Preparing for Ontario’s Witches’ Sabbat Festival 2016

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EGANVILLE, Ont. – For the fourth year in a row, Witches’ Sabbat (WS), a three-day intensive weekend dedicated to the learning and practice of Witchcraft, will be held at Raven’s Knoll campground near Eganville, Ontario, during the last weekend in May. WS is a unique event in Canada, because it fills a void in the usual Pagan festival and conference circuit. It has a mandate to serve seekers and practitioners of non-Wiccan Witchcraft and associated practices such as hearthwitchery, traditional, folkloric and shamanic Witchcraft. Event organizer Juniper Jeni Birch, was moved to create this event for very personal reasons “When it comes to my service to the Pagan and Witchcraft community, I follow a personal goal: Be the person I needed when I was young.”

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Altar at Witches’ Sabbat [Photo Credit: Juniper Jeni Birch]

Raven’s Knoll, the campground that provides the location for the Sabbat, is also unique. It is situated near Eganville, Ontario, approximately 265 miles (425 KM) north of Syracuse, NY or 82 miles (142 KM) from Ottawa, the nearest large Canadian city. The Knoll is a Pagan-owned and operated facility, established to provide a home for Kaleidoscope Gathering, Canada’s largest Pagan festival. The land is dotted with sacred spaces and features, catering to many Pagan paths. Honouring the spirits of this land is incorporated into the programming for Witches’ Sabbat, with offerings being made to them at the very beginning and right at the end of each year’s event.

Event organizers are currently planning the WS 2016 program, and a call for workshop submissions is open until Mar. 31. The type of workshops that they are looking for are beyond the “Pagan 101” level. Birch explains:

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Juniper Jeni Birch [Courtesy Photo]

We strive to bring, at a public event, practices that are at the 201 and 301 level. This is achieved in part by performing rituals and working. As well as by discussion, story telling, and teaching each other. To give you an example; for the second year we worked together to clean a buck’s skull, brand new Witches who have never left the city before rolled up their sleeves and cut off skin and flesh, scooped out brains and tolerated the smell as we simmered it in a pot all day. That isn’t exactly the typical workshop found at events! We discussed the ethics of using animal parts. How, why and when you might use them. And spoke at length about the use of skull in the practice of Witchcraft and as spirit houses. The following year, the skull returned and together we blessed it, painted it and incorporated it into our stang and ritual. The main ritual, centered around this stang, was an ecstatic shapeshifting ritual. Held at night, in the woods, and lasted for a little over two hours.

The standard for the quality and content of WS is very specific, just like the mandate for the event itself. On its website, attendees are informed that participation is strongly recommended. If you are looking for a party, or a place to just hang out, attending a different event is suggested. It is made very clear that this weekend is for serious practice and the process for submitting a workshop is handled with deep consideration. In the spirit of creating the type of event she wishes could have been there for her when she was starting out, Birch said:

We carefully vet our teachers and ritual leaders, and choose a couple or few of the very best offerings for our event. Our main criteria is that they take the event with seriousness, and offer what our participants seek to learn, do, and discuss with fellow practitioners. We’ve had a few New Age-y celestial energy healing type submissions before, not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s simply not what we offer at WS. We do our best to offer a mix of very hands on work (such a cleaning a deer skull or creating ritual masks), theory and academics (such as an in depth study of the Nine Herbs Charm), and the practical (such as round table discussions on the care and feeding of familiar spirits).

Unlike many Pagan festivals and events, Witches’ Sabbat is expressly not a family-friendly event. The website has a whole page dedicated to explaining this, and includes some suggestions and options for making attendance accessible to as many people as possible:

We would never turn a child away, however we do not suggest bringing children to the workshops and they are not permitted at the rituals. The event has very adult programming, including working with skulls and animal bones, the discussion of and usage of entheogens, there is a non-childproof outdoor temple and so forth. People who need to bring children can arrange supervision for them either by taking turns with other parents who are attending or by bringing a friend or family member to care for the kids.

The weekend does not shy away from frank discussions about the controversial aspects of Witchcraft. These conversations are followed by the hands-on practice of some of these techniques. This is supervised and managed by experienced practitioners, and a trained first aid provider is on-site. The event organizers make every effort to ensure safety. Attendees are required to sign a waiver at registration, and have the option to disclose any health conditions on a strictly confidential registration form. Birch recognizes that sharing the Craft lore and practices honestly and openly helps practitioners to learn safely. She said:

With the upsurge in interest among Witches, spirit workers and pagans in entheogens, hallucinogens, flying ointments, ecstatic ritual, and traditions that utilize them, many practitioners are seeking to include such practices into their own work. Utilizing our own experience and the resources available to us within the community, WS is carefully tailored to provide a safe and controlled introduction to such practices. Although sometimes, we do not allow participants to ingest the herbs, for safety and insurance reasons. We do our best to make sure that if they choose to utilize these practices at home, they have some base knowledge to build upon. It also provides an opportunity for folks experienced in such things to talk to each other and swap stories.

An intensive weekend.(photo by Juniper Jeni Birch)

An intensive weekend. [Photo Credit: Juniper Jeni Birch]

Witches’ Sabbat is growing along with the demand for events and learning opportunities beyond the “beginners’ level. Last year, organizers noticed an increase in the number of new folk, from farther away making the trek to Raven’s Knoll to participate. Given the accessibility of the location, and proximity to the Canada/USA border, Ottawa’s airport and several large Canadian cities, it is clear that this growth will continue. The vision for the future of WS is managed and directed by the people who participate, as Birch explains:

The vision does not belong to myself, or the WS staff. It belongs to the people who attend this event. Every year, at the end of the weekend, we hold a planning meeting. There the participants can vote on the theme and focus for the next year. As well as share ideas, opinions, constructive criticism and dreams for the future. As we continue to grow in size and scope, we make adjustments based on this vital feedback and what we learned as organizers. Last year we officially reached numbers large enough that having everyone attend the same workshop became unwieldy. So, taking some advice from our participants, we are breaking this year’s workshops into two streams. These streams still work towards the same goal: the main rituals of the event, and will converge there, in sacred space and magickal practice.