Spiritual Abuse in the Pagan And Polytheist Community

“Forbuid Bron

Sen Saobretha

Brecfásach Mbrithiom”

-from the Prophecy of the Morrigan

The Coru recently received a series of messages from someone attempting to intimidate  members of our organization by invoking the name of the Morrígan and Her sisters, the goddesses we serve, and claiming that the messages are coming straight from Them. The Coru’s members aren’t the only people to have received messages like these. Abuse, intimidation, and coercive control are recurring issues in pagan and polytheist communities, so we feel it’s worth taking some time to talk about it.

What is spiritual abuse?

“Abuse” refers to patterns of behavior that use coercive control. It uses tactics that can be mental, emotional, physical, financial, or social and which undermine a person or people’s ability to make choices about their own lives freely and without fear of being punished or harmed for doing so. It can be very subtle as well as more obvious. It’s done with the intent of expressing power or control over another, although the specific motivations can be very different between individuals and situations.

Abuse itself can manifest in a variety of ways, both physical and non-physical. It becomes spiritual abuse when faith or spiritual practice gets involved and it is used to either justify the abuse, becomes weaponized as a tool for abuse, or both. This PDF from Macha’s Justice breaks down a variety of examples in more detail; while this PDF is addressing domestic violence, many if not all of the religious abuse being described can occur outside of family and dating relationships, too.

In Pagan & Polytheist Community

Abuse can occur in any context where two or more people are interacting with one another, but the nature of the people’s relationship to one another will influence the dynamics of the abuse, the impact of the abuse on a person or people, and how we might categorize it (e.g. as police brutality, domestic violence, hate crime, elder abuse, and so on). And while abuse is not limited to any specific demographic, faith, or other characteristic, social context does influence what kinds of abuse are more likely to occur, how often, and with what kinds of rationalizations.

Generally speaking, modern revivals of European-based paganism and polytheism don’t have a central institutional authority the way “organized religions” like Christianity do. This means that while pagan communities don’t often experience the specific kinds of abuses that are unique to strict vertical hierarchies, especially those based on a theology of sin, obedience, and repentance, pagan communities are particularly vulnerable to abuses which come from the other end of the spectrum.

  • Cults of charisma: anyone who knows how to foster cult-like environments can set themselves up as a spiritual teacher offering you all the answers you’ve been looking for, especially if you’re experiencing some kind of hardship.
  • Idolization of personality: when influential pagan authors or leaders are allowed to escape accountability because their fans will jump to their defense at all times, even when the criticisms are justified. Often the central figure actively encourages this dynamic, but even when they don’t, they might refuse to address the issue with their followers, thereby making them complicit in their followers’ actions. This also includes someone claiming that they “never asked” for social influence and therefore they have no responsibility regarding that influence while simultaneously continuing to benefit from it.
  • Self-proclaimed representatives of the gods: when someone claims to have the true messages from the gods of a person, group, or community, and that they have the power to speak to others on behalf of the gods as a seer, medium, priest, or judge.

Being a self-proclaimed representative of the gods, whether or not a person has a following at the time, is particularly powerful. This behavior grabs at power by:

  1. Claiming to have the backing of an entity that the community already acknowledges as having power; 
  2. Absolves the individual of personal responsibility for their actions by shifting it to the more powerful entity in question (“It’s not me saying this, it’s the gods!”);
  3. And seeks longer-term influence by claiming special access to or skills with the aforementioned entity.

In faith communities that are wildly varying in practice, sometimes conflicting, and often confusing to newcomers, wanting to believe that someone can offer you truth is especially seductive. Who wouldn’t want to believe it’s true?

But how bad can these things really be?

Though not exhaustive, we list some of the unfortunately common ways in which cults of charisma, idolization of personality, and self-proclamation as representatives of the gods can and do inflict harm on our faith communities.

When a community is organized around a specific person or persons, you might witness or experience:

  • No one is allowed to disagree with the community leader(s)
  • Other members might insult, dogpile, harass, humiliate, stalk, assault, or otherwise attack any members who question their leader’s words, behavior, or methods
    • This behavior isn’t always explicitly encouraged by the leader(s), but they might reward this behavior with expressing approval, offering special privileges, offering access to ‘secret knowledge’
  • The community leader(s) may justify their actions by claiming that they represent the community’s gods and therefore have divine permission, which means questioning the leader(s) is the same as questioning the gods
  • The community leader(s) gets to decide which gods you can or cannot worship, which spirits you can or cannot engage with, and which beliefs or practices you can or cannot have
  • The community leader(s) dictating who you can have personal relationships with, or pressuring you to enter into or break up your personal relationships
  • Demands for financial contribution outside of normal reciprocity for service or group membership contributions 
  • Constraining freedom of movement or where a person may choose to travel, live, or work
  • The threat of being “thrown out” (basically excommunicated) of the community, which is especially effective as a threat if someone has invested a lot of emotional, social, financial, or other resources into said community

In addition to some of the elements above, additional abuses that may arise when someone claims to speak for the gods (whether or not they have a following of living humans at the time to back up their social power) include:

  • Sharing prophetic or oracular messaging without the consent of the person receiving the message
  • Urging you to ignore your own divination, mediumship, or intuition with your own gods because this person has the “true” messages you need
  • Displacing personal responsibility for the impact of their behavior on the gods, spirits, “karma,” or other belief instead
  • Justifying harmful behavior as being “necessary for your spiritual growth,” part of their “warrior’s path,” or being righteous in the name of social justice

Why are we bringing this up now?

As we mentioned at the start of this post, the Coru recently received a series of messages from someone attempting to exert coercive control over our organization and members of our organization. To protect individuals involved, we will not be sharing names, identities, or direct quotations from the messages. Because we believe these messages embody some common dynamics of spiritual abuse as described above, the claims and demands are paraphrased here:

  • Claiming to speak as the Morrígan and Her sisters Themselves and with authority over our actions as a priesthood, our oaths of service, and our personal life choices
  • Claiming to speak on behalf of Ireland itself
  • Claiming to speak on behalf of marginalized communities of color in America to which the speaker does not appear to personally share any identity, lived experience, or cultural connection
  • Ordering our priesthood to disband
  • Demanding that our sacred items be handed over to them to be destroyed
  • Claiming authority over individuals’ livelihoods and creative works, and the disposal of personal income from our labor
  • Issuing restrictions as to where individuals may or may not travel, work, or live
  • Issuing restrictions on what kinds of intimate relationships we may enter into and with whom
  • Ordering existing couples within the priesthood to separate or divorce
  • Issuing rigidly gender-based restrictions on who may worship or serve the Morrígna
  • Issuing restrictions as to which gods, spirits, or other divinities we may honor in our practices

As you can see, these demands reflect many of the coercive dynamics we described above. One might be inclined to dismiss this as simply outrageous delusion by a lone wolf, but the person who sent this seems well-connected within various popular and active online pagan groups. We have chosen to use this timely example as an opportunity to lean into education and growth.

We also know the Coru is not alone in having received messages like these. Imagine receiving a judgment like this from someone within your own spiritual community, telling you that the gods of your heart find you unworthy unless you cede your autonomy and grant this kind of control over your life choices. When someone appropriates the authority of the gods to coerce others in this way, they can cause profound wounding and damage to those they target, especially to individuals who may not have anywhere else to go to find faith community.

The messages paraphrased above may seem extreme, but this is a very real example of the stochastic effect of authoritarian social and spiritual environments where coercive behavior and religious abuse have been allowed to take root, encouraging people like this to believe that they may earn favor through coercive use of power on behalf of the group culture. It’s the behavior of someone whose environment has led them to believe that abuse of this kind will be rewarded with social approval and greater authority, even when the community leader hasn’t explicitly said so.

We don’t tolerate this kind of bullying. That’s the reason for this post: abuse needs to be addressed head-on in our communities rather than treated like a missing stair that everyone just steps around because “they’re just like that.” It’s hard to challenge this dynamic, especially when we find it being perpetuated by friends and those we admire, but accountability, when done appropriately, is itself an act of compassion. It tells a person or people that we know that they’re capable of making better choices and we care enough about them and about ourselves to hold them to that higher standard.. People operating spiritual groups must carefully attend to how we are conveying our values in the behavior we normalize, tolerate and encourage, including the Coru.

What can we do to mitigate spiritual abuse in our communities?

Every faith group and community is different in regards to their size, practices, cultural contexts, needs, and goals. There is no “one solution fits all problems” template, unfortunately. 

That said, some considerations include:

  • Being clear, honest, and explicit about the actual (rather than imagined or idealized) nature of power in the community;
  • Fostering an environment that ensures the ability for any and all individual members, regardless of newness or seniority in the community, to ask questions about power without fear of reprisal;
  • Enforcing community agreements about conduct for all members, including the person or people with the greatest amount of influence;
  • Have an established process for any and all individuals to safely address incidents of harm, harassment, or abuse, regardless of the status of the person alleged to have caused harm;
  • Have a process for leadership accountability;
  • Adopt a practice of periodic group inventory for coercive and cult dynamics. This could be an anonymized survey inviting participants to share if they have experienced coercion or infringement of their autonomy.

If you’re interested but unfamiliar with these approaches and are feeling a bit overwhelmed, don’t panic! There are resources out there designed to help with each of these considerations. Depending on your region, a helpful starting point can be contacting your local anti-violence organizations, such as a conflict resolution center, a mediation service, or a non-violence resource center, and asking if they have any recommendations for consulting with a staff person or another organization that can provide practical options for addressing the specific concerns of your own group or community. 

It’s worth noting that community accountability processes can end up causing more harm if the facilitators involved don’t have training that’s appropriate for a given situation, such as trauma-informed peer counseling skills. We recommend contacting organizations such as the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective (California Bay Area), the Barnard Center for Research on Women (online resources and education about accountability), and TransformHarm (another online resource hub) for more support if your group wants to explore alternative forms of justice. Creative Interventions, from INCITE!, offers an excellent resource for addressing interpersonal violence.

And if you’re someone who’s experiencing any of the behaviors described above, understand that you’re not alone. The fact that language exists to describe abusive dynamics at all means that it happens to people of all different backgrounds and identities, and it has nothing to do with intelligence, strength of will, or moral character: it means that someone you trust has chosen to misuse that trust. Leaving a group or community can be heart-wrenching for all sorts of reasons, but there are other communities out there which don’t misuse your trust who would be willing to welcome you.