At my request, the Head of the Work Exchange Committee provided my contact information to the Head of the Sacred Experience Committee. He sent me an email quickly, and I got right to the meat of things. The letter below (II) was the most diplomatic letter I was capable of writing at the time. Aradia, my usual failsafe for this sort of thing (diplomacy that is), was herself still so angry that she approved the letter without suggesting any changes.
I. Upon being provided my contact information by the Work Exchange Committee
Thank you for taking the time to contact us. I’d be happy to answer any questions you have about the main arch. Likewise, I’d love to hear any feed back.
II. My Letter
H. Arcanum —
Thank you for responding to my inquiry. Let me begin by introducing myself a little. I have been a practicing witch for over fifteen years. This last year was my tenth or eleventh festival; I have been coming since 1998. Between the festival, smaller Sabbat rites at Gaea, and with the KU Cauldraon [sic], I have participated in countless public rituals, as well as group rituals in more exclusive contexts; some I have participated in, others I have led. I have studied Wiccan writing from Gardner and Buckland to Fitch and Farrar to Cunningham and Penczak; I have studied and practiced shamanic visionary work and traditional Western ceremonialism, and even a bit of Chaos magic. I tell you all this to assure you that I am no ignorant neophyte: my opinion on ritual matters in both educated and experienced.
The main ritual arc at this year’s festival may have been the the worst I’ve ever participated in. Not merely ineffectual, the ritual actually harmed numerous participants. The ritual structure was flawed. The themes were callously hurtful. The execution was condescending.
Although, it retrospect, it appears that the baroque formality of the opening and main rites was chosen to alienate mainline eclectics and and Heathens, who are uncomfortable with the style, I was actually intrigued. Unfortunately, little effort was made on the part of the ritual performers to draw the audience into the ritual head-space together. The callbacks would have been sufficient to maintain such a magical group mind, but were not sufficient to establish it in the first place. Ultimately, they came off more as ritual theater than an actual ritual in which we were intended to participate
The opening ritual wasn’t as bad–the tokens for our intentions and delivering them to the elemental ambassadors was a nice touch, actually–but it ended abruptly, and left the audience hanging and without resolution. Yes, I know it was the *opening* ritual, and had to leave space for the rest of the arc; a better designed ritual could have closed on its own terms while still leaving room for the drama to continue. A device as simple as having the audience watch their intentions be added to the fire, followed by a semi-dismissal of the elemental powers before the dismissal of the audience would have been sufficient.
The main ritual was a disaster. At the beginning of the opening ritual, you had asked for our trust. At the main ritual, you betrayed it. To begin with, even less attempt was made to draw in the audience than in the opening rite; this ended up being a good thing, but it’s still a failure on the part of the ritual facilitators. In case this had not dawned on you: all the elemental ambassadors were women; all the yelling, belittling, violent interlopers were men. The first male interloper was jarring, particularly when the High Priestess and Priest did not acknowledge or address him. Despite my best efforts, I was forced out of what ritual headspace I had been able to create, trying to figure out where the hell you could be going with this. Dissonance began to build as the yelling started; when the interlopers kicked over the altars, it was like a kick to the guts. The ritual area was stained with violence. The violence that was brought into the circle was not generic. You brought *domestic violence* into the circle, set it loose without warning, reason, or resolution. You came very close to sanctifying it. Several of my camp-mates were brought immediately to tears; the rest were filled with righteous fury.
When the ritual leaders—speaking, at last, without acknowledging or explaining what had just happened—dismissed everyone, imploring us to return for the final chapter the next day, I was shocked and confused. What had that been about? The Paleolithic rise of the patriarchy? A ritual reenactment of the myth of the Burning Times? I was sick to my stomach. Suddenly, I was very glad that the ritual had been performed in such an amateur fashion. Had it been done properly, with everyone brought fully into the circle and ritual headspace, the damage—which was, looking about camp, clearly severe—would have been a hundred times worse. Physical and emotional violence would have spread across the festival like a plague; there might even have been a rape or a suicide.
Almost everyone in my encampment was a survivor of some sort of abuse: sexual, emotional, or physical. Some of them have PTSD as a result of that abuse. You triggered them, hard, and for no damn good reason. You took the safe space of Heartland Pagan Festival and Camp Gaea and contaminated it with the sort of violence we had come to escape. Public ritual is not the place to be “edgy”.
Do I imagine for a second that you intended to hurt anyone? No. I think that you callously ignored the possibility that anyone might be hurt. See here: http://www.shakesville.com/2011/12/harmful-communication-part-one-intent.html
And as to the value of being “edgy” versus the value of *not hurting people*: http://www.shakesville.com/2010/08/survivors-are-so-sensitive.html
No, we didn’t go to see the closing ritual. You had already betrayed our trust. You had already wounded us. Three of my party were first-timers who may never return as a result of your attempt to push the envelope. Nothing at that ritual could have justified or made better what we had already been through.
You and the rest of the Sacred Experience Committee and everyone involved in the ritual owe a heartfelt and public written apology to everyone who was hurt by the ritual.
In the coming weeks, I will be forwarding letters to you from other people in my encampment, and from anyone else I hear from who was hurt by your ritual, so that you can get as many personal perspectives on this as possible. Keep in mind that for every one of us who come forward there is at least one, maybe three, who is unwilling to face being re-traumatized by the memory, or who–after a lifetime in a culture which assures them that being hurt in this way is a sign of their weakness, not the moral failure of others–simply doesn’t believe that you can be convinced to do the right thing. Or, if you’d like, I can provide them your email address so that they can contact you directly.
III. The Response
First, me start by introducing myself a little. I have been a practicing kaos magician since 1991. I am read in authors such as Phil Hine, Pete Carol and S. Jason Black. I too have been involved with public and private ritual for that length of time. I am steeped in Kemetic lore and have a heathy [sic] understanding of Norse ways as well. And honestly, none of that means anything. Pedigree is yesterday: magic is today and tomorrow.
There a lot of food for thought in your email and it sounds like you’ve already taken a slice of the offering and built a rock solid foundation of opinion on it. I would be happy to explain our side of the content and application but, it doesn’t seem like you’re interested in that. So, I will confine this email to the concerns and complaints you presented in yours.
“Flawed” is an interesting word. It implies there is a “correct” way to do things and that you are in possession of this “true way.” I would say that skates close to monotheistic modes of thinking. There are as many ways to do things as there are magicians doing them. I apologize you felt we were trying to be condescending but, that was never one of our goals.
I think the feedback, both positive and negative, would say that it was effectual. Both types of feedback mean people were paying attention. I would not presume to have been able to calculate every possible response to the work but, I know those who stayed with us through the entire arc, carried away a very different effect than those who did not. Furthermore, I would like to know what your idea of our intent was. This was not thrown together carelessly. Every part of it was crafted carefully and with layers of intent.
Our theme was given to us by the HSA body politic. “Dawning of a New Day” is an epic theme and one not everyone is ready for. Our theme demanded we shake loose the albatrosses we all carry around. To stop dragging the dead horse around and, like the Florence and Machine song says, bury that horse in the ground.
Our careful choosing of the gender was not based on any calculated attack on survivors of “domestic violence.” Furthermore, you have no idea how close that topic is to me. You did not bother to find out if that was our intent, you blindly decided that was our message and spread the perversion. If this part seems a little harsh, I apologize. I have experienced very real loss at the hands of domestic violence and for you to say I “came very close to sanctifying it” when it was nowhere near my intent, is an egregious assumption. I have a broad respect for the feminine power. I have nothing but respect and love for the women that portrayed the ambassadors. It was intended to mirror the Chinese ideas of yin and yang. The old guard (the established paradigm) was female for the receptive properties of yin, nothing more. The explosive, destructive force was male to mirror the like qualities of yang, nothing more. Together we had hoped they would convey a receptive idea to the destruction of the old temple which would be re-established in the third part; the closing. In retrospect, I cannot buy into the sexist idea that it would have been “better” or more “correct” to have men represent the old guard and women do the questioning.
The formality of the opening was just that; formality. It was designed to establish what the Tao illustrates in the passage that addresses how ritual is the husk of true faith. The arc was designed to start with all the superfluous trappings of the temple and end with four simple tools; all of which could be found already within the magician.
I’m glad that you recognize ritual theater. That’s exactly what it was. The magic was the intent for the festival over all. I seriously doubt any of the intent people loaded into the tokens at the beginning, was contingent on the main ritual arc. It was our intent that people would participate fully in the festival and the main arc was an illustration designed to be thought provoking and inciting. Which, since I’m writing this, it seems it was. “A good touch” and a “better design” are extremely subjective terms and they do call to mind that your way is “better” than our way. Another distasteful body of monotheistic philosophy also adopts this way of thinking.
A semi-dismissal of the elemental powers was purposely avoided. We wanted people to carry those tools and methods of thought with them throughout the festival. Personally, I don’t believe we can ever dismiss the elements. They are as integral to our beings as air and food. I believe it is hubris to believe we can dismiss them at all. We did acknowledge and exalt them at closing but, still did not “dismiss” them and if you were not there for that, you missed it.
The betrayal of trust is also an interesting concept. We did ask for it. I believe it was important to assure people what we had in store was a complete work. It was important to let people know It was, if they were paying attention, going to be a rough ride but, the outcome could be beneficial if they stuck it out.
I’ve already addressed the very specific choosing of gender so, I will move on to the jarring interjection of the first “interloper.” It was designed to be jarring. Dawning of New Days require the destruction of old, outdated ways.
The fact that you were “forced out of what ritual head space you were able to create” means that you were engaged in what was going on. I apologize if the ritual grabbed your attention but, we feel engagement is important.
I have already addressed the “domestic violence” issue but, I will say to assume we built that into our ritual seems to be looking for it. I can assure you the choosing of genders followed the philosophy I have already laid out and nothing more. Perhaps I’m insensitive but, I cannot apologize for designing a ritual around philosophy and, apparently, missing some angles.
As far as kicking over altars; that was the apex of the message. Just like in the tarot when the five comes to kick over the insufficient tower of the four, this was designed to shatter what was to make room for what is to be; to destroy so the participants would be free to create without the constricting skins of dead dogmas. But, you didn’t come to closing so that part was lost.
The “failing” of the facilitators and the “amateur fashion” in which the ritual was executed was the result of two things. First, you obviously have a professional ritual team. I apologize I don’t have that luxury. Personally, I find your distain for the efforts of those who brought you this work adverse to the over all message that you are trying to convey to me. Second, the behind the scenes issues that were suffered just prior to opening, led to putting in people that were previously not part of the main arc. Due to the number parts there were we had to pull people from other committees, innocent bystanders and people that had come from other states in the first place. I think your indictment of those people’s efforts is as least offensive to them as your fabrication of our intent is to you.
“Physical and emotional violence would have spread across the festival like a plague; there might even have been a rape or a suicide.”
Apparently I have more faith in the strength our participants than you do. This appears to me as wildly reaching. Even if we had performed at your stringent standards, I seriously doubt the scenario would have devolved into the kind of rampant entropy and violation of personal sovereignty you suggest here.
I’m learning that you are correct, public ritual is not the place to be “edgy.” I’m learning that some parts of people want nothing more than the comfort of well-worn predictability. I’m learning that there is a segment of ourselves that wants nothing more than to live in the past complacent with constraining formality. There is however, a segment that is forward thinking, that can see past our own headspace and into a vision of free creation and, perhaps wrongly, that is the part of ourselves I was appealing to with this work.
As far as the people in your encampment go, I would say it sounds like you assume those who presented this all have ghost-free pasts. I assure you, this is far, far from accurate. Those are not my stories to tell but, you may be certain there are stories there to be told.
“Nothing at that ritual could have justified or made better what we had already been through.”
How do you know? Your refusal to attend closing ritual, even after you were told this was a complete, continuous work, hobbled the message. You had already made up your mind to be hurt and offended by an intent you didn’t have incite into. You may provide my email address to anyone who wishes to discuss this with me. That is your choice. I will be happy to speak to them about what I have attempted to explain to you.
I do agree that the ritual was roughly executed and I take responsibility for that. This last year has been quite a learning experience and If I had it to do over, there are a few things I would change. I would not have my SEC team scattered as soon as the year started. I would have more than two other people trying to build the vision we planned. (this is not a commentary on the life that pulled people away from the project, it’s merely an expression of the ideal that i had when i started this endeavor. This is particularly not aimed at [REDACTED], who worked her ass off on the vision quest. Also [REDACTED] and [REDACTED], I offer congratulations on your promotion and I know that every time I saw you, you were working your asses off too. I think Alexandros did a masterful job of stepping up to the merchandising plate at the last minute. I know [REDACTED] and [REDACTED] had to duck out of their previous roles for personal reason and i was glad to have them. And of course there were all the people not technically on my committee that pulled together at the last minute, i love them all.) I would have more practices. I would try to get people to commit to memorization; I’m not a fan of reading script in ritual, it kills an element in my opinion. I would have all my people laid out sooner than I did. But what I wouldn’t do is change the ritual. I was handed a theme and I followed through on that theme.
As for “convincing me to do the right thing;” I’m convinced I already did the right thing. And understand that is in as much as i can claim to have an idea of “right” and “wrong.” I apologize if I’m not in possession of some secret morality. I do the best I can with what I’ve managed to gather so far. I apologize if you feel it’s inadequate but, I have apologized for everything I am going to apologize for. I do thank you for inadvertently provoking me into this. Writing this email has been extremely cathartic and I feel better about the work (and all it’s hiccups) than I have since closing.
With all sincerity,