HUNT VALLEY, MARYLAND –When at any single Pagan conference with a robust lineup of workshops, panels, and rituals, a participant might find it difficult to choose what to attend and what to pass on. When two conferences join forces, those decisions become, at very least, four times as difficult to make. Such was the experience for 3-400 people who attended the combined Sacred Space and Between the Worlds conference in Maryland this past weekend.
These two events became one this year through a combination of cooperation and astrology. Sacred Space is an annual conference which is held around this time. Between the Worlds — not to be confused with an identically-named Midwest spiritual event — is scheduled astrologically, and like Sacred Space, takes place on the mid-Atlantic seaboard. This year, the stars aligned so that the two conferences would be in competition for attendees, speakers, and even organizers, as they have long had at least one board member in common. Instead of cannibalizing resources, the decision was made to combine the two into one whopper of an experience.
Between the Worlds won’t happen again until 2020, and it’s unlikely to ever overlap with Sacred Space again. The events have some common elements, which made the mashup manageable. Both have highly selective processes for choosing teachers, and require the content to be intermediate to advanced. Between the Worlds has handpicked teachers, while Sacred Space combines invited headliners with a proposal process designed to highlight local talent for a wider audience.
A harsh winter storm delayed many arrivals on Thursday. However, with only a few minor scheduling adjustments, the conference kept humming along. Friday and Saturday, the two full days, started with a plenary session during which a panel discussed a single topic before the bulk of the attendees. Friday’s topic was “alliances with the spirit world.” On Saturday a different panel discussed the nurturing spiritual communities.
Each panel was nearly two hours long, with a combination of debate, insight, and wit that highlighted the different perspectives of the panelists. Listening to Archdruid Kirk Thomas and respected author Diana Paxson debate why Odin seems intent on recruiting followers captured the Friday audience’s attention. Is he gathering fighters for Ragnarok, or trying to forestall it?
The next morning’s discussion on community was equally as engaging. Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki explained that for all the dysfunction in American Pagan communities, they are far more evolved than what she is familiar with in England, where, “we Brits keep a stiff upper lip,” and don’t see much value in community at all. After identifying herself as the oldest person there, Ashcroft-Nowicki said, “I’m here to learn.”
Just as the days began with a single big session, they ended with the same, but those endings couldn’t have been more different. According to Sacred Space organizer Gwendolyn Reece, both Friday’s main ritual and Saturday’s gala were largely Between the Worlds in origin. Sacred Space does not have a large, main ritual at all, and of the gala, she remarked, “Between the Worlds does that better,” in part, because it costs extra to attend, allowing for live entertainment and plenty of food.
The entertainment came in the form of Tuatha Dea, a band that set the tone by musically calling the quarters and raising the energy in the room to a pitch that was joyous, but not so intense as to be overwhelming. In addition to a deep book of original and lively tunes, this band was able to perform everything from “Whiskey in the Jar” to “White Rabbit” with panache and flair. Their work complemented a silent auction to benefit the New Alexandrian Library, which included an astounding variety of items ranging from original art to gift baskets themed around popular Pagan holidays to ritual jewelry of exquisite beauty.
The main ritual, held Friday night, was a very different kind of energy; one that highlighted the strengths of the Assembly of the Sacred Wheel. Attendees were encouraged to participate in a preparatory class, during which chants were taught and the layout of the ritual was explained through guided meditation.
The ritual itself began on time, characteristic of an organizational decision to reject “Pagan standard time” out of hand, with the doors being sealed against latecomers. The theme was one of personal transformation as expressed by the “Witch’s Pyramid.” It was built on the astrological significance of the event, which was scheduled during the seventh of a rare series of Pluto-Uranus squares that represent the deep transformation of Pluto coming together with the explosive change represented by Uranus. While much time was spent laying those foundations, when the energy did start flowing, the call to move beyond one’s comfort zone and act for change in the world was unmistakable. By the time the seals upon the ritual gates were opened, this energy could be seen burning in many an eye.
But the choices beyond those big sessions are always difficult. Preparing for possession or oracular work with Diana Paxson? The sorcerer’s tongue or journeying to the phosphorous grove with Christopher Penczak? Deepening understanding of the witch’s pyramid with Ashcroft-Nowicki, or Ivo Dominguez, Jr?
Monika Lonely Coyote tackled the difficult question of differentiating mental illness and spiritual experience in one session, and how to act as a psychopomp for a dying individual in another. There were classes on hexes, breaking curses, alchemy of breath and alchemy of sex. Kirk Thomas offered a class on sacred gifts, which discussed reciprocity with the gods and its relationship to hospitality in ancient cultures ranging from the Greek to the Irish. Byron Ballard’s “Hillfolks Hoodoo” couldn’t have been more different than T. Thorn Coyle’s idea of “Practical Magic.” However, each teacher brought deep wisdom and displayed a mastery of the craft. Dorothy Morrison offered a class on money magic that was both practical and earthy. In short, when all the choices are beyond “Grounding 101,” every decision is a difficult one to make, an opportunity cost by which one piece of knowledge is gained, and another left behind.
In that way, this idea is similar to a point that Morrison made about magic, and why she does not include “an it harm none” in her spells. She noted that all magic comes at a price.
“If you work a spell to get a job interview, someone else’s resume fell into the trash,” Morrison said. Requiring that a spell harm no one takes away its power, she observed; better to understand that no magic is without consequence. Or, as Coyle put it at one point, “You have to own it.” That’s the kind of lesson taught at this conference: very little in the world is black and white, and the burden of the adept who walks in sacred space is to take responsibility for the many gradations between the worlds.