Just Another Halloween
"There will be no cameras of any kind allowed within the sacred space," says Madrone, coordinator of this year's Spiral Dance held at Herbst Pavilion. Madrone's silvery accent softens the tone but not the consequence of the dictum, as a growing group of fawns, warlocks, skeletons, nymphs, and ghouls gathers outside in the moist sea air with bundles of blankets and food under their arms.
"No pictures," she says again as her rose-colored third eye flashes in the overhead light and a green woodland creature with tree branches growing out of its ears offers his ticket at the door. "A lot of our people aren't out yet." Madrone's people are modern-day witches, neo-pagans, and adherents of Wicca. All are devotees of the Earth and the "Old Religion of the Goddess." "The Community is very, very large around here," says Madrone, a practitioner of 11 years. "You might be surprised how many witches are in the Bay Area." A quick head-count estimates the crowd to be an easy thousand. "But you must understand," continues Madrone between hugs and greetings from Community members, "witchcraft is still misunderstood and considered blasphemous by some. We have to respect those still working in secret."
In the Bay Area, individual "Circles" meet continually -- Reclaiming, a highly organized group that attempts to unify spirit and politics, coordinates witch camps, classes, lectures, pilgrimages, and political actions -- but the greater Community usually gathers only for winter and summer solstice and spring and fall equinox. The rituals of Bridgid, Lammas, and Beltaine are said to be effusive but pale next to the Feast of Samhain (pronounced SAH-win). According to Reclaiming, which hosts the Spiral Dance, Samhain, or the Witches' New Year, is a rare period of time when the curtain between the living world and the unseen mysteries is most threadbare.
Once inside the Herbst Pavilion, attendees ranging in age from 5 to 80 journey through a maze of white silk painted with black skulls, finally passing from the world into the "sacred space" through two white-clad witches who wave mugwort branches over each body, intoning: "May you be purified; may you be blessed." Altars line the walls, glimmering with candles and smelling of strong herbs and harvest vegetables. "The Burning Times" lists thousands of witches destroyed for their practices -- Anne Martyn hanged in 1652, Ursula Fray burned in 1587, Ms. Lebler beheaded in 1628, Andrea and Eduardo Maquxtle killed in 1996, 36 Knights Templar tortured to death in 1307. The "Headwaters Altar" is dedicated to environmental activist David "Gypsy" Chain, who was killed recently by a falling tree. "The Fairy Altar" is a tree tied with hundreds of ribbons representing wishes. "The Ancestors' Altar" is covered with prayers, photographs, feathers, roots, mirrors, candles, and pine cones alongside a huge board adorned with skulls and the names of recently deceased Community members.
The crowd settles in, people greeting each other and spreading their blankets in a circle while the chorus sings blessings. Inspired by the moment, a group of squealing children plunge into the center circle and begin spinning. The crowd erupts with elated trills. Starhawk, a major force behind Reclaiming, explains the intricacies of the Spiral Dance: With so many people, we must form a double-strand, like a DNA molecule, the strands of the galaxy weaving in and out of each other. You must be patient. You must meditate. You must not forget to look into the eyes of each person you pass. You will never need drugs again. An energy circle is cast around the building by a witch evoking the four elements: "By the earth that is her body. By the air that is her breath. By the fire that is her spirit. By the waters of the living womb." A stilt-walker clad in white wings spins through the circle. Trapeze artists climb into the air. A group of belly dancers undulates beneath the light of a fire-spinner. A mound of moss on a low cart is dragged into the circle by a stilt-walker in a black cloak and an animal head. Two nearly nude bodies erupt from the earth, twining through each other. The drums pound and the Community raises its arms, palms upward. "You can feel the power," says Shayla Norse, a 22-year-old witch with green eyes and white-blond hair. "Just wait until everyone's flying. It's amazing."
"Who needs deviltry when you've got the Spiral Dance?" agrees Norse's mate, Justin Bowe. "It's transcendent. And grounding. It's better than alcohol. Better than drugs. Better than sex."
"This is what happens when you bring a camera inside," growls a mountain of a man as he snaps off the lens and tosses the transgressing item in the trash. "Some of us like pictures," suggests a young woman standing outside the Power Exchange Halloween Ball -- an explicit sex party held in San Francisco's four-level adult play-space -- wearing showgirl butt-floss and a crown of white feathers. "We're all in costume anyway."
"No fucking cameras!" barks the man before disappearing into the club. Inside the Power Exchange, Halloween costumes serve a dual purpose: Veterans get to take their fantasies to a new level and newcomers have something to hide behind.