No matter how dedicated we may be in our service to our Deities and spirits, and the communities in which we live and serve, I find that it’s good to periodically take time out for a spiritual battery recharge. It’s all the better when that experience can be accompanied by a drastic change of scenery, one that squarely situates you in Nature’s nurturing bosom for a few days, allowing you to simultaneously connect with unfamiliar/non-ordinary terrain and with your own inner resources of flexibility/willingness to endure hardships, physical strength and stamina, and the commitment to be fully present in the moment. Those are the reasons why I like camping (in “primitive” conditions) so much, and why I couldn’t pass up the chance to attend this year’s Green Spirit Festival in southwest Wisconsin. Sponsored by Circle Sanctuary, this annual festival affords community celebrants the chance to create an intentional Pagan village for a three-day weekend, attuning to the land and nourishing the body, heart, mind, and spirit with educational workshops, nature walks, communal rituals and home-cooked meals, at least one handfasting, a major mugwort harvest, a concert from Celtic folksinger and comedienne Celia, Tailteann/Highland Games, a candlelit labyrinth meditational walk at night, and joyous socializing with members of your Tribe that you’d be hard pressed to connect with in person at any other time of the year.
This year’s Green Spirit Festival occurred from Friday, July 28 to Sunday, July 30. It was the spiritual battery recharge experience I was seeking and so much more. It’s taken me a full week to process my experience internally and to integrate its manifold benevolent effects spilling forth, Ace of Cups style, into all aspects of my life, giving me added reason to give profound thanks not just for this Sabbat season of Lughnasàd, but for the Sacred Time of celebrating my Kemetic Gods’ birthdays in that liminal period known as the Epagomenal Days in the ancient Egyptian calendar, that which divides the Old Year from the New.
A Girls’ Only Great Escape into the Greenwood
At its most basic level, the 2017 Green Spirit Festival was a joyous success in that it was the first time that my young friend K.Z., whom I love as if she were my own sister, and I got to bid adieu to patriarchy and literally head for the hills of southwestern Wisconsin’s Ice Age-marked magical landscape together. You can learn a lot from a friend by how she responds to the call of adventure not just in the form of a debut road trip (in her new car, no less), but one that would have you sharing a tent and enduring some deprivations of comfort together. While younger than me by a good 13 years, K.Z. has always struck me as a very emotionally and spiritually mature young woman who is devoted to her Deities (Artemis and Tyr) and whose Sagittarius Sun makes her an excellent partner for a spiritually based camping experience.
I have been to several Circle Sanctuary-sponsored protracted Pagan retreat experiences before, ones that have you camping in so-called primitive conditions (especially PSG, which takes place the full week of Summer Solstice) for days on end, but this was K.Z.’s literal maiden voyage into such an experience. Would this be up her alley? Time would tell. We knew that it would be important for me to continue my tradition of carrying my mobile altars to bring many Gods with me whenever I go camping, and I looked forward to assembling with K.Z. a massive tent-side shrine that would honor the seasonal Celtic Powers of Lugh, Rhiannon (I’ve been having visions of Her as of late, both Underworld-situated and This World-situated), and Cernunnos as well as Mediterranean-based Powers, chiefly Hekate and Artemis. From grains of barley and flax to whole loaves of freshly baked bread, honey, woven wheat wreaths (I have one from Sweden), deer bones (I serendipitously found several leg bones while hiking a well-known city forest preserve trail here in Chicago this past April), garlic, mugwort, and water from a mineral spring on the premises dedicated to Brigid, our altar was heaped high with bountiful offerings. I know the Powers hailed were pleased, and They afforded us Their protection and the blessed gifts of Their Presences the entire weekend, especially Hekate for me, as I will relate.
Treasures for the Mind and Spirit
I was ecstatic to discover upon registering for the event that feminist historian Max Dashu, founder of the Suppressed Histories Archives, would be delivering not one but three amazing lectures, one for every day of Green Spirit Festival. I had met her last autumn when she came to Chicago to promote her newly published book Witches and Pagans: Women in European Folk Religion, 700-1100, and was eager to hear her present new material not just related to that book but on the related subjects of sacred stones (a global view of petroglyphs) and shamanism, shapeshifting, and spirit flight/trance journeys. Max is an amazing artist as well and I couldn’t help but add this delightful print of “the Old Woman Who Knows” to my Goddess-inspired art collection at home. This is to honor my Slavic Wild Women ancestors.
The processing of the amazing information from Max’s talks (of course I brought a notebook with me to take notes) was helped by a variety of outdoor activities K.Z. and I experienced together, from the wonderful Saturday morning mugwort harvest with Circle Sanctuary founder Selena Fox at the Maypole on the grounds to our own private tent-side Lughnasàd ritual to the main public ritual event on Saturday night, which featured a stag-shaped sacrifice to be set ablaze. The experience of that ceremony was, as you might imagine, absolutely breathtaking and filled with powerful currents of the Numinous from start to finish. The Vanír are absolutely venerated in my home, and I felt profoundly connected to Freyr the entire time of the main rite.
Happy Birthday, Set!
Regular readers of my blog will have noted by now that I am a devotee of the Great Egyptian God, Set. In my reckoning of the Epagomenal Days that break down for us the birthdays of the Gods of Heliopolis, Set’s birthday is July 29 (of course He’s a Leo!). I certainly don’t proselytize about my path as a Polytheistic, legally ordained Priestess in the Fellowship of Isis, but I will gladly verbalize my deep and abiding love for my God to any who ask me about my devotional relationship with Him. I awoke with great joy the morning of Saturday the 29th knowing that it’s His birthday, and I wanted to somehow get Him a gift to adorn my shrine to Him at home.
The perfect gift came in the form of a cast-iron candle holder (ideal for tea lights or votives) in the shape of a griffin. Now many people may not know that the griffin as a fantastical beast is associated with the Cult of Set from Predynastic times in Egypt. (If you’re curious, you can read up on it in Herman te Velde’s 1954 treatise Seth: God of Confusion.) It is a very personally significant correlation for me as I have loved griffins since early childhood, and learning about this archaeologically based insight as an adult definitely makes me think that Mighty Sutekh claimed me for His own much far back in my life than I at first thought.
At any rate, there was a fundraising tent set up the weekend of Green Spirit Festival, with donations of unique, mostly ritual-related, goods up for raffle prizes. As soon as my cursory glance fell upon the griffin candle holder on Saturday morning, I exclaimed to K.Z. that I absolutely had to outbid everybody on it and claim it as a prize for Set’s shrine. And by the Gods, it was made of cast iron–iron is Set’s metal! Ohhhhh! It had to happen; my heart was set on it, and Set Himself was nodding with fervent approval, wanting it for His shrine. I could feel that to be true in my heart.
The slight gaffe was that, per Circle Sanctuary’s request that every Festival participant agree to work a two-hour shift for community service during their stay, K.Z. and I would be engaged with guard duty at the main gate while the raffle prize winners were being named at 5 o’clock that evening. I would hate to shoulder the burden of solo guard duty onto my friend, but would she terribly mind if I went down to the green to learn if I was the winner or not for that particular Setian prize? She and I were assured by our guard duty mentor, who passed onto us a set of walkie-talkies and registration clipboards and flyers, that it was likely that no additional attendees would show up; everyone who had agreed to be there at least for the main ritual that would begin at 7:30 that evening was more than likely already on the premises.
K.Z. and I did wind up having a tranquil, registrant-free post as main gate guards–a very Hekatean, liminal role if you think about it! Little wonder that I was feeling Hekate’s presence very strongly by the gate (K.Z. and I had to perform our duties from 4-6 that evening), especially when I looked behind the registration area into the clearing in the woods behind us and found a bubbling brook and a triple-trunked maple tree jutting out of it. “Hekate is here,” I announced dreamily, and it was very telling that one of the few pedestrians who came out to talk to us was a Hekate devotee and the second he saw me–I have never seen this man before in my life–he pointed his right index finger at me and shouted, “You’re Her daughter!”
“Whose?” I asked, baffled.
“Hekate!” he yelled, then he introduced himself to us (a Native American gentleman, of all backgrounds!), and announced that the Great Goddess Hekate likes to teach from the School of Hard Knocks. She’s knocked him down a peg or two before so he could learn his life lessons, he explained, and he suspected I knew exactly what he was talking about.
What a strange and serendipitously on-point conversation with a total stranger!
He kept chatting with K.Z. while I noted on my FitBit that 5 p.m. had rolled around and it was time for me to skidaddle on over to the raffle prize tent. There were a ton of items to go through, but I tipped my hat to Georgette, one of the main Festival coordinators, for going through all the prizes so efficiently, even though I had to wait with an epic level of patience that is hard for me as a Set devotee to cultivate! And yet, a half hour after she began announcing winners’ names from the far left of the table laden with prizes to the far right, Georgette held aloft the heavy iron griffin candleholder. I clutched my chest and gasped as she fished around in the bucket laden with bidders’ names on tickets.
She announced my name and I leapt with joy! Calloo, callay! I won a prize for Set today! On His birthday!
I curtsied at my friends and others who applauded my win. I brandished the candle holder high in the air as I victoriously sauntered back to the main gate to show K.Z., who was still talking with our new Native American friend and fellow Hekate devotee.
“Yay, you won it for Him!” K.Z. was beaming and clapped her hands. “He will be so pleased!”
“I’m going to add it to our shrine outside the tent tonight and light it in His honor. We still have plenty of offerings,” I observed.
I honestly couldn’t recall when I’d been happier in my life in the past few weeks than I was at that moment, standing in a liminal place that has since become sacred to me, victoriously holding aloft a token of love and appreciation for a God that means everything to me–literally the irrepressible Life Force Itself.
Gathering Sprowl from the Land After Dark
As is typical after undergoing an intense ritual, I was buzzing with energy for hours on end after the main ritual (with its dramatic fire sacrifice of the stag effigy) concluded on Saturday night, July 29. K.Z. was feeling restless also, and as it was our last full night on Circle Sanctuary’s lovely land for the Green Spirit Festival, we felt like walking around and exploring the land after dark. The temperature had dropped from its summertime daytime high of 80 degrees to a whopping 48 degrees Fahrenheit after nightfall, so once we changed out of our ritual garb into warm clothes and hiking boots and grabbed our flashlights and insect spray, we decided to hike various trails. Finding the permanent shrine to the Fae on the grounds as well as the Bast shrine were top priorities for K.Z., and we accordingly brought appropriate offerings for each shrine. For the Fae, I had picked up a unique “zebra stone” at American Science & Surplus, hands-down the quirkiest store in Chicago that is known, among other things, for selling tumbled gemstones and minerals at rock-bottom prices (see what I did there?). We had catnip and barley seeds for Bast.
Fitting when it comes to working with the Fae, we initially got lost while trying to find the large shrine erected in Their honor somewhere in a hillside forest. We asked two men camped in the hillside above Circle Sanctuary’s recognizable red barn, and they pointed us in the right direction. I felt the air grow very thick with spirits the closer we approached. Mind you, it was pitch black save for the LED diameters of the mini flashlights K.Z. and I held, so there was definitely a sense of Otherworldly Menace that intensified as the shrine’s odd assortment of offerings and fixtures (a ring of tree stump stools with the ashes of a fire in the middle, resin spikes jutting out of the ground with silhouettes of painted fairies on them, all manner of crystals and ribbons and mirrors, etc.) came into clear view.
The sense of oppressiveness hit my chest. Hard. My breathing became labored and slow.
Do not linger here, a Voice seemed to boom in my head. You do so at your own peril.
“Let’s make it quick,” I said. “And do NOT step into that ring of tree stumps!” I added, yelling.
K.Z. knelt down before one particularly garish garden fairy statue and began to make her offering while I went away a few feet to the right and held my zebra stone aloft while squatting before a short-stacked cairn of stones. This is a bribe, plain and simple, I acknowledged in my heart before I spoke a word. I really was there to offer the Fae this wonderfully unique stone in the hopes that as an exchange They’ll leave K.Z. and I alone and grant us safe passage for the remainder of our stay as well as our journey back to urbanity. Do not attach Yourselves to us in any way, I prayed in my heart afterwards. Do not suffer our transportation to break down. Stay Your hands from striking us with illness. We honor You at the edge of Your world and ask that You not follow us back to ours. May peace and harmony always be between us.
I smacked my hands together. “So be it!” I yelled into the darkness.
K.Z. was slowly perusing the diameter of the shrine with her flashlight’s arc, ogling each individual object in turn, and expressing her curiosity at the ring of tree stumps. My unease grew.
“How many people do you think it took to create this space?” she asked. “Over how long a time period?”
“We need to get the fuck out,” I tersely responded. “Right now!”
I all but yanked her by the arm. “Seriously, we can not linger here. Come on, let’s go to Bast’s shrine. Let’s descend to the road and head due south.”
K.Z. actually pouted. I ushered her out, out from under the thickets of crabapple trees, whose branches seemed to whip us as we exited. My lungs opened fully as soon as we were back on the road, climbing up the side of the hill that leads to Stone Circle, the site of yesterday’s handfasting, along with the Green Cemetery that houses the remains of Pagan luminaries like Margot Adler and Marion Weinstein.
I thought we had passed it at first, but my flashlight eventually shone on the faded white arrow-shaped sign that pointed the way to Bast’s shrine. The little footpath was overgrown with long plants, ones with thorns like nettle. To our amazement, our flashlights also shone on mushrooms that actually had a natural color of fluorescent orange! Their caps were amazing, and my mind wandered to psilocybin associations.
The familiar iconography of Bast as depicted from countless statue replicas dating from the Middle Kingdom era littered the soil. One was toppled over. More orange mushrooms. A white plaque of a winged cat. Cat toys. Our flashlight beams uncovered new marvels. K.Z. and I made our offerings. Still feeling the Fae so close by, I never wholly lost my sense of unease as we stood in that place. I found a rickety bench nailed between two tree trunks and sat down; the angle was crooked and I felt as though I would topple backwards and go tumbling down the hillside. Fae-induced vertigo, I was sure of it.
Shortly thereafter, we made our way back down and found the soil was loose and made for a perilous descent. The orange mushrooms glowed from outside the periphery of our flashlights’ beams. I was still feeling out of sorts.
Once we landed back on the road, the bulbous, post-quarter moon greeted us above the meadows and hills. I noted with joy that the stars were profuse and amazingly brilliant, filling our vision with their speckled glory, studding the inky blackness–a sight that would be absolutely impossible back in Chicago or nearby suburbs due to light pollution.
K.Z. and I kept walking until I noted that the road we were on diverged into three possible routes, two of which went into opposite directions in one of the main meadows below Stone Circle. We stayed on the middle road and the moon was now directly in front of our line of sight, low on the horizon.
“Oh, Hail Hekate!” I shouted reverentially.
“I still have some sweet tea left,” K.Z. declared. “Would you like to make an offering to Her here?” She brandished a glass bottle from inside her knit bag that was hung across her shoulder.
I nodded and gratefully accepted the glass bottle, whose cool contours grounded my senses back in the present moment. I prayed loudly and proudly to Hekate, and then K.Z. and I did call-and-response chanting of a variety of Hekate’s epithets (e.g., Phosphoros, Propylaia, Khthonia, Soteira, Kourotrophos). I felt the vexing influences or energies of the Fae completely dissipate. My confidence grew. My throat chakra was unfettered. My voice rang out across the night air–campers far away in the valley below us could hear us and that was fine by me.
Energized and luxuriating in my newly kindled sense of spiritual/magical ownership, I turned to K.Z. and said, “Let’s gather some sprowl.”
The term hails from Cornish Traditional Witchcraft (I’m a huge fan of Gemma Gary’s books on the subject) and refers to the practice of really getting to know the spiritual essence of a tract of land by walking it and absorbing its powers into your own as a witch or magus. That’s the act of gathering sprowl. I’d been engaging in the practice since I was a teen but I never knew what to call it; it was, to quote the Witches of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, “A Deed without a Name.” The Cornish phrase delights my heart.
And so it was from this point onwards, for another three hours into the night, that I, like a torch-bearing Hekate, led young Persephone-like K.Z. across a variety of paths and densely wooded glens and open meadows and hilltops across Circle Sanctuary’s spirits-charged landscape, my flashlight lighting the way for both of us as I walked first. There were several instances where we both felt that we’d crossed over into some sort of portal into an Otherworld, that we truly weren’t in Wisconsin anymore.
“My senses–all of my senses–are so engaged right now,” K.Z. paused to observe as we stood in a meadow. The sense of smell was what hit us as soon as we traversed a thick forest path at the base of Spirit Rock. It was a profusion of herbal scents all competing for our attention. Then we heard things: bats in the sky, the rustling of whatever animals in the grasses above us. I shone my flashlight and was greeted by a pair of yellow-green eyes looking squarely at us. I had no idea what animal it could be: badger, coyote, small deer, large raccoon…even a mountain lion? So many possibilities. So much to wonder at.
I couldn’t get over the enormity of the stars above us and I felt compelled to pray again. We prayed a series of prayers to different Goddesses: Nut, Rhiannon, Arianrhod. And then to the Mountain Mother: Kybele, Hsi-Wang Mu.
Snaking our way back through the dense forest trail that ran parallel with the brook that served as the artery of our campsite, I definitely had the sense that we were being watched by one or more Beings. I was about to say something to K.Z. when the sounds of our footfalls were met with the THUD! of a stone that had been thrown behind us! Unmistakable! There were no other human beings anywhere near our vicinity; we were the sole people on that trail, of that we were certain. And yet a rock had been thrown at us, landing just behind us on the trail!
“Faery mischief!” I said, but I wasn’t liking it. I dared not turn around. I told K.Z. not to either. We sped our way, crossed a footbridge, emerged from wetlands grasses, and were relieved to stomp our way past our tent. It was nearing midnight. I asked her what her energy levels were like, hoping she would still want to walk the candlelit labyrinth set up at the far southern edge of the allotted camping zone. She said she would love to.
And thus the frenzied pace and dramatic excitement of our Fae-haunted walk and sprowl-gathering activities was met with the slower, more deliberate, meditational walking of a seven-circuit, Cretan-style labyrinth hacked out of tall meadow grass and adorned with white candles glowing in Mason jars. A gentle version of Numinous energy enveloped me like a cloak. When K.Z. and I arrived at the center of the labyrinth, we were delighted to see a big roaring fire set in the middle of it with benches arrayed for meditational seating. A small wooden table holding baskets of beads implored all visitors to grab a bead as a token of the experience. I made a note of the sign but chose to sit in silent meditation first.
I communed with Hekate again, asking something deeply personal that I won’t share here. I asked for a sign to indicate Her response, and almost as if on cue, an owl’s hoot pierced the silence. It came from slightly southwest of us, from the ring of trees that bordered the road that took us to the three-way path earlier, where I began to pray to Hekate aloud in earnest. Truly this was a sign. I stomped my feet into the dirt excitedly and turned to face K.Z. She was grinning also. The owl hooted again. I wish I had known what type of owl it was. But no matter: when we arose from our bench and approached the little table to claim our beads, I actually unintentionally grabbed one that was owl-shaped! Blue dyed howlite, carved into a Great Horned Owl’s shape. Was that what hooted at us in the nearby darkness, serving, to me, as an emissary of beloved Hekate? I do believe so, yes.
It was well past 1 a.m. as we made our way back to our tent. K.Z. immediately went to sleep but I said that I had some journaling to do. The cold definitely got to me from time to time, but I kept scribbling feverishly in my journal’s pages, which were already becoming damp from the thick nocturnal condensation that settled on everything around me. I was still wired with energy. It was 3 a.m. Sunday morning July 30th when I clicked my pen shut and unzipped the tent flap to let myself in. K.Z. was actually snoring, to my surprise, albeit quietly. I was so worried that I would wake her up as I zipped myself into my sleeping bag on my military cot but that turned out to not be the case. Instead, I lay awake for hours, due to the cold and to energy levels that just wouldn’t decline, finally deciding at 5:35 that it was as good a time as any to go shower before folks got up for our final breakfast together. Mercifully, I had hot water, and it all felt so good after being grubby for two days. The sun made its ascent quickly and I decided to walk about and snap several photos so I would never forget the magic of this land.
Transitioning Back to Consensus Reality
We were both pleased, after having had the chance to partake of a hearty camp breakfast that featured coffee and home-baked scones, that we had one more Max Dashu talk to look forward to attending as our main morning activity. Then lunch would commence. The closing ritual would take place at one o’clock; it was expected that we’d all vacate the premises by 3:30 at the latest.
Selena Fox passed around a talking feather during the closing ritual, asking adults and children alike to think back on their experiences over the weekend and announce what they were grateful for, as well as what they would be taking back with them to their regularly scheduled lives. When it was my turn to speak, I gave thanks for having attained the spiritual battery recharge I was seeking, as well as the chance to connect with the land and so many wonderful people, many of whom I had not seen in person since Pagan Spirit Gathering of 2015. I said that I was so incredibly grateful to be taking back with me a sense of tremendous joy and hope: “For those of you who work with the Tarot,” I explained, “if I were to choose a Major Arcana card to represent my Green Spirit Festival weekend, it would be The Star card, and I want to thank all of you for making that happen.” My remark was met with nodding smiles from around the circle. It was incredibly beautiful.
Perhaps the Fae’s mischief followed us partly down the hill and accompanied our descent into the town of Barneveld because K.Z. and I initially had trouble finding our way back to highway 18-151 South. Neither of our phones could get any cell phone reception yet, which was mind-boggling. It was the kindness of a fellow Green Spirit Festival attendee and Circle Sanctuary volunteer that came to the rescue. I was driving K.Z.’s car for the journey back to Chicago and I decided to pull over so that I could get my bearings in the absence of zero cell phone navigational assistance. A woman in the car immediately behind us pulled over as well and asked if K.Z. and I needed help. We admitted we were lost and hadn’t the faintest idea on how to get to the highway that we needed. She smiled and said she was headed that way herself and that we should follow her. What a relief!
Better still, once I was able to resume contact with Siri, “she” gave us optimal directions that helped us avoid heavy traffic leading to our eventual merger onto Interstate 39 South/90 East. We got to see some lovely Wisconsin country back roads as a result, drive through roundabouts, wave at dairy cows freely ranging about vast tracts of family farmland, and have a surprise dinner at the World’s Largest Culver’s restaurant in Edgerton, Wisconsin. K.Z. and I are both vegetarian, but after a weekend of eating nothing but home-cooked, minimally processed meals lovingly prepared by a volunteer staff three times a day, a meal of a Gardenburger, crinkled French fries, and chocolate mint frozen custards was more precious to us than gold. Being at the restaurant also served as the necessary buffer that we needed to help us transition from Pagan Festival Consciousness (PFC) back to Mundania. I felt dazed and confused, and announced to K.Z. that I was experiencing an acute degree of culture shock. She was experiencing it also. Playing the music of Celia on the car’s stereo system was a nice way to keep the PFC going to bolster our spirits–especially Celia’s soulful songs to the Goddess Brigid.
So that was my Green Spirit Festival 2017 experience. I highly recommend attending if you’re in the area; it’s truly a magical way to celebrate Lughnasàd, come together in community, reach out to and be heard by a plethora of Holy Powers, and find yourself replenished by the bountiful and nourishing Presence(s) of the Land. As the time of Lughnasàd draws down and we gear up for tomorrow’s astrological kick-off of this month’s eclipse season with an Aquarius Full Moon Lunar Eclipse, I wish you all the blessings of sustaining magic. Not just in terms of manifestation magic/harvest blessings/reaping material benefits and giving thanks for those, as we all should every day of our lives, but also of expressing gratitude at the harvest of our inner treasures, the resources and qualities that reflect our Divine Spirit Within.
As Above, So Below. As Within, So Without.
And to my fellow Kemetic Polytheist friends, Wep Ronpet Blessings! Happy New Year! May the Grace of the Gods accompany all your ventures in the year to come! Be blessed with good health, abundance, love, joy, and fruitful creative endeavors!