Archives For ritual

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.

Often those on the road to spiritual enlightenment and wisdom will undertake peak experiences of various natures to further them on their respective paths. When done properly, and safely, they can offer new perspectives and insights that can change the participants lives. When done improperly, injury and death can occur. The Moscow News provides another cautionary tale from a man looking to reenact an ancient Slavic burial ritual.

“Planning to recreate an ancient Slavonic ritual, the deceased took a hosepipe with him for the underground vigil and believed he would be perfectly safe and able to breathe freely until he was released half an hour later … Unfortunately, Interfax reported, this historical re-enactment was destined to end in tragedy when the weight of the soil above him crushed the victim’s neck, chest and abdomen, leading to asphyxiation.”

So remember, don’t count on Fortuna to always be with you when attempting a dangerous rite of passage or ritual. There’s a reason India has banned the practice of live burial, and why most modern variations of live burial rituals come with several safeguards against suffocation.

Many of our revered wise men and women from history have undergone tests of their endurance and faith, events that could have killed them. But what history doesn’t speak of are the thousands more who attempt their feats and never survive to pass on the wisdom gained from the experience. So be wise, remember that redundancy and safety go hand-in-hand, and also remember that many of the most significant spiritual/religious breakthroughs come when one is merely sitting.

Thank you to Jason, and to my fellow Wild Hunt readers, for allowing me to share my thoughts with you today.

Which came first, ritual or theatre?  Most history of theatre curriculums taught at Universities across the Western world impress upon their students the theory that theatre came from ritual.  In the Journal of Religion and Theatre, Dr Eli Rozik deconstructs this theory, and refutes the work of cultural anthropologist Victor Turner, and performance studies professor Richard Schechner.  As contemporary Pagans, we too have recently reconsidered our history through the work of scholars such as Dr.  Ronald Hutton, and are challenged to replace a mythological awareness of our origins with more factual considerations.

Though I find the above arguments fascinating on many levels, as a clergyman and artistic director I am most interested in how ritual and theatre intersect in contemporary society, and within contemporary Paganism in particular.  Pagans practice ritual in private and in public.  We offer solitary devotions to our gods, and large scale community rituals at Sabbats and festivals.  Our religious community is a treasure trove of inspiration, color, pageantry, and transformational power.  What is it about ritual that captures our collective imagination?  In Dr.  Sabina Magliocco’s excellent article “Ritual is My Chosen Art Form:  The Creation of Ritual as Folk Art Among Contemporary Pagans” (published in Magical Religion and Modern Witchcraft, edited by James R. Lewis, pp. 93-119. Albany: State University of New York Press), Magliocco details the many reasons Pagans create and perform ritual.  She also cites the various sources for ritual creation including academia, folklore, mass media, popular culture and popular psychology, as well as interaction with other Pagans and our own internal inspirations.  She also mentions the tripartite ritual structure of the French ethnographer and folklorist Arnold van Gennep: 1)  the separation from the current state of awareness, 2)  the transition to a middle, distinctly different state of awareness,  and 3) the incorporation and integration of the middle state with a return to the world at large.  This three-fold structure was elaborated upon by Victor Turner in his articulation of a key concept called liminality.  I direct readers to the Limininality.org blog for a well-crafted explanation of Turner’s liminal/liminoid theme.

Why is this tripartite structure important, and how does it relate to theatre and to life?  As Pagans we seek that key moment of transcendence, magic, connection, and transformation that comes from truly effective ritual and magical practice.  There are those rare but amazing and mysterious moments where we feel linked to the ancient past, or as if we’ve entered into another world altogether.  We might even have a peak experience and feel profoundly connected to everything and everyone, where we can see the divine everywhere, and in all things.  These experiences help to create our personal worldview.  They inform our ethics and values, and they give us a reason for living.  We can also experience these profound states of consciousness from truly great theatre, film, and storytelling.  As with rituals, all stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but it is the central liminal/liminoid space which creates the transformational power found in both theatre and ritual.

In the theatre, the audience enters into a unique situation where they experience a story.  Actors guide the audience on a journey, which, if performed well, will allow the audience to resonate with the story.   For a time, the audience is asked to make a personal investment of imagination and emotion, which is embodied in the journey of the actors in the play, movie, or story.  The success of the experience weighs heavily upon the skills of the actors, and the ability of the audience to willingly invest in (and enter into) the world of the story.  If an actor forgets his or her lines, or isn’t truly invested in the other actors and the story, the audience will be separated from the liminal space either temporarily or for the duration of the story.  The same can be said for ritual.  How many times have you attended a ritual where the entire liturgy was simply read off of cue cards (or a loose leaf script), or else some blunder from the ritual team took you entirely out of the sacred nature of the experience?  Knowledge of both the theatrical and ritual art forms can inform and strengthen the other, without losing the integrity of either medium.

I have implemented these ideas in my work with my theatre company Terra Mysterium, and the Neopagan order Brotherhood of the Phoenix.  Part of Terra Mysterium Performance Troupe’s mission statement affirms the use of ritual structures, symbolism, and multi-disciplinary artistic mediums to transform, enliven, and entertain audiences.  We are aware of the natures of theatre and ritual as separate and distinct, yet we seek to allow each art form to inform the other for the creation of something rich, deep, and cathartic for the audience.  Our company’s name can be translated as “Land of Mystery,” which serves as a metaphor for the experience of theatre, magic, and even life itself.  In the Brotherhood of the Phoenix,  we have a celebrant training program which is required of all brothers who wish to perform our public liturgy.  The Chicago temple uses between 7-15 men as celebrants for each ritual.  It is as necessary to train these men in ritual theory and performance, as much as it to train them in the theatrical building blocks of ensemble creation (text analysis, diction and vocal projection, active listening, unison movement, improvisation, and anticipating the next part of liturgy); the ability to act as one cohesive unit.  To see how theatre is influencing Pagans and visa-versa, see Coreopsis: A Journal of Myth and Theatre.  The current issue is dedicated to Paganism.

The skill sets that both celebrants and actors must possess overlap more often than not.  In order to create a dynamic relationship between the ritual team and the circle of seekers, there must be a deep understanding of the ritual’s structure and its goals.  There must also be a profound awareness of the energies present in each moment, so that the ritual moves forward with grace and skill.  Likewise, actors must be aware of the entire arc of the story, their goals/desires as individual characters, and their own profound commitment to each and every moment.  This allows for spontaneous and genuine reactions to other characters, the set and props, and the circumstances of the story.  Both the ritual team and the actors must commit to letting go of fear, self-conscious judgment, and external distractions.  They must use all of their senses in a highly focused and purposeful way, and they must be fully present for the work at hand.    Anything less risks the loss of liminal space and, therefore, the loss of the potential for deep catharsis, transcendence, and transformation. See the work of Lauren Raine, and the MetaMorphic Ritual Theatre Company for further inspirations.

For the non-actor, or for those actors looking to explore the spiritual and metaphysical potentialities of the theatre, I recommend the following websites:  Peggy Rubin’s Sacred Theatre Rubin’s work explores the journey of life, and how to live a richer “story.”  Antero Alli and his paratheatrical research explores the transformational processes of theatre work, without the need to perform for anyone; the work itself the goal.  His ideas and techniques will bring creativity to an actor who feels stuck and stagnant.  They are also excellent for Pagans looking to explore ritual in a more ecstatic, improvisatory manner.

Last, I feel that Viewpoints training is essential for any group looking to deepen their awareness and cohesion during ritual and collaborative magical workings.  Although humans have always used the ideas and tools behind these concepts, Viewpoints as a technique of improvisation emerged from the post-modern dance world. It was first articulated by choreographer Mary Overlie who broke down the two dominant issues performers deal with – time and space – into six categories.  Overlie called her approach the Six Viewpoints.  Artistic Director Anne Bogart and SITI Company have expanded Overlie’s ideas and adapted them for actors.  Anne and Chicago Steppenwolf director Tina Landau co wrote The Viewpoints Book: A Practical Guide to Viewpoints and Composition. This text would benefit anyone interested in creating an ensemble of highly coordinated and intuitive celebrants, circle members, or actors.  Whether you perform public ritual or work in private as a small group, these Viewpoints exercises will create group awareness in a quick and skillful way.  The results are immediately tangible, and are as applicable to ritual and magical practice as they are to theatre.

Matthew Ellenwood is a music director, voice teacher, and the artistic director of Terra Mysterium Performance Troupe. Terra Mysterium will be presenting their third production, Finding Eleusis (a modern day exploration of the Eleusinian Mysteries), at the Chicago Fringe Festival September 1-5, 2010.  Matthew is also one of the founders of Brotherhood of the Phoenix a Neopagan order for gay, bisexual, and transgender men who love men, where he serves as the senior clergyman for the order, and as the senior mentor of the Brotherhood’s seminary training program.  The Brotherhood will be presenting the closing ritual for Chicago Pagan Pride on August 14, 2010.

Kala Noumenia!

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  July 23, 2009 — 14 Comments

Hello, good readers of the Wild Hunt. I am Sannion, a Greco-Egyptian polytheist affiliated with the group Neos Alexandria, and a resident of the fine city of Eugene, Oregon where Jason will presently be making his home. In his absence he asked me to fill in as a guest blogger here, and as luck would have it the day that was allotted to me happens to be the Noumenia of the Makedonian month Gorpiaios (or Metageitnion if you’re going by the Athenian name.) Noumenia means the festival of the new moon, which the ancient Greeks considered to be the appearance of the first sliver, something that can take some getting used to if you’re more familiar with the astrological reckoning of new moons.

Hesiod (Works and Days 770) designated the Noumenia as the holiest of days, and it appears to have been among the oldest and most widespread of the Hellenic religious observances. Its antiquity is attested by the fact that Homer mentions it in the Odyssey (21.258) – a significant fact when we consider that he names only one other religious festival in his epics. Furthermore, the Noumenia continued to be observed well into the Christian period, since we find bishops in Byzantine Egypt during the 5th century railing against those who continue to light lamps and burn incense in their homes for the ancestral gods and spirits on the new moon.

The sacred nature of the day can be seen in the fact that no other festival was allowed to fall on the date in Athens and no legislative assemblies of the ekklesia, boule, or tribal associations occurred at this time. In fact, all important business was suspended as we learn in Plutarch’s 25th Roman Question – though it seems that the markets may have remained opened.

Generally, it was seen as a day to stay at home and celebrate with the family. Sacrifices were made to Apollon, Selene, Hera, Hekate, Hermes, Hestia and the household gods. The domestic shrines were cleaned and then wreathed with flower-garlands, and then incense, wine, and cakes were offered anew to the gods. (Porphyry, On Abstinence from Animal Food, 2.16)

The Noumenia is perhaps just as popular and universal for contemporary Hellenic and Greco-Egyptian polytheists as it was for our cultural ancestors. Ours is a diverse community, and though we may have different festival calendars, honor different gods, and even employ different methods of worship – most of us still do at least something to mark the Noumenia. Here are some examples of how different people in the community celebrate this day:

Here is a Noumenia ritual from the group Neokoroi. Here’s another ritual, by Timothy Anderson. Here’s Miguel Oliveira’s thoughts on the Noumenia, and a lovely hymn he wrote for the occasion. Here’s another hymn written by Lykeia. Here is Allyson Szabo (author of Longing for Wisdom) talking about her Noumenia experiences. Here’s some more commentary from Gede Parma, and finally some from Kenn.

In keeping with that, I would like to share some of my own thoughts about this day and how I celebrate it.

To me the Noumenia is a time of new beginnings, of renewal. Each month we are given a chance to start over, to get it right. Living in this fast-paced, hectic world with endless distractions, frustrations, and demands on our time and attention, it is easy to lose our way, to forget the things that are important to us and sometimes we may even become estranged from our gods. We may have set out to maintain a regular religious routine, or to make important life changes like eating better, exercising more, watching less television and the like – only to have life get in the way. It is easy to feel discouraged, to see all the missed opportunities and our life slipping away from us. But the Noumenia provides us with an opportunity to stop, get our bearings, connect with the divine, recharge our spiritual batteries, and renew our commitment to living the sort of life that, deep down, we have always wanted to. It is a time to clear away the old and outmoded, all the things that are cluttering our lives and holding us back, so that we can make room for new and wonderful blessings to enter them.

That is why the first thing that I do on the Noumenia (if I have not already done it on the previous evening, which is the deipnon or dinner of Hekate) is a thorough cleaning of my apartment, from top to bottom. Admittedly, this may not strike some as a particularly spiritual act – but it has taken on great significance for me. There is something deeply rewarding about all of that physical labor, especially when I use the time to think about all of the mental and spiritual “junk” that I need to remove from life as well. It is also a devotional act since by filling my home with numerous shrines to my gods, I have invited them into my life and agreed to share my space with them. The gods should not be subjected to dirty laundry, stacks of dishes, clutter and dust – and in truth, neither should I. By making my home neat and orderly, a fitting place to receive my gods – I am making over my life in a similar fashion, for one’s home is, after all, a reflection of one’s own being. I have noticed, in fact, a strong correlation between my mood and my surroundings. When the place is messy and disgusting I tend to feel stressed, anxious, and sullen – but when it is sparklingly clean and well-ordered (or as close as it gets to that, because come on, I am a guy and a bachelor after all) my heart is light and my mind soars more freely. After I have cleaned my apartment, paying special attention to my shrines and the clearing away of any offerings I may have left on the altars – I begin a series of devotions that can last anywhere from an hour to the remainder of the day.

I begin by lighting candles and incense and pouring libations for each of my household gods. I spend a little time at each of their shrines, reciting poetry and hymns, praying aloud from the heart, or just talking to them in a casual manner. Then I just bask in their presence for a bit, enjoying the beautiful sight of an active shrine full of offerings, thinking about my gods and spirits and what they mean to me, going over past encounters I’ve had with them, and what I hope to do for them in the future. If I have an ongoing oath to them, I will renew my commitment to it and think of ways that I can live up to it over the month to come.

After I have done this for each of my household divinities I next turn to the remaining gods of my rather large multicultural Greco-Egyptian pantheon. This is actually one of the most important things about the Noumenia for me, the opportunity to touch base with all of the other deities. Over the years I’ve managed to collect a smallish pantheon of gods and spirits who receive the bulk of my attention and devotional practice. These are very important gods to me, and I deeply enjoy the intense and personal nature of our relationships. But the other gods are important too, and worthy of my honor even if they haven’t made their presence as strongly felt in my life as the core group that forms my personal pantheon. So on the Noumenia I take some time to honor them as well, making collective offerings to the bunch of them, reciting brief prayers to individual gods, and generally I pause to think about them for a while and all the amazing things they have done and continue to do in our world.

After this I go into a quiet, meditative state, just sort of letting myself be in the presence of the divine. I often come away from this feeling peaceful, calm, collected – ready to face the challenges of life, grounded in an awareness of the all-pervading presence of the my gods and spirits. It doesn’t matter what else is going on in my life – all the anxieties, fears, frustrations and doubts just melt away in the face of the gods.

After that I will sit with my calendar and make plans for the upcoming month. I look at the festivals that are approaching and think about what I would like to do for them and the supplies I’ll have to gather to celebrate them properly. I go over my writing and creative projects, and any other plans I may have either percolating in my brain or carried over from the previous month. I think about my life and what I need to do to make it better. In short, I plot out the rest of the month, making concrete plans of action, because honestly, I’d never get anything done otherwise.

At that point, it’s usually pretty late and so I make myself a lavish dinner, feasting in the company of my gods and sharing a portion of the meal with them. Then I make a final offering and go out for a walk, usually going on a long, circuitous route that ends up at one of the nearby parks where I do a lot of my outdoors worship. As I stroll through the dark city streets I let my gaze drift up to the heavens and note the lovely sliver of moon, just barely visible through the darkness – yet full of such promise and potential.

This is one of my favorite parts of the Noumenia – and in many ways, one of the most important. By anchoring my religious calendar to the phases of the moon it helps me connect with the cyclic powers she contains as well as the rhythms of nature which are all around me. It’s so easy to lose sight of this, to get caught up in the manic intensity of our modern lives. So much is going on all the time, a thousand tiny things constantly clamoring for our attention, that we’re often not aware of anything outside of our own heads. Weeks can pass by in a blur, and half the time we wouldn’t even know what day it was without the anchors of what show’s on television or what trivial thing is happening at work. The earth and the moon, however, run at a slower pace, possess a deeper and more sacred wisdom, and I have found that pausing to take note of that, slowing myself down enough that I am then able to attune myself to that more divine motion is an incredibly rewarding thing. Many people find it hard to follow the lunar Hellenic calendar, especially at first. But I find it well worth the effort. These energies are real and powerful, and life runs much more smoothly when we slow down enough to be aware of them, open ourselves enough to be conscious of their influence in the world around us – and the world within us as well.

And that, dear friends, is how I celebrate the Noumenia. Often we talk about the more theoretical aspects of our faith – our conceptions of the divine, the importance of ethics and building up community, the interpretation of ancient texts, and the assorted controversies that plague our diverse communities – but I think that it is also important to discuss what we actually do for the gods, how this feels and what all this means to us today as modern practitioners of ancient faiths. Hopefully I have provided some small glimpse into the religious life of a Greco-Egyptian polytheist here in the hinterlands of Oregon. At the very least I suspect y’all won’t be complaining that my entry was too short.