I stand facing the center of the circle, facing the skull mounted on a large, forked tree branch — our ritual stang. Faces blur together around me. When I speak, my voice cuts through the late afternoon calm. I teach my audience the song, and when their voices join mine, we cut through the veil. My mind races a million miles per minute, and I find myself praying to the gods from the deepest corner of my consciousness:
I can’t mess up. I can’t mess up. I can’t mess up.
★ ★ ★
Pagan Pride Day is an annual celebration of pagan identity that takes place in cities across the world as the seasons transition from summer to autumn. Not only can pagans gather and meet others like themselves, those interested in paganism can learn more about it from various groups and vendors often present at these festivals. I’d gone to the Baltimore and Washington DC events before, but always as a visitor; this year, I went as a sponsor.
Back then, I had the misfortune of not knowing any other local pagans, so I went to Pagan Pride Day by myself. I felt out of place, not unwanted but not fitting in, either, especially since my brand of paganism is so different than most people’s. I never bought merchandise nor participated in rituals. I never made friends. All-in-all, I felt alone, my curiosity unsatisfied.
This year, though, I finally had what I’d been looking for: a group dedicated to supporting people following different pagan paths, and friends belonging to it. And we decided we wouldn’t attend just one Pagan Pride Day, but three: Frederick, DC, and Northern Virginia.
★ ★ ★
Preparing for three Pagan Pride Day events has been the most administrative undertaking of my young life. We contacted each group of coordinators to express our interest as a sponsor, hashing out fees and discussing schedules. We had to, very quickly, make decisions about the Fellowship: our mission statement, a descriptive summary, business card designs, brochure designs — the list goes on. I spent an absurd amount of time in Adobe Photoshop agonizing over font.
Then we had to prepare our group members. We asked for volunteers and hosted online volunteer orientation sessions on Google Hangouts. We went over our plan for how to greet visitors, what to emphasize in conversation, and how to address escalating situations. Though thorough, we were all nervous about how underprepared we might be.
Then we had to gather supplies. Kaye graciously purchased the folding table and 10-foot tent, the bulk of our expenses. I put together a professional, eye-catching poster that would surely attract the attention of passers-by from a distance. We gathered together our books and picked ones that might further intrigue said passers-by. In the mail arrived our business cards; Kaye printed brochures, sign-up sheets, and the article published about the Fellowship in The Diamondback.
And then, finally, we prepared the ritual. Frank Stormcatcher of the Northern VA staff emailed us to ask if we would lead the closing ritual for his event. Eager, hopeful, and perhaps a little confident, we agreed. That same night, the Executive Board piled into a Skype call to discuss what, exactly, we were going to do. We tossed ideas back and forth, fretted a bit, then decided on a ritual to honor the spirits of the land and thank them for the harvest. Sionnan and Kaye took on the responsibility of gathering the offerings. And I, the group’s de facto ritual leader, assumed the task of actually writing it.
I spent two weeks agonizing over the ritual — which, unfortunately, was the amount of time Frank gave us to prepare it. Writing one is not easy. Rituals themselves are part storytelling, part group activity, part performance, and part transcendence. When I start to write one, I always ask myself, “What emotion do I want to evoke? What do I want people to feel?” My answer often boils down to reverence, but of what? This time, I decided on reverence for the natural cycle of life and death of which we are all part. From there, the words flowed. I later edited it and frequently asked for feedback. And somehow, I ended up with something powerful.
★ ★ ★
Frederick Pagan Pride Day was not what I expected. Nearly 400 people attended an event held apart from the main town, from the highway, on a field surrounded by farmland. Of the three festivals, Frederick brought us the highest number of curious visitors. We handed out nearly all of our brochures and filled two pages with email addresses to add to our mailing list. We met some excellent folk and made new friends, all of which we met again at Northern VA Pagan Pride Day later. From them, I learned about some subjects that had only, previously, existed on the periphery of my knowledge. In return, I taught people about the death culture of the United States and how I want to be part of its revolution.
In comparison to the festival in Frederick, DC Pagan Pride Day was much smaller with fewer groups and no attending vendors. The rituals, therefore, were more intimate; a higher percentage of festival goers stood in the sacred circle to honor the gods and each other. My friends and I enjoyed considerable more downtime as well, so we got to read and chat and talk about things besides promoting our group. The major downside to setting up a pagan festival in the middle of a crowded intersection, of course, were the obscenities thrown at us by uncomfortable observers. Overall, though, we weren’t bothered too much or too frequently by them, and we did draw a few interested pagans to our table. One sat with us for lunch and agreed to join us the following weekend in Northern VA.
Held on the George Mason University campus this year, Northern VA Pagan Pride Day was something of a combination of the previous two. Many groups and vendors raised tents on the patch of grass the campus allotted us, but we had fewer visitors than expected, and quite a few young college students clutched their crosses warily as they passed. Nevertheless, my friends and I enjoyed ourselves. So many group members attended the table that day that we had to set up our chairs outside of our allotted space. I learned some new magical techniques, became acquainted with some beautiful crystals, and discussed reiki with two master-level practitioners.
Then, finally, came the ritual. It ran a little late, but enough festival goers remained that they formed a sizable circle around the stang, its bearer, and me. When we began, I let go of my usual self — the calm, poised, reserved persona that I wear in everyday life — and put on another mask. I became storyteller and actor, ritual leader and conduit. First, I succinctly summarized our agenda. Then, during the cleansing, I taught our crowd the chant they would sing with me:
We are the children of the land;
by sea and root and stone, we thrive.
We are the children of the land;
in death our blood will nourish new life.
We sang this together, over and over again, as my assistants — Fellowship volunteers — walked our offerings three times within the circle of ritualists. When they finally placed the bread, milk, honey, bird seed, and apples at the foot of the stang, I stilled the singing before raising my voice.
Spirits of the land who dwell here, we come to you.
Spirits of the land, we come to your door.
We come to your door bearing gifts:
Gifts of honey and milk, of grain and fruit and nuts.
We come bearing humility.
We come bearing peace.
We come with gratitude and in awe.
And on I went, feeling my throat grow more parched with each verse, willing my voice to not crack while chanting. Faces blurred together. I read the lines even though I’d memorized them, afraid I would stumble. Above all else, I could not afford to lose my audience, for they were caught up in my intensity, and to misspeak or cough would ruin the moment. In the end, I did make it to the finish line. I thanked everyone for attending and urged everyone to pick up our business card. I breathed relief. Finally, it was over. Then the praise came, and I grew nearly drunk on pride.
★ ★ ★
I was only able to rest after a week had passed following Northern VA Pagan Pride Day. Attending three all-day events in two weekends, let alone leading my first public ritual, is taxing on both mind and body. Throw my regular office job into the mix and I was exhausted the whole time. Thankfully, I’ve been able to relax and spend time at home these past few weeks, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the year being more low key.
Overall, though, the Pagan Pride Day experience this year was incredibly worthwhile. Some bumps on the way proved troublesome, but we know better for next time. More importantly, we made new friends, brought a lot of attention to the Fellowship Beyond the Star, and proved we can lead a public ritual. (Frank even invited us to lead one next year!) Now we have a presence, and a footing, in the local pagan community. Now we know what we are capable of. And now we are ready for the next adventure.
For more information about the Fellowship Beyond the Star, the pagan group of which I am co-founder and Vice President, please check out our website!
Photo attribution: Featured and final photographs were taken by Joseph O’Bryan.