Archives For Neopaganism

Last month The Wild Hunt asked five members of the community — Thracian polytheanimist Anomalous Thracian of the blog Thracian Exodus; Mambo Chita Tann of Sosyete Fos Fe Yo We; priestess, author, blogger, and Solar Cross Temple board member Crystal Blanton; OBOD Druid and Under the Ancient Oaks blogger John Beckett; and Ár nDraíocht Féin (ADF) Druid Rev. Sean W. Harbaugh — for their thoughts on sacrifice. The following continues the conversation with part two of that interview.

How is sacrifice separate from blood sacrifice? Does blood sacrifice include personal blood offerings or is it limited to animal sacrifice?

Anomalous Thracian

Anomalous Thracian

“Blood sacrifice is not a term that I use and I would argue it as vague and somewhat useless. Ritual bloodletting would be more appropriate in this context, if I am reading the question correctly, as it is general enough to include many things, such as: ritual cutting of one’s own flesh to create a bond or pact with a spirit; ritual cutting of a sexual partner’s flesh in a ritual or ceremony; ritual cutting of an animal (not for the purpose of killing, but for producing the essence of a specific animal’s life force); “marking” a person with your own essence under certain ritual circumstances, whether for positive (protective, warding) or negative (hostile, magically infectious) reasons. Similarly cutting one’s self to feed one’s own blood to a specific deity — exactly as you might use, say, a goat, but without an immediate death — could be considered a sacrifice, and is still generally categorizable as “bloodletting.” I would hesitate to call anything that does not involve intentional death a sacrifice, in personal use of the term, but I would consider “the feeding or offering of blood, without death, to a deity or spirit” to be a form of sacrifice when circumstances call for it. Note: In many traditions, there are HEAVY restrictions upon forms of bloodletting of this sort, as the spirits and deities in question will take this as indication that the person being bled is “food,” and they will be regarded as such.” — Anomalous Thracian, Thracian Exodus

Mambo Chita Tann

Mambo Chita Tann

“We do not ever offer human blood in Haitian Vodou, despite stereotypes to the contrary. Blood can be offered in the rituals around making animal offerings, which almost always become food for ritual participants, once the spirits have taken their share. It is possible to consider sacrifice in the sense of other offerings of great worth that are given to the spirits, such as the great amount of effort, money, resources, and time an entire Vodou sosyete will dedicate to initiation ceremonies or annual observances of special ritual, but we still do not place these offerings as being more precious or higher than the ultimate sacrifice of an animal’s life to provide protection, blessing, and sustenance for that sosyete and its members.” — Mambo Chita Tann, Sosyete Fos Fe Yo We, Haitian Vodou

Crystal Blanton

Crystal Blanton

“There are many different types of sacrifice, and it is not limited to blood sacrifice. Different traditions access this differently. I personally do not practice blood sacrifice, but I have made personal blood offerings. I honor the life force of the individual, and the power of the divine within me, adding magic in the process.” — Crystal Blanton, Daughters of Eve

 

John Beckett

John Beckett

“Blood sacrifice is a subset of sacrifice, a particular form of sacrifice. It can include personal blood offerings or it can include animal sacrifice.” — John Beckett, Under the Ancient Oaks

Rev. Sean W. Harbaugh

Rev. Sean W. Harbaugh

“Sacrifice often is confused with “blood offerings.” Blood sacrifice really doesn’t have a place in a modern Neopagan context, yet there are established cultures that still perform blood sacrifices. In a modern Druid context, sacrifices are often things such as whiskey, grains, flowers, prayers, poems, songs, and anything else that is a tangible item used to give to the gods. There are instances where Neopagans will sacrifice some of their own blood as a form of blood oath, but that is a rare instance. Killing of a live animal is another form of archaic sacrifice or offering that really is not something that is all that common in a Neopagan context. Most of us purchase our meat already slaughtered for consumption, but there are ways to offer a portion of that meat as a sacrifice in the form of the shared meal.” — Rev. Sean W. Harbaugh, Druid, Ár nDraíocht Féin (ADF)

Do modern Paganisms stand to gain anything positive from giving offerings and sacrifice to the Gods? What about blood sacrifice?

“As a Polytheist who does not really identify as a Pagan, I can’t speak for “modern Pagans.” I believe that authentic religious traditions — rather than psychological models drawing from religious terms or structures, or social movements similarly using the aesthetic of religion for artistic, activist, or community-centered reasons, etcetera — should have trained specialists who handle the navigation of sacrifices to the respective gods of said group, assuming that said gods request, require, or even accept sacrifices. Not all gods like bloodshed or death. As for “blood sacrifice,” I will take this to mean “ritual bloodletting” (as indicated above), and again say, that while I cannot speak for Modern Paganisms, I can state that magically and religiously there is great potency in these technologies which can be certainly used for ‘gaining something positive.’” — Anomalous Thracian

“Giving offerings to the gods cannot possibly be a bad thing. Like prayer and interaction with one’s religious community, I tend toward the belief that you can’t get enough of it. Giving special offerings that take effort, non-blood sacrifices, are just more of the same. I do not believe that Pagans need to give blood sacrifice unless and until they understand the context of that act, have trained personnel who can perform it for them, and have a distinct need to do it: either because they need to share ritual food, they are in a place where they need to butcher their own meat and they choose to sacralize that act by offering their food animals to the gods, or their gods demand it of them and no other options are satisfactory. Even in the last case, I still believe it is imperative and necessary for context and training to occur first. As I stated in the PantheaCon panel, I expect that most modern Pagans, living in countries where they do not have to butcher their own meat and practicing religions that have lost their connection to customs where blood sacrifice was practiced, will never need to do this, and their deities would not ask it of them as a result.” — Mambo Chita Tann

“Our relationships with the Gods dictate the value of sacrifice within a particular context. Much of what we would gain would be within the relationship itself, and that would depend on the practitioner and the God(s) in question. To make a broad, sweeping statement here about gain or loss would be devaluing to the individual and cultural relationships of varying practitioners of the craft.” — Crystal Blanton

“I have mixed feelings about blood sacrifice. On one hand, it would do us all good to get a first-hand understanding of where our food comes from and a first-hand understanding that what we are eating was itself alive only a short time ago. On the other hand, butchering animals requires skills you just don’t learn unless you grow up on a working farm and the only thing worse than not sacrificing is sacrificing clumsily – the animal should not suffer needlessly. Beyond that, I look at the community and legal problems blood sacrifice brings to some of the Afro-Caribbean religions – that’s not a battle I care to fight. But when you move beyond the issue of blood sacrifice, there is unquestionable benefit from sacrificing to the Gods. It brings us into closer relationships with Them, and it forces us to consider our relationships with food and with the non-food offerings we may be asked to give.” — John Beckett

“Absolutely, yes. We gain their blessings and we build our relationships with them through sacrifice. As far as blood sacrifice goes, in my years as a pagan and decade plus in ADF I have rarely heard it mentioned. I think we as Neopagans should focus on how we can use practical items to sacrifice in ritual, rather than trying to focus on something that is uncommon.” — Rev. Sean W. Harbaugh

Where does volition and willingness come into sacrifice?

“Pretty much everywhere. Consent is sacred at every step; consent of the person performing or contemplating the sacrifice, consent of the sacrifice itself, consent of the one who raised or produced the sacrifice, consent also of the spirit or deity in question.” — Anomalous Thracian

“Constantly. If a thing is done against one’s will, it cannot be a sacrifice, period. If a person is forced to make an offering, that is no sacrifice, it is compulsion, and no good spirit or deity accepts that as sacrifice. In Haitian Vodou and in all the other traditions I know of where animal sacrifices are performed, no one would ever offer an animal without that animal’s permission; again, to do so without it would be compulsion and would not be a proper sacrifice. Even in halal and kosher ritual, from Islam and Judaism respectively, the animal must be awake and willing to be sacrificed; it cannot be knocked out before the knife is used. This is causing some issues with animal rights activists, most recently in Denmark, for example; but the alternative, to knock an animal unconscious and then kill it, would be completely wrong in that sacrificial tradition — while it may appear to the untrained eye of an animal lover looking at a video to be “kinder” to do this, an unconscious animal is unable to give consent and thus it is both cruel and, from a sacrificial standpoint, unholy/wrong. Those who understand butchery know that there are techniques to kill an animal without pain, and all who perform halal and kosher rituals must be certified as trained.” — Mambo Chita Tann

“Volition means the act of making a decision, and willingness simply means being prepared to do something. As in all rituals, we have to properly prepare ourselves. In many traditions it means putting on special ritual clothing, setting up an altar, smudging ourselves, ritual bathing, and other things to prepare us for the act of ritual. In ritual, we decide who we are going to sacrifice to and why. We always need to enter ritual with a purpose, and we should always have a reason for sacrifice—even if it is just to build a better relationship with our gods. A ritual without a purpose is a waste of everybody’s time.” — Rev. Sean W. Harbaugh

Does volition come into play in animal sacrifice, does it matter, and if so, how is it obtained?

“Yes. There are various methods for this, from speaking with the animal directly and observing its behavior (or hearing back, if the asker can communicate with animals directly), and so forth. The ritual structure being employed should provide the structures for ascertaining this. If they do not, they should maybe be reevaluated in order to ensure that they are completely understood and trained.” — Anomalous Thracian

“In terms of how we obtain it: In Haitian Vodou, animals are raised explicitly for the purpose of food and for ritual-related food or ritual purposes where the animal cannot be eaten afterward. These animals are raised by hand, by the community that will sacrifice them. Before they are sacrificed, they are washed, decorated, and prepared by the community. They will be led into the peristyle (the Vodou temple), and presented with a number of various foods. One of these foods is chosen ahead of time as being the official sacrificial food. The animal is told what will happen, and that if it is willing to be sacrificed, that it should eat the official food to signify this. Only if the animal eats the special food will it be presented to the spirits for sacrifice. If it eats anything else first, it must be let free because it is not willing to do the work. It has been my experience that the willing animals not only go immediately to the official food, they will eat all of it, and not even touch the other food (which will be the same: for example, three identical piles of corn for a chicken). They also act like they know what is happening, and they do not fight when they are picked up by the butcher, etcetera. It is a profound experience that is observed with the greatest amount of kindness and dignity. The animal has one life, and is being willing to give it up for us — how could we be less than respectful of that?” — Mambo Chita Tann

“It would have to come into play. A person has to choose to sacrifice an animal, and that is the very definition of volition. In a Neopagan context, I find the notion of animal sacrifice not necessary except for rare exceptions.” — Rev. Sean W. Harbaugh

Should animal sacrifice have a place in modern Paganisms, reconstructionisms, and Witchcraft?

“As I am none of these things, I do not feel that it is my place to answer for them. That said I believe that animal sacrifice should have a place in any authentically lived religious tradition which has spirits or gods which request or traditionally receive such things.” — Anomalous Thracian

“Until and unless those practices have a stated need for animal sacrifice – and I believe that most of them never will – I would say no. Should that become necessary, for logistical reasons (i.e., not living in a land with easy access to food animals, refrigeration, etc.), or should the gods require it, then I would believe that those same gods would provide access to the proper context, training, and ability to do so. Vodouisants themselves have this situation. Very, very few individual Vodouisants perform animal sacrifices, and even those who do, do not do it on a daily or regular basis. In the cases where that is a necessary event, there are trained personnel that one can go to, who will perform it on your behalf. I rarely perform that act in the United States; it is simply less necessary here, given our modern conveniences when it comes to food. Even in Haiti, I do not perform it often, and in all cases, I have access to trained personnel who can help me with the sacrifices I am not trained to perform myself. Everything is community-based. Modern Paganisms would have to define the same sorts of communities before they would even know if that was something they were going to need to do. If it ever happens, I believe it would be a long time in the future.” — Mambo Chita Tann

“In general, it could have a very important place, but unless it can be done right it shouldn’t be done at all.” — John Beckett

“In most instances I do not think animal sacrifice really has a place in modern Neopaganism. I do know of a heathen farmer who raises his own pigs and ritually sacrifices one, but this is a rare situation. In a modern context, there simply are alternatives to sacrifice that are every bit as effective.” — Rev. Sean W. Harbaugh

What is the nature of sacrifice in terms of transactions between spirits, Gods, and other entities?

“Sometimes sacrifices are a form of payment. Other times they are a form of celebration. Sometimes it is a transaction, sometimes it is praise; always it is reverent.” — Anomalous Thracian

“Depending on the context and the nature of the sacrifice, the sacrifice can reinforce connections by being a thanksgiving for help that has been given; it can be made as a promise for future action; it can be given as a substitute for someone else’s life (as I mentioned above). Sacrifice can represent a total offering of the self to the deities or spirits, or it can be a payment for an expected reciprocal benefit. There is no general meaning that applies to all sacrifices from all people to all spirits or gods – each one, like its nature as a unique and special thing, has a unique and special meaning.” — Mambo Chita Tann

“The nature of sacrifice is that which defines our relationship with the gods (and Kindreds). There are many reasons for sacrifice, and that defines what exactly is being asked or expected in the transaction. Here are few types of sacrifices as our Arch Druid Kirk Thomas has discussed in his various works:

1. Transactional sacrifice is the most common form of sacrifice where the sacred object is offered, and in the nature of hospitality, a gift is given in return. The basis of ADF’s Return Flow portion of ritual is “a gift calls for a gift.” The best one can offer is given, and the blessing and gratitude from the gods is given in return. 2. Piacular Sacrifice was a common Roman offering given during ritual to ask for recompense in case the offerings given weren’t enough or good enough. It is based on the fact that humans are inherently flawed, and the offering is given to acknowledge that. This type of sacrifice is still seen in the Roman Catholic Church. 3. The appeasement sacrifice is a type of offering given to a being or god to leave you alone. It is literally the “take this and leave” offering. Generally, this type of offering is given to beings not aligned with the ritual being worked, and they are given an offering out of respect to acknowledge they exist, but they are not part of the work being performed. 4. The shared meal is a type of sacrifice where a portion of the cooked food is offered to the gods. This is a very common ancient and Neopagan practice. 5. Chaos mitigates cosmos is a type of sacrifice that uses a series of offerings to recreate the cosmos in a ritual setting. This type of sacrifice goes back into the pan Indo-European creation story of Man and Twin. Man kills Twin and Twin is dismembered to create the world and cosmos. The chaos is the unknown or Otherworld, and Man takes his place as king of the Otherworld. This type of offering is meant to recreate this, but without any actual bloodshed.” — Rev. Sean W. Harbaugh

What about relationship; how does it play into the idea of sacrifice?

“I cannot imagine giving a sacrifice without having a relationship both with the being receiving the sacrifice and the community that would benefit from it; either in the form of food/reversion of the offerings, in the benefits gained from the sacrifice, or both. One might give a random gift to a stranger, for example, but it would be unlikely that one would give a random stranger the most expensive, most wonderful thing one owned. Sacrifice is a special event in the already-existing relationship between beings.” — Mambo Chita Tann

“Sacrifice strengthens relationships: between worshipers and their Gods, and among members of a religious community.” — John Beckett

“Sacrifice is as much about building relationships with the gods as any other reason. It is an act of hospitality. When we open sacred space, we invite the Kindreds into the ritual as family and kin. That relationship is built on sharing and trust. We sacrifice to solidify our relationships and make them stronger. Sacrifice allows the gods to give us their blessings and strengthens their bond with us.” — Rev. Sean W. Harbaugh

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

1892 Lithograph depicting a somewhat exaggerated presentation of the Salem Witch Trials.

1892 Lithograph depicting a somewhat exaggerated presentation of the Salem Witch Trials.

Image of Ann Tuitt and Cornelius Jarvis. Part of a larger photograph of people serving prison sentences for obeah in the Antigua prison, 1905. TNA CO 152/287. Courtesy of The National Archives, UK

Image of Ann Tuitt and Cornelius Jarvis. Part of a larger photograph of people serving prison sentences for obeah in the Antigua prison, 1905. TNA CO 152/287. Courtesy of The National Archives, UK

  • The BBC reports on the abolishment of punishments for the practice of Obeah in Jamaica, and whether this development will lead to a resurgence of the practice. Quote: “Until recently, the practice of Obeah was punishable by flogging or imprisonment, among other penalties. The government recently abolished such colonial-era punishments, prompting calls for a decriminalisation of Obeah to follow. But Jamaica is a highly religious country. Christianity dominates nearly every aspect of life; and it is practiced everywhere from small, wooden meeting halls through to mega-churches with congregations that number in the thousands.” More on Obeah’s history, here.
  • Is Newark, New Jersey Mayor Cory Booker, a favorite to win a Senate seat for the Democratic Party, a stealth Religious Right candidate? Quote: “Cory Booker is very, very tight with the religious right wing — but he’s also very careful about what he says, since he hopes to run for president one day and cultivates strong LGBT support. The problem is, he hangs with the Dominionists […] So here’s the question: Does Cory Booker simply cultivate useful relationships with a lot of un-American, unsavory, pro-corporatist, right-wing religious extremists — or is he one of them? I can’t read his mind, but I’ve had enough of giving so-called Democrats the benefit of the doubt on this stuff.” Is this all mere speculation? Talk2Action has some more background. All I know is that the New Apostolic Reformation is bad news, and some deeper questions should be asked of Booker if he’s truly allied with them.
  • Welsh, one of the surviving Celtic languages, is in trouble. Quote: “Only half of 16 to 24-year-olds consider themselves fluent, compared with two-thirds of over 60s, and only a third of the younger generation use Welsh with their friends In the language’s stronghold of Carmarthenshire there were five electoral areas where more than 70% of the people spoke Welsh in 2001, now there are none. The statistics have led to calls to protect the language, and 84 per cent of people indicated that they would welcome the chance to use it more.” The article notes that living next to a “language superpower” makes preservation difficult. Let’s hope things don’t get as bleak as it once did for Cornish
  • Practicing Witchcraft isn’t actually legal grounds to have your children taken away, no matter how much some would wish it to be so. Quote: “‘Nobody was able to articulate specific crimes associated with the ideology,’ wrote one officer. ‘Nobody on scene was able to articulate specific reasons (to remove the daughter) besides the religious views of the (boyfriend). All parties were advised that religion was constitutionally protected.'” 
  • The Pew Forum asked various religious leaders about the morality of life extension, and while they didn’t talk to any Pagans, they do interview Unitarian-Universalist, Hindu, and Buddhist leaders. Quote: “According to Michael Hogue, associate professor of theology at Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, a Statement of Conscience on life extension ‘would probably come down [against it].’ Opposition would likely stem from ‘ecological concerns as well as concerns about economic justice,’ he says, referring to the environmental impact of faster population growth and the possibility that only the wealthy would be able to afford life-extension therapies.” Hindus, on the other hand, maybe be OK with life extension. Quote: “According to Arvind Sharma, a professor of comparative religion at McGill University in Montreal who has written about Hinduism and life extension. ‘The normal blessing in Hinduism is ‘Live long.’ So why not live longer?’ he says.” 

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

Kinship and community

Stacey Lawless —  March 22, 2013 — 31 Comments

Although I came back from Pantheacon with lots of anecdotes and experiences (most of which were extremely positive and fun), I find that the only story I have to tell you right now is one I didn’t want to tell. It won’t leave me alone, however. It’s just this: I had a dreadful time with the Morrígan devotional ritual, “The Heart is the Only Nation.” I know many people who attended absolutely loved it. Teo Bishop, in particular, seems to have been deeply affected by it, and I envy him. I went to the devotional hoping to be moved by it. I guess I was, although not in the way I wanted.

It’s a quirk of my personality that I react badly to being asked to identify with a group. Damned if I know why. If I voluntarily align myself with said group, that’s okay, but being confronted with any sort of team-building, identity-merging activity irrationally unnerves me. It feels like an attack. When I was a kid, I had recurring nightmares about being infected by zombies or assimilated up by Borg-like collectives. I don’t have that kind of a strong reaction anymore. But, unfortunately for me, the Morrígan ritual pushed my fear-of-loss-of-self button, hard. Maybe if I’d been expecting it, it wouldn’t have thrown me, but I wasn’t. So, suddenly, I went from opening up to the ritual to slamming closed, feeling threatened, depressed, angry, bitter, alienated. And I was much too far from the door to make a discrete exit.

So, I breathed and tried to work with the emotions, and went through with the ritual. It was a rite about deepening the bonds of kinship and community. I value these, so by gods I was going to grit my teeth and be in community. To try to be gracious and as open to the experience as I could be, even though what I really wanted to do was crawl away into a dark corner. It never occurred to me that I could have just stepped back from the circle into the darkness at the edge of the ballroom. I didn’t want to distract anyone around me from the work they were doing, so I worked too.

I spent the rest of Pantheacon, and a good part of the following month, mulling this experience over and thinking about religion and kinship, so I suppose the Morrígan devotional did its job even on my cranky self.

Anyway, this story really is not all that important. It wanted to be told, but I think the real reason to tell it is because it gives me space to say that sometimes, being in community is the worst. Doing anything with other humans is too often a real drag, and sometimes you can’t escape. You have to grit your teeth and go through with whatever it is you’re doing with all these people just because it has to be done. The reason I’m stating the beyond-obvious here is that I’ve been thinking about the post yesterday about Yana, and kinship, and solidarity with other Pagans. The costs of being in community, and the effort it can take to return to the work of building and maintaining those bonds again, and again, and again.

As Jason said, Paganism is international now. And I hope it’s not speaking too strongly to say that now modern, international, post-Drawing Down the Moon Paganism has a martyr.

After I post this, I’m going to light a candle on my boveda for Yana in her journey to her gods. Then I’m going to meditate on what I bring to this community, to “Pagandom,” as I like to call it in lighter moments. What I can do to contribute to the ties of kinship and affection and religious experience that strengthen this community. What work needs to be done for our safety and well-being. I haven’t done a lot of interfaith or intrafaith or outreach work before, so this is all going to be new. Will you walk with me?

The Fleshiness of PantheaCon

Teo Bishop —  February 15, 2013 — 8 Comments

cropped-PconBanner13a

PantheaCon is a conference for Pagans, Heathens, Indigenous Non-European and many of diverse beliefs that occurs annually over President’s Day weekend in San Jose, California. Well over 2000 people attend more than 200 presentations that range from rituals to workshops and from classes to concerts.

This post is one of a series on the meaning and relevance of PantheaCon to The Wild Hunt’s authors.

_________________________________________________

“I’m buzzing. Vibrating. I know that sounds New Age-y, but that’s really what it feels like to be in my body at this moment.

I’m sitting in the lobby of the San Jose DoubleTree Hotel, and PantheaCon is exploding all around me. There are men in skirts, women in top hats, people whose gender is a complete mystery, elders, newbies (like me), and a general spirit of something happening.

This is the place to be, and I’m here.

*grin*

Oh, and did I mention that there is a strong corseted faction? Because there is, and it’s amazing.

I’m overwhelmed, really. I didn’t know it would feel quite so exhilarating to be near this many strange, and delightfully decorated people. It’s as though my books have been made flesh.

For real.”

Photo by Alex Mar

Teo and Jason | Photo by Alex Mar

This was what PantheaCon was for me in 2012. Today marks the beginning of the 2013 PantheaCon extravaganza, the start of my Year 2, and I’m approaching this conference with a very different perspective.

I’m excited, don’t get me wrong. My excitement is just a little more tempered than it was before. After a full year of blogging, writing posts about the questionable act of public circle casting, the need for a liturgical practice for solitary Druids, and the truth about pop stars (or semi-pop stars), I feel like I have a different understanding about who the Pagan community is, and who I am in relationship to it. To write is to be known, and I certainly feel known in a way that I didn’t during my first go around.

I took advantage of that anonymity last year, but I also came away from PantheaCon with a completely new context for my identity. “Teo Bishop” is a name I chose for myself, a name I used to gingerly navigate the unknown territory of Paganism. I wrestled for a good while about what it meant to use this different name, and what reason I might have to bring my two names (and their corresponding parts) into greater alignment with one another. This dialogue continued after PantheaCon 2012, but it was forever changed by the weekend.

I went home from PantheaCon and decided that the person I am — the person who writes these posts, who considers the needs of solitaries, who asks uncomfortable questions, and who has compassion for this community in all of its diversity and complexity — is a person I love to be. It is the person who I have, in some ways, always been. And so, on account of the new awareness prompted by this transformative experience of community, I decided that this name I’d chosen would be the name I took for keeps.

There were other unexpected awarenesses, too. I wrote,

“PantheaCon … affirmed for me a number of things, not the least of which is that I have no qualms about identifying as a Pagan anymore. The discussion about that word, while fascinating for a time, is much less important to me than it was just a few months ago. Not only am I comfortable using the term “Pagan” to broadly identify what I do, I make the distinction that what I do is not all of who I am.”

Click picture to see larger image.

Click picture to see larger image.

Since last year we have witnessed a flurry of posts about the p-word. Each time the discussion resurfaces, tempers flare and new voices emerge to stand in support of or in objection to the Pagan umbrella. Jonathan Korman compiled a list of the most recent articles on the subject, and I’m sure there have been (and will be) more.

Identity politics drives traffic to blogs and makes for a dynamic, sometimes heated conference. It took the fleshiness of PantheaCon, the tactile goodness of being crammed into rooms with other thoughtful, inquisitive people for me to free up space for these new understandings about identity. But it was the fleshiness of Others, and the discordance between that soft fleshiness and the hard rigidity of doctrine and theology that inspired such controversy last year.

I wrote an account of the silent protest, and I watched during the following months as people hashed through their feelings about gender and identity. When my genderqueer kid underwent top-surgery last summer I thought back to the trans activists and allies at PantheaCon 2012. Their witness to the need for greater acceptance and understanding stayed with me during that challenging time. They were a reminder that the flesh is real, and that the flesh is sacred, and that there is no one correct way to be embodied.

One of the challenges I face as a blogger, and that I think we all face when we choose to engage with one another in threaded comments and on forums, is that my embodiment — my own fleshiness — is easily ignored or overlooked. When we write online, we are no longer a complex mush of human parts and emotions, deserving of patience and understanding: we are just text. And as text, you and I can be taken apart, dissected with a quickness. Our fullness is reduced in proportion to our ability to articulate clearly our ideas, and if we fall short of eloquence — watch out. Somebody’s got a red pen, and they are willing to make marks all over your homework.

It’s good to provide ourselves with reminders that we are more than the words we write. We are more than our ideas, and I think we are deserving of more kindness and compassion than we sometimes give to one another. PantheaCon reminded me of that.

Flag me down in the hallways of the DoubleTree, and you could have one of these!

Flag me down in the hallways of the DoubleTree, and you could have one of these!

So I move forward into this conference with a remembrance of the sacred, messy, beautiful nature of the flesh. I will watch for the ways that our ideas become manifest, and I anticipate neither harmony nor discord. There is simply no way to know what will come of this conference, or what will be born from its discussions.

One can hope that the conference will foster, along with the debates and discussions, a new awareness in the hearts of its attendants (and those following blogs like this). Perhaps we might all walk away from the weekend with a new love of the flesh, and a new respect for the fleshiness of Others.

Solitary Druid Fellowship Header

The Solitary Druid Fellowship (SDF), an extension of Ár nDraíocht Féin (ADF), was launched last week at SolitaryDruid.org. The Fellowship released the first SDF shared liturgy on December 17th, just in time for the Winter Solstice.

To get a sense of what the Fellowship is, and how it fits into the broader world of Neopagan Druidry, we need to first take a closer look at how ADF functions.

ADF is in large part an organization built to encourage the practice of group worship. ADF members gather in Protogroves and Groves, celebrating the High Days together and building a religious practice in the company of other ADF members. Those who take part in group worship on a regular basis have experiences of congregation, and this experience can be tremendously valuable.

But ADF solitaries, or solitaries in general, rarely experience congregation in this way. Our religious work is done without the immediate feedback of a community. And while this independence can be empowering to some of us, it can also be quite challenging. Whether we are solitary by choice or by circumstance, our task is to keep our personal practice relevant, interesting, and sustainable throughout the year.

We are monks without monasteries.

ADF solitaries do have ways of connecting to the broader ADF membership body. ADF uses an e-mail listserv as the primary means of communication within the organization, but for many of us – myself included – the format feels antiquated and cumbersome. Social networking on Facebook and Twitter is available, but only slightly better.

However, none of these forms of online interaction provide solitaries with what I think is a more interesting, more esoteric form of connection.

The Development of A Shared Practice

Liturgy is an underutilized tool in the service to solitaries. Liturgy, when organized around and synchronized with the Wheel of the Year, provides a way for uniting solitaries in a shared practice that does not simply approximate the experience that one can have in a Protogrove or Grove; it does something altogether different.

By joining one another in a shared liturgical practice, we make possible a transcendental experience of congregation. The one becomes the many, and we experience congregation in solitude.

This is where SDF enters in.

SDF Logo

The Fellowship is organized to provide solitary Druids, as well as any solitary practitioner in the general public, with an opportunity to engage more deeply with their ritual practice by adopting a shared liturgical form. This form is unique to the Fellowship, just as the rituals designed within ADF Protogroves and Groves are unique to them.

The shared liturgical practice is also a work in progress, fashioned to be revised and reshaped, used and repurposed by anyone who downloads the ritual (which is free). It it protected under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License, and there is the expectation that participants will – should – customize the liturgy to suit their needs. In time, it will become clear which parts of the liturgy are most useful to solitaries, and how the language can be refined.

From High Day to High Day, SDF will seek to help transition ADF solitary members and non-member participants through the changing seasons (which, admittedly, gets tricky when considering both hemispheres). On the week of the High Day, SDF distributes the shared liturgy (as it did on Monday), and solitaries can celebrate the High Day in solitude. On the following week, participants will be called upon to reflect on their experiences of shared, solitary worship, and the cycle begins again as we move toward the next High Day.

By taking part in this communal, albeit private practice, participants join one another in a kind of long distance fellowship; in a shared celebration of the gods, the ancestors, and the spirits of the land on which we each live, using many of the same words, invocations, and prayers.

All of this through liturgy.

Why SDF is Not An “Online Community”

It should be made clear that what is happening with the Solitary Druid Fellowship is not some kind of virtual experience. That word characterized much of the “cyberspace” gathering that took place in the 90’s and early 00’s, and it lessens the magnitude of the work done in solitude by painting it as merely a digital imitation of a “real world” format.

The Solitary Druid Fellowship is offering something altogether different. It will provide a service which is meant to enrich, inform and provide structure for the work of solitary ADF members, and solitary Pagans who have never been exposed to ADF. In this way, the Fellowship is living out Isaac Bonewits’ vision for ADF to be a Pagan church that serves the greater Pagan public.

From the SDF blog:

 

The Solitary Druid Fellowship is not an “online community”, nor is it a “virtual grove”. These terms, and any which place an on-ground phenomenon firmly on the Internet, do not describe the work we’re embarking on here.

What we are doing is an exercise in hybridity.

The Fellowship utilizes the Internet as a means for organization, and as a method for distribution of ideas and liturgy. But aside from those things, the Fellowship is an on-ground organization; it’s simply on a number of different grounds, spread out far and wide across the land. The Fellowship is centered around the work of the individual solitary Pagan. This work, while connected in part to the resources provided on SolitaryDruid.org, is done away from a computer within the sacred space of one’s own ritual practice.

 

SDF also provides a resource to members of Groves and Protogroves who find themselves in a place of solitude. As written by ADF Reverend Michael J. Dangler:

 

I have been quoted more than once as saying, “The fire on our hearth is the fire in our hearts.” The notion that I’m always trying to convey with this idea is that though many of us have the option to find community and to worship in groups, each of us must also keep the fire of piety burning within us.

But the two fires are not exactly the same: the fire at the center of our community is a flame that is kindled when others are near. It’s our public fire, the flame that ignites fellowship and community. The fire at the center of our heart is the flame that ignites (diversity) and piety, pushing us to deepen our work for our own sake, and for the sake of the Spirits.

The true secret of these flames is that the fire in our heart is the source of the flame that kindles our communal fires. We must keep it well, or the communal fire will never seem as bright as they should.

What SDF Very Much Is

The Fellowship is an experiment in Pagan liturgy, a leap into an uncertain, but thoroughly exciting future, and a chance for solitaries to participate in something that is both completely new and also very traditional. It is taking the best parts of the liturgical approach and mashing them together with the best parts of modern Druidry. It is imperfect, and evolving, but it is sincere.

Perhaps the best way to understand what the Solitary Druid Fellowship offers is to visit SolitaryDruid.org, browse through the blog, and download the SDF Winter Solstice liturgy. If you feel so moved, join along in the shared practice on the Solstice.

You may just have the transcendental experience of congregation in solitude!

This is part 3 of a 3 part series on the Beltane Fire Society, a secular ritual performance and street theater group based in Edinburgh, Scotland who has rekindled public celebrations around the Celtic quarter holidays with Pagan-inspired ritual and street theater.

By Rynn Fox, Staff Writer, The Wild Hunt

While each Beltane Fire Society ritual centers on a core narrative, the performance itself has its roots in Galoshan plays, a type of Scottish medieval street theater traditionally performed on All Hallows and during winter. Samhuinn depicts the Celtic story of the Summer and Winter Kings’ battle for control of the seasons as overseen by the Cailleach. For Beltane, the ritual enacts the joining of the May Queen to the Green Man and summer’s arrival. Lughnasadh celebrates the harvest, while Imbolc symbolizes the return of spring with the putting to sleep of the Cailleach.

While the stories stay the same, performance elements are shaped by group organizers, society members who take on the responsibility for a particular character or aspect.

Members of the Beltane Fire Society's Red and White groups practice in Holyrood Park for the 2012 Samhuinn event.

Members of the Beltane Fire Society’s Red and White groups practice in Holyrood Park for the 2012 Samhuinn event. (Photo by Beltane Fire Society photographer Raini Scott.)

“Individual and group roles develop over several weeks, sharing, balancing and refining elements of a narrative and character metaphysic with the logistics of action for a good final performance flow on the night,” said society Group Organizer and Board Member Milk Miriku. “Group rituals can involve doing things to help build and better connect energies, a range of meditative, focused and excited social activities plus everything in between and around, from sound baths, sewing and crafting to games, exercise, dancing and or drumming.”

It’s up to the Blue Men, a group of senior members who act as historians and tradition keepers, to ensure all ritual elements complement each other.

“Blue Men work year-round within the society performing the same role at each event. We work together on practical, ritual and performance aspects of the festivals, and share the knowledge and experience we each have between ourselves, and with the rest of the society,” said society Board Member and Blue Man Matthew Richardson. “In the run-up, we help groups shape their performances, offering advice and tying the narrative threads together.”

Together with a paid producer who manages the festival’s production aspects, they ensure any new and interlinking narratives are aligned. This means a lot of coordination for society members. “[It takes] lots of meetings. Really, lots and lots,” said society Co-Secretary and Pagan Federation of Scotland member Zander Bruce.

The months leading up to the ritual are a flurry of activity as members prepare for roles and recruit new volunteer performers, most with no performance experience, via word of mouth or past audiences—then comes training. Depending on their role, all performers are trained in fire performance, safety, crowd control and street theater. According to society Group Organizer and Board Member Tanya Simpson, the society spends at least two months promoting, rehearsing and “coordinating and training everyone, and working closely with the producer and other group organizers.”

In order to deepen their roles some of the performers choose to do personal or group psychological work.

Winter King ritually kills the Summer King

Winter King (right, David Blumenthal) ritually kills the Summer King (left, Joe Hope) at a rehearsal for the Beltane Fire Society’s 2012 Samhuinn. (Photo by Richard Winpenny.)

“We may do some deeper or shadow work but not necessarily with a polytheistic focus, more something archetypal or emotional that everyone can connect with,” said Bruce. One such activity was particularly moving for him. “One thing I’ve loved doing is keening, whereby the group gathers and is talked through a focus or path-working, down to the bottom of their buried pain, anger and grief, to then be brought up and urged to express that pain through their voice, to share and to support one another. This has been a beautiful and transformative experience.”

In some ways though, the group has become a victim of its own success. Some critics have said that the events, especially the Beltane festival, are being coming too commercialized. A charge Sandra Holdom, owner of local Witchcraft store The Wyrd Shop, dismisses.

“The local [city] council charges a fortune for the use of [Calton] Hill and the clean up afterwards. It must also be remembered that all public events, by law, must have first aid, security, toilet facilities etc. Also, being fire festivals, there must be a fire marshall on site. There is almost no profit involved.”

But in the end, the hard work pays off—especially in terms of memories.

“[I remember] dancing with ma Red and watching the sun rise with Kings in the heat of 09. Ripping flower hearts out as a Hag six months later, smashing my staff on the stage with my crone sisters as the balance of power crossed to let the cold in,” said Miruku. “Steam rising from the Green Man as they dance and I shiver in awe and in the cold rain with a torch at the stage in 08.”

Beltane Fire Society 2012 Samhuinn Procession

Members of the Beltane Fire Society’s Red and White groups dance down Edinburgh’s Royal Mile at the 2012 Samhuinn procession and ritual performance. (Photo by Richard Winpenny.)

All holiday names are in traditional Scottish-Gaelic spelling as provided by the Beltane Fire Society.
All photos used with permission of the Beltane Fire Society and photographers Raini Scott and Richard Winpenny

One small step forward for a Pagan but a giant leap for Pagan-kind. 

Footprints in Sand

Photo courtesy of Jeremiah Blatz

Earlier this week Cherry Hill Seminary announced that the Board of Chaplaincy Certification Incorporated (BCCI), certifying body of the Association of Professional Chaplains (APC), granted Sandra Lee Harris MDiv the go-ahead to apply for her chaplaincy certification.  The letter reads:

“Thank you for your application for a theological education equivalency.  The Commission on Certification has reviewed your education credentials and it is the decision of the Commission that your request be granted.”

Many of you may already know that.  Sandra’s news was reported here at The Wild Hunt and was emailed throughout many of the Pagan networking organizations.  So why am I spending an entire post on this?  Why am I wasting our collective Sunday rehashing the story?

Really, is there anything better to do on a chilly, fall morning than contemplate the future of Pagan education within Academia?   I think not.   So, sit back, grab a cup of tea, and let’s examine how the implications of this announcement far exceed the personal triumphs of one Pagan’s journey.  Let me share what I’ve learned after a week of research and two interesting phone conversations.

How a step became a leap….

Cherry Hill SeminaryBefore ever graduating from Cherry Hill Seminary (CHS), Sandra began investigating the prospects of earning her professional Chaplain certification from APC.  In doing so, she realized that she would have to prove that her theological education, from an unaccredited institution, was equivalent to the academic work of any CHEA (Council for Higher Education) accredited school.  However, there were two major hurdles. First, there is no APC precedent for judging Pagan theological programs.  Second, there are no standards in theological courses of study across religious institutions. So how do you prove the equivalency of an unknown factor to something else that just doesn’t exist?

Solving this conundrum and proving equivalency became the basis of Sandra’s master’s thesis.   Her abstract reads:

The courses credited toward the first Master of Divinity in Pagan Pastoral Counseling from Cherry Hill Seminary are shown to parallel those of degrees from two accredited seminaries, Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary and Tyndale Seminary, when religion-specific requirements for Bible and Christian history studies are replaced by Pagan studies and personal spiritual formation is based on the stated mission values of Cherry Hill Seminary rather than the teachings of Jesus. Further analysis, given similar accommodation, suggests that the Cherry Hill Seminary curriculum in Pagan Pastoral Counseling could satisfy the accreditation requirements of the Association of Theological Schools.

Sandra L. Harris, M.Div., Pagan Pastoral Counseling

Sandra L. Harris, M.Div., Pagan Pastoral Counseling

As you might imagine, the comparison was not cut-and-dried. Pagan theological course work does not always fit neatly with that of other religions.  For example, many Christian-based masters programs require in-depth Bible study classes. Pagan theology doesn’t have an equivalent text and, therefore, can’t have similar requirements. In the end, Sandra not only had to demonstrate academic course equivalency, she had to explain Pagan theological structure, proving its equivalency as well.

As the BCCI letter proves, she was successful, paving the way for future Pagan Cherry Hill Seminary (CHS) students.  During my conversation with her, Sandra, who is now 65 years old, emphasized that she did not apply for the sake of her own career.  Her goal was to “kick the door down for others” and to help establish the credibility of CHS Chaplaincy programs.  Her work, as she said, “is now a prototype for how it can be done” while the school remains unaccredited.

But that won’t be forever.  Holli S. Emore, executive director of CHS, verified that the administration is currently undergoing the lengthy application process that will eventually lead to full accreditation with the Distant Education and Training Council (DETC).  Holli described, in detail, how becoming accredited is a crucial step for the future of CHS and its students.

First, it will “earmark” Cherry Hill Seminary as a legitimate school of higher education on par with any other accredited academic seminary regardless of religious affiliation.  At this point, CHS has already been licensed in the state of South Carolina to award higher-education degrees.  Accreditation will take that a step further, setting the institution apart from make-shift online courses by recognizing CHS’ high academic standards, rigorous programs of study and degreed teachers.

Cherry Hill Seminary's Holli Emore

Holli Emore
Executive Director, Cherry Hill Seminary

As for the students, accreditation means two things.  For graduates seeking credentials, like Sandra, they no longer have to prove equivalency or justify the credibility of their education.  Furthermore, accreditation would allow CHS students to apply for federal tuition assistance including Veterans’ benefits and other Military-based aid.  Right now, CHS students pay out of their own pockets.

So where is CHS in the process?  The Board has jumped through the first set of hurdles.  Now they are faced with a funding problem.  As it turns out, the accreditation process is very expensive, costing thousands of dollars.  It will take some time to raise enough funds to meet the remaining accreditation requirements.  However, with its dedicated staff and the support of the greater Pagan community it is certainly a real possibility.

In the meantime the school is gaining professional respect through alternative and unexpected means, such as the BCCI letter and the upcoming partnership with The University of South Carolina  for the 2013 “Sacred Lands and and Spiritual Landscapes” symposium.  In a recent email,  David L. Oringderff, CHS professor noted:

“The fact that [Sandra] has progressed this far speaks volumes…for the growing acceptance of Pagan spiritual formations within the Interfaith Community, and Cherry Hill Seminary’s standing and credibility in the academic community.”

So what can the rest of us take away from this?  What does this mean to the greater Pagan community?  All of these advancements indicate a shift in society towards genuine respect for alternative religions within the professional world.  Pagan institutions, like CHS, are on the front lines of this social change, breaking the boundaries that separate Paganism from mainstream society and actively standing for the legitimacy of Pagan belief systems.  The benefits trickle down to each of us, allowing for positive work at the community level.  “When Cherry Hill Seminary is healthy, that well-being extends into all corners of the Pagan world,” Holli remarks.

Labyrinth Courtesy CHS

Walking the Labyrinth
Courtesy Cherry Hill Seminary

That’s a big statement.  However, Sandra clarified it best when she explained that, “the big institutions will never be able to define Paganism.”  They can never take place of the small, autonomous groups practicing throughout the country.  However, the institutions do have a very important role to play. “[They] put Paganism into [a social] context for us and for the rest of the world,” she concludes. That work benefits everyone.

As for Sandra, she will continue the APC application for Chaplaincy certification.  Beyond that, she looks forward to working with the Fairfax County Community Chaplain Corps, a local interfaith organization that “provides spiritual care and support to community members during and after a local emergency or man-made or natural disaster.”  Once again, she takes a small step forward and who knows what size leap may follow.

 

This is part 2 of a 3 part series on the Beltane Fire Society, a secular ritual performance and street theater group based in Edinburgh, Scotland who has rekindled public celebration around the Celtic quarter holidays with Pagan-inspired ritual and street theater.

By Rynn Fox, Staff Writer, The Wild Hunt

Arthur's Seat, Edinburgh, Scotland

Arthur’s Seat is the main peak of a group of hills in the center of the city of Edinburgh, about a mile east of Edinburgh Castle. Traditionally, city residents have climbed the hill on Beltane to watch the sunrise and bathe in the morning dew.

The Beltane Fire Society began in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1988 as the brain-child of musician and artist Angus Farquhar. Though some city residents still maintained the unbroken Beltane tradition of climbing to the top of Arthur’s Seat, a local hill, to greet the sun and wash in dew, Farquhar wanted to revive the holiday as a community celebration.

“The aim was to recreate a sense of community and an appreciation of the cyclical nature of the seasons and our connection to the environment—something that is often overlooked in our modern society and urban environments,” said Board Member Matthew Richardson. This meant rediscovering the traditions surrounding Beltane and other seasonal community festivals.

Folklorist Dr. Margaret Bennett

Dr. Margaret Bennett is a respected Scottish writer, folklorist, ethnologist, broadcaster and singer.

One of the first people he enlisted was Scottish folklore expert Dr. Margaret Bennett, formerly of the School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh. “[Angus] came to see my colleague, [folk revivalist] Hamish Henderson and me,” said Bennett. “My role was to explain to him about the customs and then Hamish and I agreed to bring our students and to sing and take part. When we arrived we were greeted by the colorful array of key figures, including the May Queen, the Green Man and Red Men and a group of drummers beyond any expectation we might have had.”

Yet what began as a small celebration of around 100 people, including performers, quickly grew due to demand. Samhuinn was added to their festival roster in 1995 with Lughnasadh and Imbolc soon following suit. This year marked the 25th anniversary of the group’s Beltane Fire Festival with around 6,000 attendees and 350 performers taking part.

Sandra Holdom, owner of local Witchcraft store The Wyrd Shop, believes the group’s festivals foster a deeper sense of connection for city residents. “It gives a sense of community and continuity that is sadly lacking in a modern city like Edinburgh. It also draws together disparate aspects of Edinburgh’s cultural heritage, be it Celtic, Nordic, Anglo or North Saxon.”

As to why these events are so popular, Board Member Milk Miruku thinks the event’s popularity is about universality of its narrative.

“It’s a shared time and history of celebration, between the ages, places and people,” said Miruku. “I like the connections that are made between the varying values and influences, the personal and cultural aspects and metaphors that come together to celebrate not just the date but what they associate with that part of the yearly cycle.”

It’s a sentiment Richardson echoes. “[Our] Beltane and Samhuinn [festivals] are ‘all things to all men’ – while they have ties to Celtic traditions and Scottish and Northern European cultures, they also beg, borrow and steal from many others – Scandinavian, Native American, Japanese, African,” said Richardson. “We aren’t seeking to recreate an exact copy of historical events – rather we try to experience the same sense of community and spirituality that inspired those who first celebrated these seasonal transformations, and connect our modern lives back to a sense of nature, the environment and community.”

For Bennett, these types of revival festivals have a significant role in modern society.

“Even though events such as this one are a far cry from the way they were traditionally celebrated, they are important,” said Bennett. “While some of the events, such as the Edinburgh celebration, are presented as theatrical interpretation of tradition rather than a reproduction of the way things were traditionally done. They confirm, however, the genuine human need to celebrate–without celebration life would be humdrum and dull. Celebration confirms life!”

Angus Farquhar could not be reached for comment.
All holiday names are in traditional Scottish-Gaelic spelling as provided by the Beltane Fire Society.

The Gifts of Madame Death

Eric O. Scott —  November 16, 2012 — 19 Comments
Image taken at the Bellefontaine Cemetery, St. Louis, MO

Death and Birth at the Bellefontaine Cemetery, St. Louis, MO.
Image by William Scott.

Madame Death’s dressed all in black and seated next to a battered metal table. We do not look at her, or touch her, or do anything else to acknowledge her. For her part, she says nothing, but only watches our circle while we partake in the first communion of the night: water and crackers, nothing else.

We chew on this meager harvest, and for a moment, at least, we forget that we stand in the backyard of a house in St. Louis, Missouri, a house with electricity, heat, and more food waiting in the kitchen than we could possibly eat in one night. The ritual takes us to a darker place, a hungry place, a pit in our collective unconscious that knows that the coming months bring a time want and death. We know that we travel through a gate tonight, a gate on the road between bountiful autumn and desperate winter, and the gate is called Samhain.

For me, this Samhain cuts deeper. I expect it is the same for the rest of Sabbatsmeet, too – Sabbatsmeet being a group of covens and unattached Witches that share the festivals together. I have been a part of one of those covens, Pleiades, since I was born. We range from infants – little Julian, less than a year old – to retirees. Most of us have been a part of Sabbatsmeet for decades. This is my family, the same or more so than my legal relatives. And this year, our family has been visited by Madame Death.

“We have come to the part of the ceremony where we remember the dead,” my father says. He sets the cup and the plate, now barren even of simple grain and water, on the battered table. “Speak their names, and remember them.”

I don’t recognize most of the names spoken: people who were known and loved by someone within our circle, but who were not of the circle themselves. Sometimes we mention someone better known: a writer, or a musician. (Someone says “Whitney Houston,” and the circle goes quiet save for a few badly-suppressed snickers.) But we all knew the name that hung heaviest on our hearts.

“Barb,” says my father, the first name called.

Madame Death came to her this year. She arrived after a lengthy correspondence, the culmination of many years of cancer. We had barely seen her in years – her health had been too poor, and she had lived too far away, to travel to St. Louis for the sabbats. But still, we missed her – she had been ours, and now, she was gone. Her absence felt like January wind through a broken window.

I do not cry in the moment’s silence that follows. Instead, just as Barb’s name is called a second time, a memory floods in…

Another Samhain, more than a decade ago. I was 13, perhaps. There was no traditional ritual that year, but instead a sort of haunted house… We wandered through the halls of a familiar place made strange, encountering forms we knew and personalities we did not. I can’t remember the things they said anymore, except for one.

I remember walking into the bedroom, lit in sensuous, dangerous red. A woman with wild auburn hair sits on the bed, dressed all in black. She smiles, and it’s Barb’s smile, but possessed by the spirit of the night. She curls a finger, beckoning me to come closer.

“Oh, Groucho,” she says. “I’ve been waiting all night for you…”

My mind fills with the echo of Barb’s voice, a voice never to be heard again.

For many of those around me, I am sure the pain of Barb’s death comes from the memory of their time together – the years of shared experience, inside and outside the ritual, that make up a friendship. It’s not quite the same for me, being younger, a child of the second generation of Sabbatsmeet. I loved Barb, but I knew her entirely from Sabbatsmeet. I knew of her life outside – that she was a foster mother and a social worker, for example – but I knew her from Wicca. And her death, the third loss our circle had suffered in as many years, forced me to confront an inescapable truth: our family was aging. Some day Madame Death would come to my elders. Someday I would call their names at Samhain.

When we are finished with the calling, my parents tell us to join hands and close our eyes. I take their hands, feel the bones of their fingers twined into mine.

I doubt it would do much good to describe my meditation-visions; they were largely darkness, a dance between night and the ritual fire. Sometimes I thought I could see some of those we had lost: Tom, or Kurt, or Image. Once I thought I saw Barb, dressed forever in the Samhain black of memory. But mostly I felt the heat of the fire, and the cold of the air, and the warmth of my family’s hands pressed to mine.

My father’s voice called me back to consciousness. “Look now,” he says, “Look upon the true gift of Death.”

Madame Death opens her black robe. Beneath her hood, she is a redheaded woman, smiling. In her lap sits a serene infant – little Julian.

Because Madame Death is also Madame Life, my father explains, because every act of destruction leads to space for creation to happen, because without loss there can be no magic – and to most Wiccans, all of this will, of course, be old hat. You will have heard this all before, in books and speeches and rituals. But it’s good to be reminded of it on Samhain, reminded of why, to Wiccans, this is the most important night of the year.

I appreciate that, but it’s what my father says next that strikes me clean to the heart.

“In twenty or thirty years, some of us will be gone, and it will be Julian standing here, saying our names.” He pauses. “And that is a good thing.”

The current narrative in the United States, at the moment I write this, is that the nation has begun to change, that the dominant culture of white suburban Protestantism has begun to give way towards something more diverse. I can’t say how true that is. Life here in Missouri still feels quite entrenched in the culture the media pundits tell me has begun dying away.

But still. I look at Julian, with the serious eyes and the inviting cheeks, Julian, who is the child of my brother in Coven Pleiades, Julian, whose father and father’s father have stood in this circle before him. I look at this child, and in him I see everything I have ever been given and everything I have it in me to give. I look at him, and I see the future of our religion. Even more important than our religion, I see the future of our family, of us.

Someday my parents will be dead. Someday I will, too. Someday Julian will be an old man, and if I am lucky, he will call my name at Samhain. Someday Julian himself will have taken the hand of Madame Death, and some other child, a child whose face I can barely imagine now, will be standing in the circle that her great-grandparents once knew.

We drink at last the second communion, the honey wine and delicious cakes, singing “Hoof and Horn” as we pass the cup and plate from hand to hand. We remember the dead, but we celebrate the living.

In the lap of Madame Death, the little baby stares at the ritual fire, and then lets out a sharp and vital shout.

It is a good thing.

The Reds

The Reds, symbolizing the forces of chaos, sensuality and physicality, stand oblivious to winter’s return at the Beltane Fire Society’s 2012 Samhuinn. (Photo by Richard P. Winpenny. Photo used with Beltane Fire Society permission.)

This is part 1 of a 3 part series on the Beltane Fire Society, a secular ritual performance and street theater group based in Edinburgh, Scotland who have rekindled public celebrations around the Celtic quarter holidays with Pagan-inspired ritual.

By Rynn Fox, Staff Writer, The Wild Hunt

Torchlight and fire sculpture light the cold winter night as a procession of mythical and archetypal figures writhe in the wintry dark. A cacophony of drums echo through narrow city streets. A black masked figure clutching a tall staff takes the stage. Oblivious, the Winter King swings his sword, nearly delivering an executioner’s blow to the Summer King—but the figure steps into the swords’ path, absorbing the blow without injury. With a toss of her head the figure unmasks, revealing herself to be the Cailleach, the ruling deity of Scotland‘s winter season.

The Cailleach summons the powers of the light and peaceful warrior

The Cailleach shows the Winter King that his powers of summoning can be used to call the powers of the peaceful warrior and of the light at the Beltane Fire Society’s 2012 Samhuinn. (Photo by Richard P. Winpenny. Used with Beltane Fire Society and photographer permission.)

This was the scene on Samhuinn on Edinburgh, Scotland’s historic Royal Mile thoroughfare where 150 performers and crew brought pomp, pageantry and pagan-inspired street art and ritual performance to an audience of nearly 4,000 people. The annual event was presented by the Beltane Fire Society, an organization who has been advocating for the awareness and celebration of the Celtic cross-quarter festivals for 25 years.

Street-theater Spirituality

While it is easy to assume the group is Pagan, this secular charity distances itself from religion and spirituality. According to society Co-Secretary and Pagan Federation of Scotland member Zander Bruce, the events are “as pagan as you want them to be. Generally on a scale of pony to Pegasus, we’re about unicorn.”

This doesn’t stop many local Pagans from taking part. Nearly a quarter of the society’s members are of a Pagan or New Age persuasion. “Many of the performers and organizers are involved in the magickal scene in the Lothians [area of Scotland],” said Sandra Holdom owner of local Witchcraft store, The Wyrd Shop.

For members it is a shared dedication to reawakening folk practices and creating effective theater that binds them together, not religion.

“We have a shared vocabulary of ritual, performance, character and story,” said Bruce. “Everything is contextualized around those and everyone feels able to contribute to them.” Still the events are more than theater for some in the society. “Many people [participating] report having an epiphany when at Beltane or Samhuinn and it leads to a spiritual journey.”

Summer King versus Winter KIng

The Winter King (right, David Blumenthal) prepares to dispatch the Summer King (left, Joe Hope) at Beltane Fire Society’s 2012 Samhuinn. (Photo by Richard P. Winpenny. Photos used with Beltane Fire Society and photographer permission.)

Society Co-Secretary and Pagan Tanya Simpson is one such person. She remembers her first society performance as a Torchbearer in the 2010 Samhuinn procession as being “a real catalyst for spiritual growth.”

“It helped me to feel more in touch with the changing of the seasons in a way that I hadn’t quite been able to reach with individual ritual and the combined energy of everyone taking part in the event was truly powerful,” said Simpson. “It was a new beginning for me and helped me find my place within a wider community.”

“The performance carries a strong spirituality for me – but not one that has religious connotations,” said Board Member Matthew Richardson. “For me, it’s the experience of merging performance and celebration and marking the change of the seasons in a way that involves those who might otherwise ignore their passing that it most powerful.”

“One of the most beautiful things about our events is that people – both volunteers and audience members – who are there in a spiritual context stand shoulder to shoulder with people who are there for the costumes and acrobatics or just for an amazing party, and everyone is accepted equally,” said Simpson. “Being witness to that level of inclusion is a pretty special feeling.”

Edinburgh crowds watch the performance of the Beltane Fire Society's 2012 Samhuinn ritual.

Edinburgh crowds watch the Pagan-inspired spectacle of the Beltane Fire Society’s 2012 Samhuinn. (Photo by Richard P. Winpenny. Used with Beltane Fire Society and photographer permission.)

All holiday names are in traditional Scottish-Gaelic spelling as provided by the Beltane Fire Society. All photos used with permission of the Beltane Fire Society and photographer Richard Winpenny.