Columbia, S.C. – Since March, public rituals have become online rituals to maintain social distancing. The Wild Hunt is following that shift to online ritual and recently spoke with Holli S. Emore of Cherry Hill Seminary about the possible long term effects of this shift.
Emore stated, “Cherry Hill [Seminary] folks have been doing rituals on Sunday afternoon for about the last three or four weeks. They have been really experimenting with what they could do with the soundtrack, and I don’t know what all else.”
She continued, online ritual “does present opportunities. I think [it] will encourage people to, perhaps, be more creative than they have been accustomed to.”
Several years ago, a member of Emore’s group moved out of the area. The group began to meet online to continue to work with that member. While they began with Skype, the group now uses Zoom, a video conferencing software. Emore reported that they prefer Zoom to Skype.
Emore reported that “audio seems to be the biggest problem for most people, including us.” She said, “People get too hung up on the technology. We need to make that as invisible as possible.” Crashes and glitches are similar to people forgetting their “lines” in ritual. “Screw up’s” happen. People move on. Emore cautioned, “Don’t get so hung up over technology that you forget why you’re there.”
Social challenges and opportunities
According to Emore, some Pagans have rigid beliefs about how rituals should proceed. She feels a more flexible attitude would be beneficial.
She said, “I would not want online [ritual] to be the only thing that people can do.” The flexibility to shift to online ritual allows group Pagan practice to continue.
“A lot of our population are older and still a little resistant to technology,” Emore said. A few may also be “a little purist in terms of what they think is acceptable. We don’t have the luxury of being that way anymore.”
Emore feels that “We got to a give people a little time, and help in catching up … Initially, people do need training wheels.”
Most people in her local community have made this transition. At present, no one knows how long social distancing will last. If it lasts for a long time, it could have negative consequences.
Emore has concerns that this shift to online ritual may “make it easy for people to just opt out and say, ‘Well, that’s just not me.’ … I really just didn’t feel like doing all that digital stuff.’”
What do Pagans want to do in ritual?
For Emore, the questions of intent and meaning have more importance than whether a ritual is online or face-to-face. She stressed that once people understand that, creative solutions become possible.
She said, “What does ritual mean to us,? Do we have to walk around in a circle to raise energy? Are there other ways of doing it?”
According to Emore, two tendencies tend to block Pagan ritual creativity. She named one tendency as “ecstatic.” The other tendency involves people being “all in their head and verbal.”
She feels that shifting to online ritual could “provoke us into having a deeper understanding of what’s possible.” Online rituals could also hold a special attraction for geographically isolated solitaries.
Online ritual, solitaries, and sexual harassment
As the Executive Director of a Pagan seminary, Emore realized it was important to know the current spiritual needs of Pagans. Unfortunately, minimal information was available. She conducted primary research to find this out.
Equinox Publishing will publish those findings in January 2021. These findings also contributed to the Paganism & Its Discontents Symposium at Cherry Hill Seminary.
Part of her research focused on the spiritual needs of Pagan solitaries. She found that most solitaries “do want to be part of a group. What they have trouble articulating is what they mean by that.”
Emore found that “a lot of people are really longing for spiritual companionship, for connections, friendships with other people, who share their … spirituality in some way. These [online rituals] provide a way for people to meet each other and connect. That’s a great thing.”
Emore described an online conference that she recently attended. “They had plenty of chat boxes.” People, who already knew each other, greeted each other in those chat boxes. She noticed that the location of one other attendee was near to her location. She looked him up online and emailed him, saying “hey, we’ve got this in common and you’re [near me].” People do not have to disclose their location, nor do they have to respond.
Social distancing discourages physical contact between strangers. Online interaction eliminates it. Emore said “there’s a lot that cannot go on digitally, that will just get shut down right away. You’re not going to have a predator or just your classic dirty old man wandering around on the outskirts of a bonfire. You are literally all equal. You are also controlled by a moderator. Whether you want to be or not. It’s just the technology. That’s not even an ideological thing.”
Online ritual creativity
Emore’s group, which is based on an Egyptian tradition, had a ritual around May 1 to celebrate Hathor. The ritual’s attendees were not all Pagan. She said, “We’re not Wiccan; we’re not a coven.”
She said that she was having an online cocktail hour for a few of the women from her group as part of their Beltane celebration. Emore said that they should expect surprises, “I already told them [that] flower garlands, high spirits, and costumes are welcome. I’m going to have Vanessa Redgrave queued up [doing] the “Lusty Month of May” scene from ‘Camelot.’”