The priestesses who conduct rituals at PantheaCon, an annual gathering of a few thousand pagans over a long weekend in San Jose, California, have to meet a particular set of challenges: They have just an hour and a half to facilitate deep magical work, in a conference hotel ballroom, for a group of mostly total strangers who might never have encountered their particular tradition of magic and methods of worship.
PantheaCon draws pagans from all over the map, both spiritually and religiously speaking. All manner of witches and priestesses cross paths: Heathen and Druid, Theurgist and Hoodoo, Kemetic and Dianic, Feri and Umbanda, as well as solo practitioners of witchcraft, known as solitaries—some of whom only participate in group magic once a year. At PantheaCon, witches from all walks of life attend each other's rituals, performances, and lectures, or at least go to after-parties in each other's hospitality suites.
Rituals are the bedrock of all religious and spiritual traditions, from Catholic High Mass to the chanting at the end of a yoga class; they can be as formal as weddings and funerals and as simple as the way a baseball player touches his cap before he pitches. Some traditions of witchcraft observe rituals with formal liturgy passed down through generations, and others may design rituals as one-offs or adhere to the general shape of a traditional ritual and improvise within that.
Generally speaking, witchcraft rituals involve the invocation of a spirit, and many witches are drawn to a type of deity known collectively as the Dark Goddess. She includes underworld deities, such as Persephone, Ereshkigall, and Hekate, as well as goddesses associated with destruction, such as Kali or the Morrigan. Jane Meredith, a pagan priestess and author of Journey to the Dark Goddess: How to Return to Your Soul, believes rituals for the Dark Goddess are crucial. If we don't integrate the dark parts of the world within ourselves along with the light parts we're more conscious of, "we have no hope of dealing with the whole of things," she said.
Ritual work can be so emotionally draining for some witches that it physically exhausts them; altered states of consciousness reached through communing with the divine can wear people out as much as taking psychoactive substances. "PantheaCon is a confusing place—that's part of the intrigue," said Meredith. "Can you as a priestess go deep enough to give people a taste of the work, but not so deep that you or your participants spend the rest of the weekend recovering from it? Can you touch on the mystery and intrigue, and spark curiosity?"
When you hear the word "witch," what pops into your head might be women wearing all black, murmuring over a cauldron, wielding brooms and chanting incantations. This stereotype isn't all wrong, and in fact wearing the trappings of a Macbeth-type witch—putting on the glamor—can help set the tone for working with Dark Goddess energy.
At the Black Rose Witchcraft coven's "Sacrament of Hekate Triodia"—a ritual for the Greek goddess of sorcery who moves between the underworld, Olympus, and the mortal realm—this was certainly the case. It was one of the most popular rituals of the day; some participants, dressed in witchy finery, had been lined up for half an hour to be sure they'd get in. As participants entered the ballroom in which the incantation was to take place, they were greeted by four witches dressed in black wearing traditional pointed hats, holding brooms in an arch over the attendees' heads to bless and purify them.
Hekate, also known as Queen of the Witches, is often invoked at rituals in which the witches want to get in touch with the side of witchcraft that's both stereotypical and historically correct: the dark stuff, about mortality and brewing spells for transformations that might be scary. Hekate, as keeper of keys and crossroads, is also associated with the Three Fates, cutting off parts of life so the rest may continue.
Black Rose had transformed the room into a temple. The overhead chandeliers suspended from the hotel's dropped ceiling were dimmed, and blood-red electric pillar candles lit the room. The center altar held a cauldron and a statue of the triple-faced Hekate, along with sacred objects like a bullwhip and a brass bell with a crescent moon handle. A large altarpiece in the back of the room depicted Hekate's crossroads, and to each side of the altar sat a small, handcrafted wooden door, one red and one black. Behind these altars, a small choir stood on risers, accompanied by electronic music and a long loop of recorded singing bowls.
Central to the ritual was invoking Hekate in aspect. (Aspecting is a ritual technique similar to, but more controlled than, trance possession. In trance possession, a deity enters the priestess's body and controls her entirely; she often remembers nothing of the experience.) Heather Aurora, a priestess of the Black Rose School, was one of three women who invoked the goddess. To go into aspect, she invited Hekate "to inhabit my body so she could speak her wisdom through me," Aurora told Broadly in an interview.
In a ritual such as the Sacrament for Hekate Triodia, the priestesses set out to provide an experience authentic to their tradition within the set and setting of PantheaCon. The goal was to facilitate a meditative—and also dark, even spooky—sacred container; in this sacred container, attendees were meant to honor Hekate, walk to the crossroads, make a choice about a direction to take in their own lives, enact that pledge by giving Hekate an offering, and come together as a congregation to witness one another's work. For some participants, ritual workings remain metaphorical and symbolic. For others, the goddess is literally present in the room.
Can you as a priestess go deep enough to give people a taste of the work, but not so deep that you or your participants spend the rest of the weekend recovering from it?
After calling Hekate into the room—and themselves—with a chant in Latin, the three human priestesses who invoked the goddess invited the ritual participants to reflect on obstacles and desires in their lives, symbolized by a blank key to be used as an offering. In other rituals, the priestesses might lead the participants to envision this choice by bringing them into a hypnotic state and having them reach a crossroads and speak directly to Hekate in their mind's eye or imagination. In a physical space, not everyone can enact walking to the crossroads at the same time, and I looked around during the "standing in line to do magic" part—never optimal in a ritual but often unavoidable—and there were perhaps equal measures of stillness and impatience, devotion and restlessness.
"We didn't want people standing in line," Heather told me. "We would have loved to have drawn a labyrinth on the floor for people to walk, but rope lights are cost-prohibitive, and we thought of draping fabric, but people might have tripped, so we had to settle for a simple crossroads drawn with pillar candles."
Stephanie Woodfield, author of Celtic Lore & Spellcraft of the Dark Goddess: Invoking the Morrigan, also recognizes the challenges of offering deep magic in a hectic setting. "A lot of it boils down to who is facilitating the ritual, whether you're in the woods or in a conference room. If you're rooted and connected and have people supporting you—I've gone to some rituals at PantheaCon that were pretty intense and some that were kind of meh—I don't think it's going to be less intense because it's inside a hotel if you do it right. If you have connection to deity, you can be in your car and connect with the divine."
Sometimes when people find themselves in a closed container among supportive people—that is, in ritual—the process of emotional process and release is both eased and intensified. In a ritual for the Dark Goddess, which touches on death and the surrender into that, that's always part of the spell. No one that I saw at the "Sacrament to Hekate Triodia" was weeping uncontrollably, but more than a few people were wiping back tears as they gazed at the altars and considered how they wanted to change their lives. And at the end of the ritual, as the priestesses released the spirits they'd called in, the crowd erupted in a collective shout of joy. There's more than one way for a priestess to gauge a successful ritual, but the crowd's reaction at the end is a good start.