A New Kind of Retreat

Imagine waking up at dawn every morning to hike up a mountain, nonstop, to pray to your god or goddess on an altar that you built out of stone and wood. Or running around a giant stone circle as a form of raising energy and then releasing for sacred ritual. Imagine competitive archery, knife throwing, martial arts, and sword fighting in the woods. Building bonfires with wood you chopped, identifying edible plants and practicing agriculture, climbing trees older than anyone you will ever meet, sleeping under the stars. Imagine hunting game with nothing but a bow and an arrow, and preparing its meat for food, fur for blankets, and bones for tools- giving gratitude for its sacrifice. Imagine tapping into the consciousness of plants, stones, trees and carrying full on conversations and relationships with them. Kayaking to the deepest of waters to swim below and retrieve that which the water spirit has hidden for you. Climbing the face of a cliff to see what the goats see and hear what the birds hear. Sacrificing your blood, your sweat, and your tears to the soil in your nails. Imagine a bonding brotherhood that learns how to treat women as equals, as humans, and with respect. Imagine a bonding sisterhood that learns how to push their limits beyond any they’ve ever known and overcome every obstacle.

Imagine a pagan retreat where you don’t just camp, sing songs, and cast Circle amidst all the creatures. You become the creature. You go to the call of the god, not the other way around. Sacrifice. Appreciation. Religion. Love. Trust. And the reality of Nature. Part boot camp, part spiritual retreat, part obstacle course, and part campsite. This is my dream for the Pagan community. This is what I feel the future of our religion needs to sustain itself in our modern world, with temporary reminders and rehabilitation. Today, sacred knowledge isn’t learned by listening to the trees; it’s found on the printed pages made from their wood waiting to be shipped from an Amazon distribution center. Sabbat rituals are held in the temperature controlled confinements of a carpeted living room with scented candles and gas fireplaces. We wear our beliefs by buying jewelry of our symbols made by countries we’re politically against trading with, so we can have an identity. The ironic marriage of indigenous capitalism. Herbs to be used for spellwork are delivered with already picked, cleaned, and labeled produce at your door. You bought a soapstone statue of Kali for your altar at the New Age shop that came from India in boxes of Styrofoam (that’ll end up in the ocean forever), but have you ever gone to India? Have you backpacked through the country and walked through the slums of Mumbai where her name is still whispered in devotion?

I am a practicing Neo-Pagan after all so obviously my modern religion can be very fulfilling at times, but there are times I am enveloped within my community with all that it has to offer and I still feel like it’s lacking, diluted, and anticlimactic. As though we emphasize our attention more on appearance, books, and historical accuracy, than we do on the relationships we have with our deities, ourselves, and our craft. We concentrate more on what’s behind us and at our feet than looking to where we’re going. So newsflash my community, our planet’s falling apart. Human habitual dependency on a lack of responsibility is destroying our oceans, our land, and all the balance found within. Global warming is rapidly the new fear of the Devil. Alternative energy is being ignored while finite fossil fuels are extracted in strengthening numbers. Organic farms are being forced to spray pesticides on their crops by companies that pay the counties to do it, and then charging the farms afterward. Our women are still drastically underpaid and disrespected in the workforce, and many of them expect it and take it because they’re taught to do so. We eat dramatically huge, unnecessary portions of food in this country like it’s your last meal on Earth. And many of that is pumped full of chemicals and artificial flavorings because the manufacturers can get more bang for their buck that way.

When was the last time you bit into the sweetest tomato you ever tasted right after you picked it from its vine? When was the last time you summited a mountain, in pain and exhausted, and watched the sunset with tears in your eyes? Have you ever carved the face of your god out of wood or clay, carefully and respectfully widdling away every shaving to reveal that face you see every day in your heart? In the song, Silvera by Gojira, Joe Duplantier sings, “When you change yourself, you change the world”. I am a big believer in this concept. I believe a pagan boot camp retreat could help change people in our community for themselves and for the planet. I hope someday I can make this dream come to fruition, because not only do I believe the future of our religion could benefit from it for its survival, but also for our democracy.

sunset

The Wild Man of the Woods

Beltane always makes my mind dwell on one of my oldest obsessions; the Wild Man. The wodewose, meaning “woodland” or “of the wood,” was first mentioned as the character Enkidu in the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh. But it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the first Wild Man popped up in writing, as several cultures convey hairy, leafy men existing in the forests. Without going into the mythos of the Green Man and all the fertility and vegetation gods and creatures that exist and have existed, I’m strictly speaking of Medieval Europe’s fear of the Wild Man and the woods he belongs to.

“…the Wild Man figure, considered an amoral beast, was a warning to Christians of what spiritual neglect could lead one into becoming. The drives, instincts, and passions were therefore viewed with suspicion by the church because it jeopardized the belief in man being ontologically distinct from animals. It followed that the primordial urges, a vestige of our animality, should be dominated lest one regress into a chaotic, insane, and ungodly existence” -Rory Alan MacLean

vom-schembartlaufen-hrsg-von-fritz-brc3bcggemann-leipzig-bibliographisches-institut-vild-mand-1600.jpg
Throughout the 15th and 16th century, there was this primal fear of a forest (okay, there’s always been a fear of a dark forest and horror films don’t help with that). The belief of evil and darkness and uncontrollable chaos of Nature exists within those groves. Home to the monsters of God. Several writings of old literature state that when a man loses his sanity, gone mad, he grows hair all over his body and runs from society; exiled to the woods. Merlin did this in Arthurian myth: “…a strange madness came upon him. He crept away and fled to the woods, unwilling that any should see his going. Into the forest he went, glad to lie hidden beneath the ash trees. He watched the wild creatures grazing on the pasture of the glades. Sometimes he would follow them, sometimes pass them in his course. He made use of the roots of plants and of grasses, of fruit from trees and of the blackberries in the thicket. He became a Man of the Woods, as if dedicated to the woods” –Vita Merlini by Geoffrey Monmouth (1150 AD). And speaking of Arthurian myth, the same happened to Lancelot of the Lake when Guinevere chose Arthur over him. Also, there was mention of hairy men in the woods who did not understand human language in Norway in 1250, recorded in the Speculum Regale. This concept of fleeing the sanity and controlled structures of healthy societal mind and entering the thick forest was familiar and almost expected.

 
“There is something inherently disturbing in these images of the Wildman who simultaneously displays both human and nonhuman qualities. Our species tends to marginalize what it fears, and during the Middle Ages and earlier the Wildman was treated as an object of fear. At the heart of this treatment of the archetype lies a tension between two distinct portraits of the Wildman- on the one hand, as a potentially friendly being, and, on the other, as a savage creature” –The Quest for the Green Man by John Matthews

2++Alexander_burns_a_wild_man
Why is this a thing? Before therapists who take off the month of August and benzodiazepines, people just ran to the nearest group of trees, arms flailing. A forest hides that which is within and keeps the sunlight out. What one cannot see, one fears. It is why so many of our fairy tales take place in the Black Forest of Germany (which btw, I explored during a foggy night a few years ago but did not meet any wolves that walked on their hind legs. Lame.) and why children fear the dark. It is where the beasts and supernatural beings live and dwell. So when everything in life turns its back on a man, even God, he knows this is the one place where he can belong. The mind is no longer structured and sensible; it has gone wild. And so, like attracts like, the woods comprise of wilderness and unsubdued Nature so ergo his retreat. Being such a widespread fear, the Wild Man popped up everywhere throughout the Renaissance in artwork, poetry, and architecture. Mummers and children dressed in leaves and cloth to mimic shaggy hair and danced and teased like a Fool. It’s possible this could be the origin of Sasquatch of the Pacific Northwest or even werewolves, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote about Wild Men (known as Dunlendings) as did other medieval warfare and sci-fi writers, and they were even included as circus attractions for a time.

975f5e836cd5bf236edae5e350df6829
I love the idea of going mad, growing hair everywhere, and fleeing to the woodland to live with the beasts; forfeiting all rationality. It’s both horrific and beautiful; to just give it all up and go. I do not fear the Wild Man; I envy him. And why can’t forests be a source of mental healing? Maybe that’s why crazy people ran to the woods of medieval times. If forest therapy is practiced in Japan, and a rejuvenating hike resets my perspective and feels refreshing for me; then maybe the wodewose had it right all along. Maybe we’re not meant to be cultured and societal, living behind brick and mortar; but intended to live in the darkest, thickest, and wildest of woods. What society calls “the crazies,” exiled and ostracized. Maybe there’s something there that we can learn from the Wild Man.

Going Wodwo

By Neil Gaiman

Shedding my shirt, my book, my coat, my life

Leaving them, empty husks and fallen leaves

Going in search of food and for a spring

Of sweet water.

I’ll find a tree as wide as ten fat men

Clear water rilling over its gray roots

Berries I’ll find, and crab apples and nuts,

And call it home.

I’ll tell the wind my name, and no one else.

True madness takes or leaves us in the wood

halfway through all our lives. My skin will be

my face now.

I must be nuts. Sense left with shoes and house,

my guts are cramped. I’ll stumble through the green

back to my roots, and leaves and thorns and buds,

and shiver.

I’ll leave the way of words to walk the wood

I’ll be the forest’s man, and greet the sun,

And feel the silence blossom on my tongue

like language.

Of Solitaires and Covens

“…I’m going to a full moon ritual on Wednesday. I thought about it after we met up last and I asked to possibly join their coven. I just feel like something’s missing.”, my buddy, Darren text me last month.

Good gods, if that doesn’t nail it on the head of how I’ve also been feeling for so long! I have been a solitaire since day one, and only know my rules and morals and ritualistic practice. But then the job gets more demanding, you add classes to your free time, and a fitness schedule. You meet a love interest, go on dates and maybe a marriage, children. A family member becomes ill, a down payment on a house, weddings, funerals, birthdays, social outings and school plays. (Or maybe start a WordPress blog on Paganism and see how often you can post on it!)
Who has time for witchcraft? Sometimes I pray. And sometimes my prayers bleed into my grocery list.

I had started a Pagan Men’s Meetup group, and it ran for exactly one year, with scheduled meetups twice a month. I had a couple of good get-togethers from it, but mostly I just sat at pubs and went on hikes alone. I just can’t afford the time to wait on people to flake. Not to mention, a bi-weekly feeling of self-failure. Don’t get me wrong; I love having me time! Like I said, I’m a solitaire; and an Aquarius, so I have a natural impulse of being a lone wolf (or so I am told). But that was never the original reason behind Green Man Meetup, but rather the opposite. It was for other dudes, like me, who lacked like-minded buddies to hang and chill with. Who wanted to explore our religion outside in the most wild, dangerous, and spiritual of places. To create a brotherhood that can be incorporated within a mostly female oriented religious system so more equality could be felt. But above all, it was for community.

So what does a solitaire Pagan do when they get a little older, get a little busier, feel a little lonely? We seek community. Friends. Family. Ritual. Ergo the coven.
“the attendants go riding flying goats, trample the cross, are made to be re-baptised in the name of the Devil, give their clothes to him, kiss the Devil’s behind, and dance back to back forming a round” -The Compendium Maleficarum (1608)

Francisco_de_Goya_y_Lucientes_-_Witches'_Sabbath_(The_Great_He-Goat).jpg

(Witches’ Sabbath by Francisco Goya (1821-23). I was mesmerized by this image at the age of 9, when I looked up the word ‘witchcraft’ in my parents’ World Dictionary. It stated that witches sold their souls to the Devil for their magical powers. So of course, I pretended to pray to him every night and told my 3rd grade classmates that I’m a warlock and they shouldn’t piss me off. My mother grounded me.)

Oxford Dictionary states that a coven is: “a group or gathering of witches who meet regularly.” There are also groves, hearths, kindred, circles, brotherhoods, sisterhoods, assemblies, and communities respectfully. Some are Wiccan, or simply Neo-Pagan. Some are Druidic, Asatru and Heathen. Herbalists, candle-based, gender specific, orientation specific, gender and orientation specific, family friendly, skyclad only, lunar, solar, astrological based, Fey based, eclectic, and so on. And this is just within my area! So how do I choose which one I should join, if this really is the best next step for me? I’ve scoured Witchvox.com, Google, and local community flyers. I know of several groups in my area that friends of mine are members of, and I’ve spoken to them and attended their rituals. But at the end of the day, I find myself both agreeing and disagreeing with each one. I guess that’s common with any friend or family member, including covens.

So the best advice I have for myself and for others out there in the same crossroad predicament that I am currently in, is to just ask yourself simple questions. It is all too common to lose yourself in all the options, politics, traditions, formats, customs, rules, morals, and initiations. But remember this all comes down to who you are at your core and how this fits in with each of these groups. Who are you and what makes up you? What is the one thing you want? Once you answer these very simple questions, your next step is to match these qualities with local groups and have a one-on-one convo with their leaders, priests, or priestesses. If you agree with most of what they say, and really get on their same page, then ask if you can attend a “trial” ritual or gathering. This way you can get a feel for other members and who they are (and if you make any friends, even better!), and how their rituals go; if they’re more by the book and structured with memorization and roles, or if it’s more free spirited with “anything goes” style and so on. See how your performance in ritual works with the group’s. And only then can a proper decision be made.

These are the same questions I am asking myself and looking at the journey ahead in finding a group. I am setting myself a time goal of Samhain to make my decision which gives me just less than two months. After weeks of meditation since my Iceland trip, I know the things I am looking for in a coven, or group. And now I am ready to reach out to various ones and start having these conversations; this next step in my pagan development. The one thing I have to remind myself is that this is for ME and MY community and if I offend or hurt the feelings of others by my decision, then those individuals would not have been good coven mates to begin with.

To those of you who are solitaire and love being so (my roommate among you), rock it. Cast it. Don’t ever doubt yourself. I so wish I could continue being one of you, but I know myself too well and I know that it’s just not working anymore. Like my buddy said, “…something’s missing.” To those of us who are at the crossroads of this change from solitaire to group (or vice versa, too, I guess), may it go smoothly and educationally.

“I will study and get ready, and maybe the chance will come.” -Abraham Lincoln