I’ve developed a pretty good sense of “ritual rhythm” over the years and can usually predict just how a ritual will go, and how much people will participate in it. Extensive, exuberant participation rarely happens (especially in more public situations), but emotion is something else entirely. People are usually OK with laughing or crying in front of others if a ritual moves them that way.
But as I said at the beginning, I only sometimes know how a ritual will play out, and usually less so if I didn’t write it. Such was the case for me last Sunday night (Nov. 2). The architect behind the ritual was my friend Angus (a frequent guest on these pages), and the guy has never given me a reason to doubt him, but going into his Samhain ritual I wasn’t quite sure if it would work out as planned.
Sacrifice & The Horned God
Though I tend to associate “The God” at Samhain with the Gaelic Cernunnos, I don’t have much of a reference point when it comes to sacrificed horned (or antlered) gods. The reason being that I simply can’t find one in the mythological record. Pan was certainly not a sacrifice and while it’s easy to associate Cernunnos with hunting that’s not the same thing as a dying to ensure a bountiful harvest. There are bits and pieces of legend and myth suggesting that Dionysus journeyed from the realms of the living to the dead and he certainly “died” and was “reborn” a few times, but nothing like our “God” on the Wiccan Wheel of the Year. The annual Wheel of the Year dramas that make up so many rituals is a modern construction, and a beautiful one. There are bits of it in ancient myth, but it’s never been expressed there as fully as it is in many Modern Witch rituals.
I remember our first conversation about the rite back in September. I’m not quoting him exactly here, but I remember it sounding something like this: “And I had this vision of first The God and then the Goddess coming out of a stage in the center of the room. After walking around a bit, She kills Him, the lights go black, and then He’s gone, dead, and She stands alone, pregnant. With the child of course being the just sacrificed Horned God.” You also have to imagine this speech infused with passion, and a booming voice. Few people present things better than Angus.
But even an amazing presentation rarely stills my brain. The moment he was done questions began swirling around in my head. Is there an actual working in this ritual? It’s Samhain, are people going to be able to acknowledge their beloved dead? When I asked Angus those questions he said something along the lines of “we’ll work that out, but I want to focus on my vision of the God’s sacrifice.” I’m not sure how much attention I paid to Ang’s answers, the original plan was for me to just call a quarter, and maybe not even that. Our friend Matt (whom I had to drive to Angus’s place) was going to be the god and the sacrifice . . . . I was just the driver.
About being “just the driver,” that lasted about a week. Due to a scheduling snafu this particular Samhain Ritual was moved from Saturday to Sunday, and Matt unable to participate. I was asked if I would be interested in being The God . . . . my answer was no. My October was already busy enough, and I had my own Samhain Ritual to lead and supervise too. In the end, Angus couldn’t find anyone else willing to fill the role and would I please reconsider?
Let me tell you a little secret about me. I’ve been told over the years that I’m sometimes a bit intimidating, but the truth of the matter is that I can be a big softy when it comes to the people I genuinely love and care about. Angus and his wife Karen fall into that category, I would do the ritual for them and give up copious amounts of college football games and late morning/early afternoon pints of cider . .. My wife said something along the lines of “you wouldn’t do this for anyone else would you?” A few years ago Angus during a late night PantheaCon wander Angus began referring to us as The Pretty Hair Twins, how could I let down my twin?
So Saturdays and Sundays became “ritual practice” days for me the entire month of October. Saturday’s were now reserved for Angus instead of Michigan State Football and Sunday’s for my own Samhain rite. Through the course of October I watched his ritual slowly begin to take shape at rehearsal. After the first run through I asked if I could work on the dialogue spoken between Goddess and God, Angus consented and I spent a Fall afternoon the following week shaping the words of my soon to die Horned God.
I’m not an actor, and this wasn’t a theatre production, so there were moments during our practices when we all sat around wondering exactly how things would play out in the Masonic Hall where we’d be presenting the ritual. “Now here the lights are going to go out and it’s going to be pitch black, Jason you’ll have to jump down into the pop-o-matic stage and coat our killing athame with fake blood . . .” Yeah, there’s just no way to practice that in someone’s back yard.
Before leaving my house on the day of the ritual I shook my head at my wife and told her “I have no idea how this is going to pan out, be sure to tape the Steeler game for me” (which she didn’t do). However once I got to the Masonic Hall and participated in our first full run through I began to feel better about things. My line readings were right-on, and even during practice energy began to fill our ritual space. I could feel my old buddy The Dread Lord of Shadows just over my shoulder . . . . .
The ritual began in the usual way: quarters were called and the circle was cast. Eventually we called the gods down, the Horned One into me, the Great Lady into my partner that evening. After the gods were invoked we both took a seat until after the working. We were the grand finale so to speak. I remember sitting there waiting for my part to start, gripping my stag medallion and focusing on His will and His destiny. The back of the hall began to look like the God, with his arms spread wide, awaiting his fate.
Any ritual that calls for drawing down the gods is hard to predict. I’ve seen the Goddess sweep into ritual and completely change everything, and almost always for the better. When people draw down the gods scripts often get thrown out the window. Since I always call gods I “know” we sometimes work up an agreement where we’ll mostly stick to the script. In those cases I can often see what’s happening during the ritual, but sometimes have no control over my actions. It’s almost like looking at yourself from outside your own body. That’s what happened during this particular ritual.At first there was nothing magical about what we were doing. It wasn’t horrible or anything, it just wasn’t that moment. My lady and I delivered our lines well and the crowd was attentive . . . and then there was a shift. It happened the moment she grabbed the knife that would end this phase of my existence. I knew she was grabbing it but I didn’t want to see it, so I pulled the hood of my cloak up over my head. We then began to walk widdershins around the circle and all of a sudden I could hear my voice raise and grow louder. It was a little bit off script, and then I felt very afraid and very aware. I was going to die.
By the time my partner and climbed up onto center stage there were tears starting to stream down our cheeks. A feeling of dread fell upon me, and it looked to me like my Priestess didn’t want to finish the task set before her. The crowd began to wail, howl, and cry as my impending doom crept ever closer. As our eyes met each other for the final time this turn of the Wheel the Goddess reversed our final lines. We were originally supposed to say “The Wheel turns!” to one another before ending with “My Love” and “My Life.” Instead it ended up the other way around, which only added to the anxiety and dread.
We stared at one another while saying those four lines, at this point both crying and shaking. A sea of people circled around us . . . and then she plunged the athame into my side (not literally of course) and everything went black. At this point the screams and cries were intense, something that none of us had anticipated. Also everyone continued to stand near our center-stage in the absolute darkness, another surprise. My Goddess was also in agony and I was caught up in her grief. I was frozen for a second there in the dark, but had the presence of mind to remember that I had work to do.
I had a pregnancy pillow to hand out and daggers to bloody and I had to do all of this in the dark under our stage. On my way down the rabbit hole I, of course, stabbed myself in the leg with the athame (I did the same thing during rehearsal, except in my side) but somehow got everything together. When that ended I sat there under the stage in the fetal position trembling.
The ritual finished up, but since I was dead (but alive in the belly of the Goddess, which considering my circumstances was a small consolation) I just sat there under the stage. When we finally dismissed everything I still sat there under the stage. I remember hearing a few people laughing on their way out and me thinking “you’re laughing!?! I’m dead!” and then crying a little bit. I obviously wasn’t dead, but the experience had washed over me. Even writing this piece a few days later I’m still surprised at how much of my dying experience is in the first person.
Eventually I crawled out from under the stage, but still didn’t want to see or talk to anyone. I hung back for a bit before finally getting a little bit of food in my belly. (The dead are often pretty hungry.) I’m in no hurry to do it again, but being a sacrifice at Samhain is an experience I’ll never forget.
Thanks Angus for letting me be a part of such a moving experience.
Some Ritual Dialogue . . . . The Green Mile of The God
Goddess: The Wheel Turns once more.
God: Yes, the Wheel turns and again we stand here at the end, and the beginning.
Goddess: We’ve shared love and pleasure, grief and joy. It’s been a lifetime of feelings and emotion.
God: And a lifetime in the span of only a few months.
Goddess: At Imbolc we witnessed the Earth waking up from her deep sleep and our children sow the year’s first seeds.
God: Then there were Spring flowers, jasmine upon the wind, cherry blossoms, life and beauty spread out for all to see.
Goddess: There were our days spent playing near the restless ocean,
God: Then there were our children, our tribe . . . . all working together, sometimes laughing, and then falling and picking themselves back up so they might try again.
Goddess: And then there was the Beltane Rite…… the Maidens, the promise of Summer, the warmth of the sun upon our faces.
God: And then there was after the Beltane Rite . . . . with its own mysteries.
Goddess: Good memories.
Goddess: Sun-soaked days at Midsummer, the ocean breeze rippling through the tall redwood trees.
God: I was so strong back then and I thought those days might never end, but end they did, like all things. But those nights in your arms under the full moon, those are my favorite memories, and I shall cherish them forever.
Goddess: I like that your favorite memories are of me
God: And when I found myself a shadow of my former self at Lughnassa it was you who helped me to stand and prepare for the harvest.
Goddess: Not only me, but our children too. As you pour your love out upon the Earth they pour their love out to you, me, us. They have accomplished so much this turn of the Wheel.
God: They have, and those victories warm my heart and prepare me for the turning of the Wheel and the changes yet to come.
Goddess: The Wheel turns.
(At this point the Goddess picked a knife up off a table and I adjusted my cloak, pulling up my hood. Symbolically it was like wearing blinders, I knew what was ahead, but I didn’t want to see it.)
God: Our children have grown so much this year and tonight they have taken the biggest step of all.
Goddess: A big step – a necessary step – it must be done.
God: Is everyone prepared for what is to come this night? Can it all be done?
Goddess: Can what?
God: The Big change, the removal of the final obstacle, all that holds our children back.
Goddess: Yes. Oh, yes! We have made them smarter than they know –
God: And stronger than they can imagine –
Goddess: And we have shown them tonight that they can do the big thing – the hard thing – the ugly, necessary thing that must be done.
God: Yes, it all must be done for the Wheel to turn.
Goddess: To once more find ourselves in the Darktime.
God: My bones ache, my antlers must be shed, it has been a long year and I am now so tired.
Goddess: Are you, My Love?
God: Yes, my Life. What began at Lughnassa has now overtaken me, I am not the satyr I once was, I am ready.
Goddess: No regrets?
God: Never. Except being apart from you.
Goddess: Never. We are eternal.
God: And the weight of that eternity is heavy upon my shoulders.
(At this point the celebrants began to chant corn and grain corn and grain all that falls shall rise again and move around our center stage in a circle. The Goddess pleading with someone else in the audience to kill me, and me resigned to my fate, a fate that only She can bring to its end.)
Goddess: My Love!
God: My Life!
Goddess: The Wheel turns!
God: The Wheel turns!
And then the knife was plunged into my side and the lights went out . . . .