This past Memorial Day weekend, I embarked on a road trip to the Ontario Province of Canada with three close friends (Kaye, Sionnan, and Ange) with the goal of attending the Witches’ Sabbat retreat at Raven’s Knoll. The journey took 7 hours one way (so 14 total) from Philadelphia to Ottawa, and even though it was tedious at times, I was able to finally check off “crossing an international border by car” from my bucket list of travel achievements. After making our way over the lovely Thousand Islands Bridge, we checked through security and customs, and entered Canada.
Our first night was spent at a hotel just outside of Ottawa city. We didn’t have a lot of time to explore, as it was pretty late on Thursday night when we arrived, so we grabbed a sushi dinner by the Ottawa airport and headed to bed soon after. Friday morning, we entered the city to get breakfast and see some of the sights, since we didn’t have to leave for Witches’ Sabbat until noon. We found a delicious breakfast at a little cafe and bakery called The Scone Witch, which was appropriately named for a bunch of real life witches on their way to a witchy retreat! The food at the Scone Witch was delicious – especially the jam, which came from Moss Berry Farm.
After that, we met up with my good friend Colin, who Ange and I have been playing video games online with for years. It was awesome to finally meet Colin in person after all this time! He showed us the Ottawa Parliament Building and the Eternal Flame, and he also told us a bit about the city and the government. I waved to Trudeau from afar!
Sadly, we couldn’t hang out with Colin for too long, so we promised to meet back up with him on Sunday afternoon/evening and left to make our way to Raven’s Knoll, which was two hours from Ottawa city in the county of Renfrew. On our way, we stopped at a local crystal shop, and I picked up a large chunk of raw (unpolished) rose quartz and a small petrified wood sphere. I had been looking for a larger piece of rose quartz for my Guanyin meditation space for some time, so I was excited to finally find some at a good price (can’t beat that American to Canadian exchange rate!)
Around 3 pm or so on Friday we arrived at Raven’s Knoll. Raven’s Knoll is a beautiful and well cared for events campground, host to many rituals, festivals, and more, located next to The Bonnechere River. The Witches’ Sabbat is an event that has been going on there for about four years now, with the purpose of helping those who identify as modern witches from all over North America and from a variety of non-Wiccan traditions come together and study, celebrate, and socialize.
If you weren’t aware, I identify as a modern witch myself, and have always had a great interest in the occult. I practice my own brand of well-researched and personally crafted witchcraft, which includes Herbalism, working with crystals and stones, Divination (Tarot, Bibliomancy, etc), Astrology, and devotional painting. While my religious identity focuses on a mix of Pagan elements, Buddhist elements, and Jewish elements, being a modern witch in general has more to do with practices than personal beliefs – though it is common among modern witches to view the world through a generally Animistic, nature-focused lens. The people gathering for the Witches’ Sabbat were certainly all people who had a profound respect for the natural world and the unseen forces that guide us through life – be they spirits, Gods, or something else entirely. It was amazing to finally meet so many people with similar interests as me, and who, like me, seek to live spiritual lives that are fulfilling for them despite their unconventional natures.
Friday night, the retreat began with a beautiful Opening Ritual led by Angela and Juniper, the primary organizers / leaders of Witches’ Sabbat. It introduced us to the sacred ritual spaces of Raven’s Knoll – the shrine for the Land Wights, the Hearth Fire, the Temple, and the Spiral (where the stangs of past years’ Main Rituals now live).
As soon as I set foot in the Spiral, a labyrinth of trees that covered a section of land that had been mowed down in the past and re-planted (which explained its more hostile energy when compared to the rest of the Knoll campground), I knew I had entered a powerful place. In the Spiral, I was able to sense and hear the whispers of the wild spirits – hungry, primal, visceral spirits – and I was highly aware of the delicate balance that existed between the human caretakers and visitors of the Knoll and these ancient energies. One wrong move, and the humans would not be tolerated; and yet, there was a hesitant understanding, a Knowing, an Agreement – a “we do for you, you do for us” sort of feeling. Balance and chaos intermingling: a graceful, deadly dance that involved vigilant, important work to cultivate and maintain. I left the Spiral with a profound respect for those who call Raven’s Knoll home – I myself felt marked by the place, and knew it had taken hold of me, as well.
After the Opening Ritual, we had dinner at our trailer (we rented a trailer from the Knoll instead of bringing individual tents, mostly for convenience) and then gathered around the Hearth Fire for the Bardic Circle. This was a time for storytelling and singing – a long-held tradition at Raven’s Knoll. I did not prepare anything myself, and instead sat back and allowed myself to be taken in by the stories and songs of my companions. I was very proud of Ange for bravely getting up – FIRST I should add! – and singing a song to the group that she had memorized over the past few months in preparation for the retreat. The song painted pictures of warriors and death, glory and honor, and evoked deep emotions in many of us – especially those at the retreat who follow a Norse-inspired spiritual path.
We started the day off with two workshops. The theme for this year’s intensive was “Cursing and Defense Against the Dark Arts” (I chuckled at the Harry Potter reference!) and we were given the option to join either House Blackthorn for Offensive Magical Instruction or House Rowan for Defensive Magical Instruction. I chose the “Am I Under Attack & Curse Diagnostics” workshop led by Juniper and Linda and the “Blessings and Blasting” workshop led by Peter. I personally found the former much more interesting than the later – Juniper’s and Linda’s advice to create your own personal “Curse Diagnostics” board/chart was inspiring, and I can’t wait to paint my own set of symbols.
After the morning workshops, despite the 90 degree weather (of which I felt massively betrayed by Canada for being so hot!), we had a delicious potluck lunch of stir fry and stone soup, cooked over the Hearth Fire. I tried moose meat for the first time! It was just okay in my opinion, but I’m glad I gave it a shot. After lunch, we reconvened for one final workshop of the day – I joined “Creating Protective Wards and Charms”, and helped craft a ward to hang on this year’s stang to help protect Raven’s Knoll from unwanted spirits, people, energies, and circumstances. My ward was a drawing done on carved wood of a rowan branch (a protection symbol), the wolf of Apollo, the sun with the oracular eye, and the horns of Artemis, wrapped in string and decorated with a moon charm and a clear quartz crystal for amplifying intent and purpose.
After the workshops were complete, we all gathered around to learn about the herb of this year’s Witches’ Sabbat: Henbane. The lesson on Henbane was taught by none other than one of my role models, the well-respected and beloved Sarah Anne Lawless. It was not only amazing to meet her for the first time, but it was an honor to learn from her (and to later be cleansed by her – but we’ll get to that!). I can’t wait to grow some of my own Henbane – I’m already smitten by this poisonous, magical Lady.
Around 8 pm on Saturday evening, it was time for The Main Ritual of this year’s Witches’ Sabbat, which took place in the Drumming Fire-pit. We danced and sang as a handmade poppet was infused with all of our anger and hate for the things we did not want to ever enter our own lives or Raven’s Knoll – things like racism, intolerance, sexual assault, the detriments and tragedies of untreated mental illnesses, violence against animals and nature, and much more. Finally, at the climax of the dance and the drumming, we threw the poppet into the fire in order to banish all of those unwanted energies from the Knoll. As it burned, we began to dance again, in the opposite direction, this time raising protective energy around the Knoll in order to keep the things the poppet represented out forever. Those of us who had crafted charms and wards of protection lined up to hang them on the stang.
Around midnight, we took part in a Cleansing Ritual led by Sarah. We processed to the Cauldron, the Knoll’s natural aquifer, in the pitch blackness of the night with only the stars to guide us. Everyone hummed and chanted, our hushed voices ghost-like and eerie. As we approached the water, Sarah lined us all up and began to explain to us the purpose of the cleansing. We were to focus our thoughts on all of the things we no longer wanted in our lives – negativity, frustration, and unhappiness, to name a few. As we did this, we were anointed with honey, liquor, wine, and rose water by Sarah and Juniper. Then, we were told to run, without looking back, into the Cauldron spring. It was so dark I could not even see the water’s edge – I could barely see anything around me, not even my companions! And yet, I felt exhilarated, hyper-aware of my surroundings, the cacophony of the frog and toad voices around us reaching a fever pitch as I readied myself – and then I dashed into the water without a second thought. I dunked myself completely under, letting the cool, extremely refreshing water consume me. I willed all of it away – my worries, doubts, and fears – and I felt peaceful as I held myself under. Finally, I came up for air, and waded back to the solid ground. I left the water laughing uncontrollably, lighter and goofier and happier in mind and spirit. I looked around and saw the grinning faces of my friends, both old and new, lit by a now-roaring bonfire, and I felt healed. It was really an amazing moment.
We woke Sunday morning to mosquito bites and damp spring-water-drenched skin and hair, and yet, we smiled as we rose for the day, memories of the Cleansing like a fairy-tale dream. Our final workshop was about Sigil magic, and was one of the most useful workshops of the entire weekend in my opinion. I learned a great deal and took copious notes. After the Sigil workshop, my three traveling companions and I ended up deciding that it was a good idea for us to travel the two hours back to our hotel a little early – the intense heat of the day and our collective exhaustion was threatening to keep us from enjoying any more of our trip, and we wanted to finish out the retreat in good spirits. We said our goodbyes to our new friends and the organizers of the Sabbat, but right before we made to leave, the caretaker of the Knoll, Auz, offered to take us on a final hike to see the Knoll’s Shrines to the Norse Gods before we left – a special honor, one that I am glad we braved the swamp and swarms of mosquitoes to see. I took an oath and stood before the God Poles, and let me tell you: it was definitely an intense moment. I do not follow a Norse-inspired path personally, but it was a humbling experience to pray quietly in that sacred space and listen to Auz invoke his Gods. He is truly an inspiration – he lives his chosen path with pride and joy, and he helps to keep Raven’s Knoll loved and well-taken care of. Now that I have left a part of myself in Raven’s Knoll, to protect it, I have a feeling I will definitely be back someday.
After a two hour drive, we made it back to Ottawa city, where, after a slight hotel debacle (which actually ended us up in a much much better hotel than we had originally booked), we finally took warm showers and relaxed from our outdoor adventure (I have to admit – the showers were glorious after nearly three full days of outdoor activities). Ange and I had dinner with Colin in the city, trying real Canadian Poutine and Beaver Tails (Canadian pastries with various toppings) for the first time (which were DELICIOUS). We walked along the lovely Rideau Canal and eventually made our way to Colin’s apartment, where he gifted us with Canadian chocolates. It was really so great to hang out with him one final time. After all that, it was time to collapse into slumber.
The Monday of Memorial Day was dedicated to the drive home – we all recounted our witchy adventure with enthusiasm. All of us had new goals and ideas for our own spiritual practices, but we all agreed we needed to rest a bit first. Returning home to my own bed, to Jack, and to Kora was more than a little relieving and comforting. That being said, I am glad for everything I learned and did during the trip, and I am proud of myself for going out of my comfort zone and traveling all the way to an event like the Witches’ Sabbat – and then publicly writing about it (here on this blog). I now feel like I am part of an amazing spiritual community of people who I can share knowledge and experiences with, and for that I am incredibly grateful. I also feel like I have turned over a new leaf in regards to my personal spiritual approach: the time for hesitancy, for holding back, for feeling inadequate is long gone. I am ready, I am cleansed, and I am inspired to ACT. This is only the beginning!