Samhain rituals and those incarcerated

TWH – Samhain leads into the darkest part of the year. Few places embody darkness so intensely as prisons. In the U.S., prisons focus on control, punishment, and constant surveillance. They have largely abandoned any efforts toward growth, healing, and rehabilitation. Those areas are left to paid and volunteer social workers and prison chaplains of all religions.

Image credit: Džoko Stach from Pixabay

A few Pagans from outside of prison walls engage in volunteer prison ministry to incarcerated Pagans. Recently, The Wild Hunt spoke via e-mail with two Pagans who do prison ministry work, M. Macha Nightmare and Rev. Kirk Thomas. Macha has ministered to incarcerated Wiccans in a northern California prison. A former Ár nDraíocht Féin (ADF) Archdruid, Kirk has ministered to incarcerated Druids at an eastern Washington (state) prison.

Both facilities mentioned in this article are designated as “men’s prisons.”

A Pagan ministering to Wiccans

In some prisons, officials classify the incarcerated by their perceived threat and adjustment levels. Macha described the Wiccans with whom she works as “pretty well adjusted and not a potential threat.” None are classified as dangerous. A few had practiced Wicca before their sentencing. Most circle members became involved with Wicca only after they were sentenced and incarcerated within prison walls.


M. Macha Nightmare – Courtesy

For seven years, Macha had visited the prison twice a month. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, officials no longer allowed volunteers to enter. Now, those officials have allowed volunteers back in. Macha had to reapply and is currently waiting for approval.

Prisons are filled with restrictions and surveillance. Privacy does not exist, and prison guards can even view the spiritual practices of the Wiccan circle.

While within the prison, all volunteers have to wear a whistle. They can only bring in certain teaching materials. They cannot ask those incarcerated why they are “doing time.” Volunteers cannot disclose their email addresses, physical addresses, or phone numbers. All physical contact, including touching, is prohibited.

Macha reported that she has to be careful raising a cone of power. Officials could easily misinterpret it for something threatening. Macha said she “cannot let myself go into much of an altered state.”

For Sabbats, all food and drink have to come from the menu of the prison kitchen. Members of the Wiccan circle have to pay for it out of their savings. Any altar supplies have to come from an approved vendor. Until recently, a Kemetic on the outside had paid for those supplies. Unfortunately, he has since died. An informal network has been providing funds for supplies since then.

The Wiccan circle has two spaces for ritual. They have an indoor room and an outdoor area. Prison guards can observe both ritual spaces at all times.

Originally, the outside area consisted of a rectangle of mud surrounded by a chain-link fence. The Wiccan circle shares that outdoor space with Odinists and practitioners of Ifá. While some White supremacist Odinists do exist at the prison, they have not bothered the Wiccans. The Odinists planted cuttings taken from around the prison. The outdoor space now has a shelter, a small locker, and a couple of picnic tables.

Macha reported that she has not experienced any spiritual harassment. A few of the incarcerated Wiccans have reported that conservative Christians have harassed them on their way to Wiccan circle activities.

About 12 members comprise the Wiccan circle. Most of the Wiccans are Black and Brown, with one Asian.

Samhain Rituals inside and outside

Macha found rituals inside the prison to be emotionally similar to those on the outside.

To put it mildly, prisons fail to prioritize aesthetics. Macha felt that altar decorations should bring beauty into that dark place. She got approval for an altar cloth, an abalone shell, a few feathers, and a small amethyst geode. She described that geode as “additional reinforcement for those with addictions.”

Indoor rituals take place in a white concrete block room. First, someone would sweep the floor. They, then, would hang banners around the room. The banners have images related to each Sabbath and each element.

In past Samhain rituals, Macha would bring in paper garlands. Made of skulls, the garlands had orange and black Halloween colors. She would then place separate paper skulls on the altar. At one point in the ritual, each member of the circle would take a paper skull. Holding that skull, they would then address it as an ancestor, or anyone else that has passed.

Editorial note:   The article has been corrected to note that the skulls and garlands were separate items.

Each member of the circle would then write something on the paper skull. They could write the “name(s) [of the dead], a message, poem, a prayer.” In a later part of the ritual, they could then talk about what the skull meditation brought up for them. If they chose, they could remain silent.

One time, someone said that he had focused on someone whom that incarcerated Wiccan had wronged in the past. This is how growth and healing can begin.

A prison ministry to Druids

Rev. Kirk Thomas – Courtesy

For several years, Rev. Kirk Thomas has been working with incarcerated Druids. Long prison sentences mean that some of the incarcerated will grow old and die in prison. Thomas told the following story about an incarcerated Druid, who had recently died.

As he can no longer give consent to “out” him as a Pagan, TWH is referring to the late, incarcerated Druid, with a pseudonym of “Fred.”

At Samhain, the ritual honors the ancestors of the incarcerated. Sometimes, this will involve a loved one who died within the past year. When that happens, the incarcerated Druids would have a special memorial. In this past year, however, the Druids lost two loved ones. One of the incarcerated Druids lost his mother. The circle itself lost Fred. He had been a member of the Druid circle almost from its beginnings, 13 years ago.

A key component of ADF Druidry involves devotional practice to a particular deity. Fred had difficulty identifying a particular deity with whom to work. The Anglo-Saxon tradition had a strong attraction for Fred. In his role as a volunteer chaplain, Kirk found material on all the deities from that tradition. Fred “resonated with Seaxnot, the God of the tribe.”

Kirk reported that “At every ritual he [Fred] would offer powered milk and oats to whomever we were honoring at that rite.”

He would then offer a big, sweet roll to Seaxnot, saying “because it tastes good!” It became a catchphrase (and a bit of a joke) because Fred never varied it.

Kirk said that “Fred could be a bit of a curmudgeon, but he was OUR curmudgeon, and definitely a part of the group.”

Over the years, Fred’s health deteriorated, and he began to require the use of a cane. Next came the walker, and finally a wheelchair. Kirk became concerned when COVID hit. While COVID didn’t get Fred, something else did.

Last Memorial Day weekend, Kirk was attending the ADF annual meeting at Wellspring in Ohio. On Saturday, the prison chaplain called Kirk. He told Kirk that Fred was dying. He would soon pass. Prison officials had transferred Fred to a hospice. Kirk contacted the hospice nurse. She said she expected his death in a few days. The nurse promised to call Kirk if anything changed.

Kirk was still at Wellspring and unable to immediately fly to eastern Washington. He had to wait to see what would happen. Later that afternoon, the nurse called Kirk back. She said that Fred’s death was imminent. Kirk talked the nurse into taking a portable phone to Fred’s room. Fred could no longer speak, but he could still hear.

Kirk said, “She held the phone to his ear, so I could speak with him. I told him how important he was to me and to the men, and how he had made a big contribution to the group, and that I was praying for him.”

Later, the nurse reported that Fred had been agitated before the phone call. After Fred heard Kirk’s voice, Fred began to relax and grow calm. Kirk felt that what he was able to do for Fred “was not much. But I hope I helped him towards the end.”

On Monday, the nurse called to tell Kirk that Fred had died. Kirk said, “This Samhain we will make a big offering to Fred’s spirit, and we will offer a big, sweet roll to Seaxnot in his name, ‘because it tastes good!’”

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