20 Questions with the Aquarian Tabernacle Church

The Aquarian Tabernacle Church was founded in 1979 by Pete “Pathfinder” Davis. Both Davis and the church are names I’ve been familiar with for a long time, but never knew much about. Getting a chance to interview the current Archpriestess Belladonna Laveau was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up when it was offered. The A.T.C. has been around for over thirty years, that’s a lot of history. During the course of this interview we got to touch on some of that history, Pete Pathfinder, and the ATC’s recreation of the Eleusinian Mysteries.

1. I’ve heard the name Aquarian Tabernacle Church since I first became a Pagan over two decades ago. Can you tell me a little bit about the church?

The ATC is a collective of Wiccan Churches from all around the world working together to provide resources for the pagan community that we could not provide as individual groups. We have a strong youth program known as SpiralScouts, a state-recognized college of Wiccan Ministry, a church newsletter called Panegyria (which is celebrating its 30th year in publication) as well as local affiliated groups all over the US and several other English-speaking countries.

2. Is the ATC a tradition, or is it more of an umbrella group that provides legal standing to various covens and circles self-identifying as Wiccan?

The ATC is a tradition and an umbrella group. We believe that by working together we can weave a stronger web. We accept Wiccan congregations and groups into the ATC family who are doing the work of the Goddess and have good standing in the community. We have been awarded a special umbrella 501c3 status by the IRS to admit churches under our group exemption number. Affiliated groups do not have to jump through all the IRS hoops. We have already fought that battle. They can affiliate with us and we do the paperwork for them. Once we have obtained their Federal TIN number for them, we do what we can to help them grow and maximize the effectiveness of their ministry.

There is an ATC tradition, based on the Mother Church and its ministry, founded by Pete “Pathfinder” Davis in 1979. We are a British Traditional group that has adhered to some of the old ways and added others. I was brought up “Hard-Gard,” but have since incorporated many other aspects into my practice. You know how we witches are, taking from here and there, sorting and weighing the mysteries with observation. This is how I think it should be, each of us weaving a strong web as we follow our own thread in the tapestry.

3. There are “levels” in the ATC, right? How does that work?

We have a typical Wiccan hierarchical order with the regular 1st, 2nd, and 3rd degrees and Eldership that are common to Wicca. These are clergy degrees. Formal initiatory training is not appropriate for everyone, just like becoming a doctor or policeman isn’t appropriate for everyone. But those who desire to serve Goddess on a more formal level within a priesthood clerical order are welcome to seek dedication. Dedicating means you are asking to be accepted as a student of the coven or priesthood that serves the church. Dedicants help facilitate rituals, maintain the church and its grounds, kitchen witch, care for and change over altars, and help with the general care and running of the church.

The initiatory path is formal magical training with oaths, private study, and close ties to your local coven family. Initiates are taught how to listen to Goddess and communicate Her messages to people through spiritual counseling and ritual facilitation. First degree is about learning the path and traditions of your order. Second Degree is about learning to officiate and teach others. Third degree is about teaching, creating the space and providing the opportunity for others to do the work of the Goddess and grow in Her service. It is said, 1st degree is to know the path, 2nd degree is to walk the path, and 3rd degree is to be the path. Initiates to the ATC write and perform rituals for the church, teach classes, visit hospitals and prisons, and perform various services for the pagan public as opportunities arise.

4. You all have been together since 1979, a small eternity for a Pagan group. What’s the secret to keeping a group running that long?

So the off-the-record answer is…. there is a secret Seattle governmental program that clones all the greatest people in the world and releases them here. But, aside from the fact that we have amazing people here to facilitate the work, we have strong leadership and a commitment to what we do. For 29 years, we have facilitated Spring Mysteries Festival (SMF) every Easter, which is a modern recreation of the Eleusinian Mysteries. It’s something that binds us together. We all believe very strongly in it and put our collective all into these Mysteries. It’s a calling between each person and spirit to be a part of this work. It’s also the fact that so many Wiccans, Pagans, groups, individuals, and children depend on what we do everyday. It’s a very important ministry that Witches are proud to be a part of.

We also have the luxury of working with some of the greatest leaders in Wicca. Because we all work together, we can call on the strengths of each other. Rather than one or two powerful people running the whole show, we have all the people that are best at what they do, doing that on a global scale. It’s just good business practices applied through Wiccan law and principles.

5. I know you live in Atlanta, but the ATC actually has an actual building out in Washington (state). That’s something that so many groups aspire to. Can you share how all that came about?

I relocated to Seattle last Summer with my husband and working partner Dusty Dionne, and my son, Ramsey. My middle daughter, Tatiana, is 18 now, and wanted to finish school at her Alma Mater. (which is actually my Alma Mater’s rival! Go Bulldogs!) She’s still staying at the covenstead in Georgia. One of the church members that is staying at the Covenstead is her Nanny, and so the two of them are loving it. She is being cared for by her extended family that has always been our Coven. I elevated our Maiden, Anastacia Laveau, to High Priestess of Covenant of WISE before I moved. She is an amazing priestess and is doing a great job taking WISE into it’s next incarnation. My oldest daughter is 20 now, and off on her own.

The ATC acquired the church property from Pete. He deeded it to the church as a donation. It’s hard to get people to donate buildings, but it does happen. Wiccans are starting to see the benefits that we can obtain when we pool our finances and donate to our churches.

6. I’m sure everyone who reads stuff at Patheos Pagan has noticed “The Spring Mysteries Ads” on our pages. I have a lot of questions about the Mysteries, but before we continue can you maybe share some dates and registration information?

Spring Mysteries is always on Easter weekend (April 17 – 20th this year) at a private retreat on the Olympian Peninsula. You can register until April 12th for $240. We feed you all meals and house you from Thursday from 3pm through noon on Sunday. It is a four day ritual where the Greek Gods walk the earth. Participants are initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries and as in Ancient Greece sworn under oath not to reveal the mysteries you experience there. There are many amazing pagan festivals, and I’ve been to some very spiritually moving events, but I have never experienced anything as powerful, or as transformational, that captures the ancient ways of Eleusis as Spring Mysteries does. Even if you don’t come this year, you owe it to yourself to make the sacred pilgrimage to experience this amazing event.

7. Is there a story behind the idea of “Hey, let’s recreate the Eleusinian Mysteries?”

Well… we are a religion, and being a priest/ess of the Mysteries of Demeter and Persephone is a spiritual calling for many. I was called to be a priestess of these Mysteries long before I met the ATC. Who’s to say that the early Priesthood of the ATC weren’t reincarnated elders of the Mysteries of Greece, here to return the Mysteries to their place on Earth? The difference between this church and other groups is that the founders of the ATC had Pete “Pathfinder” Davis providing resources for them. Because of that, they were able to do something amazing together, every year for the last 29 and hopefully many more.

I’m taking over for elders who have been long gone, whom I can’t ask personally. But, when I look at the rites and traditions of Spring Mysteries, I see that it was created with the intention of providing dedication and initiatory experiences for the pagan community so that they could use that energy to transform their lives.

8. How does a group come up with a series of rites for a Mystery Religion? Was there a lot of scholarship involved in their initial creation?

It took a lot of scholarship. Helping lead that charge was Fritz Muntean, one of the founders of New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn and long-time supporter of the A.T.C. After the scholarly texts had been pored over and our foundation established, it then took a lot of divine inspiration both to experience the Mysteries that Goddess wished to reveal to the pilgrims of Her rites, but also to keep it going year after year. Spring Mysteries Festival has become a training ground for our priesthood to grow.

From working in registration, to directing and facilitating, to embodying the deities of Olympus and ministering to the hundreds of participants, it’s a powerful experience to participate in the Mysteries. People have to research their parts in depth to connect with their divine energies in a way that shows the participant that they walk among the Gods themselves. Directors meditate on and refine the delivery of the messages year after year. We have new students constantly exploring these Mysteries from different perspectives. Any given priest/ess can grow from serving in the kitchen to maybe running the kitchen, to running the festival, or from taking a small part, to taking a larger role, to directing the Mysteries themselves. It’s an ongoing study that evolves as the needs of the participants evolve, providing both spiritual and organizational experience.

9. Are the ATC version of the Mysteries constant from year to year or do they change? Are they affected by on-going scholarship? If the answer is a mystery you can’t share, I understand.

Yes and no. There are structural aspects that must remain the same. But, details change based on the perspective of the director who is facilitating the ritual that year, influence from deity, and the people filling the roles. Someone else can say the exact same lines completely differently, and reveal all new ideas without ever realizing it. There are layers and depth that are always shifting, making the Mysteries new each year. Similar to the way a sabbat ritual, although repeated each year, still changes and has to be tweaked to fit the current flow of energy.

10. In addition to the Greater and Lesser Mysteries, Rites of Passage for young people coming into adulthood are a part of the festivities. I understand the importance of such rites, but how did they become a part of the Spring Festival?

The Adult Affirmation of Path and the Youth Rite of Passage are held Thursday night before the Mysteries.

The adult ritual is the Descent of Inanna, which is the traditional dedication rite. It’s limited to 25 participants, and is another powerful experience. Since the Mysteries are about initiation, someone at some point decided to have a dedication ritual on Thursday night for those who are new to the festival, or who want to affirm their devotion to the path. It’s wonderful because many times I have seen this ritual performed where people erect a temporary path at a gathering, and it’s amazing and powerful. But at Spring Mysteries, we have buildings that are perfect for the rituals we do. Coming before the throne of Ereshkigal deep in the temple by the sea is a transformational and powerful experience.

11. What can a young adult expect when participating in one of those rites?

There are actually two rites of passage. One for adults and one for youths coming into adulthood.

The Adult Affirmation of Path ritual is about following the path Inanna took, going through the gates of the underworld, and peeling off the obstacles you carry with you. The participants then come to the throne room of Ereshkigal. Ereshkigal has a special message about walking the path, and the challenges that you encounter upon it. Participants then are given a series of gifts, that they can use to build themselves back up in the manner that will support their life choices. It is done in a group of 25, so you are never alone. But, each person receives special attention so that it’s pertinent to their own needs. Some followers of the craft will recognize this as the classic ‘Descent of Inanna’ pathworking, though we make it psychodramatic and allow the participants to experience the tests outside of meditation.

Our youth go through a rite of passage as well that challenges them with coming of age issues. School as the stepping stone to success, emerging sexual feelings, as well as dealing with feelings of inadequacy, depression, and neglect. It’s a very powerful experience. Some children leave the experience with the firm knowledge that they are not ready to be an adult, which is very healthy for a child who feels pressured to grow up. It allows them to grow without fear of missing out. They know they aren’t ready, and when they think they are they enter the Rites again, and almost always succeed with flying colors. Those that do succeed in their rites feel a sense of accomplishment, and a place within their community. Not just the pagan community in which they experienced their rites, but in their social circles and home lives as well. Often times we hear of the now actualized young adult stepping up and finding their place within their world.

12. The website for the event says that there will be workshops and other assorted activities at the Spring Mysteries Festival. Can you share with us what else is happening that weekend and who some of the presenters might be?

We have many discussions and workshops, as well as a men’s and women’s mysteries and rituals. This year we have Prudence Priest teaching Amber and the Baltic Tradition. As well as some local favorites, such as Jessa Fasel, and Blacksun and Shadowhawk. Alfred Willowhawk and Willo Wellspring from WiteRavyn-ATC in Missouri are coming this year. Alfred is a teacher at WiccanSeminary.EDU. David Chadwick is bringing the Aquarian Knights to Spring Mysteries this year and is holding a knighting ceremony and induction for those interested in becoming a knight. The picture is me knighting David to begin the order.

We also have the friday night talent show and auction. All year members donate magical and amazing items to be auctioned off to raise money for the church. Staff members donate pertinent magical items used during the mysteries by the Gods themselves. But, more than that, the talent that lies within our people is nothing short of amazing. The talent show is fun and sharing our gifts with each other brings us closer together as a family.

13. A recreation of the Eleusinian Mysteries by a mostly Wiccan group seems to me like the perfect blending of Hellenic Re-construction and Modern Witchcraft. Online I run into a lot of Pagans who think they have to choose one path or that definitions of deity should all fit into neat little boxes. Are there ever problems with The Mysteries not fitting into a particular Pagan’s worldview?

Well, sure. You find me two witches who say they think exactly the same, and I’ll show you at least one fibber! You always have people caught up on details, who want to judge “right from wrong”, and bicker over how many seeds She ate, or whether the gods are all individuals or aspects of the All. But it’s not about the story matching up to your beliefs, it’s about letting the Mysteries wash over you and do what they are meant to do: Facilitate a connection between the participant and the Divine.

The Eleusinian Mysteries are a magical experience that archeologists cannot figure out, because it’s not science, it’s magic. To have the best experience, you must approach the Mysteries with an open mind and heart so that the Gods can impart the mysteries that you need to hear. But, nevertheless, when you come to the Mysteries, open or not, the Gods find their way in speaking to you. I have been going for a decade, and every year, I am surprised by the unexpected transformation that I find. It is refreshing to me that no matter how often I am a part of this, it always finds a way to be fresh and new.

14. The ATC was established by Pete Pathfinder back in 1979. Though I don’t think I’ve ever met him, I’ve always thought of Pete as a rather important part of Pagan history. Can you share a little bit about Pete for those who might not be familiar with him?

Absolutely. Pete is probably the greatest man I’ve ever known. The locals around here know him as “the man with the steel spine.” He’s a legend in the little town he lives in for getting them a fire truck and making other major strides in the town’s infrastructure. Pete is a problem solver and isn’t intimidated by anyone or anything. His father was a lawyer, and Pete learned a lot about law during dinner growing up. He’s charismatic as all get out, and can keep you entertained with stories about Fat Wally and his childhood, as well as the good old times with pagan elders that we all consider the wisdom keepers of our faith. When you hear someone talking about a Doreen so casually, and you realize it’s Doreen Valiente, it’s a bit of a perspective changer.

But what Pete does is listen, empathize, and then give you options of how to best resolve your problem. He has taught me how important it is to create a safe place for people to share what’s wrong so that we can help them. He has taught me how to stay focused on the bigger picture, and how to use the law to protect and serve us, rather than scare us. Pete is an incredible teacher, and knows everything as far as I can tell. I have read where Raymond Buckland said that Pete was instrumental in helping Wicca grow by leaps and bounds. His magic is in his ability to create anything he puts his mind to, from buildings and gadgets, to infrastructures, and good legal precedents. He’s patient and kind, and I love him dearly. He is on oxygen full time now, and doesn’t leave his room much, but it’s comforting knowing that he’s there anytime I need an answer to a question.

He’s got a clear vision of what he wants, and if you’re not on board, you might feel like he just steamrolled over you – but his success record speaks for itself. He’s no-nonsense when it comes to protecting our faith and making it safe for us to worship Goddess. Pete spent nine years of hard fought work with the VA to get all the paperwork in place so that when the pot finally boiled over, they had no choice but to allow us our Pentacle on the VA Tombstones for Wiccan military. Wicca is afforded many rights that other Pagan religions still fight for daily, and Paganism as a whole is seen in a more favorable light nationwide because of his work with the government. This world will sorely miss him when he makes his final assay to the summerlands.

15. In the thirty years of The ATC you are only its second leader. What was the transition like from Pete to Belladonna?

Geez, it was hard. Change is hard for everyone. I’m actually the fifth Archpriestess, but the first person stepping into the leadership role that Pete held. I think It would have been easier if I were a man or if we could have called me the Archpriest, but Goddesses’ rules are Her rules for a reason. The rules say we are taught Male to Female, Female to Male, and that’s just what happened. The affiliates were very supportive once they met me, but they didn’t want to talk to me at first because it brought home the reality that Pete wasn’t going to be with us forever.

Another issue was I’m not from Seattle. The local church members each had their own ideas, and probably would have preferred someone locally to step into the role. But, the reality is the business, political, and magical skill set that you need to run the ATC is pretty wide and specific. It was hard to find someone that had all those qualifications. It also set the precedent that any member of any ATC affiliate church has the potential to one day become the leader of the organization in which they serve, which I find to be invaluable to our organization’s growth and happiness. It means that we will always pull from our entire congregation, and will be sure to find the best candidate.

All in all it went as smoothly as possible. There are always complications with any change in leadership. A few people are still watching and waiting to see what will happen next. Most have jumped back in to help with the work. It gets easier every day, but it’s still new to me. I’m still waking up every day and saying “Holy Moly, I’m the Archpriestess!?!”

16. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Pagan group advertise on Patheos Pagan before. I think it’s great, and I’d much rather see those two smiling priestesses than an ad for detergent. How was the decision made to advertise here?

We had a last minute, unforeseeable complication with our print advertising, so we reached out to several groups. Patheos has been a rock for the spiritual community on the internet for a long time. We are still relatively new behind the wheel of such a large entity as the ATC, and sometimes we don’t know what resources are available to us until we need them. We reached out to the site, and Patheos helped out immediately while making it very easy for us to advertise with you. We have found Patheos to be very helpful, professional, would highly recommend you to others, and plan to continue engaging more of the Pagan audience through your site in the future. (Note from Jason: I’m not involved with advertising here in any way, shape or form.)

17. I’ve run into a lot of groups and festivals who seem reluctant to advertise online beyond a website and social media. Was their any resistance to the idea of promoting the Spring Mysteries beyond that?

Yes there was, but our marketing department has been very on-point in meeting our advertising objectives and have my trust and respect, so I listen to them.

18. The ATC also presents the Hekate’s Sickle Festival in the Fall. From what I gather that gathering isn’t entirely devoted to Greek deities. Can you share with us some of the differences between the two festivals?

Hekate’s Sickle is celebrating 25 years running this year. Unlike Spring Mysteries it is not a psychodrama. It’s more hands-on and individually focused, like a walk through a haunted house only with Gods and Goddesses instead of ghouls and ghosts. It’s about the journey you take immediately after you cross the veil. It happens at Samhain, when the veil is thin. One by one, participants walk a pathway through the woods, encountering Gods and magical creatures to interact with along the way. Each person gets to take a couple of minutes to speak to the God incarnated through a priest or priestess. We usually do a Greek and Celtic path, as that is what most of the local ATC members are, but we also bring in elders from different traditions to present the Gods of their Pantheon.

Jeannine and John Lesniak will be presenting Baba Yaga and the Scandinavian deities at Hecate’s Sickle 2014, and we might even have a Fairy path, and a Norse path – if I can find the right people to do it. While we plan to have 5 paths this year, we usually have at least three different pantheons represented. Last year we had Kali and Shiva in a Hindu Path. The year before that we had an Egyptian Path. At the end of the ritual, all paths lead to a central location where a Witches Ball is held, and we dance out the night together in honor of our Ancestors and our connection with our brothers and sisters as we ring in the Pagan New Year.

19. You used to live in Georgia and the ATC is based in Washington. That gives you a sort of unique look into Modern Paganism by region. Do you notice any sort of regional variations or different attitudes about Paganism from place to place?

Oh my yes! Each section of the US is very different in their practice and views. In the Mid-South, you might still be accosted by the police for clapping too loudly at ritual, or have your windows shot out by a drive- by while you’re in circle. Whereas in Seattle if you’re NOT pagan you’re weird. In the Grand Old South, there is much more emphasis on lineage and Wiccan Law, where out West it’s way more laid back and more about what you’re accomplishing instead of who taught you.

As I travel from group to group, they have different words for coven offices, such as I’ve heard Squire used instead of Summoner, Rove instead of Oak King. Some rely heavily on Crones and Sage councils to bring the community together. Others have no such community structure and work independently. Some regions fight in private and work together in public, some just fight altogether. Canada wants to stop using the word “church” in favor of the word “coven”. The South wants to stop using the word “coven” and use the word “church” instead. In the US the word church carries legal benefits with it. I think we need a coven to run a church, and that they aren’t the same word, but each serve a unique purpose. There are still more differences, some covens have much more primal earth, Horned God energy, where others are more ethereal, focused on Goddess and light working. We feel it makes us strong to be a wide and varied collection of groups with a common goal. We enjoy the beauty that diversity brings, while celebrating that which we have in common.

I have also discovered some interesting sacred places within the ATC, such as the WISE Covenstead in Georgia, which is an Earth Temple with garden shrines to Aphrodite and the Oak King and the four seasons standing guard at the cross quarters. Out here in Seattle, in the rain forest, we have a water temple, with blue and black menhir stones, a Hecate Shrine, and a sacred hot tub. Up north in Salem, we found an ATC Air temple, with zodiac signs, and sacred symbols inscribed all over the walls and stars encrusted in the ceiling. I’m pretty sure there’s a fire temple somewhere in Arizona. I’m looking forward to my trip to the south west to meet our affiliates there and find the missing temple that completes the set.

20. And finally, do participants all have to wear a toga the weekend of the Spring Mysteries?

Ha, that’s a great question. No. You’d be uncomfortably cold. I recommend long johns, cloaks, and wool socks, just in case the weather workers have a bad day.

Photos:
1. ATC Logo.
2. Hermes, Demeter, Persephone, and Hecate in the Mysteries.
3. Opening Circle
4. Athena (This looks pretty cool, why does it have to be during the NBA and NHL Playoffs?)
5. Parade to the Sea, Erato praising Aphrodite.
6. Sydney Bridges, the High Maiden of the ATC and Belladonna as Demeter and Hecate
7. The Muses
8. The Moonstone Circle at the Mother Church in Index, WA

About Jason Mankey

Jason Mankey has been involved with Paganism for the last twenty years, and has spent the last ten of those years as a speaker, writer, and High Priest. Jason can often be found lecturing on the Pagan Festival circuit, so you might just bump into him. When not reading and researching Pagan history he likes to crank up the Led Zeppelin, do rituals in honor of Jim Morrison (of The Doors), and sing numerous praises to Pan, Dionysus, and Aphrodite. He lives in Sunnyvale CA with his wife Ari and two hyper-kinetic cats.


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