Archives For ritual

Let’s try something.  Here’s a simple task developed by psychologist Nancy Napier (2014).

  1. Take a sheet of paper and draw two horizontal lines a couple of inches apart.
  2. Now start a timer and write “I am a great multitasker” in the first line and the numbers 1-20 sequentially on the second line.

How long did it take? 20 seconds?

Ok, now flip the paper over and draw two horizontal lines a couple of inches apart. This time, multi-task through the same work.  Write a letter on one line and a number on the other: I/1/a/2/m/3 … etc … How’d that go? Did it take longer? Did it take more energy? It very likely did because we cannot multi-task (Applebaum, Marchionni & Fernandez, 2008).  We can switch tasks, and we do it very quickly.  But two tasks at once. Nope.

We work best when we are mindful, letting our brains do what they do best: be in the moment. Mutli-tasking creates stress and so do all sorts of other things we’re trained to do from creating unmanageable agendas to impossible to do lists. To create the benefits of being in the moment, we must break the cycle of creating constant work. And, one of the best ways to succeed at doing that is simply to play. Something we did as kids, might be really good for us as adults.

Photo Credit:  M. Tejeda-Moreno

[Photo Credit: M. Tejeda-Moreno]

I remember decades ago when I invited a date to a Litha celebration that my local group had organized. My date was interested in Paganism in the context, I think, of having a future ex-boyfriend who happened to be Pagan. He had some interest in the occult that he had cultivated as a teenager, but had let go when beginning a career in science. He held tightly to his faith of origin; or rather his faith of origin was an important aspect of his identity.

It was clear from the start that the ritual was never going to match his expectations. His idea of ceremony had been inculcated by his organized religion. So with observances like Yom Kippur as the counterpoint for comparison, – that being his favorite holiday – I had some real doubts about how the day would go. But beyond the ritual itself, I was surprised to learn that the behavior of the participants also failed to meet his expectations of what adult behavior should be at a religious ceremony. After the Litha ritual, his remarks were an attempt to dismiss its importance. Yet in doing so, he exposed a powerful message that he was unable to appreciate. He found the celebration “a childish waste of time, nothing like a real service.  [You guys] are just playing”.

Well, that relationship ended that week. But he was right about one thing: play was involved. And summer is also a call to play that many of us celebrate in rituals that range from circles to road trips. The festivals that we attend mix structured reverence and unstructured play in magical ways. The journey of summer is an enchanted experience – for those like us who notice – that strengthens our relationship with Nature and one another. In summer, the Earth does her work of fulfilling the promise of harvest set out in spring. It is a season of luxury, relaxation and vacations. The remains of the day last well after the workday’s end giving us more opportunity to share daylight with each other. Summer offers us time for play.

Defining play is in fact a pretty hard task for social scientists. It’s not so much an activity as it is a process. It is a state of being where the act of doing the activity is more important than the outcome of the activity. It’s supposed be an intentional activity of no outcome. It is physical and mental, social, spontaneous and imaginative. It is purposeless recreation with no apparent adaptive function. It is doing nothing and something at the same time. Some of the first Italian words I learned from my Italian husband were Dolce far niente: it is so sweet to do nothing. That’s a good place to start to understand play.

Nature also offers us some interesting lessons on play.  Animals love to play when they are young but, unlike humans, they continue to play into adulthood. And let’s be clear: animals have a rougher life. They have to find food, shelter, and water every day. They have to guard from predation and essentially fight for survival during their entire lives. Yet, they play. They still find time to enjoy doing “nothing.” Animals even engage in play activity across species, and YouTube is replete with examples. Ravens enjoy snowboarding; elephants romp about in mud; dogs love to play catch; cats like to … well, let’s skip cats … and bears enjoy just frolicking about.

We, on the other hand, reserve play only for our young, and even then we have confounded the act of play with the act of playing games. But play is not solely about gaming. It’s about being, not winning. Through gaming, we have redefined play in a manner that gives it a purpose; in a way that has winners and losers. We built a value system that devalues purposeless play in favor of activities that promote competition over collaboration. As White (2000) cleverly observed our society only honors competitive play.

But playing isn’t gaming. It is about being. As we demand that our play have outcomes, we slowly lose our childhood. Worse yet, in my opinion, we teach that to our children and help them slowly loose theirs. And to all our detriments, because play has important benefits.

Photo Credit: Stefano Ciotti

Photo Credit: Stefano Ciotti

Psychiatrist Stuart Brown reviewed some 6000 play histories of individuals and found that playing together had a range of benefits. He found that play was related to emotional intimacy between individuals and appeared to even help couples regenerate their relationships. He also found that play between strangers speeds up the bonding process that individuals experience by fostering empathy. He also found that  a lack of play appeared related to deviant behavior including becoming involved with the criminal justice system.

In research conducted at University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Pellis and his colleagues examined the brains of female rats that were assigned to non-play and play conditions to determine if neurological effects could be observed with play deprivation. Like other mammals, rats are born with an overabundance of a certain type of brain cell for building connections. Based on environmental experiences, these cells create connections with one another while culling off unnecessary ones. The result is a perfectly balanced brain that has maximized its experience from its environment. Pellis hypothesized that play was an important determinant of how health brains grow. And, the findings supported the hypothesis. Play-deprived rats appeared to have damaged brains when compared to their play-available counterparts.

Additionally, there is evidence in to back a claim that there are similar beneficial effects for us as well. We have a physiological system called the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis (HPA). This system regulates many different process in the body and serves as an interface point between the nervous and hormonal systems of our bodies. When we experience challenges – something requiring our attention that is difficult and that we may not want to do all the time- the HPA pathway kicks in with different hormones to biochemically represent psychological stress to our bodies. Constantly activating the HPA with all the concerns of adulthood from money to the economy to lines at the gas station result in the chronic activation of the HPA. That unpleasant stress slowly builds up and produces negative effects. A messy HPA system is implicated in a huge number of disorders including depression, attention deficit, burnout, chronic fatigue syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia and even alcoholism. Perhaps the scariest of all, prenatal and early childhood stress can cause the system to misalign with implications for a lifetime.

Medical models have focused on using anti-depressants to get the HPA system back in balance. But psychological models take a different tack. They focus on how we process stress and how we relax. Behavioral approaches to stress reduction impact the key stress hormone we have: cortisol. And through relaxation, the impact of stressors that result in imbalances of the HPA can be lessened.

There are many techniques to relaxation including visualization, repetitive prayer, and physical activity. Social support is also important. Activity with others, from friends to partners, are also part of stress management. But, the beauty of play is that it combines the mental, physical and social to create a simple mindful remedy.

In fact, play is a remedy we should not only consider, but also a remedy we should teach. As a social justice issue, poverty robs many of us, especially children, of play. And for adults, the constant demand for productivity and work, makes many of us assign priorities to playtime in a manner that is counterproductive to our physical and emotional health. Surrounding ourselves with playful people brings us into the moment doing nothing, having a good time,re-balancing ourselves and letting our own nature offer health. Spending time doing nothing is amazingly beneficial.

Dolce far Niente. 

But it is also so very syntonic with a Pagan path. Play is a deeply transgressive act. It is a violation of societal expectations of adulthood. It is a subversion of productivity and responsibility. It is a desecration of industry. It is the rejection of structure and forced outcome. And, it’s actually pretty good for you. Play releases us from the worries created by our society. So will play improve your health? Well, there’s evidence that it can. And more importantly, like many Pagan activities, we’ll have fun trying.


Appelbaum, S.H.; Marchionni, A., & Fernandez, A. (2008). The multi-tasking paradox: perceptions, problems and strategies. Management Decision, 46(9): 1313–1325. DOI:10.1108/00251740810911966

Brown, S. L. (2009). Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul. Penguin.

Bell, H. C., Pellis, S. M., & Kolb, B. (2010). Juvenile peer play experience and the development of the orbitofrontal and medial prefrontal cortices. Behavioural brain research207(1), 7-13.

Napier, N.  (2014). The Myth of Multiasking.

Smith, L. K., Forgie, M. L., & Pellis, S. M. (1998). Mechanisms underlying the absence of the pubertal shift in the playful defense of female rats.Developmental Psychobiology33(2), 147-156.

White, B.  (2000). Why Normal Isn’t Healthy: How to Find Heart, Meaning, Passion, and Humor on the Road Most Traveled.  Hazelden Publishing & Educational Services. Center City: MN.

It is graduation season. Pictures are popping up all over the internet of people who have walked the stage in accomplishment of achieving their educational goals. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), it is estimated that approximately 1,855,000 students will graduate in 2015 with a Bachelor’s degree.The Institute of Education Sciences states that “18.0 million students are expected to enroll in undergraduate programs and about 3.0 million will enroll in post-baccalaureate programs.” The higher learning academic machine continues to see an increase in students signing up for college, and an increase in students striving for the end goal of a graduating with a degree in hand.

Years of study and college classes lead to more than just a diploma or certification. The ritual of completion is a part of many individual’s journey to celebrate achievement, and this is seen in many areas of spirituality as well. Within the modern Pagan community we have seen a wealth of achievement or milestone based ceremonies, such as dedications, initiations, cronings or sagings, unions, and even the celebration of womanhood when a lady gets her menses. These celebrations show us that the ritual act of setting intentions, celebrations and acknowledgements are often done inside a ritualistic process.

The choice to participate in the activities of commencement is an individual one, and there are always people who decline. However, the majority of those that do participate are doing so in a highly ritualized way that initiates them into the world of academics. The ritual song, the long walk, the wait, the outfit and regalia, the turning of the tassel or placement of the hood for Master’s and doctorates, all of these are symbolic and important elements to creating the magic of the moment.

My personal journey to this point in my life was one layered with a lot of excitement, concerns, and questions. Walking the stage June 12 left me with wondering how this process felt for others who were approaching the graduation stage of their academic journey, and how the ritual of this ceremony felt for them. I reached out to several Pagans who have recently graduated with a degree of higher education to ask them some questions about their experiences.

I received my Associate of Science degree in Network Systems Administration, which falls under the (very large) umbrella of Computer Science. I did attend the graduation ceremony because it symbolized a very large milestone both personally and to my family. Being the first person in my immediate family to complete an educational level above high school, I wanted to do the walk, be handed the diploma—get the whole experience. It was something I wanted to share with my wife and my parents/in-laws as well.

Part of the importance of the ritual is acknowledging the work which has been put into the process. Another part is the physical manifestation (diploma) which acts as a sort of reward. The experience was quite inspiring, and I gained a lot of momentum which will be used to achieve future milestones. Bachelor’s degree, definitely. And maybe a Master’s? – Chris Williams

Graeme A. Barber

Graeme A. Barber

I graduated with an Associate Degree of Arts, with Distinction. My emphasis was in Environmental studies, and the bulk of my studies was in archaeology and physical geography. This was awarded to me by Okanagan College, in British Columbia, Canada.

I participated in my commencement ceremony because in a society as bereft of milestone and changes in life rituals as ours are here in North America, it’s important to participate in events like this. There was also a strong family component in my decision. The importance of the ritual was recognition, not just from peers, but from larger society. There was also the aspect that I was one of the few POC in my programme, and there is something important in “showing the flag” as it were. Supporting my transition forward to the next phases of my education, participation showed that I consider myself a part of the academic world, not apart from it, which again, is an important message to send. – Graeme A. Barber

Rose Quartz

Rose Quartz

I graduated with my Master of Arts degree in Education with an emphasis in Teaching and my Single Subject teaching credential in English. I was in an accelerated program and only had one year of graduate school because I started on it while also doing my Bachelor of Arts in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing. This is one of the main factors behind participating in my second commencement in two years at Mills College. I am heavily invested in and involved with the Mills community. Many of the other grad students in the Education program did not attend, but all 10 of us in the accelerated program participated.

The sense of community I derived from my program colleagues and from my extended networks at Mills – including the Mills Pagan Alliance – made participating important. It was a time I got to share with friends and family, and a tangible recognition of five long years of difficult, rewarding work. I saw this ritual as one which was both for me and for those I call my extended family to recognize and celebrate my academic successes.

The event marks a beginning of my chosen career – I am now considered qualified to teach, and the next school year will start with one major difference. No longer at Mills, this coming year will see me stepping into the role of teacher instead of continuing as a student in an academic setting. Life-long learner that I am, I know this is hardly the end of all my knowledge-gathering, but there is a certainty that comes with walking across the stage, that once you reach the other side you cannot walk backwards. At the end, I felt like I was truly done with one phase of my life and prepared to go into the next stage of learning. – Rose Quartz

Ryan Smith

Ryan Smith

I graduated with distinction with an MA in World History with a regional focus on the Middle East and a thematic focus on Urban History. I did not participate in my commencement ceremony due to some stupid red tape reasons that resulted in me getting my financial aid necessary for paying for graduation in time to walk after the deadline. I didn’t really have a choice on that question as by the time I was able to pay my graduation fees it was already too late to be one of the people walking. – Ryan Smith.

Katie Thackrey

Katie Thackrey

I got my Bachelor of science in psychology.Yes, I participated in commencement because I didn’t want to regret not doing it later.

There was the idea that life is made up of experiences and I should have as many as possible. I felt it was important to solidify in my mind what I had accomplished; I don’t think I would have truly recognized the amount of work and how much of an accomplishment it is without the ceremony. The ceremony evoked immense feelings of gratitude for all those who gave their support, knowledge, and patience along the way. – Katie Thackrey

Katrina Ray-Saulis

Katrina Ray-Saulis

My degree is a BFA in Creative Writing. I did attend graduation. I completed my coursework in December so I had already been a graduate for many months before the ceremony, but there was a sense of accomplishment that came from attending that I didn’t get during the months in between the last day of classes and graduation.

It’s possible that I may have received that sense of accomplishment when I got my physical diploma, I’m really not sure. But the head of the writing department has been pivotal in my graduation. She was a deciding factor in me attending that school, she’s been an incredible mentor, and she’s helped me in so many ways. I wouldn’t give up that moment when she traded me my diploma for a hug for anything. I wasn’t going to go to graduation at all until another professor told me how much it meant to the department head to see her students march. I’m heading into grad school in the spring of 2016 and my eventual goal is to teach. I think attending the ceremony helped me to see what I have to look forward to as a teacher more than anything else. – Katrina Ray-Saulis

My degree will be in sociology (Ph.D.), if I complete all requirements by end of August 2015. I did NOT participate in the commencement ceremony for two main reasons: 1) I wasn’t far enough along with completing deliverables for finishing in order to walk;  2) disconnect with my field and specific school of study.

We are a small program within the School of Nursing (incoming class for Fall 2015 has 3 students).[I] did not pursue walking in the school commencement ceremony because 75%+ of graduates are Master’s-level nurses whose courses and fieldwork don’t overlap with ours. Also [I] chose not to walk in the commencement ceremony at the university level because the various schools (Pharmacy, Dental, Grad Division, Nursing, etc.) function independently of each other. Since we also don’t have an undergrad study body, there is even less interaction between schools. – Mary Gee

I participated in my commencement ceremony, though I won’t technically graduate until Summer quarter – but once I get my thesis published, I’ll have an M.A. in Communication.

There’s a bit of backstory to why I wanted to walk for my M.A.. I got my B.A. from the same university, but the day that I walked, nobody showed up for me. I had the other students in the department, but everyone else who said they were going ended up as a no-show. So when I decided I was going to walk for my M.A., I initially planned on doing it just for me. After everything I had gone through to get the M.A., I felt I deserved to do something to acknowledge that. But a number of my friends (who had heard the story about my B.A. commencement more than once) got together and were there for my M.A. It definitely helped heal the wound left over from feeling abandoned on the previous commencement walk.

I will admit, I have a bit of an anti-authoritarian streak. I participated in the ceremony because it’s one of the pieces that helps confirm my achievement, but when they put the hood on me… it didn’t have the impact I’m sure they were aiming for. For me, it was a total stranger doing that, someone who had no idea of who I was, what I had done, or everything I’ve gone through in pursuit of my M.A. I’d much rather have been hooded on the other side of the stage, because at least over there one of the faculty I know was helping with the process. It may be more accurate to say, however, that I place more importance on established connections with other people than authority figures. As I said, however, this is just one piece of the whole that is my graduation, and I’m still glad I went through it. – Dee Shull

Many factors and red tape go into the final act of walking the stage, but that very act of crossing the stage gives many grads a sense of completion, accomplishment and recognition to go along with the diploma that will be received. While some people do not feel the need to go through this ritual or were unable to, others find that commencement is a very important part of the academic process.

It is not uncommon within many modern Pagan practices to believe that the symbols and practices of our ceremonies increase in power with repetition over time, and that lineage and acknowledgement from our community of elders has great meaning and purpose. As many people continue to participate in ceremonies from institutions of education, we will continue to identify correlations between the importance of our call to ceremony and how that contributes to the way we relate to it’s significance. This also gives us another opportunity to look at the continued contributions that Pagans within different fields make to the sustainability of our own communities, and how the act of learning within various institutions add to it.

Crystal Blanton being hooded at ceremony [Courtesy of Stephanie Kjer]

Crystal Blanton being hooded at ceremony
[Courtesy of Stephanie Kjer]

In reflection of my own journey, I surprisingly sat under the sun of my own commencement ceremony thinking about all the layers of magic that went into the process of walking the stage; something that would otherwise be such a simple act. In the end, no ceremony alone will make my Master’s of Social Work degree more valuable within the workforce. However the ritual of commencement does give it another layer of special meaning for me personally. After not participating in my undergrad ceremony, I am glad to have experienced the magic of commencement for my masters.

Congratulations to all those who completed their degrees in the class of 2015. May your hard work bare the fruit that you intended!

Paganism, together with the many subcultures that are often associated with it, is a place where strong women are both common and respected for their power. The challenge this poses for men is finding a way to relate to, and partner with, women and others without falling back on a stereotypical bag of tricks that relies upon physical strength, aggressiveness, and an implicit threat of violence.

Opting to be subservient is not an option for many self-identified men, who desire to use their masculine gifts positively rather than deny them. The other extreme, embracing the take-no-prisoners macho approach that contributes to undercurrents of misogyny and an implicit acceptance of rape culture, is even more distasteful. The Wild Hunt spoke with several men with experience working through these issues.  Perhaps not surprisingly, those explorations are often in the context of ritual.

Wrestling members of the Brotherhood of the Stag and Wolf (photo credit Lyle Hawthorne)

Wrestling members of the Brotherhood of the Stag and Wolf [Photo Credit: Lyle Hawthorne]

One of the ways that the overculture falls short — for men and women alike — is in the diminished value given to rites of passage. For many American youths, obtaining a driver’s license is the only acknowledged transition into adult life, and it’s a poor one. Pagan boys and men who recognize a need for something more may be able to undergo a rite of passage with more spiritual depth.

Pagan Spirit Gathering and Rites of Spring each have such ceremonies available, but they are not alike. PSG actually has two distinct tracks, one for boys who are growing into adulthood, and another for adult men who are seeking a rite-of-passage experience that wasn’t available to them earlier in life. The children who grow up in and around the EarthSpirit Community can choose to undergo a rite of passage at RoS when they come of age.

We spoke to the organizers of the two PSG rites to learn more about how they differ from each other. Bob Paxton coordinated the Young Men’s Rite of Passage for four years, and said that “there are two components to this: 1) orienting the young men and their parents toward their impending independence, and 2) giving them some context about what their communities will start to ask of them.”

Parental involvement is required, and the process begins by interviewing the boys and their parents separately. “We ask them probing questions and record their answers, and we compare notes afterwards.This tells us a great deal about how synced up the young men & their parents are, and reveals much about any frustrations with the family dynamic.” Both the parents and the boy must be on board for this process to unfold, he added:

We push them pretty hard on this — sometimes they’re only there because the parent made them, and it’s our job as facilitators to tell them it’s not the parent’s decision to make. Sometimes the boy chooses not to go ahead then, and that’s for the best. At the end of that interview, we go through a ritual separation process, which sends the parents off to reflect on this change while plugging the young men into a community of other young men who have been through this in prior years & can act as peer mentors.

The notes from those interviews are reviewed by Sages, who prepare what Paxton called individually tailored “wisdom packages” for the young men. “In the final rite, which is held at night-time, we send the young men through a mentally and physically-challenging ritual journey where they receive challenges from the 3 Fates, a Warrior archetype, and the panel of Sages, then I deliver some final words about community expectations and send them off howling into the night with the tribe of slightly-older young men who then expand their ranks to include them. That group of young men commonly stay in touch year-round.”

The encounter with the Fates, he said, is designed to directly challenge societal gender roles. Paxton explained, “Those three manifestations of feminine divinity are sharp, strong, direct and uncompromising, and that’s a core part of the Mystery. How does that impact a young man’s journey of discovery? It directly counters the common masculine ‘power-over’ teaching, at a place in his life where he’s primed for change.”

He summarized the process:

We pick our coordinators carefully, from people we know to be good and fierce and gentle men. We get to know each person who comes to us for passage rites, and we personalize what we pass on as much as possible — and, having sent them through these extended explorations of themselves while primed with the things they need to hear, we acknowledge them publicly within the community as men who have made commitments to our shared values.

For adults who missed the opportunity for such an experience, there is also the Men’s Personal Rite of Passage Experience (MPROPE). Zero, one of the current coordinators, spoke about what drives men to participate:

The most common thing I hear from our men is how they want to do better in their family role, whatever that may be. Some men want to be a more understanding or stronger husband, while others a more patient or confident father. Some of the younger have more commonality in that they really want to be seen as a man. They want to accomplish and endure things to earn respect from those they care about, and from themselves. We try to be sure that the men share their thoughts with each other, so they know that there is no one true way to be a man. Not every man does his part by mowing the grass, fixing the car, being the tough guy, or working in the factory all day. And it would seem, for the most part, that they are able to see that.

That informs the underlying goals of the MPROPE. Zero said, “We do not believe that if you deviate from the role society says you should be in, that you are not a man. Being the homemaker is just as valuable as being the breadwinner. You can be the comforter and nurturer, and still be a man. It is when you accept yourself, better yourself, and do your part that you truly become a man.”

The adult men’s experience involves community service, sleeping in the woods alone with one’s thoughts and one’s gods, guided meditation, and both brotherhood and solitude. “We offer them a safe space to speak of their strengths and insecurities. We give them opportunities to reflect on how they see their role in their families, as well as communities, and how they can strengthen that role by strengthening themselves,” Zero said. The men are also pushed to their physical limits, but that is individualized to ensure no one is excluded. “I’d rather push them through mud in a wheelchair myself than to have them feel like they couldn’t take part,” Zero added.

Public Domain / Pixabay

Public Domain / Pixabay

Even as participants in these rites seek to define their own manhood, no external definitions of what makes one a man are imposed. However, that was only made explicit recently. “Before this year, no one had asked about transgendered men,” Zero said. “No one had stepped up for the rite itself. I didn’t know if it had just never come up, or if there was a precedent. So, I spoke with my co-facilitator, and we were in immediate agreement. A ritual that is meant to be a tool for a man to find his inner strength, to realize their potential as a man, can be perfect for someone making that transition. To deny them that chance would not only be unfair to them, but it would go against the very reason we keep this going.”

Paxton is in full agreement, and said, “In short, we don’t check equipment. Whenever I’ve done any men’s-specific programming (be it rites of passage or things like the Men’s Ritual at PSG), my approach has always been that anyone who identifies as a man and wants to hear what I’ve got to say about manhood is welcome.”

While a powerful, ritual experience to set the stage for manhood as a Pagan is important, that role can be chipped away by societal norms and expectations. Ongoing support is also important for men who don’t wish to fall into uncomplimentary stereotypes when they are not in the company of other Pagans. That piece of the puzzle is the focus of the Brotherhood of the Stag & Wolf, a group which was formed by a group of young men who had undergone rites of passage in the EarthSpirit Community.

Donovan Arthen, one of the founders, spoke about what these men do, and why:

In 2003, a group of seven of us came together because we all had this shared desire to explore what it meant to be young, strong, and present men in our community, which was and is a community that is deeply connected and rooted in powerful women. The sacred feminine is part of the Pagan world, and growing up with that was really wonderful. For me, it gave a different perspective on what it meant to be a woman, and a man.

At 15 years of age, Arthen was one of the youngest in a group that included others nearly 30 years old. Together, they asked, “What does it mean to be a man in this community? Strong, present, not an oppressor or a predator? How can we be partners and peers, stand next to amazing women in our community, and be together without being dominant? How can we help each other to be that?”

Those explorations started on the beach at Rites of Spring, guided by one of the first points they agreed upon: men’s groups often petered out, and these men felt it was because there was too much talking. The solution was to bring in exercises from martial arts. They started with a variant on a Tai Chi exercise of touching hands: two men, eyes closed, touch hands and keep them in contact as they move. “We move around with our hands, feel the energy, and try to score a touch on chest. There are so many ways to do that,” Arthen explained. “We quickly learned how we can pull, or use stiff arms to keep you away, maybe encourage you to touch, or be totally fluid so you never know where they were going to be.”

Next, they added sumo-style wresting, where one bests one’s opponent by forcing them from the ring drawn in the sand, or getting them to touch the ground with anything other than the soles of their feet. Their activities started drawing more interest, both participants and audience, and it became clear that a change of philosophy was in order. Arthen said:

Some people got hurt, it didn’t feel like success, because it reduced trust, not built it. We re-investigated and came up with cooperative competition. The root is we are creating a space for men of all ages — some who were fathers, some older we wanted to learn from — creating a place where men could come together and build trust, camaraderie, develop understanding of each other and sensitivity in themselves to better walk in the world as a man in their definition. It’s about instead of pushing someone out or down, both people pushing each other up. In every interaction I see you, I respect you. I see some of who you can be, and are. I want you to push yourself to be who you can be.

Those watching the wrestling were told that neither cheering nor jeering was acceptable, and instead they simply stood witness to the struggle of two men, while also standing ready to catch either if needed. That idea dovetailed with the rule of 80%, which Arthen describes as, “Use only 80% of your strength; save the other 20% to catch your brother.” The emotional connections flow from the physical ones. “They push through physical and emotional processes, talking and deeply sharing, and there are opportunities to ask for help in a safe space from peopl they can rely on. When someone goes flying, three people are there to catch him. It’s a group for safe space to explore and encounter different kinds of men. One man can express his own manliness in so many different ways. This group gives that opportunity.” And again, the only requirement to participate in these annual activities is adulthood by rite of passage or not, and self-identification as male.

The brotherhood itself is not men wrestling on the beach, however. The core membership gave some care to select totems which would reflect their spirituality. Arthen explained:

The stag in so many cultures is epitome of maleness, the archetype of man.” The mythological king stag emerges from the herd for the season to lead. “We see that each one has the king stag inside of us, and it emerges and the others follow. You don’t have to be the leader all the time, you must trust in the power and skill of each other in different situations. We don’t have a leader or a leadership council. We are all peers, and leaders emerge in moments. It’s about shining, taking a role in leadership, and being in the front.

On the other hand, “The wolf is only as strong as its pack, and is symbol of brotherhood, interdependence, and interreliance. A lone wolf is a dangerous wolf, starving and cast out for some reason, sick and scared. A pack is healthy, looks and watches, takes care of each other, works in concert males and females, offering a place for those who identify as men.”

Shrine of the Brotherhood of the Stag and Wolf

Shrine of the Brotherhood of the Stag and Wolf

Upon those foundations they have spent the intervening years learning how to meld their role as men with their beliefs as Pagans. That includes the development of seven balances, pair of conflicting values which men should strive to embrace in equal measure, such as persistence and mutability. Much of that work is done in in a shrine of megalithic stones that the brotherhood built in Massachusetts after raising money via a crowdfunding campaign. With a permanent home, only recently did the founding members start discussing how and if their work could be replicated in other Pagan communities. “We are so rooted in EarthSpirit, we’ve had to ask, if we share or lead an experience elsewhere, what would that look like?” Arthen asked. Much of the group’s values have been unspoken until recently, when they started thinking about a defined pathway for accepting new members.

Defining and living healthy roles of manhood is a continuing struggle in a society where the denigration of women is still often acceptable, and the deference given to men is unconscious. The roles, which are clear while circling a sacred fire at a Pagan festival, become much murkier in the office, the locker room, and the political arena. While there are some opportunities to explore, and support a healthy and supportive role as a man within Paganism, the communities still are small compared to the mores of the over-culture, which still blatantly denied women the right to vote less than a century ago.

It is, however, a good start.

Baseball third baseman and hall-of-famer Wade Boggs, who played for the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Devil Rays was well-known for his rituals. Though not Jewish, he always drew the Hebrew symbol Chai, meaning “living,” in the dirt of the batter’s box before he went to bat. Wade also ate chicken before every game, took batting practice at 5:17 a.m. and ran sprints at exactly 7:17 a.m. I have no idea what Mr. Boggs’ faith is, but his use of ritual was widely publicized.

Boggs was not the only famous example of ritual behavior in sports. Tennis Champion Serena Williams will only wear a single pair of socks during any given tournament; successful NCAA Men’s Basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian would chew towels during games; Basketball player Mike Bibby uses nail clippers during timeouts and Wayne Gretzky used baby powder on his hockey stick famously remarked “I think it’s essentially a matter of taking care of what takes care of you.” And finally, baseball outfielder Moises Alou pees on his hands to toughen then up.

Fan dons a Ritual Rally Cap [Photo Credit: Kevin Harber / Flickr]

Fan dons a ritual rally cap to help team win [Photo Credit: Kevin Harber / Flickr]

Yes, you read that right. And while there is no evidence that urine will make your hands tougher, science does speak to how ritual behavior can help us in our tasks. On a cultural level, rituals serve to promote structure. They serve as a means to communicate across individuals and generations while routinizing social behavior to mark transitions, time or power as well as belongingness, remembrances and traditions. In this sense, ritual behavior is actually fairly common regardless of faith.

But rituals do not work within faith traditions alone. My husband just became a citizen last month. As I watched him taking his Oath of Allegiance, it was clear that this was part of “United-Statesian” ritualized behavior that “transforms” a person into an “American.” There were also elements of the citizenship ceremony to underscore both the significance of the event as well as highlight the new affiliation and the powers it confers. There is imagery throughout the ceremony reminding the new citizens of American values. Other imagery shows the struggles of past immigrants: an echo of ancestors. You stand, you sit, you perform and you recite. And finally, there is imagery of place reminding the citizens of the land itself.

Pagan and Heathen rituals are equally complex though often with a markedly different purpose than nationalism. They can vary in motive and goals. They can be part of a larger ceremony. They celebrate time and rhythms or invoke personal even divine power to transform ourselves, our consciousness, and our world or shape will and reality within them. They can be private or public; spontaneous to ceremonial. But their purpose is always to intensify our relationship with the sacred.

As Rev. Selena Fox wrote, “Through rituals, Pagans deepen their relationship with the Divine in one or more sacred forms. Through rituals, Pagan culture flourishes and evolves.”  Like prayer, rituals serve as a source of reflection. They help us better understand the present moment and our place in the web of relationships around us. They also help us understand the actions we must take to develop ourselves personally and spiritually.

It turns out that there is some interesting science about how rituals serve as a basis for improving and empowering individuals. To explore this, let’s take out the spiritual side of ritual for a moment and focus only its psychological and behavioral effects. Magical ritual has been most typically viewed as an error in cognition – a misinterpreted framing of actual events. In the case of Wade Boggs, for example, the cognitive error emerges when he attempted a ritual and succeeded with his performance thereby increasing the likelihood he would attempt that ritual again.

In psychology, this is the stimulus-response-reward cycle that leads to the building of our behavioral repertoire. Psychology sees our behaviors as the result of collective rewards. In other words, we do what we do because we are rewarded for doing it, and because we are rewarded for doing it, we continue to do what we do.

And then there are other effects like the Galatea and Pygmalion effects that come into play in our ritual behavior as well. The Galatea effect refers to the phenomenon where an individual’s own opinion about their ability and self-worth influence the performance tasks. For example, if an employee thinks that she will perform well, then she improves her own chances of succeeding at the task. The Pygmalion effect is similar. In this effect, the employee improves his performance because his supervisor communicates her belief that he will succeed. The employee then tries harder to perform at the supervisor’s expectations.

Both of these are part of the self-fulfilling prophecy, a term that fails to convey the real substance of these effects. Neither of these produces a causal effect, as it were. Rather they create beliefs that then create motivational states and ultimately produce performance effects.

Thai Pagan Pride Altar [Courtesy Photo]

Altar used in Pagan Seasonal Ritual [Courtesy Photo: Thai Pagan Pride]

Legare & Souza (2012) wanted to explore the effectiveness of ritual action when there is no available causal information; that is the lack of evidence of causal effect. To do this they brought together the understanding from both cultural and psychological science by looking at simpatias in Brazil.

In Latin America, simpatias (the Brazillian term) are charms, a sort of common magic or simple spell that are embedded and ubiquitous in the culture. We don’t look for cause and effects because they are representative in how we perform our culture. For example, my grandmother taught me to place (and change weekly) a clear glass of water in the room where you sleep to silence spirits that insist on speaking without your permission. The simpatias address all sorts of issues from love to ailments.

What the researchers did is “invent” simpatias that contained elements that made sense to the Brazilian culture; for example using religious iconography, specific steps and order, and the number and types of items used. They presented the “invented” simpatias to a Brazilian sample then conducted the same study with a U.S. samples. The researchers then asked each group to rate the effectiveness of the simpatias.

Now here’s the interesting part, the Brazilian group, who already believed in the effectiveness of simpatias, identified the number of steps in the charm, the repeated procedures of the charm, and the specified time in the charm as important elements that lead to the charm working. The U.S. group, who did not believe in the effectiveness of simpatias, identified the exact same elements to creating an effective charm. What the findings suggest, is that the logic of a ritual is important in its effectiveness.

Now let’s take that into context with this: Damisch, Stoberock and Mussweiler (2010) reported a set of intriguing experiments where participants attempted 10 golf putts from a distance of about 1 yard. Some participants, a primed group, were told ‘‘Here is the ball. So far it has turned out to be a lucky ball.’’  A control group was told ‘‘This is the ball everyone has used so far.’’

Obviously participants were blind to the differences between the two groups and were not told the objective of the experiment. Surprisingly, participants in the control group made 48% of putts while participants in the primed group made 65% of putts, a statistically significant difference accounted for only by the priming statement. While there have been challenges in replicating the findings and much more work needs to be done, the initial data suggest that belief matters a great deal toward creating performance or meeting performance standards.

Finally, Norton & Gino (2013) conducted a series of experiments to examine how rituals can help regain feelings of control during periods of loss. They conducted a series of lab experiments to examine loss. One experiment involved individuals receiving $15 for participating in an experiment that involved the possible winning of an additional $200. Participants thought that the experiment was about the lottery but it was actually about how rituals help mitigate feelings of defeat and grief. Before participating, participants were asked about their belief in rituals and then asked to participate in one involving using some words, salt and paper to limit feelings of loss. As expected, the participants who partook in rituals, reported feeling less grief regardless of whether they believed in the ritual. The research points to the acts of (a) referring to a set of actions as ritual and (b) that executing them as such are critical elements to produce the beneficial psychological effects.

Taken together, the findings of all three investigations are provocative. While the studies are not looking at Pagan ritual per se, the parallels are important. They underscore the fundamental benefits of Pagan ritual practice independent of spiritual underpinnings. The science hints to the powerful combination of psychology and culture that creates a transformative experience leading to better performance, whether in life or in work or in golf.

But there are other positive outcomes here that we can potentially leverage. Science is the religion of the secular and everyone has some exposure to it. While science cannot validate who we are and why we do things, it can helps us communicate our actions to those unfamiliar with our rituals. Science can serve as a more accessible bridge with those individuals who are unable to see the elegance of Pagan practice because their biases forbid them clarity.

Handfasting [Photo Credit: Michela Horvath]

Handfasting Ritual [Photo Credit: Michela Horvath]

The science here can also help us support those who are new to Paganism as they develop their own spiritual awareness in their traditions. I’m reminded of the old artistic adage “Trust the process.” It is about not worrying how a work (or a ritual) unfolds, but rather to be present in the experience. It is a challenge of patience not a test of faith. The research above underscores the transformative potential of ritual that can help new Pagans approach personal work without having to believe in anything except the process. While that may sound atheistic to some, which may be fine in and of itself, developing faith is a much longer road with its own challenges. In the meantime, spiritual and personal growth can happen. Rituals can help open both doors.

Our rituals are also a form of transgression. They do not seek to limit or humble or drain; though their power they may show our weaknesses, reminds us of humility, or leave us exhausted. Our rituals do not seek to make us, less. Our rituals are empowering. Our rituals are about building the person and the community, while marking the sacred. They allow every practitioner to serve as both transformer and transformed. They build and create relationships without intercessors. And, most, seriously we can see them as mechanisms for influencing the natural world as well as the lives and minds of others. They are a sobering display of Pagan strength.


Damisch, L., Stoberock, B. & Mussweiler, T. (2010)  “Keep our fingers crossed!  How superstition improves performance.” Psychological Science, 21, 1014-1020. doi: 10.1177/0956797610372631

Legare, C.H. & Souza, A. L. (2012).  “Evaluating ritual efficacy: Evidence from the supernatural.” Cognition, 124 (1), 1-16.

Norton, M. I., & Gino, F. (2013, February 11). “Rituals Alleviate Grieving for Loved Ones, Lovers, and Lotteries.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0031772

The Rider-Waite Four of Wands, by Pamela Colman Smith.

The Rider-Waite Four of Wands [Public Domain U.S.]

The infant sleeps in her mother’s arms; she is brown of hair, tiny, only six weeks old. Her father sits next to me on the floor, beating out a rhythm on a hand drum. I am kneeling next to him, matching his beat by slapping my knees and stomach. The baby’s brother, three years old, walks in and out of the circle, anxiously waiting for all the chanting to be over so he can blow out the lone candle sitting on the altar. My heartbeat rises to match the drumming of animal hide and human flesh. I am on the edge of ecstasy, induced by the kind of breathing I only do during ritual. Lorelei stands above us, leading the invocation: she lifts a ceramic liquid incense burner, passing its sweet scent over us, and calls out to the elements. Powers of the south, spirits of fire, she says in a dream-like whisper, we ask you for your blessings…

The term for the ritual, I suppose, is a Wiccaning. I don’t know, really. As far as I know, my coven has never had such a thing. If I had a Wiccaning as an infant, nobody has told me about it. For me, this is uncharted territory. We are calling in the elements to give their blessings to the baby, the invocations beginning with Lorelei and then passing around the circle to the child. Our words are all improvised. When it is my turn to speak, I do so in a slightly archaic, elevated way – We call to thee, spirits of the south, guardians of the watchtower of staves, the powers of fire – language stolen from the hundreds of rituals I have seen in my life, repurposed to this occasion. Others speak in words closer to their normal registers, or in streaming sentences, in phrases full of air and weight.

Again – we are making this up as we go along. The meaning we create is created in the moment; it appears and then vanishes, like smoke from the incense.

My dissertation adviser knows a lot about nonfiction writing, but not much about Paganism. I once brought an essay to her that described a set of rituals from the late 1980s I had found in a box of old materials from the early days of my coven; I speculated as to what those rituals might have meant, the reasons why they might have been written. My adviser didn’t know what to say to my speculations. It had never occurred to her that religion could be a creative act, could be art. For my part, I don’t know that I can really understand practicing a religion without the sense of reinvention and creativity that I have grown up with. Writing about Paganism, but having that writing seen and commented on by a mostly non-Pagan audience, constantly reminds me that the differences between my childhood and many others’ are more than just the appearances of the places we called church. Some of it goes down to the bone.

In this ritual, this Wiccaning, we are weaving together a portrait of hope – everything we think important enough to beseech the numinous. It is a family conversation, a statement of what we value and what we regret. The words come from individuals, but the end result – the tapestry we weave – reflects all of us together, our history and future.

And yet it is ephemeral. It was only a week ago, but I can’t remember exactly what I asked the fire to give the baby or the exact construction of my sentences; I certainly can’t recall the specifics of my coven-mates’ requests, beyond the usual associations of fire, passion and warmth. The baby herself will never know exactly what was said on her behalf, either. Our prayers were formed from the stuff within our hearts that night; its magick is now out in the world, doing whatever it will do, invisible and untraceable.

I spend a lot of my time thinking about inheritance. It’s a concept the Pagan world isn’t really equipped for yet, at least in my estimation. Paganism mostly cares about the new: new rituals, new traditions, new names, new covens, new families, new identities. Even when we look to the past, when we pore over the histories of our founders and our gods, we look to innovate and reconstruct, hoping that whatever discoveries we turn up will add new dimensions to our practice. It feels like something borne in the blood of our enterprise. Paganism is an apostate movement, formed by and large by people spurning an old way of life. We have turned away once, hoping to find something re-enchanted and new; perhaps we are inclined to continue turning away. But what does a person who has left behind a way of life leave behind themselves?

Creativity and tradition, apostasy and inheritance; these are thoughts that swirled around me as I thought through my invocation to the powers of fire. We were giving this baby a gift that she would not understand for years, if then; I know, because it was a gift given to me as well, and if anything, the more I consider it, the less I’m sure I understand it. My religion has, for better or worse, been the cornerstone of my life, the shaper of my perceptions and the sculptor of my ethics; I have been, in turn, ashamed, dazzled, and enmeshed by it. It is a weighty gift.

The baby is sleeping in her mother’s arms, unaware of the magick that surrounds her, all the hope and fear we hold for her. The elements are called in, sweep over her in her slumber, granting whatever blessings they may. We welcome her into our family; all of this is hers now, to keep, to change, to burn away.

The Magician

Eric O. Scott —  May 17, 2013 — 16 Comments

the magician

Your humble author.

The sewing machine’s name is Elizabeth. I am borrowing her from my girlfriend’s sister. Her manual, produced on clean white paper with green ink by the Babylock Corporation, refers to her exclusively with feminine pronouns. Elizabeth is a very talented seamstress. She will help me with all of my sewing projects. She knows dozens of stitches and has a built-in arm.

I am more than a little afraid of Elizabeth.

The first thing Elizabeth needs is a bobbin. I have never heard of a bobbin before. When I finally get the white thread to spin onto the tiny plastic cylinder, Elizabeth makes a noise like she’s being minced to death, feet first. I call my girlfriend in a panic, asking if this is normal. It is. Elizabeth just makes noises like that sometimes; she is an excitable girl.

Beltane is in three days. In that time, Elizabeth and I need to assemble the collection of squares and triangles of white cotton laying on the floor of my living room into a robe. We will also need to make a red overcloak, for which I haven’t yet bought the fabric. I also need to buy wine, cakes, plastic wear, ribbons, and at least five other items that I haven’t even thought of.

We are having Beltane in Tower Grove Park this year, in one of the beautiful, ancient Victorian pavilions that Henry Shaw bequeathed to future generations. I have been envisioning this ritual for months now: a sweeping ceremony, full of spectacle and pomp, set against the backdrop of St. Louis’s most picturesque public park.

It is supposed to rain on Beltane.

I still haven’t written the damned ritual.

I am not a very good magician.

* * *

We are going to do all the sabbats.

That’s a simple goal, but when I and the other members of my generation in Sabbatsmeet took it up seven years ago, it seemed scary as hell. I had never led a ritual before we did that first Lughnasadh together in a park near the edge of the city. I had no idea of how to write a ritual, really, and no idea of what I actually wanted in one. I was twenty years old and had no idea what I was doing.

I am twenty-six now. It feels weird to talk about twenty-six as though that were some kind of advanced age, worthy of an experienced master – I mean, I’m an adult, but just barely. But it’s hard to look back on your past with any other perspective. That kid thought he knew everything, but he was barely even sentient. I’m sure at fifty-two I’m going to look back at forty-six and think that guy was an idiot, too.

One thing that twenty-year-old me did was put a bunch of rules into place for our Sabbats, and I have done my best to honor his wishes. Sarah, my best friend and High Priestess, and I do one sabbat per year. That sabbat is always based on a particular mythology and its attendant culture. Everyone in our age bracket, a group that has had as few as four and as many as ten depending on the year, gets a part in the ritual. We don’t repeat sabbats. We don’t repeat gods. Not until we get to Samhain.

So we’ve had Norse Yule and Roman Harvest, Egyptian Imbolg and Greek Litha, always invoking different gods, always doing our best to do right by them. But we had hit most of the low-hanging fruit as far as mythologies go years ago, so we stretched our definitions a little bit. Sarah, being something of an Anglophile, really wanted to do a Victorian-flavored festival, and given my love for Tower Grove Park, I was okay with that. But what would we actually do in the ritual? What were we going to invoke?

And then I thought: the Rider-Waite Tarot. What could be more Victorian than that?

And then I thought: I don’t know anything about Tarot.

And then I thought: what’s the worst that could happen?

I am not a very good magician.

* * *

Elizabeth cannot tell me how to hem a neck-hole. Neither can my girlfriend, Megan, who is asleep down the hall. Elizabeth and I are running thread through the edges of my robe, folding the cloth over into something approximating a hem. But the neck-hole is a strange and terrifying part of the garment, and I’m afraid that I’m going to accidentally give myself a plunging neckline if I mess with it too much.

I look at the clock and see that it’s almost three in the morning. It’s the night before Beltane, and as much as I would like to get the Mystery of the Unhemmed Neck solved, it’s probably more important to get the ritual finished. I bid Elizabeth goodnight and sit down to finish writing the ceremony.

I was stumped by how to write a ritual involving the Tarot. The biggest problem, of course, was deciding on which figures to include. We don’t draw enough of a crowd to justify 22 named parts, and besides, that ritual would take hours. I have to cater to the needs of my audience of the young and the middle-aged; they don’t have patience for that kind of thing.

john fucking madden

Above: John Madden presents Beltane.

As usual in these circumstances, I turned to my father, who suggested I cut it down to seven: the trumps corresponding to the classical planets, The Sun, the High Priestess, the Magician, the Empress, the Tower, the Wheel of Fortune, and the World. (“Why is the moon the High Priestess and not, uh, The Moon?” “Ask the Golden Dawn, son. I didn’t make up that list.”) As it happened, I needed exactly ten speaking parts to accommodate my rules, and this gave me exactly that many: six trumps plus four suits plus one Maypole for the Wheel of Fortune. I declared this a miracle and accepted it immediately. We got together three weeks before Beltane and drew up an outline of the ritual, complete with a strangely football-esque diagram; all I needed to do was sit down and write out the text. Nothing to it.

I finish the Empress’s speech at four AM the night before Beltane. Only three more trumps to go.

the high priestess

Above: Look at that hat!

It is the day of Beltane. It’s cold, and the sky is thick with clouds, but it doesn’t rain. As people start to arrive, I realize that we’ve cast our spell too well: we planned for an English festival, and the weather has complied. As always, the danger of magick is getting what you asked for.

Small things go wrong throughout the course of the day, mostly in the realm of things I never got a chance to buy. Thankfully my friends are both dutiful and clever, and the only thing of real importance missing is a bit of salt for the ritual’s opening. More troubling is that we had not one but two people set up to play the King of Swords, and neither of them made it to the ritual. Oh well. That’s one not in costume.

The defects don’t matter much, in the end; they rarely do. Because when the circle is cast and the wind picks up and blows my red cloak around me, I can feel the power of ritual overwhelm me, bubble over me and drown me. When I raise my tools to the sky and call upon the elements, I feel them with me and within me, responding to my summons as they have my entire life. This is a thing which is always rote and always strange.

We take a deep breath, each of us looking ahead at the Maypole, at the Wheel, at the spokes on that wheel each of us represent, and we begin.

Sarah is draped in blue, her head covered by a hat in the shape of the three-fold moon. A hush comes over our congregation as she casts the circle. Sarah, the High Priestess, the Moon.

I, clad in red, the infinity sign on my brow, hand the Priestess her tools. All of the exhaustion and worry of the past few days melts away, fading into the ritual. I am ready now for the Great Work, the creation of something full of wonder and hope.

I am now something more than myself; I am Mercury. I am The Magician. And a pretty damned good one, too.

We each silently mouth the words in unison with her, the words we have heard so many times before, the most powerful words we know:

This is the circle.

This is the space between the worlds.

Here be magick.

Here be love.

So mote it be.

And, gods willing, so it always will be.


This is a follow-up piece to the two-part series on solidarity written by Heather Greene for The Wild Hunt. There is a great deal of conversation taking place around A Question of Pagan Solidarity: Part 1 and A Question of Pagan Solidarity: Part 2, and this post offers a practical example of how solidarity can be experienced by solitaries, and how that experience of “solitary solidarity” can inspire those in the broader community to approach solidarity as a meaningful practice.

Solitary Tree

Solitary tree at Sunset (CC)

Some have asked, “How can we have a conversation about solidarity if we can’t even agree on how we define ourselves?” I’d suggest that having a conversation about solidarity might help us have the conversation about identity, especially if we engage with one another with the intent to experience solidarity, rather than simply define it.

I’m going to offer up an example of solidarity in practice, particularly solidarity for solitaries. “Solitary solidarity” may technically be an oxymoron, but so is “deafening silence,” and who doesn’t love the poetry of that term? An oxymoron can be useful, beautiful, and relevant, and I think this example of “solitary solidarity” might even help us discern a new way of engaging with one another in community.

I’ve committed myself in service to the Solitary Druid Fellowship, which is built on the concept of solidarity for solitaries (or as I often call it, congregation in solitude). Our solidarity is not one of a strict agreement of identities, or even an agreement about an identical practice. Ours is a solidarity build around the awareness of each other’s existence, of each other’s mutual needs, and of our commonalities. Our differences are respected and supported, and they do not threaten the life of the Fellowship, because the Fellowship is not built to institute uniformity.

SDF LogoOur solidarity is the grounds of our shared spiritual practice. We join each other in a shared observance of the High Holidays, the Sabbats, using a shared liturgy. But even in that framework, there is room for individuation. Some will be observing Imbolc, and others Charming of the Plough. Some will make libations to Roman gods, and others to no gods at all. Some will take the liturgy and completely re-write it, using it only as an inspiration for their religious observance. And yet, though all of this, there is solidarity among us. We are aware of each other, we are holding each other in a state of respect, and we are, if in this way only, united.

Our consent to this solidarity allows for us to step into an experiential reality of interconnectedness. We are doing something together, even as we are apart. Our togetherness is not synchronous. We are not coordinating a “shared ritual” at a specific time on a specific day. Our asynchronous observance is more of an agreement we make to honor what is meaningful to us, to celebrating in the way that is most resonant for us, and to steering clear of the impulse to fence one other into specific ways of being, thinking, acting, or identifying.

From the outside, this solidarity we experience may seem trivial. It may appear insubstantial enough to constitute “solidarity.” But for those who consent to being part of this Fellowship, which is but one model of how “solitary solidarity” might be experienced, we open ourselves to a different understanding. Through the doing, there is a new experience of knowing.

If I were to attempt to make this solidarity into a “Pagan solidarity”, or an “ADF solidarity,” I would be missing the point, and I’d be shutting certain people out. There are ADF members who are participating in the shared practice and observance of the Solitary Druid Fellowship, of course. The Fellowship is a service extension of ADF, so this is only natural. But there are also non-ADF members who are taking part. There are people who don’t identify as Druids, polytheists or Pagans, and some who don’t have a clear take on what the gods are at all. There are theists, atheists, polytheists and agnostics taking part. They are approaching reverence, albeit for different things. They are sharing language, even as they’re engaging with it differently. They are suspending the need to be the same, and in doing so they are opening themselves up to something harmonious.

I would like to see other experiments in solidarity. I would like to see it on a micro and macro scale. I’d like individual traditions to see how they can foster solidarity among themselves, and then see if there are ways to extend that experience of solidarity outside their boundaries. Approaching solidarity with other solitaries is an opportunity to experience solidarity on the scale of the individual, and if we allow ourselves that, perhaps we might begin to allow if for larger groups who identify differently than we do.

We might experience solidarity with humans who don’t look, think, dress, love or act like us. We might begin to foster a deeper respect for one another, and come to honor the ways in which we are unique, and the same. In time, this newfound respect might extend to those non-human beings who share our land, our water, our food, our resources. In time, we might find more ways to experience solidarity than we do discord.

Solidarity can become a discipline, like meditation. Seeking to know the feeling and experience of solidarity, to understand how it can be felt among a seemingly disparate, disconnected people, makes possible new awarenesses, new understandings.

How do we have a conversation about solidarity when we aren’t in agreement about identity and terminology? We answer that question by devising new ways to experience solidarity. We find the new way by making a new practice.

Then, we come to understand solidarity.

This, at least, has been my experience.

So I ask you —

How have you sought to create an experience of solidarity? Or, could you conceive of a way to do it? 

Can you imagine a way to foster an experience of solidarity with those in your tradition? If so, what would that look like? Then, could you imagine a way of expanding that experience of solidarity to those outside your tradition?

How would you do that? Through liturgy? Through a shared calendar? Though a shared language? A common practice?

How can you make solidarity happen?

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

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 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.