Plastic Swords and Pentacles: Chivalry and the Rearing of Pagan Boys

This article is by Sara Reeder, and was first published in Green Egg, Nov-Dec 1999. Sara Reeder is a Faery priestess and frequent contributor to Green Egg. She lives in Northern California with her family.

It can be found at the page here:

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The great glass doors leading into the bank are heavy. They take a lot of strength to push; even healthy adults like me pick up speed on approach, gathering enough force to hit the wide bar with a solid shove. Elders and disabled folks find them daunting, even with two hands pushing. They're treacherous, too: as hard as they are to open, they fall closed again with a rapid whoosh that has caught almost everyone in town in a startling near-miss at one time or another.

Yet there he is, out on the sidewalk several feet in front of me, racing ahead to throw all his eager forty-two pounds against the intractable doors. "I got it, Mom!" my son sings merrily, leaning into the struggle with both arms extended over his head, palms imprinting the glass, body at a forty-five degree angle to the ground. I reach him, and stop. "That door is really heavy. Are you sure you don't want a hand?"

"Nooooo! I GOT it!" A few people have now gathered on both sides of the door, watching in amusement or impatience as this four-year-old platinum-haired mite struggles on valiantly for several more seconds, his face reddening with effort. At last, the door cracks open, and then - huzzah! - it yields. He races to the open edge, holds it securely, and stands aside with a flourish. "Mom goes first," he tells the assembled masses firmly - though he proudly waits for everyone to pass through before letting it fall closed again.

We have repeated this performance a thousand times in the two years since Kiernan first learned to open doors. Now, at six and a half, with the first hints of the lanky, broad-shouldered man he will become beginning to appear, he does it without thinking, without strain. In another few years, it will be as much a part of him as "please" and "thank you." He's also learned all the protocol that goes with it: Mom goes first, unless Grandma's around, in which case she goes first. Next comes his sister, and then the adult men. Age before youth, women before men; he knows it all by heart.

As you might imagine, we've gotten a fair amount of comment about this bizarre bit of public theater, mostly from older folks who are amazed to see a modern child being trained in the fine old social rituals. They coo and fuss over him, telling him what a young gentleman he is, while he beams in the glow of their attention. Other people, mostly closer to my age, just stare at him in mute shock - and then at me, in wonder. But their thoughts are patent on their surprised faces, and a few have even asked me outright: What would possess a right-thinking, ardently feminist 21st century mother to teach her son such a (fill in the blank: quaint, archaic, anachronistic, paternalistic, silly) custom as opening a woman's door?

The short answer, which is still not short enough to spout out while standing in a rapidly-closing doorway, is that in these old customs and small actions he will find the seeds from which his spiritual, ethical, and social development - indeed, his identity as a Pagan male - will proceed. The long answer is the meat of this article: an argument that the revival and study of chivalry should be an integral part of the raising of Pagan sons.

Why Chivalry?

A big part of Pagan parenthood is communicating our unique worldview to our kids, helping them internalize and integrate it into their thinking as they grow. Unfortunately, as a minority religion, we don't have a lot of cultural support in this. Our children don't grow up watching people on TV matter-of-factly get ready for Sabbats, sing Maying songs, or build altars in their homes. We can't just run into Barnes & Noble and find shelves full of books on our holidays, let alone ones that talk about why Rhyannon has two moms and three dads. A lot of the media is still hostile to our beliefs, fundamentalist rage toward us is gathering, and schools call our children Satanists and forbid them to wear their silver pentacles.

Even cowan parents are having a hard time raising sons these days, though. Many of my son's playmates are being raised by "feminist" mothers who are terrified by the warm, masculine energy that burns brightly in the fierce hearts and robust bodies of their sons. When Kiernan organizes an impromptu footrace down to the far fence, or leads the pack in a group assault on the climbing tree, they sniff, "I don't let my son play like that," and direct their boy to the sandbox for more "civilized" fun. No toy guns or plastic swords for their kids (give my son a doll, and he'll find a way to turn it into a weapon); no roughhousing, no running, no yelling, not even at the park. If you allow them to act like yahoos for even five minutes, the reasoning goes, they'll turn into macho, woman-beating jerks who will never again have a lick of self-control. And if you ask them, they'd tell you that my wild child (the same one who says "Ladies first" and brings the girls in the group flowers) is Exhibit A in support of that belief.

But I can't take that path. I'm raising a tough, exuberant little guy who is counting on us to help him become a glorious, strong, manly man. Squelching all that wonderful energy would do him no favors; he's got it, it's his magick, and our job is to teach him to harness and use it. I needed a new model of manhood that moves beyond the equally useless patriarchal-macho-*bleep* (which denies male emotion) and sensitive-new-age-guy (which denies male power). So what's a mother to do?

This one did what neo-Pagans have always done: I reached back into the past, into the musty old ancestral closet, to find something that might guide me in raising a healthy, happy son in these complicated times.

What I found there was a rich legacy of books: ancient volumes of Robin Hood and King Arthur, The Three Musketeers and Rob Roy. There were Hornblower and Ivanhoe, leather-bound collections of Norse Sagas, boxes of Superman comics, stacks and stacks of brittle Zane Grey paperbacks. On top of the heap were some books by Joseph Campbell, telling me how all this applied to society and religion in modern times; and a collection of Indiana Jones and Star Wars videos, showing me how Campbell's ideas play out in today's culture.

I realized that I had found priceless treasure - jewels that sparkled with mesmerizing intensity in the sapphire eyes of my young son. What they all had in common was the element that he found viscerally engaging: they were all tales of chivalry, stories of men (and women, too) who found the best in themselves when they put their lives into service of a larger ideal. On further reflection, with Campbell as a guide, I realized that this was a useful model of Pagan manhood that I could build on.

A Brief History of Chivalry

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the Catholic Church was finally closing its iron fist around Europe. Though Pagan worship was still rampant in the remote country villages, everyone and everything that mattered - kings, courts, cities, universities, and armies - were firmly in thrall to the Pope. For everyone else, it was only a matter of time.

At this same moment, and almost certainly not by coincidence, the cult of Mary rose up from the church's grass roots. The Goddess was still alive, and magic was certainly afoot - but it was increasingly dangerous to visit her in the grove at the full moon. And besides, it was no longer necessary, because the local priest had gotten a clue and built a shrine to her right behind the altar at the local parish church - in fact, right where that grove used to stand.

Though the cult of Mary was almost certainly a PR gesture aimed at those who weren't going to give up their Goddess without a fight, introducing the Divine Feminine into what had heretofore been an all-male club created far-reaching political and social changes both inside and outside the Church. One of the most dramatic side effects was the great Gothic cathedral building boom that enveloped Europe for three hundred years. (Most of these churches were built on Pagan sacred sites; and almost all of them are dedicated to Our Lady.) Another was the cult of chivalry, which rose directly out of Marianist goddess worship.

For the first time in the Christian Era, chivalry encouraged European men to embrace the feminine - to seek the ineffable, mystical union with the Beloved Other, the Holy Grail of romantic and spiritual love. Where the love of women had always been seen as a diabolical trap for the unwary soul, it was now elevated into a pure and worthy form of spiritual discipline. By putting themselves in highly ritualized, formal service to Mary's earthly avatars - protecting and providing for them, performing great deeds and creating great beauty in their honor - men could serve Mary herself. Though this new version of romance was sanitized of any sexual overtones (the ideal romantic relationship was never consumated, as Mary remained ever a virgin), it still stands as the closest European Christianity ever came to embracing the Goddess - and a noble and worthy source of ideals for parents to tap into.

The Beloved Other and The Search for Meaning

In looking at the heroes and archetypes that have shaped so many generations of men, and reflecting on the long and remarkable persistence of chivalry as a Western ideal, one central theme emerges: the importance of the Beloved Other to a man's identity. When men are able to commit their singular strength and energy to the service of something or somebody outside themselves, they bloom into graceful, compassionate warriors capable of joining with others in "power-with" relationships to create awesome good. The search for this personal Grail has led men through the centuries to join armies; write love songs; build great temples; place themselves before oppressors with guns, fire hoses, and bulldozers; and grow into husbands, fathers, breadwinners, and elders who shone as beacons for the younger men who came behind them.

Conversely, when that male strength, power, courage, and intelligence are not channeled toward a larger purpose, the desire for "power-over" emerges, and young men's most honorable attributes fester into frustration, violence, and social pathology. The results are everywhere around us: gang warfare, fraternity hazing, brutal work environments, and the recent rash of high school shootings. In searching for this lost sense of purpose - and the identity it would give them - our young men turn their energies back against themselves, each other, and our culture.

While many will certainly want to argue this point with me, I think it's possible that there may be no higher calling for a Pagan man than to provide the Goddess of his choice with the resources she needs -- love, money, land, food, rest, protection, comfort, etc. etc. - to do her best work. This is reflected in our images of Pagan men as hunters, warriors, providers, protectors, lovers, and nurturers; and we see this loving commitment in gods from every corner of the planet: Herne, Tyr, Apollo, Dionysus, Cernnunos, Raven and Maui. Like the tales of chivalry, they tell us that in most times and places, a man's primary form of worship and greatest source of meaning is to be in service to his beloved family, his tribe or nation, or the Goddess herself.

What separates the men from the boys, in the end, is the willingness to make that commitment to the Beloved Other, and the ability to make whatever sacrifices that commitment entails. Every screwed-up young man I've ever known got that way because he was missing this sense of purpose -- and unscrewed himself when he finally found it.

As a mother, this realization opened up a firm, steady path. Chivalry offered me a model of manhood that honors my son's ancestral roots, celebrates his masculinity, teaches him compassion, and leads him to embrace the Goddess in all her forms. It was everything I needed, and then some.

Chivalry for the Millennium Generation

While some of the trappings of chivalry are no longer readily at hand any more - jousting classes are expensive, Merlin has retired from elementary school teaching, and chain mail (though practical) is no longer considered fashionable campus attire - our culture still offers us some vestigal ways to teach our young Pagan princes the important lessons of chivalry.

Happily, our sons can be counted on to lead the way, because the basic principles seem to be coded right into their testosterone. Most boys find the archetypes of chivalry almost enchanting in their resonance. In true American fashion, the modern-day images comes in 57 varieties - but whether the preferred flavor is Zorro, Batman, or the Skywalker family, the ideal of the courtly warrior who devotes his life to excellence, justice, and right action seems to seize almost all boys right in the gut. The flaming desire to become your best self, and to test that best while creating greater good for all, becomes an unsurpassed parenting tool in the hands of a parent who fully understands and supports what's happening.

In training my own son, I've found that the lessons tend to fall into one of four categories: The Science of Etiquette, the Arts of Defense, the Example of Heroes, and the Service of the Goddess.

The Science of Etiquette

About ten years ago, Ms. Magazine reviewed the available childrearing books, seeking the one that offered the best guidance for feminist parents. The winner, unexpectedly, was "Miss Manners' Guide to Rearing Perfect Children," which I would heartily recommend as a starting place to any Pagan parent serious about raising a chivalrous son. Because, strange as it sounds, I believe that spiritual education begins with good manners. They are the simple, experiential knowledge base that teaches the rich philosophical underpinnings of chivalry.

Take the three Magic Words: "Please," "Thank You," and "You're Welcome." A lot of people are confused by my emphatic vigilance in demanding these from my children: why make such a big fuss about a few little words? Easy. I make that fuss because I'm not just teaching words: I'm teaching an entire philosophy of life.

"Please" is a recognition that the world doesn't owe you anything; that there is a loving mercy at work whenever someone else shares their resources with you; and that you understand and honor your benefactor's boundaries, as well as the fact of his or her gift. "Thank you" is the fundamental expression of gratitude - whether it's to Mommy for giving you a plate of cookies, or Mother Gaia for sustaining your every breath. "You're welcome" is a gracious statement that you are willing to share whatever you have whenever your own needs and boundaries permit, and thus participate in the quid quo pro of community life. And learning this coded language of service, honor, and gratitude in toddlerhood is the first step to feeling those things for yourself, weaving them into your habits of mind and character, and finally using them as the foundation of your adult spirituality.

Traditional etiquette has taken a hard beating the past few decades. Early feminists were particularly critical of it, and for good reason: chivalry has too often been the velvet glove that sheathed the iron fist of patriarchy. But many of those old customs hold deep, important messages that our children need to hear, for their spiritual health depends on them. For example, the message of the door-opening ritual is not that Mom can't open her own doors; it's that my son is strong and useful, and that there is great honor and satisfaction in using that strength to aid those he loves. In the dailiness of these gestures, he is learning, literally at his mother's knee, an attitude of gentlemanly deference and respect that will eventually lead to reverence for the Goddess that lives in each woman - and for the Goddess who is mother of us all.

It should also make him really popular with girls.

The Arts of Defense

In most times and places, human males have been creatures of competition and hierarchy. Steeped in testosterone, they are probably hardwired to be willing to fight and die to feed or defend the women and children they love. This willingness to sacrifice life and limb is reflected in our Pagan gods - a lusty, rowdy, masculine bunch who are fertile and powerful, passionate in love, valiant in the hunt, and breathtakingly brave as they perform heroic deeds for the benefit of humanity, or willingly die each year to feed us. This exuberant, aggressive fire is essential to the soul of a Pagan man.

Unfortunately, we live in an age when bringing home meat or defending the homestead - two traditional ways young men once put their aggressive urges to work for the tribal good - are no longer valued. In the absence of acceptable outlets (sports are a pale imitation of the very real services youths used to provide), they turn their impulses on themselves and each other, creating twisted and destructive rituals in which to vent their frustration and anger. Horrified by these perversions, we find it easier to suppress and deny the underlying impulses - nip 'em in the bud! - than to teach our sons mastery of that ferocious strength and energy, and help them find ways to put it to good use.

But I don't believe we can, or should, train the competitive, aggressive, energetic impulses completely out of our sons. It is both foolish and cruel to try, a denial of a basic instinct that has been key to our species' success. All the gentle men I've ever known were men who had already proven to their own satisfaction, one way or another, that they could hold their own in the world without resorting to violence. Part of this was a quiet confidence that they COULD succeed if violence were required to preserve their loved ones; part of it was mastery of other skills that ensured this wouldn't be necessary.

Boys-becoming-men need arenas in which they can test their own strength and skill, instruction in how to channel them appropriately, and time to find their own way toward the luxury of gentleness. Martial arts training will be a cardinal part of my son's growth in this area. I also plan to give him a full complement of useful life skills that will let him use his strength and speed to good advantage: backpacking, fencing, bike and horseback riding, gardening and landscaping, fishing and (yes) hunting. Together, these activities should teach him the satisfaction of using his physical prowess to create good, useful, valuable things for himself and those he loves.

The Example of Heroes

A boy whose gentleness proceeds from his physical and spiritual strength will seldom feel vulnerable; and should thus have the confidence to choose his own role models, instead of unquestioningly accepting the dubious ones offered up by the media and his peers. With this kind of internal centering, he will also have more power to choose when and how he will participate in the hierarchical status games that so many men just rush into blindly. This alone should make him a much nicer, more thoughtful man (I hope).

But chivalry, like so many things, begins in the home. While I might insist on the basic behaviors, and reward the acts, it is the example of the men of my clan and tribe - his father, stepfather, grandfathers, uncles, and adult male friends - that assures my son that this is an appropriately masculine path. He also knows that he will be accountable to them if he should attempt to stray too far off of it, for they are the ones who will define what is "manly" in his mind.

This is why I appreciate the strangers - especially the male strangers - who fuss a little over my son's "gentlemanly" behavior, the store clerks who also insist on "please" and "thanks," and the members of the CAW tribe who take a moment to savor a rock or leaf with him. When one is young, heroes come in all forms; and when you connect with them in respectful relationships, you come to know that there is a hero that lives inside you, too.

Since we live in a culture where boys don't often see much of adult men, well-chosen books and videos can fill in a part of the gap. My son's video library contains every Robin Hood movie we've been able to scrounge, from Errol Flynn to Kevin Costner. They are gathering dust now that the new Hornblower series is out on tape; these have also supplanted both the old and new Zorros as Saturday morning favorites. His bedroom shelves are similarly filled with books of true and fictional heroes, which are popular parts of the bedtime repertoire. These books and movies provide us with endless teachable moments: "Why was that the right thing to do? What would have been the easier path for him to take? What makes the bad guy a bad guy? What makes our hero better? How does he take care of his friends? How do you think he learned to do such an amazing thing?" In a world where heroes are too often without moral bearings or basic decency, these examples of true character offer our sons a higher standard, a tried-and-true way of being in the world that will allow their best to shine through (even if they can't do all the stunts).

Much has been written about Pagan coming-of-age rituals, and I believe that the archetypal Hero's Journey as outlined by Joseph Campbell provides an excellent outline for staging such rituals for boys. The tests should be important, tangible ones with real-world implications: a beach cleaned, a building built, a long-term project completed. Such preparations should also include the boy's explicit preparation for and dedication to chivalric service, and the final ritual should consumate his commitment to this service in very specific and long-term ways.

The Service of the Goddess

Traditional chivalry began to lose its moral authority when men drifted away from its central purpose: supporting the creative work of our Mothers, great and small. (In fact, Robert A. Heinlein noted that the question "Does it serve the needs of our mothers and children?" may be the ultimate criterion for any governmental decision). This creative work is the essential purpose of civilization, and we forget it at our own peril as a species. When men honor and support this work, it greatly raises our odds of individual and collective survival; but degrading it leads to the abuses of patriarchy - the rape of women's bodies and souls, and the rape of the land that sustains us.

We goddesses need manly, powerful Pagan men who aren't afraid to love us fiercely, with all the passion of their bodies and hearts; and are ennobled, not ashamed, to make our cause (and the Goddess') their own. For my son, that journey begins by honoring Mom as the local goddess, and home as the true "real world," where women and men work in partnership do the most essential job of all: creating the culture, raising the next generation, and nurturing the community. That small boy who keeps my flower vase full, carries my packages, and struggles with doors will someday soon be a grown man, charged as we all are with the joyful but difficult work of supporting Gaia in her continued health. My fondest hope is that he finds his life's satisfaction in serving the Goddess and her children as progenitor, protector, provider, and consort, following the example of the Gods.