For most people, the words “pagan” and “witch” conjure images of men and women who connect on a spiritual level to nature, to the untamed wilderness. I have many friends who feel this way.
I do not.
So when my friend Kaye suggested I go with her to this year’s Witches Sabbat in the forests of Ontario, Canada, I surprised quite a few people when I agreed. Even my boyfriend asked me if I was feeling okay. But I was adamant. I live my life based on the notion that I should have as few regrets as possible. Back when Kaye recommended the trip, I felt that passing on the opportunity would make me regretful and unsatisfied. And now that I have returned from Witches Sabbat, I can say with certainty: I am glad I went.
THURSDAY & FRIDAY
Witches Sabbat took place on the weekend of Friday, May 27. Kaye and I traveled with Sionnan and Brooke to Raven’s Knoll on Thursday, enduring a 10-hour car ride. For Thursday night, we stopped in the beautiful Ottawa, Canada’s capital. We ate breakfast the next morning at the Scone Witch and said hello to Colin, a friend of mine and Brooke’s.
After stopping by a shop called Garden of Crystals, the four of us drove to Raven’s Knoll. We registered, signed paperwork, and found the pop-up trailer we would call home for the next two days and nights. We explored the campground, then joined the other campers for the opening ritual. As part of the ritual, we toured the Knoll, leaving offerings to the spirits of the Knoll to appease them. To my surprise, one of the women who made offerings was a First Nations person. She sang in her native tongue to communicate with the land spirits. As I listened, I felt witness to a connection with the world that is stronger and deeper than any I’d known before. It felt ancient and unyielding.
After we made the necessary offerings, Juniper Birch and Angela Grey led us into the labyrinth where the stangs live. Pine trees towered above our heads as we ventured into the spiral. We made offerings to each of the stangs waiting there, then left in smaller groups of two and three.
My friends and I ate dinner, then meandered back to the communal fire pit where others were gathering. People were preparing for the bardic circle, a chance to sing and tell stories around the fire. We met Sarah Lawless and made friends with other campers. And when the bardic circle began, I volunteered to go first.
For months, I had practiced and prepared “Song of the Einherjar” by Wyndreth Berginsdottir. As Friday evening approached, I had become increasingly nervous, thinking about my upcoming performance. I knew the song by heart, but I still worried I’d forget all the words once I stood in front of my audience. My friends suggested drinking Dansk Mjød Viking Blod mead to settle my nerves — fitting, considering the subject of my song.
I did stumble on a single line, but recovered immediately. Now, writing this, I can’t even remember those four minutes. Faces blurred as I paced in the firelight, singing with all the emotional range and intensity I could muster. When the song came to its end, I bowed, and the crowd broke into applause. My traveling companions clapped my back as I took my seat. A new friend put his hand on my shoulder and thanked me for such a meaningful song. For the next two days, my performance earned me praise from the other campers, as well as three small chips of amber. I plan to offer these to Tyr, for He was forefront in my thoughts and prayers all weekend. He pushed me out of my comfort zone that weekend; He gets first dibs on the fruits of my labor.
My friends and I woke up to bring our ingredients to the stone soup potluck and our breakfast to the main fire pit. We were eager to attend the day’s workshops, some of which included such topics as:
- Ethics of Cursing
- Am I Under Attack?
- Montagnes de Sorts: An Offensive Warding Technique in French-Canadian Folktales
- Creating Scapegoats and Poppets
I learned quite a few things, especially from the class on curse diagnostics. I am guilty of laziness and tend not to shield often, so I walked away from the class with a determination to practice more.
The woods that weekend were uncomfortably hot and humid, and the mosquitoes spared none of us in their hunger. Eager to rest in the trailer and practice shielding, I returned to our campsite after lunch… only for Sionnan to drag me back to the fire to help make protective charms for the stang. Joining the others, I made a traditional Philippine bell rope with a personal twist.
Once free of the workshop, I went to soak my shirt in water and ended up making a new friend. As we dipped our feet into the Bonnechere River, we discussed Norse paganism and our experiences with it thus far. Other campers, taking a respite from the heat, jumped into the water to cool off. The normalcy of the situation struck me at that moment. I was keeping company with witches and pagans just like me; no topic of conversation was too strange. It was a wonderful relief.
Later, we all sat around the fire as the priestesses went over the ritual preparation. First, we learned about the herb of the year, henbane. A member of the nightshade family, it is poisonous, but not so deadly that even a small dose could kill someone. Sarah explained that it would take a high dosage or concentration of henbane to kill a person. Then she provided safe ways we could partake in the plant, such as smoking it and making ointments. I like the notion of burning the seeds on charcoal with some other incense, then inhaling the smoke. Unfortunately, the henbane crop was sparse this past year, so it’ll be difficult to find and buy. I plan to keep an eye out, just in case.
After the instruction on henbane, Juniper and Angela explained the upcoming main ritual. In a nutshell, our intent that night was to banish anything malevolent and unwanted from Raven’s Knoll, then empower the stang with protective energy.
We had time to prepare ourselves before the appointed time. We all ate dinner. My friends and I drank Apothic Red wine to increase our sensitivity to the world of spirits. Other rite participants drank whisky or mead, rubbed flying ointment on the backs of their necks, smoked mugwort, or wore ritual clothing. Sionnan gave me a pointed chunk of clear quartz to amplify my senses, which I tucked in my shirt against my heart.
I can only describe the main ritual as a gradual loss of self. The heat of the day had passed; the coolness of twilight fell upon the sands of the drumming pit. I don’t want to get into too much detail. I strongly feel that rituals of this intensity deserve a certain level of secrecy. But I will say this: The beat of the drums synced with the blood that coursed through our veins; the dirt kicked up in our tireless, ecstatic dance; and the cries that fell from our mouths echoed the wild song of the primordial earth.
When the ritual finally ended, my friends and I meandered back to the main fire pit. We relaxed alongside our fellow campers as Sarah explained the second ritual of the day, the cleansing ritual. To prepare, we put on some kind of white clothing. I wore a cheap, XL tank top that looked kind of like a dress on my body. In the dark of night, it looked no different than what others wore. My friends, both new and old, gathered with me at the main fire to wait. Then midnight fell upon us and we all made our way to the Cauldron.
Though the earlier main ritual brimmed with power, the experience of the cleansing ritual was downright surreal. Imagine this: 60-odd men and women, dressed in white, walk down a dirt path. Pine trees surround us on either side. A woman in a red dress leads the way, singing a ghostly song and holding aloft a lantern. The forest is otherwise pitch black. Stars peek at us from between breaks in the canopy. Finally, we arrive at the Cauldron, a natural spring fed from underground. Frogs and insects chirp in chorus all around us. A man in black stands beside a blazing fire, waiting for us. Two lit, standing torches form a threshold on the bank of the spring, while rose petals lie scattered between them, forming a path into the water. Beyond the torchlight is nothing but blackness.
We stood in a half-circle before the fire, before the darkness. We stood marked and smudged and purified. Grouped in threes and twos, we strode into the black spring. We completely submerged ourselves in cool, fresh water. Then we resurfaced, cleansed, and made our way back to shore, laughing and chatting and tired. After drying ourselves off, my friends and I left the Cauldron. A single flashlight illuminated the way back to our trailer. The silhouettes of others returning to their beds stood out against the shadows, then slipped away like smoke.
Physically, mentally, and spiritually exhausted, my friends and I woke early to pack our car for our return trip to Ottawa. We brought our breakfast to the main fire pit and watched children play in the dirt as we ate. The first workshop of the day came and went (“Sigil Magick,” a favorite topic of mine), but when lunchtime brought the full intensity of the day’s heat on us, my friends and I agreed it was time to leave. We swapped contact information with our new friends and promised to keep in touch online.
And then I remembered that Auz, the Knoll’s steward and an Ásatrú priest, had agreed to show me the Aesir Vé. It is the shrine to the Norse gods located deep in the forests of the Knoll. Kaye, Brooke, Sionnan, and another young woman walked with us into the woods beyond the Cauldron. Auz brought us down the shrine trail, named for the handful of shrines that stood alongside the path. Mosquitoes swarmed us as we continued deeper into the wood — a blood sacrifice, we later half-joked, to the gods waiting in the Vé.
At the end of the winding path, we arrived at a clearing on a small hill. Rope hung from short posts, creating a barrier between the sacred space of the gods and the world beyond. To one side of the trail stood a plaque, bearing the words of an oath that all must swear before entering the shrine:
- Only Norse gods may be invoked and worshiped within the Vé.
- Only those who promise to keep the peace may enter the Vé, their weapons left outside.
- Only those who promise to keep clean may enter the Vé.
Feeling the weight of the oath’s importance, I clasped Auz’s hand in mine and swore the oath. He permitted my entrance, and soon the others joined me before the wooden poles carved in the likeness of the gods. He introduced us to Them and explained to Them that we wished to learn of the Vé and its uses at the Knoll. Then he stood aside to let us talk with the gods directly.
When it was my turn, I stepped toward these towering, carved renditions of the Aesir and Vanir. I tried to speak, but the sheer enormity of standing before the gods, in a place dedicated to Their worship, stopped my tongue. When I finally found my voice, I choked at the end, and poured a libation of water. I cried at Their feet.
On our way back from the Vé, my companions spoke and laughed amongst each other. But I walked back in silence until we’d returned to the main fire pit. We thanked Auz for showing us the shrines, then Kaye, Brooke, Sionnan, and I piled into our car and drove off.
The rest of our Sunday in Ottawa was, though eventful, not that religious or magical in nature. Once the four of us settled down in our hotel room and scrubbed the dirt out of our hair, Brooke and I went out into the city to meet up with Colin again. We ate Canadian delicacies: smoked meat, bacon poutine, and desserts called beaver tails. We talked about our other hobbies and interests. It was a pleasant way to return to the mundane world after such an intense experience in the woods.
Will I go again to Witches Sabbat and Raven’s Knoll? As much as I learned from and appreciated the adventure, my heart says, “Probably not.” I am a witch, yes, but I have never had an inclination toward nature or camping. But I would absolutely recommend Witches Sabbat to others. There is nothing quite like being around like-minded people when you have been censoring yourself for years. And there is no denying that the land is powerful, that its spirits are well-treated, and that the gods honored there have enormous presence.
To view more photos, visit my Flickr.