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We are chanting, waiting for Lorelei to appear:

Full moon shining bright, midnight on the water
O! Aradia, Diana’s silver daughters

If Coven Pleiades, the Wiccan group I was born into, had only one song, it would be this one. We sing it, our voices growing loud enough to fill my parents’ house with the force of our love, loud enough to fill the dark space where Lorelei waits, her hands bound, her eyes covered, her body naked. This is her initiation ritual, the first we have held in several years – the first, I think, since my own second degree.

It’s also the first time I’ve seen an initiation from the other side of the blindfold. It’s a bit like being backstage at a play, or a magic show. I am part of a large cast, performing a show for an audience of one. When Lorelei appears, she will be set on a path beset by obstacles, a sharp and thorny forest filled with the howls of beasts. And of course, we are those beasts and brambles, both her path and the things that block her from it.

The priest, my father, goes to retrieve Lorelei from the underworld. She arrives at the edge of the circle, nervous, but ready.

“What is your name, child of the Goddess?” asks my mother, assuming the form of the White Goddess.

“Lorelei,” she says, formally adopting this as her Craft name.

“And what do you bring with you?” asks the Goddess.

“Perfect love and perfect trust,” says Lorelei.

Thus she brings the traditional wages of initiation, ready for us to offer her the bargain that they might buy.

***

Lorelei’s initiation happened the Saturday after Pantheacon. I had begun to recover by that point – returning to a soulless office job will do that for you – but still, I felt like a changed person. I had gone through a lot, been exposed to many things I had never seen within Pleiades.

Several people have told me that it was a brave act for me to come to a big event like Pantheacon alone. This was always said with the unspoken but obvious afterthought, “brave, and perhaps foolish.” I had nobody there to pull me back if I went too deep, nobody to ensure I, to use both a drug analogy and a play on words, didn’t have a bad trip. I can see how, had I been a slightly different person, or things have gone a slightly different way, I could have been overwhelmed by the experience, left broken by it. This is not to say that I made no friends at Pantheacon; the first thing I did when I got off the plane, in fact, was to meet the people who would become the dramatis personae of my weekend. But many of those folks were exactly the people luring me into new experiences, for which I might not have had the appropriate mental defenses.

This company of two thousand Pagans taught me much about solitude, and its value. I learned of my own need for loneliness in the times I had to withdraw to the quiet of my hotel room for an hour to escape the crowd. I learned more firmly about the things I could accept into my practice and the things that I couldn’t. And I learned that, sad to say, I’m really just not cut out for 1 AM hospitality suite parties. (Sorry, guys.)

On the last day of the convention, I went to Teo Bishop’s presentation on the Solitary Druid Fellowship. Compared to much of Pantheacon, it felt mellow and contemplative: just an audience, seated in the round, with Teo standing in the middle, spinning back and forth to face each of us in turn.

If I am being honest, I didn’t go to this workshop because I thought it would be particularly interesting to me. It was, after all, addressed to solitary members of the ADF, and I was neither of those. But I was more interested than I thought I would be. Teo knows how to tell a story.

In this one, he described the special needs of a solitary Pagan, reflecting the greater needs of that particular umbrella by describing what he needed in his own practice. He brought in his personal history – his past life as an Episcopalian, his current life within ADF, his love of liturgy and the Book of Common Prayer. He told us of the challenges of solitary practice – the feelings of loneliness, of personal motivation, of being disconnected from a greater religious practice. And he brought in the advantages of solitude – contemplation, personal direction, the opportunity for great work within the body of the individual practitioner.

I had never considered that being solitary could work out to one’s advantage, myself, so this last part came as a surprise – but I saw the possibilities as soon as Teo mentioned them. He had a point. Like many of the great ideas I have encountered in my life, I immediately recognized this one’s worth. Also like many of those great ideas, I recognized pretty quickly that it wasn’t meant for me.

Yet it made me think about my own practice, and how it related to the things Teo was talking about – the benefits and the consequences of being so ingrained into a group.

In my mind, the coven – or, to be more accurate, my coven, Pleiades – is the fundamental unit of religion. (Let me emphasize the words in my mind, lest you think I’m prescribing a course of action that I believe everyone must follow. You, as you have likely noticed by now, are not me.) The dynamic of the group is the basic energy which powers Wicca for me, and as our composition and focus changes, so does the religion. While I have explored and practiced several other forms of Paganism – Taoism, Kabbalism, a long courtship with Asatru – my mind always returns to Pleiades, which, to me, is Wicca itself.

This is a source of great strength, for within the group I find my teachers, who have guided me in my explorations of life and magick. Here I find my elders, who have watched me grow up, whose relationships with me have been a constant evolution. And here I find the people to whom my magick is directed, the people who assure me that my practice has a purpose beyond myself.

And this is a source of great trouble, too, because the relationships within a coven are not stable things. People move away, fall in love, break up, fall out. Even if those changes have nothing to do with our rituals, they still reverberate throughout our circle, like concentric waves in a pond once a rock has been thrown in. If those waves are violent enough, they can threaten the existence of the coven’s very existence; I suspect more covens have been destroyed by such forces than survived them.

To me, it’s worth the heartache. A good coven is a family, after all, and every family is a source of both sorrow and solace. That’s the bargain we make, and most of us, I think, find it a worthwhile one. For me, Pleiades isn’t even that old saw, a “family of choice” – I didn’t choose them. They’re simply family, as much as a family of blood or law.

***

The main business of the initiation has concluded. Lorelei has taken off her blindfold, had her hands released, slipped her robe back onto her body. She has been told the secrets, which I will not speak here. Now we sit, drinking wine and munching on cakes. We are talking – mostly about the ritual, giving Lorelei congratulations and presents. (I, in typical fashion, left my present in the car, so it will have to wait until later.) But we also talk about mundane things. We crack jokes. We talk about the present and the past. The name for the act is communion, after all. And here we are, a coven, communicating.

At one point, my dad clears his throat and speaks. “In a lot of groups, initiation means that you are a Witch. It’s a title you get by going through the ritual. Here, we don’t do that. Whether  you call yourself a Witch or not, that’s not for us to say – that’s between you and your gods.” He smiles at Lorelei. “For us, initiation means that now, you are our Witch. That you belong to us, and we belong to you.”

I have belonged to Pleiades since long before I was initiated, since I was in the womb. I am an unsolitary Pagan; I don’t really know any other way to do it. They are the the path and destination, the actors and the audience. While I stumble through the darkness of life, they are the ones stretching out their hands to mine. They guide me – and I guide them – on our eternal journey to our destination, our source, our home.

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