My whole religious and spiritual development as a polytheist has been odd. I have realized that there was never really a bit of ‘pagan’ development for me—yes, my first contact with other polytheists was via a group that defines itself as pagan and celebrates the Wheel of the Year, but the undertone of the group and it’s members was and is that polytheism is largely a given; that the Gods and Spirits are individual entities with individual wants, needs, agendas, and personalities. For whatever reason, as a terrified proto-spirit-worker who had been shoved from agnosticism to a world full of Gods, this made sense and it was never really a question.
In that oddness, I started building a foundation based on what I saw and experienced which has led to some very distinct differences with many of my fellow polytheists and good-neighbor pagans. One of those differences came to light this weekend, when that group that I’m loosely affiliated with held the weekend-long celebration of Mabon.
In that particular community, Mabon is about making sure there is enough to last the winter—enough food, enough warmth, enough community, ENOUGH. Being up here in New England where the winters have been getting more and more brutal, it is vitally important to have enough of all of those life-sustaining things and that is the focus of the Mabon rite proper.
This is also the time when many polytheists and pagans feel that the Wild Hunt begins to ride, when a variety of souls and beings begin to mass and take off throughout the world to gather souls or gather prey or gather whatever it is they and their Leader see fit to amass. There are as many version of the Hunt as there are vaguely Germanic or Britannic cultures and what you assign to it depends on what folklore you are looking at.
This community also hosts a literal Wild Hunt. It is held separately from the more family-friendly Mabon rite, as it is very much an adults-only rite in the sense that it carries a lot of intensity with it, rather than it containing any sort of sexual expression. Individuals who self-select as prey are marked and sent off into the ample woods to hide from the self-selected predators who, at a specific signal, run off to the woods to hunt the prey. There is a large fire built and those who attend who are not running as predator or prey have jobs to do as well, as this is a no-spectator’s affair. There are the Priests, who are coordinating the rite itself and leading ritual drama while the others work. There are the Hearthmakers, who are preparing the ritual meal of beef, beef liver, and a few skewers of vegetables over a cook fire. There are the Firetenders, who make sure that the fire stays huge and hot to guard against the encroaching cold and dark. There are the Artists, who do large pieces in the style of cave paintings to lend sympathetic magic to the Hunt in hopes that it will be fruitful and bless the community with enough to make it through to the spring.
Herne, the Hunter Himself, comes down in possession for the rite. His host is draped in skins and wears nothing else, save for a rack of antlers affixed to their head. Herne is the One Who begins the Hunt and, as the entire acre plus field and woods is dead silent when He arrives, if you listen carefully, you can hear Him growl out ‘ride, My hounds’ to send the predators off into the woods.
If the predators do their job well, they successfully hunt the prey and bring back each captured human to be laid at Herne’s feet. When all the prey have been captured or Herne is satisfied—whichever comes first—He blows His hunting horn, signaling the end of the people-Hunt, and that reverberates through more than one plane. He inspects His prey and, if He finds them acceptable, He ritually slaughters each one by removing what they were marked with, miming slitting their throats with a ritual knife, and pouring an animal-blood-and-wine mixture upon them.
He leaves silently after that, carrying the body He is riding into the woods, and the prey are sung back to life by the community and are fed first, in honor of their sacrifice.
I ran as prey for many years and I remember the absolute terror the Hunt inspired. Here I am, crouched in the woods in the dark with no light, while this massive Deity roams around and His hounds are out for my blood. There were times when I was literally stepped on by a predator and they didn’t See me and there were times when they saw me and I took off running like a scared chicken, but I was caught each and every time and slaughtered at Herne’s hand every year. I remember feeling the slice on my energetic throat and how long it took to heal. I remember the year that I actually manifested a very, very thin surface cut on my actual throat when I know for a fact that His knife never touched my actual skin. I remember the year I lost my voice right after the Hunt, much in the manner I would have had someone cut my throat and sawed their way through my vocal cords.
I no longer run as prey because I am no longer lawful prey, as I have been bought and marked as specific prey to a specific Hunter. Running as a predator would be amusing, but only in the sense that I would probably trip over a prey and fall over while they run like hell past me—my body is too old and decrepit these days to try and locate prey in the woods and bodily haul them out. I choose not to priest for the rite, I can’t cook over a fire for shit, and I am no good for hauling or cutting firewood, so I am always the Artist.
This year was no different—I went to add my magic as an Artist. I packed my backpack with a few things that I thought might be useful from my own supplies [I didn't end up needing any of them, but I was a Girl Scout once upon a time] and set myself down by the roaring fire to begin to paint the Hunt with my fellow Artists.
I sardonically told my friends there that when you take away my brushes, my artistic talent relocates elsewhere. However, the painting needed to happen so I fingerpainted as best I could. I painted Herne with His broad antlers spotted with blood and I swiped down paint to resemble the prey out in the woods. I painted corn and, at the direction of a friend, a few specific animals that she felt needed a place there. Others added their own renditions of Herne, of prey, of humans hunting, and of themselves.
There have been years when the Hunt was not successful—no prey were captured, Herne was very displeased, and the community was lectured by Him [no small event, as He very rarely speaks to anyone but His hounds—but this year, prey were caught and laid at the Hunter’s feet. After He called the Hunt with His horn, He slaughtered each one, gave them one long look, blessed His hounds, and disappeared into the woods. Amusingly, as He called the Hunt and slaughtered His prey, the nearby-ish neighbors chose that exact moment to set off fireworks.
While He was on His way out, the Artist’s lifted the three sections of our painting and laid them into the ritual bonfire to burn as an offering in thanks for Herne’s presence, blessings, and a successful Hunt. He accepted our efforts, taking pieces of the burning painting high into the sky until they looks like burning lanterns. It was incredibly beautiful.
That’s the Wild Hunt I know—where the Mighty Hunter sends out the hounds to bring Him His due and assure that the community makes it through the long, cold winter. I remember having a moment of serious dissonance when someone told me about Odin as the Leader of the Hunt because I have never seen that—only Herne and the hoards of the Dead and other beings behind Him riding across the sky. It’s not that I think folks who see Odin as the One Who calls the Hunt are wrong, it’s just a vastly different Hunt that I have never seen.
The Hunter Himself is incredible. He is, by and large, the biggest non-corporeal Being that I have been in the same ‘room’ with—bigger than any of my Gods, bigger than any of the Gods of my friends and loved ones. He’s huge and He completely fills the entire property [and then some] that the rite takes place on. I was busy when He arrived, but I knew He was there when I got incredibly dizzy and every single hair on my body stood on end. I turned to a good friend to confirm that the Hunter indeed had arrived and, as he nodded, I saw Him. He walked right by the fire, but remained cloaked in shadows—only the faintest outline of His antlers and His attendant trailing Him were visible—and, as He sent out the hounds, the entire field and woods sunk into total blackness. It was one of the situations where, if you stepped out of the fire light, you were swallowed whole.
I don’t often get wowed by Deity in possession—I have seen enough of Them embodied that it’s not a shock or something completely out of the ordinary—but Herne’s antlers were magnificent. Physically, His host was wearing a moderately sized rack of deer antlers, but Herne turned His head and suddenly it was a massive rack that extended a foot or so past the host’s shoulders. It wasn’t Him going ‘look how big I am’, either—it was just Him.
After the Hunt, I spent time chatting with friends and colleagues that I don’t get to see very often, which was really, really nice. I ate delicious meat and got to be chatty before heading out to my car [where I met a friend who I haven't seen in too long coming down the road] and heading home.
Participating rites like the Hunt always ends up a little unwieldy to me. As I am mostly moving within the African and Diasporic religious communities these days, it is an utterly foreign and unrelated practice that doesn’t exist with the Lwa or the Orisha or the Nkisi or any other African or Diasporic divinity that I have run into. That’s not surprising, as it is largely European in nature, as is much of the assortment of pagan-flavored holidays in the United States.
And yet, even as it has no bearing on my religious practice, I am a human and I am tied to place. I live in New England, where was have a seasonal ‘wheel of the year’ and I am affected by what happens here. I know what it is to not have enough in the dead of winter, as myself and my roommate went without heat off and on throughout last winter as oil was too expensive for us. I know what it is to look into the darkness [whether internal or external] and swirling snow and wonder whether or not the sun will ever shine again.
Blessedly, we will not freeze this year in our new apartment with gas [read: affordable] heat, and my inner darkness is a lot less scary these days. However, the dark of winter is still dangerous and still needs to be warded against. You don’t make I through by sheer luck.
So, I straddle two worlds in yet another way—being rooted in the place I physically inhabit and rooted in the religious traditions I keep getting kicked into. It’s another bridge that I find kind of awkward, but nowhere near as hard to stand on as some of the other ones I’ve been building lately. That’s a big blessing.
The season has also brought me some unexpected changes in some of my taboos. It appears that I may have been released from my food restrictions or, at the very least, I am being left to self-police what I eat. In the middle of a really, REALLY stressful period a few weeks ago, I was craving a cheeseburger, which has been on the No List as beef was off the menu. I threw myself in front of the Mister and my Father [the two who are responsible for my food taboos] and begged to have a friggin’ cheeseburger.
I didn’t hear ‘no’ or get a message of ‘that would be an unwise choice’, which is what I usually get. I didn’t get a ‘yes’, either, but, as I told Them, I took silence as Them either not caring or giving me rope to hang myself. I wanted that damn cheeseburger, so I took the chance that I was about to hang myself. I acquired my tiny meat savior and gobbled it down, then spent the rest of the evening waiting to get violently ill, as that’s what happened the one time I willfully broke my food taboos in a fit of rebellion.
I didn’t get sick at all. At the rite this past weekend, I gobbled down tasty, TASTY beef and liver [I usually hate liver] and I didn’t get ill then, either, but I usually have special dispensation for eating in ritual space. I had some carrot juice in a drink today and have yet to be ill, too, or get the side-eye from the Mister or Eleggua. I’m not going to test the waters and go wild with a barbeque feast or a pile of carrots or anything, but maybe a piece of beef once in awhile would be okay. We’ll see, I suppose.
I have a lot of painting to do, as I’m hoping to enter a piece in the Orisha Art Show that’s coming up in Toronto, and a lot coming up this week that I hope to write about. If you celebrate the Hunt or find that it has meaning in your spiritual life, may you be as blessed I your observance as I was in mine and may the Hunter cull that which is not needed from your life and replace it with those things that will see you to the spring.