.

And cultural purity is a bizarre concept. It defies millennia of documented exchanges and migrations. It defies how culture works, how it gets transmitted and transformed and reformed. How it becomes imprinted on the body, created through the body, transforms the body, but is not the body. A person who identifies as white in the United States has no claim to cultural purity. Whiteness is not an ethnic heritage. Whiteness is not a country of origin from which our ancestral practices, language, religion, clothing, and art emerged. Whiteness is a culture, insofar as it prescribes us to speak, act, believe, and dress in particular ways. It punishes those of us who do not conform, all the while trying to pass itself off as an apolitical universal norm. Cultural purity in the hands of whiteness is another weapon against people of color.

Whiteness is a culture, however, that has devoured its host mothers and become a parasitic monster that consumes other cultures, erases their origins, and then produces inferior products that it claims are its own invention. Yet whiteness insists upon its own superiority, the innate rightness of its economic and military supremacy. To honor the boundaries of other cultures, to humble ourselves to their difference and desires to differentiate themselves, is a resistance to whiteness and healing from white supremacy. It is a difficult labor of decolonization, one I struggle with often.

I have racist, sexist, and homophobic ancestors. I do them no disrespect by naming this. It simply is. They are also ancestors who served others, sought Truth, and reached beyond the limits of their cultures to build friendships. They are ancestors who ventured beyond the bounds of the known to enter new lands. I have ancestors who were human beings, who danced and sang and made love and hurt each other. What I don’t have are racially or culturally “pure” ancestors. So I honor the Gods of my ancestors of blood and spirit, all of them, all who care about humanity and our place in the cosmos.


1 See Guzman’s “The New Orleans Eleven: The Untold History of the Lynching of Italians in America,” and note that this does not mean Italians went through racial discrimination equivalent to Black or Native people: http://www.globalresearch.ca/the-new-orleans-eleven-the-untold-history-of-the-lynching-of-italians-in-america/5372379
2 Please read How the Irish Became White by Noel Ignatiev


Anthony Rella

09lowresAnthony Rella is a witch, writer, and psychotherapist living in Seattle, Washington. Anthony is a student and mentor of Morningstar Mystery School, and has studied and practiced witchcraft since starting in the Reclaiming tradition in 2005.


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On Hierarchy

By Anthony Rella

“The notion of natural hierarchies is very problematic, and it hides the fact that hierarchies are created through power and political process.” 

from Confronting the New Right

I wish to explore this statement further, drawing out places where I agree and disagree with the position taken in that information page, specifically with regards to hierarchy. Critics have taken issue with this passage and its adjacent question about the hierarchy of a forest, pointing to naturally occurring hierarchies among animal packs and king trees in forests. I offer this as a contemplation on hierarchy.

The Evolution of “Hierarchy”

The concept of hierarchy originated in relationship with the sacred, and a particular individual or group who facilitated the relationship between the Gods and the people. In a comment responding to John Beckett’s “Guilt by Association,” Polytheist Ruadhán J McElroy states that the root of the word is “the Hellenic Hierarkhas, meaning ‘the leader of sacred rites’.” Consulting the dictionary, the word breaks down to the roots of hieros (sacred) and arckēs (ruler). In contemporary English we tend to say “priest” and “priestess” for these roles, but I have no doubt the Hierarkhas is a role with distinctions from contemporary understandings of priesthood.

McElroy and others suggest that attacking hierarchy, therefore, is an attack on polytheism itself. These days I do not know whether I fit into the Polytheist movement, but as a witch and a Pagan I have spent much time contemplating the problems with, and inevitability of, hierarchy. Firstly I think it needs to be conceded that, whatever the origins of the word, the definition of hierarchy as most English speakers understand it today is very different. If we do not acknowledge this, then I think we willfully speak past each other in arguments about it. “Hierarchy” has developed troubling connotations that are worth acknowledging if we are to lift up what is useful and affirming about those original meanings.

During the Renaissance, Christian Europeans looked to the beliefs and thought of pre-Christian culture to renew their societies. (That sounds relevant, doesn’t it?) Christianity made love to NeoPlatonism and birthed a notion called “The Great Chain of Being.” According to this, all existence is arranged “in hierarchical order from the barest type of existence to the ens perfectissimum, or God.” That which was closest to the Christian God had the greatest amount of holiness; that which was furthest away was the more depraved matter, with the Devil as nadir to God’s apex. These hierarchies applied to classes and qualities of beings as well, so all is ranked.

Great_Chain_of_Being_2For harmony to exist, according to this conception, that which is closer to the Christian God must rule over that which is further from. Combined with prevailing assumptions of the times, this meant reason should rule over unreason, humans over beasts, men over women, and the “Divine Ruler” over inferior humanity. To rebel against the divine ruler was thus not only politically dangerous but a grave sin against the Christian God and the natural order. I understand this to be a key distinction from the notion of sacral kingship in other polytheist cultures, in which rebellion against the king’s rule is a sign of disfavor from the Gods, that the ruler has failed to uphold their role and obligations.

One important observation from this piece of history is what happens when religious doctrine aligns with and reinforces political structures, obscuring human-centric political structures with divine trappings. Politics and religion seem to be in a constant ongoing dialectic. In Christian traditions, governments employ their teachings and practices to validate and bolster oppressive political structures (slavery, segregation, patriarchal control of women, queer oppression), while those challenging and opposing those structures draw upon the same traditions to produce liberation theologies. There is a tension for me, as a person drawn to studying Kemetic traditions and reconciling my democratic bias with its vision of sacral rulership.

Why am I talking about Christianity? I think it pertains to an unstated question: why do we use the word “hierarchy” when we mean “any system of leadership in a group” or “a stratified group where there’s people on top and people on the bottom”? We have so many -archy words that could describe a social arrangement in which someone’s in the lead and someone’s not. I think the broader English-speaking Western cultures have retained “hierarchy” because of its connotations that the people in top are or should be superior to those below. Culturally we still hold the fantasy that if “the right people” were in charge things would be “better.” W.E.B. Du Bois, for example, believed “the talented ten percent” of the Black community could liberate the whole.

What qualities in theory signify superiority? Intelligence, strength, pragmatism, ruthlessness, charm, merit, family lineage, accruing wealth, spiritual attainment? And what qualities in practice actually allow people to rise to the top?

Unpacking the Rhetoric of “Natural Hierarchy”

Does hierarchy occur in nature? With regards to social differentiation and power differentials, yes these things occur. Honey bees have specialized roles in a regimented social structure. Primate communities demonstrate dominance hierarchies. Perhaps what makes humans unique is our ability to choose how we structure our hierarchies and our capacity to envision egalitarian relationships. The rhetoric of “natural hierarchy” becomes dangerous when yoked to a story of inherent superiority for a particular species, person, family, ethnicity, or racial group.

When Western discourse began to differentiate science, politics, and religion, the notion of hierarchy as divine ladder from inferior to superior transferred into secular thinking. Scientific racism justified political oppression through studying the skulls, intelligence quotients, and other behaviors of racial groups; claiming that there is a racial hierarchy arising from innate evolutionary advantages and disadvantages; and dismissing any possibility that unequal treatment and oppression could be part of perceived disparities.

[Since this publication is frequently charged with being anti-science, I want to be clear that I am pointing to the ways that scientific inquiry and understanding is not immune from being shaped by cultural and political biases. That does not invalidate science as a discipline that produces important knowledge and technology, capable of also challenging cultural and political bias. Please note that what I am saying about science is parallel to what I have said about religion vis a vis its relationship to politics.]

This has had enormous, painful consequences for people of color and indigenous communities in the United States. Government programs forcibly separated indigenous children from their families, sending them to school to learn “superior” ways of being. Politicians and authorities cite “innate” criminality and low intelligence to justify poorly funding schools that serve largely Black students, enormous disparities in the enforcement of law, mass incarceration, and police brutality against people of color. Queer people have had to fight, and continue to fight, against accusations of being “unnatural” to get the healthcare we need—including the historical failure to act against the AIDS epidemic and the struggles for trans and intersex people to receive competent, dignified care. When it comes to human politics, those wishing to sustain the status quo will obscure political structures and social biases by using the rhetoric of “natural” social hierarchy.

Darwin’s theory of evolution laid a challenge to anthropocentric worldview of humans being the inevitable and clear “superior” being upon earth. One way of understanding evolutionary theory is that life, all life, strives for survival in a harsh environment with limited resources. Mutations that work improve the species’ ability to thrive and reproduce. In this way, humans succeed in their ability to adapt to a variety of harsh environments, manage disease, and improve birth outcomes; as do many other species. One well-documented model is the competition between species, “survival of the fittest,” but collaboration and symbiosis are also successful survival strategies. The bacteria that live in our guts have improved their survival success by becoming necessary to us. Dogs and cats and several species of plants have also improved their survival rates through their usefulness to humans.

That decentering of humanity I think has been very difficult for the Western ego to accept, and the belief in an innate “natural” social hierarchy has persisted in social and political rhetoric for some time. If we do not have the Great Chain of Being as a frame for our thinking, there is no intrinsic superiority of a human to a bacterium. Indeed we would be in very bad shape as a species if our gut bacteria rebelled and became toxic, or the animals that pollinate our crops died off.

Mexican_Wolf_Pack_(12033414114)As far as superiority among animal groups, the way animals develop and enact those arrangements continue to be studied and questioned. Wolf researcher L. David Mech was once formerly a proponent of the “alpha wolf” conception of wolf packs, but now believes that wolf packs more closely resemble families, with the “leaders” being the breeding parents. The Queen Bee has biological distinctions that make her suited for her job, and not for the job that the other bee groups do. The hive depends upon her, and she depends upon her workers. Interdependency, not superiority.

Reconsidering Hierarchical Relationships as “Doings” Versus “Beings”

All this said, I do not see it as desirable or possible to eliminate stratification and leadership in human communities. In my early witch days in Reclaiming, I fell in love with the ideas of nonhierarchical communities and each of us being our own authority, every person in community having equal voice. Coming from a religion in which I felt spurned and marginalized, this felt empowering and exciting. Eventually, I grew to feel at odds with it.

I want to step back and give honor and respect to my Reclaiming teachers and peers and those who are still passionately engaging in building community. I think their work is a needed project, striving to empower and include as many voices as possible and find ways to create sustainable community. Reclaiming taught me a great deal and instilled in me a sense of ethics and community orientation that is still very much a part of my view of the world. Where I disagree now, and the conclusions I’ve come to about community and hierarchy, emerge from my relationship Reclaiming values.

I observed in myself and my community an aversion to leaders with a lack of clear boundaries around who was in and not in community. Communities may function with one or the other, but both seemed to cause stuck and toxic dynamics. We were in constant debates, decisions, and revisions of the decisions. It was difficult to move forward.

During one discussion surrounding yet-another community restructuring effort attempting to address concerns, one person said that we had to change our ways because “People out there hate us.” That statement caused me to begin asking the questions that led to me walking away from that process: What people? What do they hate about us? How could we address their concerns if we don’t know what they are? Why aren’t they coming to our open meetings in which anyone can participate in shaping community? If they aren’t willing to do that, then why are we trying to address their concerns? There is little you can do with “I hate your community,” and even less with “Someone out there hates your community.”

This led me to a paradox about community, represented by two conflicting truths:

  • Everyone has a unique perspective that has innate worth and is a necessary facet of the wholeness of the world.
  • When it comes to making decisions, we have to decide whose opinions matter and whose do not.

I believe every community and movement, each of us individually, would do well to reckon with the implications of this paradox and come to some resolution. I do not believe in perfect, unproblematic solutions. Everything we do will be open to legitimate criticism. If we make decisions without considering contrary or dissenting views, we become brittle despots.

It is impossible, however, to make a decision if all opinions have equal weight. Amy Schumer has a skit about birth control in which she has to ask almost every man she knows (and doesn’t know) if they think she should get a prescription. It is a hilarious satire of patriarchy’s control of women’s health issues and a great illustration of the problem of the second truth. If we want to build communities, for example, that value and include people of color and queer people, then their opinions must hold greater weight than the opinions of those who would exclude them.

When I struggled in Reclaiming, a peer pointed me toward an article by Jo Freeman, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.” This article about the women’s movement, first presented in 1970, lays out a clear critique of “structureless” groups that extends toward “nonhierarchical” groups. I would recommend reading it in entirety, but here is a relevant excerpt:

Contrary to what we would like to believe, there is no such thing as a structureless group. Any group of people of whatever nature that comes together for any length of time for any purpose will inevitably structure itself in some fashion. … This means that to strive for a structureless group is as useful, and as deceptive, as to aim at an “objective” news story, “value-free” social science, or a “free” economy. A “laissez faire” group is about as realistic as a “laissez faire” society; the idea becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others. … “[L]aissez faire” philosophy did not prevent the economically powerful from establishing control over wages, prices, and distribution of goods; it only prevented the government from doing so. … As long as the structure of the group is informal, the rules of how decisions are made are known only to a few and awareness of power is limited to those who know the rules. Those who do not know the rules and are not chosen for initiation must remain in confusion, or suffer from paranoid delusions that something is happening of which they are not quite aware.

Freemen suggests that social hierarchies inevitably form as certain individuals or groups acquire power within the group, particularly when there is no process to openly name and bring accountability to power. A group that believes its own myth of structurelessness will be impaired in its ability to address power abuses, or constantly caught in drama as these dynamics form, get attacked, dissolve, and reform. The question is whether we make the process of structure forming explicit and accountable to the group or keep it covert, invisible, and beyond accountability.

Another text that informed my thinking comes from Cynthia Jones of Diana’s Grove, an organization that wrestled with the joys and challenges of implementing Reclaiming values in a sustainable organization. In their 2005 document, The Bones of Mystery School, Jones writes of hierarchy in an article entitled “Myths About Power, Community, and Being Hero-Less. I would recommend this in its entirety as well. It interlinks with Freemen’s critique of structurelessness in pointing out how the creation of hierarchy is inevitable:

“Another natural law: all groups have leaders. A group without a leader will be lead by the person with the strongest agenda, the most pressing issue, the most charismatic personality, or the person who is most able to take action.”

Those with the loudest voices control the narrative, particularly when bolstered by socioeconomic and political power. The rest have to find a place within it.

Jones speaks to how people unwilling to claim their own power will create structures to yield power to another, a paternal figure who has the answers. We see this in the United States political arena, in which Presidential candidates become imbued with mythic power as the ones who can bring all the change, revolution, or comforting fascist tyranny we desire, permitting us to divest ourselves of the responsibility to participate. When it turns out they’re human, we get to become disappointed and cynical.

Power is amoral and distributed relative to the needs and values of a group. A person considered powerful in my small witchcraft community may not be so powerful in the larger society, because my community has different values and needs. Allowing group process to work through these issues organically seems wonderful, up until those in power develop structures to retain and bolster their power.

If leaders and hierarchies emerge no matter what, then in my opinion it is best to be intentional. That means acknowledging that they are political constructs created by humans. As I write this, I want to reframe the notion of “hierarchy” from a ladder of superiority or sacredness to rather be a ladder of power and influence. Thus, again, “hierarchy” seems less and less useful of a term and something like “kyriarchy” much closer to the truth. Either way, how can we create leadership structures that serve a thriving community?

Jones argues that a leader’s responsibilities in a group are to:

  • “Uphold the group’s intention for being together. 
  • Create healthy and inclusive structures, structures that enable each person in the group to have a place in the group.
  • Uphold the group’s agreements. 
  • Assure the safety for all group members.”

In my view, all of these fall under the leader’s role to hold the container of the group. This includes knowing who is in and out of the group, and whose voice has more weight. The complaint of someone invested in the group should have a different weight than the complaint of random person commenting on the Internet.

What I want to be conscious of is essentializing rhetoric around hierarchy that erases the political process that contributes to its formation and maintenance. The High Priestess and the Sacral King are roles that human beings perform for a specific purpose. Sovereignty does not inhere in a human being, it arises from what is invested in the leader by the community and, for some, the Gods.

This brings up the limitations and problems with all manner of our historical myths about hierarchy. Aristocracy, for example, posits that there are particular families or ethnic groups with innate superiority, uniquely suited to being the ruling class. We see in history that believing literally in this myth leads to inbreeding, which ironically weakens the genetic legacy of the family and increases the likelihood of illness and the expression of genetic disorders. Meritocracy seems like a great idea so long as everyone in every generation begins from the same baseline, but we see very quickly how the children of the middle and upper classes have access to the training and resources they need to stay at their class level, no matter if they have “less” intelligence and drive than those with less access.

I am not active in Kemetic reconstructionist religion, so I cannot speak to how those communities work with these issues. As a person engaged in my own study of Kemeticism, however, I see a history of intertwined politics and religion. Both Heru and Set are depicted as sacral rulers, sometimes each acting as opposing pillars to uphold Ma’at. When Heru challenges Set’s claim to the throne, the Netjeru have a lively debate over whose claim has validity. They argue, they entreat, they take sides. Atum endorses Set, while Neith goes for Heru. The two compete through passionate entreaty, deception, debate, gathering allies, and ultimately violence… dare I say “politics”?

Structures of power in human communities may be inevitable, but I do not see that they can be separate from human politics. If we ground ourselves in egalitarianism, a sense that all beings have equal worth and dignity, then we can remember that our leaders are humans, perhaps with skills and relationships that we do not have, but someone we can still question and argue with. We can have leaders of sacred rites doing necessary work for community and the Gods, and that person may not be the right person to help the community pay its bills, rent ritual spaces, or manage media relations. We can have hierarchical structures and roles to step into and out of as needed rather than essentialized beings who are intrinsically superior. We can have specialization and interdependency.

Bless the Bees!


Anthony Rella

09LowResAnthony Rella is a witch, writer, and therapist living in Seattle, Washington. Anthony is a student and mentor of Morningstar Mystery School, and has studied and practiced witchcraft since starting in the Reclaiming tradition in 2005. Professionally, he is a psychotherapist working full-time for a community health agency and part-time in private practice.


 

Anthony Rella’s essay, The Soul is a Site of Liberation was published in A Beautiful Resistance: Everything We Already Are. Copies are still available, as well as pre-orders and subscriptions for the next issue!