Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Wheel of Life

Alone, I recently attended a four day pagan festival presented by the Temple of Devine Ecstasy.  The main ritual took place on Saturday night and is called, very appropriately, The Wheel of Life.  One of the workshops was about Polyamory, and when asked how many of us identify as poly, all but a small handful of attendees raised their hands.  And for four days, I was surrounded by an abundance of boundless love.  To tell the story of the entire festival would require a book, so I decided to share with you my recounting of the main ritual.

It rained off and on all day long.  It was early Saturday evening when the rain came once more and several in the throng, including me, were getting worried.  The main ritual would begin this night at nine o'clock sharp, rain or shine, but no one wanted rain to dampen this sacred sexuality event.  The high priestess was unconcerned and told us not to worry.  She said, "It will not rain.  It never rains during the main ritual."

The ritual was still a couple of hours away, but the atmosphere surrounding me changed.  I could feel the energy and the excitement among the people.  The fire tenders were busy chopping wood; the naked bodies of lovers chosen to participate were being painted; colorful, ritualistic costumes were beginning to appear; and we were told to position our chairs or blankets in the ritual area early, because this sort of distraction would not be allowed during the ritual.    

About thirty minutes before the ritual began, the priest and priestesses spoke to us.  I learned that the ritual is divided into two parts.  During the first part, the most sacred, no talking would be allowed.  We would enter the ritual area as a community in single file, circle the fire one complete time and during the second trip around the fire,  we would fall out and stop in front of our chair or blanket.  We would remain standing until everyone found their rightful place.  No one would be allowed to enter or leave the ritual area during this part of the ceremony.  We were cautioned to make a bathroom stop beforehand. 

Having resided in the campground, reverently called the sanctuary, for a couple of days prior, I was familiar with the main ritual area.  Four towers delineated the ritual grounds in quarters.  Each tower was painted a symbolic color and represented the directions of north, south, east and west and one of the elements of earth, fire, air and water.  A fifth, non-material element, spirit, would also be represented in the ritual.  The fire, of course, was the centerpiece.  It was carefully measured so as to be big enough to provide light and warmth, but small enough to avoid over-heating the lovers and dancers.    

Shortly before nine o'clock, the rain stopped right on cue as predicted.  As we entered the sacred grounds to the rhythmic beat of the drums, I was reminded of the Catholic Eucharist and how the community comes forth to the front of the alter to receive Holy Communion.  The Mass contains many sacred components, but the Eucharist is always the most spiritual.  Entering the ritual area, I felt as if I was approaching the alter. 

The ritual seemed to borrow heavily from Native American traditions.  Three circles around the fire were formed.  The community and the drummers took their positions in the outer circle; the middle circle was for the dancers and the inner circle for the five sets of lovers, four dyads and one triad, each representing one of the elements of earth, fire, air, water and spirit.  When all of the entrance movement wound down, it suddenly became almost eerily quiet.  Then, one-by-one, by their respective quarter, the lovers were called forth to their blankets in the inner circle.       

The community was seated and the dancers, women in colorful costumes, some bare-breasted and some not, and one man in a loin cloth danced clock-wise around the fire.  Dancers after a time will zone-out; it is called trancing.  They are conscious enough not to bump into each other or fall in the fire, but they become otherwise unaware of their surroundings.  The beat varied, at times slow, then faster, then slow again; the dancers stayed in perfect rhythm.  They connect with the Divine dancing; it is how they pray.

One of the drummers befriended me when I first arrived on Thursday; his tent was pitched directly across from mine on the other side of the road.  He explained a little about drumming, the ritualistic role of the drummers and the pride taken in their durability and stamina.  He proudly showed me his drum, which had blood splatters from cuts on his hands caused by lengthy drumming.  The drummers will drum nightly for those who wish to dance around the fire, but during the main ritual, they have a last dancer standing mentality.  They understand the sacredness of the ritual and the importance of their role.  If needed, they will drum all night.       

Some of the lovers' body paintings included symbols relevant to the direction or element of each.  Other paintings were more extreme.  One man's entire upper torso was painted orange and he had black tiger strips closely spaced up and down his back.  The reflection of light from the fire and two lanterns on either side of the blanket formed a striking image, as he coupled with a beautiful woman.  I kept a close eye on them and on the triadic partners, as these two sets of lovers were positioned in closest proximity to me.  Never before have I witnessed triadic lovers love so tenderly together.  The configuration was male-female-male and the woman was soon in a highly blissful state.  Soon, all of the lovers were in the throes of passion.  They were not fucking, or just fucking; what I observed was nothing less than heartfelt lovemaking. 

The drums beat, the dancers danced and the lovers loved.  The sounds of pleasure pierced the air.  The energy generated spread to the entire community and it was uplifting, spiritual and beautiful.  It was one of the most moving experiences of my life.  We were told beforehand that the ritual is all about community; that we were all participants; and it absolutely felt that way to me.  I have entered beautiful cathedrals, prayed with the congregation as a community and experienced a powerful spiritual uplifting.  Many would laugh at the comparison of a pagan ritual with the Catholic Mass; yet, I saw the similarities, or more accurately, I felt the similarities within me.   

In time, the drumming stopped and the drummers cheered.  The community joined in, cheering and clapping wildly.  After a short time, the drumming resumed, signally the transition from the first to the second part of the ritual.  The first part was solemn and religious, while the second was more celebratory and went on much longer.  The dancers were still dancing and the lovers were still loving, but were now joined in greater number by the community.  The drum beat seemed quicker and more jubilant; loving partners in the outer ring made love on their blankets; people were free to come and go, and they did so.  The ritual continued for hours.

Around midnight, feeling tired, I retired to my tent.  Lying very still, I slowed and deepened my breath, ran my hands up and down my body, and was able to trance out and experience moksha (that is, to touch the Divine).  The pleasure was nice, but afterwards, a melancholy mood came over me.  I thought of Connie and the other women who touch my life.  I missed them dearly.  I attended many workshops and rituals involving intimacy in various forms with a partner.  Most of these exercises involved touch, energy exchange or both.  And throughout, I was sans partner.  This ultimately took a toll on my psyche.  I want to return next year, but will not do so without a woman in my bed.     

I was still awake around one o'clock in the morning when the drumming stopped.  Within minutes, a torrential Florida downpour cut loose and it rained all night.  Fortunately, it was the last night of the festival because my tent flooded.  But the bigger issue in my mind was the timing of when the rain began and ended.  I laid awake trying to figure that one out.  The window of dry weather lasted four hours, almost the exact same length of the ritual.  The high priestess never had a doubt.  Did the monotheistic God that Jews, Christians and Muslims worship intervene?  Or was it a polytheistic happening, gods or goddesses who may have lived thousands of years ago, now deified with their own mythos?  Or was it entirely coincidental?  The answer, of course, varies depending on your belief system.

I discovered more than spiritual connectivity between paganism and Christianity.  One of the presenters worships Inanna, a Sumerian goddess who lived somewhere around 5000 BC.  The presenter spoke eloquently about her relationship with Inanna  and also about Inanna's death.  Inanna traveled to the underworld where she was perceived as a threat; she was executed, buried, and in three days, rose again.  Sound familiar?  Was the Christian story of Easter borrowed from the Inanna myth?  Or did it come from one of the many other resurrection stories passed down through the ages?  Or is the biblical account of Easter literally true?  Again, it all depends on your belief system.

Admittedly, I know almost nothing about paganism now, but over time, I will study it and learn; my appetite has been wetted.  I also know that I am very spiritual and unconcerned with religious doctrine.  And my participation in the Wheel of Life was probably the most spiritual experience of my life.  I will never forget it.

I will close by mentioning one more ritual I participated in as part of the community.  A woman was initiated into a higher church ranking in a beautiful ritual on Friday evening.  Her previous position was that of an Acolyte and on that night, she became a Priestess.  (I inquired about the next step in the church hierarchy and was told it would take her at least ten years to become a High Priestess.)  As a way of honoring her and continuing her initiation process, the new priestess was chosen to be one of the lovers in the main ritual, which is considered a very high honor.     

During the village council meeting on Sunday (similar to a conference wrap-up session in a more mundane setting), a talking stick (resembling an Indian rattle) was passed among the community and everyone was given the opportunity to speak.  Many moving comments about the community coming together and bonding closely were spoken; some also referred to the festival as a life-changing experience.  One woman and her partner in particular moved the crowd. 

They were given the honor of being one of the five sets of lovers in the main ritual, but were not originally chosen.  She spoke of problems in their relationship and the healing effect of the Wheel of Life.  After a time, she broke down, unable to continue speaking.  He stepped in for her and finished the story.  He told of how the new priestess found out about their difficulties and unselfishly, without hesitation, offered them her place in the inner circle.  They protested and she responded, "I am now a priestess.  It is my duty to serve."

Such was the love that surrounded me for four days.