CLEAR LAKE, Wis. — Judy Olson-Linde and Nels Linde are longtime members of the Pagan community in the Midwest U.S., and one of the things this married couple is known for are large community rituals, which they often organize at festivals such as Pagan Spirit Gathering and Sacred Harvest Festival. After 20 years of facilitating large public rituals, the couple has written a book, Taking Sacred Back, so that others may benefit from their practical experience in this area and run rituals of their own.
We caught up with Nels Linde as they were packing for Wic-Can Fest, where they will be putting their skills to use. Perhaps the most important takeaway from that conversation was that any ritual organizer needs to know the audience.
“Judy and I have worked doing community ritual, mainly at festivals and in public, for 20 years,” Linde explained. “The book is based on our experience, and documents what worked, and what didn’t work. Anyone who has been to a public or open ritual has experienced something powerfully transformative, but also has had that moment of feeling, ‘I want that hour back.’ We’re trying to provide a resource to avoid attempts that fall flat.”
One of the points that they learned the hard way, Linde said, is that rituals need a clearly defined end point. “We designed one ritual that was very powerful,” he recalled. “Everything flowed smoothly, everyone was energized, but no one knew it had ended and no one wanted to leave. It’s a good problem to have,” he said, at least in the grand scheme of things, but after watching some 200 people milling about they retooled that particular ritual. When they held it again at PSG in 2012, the roughly 800 participants didn’t have any trouble understanding when it was done.
Taking Sacred Back turns that experience of trial and error into a manual of best practices. The book breaks ritual down into its component parts and provides both examples and exercises to give the reader the opportunity to understand the principles and practice the skills. That includes discussions on the importance of rehearsing ahead of time, which for complex rituals should include some model participants so the organizers will find out if they’re going to act as predicted. Rehearsals also allow for blocking, which is the arrangement of where participants will stand and move during the ritual just as it’s done in theatrical productions.Creativity can be spurred by the restrictions imposed by the space, the purpose, or the expectations of the participants, according to Linde. “One large ritual we’ve done at our home for Samhain involves burning a large effigy,” he said by way of example. “Each year we’ve worked on that same theme, but did it differently.” The limits created by a specific tradition, the physical ability of the participants, or even the time allotted are challenges that actually drive creativity, he said.
Scaling a ritual up and down for different numbers of participants is another area of focus. “Certain activities and processes only work well with small groups of people,” Linde said, or must be adapted for larger numbers. He gave the example of pathworking, which in a small group may be done individually, but at a bigger scale might only be practical if several people undergo it simultaneously. That’s closely related to another principle they espouse, which is to eliminate idle time during ritual. “No one wants to wait around,” he said. “Always have something happening the keeps people engaged.”
These are interrelated issues in the ritual structure. An activity that’s not adapted to the scale can easily lead to the entire experience dragging, and lots of bored people waiting around for their turn. Rehearsals can expose such problems before they happen on the big night.
While the included rituals come from the couple’s own experience, Linde said that they strove to avoid shackling the book to any particular tradition, because they want it to be accessible to Pagans and polytheists of all stripes. Regardless of the gods (or lack thereof) and practices involved, the mechanics of moving people through space and time while engaging their attention are relatively stable. Linde and Olson-Linde describe themselves as eclectic Wiccans and recognize the challenge of trying to write something that would be helpful to anyone under the Pagan umbrella, or simply in its shadow.
“Even references to directions, genders, and deities can be offensive to some,” Linde said. Just as with designing a ritual, they had to keep the scope of their book’s audience in mind throughout. Due to the many rituals in which they’ve participated during their years on the Pagan festival circuit, they were able make this point clear.Linde said that he and his wife have backgrounds and skills that are complementary for ritual creation. “Judy is more the inspiration and the words, and I’m the organization and prop person.”
Props — how to use them, and how to make them without breaking the bank — are important enough a subject that an entire chapter is devoted to them. Having a team makes it possible to draw on diverse skills and perspectives, shoring up one another and strengthening the final product. Not everyone needs to be a chant writer, a carpenter, or a choreographer. “We’ve been lucky to have each other as a team,” he said.
Taking Sacred Back was published by Llewellyn in April, and received a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly. According to senior acquisitions editor Elysia Gallo, that’s a big deal.
[I]t’s always been hard to get our witchcraft or Pagan books reviewed in the first place, as the religion category includes books on all types of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and of course general spirituality, New Age spirituality, Eastern religions, and much more. Recently reviewed book topics range from spiritual decluttering to healing shame, from queerness to the Charleston church shooting; it’s a broad category. I think there is a tendency by the mainstream press to view Wicca and Paganism as secondary in status.
Gallo went on to say, “I’m always really excited to get any review in PW, but to get a starred review is outstanding for us.” While there’s no easy way to search for that particular distinction, Gallo is only aware of two other metaphysical books which made the same cut, Wicca for Beginners, Faith and Magick in the Armed Forces, and Doreen Valiente, Witch.
What captured the reviewer’s imagination is impossible to say, but it begins by referencing an evocative quote from the introduction, one which Linde provided in full.
After you have been naked in front of 150 people you no longer worry about making mistakes. Besides cementing our relationship as a ritual team, it verified an oft spoken piece of Pagan folk wisdom about ritual. If you want a powerful ritual either include a nude person or burn something. Do both and you are guaranteed success. In this one we did both.
The truth that is espoused in Taking Sacred Back is that, while that axiom may have some validity, it’s still all about the audience.