The last leg of the drive to Raven's Knoll occurred in some of the thickest fog I've ever seen outside of the coast of Nova Scotia, and we could barely see three feet ahead of the windshield. I told my partner I'd blow the fog away, and he responded that he doubted my otherworldly abilities go that far. I teased him that I found his lack of faith in the force disturbing, just before I checked in with my breath, bringing my focus to every exhale. The fog lifted for brief stretches, a veil scattering the light from the car's high beams which my partner flicked on and off. I suddenly announced, though I couldn't see for shit through the fog: "The Knoll is right here on our left!" startling my driving partner and our friend O riding with us in the backseat. We had to pull a U-turn to double back to the entrance, and O asked me how I could be sure this was the place, as we could not see the sign that usually heralded the Knoll's entryway. For lack of better words, I just did.
We've arrived late on Friday evening, just shy of 23:00, and the Bardic Circle was still in full swing as we put up our tents under cover of darkness, greeted by the many thousands of mosquitoes descending upon us like the feasting, vicious little vampires that they are.
Tents up, we joined Bardic just as it wrapped up — Rasa performed a reimagining of Christina Rossetti's "The Goblin Market" (cue delighted squeals from me), Heron sung "Helpful Young Man" to a steady drum, Bogside Basil dropped some beats — and then it was time for the Friday night Midnight Ritual.
I don't like missing the Opening Ceremonies on Friday, but it's a long drive from Montréal and it couldn't be helped this year, so I was doubly motivated to stay alert and awake for the Midnight Ritual, as we walked from the campsites into the forest, deep into The Spiral. The trees had grown even taller this year.
I love being in the Spiral in the middle of the night. It's hard to describe exactly what it's like, but one thing I can say for sure is that time starts to warp slightly when you're in there. And, in the four years since I first wandered the woods, the forest is beginning to seem healed from its origins as a telephone pole farm. A little less angry yet more ferocious.
The goal of the Friday Midnight Ritual was to move the Trickster's Stang in order to make place for the stang we would be creating this year for the Unseen Lady, the Fairy Queen. The Trickster's Stang is also called the Loki Stang, as he's become such a presence and favourite amongst the Witches at the Knoll that he's earned his spot in the Spiral in addition to his spot at the Jotunn Vé with Hela and Hyrrokin. The Midnight Ritual closed with song and dance and a lot of whiskey after Loki was carefully moved to his new home just to the left of the Horned God Stang.
I wrote a little bit about my relationship with Cernunnos' Stang last year and I'll summarise the gist of it here: in 2015, I was still dealing with a bottomless void of rage and self-hatred that had erupted inside. My first real moment with the Horned God in that forest was a tense meeting, difficult and abrupt, and I was filled with distrust and suspicion and hurt. As I wrote last year, the well of rage that surged within me that night in 2015 was a necessary part of an exorcism of hurt from my spirit, and it was a vital part of the process to eventually heal and scar. This year, as I beheld the Horned God's Stang next to Loki's, I thought that I should do something in particular to change that first memorable impression. It was time to get to work.
Throughout the next day, as the gathered Witches began to plan and shape the main ritual of the Witches Sabbat, I kept mulling over and over what I needed to do. We were split into three groups this year, each with a different major focus. One group to prepare the land and purify and consecrate us (House Hare), one group who would prepare the Unseen Lady's stang (House Mare), and the last third group who would prepare the Horned Lord's stang, as this year we would be calling Him to take on his Fairy King aspect to sit at the Queen's side (House Stag). For a few hours I was almost overcome with nerves and anxiety and stole a few moments to myself during the busy day to sit by the Bonnechere River and ask her if my instinct to join the group in charge of working with the Horned Lord's Stang was the correct impulse. I pulled The Chariot from my pocket. In my tarot practice this card is symbolized by a cresting wave, which can represent being pulled up to dizzying heights if you know how to surrender to the current correctly, lest you be crushed by the crushing undertow. The card was drawn upright, and I felt bone-deep relief at the clear nudge of watery encouragement.
When I returned to House Stag, and we were handing out roles, I immediately volunteered to be one of the Fairy King's two emissaries, in charge of relaying messages between the Lady's Court and His. The work would entail running through the woods from deep within the Spiral to the Drumming pit and back several times throughout the night, a rather long journey. I have scar tissue, inflammation, and nerve damage issues from my knees all the way to my upper spine and I knew that I would be pushing myself beyond most of my physical boundaries by choosing this role, but the physical sacrifice seemed important for some reason I couldn't quite pinpoint. Truthfully, I was also looking forward to running through the forest, in and out of the Spiral. There's something truly wonderful about galloping across distances, and even through years of pain and body problems, that joy has never really been forgotten.
Finally, the stroke of ten, the Sabbat began. I kept my apparel simple and sporty but allowed myself the luxury of dressing up my long black hair with a gold and pink silk scarf and long strands of fairy lights. I pinned a hawthorn needle into the scarf, an ancient symbol of allegiance to the Fair Folk to protect me as I ran through the woods. House Stag began our Wild Hunt into the Spiral, and we created a protective circle around the Horned Lord's Stang out of the chicken hearts and deer heart that had been given to him during the Opening Ceremonies. We bid the Horned Lord farewell as we called the Fairy Lord to take his place, adorning him with his fair crown and dressing him up to meet his lady.
And there, in the dark, three short blasts of the horn rang out from the Lady's Court, signalling that the emissaries had to run out and meet each other, and the two emissaries, Herne* and I, began our run through the woods out of the Spiral.
How do I describe Spiralrunning? I suspect I will never experience anything quite like it again. It felt like being thrust upwards by a great wave, through the forest into the deep dark night, around and around. I knew the forest was watching us, pulling us, pushing us. I never felt short of breath, and laughter came easy. I got badly startled once, when I thought I saw a shadow figure in the tree line watching Herne* and I carefully. I knew then that the entire forest had its eyes on us, and though as emissaries we moved apart from the rest of the Witches, absolutely Everything Else was watching and waiting to see what we would do.
Herne* and I were cautious, rehearsing lines and planning our steps as we moved through the forest between the Courts. When dealing with Fair Folk, each word has to be specific and intentional and we threw ourselves into our position as messengers. When we met the Lady's emissaries, it was joyful but definitely a bit trickstery. While we often ran out of the Spiral with laughter and hollering and howling, our return into the Spiral was often much more solemn, as we carried the messages and offerings in silence, only speaking once we kneeled before the Fey Lord and placing Her gifts at His feet.
Once the bargaining and guiding of honoured and distinguished hostages from the Courts were complete, gifts exchanged, and challenges fulfilled, we carried a single question from the Fey Lord to Her emissaries waiting for us at the crossroads: "Is the Lady ready?" and the response from her messengers was a definitive yes.
So the Wild Hunt departed the Spiral, carrying the Fey Lord to the drumming circle. The silence as we finally entered the Lady's Court was deafening as they beheld us. I realised then I would have to speak in front of Everybody and carry a gift up to Her. I was shaking again. I presented myself to the Stang of the Sweet-Watered Bonnechere, and presented Her His last formal gift of the night, a charmed necklace.
And here is a key detail from the Sabbat: I think it was a stroke of genius on behalf of House Hare and House Mare to call a specific Fairie Queen into the Knoll that night — the Lady Bonnechere. The fact that our Fairie Queen was the River transformed the atmosphere completely: though She still carried that might and unpredictable wildness I associate with Fairies, the River has always been rather gentle with me every time I've visited the Knoll. As our Queen that night I had the distinct impression that She was demanding without being cruel, and buried deep underneath the Witches Sabbat was a complex but unmistakable undercurrent of love, which in my experience should be unexpected when working with Fey.
Finally, when the Lord was reunited at the Lady's side, the heavens poured on us a gentle, gentle rain, and our task was complete.
Two more notes I would like to record here for posterity: the next day, when we placed the Lord and Lady back in the Spiral, we received several positive signs. The first, as we bid fare well to the Fey King and called Cernunnos back, we heard the drum of faraway thunder begin to roar. And second, as we finished placing the Queen at her seat of honour at the heart of the Spiral, a good omen occurred in the form of a dark bird flying high above the forest. It seemed to me a rather large hawk, though I could not be certain because of the distance. (Edit: Someone tells me it was a turkey vulture!)
And, for the very first time, just before we left the Knoll to embark on the journey home, a few of us including O and I were oathed into the Aesir Vé by Austin Lawrence who is one of the Stewards of the Knoll. It was a precious moment, the skies filling with fast-approaching thunder — which is particularly sacred to me — and I left as a gift a reindeer antler necklace I'd worn for a year, that I'd gotten when I'd climbed the Cairngorms in the Highlands and walked amongst the last wild reindeer herd of Scotland.
It can be difficult to express how powerful a mere 48 hours at the Knoll can be. And I'm missing so many things in this blog post that I can only mention in passing for the sake of brevity and because I'm trying to get this out while it's all still fresh: the wonderful workshop on Hawthorn by Sarah Anne Lawless, Rae's leather skinning and bone and sinew harvesting workshop, the meals and stories and laughter, the Yana (You Are Not Alone) Workshop for the very first nonbinary shrine at Raven's Knoll, conversation at the Temple and in the woods, seeing old and faraway friends, sitting by the river or the bog and listening, helping my partner make delicious grilled cheese at the potluck because though he doesn't participate in the witchcraft he's most definitely a gentle magician in the kitchen.
I'm at the end of a journey that began in 2015. As one journey ends another begins, I am full of hope for the next steps and feel a little wild and brave in a way I always hoped I would feel.
My gratitude is unbound to the spirits, the Witches and the land. Most especially I offer my endless thanks to the Witches Sabbat organizers, many of whom take on extraordinary responsibility and give far more than they receive back. My love to all of you, and I hope to see you all again next year if not sooner.
* It has been brought to my attention that Herne is another name for Cernunnos, but in fact that was the name of the other human running the woods with me that night.
If you'd like, you can read the three other blog posts I created after my previous years at the Witches Sabbat at Raven's Knoll. I've been going every year for four years, and it's become a healing tradition I really appreciate and need in my life.