Over Easter of 2011 I attended my first Reclaiming WitchCamp – Australia’s first, the Southern Hemisphere’s first Reclaiming WitchCamp. Being part of a WitchCamp was astonishing, joyous, challenging, thought-and-growth-and-evolution-provoking; for me, it was literally life-changing. It was food for the soul, and a guiding light. It is easy, terribly, terrifyingly easy, to get lost in despairing anger at the wreck of the world, the waste of humanity’s potential to be Gods and the poisoning of our habitat, our Earth, our Mother. If despair, jadedness and black sorrow are the dis-ease, WitchCamp is the cure. It is time away from the “real” world, cauldron-time, transformation-time; it is the company of like minds and souls; it is Work, and ritual, and dance and song all aimed at the celebration and service of life, love and connection. It gives strength enough to take up the task again of saving the world one action, one choice, one step at a time.
There were fifty-some of us there, a small camp in Healesville, Victoria, to do the Work and to incidentally make a little history – teachers, organisers and campers – not counting the multitude of spirits and God/desses, ancestors and descendants who all put in appearances by the end of that long weekend. Five days is not a long block of calendar time, but calendar time kind of stopped having any meaning in that place, between the worlds, tucked away in a pocket of wet green bushland, enfolded by rolling hills and a steady blanket of mist. Here we bent time, we did the Work, we made a little history, we shook the Earth with our dancing and the Sky with our singing, we shed our burdens and picked up others, consciously and by choice and with ignited awareness. This is one story, one camper’s story.
First day on site. I have arrived early, caught a lift in with a friend of a friend, and feeling out of step with time – up before dawn to catch my flight, watching the sun rise gold and pink on the far side of an airport runway. Now I am in this misty place, this green place, hundreds of flying miles out of my comfort zone. There is a flurry of activity, teachers and organisers still setting up the site, and the feel is of excitement and a joyous, low-level confusion – where is the, have you seen the? I dump my bags in a cabin, shed a layer of clothing – cold air a dance on my skin – and go to help.
A blur as the afternoon flies by – meetings, housekeeping, making runes out of twigs and twine, laughing, cradling cups of tea in cold hands, and an endless parade of new faces and new names – and then dinner, sitting cheek by jowl in the dining hall with the clamour of voices and rising laughter all around me. I have forgotten most of the names already, but the feeling of welcome, of homeness, is unmistakable – Witchy cackles and occasional bursts of song – yes, these are my people.
And then drums, drums as the sun is setting, and we answer the call and come to the Great Hall, to our ritual site. I have seen it earlier this day, cluttered with cushions and scattered hangings and with baskets and bags of ritual gear and pretties scattered on the smooth wooden floor, the butterfly still trying to escape the chrysalis, awkward and clumsy. Now the butterfly is out, drying its wings in the sun, and the Great Hall is a glory in candlelight, all bright altars glowing like gems. Stars hang from the rafters overhead. The drums surge until it feels like they pound within my chest, like my whole body is throbbing to this rhythm. And then silence, pregnant and deep; and then into that waiting stillness, the ritual unfolds.
This is not ritual as I have seen it previously. This is not assigned parts and scripts. This is not learn-your-lines, follow the steps of the recipe, neatly proscribed parcels of time ritual. This is organic. This is blood and guts. This is physical, theatrical, musical. This is a chorus of sighs and moans, ecstatic, boneless, the rasp of fingers softly across the face of a bohran. This is orgasmic. This is Reclaiming ritual, the people’s ritual, and this is how it unfolds:
We are trancing, dancing, back through the Song of Creation, through the unwinding spirals of Life, back through fur – all fours on the floor, prowling, growling, trying to make a lion’s roar with a human mouth as howls and barks and snarls chorus around me – and back to feathers, flying, arms out as wings, feeling the movement of wind over my feathers – and back again, unwinding, feathers to scales – water is a weight and a comfort around me, I am aware of my whole body, smooth and streamlined and muscular – and back, and back – dinosaur, titanic and untouchable – frog, tiny and graceful – back again, amoeba, quivering and dancing endlessly in the shapeless matrix of Life – back to the spark of Life before there was shape at all, back to the dancing spark of potential in the belly of the Star Goddess. And then we spiral endlessly out again, back to human form, dancing and dancing in spirals again and singing, singing, from the bottom of our souls, feeling the truth of the words – I have been with you from the beginning, from the beginning I have been with you! We spiral in, tighter, warmth of body on body, voices lifting, proud and potent, until we are in the very centre, in the belly, still singing but beyond words, arms up, giving from the core of our beings – power, song, the Song of Creation, Life! – until silence, done. The Cone of Power rises, twists, and spills down on us, on this Land, the vessel for our WitchCamp, for our Work, in benediction.
The second day dawns, misty and grey. I have slept like the innocent dead, exhausted, still vibrating in each cell from our ritual – I do not feel like my Self that was, anymore. Something is shifting, unfolding in me, something with fur and feathers, something that is not ashamed of the sound of its voice. I cannot see its shape yet, but I like how I feel – awake, alive, aware in every part of me.
We break fasts and gather in the Great Hall and choose our Paths. Three are offered: Elements, EarthSong, and the Inner Path. I choose to go within, and our small group gathers up tarps and cushions and files down to the red tent, distant and damp, enfolded in mist and mud. There we make a dry nest, and huddle for warmth, and start the journey within. We run the Iron Pentacle, and we dive into meditation, into Self, and we look to each direction only to find more Self, beyond the limits of physical bodies or egos – the Self that is All, that is beautiful.
That evening we gather again to the song of drums in the Great Hall. Our intent this night is to work with the ancestors of our blood and the native spirits of place, to work healing and reconciliation in this bruised and battered Land. And so we call upon these spirits, and then we turn to the future and call to the spirits of those not yet born, of our distant descendants. We sit in meditation, on the dreams of our ancestors as they came to this Land – for a better life, that their children need never go hungry, need never steal to survive – for land that they could put down roots in – for something better, something brighter, than what came before. We wash our hands in healing waters, wash away the sorrows that came to pass when those dreams clashed and broke against the dreams of this Land and its native peoples – and then we rise, and we go out into the night, into the belly of Nature, to learn from the Land what those dreams were, what they are, to begin the healing.
I find a tree, ancient and tall; in my mind, it speaks with the voice of an old man. He tells me of the Great Exchange, of how to feed back into the Land as we take from it – to feed it in our bodies and blood, in our food and drink and offerings, in our stories and our songs, our time and energy. He describes us, the race of man, Homo sapiens sapiens, as birds with the minds of ants, and the power of mountains. I make promises, and feel shaken with the terrible responsibility of my power, of our power, the power of mountains but always used thoughtlessly, as though there were no consequences; and then the drums summon us back, and I make my farewells and return to the Hall. There we sit again, and cup the dreams of our ancestors in one hand, and the dreams of the Land in the other. There we try to find a way to bring the two together; for a moment I see it, in my mind’s eye, a future where my children’s children walk in sunlight and need never go hungry and live the Great Exchange and feed the Land in song and prayer and simple action, and what I see is so beautiful that I start to cry.
Then our children’s children speak: our priests and priestesses have drawn them in, have made themselves vessels, and they speak: of making the change, living the change, activating the change, here and now, for the future. We begin to sing, at first weak with emotion and then stronger, feeling hope begin to flare through us, that we can make the change – stronger, louder, prouder, passion spiralling up, until we are incandescent with it: We are the rising Sun; We are the Change; We are the ones we are waiting for; And we are dawning! And we come together in the middle, ecstatically, hands and voices and power rising up and up in the air until we are wordless, a great throbbing toning of song and power that peaks, and a silence drops over us that is profound.
We unwind our circle and declare the ritual done; not a soul moves. The still, the silence, is as deep as I have experienced, all of us sitting with the energy, feeling the weight of our power, our terrible responsibility; and then softly, softly like a breeze on water, like moonlight, a voice singing again: She changes everything She touches, and everything She touches changes... And it builds, and soon we are all singing, and then hands clasp hands and again we dance, spiralling in, not for energy this time but for healing, and then organic shift and the dance changes, denser, and now we are singing: Hoof and horn, hoof and horn, All that dies shall be reborn! Now an affirmation, now a claiming of our strength for the work ahead, until again silence falls as we are sitting in the middle, exhausted and at peace, leaning one on the other, feeling the healing begin.
Our third day onsite dawns. Still the grey and the mist, the gentle haze of rain at night, the grass wet underfoot; we are Veiled. The Inner Path gathers, collects up tarps and pillows again and proceeds down to the distant, womb-red tent. We cast our circle in apples and Iron – Sex, Pride, Self, Power, Passion! – and settle in to begin our Work for the day.
We are going deeper into Self – into the Shadow Self, the parts of ourselves that we hide away and hide from, that we reject and project, project, project. In paper and ink we vomit our venom, cast abuse at our abusers and oppressors, at those we’ve the most rational of rationalised reasons to hate – and then the tables turn, and “she” becomes “me”, and in black and white we behold our own flaws: I take zero responsibility for the shit in my life! I poison every relationship! Would I have been so unkind if I knew I was writing to myself? Would I have been so honest? The tool of the Inner Path is the mirror, and this light is not at all flattering – and yet this is me, my Self, all the warts exposed, and all the beauty. And now we are going deeper – the pound of a drum, steady and seductive, and we trance into the Underworld, into the Cauldron of Transformation, into a boat on the Sunless Sea, there to face the Shadow – and she is me, black as ink, her teeth the teeth of a shark – beautiful as a storm and cruel as a cat and powerful, powerful. There we face each other across a fire, and dance, and merge, and marry, and I can feel her with me as we return to the waking world – she is brutal and bright, amoral as a child, the Self that I had buried for so long, dark wedded to light, balance.
We break for lunch, raw and wearing our flaws on our skin – we have each chosen one, put it on a name tag and wear it for the world to see – I am the Passive-Aggressive One, delighting in the novelty in stepping away from shame, exposing my Shadow to light – this, too, is my Self.
Back to the tent as the Sun peaks and begins to fall away. We are continuing now along the path of the Iron Pentacle, shifting from Self into Power, and we sit in a circle and cast a web of Power between us – the Power, the currency, of our attention as we speak, every voice heard in turn. For this exercise, each word has a price – so each word is precious, is treasured, is spoken with full intent and awareness, is powerful – and attention, Power, passes around and across the circle, like a spider’s web spun of voice and consciousness – what is Power? Who has Power, how do we gain it, or lose it? Can it be taken, or only surrendered? What types of Power are there, and how do they feel – to those who wield them, and to those who wear the consequences? Our spell spun, our chant woven together from these threads, we begin to sing: I stand in my Power, under the blue flower.
Evening, and again we come together in the Great Hall, tonight not for Work but for revelry, a night of the Bardic arts, of rest, of laughter and song and food for the soul. Songs rise, and chants; stories are spun, and laughter spills; as drums pound a solitary dancer whirls in the centre of the circle, skirt and hair flaring out like a halo, and we watch, breathless, dizzy, entranced. When I fall into bed this night I have drums in my belly, tales of Ragnarok floating at the edges of my mind, and song, the names of Goddesses – Isis, Astarte, Diana, Hecate, Demeter, Kali, Inanna – coiled serpentine at my heart.
The fourth day comes still, cool, damp – the grey shroud lingers. This is our final full day on site, our final day of Path, the culmination of all our Work, one final push to birth ourselves. We gather at the red tent and dive back into Power, and there are tears and laughter as we talk about our power, the power in our own lives of choosing, of freedom; of how we huddle over our power, or surrender it, or passively shrug it away as though it were of no moment while we bleed to death inside. We reach inside for our fears, our fears that hold us back from Power, from our Powerful, blooming, fully-realised Selfhood, and with tears and clawed hands we rip out fear and cast it into the circle, the Cauldron, for transformation. (Have I ever wept so publicly and so shamelessly before? But what is shame, here in the belly of this Work, with brothers and sisters on either side?) And then we part ways, and scatter into Nature and into ourselves – we are preparing, each in our own way, for the final ritual of our Path, in solitude. I kneel in the red shade of the tent and mark my palms with pastels – a pearl and a bright flame, my Self and my Power, restored, returned, reclaimed. Then out into the world, the grass and mud cold and sensual between my toes, to run the Iron Pentacle and honour the directions and align my three Selves. All around are my Path-mates, all making their own preparations – I can hear singing, chanting, prayer, hard and powerful breaths, vibrating God names, different traditions, methods, Gods – and yet when we come together again we are all alike, flushed and glowing with energy. We gather in a circle and ritual unfolds, organically, no script or plan – and we call back Selfhood, and Power, and begin to sing, and at the culmination we stand hand in hand in a pentagram, running Iron from point to point in our Selves and between our Selves, palm to palm.
Lunch, good food and warm tea and a chorus of voices and laughter – was it only days ago that these people were strangers? And now song and conversation flows effortless as breath, and in the silence between words, some of us find we are swaying gently in place – like amoebas, like tree branches – to the same silent beat.
Afternoon, and optional offerings – another ritual, more power passed, more laughter, more singing! – and then evening falls and we gather again in the Great Hall to candlelight and the pounding of drums. Our journey this night takes us trancing and dancing through the Elements, Air, Fire, Water, Earth, Spirit, dancing them through our bodies in floating hands and stamping feet as musicians flood the space with the brightness of music. Do you dare to love the Element of Air? of Fire? Water? Earth? comes the cry, the charge, and Yes! we respond, dozens of voices raised as one, eyes-closed whirling dancing stamping figures circling and circling as we trance deeper and deeper through the Elements of Life. And then we return to our bodies, to the space, each of us with some of that brightness held inside us like a flame, and we try to find words – we are piecing together a chant as a group, and it’s organic and beautiful, whispering and chanting and toning voices all around me each singing their own heart song, until two voices join together, and then a handful more, and the chant falls into place as if we had all been singing it from the beginning, as if it were the essence of the brightness itself, until every voice is raised and singing: Starfire ecstasy! Precious, precious love!
In the centre of the circle we gather, arms up, voices raised to breaking, feeling that ecstasy, that starfire, flow through us and out and up, pulsing, bouncing, pushing the energy higher and higher, singing and moving as one. I am the definition of ecstatic – ek stasis, standing outside myself – I am everyone in that room, and the floor and the rafters and the trees outside and the Land below and the Sky above and the spark of Life in the belly of the Star Goddess and the rising swelling soaring tide of energy that grows and lifts and peaks! – and then done, spiralling out into the world and into us, our own depths – as above, so below, as within, so without.
I am exhausted, and yet it is with a wisp of reluctance that I crawl into my sleeping bag – our last night in this place, in this process of deepening, unfolding, becoming… do I know now? Can I put it in words? More and more, with every lesson, and ritual, and song, and conversation, becoming unadornedly, unashamedly, potently my Self.
The final day dawns: the Veil lifts, and suddenly there is blue sky and white puffs of cloud, and the diamond sparks of sunlight hitting dew. We are concluding this part of the Work, and beginning the work: of tidying the site, packing and folding and sweeping and hosing to leave this place, our cauldron and foundation, as clean as the bright sky, the glowing dewdrops.
We gather in the Great Hall for the final ritual. At each of the four directions we stand, arms and minds and hearts open to the powers of the East, North, West and South, and at each direction we think on and greet our allies for this Work ahead – all our allies. Those of Spirit: Gods and Goddesses, Ancestors, totem animals, Angels and land wights and all those forces that move and shape us; and those allies in flesh: friends and family, teachers, mentors, organisations, no less potent or profound for being Earthly. We will need allies, will need all the help we can get, if we are to make the change, to live the change, to start playing our own parts in saving the world. In a circle we clasp hands and begin to spiral, feet weaving our places in the pattern as we sing: Let it begin with each step we take; and let it begin with each change we make; and let it begin with each chain we break; and let it begin every time we awake!
In smaller groups we collect ourselves, uniting by geography, meeting the neighbours, and we pass purple velvet thread between us, hand to hand, weaving webs of people and place, of promises and vows and dreams of how to begin living the change, first in our own backyards, planting a seed there to spill out change, renewal, Greening – viriditas – across the world. Laughter, thread, connection, hope weaves a spider’s web between our outstretched hands, and we charge it with chanting, the energy of our bodies and our dreams, and then out come the scissors and we each have a piece to take with us, a seed of the Work begun here to carry back to our homes.
And then lunch, and more packing and cleaning, and another blur of faces, mirror of the first day, as the farewells begin. Leaving feels strange, dreamlike; it seems like the last five days have been the most profoundly meaning-filled, awake, real days of my life.