I thought it would make for a good Christmas/Hanukkah/winter solstice column if I observed a Yule ritual with the Dianic witches of the Circle of Aradia.
I expected to encounter a burning log and some explanation of the Pagan origins of what we now think of as the trappings of Christmas. Six hours later, I’d experienced an unanticipated and in-depth experience with a religion that was founded in Los Angeles in the 1970s by feminist author Zsuzsanna Budapest, known to her followers as Z.
An interpretation of that exhilarating gestational time was provided in a handout:
“The wheel is turning and we are there, with our love of peace, our goddess-based religion and our bra-burning feminist values…We are strong, mostly lesbian, women and together we are making strong magic. The cauldron bubbles and out of the rising steam is birthed Susan B. Anthony Coven #1.”
The event I’d attended was much more than a Yule ritual. It was part of a great big Wiccan extravaganza, a weekend-long celebration of 40 years of Dianic spirituality and the 25th anniversary of the Circle of Aradia, the Los Angeles grove of Dianic adherents founded in 1986. In addition, two high priestesses were initiated, one of whom will lead the Circle of Aradia.
Tea with Z was scheduled for the next day at the , among whose I first encountered the Circle.
Prohibited from filming during the rite, I can share my impressions as I took notes and recorded sound. Official photos provided by the Circle along with my snapshots taken after the rite are all in the picture gallery.
I arrive early to the Topanga Community House. It was a scary canyon drive in the dark and the rain but this has been a welcoming home for prior rituals of the Circle of Aradia.
Women are gathering in the foyer waiting to be admitted inside. Already I am seeing velvet capes, draped robes and heads decorated with circlets of chain and crystals, holly wreaths or embellished bands.
We are admitted in small groups and greeted on the other side of the doors by half a dozen “maidens” draped in white garb, who hand each of us a small white candle.
A harpist plucks ancient Celtic-sounding strains in the dimly lit room. A murmur of hushed greetings and conversations fills the high-ceilinged hall.
A stage at the front of the room is filled with cut evergreen trees and poinsettias. Two chairs covered with jewel toned fabrics and (fake?) fur throws are set amidst the greenery. Later they will seat women costumed as Diana and her daughter Aradia, surrounded by nymphs. Studio City UU Pagan Karen Renee will be Diana.
Sylphlike women, dressed in black, dance and sway to the rhythm of thumping hand drums around an altar in the center of the room. It is a table covered with ritual objects like the ones I saw at last summer’s rite. Objects from nature, which represent the four elements, earth, air, fire and water, are arrayed in the four directions.
One wall is covered with a huge black cloth splashed with silver stars and featuring a silver full moon. A huge fireplace dominates the opposite wall. The mantle is festooned with pine boughs and berries but the hearth is cold for now.
More celebrants join the dancers and the drumming seems to grow louder. Women of all races are represented in the room and most of them are my contemporaries in age or older.
A chorus of ululating voices turns everyone’s attention to the center where stands Ruth Barrett, one of the first members of Susan B. Anthony Coven #1, dressed in long black robes. The first High Priestess ordained by Budapest introduces her mentor.
Z Budapest, 72, a Hungarian émigré, is white haired and blue eyed. She’s dressed in black trousers and top under a turquoise cardigan. Her pixie haircut is decorated with a strand of twined lavender twigs.
“My purpose was to create a tradition with the essence of common sense,” she remembers about founding this spiritual practice. “Feminist witchcraft…you have ethics that is inclusive, that is global, that is freedom-oriented, and encourages creativity, encourages individuality, and it spawns sisterhood.” (See my one-on-one video interview.)
Now, 40 years on, the religion has flourished. There are women here from all over the country and one from as far as Ireland.
The Yule ritual begins. It celebrates the lengthening of days that begins with the winter solstice.
In the next three hours this sisterhood of “women-born women” will energetically bond with one another, connect to the forces of nature, celebrate the moon and the sun and initiate two of their venerated leaders as High Priestesses.
Budapest initiates an exercise that involves vocalizing, humming and invoking the power of the four elements and directions. It will result, she says, in “spiritual unity, when you are so welded together by simply using your body and the sounds you can make.”
Pretty soon close to 200 women are moving into four groups based on the elements of their zodiacal sun signs. They are humming and calling out in turn.
“I call on the global Woman Spirit to unite,” Budapest declares after all the groups have spoken. The humming continues to thrum around her. “…to find their own way, to protest any oppression, any restraining, any torture, any enslavement…Yet, let the protest be nonviolent.
“Diana, you who run ahead of the wind, Huntress, hunt down the enemies of women. Hunt down those who wish to kill us, maim us, sell us. Hunt them down. (Hoots of assent punctuate the steady hum.) All those who profit from wars, hunt them down. Everyone who propagates war for profit, hunt them down…May patriarchy fall. For the good of all.”
“For the good of all,” echo the women. “Blessed be.”
They sing then, repeating and repeating the verse:
“Oh moon shining bright
Midnight on the water
O, o Aradia,
Diana’s silver daughter”
Five women in costumes that suggest medieval archers fire five ritual arrows, representing the four decades of Dianic tradition and its future, into an archery target covered with a photo of planet Earth taken from space.
Barrett recites the tradition’s creation legend accompanied by the thumping of hand drums while a dancer interprets the story in movement.
The tempo of the drums picks up. Budapest is handed a candle, priestesses light their candles from hers, each witch lights a candle one from another. Those whose candles are already burning touch each other’s flame to flame. The drumming gives way to song.
“Celebrate the birth of the sun,
Light the way, O Lucina.
Dance around the Sabbat night,
Blessed be the Great Mother.”
The voices break into rounds, as they repeat and repeat the rhythmic verse for more than 20 minutes. The room seems full of power and intention. I can see why men have always feared and repressed covens of women. Slowly, slowly the energy softens as the mass of women moves toward the front of the room each to extinguish her candle’s flame. But the energy in the room remains charged.
At some point a fire has been kindled in the hearth and twigs and pinecones are popping and crackling.
The rite continues for another hour with much more singing and chanting and the High Priestess installations. The atmosphere remains exuberant up to and beyond when Barrett declares, “The circle is open and unbroken,” and the lights come up in the room.