Originally posted on August 1, 2011 by John Halstead
Let me begin by saying that the ritual was not terrible. But it wasn’t great either. There was no connection … no juice. Now the girl swaying next to me, in apparently orgasmic ecstasy at the mere presence of Janet and Gavin, would probably disagree (especially since laughed the loudest at Janet’s and Gavin’s jokes). But for me, it was a disappointment — especially after hearing Gavin talk the night before about the need for spirituality in Pagan ritual.
I should add some qualifiers here. First, I could sum up the ritual in four words: “the same old thing”. But here is the qualifier: Janet and her late husband invented the same old thing. I realized, after I put some space between myself and the ritual, that a ritual such as the one I had just participated in would have been considered “progressive” (to use the word from the title of Gavin and Janet’s book) or innovative at one time, and to a certain audience — that time being the 1980s and that group being Wiccan traditionalists.
But I came into Paganism idealizing NROOGD, not BTW — in other words, West Coast Neopaganism, not East Coast Wicca. So Janet and Gavin should be given props for having come as far as they have. It’s just that my idea of innovation starts where theirs ends.
Now for some specifics: What stands out the most is that we were in the basement. This event was originally scheduled to be outside on some semi-private property. For some reason it was moved to the basement of a cabin that houses various alternative therapy practices. It was a very nice location still, but it was even nicer outside. It was a beautiful day, sunny but not too hot. We were in a wooded area, and a wonderful little stream was flowing behind the cabin, and the sunlight was sparkling off the surface. It was a magical sight. And then we processed into the dark basement.
Now, Gavin did make an offering to the local nature spirits. A basement door was left open to the back of the cabin and the woods and stream could seen tantalizingly close. Gavin proceeded to the door and cast the offering outside. He had made quite a point of the need for this in the book and at the talk the night before. And, again, he should be given credit for this. In fact, at several points in the ritual, participants broke through the circle to go to the door to toss some offering outside. But wouldn’t it have worked better if we had been outside to begin with?
Then the quarters were called. I was somewhat disappointed by this, because Gavin and Janet had spoken the night before of doing a Dionysian ritual in the past where they did not call the quarters. But, they are Wiccans, so that can be forgiven. What I am beginning to realize is that the reason why I do not like calling the quarters, is because it seems artificial. There is no real connection to the elements. The air is all around us, not in the east. Fire is in the hearth or in sky as the sun, not in the south. Water was in the stream outside, not to the west. And the earth was out there too, not to the north. (I guess it was still under our feet in the basement, but there is a big difference between standing in the grass and standing on concrete — especially if you’re barefoot.) I didn’t feel like we were calling elements of nature so much as guardian angels: like Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and Uriel, guardians of the watchtowers of ceremonial magic. In fact, the process struck me as vaguely Christian! Not in the content, but in the form.
The third thing that bothered me was the irreverence. I like reverence. And, I’ll admit, I prefer it to mirth. I like to include both — but not at the same time! Have the serious part of the ritual first, and then have the mirth in the dancing that follows. But Gavin and Janet both kept making humorous comments throughout the ritual, as did a handful of other participants — including the overly enthusiastic young lady I mentioned earlier. I found this to be particularly jarring since this was a harvest ritual and Janet and Gavin were performing a symbolic sacrifice of one of the male participants. I think there is an art to balancing the reverence and the mirth, and I think they missed the mark.
Fourth, there was not enough planning or communication. Janet and Gavin did communicate with a handful of “priestesses” who seemed to have some idea of what was going on, but the rest of us did not. We didn’t know when we were supposed to repeat what Gavin said, for example. If you can’t given us a written outline in advance, at least talk to us about what to expect. One lady brought robes, but didn’t know whether to put them on. We were confused about whether to wear our shoes. And the end of the ritual seemed improvised by Gavin and Janet, almost like they didn’t know how to end it. Janet’s last contribution was a ridiculous story which somehow combined the Greek myth of Paris with something about “hair on men’s tum-tums”. She sounded like a crazy woman.
Along the same lines, the person that Janet picked to sacrifice was a bumbling idiot. I don’t know if they prepared him in advance, but I don’t think they did. I half suspect that Janet picked him because he actually looked like a dumb (fat) animal ready for the slaughter. He had no acting skill and didn’t even try. Throughout the entire ritual, his responses were along the lines of: “Um, okay” (followed by awkward laughter from the circle). There were at least a dozen men there they could have chosen from. Hell, she could have sacrificed Gavin. At least he could play the part.
Fifth, (and these last two are less significant) we were told to write something on a piece of paper that we wanted to happen and then toss it in a fire with the dried corn we had been given. It’s like the default Wiccan magical act — write a wish on a piece of paper and burn it. But this was a harvest ritual — wouldn’t it have been more appropriate to write something on the paper we wanted to sacrifice to the gods? Save your wishes for the new year (the winter solstice, not All Hallows).
Sixth and last, and this had nothing to do with Janet or Gavin, but there was this guy, who looked like he needed some grooming, who donned a homemade cape before the ritual, with a cord belt, and magic wand to top it off. I was just waiting for the pointy hat with stars on it to come out. Most everyone else looked pretty mainstream, so this guy (I’ll call him Harry Potter) stood out all the more. Part of the aesthetic of a ritual is the dress of the participants. Can’t we enforce some kind of dress code? I’m sorry, but it was distracting. Maybe they should have sacrificed Harry Potter. That would have given me a certain amount of satisfaction.
In my next post, I’m going to contrast this with the first ADF ritual I attended, which went much better.