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
Sometimes I think of my early development in Paganism as a path between two poles: Beltane and Samhain, exuberant innocence and painful deepening… Rites of Spring and Twilight Covening.
In some ways, my growth in Wicca was pretty far along by the time Doug, Kirk, and I visited Rites of Spring together. We had coalesced into a strong working coven, and I had progressed far enough in my own development to make a capable acting High Priestess for the group—over the year previous, through dreams, trance journeys, and finally ritual work, I’d deepened my relationship with the goddess I call “Rosie” (she has never given me any other name for her, though I have a few theories) and I had drawn down the moon for the first time at Beltane that year. Our coven, COW, had worked out enough practical techniques that we were actually running a small but productive Pagan study group, and we had begun to put out a tiny seasonal newsletter as well, Pagan Paths. Through a newsletter exchange and a series of classes held at the old Abyss occult bookstore*,I’d gotten to know this very interesting and earnest young Pagan writer, Peter Bishop. My knowledge of the Pagan world was becoming reasonable wide.
However, in some important ways I was only splashing along on the surface of things, enjoying the sparkly ripples, but with no real sense of the depths below me. I was mature in my Paganism, but mature the way a young man or woman is in their mid-twenties, when they have achieved some independence and a basic sense of purpose and place in the world, but before the challenges of middle age (troubled children, aging parents, health problems that herald the inevitability of aging and our own mortality) arrive to add darker hues to the palette of life. What’s more, having had a happy, middle-class childhood, and having married my high-school sweetheart, I was in some ways still a sheltered adolescent at heart: her daddy’s favorite child, the teacher’s pet, the quiet girl who sat at the back of the classroom and earned her A’s and B’s with little struggle.
I was ripe for a little ripening, in other words… and that is exactly what came next.
I was so enchanted with the wider Pagan community when I came home from Rites of Spring that I set about recreating as much of it as I could, literally in my own backyard, at this point, as we had by then moved to the old schoolhouse at the end of a rutted back road in Vermont. Out under the white pines at the edge of the yard I created an outdoor altar of slate and cinderblocks, and set out stones and plants and other found objects to symbolize the elements and the Lord and Lady. I also had fond memories of the morning and evening meditations around campfires—to this day, the smell of ordinary wood-smoke is the most powerful magickal incenses I know—and dug myself a small fire-pit. I would sit beside it, a small fire burning, and try to feel my connection to the tribe of Pagans, and wonder if other members of the same tribe were also sitting by campfires of their own, out in the world beyond my wooded hillside.
I kept in touch with Pagans I had met at Rites or in the class I had taken, but what I really wanted was more—more experience of life among Pagans, and more experience of magic and ritual and songs.
Of course I registered for Twilight Covening when the autumn came. Kirk and Doug did not—I don’t even remember why—but I was actually looking forward to immersing myself, on my own, in the experience of a Pagan village once again.
For those of you who have been hoping for a little Pagan wierdness in my story, get ready. Pagan wierdness, coming up...
As Beltane is a celebration of spring, so Rites is celebratory and festive, with merchants selling pretty toys and clothes, performers making music, dancing, and (of course) a gigantic May pole for over 500 happy dancers. But as Samhain is about the preparation for winter (and, by analogy, death) Twilight is an altogether more serious gathering. It is, in fact, a three day long ritual, with the focus on an inward journey to experience, claim, and integrate the shadow self. Attendees sign up to work in depth with one group of people—a “clan” in Twilight parlance—on one form of sacred technology. I chose a trance working clan, and I packed up my clothes, my wand, and my drum, and headed south, alone, to experience this deeper thing.
I had, unfortunately, neglected to pack my toothbrush.
I've since figured out that I have difficulty in making the transition both to and from a retreat--I tend to get very keyed up and anxious on my way in the door, and, back in the day, that translated to bitchy. So my entry to Twilight Covening was graceless, and rather than breathing in the scents of autumn in the woods, stretching my legs, and greeting the handful of people I knew from the previous gathering, my attention was focused almost wholly on the stale taste in my mouth. It was with deep relief that I welcomed the happy gift from another camper of a replacement toothbrush. (Talk about divine intervention! Who goes camping with an extra toothbrush? ) And I did meet up with at least one familiar face, that of a man I will call Afagddu (not his real or magickal name) for the purposes of this story. Afagddu had access to the kitchens, and knew how to brew up a potent kettle of amazing Cuban coffee, which he shared with me, managing to soothe my spirit and let me open up and relax at last.
The next day, Saturday, began well. I met the members of my clan, and, after some initial self-consiousness, began experimenting with the various forms of trance that were the focus of our workshop. By supper that night, I was actively starting to enjoy myself, and threw myself into our group's assigned kitchen cleanup with lively pleasure, singing and joking with new friends.
Then came the night that began unravelling the life I'd built so carefullly for myself in thirty years on the planet Earth.
It began innocuously enough, in a chance meeting with Peter, under the flaming oaks. He asked me to look with him at the results of a Tarot spread he had done earlier that day. Squatting at the side of the leafy path, he spread out the green cloth he used for readings over the ground and carefully set the cards out again in the same Celtic cross and double-sword pattern he'd turned up earlier.
As promised, I took a look.
My first impression was one of intense deja vu--it really looked to me for a moment as if Peter had just shown me a Tarot spread of my own, card for card. That was illusion, and a more careful second look made that clear. But all the same, an almost overwhelming sense of the spread being somehow mine persisted to trouble me with the thought that this was surely the height of narcissism... to look at another person's Tarot spread and see your own life in it! I shook the impression away, and tried to focus on Peter's question.
The spread was on what direction Peter's spiritual seeking ought to take in the coming year... and what he ought to leave behind. Hence the doubled sword: one column for what to reach for, and another for letting go. Interestingly enough, the card that turned up in the "house-to-leave" position in his spread was "The Fool"--that card of optimistic new beginnings. Other cards come back to me, in fitful remembering: the Two of Cups (was it reversed?) and perhaps some of the suit of Swords that were going to be so important in the near future. Neither Peter nor I can remember now, almost twenty years later. But the power of that first impression remains, like the memory of the smell of fallen leaves that goes with it.
Discussing Peter's Tarot spread led to discussing what, exactly, his spiritual practice had been like over the course of the previous year, and again, as he spoke, I had a powerful sense of deja vu.
Peter, like me, had a Pagan practice that involved a fair amount of trance journey work*--in his case, more formally conducted and Harneresque. I think he actually had a cassette tape of shamanic drumming, for example, and I relied mainly on my own breath and a few self-hypnotic techniques I'd learned as a therapist to get me to where I sought to go.*
Initially, Peter's work had focused a lot on Core Shamanism concepts like animal helpers and so forth. Gradually, he'd worked to use it to explore his relationship with the Goddess... but, over time, he'd found this bloke with antlers intruding more and more often into his journeys, usually with some kind of test or challenge. Initially, he had found it annoying, but it had come to be more and more important a part of his practice.
As Peter spoke, I found myself resonating, almost reverberating, to the images his words stirred up. I had had a relationship with Herne prior to that weekend--but it was really Peter's storytelling that found flesh for the yearnings and intuitions I had had up to that point. The aftertaste of our conversation was almost eerie. Suddenly, shadows were darker, and the light of sunset through the oaks was more brilliant than ever. Twilight Covening is conceived as a three-day-long ritual; however, I believe it was at that point, on Saturday night, that I really entered the Otherworld.
One of the core elements of Twilight Covening is something they call a "Releasing Fire" ritual. These days, it is held on Friday night, but I'm pretty sure it was not until Saturday night the year I am writing about. Before we went our separate ways, Peter showed me a stick he had been carrying with him all day, which he identified with the stick the Fool uses to sling his bundle over his shoulder in the Tarot card. I had not, to that point, had much of a plan for the upcoming ritual, but, as I left the clearing where Peter and I had been talking, I found myself responding to an intuitive pull to participate in it--to find a stick and charge it--I still didn't know with what intention--to cast into the fire with the other celebrants when the time came.
The idea of the releasing fire is simple. As preparation for the new year (beginning at Samhain, in Celtic and Wiccan tradition), participants should figure out something that they were done with. Together, we would all chant for a bit, focusing our intention on our little twigs and twists of grass or what-have-you, and then move in waves toward a central bonfire, cast our tokens onto it, and move away again. When everyone had finshed, the drummers would pull out their large and small drums, and the dancing and celebration would begin: out with the old, in with the new. That kind of thing.
One of the things I've always been good at, sometimes to Peter's terror, is yielding to a magickal impulse. Many Pagans take days to form an intention, do careful discernment and even divination on it, and only then do they act. Sometimes for better, and once or twice for worse, I've tended to be far more spontaneous in some of my most important workings. This was one of the good times, though, to be guided by impulse--or an Otherworldly leading, if you prefer.
The ritual was about to begin... the fires were laid, and the crowd was gathering. Unlike Peter, who had found his stick ages ago, and spent a day focusing on it, I picked a twig off the forest floor almost at random, and joined the crowd, still not clear on what it was that I was intending to do.
The chant began: something along the lines of "Free it, burn it, let...it...go!" and it quickly built in tempo and energy. And I found myself reflecting on the relationship I had with Rosie, my face of the Goddess.
I loved her. I trusted her. But how far? And how far did I trust myself? How real was I? How truthful and genuine was I?
Gradually, a sense formed in me of the many ways in which I was still so caught up in my brittle, self-conscious, people-pleasing adolescent self. I felt my incompleteness very clearly and very acutely, and I despised it, suddenly. And I knew that was it--that false, people-pleasing, placating self was what I needed to let go of. I needed to get out of my fairy princess tower, and go live a life. And so that was the intention I put into that twig.
I waited my turn, and I waited for the right moment, and then I cast my twig into the fire and let it go, feeling the warmth of the flames against my face and my body for just a moment before yielding my place at the fire to the next celebrant.
The next thing I knew, I had a sudden and overwhelming sense of grief and loss, and I saw what I'd let go of in a different way. Suddenly, I was no longer my daddy's beloved clever daughter. Suddenly, I was no longer the star pupil, the Good One who would always win the approval of those in charge. Being free also meant losing part of my self, I realized--the part of me that was always safe, or thought she was, because that's what being Good buys you in this world.
And with that, I flashed on what it really means to love a Goddess who is the Life Force of the world. Yeah, She's fresh growth sprouting from seeds, and the trust of new babies, and the joy of birds on wing... but She is also AIDS, and old age that cripples, and infants who die too soon. Life is not just a Hallmark greeting card. And that, that was what I was signing on to. That was what I had just given my allegiance to. And the Mother of the Universe
And suddenly, all I felt was fear.
Life is also death. I'd known it before--it's what the Pagan metaphor of the Wheel of the Year is really about, after all--but now I felt it running like ice water all through me.
She could kill me. Now. Tomorrow. Any time.
She could kill my family.
She could kill my three-year-old daughter, tucked up safe and warm at home with her daddy, and--
--and some thoughts are not really meant to be thought, are they? I began pleading, begging, praying to Her to not take all that She could; I understood that nothing I had, nothing I was, nothing I would ever know was anything but Hers, and it all belonged to Her and She was entitled to it, but please...
And then I gave up. All I could do was ask, and I did ask, but...the power was not mine to make Her, to make the universe do anything at all. Having no choice but to understand this, I did; having no choice but to yield everything, I yielded it.
So, there I was, wrestling with fear and with the Universe, hanging back from the bonfire, surrounded by a crowd of happy, sweaty, post-ritual Pagans, with drummers just warming up for the big drum n' dance that follows such a ritual, when I got another tug. An awful one. It's as if a little voice began whispering: "You're yielding everything, eh? Yielding it all up to Me? Fine, fine... prove it! Dance!"
It may not be apparent to readers of this blog, where, I will admit, I tend to let it all hang out... but I'm actually not much for creating a public spectacle. Those who know me best will describe me as a quintessentially proper New England lady--tending very much on the side of reserved and shy, at least about some things. Joining in the public spectacle of a Pagan drum n' dance, especially in terms of being the first of the dancers in the ring, was really not in my character. Trust me--the last thing I wanted to do was get up and flail around in front of a group of strangers.
But that was what I was being told to do. Somehow, it really was necessary--the final act that made reality out of ritual. Taking up space? Living in my body? Something about setting aside my instinctive body modesty was part of what I had signed on for, and I knew it.
I did it. It was early enough that some of the drummers were still warming up their drumheads by the fires--and one thing a sane woman never wants to do is to get between a drummer and the bonfire he's using to warm his drumhead! But I did it anyway... Listening to an inner beat, I focused on the fire, focused on She Who Is the Universe, and danced that circle round. I let Her dance me--with me and inside me and through me, beat upon beat upon beat.
It only felt like an hour before I knew it had been enough. Quietly, and as unobtrusively as I could, I moved to the back of the firelit circle, to catch my breath in the cool shadows, and let myself drift slowly back to a more normal state of mind.
The night had come. Outside the ring of dancers and drummers, it was full dark. Looking toward the fire, I could see sparks rising toward a starlit sky... a full moon beginning to rise...orange leaves lit from below.
Across from the fire, I saw Peter again. He smiled, and I joined him. We danced together for a while, off at the edges of the crowd, swinging playfully round and round like kids playing at getting dizzy. After a while, he saw other friends of his, and went over to talk to them.
I went down to the small lake below us, to watch the moon reflected in its waters. The moolight was cool, though the night was unseasonably warm, and the dancing had left me hot and sweaty. I dangled my feet in the water.
Only a few minutes later, my reverie was interrupted by Afagddu, who wandered down to join me in desultory conversation. We chatted about this and that...I laughingly declined a suggestion we go skinny dipping in the lake, but took him up on the offer of another cup of strong Cuban coffee, and we headed off to the midnight kitchen, where the two of us were the only living souls in a landscape of gleaming steel and quiet shadows. At first, the conversation continued as before.
This part is hard to write about, even after all these years, in part because there really isn't a word for what Afagddu did next. I don't want to overstate the case; but I also don't want to lose the horror of it...
He did not, at any time, raise his hand to me or in any way threaten me physically. He did not precisely even threaten me verbally. But he made it chillingly clear that, as I had been dancing at the bonfire, I had attracted his attention. He had then begun stalking me--his word. He said he'd felt the goddess in me, with me. And that had wakened something in him--what he called the Hunter, the horned one, and he'd decided he wanted me and he was going to have me, whatever it took. When I had been dancing with Peter, he described for me the fantasy he'd entertained of pulling out his knife, and stabbing Peter, perhaps killing him. And when I had left the dance, he had followed me down to the lake, and was chatting with me now, while making up his mind about what, exactly, he wanted to do. (With me? To me?)
He never said the word rape.
And he never touched me. But all I could see, in that kitchen that had felt warm and comforting minutes before, was the vast number of sharp things, hot things, and things that can cause hurt that were all around me. And I felt cold, cold, cold...
Here's irony. I'm probably at least half a head taller than Afagddu. Having grown up tusslng with a "little" brother who is now 6'4", you'd think I'd have noticed that, wouldn't you? But it would be weeks before that would even dawn on me. Something other than size made him scary to me for those long minutes in the kitchen alone.
He ended his little discourse by telling me that I would be more careful in the future, wouldn't I? And I would go home, and teach my daughter to be more "careful", too. Wouldn't I? And like a rabbit caught in the headlights, I smiled and nodded and attempted to act as though we were discussing the weather.
Somehow, the conversation ended. I think we actually said goodbye--I think, I surmise, because I certainly was not tracking that information at the time--and I actually headed back to my bunkhouse to try to sleep, only to realize, when I got back to the cabin (coed, though that had never mattered to me before, and I could not consciously frame the thought that it mattered to me now) that there was no way I could force myself to go into it, undress, climb into my bed, and lie down.
I wandered back to the firelight, where the last dregs of drumming were yielding to sleepy conversation over the embers of the bonfire. And I stayed there for a very, very long time, until finally I was exhausted enough to make myself go back to the bunkhouse to lie down and sleep.
The next day was nightmarish. No one I knew was anywhere in sight. Peter was off in an all-day sweatlodge with his clan. As to my own clan, they were suddenly strangers to me. Worse, about half of them were men, and, without articulating why that mattered, I found it almost unbearable to be in a room with them. Which I was, of course, going through the motions of what seemed suddenly empty exercises. And I was cold, cold, cold to the bone.
Despite having worked for years in rape crisis service and battered women's programs, it took me most of that day even to frame to myself what that unspoken threat had been, and that it was not men I was afraid of, but one man, one particular man, whom I had liked and trusted.
I can still see in my mind's eye exactly where I was standing, what was the slant of light, at the moment when I began to know why I was afraid.
It was almost enough. But some things can't really be known alone. Some things need the exoskeleton of language, spoken and heard, to be able to stand up and be seen. And I really, really needed someone to talk to.
And thank all the good gods of heaven and earth, Peter's sweat lodge finally, finally ended. And despite a feeling of utter voicelessness, I did manage to ask him to take a walk with me. He led the way... a winding path around the lake, away from the camp and the voices, everyone getting ready for dinner and the main ritual to follow.
Why wasn't I afraid of Peter? I don't know. I just wasn't.
It was so hard to talk. But Peter was able to listen with enough stillness that I was somehow able to let the tale tumble out. Till I got to the part where Afagddu had spoken of drawing down the Hunter, the god, as partial explanation for his impulses and his actions.
That didn't seem right to me. It didn't seem true... but I was not in a place where I could trust myself very well, and I knew--knew particularly clearly, after my own experience at the bonfire--that the gods of nature are shadow as well as light. I had to ask him.
"Peter..." I almost wailed. "Is that...Herne? Was that Herne?"
And he said no. And I don't remember if he held me with his arms, or only with the warmth of his voice, but suddenly it was all right--I could feel my arms and my legs and my fingers and my toes... and best of all, I knew that I could trust myself, and I could trust Herne. The chill began to lift. And I began to realize I was angry. Really, really angry--the cold kind of anger that has a very long shelf life.
We walked together back toward the dining hall. Peter left to get washed up, and I went out onto the little deck behind the building to look out over the water toward the setting sun, to think about Herne, and Afagddu, and being angry.
And a few minutes later, who should appear beside me but the man himself, Afagddu, live and in person. Coming softly up next to me, he spoke tentatively.
"Are you...angry with me?" he asked.
And I turned and and I smiled, and it wasn't a nice smile at all, and I hissed, "Yesssss..." And he fled. Just doubled back the way he had come and fled.
And then, gazing out again at the lake, I had the strangest feeling come over me...
It seemed to me that Herne was right there, not in body, but right there beside me nonetheless, patiently waiting.
I had a sense, suddenly, of something else, too--something hard to explain. It seemed to me that, somehow, by doing what he had done, and by invoking Herne in the doing of it, Afagddu had created a kind of a connection between the two of us. Today, years later, it is possible to be skeptical about this, but at the time, it was about as simple a perception as looking out across the lake and noticing the trees on the other side. I just suddenly had a sense of something in me that, because of this connection, could, should I choose, reach out (or in?) and... just squeeze down.
It seemed to me that I might very well be able to will Afagddu's death, and have it come to pass. And it seemed to me that Herne was simply waiting there, by my elbow, as it were, to see what I would choose to do.
Because I had another choice, too. Rather than acting myself, I could just hand Afagddu over, the whole, tangled, jangling, painful thought of him, to Herne. And he would become Herne's business, not mine.
But it was one or the other. I couldn't do both.
I sat with the knowledge for a bit. Turned it over inside me for a bit. And...chose.
"Herne, you old bastard," I whispered, "take him. He's Yours." And I let go.
And heard the sound of wild geese far overhead--Gabriel hounds, the Wild Hunt in motion.
It was time for the main ritual to begin.
(To be continued...)
Now Azure Green, an online store and wholesaler—a hugely successful business which has left the days of the humble storefront and monthly Pagan potluck brunches far, far behind them.
"Trance journey" means a lot of different things, depending on the Pagan you are talking to. For Peter and for me, it refers to a state that is not as uncontrolled as dreaming, nor as deliberate and conscious as day-dreaming. Neither of us are big on "guided meditation," where someone reads a passage out loud to you and you are supposed to carefully follow their directions in your imagination. But neither are we likely to be in the kind of trance that movies depict, or that I have known a very small number of practitioners routinely to experience, where, for all intents and purposes, "the lights are on, but nobody is home." I would use more precise terminology if I could, though I will say that, in my experience as a psychotherapist specializing in work with dissociation, the more I was taught about "altered states of consciousness," the less clear the whole business tended to become. I'm not sure there are any experts, anywhere...
Yes, thank you, I am well aware of the controversies regarding Michael Harner, "core shamanism", and cultural appropriation. Now, do you want me to describe how I learned how to talk to my gods, or not?