[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, 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. 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. 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.