Silence is traditionally part of some Pagan practices, and forms part of the guidance of some forms of Wicca and witchcraft, as part of the advice “To know, to dare, to will and to keep silent”.
While there are many reasons for silence that are legitimate either within a particular tradition (especially one deriving from the Mystery School traditions where certain initatory rites are kept secret), or in some societies without religious freedom, I feel that there are some areas where the traditional injunction to silence is at best unhelpful and at worst injurious to individuals and Paganism as a wider whole.
Please note that I am not talking here about silent meditation, prayer or contemplation, which are of course valuable spiritual practices, nor about shutting up when listening to others’ experiences, which is just good manners.
The first, and perhaps most obvious issue with silence, is the danger of cults. Silence, the injunction to not divulge anything of the cult’s activities or even existence to non-members, is a commonplace tactic used to isolate people from friends, families and wider society and ensure their complete dependence on the cult. These sorts of commands to silence often come with a call for the member to have complete faith and confidence in the cult’s leadership and wisdom, slurs against non-members as being too vulgar, worldly or sinful to hear the cult’s message and implicit or explicit threats of punishment and exile for those who break them. Such forms of isolation, censorship and internal control are listed as cult signs in the Advanced Bonewits Cult Danger Evaluation Framework created by Druid and ADF founder Isaac Bonewits.
In Paganism, where organisations can be self-created and have no regulation (which for the most part is a good thing, don’t get me wrong), this can be a fertile field for cult-like activity, with self-appointed High Priests, Chiefs or Archdruids holding unelected positions of absolute authority over their members and dispensing “secret wisdom” from on high.
Thankfully, this activity is rare, but it is worth being aware of and watching out for, and any injunction to silence always raises red flags in my mind.
The other way silence can be used negatively is to suppress public displays of Paganism and/or dissenting political opinions. Georgina at the Green Hedge Druid makes this point in her post about the recent “witch” protests in the USA and around the world (read the whole thing, it’s important).
Many people, unfortunately many within the Pagan community, voiced the opinion that these public forms of Pagan, or at least Pagan-influenced, protest should have been done in silence, behind closed doors. Often, this criticism was couched in terms of wanting to “protect” other Pagans who may face persecution by association with the protestors. Yet, ultimately, it boils down to a command for others to shut up, sit down and not make a fuss in public, even as a legitimate and effective form of political protest.
And when addressed primarily to women who identify in some way with the symbolic reality of the Witch as an empowered figure to make change in the world, it’s a “get back in the kitchen” argument dripping with misogyny.
This call to silence effectively oppresses an already oppressed group by taking their voice away from them. It rings uncomfortable bells that remind me of those who claim to have no problem with the LGBT community, if only they weren’t so open about it and kept it to themselves. Why should they?
As Georgina writes:
“Surely we have spent so much of our lives, and those who came before us, hiding away from persecution and sometimes death. By coming out and being public with their paganism (or just representing the ideas), these protesters have not only drawn attention to the fact that witches do actually still exist (even though many would wish that weren’t true) but that they’re bloody angry about the injustices being dealt out by the current leader of their country. I would be more concerned if pagans weren’t coming out and protesting.”
Silence will not change anything.
Silence allows the oppressive system to continue oppressing.
Silence disenfranchises the disenfranchised.
Silence is complicity.
And silence will not save you.
Perhaps instead of “to be silent” now is the time, maybe more than ever, to know, to dare, to will, and to speak out.
To speak out against injustice and oppression. To speak out, and be “out” as a Pagan. To speak, to add your voice to the wider conversation, to share a distinctly Pagan perspective on issues such as social justice, environmentalism, human rights etc.
There were no doubt times in the past when silence was the most appropriate thing to do as a Pagan, and, the way things are going, there well may be again. But I don’t think now is that time.
It’s not always easy to speak out, and I still get scared about what people might think about me if they “found out” that I am Pagan. I’m certainly not suggesting everyone needs to be loud and proud all the time in all situations. Sometimes, it is not appropriate, such as in the workplace, for example. And some people have social anxiety (I do!) that means they can’t always be as open as they would like to be and do most of their Pagan-ing from a computer.
This is OK too, but please let’s not try to shame those who are open and vocal into silence. The first rule of Pagan Club is not, in fact, don’t talk about Pagan Club. I think that public displays of Pagan, or Pagan-influenced, practices is a great thing, and opens discussion while showing people that, hey, we exist, and we have rights too.
What do you think? Is silence part of your tradition, and if so why?