Paganism · ritual


The stage is set

This past weekend I had the opportunity to attend Ishtarfest, a weekend-long ritual and sacral drama event put on by the Hands of Change Coven in New Jersey based on the Spring Mysteries Festival in Washington state put on by the Aquarian Tabernacle Church. Due to unfortunate timing, this meant that I wasn’t able to attend any Heathen Midsummer events that weekend (our own tribe is celebrating next Saturday), but “I went unto the land of the pagan” with a specific mission.

As regular readers will know, I’m very much interested in ritual, ritual drama, integrating dance and music into ritual, and the like. This event promised to have all that in spades, and I was there primarily to study the logistics to see how I could apply it to Germanic themes. Fortunately my hosts were fully aware of, and fine with, my ulterior motive, and I have to say I had a wonderful time.

Ummm… yeah

The event itself was based on the Sumerian myth of the descent of Ishtar into the underworld to rescue her lover, Tammuz. It featured opening and closing rituals, and a smattering of “mysteries” classes (one for men, women, and… other) which I found extraneous at best. There was also a kids’ track, and a large number of children were in attendance (good on them for that!). A couple of vendors were there, but they weren’t exactly what you’d find at a typical Asatru event of this same size (50 or so attendees; pretty impressive). Reiki, “fairy readings” (by a “certified fairyologist” no less!), “22-strand DNA activation”, and some hippy-dippy poetry and prints. A reminder that these are not my people, but they meant well.

But the heart of the thing was the presentation of the sacral drama, which was a ritual unto itself, and the participation of the audience in said drama and ritual. And this is where the event shined.

The cast assembles

The drama opened with a presentation of the actors, who symbolically assumed the identity of their deities’/heroes’ roles by the putting on of a representative headdress. When they had the headdresses on, they were embodying the deity or other character. I have to say, when they put the headdress on Ishtar, I felt a real jolt of energy. There was live music (drums, flutes, and bells), and the audience was chanting (lyrics were provided in the program, another nice touch). It was a powerful moment, and I think it would have been better, on a metaphysical level, to keep the actress in “Ishtar mode” throughout the day. As it was, she was flipping back and forth between herself and the goddess, and the energy level visibly declined during the day. Keeping her as Ishtar for the day, perhaps secluded behind the stage with attendants, would have maintained the energy.

The happy couple

The audience was interactive throughout, by design, and it really worked wonderfully. There were several chants and songs, a procession involving both the cast and audience leading up to the wedding ceremony, and the dinner on Saturday was also the wedding feast, with Ishtar and Tammuz up on the stage as the happy bridal couple. In a wonderful bit of improv, people would tap their glasses to get the couple to kiss, just like in a modern wedding, and it was an absolutely perfect moment (they complied, of course). It really added to the verisimilitude of the ritual.

The wedding of Ishtar and

The consummation of the marriage was well done, too. There was another chant/song as the happy couple was concealed behind gauzy curtains and bits of clothing were tossed over the top. It was played for laughs (with a song centered around “who will plow her” that one person in the audience thought was absolutely hilarious in a completely self-conscious and awkward way), but it was still a very powerful moment ritual-wise. I know it’s certainly not for everyone, but a genuine hieros gamos at this point could have been incredibly effective. Play up the difference in sexual morality between our modern post-Victorian mores, and those of our pagan ancestors 4,000 in the past. I have to say I think the chortling person in the audience didn’t quite “get” the inherent sexuality of actual pagan religion. But as I say, it’s not for everyone.

Ereshkigal, goddess of
the underworld

The descent into the underworld was done again with a lot of audience participation, with the audience along the journey as well, in terms of the narrative. There was call-and-response built into the ritual at this point, and some very clever and effective staging to simulate the journey through the various gates of the Sumerian underworld.

On the whole, this was a very enriching experience for me on a practical level. I got a real chance to see how a big ritual drama like this plays out, what worked, what didn’t, and was positively buzzing with ideas on how to apply what I’d learned in my own Germanic context, with an eye towards staging various Norse myths and the like in similar fashion. Some random thoughts, in no particular order:

  • Cue cards. There were several times where the actors missed their cues or lines. Having someone in front of the stage with lines would have been a big help, I think.
  • Audience participation. There was one point in the wedding ceremony where the audience was supposed to chime in with a rather lengthy response, but it never happened because none of us were sure that we should speak up, and we were never cued. Make sure the audience knows when it’s supposed to speak.
  • Live music. So wonderful, even if it’s limited in the instruments. I think there was a bell that rang every time a god did something, and which also filled in the empty spaces. Nice touch.
  • When there’s a break between scenes (for instance, for dinner or to make time for classes), that’s the time for large scenery changes.
  • Integrating the feast into the ritual worked really well, because it was actually part of the wedding narrative. I could see doing the same sort of thing, either with a feast or a blót.
The gates of Ur, at the entrance to
the event

On the whole, this was a terrific learning experience for me, and I’m really looking forward to trying to pull off something like this in a Heathen context. There are plenty of myths that would lend themselves to this sort of treatment, and many believe the Eddaic poems themselves were originally intended to be performed. Thanks again to Hands of Change for the opportunity to observe this wonderful ritual production.


PHOTO CREDITS (counting from the top of this post down):

1,2,7: Taken by your humble author, copyright (c) 2016, all rights reserved
3,4,5,6: Courtesy Hands of Change Coven, used with permission, copyright (c) 2016, all rights reserved

3 thoughts on “Ishtarfest

  1. It's things like this that keep me interested in maintaining interfaith contact with neopagans. They have been playing around with some really interesting spiritual techniques that can be adapted. Also, that last photo helped me finally understand a part of that Current 93 song off of Earth Covers Earth, "At the Blue Gates of Death – Before and Beyond Them".

  2. I completely agree. Our tribe is trying to do a lot more in that direction; we did animal guising and dance at Yule, dance again at Sumarmal, and we'll be dancing around a Midsomerstang this weekend. My goal is to do full-on ritual drama eventually.

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