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, … Continue reading

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

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 Mexico[3]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

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

Got Ghosts with Your Historic House?

When I was handling the sale of my mother’s Arizona home after her death, the real estate agent and I were perched on the kitchen counters doing the paperwork, because the furniture had already been moved out.

Working through a long sale-listing questionnaire, I came to a question asking if the property were haunted. “You’re kidding!” I said.

“Oh no,” he said. “That’s Arizona law. You have to disclose if the house might be haunted. It’s based on a court case from some years back.”

I checked “No.”

But what if you are the buyer? You have found, perhaps, your perfect restoration project. “Everything is going smoothly until your electrician meets you at the top of the basement stairs and tells you you’re going to have to find another electrician. He’s not going down in the basement again. Ever.”

So writes M. Elwell Romancito in a recent issue of Enchanted Homes, a slick magazine of Taos, New Mexico-area real estate ads published by the Taos News. Also known as Melody Romancito, she is an artist, muscian, journalist, audio-video editor, ghost hunter and exorcist, which just goes to show that to live the bohemian life in a place like Taos, you need a few arrows in your quiver.

Her suggestions range from tidying tools and clearing remodeling trash (“This goes a long toward appeasing spirits who take to hiding tools.”) to keeping a journal of times, dates, and nature of each paranormal occurrance.

Antique furniture should also be regarded with suspicion: “Inquire about the history of an item before buying it.”

While “several locals have reported that bringing in Tibetan Buddhists for a house clearing . . . has been effective,” if things get tough, contact some other religious leader or “do a Google search for ‘Taos psychic medium.'”

I tried that and got 10,600 hits. Of course, a lot of them were actually in Santa Fe.

An Ancient Solar “Observatory” in Arizona

The Sun Dagger at Chaco Canyon — an Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) residential/ritual/governmental (?) complex in northeastern New Mexco that flourished during what where the early Middle Ages in Europe — is well-known among archaeoastronomers, as is the possible solar alignment built into one of the grand kivas nearby at Casa Rinconada.

Now another solar “clock” is being claimed at the the ancient Puebloan site preserved at Wupatki National Monument in northern Arizona, where moving shadows and petroglyphs mark the solstices and equinoxes: an “imaging calendar,” as it is called.

To quote someone on the Casa Rinconada website,

“The historical accuracy of the alignment may be less important than its symbolic value, especially for those who flock to the site on the summer solstice.

“Casa Rinconada has become a place where people come to see an alignment. In our culture, we haven’t been taught to relate to the natural rhythm of what the sun and the earth are doing throughout the year. So here’s a place where you can come and see that—not a representation of a solstice, but the actual solstice, as mediated by a building. It’s a wonderful experience.”

So perhaps we look at all astronomical alignments in whatever country as wonderful examples of nature religion. Casa Rinconada attracted a crowd during the Harmonic Convergence of 1987, when various New Age thinkers, led by José Argüelles, promoted prophecies connected to a planetary alignment: “The convergence is purported to have ‘corresponded with a great shift in the earth’s energy from warlike to peaceful.'”[1]No doubt you have noticed how much more peaceful the world is.

The New Age event was spoofed at a Pagan festival in New Mexico that summer by a dance performance of the “Harmonica Vigins.”

My view on astronomical alignments was being warped in the 1980s by seminars with Davíd Carrasco, a scholar of Mesoamerican religion who has spent a lot of time working with temple alignments and associated mythology.

My take-away was that astronomical alignments are mostly about priestcraft and power. Farmers don’t need rows of giant stones to tell them when to plant. Every locale has its indicators: here in the southern Colorado foothills, when the emerging leaves of Gambel oak are thumbnail-size,[2]“As big as a mouse’s ear,” some people like to say, because it sounds more folkloric. the chance of a frost is usually past. (Usually!) And I know that the sun sets in a notch on the ridge to the west at the equinoxes, for what that is worth.

Being able to proclaim the cycles from the temple steps is probably more about showing how “King Jaguar” enjoys of the favor of the gods than anything else.

Notes

Notes
1 No doubt you have noticed how much more peaceful the world is.
2 “As big as a mouse’s ear,” some people like to say, because it sounds more folkloric.

St. Georgia, Maker of Art, Pray for Us

St. Georgia (Wikipedia).

Here in the city whose patron is St. Francis (more about that later), I keep thinking that the new pope of the same name might as well go ahead and canonize — or at least beatify —  Georgia O’Keeffe.

Yes, there are some obstacles. For one, she was not Roman Catholic, not particularly Christian at all. But what a move to bring more of the bourgeois bohemians into the fold it would be!

Consider the devotion that she inspires.

Walking down Grant Street the other day, I could see little flocks of pilgrims (mostly female, mostly of a certain age) streaming off the streets around the plaza, headed for her shrine.

That shrine, meanwhile, is merely part of an entire O’Keeffe complex, where the pilgrim may enrich her life with programs and lectures on memoir-writing,  “art & leadership for adults,” plein-air pastel drawing, “O’Keefe’s language of forms,”  and many other sacred subjects.

Advanced initiates might seek a stipend in American modernism.

Many single women move to the little town of Aibquiu, a Santa Fe acquaintance tells me, where one may for a fee tour just part of O’Keeffe’s home there: the living room, kitchen, and pantry only, I am told. Have any of them experienced miracles? That would help the sainthood application clear a major hurdle.

Her other home, Ghost Ranch, has functioned as a spiritual retreat center for many years.  (It is owned by Protestants, which could be a problem. But no matter.)

Her followers look to her for lessons on the art of living and even study her rather plain menus for guidance on how an artist eats.

While her cultus already provides an economic lift to the old provincial capital, beatification or canonization would certainly increase that even more.

Just tell the bishops to keep their distance. Otherwise, it’s a win-win situation. Are you listening, Holy Father?

Adding New Gods

P. Sufenas Virius Lupus wonders about how new gods are added to polytheist pantheons.

Something that will often happen, particularly with reconstructionist-based practitioners, is that further research into a particular deity and their connections leads to “new-to-me” or various other re-discovered deities that are then taken into one’s personal pantheon. Or, suddenly, a deity emerges in one’s experiences that one hadn’t paid attention to previously, or gets one’s attention in some fashion or other; whether they are readily identified or if it takes some study to figure out who they are, such encounters often occur that expand one’s personal network of divine relationships.  . . .

What about the less-frequent (but nonetheless possible) reality of totally new deities, though? How does one deal with this issue when it arises? I have yet to see any modern Pagan or polytheist treatment of this matter, nor any conventional training and education on when and why it can occur, nor how to handle it when it does. And, while it might not be that frequent of an occurrence, I suspect that we are going to see a lot more of it in the near future as our community expands and the world continues to change.

He goes on to discuss how today’s Pagans might deal with the emergence of new gods, including an ancient oracular practice

The blog made me think, for example, of how the Santa Muerte cult has grown, moving even beyond people with roots in Mexico. The image has been around a long time—go into any folklore museum in New Mexico, for instance, and you will see the similar Doña Sebastiana in her cart, a relic of the old lay brotherhood of the Penitentes. Does that make La Santa Muerte a “new” goddess, or just an upgraded one?

Idolatry 101: Kachina Dolls

Traditional-style kachinas by known carvers command four-figure prices.

Robert Cafazzo, antiques-and-art dealer in Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico, discusses the care and repair of kachina dolls, which can be simultaneously images of spiritual power and art objects made to be purchased by collectors.

(Disclaimer: I have bought a few small things at his shop, Two Graces, although not kachinas.)

He also gets into the collecting side and shares some of  his “kachina kitsch.”

Then there are the doll carvings made by other Pueblo people. Zuni carvings are some of the best (in the store here they always sell rather quickly, recently I had one for all of 3 hours!), Acoma & Laguna carvings are the simplest and to some collectors extremely desirable but really not for everyone, basically they look like a short log with a stylized face, Jemez dolls tend to be confused with ‘Boy Scout’ carvings, those from Isleta are not common but do exist. San Juan carvings, which I carry are specific to the various Northern Pueblo Dances. As a rule I do not carry Navajo Kachinas, which I refer to as PowWow Dancer Dolls. These may look great on a coffee table featured in a photo essay for Architectural Digest or some other home interiors magazine, but they are some of the worst craftsmanship of curios in the marketplace today. Navajo carvers did make traditional Route 66 Yei Dolls, and there are some amazing Navajo traditional carvings out there. It’s my personal opinion that PowWow Dancer Dolls are not your best option. All of the Pueblos in New Mexico & Arizona have their own unique carvings, some do not offer them as crafts for sale and strictly forbid the sale of wooden deity carvings. When visiting a Pueblo ask for dolls or crafts—never ask for ‘Kachinas’.

In Two Graces, you will find both fine kachina dolls and kachina salt-and-pepper shakers—Robert likes it all.

Talking about Tlaloc

Feather offering for Tlaloc
Bundle of turkey, Steller’s jay, and flicker feathers placed in a dry spring basin.

On Friday morning, April 29, back from a early morning fire call (shed + trash + grasses at the edge of the prairie), I climbed the ridge behind the house and made an offering to Tlaloc, the god of rain.

(I think I need to make a lot more of them, given that it has not rained for a month.)

Later that day the Sand Gulch Fire exploded, forcing us to evacuate our house and spend the night in our pop-up camping trailer parked next to the fire station. But the next day it snowed four inches, helping to bring the fire under control.

The desert ecologist and nature writer Craig Childs got me thinking about Tlaloc a while ago with some evocative passages in his book House of Rain, which I reviewed on the other blog here (also referenced in this post).

At high, prominent springs or caves in Guatemala or the Yucatán,  one is likely to find the head of a decapitated rooster (replacing the turkey, which was commonly used in the past) along with pools of melted wax from votive candles (365).

This post kicks off my discussion about being an American Eclectic Witch reviving the cult of Tlaloc on a household basis—no stepped pyramids here, just real mountains.

Tlaloc

Both Aztec depictions of Tlaloc and Mayan depictions of the equivalent deity, Chaac (if you follow a sort of interpretatio azteca), leave me cold aesthetically, for all that they are richly symbolic. But one thing at a time—perhaps I can find one done in the style of pop-Mexican calendar art.

The worship of the gods can change over time—consider this “feast of St. Tlaloc.” We could do that!

More to come.

Los Matachines at Yule

Taken several years ago with tribal permission, this Taos News photo shows the dancers led by former pueblo governor Ruben Romero.

You hear different languages. There are French tourists, German tourists, and some guy in a Rasta tam. Another man looks like he came straight from the nearby Overland Sheepskin Co. store, pausing only to snip the tags off his coat.

I am not the only one in the artsy Anglo uniform of broad-brimmed hat, colorful muffler or scarf, and sunglasses. M. wears her leather jacket and dangling Hopi earrings—another Southwestern look.  Scattered piles of ash from the bonfires of Christmas Eve, when they process the Virgin with fireworks and rifle shots.

The air smells of piñon pine smoke mixed with coal smoke. The Indian crafts shops on the ground floor of the old Taos Pueblo are doing a modest business. (Tribal members are required to spend part of each year in the old 13th-century buildings, sans indoor plumbing.)

Old Tony Reyna, a former Taos Pueblo governor, crosses the open ground, a red blanket around his shoulders, leaning on an ornate staff, and his elbow held by a younger man. He is a Bataan Death March survivor—so many of them were New Mexicans. (Jeez, he survived that.) But his appearance is not the signal.

Eventually, you see the phalanx of dancers pass by way up at the east end of the plaza. They pass behind the North House and . . . nothing happens.

Half an hour or so goes by. Then they appear between some houses and the church, and somehow people know to follow them to a little side area. There is a string band, El Abuelo and La Abuela, the little girl (La Malinche in some versions),  El Monarca (the king, sometimes Moctezuma.)

No Cortés. El Toro (the bull) is a bison. This is Taos, after all.

The masked dancers wear veils—a curtain of black cords—and thin scarves wrapped to hide their lower faces, tied behind their heads. They carry small canister rattles wrapped in flowing scarves in one hand and a sort of small, decorated wooden trident in the other. Multicolor shawls cover their shoulders and streamers flow down their backs.

The dancers take direction from El Abuelo, the Grandfather. He wears an old man’s mask with a long beard and is dressed like an old-fashioned Hispano rancher: blue jeans, shirt and leather vest, straw hat, and bullwhip, which he snaps for punctuation. He shouts in Spanish  His partner is La Abuela, Grandmother, definitely a man, in a head scarf and  long skirt, carrying a capacious handbag, who takes special care of the little girl in the princess costume who might be La Malinche. Or maybe not.

El Toro and La Abuela bring out a pole, like a Maypole but with woven sashes tied end to end descending instead of ribbons. The musicians play, the Bull and and the Grandfather hold up the pole—I  could go all structuralist here: Bull, Axis Mundi.

Everything means many things, I am sure, and the important thing is just to be there in your body, not to worry about “what it means.”

At the end, El Abuelo shouts, “Le gustan?”  (“You like it?”).  Everyone applauds, and the dancers go into a house. The crowd disperses, but some people in the know are walking towards the adobe church of San Geronimo.

Half a dozen old ladies, some in blankets, are lined up on the postage-stamp size stone-paved courtyard, surrounded by a low adobe wall. It is a good principle that where the old ladies are is where something will happen—and it will happen when they all get there.

Gradually people assemble around the outside of the wall. Half a dozen straight-backed chairs are brought out of the adobe church. Two at the church end of the court yard, two opposite, just inside the gate. A couple off to one side.

Waiting. My feet hurt. What about the feet of the old women standing on sandstone slabs?  Our Taos friends leave to go tend to their dogs. We will see them later.

And then the dancers arrive again, processing through the courtyard gate. The fiddler and guitarist sit in the two chairs at the church end and resume their tune, while the dancers form two files and dance various twirling figures, cowboy boots clomping on the slabs, while El Abuelo snaps his bullwhip and shouts, “Vámanos” (“Let’s go!”), etc.

La Abuela guides the little girl, and at one point the she and the king sit in chairs at the gateway end. A middle aged blanket-wrapped Indian man occasionally calls instructions in a loud whisper: “She’s got to be behind him!”  and so on. He must be the real master of ceremonies.

Low, weak sun. It is chilly in the shade. Lucky people with pueblo connections stand on flat roofs looking down into the courtyard.  Occasionally a woman will step up to the line of dancers to straighten the streams on (her son’s?) headdress.

We are spiraling past the solstice, and the dancers keep turning and turning. Most headdresses are decorated with squash blossom necklaces and other  tribal jewelry, but one displays two Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart, and when he turns I see that the ribbons down his back are green-gold-red like the Vietnam War service ribbon. Since the dancers appear to be young men, they must have been earned by his relatives?

The sun has well-passed its low zenith, and the dancers keep flowing as in a Virginia reel. At one point El Toro dances down between the two lines and makes a “pass” with each dancer individually. Then Abuelo and Abuela wrestle him comically to the ground and wave his (detachable) balls, which are offered to a woman standing in the church doorway, who smiles and hands them back. La Abuela puts them in her handbag.

Suddenly it’s over with a final series of weaving movements. M. has grown chilly standing in the shade of the church. We will drive back to our rented lodgings in town, pick up food and gifts, and drive a short way north of El Prado to our friends’ house for Christmas dinner. All is right.