Where was I? Was that just a dream – a place I imagined while spacing out? Was it a temporary out of body or at least out of mind experience? Or was it in fact the essence of reality and am I now returning to a surreal mundane world? I feel these sensations every time I come back home from the annual Spring Mysteries Festival, but the strangeness of the experience seems stronger this year.
The Spring Mysteries Festival is an annual Pagan gathering at beautiful Ft. Flagler on Marrowstone Island. Ft. Flagler is a former coastal defense fort turned into a state park and retreat center. The living quarters are the standard so-called “temporary” 100 year old Army barracks spruced up for civilian visitors. There are a number of other old wooden buildings on the site and a broad parade ground overlooking the cliffs down to the beach and out to the lighthouse.
Paths lead through the woods to the north rim of the park which is studded with concrete bunkers and gun emplacements. The guns are gone, but the brooding battlements remain. There are stairs leading
down to dark and mysterious passageways and magazines. Tunnels and ladders open to secret rooms and buried observation posts. Surprises lurk in odd little corners and around forgotten turns – a searchlight station here, an anti-aircraft station there, storage buildings, generator rooms, and the more prosaic facilities for basic human needs. The rangers have erected some signs to explain the history of the fort and they have put up barriers to keep visitors back from the dangerously eroding cliffs. This year I discovered one of the bunkers had become so undermined by erosion that it toppled over and crashed down the cliff to the beach. What was once a command post guarding the strait is now a twisted wreck
of rebar and concrete washed by high tides.
I’ve been coming here for fourteen years – fifteen if you count the kayak survival course I took out in the strait before the first year. That experience was not strange – just wet. Every year I arrive early before registration opens just so I can walk the grounds and take in the beauty of the place. Ft. Flagler is located at the strategic point of entry into Puget Sound. To the west is Port Townsend and the snow capped peaks of the Olympics to the southwest. North is Canada. East toward the blazing red of dawn
are the Cascades, crowned by the looming white bulk of Mt. Baker. Far to the south yet losing none of its majesty is the dome of Mt. Rainier. This is indeed a magical site in which to stage a magical festival.
Spring Mysteries is a re-creation of the Demeter-Persephone myth from ancient Greece. For 2000 years these rites were celebrated at a temple compound in the small town of Eleusis. The setting there was no less impressive than the setting here. The town and its acropolis perched on a small hill overlooking the Bay of Salamis – the very same bay in which the Greeks defeated the Persian navy of King Xerxes in 480 BCE. Today the place is called Elefsina and it is a gritty industrial ship building city. The Rharian Plain east of town where Demeter is said to have taught the Eleusinians the growing of grain is now a Greek air force base.
Yet the ruins of the temple district remain and I have been fortunate to have visited them twice since I first started attending Spring Mysteries. The buildings are largely destroyed down to their foundations, but the layout is easily discerned: the back to back temples of Artemis and Poseidon to the right and the laving basins to the left, the well of Demeter next to the first gateway, the Plutoneon or cave from which Hades is supposed to have sprung to capture Demeter’s daughter, Hecate’s shrine and the treasury building, and finally the great hall of the Telesterion. For all the weeds and broken stones, the sacred precinct of Eleusis retains its ineffable potency. Even today one finds euros carefully tucked by modern folks between the blocks in offering to the ancient Goddess.
We don’t know what rites were performed in the secret chambers of the Telesterion and it would do us no good if we did. The ancients were held to an oath of secrecy and we today bind ourselves to a similar oath. But even if we did know down to the last minute detail, reading words on a page could never be more than an empty shell compared to the experience of actually participating in the mysteries. I have read many books about Eleusis from the Homeric Hymn to Demeter to Pausanius to Kerenyi and never have I experienced anything close to the sensations – the tingling of my skin and the quickening of my heart – that I experience from each time I partake in this festival. What we put on at Ft. Flagler is not an
historical re-enactment. It is rather our own creation, gathering from the Greek myths what we can and find useful in an attempt to evoke the joy, the wonder, and the illumination that these ancients generated in their participants.
Besides, our performance has variations from year to year with different script writers and different performers. Of course we are different every year as well and we bring a different, at least older, mind set to each festival. That’s why we epoptai (those who have seen) keep returning year after year. I know myself from my notes over fourteen years that I have come away every time with a different, perhaps enhanced, sense or understanding. Afterwards I am sometimes smacked abruptly back into the mundane world of bills to pay and politics to grieve and other times I get to bask in the glow of bliss for a few more days.
This year I’m still glowing. It’s not just the sunburn I earned standing in closing circle out on the parade ground. Nor is it the rituals and performances themselves or the beauty of the location. In fact, I spent most of this festival working. I was the lead for the registration crew and I had been working for a whole month preparing registration materials, assigning and reassigning bunks, making building signs, and tracking numbers of people with dietary restrictions and CPAP requirements. I spent the whole first day of the festival with my crew registering people, settling problems, and trying to meet insistent demands from a hundred different directions. I spent many more hours on subsequent days staffing the registration booth, recovering lost and found items, counting money, alphabetizing liability forms, and making work assignments.
For all that, I did get out to pray every morning at the cliff edge as the sun came up over the Cascades. I did get to worship at the shrines, including the Temple of the Goddess VISA where I acquired some very pretty earrings. I enjoyed good meals, great conversations, and solid sleep. Perhaps it was the work, being heavily engaged in making the festival happen, that stimulated me on a deeper level this year. I’ve always held things dearer when I have worked for them. That, and the selfless outpouring of love and
gratitude from every Pagan I met there, is most likely the cause of the bliss I feel now. Being surrounded by that kind of love, openly and generously expressed by hundreds of people for four whole days is enough to rotate anybody’s propeller!
Sadly, the flight is over. The propeller is still turning but the wheels are on the ground. It is a strange sensation to know that the flight for now is done yet wishing I was still in the air.
Janice Van Cleve is a priestess with the Women Of The Goddess Circle in Seattle.