This is the story of my first experience with a public Pagan gathering, which occurred at Beltane. To say it was not what I expected is... an understatement. ~Willow
Topanga Canyon, California-- an idyllic little community tucked in a narrow, verdant canyon between the San Fernando Valley and the Pacific Ocean-- is a beautiful place, deservedly adored by its fortunate inhabitants. It winds for about nine miles from Woodland Hills right down to the ocean. The road curves no less than 87 times in those nine miles, according to locals. Some of those curves are very nearly hairpin, which makes the canyon difficult to navigate at the high speeds Los Angeles drives insist on. But taken at reasonable speeds, the drive is exhilarating and offers spectacular views of the canyon, the valley, and the surrounding mountains. Topanga Canyon is an oasis, a sanctuary for Nature (and for those who honour her) in the middle of one of the most urban areas of the country.
I have never heard of Topanga until I moved to Los Angeles in 2000, and to this day I don’t know where my impressions about it originated. Maybe it was on a website I saw, or an address for occult supplies in a book. In any case, I quickly formed a definite opinion of Topanga and its residents: They were Witches.
I was absolutely certain of that. I had heard that Topanga had been a “center of the 60’s counter-culture,” and that it was populated by ageing hippies and Pagans. Therefore, Topanga must be LA’s Witch Central-- and I had to go there.
I went at the first opportunity. I found-- nothing. Well, there was a post office and a small grocery store and an elegant restaurant in a lovely woodland setting. There was an adorable cottage in a sun-spangled glen that brought to mind a tidy hobbit hole. I drove back and forth, looked high and low, but there was no sign of those storied nature-loving inhabitants.
One sunny April morning in 2001, I was driving through Topanga and saw a handwritten sign on the side of the road advertising a “Celtic Festival” on the following Saturday, featuring food, fun, and a maypole. Beltane! I had found the Topanga Witches! I immediately made plans to be there with my 18-month-old daughter. I hesitated over the cost-- $10 a person, which seemed exorbitant-- but decided it was too good on opportunity to waste. So on Saturday, May Day, we went to the Festival.
We arrived around 10 a.m., paid $20 to enter, and wandered around the (disappointingly small) gathering. Almost immediately I began to feel… mislead. As it turned out, it was a fundraiser for earthquake victims in India. It appeared that the organisers were devotees of some Indian guru or swami or whatever (I’m not trying to be disrespectful; I don’t know the proper term). There was indeed a maypole-- a very lovely one, in fact; yellow with green and purple ribbons. Mardi Gras colours, in fact-- odd, that, since this was Beltane. I associate red and white with this particular sabbat, but maybe this particular combination had special meaning to the guru and his disciples.
Anyway, they had the maypole, but at its base was a large picture of the guru/swami/important personage, and I saw several people bow or otherwise pay their respects to it as they walked by. There were a couple of psychic healers, massage therapists, henna artists, et cetera, and a couple of craft booths (sadly, no Craft booths, which would have been more helpful), and few people selling food. It was all vegetarian and organic-- one booth went all the way and offered only raw food. I heard one poor man innocently ask the girl running that counter what kind of menu items she had, and her response was predictably zealous:
“This is raw food! The best food! Best for you, best for the planet, best for-- ” Here she waved her hands vaguely at the motley gathering-- “for India… ”
Although I’ve learned more about it since then, and now understand that there are arguably sound reasons for going raw, I have to say that the items served by the chirpy and devoted seller that day looked, well, pitiably raw and unappetising. It consisted mainly of large, unidentifiable leaves wrapped around some sort of pale paste-- hummus?-- and handfuls of chopped onions, tomatoes, and other bits of greenery. This was called a “burrito.” A similar dish, consisting of the same ingredients in a bowl, minus the giant leaf, was called a “stir non-fry.”
The same booth also featured whole coconuts, topped and tailed, so to speak, with straws stuck in them. It was a nice concept-- the idea was to walk around or sit in the shade sipping fresh coconut milk, but in practice it was less than palate-pleasing, at least in my opinion. To me it tasted strongly of corn chips-- I’m guessing because Fritos and their ilk are fried in coconut oil-- but honestly, if I wanted to drink Doritos, I’d puree them in a blender (for substantially less money) and go from there. After the liquid was gone, we went back to the Helpful Raw Food Folk and had them split the coconut open. I tried the coconut meat, which, aside from being wetter and less sweet than I imagined, tasted like… corn chips. Even the baby spat it out.
There was other food, which I did try, and which was actually quite good, albeit expensive. There was Indian-- vegetarian, of course, but at least it was cooked. And the best value-- if not the tastiest thing I ate all day, it was better than the coconut-- was a plate of cold mac’n’cheese (presumably organic and non-dairy) with a SmartDog, a soy protein “frankfurter.” It was edible, it was reasonably filling, and it was cheap: $1. I think the moral of the entire experience, though, was clear: next time, pack a picnic.
The attendees were the main attraction, though. The women consisted primarily of young, thin, yoga-and-bean sprout types in various states of undress. Most wore bikini-type tops, long, filmy skirts, and anklets with tiny bells. They danced sinuously to the live music, all flowing limbs and closed eyes and ecstatic expressions. Very pretty, except that several of them had armpit hair longer and bushier than most men I’ve seen. I’m all for personal expression, but I just don’t find underarm hair that could conceivably be braided and dressed out in ribbons to be especially compelling.
The men were, by and large, less interesting, though there were a few exceptions. Some wore Renaissance Faire-style costumes, and almost all had copious amounts of facial hair. One wore knee-length lambskin breeches and nothing else. Another-- the swami’s representative here in Topanga, presumably-- was dressed like the man in the picture, in sheer white trousers and tunic. To be perfectly frank, none of the males there were as compelling as the girls’ axillary hair.
I eventually reached the conclusion that there were actually two separate events going on that day. One was a Beltane celebration, hosted by a very small and understated coven whose membership, I estimated, stood at six or seven, no more. The other, larger event was the earthquake relief drive, hosted by the guru’s energetic and driven devotees. My guess is that they joined forces to accomplish their various ends: the swami people got money to send to India, and the Witches got enough people to dance the maypole properly.
The ritual itself was nice, although I was excluded-- either because I was holding a baby, or because I‘m actually invisible. I was a bit miffed at that-- I came to join the circle, but when the woman acting as High Priestess came around to reorder it “boy-girl-boy-girl,” she skipped me, walking past me as though I weren’t there. Too shy to challenge her, I stepped back and watched as they called the quarters (in Gaelic, which was a nice touch), acted out some inaudible dialogue between an older divine couple and a younger, pregnant one, then they danced the maypole, winding the ribbons down the pole in an untidy but attractive pattern. Finally they made a good attempt at a Spiral Dance, finishing in a laughing, exhilarated pile beneath the maypole.
All in all, the experience was less than inspiring. The first public Pagan event I attended was, in a word, a bust. I was irritated at how thin the Celtic veneer was-- I wish the guru’s followers had advertised it more honestly. I would not have been so keen to go if the sign had said “Earthquake Relief Agenda Masquerading as Spring Celebration Which, For the Sake of Argument, We Will Call Celtic.” I was unimpressed with the Pagans as well, who completely failed to welcome-- or even acknowledge-- a sincere seeker. I found the Topanga Witches, but instead of finding spiritual inspiration with them, I discovered that the words of the Charge still resonate: “…if that which you seek, you find not within yourself, you will never find it without.”