3 days, 35 workshops, 4 live shows, and a whole bunch of bonfire.
Following a pagan path in the conservative south isn’t easy.
Our communities are often scattered over large areas, making opportunities to gather a critical mass few and far between. We often face suspicion (or even outright hostility) from those around us, including family and friends who believe that any spiritual system different from their own is a threat that must be eliminated (or at least converted.)
That’s exactly why events like CauldronFest are so essential: they provide a critical opportunity to connect with others, take pride in our identities, and recharge our spirits.
CauldronFest is an annual festival that takes place in Tennessee, an easy drive from Nashville, Knoxville, or Chattanooga. CauldronFest offers attendees a variety of rituals, workshops, live music, drum circles, and other activities. For many, it’s also a rare opportunity to connect with like-minded souls and to cast off the cares of the mundane world for a few days.
CauldronFest is family-friendly and LGBTQ-affirming.
Location & Theme
CauldronFest takes place near Spencer, TN at a local park/campground with plenty of privacy. The campsite includes cabins, restrooms, showers, a dedicated kitchen, dining hall, and another building used for activities and performances. There is a large open area for bonfires, and another for vendor’s row. The campsite has private access, and an inn and additional cabins are available nearby for those who wish to stay off-site. The park area is one of the most beautiful in the south, with plenty of hiking and sightseeing opportunities within walking distance from the camp.
The theme for this year’s CauldronFest was “A Magickal Weekend” and was inspired by the Harry Potter book series. Attendees were sorted into one of three houses for the event: Dragonthorn, Murkwood, and Spirithoof. The final count of those registered was around 200.
No pagan gathering would be complete without our bards. They give voice to the songs in our hearts and offer us a chance to see our authentic selves reflected in their art.
This year’s bardic guests comprised an all-star lineup. Attendees were treated to live sets by Brian Henke, Mama Gina, and Ginger Doss with Lynda Millard. On Friday night, Nashville drag and burlesque group Tarte Nouveau brought the house down with their ages 18+ show Disco Bacchanal: A Divine Dance Revue. And all three days featured drum circles or workshops led by Eric Olson.
Events like CauldronFest are one of the few opportunities many of us have to meet and learn from the artists, leaders, writers, and visionaries in our community. This year the organizers of CauldronFest invited a variety of presenters, including Byron Ballard, Brian Henke, Eric Olson, Sue Balaschak, Atalanta Moonfire, and Nashville’s own Tish Owen. They and other presenters from the pagan community delivered a total of 35 workshops over 3 days.
The workshops and presentations covered a wide range of topics including practical and hands-on training in kitchen witchery, herbalism, candy magic, ritual design, and divination. Other presenters focused on wellness, with sessions on meditation, shadow work, maintaining a positive mindset in the face of adversity, and how to deal with family when preparing to “come out of the broom closet.”
Additional sessions centered on specific pagan traditions such as those stemming from Slavic, Welsh, and Norse cultures, and others took an in-depth look at magical creatures such as fairies, dragons, and cryptids.
Community rituals are another key element of pagan gatherings, and CauldronFest provided attendees with four opportunities to celebrate their pagan faith. These included the opening ritual on Thursday, a Druidic Rite of Ancestral Healing, an ADF Druid ritual of transformation through Cerridwen’s Cauldron, and the main ritual led by Wisdom Gates Coven and Hearthstead.
CauldronFest wouldn’t be the same without our amazing and talented vendors. If you didn’t get the chance to meet them in person, please visit their websites and support these pagan businesses. (There were many more vendors – I am in the process of tracking them all down so I can add links to their websites.)
CauldronFest is already accepting reservations for next year’s event. It will take place April 18 – 21, 2024 near Spencer, TN. The theme will be Finding the Deity Within. Learn more (and sign up to volunteer!) at CauldronFest.org.
Can’t wait that long? Your next chance to connect with this amazing community will be Pagan Unity Festival, happening June 1 – 4, 2023 at Henry Horton State Park, near Nashville.
Five druids, four questions: highlights from the Druid Q & A session at Paganicon 2023.
On the final day of Paganicon 2023, as the year tilted towards the equinox, a group of druids from different communities gathered to answer questions from the conference attendees on a variety of topics related to Druidry.
The session covered a lot of territory, but four questions stood out as particularly compelling and timely. The panelists have graciously allowed me to share their responses to these questions here. I am especially grateful to them for helping me patch up some holes in my notes via email.
Jean (Drum) Pagano is a long-time member of ADF. He is a Senior Priest, a master bard, and the Archdruid of ADF. He is also a Member of the Third and Fourth Orders of RDNA, a Druid Grade Member of OBOD, and interested in Druidry in its many forms. He is the author of six books: two on poetry, one on devotional practice, two childrens’ books, a book on learning the Ogham, and the editor of a book of prayers and rituals entitled Beginnings.
Kristoffer Hughes is Chief of the Anglesey Druid Order in North Wales, UK. He is the award winning author of several books that focus on Celtic mythology and spiritual practice. He served as His Majesty’s Coroner for 32 years and is now a Welsh language television and radio presenter. www.angleseydruidorder.co.uk
John “The Verbose” Martens started on the path of modern Druidry in 2004 while studying abroad in Ireland. For many years he was a solo practitioner, and later joined the Reformed Druids of North America (RDNA). He was ordained to its priesthood in 2013. He subsequently established Oakdale Grove, an RDNA ceremonial fellowship in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, where he is committed to his oath of service to the druid community.
Heather Roan Robbins is an interfaith minister, druid-grade member of OBOD, member of ADF, center post for the Shining Mountain Grove of Montana, astrologer and author. www.roanrobbins.com.
Laurie Froberg has been a practicing pagan since 2002 and Marketing Co-Chair for Twin Cities Pagan Pride and Paganicon. Laurie has served as the Elder and Scribe of the Twin Cities druid group Northern Roots Grove since July 2015. She is a 1st Order Reformed Druids of North America. Laurie is passionate about volunteering, her children, good friendships, and Mother Earth.
Q: What makes Druidry unique from other types of paganism or witchcraft?
Kristoffer: Druidry consists of ideas, philosophies and practices that are uniquely Celtic in nature, it perceives the world through a lens that has been 2,500 years in the making. Its diversity is exemplified in the rich tapestry of 6 related but individually expressive cultures, that have their own unique myths, stories, art and wisdom. It is not one note but a symphony.
At its heart is the sacred oak, the world tree, the axis mundi. We are a little obsessed with trees and their function as teachers. Druidry is part of a living narrative that has the ability to respond to the needs of people here in the Celtic nations and beyond. Its versatility is in its tenacity and capability of transcending time and locale, its ideas are easily incorporated into meaningful practice regardless of where an individual resides.
Whilst many Druids identify as Pagan and may also practice Witchcraft, Druidry is a spirituality and to some a religion that serves to seed the future with wisdom, the wisdom of those who strive to be oak-wise.
Heather: This is a question we’ve discussed a lot in our little grove. I can only answer for myself. I was involved in a reclaiming circle and mystery school for over a decade, and I still love and respect this path. But I was hungry for something more organic, less focused on will power and more focused on listening, aligning to and worshiping with nature.
I appreciate the stable ritual forms we’ve put together in Druidry so we are not reinventing the entire ritual every time. Though that can be a fascinating process it takes a lot of energy and makes it harder to draw into the heart and trance for me.
One thing I miss from other forms of Western paganism are the songs and chants. I am not a musician but I’d love to see us put together chants and songs that we can come to share and know, to weave into our rituals ways of singing or chanting the Druid’s prayer, singing or chanting the directions, or specific chants for the eight holidays.
I value greatly in Druidry the psychological soundness which underlies the traditions. I am both ADF and OBOD, and OBOD has been lucky to have great transpersonal therapists as our chosen chief for a few decades now. This psychological grounding, this building of good psychic foundations, is woven into the training.
I think what drew me most to Druidry — more than other pagan forms — was listening to the wild ways of the woods. While all pagan paths work with nature, I appreciate the Druid training to observe nature as our great sacred text, to look at the insects and tree growth, look at the wild animals and how they move, listen to what every leaf has to teach us, more than any human words.
Drum: I believe that Druidry is about finding our place in the natural world and being comfortable with what we find there. Druidry is about building relationships with the spirits around us, being thankful for what we already have, and being hopeful for what we will discover.
I don’t believe that any form of Neo-Paganism is specifically concerned with origins, but we have a strong sense of place, of belonging, and especially a kinship with the trees and the natural world around us. We are called to a nature-based practice because we see ourselves in the cycles of nature: we come into being, we grow, we flourish, we mature, we age, we diminish, we pass away, and … we return.
Laurie: For Druids, there is a very deep spiritual connection with Mother Earth and all her inhabitants. Many of us are animists. I am spiritually a pantheist as I believe we all share the same spiritual essence. Any spiritual work I do is for the good of the entire world.
We place a very high value on knowledge and wisdom that comes from serious study and research. Druid rituals are usually open to anyone who attends, and anyone is welcome to train as a Druid. That is not always true for other forms of Paganism.
John: Simply put, Druidry is a designation that you can choose to adopt for yourself. In my experience there are plenty of people, especially younger people, who don’t like labels. Their personal practice might overwhelmingly resemble Druidry, but if they don’t want to call themselves a druid that’s understandable and perfectly acceptable.
It’s much easier overall to be “out of the broom closet” as a druid, as there’s not nearly as much of a societal stigma as being a witch or calling yourself pagan. Lots of druids even practice witchcraft or various forms of magic, though some will refer to that magic as druidcraft. It’s the exact same thing as witchcraft, it just comes down to what you prefer to call it.
A number of druids might not feel the need for practicing magic. Some are of the opinion that we are in a world steeped in magic, and we’re just here to watch it and feel it, letting the magic do what it wants to do without us interfering with it. Last of all, it really has something to do with the trees. Druids are the “knowers of the oak.” It’s almost always our favorite tree. Oaks are strong, they grow slowly and reach immense size, and can outlive many other trees. We try to reflect upon these trees, perhaps almost literally.
The acorn represents our potential. We want to grow strong, we want to live life to the fullest as long as we can, and with grace. Over our lifetime we will acquire wisdom, and ultimately we will return to the Earth. For whatever reason, we’re drawn to the trees. Over 80% of druids will tell you that trees are sacred. We want to be around the trees as often as possible, even holding a number of conversations with them. Don’t get me wrong; plenty of pagans and witches love trees too, but for druids, tree-love is cranked to eleven!
Q: How do you balance personal practice with group practice?
John: Having both a personal practice of rites and devotionals and a group practice is a holistic approach to expressing yourself spiritually. Your personal practice can be perfectly tailored to suit your needs, never needing to be shared with anyone except you and whomever you are worshiping or honoring. An added group ritual can help build a sense of community with others, and provide a springboard of ideas for enhancing your individual customs.
In Reformed Druidism, the rituals are intended to be interpreted metaphorically so that everyone can get something out of it in a way that makes sense to them. Having such a holistic practice with both unique personal and group elements is encouraged, because it fosters a twofold path to Awareness, a western analog of Enlightenment.
Heather: To the members of my grove, each one has an active solitary practice that enables a deep connection to their work, their landscape, their guides, and to the larger spirit grove. We support this. Until a public or group ritual becomes familiar enough — and you feel safe enough within that group — to drop into deeper levels of trance, the self-consciousness and conscious mind observing and learning as you go along can interfere with that deep sense of wonder and connection.
But as the group rituals become more familiar, and this takes time, it can become less cerebral and more transformative — both as a ritual and as an experience of community-created bonding. I think this is one reason why OBOD and ADF each have a core order of ritual: once you are familiar with the core ritual of your tradition, it is easier to create ritual with strangers, in public, and still feel that core connection.
Laurie:The personal spiritual goals of a Druid are different for each druid, but when we meet with fellow druids in a group ritual, we have one common group goal. When we participate in a group ritual, we must pay attention to the needs of others. If I want to dive into a long period of trance or meditation, that is fine for my own spiritual practice, but I need to consider if it is appropriate for what we are achieving as a group.
Kristoffer: In the Anglesey tradition of Druidry this question is not quite as binary, our philosophy places our teachings on a three-spiral triskele, our practises are expressed as personal, transpersonal and transcendent. The communal aspect is reflected in the transpersonal component of the triskele. Each spiral is necessary and required, with no emphasis given to one over another.
My own personal practices are daily affairs that do not detract from the other two components of practice, but rather all three swim beautifully with each other. My advice to those who may struggle to find this balance is to prioritize time for each aspect.
Drum: Personal practice is what I do on a daily basis: it is the bread and butter of my daily devotional work. Group ritual is what I do when I get together with others. I will do my personal practice every day. I will do group practice when there are others of a like mind around to do so. That being said, in some sense we are all solitaries.
In ADF we emphasize building relationships with the spirits in our world. They get to know us better as we get to know them better. It should be a reciprocal relationship. We build relationships by making offerings. Offerings can be prayers, physical offerings, or just the words “I thank you”.
We all have different needs for establishing those relationships. For myself, daily devotion is how I conduct my practice. For others, it is less frequent, but I really believe that familiarity helps to bring us closer to the spirits that populate our own Druidry.
Q: What is the role of place in Druidry, especially with regard to those of us who live in the U.S. but who are practicing the religion of our European ancestors?
Drum: Place is where we do our work. The Kindred are not limited by location or geography. Borders are a human-made phenomenon; if people travel and their Gods follow, it seems consistent to opine that the spirits can find their own way and their own people, wherever they may be. I doubt that the first question that the Gods will ask is “Are you Irish?”
Druidry is our method of practice and worship. The religion of our predecessors is the language of our practice. It describes the imagery of how we see the world around us. The hearth cultures that we are drawn towards are the canvases upon which we carry out our practice. And the location of practice is where we are at that moment.
Kristoffer: Druidry is a wisdom tradition, and whilst I define Druidry as having its roots and expression in Celtic culture, with my own practice being specifically Welsh/Celtic, this does not limit its reach or applicability to other lands beyond the 6 Celtic nations. People carry their ancestors of blood and spirit with them regardless of location, and each locale, each piece of earth has its own inherent spirit that the druid can connect and create relationships with. Druidry calls for its adherents to become oak-wise, and it is up to each practitioner to find a meaningful way in which to embody that within their own square mile.
A druid is in a sacred relationship with various elements that go into the making of Druidry, one of those is ‘place’. Wisdom traditions are not static, they are not locked to one location, but rise like the steam from Cerridwen’s cauldron to inspire those who would seek the wisdom of oak to move and be in sacred relationship with their square mile.
Laurie: I follow the Norse pantheon mostly because of my relationships with my ancestors. It’s not so much that they are from Europe, but they are a part of my bloodline that goes back thousands of years. But as a druid, I have a very deep spiritual connection with the land I live on. Because of that — and like most druids — I feel a profound sense of allyship to the indigenous people who roamed this place prior to colonization, and with those who still live here. Our most important role in honoring them is being the caretakers and guardians of the land and all its inhabitants.
Heather: I see place as essential in Druidry, but not in a limiting way. Druidry connects to the world that I am in, at this point on earth, in these mountains, amidst these pine trees. My grove has Ponderosa and Red Osier Dogwood, Aspen and Mountain Ash, Fir and Juneberry; these are my teachers, there isn’t an oak tree for miles. Druidry gives me a format and a way to communicate with my land, with these rocks and birds, though the myths we work with come from a faraway place, land of my long ago kin.
I think the Druidic system and way of communicating with places works wherever we are, as long as we use it to tie into our own natural surroundings, breathe with our trees and feel the Nwyfre flow through us all. I live at the edges of the Flathead Reservation of the Salish, Kootenai and Pend d’Oreille. My mate has danced in a Lakota Sundance for years; I love these traditions from this Turtle Island landscape, they taught me a lot about indigenous ways. But I wanted to find an indigenous tradition that came from my lineage, and honored — but did not appropriate — Native American ways. Which is what brought me to Druidry.
John: I would always encourage a sacred pilgrimage to ancient places the druids and ancestors would have revered. But even in those places, there are a few things to consider.
First, even the ancient druids were once young in their traditions. Their sacred groves started out as mere acorns with no special plans. There was a time in the Bronze Age or Neolithic Period where there were no standing stones. Those places eventually became sacred to the people who frequented them.
For those of us who are part of the European diaspora, it doesn’t have to be any different. Places we visit can and will become sacred, or at least special to us. Watch a sunset or sunrise from any hill. Whenever you return, inevitably your thoughts will likely refer back to that time you saw the sun on that horizon. You’ve now made that place special in its own way. Share that with others, let it become a tradition. Who knows, that place might someday become a renowned sacred site for a thousand years or longer!
The second thing to remember is that modern druids tend to be eco-friendly. We encourage shopping locally and eating foods grown and produced locally in order to contribute to overall sustainable living. The same ought to apply to sacred pilgrimage. I’m not saying to cancel your flight to Europe, but also consider exploring the lands you call home. Explore protected lands that you’re allowed to visit, such as State or National Parks. If there are indigenous sacred sites that you are allowed to visit and potentially learn from, such as mound complexes, petroglyphs, ancient villages, and other places of power, we can pay our respects to the spirits and energies of that place, too.
The druids didn’t build Stonehenge. Any trace of common ancestry was distant and not known, since the Celts likely invaded from Continental Europe in the Iron Age. Yet they respected that place and regarded it as sacred in their own way. We just need to be mindful to not colonize already sacred spaces with our Druidry. We shouldn’t try to have druid rituals at Cahokia or the Serpent Mound or cliff dwellings. There is still plenty of “mundane” space where we can hold our rites and make them sacred.
Q: How we get people spiritually engaged with the ongoing environmental crisis?
Note: the attendee who asked this question compared this situation with the way evangelical churches have harnessed an interest in sanctity toengage and activate voters.
Heather: Re-wilding wounded land is one of our sacred rites, to a druid planting a tree is a sacred act. There is no break between our ecological work and our spiritual work. But how much we can use our views to affect the general populace is a good question. While we were in the druid party room at Paganicon, two evangelical Christians came in to talk, they wanted to understand so they could better proselytize to pagans in the future. They genuinely seemed to be trying to understand, and they honestly did not proselytize while they were there, but we did get into some rousing discussions.
In our conversation I tried to focus on our commonalities and they wanted to focus on our differences. They described Druidry as pantheistic, a philosophy which thinks of the entire universe as divine. I describe it as we (all sentient beings, all plants, rocks, creation) are all living cells in the body of the One. Therefore, to care for all sentient beings, plants, rocks and creations is to care for Spirit/Gods/Goddesses/Creator/Creation. They identified as being theistic: God created the world but is not the same as the world, God created every cell and creature, but is not inherent in them. The world is not sacred. Therefore, you can destroy the world and not destroy God.
So I do not think the sanctity of the natural world would work to excite the Judeo-Christian world into ecological sanity. I think here we can focus on how to honor God’s gift of the natural world, but not focus on the sacredness of it by itself. Though that is a true motivation to all earth-based traditions.
Laurie: Many druids have a spiritual connection with nature and it is this reverence that drives many of us to become environmental activists. We are the caretakers of Mother Earth. Being a caretaker is a daily task. If you do a daily devotional, wouldn’t your role as a caretaker be a part of it? As part of your devotional, examine what you are doing towards a life of sustainable practices. Look for guidance. Schedule a group cleanup, contact your elected officials, etc. Also highly recommend this book Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year Through Earth-Centered Sustainable Practices – lots of great info.
Kristoffer: This again comes down to the nature of sacred relationship. When we consider the planet as nothing more than a commodity, our actions will reflect that. When we consider something to be sacred, our relationship and perceptions change. In the Western World, we are programmed by our societies to consider the earth as a larder of resources for us to use. Wisdom traditions imbibe a sense of the sacred into its adherents which leads to transformation of relationship.
The trick of course is, how do we get people to recognize the sacred in an increasingly secular world? We do this through visibility, druids practice in the eye of the sun, in the open, the wisdom of Druidry is not proselytized but shared by example. The concept of the sacred in Druidry can be expressed through a process called hierophany where the sacred or the divine expresses itself through the ordinary, apparent world, a druid’s task is to bring an awareness of this principle into action.
Drum: For me, a crisis of Earth is a crisis of not only my home, but of the Earth Mother herself. As druids, we are a part of earth, not apart from earth. To protect our hearth, we must protect the land as though it were a member of our family.
I believe this can happen when we start to see the earth not just as the place where we live but also as a sacred and holy being. The earth is not just where we come from, it is also the source from which we are nurtured, and it is the place we all return to at the end of our days. It is more than just a thing. It is alive, it is a part of us and we are a part of it, and it is OUR Mother.
John: Environmental activism in my druidry is something critically important to me, and therefore it has me treading a fine line to avoid environmental victimhood. With any religion it’s easy to slip into a victimhood mindset of “us vs them” when it comes to crises we face that have steep ideological implications. When we foster our activism, it’s natural to get emotionally worked up, but it’s important to keep an objective mindset and avoid any emotionally derisive language. It should really be about what we support, and not what we’re against.
All this in mind, this can also have the effect of watering down our words or give the perception of decreased emphasis. That is why it is important to involve your groups with healthy activities that put your words to use. Team up with any roadside cleanups in the community. Work with city parks to plant actual trees. Write some activism into your rituals, or create pledges for your initiates. We held a whole ritual by moonlight to spiritually aid the Water Protectors – and that one did get emotional. In all my own ceremonies we have a Declaration of Goals:
Now do we declare our goals: To grow as human beings, in joy and love and wisdom and strength; to promote in our actions, a human and interdependent society; to heal and protect the biosphere of this planet; and to further the process of Evolution in ourselves, and in our groups, and throughout all time and space.
It’s tame, and a little vague, but again, we also back those words up in our non-ritual activities. We picked up trash along a riverbank at a nearby college. We pooled money to plant 20 trees. We clean up the sites in city parks where we have our rituals, leaving them looking better before the start, and immaculate when we’re done. Do that consistently a few times, and very soon it becomes automatic. Do you have a photographer among you? A photo of local favorite landscapes can be printed into postcards. As a group activity, write to your congressperson, governor, or mayor, etc. on a bunch of those postcards about how much that green space means to you, and it will help inform them where the priorities of their constituents lie.
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Show some 💚💙❤
To learn more about the panelists, their communities, and their work, please visit their websites:
A friend once told me that sensitivity to ghosts runs in families. They might be right. As a child, I remember my father telling me about a ghost he’d encountered when he was a kid in the backwoods of Alabama. He doesn’t call it that, however. He just calls it “something supernatural.” I’ve heard the tale more than once, and I think it’s safe to say he’s recounting a good old fashioned ghost story.
My father’s story is his own to share, and it is a bizarre account worth hearing if you ever get the chance. I’ve heard it many times over the years, as have my sisters, almost always at our request. As kids, we were determined to poke holes in his story, to expose it as a fraud, like Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. We listened carefully each time in our attempt to detect any inconsistencies. We never found any.
No matter how many times he told it, my dad never wavered in his conviction that the story was true, nor did he ever vary or omit any of the key details. Upon cross examination, my aunts (my dad’s sisters who had seen strange things of their own) always corroborated my father’s account.
Despite the consistency of his tale and the oaths he and my aunts swore about its veracity, I always harbored doubts.
That is, until I had an experience of my own.
Not long ago, I uncovered something that shed new light on a strange and terrifying encounter I had in childhood. Given what I have learned, I now believe that I too may have seen a ghost. Strangely, that’s not even the most surprising part of this tale.
Summer of ’83
In the late summer of 1983, I was a Smurfs-obsessed second grader with a shag haircut and a collection of Masters of the Universe toys. I lived with my father, stepmother, and stepsister in a small house on top of Lookout Mountain.
A view from Lookout Mountain.
Most people think of Chattanooga when they hear “Lookout Mountain,” but its southernmost edge extends further south, all the way into DeKalb County, AL. That is where we lived, in a rural community where we relied on well water and whatever television signals we could catch with an aluminum antenna.
It was a quiet, peaceful place.
We were situated on enough acreage that we didn’t have any immediate neighbors, although we knew the four families that lived closest to us very well. I used to play with their kids, catching frogs, swimming in the creek, and hiking across a cow pasture to get tea cakes from the woman everyone called “Aunt Libby,” whether she was their aunt by blood, marriage, or not at all. She lived on a nearby farm with her husband, who everyone knew as “Uncle Lloyd.” They were very, very good people.
To understand how disturbed I was by the encounter I’m about to describe, you need to know something about life in a place that’s sparsely populated: visitors are uncommon, and strangers are practically unheard of.
Our part of the county sat outside the city limits, and in the early 80s there were very few people who lived out that way. My 2nd grade class was made up of a total of eight students, and that was at the county school. Even the closest town, which was down in the valley, wasn’t that big in terms of population. My point is that there were few, if any, opportunities to cross paths with someone you didn’t know personally.
When you did, it was news.
Four families lived within shouting distance from us, but these were the only folks anywhere near our home. Of course we knew them pretty well. When you live out in the country like that, everybody knows the people in closest proximity: what cars they drive, who visits them, and what cars they drive. Any deviations from the norm are noticed, reported on, and gossiped about.
There is an unspoken agreement about boundaries and privacy in the rural communities. You may be on the friendliest of terms with the people living closest to you, but you don’t cross their property or show up to their house uninvited or unannounced. Some southerners may take issue with that statement, given our reputation for “southern hospitality” and all.
I’m not saying that southern folks aren’t generous or accommodating, I’m just saying that they are more likely to be so if they know you’re coming. (Most of them are also armed, so that’s something else to consider before you go surprising anyone down that way.)
This point about respecting boundaries is important. I bring it up because behind our home was a tract of land, about 10 acres, that was nothing but forest. There were no roads or trails that cut through it, no homes or development of any kind.
There were no shortcuts, no footpaths, no interesting sites to see. Just trees, rocks, and a small spring that was really just a perpetual mud puddle. No one ever had a reason to be in those woods. Not for convenience. Not for curiosity.
Behind me, the woods at about the time of the incident. This photo was taken just a few steps from where it happened.
Even my sister and I, as widely as we roamed, rarely went to that place. It’s not that we were forbidden; we just never felt compelled to spend time there. We preferred to play in the woods on the other side of the house, out by the pond.
To this day, no one ever visits that part of the property. It just sits there: silent, lonely, and undisturbed. It was here, at the edge of these woods, that I saw something that scared the hell out of me.
Not supposed to be there
At the time of the incident, our family kept a dog. An old, retired bird dog named Maple. He was a gentle creature, never bothered a soul. Just sunned himself in the yard and let us kids pet him from time to time. A real good boy, just living out his retirement in the sticks with the rest of us.
Maple was an outdoor dog, so we fed him outside. In addition to the Ol’ Roy brand dry kibble my dad kept for him in an old garbage can, we gave Maple any scraps that were left over after family meals. It was my chore to take the leftover food and put it on the dog’s plate. It was a round steel pan that sat at the foot of the old oak tree that kept the boundary between our back yard and this quiet stretch of woods.
To get to the tree and the pan that sat at its base, I would take the back door out to the porch, down a steep set of stairs (our house was built on an incline) and then cross a narrow strip of yard that ran right up to the edge of those woods.
Just as every other time I fed the dog, I knelt down to scrape the food onto his plate. Only this time, I was careless and some of it fell off to the side. As I glanced in that direction, my eye caught something shiny. It was a boot. A shiny black boot.
I can still remember being both terrified to look up and yet powerless to stop myself from doing so. There, about 4 feet in front of me, was a stranger. A tall, brooding figure that stared at me without a word. He was as still as a statue. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end.
I did not stare back for very long. I remember dropping the pan and scrambling up the back steps like an animal on all fours. I threw open the sliding glass door and just as quickly shut it behind me. I yelled to my father “There’s somebody in the woods! Daddy there’s somebody out there!”
Having spent parts of my life in cities and densely packed neighborhoods, I know that a stranger in close proximity is not always a cause for alarm. A person in your yard, when your neighbors are right up next to you, or when there’s lots of foot traffic around, can be considered normal.
This was something else. Both my father and I knew it. Someone was not just on our property, but right outside our door. This was a violation, a trespass, a threat.
My dad immediately ran out the back door and stood on the deck, but there was no sign of the man. My dad walked out to the edge of the woods, and still nothing. No evidence of the encounter except what I told him, and my obvious fright.
He asked me to describe the man. I can still remember what I told him: “It was a blue man. He was all blue. He had a funny looking hat. He had something wrong with his eyes.”
“His eyes?” my dad asked.
“Yeah something was wrong with his eyes. They looked scary.”
That was the best description I could give him. I was terrified.
After some consideration and a good bit of time calming me down, he decided that my imagination had gotten the best of me. He theorized that my fascination with the Smurfs (and too much TV) had somehow shaped the whole encounter, and that what I was actually describing was something from that show, projected into the woods behind the house by my overstimulated child’s mind.
It made some kind of sense, I suppose. The Smurfs was my favorite cartoon and I had several Smurf brand toys, as well as a watch, drinking glasses, scotch tape, and a stuffed animal.
Smurfs were blue. They lived in the woods. They had funny hats, and weird eyes.
My dad’s explanation was better than the alternative.
I still own some of my childhood toys from back then.
As I grew older, the memory of the fright faded but did not disappear. I would still think about it from time to time, and on occasion my dad would jokingly refer to the time I saw a “little blue man” in the woods. I don’t know where he got the “little” part, I guess because he was determined that what I had really seen was a cartoon character, or something like that.
Many years later I was planning a trip to visit my folks, who still live in the same house, next to the same woods where I saw the blue man. I am now living in Tennessee and the drive to see my parents runs through Chattanooga.
On a whim, I decided to look at some of the places in Chattanooga that I might want to visit. Places that I hadn’t been in years: Rock City, Ruby Falls, Raccoon Mountain.
As I’m reviewing the area in a Google maps view to see where else I might want to explore, I see the Chickamauga Battlefield & Museum. The last time I was there was on a field trip, probably at around age 11 or 12. For those not in the know, Chickamauga was the site of the Civil War battle that preceded the Battle of Chattanooga.
This set me off on a research tangent, and that is how I came across a photo that changed my mind about some things. Especially about what it meant to have seen something in the woods. Something blue.
Photo of a Union soldier.
I sat staring at my laptop: Black boots. Dressed in blue. Funny looking hat.
Could this be the blue man I saw as a child, or someone like him? Could those woods be haunted be the spirit of a Union soldier?
This scenario made no sense to me. I had never heard of any Civil War activity taking place closer to my home than Chattanooga, which was 70 miles north.
At least I didn’t recall anything of the sort. Keep in mind, I went to public school in Alabama, where local history wasn’t part of the curriculum and state history was only taught in 4th and 9th grades. So I kept looking, trying to figure out if there was something more to this eerie similarity between a childhood fright and this photograph.
As it turns out, there was. While reviewing some notes on the history of DeKalb County, I learned that there were skirmishes further south than I previously thought. Union soldiers had been seen close to those woods. Very, very close. Maybe even in them.
According to Civil War records cited by the Landmarks of DeKalb County, Union troops were in the area in the lead up to and in the aftermath of the Battle Chickamauga, which was fought on September 18 – 20, 1863. Chickamauga is 70 miles north from where I saw the blue man, as the crow flies.
On September 5, 1863, a salt works was destroyed by (presumably) Union soldiers in a place called Rawlingsville, AL. No such community exists today, but if it did, it would be located inside what is now the city limits of present day Fort Payne. The woods now sit inside those same city limits.
Wherever the salt works were located, they could not have been more than 5 miles from the woods where I saw the blue man. Another report from about the same time includes details of a skirmish between Union troops and locals (not Confederate soldiers) in Lebanon. That’s a community 13 miles southof the woods where I had my encounter.
Even more surprising, another Confederate scout reported 40,000 (yes, forty thousand) Union troops were camped at White Hall near Valley Head during this time. There is a White Hall Cemetery in the present town of Valley Head, and that is 10 miles north of those woods.
And still another scout reported seeing between 4,000 and 5,000 Union troops camped on Lookout Mountain the same day. The precise location isn’t provided, but if they were on the mountain, they were likely very near my childhood home.
Finally, after the Battle of Chattanooga, a fight broke out between Union and Confederate troops near Cedar Bluff, Al. This is less than 30 miles east of those woods.
I have to admit I was shocked, and not just by the realization that I might have seen the ghost of a Union soldier. How could I have grown up in this place and not ever heard about this part of its history? I reached out to a few friends from the area, as well as my dad. None of them knew anything about these events. The common folklore told us that the area had been mostly spared involvement in the war because the mountain was an obstacle to transportation.
It is, of course, my responsibility to read about history and educate myself about these things. Yet it seems strange to me that this series of events does not have a more prominent place in the local consciousness. I had never heard of Union troops being in DeKalb County, and yet the place was virtually occupied. I suppose no one wants to remember that kind of trauma. Maybe entire communities repress memories too.
I was already floored by this new information, but there was still one thing more to learn:
On September 9, Major General Alexander McCook (Union) was informed that the Confederate troops at Chattanooga (under Gen. Braxton Bragg) were retreating south. McCook was ordered to cut off their escape by heading to Summerville, GA (29 miles east from the woods).
To do this, they had to cross the mountain. Once they had crossed Lookout, new intelligence arrived that told McCook that Bragg and his troops had halted just south of Chattanooga. McCook and his men were to double back across Lookout Mountain and proceed north to Chattanooga to meet them.
I haven’t been able to determine their exact route on a map, but it is possible, even probable, that they crossed those very same woods on one or both trips. The same woods where I saw a stranger standing over me so many years ago.
Even if the people have forgotten about the soldiers in blue, it seems the land they occupied has not.
Charitable giving doesn’t have to be just another box we check off at the end of the year. For pagans, it can also be a powerful act of magic.
Americans gave $484.85 billion to non-profits in 2021. The largest single source of those donations came from individuals — $326.87 billion, or 67% of total giving. And somewhere between one-third and one-fifth of those donations were made during the month of December.
As I start to think about my own charitable giving here at the end of the year, it seems that I’m in good company. The work that I have to do before I can take action on giving — reviewing account balances, checking on retirement savings, and figuring out how much I can give — has become something of a yearly finance ritual. This year, I decided to add another dimension to this ritual by turning it into an act of magic.
From mundane to magic
In the past, the financial support I’ve offered to different causes has been more reactive than I would have liked. My intentions were in the right place, but I treated it like a task rather than as an intentional act of connecting to the world around me. How much more effective might my giving be if it were an exercise in magic, rather than a box to be checked? This is the question I want to try and answer here.
Before I started thinking about a magical view of charitable giving, or what I now call “winter gifting,” I wanted to have as much context as possible. In my experience, magic is most effective when it’s preceded by sufficient preparation and reflection. In this case, that meant taking a look at what other pagans — and other religious traditions — might have to say about the practice of charity.
Charity in other religions
Mainstream religions provide useful reference points for thinking about charitable giving in paganism. To my mind, it’s important to contextualize my own practice of charity within the society and time in which I live. Mainstream religions — particularly Christianity — have profoundly impacted my attitude toward generosity. No matter how pagan my practice may be, there is no denying that my values and morals have been shaped by contemporary American society and the religious ideas that permeate it.
Some mainstream religions have specific rules about charitable giving. In the Jewish community, the tradition of ma’sar kesafim calls for adherents to give away 10% of their income to support those in need, or to some other cause within the community. In Islam, the practice of zakat requires the faithful to donate 2.5% of their accumulated wealth each year. These donations are meant to support those in need or advance the faith in some way.
Growing up in an Evangelical Christian tradition, I was taught to tithe 10% of my net income. (Christianity Today reported in 2020 that the average tithe among Evangelicals in the U.S. was actually 2.5% of net income.) Tithing to the church was not a substitute for personal charitable works to the poor, at least not in the community in which I was raised. You gave to the church and you took care of those less fortunate than yourself. Charity in this sense was seen as the personal duty of each individual, as a response to Jesus’ teachings on caring for the poor. Like most people I know, I’ve seen examples of Christian charity that were exemplary and sincere. I’ve also seen some that seemed ostentatious and self-serving.
Buddhist and Hindu traditions teach the importance of the practice of Dāna, or selfless giving. Instead of defining an amount or percentage that should be dedicated to charity, these traditions stress the importance of giving without the expectation of reciprocity. In other words, Buddhist and Hindu traditions teach that acts of generosity and compassion have merit of their own, regardless of the outcome.
This cursory review of charity within mainstream religious traditions tells me that the practice of charitable giving is widely valued, to the point that these traditions have developed guidelines and/or requirements to ensure that adherents understand its importance and to encourage them to follow through on their commitments to care for others with financial support — not just through prayer.
Contemporary pagan views
After considering the practice of charity within mainstream religions, the next task is to assess what contemporary paganism has to say about the subject. While the teachings and practices of other religions are useful for understanding how the majority of the world’s religious adherents understand charity, these traditions offer little that can help me think about charity as an act of magic.
The pagan community of the 21st century is decentralized and varied. Each tradition and organization has its own practices and beliefs, and each develops its own virtues and ethics. As a result, there is no single, unified source to which I can refer. Pagan communities (healthy ones, anyway) emphasize personal discernment and gnosis over orthodoxy, so much is left to the individual when it comes to determining what constitutes the path of right action.
Despite these variations and the lack of a structured, centralized value system, we can find some insights into contemporary pagan views on charitable giving. For example, the website for the Wiccan community Circle Sanctuary states that one of their spiritual principles is to “live life in consideration of others as well as oneself, endeavoring to be of service and to do no harm.” Their website also provides a list of virtues that includes “responsibility, balance, empathy, kindness, service, and freedom.”
Similarly, the website for the Order of Bards, Ovates & Druids (OBOD) includes a brief article titled “The Web of Life and the Illusion of Separateness.” It reads, in part:
Woven into much of Druid thinking and all of its practice is the idea or belief that we are all connected in a universe that is essentially benign – that we do not exist as isolated beings who must fight to survive in a cruel world. Instead we are seen as part of a great web or fabric of life that includes every living creature and all of Creation. This is essentially a pantheistic view of life, which sees all of Nature as sacred and as interconnected.
According to OBOD’s druid philosophy, all life is divine and all life is interdependent. Although there is no specific mention of an obligation or duty to give to others, charity could be interpreted as a manifestation of the recognition of the sacredness and interconnectedness of all life.
Finally, some forms of contemporary Heathenism and other pagan traditions list “hospitality” among their virtues, although whether or not these interpretations of hospitality include what I am referring to as charity is a debate I will leave to those who specialize in these areas.
Charity among the ancient pagans
Up to this point I’ve considered what contemporary religious traditions have to say about charitable giving. Some mainstream religious traditions have well-defined attitudes toward charitable giving. Contemporary pagan communities take a less direct stance: charitable giving may fit into pagan value systems, but there are typically no established requirements or expectations. But what about our pagan ancestors?
As with so many other questions about the ancient pagans, we have little in the way of reliable, first hand information. Most pagan peoples left few or no written records; what we have instead are second hand accounts of their practices and beliefs, supplemented by later medieval writings. In both cases the materials available to us are sometimes removed from the people and cultures they describe by many centuries, and very often they involve conjecture, bias, romanticization, or outright fabrication.
Despite these challenges, there is still value in trying to understand what we can about pagan views on charitable giving. Of course, the term “pagan” is a massive umbrella under which there are many different traditions and paths, from all over the world. I have narrowed my focus to that which is most relevant to my own practice: paganism within the context of Indo-European cultures.
For those unfamiliar, I am a member of the ADF druid community. ADF (which is the acronym for Ár nDraíocht Féin or “our own magic”) is distinct from other druid traditions. Rather than focusing exclusively on Celtic cultures and history (as other druid traditions do) we draw wisdom and inspiration from many wells in the Indo-European family of cultures. This includes Celtic, Greek, Slavic, Roman, Vedic, and Germanic cultures.
The people of these cultural groups spoke languages that derive from a common Indo-European (IE) source. That tells us that, at some point, these cultures likely shared a common world-view and value system. So it’s worth the effort to consider how our ancient Indo-European ancestors might have viewed acts of charitable giving.
Charity in Indo-European society
Indo-European cosmology — to the degree that we can discern it from linguistic studies — is at the core of our beliefs and practices in ADF Druidry. Understanding what the ancient Indo-Europeans may have thought about the idea of charity means relying on theories about IE culture that derive from linguistic evidence as it appears in reconstructions of the Indo-European language.
One of the resources I rely on for such insights is the work of writer Ceisiwr Serith, who has proposed what he refers to as a “Proto-Indo-European” system of belief. In other words, a religion that reflects the common elements of the different cultural traditions we recognize as Indo-European in origin.
In Deep Ancestors: Practicing the Religion of the Proto-Indo-Europeans, Serith describes a cosmology in which the world (reality) is defined/maintained by the perpetual tension between the primordial forces of Chaos (disorder) and Cosmos (order). Both Chaos and Cosmos are necessary to maintain the world: the trick is that they have to coexist in the right proportions.
When the correct ratio of order-to-chaos is achieved, life is sustained. Cosmos provides necessary structure and stability, while Chaos prevents rigidity and stagnation. In Serith’s view, the interaction between Cosmos and Chaos is one of continual movement. To be more precise, it is a type of exchange.
Think of a typical forest ecosystem in which decaying matter nourishes plants and animals, which eventually die and produce more decaying matter that feeds the next cycle of forest growth. This state of constant, cyclical change is necessary to maintain *Xártus,” or what Serith describes as “the living structure of the Cosmos.” (34)
In Serith’s words:
There is therefore an exchange occurring at the heart of the Cosmos. Cosmos gives to Chaos, Chaos gives to Cosmos. It is through this exchange that the very existence of our Cosmos is assured. This exchange is the very basis for the order in which we live our lives. This exchange, particularly its reciprocity, is a representation of the central truth of Indo-European religion: a gift demands a gift.
Deep Ancestors, 34
Put another way, the world is the result of the never ending cycle of exchange between Cosmos and Chaos. For humans, this concept of exchange is mirrored in the *ghosti relationship. *Ghosti is a reconstructed Indo-European word that implies reciprocity and hospitality between people. What might be considered nothing more than “good manners” or “the right thing to do” by contemporary society apparently had a much deeper meaning among the Indo-Europeans.
In Serith’s theory, humans have an important role to play in maintaining the Cosmos. He writes that humans can “contribute to this process [of maintaining the *Xártus] by actions, especially ritual ones…(34). The practice of reciprocity that occurs in the *ghosti relationshipmeans becoming an active participant in the cosmic cycle. If the concept of charitable giving is compatible with this practice of reciprocity, then the act of charity itself takes on profound significance. Simply put: charity can itself be a ritual or magical act.
This is precisely what Serith proposes later in his book. He claims that our Proto-Indo-European ancestors saw charity as a virtue and that the practice of charity is both part of the *Xártus and a natural extension of the virtue of hospitality that appears in later Indo-European cultures. Serith also finds something similar to the concept of noblesse oblige in the PIE worldview:
This is the model for Indo-European charity. We are obliged to share our wealth. We are obligated to help strangers as well as those we know. So important is this model that the Proto-Indo-European deity who enforces charity is Dyēus Pater, the highest of the gods. Thus we have Zeus Xenios, “Zeus of the Stranger” who enforces our relationships with those not of our kin group. Charity is in the hands of the enforcer of natural order because it is part of the natural order.
Deep Ancestors, 43
How accurately Serith’s theory reflects the reality of our Indo-European ancestors’ belief systems is a question outside the scope of this essay. The value of Serith’s theory is that it provides critical insight into how charity can be seen as a magical act — by sustaining *Xártus and emulating the reciprocal relationship between Cosmos and Chaos.
Charity in ADF Druidry
Now that we have at least a theoretical basis for thinking about charity as a ritual or magical act, the next task is to move from theory to application, from the abstract to the concrete. To do so, I will now turn to the wisdom and practices of my own pagan community.
The values and theology of ADF Druidry are based on what we know (or think we know) about Indo-European culture and beliefs. We also supplement what we know about the Indo-Europeans with history, philosophy, science, and our own life experiences. The clearest expression of this synthesis can be found in the nine virtues our community recognizes. Of these, three are particularly relevant for understanding how charity might fit into our value system. These are piety, vision, and fertility.
Correct observance of ritual and social traditions; the maintenance of the agreements, (both personal and societal), we humans have with the Gods and Spirits. Keeping the Old Ways, through ceremony and duty.
While it is tempting to view this virtue solely as it pertains to ritual actions and our relationships to deities and spirits, it is also possible to see how piety can be interpreted to include a responsibility to care for others. For example, “social traditions” could include the concept of noblesse oblige, while “keeping the old ways” might also be seen a call to maintain social relationships through reciprocity, especially since the concept of *ghosti anchors our ritual structure.
The ability to broaden one’s perspective to have a greater understanding of our place/role in the cosmos, relating to the past, present, and future.
The virtue of vision challenges the druid to deepen their awareness and see the patterns and connections inherent in the webs of life and time. By perceiving reality beyond our own identities and needs, we are empowered to become more effective agents of change in the world. Charitable giving is a concrete manifestation of the ability to recognize the needs of others and to solve problems that may not impact us directly or immediately. It can also be a way of acknowledging our roles as the ancestors of the future.
Bounty of mind, body, and spirit, involving creativity and industry, an appreciation of the physical and sensual; nurturing these qualities in others.
Once upon a time, some Romans observed that druids liked to hang out in the woods. Ever since then, the term “druid” has been inextricably connected to trees, forests, and wildernesses. This image of the druid as the wise forest guardian and perennial flower child is composed from a mixture of historical record and romanticism. It’s a powerful archetype that almost every druid I know embraces and emulates. I hope we keep it up.
If druids are anything, we are cultivators and caretakers who find magic in the world around us. Most of the druids I know hold a deep reverence for nature and understand the importance of sharing resources. Acts of charity help us build a world where others have opportunities to be creative and productive, and in which everyone can enjoy the pleasures of the world. Charitable giving allows us to fully inhabit our roles of nourishers, healers, and stewards.
Charitable giving as magical work
Charitable giving is an annual winter time custom for many people. For some, it’s our last chance to claim a tax write off before the end of the fiscal year. For others, it’s something we do because December is “the season of giving.” In other words, the December holidays are a time of generosity that — while primarily concerned with gifting our loved ones — may also extend to those outside our families or kin groups.
We pagans have an opportunity here. Rather than simply going through the motions of giving our money or time to causes and organizations we support out of habit (or guilt), we can transform our charitable giving into works of magic. By giving what we can, we are shaping the future world and sustaining the proper order of things, what our Indo-European ancestors may have conceived as *Xártus. We are making good on our promises to uphold the virtues defined by our pagan communities and demonstrating that generosity can be inspired by wisdom traditions that exist outside the mainstream.
How do we do it? The same way we perform any other act of magic — by focusing our energies and directing our intention. We make our winter gifting magical by recognizing that when we give to the causes and organizations near to our hearts, we are taking actions that reverberate throughout time and cosmos and reinforce the web of interconnectedness that is central to the pagan way of life.
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