Waiting to enter, the Woman in front of me frets because a man with a camera emerged from a doorway. She calls over one of the people who are assisting in this Ritual, extracting a promise that no one would be recording her presence here.
"No, of course not!" a woman in black tells her. "There are never any pictures during ritual." I wonder if this is a lesson learned. A decade and a half ago, a news affiliate recorded a one of this group's rituals and played it that on the evening broadcast, intercut with ominous music and scare filters, boldly showing the faces of minors as they described us as demon-worshipers at worst and very peculiar at best.
"If anyone at my office found out I did this..." the worried woman says, not finishing the sentence. If anyone at my day job knew I went to this ritual, I doubt they would think much of anything, but I cannot discount her fears. Even in Upstate New York, enclaves of conservative religious thought linger who might frown upon a receptionist or manager practicing witchcraft in public.
I shift my weight from foot to foot, eager to get inside the ritual space proper and away from the cloud of sage smoke from helpers smudging newcomers at the door. If my lungs get any more sacred, I am going to cough up ash.
The doors of the Unitarian Universalist church open minutes after they were supposed to - effectively early when one factors in Pagan Standard Time - and the gatekeeper instructs us to find seats around the edges. We are largely strangers to one another, so we are disinclined to pack in too tightly until it is made clear that we will be near the capacity of the room.
Before me stands a woman with antlers, her wig and the dimness of the room obscuring her face. Her body is shapeless beneath furs, though I cannot see clearly if these are synthetic. In the world of magic, the real article counts for much, but the right image counts for a lot more.
Before the ritual can begin in earnest, my gaze darts around the room, taking in all the potential props to deduce their potential use within the ritual. Some groups, mostly covens, have regimented workings for each holiday. There are never any surprises, as this ritual was passed down through countless generations - or, rather, however many generations separate the practitioner and either the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn or the heyday of Gerald Gardner.
This group does not operate by these constraints, instead treating every holiday as an excuse for a production riffing on the idea of the sabbat. As this is Samhain - Halloween to those of you treating it as an occasion for candy and costumes from movies - certain precepts must be name dropped: we must acknowledge that the veil is thinnest now and pay some homage to the ancestors. Ideally, someone ought to bring up the fact that the harvest would be over for our agrarian ancestors, though we live in a modern world of January oranges.
The invitation had a strict prohibition on costumes, though it did require an all dark ensemble to accord with the solemnity of the occasion (mine is a long sleeved, cranberry Henley shirt and blue jeans; I am practically neon against the mass of black). This prohibition does not extend to those who participate in the psychodrama of the ritual, who wear rubber cat masks and sequined beaks. Around the edges of the room stand black cloaked men with staffs, one of whom wears a skull mask with a Bruce Campbell chin. I spend the whole ritual waiting for the justification of this variance, but none ever comes. I understand - and it is mentioned in ritual - that they are the ritual protectors, warding off invisible threats and otherwise setting the mood. Given that I have previously embodied Hades for this group, I comprehend the need for a personified Death, just not in latex.
Near the front of the room sits the altar. I do not see its contents, but I know that it will contain the basic: a knife, a chalice, some candles, items to represent the elements. Leaning against the wall is a three-foot hoop turned into a pentacle by someone who cared more for the idea than the geometry of the star. Another larger hoop lies on the floor, covered in what I take to be gauze. On either side of it are stools draped in fabric, on which are metal candelabras with candles half spent and burning fast.
From these accoutrements, I can mentally choreograph only a hazy outline of what this night might contain which grants the excitement of anticipation.
Rhianna, the priestess and organizer, slithering and rocking her voiceless alveolar sibilance in imitation of a Snake, instructs us on the importance of shedding all those things we no longer need in our lives. If a snake does not shed, it will go blind and die. Whereas, I suppose, if I human doesn't shed, we plague comment threads and Xbox Live.
Rhianna introduces Serpentessa, the guest for the evening's working, who is escorted by two ball pythons. It is entirely possible that the invitation made clearer that there would be actual snakes here, though neither Amber nor I looked at it in detail. Pagans tend to be colorful with language, so any mention of snakes could have been taken metaphorically.
We talk a good game about our religion being no different than any other, but, aside from a few frowned upon Pentecostal sects, most do not often bring snakes into their worship. I grant you that these are laconic, overfed constrictors, wrapped breathlessly close to Serpentessa's throat. An unlikely bite would only be painful, not venomous. As she walks past, the albino snake pokes its head through her hair, scenting the air with its tongue. She punches out the highlights of Rhianna's invocation, her younger apprentice just in front of her with a printed copy of the speech should she lose her place.
Serpentessa then plugs that she is available for snake massage if one wishes to book her. "If you don't want a massage, you can just visit the snakes, look them in the eyes, and decide which one you want around you." Given my tendency to drift in my research, I understand that this is roughly the talk the indecisive are given at Nevada brothels.
I lose myself in looking at the flames in the candelabra reflected in the dangling crystal, so I miss when I am given instructions to begin the guided meditation. One of the participants points at me and drops her fingers. I am confused at the personal notice until I realize she means for me to close my eyes. Guided meditation either works wonderfully for me or not at all. Tonight, my head is not in imagining myself turned into a snake, my underside gliding across the belly of the world.
After the meditation, we are told to line up and pass through the seven-foot hoop, lifted off the floor. Up close, as masked figures paw at the air around me to symbolize the shredding of my old self, which they toss into the stools beside them, I see that it is draped in twenty long snake skins, no doubt shed from Serpetessa's pets. Like any shed skin, I do not want to have much to do with it once it is no longer on a living being, pushing it aside with my elbow to make my way through.
We wait again to pass under the pentacle, on which the two snakes entwine. I caress one's belly with my knuckle, but do not linger when there are forty people behind me having their version of this night. Others stop us in our tracks so that they might have a silent communion with the animals and no one seems to begrudge them the time.
I resent how much I cannot connect with the energy that seems to infuse everyone else here. This disconnect is one of the things that keeps me toward more frequent ritual practice. I see people around me bordering on ecstasy while I fidget in my seat like a struggling grade schooler. The deeper they seem, the more the spirit of the divine floods through them, the more excluded and out of place I feel. Amber later points out that, for all I know, each of them felt exactly as I did and they just have learned to play along better.
I try to flow on the waves of the chant, "She changes everything she touches and everything She touches changes," but whenever I am beginning to fall into a better headspace, a sharply accented word or two intrudes from my left ear. If the woman there would choose to sing the whole chant, I could grow accustomed to the edges of her voice, but she is silent for fifteen second before shouting, "Changes everything!" or "She touches!" and going quiet once more. My being out of the moment is not her fault, simply the buzzing fly I make the scapegoat for my lack of concentration.
When I tense my jaw to focus on something, even if it is discomfort, Amber squeezes my hand. I look down at her smiling face and see that she thinks as I do. Isn't this a funny little thing that we do from time to time? How odd this would seem to a stranger observing us from the windows. Yet I cannot contest how much this seems to move those around me, the looks of bliss and purpose I see on their faces I cannot help but envy.
Before the circle can be closed, signaling the transition from the sacred to mundane, a member of the crowd loudly apologizes for interrupting and then brings up our "brothers and sisters" protesting against the Dakota Access Pipe Line. There are few things we mostly white witches love better than the plight of Native Americans, so we raise our hands to send energy to those being tased and locked in dog kennels as they demand to keep their water from poisoning.
After the ritual closes, one woman after the other approaches Amber. She is no longer as active with this group as she once was - or maybe this group simply isn't as active owing to different priorities. As a man, I was frequently excluded from practice, though I didn't exactly begrudge them. Let Amber have her personal religious experience without my masculine intrusion. I wouldn't have leapt up to practice with a men's group. What's the point of an unverified personal gnosis if you need to involve other people?