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Modern Pagans Excerpt: Madrone

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Madrone RE/SEARCH: Tell us about your involvement in the Spiral Dance– MADRONE: Spiral Dance occurs around Halloween, when the veil between the living and the dead is the thinnest. I first got involved by building an altar to Pagan Celtic ancestors, when the Spiral Dance was still being held in the San Francisco Women’s Building, which only holds 300 people. There were so many people waiting outside to buy tickets that I thought, “This place is too small.” The next year, we took Spiral Dance to the Hall of Flowers in Golden Gate Park, but it was still too small. So the following year I took Spiral Dance to Fort Mason’s Herbst Pavilion, which can hold 2,500 people.

R/S: How is the Spiral Dance organized?

M: A small group of people, or organizing cell, does most of the decision-making regarding the content of each year’s ritual. We work by collective consensus, not majority vote. The planning cell, which varies each year, usually consists of about ten people. The production side–organizing the tech people, altar-builders, printing tickets, creating flyers and press releases–is mostly done by me. I’m paid a nominal fee for being the producer who directs the production team. We also have about a hundred volunteers who prepare food, build altars, and do whatever else needs to be done. There are altars to fire, earth, wind, and air; to our ancestors, a Burning Times altar, a fairy altar, a headwaters altar–there are so many that we have an “altar coordinator” now.

We have a 30-member chorus, an eight-piece band, and about six sound and tech people. Then we have the Dragons–the Reclaiming word for security–and the Graces, or ritual ushers. There are front-of-house staff, including the front-of-house manager–another paid position. She arrives at two in the afternoon and stays until two in the morning and doesn’t get to do any of the ritual–which is why it’s a paid position.

Recently we had a woman named Laura decorate the front of house, hanging the veils through which people pass in transition into sacred space. To sum up, about 200 people make the Spiral Dance happen. In the years I’ve been involved, the event has expanded from 300 to over 2,000 people attending from all over America.

The Spiral Dance is not only a ritual but a production that requires professional sound crews, musicians, a chorus and choral director. Many professional artists, dancers and performers are involved. Yet Spiral Dance is a place where someone who has never spoken in front of a large group can stand up and do an invocation. Every year different priestesses and priests participate in grounding and casting the circle; there’s no one “leader” leading the ritual.

Madrone R/S: What about Pagan group support of ecstatic states? Supposedly these enable one to “break through” to a different level of consciousness, where transcendent insights appear–

M: First of all, while I do public rituals with Reclaiming, I also attend lots of other traditions—rituals, because this helps me keep an open mind. There are a lot of people in Reclaiming who don’t like my ideas on sexuality, because I move within the radical sex community. I used to go to play parties and Queen of Heaven parties. I never understood SM at all until I started going to SM play parties.

But I experienced one of my most ecstatic moments of “spiritual enlightenment” at an SM party, when I had my heart chakra pierced. The piercer did a circle of temporary piercings around my heart with one central piercing, then bound them all together and pulled on them. (Historically, a lot of my wounding and pain has been in the heart chakra.) As she kept pulling on them I thought, “I don’t like this; it’s uncomfortable.” Then I stopped fighting it and thought, “Just let go.” And I discovered this was about surrender–surrendering all of this stuff: the should’s and ought’s about what’s good and bad–of all of my oppression.

All of a sudden I got swept backwards into some unknown place. I felt my heart chakra go “Mmmm” and burst open! Then the piercer pulled the needles out–in a rough way, so they would bleed. I was sitting there naked from the waist up and my heart was bleeding and I had the most ecstatic, euphoric feeling I’ve ever felt in my life! It felt like the ultimate bleeding heart, and here it was literally bleeding, pouring down into my hands. It was like all the years of heart-oppression and all the years of broken hearts just poured out of me. I actually felt ecstatic for days after.

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