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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Wicked Witching

So, one day the Interfaith Council asks the witch the deliver the opening prayer.

(By the way, this actually happened. My long-time friend and colleague Macha Nightmare has been active in Interfaith for years.)

She stands up.

“Witches dance to pray,” she says. “So I'm going to teach you one of our oldest, most sacred dances. It's called the Spiral Dance.”

And she does. They all get up and dance their prayers, hand-in-hand, pagan and cowan together.


By one act of magic, she taught more about the Old Ways, and (I suspect) did more for interfaith understanding, than an hour's worth of talking could have achieved.

Nice work, Macha.

Now that's wicked witching.


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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.


  • Greybeard
    Greybeard Saturday, 20 June 2015

    Good for Macha. Just wondering. How many people does it take to do a spiral dance? More than 2, certainly. More than 10 perhaps? 20 to 40? I was in a spiral dance once with over 300 and the end of the line became more like "crack the whip," and a broken leg in the dark. That's too many. What do you think is the practical numbers of people for a good spiral dance?

  • Aline "Macha" O'Brien
    Aline "Macha" O'Brien Tuesday, 23 June 2015

    I would say the optimal number, for me, would be 15-40, at least in terms of intimacy. Small coven ones with eight or nine can work, but you can only get so much from them. Seeing the same faces over and over and over again means one tends to end them sooner than one would end a larger one.

    One can do a really intoxicating SD with about 80-100, which was the case in the SD Steve referenced in this blog (only it was a closing, not an opening).

    I've been in SDs of up to 1,200 people, in which case the dance is done in two strands like DNA, and though some insist that they work, I disagree. I say that because if you're doing it right, every single person in the line comes face to face at least once with every other person in the line, and I've seen people I know are in the room because I've already greeted them before the onset of the dance, and yet I never see them in the dance.

    I have successfully led SDs for 400; however, in that case, most were younger and everyone was an enthusiastic Pagan instead of a mixed group.

    Also, for bigger groups it helps to have what I call "graces," assistants who are not themselves part of the dance, to assure that everyone is connected properly. And by 'connected properly' I mean that the leader begins heading to her left, and each person joins his left hand to the right hand of the person preceding them in the line. Graces also tend to inadvertent breaks in the lines, and the times when the line may stretch too far and pull shoulders or crunch up close so movement gets kinda clogged.

    If your spiral dance is going like crack-the-whip, you're doing it wrong, IMO. Slow and stately wins the dance. Find a simple chant everyone can do over and over and over again, or if you have a sensitive drummer to work with the leader, you can pace it. Ask everyone to look into the eyes of each other person as she passed by.

    Since most of the SDs I've led have included people with mobility issues or for some other reason cannot dance, we sit them in the center and dance around them.

    I could go on and on about my observations and opinions about SDs, but cannot do so here and now, and I wanted to answer your query.

    Three Rules:

    1. Always join the line with your left hand.
    2. Never drop out or break the line. (If you absolutely have to, do so when your line is on the outside of the spiral, and join the hands of the persons on either side of you together when you part.)
    3. Don't go fast. It's not the kind of crack-the-whip we used to do on the frozen cranberry bogs when I was a kid.
    4. The amount of energy raised, the potency, is not commensurate with the speed of the dance (or drum) of volume of your voices or the music.

    And then, there are other kinds of spiral dances. ;-) Hope this helps.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Saturday, 20 June 2015

    Och, the tales of Spiral Dances Gone Bad. The broken legs, the sprains, the dislocated shoulders, the spiral that broke in the middle (because someone's shoulder was getting dislocated) that went on and on and on and on and on because the organizers either didn't realize it or didn't know what to do. (They should have stopped moving and raised their arms in the air to bring it to an end.) I swear, one could fill a Book of Shadows. To stand the old truism on its head, where there's Power, there's Fear.

    You question is a good one, Greybread. My coven has done them, but with 8 one doesn't really get that sense of "patterns on the ground" that one gets from a good Spiral Dance.

    Best I should defer to experience here. Macha?

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Saturday, 20 June 2015

    I should add that after the Never-ending Spiral Dance of Death, I heard at least one suggestion that the SD actually dates from the Burning Times, and was originated as a form of torture .;)

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