Thursday, July 13, 2006

"Drawing down" at big festivals

Dragonfest is the largest Pagan festival in Colorado (there is an SCA reference in the name, I think), set to begin August 6 this year. Usually the state's two main Pagan e-lists light up afterwards as people discuss what went right, what went wrong, whose behavior offended whom, who was profoundly moved by what ritual, and so on.

(I myself have not attended Dragonfest in many years, but I gather that it now attracts about 1,000 people. I stopped going because changes in my work life made early August a poor time to attend festivals of any sort, even the Telluride Mushroom Festival, not because I was offended by anyone or anything. But I attend smaller festivals where some of the same trends are occurring.)

This year, the discussion started early, when an organizer posted a request on the lists for volunteers for "drawing down," to use the common Wiccan term for trance possession. The posting brought immediate response to the effect that since drawing down was one of the central mysteries, how could a "cattle call" via email produce qualified and ethical priestesses; that, in fact, the whole quality of the ritual was declining; and, furthermore, who would or could or should "draw down the Moon" in the day time. (The ritual is planned to begin at 3 p.m.)

Natually, those comments brought counter-comments, in which the critic was accused of suffering from the worst sort of 3rd-degree-initate syndrome, of being unwilling to accept change, and so on.

The event organizers, along with a certain amount of cyber-pouting about being unappreciated, argued that having multiple priestesses early the day reduced the waiting (see below), was easier on the elderly and handicapped, and, most of all, was a necessary religious service to provide. They argued, with some truth, that for a large percentage of attendees, this was the only time (or one of few times) when they could come together in community. The high number of solitary Wiccans and Pagans, they said, meant that these solitaries could not experience this divine communication in a small, intimate coven setting. Their only opportunity comes at a large festival.

In my experience, the large, public drawing-down is handled in one of two ways.

1. Attendees are in a big circle, in a meadow, for instance. The entranced priest or priestess(es) comes around from one to the next. Meanwhile, you stand there, shifting from one foot to the next, wondering if you remembered to make your car insurance payment, waiting for your ten-second encounter. Or else the priestess/ess(es) take positions in the circle, and people go to them, if they wish to.

2. Another method is for the entranced priestesses and their assistant(s) to be settled in tents or pavilions. The querents line up on the bank-lobby model ("Wait here for next available teller"). Or if the priestesses are manifesting different aspects of the Wiccan goddess (maiden, mother, crone), then the querents might select the one whose wisdom they seek. "Walkers" lead the querent to the priestess and back again and stand ready to assist in any way needed. Again, there is often some grumbling about the long waits in line.

There are so many ways that I could discuss this issue, so maybe I wil see which way the comments—if any—flow.

1. For a discussion of ecstatic trance based on personal experience and co-related with social-scientific research, I recommend Chapter 5, "'The Juice of Ritual': Pathways of Ecstasy," in Sabina Magliocco's recent book, Witching Culture.

2. Over the past 25 years, these public drawings-down have come to be central components of at least some festivals. There are parallels with what I understand about divine or spirit possession in Candomblé, Umbanda, or other African-derived traditions, as well as in such healing cults as that of El Niño Fidencio, and probably some Asian traditions well, but I know little about the latter.

What I have seen, though, is a bit of a shift from a focus on big, theatrical participatory rituals--torchlight processions and that sort of thing--to the main event being this mediated officient-client event. It's a change.

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Anonymous Jason Pitzl-Waters said...

How do we even judge a "good" drawing down in our community? I'm sure many of the issues here touch at least somewhat on the notion of authenticity. Once you move from a small-group intimate experience to a larger waiting in line type of thing where hundreds of people are there with slightly different expectations then you are going to start having problems.

In Haitain Vodou (and other related traditions), once possessed, the "horse" would do things that only the spirit in question could do. This included ritual cuttings (often with no blood), drinking or eating things no mortal could handle (usually highly-spiced drinks), and walking/talking in the manner of the spirit. Modern Pagan Witchcraft traditions in my experience doesn't embrace any of these "proofs", indeed I was taught that drawing down was more a divine "mantle" than a possession. The goddess and priestess working in tandem. Which as I mentioned earlier is fine in a more intimate setting where small behavioral tics and clues can replace the more dramatic proofs, but loses effectiveness when you are dealing with hundreds of modern Pagans.

It should also be noted that structurally-speaking waiting in line isn't a very fun way to ritual. Again if you look at the African diasporic faiths, possesion sessions are filled with constant singing, drumming, and dancing (and is some cases entheogens). That way the estactic "peak" among the participants is extended for as long as possible. Why don't festival-oriented drawing downs incorporate the already thriving drumming community into the drawing down? Why aren't there special praise-songs created for large drawing down gatherings? No wonder people are bored.

Finally, the critics do have a point. When you start scheduling mass-ritual around convienience rather than times that seem the most "right" you are going to lose a lot of the "spark" and dynamic tension that makes events like that worthwhile. It is nice that they want to help out the elderly and disabled, but they should make it easier for them to attend at a "proper" time instead of moving the proper time to them.

Just some thoughts.

8:52 AM  
Blogger Chas S. Clifton said...


I agree with you about using the drumming and chanting to keep the energy up. I have often wondered why that is not done more. Maybe somewhere in the contemporary Pagan world it is being done. Not here, apparently.

Perhaps one reason why not is this: mediums in, say, Candomblé, use drumming and songs as a way of entering the divinely possessed state. However, many Wiccan priests and priestesses learn in smaller, quieter settings, and their techniques are different. They bring their "living room" techniques to the big outdoor festivals.

9:11 AM  
Anonymous Julia K. said...

Part of the challenge that I see paganism of the past 10 years having to face head-on, but continually trying to avoid in a state of denial, is the idea that scaling up is not always possible.

The things that work beautifully with 10-30 people do not work well with 100-300 people. As more people have the ability and desire to gather together, the rituals that were so meaningful for the 10-30 are attempted to be done for larger groups. The end result is a logistical nightmare, a flat ritual experience, or a shift toward audience-based rituals (where everyone watches some scene unfold, ala performance art) instead of participatory rituals (where everyone has something that they are doing to build the ritual).

Having been to both the former and the latter, I have no desire to watch performance art and call it a ritual. If I'm not putting something of me into the ritual experience, there's no reason for me to be there at all. Yet, I'm running into more and more people who feel weird about putting something of themselves into a ritual, and want the "church experience" of audience-based ritual within paganism.

This is a major issue that will keep coming up over and over again. Eventually I think there will be some sort of schism (whether formalized or not) that will keep the audience separate from the participatory individuals. Perhaps such is the price to pay for becoming "mainstream"?

9:34 AM  
Blogger Sunfell said...

The folks doing all the bickering would probably classify me as one of those hard-assed FMPPH third-degreers in that I believe that a Drawing Down should be a closed and private event, not something to entertain a large crowd.

There are other ways to convey prophecy to a large group of celebrants, and as I said in the Live Journal post at Nonfluffypagans, the technique used at Between The Worlds in 2000 was one of the best I've seen. It didn't run on forever, there were no children present, and the large group (around 300 people) were taken to 'stations' where the Oracles were to get their bit o' wisdom. It ran smoothly and well.

I'm not a big festival goer any more- I can get my 'dose' of insight when I need it, and not have to bother with heat, crowds, etc. And being online lets me get my social itch scratched without the exhausting dealing with strangers problem. (It's an introvert/Sensitive thing...)


11:47 AM  
Blogger branruadh said...

I have been learning trance possession for the last three years (and I'm still learning ;>). I've "drawn down" Brigid as one of three such chosen priestesses for a crowd of over 200 people. And it's a damn good thing we divided that room into thirds, or I think each of us would have gone nuts during the "meet and greet" portion of the rite. And all we were supposed to do in that portion was the equivalent of a rock star reaching down to clasp hands with the people pressing against the stage. I have other stories of other trancework, but none that large. Having done that, the idea of 200 people filing one by one into a tent for the blessings of a drawn-down goddess just feels like all levels of wrong to me. One-on-one consultations can't be handled like an assembly line.

11:15 PM  
Blogger Kathryn Price NicDhàna said...

Hi Chas, long time no type ;-)

In addition to my work in Celtic Reconstructionism, I have a background in Afro-Diasporic traditions, Hindu Darshans, and the American Neopagan festival scene. I have done full possession in small rituals, and lesser degrees of possession trance while priestessing or participating in huge rituals (but in the more organic, bembe model - not the sort of ATM presentation you describe here). I also must agree with Jason that the Wiccan drawing down is generally only an overshadowing, not full possession (which is an amnesia trance - the Deity is fully present and you are gone, you come back not knowing what happened).

I am also very disturbed by this trend. Some friends of mine attended a ritual like this recently. It was not announced ahead of time that most of the ritual would consist of them waiting around to talk to one of the three "Goddesses" (allegedly, one of the three faces of Brighid). Quite frankly, it sucked.

People were bored and unfocused, and then the "consultation" was exactly what Brenda surmised in her blog: a fortune-cookie quip from someone who wouldn't know full Possession, or even serious Inspiration, if it whacked them upside the head with an anvil.

Bad idea, bad trend, bad direction for those folks to head.

I think this is a case of Wiccans wanting the intensity of a Bembe or Darshan, but without the skills, training, gifts or understanding of how to make that happen. Maybe some of them have done what we did, and studied with priestesses of living traditions to learn these skills. But it doesn't sound like that to me. They may be yearning for a deepening of the tradition, a revitalization that will make it have some of the oomph of the bembes and darshans but, sadly, rather than building something strong it just sounds like pale, superficial imitation.

And it sounds more like they are basing it on a superficial imitation of Darshan than any understanding of how Bembes work.

Also, if the people getting "consults" don't understand that these priest/esses are *not* truly speaking for the Deities... that can wind up in some very dangerous territory.

9:55 AM  
Blogger Carol said...

I picked up a few copies of Sedona magazine recently. Pagans don't yet seem to feel the need to share what they've channelled beyond an oral delivery.

Or am I just used to mature and experienced enough practitioners who have a better idea of what's appropriate and what isn't?

Are there "what Brighid wants me to tell you" channelling kiss-and-tell manuscripts clogging Llewellyn's inbox as we speak?

Carol Maltby

1:49 PM  
Blogger Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

I have experienced large group drawing down experiences as both the priestess drawn down and as a participant. And though I agree that it is not possible simply to "scale up" living room techniques for a crowd (and I've definately done my time in the shifting-from-leg-to-leg variety of ritual when organizers forgot this) I believe it can be done well. Quite well, in fact...

The key is to make sure that the attenders either are experienced Pagans themselves--possible in some large groups, though not in others--or include the drawing down as one kind of activity in the context of a large ritual where it is but one component. Case in point: one of the two occassions where I was the priestess was a wedding at an SCA event (not my choice of venue, but I wasn't the bride) held on property owned by a fundamentalist Christian, where we had to tread lightly. The bride, groom and all the members of the wedding party were initiates, and they formed a small group around the officiants--my then-high-priest and I. A large (very large) group of other SCA members were then invited to the wedding; many were Pagan, though some were not. We wound up forming a circle within a circle.

Those who were not Pagan most likely saw only a series of ritual gestures. However, because everyone present expected to be passive witnesses for parts of the ceremony, and because my priest and I (he drew down as well) were interacting only with the wedding party, there was no annoying sense of wait time.

And because my priest and I were well-established working partners, AND because the added focus of so many witnesses AND the more concentrated energy of the Pagan attendees added a kick to the ritual, there was an unusual level of "kick" to the drawing down. (Grounding after the ritual was a major, major priority! Happily, our coven's best anchor was also present.)

I am aware that there's an ethical grey area here, btw. As I say, I did not choose the venue. Only the love I had for the bride made me consent, though I'm not honestly sorry I did.

My best experience as an attender of large ritual, in fact, was with a large-group drawing down that _did_ use chanting and drumming--and a bonfire and a previous, participatory stage of ritual--to keep the energy high. Once again, the officiants were all intimately known to one another, and were working as experienced ritualists. The God was present to a degree that was absolutely transformative for me... but the energy was also very, very powerful and, even with the fact that all participants were experienced, I suspect some of us had some pretty bad trips. When the Gods are that present, it stops being entirely safe...

Done properly, drawing down in a large group can work well--if what you're looking for is a powerful ritual experience. But I think the level of energy can be really difficult to manage... unless you build in really tight safeguards, OR bleed it off through boring, static ritual techniques, like lengthy, empty waits. I think it's another valid path, in addition to big, theatrical participatory rituals. But it's not a path I'd recommend treading casually, with volunteers and among strangers...

Thanks for a facinating thread, Chas.

4:54 PM  
Anonymous rosewood said...

Thank you all for this conversation. Until I read Sabina's book, I hadn't known about this overshadowing thing. And I have never gone to a big pagan festival. I'll take this thread as a sign that I wouldn't like it there, me being a solitary dianic who comes from a tradition that says more than 13 and the coven needs to split.

waiting around to talk to a goddess? can't I just talk to myself?

It is a disturbing trend, if that is what it is.

6:35 PM  
Blogger Deborah said...

Interesting. The phenomenon of DDM/S at festivals hasn't hit the East Coast as far as I know. I've seen it only in the context of an oracular saed, not in "public Wicca."

Put me in the camp of those snooty third degrees who say no. I used to do DDM at some non-initiate private events, and stopped doing that because the intensity was too much, too scary, for those without proper training. So to do it in public would scare lots of people or drain away the intensity; neither of which I'm interested in.

8:30 AM  
Anonymous Natalie said...

You'd probably laugh at ours, then. We have very few festivals in New Zealand, none of them big, and the only time any sort of "drawing down" or posession-like thing that has happened in any of them to my knowledge was at the New Zealand Pagan Festival 2003ish. Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone were visiting and promoting their "inner mysteries" workshops and the upcoming Progressive Witchcraft. This was not as part of a big group ritual, or as a private demonstration, but in a lecture. Everyone sat rapt under the taupaulin while they took a woman through a technique. Even some of the permanent trailer residents at the park showed up and were fascinated. There were a couple who were angry that such a mysterious thing should be revealed to general people, but I think most were torn between "that was interesting" and feeling a bit bemused by the possession-as-spectacle thing.

11:23 PM  

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