HPF 2012: When Public Ritual Goes to the Bad Place

[Trigger Warning for discussion of gendered violence in a ritual context.]*

Let me preface this by saying that I’m not categorically opposed to cutting-edge ritual.  I think anyone who’s read this blog for any length of time knows that I’m willing to take magical risks … sometimes just to see what will happen.  Frankly, when done responsibly between consenting adults, I’m pretty much down with any sort of boundary-pushing you can think of.  But I don’t think many of you are going to argue with me when I say that the main public ritual at a festival is not the place to try being edgy or experimental.  That’s how people—unwitting bystanders—get hurt.

The theme of Heartland Pagan Festival 2012 was “Dawning of a New Day”.  Honestly, I was expecting something fairly light and fluffy along the lines of renewal.  In the end, I would have preferred some ineffective fluffy-bunny bullshit to what actually went down.

Thursday night’s opening ritual was very formal, even ceremonial[1], with ritual garments and flags, and elemental altars. The elemental powers had elaborate and foreign-sounding names and, once they were summoned, the High Priestess and Priest interrogated them to prove their identities.  All the summoned elemental “ambassadors” were female.  The circle cast and the powers summoned, ribbons in elemental colors and wooden tokens were distributed to the participants around the circle.  We were instructed to charge the tokens with our intent for the festival, and to pass it off to the appropriate elemental minion who would deliver them to the fire.  Then we were released.

At this point I was ambivalent about the main ritual arc.  On the one hand, it was interesting: I liked the costume and the drama of it.  On the other hand, it had essentially amounted to ritual theater: the style was unfamiliar, the language was baroque, the ritual leaders were reading their lines from a script, and the efforts made to draw the audience into the ritual were insufficient to overcome these hurdles.

The main ritual, Saturday night, began identically to the first, except that as each female ambassador was summoned, a male dressed in casual clothes came out from behind her and demanded “what is the meaning of this?” Once all four elements had been summoned, the male interlopers each berated and belittled the female powers in turn until they turned around and left. Then the men kicked over the altars. As the audience watched, stunned, the minions of each of the female powers came and claimed a single artifact from the overturned altars and left.  The HP announced that the ritual was complete, and that the final ritual would be the following day.

The only functional way to chart the things that went wrong with this ritual is chronologically.  To begin with, even less attempt was made to draw in the audience than in the opening rite; this ended up being a good thing, but it’s still a failure on the part of the ritual facilitators.  The first male interloper was jarring, particularly when the High Priestess and Priest did not acknowledge or address him.  Despite my best efforts, I was forced out of what ritual headspace I had been able to create, trying to figure out where the hell they could be going with this.  Dissonance began to build as the yelling started; when the interlopers kicked over the altars, it was like a kick to the guts.  The ritual area was stained with violence.

When the ritual leaders—speaking, at last, without acknowledging or explaining what had just happened—dismissed everyone, imploring us to return for the final chapter the next day, I was shocked and confused.  What had that been about?  The Paleolithic rise of the patriarchy?  A ritual reenactment of the myth of the Burning Times?  I was sick to my stomach.

The violence that had been brought into the circle was not generic.  All the elemental ambassadors, as I said, had been women.  All the yelling, belittling, violent interlopers had been men.  The HSA Sacred Experience Committee had brought domestic violence into the circle, set it loose without warning, reason, or resolution.  They had come very close to sanctifying it[2].  Several of my camp-mates were brought immediately to tears; the rest were filled with righteous fury.

Suddenly, I was very glad that the ritual had been performed in such an amateur fashion.  Had it been done properly, with everyone brought fully into the circle and ritual headspace, the damage—which was, looking about camp, clearly severe—would have been a hundred times worse.  Domestic violence would have spread across the festival like wildfire; there might even have been a rape or a suicide.  Hell, I might have killed someone then and there.

The Sacred Experience Committee had asked for our trust.  They then proceeded to betray it.

We took off our elemental ribbons and burned them, severing ourselves from the ritual arc.  While most of my encampment went on the Vision Quest, I went to the Memorial Grove (the small graveyard at Camp Gaea) and performed the Stele of Jeu[3].  We purged each-other as best we could, but the miasma lingered until Sunday night, long after the closing ritual of the arc was completed.

No one in my encampment had the stomach to actually see the final ritual.  One or two had talked about attending as a search for closure on the issue, but when the drums started and a parade came by to gather attendees, we watched disdainfully.  Nothing could justify what we had already seen.  Seeing the final part could only make things worse.  Other contacts, however, were able to describe the closing ritual for my academic and ethical dissection.

The final ritual, I’m told, began with the same invocations as the previous two.  The question the ritual sought to answer was, “Now that the temples have fallen, what have we salvaged from the ruins?” (All quotes here are from my source)  In the previous ritual, the elemental powers had salvaged a single tool from each of the overturned altars—a lamp, a wand, a bowl, and a book of meeting minutes—and these were presented as the things worth salvaging from the old “dogmatic, dysfunctional, and stagnant old ways”, along with a “temple of the sun erected by the architects of the four directional temples” which would be a touchst0ne for “the lessons of throwing off outdated and dogmatic structures.”  The authors of the ritual were thanked, and circles were formed around the soon-to-be-fire: first of the ritual performers, then of various in-groups within the festival organization, and finally of ritual attendees, each moving in contra-rotation to the one within them.

I’ve been assured that the gendered nature of the violence in the main ritual was not addressed.  Inevitably, some have told me it wasn’t actually there: sorry, dipshits, my eyes and Sight work just fine, it’s yours that’s veiled.  Inevitably, someone is going to tell me “that’s not what they intended.”  Intent doesn’t magically make the consequences of your actions go away.  Hell, magicians should know this better than anyone: tell me you don’t know anyone who’s ever botched a statement of intent; that you don’t know anyone who’s ever had a spell go horribly awry.

The fact is that the ritual hurt us.  Out of the five hundred or so people at the festival, I’d estimate that there were about a hundred or so at the ritual circle Saturday night; a hundred and fifty, tops.  If even one of those people were harmed by the ritual, that would make it a failure.  I know for a fact that at least six were wounded by the violence—I was there, and they told me.  From things I overheard throughout the rest of the festival, I have strong reason to believe that we were not alone.  By this measure, alone, the ritual was an abject failure.

The ritual is, in fact, still hurting some of us.  After performing our severing ritual described above.  After performing the most potent Stetle of Jeu of my career to date.  After calling down the blessings of Dionysus so hard that people commented Monday morning on how the energy of the camp had changed after the concert.  I still feel stained.  I still feel betrayed.

I have sent a letter to the head of the Sacred Experience Committee, expressing how badly the ritual went awry.  I have demanded a formal public apology for the harm done.  In the coming days, we’ll see how things go.


* – ETA to add trigger warning

1 – As silly as it is, this is off-putting enough to many pagans, especially, in my experience, those of the eclectic Wiccan and Heathen varieties which dominate the festival.

2 – Given what was reported to me of the closing ritual, actually, they did sanctify it: framing male violence against women as the necessary “chaos” which must tear down the old order before a new can be built.

3 – To potent effect.  I’ll get to that story in a bit.

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “HPF 2012: When Public Ritual Goes to the Bad Place

  1. This intrigues me enough to offer my perspective on this. But first, the necessary caveats:

    1)I wasn’t there, so I only have your report to go on. Third hand analyses are iffy at best, but it’s never stopped me before. I’ll try to imagine how it might have affected me, but I can only guess.
    2)I can only speculate as to the intent and worldview of those who built the ritual. Since that’s all I can do, I will, but I acknowledge the limitation.
    3)We have vastly different ways of viewing the world. Try to take this as a way I might see it as something that might augment rather than diminish your experience.
    4)I’m not seeking to defend this ritual. It sounds like it was a bad experience to say the least, especially in this context. I can see how it may have been conceived of as something positive, but its execution was clearly abyssmal and irresponsible.

    Here goes.

    First off, I don’t see an inherent problem with the following things: violence in ritual, not fully filling in participants on what’s coming, and tearing down things people value and trust. But all three, in that kind of venue? I agree with your calling out the Spiritual Experience Committee. Everyone involved should have known better.

    I think your idea of this as a representation of the myth of the Grand Matriarchy was on target. People come together to celebrate Divine Feminine, watch it crushed by male violence, and then are left with what they can salvage from the ruins. Z Budapest could have written this. It seems like that it would be powerful to experience, and that it would have hurt. I think it was meant to.

    I think your immersion in issues of gender made you hypersensitive to the effects here. You’ve been working on cleaning and healing those wounds, which made them a bit more sensitive than someone for whom the same were scabbed over and ignored. Might someone blind to those issues have been awakened to them by this? Experienced it as genuine pain and loss, instead of an intellectual exercise? As someone who views gender differently than you, I can say this would have had a visceral effect on me.

    I don’t think the resolution was intended to be a resolution, but a suggestion of where to find it. You have related how you and your kin came together to resolve your pain according to your own means, and it was far more affective than the previous directed work.

    I don’t know if the dissonance was intended or not, but I think it helped. I honestly think the WTF moment was intended, and indeed necessary to what it looks like they were trying to do. They vitally broke the “friendly ritual at Gaea” vibe and bit into peoples’ psyches. (I honestly think predictions of outbreaks of violence are reaching a bit, but I can agree to disagree, and we’ll just be glad it wasn’t tested.)

    What it looks like is that they were trying to do some kind of ritual meant to drag people throught the experience of having their power forcibly stripped away, and having to build it back from stolen pieces. In a better prepared and more intimate context (say a smaller group of friends or a coven) it might have been very powerful and effective, similar to shamanic rites of deconstruction. But the in the large, unexpecting environment it was in, it was brutal, especially for people who have suffered in the way the ritual replicated, and everyone who expected Heartland to be a safe place. Had this ritual been offered to a small group with proper warnings, it may have gone off better (better being qualitatively subjective). It should not have been inflicted upon the group at large.

    This kind of experience is why so much large ritual is watered down. To have a deeply personal, painful, experience with no warning can be powerfully transformative, but only if you’re ready, and if you have the proper tools to recover. This was obviously not provided for.

    So I end my pontificating not sure if my two cents helped at all. But I ask this: If my take on this ritual seems plausible, could it provide a template for a ritual that adresses and resolves the pain inflicted by the initial ritual? (Or perhaps your experience with the wine already did so.)

    Please update any details or responses from HSA on this.

    • I actually agree with almost everything you say. Yes, I am highly sensitive to gender dynamics: more sensitive, in fact, than a number of the people who were hurt much worse than I. My thesis was not that there’s no space for that sort of ritual at the festival–it would have made a totally bad-ass three-part workshop for people who were adequately prepped–but that actual harm was done, and that restitution of some kind needs to be made.

      There will be more information forthcoming. The head of the Sacred Experience Committee and I have exchanged our first round of emails, and I’m trying to decide if the solution is to escalate or walk away. Regardless, the full text of the email exchange to date will be posted here within 48 hours.Interestingly, my Budhapest-esque assumptions of the intended themes were way off base. The actual intent (as the writer expressed in the emails) it was much more esoteric than either of us have imagined, and actually even more failful.

    • The head of the Sacred Experience Committee has asked to meet in person. I’m going to do so before escalating any further on the internet. Full report and deconstruction to follow.

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