My friend, ritualist, songwriter and performer Sparky T. Rabbit in Illinois has often said to me: "If it's worth doing at all, it's worth doing well." And "Does your ritual work honor your gods?" Everything I say concerning the Reclaiming's annual Spiral Dance Samhain ritual is said with these in mind.*
I attended the 27th Spiral Dance ritual on Saturday night. I had a small role proclaiming the feast. This is something I usually like to do and do rather well, if I say so myself. It's a beautiful piece written by Starhawk and modified just a wee bit over the years by Robin Weaver and myself. The last time I delivered it was in 1992, the last time, I think, the ritual was performed in the SF Women's Building. I remember its being a good one. Those I remember as being good are rare, and have gotten rarer as the years have past.
Last year the organizers rented a smaller venue, Kezar Pavilion, a basketball stadium with a very, very, very live floor. It's much homier. Last year's ritual took a 180-degree turn from exhibitionistic spectacle to community celebration. It's that spectacle part that I've felt so uncomfortable with. For me, Samhain is not the time to show off, even if you do invite the pubic; it's the time to honor our Beloved Dead. It's the time to mourn the loss of our loved ones, to share our grief, to have our losses acknowledged and respected with and among our larger chosen Craft kin.
Because of this emphasis on spectacle, some of my more cynical friends have taken to calling the Spiral Dance the "Spiral Dance du soleil." I think the term is apt, or at least has been apt when applied to many performances of the basic rite. It seems that some organizers adopted the bigger is better notion so prevalent in the overculture. That's not a way I've ever viewed my religion. I don't think it's for everybody. I'm happy to welcome people who choose this path. I'm happy to offer teaching, guidance, counsel, feedback, whatever. I even rejoice in my religion. I'm as proud and enthusiastic as the most zealous of the newly converted when asked about Witchcraft and Paganism. But I don't expect everyone to be and I don't expect everyone to resonate with it, and I don't want to be in anyone's face or convert the masses. I think people can share our values, such as a recognition of our interconnection with all of life on this planet (and probably beyond), our obligation to steward our precious resources, from whatever religion they find comfort in. They don't have to be Pagans in order to appreciate the mandate to care for our Earth. We all breathe the same air, drink the same water, rely on Earth's riches for our food.
The Spiral Dance has for many years experienced what I liken to an identity crisis. It doesn't know if it's a ritual, a political rally, a circus, or a rave. It has had elements of all four, and has done no single one well. For some years, the SD saw giant puppets, stilt-walkers, people twirling fire batons, people on trapezes or coming down from the girders of Herbst Pavilion on ropes. Now these are all fun and interesting things to watch, very entertaining. But are those who perform them being priest/esses? Some perhaps are. Others have been hired for their particular performance skill, have left the ritual after they've been on, and I cannot think that they've considered their participation anything along the lines of priest/essing, or helping to move and shape the energy of the whole. (The notion of "priestess/ing" requires another tome. Suffice it to say that here I mean performing sacerdotal roles.)
Last year, however, a different crew took on the task of planning the ritual. Although I was invited by two of the main organizers to participate, there was miscommunication between one of those individuals and the cell, as the planning group is known, that resulted in my not participating at that level. I was, however, asked to invoke the Ancestors, the Mighty Dead of the Craft, and the Beloved Dead, who were not being individually named that year. A daunting task, I thought.**
I was pleased with how I met that challenge. I think I did right by them (the Ancestors, the MD, and the BD). I loved the whole ritual, nearly every little part of it. And believe me, I'm known to be quite the evaluator of ritual, not always a good way to be known.
In any case, I had hoped this year would improve upon last year. Both last year and this year I tried to persuade some of our more alienated kin to attend. Some did; most didn't.
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* I may be misquoting slightly, so as soon as Sparky calls me back I'll correct these to read exactly as he says them. Steven Posch also says this. I have so many lively conversations with both of them about Witchcraft, Paganism, scholarship, ritual, gods, ancestors, and the like that I may have run together who said what. I'll clarify who said what and how and make corrections in a future post.
** Not calling the Beloved Dead by name is also fodder for another long exposition.