Content Notes: I do use the word “crazy” from time to time because I identify with that word as a mentally ill person. I also talk frankly about burnout, violence (in a dream), trauma, and similarly heavy topics. If there is something you need a specific content warning on, please let me know and I will add it.
I’ve been having recurring dreams since I was about 20 years old of a black dog following me and killing those closest to me. She stalks me and my loved ones for days, feral, blood dripping down her snout, unstoppable. I always woke up shaking or crying after those dreams. She always succeeded.
On the night of this past full moon, in May 2019, I once more had a nightmare that was punishingly vivid about that dog, but this time, after watching her descend upon an old friend of mine I hadn’t seen in years, I finally snapped and threw myself on the dog, crushing her dream-neck between my dream-hands. Vividly. I felt her stop shrieking and shaking beneath my legs, my fists. It was horrifying. I was horrified.
I woke up feeling uneasy, my fingers hurting from clenching shut in my sleep.
I’ve been dreading Witches Sabbat 2019. Back in the winter, it was looking like I wasn’t going to be able to make it anyways because of a conflict with work.
And then Janine called me — must have been April or maybe even back in March — out of the blue. She wanted to check in and to figure out what she could do to make sure I came.
(There was an idea floating around then of burning the Stangs and releasing all that energy back into the Knoll. It would be the last Sabbat as we’d known them, the very last one, and it was time to release the land, set the Spiral free, let it go go go—)
I was honestly very moved by Janine’s call and compassion (and her frustration, let’s be real), and I decided to try to see if I couldn’t shift my schedule. My partner, the one with the driver’s license, was thankfully able to take time off work at the last minute. Everything was falling into place serendipitously.
But though the logistical bits were aligning, I was still sick with anxiety. I would wake up in the morning jittery and skittish. I would go to bed dreading both the morning and the sleeping.
(It didn’t help I had recently been attacked and retraumatized at a private community event (not related to witchcraft) on the very first weekend of May, and I was so sick. I couldn’t stand up without falling over. My heart would spend hours beating at over 140 bpm. I had recurring, persistent tachycardia for 8 days, a record for me. I was terrified. I should have gone to the hospital, or at the very least seen my doctor, but I just couldn’t leave the house. I was so afraid, all the time.)
And then that nightmare happened.
(Fuck, sometimes, I just want to kick my motherfucking anxiety/c-PTSD in the face.)
I checked in with my lilac tree, with my coyotes, with the spirits around my home — the old stump in the alleyway, the spirits that linger in the back stairwell of my building — but everything kept telling me to go.
And, I had to admit to myself that I would never feel right, after how important Witches Sabbat became in my life after 2015, to miss the final year.
So I told myself, fuck it, let’s go get this done.
What was really at the root of my fear of Witches Sabbat 2019?
Definitely some part of it was the possible interpersonal conflicts between people.
A lot of it was the trauma.
It’s not my trauma and grief to write about.
Trauma ripples outwards from its epicentre, and it lingers and echoes.
I was apprehensive about a Witches Sabbat on retraumatized land, with retraumatized people.
So, because I’m not going to write about shit that’s not mine to write about, here are some things that I do feel comfortable writing about (though they are also uncomfortable to write about) :
From my own perspective, Witches Sabbat as I knew it from 2015 until 2019 was an experiment in what was possible to accomplish with this kind of magic, in these kinds of open-to-the-public rituals. Logistics-wise, a big lesson I’m taking away as someone who was never on staff (but who spoke to a lot of staff) is that there is probably a hard limit to how many people who are strangers to each other can participate in these kinds of witchcraft intensives and do this kind of magic without stuff going wrong, in the mundane or magical senses. And I say this as someone who came to the Knoll for the first time only knowing one person! People are just in different head spaces, dealing with their own personal and spiritual journeys. We don’t know who is going to have to tap out because of events completely outside their control. We don’t know how many people are going to make mistakes out of sheer ignorance. On the more drastic end, we don’t know who is going to snap, go spit on a godpole, and desecrate an extremely beloved space, either.
I think, personally, that all the land stewards, workshop givers, ritual runners, facilitators, helpers and staff did their fucking best to keep the peace, help things run smoothly, make sure certain expectations were set, and create these intensely awesome experiences for us. But the more people come, and the longer people know each other, the more conflict builds up. It’s just inevitable.
And a lot of it isn’t magical conflict. A lot of it is the obnoxious but necessary mundane stuff of getting along in discomfort and plain old differences of opinion, despite a dire lack of energy or while dealing with the soul-crushing realities of burnout.
I do think it’s possible that a lot of folks are so used to working in a solitary way, that we don’t actually know how to separate what we need individually from what the community needs. And these kinds of scenes and communities lean hardest on those who give too much, to the point of self-destruction. I think we just don’t get to practice being in community enough anymore. We don’t get to practice relying on each other, confronting each other, and disagreeing with each other without it devolving into us hating each other.
I know I’m not always good at this shit. I usually deal with conflict by running. I can thank my traumatized brain for that wonderfully maladaptive coping mechanism.
Also, I want to talk about magical burnout, the kind that isn’t fixed by self-care.
My friend and I took a moment this past weekend to walk the shrine trail in the light. He asked me if I leave offerings at every single shrine every single time I come to this trail. I was a bit stunned by the question even though it’s a good one.
It occurred to me, then, on a weekend where the effects of burnout were so clear, how much work we keep piling on to our plates.
And, well, I’m just going to say it: I often wonder if way too many oaths made are just fucking unrealistic. I often wonder if we, in the heat of the moment, pledge way too big, and then life happens and we can’t deliver, and it deepens distrust and resentment between us and the spirit world, especially on occupied and stolen land. When we create these intense, ecstatic rituals, when we are literally out of our bodies or even minds, it’s no wonder I keep hearing about newcomers finding they are suddenly oathed to intransigent gods or spirits. (Disclaimer: this doesn’t just happen at Witches Sabbat.) It’s a common for a lot of hedgewitches to find trouble too soon — we’ve all done it, to the point where it’s practically a rite of passage — but this shit is work, it will eventually drain you and wear you down if you’re not careful. Witchcraft sounds fun, edgy, mysterious and cool, but it won’t always be a ball, and the work still needs to happen even when you’re physically unwell, retraumatized, in conflict with absolutely everyone, losing grip on your sanity, etc.
Fuck, I’m not the biggest fan of the concept of initiation — and when I was a teenager I never would have stood for it — but there is wisdom in requiring newcomers to learn certain guidelines before getting started. The hardest lessons I had to learn as an activist and as a hedgewitch: don’t make promises unless you fucking know you can keep them. Especially don’t make promises until you actually understand and respect your own limits and boundaries. Especially when you’re not just dealing with your own spiritual journey, but working in community where a lot of people are made sick or crazy by the world and are trying to heal or deal.
And, well, offerings are physical, material sacrifices. They are hardship and pain. I spent hours during my childhood watching men and women climb the 280 wooden steps of the Oratoire St Joseph on their hands and knees just to have their prayers heard.
All dealings with spirits and gods involve sacrifice. When you’re a disabled, hurting, precarious worker like me, these sacrifices may involve many additional unseen components that can’t always be quantified in the moment.
But if I sacrifice too much, and there’s nothing left of myself, then how am I helpful to anyone? How can I be in relationship with anyone? Least of all myself?
Doesn’t some of this shit remind me so much of the abusive relationships and domestic violence I grew up immersed in?
Because, well, it really does.
So who will start that conversation, if not us?
Now that I’ve ranted and rambled a good while, I want to make a point to remember Witches Sabbat 2019’s undeniable beauty. Many of us came to this traumatized space and connected with each other and the land fiercely and I celebrate that. I’ll try to keep this in (mostly) chronological order :
Stepping foot back on the Knoll. Pulling my coyotes back on. Carrying my key offering to Hekate at the crossroads. Chanting in twilight. Preparing her throne in the crossroads under the pines. Speaking to the Goddess herself and pulling the 3 of Staves from her basket. Spending a moment with Rasa cooling down and releasing the space after the ritual. Standing with my staff, thinking about crossroads and decisions, letting myself sway with a building wind. Thinking about forests at twilight.
Later that night, around the fire, a very giddy Jade handed me a small rock with the Kenaz rune despite not being a part of the Odin ritual.
Then Saturday, getting up and going to the Witch Shrine for the first time, and listening to Janine and Leo sing and open the space for us. Finding a small den for the Fetch, or Shapeshifter Stang, with Rasa. Clearing paths with only my tiny mushroom foraging knife.
And then, and then, sitting in the grass outside the Spiral with a handful of others, waiting for everyone to arrive and enter the Spiral. Fuck I got devoured by mosquitoes, and even have a sunburn on my nose to prove it!
Walking through the Spiral, and sitting there again, listening to everyone speak, heaviness found us again. I thought of my last handful of time there. The Spiral will never be the same for me, but that’s true of anyplace after a while. It’s the Tower card: Shit Happens.
I stayed close to the Shapeshifter Stang, who I got to know my first ever year at the Knoll. The Stang was in very poor shape. Most of the base had rotted away. I spoke with Rasa and Erik as we carefully cleaned and re-adorned it, and we all agreed it was time soon to find a new wooden stang. It’s one of my goals this year: keep my eyes and ears open for one.
How do I even describe Saturday night? I mostly remember screaming and laughing like a hyena-coyote hybrid. I pushed my voice to its limit, it’s still gravelly today. And running — so much running. My coyotes wanted me to run. The Shapeshifter wanted me to run. The Knoll wanted me to run.
I’ll never forget the shrieking laughter, passing the poppet around, or the dancing and running around the fire, or putting keys on the new shield Stang. (Or encouraging folks to stretch!) I spent time with the Lady, as well.
And, I’ll never forget the moment around the Keystone fire, listening to bardic with all the Stangs watching in the dark — I fought back tears when I realized how attentively they were watching. It was beautiful. I loved hearing everyone’s voices, poetry, stories, guitar-playing. I loved hearing the Witches Sabbat rap.
I was so grateful throughout the weekend, to get to speak with people I’d never spoken to much before — Ron, River, Leo, and a handful of others I’m forgetting the names of right now. I’m so grateful to those who shared stories with me. I’m so grateful for Krista giving me mugwort spontaneously — it still smells so good. I’m so grateful for Erik’s support when I was frustrated. I’m grateful for everyone who showed kindness to me. I’m so grateful for all the staff, past and present. Thank you Janine! Thank you Angela! Thank you Juniper! You took on so much for us.
Sunday was the hardest day. We were all running on fumes, moving the Stangs into their new home. I pulled the Fool and the Queen of Pentacles just before I left the Shrine. Work to be done — but isn’t there always? I took it as a good omen.
Leaving Raven’s Knoll was difficult. I don’t know what the future looks like, nor how my future relationship with the Knoll or its community is going to look like.
But what I can say is that it’s been 5 years of incredible highs — and heartrending lows. It’s taught me so much. I’ve really come out of my shell. I’ve made friends. I understand myself and my own practice better. Over five years I fell in love with witchcraft again and remembered why I do all this fucking work in the first place.
Much love to Raven’s Knoll and its keepers, and to all participants of the Witches Sabbat, present and past.
So one last time…
Hail the Witches!
May our laughter resonate amongst the cedars and the pines.
May we be indomitable in all our new endeavours.
PS: Fuck, I am also so grateful for my partner Leif’s grilled cheese. He doesn’t even attend Witches Sabbat (cue “she doesn’t even go here” meme from Mean Girls) but he’s been driving me to the Knoll year after year knowing he’s going to have to take care of me all weekend and possibly for weeks afterwards. He selflessly helped me contribute to the potluck these past two years. And, he drove me and my friend O. safely home through a tornado. So: fuck yeah Leif! You’ve taught me more about compassion and selflessness than anyone I know.