The Scarlet Letter
Begun as an ambitious ritually based theatrical project by our then body-master, Content Love Knowles, Scarlet Woman Camp first produced the Rites in the Fall of 1995. The idea was simple: seven Rites for seven years, all performed in an annual 31-day cycle, one every five days on its mythologically appropriate day of the week. They were to be held each autumn, as was customary with the ancient Greek Eleusinian Mysteries, the primary inspiration for Aleister Crowley’s writing of the Rites.
In terms of sheer physical work, the Rites required an immense amount of time and not a little bit of money, partly funded by the Camp but largely by the directors. Casting had to take place by at least July in order to be ready for our typical starting date around Samhain. This meant that the directors had to be chosen even earlier in the year: it was not unusual for a director and their cast to work on a Rite for up to six months, although prep time typically lasted two to three months. There were sets to be built and costumes to be sewn, scripts to be written and re-written, and cast members to be scrounged and replaced at the last minute for a variety of reasons. Yet always, despite the occasional seemingly insurmountable obstacle, every single Rite was performed on its designated night. Every year, the months of hard work for each rite would pay off in the form of a single night’s burst of energy during which a godform would be invoked to due homage and glory.
So rewarding was the spirit in which the Rites were produced and performed, that gradually legend began to creep into the mythos of each Rite and people occasionally vied each year to see who would direct what Rite. Inspired by a performance, many a future director went home and adapted their own version of the Rites to manifest in the coming seasons. Tales abounded to be careful of pregnancy if you were in Jupiter, Venus, or Luna, but they were also sometimes considered to be the most light-hearted and fun Rites. Likewise, Mars harbored warnings of car accidents and run-ins with the law, but an excellent source of directive energy in one’s life. Saturn was always regarded with a sense of austere respect, for one never knew what part of one’s life would get the scythe, but was nevertheless regarded as a source of new beginnings. Luna carried with it the knowledge that one would have to deal with emotional situations in one form or another, while Mercury generated amazing bursts of creativity in people as their brains magically exploded. Everyone always seemed to enjoy participating in and watching the Rite of Sol, whose basic spirit of unhindered expression & creativity always showed through regardless of how it was being manifested that season.
These effects were not limited to those portraying the major godform of each Rite: if you were in a Rite, you were fair game for the energy, though to be sure, the godform typically received the purest dose of the appropriate planetary energy. Nevertheless, each part, from Probationer to Officer, subtly and uniquely changed the energy to help portray each godform in all of its facets. This seemed to be most apparent if one was playing an Officer, that is, one of the complementary astrological configurations appropriate for each planet, typically ruling planets.
Even the audiences played their part in each Rite’s energy, for the seating arrangement changed with almost every single performance due to the flexible fashion in which we were forced to produce the Rites. Limited space and funds combined with forced changes in venue generated an immense amount of creativity and ingenuity on the part of all those involved. Thus, our performance and rehearsal environment was often changing. I believe this helped instill in myself a greater ability to be flexible to changing situations, an ability which I have greatly needed and have put to good use. I also believe the same flexibility was adopted by the body at large. Indeed, it was probably necessary for our local body to become more flexible because of the increase in membership, and thus variety and intensity of personal energy, directly attributable to the Rites.
The further our body and I progressed into our seven-year cycle of Rites, the more progress the community made as an influential force in the greater magical community and the O.T.O. in general, and the more progress I made as an individual. As more and more people became part of the body, fresh ideas flowed freely and the Rites became more and more elaborate. This same energy affected me individually because of the impact that such a vivacious group of accepting people had upon me. It has been said by many an Order member that the Order is one of, if not the only, places in which they have found acceptance, and I am no different. Through that acceptance and validation, both the body as a community and I as a person felt much freer, in my opinion, to try to new ideas, stretch old boundaries and in some cases completely tear them away. Our first year productions, though still impressive in themselves, reveal the childlike creativity and immaturity that is necessary for the beginning of any endeavor. They were the body’s baby steps as a larger influential force, and the same is true of myself.
Quiet and mousy, I began the Rites in 1995 as a Probationer in the Rite of Sol, recruited rather late in the rehearsal season to cover the Western position of the four Probationers of that Rite. Being a Scorpio, I wore the Water hat quite well and was very happy to be participating in this new and very interesting group of people that I had become acquainted with. The Rite of Sol and my first year in the Order would prove to be a turning point in my life, both events inextricably tied together as I was not only in the Rite of Sol, but received my Minerval that same month. The expressiveness, humor and creativity of Sol carried me for months and has persisted to this day.
1996 found me unexpectedly snagged as a Maenad in the Rite of Jupiter: having been out of town during the casting call, I anticipated merely watching the Rites that season. I found myself in a friendly environment in which I was free to safely explore that part of myself that desires intimacy: not sex, but just close contact with other people, something difficult for me for a variety of childhood reasons. Jupiter was healing for me on a deep personal level and on a social level, as I formed some of my best friendships during the rehearsals for Jupiter.
Things often operate in threes in my life, as with many other people, and 1997, as the third year of the series, manifested the Triad in a larger way than I have ever experienced. I participated in five Rites that year: Jupiter, Mars, Sol, Venus and Mercury. I would never take back that summer and autumn for anything, but it has definitely served as a lesson in “be careful what you ask for: you just might get it,” for I did indeed purposely set out to participate in more than one Rite. Between the roles I sought out purposely and the ones which people asked me to fill, I wore a number of hats that season, so to speak, each as different as a blueberry is from an apple. This was also my first year to play any major parts as an Officer. Needless to say, I was very busy, especially as the Rites neared and rehearsals became more urgent and scheduled more frequently. Lines from different Rites mixed themselves in my head as rehearsals wore on, but they always sorted themselves out during rehearsal and performance.
Afterwards I wondered why that season was not a more chaotic experience for me, because it wasn’t: despite the frenzy of activity, there was a sense of order and structure to my life that I have rarely experienced. I’ve often thought that natural sense of order is reflected in the course down the Tree of Life that is represented by the series of the Rites. Beginning with Saturn, they traverse down the tree, one sphere at a time. That year I invoked a full half of the Tree: rather than being chaotic, it was reinforcing of my own self-confidence in the form of revealing my True Self. It also forced me to reveal and manifest parts of myself that had lain long dormant in need of light and love. That particular season of the Rites serves as a constant reminder of the central tenet of what I believe Thelema embodies: to pursue that which you truly desire at any given moment, unhindered by the restrictions of other people and their values. Do that, and the energy bursts forth from the self as a hidden spring, flooding the self with light and love which becomes apparent to others. From within, I found what I had so long sought from without. While I have not always been successful in actively manifesting that lesson, it remains with me and is indeed a vital part of my life. Stifling it is dangerous to me, another lesson which I learned with the next season of Rites.
I participated in only one Rite, Saturn, the following year. Saturn is a particularly dark play in and of itself, but this particular manifestation evoked many of the worst fears of any human mind: it was set in a mental institution, and as a Probationer I portrayed a patient. The ensuing year was subsequently spent in deep contemplation of the darker sides of my subconscious and the underlying reasons for all of my human behaviors, positive and negative alike. That was a very powerful ‘hat’ to wear, but an important one because it readied me for my upcoming Saturn Return. I have Saturn in the 12th House of the Subconscious, and in Gemini it indicates a need to maintain contact with my subconscious in order to maintain life stability. The unexpectedness with which that year’s Saturn had its impact upon my life was also reflective of those personal astrological energies. Not only did I learn once again to be careful what I asked for, but also that if I ask from the right place within myself, I will ask for the right thing and it will be good for me, even if I cannot see it right at that moment.
That was also the first year that the Rites had been performed at a place other than our temple, which had itself changed that year for the first time since the formation of the Camp. For myself and several other members, this was a very traumatic experience, much like moving away from the first house one had ever lived in. It wasn’t something that could be helped: it was merely one of those things that had to be accepted and integrated into our lives. My own inner turmoil reflected that of the body, and both were expressed in the disturbing imagery of that year’s Saturn.
Despite my vow never to be involved in Saturn again, something which many a ritual actor has said and gone back on, I once again found myself a Probationer in Saturn during the 1999 season, but I balanced it with a Probationer role in Luna. This was not as powerful as the balanced combination I did in 1997, but nevertheless felt much the same in terms of equality. Also, that year’s Saturn was much more austere, based upon the ancient Greek structure of theater with a chorus and narration as opposed to the intentional chaos of the previous year’s Saturn. Juxtaposing the sometimes painfully obvious Saturn with the often frustratingly illusory Luna provided just the right amount of perspective for both plays. The combinatory experience of two Saturns in a row taught me the lesson of balance. The year I only did one and did nothing to counter its effects, the following year was a personal hell. The following year, I balanced it out and received a much better perspective on how I behave as dualities, at least one of which most of us have.
Annual lasting effects were manifestations of one of the more visible effects upon people participating in the Rites and indeed became a primary mythos. The year following any given Rite is often expected to manifest the energies invoked by the participants in the Rite. This expectation varies from person to person, but it did seem to be a visible effect, enough for it to become part of the legends of the Rites.
Our last two years of the Rites would take place in our own Temple in North Austin. The economic boom in Austin had a ripple effect, and one of them was in the Art Community. Costs for the Lodge in terms of renting theater and rehearsal space had quadrupled and was simply no longer an option. We’d simply have to do with the space we had, and do we did. Never before had such variety in visibility and seating arrangements been manifested. We had the benefit of a loft-type ceiling accessible by a ladder, and so a few directors had fun using that as magical space, or as a platform for filming the Rites, something which has been done diligently from the very first performance. The L-shaped room offered several choices in how a Rite could be presented to or with an audience.
2000 found me in the Rite of Jupiter and the Rite of Sol. I was requested to once again play the Sphinx, and I manifested one of my favorite costumes for that Rite. Half silver and half black, I represented astrological aspects of Venus through the exalted planets of the sign Libra: Luna and Saturn. I had a complex inner explanation for why that was appropriate for the Rite of Jupiter which I have now forgotten, but it was one of the more powerful parts that I played in terms of personal freedom. The director was very free-form and gave each ritualist an immense amount of creative room to build their part as they saw fit to represent their particular aspect of Jupiter. My entire script was handcrafted from a variety of Thelemic quotes, and we also utilized our skills as members of the Unknown Rivers choir to close the play. All in all, despite somewhat chaotic rehearsals, that is probably one of my favorite roles that I have invoked.
Sol found me playing a planet. Literally. The director’s theme was living astrology, and each planet had something to say to Sol, seated in the middle. She had done a chart for the moment the play would begin, shortly after 8:00 on the Sunday scheduled. We each acted out aspects between varying planets, together creating the lesson that the impenetrable Sol must learn. That was also an immensely creative endeavor and I was tapped for my astrology skills to help the other ritualists, so I also felt like I got to really participate in the creation of a Rite.
The final season of performance in the autumn of 2001 found me in one Rite only, and one I had sought to avoid, so of course Fate would have it that I was nearly automatically cast. It was a chamber opera adapted by the choreogus of Unknown Rivers. Members of the choir are willingly drafted for a Rites season if a chamber opera is planned. Were it any other manifestation other than the structured and expressive form of singing, I would have probably declined participation. However, given the demeanor of its director and the form it was chosen to manifest in, I felt comfortable wearing the Mars hat for a Season.
Interestingly, I ended the Rites as I began: as a Water Probationer. Sol is exalted in Aries and Mars rules Aries: I had come full circle to my starting point, just in a slightly different manifestation. The performance was beautiful, and being that we had just enough people to spread over the parts, everyone had a chance to essentially be a soloist, something very new to me. I thought I would be daunted, but the most important lesson of all that I learned from the Rites held true this time as well. As in any life situation, be it a play or a test or a job interview, anything, it doesn’t matter how much you work yourself up beforehand. The situation will still happen, and learning to flow with the given energy washes away the anxiety, and you just invoke your little part of the bigger process at work. Work against the energy, and your worst nightmares will come true.
I had a very loose grasp upon my own identity when I found the local O.T.O. body and began participating in the Rites. I was nervous, shy and jittery. Nevertheless, I was captivated by the energy of the Body and the people within it and chose to bear up my courage and stick around. I believe it was a life-saving decision, in more way than one. I tried, as many people try, to seek my identity from without: specifically from the roles that I played. The more I did this, the further away my goal seemed. Through the dizzying variety of life lessons presented over the 49 Rites performed, I slowly learned to do the opposite. That what I sought was within, not without. The further in I reached, the closer I became to the world that I had previously tried to reach out to, and now no longer needed to reach. I learned focus and discipline. I made a lot of good friends and learned a great deal about them as well as myself. The journey was one of individuality, but was not possible without the group effort. I hope everyone else who participated, which was just about everyone considering everything that needed to be done, got as much out of the last seven years and seven spheres as I have.