Pagans have always lived in cities. The great city-states of the ancient world, from Rome to Athens to Cairo to Babylon and beyond, were places of teeming humanity — places where men, women, and children of all ages came to live within the places and practices that defined their existence. Polytheists, then as now, are not all “pagan” in the old sense of the word as in ”country dweller.” What was true about pagan practice then is just as true now — we make reverence wherever we are — to our ancestors, to the spirits of the land, and to those forces that hold sway over hearth and home.
I have been a city-witch since coming to the Pagan path over twenty years ago, first as a solitaire and then as a member of a Wiccan tradition, Shadowfolk, and a coven leader. I was born, raised, and currently live in New York, and I feel most at home in large cities even though I relish the opportunity to escape elsewhere when I can. Sometimes, if you live in an urban jungle, it can be hard to see the powers of the land bubbling up all around you — but of course, they are unmistakably there. There is nothing so breath-taking as a street tree awakening itself with blossoms. Or the freshness of the air when a short spring rain has come and temporarily washed away the grime of the streets.
My teacher said that to be a witch in New York, you need to cultivate a “zen” attitude towards using public spaces. We are always simultaneously tuning ourselves out of city noises and distractions, but tuning ourselves in to the magick around us at the same time. This is especially true when we do ritual in city parks — one of the main ways we connect with nature — and along the way, I have learned some things about the best way to work within these little urban oases.
Not too long ago, for example, I felt change coming into my life — crossroads change. I began to do some work with Hekate. I felt an urge to meet Her on Her own ground, in a place that would be familiar to Her. Reading about the Hekate supper, I decided that I would make one. I found a recipe for ancient Roman offering cakes (close enough, I thought) and brought that and a few food offerings down to a spot in a park near my house — a crossroads path next to a dog run — and I left the super there. Crossroads and dogs are two aspects of Hekate that are well-attested in the lore. I prayed to Her who holds the torches, and asked for help in determining the next course in my life. I did this late at night when the moon was a sliver, which is customary. I did this more than once and forged a powerful connection right there in the one meaningful place that the city afforded me to do this work. Of course, since this is New York City, I made sure that part of my meditation work was done indoors (to minimize the amount of time I would spend alone in the park) and that I told someone where I was going and when I would be back for safety’s sake. There are numerous other ways to connect to specific Gods and Goddesses in the city environment. Contained in many park spaces are meandering waterfalls which can become quiet places to meditate, or bridges and small paths where one can access the power of the threshold.
Of course, it always pays to get to know the genus loci of a place yourself before you get to use it through meditation, journey work, and frequent visits to a spot. Once I took home a few leaves from a favored place that we used as symbol for nature during that time when we were indoors — it was a way to maintain ties during the time when the cold prevented us from being there. Since we attempt to circle as much as weather will allow us outdoors from Beltane to Samhain, we sometimes incorporate into our May and September rituals “closing” or “opening” the spot — times when we particularly thank and acknowledge the real denizens of a particular space that we have been allowed to use. This can consist of a procession from one place to another, and the pouring of juice or spirits onto specific spots. One tree we had often used to put small flower and food offerings during the year was one of the few trees that survived a large-scale storm in northern Central Park that toppled over a hundred trees in the summer of 2009.
Many of us long-time city witches have had the experience of circling in groups as large as two hundred and as small as five or six. When you circle outdoors in a place as public and well-trafficked as Central Park, you are going to get some curious looks and reactions from onlookers.
My coven also often puts chalk signs on the ground to guide people to the out of the way places. One time folks from the UK saw our chalk marks and came up to us to ask us what Lughnassah was. It is therefore important to have an understanding amongst the ritual facilitators to watch closely for what is going on outside the circle. Sometimes a “summoner” is designated for the task of, for example, asking folks not to take photos of our rituals without the permission of those who are still “in the broom closet.”
Besides the obvious problems of almost no expectation of privacy (unless your coven is lucky enough to have a member with an enclosed back yard), there are all kinds of other concerns related to public ritual in a shared space. Every time you expect a certain amount of guests, you should get a permit — especially if there are loud drums involved. Check your local laws. Related to this concern are the ritual tools — alcohol, open flames, and blades need to be left at home, by and large. When battery operated tea-lights became available, this became our summer method of choice. We started to outline our circle in a pooled collection of tea-lights to help define our sacred space. As my high priest used to say we have to make sure that “the big blue fairies do not arrest us”.
Another aspect of city witch-life is economy. It’s important, when transporting ritual tools, to be careful with them and to take the fewest items that hold the most psychic cues so as to avoid becoming overburdened with ritual gear when traveling to a site. We need to expect the unexpected — like ambient noise we can’t control, or a dog that suddenly rushes into the ritual space. This is often where the “mirth and reverence” clause of the Charge of the Goddess comes in for me — to be reverent enough to concentrate all the more to pick up the swirling energy around us, and to be mirthful enough go with the flow that the life-force of the city brings.
I have had my most transcendent experiences in city ritual, for an urban environment provides a flavor of wildness that can be experienced nowhere else. Even with the craziness and caveats, I am grateful for experiences I have had nowhere else. One time we were in a slightly elevated, slightly secluded part of Central Park. As the moon rose we were able to see Her power shine down on us clearly and brightly, just as we were able to see part of the city skyline to the south and west of us. We danced under the lights of the city and moon mixed, and when we did our grounding meditation, sinking our roots deep within the earth to taste her sacred currents, we picked up not just the sacred energy of the earth, but the sacred pulse of all the people who have come to New York City, with all their traditions from all corners of the globe, and all their creativity. To me, all wild places are places of magick — and the wild places created by human beings, no less so.
Valerie Freseman has been the High Priestess of Strangers’ Gate coven since October 2001 and gained her clergy credentials through the Covenant of the Goddess in 2009. She is a Unitarian Universalist and an M.DIV candidate at Union Theological Seminary and blogs at Sparks Upon the Water For information about Temple of the Spiral Path/Shadowfolk Tradition public events, visit www.templeofthespiralpath.org.