Saturday, May 18, 2024

Event organizers and open-circle coordinators have, I think, a responsibility to participants to provide a safe and comfortable environment. I offer my experiences here as a model and a basis for discussion. I'm going to phrase this outline in strong, definitive terms, with this qualifier: it has evolved out of discussions with other organizers. However, it isn't offered as a group consensus and any given organizer might disagree with some of these points or the language. This is intended as a starting point for discussion and not a presentation of a set-in-concrete consensus.

The number of Pagan events is growing very rapidly, and dealing with a disproportionate influx of people inexperienced in group rituals. As a result we're starting from scratch in developing organizer ground rules, and developing solutions to problems being discussed nationwide.

In the Pacific northwest, the circle of organizers is very small. Those of us who have continued over the years to work with one another are almost familial, and we're working from a basis of friendship and trust. We're concerned about each other and pay attention to caring for one another.

Ritual Choices

Phoenix Whitebirch and I facilitated a discussion at the 1985 Northwest Fall Equinox Festival that bore at that time substantial results in the local community. We argued that closed circles can do what they like, but those of us in charge of open circles should lay down some ground rules to ensure everyone's comfort and safety. Since then, the Temple Grove board has given this a lecture based on this essay at a number of open events, and again see positive effects in the local events.
Explain the ritual: I personally find it necessary to make some very basic announcements, like circle boundaries shouldn't be indiscriminately crossed, and people should only walk clockwise within them. unless otherwise directed by facilitators.

No pressure to physically touch: I've never seen anyone object to holding hands, but a lot of people have commented that they cringe at kisses. No kissing spirals in open circles. Why? Newcomers tend to go along with group activities, even ones they're uncertain about. Maybe they should be assertive, but often they're not, and organizers are their voice.

Choice: Often events include space for people to put together their own circles, some of which can be more touching oriented and identified as such. We might experiment with providing an Intimate Circle, which would include a lot of hugs and kisses. The rule is: You don't have to touch anyone you don't want to, anytime. That should be clear to newcomers.

Choice in participation: In open circles, if the dancing gets too rapid or wild, participants can step back. Just bring your neighbors' hands together and move out of the way. I've also seen some ritualists allow people to cut themselves out of the circle. The procedure was clearly explained in advance.

Effective ritual evokes response. Novices are at different tolerance and skill levels than experienced ritualists, and some rituals can be overwhelming. Also, the 'boogie till you puke' crowd exhausts the older folks and the kids in the group.

Experiment note: I once separated a circle into two groups, the 'keep on dancing' people, and the 'sit down and rest' folks. Some rhythm is traded off for comfort. I've also seen two rituals staged consecutively, one quiet and one 'dance all night.' Suggestion: try a novice ritual, and a more powerful one for skilled people.

Also note: one organizer I discussed this with disagreed with these suggested choices, feeling those who participate in a circle should be committed for the duration of the experience. It's a point. In that case, I think a cle ar understanding of what's to come would be essential.

Not at events I coordinate. At least, not officially sanctioned. Private drug use haven't ever been a problem, fortunately. My concern is that if anyone is caught, it's not private any more. I'm the one who gets to deal with the police and the press. Call a closed circle and do it at home. This is strictly a CYA issue for me as an organizer.

What's in the cakes? A reading of the cookie ingredients can help avoid that allergic-to-eggs participant keeling over during the circle. I try to provide one sugary sacrament and one non-sugar whole-wheat no-eggs sacrament to provide people with choic es and something safe to eat. Same thing goes for the drink: one fruit juice, one water. If alcohol is used in a communal cup everyone should know.

Don't forget to mention what's in the oil! On one extremely memorable occasion a group of community elders being honored by a novice class was anointed with cinnamon oil...


Young children supervised by Pagan parents are a joy. Teenagers with absent, non-Pagan parents or guardians are becoming a problem, even with signed in advance waivers. Some organizers hold a 'no minor without attending parent' policy. They do grow up; in two years, a 16 year old can sign her own waiver. Look, how do you keep them away from the wine? Think of the issues surrounding sexuality with under-age kids.

A local event recently limited attendance to adults, period. I support the organizer's choice, and I've been tempted, but I've never personally organized an adults-only event. I know how important the contacts and support can be to our younger friends. This is one of the more volatile and changing issues, and it's only gotten more frightening with time.

The Unwelcome

I've refused to allow particular people to attend events I organize, sometimes at the request of many, sometimes because I judged they presented a risk to the event.

I know, I know. The word 'blacklist' leaps immediately to mind. This is a tough issue. I've turned away: people known to be physically violent; those who have endangered events in the past; and this one guy I spent an hour with one event while everyone else was doing ritual, hanging on to him as he suggested he was immortal and could fly off the cliff no problem really. I don't want violence or sexual coercion at an event that has my name on it.

We have a lot of options. This is an essay question: pick one and list the pros and cons.

Anyone at all can attend any event.

Each organizer must individually choose who to deny attendance to. (In practice, we do pass names to each other.)

Flags to bounce refuse someone attendance at an event:
Theft or destruction of another's property.
Violence against people—assault.
Sexual coercion or abuse.

In addition, these days I make a list of reasons you can get kicked from the event while attending, and include it with registration confirmation material.

I'm aware this issue is extremely hot. Personally, I'm going to do what I have to do to protect the event, the people attending the event, and myself as an organizer.

Organizer's Magic

An organizer is the focus of the energies coming into and generated by the event.

A festival isn't just about magic. It IS magic, and the organizer has the pleasure of shepherding the magical child through its inception, and allowing participants to share in the process.

This outline is a suggestion, a template, for focusing event magic. These are the major focus points:

  • Conception. When the event is scheduled/sited. I saw a staff group hold a circle at the actual site several months before the event, asking for: safety, to have enough registrants, what the event was designed to accomplish fo r the attendees, the staff, and the community.
  • Presentation. I don't know about anyone else, but for me, putting a flyer together is casting a spell.
  • Orientation. Somewhere in the first few hours of the event, ask the participants to help focus on the event's parameters--safety, joy, solvency...
  • Major or parting ritual. Of necessity the ritual coordinators will set the structure, and almost always the nature of the working as well, but even here the attendees can have some space to give feedback.

Post-event focus: a thank-you circle held by the staff for the deities/forces invoked in making the event, and to each other.

Just because our value is maximum tolerance for diversity, that doesn't have to mean that anything goes. For perfect love and perfect trust to be able to happen, I think organizers need to provide a safety net.

Finally: organizing is a pretty heavy responsibility and a lot of work. Sometimes organizers make money; sometimes we get to pay for the event shortfalls; always, at least one person is not pleased with every aspect of the event. But there are the moments when someone runs up to you and says, "Oh, thank you! This has meant so much to me!" Those are the moments that keep us going. We need more of them.
copyright © 1986, 1996 Brandy Williams