What Is Wrong with Large-Scale Ritual?

Maypole procession at Colorado’s Beltania festival, 2011. (Photo by Robin Vinehall.)

When it comes to large-scale ritual, the traditional Wiccan circle does not scale up well. It was made for a small-group mystery religion, where twelve or thirteen people really is the maximum.1)OK, maybe up to twenty or so, but that is more than enough, especially if they are skyclad and all waving athames.

That Wiccan circle, as far as I can tell, was based on the magic circle of the ceremonial magician, designed to hold one, maybe two, possibly three individuals—but usually just one. And as many teachers will tell you, the magician’s circle was supposed to give the Bad Stuff out, whereas the Witches’ circle is supposed to keep the Good Stuff in.

But like a balloon that can be inflated only so far before it pops, the magic circle seems to lose cohesion when it grows too big. Its fabric tears, and, for all I know, the Good Stuff leaks out.

It may still worth with large groups as a way for a maximum number of people to have a good look at some theatrical event happening in the center. Make a son et lumière production out of calling the Quarters—that helps when you have a large outdoor gathering.

On the negative side, I have attended large rituals where people brought folding chairs to sit in because they knew that they would wait a long time for anything to happen—for the oracular priest to make it around to where they sat, for instance. It was deathly dull.

Last month at the Heartland festival, held at a 160-acre site with a network of internal gravel roads, I saw a small procession passing ahead of one of the main evening rituals. I perked up at that, but the participants were more like camp criers: “Come to the ritual.”

No no no no no. The procession should BE the ritual—for most people. That is when you bring the gods out of the temple and take them down the street. It’s interactive, and it involves the bodies of the participants. Let everyone join in! Consider what is done in India or in Catholic countries and urban neighborhoods on certain saints’ days.2)Saints, gods, what’s the difference. We are trying to raise energy.

Instead of the procession being a warm-up act, I modestly suggested to two members of the Sacred Experience Committee (in other words, the ritual producers), it should be the Main Event. Idols! Musicians! Costumes!

If a more conventional ritual follows, that’s fine, but don’t expect everyone to come. But bring the procession past their campsite and entice them to join it because it is loud, colorful, and physical.

I remember one New Mexico festival in the late 1980s where the rituals were pretty good—maybe because the group was not too huge. But then one evening a handfasting was announced, and the campers spontaneously grabbed torches and lanterns and drums and flutes and processed behind the officiants to the site—and there was more “juice” in that procession than in the official circle-style ritual.

I’ve attended a few Pueblo Indian rituals since my dad used to drag me down to Zuni when I was three, and I have noticed something: The tribes don’t expect everyone to participate. The specialists—the appropriate religious society or priesthood—will perform both the hidden parts and the public parts—dances and so on. Many people will just be spectators. The important thing is that the ritual is performed for everyone’s benefit, whether they pay close attention or are off seated on an adobe wall eating watermelon or chatting up a potential romantic partner.

Likewise the old-time Pagans had used processions as a major large-group activity. Sometimes they ended, for example, at a sacrificial altar, and then the specialists took over. (Everyone ate later.) They did not make everyone sit in rows inside a temple—most activity took place outside the temple. Making you stand or sit around indoors while the specialists do their thing is the Christians’ mistake.3)Yes, the liturgical churches—Orthodox, Catholic, fancy Anglican—will give you visualization exercises etc. to do during the service, and there are postural changes—sitting, standing, kneeling—in some churches, but it is not what I would call movement.

Right now, we are in the middle of summer festival season in the US and elsewhere. Tell me what you see. Are people getting away from the “Let’s just make a big ol’ circle and call the Quarters” model? There has to be something that works better.

Notes   [ + ]

1. OK, maybe up to twenty or so, but that is more than enough, especially if they are skyclad and all waving athames.
2. Saints, gods, what’s the difference. We are trying to raise energy.
3. Yes, the liturgical churches—Orthodox, Catholic, fancy Anglican—will give you visualization exercises etc. to do during the service, and there are postural changes—sitting, standing, kneeling—in some churches, but it is not what I would call movement.

The Story of Three Athames

I have owned three athames in my life — or more precisely two athames plus a new knife that may well become one.

There is a story in here of changing Craft practice.

Actually, the first athame was simply my wooden-handled Mora hunting knife, not in the photo.1)Those wooden (birch?) handle models are long gone, replaced with synthetics. Mora knives still give good value for the price. I cleaned the first deer that I ever killed with it, and it still rides in one of my daypacks.

1 — Then one February 28th in my mid-twenties, I went rabbit hunting on the Pike National Forest west of my home in Manitou Springs, Colorado. I know it was February 28th because that is the last day of the season, and I wanted to get out one more time.

As I recall, I saw no rabbits, but while walking through the woods I found an antler-handled knife.2)Made in Spain by Muela. Of course I picked it up. Of course (being a relatively new Pagan) I thought it was a sign. Some god or daemon had given me a ritual knife — terrific!

I walked on — and then I found a cup — an aluminum cup of the kind that come with campware cooking sets.

“This is too much!” I thought. “Where is the pentacle?” (No need to ask about a wand; I was in the forest, after all.)

No pentacle appeared, but I felt somehow honored all the same. The gods or simply the universe had tapped me on the shoulder and said, “You’re in.”

That knife was my athame for several years, and I will still use it sometimes; otherwise, since it takes an edge, it makes a good “white-handled knife.”

2 — But a new teacher entered my life, and he had different ideas about how magic worked. He and some engineer buddies postulated that maybe magical energies were on the electromagnetic spectrum . . . somewhere. They experimented with psionic “machines” that were said to amplify mental energies, psychic healing, fields of protection, and so on.

He suggested removing all ferrous metal from the ritual circle, and — if you were indoors — turning off the electric power for the duration.

So I had to replace the stainless steel (inox) athame. The high priest of my coven (a different person) found me a piece of very hard bronze. I took it to the HP of another coven, who was also an SCA fighter and an armorer — I would put his articulated steel gauntlets, for example, up against any from the 14th or 15th centuries.

He ground and polished this bronze billet into a full-tang leaf-shaped blade. The crystal in the hilt was my addition — it might help, who knows?

I made some other changes in my practice, becoming more aware of bodily energy flows. And I just liked the idea of bronze. Ah, the Bronze Age. Thuban was the North Star, and those were Shining Times.

Ritual. Long memories,
houses built on poles,
mountains, glaciers, trading parties
of tattooed men and women, faience beads,
packs filled with poppies, tin, and amber
threading through a pass.
Hammered bronze knives. Helen,
mixing her potions,
the blue Aegean stretching
like a storyteller’s breath.

Dale Pendell, Pharmako/Poeia, Revised and Updated:
Plant Powers, Poisons, and Herbcraft

Maybe that was not what my teacher had in mind, but it is where I drifted.

3 — Last year at Yule M. gave me a flint knife. I know where she bought it, at a trade fair in Taos, New Mexico3)Where, coincidentally, I am writing this blog post, and it was made just down the road by Charlie Acuña of The Stone Edge (say it). For three months it has been sitting on my desk while I think about it.

But where has my practice been heading? More and more to the local level. I have written a little about paying attention to Tlaloc, our regional god of the hydrological cycle, for example. I’ve been working with volunteer crews to clear fallen logs and other debris from Hardscrabble Creek, before the run-off from a large burn scar upstream causes flooding in our communities, which gives me plenty of time to think about the spirit of the creek while adjusting the saw chain tension.

Am I moving backwards from the Bronze Age now? It’s all just dreams and talking to the plants and animals. Doing certain feral things. Letting so much fall away.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Those wooden (birch?) handle models are long gone, replaced with synthetics. Mora knives still give good value for the price.
2. Made in Spain by Muela.
3. Where, coincidentally, I am writing this blog post

The Old Ones Built Wisely

equinox sunset

The Sun sets in Equinox Notch, one day before the actual spring equinox.

My house comes with its own solar calendar, sort of. I discovered when M. and I moved here in the 1990s that the equinoctial sunset occurs in a notch formed by the ridge to the west, as viewed from the front porch.

Surely the ancient builders planned this!

Actually, the “ancient builder” was Alan Cook, a minister in the “New Church  (General Convention),” one of the Swedenborgian denominations, who lived from 1893–1984.  He was active as a minister in the 1920s, then came to Colorado to manage a summer resort in Green Mountain Falls, west of Colorado Springs. No longer a minister with a congregation, he still held some Sunday services for the tourists and wrote in a typically Swedenborgian style, which is big on correspondences between the visible world and the Unseen World.

Mountains, as we know, signify exalted states of affection. And God’s love is the most high and exalted of which we know.

Pagan me says no, the natural world was not put here only to provide a moral lesson to us humans, although I can still feel some affinity with a man who wrote,

But the man of spiritual mind should discern the far greater wealth which lies beyond mere nature [sic] and the commercial worth of rock — he may know their soul, and, in a measure at least, he will be able to share that wealth.1)Alan Cook, “A Letter from Colorado,” Ohio New-Church Bulletin, September 1928, n.p.

I found a photo of Alan Cook with some other books and materials stored in a crawlspace, and it hangs on the Wall of Ancestors in my study — which was his study too. We do not share theologies, but I like to think he approves the room being filled with a desk and bookcases once again.

Happy Ostara!

Notes   [ + ]

1. Alan Cook, “A Letter from Colorado,” Ohio New-Church Bulletin, September 1928, n.p.

Remembering Ed Steinbrecher and His Esoteric School

Ed Steinbrecher (1980s?)

Looking for something in the bedroom Craft/astrology/Tarot/magick bookshelves this morning, I ran across a copy of Edwin Steinbrecher’s The Guide Meditation. (It’s still available from Samuel Weiser and it’s good.)

I checked with Dr. Google and discovered that Steinbrecher, an astrologer and occult teacher, had passed away in 2002 — here is an obituary from the Los Angeles Times. 

What the obituary does not say is that in between founding his DOME (Dei Omnes Munda Edunt) astrology and meditation center in Santa Fe in 1973 and moving to Los Angeles in 1984, he and co-founder/partner David Benge lived in Colorado Springs for a time.

Imagine a typical 1970s split-level house, with what would be the living room and dining room filled with bookcases — and all the books organized by zodiacal sign, so that gardening, for instance, would be in the Virgo section. So much more mystical than my habit of putting, say, all the books on Colorado and New Mexico history together! (What Sun sign would encompass them?)

M. and I attended various talks and workshops at the DOME house. Ed was passionate about astrology, and this was the time in my life when I was deepest into it. Later, under pressure of graduate school, etc., I decided that something had to give, and that something was astrology, so I stopped doing people’s charts — these days, I might manage to check my transits once in a while. The last astrology lecture I heard was by Liz Greene (who is one of the best Jungian astrologers) in 2004.

But his Inner Guide Meditation system has a Tarot connection, and that is drawing me back to it. It will be intriguing to re-read the book.

Links that Start in Bristol

¶ Professor Ronald Hutton talks about his career and admits — in public — that writing The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft actually harmed it for a time. “Reframing Modern Paganism” in Pagan Dawn magazine.

Heat Street, a political news site, notes the growth of Paganism in the U.S. Army. It’s relatively snark-free coverage, with mention of the ground-breaking Sacred Well Congregation.

¶ If you want to “dream the dark,” do it in Westcliffe, Colorado. Click the link for the short video.

Not Dead and the House Is Still Standing

william-f-schmalsle

Great-great-uncle Fred,
a dapper Old West sportin’ gent.

Sorry about the lack of content. Everything went topsy-turvy on the 17th and is just now returning to normal, or to a “new normal.”

I left home on the 11th for a trip to eastern North Dakota to go grouse hunting with an old friend who himself was facing heart surgery on the 24th. It’s a thousand-mile drive each way, but I have done it for seven of the last eight years. Lots of restful prairie driving (perfect for audiobooks!), and I can chose a route where the biggest city I go through is Pierre, South Dakota.

This year I tacked on a day and drove via Miles City, Montana, a place that I had never visited but where a number of my paternal grandmother’s relatives lived—her uncles and brothers.

I wanted to see sites associated with my great-great-uncle, whose résumé in the 1870s and 1880s apparently included civilian Army scout, buffalo hunter, saloon-keeper, occasional deputy sheriff, and landlord of and probably silent partner in a couple of  “boarding houses” for young ladies. My cousins and I are trying to sort it out. (He ended up peacefully retired in Pasadena and left my grandmother a nice inheritance from the money he made “in real estate.”) There is a street named after him, a minor street in a residential area.

nd-badlands

Entering North Dakota from Montana on I-94.

I bought a bottle of Montana whiskey to toast Uncle Fred.  Another day’s drive east brought me to a little town dominated by grain elevators, where my old friend G. fetched up about 14 years ago.

We had a couple of days together; then on Monday the 17th my phone woke me with an emergency call. My little rural fire department was being called (at 6:30 a.m.) to assist with a “100-acre grass fire.” The location was roughly west from my house, conditions were dry, and a strong west wind was blowing, I knew. My guts turned to water.

More calls followed. The fire was blowing up: 9,000 acres. 10,000 acres.1)4046 ha. I could not reach M. at first, but eventually she called (after I was already packed and on the road south) to say she was preparing to leave for a motel in a nearby town as soon as the sheriff’s deputies said she had to go right now. I did not try to reach anyone on the fire department, just texted the chief and told him that I was two days away but on the move. I told M. to pack my wildland fire gear: “Just grab everything yellow.”

What do you do magically in such a case? Something sprang spontaneously to my mind as I drove — a giant Smokey Bear, skycraper-size, standing with shovel at the ready at a key road junction.

That sounds sort of comic book-ish, but it works for me. When I learned something about ceremonial magic in my twenties, I realized that my first (and to that time, only) experience of “assuming the god form” was as a 9- or 10-year-old  wearing the Smokey Bear costume on the Forest Service float during parades in Rapid City, SD.

Smokey was created by a commercial artists, but what the heck, he is a demi-god by now. At least to me.

Magical work should be reinforced by material-plane work. The worst of the fire was over by the time I got home, but I still put in a day and a half on an engine crew, plus another day doing engine maintenance etc. at the fire house

The station also functioned as a disaster-assistance center, with various agencies setting up help centers there. In such cases, you are always overwhelmed with donated food. So I took a platter of two-day-old barbequed pork up to the wildlife rehabilitation center that I frequently mention on the other blog.

They have a couple of bear cubs that they are fattening ahead of an early-winter release. The BBQ was a welcome high-calorie treat.

“Thank you!” said the woman who runs it.

“Not me,” I said. “Thank Smokey.”

Notes   [ + ]

1. 4046 ha

Normal for Glastonbury, Normal for Boulder

I love snarky local blogs. Unfortunately, the one for my little mountain county seems mostly devoted these days to attacking one county commissioner candidate, so I will spare you that.

But thanks to a Facebook friend, I was introduced to Normal for Glastonbury, which contains such nuggets as these about the most esoteric town in England, contributed by its readers:

Lisa: ‘Get off my fucking leyline!’ a hedge monkey once shouted at the custodian of the White Spring.

Sophie: “Yesterday, whilst on the top floor of the bus returning to Glastonbury from Bristol I overheard two young men, talking excitedly about visiting Glastonbury for the first time. One French guy explained that he had a calling to go to Glastonbury because people there believe in dragons, as he did himself and in fact he always travels with his dragon. When the other man asked where his dragon was the French man explained that his dragon was riding on the roof of the bus.”

Vijay ” I have a boyfriend in the seventh dimension”

Sam: “I was stood outside St Dunstan’s house on the pavement. Woman walks up and, looking concerned asks “Can you tell me where something normal is?”. I paused and asked whatever did she mean ‘normal’? She said “Something like .. well – an Italian restaurant”. I pointed across the street to point out we had (at that time) two – there and there. She looked relieved, thanked me and walk away. It left me wondering .. why is an Italian restaurant in Glastonbury ‘normal’ and what had led to her concern?”

That comment about getting off the ley line1)Is ley line one word or two? reminded me of another blog, one devoted to conversations overheard in the too-hip university city of Boulder, Colorado, once famous for its population of Buddhist converts.2)Sedona, Arizona might be a better parallel for Glastonbury, however. (They’re still there, but Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche is long gone.) Mirroring a more hipster/New Agey-vibe, it’s called Stay Out of My Namaste Space.

Some samples:

“I do yoga at the Y. They do a poor people’s scholarship which is great ‘cause I look poor on paper.”

“I was thinking about it today and I haven’t been in Europe in 2 whole years.”

“The Universe has blessed me with the opportunity to be unconnected from my smartphone.”

“I swear to God, I was the only person on this earth who thought Iceland was cool before everyone else did. I’ve literally been obsessing over Iceland for twenty years.”

“We ended up naming him Jeffrey. I wanted to name him Stannis but my psychic didn’t think that was a good idea.”

Who’s delivering the snark in your town?

Notes   [ + ]

1. Is ley line one word or two?
2. Sedona, Arizona might be a better parallel for Glastonbury, however.

Celebrating Spring, Red Rocks, and Wine

Bennett Price

Bennett Price, founder of DeBeque Canyon winery in Palisade, Colo,, samples a cask with a wine thief.

I look outside today and see a white landscape, with light snow falling and a couple of hungry humingbirds huddled on the sugar-water feeder like barflies staring into their whiskey glasses.

Yes, it’s a typical May Day in the Colorado foothills. Is any surprise that Colorado’s biggest public Beltane festival does not occur until the 19th–22nd of May? They tried at first to do it on the “correct” date, but they learned their lesson.

Next weekend is the 76th Music and Blossom Festival in the southern Colorado town of Cañon City, not too far from me. Everyone knows, as a friend said last week, that “Blossom Weekend will be either snowing or a hundred degrees.” He forgot to mention the time in the 1990s when a hailstorm hit the parade.

But attending would be a way to “let the polis support your Paganism,” a theme that I have played with here and here this year.

So I will back up to the spring equinox, whose theme is usually “Let’s thaw out a little before the snow returns.” Some years that means a run to the desert, such as Canyonlands National Park. This year, it was Colorado National Monument. Red rock and sunshine, that’s the thing. Yay, Wingate Formation!

And wine. The vineyards were leafing, barely, whenM. and I dropped in at a couple of favorite Western Slope wineries in early April, of which our most favorite is DeBeque Canyon. (Yes, like the organizers of Beltania, we postponed the date a little.)

The trend today is for wineries to become venues. I think of one winery in Sonoma that I visited as a hitchhiking college student in the 1970s, on my way from Portland to San Francisco. I remembered it as a collection of sheds and little barefoot girls in cotton dresses running in the dust — my friend and I bought a jug of “Dago red” and took it up to the ruined hot springs that Lake Sonoma later drowned.

I returned to the same winery in 2007. Unrecognizable. There was an art gallery, meeting, space, an elegant tasting room that looked like a hotel bar . . . all glassed-in and air-conditioned. Other wineries compete with gardens and fountains and views — that is happening in Colorado too.

Not at DeBeque Canyon, not yet. You bump over the railroad tracks in Palisade to a collection of industrial metal buildings. There is Bennett Price, the owner, behind a simple counter pouring excellent wines for tasting, and telling stories of the industry’s beginnings in the 1970s. He seems to know everyone in the trade from Denver to San Francisco.

Slightly buzzed, we cross the parking lot in the strong spring sun, arms full of bottles. Yes, spring will be returning even to our foothills home. But first the spring snows will arrive to saturate the land.

Gentrifying the Mansion of Decrees

First & Broadmoor

Photo: Colorado Springs Gazette

Back in the 1980s, heyday of The Menance of Cults, the Church Universal and Triumphant (formerly Summit Lighthouse, grandchild of the “I Am” movement, great-great grandchild of Theosophy—one of many), was in the second tier, behind the Moonies, Scientology, and the Hare Krishnas (ISKCON).

Its leader, Elizabeth Clare Prophet (1939–2009) took control after the death of her husband, Mark Prophet (1918–1973). To the church, he did not die but became an Ascended Master. It always amused me that they claimed a previous incarnation for him as Sir Launcelot, whom I had thought was a fictional character. For the full list, see link.

Around the time of Mark’s . . . passing . . . Summit Lighthouse, as it was then known, acquired this 1930s mansion in a ritzy part of Colorado Springs near the Broadmoor Hotel.1)British readers are permitted a brief titter at that name, but in Colorado Springs it has been a luxury resort since the 1880s.

I remember stopping by in about 1975 with a New-Agey friend from college who had heard about Summit Lighthouse—we chatted with some members, looked at some of the public rooms, picked up some brochures.

Not long after our visit, the group changed its name and moved to property north of Yellowstone National Park,2)They bought 12,000 acres and named it the Royal Teton Ranch. where they started stockpiling weapons and supplies and preparing for the apocalypse. Yeah, that again.

They spent hours chanting magical affirmations — “decrees” in CUT-speak — with a strong flavor of American nationalism.3)If Dion Fortune could organized magical workings against Nazi Germany, why couldn’t CUT support the Reagan Administration? Who says occultists cannot be political? They probably took credit for President Reagan surviving John Hinckley’s attempt to kill him — or maybe they gave all credit to the Ascended Master St. Germain, who was Their Guy.

In about 1981, when I was a young newspaper reporter, I was contacted by a woman who had been Elizabeth Clare Prophet’s personal secretary until she quit and/or was forced out. She unburdened herself, and I built a news feature around that. I found writing about “cults” to be quite absorbing — there were some others also — and eventually I made the decision to go to graduate school and study new religious movements.

Meanwhile, the big house at First and Broadmoor apparently went downhill. It backs onto the hotel’s tennis courts, near its carriage-and-vintage car museum, and now the hotel wants to buy it and turn it into guest suites.

Planning a big wedding? For only a projected $8,500 a night, you can put the whole family there.

(The other weird thing was that in some photos, ECP looked a bit like my mother. If my mother had been an alternative-religion leader, she definitely would have been working positive magic for President Reagan. But in her cosmos, the 1928 Book of Common Prayer already covered that, with its standard prayer for “The PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES and all others in authority.)

Notes   [ + ]

1. British readers are permitted a brief titter at that name, but in Colorado Springs it has been a luxury resort since the 1880s.
2. They bought 12,000 acres and named it the Royal Teton Ranch.
3. If Dion Fortune could organized magical workings against Nazi Germany, why couldn’t CUT support the Reagan Administration? Who says occultists cannot be political?

The Eagles of Candlemas, continued

Diana Miller, director of the Raptor Center in Pueblo

Raptor center director Diana Miller with a female golden eagle.

The first part is here.

As I wrote earlier this week, M. and I celebrated Candlemas by going to Eagle Days down at the state park by Pueblo Reservoir.  (Chamber of Commerce types want you to say “Lake Pueblo.”)

Scheduling a festival around raptors is a little iffy; you can expect sandhill cranes, for instance, to show up on time for their festival, but eagles?

So the director of the local raptor-rehabilitation center and her volunteers always show up with plenty of “education birds,” those being birds whose injuries or some cases habituation to humans keeps them from being released into the wild.

M. and I are volunteers too, in that our work as “wildlife transporters” for Colorado Parks & Wildlife often means bringing in hawks, owls, and vultures to the center. Once in a while, we get to release one as our reward. (The survival rate for injured raptors, unfortunately, is not too high.)

We caught part of the U.S. Air Force Academy falconers’ demonstration, an Indian pow-wow dance group’s eagle dance, looked at the birds. We had seen one golden eagle on the drive to the lake, and Diana said a certain spot farther down the Arkansas River might have some bald eagles, but I had another plan that had worked before, which involved driving upstream, into the state wildlife area, and then hiking with spotting scope and tripod to an overlook.

There, at the edge of the ice (the lake being half-frozen), was a black dot, which at 20x quickly resolved into a bald eagle, just hanging out.

It was not my spirit bird, nor did it bring me a message. It was just an eagle doing eagle stuff, another inhabitant of the upper Arkansas River.

It’s funny how we have to have a special day, with costumes, handouts, museum exhibits, captive birds, pizza, and cookies just to celebrate letting the wild be wild (and the wheel of the year), but that is how we roll. And if it build connections, I am all for it.

I care less and less for fancy metaphysics, dazzling Neoplatonic pyramids, recycled Theosophy, and all of that. I like my Paganism close to the ground. I know that that puts me at odds with all the One God/One Prophet/One Book people out there as well, but I gave up on monotheism many decades ago because it never told me how to live alongside the eagle.