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Cat's Spiritual Journey, Part III: The Fool's Journey

All posts in this series:
Part I: Getting (and Losing) That Old Time Religion
Part II: Coming Home
Part III: The Fool's Journey
Part IV: The Underworld
Part V: Seven of Cups
Part VI: A Letter and a Kiss
Part VII: Morticia Loves Gomez
Part VIII: Nora
Part IX: Felicia Hardy and the Tower of Babel
Part X: When Babel Fell
Part XI: Community 2.0
Part XII: This Forgiveness Stuff

When I first became Pagan, I was extremely idealistic about Paganism and what it could do for the world. I was profoundly affected by vision's like Starhawk's ecofeminism--the idea that most of our present ills are a result of a patriarchal world view that objectified women and the planet, sacrificing things of spiritual and lasting value for short term gains for the few, those few being mainly white guys in suits. Pagans were going to resacralize the earth, renew real respect between genders and races, and build a new ideal based on community. And our ideas were going to spread, because anyone from the mainstream culture who glimpsed the beauty in our relationships with one another was going to want to sign on.

Do I hear snickers from the back row?

For those who know me now, and who are aware of my ready acceptance of modern scholarship on Wiccan and Pagan history--that we do not trace our lineages unbroken to the paleolithic era, that there is no evidence for a universal peaceful matriarcy in human history, etc--I don't want to come across as more cynical than I am. Though I no longer believe in that mythic neolithic feminist utopia of peaceful goddess worshippers living in a perfect balance with nature, I do think that equality between the sexes has peaked and ebbed throughout history, and that gender equity isn't a recent invention, with no precedents in the ancient world. I do think that communal values are part of some cultures more than others, and that patriarchy, amoral economic competition, and lack of value for the earth and the environment are not historical inevitablities that can never be changed. If I am less starry-eyed than I was once, and see the struggle to change humanity as more difficult and complicated than I once thought it would be, I still think that cynicism accomplishes nothing of lasting good, either for the cynic or his world.

Paganism helped me to become a Fool--and in the spiritual world, that's a good thing. Most of us stay home, lock the doors, and hope for the best for ourselves individually. The Fool sets out boldly into the world, and even if it looks as if his journey is hopeless, it really is better to be The Fool, even if sometimes you get a little battered on your journey... Like a Fool, then, I set out optimistically, believing that magical possiblities were all around me.

There was so much to know! And I wanted to learn everything, read everything--I think I kept our local bookstore in business single-handedly, through special orders alone. I had to read about herbs, of course (something I'd been facinated by as a kid) and to begin stocking a kitchen full of simples: peppermint for nerves or indigestion, lavender to disinfect wounds, sage to dry up post-nasal drip... and so on. And I sent away for mail order Wicca classes--incredible horse hooey, I ultimately decided, but only after devouring the first wave of assigned readings and diligently working the assigned "psychic development exercises" (which were not such horse hooey, overall). I read garbage about ancient Celts, antiquated archeologicial writings about matriarchies in Crete, Charles Godfrey Leland's Aradia from a cheap little feminist Wiccan booklet full of footnotes about what the text really meant, and the occult fiction of Stewart Farrar, on loan from a friend.

No one who has entered Paganism since the advent of the Web can have the slightest notion what all this was like, though all the old-timers will remember vividly. There was no, no Witches' Voice with thousands of essays and links to resources. I can't describe my joy when I discovered that Kirk possessed a stack of a dozen tattered copies of Circle Network News, complete with the sappy drawings of willowy goddesses that characterized Pagan artwork at that time.

Every now and then, a Pagan friend with access to computers would print out (in tiny dot-matrix letters) a few gleanings from Fidonet: lyrics to songs that would one day be famous, scraps of rituals, arguments between groups over proper Wiccan ethics or circle ettiquette... you never knew what you would wind up with, but over the creaky modem connections of the day, you grabbed what you could, and strained your eyes looking for something of value.

Ultimately, Kirk, Doug, and I formed the core of a boot-strapped coven and study group. We pooled our information, shared our books, chants, and rituals, and taught one another anything we happened to pick up from whatever source. These days, a determined seeker can find more useful information online in an afternoon than Kirk, Doug, and I worked out over the course of a year or more of earnest research. But the advantage to a modern seeker is not as clear cut as you might suppose. Because there was so little information available, we had to read widely, in history and comparative religion and women's studies and ecology... and when we gleaned a few shards of Wiccan writing, we could never know much about the source they came from. Every piece of information had to be weighed, tested, experimented with before adding it to our practice. Since we had no ready-made Book of Shadows, we were not tempted to accept anything at face value. Everything was tested, compared with what we already knew, or--best of all--made to work through trial and error, sometimes in ways the original liturgists would never have foreseen.

The Coven on Wheels (COW for short, in a tip o' the hat to the Vermont dairy industry) had almost no formal liturgy, and that stolen and modified from a variety of sources. But what it lacked in ritual trappings, it made up in groundedness and integrity. Because we were always experimenting to see what worked, we became deadly honest with one another about what wasn't working, and we altered it or abandoned it. We also became better and better at taking risks in front of each other--there's nothing like waving your arms in the air, breathing funny, and intoning Hebrew names in front of someone to build a sense of trust! Seriously, it took real trust to set aside our worries that we were making idiots of ourselves. But by doing so, we built up quite a fund of intimacy... as we did working in Kirk's woods to clear land and move stones for outdoor ritual space, and camping together around a bonfire at the end of the day.

On a practical level, we gradually pieced together ways of casting a circle, raising energy, entering trance, and learning about and communing with our gods that have stood the test of time; each of us has gone on to some sort of further magical training (Kirk in so many traditions even he has a hard time counting them all) but I think we would each tell you that what we worked out together was at least the equal of what we learned later in formal traditions. Trial and error, combined with common sense and a willingness to do our homework, turned out to be a pretty effective set of teachers.

At the time, I think we all felt a bit apologetic about the ways our practice was home-grown... and I know we were all pleasantly surprised by how favorably it compared with other, more established traditions, when eventually we went out in the wider world of Paganism and Wicca.

Picture this: the three of us have registered together for the EarthSpirit community's premier Pagan gathering, Rites of Spring. Knowing, as we do, that many groups will be present in their ceremonial best, with matching robes, cloaks, banners, and occult jewelry, we decided that we, too, would put on a bit of a show, and we've purchased our own ritual regalia: matching sunglasses, and the blue Ben and Jerry's ice cream tee shirts, proudly emblazoned with our coven emblem, the black and white Holstein cow. The three of us can hardly keep from laughing out loud, striding through camp in our ceremonial finery.

Rites of Spring was a high point in my Fool's journey. When not giggling with my buds, I got my first taste of the wider Pagan world. I learned a dozen new chants. I bought my first piece of Pagan ritual gear, a crescent moon crown that was like a promise (to myself? to the Goddess?) to take my priestessing seriously, even if I kept on laughing at myself. I attended my first-ever drum circle, sweat lodge, and large public ritual.

There were moments of great beauty at that Rites. I attended my first forest wine ceremony, and loved it--the chalice going round and round the circle, with celebrants coming and going, giving thanks upon thanks with each new toast. I spent time in something that I could swear actually called itself a Crystal Teepee--a canvas-sided teepee with carefully arranged chunks of quartz crystals, ranging from fist-sized knobs of rose quartz to Thanksgiving-turkey sized geodes lined with amethyst. Supposedly all of these crystals were arranged in a pattern that optimized vibrations of peace and love; I don't suppose I'd go near such a thing nowadays--I'm rather more sensitive to B.S. But I did spend time there during that Rites, and whether it was because of the crystals, because of the quality of the light diffusing through the canvas sides of the structure, or because of the serene hippies who went there to meditate, I found it a very peaceful place to be.

Even getting a sunburn was a delightful experience. I had carefully covered up most of my person for most of the time, but, alas, I had not thought to cover up my feet, of all things. By the second day there, I had the most amazingly red, sore feet you can imagine. But a stop at the Healer's Hut introduced me to Ellen Evert Hopman, who set me up with some kind of greenish herbal goo that--I am not making this up--flat out cured my sunburn.

At Rites of Spring, I learned that COW was not the only group of Pagans with a sense of humor; I saw the feminine and the Goddess honored everywhere I turned; I listened to harps, drums, dijeridoos and bardic circles. And I decided that Pagans were just about the most wonderful, loving, compassionate, and enlightened people on the planet.

Perhaps you can see where this is headed? I couldn't, of course. But such is the nature of the Fool.

(To be continued...)


Anonymous said…
Ah, Cat, I see you are sharing a draft of your Confessions with us, in the tradition of the worthy Augustine!

I much enjoyed this installment; it took me in memory back to the 1960s, when I engaged in my own explorations of what has now come to be called Wicca.
Anonymous said…
Wow! Do such festivals still exist? I've never been to one, but have langored for such an experience. To be that full enraptured!

Another great installment. Looking forward to the rest.
Hi, Marshall,
You should have seen the looks on Peter's and my faces when we read your comment this morning. And yet, I always thought you were awfully insightful about polytheism... *grinning* I do hope to bring this series to a close a wee bit more quickly than Augustine did, though it is proving harder to cut and cull the farther I go in...

Incidentally, if your ears have been burning today, it's perhaps because I mentioned you in a thread of comments responding to a pretty offensive smear campaign a right-wing Christian group is conducting against the Pagan chair of a Maine local Democratic committee. I hope you don't mind, but I mentioned you and your work (and especially the Earthcare Witness) as examples of what I take to be actions more representative of what Christianity was intended to be. (One of the most painful things about being Christian must surely be coping with the dreadful things that others do in the name of that religion!)

Derek, Thanks for the kind words. Yes, absolutely the festival still exists--and many others. But what is very, very hard to recapture is the Beginner Mind that allowed me to engage with what was good there so fully. Paganism absolutely has its shadow side as well, and coming to terms with that is where I'm going to try to steer this unwieldy narrative next: into (and hopefully out again through the other side) some of our communal darkness.

Thank you both for your comments. It is good to know this stuff has found some readers--and ones I value, at that.
Wonderful, Cat! Looking forward to each installment. Believe me, I certainly can identify with a lot of it, especially the experimentation, the excitement, the zeal.

Festivals were, and are, not as big a deal out here on the Left Coast as they are in other regions of the country. My theory is it's because we're already so diverse and tolerant and visible that we don't need to go create a community in the woods. Still, they do have their appeal.

The first one I went to was in the Oakland Hills. It was put on by the late Gwydion Penderwen and Stephan Abbot. I couldn't leave; I was enchanted.

I'm off to Starwood with Corby next month and hope to see you and Peter at MerryMeet MerryMeet in August.
Honey said…
thank you for all the links, my own journey is so very slow. It is great to have a few pointers.
Bright Crow said…
Yes! The Fool! My favorite trump card!

Whenever I find a Fool, whether in a card reading, in a story or novel, or in daily life, I feel a perverse exaltation. It's a guarantee that things are going to get more interesting.


(Of course, perverse as I am, I can get excited about the Tower card, too.)

I share some of your nostalgia for the "good old days" (circa 1960s-70s) when we still did believe in the paleolithic "universal peaceful matriarchy."

My intro to what we now call Paganism was--ironically, enough--through a Sybil Leek book. Not so much the book itself, but the plain, respectable, middle class, middle-aged women who gave a "lecture" on "real witchcraft" at the local alternative bookstore in 1973.

Pug, as she called herself, became my guide for the remainder of that decade, doing occasional card readings... which she eventually pointed out to me I always seemed to seek just after I had just taken whatever was to be the next major step in my life.

And, yes, pre-Web it was definitely a scavenger hunt to find information and/or people who "knew."

I like this:

"But the advantage to a modern seeker is not as clear cut as you might suppose. Because there was so little information available, we had to read widely.... we could never know much about the source they came from. Every piece of information had to be weighed, tested, experimented with before adding it to our practice.... we were not tempted to accept anything at face value. Everything was tested, compared with what we already knew, or--best of all--made to work through trial and error...."

This describes very well the path I've followed as a solitaire. In fact, it describes how I still do things.

Walhydra has this rant she does about ceremonial stuff: "I'd hate to have my life depend upon remembering which incense to burn or which way to wave my hands at the crucial moment."

Trusting and being able to read and go with the dynamics of the moment, whether in a Circle or alone, seems a much more important thing to learn than "getting the ritual right."

Having the intimate trust of fellow coveners, or Quaker meeting members, or whatever, and being able to plunge in, experiment, make mistakes, look foolish--and then plunge in again. Ah, sooo much more important than "getting it right."

"But what [The Coven on Wheels] lacked in ritual trappings, it made up in groundedness and integrity."

Yes, yes! That's the core, the guts, the heart of it: groundedness and integrity.

Thanks so much for this!

Bl├ęssed Be,
*blushing* Michael, you say the sweetest things...

Was "Pug" Sybil Leek herself? Or another of the early Craft teachers in this country? (How fabulous, to have actually met Sybil Leek...)
Bright Crow said…
No, Pug wasn't Sybil, but she used Sybil's books as a non-threatening intro for her skeptical yet curious audience at the lecture.

In least when she was reading cards for me...she never really talked about witchcraft

She used a deck I didn't recognize (not a Tarot deck), and gave me feedback on things I was puzzling over or trying to learn.

The big plus for me was precisely that Pug didn't go into any of the ceremonial or metaphysical business of witchcraft. She just spoke down-to-earth spiritual sense.

Eased me in.

Zach Alexander said…
You know, I did my senior philosophy thesis on Aristotle and ecofeminism. Really interesting reading, even if the final product was rubbish (my brain stopped working somewhere around the middle of the 9th semester out of 10).

Your description of trying/making up different rituals and seeing what works has really made an impression on me -- is that a common practice in Pagan circles do you think? I'm not entirely sure why, as it's not terribly unlike what I imagined some Pagan folks did, but in any case, it's gotten me a lot more interested in exploring Paganism more.
Zach, you wrote, "Your description of trying/making up different rituals and seeing what works has really made an impression on me -- is that a common practice in Pagan circles do you think?"

It is such a common practice! Really, the Pagans working from well established bodies of liturgy and techniques are the exception, not the rule. Sometimes to a fault--there really is a place for tradition and repeating patterns, especially around seasonal celebrations: a new ritual for every turn of the wheel is probably not the very best way to go, and kids especially don't much appreciate it.

But, yeah, there's a lot of experimentation. The trick is finding people who are grounded and thoughtful to share the experimentation with, and that, too, can take a bit of experimentation.

(BTW--I owe you a comment on your last, on business meeting. I'd actually written a lengthy one which got deleted, and I haven't yet had the heart to try again. Short version: OK, Cat goes back to the drawing board; I need to do some more thinking...)
Zach Alexander said…
Good to know... and thanks for the FYI on the discussion on my blog. When people don't comment back I usually assume the worst, like I've offended them, etc. :)
Anonymous said…
Sorry to be so late commenting. It will take me awhile to catch up, but vacations are SO much fun. I wanted to make a suggestion about the following comment: "I do think that equality between the sexes has peaked and ebbed throughout history, and that gender equity isn't a recent invention, with no precedents in the ancient world. I do think that communal values are part of some cultures more than others, and that patriarchy, amoral economic competition, and lack of value for the earth and the environment are not historical inevitablities that can never be changed." Richard Leakey's "People of the Lake" offers some wonderful anthropological background on some of these observations. If you are not all that interested in the scientific discovery aspects of paleoanthropology you can skim that and glean out the social and cultural elements. The short answer is that the biggest part of our problems along those lines seems to have come with the agricultural revolution and is therefore only 10,000 years old.

In His Love,
Nate Swift

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