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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Spearing the "Sacred Hunt"

Warning: This post contains ideas and images that some readers may find offensive.

Talk about cultural poverty. Talk about premature canonization. Talk about unworthy traditions.

The so-called "Sacred Hunt" ritual has become a standard fixture at several Midwest pagan gatherings over the course of the last 10 years or so. Me, I hate this so-called "ritual." Personally, I would contend that, in fact, it is neither sacred, a hunt, nor even a ritual. I think it's time and high time that we drove a spear through its heart and let it die a well-deserved and long-overdue death.

Here it is in the nutshell. A bunch of "hunters" go off alone in the woods, work themselves up into an endorphin-driven pyschobabble tizzy, and spear a bale of hay. ("I'm killing my anger!") There's an elaborate framework of drummers and so-called "villagers" to support this mental masturbation. Then the "hunters" parade back into camp and (they've been fasting, which is the one authentic part of this whole monstrosity) they eat a potluck meal provided by the non-hunters.

What do you call a hunter who comes back to the village empty-handed and expects to be fed?

Surely this is metaphor abuse, at the very least.

I call this the "Wank in the Woods" ritual. Now, if you want to go and have one off in the woods, have at it. Probably the world would be a better place if more people did so more often. (Just don't scare the kids.) But don't go off working on your own stuff and then come strutting back into town and expect us all to buy you supper, pound you on the back, and tell you what a fine fellow you are. That's not how things work in the real world.

The "sacred" is something that belongs to a god. The only god I see being invoked here is Ego. A real hunter kills out of love and need, not anger (or whatever personal foible he feels like stroking today). A real hunter feeds others, not vice versa. And a ritual is something we all do together.* The so-called "Sacred Hunt" ritual is actually none of the above.

If you want to see what form a real Hunt ritual might take, you can read about one here: I might add that this rite is part of the mysteries of the Horned One; its purpose is to bless the Land and the year's hunting, and it's a rite that the community enacts together.

As modern pagans, we lack the deep fertile soil of tradition that nourished and sustained the ancestors, and this has all too often led us to canonize as "tradition" things that are unworthy and undeserving of that status.

Sparky T. Rabbit always used to say, "There's no ritual so good that it can't be improved, and no ritual so bad that we can't learn something from it." By now we've had more than 10 years' worth of so-called Sacred Hunts to learn from. For gods' sakes, let's cut our losses and move on.

"Sacred Hunt," I spear you.

*I would contend that the entire theoretical framework of the "SH" is hopelessly flawed. Real ritual is indeed capable of producing deep psychological change, but it achieves this not by focusing on my personal stuff, but by temporarily removing me from my own head and my own problems and immersing me in collective, oceanic experience, so that afterwards, when I finally return to my own head and my own problems, I return renewed and with a new perspective. 

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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.


  • Anne Forrester
    Anne Forrester Tuesday, 22 July 2014

    I am so glad to read this article! For years now, "The Sacred Hunt" ritual has been a sacred cow that nobody dared speak up against. I've always hated it, and the entire day of festival it swallows up, to the exclusion of better things people could be doing with that time. Thanks.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Wednesday, 23 July 2014

    Thanks, Anne. There's nothing in this post that I haven't been hearing from other people for years. Sparky was absolutely right: public ritual incurs public critique. We need to build this mandate into festival culture.

  • Carol P. Christ
    Carol P. Christ Wednesday, 23 July 2014

    I would contend that the entire theoretical framework of the "SH" is hopelessly flawed. Real ritual is indeed capable of producing deep psychological change, but it achieves this not by focusing on my personal stuff, but by temporarily removing me from my own head and my own problems and immersing me in collective, oceanic experience, so that afterwards, when I finally return to my own head and my own problems, I return renewed and with a new perspective.

    i could not agree more. I have learned a lot about my anger in therapy groups by pounding on pillows. I would say therapy is the right venue for that sort of activity. Therapy and ritual both raise energy in the body, but I also don't like it when ritual becomes ego-focused on resolving "my" personal problems.

  • Jan Nerone
    Jan Nerone Wednesday, 23 July 2014

    This ritual doesn't sound sacred to me; quite the opposite. As an ardent follower of the Horned Lord and a sworn priestess of Artemis, I say this: have a real hunt. Do some fasting, sure. Do a ritual bath. Meditate. Pray for the blessing of your patron deity. Dedicate the fruits of the hunt to the Horned One. Then actually hunt. That's what I do each fall.

  • Greybeard
    Greybeard Thursday, 24 July 2014

    I agree with you this time Steven. If the so-called "hunters" actually hunted up some game and brought home a feast, it might make sense, but what is done in your description is silly to the point of being offensive.

  • David Doersch
    David Doersch Thursday, 24 July 2014

    I'm a theatre professional, so forgive me if my references are all theatre related. A very wise theatre teacher once said that to understand what another artist (or in this case ritualist) is creating, is like a carpenter looking at a barn built by a fellow carpenter. It takes skill, compassion, artistry and understanding to see what the other fellow was attempting and how to actualize it. But to be a critic is to simply and mindlessly flail at the structure, in other words, any jackass can kick down a barn.

    In this "critique" that Steven has offered, he has put up several straw men and easily knocked them down with his oh-so-barbed tongue. Well done, Steven! That takes little skill, no artistry and just a wicked talent for snarky comments. Forgive me if I point out that it is not within the tradition of paganism to mock that which others find sacred. Isn't tolerance and understanding of others' paths the centerpiece of our movement?

    As the creator of the Sacred Hunt, I take issue with several things Steven puts forward here. But before addressing them, let me say that Steven and I have been friends for close to 30 years now, so his comments and sharp criticism are particularly painful in a public forum. I would have preferred a private message outlining his questions or complaints about this ritual/practice so that I might have explained the intent behind the ritual...because intent is everything, isn't it?

    The Sacred Hunt ritual was created as a Yang energy, shamanic journey of personal transformation with the community (represented by the villagers and the drummers) in support of the difficult and painful work involved. As the tone of this blog is derisive and the comments of the readers spiteful, I won't go into detail describing the deeply sacred work that is done or how it is done. It is obvious that those of you commenting have never participated. Will you next accuse those who do Sweat Lodges of wanking in the hot igloo? Will you stand in your oh-so-superior condescension and direct your sharp words at some other quietly sacred ritual, because it is fun to do so? Because you enjoy the cleverness of your snarky wit? Or will you actually look with compassion at the life changing, sensitive and deeply vulnerable work that is done in the Hunt or other similar rituals. I cannot count the number of times that I have held victims of abuse who have used the Hunt as a way to successfully reclaim their lives as they wept in silent transformation; alcoholics using it as a doorway to begin the journey to sobriety; deeply damaged individuals taking this vulnerable and exposing step to begin their healing (whatever the cause of their trauma). It isn't some silly panacea, as Steven paints it. It isn't some comical or cartoonish self-indulgence in the woods. It is a ritual, deeply sacred, that is something the participants take terribly seriously. It is the integrity of their approach to this sacred work that I honor. The ritual itself is merely a framework for their personal work.

    Over the years since this ritual's inception, I have had it analyzed by Doctors of psychiatry and psychology, social workers and deeply practiced Shamans. I have sat in council with respected (even revered) ritualists and counselors, pagan leaders and renowned authors. This process of constant reflection and adjustment has shaped the Sacred Hunt. I am happy that it has become popular and more and more people seek to experience the power of this ritual. Sadly, I have not consulted pagan gadflies who enjoy the immature and unproductive act of tearing down what others find sacred. Nor have I checked in with the self-appointed leaders of the fictitious country of Paganistan, though it was in Minneapolis that this ritual was developed.

    Perhaps a little more understanding, and a little less pompous ridiculing would result in a more productive conversation. Steven, I'm surprised and disappointed that you wouldn't bring this to me off-line before grandstanding on the back of something that so many people find so deeply and so personally valuable. This is beneath you.

  • Drake Spaeth
    Drake Spaeth Friday, 25 July 2014

    Even though Mr. Posch apparently feels like he has made some sort of groundbreaking achievement by expressing his opinion about the Sacred Hunt, I have encountered quite a range of opinions and perspectives about it over the years. it is a provocative ritual! I feel like I have little to add to the great response of David Doersch above. I am a clinical psychologist who has facilitated this ritual at various gatherings for several years now. I continue to do so, because I have noted how long-lasting and profound are the transformational changes that take place--changes in life mastery, self-confidence, charisma, working through depression and other emotional issues, and many kinds of spiritual insights and breakthroughs. To say that it goes well beyond psychobabble is an understatement. If the ritual experience really did have the poverty of psychospiritual content that the author suggests, I feel that people would quickly tire of it. I choose to believe that Pagans and other heart-open, earth-honoring individuals come back to it and tell others about it because it is doing something extraordinary and substantive for them. I also am frankly surprised that a storyteller would seemingly lack the imagination to understand how it might do something for others, even if he has little preference for it personally. Also interesting that he would feel the need to "spear" it (paging Dr. Freud"?) on a public forum. As with many things, perhaps readers could better judge the experience for themselves after being a part of it or speaking with others whose lives have been significantly impacted in positive ways by it.

  • Terence P Ward
    Terence P Ward Friday, 25 July 2014

    I participated in this ritual in 2006, and count it as one of the most profound religious experiences of my life. In the 25+ years I have been following a Pagan path, I have encountered a wide variety of rituals with as many different goals as techniques for approaching them. Some of them have fallen flat, and others simply didn't work for me. It's appropriate to explore the reasons for these failures, first by determining if it's personal or if the involved group didn't achieve what it set out to do, and then with either reflection on one's ritual preferences, or discussion of ritual mechanics and goals.

    I wasn't aware that the Sacred Hunt was controversial, but given the diversity of Pagan perspectives, it doesn't surprise me. A healthy dialog could lead to other rituals which satisfy the aims of Pagans from a variety of backgrounds and viewpoints. Unfortunately, this post has done nothing to foster healthy dialog.

    Like Mr Doersch, I get the sense that those criticizing it here, including the author, have never participated in it, so I wanted to weigh in as someone who has. I encourage others to seek out and participate in this ritual themselves. To be clear, it's not a men-only ritual, nor is the role of hunter the only part one can play. There are roles for all gender possibilities, and physical limitations don't necessarily preclude participation. Rather than presuming to understand the ritual's purpose and depth from this one sardonic post, I think participation or, at the least, discussion some of us who have participated, would be a much better way to have this discussion.

  • Aline "Macha" O'Brien
    Aline "Macha" O'Brien Thursday, 31 July 2014

    Setting aside the issue of the Sacred Hunt per se, what I see Steven getting at is the appalling emphasis on self-indulgence that I observe in much of what passes for Pagan ritual. No doubt it's more pronounced in classes and smaller working groups than in public rituals, but in my observation that attitude predominates in some traditions.

    As I've often said, ritual is not therapy. 'Good' ritual can have therapeutic effects, but in itself is not a substitute for therapy. Kinda what Carol says.

  • Drake Spaeth
    Drake Spaeth Thursday, 31 July 2014

    Actually he is pretty clearly attacking the Sacred Hunt per se, and not getting at much else in my opinion. Ritual at it best can be healing and transformative and that particular ritual IS very much so for many who have saved their opinions about it until actually taking part. I speak as one who was once not above the occasional joke about that ritual until I decided to try it. I am now facilitating it effectively and proudly. Ironically, I would personally claim that this ritual and work like it has actually saved me YEARS of therapy. If that makes me self indulgent, then I say, MORE MEAT! When all is said and done, these are just my opinions. YMMV.

  • Aline "Macha" O'Brien
    Aline "Macha" O'Brien Thursday, 31 July 2014

    Which opinions you are entirely entitled to, Drake. Everyone experiences every ritual differently. I have not myself participated in the SH, but have been among those receiving the hunters back into community. What I have observed, tho, Big Time, is the self-indulgence of many Pagans -- in the name of "ooh, that was powerful." (speaking generally and not WRT SH)

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