During the Carter and Reagan administrations, when the Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic revolution was rampaging through Iran, news reports frequently referred to doings in the "holy city of Qum," located somewhere southwest of Teheran.
Realizing that Qum is probably home to numerous dour Shiite Muslim clerics debating whether the chador sleeves worn by Iranian women should extend to the fingertips or if just to the wrist was long enough, I was still taken by the romance of the name, which sounds like something from King Solomon's Mines. Why don't we have a holy city on this continent?
If we do, perhaps it's Amarillo, Texas, the magickal crossroads of the Southern Plains.
Whatever its other claims to fame may be (and I'd rank the Helium Museum right up there), Amarillo remains the site of the longest-running Pagan conclave in the United States. Now called the United Earth Assembly (UEA) and held at the autumn equinox, it was known in the 1970s as the Samhain Seminar. To the best of my knowledge, it was the second openly Pagan public event, after the Gnosticons that Carl Weschcke organized in the Twin Cities from 1969 until the mid-1970s.
Samhain Seminar/UEA was started by Louise Stone and her late husband Loy, who formerly lived on a farm near Dimmitt, Texas, an area known for wheat farms, cotton farms, and oil wells, but not for magickal religion. Like a lot of small-town people, they figured they had to make their own fun, since there wasn't much in the neighborhood.
When my wife and I first attended in 1976, we'd never seen more than a dozen Neopagan Witches in one room before. People from different covens didn't know how to act around other groups. Members of one coven or lodge or something showed up dressed all in black, attended all the sessions, and never spoke to anyone but each other; they were highly "mysterious" but not much else.
Another high priest and priestess had an emotional argument in their hotel room over whether to perform one ceremony in front of "outsiders," in other words, people not in their particular coven. Her objections were only overcome by the argument that if some people could not grasp the symbolism, they would not steal any "secrets" from the ceremony, while those understood it therefore already understood that particular religious mystery and so could not "steal" anything.
The session presenters were not necessarily self-identified Witches but they had a lot to offer. For instance, the late Bill Finch, author of The Pendulum and Possession, taught me much of what I know about dowsing and the Huna magical system: I still use one of his "rare-earth tantalum pendulums," which is to say, an electrical capacitor on a chain. In those first years, the large-group rituals were still somewhat tentative, but the quality of presentations was high.
At that time, Loy and Louise were highly involved with the Church and School of Wicca, and like the Frosts, who were frequent presenters at the seminars, they were out-front about the event. It was publicized locally, news media representatives were present, and, inevitably, some evangelistic Christians couldn't leave the Witches alone.
In fact, during the 1980 seminar, held in Amarillo again after having been moved the two previous years first to Albuquerque and then Washington, D.C., a veritable Christian tent revival went on behind the Holiday Inn, with at least one highly vocal ex-member of the Church of Wicca on the bill. A bomb threat against the hotel capped the weekend, and its management provided vans to temporarily evacuate attendees.
Things are quieter nowadays. Loy Stone is no longer among us, a burly bearded man driving a huge white Buick with license plates "WICCA 1." After his death, Louise, although still an important part of UAE, stepped down from active organizing. New people from Oklahoma and Texas took over, changed the time of year (away from Halloween and the predictable news-media attention) and also the name.
But, according to what I learned, attending this year for the first time since 1981, the plan is to keep on holding the event in Amarillo, not just for the benefit of local attendees but also because it is the one place that is a day's drive from Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Oklahoma City, Dallas-Fort Worth, and the Front Range cities of Colorado.
As we said back in the 1970s, if the magick doesn't work in a Holiday Inn beside Interstate 40 in Amarillo, what good is it?
Maybe, some day in the future, travelers crossing the level miles of the Texas Panhandle will see the office towers of Amarillo in the haze far ahead and say, "Look, the towers of the holy city!"
Probably not in my lifetime, though.
[This column was written in 1993. UEA was later moved to Dallas, a larger population center, so that people from there would not have to drive so far, and now it is chiefly a Texas event rather than drawing from the entire Southwest. CSC/May 1997]
Chas S. Clifton lives in the Wet Mountains of southern Colorado. He edited Llewellyn Publications' Witchcraft Today series, which included The Modern Craft Movement (1992), Modern Rites of Passage (1993), Witchcraft & Shamanism (1994), and Living Between Two Worlds (1996) and was the co-author with Evan John Jones of Sacred Mask, Sacred Dance. He is now writing a history of American Paganism tentatively titled Her Hidden Children for AltaMira Press.
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