Unsolitary

Eric O. Scott —  March 15, 2013 — 20 Comments
Picture taken in my parents' kitchen.

The banner of Coven Pleiades.

We are chanting, waiting for Lorelei to appear:

Full moon shining bright, midnight on the water
O! Aradia, Diana’s silver daughters

If Coven Pleiades, the Wiccan group I was born into, had only one song, it would be this one. We sing it, our voices growing loud enough to fill my parents’ house with the force of our love, loud enough to fill the dark space where Lorelei waits, her hands bound, her eyes covered, her body naked. This is her initiation ritual, the first we have held in several years – the first, I think, since my own second degree.

It’s also the first time I’ve seen an initiation from the other side of the blindfold. It’s a bit like being backstage at a play, or a magic show. I am part of a large cast, performing a show for an audience of one. When Lorelei appears, she will be set on a path beset by obstacles, a sharp and thorny forest filled with the howls of beasts. And of course, we are those beasts and brambles, both her path and the things that block her from it.

The priest, my father, goes to retrieve Lorelei from the underworld. She arrives at the edge of the circle, nervous, but ready.

“What is your name, child of the Goddess?” asks my mother, assuming the form of the White Goddess.

“Lorelei,” she says, formally adopting this as her Craft name.

“And what do you bring with you?” asks the Goddess.

“Perfect love and perfect trust,” says Lorelei.

Thus she brings the traditional wages of initiation, ready for us to offer her the bargain that they might buy.

***

Lorelei’s initiation happened the Saturday after Pantheacon. I had begun to recover by that point – returning to a soulless office job will do that for you – but still, I felt like a changed person. I had gone through a lot, been exposed to many things I had never seen within Pleiades.

Several people have told me that it was a brave act for me to come to a big event like Pantheacon alone. This was always said with the unspoken but obvious afterthought, “brave, and perhaps foolish.” I had nobody there to pull me back if I went too deep, nobody to ensure I, to use both a drug analogy and a play on words, didn’t have a bad trip. I can see how, had I been a slightly different person, or things have gone a slightly different way, I could have been overwhelmed by the experience, left broken by it. This is not to say that I made no friends at Pantheacon; the first thing I did when I got off the plane, in fact, was to meet the people who would become the dramatis personae of my weekend. But many of those folks were exactly the people luring me into new experiences, for which I might not have had the appropriate mental defenses.

This company of two thousand Pagans taught me much about solitude, and its value. I learned of my own need for loneliness in the times I had to withdraw to the quiet of my hotel room for an hour to escape the crowd. I learned more firmly about the things I could accept into my practice and the things that I couldn’t. And I learned that, sad to say, I’m really just not cut out for 1 AM hospitality suite parties. (Sorry, guys.)

On the last day of the convention, I went to Teo Bishop’s presentation on the Solitary Druid Fellowship. Compared to much of Pantheacon, it felt mellow and contemplative: just an audience, seated in the round, with Teo standing in the middle, spinning back and forth to face each of us in turn.

If I am being honest, I didn’t go to this workshop because I thought it would be particularly interesting to me. It was, after all, addressed to solitary members of the ADF, and I was neither of those. But I was more interested than I thought I would be. Teo knows how to tell a story.

In this one, he described the special needs of a solitary Pagan, reflecting the greater needs of that particular umbrella by describing what he needed in his own practice. He brought in his personal history – his past life as an Episcopalian, his current life within ADF, his love of liturgy and the Book of Common Prayer. He told us of the challenges of solitary practice – the feelings of loneliness, of personal motivation, of being disconnected from a greater religious practice. And he brought in the advantages of solitude – contemplation, personal direction, the opportunity for great work within the body of the individual practitioner.

I had never considered that being solitary could work out to one’s advantage, myself, so this last part came as a surprise – but I saw the possibilities as soon as Teo mentioned them. He had a point. Like many of the great ideas I have encountered in my life, I immediately recognized this one’s worth. Also like many of those great ideas, I recognized pretty quickly that it wasn’t meant for me.

Yet it made me think about my own practice, and how it related to the things Teo was talking about – the benefits and the consequences of being so ingrained into a group.

In my mind, the coven – or, to be more accurate, my coven, Pleiades – is the fundamental unit of religion. (Let me emphasize the words in my mind, lest you think I’m prescribing a course of action that I believe everyone must follow. You, as you have likely noticed by now, are not me.) The dynamic of the group is the basic energy which powers Wicca for me, and as our composition and focus changes, so does the religion. While I have explored and practiced several other forms of Paganism – Taoism, Kabbalism, a long courtship with Asatru – my mind always returns to Pleiades, which, to me, is Wicca itself.

This is a source of great strength, for within the group I find my teachers, who have guided me in my explorations of life and magick. Here I find my elders, who have watched me grow up, whose relationships with me have been a constant evolution. And here I find the people to whom my magick is directed, the people who assure me that my practice has a purpose beyond myself.

And this is a source of great trouble, too, because the relationships within a coven are not stable things. People move away, fall in love, break up, fall out. Even if those changes have nothing to do with our rituals, they still reverberate throughout our circle, like concentric waves in a pond once a rock has been thrown in. If those waves are violent enough, they can threaten the existence of the coven’s very existence; I suspect more covens have been destroyed by such forces than survived them.

To me, it’s worth the heartache. A good coven is a family, after all, and every family is a source of both sorrow and solace. That’s the bargain we make, and most of us, I think, find it a worthwhile one. For me, Pleiades isn’t even that old saw, a “family of choice” – I didn’t choose them. They’re simply family, as much as a family of blood or law.

***

The main business of the initiation has concluded. Lorelei has taken off her blindfold, had her hands released, slipped her robe back onto her body. She has been told the secrets, which I will not speak here. Now we sit, drinking wine and munching on cakes. We are talking – mostly about the ritual, giving Lorelei congratulations and presents. (I, in typical fashion, left my present in the car, so it will have to wait until later.) But we also talk about mundane things. We crack jokes. We talk about the present and the past. The name for the act is communion, after all. And here we are, a coven, communicating.

At one point, my dad clears his throat and speaks. “In a lot of groups, initiation means that you are a Witch. It’s a title you get by going through the ritual. Here, we don’t do that. Whether  you call yourself a Witch or not, that’s not for us to say – that’s between you and your gods.” He smiles at Lorelei. “For us, initiation means that now, you are our Witch. That you belong to us, and we belong to you.”

I have belonged to Pleiades since long before I was initiated, since I was in the womb. I am an unsolitary Pagan; I don’t really know any other way to do it. They are the the path and destination, the actors and the audience. While I stumble through the darkness of life, they are the ones stretching out their hands to mine. They guide me – and I guide them – on our eternal journey to our destination, our source, our home.

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Eric O. Scott

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Eric O. Scott was raised by witches. He is a staff writer for The Wild Hunt and a contributing editor at Killing the Buddha. He won the Moon Books prize for Best Pagan Fiction Writer Under 30 in 2012. His first book, The Lives of the Apostates, was published in 2013. He received his MFA in Fiction and Creative Nonfiction from the University of Missouri - Kansas City in 2010, and is currently a PHD student in Creative Nonfiction and Medieval Studies at the University of Missouri - Columbia. His middle name is not "Odin."
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  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    I like your dad’s take on initiation.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ezelnio Erin Zelnio

    Having never been to Pantheacon myself, I’m interested why you got the impression people thought you were foolish for attending. Is there some kind of exclusionary culture going on there?

    • http://twitter.com/ericoscott Eric Scott

      Foolish for attending *alone.* It’s just a big place. Nothing exclusionary about it.

  • Kilmrnock

    I my freind have been on both sides , solitary pagan and grove/coven membership . My path has morphed to a CR faith .Altho solitary practice can be and was beneficial , i prefer group practice . The Celtic Wiccan coven i was a member of self destructed badly , as many do.After that event i got deeper into Celtic studies and a warrior path . I now belong to an ADF grove and ADF. But i like the comeroddery , fellowship and power of a group ritual and familiarity of a group , Grove in my case .

  • cernowain greenman

    I spoke with a young woman recently who moved away from the area of the country her coven was in. She is now having a hard time since she has been living here. Most of the covens here (including the one I belong to) are not taking new members. I suggested some of the open groups here, like PNO and CUUPS, but (in my experience) they do not have the same sense of belonging and support that a coven can. Since she has been a high priestess in the past, I believe she may start her own coven once she gets settled in.

    I have been a solitary in the past and there are some benefits to that– such as being able to visit events held by others on the sabbats; and the good feeling that several groups are inviting you to join them; and staying home on an esbat when you feel like it.

    Like this astute article says, there are pros and cons to the solitary life. But I am grateful for what I have being blessed to belong to a coven.

    • http://about.me/CosettePaneque Cosette Paneque

      I’m in a similar boat. I was a solitary for a long time before I found the right coven and that changed everything for me. I was a member of that amazing magickal family for about six or seven years until my recent move to Australia, where the Pagan community is very, very different. It’s been difficult adjusting to being a solitary again and, quite frankly, I don’t like it. In any spiritual path, the real work happens internally, in a solitary way of sorts, but there’s nothing like the sharing, the learning, and the challenges that come with a magickal group.

  • Cat C-B

    This memory fills me with such tenderness! I’ve been initiated and I’ve given initiations… and been solitary, too, for that matter.

    Beyond simply enjoying the evocation of memories that make me smile, I think that I share with you, Eric, an appreciation for the ways that the contrasts have informed my understanding of what it means to be Pagan. The contrasts between a closed, initiatory group and a large Pagan gathering… between a solitary perspective (even second-hand!) and coven work. There is something about edges… about work at the edges, that enriches everything.

    Thanks for this.

  • RowanRose

    Treasure what you have. Having grown up the way you describe only to be berift of all of them within five years due to accident, disease and old age, and becoming solitary not by choice in a time when being out was dangerous in the extreme, I find myself wishing I had paid attention and valued what I was part of more while I had it. With age comes wisdom I suppose.

  • Kris Hughes

    I am solitary by circumstance, not by choice, and I found your post very affirming. I already know it is possible to have a somewhat fulfilling practice as a solitary, and this will be a strength I will always carry, however you also affirm what I “feel in my waters” that the give and take required within a group can be worth it!

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    I like your thoughts here, Eric! (And, if I didn’t say it before enough, it was great to meet you and spend some time with you at PantheaCon!)
    I find myself, despite being “solitary” for huge stretches of the year, so that it is almost a default setting for me in terms of practicality and reality of contextual practice, to not really have ever considered myself a “solitary” properly. There are people within my community to whom I am connected at all times, and who share my practices, and with whom I dialogue on a regular basis. Though I may be performing 9/10 of my rituals by myself at my home shrine, there are others out there who are also doing similar things at similar times, and we are in solidarity with one another.
    So, I think that it very much depends on how one understands “solitary”–if there is a kind of “solitary federation,” as Teo is organizing/creating, then it is really “solitary” completely? I would wonder how useful it is to focus on one aspect of one’s practice and to define all else by that particular detail. It wouldn’t be very useful to say that there should be a “Skyclad Federation,” for example, because many people do that in a variety of traditions, and they may not end up having much in common. It would be an interesting and useful discussion to have, I think, therefore, on what truly constitutes a “solitary” path, because I suspect it is much more than doing the majority of one’s practices on one’s own.

    • http://twitter.com/ericoscott Eric Scott

      It’s definitely got some gray area. I was about to suggest the main element of solitary practice was that one’s devotions were self-defined, as opposed to being constructed through the guidelines of a shared group… But then, of course, Teo’s own practice is based on ADF structure, and he is a self-defined solitary. I’m not sure what the border is between the shared group and the overarching community organization, especially for non-initiatory groups. (If you aren’t a member of ADF, but you go out to three or so local ADF rituals a year, do you still think of yourself as solitary?)

      As is my wont, I’m not that interested in forming a single definition, here – self-definition being the fundamental human right in my eyes. But I am certainly interested in hearing about how people grapple with their own self-definition.

      • Baruch Dreamstalker

        Spiritual experience affects different people in different ways. Perhaps some folks light up more in the social part of the brain, and others more in the pathfinding part.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lauren.devoe.1 Lauren DeVoe

    It’s so nice to see someone appreciate Kenny’s music…for anyone who would like to hear it in full – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GAzzngdWq6E

    • http://www.facebook.com/rua.lupa Rua Lupa

      First I’ve heard it, and really really liked it. My little one was dancing around to it as I listened which says a lot :)

      • http://twitter.com/ericoscott Eric Scott

        I don’t think “Aradia” is an original of Kenny’s; we haven’t significantly altered our initiation ritual in about 30 years, and “Aradia” is older than our coven. I think it’s one of Z Budapest’s, originally? I honestly don’t know.

        • http://www.facebook.com/lauren.devoe.1 Lauren DeVoe

          According to Kenny, he wrote this one in the 80’s, while he was still married to Tziporah. This probably came out around 83, when he and Tziporah did what most consider to have been the first ritual done entirely in song. (This is one of the things that Blue Star is known for). You can hear the original recording if you youtube “Moon Hooves in the Sand”.

          • http://twitter.com/ericoscott Eric Scott

            Neat! Thanks for the info.

  • http://www.facebook.com/rua.lupa Rua Lupa

    Beautiful piece. It was a joy to read. Thank you for sharing your story

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