Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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The Script and the Story

Was I ever excited when my copy of Lady Sheba's Book of Shadows arrived by mail. I was going to learn the Secret Ceremonies of the Witches.

Gods, was I ever disappointed.

Not long after, I became an overseas member of the Pagan Movement in Britain and Ireland. An important part of the newsletters that they sent out eight times annually were accounts of the rituals that they'd done.

But these weren't the bare-bones outlines of the Book of Shadows, lists of words and actions. These were stories. They told not only what was done and said, but what it was like to be there.

I was in love.

There are two primary ways to write about ritual. If you stick around this blog long enough, you'll see examples of both. One is the Book of Shadows way: the outline, the script, the list of words spoken and actions done.

The other way is the Pagan Movement way: the story.

Both genres are important. Both, in fact, are necessary. But they're not the same thing, and they serve different purposes.

The outline records. It's not particularly interesting to read. In order to really appreciate what's going on, you have to put yourself into the script imaginatively; and, in fact, this is precisely what you need to do when you're preparing to “do” a ritual. My friend and colleague Bruner Soderberg used to refer to this process as the “dream sabbat.”

On the face of it, the outline may not seem very interesting, but in fact, when I'm teaching the art of ritual, I always tell people that whenever you create a ritual, you need to be able to write it down as an outline. Good ritual has good bones, good structure, and structure is what exactly what shows through in the outline.

The story, on the other hoof, puts you, as reader, into the ritual. It may not give you all the chants or liturgical actions, but it lets you experience the ritual in a way that an outline never can. The story is interesting, but it's not precise. From the story you can recreate a ritual—how many thousands of times in the history of the modern paganisms have people recreated rituals from novels?—but there's always imprecision in the transmission.

Still, when someone has a role in your ritual, you need to send her the script, not the story.

When it comes to ritual, we need both script and story. Both genres have a job to do.

But let us not confuse one with the other.


On a throne of piled turf in the exact center of the Nine Dancers, his arms folded on his chest, sat a tall man, naked and shining, with the head of a royal stag.

At sight of him, the people set up a great, throbbing cry that rose and rose and seemed to beat vast wings about the hill shoulder; and then in one great surge of movement like a breaking wave, they flung themselves on the ground.

And I, I was on my knees with the rest, the old men and women, the warriors and the children, the maidens with the magic vervain and the white convulvulus braided in their hair; my face hidden in my hands, and the feel of young Amlodd's shoulder shaking against mine.


So Rosemary Sutcliff writes in her masterful Arthurian novel Sword at Sunset.

Put that in your Book of Shadows.


Rosemary Sutcliff (1963) Sword at Sunset. Coward-McCann.




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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


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