Driving down the dirt road, past the home at the head of the property, we traveled deeper into the woodland. Tall pines stood as sentinels, a small line of silver birch to our right as we passed the spiral. It was Friday, May 27th, and we were finally here. After 11 hours of driving, I was finally back at Raven’s Knoll, with my friends there for their first time.
I waved to the spiral as we drove ever so slowly down the road, remembering my time there the previous year, clad in a dress with my hair veiled, a thick salve of mugwort slathered at the crest of my spine and red paint across my face, wrists, and ankles. We had danced barefoot in the midst of the spiral labyrinth, the fire casting long shadows from the center as the witches danced a spiral dance, raising energy and losing themselves to the animal within.
Down the road we drove, parking before the keystone fire and the main gathering area. We clambered out of the car and stretched, enjoying the scent of pine sap and thick loam on the humid breeze. I met my friend Andrea from the previous Sabbat as we all closed our doors at the same time and introduced her to my three companions—Chase, Brooke, and Sionnan—before leading the way up to the registration tent, where we met the organizers and attended to the mundane things we needed. The steward’s daughter led us to the trailer we were using for the weekend, and we unloaded our belongings, changed, and headed back to the main fire-pit.
It was still quiet, registration having been opened less than an hour. We sat at the table with the black-painted stang of juniper wood, and I trailed my fingers along it quietly, enjoying the feeling of the rough paint and the grooved wood beneath my hands. When Juniper came by to ask for some help bringing items to the Spiral for the opening ritual, Sionnan and I agreed to join her. She bade me hold the stang as she drove us up, and I stood her between my knees, holding the forked branch, and rested the butt of her against my foot. In the back of the cart, Sionnan held the basket of odd fabrics, black henbane seeds, and the ointment of bear fat we would be using in the ritual the next day. And as we approached the Spiral, I held firm to the stang, not wanting to harm her as we entered the labyrinth.
Round and round we drove, with Juniper having bid the spirits of the land that we were there to leave a few things, and thanking them for letting us enter and leave unharmed. I danced with the branches of pine, weaving the stang as best I could between them to avoid damage, to both the stang and the trees. We entered the grove in the center of the spiral and left the cart, and I handed the black stang to Juniper, who lay it before the Horned Lord. Sionnan passed her the basket of cloth and poisons, and she lay that before the ancestors stang.
I strode to the back of the grove, near the entrance, and bowed my head to the stang there. It was the stang I had helped prepare, had helped paint and slather with mugwort ointment. I bid hello to Bob, the stag skull and spirit at the crux of the stang, running my fingers along his orbital sockets, the same ones I had painted red a year before to give him sight. I showed Sionnan the offering I had made the previous year, pleased to see it was holding up despite the elements of wind and rain and snow. And then it was time to leave the grove, for a time.
We drove back to the center gathering, and Sionnan and I rejoined Chase and Brooke before the four of us assisted in moving the three tents to fix the houses for that year’s workshops. All of us moved together, and it was probably the smoothest I have ever seen a group of people work together—which is surprising, considering how difficult it usually is to get a group of Witches and Pagans together and do anything, at least in my experience.
Opening ritual began later, and we greeted the various land spirits, both at Gnome Home and at the Spiral, as well as opened the temple and greeted the keystone fire-pit, where much of our time would be spent. We left offerings at the stangs in the spiral, and I once more bid Bob hello, leaving offerings of herbs, barley, and corn from home for him and the others. We brought the stang back to the fire-pit, as well as that year’s herb of black henbane. Our group of four stopped at the entrance of the spiral and left our offerings for the land spirits there, so different from their counterparts at the other half of the campground, before adjourning for dinner.
My group and I headed back to our trailer for a time to rest and eat dinner before the Bardic Circle that night. We smoked hand-rolled cigarettes of mugwort Sionnan had made and brought with her, and we drank the Viking Blood mead I had brought with me from home. With Chase still nervous about singing that evening at the circle, we thought it best to loosen her up some before she sang to the whole assembly.
And then it was time to head back to the fire.
It was not quite time for the circle when we arrived with our chairs and mead. I remember stepping aside to do something and catching Sarah Lawless passing by me. I was excited, having met her the previous year, but also for another reason: I had e-mailed her not long ago asking if she would have any rowan wood and berries to sell me, as I knew she had access to them. Sadly, she was unable to spare any due to her own source needing significant tending, but she directed me to a couple of sources and I thanked her. However, I was excited for an entirely different reason.
Not long before, just a week actually, I had gotten my first tattoo. Two branches of rowan on my left arm, encircled by a red thread, with one branch in blossom and one bearing fruit. I lifted my sleeve to show her as we crossed paths and she complimented me on it, mentioning that she had seen it earlier and was pleased by it. I reintroduced myself to her and mentioned the e-mails we had exchanged, then introduced her to my friends Chase and Brooke. (Sionnan was off making friends elsewhere, but we introduced her when she rejoined us not long after.)
For those who have never met Sarah Lawless, she is a lovely woman. You can tell she has a great wealth of knowledge, but she’s also quite kind and easy to talk to, easy to respect. We spoke with her for a time, and I complained that my tattoo itched but I couldn’t scratch else I would risk damage and infection. A moment later, I was shown a tin in Sarah’s hand and she offered it to me as a preventative for the itching. I immediately latched onto it, stating that I trusted her (as I knew she knew her shit), and she laughed and asked what that said about me. I had no response, but was glad for the ointment she had offered me, and she slathered it on my arm, still consisting of small open wounds. It was a flying ointment she had brought with her, and between that, the mead, and the mugwort cigarettes, I was definitely flying high by the end of the night.
The circle began not long after, with Chase leading the charge. She sang as darkness fell completely, firelight dancing across her as she slowly seemed to draw power, from the song, from the fire, from all of us listening. I had heard her sing this tale before at Samhain, but it was different in the middle of the woods ’round a crackling fire, with the stars as our only witnesses above us. You could feel the crackling of the fire, feel the strength and emotion she poured into the words. And as she sang the last line and bowed, we all erupted into applause, both our small group and the entire rest of the Bardic Circle. And so the circle continued, with tale after tale, song after song, deep into the night.
It was a few hours before I began to doze off, falling asleep in the peace of the woods and the warmth of the fire that drove away the swarms of mosquitoes we had been fighting since we arrived, to the sound of voices telling tales of the gods and the spirits. Our small group headed back to our trailer, ducking out between presenters with murmured apologies as we headed to bed. I was tired, yet still flying high as the ointment and I had by this point become deeply entwined with the herbs of the ointment soaked into my skin, the smoke of mugwort in my lungs, and the mead in my blood. I felt relaxed, and powerful, as we walked back to the trailer, where Sionnan and Brooke opted to lay on the little platform before our door and look at the stars.
So many stars…it was as if the entire sky was a battle of darkness and light far, far away. The sky was so thick with them, and I could not recall seeing so many since my previous year at the Knoll.
We fell asleep not long after, each of us exhausted but content in our own ways.
It was early when we awoke on Saturday, the morning deliciously cool on our skin as we headed back to the main fire. The majority of the day would be workshops, with the main ritual in the evening and the second ritual in the dead of night.
Most of our group stuck to the same workshops, beginning with the “Am I Being Cursed?” discussion led by Juniper and Linda. We talked about how to differentiate between a curse and just bad luck, and Linda showed us her curse diagnostics board she had made in order to more readily tell what might be going on in her life, at least magically. Much of the discussion touched on things and concepts I was already familiar with, and when the workshop ended, we all headed out to Gnome Home to give offerings to the land spirits and bid them thank you for allowing us to be there that weekend. I gave more offerings of
The four of us switched from House Rowan to House Blackthorn to learn of Blessing and Blasting from Peter. I think we all agreed by the end of his presentation that we were a bit disappointed. The information he gave was good, but most of us knew many of the things he covered, and it felt more like a lecture than a workshop. Once it was over, we returned to Gnome Home as Chase had wanted to take photos of the shrine, but we had opted to see if there were any signs it was acceptable before doing so.
When we returned, we were quite surprised, as there was a small chipmunk sitting at the shrine, munching on the seeds, nuts, and corn people had offered to the land spirits. He sat in the small doorway of the mound and we were all smitten—and surprised—to receive such a visceral sign of acceptance of our offerings. For what else could it be? (Coincidence, yes…but given the circumstances and where we were, none of us were inclined to skepticism at that point.
Our photos taken and the confirmation of Brooke being a Disney Princess complete, we headed back to the main fire-pit to await the Stone Soup, a number of pots of hot soup made on the main fire, as well as stir-fry and a potluck of other foods. We each tried moose meat, and Chase introduced a Canadian to the delicacy that is Old Bay. We talked and laughed with those around us, and we sat and enjoyed ourselves, enjoyed the feeling of being surrounded by fellow witches and Pagans. It was comfortable, liberating, and calming to be able to discuss the things we had done over the years, to discuss magic without fear of judgement.
I had missed this, as even online, even in local groups, it is always hard to truly relax and discuss these things. I am lucky, though, in that the Fellowship and my friends are all very open, and we discuss magic and religion regularly. Even so, we were a small community, here in the midst of Canada, surrounded by thick pine trees and the silence of the forest, and no judgement would pass here.
Lunch adjourned and we returned to House Rowan to prepare the stang for the main ritual. Chase had opted to head back to the trailer to rest before the other workshops, but Sionnan ran back to get her when we learned we would be making charms for the stang, rather than simply discussing it or making other preparations.
Each of us crafted our own charm to banish something from the Knoll. I, remembering my charm from last year, filled a small glass bottle with rowan berries and other herbs, then braided a rope of red, black, and white threads to hang it from: white for protection, black for banishing, and red for power. My knife, my beloved working knife, I passed to a few others at the table to cut thread and herbs for their charms. I have used this blade for several years for all kinds of magic, and after handing it to one woman, she commented on the heavy sensation she got from it, the sense of power and of dedicated work. I smiled, pleased to hear it, pleased that the knife and I had built such a relationship that others were able to send its works, its history.
We made our charms and hung them from our necks or carried them throughout the rest of the afternoon, through the discussion of that year’s herb and our main ritual briefing, where we were told what the format of the ritual would be. Then, we adjourned once more for dinner, in order to change and prepare ourselves before heading to the drumming circle. Andrea joined us after dinner and we shared the cigarettes Sionnan had rolled, discussing religion and magic before heading out to the main rite.
I won’t go into the main ritual, as it was a powerful rite that would lose its magnificence if it were shared in too much detail. But we danced the circle round, banishing the horrible things people may bring to the Knoll, and casting our charms to the stang. We made offerings of water, of mead, of wine to the stang, pouring them thickly upon the axis mundi symbol. And we danced in circles ’round the fire, all of us laughing and drumming and stamping our feet as we danced, building energy to empower our spell.
Each of us did our own things for the next several hours. Gersande joined us at the table outside our trailer as we sat and smoked more mugwort Sionnan had rolled, discussing more magic and religion between the five of us. We drank wine, the dark Apothic Red Brooke had brought with her. We discussed the ritual briefly and wondered how the next rite would go. Each of us was a bit nervous, but the time came to change into our white clothes and join the others back at the main fire-pit.
The ritual didn’t begin until midnight that night, that Saturday. We all gathered at the main fire-pit to talk and take part in more community before heading to the Cauldron. At some point before midnight, the sky opened up and rain fell. Not thick, not heavy, just a gentle rain from the sky, with lightning in the distance and the distant echoes of thunder.
“Thor,” Brooke murmured to me, pointing towards the lightning. I smiled and said a quiet prayer to my god as he showed his face here in the land so thick with magic and faith.
With the stars above us like a dense veil, it turned to midnight and we began our procession. Sarah told us we could be as serious or silly as we liked, but our tone quickly turned solemn as we processed down the main road and toward the Drumming Circle, passing its entrance and heading to the dark shores of the Cauldron.
We were all dressed in white, the gentle lights from the stars above and the sliver of moon still visible illuminating us like spirits in the night. Ahead of us, Sarah began to sing, bearing a lantern in one hand, clad all in red with her dark hair trailing down her back.
“Strong as the ocean,
Gentle as rain,
River wash my tears away,
Soon the whole procession had picked up the chant, each of us lending our voice to the words, with stars above us and the tall pines standing sentinel on either side of the path.
Slowly, ever so slowly, we made our way onto the shores of the Cauldron. There stood a man in black beside a fire, and not far from him stood two torches, their threshold covered in rose petals. We made a dense semi-circle around the edge of the inky black, for we could not see the water beyond the torches. Frogs were our music now, our large group quiet as we passed honey from hand to hand to bring sweet things into our lives. A bottle was passed, and some of the most delicious liquid I have ever tasted gilded my tongue. Sarah came ’round to each of us, a bottle of red wine in hand, and she took a swig before spraying each of us in turn with wine from her lips. Juniper, too, came ’round, spraying us each again, staining our white shirts and faces with the red liquid. Around again came Sarah, a large basin in her hands filled with water and rose petals. I dipped my hands inside, bringing the water to my face and my throat, cleansing myself as I murmured a prayer to the Morrigan and thought of what I wished to rid myself of.
And then it was time.
The first wave went inside the Cauldron, that spring that formed a huge pond beside the Drumming Circle. Bodies clad in white or sky went in and doused themselves in the clear water, plunging themselves beneath the surface before rejoining us on the shores. We four were in the second wave, and I muttered that I regretted all my life choices before rushing into the water, expecting it to be cold and frigid.
But it wasn’t. It was warm and tender, like a hug from a gentle lover, and I submerged myself beneath it, but did not let my face slide under. I rose from the water and splashed water upon my face, rinsing myself clean of all the sorrows and worries that I had carried with me to that point.
We all left the water with laughter on our breath, water dripping from our bodies and skin, before toweling off and heading back to the trailer that was our home for the weekend. Our moods were lighter, and we each commented on how refreshed we felt, the warm water still sticking to our skin. I fell asleep that night with a smile on my lips, laughter in my heart, and the now cooled water drying in my hair.
Sunday morning rose early for Brooke and me as we headed to the bathroom then returned to the trailer. She asked for the keys to grab something from the car and I handed them over, only learning a few hours later that she had fallen asleep in the backseat, shielded from all the spirits and magic of the last two days. Sionnan and Chase woke her, and we packed our things in the car, cleaned the trailer, and headed back in the car to the main fire-pit, parking it where we had first arrived that Friday.
The first workshops that day were on sigil magic and witches ladders. I had originally planned to attend the witches ladder workshop, but the number of smokers and delay in the start prompted me to wander back over to House Blackthorn and learn more on sigil magic.
Our presenter was good, her daughter assisting as she showed us several methods in ceremonial magic to create sigils, guiding us through the creation of one. She was attentive to all of our questions, and I was very pleased and happy to learn from her, for she clearly knew her works.
After the workshop, we had a delay between it and the next. I spoke with Chase as the others headed off to attend to a few things, and we opted to head back to Ottawa. All of us were exhausted, both physically and emotionally, and we all wanted air conditioning and no bugs in the coming hours. So we bid our goodbyes to those we had made friends with, both old and new, and began to get ready to leave. But as we were heading back to the car, Chase recalled that Auz, the steward of this land, had offered to take her up to the Aesir Ve and show her the shrine to Freyja. She asked if he would tell us how to get there, but he volunteered to take us all the way to the shrine trail, our group of three and another, as Sionnan had gone off to search for birch branches for her goddess and lady Frigga.
We crossed paths not far from the sacred birch grove and headed down the path back towards the Drumming Circle and the Cauldron. Sionnan spoke of her desire for birch and showed us the short branch she had picked up. Auz gifted her a larger one shortly after, saying that birch quickly rotted once it hit the ground and this new one would serve her better, longer. I won’t tell that tale, for it is hers to share if she wishes.
As we headed through the Drumming Circle, we bid hello to the stang, where it still stood and guarded the land before it would be processed to the spiral with its brethren later that day, at the closing ritual. The others ahead of me, I heard shouting to our left and looked up on the edge of the circle to see a very large dog at its crest. I smiled at him, for I adore dogs, and tried to shoo him back towards his family on the other side where the swam in the Cauldron, but he would not be deterred. He ran down to me and nuzzled my hands, and I gave him skritches beneath the chin and behind the ears before directing him back to his family. He headed back and I ran ahead to join the others where they began to walk the trail, finally catching up to them at the Jotunn Ve at the head of the path. I stood at the back of the group, not wanting to catch Loki’s eye, for though I have no oath to him, he and I have danced before.
We picked our way through the swampy earth, down the trail, passing the shrine to the huntress, to the tricksters, and a few others before coming to a short bridge with a sign. Auz bid us read the sign and leave all items not dedicated to the Aesir behind, as well as our phones, upon the ledge of the bridge. I slid my phone from my pocket and lay it on the ledge before following my friends to the entrance of the Ve.
Our hands clasped in his, Auz took our oaths to worship only the Aesir past the entrance, within the confines of the Ve, to not allow spit nor sweat nor other uncleanliness to taint the godpoles or the altar, and to swear not to bring violence into this holy place. As my friends spoke their oaths ahead of me, I waited my turn before clasping his hand.
“Who stands before the gods?” Auz asked me, and I gave him my name, the one given to me at birth. But that name has little meaning to me, so I gave him the two other names I go by, those that hold more power to me and the ones I share with my gods and my folk: Dodger and Kaye MacArthur, the latter of which I write under here. He paused a moment then took me oath to keep the Ve clean, to bring no violence within its bounds, and to only worship the Aesir there. I swore my oath and entered the Ve, joining my friends before the four tall poles for Freyja, Frigga, Odin, and Frey.
The five of us oathed, we stood before the gods as Auz greeted the gods and welcomed us to the Ve, welcomed us to the presence of the Aesir. It was warm there in the Ve, for there were no trees above us, only the large expanse of blue sky with the sun burning brightly above. Ahead of me, to my left, I could feel a faint presence of joviality and strength. Thor it was, I believe, just there enough for me to sense him again after Saturday night’s brief storm. I bid hello to the Old Man and spoke my prayers to the coin I then lay upon the altar. We bid our gods greetings and spoke prayers to them before leaving and bidding them farewell, heading back to the car. Auz told us that now that we were oathed, we were welcome any time back to the Ve, and if need be, we too could oath others into the sacred space. I felt a heavy hand upon my shoulder, not necessarily of a god or spirit, but rather a sense of responsibility as he spoke those words to us. To give an oath is one thing, but to take the oath of another, as a conduit for the gods? It is a great deal of responsibility, and I am still sorting out my thoughts on the matter, even now, a week later.
On the way back, I thanked Auz for bringing us, not just for me but for my two friends who have recently begun to follow Norse paths.
“She needed that,” I told him as we stepped through muck and mud. “And so I thank you.”
All once more gathered together, we thanked Auz for his time and for taking us through the shrine trail. The four of us climbed into the SUV and I drove us back towards the entrance of the grounds. We rolled the windows down and bid goodbye to the spirits there, to the spirits of the Spiral, thanking them for allowing us to join them for that weekend.
Three of us plan to come back next year, and so we promised to return. And as we reached the threshold of Raven’s Knoll, we stopped again and once more bid the spirits of the land thanks, promising our return. But for now, it was goodbye, and we began the journey back to Ottawa, back to home.