Witch at Large: Ruminations from a Grey Perspective

Seeing Paganism in terms of being a movement, explorations of our history, societal context, comparisons to other religious movements, and general Pagan culture.

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Creating Sacred Space with Pagan Prison Inmates – II

Be advised that I will have no photos to illustrate anything that goes on inside the prison walls unless I happen to come across them on the Web.  Needless to say, we volunteers are not permitted to bring cameras inside.

Neither will I be revealing any names or personal descriptions that might indicate the identity of anyone other than our supervising chaplain and myself.

What Our Worship Space Looks and Feels Like

We meet in a converted storeroom now designated as the Minority Faith Chapel, small but not dark, about 10’ x 12’, with a window at one end and a door on each side.  The door from the breezeway on the south side allows us entry.  The door on the far (north) side remains closed.  A really fine gospel choir often sings somewhere beyond this door.  Although I love the sound of their voices, it can be distracting when you’re trying to do anything quiet or meditative.  The men of our circle – from now on I’ll just call them the Witches or the inmate circle or the circle inmates – like to prop one of the folding tables up against that wall to dampen the sound a bit.

On the west wall a window looks upon a view of the sides of buildings that have no windows facing our window.  It lets in light and fresh air, and from it one can see a bit of sky. 

Three of the concrete block walls are painted white; the other contains a chalkboard.  We walk upon a white linoleum floor in a room illuminated by fluorescent lights.

Once the Witches have stacked most of the furniture (file cabinets, folding tables, chairs) into a small a space as possible, they set up an altar table on the north side of the room.  While our quarters may not be oriented precisely to each cardinal point, they are what we can do in a small rectangular room with little space.  I think the north altar may actually be oriented to the northwest.  (More about altars in a subsequent post.)

The first few times we met in this space, I saw hanging in the sole window a ratty-looking triptych banner, probably made of nylon, white but with some soiled spots.  Each of the three sections displayed the word “Holy” in gold embroidery (machine-embroidered, for you crafty types) in some kind of Old English script, and trimmed with gold fringe.  So while I’m working with these men, I’m seeing the words “Holy Holy Holy” in the window.  The words themselves don’t bother me, since they apply across the religious spectrum, only differing by what different religions and individuals consider holy.  But somehow I found the pathetic rattiness of this banner dispiriting, and it made me want us to have our own.

This gave me an idea for a way to claim the space as our own.  One of the things I can always bring in when I go and that doesn’t need to be accompanied by a form signed by a half-dozen prison officials, is paper.  Mostly the paper I bring is study materials and deity images.  However, when I came to celebrate the feast of Samhain, I brought with me an accordion-pleated tissue paper garland of orange, black, and white skulls that I purchased at a party store. We strung it across the room.  It was remarkable how a simple thing like a colored paper garland transformed this grim little storeroom-cum-chapel 

I have some Pagan-themed banners in my home.  It occurred to me that if this small Christian sect that uses the same Minority Faith Chapel as we do could have a banner in the window, then surely we could have banners, too.

My friend Matt Whealton, a Kemetic practitioner with the Temple of Ra, had, in a conversation at a People of the Earth interfaith gathering,[1] heard that I was going into San Quentin and offered to support this endeavor in whatever ways we could use that support. So I took him up on his offer.  I began a search for banners.

a1sx2_Thumbnail1_nile-goddess.jpgWell, as a goddess-oriented Witch, I love beautiful goddess images, and there is a lovely string of banners featuring goddesses from around the world.  But wait!  Some of those goddess images show exposed breasts or other female nudity.  (For instance, a Nile goddess and other prehistoric goddess images.)  Images of naked females are forbidden.  Our goddesses must be clothed.

I found two strings of banners that I thought would enhance our space.  One shows batiks of the eight Sabbats, and the other shows seven images of “Earth in Balance.”  Bless Matt, he filled out forms, got his donation approved, and otherwise jumped through DOCR’s many hoops, and bought these banners for us.

For Yule I’d found a green and red paper garland similar to the Samhain one with the skulls.  But when I got there, I learned that the package of banners Matt had purchased had arrived in the chaplain’s office.  The Witches had no knowledge that this gift was coming and, boy! were they surprised and delighted when we opened the package at Yule and hung them up!


So now when we meet, one of the first things the Witches do when we get access to our meeting room, after they sweep and stack of extraneous furniture, is hang these lovely banners around the room.  What a difference they make!  They transform this otherwise bland institution room into something approaching a Witchen chapel.  We are so grateful to Matt for this contribution.

This was a first big step in creating our own sacred space within the walls of this institution.

[1]   Serendipitously, the Native American chaplain who supervises our circle was friends with Guatamalan shaman Tata before his passing.

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Aline O’Brien (M. Macha NightMare), Witch at Large, has circled with people of diverse Pagan paths throughout the U.S., and in Canada and Brazil.  Author of Witchcraft and the Web (2001) and Pagan Pride (2004), and co-author, with Starhawk, of The Pagan Book of Living and Dying (1997), Macha has also contributed to anthologies, periodicals, textbooks, and encyclopedias.  A member of the American Academy of Religion, the Marin Interfaith Council, and the Nature Religion Scholars Network, Macha also serves as a national interfaith representative for the Covenant of the Goddess (CoG) and on the Advisory Board of the Sacred Dying Foundation.  Having spent the last eleven years developing and teaching at Cherry Hill Seminary, the first and only seminary serving the Neopagan community, Macha now serves on its Board of Directors. An all-round Pagan webweaver, she speaks on behalf of Paganism to news media and academic researchers, and lectures at colleges, universities and seminaries. www.machanightmare.com


  • Diotima
    Diotima Tuesday, 01 July 2014

    Macha, your experiences are very similar to mine, though the prison I volunteer at is much smaller -- only a few hundred men. I bring in all my own altar furnishings for each sabbat, which, of course, I had to jump through all kinds of hoops to get approved. You should see the faces on some of the guards when they check me in on sabbat days. :-) But the banners are a fabulous idea -- we also have a small, linoleum-floored, fluorescent lit room, and it would help dress it up a lot. Definitely have to do that!

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