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The priest raises his arms, palms upturned. We stare through the flames, past the boundary of our sacred space, to the patina of white looming over the white sky — Mount Adams, close and huge. Under the immensity of the mountain, a couple of ramshackle barns stick up from the hayfields. Our priest, a straight-backed, snow-haired man, is delivering a homily on the attributes of the thunder god. Arms raised, the priest pauses. We lean forward, breathless. The fire cracks again. The teenage girls on the edge of the circle, who might be high on mushrooms, giggle quietly to themselves. Finally the priest grins and lowers his arms. His voice is wry, sing-songy, full of mirth. To get to the Sanctuary in the foothills of Mount Adams, I rattled down a gravel road and parked beneath some prayer flags tacked to a barn. They were blowing horns and beating drums and generally having a hell of a good time. Birds wheel in the sky. Somewhere on the other side of the property, a bell trickles into the wind. Rather than including official liturgical script, the rituals they perform feature a netting of ideas and ideals, created and debated by poets, Roman legionnaires, mystics, nature lovers, proto-European language nerds, and all kinds of wanderers in search of a connection. During the day he wandered the acres behind her house, picking through the scrub brush, the rocky terrain, the bristling white fir. One day while he was out, the hair on the back of his neck began to stand up. Something was watching; he was sure of it. He dashed back to the house and rummaged through the fridge, emerging with a bunch of grapes. The boy cautiously returned to the place where he had felt the presence and laid the grapes on the rock. He knew what was being asked of him. The next day, the grapes were gone, and so was the feeling of being watched. The boy thought, an animal took them. But some part of him wondered. Jonathan Levy, right, and Arin H. Fortuna is the Roman goddess of fortune and could bring good or bad luck. As a kid, Thomas read all about the Old Kingdom dynasties of ancient Egypt; the names of pharaohs like Akhenaten and Nefertiti rolled off his tongue. He studied theater in London and became a hot air balloonist, taking to the skies over the English countryside. He began to look for other neo-pagans online, in chat rooms and early internet sites. A few people gathered at a concrete pavilion, stood in a circle and read a ritual one of them had pulled off the web. Lighting was flashing in the desert sky. But he felt the ritual was amateurish. He had become a Druid. Many druid practitioners are reacting to a childhood religion they found inadequate or oppressive. They speak of their practice as inclusive and pluralistic, but also self-define as rejects, misfits and seekers, drawing a protective boundary around their own otherness. In one sense, Druidry is very old school — traditional and nostalgic for a way of relating to nature that most modern humans have lost. However, it is also willfully new. Druid rituals enact something not handed down or inherited, but deliberately created. The sun has set, and the sky is a blur of hazy bluish-black behind Mount Adams. The woman smiles and moves on, and I hold the cup but do not raise it to my lips. A Druid ritual can take place anywhere, although outdoors is preferable, because a hearth must burn at the center of the assembly. Stoking the fire is Reverend Thomas, who earlier shook our hands and asked us all to write an intention on a small piece of paper. We stuffed them into a straw man made of twigs and later burned him in the fire. It turns something into something else. It does it quickly. We asked for blessings; we burned our straw man. Now we are supposed to toast and drink the Water of Life. Spiral, left, waits in line to cleanse before entering the sacred space created for the Fortuna ritual. Participants put their hands in a bowl of water, and gently hold their hands over their heads, heart and legs to purify them from the outside world. The Water of Life shakes between my fingers. I have little context for this rite. My own religious upbringing was hybrid and scattered. I am equally uncomfortable at Shabbat services and Sunday Mass, unsure of what to do with my hands, what to say, when to sing. My family never offered me real entry into either of my birth religions, so instead, growing up I found faith in literature, storytelling, myth and nature — a budding neo-pagan if there ever was one. At some level, I wanted to belong to organized religion. During sophomore year of high school, I tried to join a Christian youth group. Several of my friends attended, and they always got older boys from the group to go to school dances with them I, on the other hand, took a blow-up doll to junior prom. I joined them in the basement of a neighborhood church where they sat on straight-backed chairs and did trust exercises and ate snacks and prayed. The group leader was a pleasant guy with a fleece vest and a patient smile. I considered lying — I mean, the boys — and realized that I could perform being a good Christian. I searched for words that I thought would please him, like grace and grateful and community, placatory words that could take the place of certainty. I filled our conversation with placeholders, language itself becoming a kind of tenuous substitute for faith, because the truth was I had never really been drawn to a specific religion, but merely to the idea of religion. I look around at the Druid rite, and everyone else has already drained their cups. With a sigh, I take a deep breath, close my eyes, and chug my wine. I get a brief, heady rush, and then Reverend Thomas begins passing out musical instruments — tambourines and rattles, drums and shakers. We are alive on the base of a mountain, and we are going to dance. Virgil and triremes and Mars. Finally convinced, he traded in his atheism for an enthusiastic polytheism. That part is appealing. Sarah Pike, a religious scholar at Cal-State Chico. This is a celebration of Dionysos, the Greek deity of wine, held in a courtyard outside a Unitarian church. Around me, people drift in a loose, undulating circle on the stone. All of them are masked in foam cutouts and sequins and glitter glue: Garbed in a toga and rust-and-orange fall garlands, Levy welcomes the crowd to autumn equinox. His pale legs are bound in high Roman sandals; his liturgy is broad-stroked and mythological, with syntax that deliberately invokes Christian liturgy: Let us pray with a good fire. Let us offer with a full heart. He and his fellow group leaders read from note cards. At one point they start to sing and realize they are doing different songs. They take a moment to shuffle through their papers, like actors who need to review the scripts. Many participants approach Fortuna, made offerings of flowers, incense or cookies, whisper in her ear, and are given a gold coin and a blessing. The idea of reciprocity — of giving something in trade — holds particular importance in Druidic rite, according to Reverend Thomas: We make offerings and hope for and ask for blessings in return. The chocolate bubbles as it melts in the fire. Another pours out wine for Dionysos, making the flames hiss. A gender-nonconforming member burns a poem written to Thor. A young white man in a purple cape and Phantom-like half-mask invokes Hermes, the Greek messenger god, stalking the inside of our circle. After the offerings are burnt, a young woman with dyed red hair tells us to close our eyes and leads us through a visual meditation, into deep woods, into worlds of nymphs, toward Dionysos. Then, tipsy on the presence of the divine, we stand and begin to circulate, holding hands, and dance to a chant: I scratch my nose where the mask is slipping down. Hypnotic and repetitive, the chant pounds forward; people wriggle and writhe, close enough to each other that skin brushes skin. I feel a rush beneath me, like standing on ice and watching a current flowing and shifting beneath the frozen layer. How just the action of faking it, of smiling through your pain, starts the flow of good hormones in your brain and makes you really feel better. Playing along is one way to access something real and physical. Theater is not just a show; the act of the thing unlocks the reality of thing itself. Our Druidry is modern. Our rituals are modern. We use modern language; we use very little foreign language. People are not expecting that.
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