This essay originally appeared in the Spring 2001 issue of Reclaiming Quarterly.
This isn’t going to be one of those rituals where I dress up as a fairy or take my clothes off and run around naked. No, this is going to be one of those rumored hat-and-mitten rituals rarely seen in California. This is going to be a ritual where coyotes threaten to eat me alive.
Well, maybe not real coyotes. Real coyotes rarely attack humans. I’m talking about those coyotes in my head. Charged by my spirit guide at the Y2K Spiral Dance to conduct magical work on my family’s farm, I was about to return to Nebraska for the first time since identifying as a witch. I was about to dive back into my own underworld, in a place where the earth is nothing but wild and spirituality is only seen in varying shades of Christianity. What had drawn me to the tradition of witchcraft was the sense of community I felt in the context of the natural world. I was excited about connecting viscerally to nature’s rawest elements, yet feared the sense of disconnection from having no one with whom to share this experience. This was a secret ritual. The coyotes in my head were howling.
I could tell you about all the fabulous little magical “coincidences” that took place to nudge me closer to conducting this ritual, like the fact that on the night of my vision, a tornado ripped a twenty-year old corrugated metal cattle windbreak straight out of the ground on the very hill on which I had envisioned my ritual. I could tell you I learned about the tornado only an hour after I had decided to invoke the Orisha Oya, warrior goddess of transformation and wind deity. The tornado had cleaned out a large number of old dead branches from a stand of trees, a convenient resource for my ritual fire. I could give you astrological reasons as to why the day of the ritual turned out to be quite an auspicious day. Any wishes or commitments planted in that space would grow deep and strong as the moon entered Scorpio in its compost or balsamic phase. Unrealized powers would manifest. And, after all, Wednesday is Oya’s day and the Dark moon is her planet.
These coincidences, the psychic connection and the opened perception to nature’s gifts, are an intrinsic part of witchcraft. The connection to the gut must be especially strong when planning a solo ritual. I planned from intuition, taking my cues from my vision and the signs and materials presented to me. The Goddess was continually forthright in stating her intentions. Things just “worked out” without too much intervention on my behalf.
I could tell you about how much physical labor I put into this ritual, like the hours I spent relearning how to use an ax, trying to transform large tree branches into fire-sized pieces. I chopped, I pried, and I bent pieces over my knees. One of them slapped me in the face, leaving a very annoying gash to explain. I could tell you how much my back hurt after scooping a foot of snow from the ritual floor, a circle at least sixteen feet in diameter, or what it feels like to pound a posthole digger into frozen ground, trying desperately to dig a hole deep enough to leave gifts for the earth. My body ached, my toes were cold, and my face was wounded. I ripped my favorite pair of jeans and lost a perfectly good mitten. My only consolation was imagining how happy the Goddess must feel that I was putting so much work into honoring her.
This hard work is also nothing new to witchcraft. Many of us who have spent years donating our bodily resources to activism know there is magic in the physical work as well as the psychic.
I’m not here to talk about those aspects of witchcraft. To tell you the truth, those were the easy parts of my ritual. I’d like to talk about the coyotes, the shadow side of witchcraft.
Fear and secrecy remain part of our collective unconscious. Rituals around symbolic fear offer us the opportunity to transform fear into power.
I worked furtively to prepare for my ritual in ways that would not raise the red witchy flag to my Christian family. I went “underground.” I snatched the opportunity to chop wood while my parents were at work. I hid my ritual supplies under my bed. I lived in the shadow, making elaborate plans that wouldn’t arouse the slightest suspicion.
What was it I feared, exactly? What was my primary motive for keeping this ritual a secret from my family? Why would I hide my identity from my own family? Intellectually, I knew my parents wouldn’t dream of burning me at the stake. The only context I had for explaining my spirituality to my family was the land, and even that I couldn’t see them taking seriously. Witches have a history of misinterpretation. I fear my most reverent acts will be seen as silly, as devil worship or a wasteful use of my time. I fear my family may discount my spirituality, which is so important to me. If they discount that, then how can they see me in my entirety? I will remain hidden to them, as unseen as my actions in preparing for this ritual.
At the same time, there seemed to be a sort of special intention to the secrecy. Everything I did was well thought out and executed carefully. Was this my legacy as a witch? Perhaps it was our ancestors who whispered in my ears, urging me to seek out a spiritual connection to their experience. At that point, I only knew my intent was to come to the land on my own terms: not as a farmer’s daughter, not as a City Girl, but as a witch. Plain and simple.
On the night of the ritual, I stopped at the line of darkness, where the yard lights cut the seeable from the unknown. I tried to open my eyes to the cold darkness, wishing I could feel more like predator than prey. Vulnerable to all those eyes unknown, I stopped to light a candle. The wind blew it out. I knew if I returned to the house for a flashlight, I would chicken out. It would have been easy to turn back. It always is, when we approach the shadow side of magic. We’ve been taught for so long that there are monsters in the darkness, that it is the playground of all that is evil.
I crossed the line between the light of a porch light and the dark emptiness of prairie
pasture. To calm myself, I started singing.
There is Power here
In the Darkness, in the Fear
Let the Goddess draw you near
There is Power here
I continued to chant on the half-mile walk to the ritual site. I slipped on the ice at least four times, my voice wavering, but never stopping. Once there, I heard a small sound like the mewling of a kitten. “Here, kitty, kitty,” I pleaded, unable to see into the darkness, praying that a cute little furry familiar would make its way into my circle. Afraid to turn my back on the noise, I lit the fire from the North. Tried to light the fire. For forty-five minutes I sat on the frozen ground lighting and relighting the snippets of alfalfa I had hoped would work as fire starters. Everything was still so wet from the snow. Waiting, re-lighting, then waiting some more, I wondered if I had the balls – no, ovaries – to do a ritual in the dark with no fire. It would be the ultimate secret rite after all, a ritual under the cover of darkness. I was shaking. Anytime I heard a vehicle, my heart started pounding. Would someone be able to see my fire from the main road? Would my parents smell the smoke from the house when they returned home from the community Thanksgiving Eve Church service and come dashing out hoping to avert a pasture fire? I’d taken as many precautions as I could, trying to remain on sacred ground in a secluded area. I thought of my daughter, warm and cozy in the Lutheran Church, dressed in her pretty black and white church dress, being indoctrinated into the protocol of Christianity. What an ironic price to pay for a night of childcare.
Finally, the fire took hold in a small corner at the North. I lit candles in each of the four directions and unpacked the rest of my ritual supplies.
I purified. I slipped off my gloves to open the plastic margarine tub full of salt water. I traced a pentacle on my forehead, drew warrior marks on my cheeks. I plunged my already freezing hands into the cold water, trying to transform pain, fear and anxiety into confidence, clarity, and resolve.
I grounded. I noticed that the wind was blowing from the South, so that any scent from my fire would be carried away from my family’s house. With relief, I imagined my root pushing through the icy ground and suddenly the fire blazed high. Ah, sweet relief! Out of the darkness, this fire urging me to continue with my work.
I cast the circle. Walking the perimeter of my sacred space, I could see only darkness as I drew pentacles at each of the directions. I invoked the directions through song. Singing alone on the top of hill with no one around is odd. When it is only you and the wind, and you try to sing as loudly as she, you realize quickly how very small you are. When I invoked North, singing “I am the wolf,” the coyotes began howling. I felt now that they were my sisters. They weren’t there to gobble me up like the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood, they were invoking with me.
I invoked the ancestors: the native people of the land and my uncle Matt, who planned to take over the family farm before he died. I invoked the Horned God and Oya.
I sang to Oya as I invoked her by lighting her candle and offering her frankincense incense. I poured her a glass of red wine and sprinkled the remainder of the bottle around the perimeter of the circle. Though I could not see it in the darkness, I imagined the snow around the circle dotted with crimson offerings.
I proceeded to offer my gifts to the land. In each of the doorways to the directions, I buried objects that would symbolize my wishes on behalf of the land and commitments I would make to myself.
In the East I buried a bell. Oya! May you bless those who live on land with clarity to hear the needs and desires of the earth. May her wishes ring clear. In burying this bell, I pledge to gain clarity of purpose and to articulate my intentions.
In the South I buried my menstrual blood and used tampons. For days, I had been saving the tampons, blood, and a bit of water in an old mason jar with plans to bury this strange tea during the ritual Oya! By the healing and destructive powers of fire, bless this land with fertility. Ask that she absorb all hatred toward women by absorbing these tampons. Let the passionate hatred and fear of my body die and let me honor her as I would honor the goddess. I vow to not participate in the corporate feminine hygiene industry.
In the West I buried the pen my therapist gave me before embarking on this emotionally difficult trip to remind me of my emotional connection to California and my commitment to honoring my emotions and intuition. Oya! By the powers of water, free this land from sentimentality so that she may speak her will. Release the emotional tie-ups of the people who work her. I pledge to honor my intuition and ask for the courage to get my emotions outside of me and onto paper.
In the North I bury “I am” Papers. Before burying them, I walk around the fire, reading them. “I am a witch. I am bisexual. I am a good mother. I make good decisions. I know what is best for me.”
Oya! I ask the land to love all people, regardless of identity. I pledge to merge my past with my deepest nature. By burying these phrases in the ground I root my identity in this land and pledge to be true to myself no matter what land I walk upon.
In the Center, I burn an old Land Spell. Frustrated with the cost of living in the Bay Area, and burnt out from trying to find creative ways to survive, I had, months earlier, created a land spell to ask for direction regarding my physical location. During those months, community had manifested to me in the Bay Area and I wanted to burn my spell to acknowledge the end of my search for place.
Oya! By the powers of the center, receive this land spell so that all who desire to live here are welcomed into the community. I pledge to open myself up to staying in the Bay Area. I ask for abundance in community and wealth so that I may have the resources necessary to utilize my energy for spiritual work.
I thanked Oya for her presence in my circle. I turned to snuff her candle, but it had blown out on it’s own. The coyotes were silent as I devoked. As I scooped handfuls of snow onto the fire, the night seemed clearer. I wasn’t euphoric, but I was slightly calmer. My eyes stung from all the smoke and I was exhausted, but I didn’t slip once on the walk home. Back at the house, my family was changing out of their church clothes. I longed for the “cakes and wine” portion of the ritual. There was no one with whom to share my feelings, no personal feedback. There was only me to bear witness to the power of my ritual. I long for my sisters and brothers back in the Bay.
I had been waiting for that feeling of connection I had while looking into the eyes of nineteen hundred people while dancing at the Spiral Dance. I was never totally “comfortable” though I know I was in sacred space, both physically and mentally. Perhaps it was a natural side effect of invoking Oya. I thought if I didn’t get past the fear, it wouldn’t be a legitimate ritual. How wrong I was. This legacy of fear is part of our past, and truthfully, fear is an excellent teacher. There is a shadow side to magic. As much as we crave that sense of connection to our brothers and sisters, we need a time and place to test our own wills and doubts to know that we are sure of our place in the universe. It is easy for me to dress up like a fairy and dance happily amidst this community of my brothers and sisters. It is so much harder to pile on layers of winter clothes and dare to howl alongside the wind and the coyotes.