Sunday, December 19, 2010

the most ordinary magic

by Sarah Twichell

I spent last week at my family’s cabin on the St. Lawrence Seaway. It has a tiny kitchen with an electric stove whose best quality is that it functions, and the running water isn’t potable, but it’s beautiful – for me, almost archetypically so. I woke up every morning to the boughs of a pine tree outside my bedroom windows, and they’re the same ones I’ve seen every morning up here since I was old enough to get a separate bedroom from my sister. When it is cloudy, as it is today, the water looks flat and grey in a particular way that is completely familiar to me. When it is sunny, I know exactly how it sparkles. Although I have no sense of direction normally, in this place, the knowledge of which way is north is as sure as a compass. In short, this place is one of my homes, a landscape so familiar that it feels burned into my heart.

From my office, I often take a walk at lunch, up behind an office building and past a river, then around to see a pond on the other side of the road. I count swans and kayaks. This, too, is familiar: the house with the gate like a tree branch, the spot where the men play chess on the hood of a car, the place where there’s a lilac whose blossoms hang over the road in May.

This is the most ordinary magic in the world: our feet cross a place over and over – whether it’s most days for a year or most years for decades – and slowly, we come to belong to that place. We don’t need any special techniques or well-honed skills, or any traditions other than those we make ourselves. In a world where things move quickly and it’s easy to feel adrift, this is how we make places where we feel rooted, connected, grounded. And as we return to these places, we return to our own inner quiet, to a measured motion as reliable as the turning of a clock or a monk praying liturgical hours. To ourselves.

Friday, October 29, 2010

On Twilight Covening

by Irene Jericho

[Ed.note: Irene Jericho attended our Twilight Covening gathering in October this year for the first time. With her kind permission, w
e are posting an account she wrote about it, since she captures so clearly and beautifully the deeply transformative environment which our community has so carefully crafted from our collective spiritual experiences over the past two-and-a-half decades. Irene is the frontwoman of the Pagan operatic metal band Cassandra Syndrome, and co-chair of the Shenandoah Midsummer Festival in Winchester, VA.]

This is for the Pagans, or those of you who have been curious about some of the Pagan stuff I do. Everyone else, these are not the droids you're looking for.

This past weekend (Friday-Monday), I attended Twilight Covening in Massachusetts for the first time. It's a four day spiritual retreat for those on the Pagan path and this past Covening was its 25th year.

There are a lot of things from this past weekend that I'm still processing and am not ready to talk about yet. Maybe I never will be. Some things there are no words for. So what I'm going to try to do is tell you about the space, the environment that Twilight creates and envelops you in. Perhaps that will be enough to give you an idea of what's happening up North.

Imagine four days of ritual space. The ritual begins in the evening on Friday, when everyone arrives. The initial circle is formed, the energy spreads out. And the energy... There are around 200 people there. Every single one is there because they have chosen to devote four days to intense spiritual, emotional and psychological work. Imagine ritual space infused by the focus of our most committed practitioners. And that those committed practitioners stand to the right and left of you, holding your hands.

Now we add to that. That ritual space is constantly actively held. At all times, a Clan (usually 6-18 people) is actively concentrating on maintaining the spiritual connection of the space. They lend their energy to help your connection, to help you focus, to help you on your path. At. All. Times. Night or day, you are energetically guarded, enhanced and protected by a team of dedicated energy workers. Even while you sleep, they help you stay attuned.

Now we add to that. Everyone is there because they want to work as hard as you do. Everyone is there because they are actively trying to improve themselves, to heal, to connect, to grow. So everyone you talk to is sharing a lot of the same things you are going through. Everyone there wants you to succeed. The people you interact with honor your trust. They listen when you share your insecurities, your fears, your weaknesses, and do not trivialize or brush off. Instead, they try to find ways to help you. They pray and laugh and weep with you. They help you find ways to lower your shields and to reach out in ways you didn't know you could.

Now we add to that. Your specific Clan is even closer to your own path. Clans are small--the largest I saw was maybe 18 people. They are led by one or two facilitators--some of the most accomplished Priests and Priestesses our tribe has to offer. The Clan you are in is specific in its focus. The people closest to you not only share your goal of working on your spirituality, but they share some of the specifics of that goal. You eat, sleep and work with your Clan. You share and learn from each other. You hold each other while you cry, you raise energy together, you joyously witness the steps each Clan member takes forward because you know just how hard they were to take. You've been taking those steps yourself.

Now we add to that. The space that you are in is breathtaking in natural beauty. You're on top of a mountain in the Berkshires. There is no light pollution, so the sky at night is a sea of stars. The trees are in a full autumnal riot of color and their vibrant tones are reflected in the lake. There are boulders and tall pines, towering oaks and birds singing. There are spaces for quiet reflection, there are spaces for intimate conversation, there are spaces for group work. There are even spaces for silliness. Mirth, after all, is the counterpoint to Reverence.

These words can only capture a fragment of what that space feels like. I wish I could give you the memory of that feeling. I wish I could cover the world with it.

So, I guess what I'm trying to say is that you should go. If you're on the Pagan path, if you're working on your spirituality, Go. Set aside those days for next year now. Start setting aside the money now. Go. Please Go. You probably need this as much or more than I did. And I needed it. I needed it the way a rose needs the sunlight.

Go to Twilight with me next year. Our tribe has built something beautiful in Massachusetts. You should feel it, too.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

A Call for Solidarity on 9/11

from the Board of Trustees
Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions

As the anniversary of 9/11 approaches, there are competing views about the meaning of these tragic events.

Across the interreligious movement, there is deep distress about the intentions of some to identify the Muslim tradition, and the Muslim community, as the villains, rather than a few radical individuals. Unfortunately, too many in the United States know little about the true aims of Islam, nor do they know that Islam is fundamentally a religion of peace and human solidarity and that the majority of Muslims around the world are peace-loving citizens who unequivocally condemn terrorism in the name of religion.

Regrettably, recent opposition to the building of mosques and community centers in several cities has led to violence against Muslims and the desecration of their sacred texts. Burning that which others hold sacred is an act calculated to spark anger and fuel violence. We believe that such actions are unworthy of our nation and stand outside the shared values of our traditions which call for mutual respect and harmony.

Trustees of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions call upon people of faith, spirit and goodwill from all traditions to use the solemn occasion of this 9/11 anniversary to reaffirm our commitment to building a better world for our children and grandchildren, and to affirm our solidarity with the Muslim community in this country and around the world.

In this spirit, we offer this Call for Solidarity:

On this 9/11 weekend, we invite all persons and communities of faith, spirit and goodwill everywhere to lift up their prayers, voices and thoughts to spark a new attitude and sense of urgency, and to enkindle a different flame:

  • a spark that will ignite in us again the impetus to bring comfort to those who lost loved ones on that terror-filled day, and in the violent conflicts and wars that followed from it;
  • a spark that will ignite in us again to stand calmly and firmly against the forces of violence, distrust, hostility and cruelty;
  • a spark that will ignite in us again to stand with those who find themselves on the margins of our society – the homeless and those losing their homes, the documented and undocumented immigrant, the unemployed and financially insecure;
  • a spark that will ignite in us again the commitment to seek healing and reconciliation at home and abroad, in the cause of justice and peace.

In whatever ways that are in keeping with our individual and unique sacred traditions, we issue a call to stand together this weekend of September 10 – 12 in order to quench the fires of hatred and violence in our nation and our world, and to become aflame for the cause of a truly “beloved community.”

The Board of Trustees
Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Report on Current Travels in Europe

by Andras Corban Arthen

During last December’s Parliament of the World’s Religions in Melbourne, Jonas Trinkunas ­­--- the head of the Romuva pagan religion of Lithuania, whom I had invited to attend the Parliament as one of the Indigenous speakers --- reciprocated by inviting me to speak at a Congress of European Ethnic Religions which he had founded a dozen years previously, and which was to be held in August in Bologna, Italy. Jonas also very kindly invited me to participate in a Romuva camp which would take place in the Lithuanian countryside about two weeks before the Congress.

I consulted with the EarthSpirit Board, and everyone thought it would be important for me to attend these events; after checking the books, we found that there were enough funds in the interfaith budget to finance the trip.

Then, this past spring, Kusumita Pedersen --- a friend and colleague on the Parliament’s Board of Trustees --- told me of some people she had met while participating in the annual United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York. Kusumita said they ran an NGO based in Torino (Turin) which consults with the U.N. on Indigenous concerns, and that as part of one of their presentations which she attended, they talked a great deal about the Indigenous European traditions (“they sounded just like you,” she told me). This raised some interesting possibilities, given that I was already planning to attend the Congress in Bologna. Later on, while talking with my old friend Phyllis Curott, who has taught in Italy several times, she suggested that I should meet some of her friends and students there, and kindly put me in touch with them.

So, little by little, my trip has taken shape: Boston to Dublin, to do research for a couple of days at Trinity College. Then on to Vilnius and several days at the Romuva camp out in the country, followed by a return to Vilnius to testify on Romuva’s behalf with the Deputy Mayor for cultural affairs in their effort to secure government support for office/meeting space in the city. Then off to Copenhagen for a one-day stop to do some research at the Nationalmuseet. From there a brief stop in Milan, followed by a train ride to Torino to meet with the heads of the Ecospirituality Foundation. Then a train to Rome and a meeting with local pagans, and, finally, the conference in Bologna before returning home.

I am in Europe now (in Bologna, to be precise), though it’s very difficult to write more extensively on EarthSpirit Voices from here, given that I’m not staying in any one place very long and that it’s sometimes difficult to find good and accessible Internet connections. I will be publishing a full report of my activities here as soon as I am able, though it may have to wait until I’m back in the States.

The Revival of the European Pagan Religions

by Andras Corban Arthen

As it has been previously noted in these pages, within the global interreligious movement that has evolved since the first Parliament of the World’s Religions was held in Chicago, pagans have typically been placed in the category of New Religious Movements, which roughly applies to religions that have emerged since the middle of the 19th century. This would seem to be, surely, the most appropriate category for the neopagan and reconstructionist groups that make up the greater part of modern paganism, since their existence does not appear to go further back than the early 1950s.

For thirty-some years, how
ever, I have been trying to make the case throughout the interfaith movement that some forms of paganism --- namely, the very few remaining survivals of ethnic European spiritual traditions --- more properly belong in the category of Indigenous Religions. My arguments, and others’ similar arguments, have mostly fallen on deaf ears --- both pagan and non-pagan alike --- for various reasons which make it a lot more convenient for many people to believe that no such survivals exist at all.

For Christians, for example, an acknowledgment that the original pagan traditions were not completely wiped out opens the door to the unpleasant possibility that they may, finally, have to deal with the genocidal horrors which Christianity inflicted on Indigenous peoples throughout the world. Outside of Europe, the blame for such heinous acts --- when they are even acknowledged --- has conveniently been attributed to chiefly se
cular motives, such as excessive nationalistic ambitions and economic greed, which obscure their actual, fundamental aim and rationale. When the Christian colonization of Europe is factored in, however, it becomes a lot harder to camouflage the theologically-justified goal of creating a vast religious empire, which continued to be the foundation for most subsequent Christian European colonization elsewhere. But if no trace of the original European pagan traditions were to survive, the motivation to open that painful door becomes less compelling, and the comforting obliviousness of the status quo can remain untouched.

For many North American Indians, the prospect of the continued existence of Indigenous European traditions is often met with decidedly mixed feelings. On the one hand, the survival of some of those traditions after more than fifteen-hundred years of Christian colonization could be taken as a hopeful sign for their own survival, not to mention the new allies they are likely to gain among the keepers of such practices. On the other hand, American Indians have had so much taken from them by “white people” that a lot of them can understandably react with suspicion and even resentment in the face of such a prospect, especially if it can in any way take some of the focus away from their own struggle
s to preserve what is left of their cultures.

And, ironically, many neopagans themselves are extremely resistant to the notion that ethnic forms of European paganism have survived into the present. For them, this raises fears of delegitimization, of marginalization, of power trips: given the contentious history of the modern pagan movement, this reaction is not very surprising.

Be that as it may, after all the years of trying to convince people in the interfaith movement, last December in Melbourne, for the first time ever, the
Parliament of the World’s Religions finally included the surviving European ethnic spiritual traditions in the same category as other Indigenous religions from around the world, a very significant step which could pave the way to many interesting possibilities.

As I mentioned in an earlier article, when given the task of organizing the European components for the Parliament’s Indigenous Task Force programs, I invited krivis Jonas Trinkunas, the head of the traditional Romuva pagan religion of Lithuania, to be one of the featured speakers. Lithuania was one of the last European countries to be Christianized, and its history and cultural makeup have combined in a way that has allowed paganism to survive there to a degree that may be unsurpassed anywhere else in Europe. In Melbourne, Jonas and I offered a presentation together, entitled “The Revival of the European Pagan Religions,” which was meant to address some of the various key elements in the survival of Indigenous European spirituality.

Jonas, along with his son-in-law Artūras Sinkeviĉius, opened the program by singing a Lithuanian daina, one of several thousand traditional folksongs from their homeland that are imbued with mystical and religious meanings. Jonas discussed the role of the dainas in ethnic Lithuanian paganism, as the most important vehicle for spiritual transmission across the generations. He then went on to talk about the history of Romuva, and about the various factors that enabled Lithuanian paganism to survive into the modern era --- preserved clandestinely or disguised as “folklore” --- despite intense opposition and suppression by both the Catholic Church and the Soviet Union.

I spoke then about the traditional practices from the Gàidhealtachd (the Gaelic-speaking culture of Scotland) which I received from my teachers back in the late 1960s; of my eventual realization that such practices represented the rare survival of a very old, non-Christian form of spirituality; and of my subsequent search, both in Europe and throughout the European diaspora, for similar surviving traditions.

Then Jonas and I took turns describing some of the commonalities that are found among most of the European traditions, as well as some of the important differences, particularly between Eastern and Western Europe (rural focus, preservation of old tongues, animistic vs. polytheistic approaches, etc.) Our presentation was very well received, and was cited in a very good article on the Parliament which appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of Parabola magazine.

There’s obviously a whole lot more that could be said about all this, though EarthSpirit Voices is probably not the best format through which to convey it. I have now presented a two-hour talk/slide show/film entitled “The ‘Indians’ of Old Europe” several times in the last couple of years, and it looks like I will be turning it into a book. I am also planning a series of trips to various parts of Europe to meet with keepers of surviving Indigenous traditions, though when and where that happens will depend on what kind of funding we are able to raise for the purpose.

I hope that the door which we managed to crack open at the Melbourne Parliament will gradually widen and that the surviving Indigenous pagan religions of Europe will finally be able to shed their mantle of invisibility, not only as a way to insure their continued existence, but also because of the particular wisdom, values and perspectives which they are able to impart.

[ Ed.note: Andras will be offering his talk on The “Indians” of Old Europe on Sunday, September 12 as part of The EarthSpirit Community’s “Sacred Lands” Open Houses at Glenwood Farm in Western Mass. For more information, go to ]

Friday, June 18, 2010

Voicing my Gratitude

Sunrise at Rites of Spring, May 2010

Voicing my Gratitude
by Anya

I have fallen hard for you guys. Although words will never be enough to express the gratitude I feel to you for the experience which you shared with me, this is to give you a slight idea. I love you.

If I’m to begin at the beginning, then I am to speak of the city, the running around, breaking into houses, chasing fuel for the flame and constantly going on fast forward. The beginning is the journey to the place which is a beginning of its own.

I entered The Place walking through a gate, surrounded by a cloud of sage. I tied an intention, took a deep breath, and stepped through.

Three fires were lit, bright as the sun, shooting fireflies into the air. We sang, and as the rhythm of the drums moved our bodies, we danced. The sky lit up, and with silent lightning it illuminated the joy on our faces. We carried the flame together, singing it alive, first to the ritual fire and then to the fire circle. The drums beat, and again losing all inhibitions, we danced. We let the world go, we became the world, we danced. Your songs pierced my soul, while your motion captivated me, and I fell into the world of which I have always dreamed.

We danced, until the moon no longer outshone the stars. We danced, until our feet became tattooed with the rhythm of the drums. And then I slept, a peaceful sleep to the chirping of birds and the rustling of trees. I slept deep, hugging close the magic which you have helped me feel.

I listened close to the place you have created, to the connections that you amplified between earth and sky, fire and water. After breakfast I went exploring. I walked around the ground, which you have decorated with intention, taking in the space I was lucky enough to occupy. I climbed a rock, I faced the water, and I breathed; watching, listening, being, I breathed and I was thankful to be alive, to be here, to be.

Time was no longer linear. Six sunrises followed three nights, sleep felt like a waste of life, and shoes began to feel like an unnecessary barrier. I tuned in, I let my roots sink deep into the soil, and with every sunrise I experienced a different state of ecstasy. When I thought I couldn’t dance any longer, you drummed harder, you danced stronger, you sang louder. You charged me with your energy and all I wanted to do was to give back, to be able to give you the enjoyment and fulfillment you have given me.

We raised a May Pole, we wove a web, we connected to each other, often without words. I have never met so many people brave enough to look me in the eyes. You taught me how to breathe anew. How to breathe the world into my soul, how to breathe so that all which has been pent up can come out, how to breathe myself into euphoria.

When I expressed my wish to fly you let me through another gate, across a bridge, and to a place of magic. Here spirits roamed, beasts explored and the air crackled. Here I was transformed, and here I learned to fly. I learned not to be afraid of the woods.

You shared with me your soul through your artwork, through your music, though your dance, through your laughter, through your love, through your beautiful voice. You reached out to me and let me reach back to you. Beneath the stars you helped me dance with fire, hearing its silent roar engulf me as I spun and you sang, or played, or watched. You reminded me how important it is to smile. You thanked me for being myself, and I want to thank you for being.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


by Sarah Twichell
In fairy tales, beings often appear in guises. A spirit appears in the guise of a fox. A god comes to earth in the guise of an old woman. In traditional European cultures, people took on guises as well. In Scotland, people dressed as spirits of the dead at Samhain, or changed their appearances to trick evil spirits out of harming them. In story and ritual, the appearance of guises teaches us that things are not always what they seem and that we should look carefully before judging or dismissing something.

When I work magically with a guise it teaches me the same lesson. I am not always what I seem, and I should look carefully before judging or dismissing ideas about who I am or could be.

Guising gives me the opportunity to take a look at what I consider to be beyond my own boundaries. When I guise as a being who is deeply wild, I can embody more wildness than I can ever imagine having in my ordinary life and self. In doing so, I gain a chance to question those limits: am I really tame and civilized as think? Is there wildness I didn’t see or recognize in me? What else am I missing when I say and act as though I am not wild?

Guising also works to free me from the ways that habit and expectation limit my perceptions of others and of the world. Sometimes things seem clearer, even harsh, through new eyes, and at other times they look softer and less clear. Knowing how different even the very familiar can look reminds me to find out what I can see when I really look, even with my everday eyes.

No matter how deep or magical my connection with a being I am guising is, in the end, I must come back to a shape that’s nearly the same as the one I left. In that “nearly,” though, lie the most powerful lessons of guising: the ones we bring back to our everyday lives.

At Rites, there were several opportunities to take on a guise. Did you choose to do this work there or somewhere else, or to interact with someone in guise? I’d love to hear your experiences in the comments.

[photo by David J. Anderson]

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Indigenous Peoples' Statement to the World

An Indigenous Peoples' Statement to the World
Delivered at The Parliament of the World’s Religions

Convened at Melbourne, Australia

on the Traditional Lands of the Wurundjeri People of the Kulin Nation

December 9, 2009

In keeping with the theme of this year’s Parliament, “Make a World of Difference: Hearing each other, Healing the Earth,” we, the Indigenous Peoples participating in this Parliament, hereby issue this statement:

We are Indigenous Peoples and Nations who hon
or our ancestors and care for our future generations by preserving our lands and cultures. For thousands of years, Indigenous peoples have maintained a fundamental and sacred relationship with Mother Earth. As peoples of the land, we declare our inherent rights to our present and continuing survival within our sacred homelands and territories throughout the world;

We commend the Australi
an government’s recent support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples adopted on September 13, 2007. We call on all governments to support and implement the provisions of the UN Declaration, particularly the right of self-determination;

Since time immemorial we have lived in keeping with our sacred laws, principles, and spiritual values, given by the Creator. Our ways of life are based on thousands of years of accumulated ecological knowledge, a great respect for our Mother Earth, a reverence and respect for all our Natural World relations and the survival of our languages, cultures, and traditions;

The Indigenous instructions of sharing and the responsibility of leadership to future generations are wise and enduring. As the traditional nations of our lands, we affirm the right to educate our children in our Earth-based education systems in order to maintain our Indigenous knowledge systems and cultures. These have also contributed to our spiritual, physical and mental health; Indigenous peoples' concept of health and survival is holistic, collective and individual. It encompasses the spiritual, the intellectual, the physical and the emotional. Expressions of culture relevant to health and survival of Indigenous Peoples include relationships, families, and kinship, social institutions, traditional laws, music, dances, songs and songlines, reindeer and caribou, ceremonies and dreamtime, our ritual performances and practices, games, sports, language, mythologies, names, lands, sea, water, every life forms, and all documented forms and aspects of culture, including burial and sacred sites, human genetic materials, ancestral remains so often stolen, and our artifacts;

Unfortunately, certain doctrines have been threatening to the survival of our cultures, our languages, and our peoples, and devastating to our ways of life. These are found in particular colonizing documents such as the Inter Caetera papal bull of 1493, which called for the subjugation of non-Christian nations and peoples and “the propagation of the Christian empire.” This is the root of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery that is still interwoven into laws and policies today that must be changed. The principles of subjugation contained in this and other such documents, and in the religious texts and documents of other religions, have been and continue to be destructive to our ways of life (religions), cultures, and the survival of our Indigenous nations and peoples. This oppressive tradition is what led to the boarding schools, the residential schools, and the Stolen Generations, resulting in the trauma of Indigenous peoples being cut off from their languages and cultures, resulting in language death and loss of family integrity from the actions of churches and governments. We call on those churches and governments to put as much time, effort, energy and money into assisting with the revitalization of our languages and cultures as they put into attempting to destroy them;

The doctrines of colonization and dominion have laid the groundwork for contemporary problems of racism and dispossession. These problems include the industrial processes of resource exploitation and extraction by governments and corporations that have consistently meant the use of imposed laws to force the removal of Indigenous peoples from our traditional territories, and to desecrate and destroy our sacred sites and places. The result is a great depletion of biodiversity and the loss of our traditional ways of life, as well as the depletion and contamination of the waters of Mother Earth from mining and colonization. Such policies and practices do not take into account that water is the first law of life and a gift from the Creator for all beings. Clean, healthy, safe, and free water is necessary for the continuity and well being of all living things. The commercialization and poisoning of water is a crime against life;

The negative ethics of contemporary society, discovery, conquest, dominion, exploitation, extraction, and industrialization, have brought us to today’s crisis of global warming. Climate change is now our most urgent issue and affecting the lives of Indigenous peoples at an alarming rate. Many of our people’s lives are in crisis due to the rapid global warming. The ice melt in the north and rapid sea rise continue to accelerate, and the time for action is brief. The Earth’s resources are finite and the present global consumption levels are unsustainable and continue to affect our peoples and all peoples. Therefore, we join the other members of the Parliament in calling for prompt, immediate, and effective action at Copenhagen to combat climate change;

In July 2009, the Episcopal Church in the United States adopted a resolution at its 76th General Convention, repudiating and disavowing the dehumanizing Doctrine of Christian Discovery. By doing so, the Church took particular note of the charter issued by King Henry VII of England to John Cabot and his sons, which authorized the colonizing of North America. It was by this ‘boss over’ tradition of Christian discovery that the British crown eventually laid claim to the traditional territories of the Aboriginal nations of the continent now called Australia, under terra nullius and terra nullus. This step by the Episcopal Church was an act of conscience and moral leadership by one of the world’s major religions. Religious bodies of Quakers and Unitarians have taken similar supportive actions.

In conclusion, we appeal to all people of conscience to join with us in support of the following issues:

1) Climate change and its far-reaching impacts on our Peoples and homelands — for this we need immediate action.

2) The protection of Indigenous peoples' significant and sacred sites within their traditional homelands and territories and working to eradicate discrimination and intolerance against Earth-based Indigenous spiritual and ceremonial traditions.

3) Protection of Sacred Places used for prayer and ceremonies. At these special places we minister to the Earth and heal her sacred soul.

4) The critical need to strengthen and continue our unique cultures and languages, particularly by bringing together elder cultural and wisdom keepers and Indigenous youth.

5) The return of the bones of our ancestors and our sacred items.

6) The immediate support and implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

7) To call upon Pope Benedict XVI and the Vatican to publicly acknowledge and repudiate the papal decrees that legitimized the original activities that have evolved into the dehumanizing Doctrine of Christian Discovery and dominion in laws and policies.

Partial list of Indigenous Assembly participants:

Wande Abimbola, Yoruba (Nigeria)

Omie Baldwin, Diné (United States)
Nana Osei Boakye Yiadom, Adamorobe (Ghana)
Merekaraka Caesar, Wahine Maori (New Zealand)

Andras Corban-Arthen, Anamanta (Scotland/United States)

Ryoko Foose, Ainu (Japan)

Tonya Gonnella Frichner, Onondaga (United States)
Uncle Max Harrison, Yuin (Australia)
Linda Hogan, Chickasaw (United States)

Robert Houndohome Hounon, Vodun Hwendo (Benin)
Clarence Jackson, Tlingit (United States)
Jennie R. Joe, Diné (United States)

Mandaza Kandemwa, Shona (Zimbabwe)

Norma Kassi, Vuntut Gwich’in (Canada)
Leo Killsback, Cheyenne (United States)
Tsugio Kuzuno, Ainu (Japan)

Margaret Lokawua, Karimjong (Uganda)

Oren Lyons, Onondaga (United States)
Raúl Mamani, Kolla (Argentina)
Ray Minniecon, Kabi Kabi (Australia)

Lucy Mulenkei, Maasai (Kenya)
Joy Murphy Wandin, Wurundjeri (Australia)

Minnie Naylor, Inupiaq Eskimo (United States)

Steven T. Newcomb, Shawnee Lenape (United States)

Francois Paulette, Dene (Canada)

Christopher Peters, Pohlik-lah/Karuk (United States)

Anna Pinto, Meitei (India)

Constantino Pinto, Timorese (Timor Leste)

Uncle Bob Randall, Yankunytjatjara (Australia)

Darlene St. Clair, Bdewakantunwan Dakota (United States)
Artūras Sinkevičius, Romuva (Lithuania)

Joseph Henry Suina, Cochiti Pueblo (United States)

Jake Swamp, Akwesasne Mohawk (United States)

Yoland Trevino, Maya (Guatemala/United States)

Jonas Trinkunas, Romuva (Lithuania)

Rosita Worl, Tlingit (United States)

The Parliament's Indigenous Assembly Part II: Who is "Indigenous"?

by Andras Corban Arthen

The Indigenous Assembly (and, indeed, the Parliament's entire Indigenous program) was a success in that it met most of the goals we had set out to accomplish, particularly so in bringing together and fostering connections among a diverse international group of tradition keepers, elders and activists. But the very process of organizing such a program also brought to the fore some volatile, contentious issues that are inherent to the very concept of indigeneity, and which marred the sense of harmonious cohesion we had envisioned at the outset.

The term "Indigenous" is used in both interreligious and academic circles with a fairly specific meaning: it refers to cultures and to peoples that have had a very distinctive, long-standing historical and cultural connection with a particular land. A practical yardstick often applied to this definition is whether a given culture pre-existed, and has survived, a major colonizing event such as Christianization/Westernization.

As with any definition, the meaning of "Indigenous" is easiest to express when we give it a very specific and narrow focus. When, for instance, the term is applied exclusively to people who have been born and raised in a specifically defined geographical region and within a particular Indigenous culture, fit a certain racial/ethnic profile, speak the traditional language, practice the traditional religion, and have deep roots in the community that maintains the Indigenous culture alive, then if a person meets those criteria obviously and fully, there should be no question about his or her claim to indigeneity.

Of course, defining the term in such a specific way automatically excludes a lot of people. From a theoretical point of view, that may not matter at all; indeed, it may be desirable. But when we move from the theoretical and the analytical into the realm of actual human experience, the exclusionary quality of such a narrow definition can clash violently against an individual's or a community's sense of self-identity, and lead to people becoming quite angry and offended. Moreover, the scope of that exclusion can disenfranchise important claims to indigeneity that don't necessarily fit neatly within a narrow and clear-cut definition.

For instance, there are Indigenous peoples who have been colonized to the point of losing their traditional spirituality, even though they may still live in their ancestral lands and may have managed to retain other key elements of their ethnic culture, such as language. A case in point was the Sami contingent that participated in the Assembly: there is no question that they are an Indigenous people, and are recognized as such by the U.N., the European Union, and the governments of the various countries wherein they reside. Yet, as I pointed out in an earlier article, it appears that the Sami Indigenous religion is all but dead, and that was certainly borne out by the delegates present at the Assembly – they were all Lutherans and Presbyterians, and none of the ones with whom I spoke professed to have any knowledge of their traditional religion outside of the realm of "folklore."

In attempting to define "Indigenous," some members of our Task Force had initially been adamant about not including in our program anyone who was Christian, feeling that the acceptance of Christianity was intrinsically at odds with an event intended to emphasize authentic Indigenous spirituality. They were persuaded to modify their views when it was pointed out that many "authentically Indigenous" people practice both their traditional religion as well as Christianity, and this middle-ground became our guideline. The Sami, being exclusively Christian, presented a dilemma for the Task Force, since they did not fit within our established criteria. (I, for one, was delighted that they were admitted to the Assembly in the end.)

On the other hand, there are Indigenous traditions which have specific procedures for accepting those who were not born and raised within them – procedures (and criteria) which can vary significantly from one tradition to another. This makes it hard to generalize, though typically such mechanisms can involve marriage, formal adoption, relocation or pilgrimages, cultural assimilation, specific training and ceremonies, etc. Once the non-native has been assimilated to the satisfaction of the elders of the community, she or he is generally accepted as a full-fledged member of that tradition, and in some cases can even attain the position of elder, leader, teacher or spokesperson (I know of several Indigenous traditions, for instance, which have official spokespeople who are not individuals born into those cultures, but who have married or been formally adopted into them).

In many (and probably most) Indigenous cultures, allowances of this sort have always been in place, because very few societies have been completely insulated from interaction with others. In some, those allowances have been relaxed or expanded in more recent times out of necessity, particularly among Indigenous traditions that are on the verge of extinction and are therefore more open to the inclusion of "fresh blood," as it were, in order to preserve their ways. This is a slippery slope, of course, fraught with many possibilities for abuse and scams – one has only to think of the myriad self-anointed "plastic shamans" out there, or the "traditional grandfathers/grandmothers" who use this as a rationale for ostensibly teaching gullible white people in exchange for considerable sums of money. But the fact that the possibility of abuse in these circumstances is very real does not alter the fact that Indigenous peoples often define themselves in ways that are far less rigid or specific than how academics or interreligious bodies would define them.

In a nutshell, then, there are Indigenous people practicing Indigenous spiritual traditions; there are Indigenous people practicing non-Indigenous spiritual traditions; and there are non-Indigenous peoples practicing Indigenous spiritual traditions. Considering that the Indigenous cultures are the oldest remaining ones on the planet, and that many of them are on the brink of extinction, to limit the definition of "Indigenous" only to the first category because it is nice and clear-cut, amounts to turning one's back on some of the peoples or traditions that are most endangered and in need of support.

Obviously, the Parliament's Task Force had to adopt certain standards regarding what it considered "Indigenous" in order to select potential speakers for its slate of programs, and as much as possible we tried to choose criteria that were general enough to be applicable to most authentic Indigenous traditions. In my opinion, however, the way some of those standards were actually applied was in some cases very selective or arbitrary, and at times lacking sufficiently clear information to enable us to make well-thought-out choices.

As a member of both the Indigenous Task Force and of the Parliament's Board of Trustees, it would be inappropriate for me to air our "dirty laundry" in public. But the way the Task Force conducted its process led to a number of problems, and several people who were very upset at the way they were treated complained about it directly to me; in my opinion, their feelings were quite justified.

For instance, some North American Indians who had proposed programs for the Parliament complained of being ignored or dismissed, and felt that they had been judged – by people who didn't know them at all – as not being "Indian enough" despite having dedicated their lives to the welfare of their native communities, or to the protection of their civil rights, or the promotion of understanding and respect of Indian cultures by the mainstream society.

On the other hand, representatives of Central and South American Indigenous traditions complained to me, both during and after the Parliament, about their lack of inclusion at the event. Indeed, the Task Force invited only one Indigenous speaker from South America (and none from Central America) who, as it turned out, was unable to attend in the end for personal reasons. There would have been no representation at all from those regions at the Indigenous Assembly had it not been for Raúl Mamani (a Kolla Indian from Argentina) and Yoland Trevino (a Mayan from Guatemala, who resides in the U.S.) – both of whom were attending the Parliament under the auspices of the United Religious Initiative (URI), and managed to gain admittance to the Assembly at the last minute. (Rachael Watcher, an old pagan friend who is affiliated both with the URI and Covenant of the Goddess, also attended the Assembly as Raúl's translator.)

But that was not nearly enough, and word of this unfortunate situation has clearly spread to one degree or another throughout Latin American interfaith circles and Indigenous rights groups, and I have fielded the questions and complaints of friends from México to Chile. Some of them see the Parliament – and interreligious events in general – as the exclusive playground of wealthy white people who may pay lip service to issues of economic and social justice, but, in the end, make little effort to actually include dark-skinned people from impoverished societies.

A couple of them were even more specific in their grievances, and claimed that, in addition to the above, there is also a very noticeable prejudice on the part of certain North American Indian peoples toward their counterparts south of the border. They allege that some Indians from the U.S., in particular, seem to treat Indigenous peoples from Latin America with the same dismissive attitude with which they are themselves treated by many white people in this country. And, as regards the international interreligious community, they assert that American Indians – generally being not only better off economically than those from Central and South America, but also better connected by having the advantage of speaking English – exert a disproportionately greater influence at interfaith events than the poorer, non-English-speaking Indians from Central and South America. To underscore this claim they pointed out that, of the invited Indigenous speakers listed on the Parliament's website, fully half were from North America alone, despite the fact that the Parliament was held more than seven thousand miles away from that continent.

I am not really in a position to be able to gauge how accurate or widespread these troubling allegations may be – if anything, I would like to hope they are not much more than the result of momentarily hurt feelings over a perceived injustice, rather than widely held, long-simmering resentments. Regardless, it is clearly important that the various people involved in this process be mindful that, to one extent or another, such feelings exist.

On another front, several of the Indigenous representatives at the Assembly also noted with surprise the lack of Maori participation – given the relative proximity of Australia and New Zealand – and the fact that the only Maori delegate present, Merekaraka Caesar, actually lives in Queensland, Australia. This led some to wonder if perhaps there might be prejudice and discrimination on the part of some of the Australian Aboriginal peoples toward the Maoris. I have been assured by those who should know that this is not the case; nevertheless, the noticeable absence of a significant Indigenous community created further speculation and tension at the Assembly.

There were other complaints involving the Task Force – ranging from rudeness to racism – which bear reckoning, though I won't go into them here, as this is already much too long. The main lesson to be learned here, it would seem, is that when it comes to interacting with Indigenous peoples – who, historically, have surely endured the evils of occupation, slavery, racism, poverty, cultural destruction and genocide the longest – organizations like the Parliament must exercise a very high degree of awareness, of sensitivity and of diplomacy, even when their motives are good and their goal is to help. The suffering many of these people have felt, and continue to feel, can intensify what most of us might brush off as nothing more than a petty slight, and turn it into a deeply painful wound.

For people who are desperately seeking aid in their struggle to save their homes and their ancestral lands, exclusion – even if it is only perceived exclusion – easily translates into hopelessness. For people who've had the prejudices of a foreign race forced upon them for hundreds of years, the imposed standards of outsiders, no matter how well-intentioned or intellectually reasoned, only seem like more alien judgments. And for people whose ancient cultures, subjected to attrition, ridicule, and legal proscription, are hanging by very thin and fragile threads, the questioning of their cultural identity can feel like somebody trying to steal their soul.

As the Parliament continues to reach out to Indigenous peoples around the world, it would do well to keep all this in mind.

The Parliament's Indigenous Assembly Part I: A Gathering of Ancient Ways

by Andras Corban Arthen

One of the most important events of the Parliament of the World's Religions – the Indigenous Assembly – was, quite likely, the least visible: attendance was by invitation only, and it was held in a former convent several miles away from the Exhibition Center, where most of the other programs took place.

In keeping with one of the Parliament's seven main themes (and as mentioned in these pages prior to the event), the idea of convening an Indigenous Assembly in Melbourne was, from the beginning, a major focus of the Indigenous Task Force's plans – we wanted to create a space wherein the international representatives of Indigenous traditions traveling to Melbourne would get a chance to meet with their counterparts from Australia and the South Pacific to discuss issues of mutual relevance, and perhaps even come up with a joint statement to be delivered during one of the Parliament's plenary sessions. Our initial plans called for a three-day assembly which, for the first two days, would be limited exclusively to the Indigenous delegates, then opened on the third day to include representatives from other cultures and religions. Unfortunately, budgetary and time constraints forced us to scale back our plans and keep the assembly to one day.

Early in the morning of Monday, 7 December, about fifty Indigenous representatives, volunteers and translators traveled to the Abbotsford Convent near Victoria Park, some six miles away. Most of us had already had breakfast, but upon arrival we were offered juice, pastries and other refreshments as we waited for everyone to arrive.

The proceedings started with a brief introduction by Task Force chair Omie Baldwin, followed by a traditional welcome to country by Auntie Joy Murphy Wandin, senior elder of the Wurundjeri people who are the traditional "owners" of the land that includes Melbourne. Wominjeka Wurundjeri Balluk yearmen koondi bik ("welcome to the land of the Wurundjeri People"), she intoned, as she did probably a dozen more times during the course of the Parliament; but each time she spoke those words they were like music, as fresh and as heartfelt as if she were saying them for the very first time, and we felt, indeed, very welcome. Auntie Joy had some very kind words to say to those of us who served on the Task Force and organized the event, and gave each of us an Aboriginal flag as a gift.

Then we went around the room introducing ourselves to each other, and several people, including Chief Jake Swamp (Mohawk) and Wande Abimbola (Yoruba) offered blessings in their traditional languages. They were followed by several speakers who addressed issues of cultural survival, of civil rights, of sovereignty. I was particularly impressed by Steve Newcomb (Shawnee/Lenape), who spoke about his attempts to mount legal challenges to U.S. government policies toward American Indian peoples based on the Christian Doctrine of Discovery, and his campaign to convince the Pope to repeal the Renaissance-era papal bull which provided the rationale for that doctrine.

We then had a relaxed lunch break, which allowed us ample time to lounge in the convent's courtyard and get to know each other a little more intimately. Besides spending some time with Jonas Trinkunas and Arturas Sinkevicius, my two Lithuanian friends, I had conversations with Robert Houndohome Hounon – the Voudon leader from Benin, whose trip to the Parliament had been partly financed by Angie Buchanan's pagan community – and with Chris Peters (Yurok), president of the Seventh Generation Fund for Indian Development, who had been our keynote speaker that morning. I also had the opportunity to talk with Uncle Bob Randall and his delightful American wife Barbara (from Connecticut). Bob, who is one of the traditional "owners" of Uluru, was abducted as a child as part of the Stolen Generations, and eventually became one of the foremost activists in bringing an end to that tragic practice. In addition, I was able to chat for a bit with some members of the Sami delegation, mostly from Norway and Sweden.

We eventually returned to the hall for small group discussions on nine key topics which the Task Force had identified: Spirituality, Health, Repatriation, Environment, Water, Mining, Language, Land and Global Warming. I went to the table focused on Spirituality, and joined a group which included the two Lithuanian delegates as well as Yoland Trevino (Maya), Global Council Chair of the United Religious Initiative, and Merekaraka Caesar, (Maori), president of the Universal Peace Federation, who proved to be extremely nice and interesting people.

After some lively conversation, we coalesced into one big group again, to go over what we had discussed and to organize a committee that would synthesize our thoughts into a statement to be shared with those assembled at the closing plenary, and also be sent on to the international representatives who would meet in Copenhagen, right after the Parliament, for the U.N. Climate Change Conference. I will include a copy of the statement following this two-part piece.

We ended the day with a traditional Australian barbecue (yes they had "shrimps on the barbie," in addition to several other equally tasty items) and a very friendly group photo.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Wandering Into Magic - A Labyrinth Experience at Rites of Spring

by Tracy Andryc

Over the past ten years I have had the honor and pleasure of creating labyrinths, both temporary and permanent. On beaches, through feet of snow, in groves and halls I have collaborated on labyrinth creation, but none as magical as the one this year at Rites of Spring.

The construction of a labyrinth can often be a heavily intellectual experience. It takes a good deal of thought and planning to lay the pattern correctly but also in concordance with the environment. Much of the time it can be a challenge to maintain a ritual focus when doing this part of the work. With support, I was able to devise a way to create an organic labyrinth design working with the land in the Green Ones Shrine.

A group of inspiring and creative people came together for Village Builders to create a sanctuary that was in harmony with the land and its beings. We gathered in the center of the pine grove with half our group holding the container around the outer edge. The five of us, in procession, began to walk a path out from the center leaving a trail of white yarn. As we walked a path into the earth we were guided by the land through rocks and trees, roots and brush. We had brought forth a sacred labyrinth pattern that was unique to that space and time and was guided by the collective energy there. 

Using fallen branches, logs, rocks and leaf piles we created the walls to delineate the path circuits. The result was a natural, sacred shrine that radiated peace and harmony. Meandering the path of this 60 foot labyrinth in the pine grove seems to have brought a sense of stillness and tranquility to many people.

I feel honored to have had the opportunity to work with the Red Maple Grove. Their presence and willingness to open themselves to divine guidance facilitated a unique experience for themselves and the community. I cherish the sacredness of those moments we created magic and walked a path together

Friday, May 7, 2010

Coming Together for All Beings of the Earth

by Deirdre Arthen

Dear friends,
Just a reminder that the deadline for registering for Rites of Spring is coming up very soon - May 15! Don't miss the warmth of the fire and the magic of community on the mountain. You can find all you need to register at:

I also wanted to remind you that the first Sacred Land Open House at Glenwood is taking place this Sunday, May 9. These afternoon events in western Massachusetts are free, include a tour of the land, and this week there are two programs to choose from - Qi Kong with Jonathan Kapsten, and Deep Peace - a Mother's Day peace ritual for women. You can find out more at:

On a more somber note - as we celebrate All Beings of the Earth at Rites of Spring this year, many of us are feeling a strong desire to join in an effort to send protective and peaceful energy to all the beings living in the area of the Gulf of Mexico who are so threatened by the man-made disaster occurring there. This weekend, many EarthSpirit members will be at Glenwood for one reason or another and we are planning a simple and focused working with that intention. We invite you to join us from wherever you are.

We will place a stone and a natural sponge in the center of our labyrinth. Each person who wants to participate will follow the path to the center with the clean sea-water of the Gulf in mind, quietly singing the following chant: Holy water, Healing Water, Life-bringer, Water flow, and building power of intent. (I wrote the chant, which is on MotherTongue's Weaving the Web of Life cd, to be used to reawaken us to the sacred nature of water, since I feel that it is largely because humans do not acknowledge the sanctity of water that we abuse it and pollute it.) Once in the center, we will hold the two objects and fill them with our intention - the stone to carry our protection, and the sponge to absorb the damage that is already being done.

At the end of the weekend we will send both the stone and the sponge to EarthSpirit members in Louisiana, so that they can put them into the water and complete the working.

If you are at a distance, but would also like to participate, you can either focus your intention on the objects here at Glenwood that will be travelling south, or you can fill your own objects and put them in a natural water source near your home. All water is connected on this planet, and whether you place a stone in the stream behind your house or in the reservoir in the next town, your intention will flow to where it is needed.

We would love for you to tell us about your experience with this, right here on EarthSpirit Voices
. The photo accompanying this post shows the labyrinth at Glenwood, to help make your focus easier if you're joining us from afar.

Celebrating Spring and honoring those with whom we share this sacred Earth!


Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Lost World of Old Europe

by Deirdre Pulgram Arthen

Last week while I was in New York I visited this wonderful exhibition at the NYU Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. The gallery, which is very near the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the upper east side, contains two full rooms of stunning female figurines and beautifully painted pots from between 5000 and 4000 BC in Central Europe. This collection has never been in the US before and is really worth a visit. Even if you can't get there, the web site, which has lots of information and photos, is worth visiting and the book that accompanies the exhibit is wonderful. Just wanted to pass along the recommendation!

From the exhibition website: "The Lost World of Old Europe brings to the United States for the first time more than 160 objects recovered by archaeologists from the graves, towns, and villages of Old Europe, a cycle of related cultures that achieved a precocious peak of sophistication and creativity in what is now southeastern Europe between 5000 and 4000 BC, and then mysteriously collapsed by 3500 BC. Long before Egypt or Mesopotamia rose to an equivalent level of achievement, Old Europe was among the most sophisticated places that humans inhabited. Some of its towns grew to city-like sizes. Potters developed striking designs, and the ubiquitous goddess figurines found in houses and shrines have triggered intense debates about women’s roles in Old European society. Old European copper-smiths were, in their day, the most advanced metal artisans in the world. Their intense interest in acquiring copper, gold, Aegean shells, and other rare valuables created networks of negotiation that reached surprisingly far, permitting some of their chiefs to be buried with pounds of gold and copper in funerals without parallel in the Near East or Egypt at the time. The exhibition, arranged through loan agreements with 20 museums in three countries (Romania, The Republic of Bulgaria and the Republic of Moldova), brings the exuberant art, enigmatic goddess cults, and precocious metal ornaments and weapons of Old Europe to American audiences."

For more information about the exhibit location and hours:

For detailed information about the contents of the exhibit:

(photo of the Thinker from the introduction to the exhibit)

Monday, March 29, 2010

Spirituality into Action: Finding My Pagan Values

by Sarah Twichell

Values are a bridge. They connect our spiritual practice to our actions in the world, helping us to discern what to do in big and small ways. While they are often called upon in political debates and named in the kinds of issues that polarize our society, they're also active in our lives. When we live in accordance with our values, we feel we are acting with integrity; when we are confused about what to do, they're a compass that can help us figure it out.

Because paganism is so firmly rooted in individual experiences of the sacred, it can be hard to identify anything we might have in common. But I think there may be a few things, and in that spirit, I offer up a few of my pagan values, as a starting point for a discussion.

Walking lightly on the Earth
My first devotional relationship was not with a god or spirit, but with the Earth itself, whose body literally supports me every moment of every day. I honor the cycles of the Earth through ritual, through my garden and cooking, and with my magic. I honor the body of the Earth by striving to live sustainably: by eating food from the area where I live, by recycling and reusing to reduce trash, by trying to avoid plastic and reduce energy consumption. Of course, there are a thousand ways to do this, and it's often difficult to know how to even start, but for me, the important thing is to keep moving in the right direction.

Celebrating interdependence
One of the things I am most awed by in the natural world is the complex relationships between its parts. Our lives are intertwined with the lives of everything around us, from the microbes in our dirt to the animals in our neighborhoods to the air flowing in the jet stream. When I distance myself from these things or reduce my understanding of them to the mechnical, the world no longer calls on my compassion. When I nurture and celebrate those connections, on the other hand, I build the kind of network of relationships that sustains all of its members.

Honoring each other
If the sacred is in the world, as most pagans believe, it is in each of us. If that is so, there is no place in the world for racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, or discrimination based on physical ability, body type, gender, religion, choice of clothing... we could go on and on. Of course, it is also true that all of us harbor the seeds of discrimination, not because we are bad people, but because these seeds are ingrained in the culture we live in. It is my job, I believe, to search for those seeds in myself, to apologize when they cause me to treat someone badly or to speak offensively, and to be as much of an ally as I can to people who suffer more directly than I do from these forms of discrimination.

Honoring our passions
If we carry the spark of the sacred within us, the way it gets from us into the world is through our passion. It's so easy to write these passions off as impractical or unworthy -- or to write ourselves off as selfish, undeserving, or doomed to starve on the street. To me, understanding my passion as a manifestation of the sacredness of the world lets me trust myself and my desires more deeply, and helps me see the beauty in other people's passion as well.

I could go on and on with this list, but I'm curious to hear from you! How does your spiritual practice lead to your values? How do those values show up in your life?

(photo by fetopher, Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license)

Sunday, March 28, 2010

As we play together

by Morwen Two Feathers
As we play together, locked in and riding the energy wave created by years of practice, I feel the familiar surge of joy and I know. This is my purpose in this lifetime, my cells sing. My body continues in the well-worn groove shaped by repeated rambles through polyrhythm together with the faces, hands and bodies of my companions. My consciousness zooms up for a bird’s eye view of the circle. Swirling movement surges around the bright glowing center of fire; reflected light glitters from shining costumes and instruments, and sparkles in the eyes of the multitude. The Fire Circle is in full swing. Soon the exuberant rhythm wave will peak, and slow, and a delicious silence will open, welcoming the entry of a chant or personal testimony that will weave us together into another rhythm, another ramp-up to ecstasy. And so it continues through the night, until the rising of the sun.

In the early 1990s, EarthSpirit’s Rites of Spring was the birthplace of a particular form of Fire Circle ritual that has become the inspiration for events and rituals across the U.S. and around the world. As a drummer and one of the midwives of this tradition, I have witnessed both the original formation of its basic elements and many of the reiterations of these in new settings where, like all living cultural traditions, it has changed and taken a myriad of forms. It has been a fascinating journey, observing how different communities and different event organizers interpret what I take as the “basic elements” of the Fire Circle, and how the flavors and purposes of the ritual change from place to place and time to time.

In those early years of the Rites of Spring Fire Circle, the magic was wrought by a small group of individuals who came together around the drum. The insight that rhythm itself is a vehicle to altered consciousness and transformation provided the ritual impetus. This group of drummers became a “well-oiled self-facilitated rhythm machine” around the fire (in the words of Arthur Hull, who witnessed a Fire Circle run by this group in 2000), and over the years took many people on many ecstatic journeys to the heights of the Universe and the depths of themselves.

The passion and joy of these rituals engendered a desire to replicate them, with changes. Individual members of the original group developed idiosyncratic visions of new and different ways to structure the basic ritual, and “hived off” new Fire Circle events. People who participated in Fire Circles took their experiences home and reproduced what they understood as the basic elements, adding and subtracting and creating their own home-grown rituals. Some chose to de-emphasize the drumming and focus on chanting, instrumental music, or art. Some chose to elaborate on the symbolic and ceremonial elements of the ritual, while others stripped the fire circle of structured ritual in favor of “go with the flow” sensibilities and/or invocations to Chaos. Some specialized in bringing together groups of previously unrelated individuals from the “general public” to experience the Fire Circle – a strategy that relies upon either extensive orientation and training, or a small group of performance-oriented ritual leaders, or both.

And over the past ten years as these diverse forms of the Fire Circle proliferated across the U.S. and abroad, some say that the Fire Circle at Rites of Spring has lost some of its magic. In recent years it is not unusual to walk to the Bear Rock fire circle late at night and find a struggling rhythm, a few people working hard to fill the night with song, and a ring of spectators chatting. There have been attempts to address this, with physical changes to the space (and the space is beautiful and lovingly tended), publishing written guidelines, appeals to individuals to show up at the circle early, workshops and discussion groups on drumming or the fire circle itself. But what has been missing is a core group of people drumming and working and playing together all year round, and coming together at Rites of Spring to lead the community on a rhythm journey through the night.

For drummers at the fire circle, it is regular practice that enables a group to read each other’s energy without overt facilitation, to know when (and how) to make space for songs, chants, or spoken word, to know when (and how) to speed up together, to carry the dancers to heights of ecstasy, and when (and how) to slow down, to bring the dancers down gently, and even down to silence. A group of practiced drummers with good communication skills can easily integrate newcomers and beginners, giving them a foundational rhythm to hang their hands on. And when people with a commitment to each other come together to practice this form of community ritual on a regular basis, not only the drummers but the dancers, chanters, healers, and witnesses form a team, working together to bring the entire community along when the Mothership takes off for the ecstatic realm.

I believe that a Fire Circle container strong enough to hold people’s truth, their joy, their pain and anger and rage, their hope, their willingness to walk through the gates of their own growth in witness of each other… is best created and sustained by stable groups of people working the magic together. At Rites of Spring there is a strong and stable community, a solid foundation upon which to build such a container. The nurturing of a drummers’ affinity group at the gathering and all year round would help bring a transformational focus back to the RoS fire circle.

Over the years, traditions that developed around the Rites of Spring fire circle have become codified, a set of tools that can be applied to bring any group of people together around a fire and create a fabulous experience. All over the world, gatherings and festivals are doing just that, in an endless variety of forms elaborating on the basic structure, entertaining and engaging people and inspiring them to create even more fire circle events. Having been to many such events, and in my primary role as a drummer, I can say this: It is possible to create conditions where a random group of drummers can play together well enough to carry a ritual and have a good time. But when groups of drummers work together regularly, learn rhythms together, jam together, and council often to reflect on what works and where they want to go – then real magic happens at the Fire Circle.

(photo by Jimi Two Feathers)