Encounters with the Horned One Witches, druids, shaman, and one Lutheran.
by SHARIDAN RUSSELL
I stood on the north side of the Beltane Circle, at A Sacred Place in Canaan, New Hampshire. A clearing in the middle of the woods. It was an overcast day, threatening rain but never delivering. Everyone around me was dressed for the occasion--which meant everything from high school athlete casual to medieval-formal. I wore a flowy skirt, I wore a flower crown, I passed as Pagan. I had come straight from church—Our Savior Lutheran—for a day of Pagan rituals: we would invoke The God and The Goddess, we would dance the maypole. At Our Savior, my job is to teach kids how to be good Christians—I talk about scripture and prayer and play games and sing “This Little Light o’ Mine.” At A Sacred Place, I was learning how people become good Pagans.
Beltane is the second fire holiday of the Pagan year, directly opposite of Samhain in the seasonal cycle. Pagans divide the year into the primary seasons, winter and summer, with eight big rituals. Beltaine, sometimes called May-Day, is the celebration of fertility, the union of The God and Goddess. To some Pagans, The God is the “horned one,” Cernunninus; to others he is the Green Man, or Tristan. Whatever he’s called, the “wheel of the year” is busy for him. He’s born of the earth goddess at Yule, impregnates her on Beltane, dies on Samhain, and is born again on Yule.
“What a load of crap,” I thought, staring at my computer. This god both impregnates and is born? It was oversexualized, vulgar, even. Then I looked again, “Holy shit. It’s Jesus!”
I chose to learn about Pagans because I knew they were different from me, or I was different from them. I thought that everything they said would sound foreign, crazy, even. I was right. It was predetermined that I would feel uncomfortable with most Pagan tenets. I have been raised to reject them. More than that, I have accepted that I am supposed to reject them. I’m not on the fence with this whole Christian thing, and I didn’t come looking for answers. I was looking for a story. But in spite of all those moments when we seemed irreconcilably distant from each other, there were moments that I recognized something of myself in them. That’s how I had come to this circle, populated with Witches, Druids, Shamans and one Lutheran, me. That didn’t matter to them. You can be a Lutheran and a Pagan. Religion, in that circle, was not the careful true-or-false it had always been for me. For Pagans, “Lutheran” was just one bubble on a multiple choice test where all the answers are correct.
They blessed me with a burning braid of sweetgrass as I entered the circle, warding off negative thoughts and unwanted energies. I walked around the inner edge of the circle until I joined my group, my door into this world, the Upper Valley Pagans.
The first person I’d connected with was Angela, who works in Student Affairs at Dartmouth, a 2012 graduate of the College. Angela drove me to a meeting in her blue VW Bug, with dried sweet woodruff on the dash board. Angela has long, enviable black hair which was braided into a crown. She always dresses in black--typically flowing dresses, sometimes with an embroidered splash of red or yellow. “Nothing else works for me,” she said. “I started wearing black in 9th grade.” When she came to college she began studying feminist spirituality, and she found The Goddess. She has studied and practiced Paganism ever since. She prepares rituals, she knows the formulas and the sects and the histories. She gave me a packet. “Welcome to the Upper Valley Pagans!” it said in bold. “It’s more fun if you participate!” I listened and nodded and studied all of the chants. They didn’t seem too hard; they all rhymed.
We arrived at a brick building in Lebanon. In the basement are offices for the Lebanon Chamber of Commerce. On the second floor is the office of Donlon Wade, Addictions Counselor, and the bimonthly meeting place of the Upper Valley Pagans. Donlon stood in the doorway: purple shirt with black pants, brown socks and black sneakers. He had a short white pony tail. He put a dixie cup to my face, and asked me to sniff. The cup was half-filled with water on which floated miniscule white stars, blossoms from a vine that grew in one of his two windows. There were files shoved into every corner to make room for a circle of chairs, in the middle of which was a square table, covered with acorn-patterned fabric. The altar.
In the middle of the altar was one fat white candle and on either side, two skinny black ones. These represent The God and The Goddess and the darkness of the new moon. Next to these were a chalice and an athame. An athame is a traditional sacred blade; this one was blue crystal and didn’t resemble a knife at all. The chalice and the athame are sexual symbols of The God and The Goddess. The chalice is feminine, because it can be filled, because it receives. The athame is masculine because it, well, it pierces. Aside from these tributes to the deities were a collection of figures: a brown ceramic owl, a long brown feather, a bent stick as long as my forearm, a silver pentagram. Donlon added a wind-up frog from a collection of toy amphibians on his desk. A woman named Michelle, dressed in black t-shirt to crocs with a black wire choker around her neck, pulled a velvet purple bag from her purse.
“Wait!” she cried, just before the meeting was called to order. “I want my fairies on the altar.”
They were the final piece placed on the green acorn-patterned fabric that covered the table--a shiny deck of purple cards. Each card had a fairy on it that gave advice or guidance. After the meeting, I’d draw a fairy wearing an orange dress. She told me to have patience.
A woman named Patricia, called Elanna, leaned forward in her chair, slapping her hands to her knees. “Let’s get started,” she said. When she’d entered the Pagan world she’d learned she could have a special name for circle gatherings. A spiritual name. She’d never related to Patricia much, but she loved Elanna.
We stood to cast the circle, I clutching my welcome packet and reading closely. We began in the east, to call air to the circle: “air, air come to me/let your wisdom set me free.” Donlon stepped forward to light a yellow candle. We repeated the process for each element. We asked fire to let its passion awaken us. We asked water to let its motion flow through us. We asked earth to let its strength center us. We lit red, blue, and green candles. We stared at the center altar and invoked the presence of The God, The Goddess, and the spirit. My hand twitched, longing to make a cross.
Most of the meeting after that was meditation and sharing. Each person was expected to give an update on their lives. They could talk about anything they might need energy for. Brienna and Lance, the other newcomers to the Upper Valley Pagans, were the first to share. Brienna had long brown hair and rectangle glasses, Lance had a full red beard and a neck tattoo of Shaggy from Scooby Doo. Shaggy used to be his nickname, he said. They held hands as Lance described moving to the Upper Valley from Illinois with their kids, of looking for work, of not finding it. Brienna had been part of a Pagan community in Illinois, she trusted Pagans, she knew they would help her.
“We’ll raise energy for you,” Patricia said. “When this group gets going we can raise some really powerful energy.”
Simone, sitting to my right, attested. “We rose energy for me a few weeks ago when I was worried about losing my house, it helped a lot.”
A woman named Jenna mentioned that she needed to have her contract renewed for her job at Canaan Elementary.
“Need any references?” Donlon asked. “I’ll help you out.”
“We’ll turn them all into frogs!” said Angela.
It was my turn. I gave them the five-minute story of my life: grew up in Montana, I study Arabic, I went to Morocco last year.
“Everyone from our generation wanted to go to Morocco,” Patricia said. “Probably because of the drugs. Plus, there was The Marrakesh Express with Bing Crosby.”
It was time to raise energy. Patricia slapped her hands to her knees again, Donlon picked up his goat-skin drum, all were invited to stand. Angela and Simone, on either side of me, squeezed my hands, and Angela begin the chant. “Earth my body, Water my blood, Air my breath and Fire my spirit.”
An easy tune, punctuated by soft drum beats. Everyone joined in. Eyes shut, focused. “Earth my body, water my blood, air my breath and fire my spirit.”
They got louder. Donlon stood outside the circle and banged his drum, no more gentle taps. “EARTH my BODY, WATER my BLOOD, AIR my BREATH, and FIRE my SPIRIT!”
Suddenly there was no tune. Only shouting. Simone and Angela squeezed my hands harder. Donlon beat his drum with controlled violence. “EARTH MY BODY, WATER MY BLOOD, AIR MY BREATH AND FIRE MY SPIRIT!”
On the last shouted syllable we threw our hands into the air, releasing our energy into the world, releasing ourselves. Then, everyone bent to touch the floor immediately after. Not grounding oneself after raising energy could have consequences--sleepless nights and anxiety are the side effects of pagan power.
The meeting ended with blessed juice—sparkling pear—and triscuit crackers--consecrated in the name of The God and The Goddess. Donlon leaned in. “Now if I were still Catholic, I’d be going to hell for this,” he said. I took a sip of juice, figuring I could pray for forgiveness later.
* * *
At A Sacred Place, Pagans had gathered from across Vermont and New Hampshire for their yearly Beltane celebration. It’s a weekend-long event; there are workshops—”Shamanic Storytelling” with Stone Riley and “Prosperity Magic” with Beth MoonDragon--and vendors--Loonwitch Aura Photography and Tarot Readings at the Witch of Sleepy Hollow--and performances, by Bashirah, the bellydancer, and Jenna Greene “The Greene Lady.” There’s a slip-n-slide for the kids. Here, every type of Pagan gathers. There is a full variety of “maidens and crones,” nerdy teenage boys wearing superhero t-shirts, and men in cowboy hats. All gathered at a clearing in the woods to dance around a maypole. They’d also be a rubber ducky race, which was their newest tradition.
Everyone had the opportunity to buy the duck that might win, one for $3, two for $5. We dumped them in a creek near the Beltane clearing. The finish line was next to the small Druid’s altar and fire pit. One by one, all sorts of customized rubber ducks began to float down the tiny rapids--there were librarian rubber ducks, mermaid rubber ducks, firefighter rubber ducks, and, of course, witch rubber ducks. A large man with a white beard and black leather vest used a fallen tree-limb to free any ducks who might get stuck on the rocks. A Viking duck won. A man with a long ponytail plucked him from the creek, holding the champion for all to see.
“Leif Erikduck!” he shouted. “The first duck to reach this new land!”
I found Angela under a tent eating raspberries with Michelle and Jenna. Brienna and Lance were there with their three kids, who were playing with Patricia and Donlon at the slip-n-slide.
Angela wanted to buy a ceramic Pagan cookie stamp from a woman who had a large tent filled mostly with self-published books about European Paganism, designed on Microsoft Word, printed 8.5x11, stapled in the corner. The title page of each one said ‘by Hlafidge Arasterm aka Tchipakkan aka VF Richards-Taylor.’ Hlafidge Arasterm aka Tchipakkan aka VF Richards-Taylor showed us a poster us a poster that identified hand types with the elements. I have an earth hand, it turns out, a square palm and short fingers. President Obama, she said, has a water hand, a long, rectangle palm with long fingers.
At 2:00, I joined the Upper Valley Pagans at a potions and holy waters workshop, led by an old witch named Ninnian, the founder of the Upper Valley Pagans. She had frizzy, crimped blond hair and she wore black leggings with a flowy black tunic and lime green crocs. Ninnian said she had two wells on her property, one for plumbing, and one for potions. The best potion water comes from a pure and natural spring, but—and Ninnian always says this—you can use whatever is closest in an emergency. The water Ninnian had brought with her had been left outside for two full moons, so it was full of all that energy. She’d purified it with silver. Any piece of silver will do, it just needs to be placed in the water; it needs to ruminate there. Sometimes Ninnian sees people use dimes, which are no longer made of pure silver. But, of course, in an emergency you can use whatever you have on hand.
We made our own potions in jelly jars. Ninnian gave me water from her well that had been bathed in the full moon of Scorpio—good for research, she said.
The art of potion making is all about intention. Ninnian held out a glass jar to a confused teenager wearing a Batman shirt. He wanted to make a potion for his music. She directed him—a teaspoon of the same herbs I had: mint, cloves and chamomile, then fill the jar with the sacred Druid holy water she had drawn from Brigid’s well in Ireland. “Sprinkle this on your instruments,” she directed him.
Now it was time for the ritual. We formed a circle—42 adults around a makeshift altar and the high priest and priestess. The priest wore khaki shorts, the priestess wore a long green cloak and round, thick glasses. In the center of the circle lay a large hoop with ribbons tied to it, ready to be attached to the top of the maypole. In the center of the hoop, there was a large rubber duck, which had been the pace duck during the races.
I stood next to Donlon. “Oh, the famous duck ceremony,” he whispered to me. “This is really great, really rare. You’re getting the best material.”
* * *
Paganism, Donlon likes to say, is all about playfulness.
After my first meeting, Donlon had wanted to talk to me about Morocco and Arabic and his son, Rowan, who’d traveled to the Middle East to live among nomadic tribes. Then we kept talking.
Donlon defines his Paganism--Neopaganism, in the terms of scholars--as a “collection of everything.” It is a return, he says, to the oldest traditions. Predating Christianity, and all the “civilization” that came with it, every culture had Paganism or something like it. That is where the power of Paganism comes from. It’s a revival of all of those ancient beliefs wrapped into one. Of course, this definition is disputed; scholars try to separate Neopagans from pre-Christian pagans, but most Neopagans see themselves as heirs to their tradition, not its inventors. Depending on who you ask, this movement is either very new or the oldest thing there is.
A week before the New Hampshire Beltane, the Upper Valley Pagans held their own Beltane ritual at Donlon and Patricia’s house. To get there, we turned at a Bernie Sanders sign deep on a wooded road to a winding driveway until we came upon a crooked gray house in a large clearing, surrounded by a maze of garden paths into the forest. The house contained a physical collection of the values Neopaganism preaches. It was built, Donlon said in a “power spot” surrounded by oak trees—the sacred Druid symbol. Each morning, Donlon opened his windows to spend some time with the oaks. Only twice had he committed “tree murder”—killing a live tree. The house was constructed with recycled wood and ran on solar energy. The first floor of the house was mostly one big room, hexagonal in shape, and open to the kitchen with a big black wood stove. The bathroom was hidden behind a felt curtain, and on the wall beside it hung a Guy Fawkes mask and a US Marines cap—Donlon’s father’s. A room to the right of the door was stashed with toys for grandchildren, drums for journeying to other worlds, and a home altar with shiny white figures of The God and Goddess alongside green candles. The windowsills were littered with icons for every season from every tradition—sweet grass for burning, wooden owls and wooden frogs, photographs of Patricia and Donlon’s meditation mentors who now inhabit a different plane. There was a meditating Buddha, there were cornhusk dolls, there was a string of prayer beads, and bongos and round animal skin drums and giant bass drums.
I wandered into the dining room, across from the altar room and framed by photographs of bright green and red tree frogs, plastered onto the wall. Frogs are Donlon’s guiding animal. Inside was a small round table overlooking the forest and a desk, upon which sat an old Macbook, a spiral notebook open to a Beltane ritual, the Holy Bible, and the American Rhyming Dictionary.
Donlon came downstairs from putting on his Beltane shirt, a red and flowy tunic.
He took me up a narrow staircase to the second floor where he pointed to a silk tapestry—real Chinese, he said. It was a painting of a Chinese woman. Donlon’s acupuncturist had painted it for him. “Look at the way the artist highlighted the Reichi,” Donlon gestured to two red splotches on the painting. “Those are great mushrooms, I’m a real mushroom guy. I take Reichi twice a day to keep it all in balance.”
At the top of the stairs was his bedroom. He pointed to a line of dark wood statues on his dresser, to. “These are the ancestors,” he said, “mostly African and Caribbean.” I asked him what he meant by “ancestors.” He told me that all humanity comes from Africa, and that his father had collected these statues while he was a Marine.
Above the bed Donlon pointed out a dream catcher from a plains tribe. One of the boards in the wall was from La Solet, an abandoned Shaker commune. If you rub the wood one way, it feels soft and smooth, he said, but go the other direction and it will give you splinters. There was a Sufi amethyst set in silver wings, meant to inspire “God-intoxication.”
I looked back at the ancestors-- statues of men carrying walking sticks and women with their hair twisted high above their head. In the center a man wearing a cloth and holding a round drum over his head. Behind them, shoved to the corner of the dresser, a pale white statue of a woman, with white-blonde hair and silvery-blue eyes. Like Elsa from Frozen.
“Who is that?” I asked.
“My mother’s sister made that. It’s Mary.”
“The Virgin Mary?”
“Yep,” he said. “Come on, let me show you my hobbit hole.”
Donlon led me through a tiny door he built in the middle of a bookshelf, a secret passage that led to a balcony overlooking the first floor. On either side of the narrow balcony were small cubbies, under the slanting wood, each containing a queen sized bed. These are where visitors lie when he does journey drumming. They blindfold themselves on the bed and meditate, trying to let the beat carry them to other planes. Donlon walks around the house with his hand drum, experimenting with rhythm and amplitudes.
Donlon became a Pagan late in life. First he was a Catholic. He went to St. Francis Catholic school in Revere Beach, Florida. He never really liked Catholicism, but his father had a beautiful statue of St. Francis in his garden. Donlon knew that St. Francis talked to animals, that he spent time in the woods. He wanted to be like that too. When he was in eighth grade, his family moved to Jackson, New Hampshire, and lived on top of a mountain. He would go into the woods every day, just like St. Francis.
When he was 14, Donlon was hit by a moving truck. He spent days recovering in the hospital on a morphine drip. He was in an altered state, but he knows that he really did see three angels sitting on the end of his hospital bed comforting him. This was his first vision
His son, Rowan, was born in 1979. When Rowan turned six, Donlon began taking him to Rainbow Gatherings. He used to detox people from drug trips during the hippie-inspired forest gatherings. It was there that he met Jeff McBride, a Pagan-Magician who performs in Vegas. McBride invited him to come to Earth Spirit Covenings, huge Pagan meetings that happen every year for the sake of celebration and energy-raising.
Donlon brought Rowan with him. They ventured out to the middle of the woods, through a stone arch, where Donlon saw people just laying with each other, enjoying each other. “They weren’t making love,” Donlon said. “But they were loving each other.” They weren’t afraid of physical contact, or of nudity. Donlon liked it.
Since then, Donlon has seen little bonfires become tall flames that lick the sky, surrounded by hundreds of Pagans. He has met Pagan covens that he says have existed for 700 years. He has been to the fairy world and back.
It was at a Twilight Covening—Earth Spirit’s yearly fall gathering—that he met a Druid named Arthur who had just spent three months in Scotland studying the fairies. Arthur spent several days at the covening, teaching everything he had learned in those three months—invocations, meditation techniques—everything one needs to know to be able to visit the fairy realm. The final test was to enter the realm yourself. They went out to an oak-filled part of the woods and spread out, and there they repeated their invocations.
Donlon remembers opening his eyes. Straight ahead was a patch of ferns, but only one was waving at him--“going chchchchchchchch,” Donlon said, wiggling his index finger. The fern communicated to him that he needed to touch its tip. His other hand, the fern communicated, was to be placed on top of his left knee. The very knee he had wrecked in his accident when he was 14. The very knee that had brought angels to him in the hospital was now bringing the fairies to him among the oak trees. He felt a rush of energy pass through the fern and into his body. He felt his knee, which had been in pain, begin to feel better. He felt the fairies heal him.
Since then, he says, he’s meditated with Sikhs from India, spent time with “Native American clan mothers,” been with “African Shamans” and “European Druids.” He believes he’s learned it all, he’s felt the power. Maybe this is the essence of Neopaganism: the belief that one can harness the power of other people’s traditions, that in doing so one harnesses the power of the universe. The more symbols you mush together, it seemed to me, the better. Appropriation did not seem to be a concern. The goal was to let go of “civilization,” of its rules, the better to transcend restrictions. I thought about my own faith, my own tradition. Christians look out, beyond the universe. We are powerless in the face of an all-powerful God. But Pagans, through their gods, find that they are the powerful ones.
* * *
Beltane is all about the power of sex, which is apparent as we cast the circle. “Lewd, off-color comments welcome,” the priestess said.
The priest announced the time to “erect” the maypole, “joining,” he said, “the masculine sky to the feminine earth, replicating the way things were before the earth and sky and waters were all enslaved by man!” The crowd cheered and clapped. The men separated from the women to retrieve the maypole and carry it to the circle. The women were to stay—it was our job to prepare the “may hole.” The priestess wielded a sacred, double-bladed contraption that is known on homedepot.com as a “Post-Hole Digger.” We gathered in the center of the circle and watched as the priestess lifted the digger into the air, and jabbed its two round blades into the soft earth. She yanked the two wooden handles apart, lifted, and ripped from the earth a small pile of dark soil, which she tossed aside.
“Who’s next?” she asked.
The great hole-digging ceremony came with a chorus of giggling from the women, a litany of “stick it in” and “harder” and “spread ‘em” as each one—from the oldest witch to Brienna and Lance’s 3-year-old—took a turn with the post-hole digger. I tried to stay toward the back, but a teenage girl with her mom turned around.
“Have you gone yet? You have to go!”
I blushed. “No, no,” I said. “It’s ok, I don’t really need to.”
She laughed, pushed me forward. “Sure you do!”
I wanted to make one of a multitude of excuses that ran through my head, but I took the shovel from a brunette in a red, medieval dress. I looked down at the hole.
It’s so deep, I thought. I shoved the heavy digger in, I spread it as hard as I could, I came out with only a sprinkling of dust.
A middle aged woman across the circle from me became impatient for the men to return and the festivities to begin. “Well, I guess they finally learned how to wait,” she called, and a stream of cackling followed.
From a distance, we saw the men marching toward us, around the big house, around the garden, down the grass and into our circle. Ready to conquer. No, not conquer, ready to join. The women around me began to chant.
“We all come from The Goddess, and to her we shall return, like a drop of rain flowing to the ocean.” It was sing-song, a sweet lullaby. As the men entered they chanted too, but they weren’t as organized. They switched chants as they marched around so much that Donlon never latched onto one.
They sang, they raised their voices, they laughed as they came through the gate carrying the pole on their shoulders, as they attempted to balance the hoop with the ribbons on the top before putting it in the hole.
“Don’t put it in uncovered!” one woman cried.
After a few tries, the maypole was in. The crowed cheered and we returned to our places in the circle, picking the ribbons off the ground and pulling them to the edges of the circle, the ready position for maypole dancing.
“Oh, look, there’s not enough people on that side,” Donlon said to Patricia, pointing to the sparse side of the circle opposite us.
At their house, only ten people had stood around the backyard maypole, including three children. There had been plenty of ribbon, which the kids had gleefully pulled to the end of the pole, cutting it the same length, choosing their favorite colors. Patricia had stood beneath a tree, the head of the circle, calling out directions to us: some of us were to walk moonwise and some of us sunwise, then we were to alternate: over-under-over-under, to weave the ribbon down the pole. She’d been like the conductor of a children’s music class—she could teach us the basics, but the beat was still a little off. We’d twisted and knotted the ribbon, never quite getting the “earth and sky, earth and sky god and goddess unify” chant to overcome interjections of “am I under, or are you?”
The 44-person maypole at New Hampshire Beltane was even more confused. There was more twisting, more pulling, more tripping. My ribbon was short and shredded, a sort of nylon that felt like it would snap if I pulled too hard letting people under. A man designated as the King entered the circle holding a pair of deer antlers. He ran around the circle battling the rest of the men in the chase for the Queen. It ended in him shoving the antlers through a tissue paper-covered hoop. Then the two stood face to face, the pole separating them. We bound them to the pole, making intertwined knots around their heads and backs. They giggled and blushed, the Queen a woman of about 30 with short dark hair, the King a boy who looked no more than 16. They were secured, staring at each other around the sides of the pole.
“We will cut them free later,” the priestess yelled, holding up a pocket knife. First it was time for a small meal of bread and water. The priestess made her way around the circle with a green chalice full of Ninnian’s full-moon water. She was followed by the priest, giving out bread. Before the sacred distribution they reminded the group, and announced to me, that this is, of course, not Catholic. Just like the holy water, and the Beltane folklore, and the blessings, this communion is nothing like that. No Jesus here, no patriarchy either, and definitely no rules. I said a little prayer before I ate my bread. Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest and let your gifts to us be blessed.
I sat with Donlon and Patricia and Angela during the potluck following the circle. I listened to their comments on the ceremony. They told me they would be sorry to be without me, that they’d gotten used to me around. They told me I was welcome to join them over the summer.
I smiled and shrugged. “We’ll see,” I said.
I didn’t quite know how to say “no, thank you” after they’d given me so much. I didn’t know how to tell them I was done, I had what I needed, goodbye. I had started to like them.
I picked up my mason jar full of prosperity potion and drove home.
40 Towns is supported by the Dartmouth College English Department Class of '54 Fund.