Saturday morning of PantheaCon 2014 I awoke on the floor of the Temple of the Morrigan, to the chanted devotions and benedictions of two of the priests of Coru Cathubodua who slept to the side of me. Fighting against the urge to stay-the-fuck-asleep, I succumbed to consciousness and made myself upright. Caffeine flowed like blessed victorious allies into my veins, and I made myself decent enough to stumble out into the wild, whacky world of the conference. I managed to get myself some coffee before the big rush down at the hotel’s Starbucks kiosk-of-waiting-doom, and then did some check-ins via phone after the welfare of my corvidkid, back East with a babysitter.
Saturday was the “fullest” day for me in terms of programming I needed to attend, including Sacrifice and Modern Paganism: A Panel Discussion which was put together by the Coru, Lupercalia 2014 which is an annual Antinoan rite performed by the Ekklesia Antinoou, and Danbala Sevis – Honoring the Serpent & the Rainbow a Haitian Vodou ceremony hosted by Mambo T’s House, Sosyete Fòs Fè Yo Wè. I met up with Corvus Cardia before the Sacrifice panel, and we snagged some fashionably-not-quite-late seats in the back left of the presentation hall. John Fucking Beckett joined us in our row, as did another dear friend (clearly we were the cool kids).
The Sacrifice panel was a fascinated set of discussions, with a very knowledgeable group of five folks: Jeffrey Albaugh, Crystal Blanton, Dr. Amy Hale, Mambo T, and Sam Webster (links stolen from John Beckett’s post), and was moderated by my friend Rynn Fox. John’s summary of the panel is a good one, and it is not my interest to go blow-by-blow through the whole thing. In fact, as has been my theme with these recounts so far, I will share only my personal process and inner experience of the panel.
The panel’s description, borrowed here from the Coru’s event calendar, reads:
From offering the best wine and grain to the finest animal or tribal member to the Gods, sacrifice was a central part of many ancient cultures. But as modern Pagans we must ask ourselves: what is the role of sacrifice today? How is sacrifice relevant to our experience, and should we invest the time and energy to restore ancient sacrificial rites to their place within Pagandom? Or should we invent modern sacrificial rites, and if so, what would they entail? Explore these questions and others as we discuss the place of sacrifice within ancient and modern traditions.
Despite seeming to be focused more broadly on “general sacrifice”, the major topic of discussion seemed to be specifically on animal or blood sacrifice, with one audience member bringing up (during the Q&A segment) the subject of human sacrifice. Sam Webster stated early on that sacrifice, if anything indeed could be considered such, is perhaps the universal theme connecting religious and spiritual traditions globally and throughout human history, which I thought was a powerful, accurate and evocative statement. While he, and several others — including Crystal — spoke of “other” forms of sacrifice (such intangible-made-tangible in the form of conceived thought put to word, or social activism), the focus and charge of conversation kept circling back to animal and blood sacrifice. It was very interesting to see the group of five assembled voices address the topic, and to note that amongst them, only one (Mambo T) had performed animal sacrifice.
I found myself thinking about other conversations that I wanted to have on the subject, but made the assessment that the present venue probably wasn’t the place. I was disappointed, I think, that the subject of “general sacrifice” was not discussed more in-depth (e.g. is there a difference between giving a gift to the gods, versus giving a sacrifice? why did so many people seem to have a recoiled response to the idea of transactional relationships? is there a difference between an offering and a sacrifice? does the value of a sacrifice increase if it is harder for the giver to acquire, or does that not matter to the spirit or god in question? how much do these things depend entirely on the tradition or path in question, etc.) and that, with animal/blood sacrifice as the clear “buzz topic”, it wasn’t addressed with more hands-on experience or specificity. Overall, I think that this conversation was an essential and necessary starting point, which ultimately took off as a fledgling from the nest without any crash-landings. From here, more steps-and-flights can be taken (through different trees, approaching the canopy…) to further explore and engage the subject.. and I look forward to seeing where it goes from here!
Next on the agenda was Lupercalia. As a Lupercai myself, I always love returning to this ritual. My initiation into the fabled ranks of lupine fellowship happened not at PantheaCon, but within (and then outside of…) my very own Thracian Temple of Night, some years ago. However, at this particular time, I felt physically unwell; travel is never kind to me, and while I as remarkably able-bodied this convention weekend, I have health issues and am generally using a cane for mobility assistance (which I wasn’t, for most of the con.) I was critically fatigued, in the “I have a chronic invisible illness, and I ran out of spoons” sort of way, and spiked a fever for a short while. One of this year’s Lupercai-to-be was a friend and family member of mine, and it was an obligation that I stay to support their process in the proceedings, otherwise I may well have needed to duck out to throw myself into a power-nap or a vat of espresso or a swimming pool or something.
The ritual itself is a powerful one, and despite some logistical snags — delays in getting the right furnishings from the hotel’s event staff, stalls and ritual modifications due to those delays, and some communication snares — this year’s expression was not lacking in potent deliverance. PSVL recounts the ritual here, and eir frustration at the logistics is clear, but I will say this: when the footrace came to a close and the energy built up through the rites coalesced and the ritual blessings — first of victory, and then the removal of defeat — were lashed out upon willing audience members, who lifted their palms to receive that which was offered, my fever fucking broke and the muscles in my face stopped twitching and the fatigue gave way to a feeling of cleansed restoration. Winged Victory struck through palms from flayed goat — as if there is any other way to know sweet victory, daughter of Styx — came and took stance at my back, which straightened out of pained slouch. She touched my shoulders and my head lifted and, fuck, I felt pretty okay. (Anyone who has suffered from chronic illness, pain, or extreme fatigue will know how rare such a wave of restorative relief is… and how much of a true blessing it really is.)
With victory assured and defeat slapped away, I found myself finally feeling the ground beneath me.
And it turned out that I would need these blessings to make it through the rest of the night…
As I would be attending the Danbala Sevis later in the evening, I was abstaining from alcohol for the day, and so I made do with 5-Hour-Energies and smoked salmon to keep myself upright and human-shaped. I changed into my ritual whites — which was quite a sight, for those who hadn’t ever seen me in that mode — for the ritual, and prepared for that with the rest of the House. There was a memorial service for Eddy scheduled immediately before the Sevis, and there is a lot of overlap between those who were at that and those who would be attending or participating in honoring Danbala. I am told that the memorial was intensely powerful, and completely divinely profound and important; however, it also I think lent to a certain tension in the air transitioning the space for the Sevis, which was a thing that could have been logistically coordinated better by Programming. Part of the problem with an event like PantheaCon is that it is really fucking hard to coordinate all of the moving pieces; however, I think that sometimes the very real and concrete nature of some of the energies invoked and brought literally down into spaces for certain rituals is not necessarily factored into decisions of this kind. It is just not a good fucking idea to have certain sorts of events happen back-to-back in one space; but no Programming team can be on top of every single thing.
The ritual itself was powerful, and also immensely challenging for me on several levels. Danbala is amongst the biggest and most potent of the lwa (spirits) in Haitian Vodou, and is greeted and treated with a huge amount of deference and reverence. Prior to this evening, He had not come down — through spirit possession — into a priest at any event I was present for, and so to be asked to feed and greet Him when He arrived was a tremendous honor, which I hopefully didn’t fumble through too poorly. However, I will actually not be discussing the rest of the ritual in-depth here at all; Danbala had an interesting exchange with me as I knelt with Him, which — to say the least — left me spun and out of sorts. Under ideal circumstances, I — or anyone else similarly impacted by the very real and very present and very in-your-face Divinity — would have received care and intervention to alleviate some of what I was going through. (For that matter, in other sorts of ritual contexts, I would normally be one of the people doing this.) In this particular evening, however, the only Vodou priest present in the ritual was not longer present, because Danbala was riding her.
The remainder of the ritual is a blur — a thing Rhyd Wildermuth might appreciate me referring to as “Divine Trauma” later that evening, but which was equally just a state of spiritual overload and physical depletion — and my sequence in memory is mapped primarily by scattered images, shaky steps, and spinning rooms. I experienced high bouts of vertigo for the remainder of the night, feeling as though I were pressed against the head of a giant white serpent, who moved up and down through the sea and sky and heavens with such force that I was flattened and then lifted, weightless, and then pushed downward again. My equilibrium was vertically shot and I was loathe to get on an elevator — but stairs were absolutely out of the question. After the ritual was closed, and the space cleaned up, with altars and adornments moved back up to the tenth floor, I felt myself needing to not be sitting still. (The vertigo was worse when I was still.)
I found myself wandering through the halls of the hotel — probably ill-advised in my state, but we’ll take this as a “don’t try this at home” segment — and was appreciatively taken in by an ally, priest, and kinsperson some eight floors down, who spent a few minutes helping me reorient. It is humbling to be the one stumbling about, as I am so often on the other side of that, helping to ground people back into themselves and into this place and into this time, with my own feet never too terribly far from the earth beneath. But this weekend? I don’t know that I ever really landed.
Later I was blessedly collected by a supportive, nourishing presence and gathered up into the Temple of the Morrigan, where communion rites before the altar helped to calm the rise-and-fall; from serpents to ravens, I ended my evening in blessed darkness, safety, and prayerful repose.