Friday, August 16, 2013

The Times They Are a-Changin'

Earlier this week The Wild Hunt blog featured a report on CoG’s recently concluded MerryMeet/Grand Council, complete with photos of the new National Board.  What a change from my day!

There was a time when Witches (and Wiccans) kept deep within the broom closet, for all manner of reasons, most involving fear of discrimination at work, school, or housing.

I remember the first MerryMeet held on the East Coast in the mid-eighties, at Rowe Camp & Conference Center in Massachusetts.  That was when I first met some of the wonderful folks at the then-Northeast Local Council: folks from NECTW, EarthSpirit, and the then-Lone Star LC from Texas, among many others.  At that MerryMeet I saw my first tea dance.  It seemed to have a very New York flavor, especially with BrightShadow[1] in leathers. 

I distinctly remember at the follies, the time when members from all over show their talents.  A Witch from Seattle (who shall still remain nameless unless when he reads this, he gives me permission to name him) played guitar and sang; someone took a photo.  The second he finished his song the musician tromped up an aisle in a rage toward the person with the camera and grabbed it away from him.  I don’t know if he took the film canister or what – this was, of course, many years before digital cameras or the Internet.  What I, as a newish Witch brand new to East Coast Pagandom, I do remember was shock.  Of course, I knew well enough at that time not to name names or take photos.  I was mildly surprised to see someone taking snapshots, but to me it didn’t seem to really matter in this instance because it was only a photo of a man in street clothes singing and playing guitar, with nothing indicative of witchiness visible in the shot.

Over the years since then, photos of outgoing and newly elected Board members have been taken, but only for those in the photos and for CoG’s archives.  A couple of years at PantheaCon former National First Officers were rounded up for photos.  Again, these photos were taken with cameras that had film.  I do have some of them.  They’re especially valuable to me because some of those pictured have departed this plane.  I would publish them here if I were able to contact everyone shown, but alas! some appear to be unreachable.

* * * * *

I also remember how the Reclaiming role of Dragons originated.  We used to meet at Ocean Beach in San Francisco on the Solstices.  We purified with a ritual plunge in the Pacific,[2] then returned to a bonfire[3] for the ritual.  The bonfire attracted other beachgoers, particularly drunks in search of a good party.  Sometimes the media would get wind of this gathering, drawing unwanted cameras and reporters.[4]

Back in our Reclaiming Collective meetings, when we debriefed and critiqued our rituals, we came up with a role[5] to address such potential intrusions.  I named that role Dragon, but in more traditional Wiccan traditions, the role of border-keeper is usually assumed by a tyler (from the Masonic term)[6] or Man in Black.  A comparable role in Dianic Craft is called Guardian.

* * * * *

Also back in those days, one needed to warn one’s children of speaking freely about their parents’ religion.  I did so.  My daughter was a friendly, chatty girl, and I knew it would be easy for her to mention something about home and her mom’s being a Witch that would only encourage teasing and maybe even ostracism.  Further, for many of those years I was a single mother, a situation that made me feel more vulnerable when it came to potential harassment.  So, but for hanging with the children of Witchen friends, she learned to be discreet about the witchy goings-on at home. 

The fact that I was known in the Craft by a Craft name rather than my mundane name helped us maintain a more conventional image.  Still, I hated to have to do this.  What other religion requires that its children hide?  For that matter, what other religion doesn’t teach its children?  This is fodder for a different feeding, but suffice it to say that back then Witches were discouraged from involving their children.  The Craft, with its secrecy and mysteries,[7] was considered not suitable for children.  I’m happy that Pagan/Witchen culture has changed in that regard.  Now there are Spiral Scouts, children’s programs at festivals, teen camps, and the like.  Not to mention CoG’s Hart & Crescent Award[8] for Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts and other youth groups and their leaders.

There were good reasons for maintaining anonymity back then.  Today I’m glad to say there are far fewer.  This is due, in large part, to the work over the years of CoG and other groups, as well as to individuals who have a public face, whether using a Craft name or not.  The day when CoG can proudly and openly publish the names and faces of its National Board officers has arrived.  Praise be!


[1]  Publisher of the wonderful Enchant√©: The Journal for the Urbane Pagan, with its serial “All My Avatars.”  Old issues may be available from purveyors of used books.
[2]   I know this sounds as though it would be wicked cold, but it really wasn’t so bad.  For one thing, the water felt warmer at Midwinter than at Midsummer, at least to me it did.  Besides, one only plunges for a brief moment, than towels off, dresses, and gathers round the bonfire.  
[3]   There’s a wonderful photo by Michael Rauner of this bonfire, sans people, in Visionary State: A Journey Through California’s Spiritual Landscape, by Erik Davis.
[4]   The same thing happened at one of the early Spiral Dances held at the SF Hall of Flowers.  The place was over-packed with people, and along came a crew from the SF Chronicle newspaper.  Volunteer Sipko skilfully sent them away.
[5]   We devised other roles, too, such as Graces, tales of which may be told another day.
[6]   Over the years, my late friend Grey Cat and I discussed these differences.  IIRC, she wrote about tylers in Deepening Witchcraft: Advancing Skills & Knowledge.
[7]   A big topic I plan to discuss in a subsequent blog.
[8]   Information about this award seems to have disappeared from the Web, but there’s a bit about it here (scroll down).

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Further Reflections on Altars

Altar at Lucky Mojo Curio Co.
This post I hope to be another of a series of writings about magical objects, tangible items that have meaning to and are used by Pagans of various stripes.  I’ll work from the more immediate (altars, clothing, incenses, masks, etc.) to the broader (temples, nemetons, sacred spaces).

To continue, what’s the purpose of having an altar?  Is it a surface to holding the tools with which we work?  Certainly in most Witchen[1] situations that’s how an altar is used.  But besides holding working tools and such (bowl of water, dish of salt, cup, athame, etc.), a Witchen altar holds candles and more often than not images of a deity or deities.[2]

For an altar that holds working tools, one may also consider a kitchen counter arrayed with bowls, ingredients, spoons, measuring cups, cutting boards, strainers, colanders, and the like, ready to bake a cake or baste a roast.  After all, the kitchen is where the magic of transforming the nourishing fruits and flesh given us by Nature into sublimely tasty comestibles takes place.  Our ovens are our athanors, the chambers that with heat and time transform what we put into them.

Another altar holding working tools is the surgical tray.  I have little conscious experience of operating rooms where surgery is performed, but I’ve seen enough dramatic reenactment to know that there is a cadre of persons who assist the lead surgeon.

Perhaps you have a carpentry workroom in your garage or a sewing room in your home.  When you prepare to work, do you lay out an array of tools you expect to employ?  Beyond that, do you perform a brief ritual as you prepare?  I know that some cooks do so, and I would guess that some surgeons or surgery teams may also call upon some kind of divine guidance of the hand wielding the scalpel – at least I hope their work is not compromised by hubris.

Altars can also serve as the foundation upon which sits an idol or idols.  Deity altars usually hold candles, incense, flowers, fruits, and other offerings.

Older books on Wicca and other magical systems, as most readers know, contain detailed charts showing where each specified item should be placed.  Those altars contained cup or chalice, blade, wand, pentacle, dish of salt, water, at least two candles, and often representations of goddess and sometimes god.  In other words, basic tools.  In addition, they may contain flowers or seasonal vegetation, and other tools that may be required for that particular working.

One friend who began her practice on the East Coast had learned to use two candles on her altar, one for the goddess and one for the god.  That's not a custom I had encountered when I was learning.

When I began my practice, my altars were fairly simple, although I never felt that I needed to place items in any other configuration than that which pleased my personal aesthetic and I always felt I could add other pretties as I was inspired to do so.  Over the years my attitude towards altars evolved, more about which follows shortly.


[1]             I prefer using the term “Witchen” when referencing the most common manifestation of Pagan religion in our contemporary world.  To my knowledge, this word was coined by Deborah Bender back in the 1970s to encompass both older British lineaged Craft traditions and newer bootstrap traditions. So in this context, Wiccans are formal descendants of British Traditional Wicca – I leave the discussion of who is who in the context of BTWs to those who hold to it – while Witches include both Wiccans and other practitioners of what is generally known as Witchcraft or the Craft.
[2]             I intend another post exploring idols and idolatry.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Anniversary Reflections

It’s just about one year from the time I disaffiliated myself from my longtime Craft tradition.  This seems like a good time to reflect on whether, and if so, how, my life may have changed.

At first I felt relieved, and I still do.  But in a way I felt I had performed an amputation, and even the cleanest amputations involve the shedding of blood.  And the necessity of closing the wound, stitching the gap together, and learning to reuse the limb as much as possible, perhaps with the aid of a prosthetic.

I also felt anxious and worried about what friends I might be losing, if any.  My anxiety befitted the situation, because I did lose friends.  Oh, some protested undying love while in the same breath disavowing my experiences.  Others simply avoided me.  Among those who’ve avoided me are Witches I have sponsored and/or initiated, and that really smarts.  Not all of them, I’m grateful to be saying.

I also felt at sea in terms of firm footing, like someone seeking to stay upright in a turbulent oceanic storm.

This was not a good feeling, and it was exacerbated by a flurry of unwarranted, inaccurate, and unsustainable ad feminem attacks by people who don’t even know me polluting cyberspace on listserves and Facebook by accusing me of various kinds of “un-PC-ness.”[1]

In counterbalance, many people praised my decision and offered lots of moral support.

I guess it takes a critical change to bring out the best and the worst.

* * * * *

As some of you know, my grandson Ian appeared out of nowhere last April.  With that connection, I began to learn more about my biological son, Nick Kappos.  I had hoped both to share my community with Ian and to honor Nick’s life at my then-community’s annual Spiral Dance Samhain ritual.  I had arranged to have a section of the North altar for a memorial to Nick.  My decision in August to leave Reclaiming made the question of my following through with this altar difficult.  In some ways I wanted nothing to do with the ritual or anyone who might be there.  In others, I really wanted to publicly honor his memory, and I knew that there would be plenty of people there who’d be glad to see me and whom I’d be glad to see.  I deliberated.  I consulted.  I pondered.  In the end, I took my pal Sparky’s advice and went surrounded by family:  my partner Corby, grandson Ian, Ian’s mom Tuesday, and his then-girlfriend.

Ian and Tuesday both had some snapshots of Nick.  I digitized some, then printed and framed them for the altar.  Tuesday brought a plaid shirt like Nick used to wear, and some foods he liked.

Nicholas Jon Kappos, 5 Sept. 1962 - 6 April 1989 

While we were erecting the memorial, some of my friends greeted me warmly, and graciously acknowledged Ian and the others, but not without a bit of awkwardness.  During the time before the ritual began, others gave me big smiles and heartfelt hugs, while others entirely avoided me.  Sometimes I caught a glimpse of a distasteful grimace directed my way. We simply sat as a group in one section and observed the unfolding of the rite.  I told them to hold on for the dance.

The dance itself, as always, I found intoxicating.[2]  Everyone in our party danced, and enjoyed it, while I participated from the center where I had a chair for when I needed to sit.

I’m glad I went, but attending served as the first of several tyings up of loose ends.  I have no desire to go again, although Ian plans to bring friends this year just in time to dance the spiral.

Since then few have made any effort to keep in touch, even those with whom I had been close for many years and who’d been mannerly in our encounters there.  I have made some tentative efforts at reconnecting, but they’ve not resulted in anyone meeting me in the middle.  So I’m not considering those relationships to be viable at this point, although I keep the doors of communication open.

* * * * *

The Spiral Dance was in October.  By the time January had come along I had been invited to present at the Claremont Pagan Studies Conference where’s I’d spoken in the past, with the specific message that those organizers did consider me to be part of their community.  How kind, how affirming, how validating!  I thank them with all my heart.

I have also remained as welcome a participant in a Gardnerian coven as I had been prior to my disaffiliation.  Corby and I usually join them for sabbat rites and they have assured me that I have one foot firmly planted with them.  I’m grateful for that comfort.

Then in February I celebrated my seventieth birthday, Corby his sixtieth, as well as our twentieth year together with a big once-a-decade party.  A few Reclaiming friends responded affirmatively to our invitation as soon as we sent it, said they wouldn’t miss it.  When the night arrived, however, they didn’t show up.  Only four people who are presently active in local Reclaiming groups came to celebrate with us.

At this point, some don’t return my phone calls or emails.  My analysis is that these few folks perhaps found it useful to cultivate my involvement in internal political differences of perspective when it seemed useful to them to have my support for their positions.  Now that I am no longer a factor, I am also no longer worth the bother.  I remain open to being proven mistaken in this analysis.

* * * * *

A young man approached me at a Reclaiming Brigit ritual the year before I left and told me he was newly initiated and “of my line.”[3]   Wow!  This comment gave me pause, because Reclaiming ostensibly is not a lineaged tradition.  Initiation has never been considered a requirement for any level of involvement.  In fact, there was a time when the very notion of needing to be “authorized” by another to call oneself a Witch was anathema to many.

Over this past Fall and Winter I contacted everyone in whose Reclaiming initiation I had any involvement[4] and created a lineage tree. This tree includes dates, places, personnel, and any specific memories from those I contacted and from myself.  I then sent a copy to each of these persons.  With this I tied up another loose end.

For most of Reclaiming’s existence, and more formally (although even using the word “formally” stretches its meaning) since the formation of BIRCH[5], I’ve had a habit of noting to myself such things as what chant was written for what purpose when, leading me to take on the task of history and lore-keeping.  In March I passed on all historical and lore materials I had and listserve ownership to the poet Slippery Elm.  I was relieved to have tied up another loose end.

* * * * *

On the plus side, my colleagues at Cherry Hill Seminary continue to appreciate my involvement and contributions.  Interfaith organizers respect me and invite my participation.  Many Pagans have expressed support for whatever work I do in service to the wider community.  Witches & Pagans magazine published an interview with me and featured me on the cover.  I was invited to contribute to two more blogs: Witch at Large at Pagan Square and Wild Garden: Pagans in the Growing Interfaith Landscape at Patheos. Starr King School for the Ministry hired me as adjunct faculty to teach course called Ritual Theory & Liturgical Design this past Spring semester.  That experience bolstered my confidence and reaffirmed that my offerings have value even beyond the little Pagan pond.

At this point I still feel somewhat unmoored.  This feeling intensifies at each approaching point on the Wheel of the Year.  But overall, I’m regaining my balance.  I’m grateful for the support and love I have in my life.  I’m blessed with a loving family, precious friends, and countless experiences in a long life in the Craft – experiences wonderful and dreadful, powerful and scary, practical and magical, profane and sacred.

If I discover any more loose ends, I’m ready to tie them off.


[1]             Un-PC-ness meaning not politically correct.
[2]             Interestingly enough, there are folks nowadays who find little meaning in the unfolding of the ritual, but arrive around 10:00 PM so they can join in dancing the spiral.  
[3]             The “NightMare Line.”
[4]             Everyone for whom I had any contact information and who was still living.
[5]             Search Reclaiming BIRCH if you really wanna know.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Reflecting on Altars

Coven Trismegiston Lammas Altar 2013

At a recent seminary graduation ceremony I attended I noticed the altar.  It wasn’t an altar like the altars I’m more used to seeing. 

The setting was a church sanctuary, 1950s post-WW-II modern, set upon a hill with expanses of window giving view to the surrounding town and countryside.  The glass was clear but for a band of Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired stained glass around the top.  Chairs placed in rows rather than pews faced the far end of the hexagonal-shaped room, with a choir section off to the right.  Although singers wore street clothes, most of them had some sort of rainbow chevron on their clothing.

The dais at the front of the room contained the altar, some chairs for dignitaries, and a lectern, probably the modern version of a pulpit.  The altar itself, set back against the wall at the far side of the dais, was a sturdy dark wood table holding a large spray of seasonal flowers.  That’s it.  No religious symbols.  No statuary.  No candles. No tools of any kind.

This got me to thinking about all the many kinds of altars people have created and the many ways they’re used.  The first thought that came to me, as I pondered the source of altars, was of a slab of rock upon which Abraham had laid Isaac for sacrifice before his hand was stayed.  I thought of it as a workspace.  I don’t know why my thoughts should take me in this direction.  Perhaps because of my Christian upbringing.

But of course the altars of my childhood weren’t used for sacrifice.  The altars atop Aztec pyramids were, though.  They were similar to Abraham’s slab of rock in that they were a hard flat surface for cutting and bloodletting, albeit sacred bloodletting.

Altars in the Methodist church were fairly simple affairs, a long, narrow wooden table draped with white linen, holding a few candlesticks and vases of flowers, with an empty cross hanging on the wall above.

The Roman Catholic altars of my father’s church outdid the Methodist ones in splendor.  I don’t know if they were larger or not, but they seemed so; they held many objects.  No plain linen altar cloths for Catholics.  Oh, no.  Theirs were embroidered with elaborate designs using gilt thread.  The altars held bejeweled chalices, censers, and monstrances, bells and Bibles, and who knows what all.  And they were used.  The priest and his assistants touched and moved and changed things – no doubt in the process of transmuting the bread and wine into the body and blood of their god.

Nor do Catholic altars stand alone.  There are other surfaces holding other things, plus elaborate gilded candle stands, banks of votive candles, chairs, both lectern and pulpit, surmounted and surrounded by statuary, images, hangings, stained glass windows, and all manner of marble and fine carved wood opulence.

When I first got into the Craft, we set up altars with the tools, paraphernalia and images we were learning to use, arranging them as artfully as we wished, although there were a few texts in those days that featured diagrams of exactly what each object should be and where it should be placed.  Esbat altars were fairly standardized and sabbat altars more elaborate and containing seasonal colors, images, and flora. Candles mandatory, altar cloths optional.

At that time we placed the one working altar in the North quadrant of our circle.  We placed point candles in the other three quarters, sometimes with a symbol of Element associated with that quarter, say a feather or bell in the East, a seashell or cup in the West.

When we began to offer public sabbat rituals, we sought to dress up and “sanctify” rented meeting spaces by erecting substantial altars in each of the four quarters.  They grew larger and more elaborate, bringing out the artist in the altar-builders.  We also had four long banners, about 3’ by 8’ hanging above each altar.

My late friend Judy Foster brought a whole new dimension to altar-building, about which I'll elaborate in a future post.  They deserve a post of their own.