Atheopagan Ritual “Witchery”

I’ve taken a little latitude with the title of this post. What I want to talk about is ritual behavior the purpose of which is simply to connect with the natural world: rituals that take place in nature and are done to “say hello”, in effect, rather than to achieve some internal transformation, collective shift of consciousness or connection, or celebration of a season’s arrival. Ritual behavior out in the wild using all-natural found materials seems “witchy” to me, so I used the word. I don’t generally think of myself as doing witchy things, so I see what I’m discussing here as somehow categorically different from those rituals which have more specific intentions. If you don’t like the word, ignore it and use another.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes when I’m in nature, I just like to build a little altar-y thing–an assemblage of found materials nestled, perhaps, in the hollow of a tree or on a flat stone: some spot that seems special. To me, they are offerings, kind of like love letters to nature; they say, I am connected to you, I was thinking about you, I love you. I don’t, of course, believe that this “message” is received in any sense, but in the same way I feel awe and humility and wonder and reverence for the great wide Cosmos when it certainly isn’t hearing me, it does me good to express such feelings: to embrace and foster them. It adds to my sense of living a full and joyous life, and there is something moving and poignant about the ephemeral nature of such “messages”, which will rapidly fall back into natural disarray after I leave them.

I suspect that this is similar to the impulse that drives “land artists” like Andy Goldsworthy. Arrangement of objects in patterns or to aesthetically please is an old, old hominid behavior that pre-dates even our species.

So how does this work?

Well, first find a “magic place”: a tree with a hollow, or a flat rock in the middle of a stream, or a place where the sun angles down through the trees and illuminates the ground–anywhere that strikes you as special.

Collect materials and place them, making careful consideration of their arrangement. This can be a highly meditative process; it is likely that you will find yourself in the Ritual State simply by focusing on creating the “art” of your installation.

Finally, “consecrate” your installation. Say or sing words to commend your artwork to that place, or to the world, or whatever is meaningful to you. Express your feelings until you know that the work is done.

Be careful not to alter anything in a permanent way. These installations are moments in time, not monuments. So little is left of the wild places in our world that junking them up with durable human “handprints” is not appropriate: make your installation something that will naturally fall back into disarray as wind, weather, decay and the movement of animals scatter its components. It is only there to make you happy for an instant, and perhaps anyone else happening along in the next 24 hours or so.

For this reason, I do not encourage this practice in desert environments. Arid environments weather and change very slowly, and even what seems like a very temporary arrangement of sticks and stones might remain in place for years. Be sensitive to those who follow after you; the area where you place your “witchy love letter” should seem like wilderness to them, too.

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5 thoughts on “Atheopagan Ritual “Witchery”

  1. Mark, I love this idea. A little while ago, Glen Gordon and I talked about this idea we were calling “Geo-Shrines”, a kind of guerrilla art form/religious practice intended to re-enchant our public spaces. When I have done this, I have used only natural and local materials, as you suggested above, rock and sticks and loose flora arranged in a geometric pattern. It is a powerful practice that I love.

    To be honest, I had not thought much about the ecological impact of this practice, though, beyond the idea of only using what is available at hand. But your emphasis on the transience of these little altars has caused me to consider this more deeply. I suspect there would be some Pagans who might see this albeit low impact practice as still colonialist in some way.

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    • That may be so, but intention matters. If the goal is not to “claim” but rather to celebrate–and the ethic is not to make any permanent disturbance–it’s hard for me to see how this practice can be construed as colonialist.

      Not that that will necessarily stop some from trying… 🙂

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