Archives For this is not the news

The Candle

Eric O. Scott —  September 5, 2014 — 27 Comments
Tjörnin at midnight. Photo by the author.

Tjörnin at midnight.
Photo by the author.

Part three of my columns on Iceland. Previously: Oxararfoss and Njord.

This candle has traveled further in its short life than I traveled in the first twenty-two years of mine. I bought it at my favorite metaphysical shoppe back home.1 It came with me from Missouri to Minneapolis, and from there, to Reykjavík, where it sat on the hard plastic desk bolted to the wall of my dorm room for the first week of my stay. Now we are sitting at a picnic table hidden in a copse of trees next to Tjörnin, a lake in downtown Reykjavík, my candle and I. I am looking at it in the half-light, running my fingers along its surface. It is ten inches tall, with a white wick. Anywhere else in the world, I would describe it as midnight blue, but “midnight” is such a variable color in Iceland.

This boot knife came from a dealer’s booth at the Heartland Pagan Festival near Kansas City, long enough ago that I do not remember the exact year it came into my life. Its handle and sheath might have been gold, once, but that color has faded, in parts to silver and in parts to rust. Its blade has never been sharp. The unsheathed knife now rests in my right hand; I press its dull blade into the blue wax of the candle, cutting deep, straight lines into its surface.

This cup came from a ceramics department sale held in 2006 at the university I attended then. Its bare clay is the color of wet sand, the glaze closer to brick. There is a runic message drawn around the stem of the cup in blue acrylic paint: ODRAIZ. I found the formula in an Edred Thorsson book years ago and copied it without bothering to take notes; I have no idea what it is actually supposed to mean. The cup sits before me on the picnic table, full of a pilsner named for Egill Skallagrimsson, the priciest beverage sold at the 1011 convenience store near the dormitory. I believe the sculptor intended for it to be used as a flower vase.

This hammer came from a hardware store in south St. Louis; it has no further story, and is clearly the least sentimental of the tools arrayed in front of me.

It is the middle of the shortest night of the year, and I am sitting in a public park with a lit candle, a dull knife, a cup, and a sledgehammer. Clearly, the time is right for magick2.

MIDSUMMER, I carve into the wax. If I were more clever, I would have thought to look up phrases in Icelandic for this purpose before I left for Tjörnin, but it was too late for that now. I had to settle for English words, in letters that predated either of the languages that currently make up my world, the language of my birth (the language of power, comfort, ignorance, colonialism) and the language of this land (the language of frustration, error, isolation, faith.) ICELAND, MIDSUMMER 2014 I carve, along with three other words, and I set the candle to burning, to release my spell into the night.

I lean back on my elbows and watch people – mostly young, mostly drunk – pass by on the sidewalk that rings the lake. If any of them noticed me, the large, bearded man in a cloak burning candles at midnight, none of them said anything. I feel invisible and safe in that invisibility. I go back to my ritual – eating bread I had consecrated earlier, along with another draught of Egil’s Gull – and see someone approaching, walking down the path into the woods. It is an old woman with white hair and a lavender tracksuit.

(Even as I write this memory, I remember it in darkness: a deeper night, denser trees, and no light except for my little candle. I remember the woman entering into the light cast by my candle. But that is absurd; the lack of true darkness was my impetus for doing my Midsummer ritual at midnight in the first place.)

The woman comes over to my table and says goða kvöldið, good evening. I respond: Gott kvöld. She sits down at the picnic table, not seeming to notice all of the ritual paraphernalia that I had laid out in front of me, except for the candle, which she warns me I need to be careful about. She had been afraid that I was vandalizing the picnic table; I am not sure where I could have done so, since carvings and words written in thick black Sharpie already covered the entire surface of the table.

We talk for an hour or more, about language (the declension of Icelandic numbers), travel (the years she spent abroad in France and the other Nordic countries), and tourists (they had completely ruined Gullfoss, she claimed.) After we had been talking for a while, she eyed the table, taking in the knife and the hammer and the cup. “Are you practicing Ásatrú?” she asks. I nod and explain that I had come here in part because of Ásatrú. “I think that it is very beautiful,” she says. English words came slowly to her; she had to consider every sentence before she spoke.3 But when she got the words put together, they came out in a pleasant, musical rhythm. “They have such respect for nature. It is very beautiful.”

We do not go to parks in the middle of the night where I come from; the only people to find there are drug users and drug pushers, and I would have been taking my life in my hands to do this. (Or so I had been told all my life, anyway – whether experience would bear that out is another question.) Here, old women in tracksuits were perfectly happy to go jogging at one AM and stop for long talks with cloaked Americans when the opportunity presented itself. While I had several moments where I encountered the sublime in Iceland, this might have been the most genuinely otherworldly point of my visit.

The old woman leaves eventually, with no more explanation than she gave when she sat down, and I am still bemused by the encounter. I begin the process of closing up my ritual. It is, by now, three AM; I had, at one point, considered going to a nightclub after the ritual with some of my twenty-year-old classmates, but the bars had long since closed by now. I gather up my tools and stuff them into my pack, ready to go home.

The candle is the last to go. I run my thumb across the grooves of the three words I had carved earlier in the night. I will return.

 

Notes:

1. Pathways New Age Books and Music, in lovely South County, St. Louis. Tell ‘em they owe me twenty bucks.
2. Yes, I use a k. Spell it however you want.
3. Though of course, her English was better than my Icelandic. In English, we had a long and engaging conversation about life, language, and religion; in Icelandic, I might have managed to ask her for directions to the post office.

Alone in the Garden

Eric O. Scott —  February 14, 2014 — 6 Comments
The Three Graces. Sculpture by Gerhard Marcks, photograph by Scott Spaeth.

The Three Graces.
Sculpture by Gerhard Marcks, photograph by Scott Spaeth.

 

St. Louis summer: not just hot, but humid, sticky, “muggy,” as we, the low-born of the south side, tend to call it. The world seems to glow orange under the proud gaze of Father Sun. On August days like this, sometimes the death of the Sun King doesn’t seem so tragic after all. He has it coming.

It is a little past eleven, and I am standing, alone, in the English Woodland section of the Missouri Botanical Garden – “Shaw’s Garden,” the other gift of our local saint, Henry Shaw. The year is 2007; I am twenty-one years old.

The English Woodland Garden doesn’t seem traffic like some other spots. It is a quiet, mazelike place. Although there is one asphalt road that splits it in half, a necessary blemish so that the trams and tractors can get across the garden, most of the paths in this garden are made of red cedar chips spread on the ground. They wind and twist around plots of dirt and greenery; black metal signs stick out of the ground and give names to the plants: a swamp white oak here, a dogwood there, a collection of bishop’s hats by your left foot. The dirt and the cedar steam in the heat, enough that my glasses fog up. The Three Graces, Zeus and Eurynome’s bronze daughters, dance together atop a stone on one side of the garden. Squirrels rustle past in every direction.

At the edge of this garden sits a wooden bower. In my memory, this bower was made of rough timbers, lashed together with ropes, the bark barely stripped from the still-round branches. The peak of its sloped roof was decorated with branches spread out like the World Tree. It felt like a tiny Viking hall in the middle of my city. I have been there in the years since, and that is not the building that stands there now. The gazebo that stands on top of my memory is sturdy and made of weather-treated four-by-fours and has metal brackets held together with rivets to brace its angles. Perhaps I remember it wrong; perhaps they tore the old down, or it fell apart during a rough winter. Perhaps I dreamed my Viking hall into being. Perhaps it knew why I was there.

I had no other temple. I needed a place to pray.

I stop at the threshold, place my hand on the rough frame of the doorway. Inside are two wooden benches, one to each side. The back of the bower has a railing and overlooks the last few trees and shrubs in the English Woodland Garden before the landscape melts away and becomes Japan. I first found that place the year before; I had come with friends from my coven. We were smitten. Sarah ran her hand across the tall beams of the frame and looked back at me; she seemed to radiate light. “I need you to build me one of these,” she said.

“Buy a house first,” I said, but I agreed to do it.

I sit down on one of the benches and look at my hands. I haven’t cried yet. I feel like I should have by now. That would be the human thing to do.

Two hours before, I had kissed you goodbye for the last time. I doubted I would ever see you again. We had been standing in the airport with your parents; you were boarding a plane for Washington, DC, en route to Almaty, Kazakhstan. You always said you were going into the Peace Corps: it was one of the first things I ever heard you say about yourself. You never said anything different, even after we found ourselves staying out talking at restaurants until we were forced out by the wait staff, even after I took you to a dance while dressed as a giant mouse, even after you realized I would never be bold enough to kiss you and so you kissed me yourself. I knew this.

You said you would be there for two years at least, but probably three. We had been together for nine months. The literary critic in me has always rankled at the symbolism.

I kissed you goodbye, and I watched you wheel your suitcase away into the bowels of Lambert International, and I rode in your parents’ SUV back to their house in North County, where my car was parked. I hugged them both goodbye – also for the last time – and drove back into the city, to Shaw’s Garden.

I shut my eyes, at last. Sweat pooled on my forehead. I sit in the muggy heat and try to focus. I begin to chant the names of the gods: I pull their names from my diaphragm like ohms, warping and shaping their names until they are pure notes that stretch as far as my lungs will take them.

I pray to Odin, wanderer. Frigg, all-seeing. Thor, protector. Tyr, oathkeeper.

I pray to Freyr, sower. Idunna, youth. Balder, martyr. Loki, changer.

And I pray to Freyja.

Freyja’s name rises from my belly. My eyes are clenched and my hands are clasped and I am not crying but I wish I were.

I pray to Freyja, and I think about you, and I wonder about what will happen to me now.

There’s a feeling, like a gentle brush of fingers against my hands, and I hear a woman’s voice in my ear. Trust me, she says.

If you say so, I say back.

I don’t think of Freyja when we begin to send each other letters that say how much we miss one another. I don’t think of her when my parents pull together the money for us to spend a week together a year into your term of service. I certainly don’t think of her when we break up two years into your time in Kazakhstan and I try – poorly – to start seeing other people.

It isn’t until you appear in the baggage claim at Lambert Airport and I see your face for the first time in two and a half years and we kiss each other good night on your parents’ front step that I think of Freyja.

Trust me, she says.

Last year, when I bought your engagement ring, I wondered where to keep it until I asked the question. I decided to keep it next to the statue of Freyja on my altar. Perhaps “decided” is not the right word; really, she insisted.

(Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone.)

(Also, today is the first day of Pantheacon! I’ll be there! Will you be there? We should give each other high-fives.)

Nature’s Social Union

Eric O. Scott —  January 10, 2014 — 12 Comments
Photo by author

Maiden, Mother, and Crone

My fiancee and I have been waffling about making exact plans for our wedding since May, when we were engaged. This is mostly because of our odd living situation – for a variety of reasons, we have been together for nearly eight years but have only ever lived in the same city once, at the very start of our relationship, and that situation doesn’t seem likely to change soon. But we have finally made up our minds to get things in order. So what if we still live in different states? Are we not moderns?

The idea is to have the wedding in St. Louis at Tower Grove Park – the same park that my parents were married in, and the park where I proposed to her. I like the idea of being married under the branches of those trees; Tower Grove was the park closest to my parents’ house while I was growing up. It was where I took the dog on walks, where I learned to ride a bike. Growing up in the city, Tower Grove was the closest place I could visit to experience nature. Even now, on the occasion that I consider the idea of a Summerland, really I’m just thinking of an eternity laughing on the grass of Tower Grove Park.

Which is odd.

Despite the trees and the flowers and the duck pond, there’s nothing “natural” about Tower Grove Park, nor most other parks in cities across the US. City parks, with a few historical exceptions, are a product of the Industrial Revolution just as surely as factories or high rise apartment buildings, and indeed, rely on those things for their very origins. It was considered important for the physical and spiritual health of industrialized workers that they had an opportunity to spend their leisure time in nature; otherwise, the dehumanizing, “unnatural” urban environment would wear them away. City parks were seen as the solution to this: an area of the city that was reserved away from the weary ugliness of urbanity and instead given over to greenery, where people could interact with the earth in the ways they had since the dawn of the species, according to nature’s design.

Tower Grove Park, in particular, was a bequest from Henry Shaw, who also donated the grounds for the nearby Missouri Botanical Garden, which St. Louisians to this day still call “Shaw’s Garden.” It took decades to improve the property to meet the needs of visitors: there were pavilions to be built, bronze statues to be erected, and the earth itself to be molded, irrigated, and forcefully acquired in order to complete the park. Even today, nearly a century after the last tract of eight acres was added to the grounds and the park declared “complete,” Tower Grove requires a small army of groundskeepers, botanists, and rangers to maintain the buildings, plant the flowers, and keep the grass cut low enough that the insects don’t annoy the patrons.

Of course, in “real nature,” the grass grows tall and in the summer the air is thick with bugs. In “real nature,” the greenery isn’t bounded on four sides by major streets, nor are there life-sized statues of Shakespeare, Rossini, and Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben. The city park is an architectural space just as surely as any civic center – it just happens to be sculpted, in the main, with trees and grass as opposed to concrete. To put it another way, urban parks may be “nature,” but they are not in any sense “wild.” They exist because of human design. They are hardly what nature intended, except perhaps in the bizarre alternate reality of the Victorian mind.

This fascinates me, because – despite the debates the community has had over the legitimacy of this definition – my Paganism is, at its core, nature worship. Sometimes when I pray, it’s to the disir or the land-wights or to the gods; but sometimes I just pray to the trees, and that seems like it’s enough. But the way I think of nature – the way I think of “trees!” – has been buttressed by all those afternoons in a heavily cultivated city park, a tamed form of nature where every plant sits according to the plans of human beings. Does that taint the legitimacy of my connection to the earth? Can I really be said to worship nature if my idea of “nature” resembles a Victorian greenway?

Perhaps. On the other hand, perhaps not. I have Annie Dillard on my mind right now – I’m teaching Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in my Introduction to Nonfiction course this semester – and the central theme of that book seems to be the presence of nature in all her beauty and all her savagery all around us, everywhere we would care to look. There’s a famous passage near the beginning where Dillard sees a frog eaten alive by a giant water bug, which bites into the frog and devours its insides while leaving the empty skin-sack intact, like a deflated balloon. To Dillard – and to me – it’s an otherworldly, terrifying scene. But it’s just the way those two creatures interact: the giant water bug eats the frog, just as the frog eats the fly. Dillard’s Tinker Creek isn’t a finely sculpted civic attraction like Tower Grove Park, but it’s still shaped according to human intentions – there’s a cattle barrier doubling as a bridge slung over the creek, for example. But if the presence of humanity has made any impression on the frog and the giant water bug, they make no sign of it. Nature – “real nature” – goes on regardless.

“This place look like public property to you, bucko?”

I proposed to my fiancee at Beltane last year. In the days leading up to the sabbat, I made a habit of going over to the spot in Tower Grove Park where I planned to ask her. Without fail, every day I was visited by a cardinal bird. He was a feisty young buck, bright red and full of the warrior spirit. He seemed to take offense at the presence of my car sitting underneath his tree, and would swoop down onto the hood to peck at the windshield glass – probably, I suppose, thinking that his reflection was an intruder on his territory, though I like to think he just thought he was tough enough to scare away even a creature as big as a Chevy Cobalt.

The tree that cardinal lived in was planted by humans, kept up by humans, and was meant for human use. But the cardinal didn’t know any of that. To him, it was simply his tree, just as all his forebears had before him.

Perhaps, if the world were still in its primal state and the hand of humanity had never touched this acre of Tower Grove Park, the tree wouldn’t have been there, nor the cardinal, either. But they are here, and they’re true enough.

rackham pictures

Four Arthur Rackham portraits. Clockwise from top right: Donner, Freia, Loge and Wotan meeting Alberich, and Wotan the Wanderer meeting Mime.
Also pictured: my runic yoga cheat sheets. Don’t judge me.

I come from carpenters. I’m not sure I would call it a family profession – more like the results of a long line of bull-headed men who couldn’t stand more than a few years of answering to a boss. Eventually, we all quit or got fired, picked up some tools, and starting putting up fences and building porches. We’ve never been the type to get certifications. My grandfather, even now, prefers to conduct as much of his business as possible in cash, a habit developed over decades of being paid under the table.

I am not a carpenter, now; in fact, when I was a teenager, first coming to terms with the kind of person I am, I would have nightmares about it. I would dream of waking up in my forties with a ruined back and a tapestry of scars woven across my forearms, the artistry of errant nails and utility knives. Even now, ten years out from the last time I spent a summer working with my grandfather as he hung gutters and tuck pointed a house, I sometimes wonder if this PHD I’m working on is just another way of running away from carpentry.

But there’s when it comes to driving nails, there is something in my blood, something in the musical collision of metal and drywall. I don’t do it often, but when I do, it’s holy. It’s no wonder that my god’s symbol is a hammer.

Today I am driving nails into the wall of my bedroom for picture frames. I eyeball everything. I don’t mind making crooked things: it’s a reminder of the human effort involved. To look at a row of pictures that are slightly off is to know that they are the work of human hands. (Writing, with all its inescapable errors and not-quite-right words, is much the same.)

The pictures are part of my altar area, which I am rebuilding yet again, despite having only put the altar up for the first time in this house a few months ago. My roommate found a wonderfully ugly old metal desk at the university surplus auction – or, more precisely, in the pile of things more valuable as scrap metal than as furniture – and so the end-table I had been using for a desk suddenly became available for better purposes. It’s just the right size for an altar – enough room to hold a variety of tools and statues without being too cluttered. It’s much better suited for this than for being a work desk – it barely held the monitor and a keyboard, much less the stacks of papers and overdue library books an English student tends to attract.

I took the pictures from an art book of Arthur Rackham’s illustrations of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. I cut them out with an X-Acto knife and a cutting board; having no straight-edges available, I cut free hand, leaving a slightly curving edge to most of the pictures. (But then, what’s the problem with a crooked picture in a crooked frame?) I hung up four of the plates – Wotan, Donner, Freia, and Loge — to watch over my altar. I can see them from my bed when I wake up: four portraits of a mythic world, a world nobody else has ever conceived in quite the way Rackham did.

Arthur Rackham was no heathen, of course; he was mainly an illustrator of children’s books, though he felt his illustrations to the Ring cycle were “not well suited for those lucky people who haven’t yet finished the delightful adventure of growing up.” Rackham considered his Ring illustrations to be among his masterpieces, but then, he created many masterpieces. If his drawings of Wotan and Brunhilde held any special place in his heart, it was because of the reverence attached to Wagner’s operas, not because he personally believed in the Aesir.

But I do. When I look at Rackham’s Freia, or Donner, or especially Loge, I see Freyja and Thor and Loki. I feel this way even though Rackham did not. I am cognizant of the disconnect between the intentions of the artist and my use of his art; I am even more cognizant of the fact that these drawings are many steps removed from the “truth” of these deities, filtered as they are through Snorri Sturluson and the other Eddic writers, through Wagner’s appropriation and reinvention of the Eddas, through Rackham’s interpretation of Wagner.

It's a pretty steamy scene.

Loge and the Rhinemaidens, Arthur Rackham.

In one picture – perhaps my favorite in the cycle – Loge sits at the edge of a pond, listening to the lament of the maidens of the Rhine for their lost treasure. Steam issues from all over Loge’s body; the water of the pond hisses into vapor at his touch. That’s because Loge, in the Ring, is a fire god, an assumption made based on how closely the words Loki and Loge resemble one another. But as any sufficiently pedantic heathen will tell you, there’s no evidence that Loki was ever considered connected to fire; it’s an accident, a deceitful homonym. Yet Loge’s association with fire is essential to the operas, such that the two most famous scenes, the endings of Die Walkure and Gotterdammerung, rely on Loge’s flames.

I know this, but still, when I look at Rackham’s pictures, I see my gods looking back. That may not have been what Rackham intended, but it is what I find. I cannot divorce the two.

This weekend, I will be going to see Thor: The Dark World with my fiancée. It’s our seventh anniversary, and we are dorks, so this is the kind of movie we are apt to see on such an occasion. I will be going into it as someone who grew up reading Marvel Comics, who still spends an unhealthy amount of money on them every month. But I will also be going into the theater as a heathen, as someone who wears a Thor’s hammer around his neck. As someone who, when he finds an excuse to pick up a hammer, immediately thinks of Mjolnir, and the labors of the god who wields it. If Rackham’s Donner is a distorted replica of the “real” Thor, then Marvel’s Thor is that replica run through about twelve generations of Xerox. But I can’t pretend it won’t have meaning to me. We are surrounded by portraits of our myths created by artists who do not believe as we do.

I do not know what they find in their work, but I find holiness – perhaps removed, perhaps distorted, but holy, still. Perhaps that is not what Rackham intended. I am certain it is not what Chris Hemsworth intends. But when I see a Rackham illustration, or hear a Wagner theme, or even shudder under the assault of a Marvel action scene… I see my gods in them. They are my contribution to the work.

When the pictures are finally hung, I note the imperfections. The portrait of the Wanderer sits slightly higher than the others. I have to adjust the pictures several times to fake the appearance of symmetry, even though that’s a futile task. I look at them and see the gods’ work, and Wagner’s work, and Rackham’s, and mine.

Work is holy. Carpenters know this.

Sheepskin

Eric O. Scott —  October 11, 2013 — 20 Comments
cloud-ground-lightning13_20849_990x742

Positive Lightning. Photo by Kara Swanson of National Geographic.

I have been sitting in this chair for five hours. It is, at best, 45 degrees Farenheit; a cold wind occasionally blows through the tin-roofed pavillion. It is two o’clock in the morning and there are still twenty people between me and the damned horn. My best friend Sarah and her friend Mark – along with the punky redhead whom the gods were merciful enough to place on my left side – have all given up, gone to bed. We have a ceremony in less than six hours that I will need to be up for. My only respite – the only thing which keeps me from getting up in disgust and going back to my tent, hoping to steal four hours of sleep on my rapidly deflating air mattress – is the Genuine Icelandic Sheepskin on my shoulders.

High Symbel is no joke, folks.

I spent the weekend before last camping at my beloved Gaea Retreat, about an hour (well, 45 minutes if you drive the way I do) outside of Kansas City. The event was Lightning Across the Plains, a heathen gathering I’ve heard about for years but never managed to attend, even though I lived in Kansas City for three years.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. My relationship with Heathenry is much more difficult than my relationship with Wicca. I was raised a witch; I’ve known the steps since before I realized they were a dance. My family of Wiccans, though it took me a long time to accept it, has done more to shape me than anyone else could hope to. Doing Wicca – or at least the isolated, mutant form of it that grew in my parents’ living room in St. Louis – comes easier to me than almost anything else.

But I came to Asatru much later, and with hesitations that I’ve never had with Wicca. Much of that, I think, is a feeling of phoniness, of ignorance. My connection to Asatru comes mostly from the mythology and a handful of mystical experiences that, while they were extremely powerful to me, fit squarely into that lovely category of Unverified Personal Gnosis. (“But you don’t know Thor likes Jägermeister. That’s just UPG.”) I belong to no kindreds, swear no oaths, make no mead.

Yet this stuff is still important to me. No religious experience has effected as startling a change in my life as the first time I participated in a seiðr, being led down into the roots of the World Tree until we came to the Well of Wyrd. I don’t even remember what I asked the diviner that night. I just remember the tree, the incredible awe of seeing its branches spreading overhead, seeing every leaf, every gnarl and whorl of its bark. I never imagine in that kind of detail: the tree felt like something more than my head could have produced by itself.

Heathenry tends to be a solitary activity for me – I have my altar and my Eddas, and mainly I keep to myself. At festivals, I often spend my time attending every Heathen ritual and workshop I can find, but that’s a different atmosphere entirely. Festivals are anonymous: if you’re getting too comfortable, you can always run away and hide in the merchant circle.

To put this more succinctly: I think of myself as a Heathen, but, for whatever variety of syndrome you want to diagnose – imposter, only child, restless leg – I feel uncomfortable being around Heathens.

(Were I performing this essay in the manner of a stand-up comedian, there would be a short pause at this moment.)

So I’m sitting under the pavilion with about two hundred Heathens after midnight on a cold autumn night, clutching my sheepskin and hoping to the gods that the pace will start to pick up.

There were two symbels during the weekend of Lightning Across the Plains. The first, the “folk symbel,” held on Friday night, was more informal: we all sat around the fire, and whoever wanted to toast called out for the horn and stepped up. A queue formed very quickly, as you’d expect, but overall, if you wanted to talk, you could expect to get the horn within half an hour of calling for it. The High Symbel, on the other hand, involved everybody at the festival. Everybody got the horn. Everybody got to talk. Everybody made a toast.

THE MATH: 200 people X 3 minutes = 600 minutes / 60 minutes per hour = 10 hours in the dark.

(Note that, while this calculus assumes a three minute average speaking time, that might be a wildly optimistic estimate. The first speakers might have kept to that. By the time we were halfway through the pavilion, people had begun to offer four toasts apiece. And then there was the gift-giving… No wonder Sarah went to bed.)

The High Symbel lasted, by my admittedly sleep-deprived count, six and a half hours from the pouring of the first horn to the final speaker. It was, by far, the longest continuous ritual I’ve ever taken part in, and yet, also one where I felt somewhat alienated and alone. At least half of the toasts were made to the gathering of people at the festival, with long explanations as to the relationships that had been formed there and maintained over the five years LATP had been running. It being my first year – and with you now knowing about my own hang-ups regarding the Heathen community – you might be able to understand why those toasts didn’t resonate as much with me as I would have hoped.

I sat there, listening to these people, all strangers, thinking about what had brought me to this place. I listened to them toasting their kindreds, and the households that they had befriended here, and I thought of Sarah, of her parents, of my coven.

It’s not necessarily an easy rope to walk. I’ve been told by some Heathens that I shouldn’t be allowed to call myself one, not so long as I continue to dirty my hands with Wicca. But I belong there – belong with my family, and my friends, and the Horned God and the Mother Goddess.

And I belong here, too, in this hall, with these Heathens. I belong here, in this company, drinking from this horn, speaking these words. The greatest mistake we make, I think, is bifurcation: the idea that we must always choose one or the other, that we must belong to one path and shun all others, that to believe in multiplicity is to really only believe in one gray muddle. I reject that notion.

The horn finally comes to me at just after three o’clock; there are only four people left in line after me. I make my toast to the nameless poets of old, just as I had been planning for the past four hours, and pass the horn along to the man on my right. Warmed slightly by the mead, I sit back down, clutch my Genuine Icelandic Sheepskin around my shoulders, and think to myself, My god, I’m never going through this again in my life.

And then I pause, listen to my neighbor’s toast, and think, Yes, I probably will.

Note: Edited to add some links. -Eric

Buffalo_reflex_Buffalo_Mo_18690821 (1)

The first issue of the Buffalo Reflex, the object of my desire, from 1869. Ah, for the days when poetry got top billing. Retrieved from the Missouri Digital Newspaper Project.

The research room of the Missouri State Historical Society Archives is not much to look at. It’s a dark room in the basement of the Ellis Library at the University of Missouri, the institution I now call home. The largest section is nothing but work tables and census catalogs, tracking the names of every person who has lived in the state for more than a century. Rows of obscure books stretch off in the opposite direction; I have no idea what any of those books are. I come here for newspapers; the archives have virtually every newspaper ever printed in the state of Missouri since its inception, all maintained in cabinet upon cabinet of black 35 millimeter microfilm. For the third day in a row, I have been sitting here in the dark, staring at the projection of the microfilm on a computer monitor, looking for something I doubt anybody but me even cares to find.

It was not that long ago – just about two months, now – that I spent most of my time in a different basement room, also staring at a computer screen. In some ways, my days have not changed much.

But make no mistake: in the month since I last wrote here, I have changed almost everything about my life.

I don’t say that to brag; when I made the decision to quit my (admittedly awful) job, leave my beloved hometown of St. Louis, and come here for my doctorate, I figured that the odds of it being the worst decision of my life were around 40%. It might still turn out to be – I’m going for a PHD in English, after all, and the job market for that particular specialization tanked over a decade ago and hasn’t yet stopped sinking. One of my classes is, essentially, a semester-long investigation into ways this might turn out poorly.

But in the meantime, I’m having a tremendously good time. I tend to spend about twelve or thirteen hours every day working, and I make less than half of what I did at my “real world” job. But it’s good work, and I feel more welcome here in my new home than I have felt anywhere else in years.

We’ll see how it turns out.

I’m searching in the archives for newspaper articles from the region around Springfield, Missouri, dated late October or early November 1983-84. I’m searching for stories about a fire that would have happened just after Samhain. According to my coven’s legends, we held our sabbat on a member’s farm a little ways north of Springfield, near the town of Buffalo, Missouri, which is small enough that I had never heard of it before despite living in this state my entire life. We had built a cabin on the farm to sleep in after the ritual; after everyone had gone home, someone had burned the cabin to ashes. The person who had owned the cabin told me her sister had seen a story about it in the paper, including the detail that the reporters had discovered chicken bones in the fire pit nearby and declared it proof of animal sacrifice – when in actuality, we had merely eaten roasted chicken for dinner that night and thrown the bones in the fire.

(It strikes me, as I read over that paragraph, how effortlessly I slipped into the first person plural: I wrote that “we” did this. Of course, I had nothing to do with it. If this happened in October 1984, I was still nearly two years from being born. But perhaps that illustrates what it feels like to be a second-generation Pagan. What they have done, I have done; what has happened to them has happened to me. It is impossible for me to think of my family’s history objectively – I know too well how every event in it has shaped me.)

As best as I can tell, the newspaper article does not exist. The universe described by the local paper, The Buffalo Reflex, does not contain witches; as best as I can tell, it doesn’t contain anything except for the school lunch menu and an occasional syndicated editorial about Grenada. Perhaps the story ran in a church newsletter or some other kind of small, barely-circulated publication; perhaps that detail was just an embellishment of the story, now told so often that as far as anyone can remember it actually happened. The first thing one learns in memoir is how fickle memory can be.

What I did find, looking for articles written in the same region and roughly the same time, was one article from the Springfield Daily News, dated Halloween, 1979. Springfield, for those who think of the Midwest as flyover country, is the third-largest city in Missouri, with about 150,000 residents. Lorelei, one of my coven-mates, spent her college years there, and recalls it as a conservative place, not very welcoming to weirdoes like us.

And yet there’s this article, titled “Real witches shatter diabolical stereotypes.” It’s about the writer Kathy Maniaci’s experience meeting with members of Springfield’s Shadow Coven. It’s not a long article, and some of it plays with a vision of Wiccans that must have been clichéd even in 1979. The article begins with Maniaci running late, with the words of an unnamed friend in her mind: “The last thing you want to do is make a witch wait.” Presumably because she would shortly find herself a toad, I suppose. When one of her interviewees mentions how hard it is to find a good robe, Maniaci responds, “I winced, as if I’d just heard a vampire say, ‘You know, a good grave is so hard to find these days.’”

But I am fascinated by the article, nonetheless. While engaging in some annoying spectacle, I am moved by the attempt, however fumbling, to humanize Pagans. The Daily News served a small city in the middle of America, after all; I doubt they had any particular obligation to look out for us. The stereotypes are there, but she allows the members of the Shadow Coven to gently debunk them; at no point does she belittle them personally, nor suggest that they are anything but proud of their identities. Considering this was written on the cusp of the Satanic Panic, I find that commendable.

And considering that in a little over a month we will undoubtedly be flooded with articles not terribly dissimilar to this one, I find that certain things really haven’t changed that much.

The archives close at 4:45 most days, and my time is up. I rewind the microfilm and put it back on the cart to be reshelved, and then head out. Only a few other researchers are still there when I leave; each of them is much older than me. I doubt that anybody but me, outside of the staff, is under the age of 60. They come here for genealogy, mostly, combing through census records and obituaries, trying to fill in the bare spots of their family trees. Trying to figure out where they come from.

And of course, I understand. I spend most of my time trying to do the same thing.

A photo of the farm. Photo by William Scott.

The farm. Photo by William Scott.

I grab two pieces of firewood at a time from Alaric’s grandmother’s pile and throw them into the back of the trailer. Wood lands on wood with a solid clack, like the woodblock in an orchestra.

“Who cut this, anyway?”

Alaric drops a log onto the trailer. He is a few years older than me, old enough that we were never close until we were both adults. “Me and dad. We cut her three cords of wood for heat last winter – this is the leftovers from that. We’ll cut her another three this year.”

“Oh,” I say, setting my last load into the back. “So we’re not really stealing it from her.”

I lumber into the trailer and sit on a bale of straw. Then Alaric starts up the tractor and we’re heading across the grass and down a gravel road, traveling down into a valley, coming to rest at a circle of just-mown grass with a depression in the center.

“Fire pit,” says Alaric with a self-congratulatory grin. “For later. I just made it yesterday.”

It’s Lammas, or the Saturday closest to it, anyway. We’re at Alaric’s family farm, somewhere in Jefferson County, Missouri, where his grandmother and several other relatives live in houses scattered across the property. Alaric lives a few minutes away, on the outskirts of Imperial, but for the past few years he’s farmed wheat and vegetables out here on the weekends and after work at his day job as a tech and data guy for a law firm. Most of his farm equipment is a hand-me-down from his deceased grandfather; he’s constantly taking it apart, rebuilding it, scavenging parts from other machines. His latest acquisition is a new combine. The one he had been using was made in 1955. The new one’s from ‘65. Practically just off the assembly line.

I grew up in the city, and that’s still where I’m naturally drawn to live; when I moved back to St. Louis, a little over a year and a half ago, the idea of living in the suburbs, much less the country, never occurred to me. Alaric, who grew up out here, likes to mock me for my city-boy ways: “You feel okay out here, buddy? I know everything’s not all paved over, the way you like it.”

Still. Riding in the trailer, looking out at the tree line rising up all around us, at the creek, at the weeping willow off in the distance… It’s hard to think anything else.

This place is paradise.

*     *     *

This is the first sabbat we’ve held at the farm, mainly because Alaric’s grandmother is severely Lutheran and would have certain reservations about her property being used as the site for witchcraft. She is at church all day today, though, which is apparently not an uncommon occurrence. Alaric told her he and his wife, Amanda, would have some people over for a party at the barn. Further details were omitted.

After we unload the wood, Alaric drives the tractor across a muddy stream to an ancient barn. Our family has gathered outside, drinking beer and bantering from their camp chairs. Inside the barn, a handful of them set out the feast. There are no lights in there, and shadows overtake the interior even though it’s only six in the evening.

We spend the next few hours discussing the dangers of smoking in the barn and the extent of the property line. There is a brief episode wherein bearded men spirit away the Baby Julian so Amanda, his mother, can have a rest. And then we pile into the trailer, seated on the bales of straw, and ride off to one of Alaric’s wheat fields for the ritual, singing John Denver’s “Country Roads” as we go.

Most of our rites, it must be said, are citified. We mention the harvest, yes, but usually in a metaphorical sense: we talk about the kinds of seeds we have planted in our lives, the kinds of bounties we can expect to reap. We mention the struggles our forebears endured, but we do not live off the land, as they did. We must find other ways to connect with the meaning of the festival.

This one, however, was different: we were performing it in an actual wheat field. Alaric and Amanda had actually harvested wheat here – the communion bread was made from that crop. For the first time in my memory, our harvest sabbat was literally about the harvest.

I don’t have any illusions about Wicca being an ancient religion; I know the specific things we do were not done by any mythical set of ancestors in the Times Before. But in that bread, made from wheat reaped by my brother and his wife, I could taste just a touch of the life my people must have once lived.

Perhaps it’s coincidence: my father had been telling a story all weekend of a man he’d met at work. He saw the man had a Celtic cross tattooed on his shoulder, and dad congratulated him on our mutual Irish ancestry. Then the man admitted, while rolling up a pants leg to reveal another tattoo of the Red Lion of Scotland, that he wasn’t pure Irish – he was Scots-Irish. Again, just like us. So they started comparing notes: where their families came from, where they settled. The similarities were uncanny: they both had relatives buried in the same tiny graveyard next to the Huzzah Baptist Church, a church that serviced a town that hadn’t been there in decades. “I think we must be cousins,” my father had told the man.

The bread made me think of those Scotts, the line of our tribe that had made its way here, to the heartland of America, who had resulted in me: their lives, and their struggles, and their hopes and dreams and failures. And thinking about that, as it always does, made me think about my other family: my coven, the family of choice that I never chose.

When we finish our bread and wine, Alaric and Amanda send us out to the fields to take some wheat, like the gleaning once allotted to the poor. I take Alaric’s knife and cut nine blades.

I don’t take the hay ride back. I walk with my father back to the barn, mostly in silence. We cross through the woods, over shallow streams and bridges, over grass and gravel. I am thinking about the harvest to come.

*     *     *

Every time I’m near a bonfire now, I find myself singing the runes into it. I don’t have any justification for this, other than it seeming like a thing worth doing. It’s simple: start with fehu, work your way to othala, sending each rune into the flames and then out into the world with the smoke.

I throw each of my wheat blades into the fire as I sang. Sometimes I miss – overshoot the fire, or toss with too little force, so that the blade ends up near the edges instead of the heart. But when the flames catch one, the blade erupts in bright orange light, then blackens, crumbles into the ash. These were my sacrifices, my gifts to the gods. Something for the future.

The fire spreads out of the pit, a tiny orange finger in the living grass. As one of the only people wearing good shoes, I stamp it out before it can get out of control. My friend Megan scolds me afterwards. “Be careful!” she says, pointing a finger from me to the fire. “I saw what you were doing over there.”

I smile and stand next to her. We watch the fire for a moment before she asks the question.

“So when are you leaving?”

“Tomorrow morning,” I say. “We’re picking up the U-Haul tomorrow and heading out as soon as we can load up the furniture and the books.”

She nods. “I’ll miss you,” she says.

“Columbia’s only two hours away,” says Web, one of my parents’ generation, on the other side of the fire. “You act like you’re moving to another continent.”

He had a point, of course. The problem wasn’t really the distance. It was what the distance implied about the future.

In the morning I would be leaving St. Louis again, so soon after returning. I was starting a PhD program at the University of Missouri, something I thought I had put behind me until I read the acceptance email while laid over in a Dallas airport en route to Pantheacon this year. The program was scheduled to take five years to complete. After that – assuming the academic job market still exists, which sometimes seems like a big “if” – I would be searching for work any place that would take me. A place that, undoubtedly, would not be St. Louis.

Since I became an adult, since I really understood what it meant to be a second-generation Pagan, I have begun to realize just how wonderful the circumstances of my life are. I knew that I wanted to inherit the coven from my parents, to shelter it, to give it to my own children someday. That’s such a rare gift, to have something like that, to pass it down. I know now that I probably won’t be able to do that, at least not as directly as I had hoped.

But then again, I can look across the fire and see Alaric and Amanda there, cradling little baby Julian.

Families are never about one person; they are about all of us, together. And if it so happens that I can’t be with them as much as I’d like, well, my family doesn’t live in Huzzah anymore, either. This is something every family experiences.

I kiss my family good night, pack up my bags and my trash, and set off towards home. I still have things to throw in boxes and furniture to get ready for the move. I won’t fall asleep until three hours before I need to wake.

It is Lammas, my last night in St. Louis, the night of the first harvest. I pass by the Weeping Willow tree and Alaric’s grandmother’s house. I turn from the gravel road onto the pavement, and make my way out of paradise.

Afterlife

Eric O. Scott —  June 14, 2013 — 29 Comments
Virituous Pagans in Limbo, from Dante's Inferno.  Gustave Doré, 1890.

Virituous Pagans in Limbo, from Dante’s Inferno.
Gustave Doré, 1890.

 

“I’ve got a question. You know Eric, right?” asked Tim.

He and three more of my friends, Dylan and Lydia and Calvin, had just sat down to lunch. They were at a buffet off Highway 63 in Kirksville, Missouri, the town where we all went to college. I wasn’t there to see it; Tim didn’t tell me this story for months. I don’t know why he decided to ask these questions. Hoping to prove a point, I guess.

They nodded and wondered why he asked.

“Would you say he’s a good person?” asked Tim.

The three of them nodded. Sure, more or less. They were my friends, and they wouldn’t have been my friends if they thought ill of me.

“Okay then,” he said, eager to spring his trap. “Do you think he’s going to Hell?”

Calvin, who didn’t know me as well as the others, and who was in any case a committed and conservative Christian, said yes, absolutely, with no hesitation at all. Dylan and I were closer – close enough that I was his Best Man several years later. He said that he didn’t know for sure, but questions like that kept him up at night.

Lydia looked down into her lunch, didn’t answer. Tim pressed her, until she finally, quietly, replied. “Yes.”

I don’t blame her. Sometimes I think so too.

*          *          *

What happens to you when you die?

It’s the most common question I’m asked after people find out that I’m Pagan, after “Wait, really?” and “Can you fly?” I guess it’s a reasonable one. Christianity – or at least American Protestant Christianity – defines itself by the afterlife: it’s the point of the exercise. Heaven and Hell, and a life on Earth spent bumbling towards one or the other.

So, in the US, a nation of mostly Protestant Christians, it’s the question that shapes everything we think about a religion, whether or not we, ourselves, are Christians. Nobody in the public sphere ever discusses Islam’s Five Pillars, but everybody knows about the supposed 72 virgins. I doubt most could rattle off the Four Noble Truths, but we all know Nirvana means something more than the guys who recorded Nevermind. Because the afterlife is the foundation of Christianity, we expect it to be the foundation of everything else; a religion without an afterlife, that doesn’t worry about the afterlife, doesn’t seem like a religion at all.

What happens when you die?

There’s the trouble. I don’t know. I don’t even suspect.

The beauty of eclectic religion lies in its vastness of possibility – that anything could be true. Why choose? We speak of the immaterial and the transcendent, things that can’t be quantified or proven. Why can’t they all be true?

Well. That’s easy to say, so long as we’re only talking about generalities. Particulars are harder. When it comes to one’s own soul – to my own soul – well – I mean – something has to happen. Right?

If I were a better Heathen, I could confidently say I would go to Hel. (Being a portly coward, I doubt Valhalla is in the cards.) It sounds like an okay place. The landlady could be nicer. The Greeks give us the various suburbs of Hades: Tartarus, the Asphodel Fields, the blessed isles of Elysium. (Elysium, another home to valiant warriors, also seems like a stretch.)

Perhaps the Summerland? I heard about that one sometimes, growing up, though it seemed altogether more vague than the others: endless August afternoons, rolling hills and blue skies and warm breezes. Since the Summerland is a Wiccan idea (albeit one we stole from the Theosophists, like so much else), there is some variation: the Summerland might be an eternal summer vacation, or it might be a pleasant layover between trips. It may be the place where you survey your past life and plan out a new one, a tourist at the Triple-A station of the soul.

Yes, reincarnation: a popular option. Wicca conceives of time in a circle, after all: day gives way to night gives way to day, the Wheel of Year turning again and again. So perhaps we live, we die, we’re born again; no afterlife required. Hoof and horn, hoof and horn, all that dies shall be reborn.

But as much as I like the idea, I worry that it’s too appealing. It opens the door to vain recollections of past lives among the powerful and infamous. Whatever you do in this life doesn’t really matter, because you used to be Arthur Conan Doyle, or Hatshepsut, or whoever you read a book about this year. Reincarnation is a perfect answer: the circles all come around. I am suspicious of perfect things.

There are others. The Guf, mystic birdcage of souls. T’ien and Tír na nÓg and Takama-ga-hara. The one my parents made up for me when I was a boy, the Grandmother Country, where my Grandma Mae sits in a farmhouse and watches over all our departed dogs and cats and hamsters. And that’s before all the spookier options: spirits, poltergeists, zombies…

Hundreds, thousands of afterlives, all potential destinations, all acceptable, all real – except for two, the two that can’t be, the two can’t be allowed. The two that, in my heart, I will always fear are the truth.

*          *          *

My dad once had a friend who called himself Image. He died when I was 18. Image was the tallest, thinnest man I ever met. He kept a shaved head and worked hard at being Goth. I don’t think he ever kept a job for long: at one point he mucked the elephant pit for a one-ring circus, and that was the steadiest work he ever found. Mostly he made art. My favorite was an ambient record called “Surfacing,” which sounded like the soundtrack to a drowning. He was into the occult, too – he and my father were in a magickal group together for most of a decade.

There was more to Image that I never knew about: drugs and fetishes and other things I never looked into. But he was a soft-spoken person, and he was always nice to me, and as far as I know, he never hurt anybody.

A year or two after he died, when I was home from college for a few days, my dad asked me to come with him on a trip. We got into the truck and drove for a little over an hour. We came to a part of Missouri I had never seen before, somewhere out in the country. We pulled into a graveyard and drove around, taking pictures of interesting headstones, drinking sodas. Finally, my dad parked the truck.

We came to a headstone near a tree, and my dad stared at it for a long time. It belonged to someone named Paul F. I’d never heard the name before. I realized, when I looked up from the headstone, that my dad was crying.

“If you’re going to walk around in my dreams,” he whispered, “you could have the decency to stop and say hello.”

We didn’t talk at first after we got back in the truck. Garrison Keillor’s voice filled the silence. We passed a little river, far from the highway, and then dad said, bitterly, “Paul F. ‘Freddy.’ Image hadn’t called himself that in a decade.”

He turned down the radio. “His father was a preacher. Ugly man, self-centered. Everything in the world was always about him. When his son ended up as a cross-dressing magician instead of a Bible-thumper, he took that as something horrible happening to him. And when Image got sick, that was something happening to him, too. Just another shame Image made him endure.

“I heard about what he said at the funeral,” my dad continued. He had been in California when Image died and missed it. “He didn’t say anything about Image’s art, or the things he cared about. He just said it was a wicked life cut short.”

My dad wasn’t quite talking to me; he needed me there, needed me to listen. He needed to purge the words from his mind. Rip away the bitterness. He needed a witness. I didn’t say anything. I let him talk. It was what he needed.

But I thought about Image, and Image’s father, and what his father must have thought while preparing that sermon – what it must have been like, for a man so sure of the afterlife to have been faced with a son beyond saving. He had outlived a child – awful enough – but had outlived a child he knew to be damned.

Knew. Knew for certain.

That kind of certainty looms large against one person’s doubt.

*          *          *

During my last summer in Kirksville, I spent a lot of time with my friends Harry and Jenn. We were at their apartment one night, had just finished watching one of Harry’s beloved B-movies, when the subject of religion came up. You know my opinions on the subject. Harry and Jenn are both atheists, though the amicable sort.

Jenn got more emotional about it than I expected, aided, perhaps, by the three glasses of wine she had put away. “There’s something about it I don’t think you guys understand. You’ve both always been the way you are now,” she said. She was right: Harry’s parents were atheists. Mine were Pagan. We had taken after them. “But me, you know, I used to be Catholic. That’s how I was raised. And let me tell you something: you never get over that. I know what I want to believe, how I want to act. But in the back of my head there’s always this fear: I’m going to Hell. And it doesn’t go away, ever, no matter how much I try to convince myself that I’m beyond all that now.” She paused, shook her head. “I’m sorry. It’s something you can’t understand.”

She’s right. I don’t know what it’s like to have been a part of that system, or to reject it. But I know what it’s like to be haunted by the bad dreams of a religion I’ve never followed, to lay awake wondering whether it would be smarter, or safer, or saner, to try and square myself with the God of Abraham.

Because sometimes I think about that lake of fire, and Lord, I can feel the sweat start to creep across my skin.

 

(By the way, if you like my essays here on the Wild Hunt, good news: my first book, The Lives of the Apostatescomes out on June 28th! It’s available in ebook and paperback. It’s a novella about a Pagan kid in the Midwest. It’s got Sabbat rituals, awkward kissing, theological debates, Julian the Apostate, and a hearse. Order it from your local bookseller through IndieBoundor buy it from Amazon or Barnes and NobleFor more news on the book, might I humbly recommend my Facebook page? Alright, end of shilling. Thanks! -Eric) 

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.