Fending off religious tourists and struggling to organize a coven on Halloween.
In a grove near you, pagans are gathering to celebrate Samhain, the night when the veil between the living and the dead, between this world and others, is thin. We will wear cloaks and have ritual daggers, called athemes, at our waists. The prerequisite silver jewelry will gleam in the firelight. Natural fabrics flow as freely as the mead. There will be an unfortunate excess of tie-dyed material. In other words, we will look most like your picture of witches.
This picture leaves out an important detail, and I don't mean the whole human-sacrifice-and-stealing-Christian-babies thing. Planning a ritual, whether it's for Halloween or any other holiday, is a conflict-filled battle. It's like trying to herd jack rabbits on horseback. Those who practice witchcraft tend to be strident nonconformists, and the very nature of paganism, which has no unifying body or text, means that we have no obligation to believe the same thing or listen to anything beyond the dictates of our own consciences to unite in perfect accord. Often we flow together, achieving unity in which we are transported beyond ourselves, connected with the earth we love and the energy we feel from it.
And just as often, we don't.
A few weeks before the ritual comes the discussion. It may begin with a priestess asking what song we should sing for the Spiral Dance, the part of the ritual in which we dance clockwise ("sunwise" is our term for it) to generate energy and to unite us with the god and goddess. One person suggests "There Is No End to the Circle." Any number of coven members nod; the rest groan. Somebody says, "We did that last year." Somebody else: "Exactly. It's traditional with us." Another person asks, "So, we're faux fam-trad now?" A new coven member tries to remember what, exactly, a fam-trad coven is. Inspired by the discussion, someone spontaneously sings out, "There is no end to this song, there is no end." The high priestess glares. Eventually, the debate is resolved simply because everyone is sick of talking about it. Now the rest of the ritual has to be planned—and it's just more of the same. Scintillating debates may rage on such issues as vegan vs. nonvegan cakes and alcoholic vs. nonalcoholic ale. The more essential parts of the ritual, the invocation of the elements and the arrangement of altars, seem to work themselves out fairly easily. Like most family fights, any acrimony is focused on the details.
Once we've agreed on the parts of the ritual, we actually have to execute that plan—and the nonconformists have to remember what they agreed to do and do it, which is a challenge in and of itself. The Samhain ritual in which we performed "There Is No End to the Circle" was lovely and went relatively smoothly, though we started late, just as we always do. I've given up on that score—I'm the only witch I know who has any interest in punctuality. The song itself is broken up into three parts, sung by the maiden, mother, and crone, each corresponding to an aspect of the goddess. As the youngest woman in the coven (this was depressingly long ago), I danced the part of the maiden. Sadly, between my cerebral palsy and the pack a day I smoke, song-and-dance routines are really not my thing. Further complicating things, several people seemed to have forgotten when they were supposed to come in, which led to hissed directions from about five self-appointed stage managers. But everyone was pleased by the time we sat down for the traditional cakes and ale.
Lee Ann Kinkade lives and writes in Charlottesville, Va.
Illustration by Charlie Powell.