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The Oath

I like rituals that are long and complex, especially ones that take place over more than one day. My ritual in which I made my dedicant’s oath really qualifies – it’s the longest and most complex ritual I’ve ever been involved in.

The ritual briefing began in 3rd grade. My parents always let me buy a couple of books each semester from the Scholastic Books catalogue of cheap books, and one time I bought Greek Mythology, by Evslin, Evslin, and Hoope. I don’t know why an 8-year-old living on an Air Force base in the early 60s would have chosen this book as one of the few he could get; maybe it was from watching Hercules cartoons.

I read the book over and over. I’m happy but surprised to say that it still survives, one of my treasures. I remember thinking, “I wonder why no one worships these gods anymore.” It would be great if I could say that the reason I wondered this was that I thought they deserve worship – making me a young but unconscious Pagan – but it was probably just curiosity. Still, I clearly saw Paganism as a religion to be taken seriously.

What was most important was it started a love affair with mythology. I remember riding in a car in probably 4th grade, reading Edith Hamilton’s Greek Mythology, a rather odd choice of books for a child that age, especially one that was in Catholic school at the time.

All this is prologue, a sort of ritual briefing to prepare me for my role in the rest of the ritual. While not putting me on the path of Paganism, it laid a foundation, preparing me for the ritual ahead It gave me some of the basic information I needed for the ritual ahead. I began the processional.

That the procession was on its way is shown by something my CCD teacher in 7th grade wrote in my report card: “David is very interested in religion.” My period of searching was well underway, it seemed, although it would take me away from the Catholicism I was being taught. Perhaps I wasn’t declaring, “I am here to worship the Gods,” but I was certainly declaring that I wanted to know what Gods there were to worship, and how they should be worshiped.

I began to get a feel for this in 1971, when my sister brought Paul Huson’s Mastering Witchcraft home from school. It was still the 60s, really, and that sort of thing was cool, so she and her friends were studying it. They never went anywhere serious with it, but I sure did.

My brother joined the occult book club, and one of the four books he got with the original offer was the familiar Mastering Witchcraft. Best of all, another was Stewart Farrar’s What Witches Do, a detailed description of the beliefs and rituals of Alexandrian Wicca. This was a period when the line was “Wicca is the ancient Paganism, which has survived underground for a thousand years.” Here it was: there were still people who worshiped the ancient gods of Paganism.

I fell for it big time. I desperately wanted to find a coven and be initiated. This was the 70s, though, before Cunningham, Adler, and Starhawk. There were no occult stores in my area. I didn’t even know they existed, and wouldn’t have had either any way to get there or money to buy anything if I did. I was a poor, careless high-school student.

With no coven, teacher, or money, I still wanted to do as much as I could. From money my devout Methodist great-aunt paid me for helping her clean out her house, I bought a throwing knife, painted its handle black, painted on it the runes What Witches Do said I should use, and I had an athamé. A funky little shop was going out of business, and I bought a brass cup from India – now I had a chalice. A cheap pewter plate became my pentacle, and a wand I could make for myself. My tool kit wasn’t impressive (except for the athamé, which I still love), but it was all I could find or afford. By dedicating so much of my limited money to the work, I had made a clear statement of intent: I was going to walk this path

Still no coven, and highly unlikely that any would have initiated a minor (an unlikely that I would have wanted to be initiated into one that would). I had my tools, and more reading under my belt, though, so I was clearly qualified to take the next step: I formed a coven.

Sort of.

I had moved into a small town at the beginning of eighth grade. It was small enough that all the other kids else had known each other since kindergarten. There was another one who was new, so we became close friends. In high school we founded an abortive “Rationale Society,” to advance logical and rational thought; we would only accept those who lived up to our standards in those qualities. It never went anywhere as a group, but it had huge results for me.

My friend designed a symbol for the group, a circle with a triangle inside, and a pentagram inside of that. The pentagram was a symbol of infinity, because you can draw another one in its .center, and another one inside that, and do the same on the outsider, forever.

Now, there was a hill behind his house with a clearing in the woods made of dirt. He thought it would be a good idea to mark out the symbol on the ground there in small rocks, with a fire circle at each point of the triangle and pentagram.

We had to flatten out the clearing first. We dug dirt from a rise on its south and throwing it onto the rest of the space. This was New England, so we ran across a lot of rocks, which we put to one side to use in marking the space out later. This was New England, though, so we ran across a really big rock, a flat piece of sandstone about roughly three feet in diameter, and about a foot high. It was easier to roll it downhill to the center (flipping it end over end) than uphill out of the space, so it became a spot for a center fire.

This wasn’t quite enough for my friend. He had found a large quartz stone about two miles away in the woods, and thought it would be great in the circle. I suggested putting it outside of it, to the east of on of the triangle’s points. So we rolled it end over end for the two miles – lift it a bit with a crowbar, shove a rock under for a fulcrum, lift it higher, shove the rock in further, lift it again, keep doing this until it could be flipped over. Then repeat, zigzagging, for two miles. It took about eight hours, over several days, but when it was in place it looked marvelous.

I can’t even begin to think of how many man-hours went into the whole thing. Why did we do it? It started out as “because we can and it would be cool.” It then became, of all things, a beacon for extraterrestrials who would look down from their spaceships and see the fires burning in the obviously rational shape of an obviously rational society, and come down to see what was happening. Really.

Here’s a picture of it. The circle was about fifty feet in diameter.

I’ve described this in detail for a number of reasons. First, I’m proud of the work that went into it. Second, I consider the amount of work that went into its construction a sizable offering to the Holy Ones. Third, it was my first experience with sacred space.

One important thing that came from it was based on a thought I had while we were flipping the quartz stone on its way to the clearing. I told my friend that it looked like a witch place, and that maybe we should start a coven. He thought that it was a grand idea. Why not; we were two kids with no place in the local society, so we had to make our own. We were already two weirdoes, but better than being weird was being witches. We would start a coven.

This sentence deserves its own paragraph: I first became involved in active Paganism as a fraud.

A good fraud, though. We added entrance pillars to the space, for ritual reasons, and then consecrated it. It was the first ritual I’d ever written. I don’t remember much of it, although I will say that keeping nine fires going (at the points of the pentagram and triangle, on the center stone, and the quartz stone) is a lot for two people to do. I’m sure it was good, of course.

I had now entered sacred space. I was definitely “[t]here to worship the gods.”

Now for the next step: start the coven. This required writing more rituals, which was fun. I wrote very little original material, mainly linking rituals I could find together. I did this because I considered the rituals I had found to be the really authentic ones, and only reluctantly fleshed them out as necessary. Writing the rituals was easy. The tough part was finding other members, especially a high priestess. Remember that I was pulling my inspiration from Alexandrian Wicca, and that Alexandrians practice in the nude. Try getting some girl to be your nude high priestess when you can’t even get up the nerve to ask for a date.

In the end, my friend moved away. I did eventually initiate a new member (a boy, of course), but we soon went away to our separate colleges, and that was that.

One odd thing had happened along the way. All the research that I had done in order to pull the fraud off had gotten me hooked. I can remember reading the Charge of the Goddess for the first time, and thinking, “wow.” The fraud had been an effective hoax, and I had been the one hoaxed. I had bought into Wicca, and was now a Pagan. I had taken an unofficial Dedicants’ oath.

So it was off to college, now a Wiccan.

In any good ritual, more than one thing is going on at any given time. This was an excellent ritual, and lots more was going on. A lot more would be going on for some time, as the ritual as a whole acquired the nature of a processional, with stations along the way to mark out the important moments, before I continued on. Some of these moments would recur, as I spiraled in towards the center that I would one day realize was my proper path, Neo-Pagan druidism, of the pan-Indo-European variety.

My freshman history teacher in high school believed that you couldn’t understand history if you didn’t understand religion, so she spent a week teaching us about various religions. Buddhism made no sense to me; it seemed way too depressing. This led me to take Intro to Asian Religions my freshman year in college, to see if I could figure it out. This had two big results. First, I discovered that David was indeed very interested in religion, enjoying studying it both from a personal and an academic point of view. Second, I got a feel for how Buddhism could make some sense. It had a strong appeal for me, and I’ve studied and thought about it a lot over the years. Through it learned how to meditate. So now I had begun a phase of disciplining myself so that the ritual could be more effectively performed in the sacred space that I had entered.

I was also introduced to the academic study of ancient religion in high school. I’d read the Greek and Roman myths to death, but hadn’t thought about the other parts of their religion. I was reading Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave, and I ran across Mithras. I was appalled – a Roman god I’d never heard of? I lived within walking distance of a college library, so I went there and started to research. Now I was on the beginning of a properly druidic path – a Wiccan was studying Mithraism, but I we studying it in a fairly systematic manner, to be improved upon when studying Buddhism. Not technically druidic in the Celtic sense, but certainly in spirit.

College was college. Thinking, talking, taking classes, reading, writing – trying to figure out the universe. I took a lot of religion courses, especially ones that required papers. I was fleshing out the “Statement of Purpose” part of the ritual: why was I here, why was I doing what I was doing?

Most of all, I was encountered Aleister Crowley. Whoa. I read everything of his I could find. I performed his Liber Resh exercises, short meditations at dawn, noon, sunset, and midnight; after doing it for a while, I could tell you the time almost to the minute. (I learned to enter sacred time.) Most of all, though, I read and talked about him. Even though he’s not Indo-European, he affected me deeply. Even today, his metaphysics, that reality is the intersection of Infinite Space with finite possibility, is at the root of my own. I discovered a devotion to his Goddess Nuit, the goddess of that infinite space, which continues to this day. (See Nuit) I had invoked the first deity of the occasion; if not strictly ADF, since not Indo-European, she nonetheless has sustained me, and guided me (and still guides me), towards understanding the material I would encounter.

I also encountered the other great deity of the occasion in college. The College of the Holy Cross (I’m Jesuit-trained) is on the side of a hill, a half-mountain. One night I climbed to the top of that hill, found a quite, partially wooded area, with a flat stone for an altar, and performed a ritual. It was meant to be directed towards the Wiccan God and Goddess, but one deity had his own ideas. I had lit incense on the stone and prayed a bit, and then the incense went out. I heard a voice coming from behind me, one that I knew (I can’t say why) was that of Cernunnos. The Gates had most definitely been opened, although it would be a long time before I realized that Cernunnos was so perfectly suited as Gatekeeper. The voice said just one word: “Enough.” I said that it wasn’t, and that I was going to continue the ritual. It’s never a good idea to disobey so obvious an instruction from a deity, but Cernunnos was kind; all he did was make it impossible to get the incense to light again. I gave in, packed up my gear, and headed down the hill, back to my dorm.

On the way a wonderful thing happened. I saw a rock, roughly triangular, and about six inches by six inches, and knew that I needed to take it with me, that it was a gift from Cernunnos. When I got back to my room, I put it on a shelf, where it stood upright quite well. I didn’t quite know what its significance was, but if I were willing to disobey Cernunnos in the ritual, I certainly was going to keep the rock.

Some time later, my friend with whom I had built the circle was visiting, and I told him the story of the rock. I told him that I didn’t know what was specifically important about it, and he said, “There’s a stag on it.” I looked at the rock, and realized that there was a bulge that formed the body and thighs of a deer, and which continued into a rough deer-head, from which a cleavage in the stone arched back as antlers. I believe that this was the side that had been facing down. If so, I couldn’t have known of the stag’s presence even unconsciously; even if it weren’t, I at least wasn’t aware of it until it was pointed out to me.

I now have as my greatest treasure a deity image given to me by the deity himself. The second deity of the occasion had arrived.

After graduating, I went into the Air Force. While in training, I wrote a Book of Shadows. This time, I removed everything that wasn’t specifically Wiccan (in the set of rituals I’d written for my “coven,” there was some extraneous material, such as something from Kahlil Gibran), replacing it with material from such sources as the Pagan magazine, The Crystal Well. I had begun zeroing in on my goal of being a full-fledged Pagan, even if I were still looking for that coven.

Then off to England, where I visited a large number of sacred sites – stone circles and burial mounds. (Oddly, I didn’t go to Stonehenge, Avebury, or the White Horse of Uffington until years later.) I lamented the fact that my base, RAF Lakenheath, was in East Anglia, and area that had been largely swamp, marsh, lake, and other water until Tudor times, so there weren’t any mounds or circles nearby. About ten years ago, construction workers discovered a cemetery there, which upon excavation turned out to be the largest one ever discovered from the Anglo-Saxon period (both Pagan and Christian) ever found. Two Roman villas have also been discovered, so for three years I was walking around on top of some magnificent ancient sites without knowing it. Besides my conscious travels to sacred sites, then, I had been making my way unconsciously between others. The processional ritual through sacred space was continuing.

Towards the end of my time in the Air Force, I wrote another Book of Shadows. This time, I included only material that I knew for certain was in the Alexandrian/Gardnerian Book of Shadows, plus original material. I had acquired enough confidence to lay claim to the right to be my own expert.
Another way in which I made this book my own was by adding a commentary section. I wrote the Book of Shadows itself on one side of the page, and on the back of each I commented on the history and theology behind what was on the facing one. The importance of this was that I was now submitting my religious beliefs and practices to scrutiny in a very conscious and academic way. I researched each part of the traditional material to the best of my ability, and explained how they In short, I had specified more in what way I was “here to worship the gods.” I intended to approach the matter in a way that was at the same time creative and scholarly. Since I consider the combination of those two to be a defining characteristic of ADF, it might be said that I was standing at the door.

I hadn’t gone through that door yet, of course; this was before ADF even existed. It would be a while, but there was plenty to occupy the time.

Over the preceding few years, I had been writing a booklet called “Butterfly Dreams,” after the story of how Chuang Tzu dreamed that he was a butterfly, and was never able to tell afterwards if he were a man who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was a man. The idea was to put in one place, and into some order, the bits and pieces I had written in that time, mostly in letters to my girlfriend/fiancée/wife. I was trying to answer the “who am I” question, which of course was necessary to the “where do I belong” one, the ultimate goal of the Dedicant’s Oath. I went through it again, removing and adding, refining my views.

I also deepened my relationship with one of the deities of the occasion. I had written a rosary to Nuit when I was in England, performing it regularly. I continued this practice, but wrote a mass for her (both are on my website). It wasn’t ever performed, but the mere act of writing it brought me into greater understanding of her. This is a great example of not only the processional nature of the ritual, but of how it was spiraling into the center that I would discover was ADF.

I encountered Pagan festivals. Here was the chance to develop a community, the unity part of the ritual. I went to several, and then the momentous thing happened: ADF.

Isaac had been making the rounds of festivals, talking about the new organization he was founding, one based not just on Neo-Pagan values, but on the best research possible. That was it. I took my Dedicant’s Oath. No such thing existed formally at the time, of course, since the Dedicants’ Progam was years away, but if the oath is supposed to be a declaration of a dedication to follow a path of Neo-Pagan Druidism, I believe it counts. Since the requirement of submitting the text didn’t yet exist, I don’t have the exact words, but I think that what I remember meets the requirements: “Yes; this is it; this is where I belong.” I joined immediately, with the result that I have the enviable membership number of 4.

The ritual continued, and continues. I have made many offerings to the Kindreds. Besides ones made explicitly in rituals, I’ve made the more implicit kinds of teaching, writing, and just doing my best to live a Pagan life. I’ve deepened my relationship with the Kindreds in ways such as performing a year-long contemplation of the nature of Cernunnos. I wrote a final Book of Shadows, this time with only original material, and more extensive commentary. I decided to take the research into the ancient material even deeper, looking into Indo-European religion, as a result of which I realized that Wicca was no longer for me – my Dedicant’s Oath had crystallized, and I was at the center that had taken so long to reach.

The Kindreds have returned blessings many times over. I have raised an amazing daughter and have a wonderful life. I’ve written three books, and am working on a fourth. All have concentrated on ritual; the ritual work I’ve done through the years – research, writing, and attending – has made it very easy to write them. The ease with which some of the words come, though (I rarely edit my prayers), makes it hard to escape the conclusion that the Gods continue to inspire me, apparently pleased with the honor I’ve given them through my writings. I’ve enjoyed great satisfaction from watching my rituals performed, from becoming accepted as a teacher (and, I’m told, leader/Elder), and from the companionship of others within ADF. I’ve found success in the academic world that comes straight from my work in the Pagan one, in presenting papers at Celtic Studies conferences at UCLA, Berkeley, and, the big one, Harvard (the last one on my old friend Cernunnos). Performing this ritual, I’ve found what I can most offer to the Kindreds, in the form of research, teaching, and the writing and performance of ritual. The return flow has been beyond expectations.

The ritual isn’t over, of course, and won’t be until I leave the sacred time and space that is my life and this world. It’s been a long one already, though, with a ritual briefing, a procession (the whole ritual can be seen as this), statement of intent, entering of sacred space, meditation, proto-Dedicant’s Oath, statement of purpose, opening the Gates, calling of the deities of the occasion, refinement of the statement of purpose, unity rite, and then, finally, the Dedicant’s Oath. Many of the stages have been repeated along the way, pushing me forward repeatedly and more deeply, to the point where I was able to dedicate myself.

Perhaps it could be said that at that gathering I performed my Dedicant’s Oath. It might be more accurate to say, however, that my oath was performed over the course of the last 30 years, a ritual that has worn this path deep into my soul. Although my oath might be said to have been, “Yes; this is it; this is where I belong.” The real text of the ritual has been my life. A druidic life.