On Music, Ritual & Temple Founding – An Interview with Ruth Barrett

by Christopher Blackwell

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Ruth Barrett

Most of us are content if we can do a single thing very well. But there are those that make doing their best their basic guide for life and it creates interesting people. RUTH BARRETT is known to a great many people as an internationally known fretted dulcimer recording artist and singer. However she is also known as a songwriter of original goddess songs who since 1980 has published eleven acclaimed albums. She has traveled to many Pagan and women’s events.

Women's Rites, Women's Mysteries - Intuitive Ritual Creation

Ruth is also an ordained Dianic high priestess and she co-founded Temple of Diana, a national Dianic religious organization. She also authored Women’s Rites, Women’s Mysteries: Intuitive Ritual Creation (Llewellyn, 2007).  Many a priestess has acclaimed it as a great book on the subject of ritual.

But lest one think it is just about Dianic women’s ritual, Kerr Cuhulain said this of it, “Ruth Barrett challenges the reader to think about the process of creating rituals. This is no “cookbook.” Ruth covers many angles that are missing in previous books on ritual and fills in important details that other authors leave out. Definitely the best book on creating rituals that I have read.” So perhaps men might be wise to get a copy for their own library.

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Christopher: Could you give us a bit of back ground about yourself and how you were raised?

Ruth: My approach to teaching Dianic Witchcraft and goddess spirituality was influenced by the philosophy of the 4th branch of Judaism, called Reconstructionism, a Jewish denomination that responds to social movements. I feel that I was blessed to be born into a family that just happened to be one of the founding families in that movement. I thought it appropriate to say a little more about Reconstructionist philosophy, a philosophy that I was told throughout my childhood, could be applied to any religion. Therefore, I did apply it to teaching Dianic Witchcraft in a conscious way from the beginning.

To give a little background on Reconstructionism, this branch of Judaism arose in the last century by its founder, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983), who “defined Judaism as the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people”. Civilization was defined as encompassing “all of the elements of group life: art, culture, philosophy, language, law, ethics, celebrations, patterns of eating and dressings, sancta (holy thing, times, events, and places). Every group that has ever functioned has included these elements in its group life.” Personal spirituality is defined as what one does within their relationship as an individual with the divine. Religion is the search for meaning within the context of a group. Religion is the place where individuals resonate together in a shared experience.

From my early childhood filled with home and community rituals, I was raised to make little difference between daily life and the holy. I learned this by example from my parents and grandparents, that spiritual service was a sacred responsibility, and that it is in our partnership with the Creator to repair the world that we become “godly.” Contrary to many women’s experience of religion, I experienced the benefits of belonging to a religious tradition that according to Reconstructionist philosophy is always evolving. As this philosophy pertained to Judaism, religion must evolve in order to meet the needs of the people in the present time, working to meet the challenge of being “immersed in the worlds of the ancestors, as well as in our own world”.

Kaplan put forward that as a people move through time, in order to keep a religion meaningful, the practices, customs, symbols, and traditions must be made relevant to the times in which they are living. The word “evolving” does not mean that what comes later is necessarily better or improved from what came before. The term “evolution” here is similar when describing “the evolution of species”, where one form survives because it is better adapted to new environmental conditions in which it lives. It is not superior except with reference to the current conditions in which it lives. So I learned that the word “tradition” did not mean something fixed and unchanging, but rather embraced the concept of evolving the customs, symbols, and ritual practices that arise out of human inspiration and sourced in a foundation of historical meaning. Therefore for me, an evolving goddess tradition must also continually adapt to the ever changing conditions with which women-born women and girls are confronted.

Taking the evolutionary philosophy of Reconstructionist Judaism into teaching Dianic witchcraft to means renewing a Goddess and female-centered tradition in our time; and that “at any given time” our spiritual practices become “a blend of our inheritance, of our own experiences, and of our vision of the future”.

Christopher: What drew you to the fretted dulcimer? What about the style of music that you play on it?

Ruth: Just after New Year 1970, I returned to high school after the winter break and during lunch there was a girl who had been given a dulcimer for Christmas. She let me try it and I took to it right away. I had been playing folk guitar and singing folk music for some years already, so the dulcimer wasn’t my first folk instrument. I found that I could accompany myself easily and was especially drawn to the drone strings that reminded me of bagpipes. I started collecting traditional songs and ballads from the time I was twelve, and also enjoyed Renaissance and Medieval music. However there were no teachers to guide me at that time, so I just made up ways to play it by ear. A few years later at a folk festival I heard Holly Tannen play Renaissance songs on the dulcimer and felt like my ship just came in! Holly showed me some chords and off I went!

The 1970’s was the start of a new beginning for the Appalachian Mountain Dulcimer, an instrument that was beginning to become known outside of Kentucky and Tennessee, primarily due to the travels of the great Jean Ritchie. It was Jean who introduced the dulcimer and the culture that helped create this American instrument to the rest of the world. Many of the players from this time experimented with many styles of music besides the traditional Appalachian mountain way to play it. Loving the sounds of the lute and harp, and traditional Celtic music, I found the dulcimer adapted to those sound through chord and finger picking techniques.

Christopher: When did you start performing?

Ruth: In my early teens I started performing with my family in our family band performing Israeli and American folk music. My father sang and played guitar and sang, my mother played the mandolin, my two brothers played clarinet, flute, concertina, and trumpet. I played the tambourine and sang with my father.

In my late teens I began performing regularly at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire in northern and southern California. There I sang for master puppeteer, Bruce D. Schwartz in his shows, and later with a trio called, “Briar Rose”. Our repertoire was traditional English, Irish, and Scots songs and ballads. In 1977, I even did a tour as vocalist with the Paul Winter Consort.

Christopher: When did you become Pagan? How did you meet Zsusanna Budapest?

Ruth: Looking back I believe that I always was a pagan spirit. When I was a young girl I always found spirituality in nature. I had many spiritual experiences during my childhood, as many of us do, and then forget, or move onto more worldly things. I nurtured by imagination constantly, and journeyed into rocks, trees, and animals on an almost daily basis. I didn’t think of it as anything extraordinary, and my parents never objected. I read as much as I could find on mythology and fairy tales that feed my imagination and spirit. As I entered my teens I began writing poetry to the moon, and to the Goddess. There were few books on the subject of the Goddess and what I embraced as my private religion. As I matured eventually as a musician and collector of the old songs (the balladry of the British Isles and North America in particular) I found myself searching constantly for the embedded folklore stored in these songs and stories. In the study of folklore, the metaphors and symbols all lead to our pagan past. I also found my first teacher, Shekhinah Mountainwater (of blessed memory), in the early 1970’s and with her and a small group of women in 1975, we studied together weekly for a year and a day. At that time we didn’t use the word “Wicca” or Witchcraft. It was Goddess spirituality, and it was a rich and wonderful time of exploring our spirituality, the values of feminism, and our muse-inspired selves.

I met Z Budapest in 1976, when I was 23 years old. I went to see a play that she had written at The Women’s Building in downtown Los Angeles, California. It was called, “Rise of the Fates”, and it was a very funny spoof on patriarchal religion, feminist spirituality, and the Goddess. I began to attend open rituals that were available to the Los Angeles women’s community, and began to know the women involved. I was eventually initiated into The Susan B. Coven #1, in Los Angeles, California. In late 1979, Z decided to move from Los Angeles to Oakland, and ask me if I would continue the work that she started. I said I would, and it was a yes that changed the course of my life. She said that she chose me because of my music, my spiritual background, dedication, and that I “attracted people”.

Christopher: How was the Pagan community different then?

Ruth: My initial encounters with the Wiccan community really came after my ordination in 1980, where I remember having a humorous awakening to diversity at my first pagan gathering of mixed traditions. Coming from a feminist spiritual tradition originating out of the late 1970’s, my initial naïve expectations were that all witches would be vegetarians, feminist, and egalitarian in their personal interactions.

Covens were much more secretive and private then. I was used to open rituals where any woman was welcome to come, so when I attended some early pagan gatherings I was surprised by the energy being so different, including the cosmology that was based on a goddess/god duality. I think that now people are generally more open and welcoming to goddess and female-centered ritual.

Christopher: Is Dianic tradition as being anti-male or sexist.

Ruth: Most often this attitude of “anti-male or sexist” comes from misunderstanding what the Dianic tradition actually is, and who the tradition is intended to serve. It is a sad fact that in the sexist culture wherein we live and practice our religion, that to be “for” women, is too often assumed to be “against” men.

Simply put, our tradition is not about men or the male experience, whether it be male physical life cycle events or the male experience of living in the dominant culture and its influence on who they are. Those are Men’s Mysteries.

Therefore, Dianics, while acknowledging and honoring the God, we simply do not focus on the Him and what is specifically male in nature. He is understood to be a sacred variation of Her and included in the Goddess, as our beloved daughters and sons are contained within the wombs of women.

The Dianic tradition centers around what we call Women’s Mysteries, and is a goddess- and female-centered, woman-identified, earth-based, feminist denomination of the Wiccan religion. These mysteries include the five blood mysteries of our birth, menarche, giving birth/lactation, menopause, and death. Our rites also include other essential physical, emotional, and psychic passages that only women can experience by being born female, and empowering ourselves by becoming conscious about how growing up in a patriarchal culture affects our daily lives and female identity. With our spiritual focus and ritual practices being with, for, and about the female-born experience of living and the many ways that our female bodies inform our life experiences, our tradition explores and celebrates female embodiment as a sacred source of creativity, oracular inspiration and power that is sourced literally from our very cells.

Dianic rituals celebrate the mythic cycle of the Goddess in the earth’s seasonal cycles of birth, death, and regeneration. Our seasonal holy days focus on the mythic cycles of the Goddess alone as she eternally transforms and shape-shifts throughout the year. Her seasonal dance of transformation becomes a metaphor for the cycle of women’s lives as they correspond and overlap with women’s own life-cycle transitions. Dianic seasonal themes are not based on an exclusively heterosexual fertility cycle, as most other Wiccan traditions are, and therefore are inclusive of all women-born women and girls.

Christopher: Are there benefits of a women-only spiritual practice, and women-centered spirituality, for individuals, the pagan community, and society as a whole?

Ruth: From the beginning of its contemporary practice in the early 1970’s, the Dianic Wiccan tradition has inspired rituals that are intended to help women heal from, and counter the effects of, misogynistic, patriarchal social institutions and religions. I believe that this is ultimately empowering since Dianic practice has, in my experience, inspired many women to exercise the power of choice with greater clarity and to take greater responsibility for their lives and their extended communities.

Within Dianic rites, the focus is on each woman or girl’s own experience, opinions, ideas, and feelings. Women and girls have the opportunity to discover their true selves, apart from the constraints of the dominant culture. I have often experienced women go through an adjustment period, having never before considered prioritizing or focusing on their own thoughts, feelings, and ideas. Since our tradition is not based on a duality concept within ourselves or in our cosmology, but rather on becoming “whole unto ourselves” like the goddess Diana, a woman is encouraged to seek a sacred wholeness. This does not mean that she is isolated. Instead, the goal of living is to feel complete within herself, not looking for completion through another person, but the possibility of connection through wholeness.

Often Dianic rites center on ritualizing cycles of the female body. When the spiritual experience is embodied in the women who are participating in a ritual, a fundamental intention of Dianic tradition can be realized: to re-sanctify the female body as a manifestation of the Goddess, the source from which all things emerge and return.

Lesbians and bisexual women, who may need to heal from internalized homophobia as well as the other aspects of misogyny, can experience positive transformation within a spiritual tradition that says the body of a woman who loves women is holy.

Through the embodied spiritual experience of the Goddess, heterosexual women can heal from internalized misogyny and homophobia, reaching greater depths of self-love, love and appreciation for all women, compassion, and personal power. All of these areas are of great benefit to an individual person, and the extended communities in which we live.

I hope to live in a time where the mysteries embedded in our similarities and differences can be respected and appreciated for how they support an individuals journey to health, joy, and wholeness.

Christopher: When did the goddess songs start?

Ruth: As I’ve already mentioned, when I was a young girl I always found spirituality in nature. I read as much as I could find on mythology and fairy tales that fed my imagination and spirit. As I entered my early teens I began writing poetry to the moon, and to the Goddess. There were few books on the subject of the Goddess and what I embraced as my private religion.

What I discovered in folklore and mythology inspired my poetry, and eventually my original songs honoring Her. I had always found poetry and music to be my connection to the Muse. Sitting down to write was not something I would just do. I would wait for Her to tell me what She wanted me to write. I would in effect, take dictation.

My music, ritual priestessing, and teaching are all different but interconnected ways of expressing what I want to share with the world. Sharing music and song is my favorite way to teach, and the intensive ritual teaching evolved over time. Now I do more teaching than music. I feel that I teach best when I can bring an experience of the Goddess to my listeners. When I can give them sounds and words that can take them on a journey into nature, their sacred selves, and into Her. I consider it part of my activism to create more beauty. Now, with 11 CD’s later, it is amazing to look back to the beginning when there was relatively little support for a budding witch-let!

When I entered my 40’s (I’m now 58years old at the time of this interview), it became very important to me to begin to think about what is it I want to leave behind after I’m gone. Our stories, our wisdom, what keeps us inspired and alive, participating in the healing of the world, became a primary focus in my life.

Christopher: You have made the rounds to a great many events, both Pagan and women’s. What drew you to them and what did you get back from going? How did you make time for so many of them?

Ruth: I have always been attracted to communities that circle around diverse spiritual values. I am especially interested in following how people integrate and embody their spiritual values into walking-the-talk daily practice. I also am interested in how “outside-the-box” spiritual and religious groups are influenced by the larger context of our lives, the dominant culture that I describe as “patriarchal”, based on power-over and ranking.

This influence of the dominant culture is both internal and external, and affects all of us in different ways. So I am interested in observing how this plays out in communities and how individuals address or deal with it (assuming they even notice).

I love attending diverse Pagan and women’s events because they are most often a great time. Playing together, making music, sharing laughter and devotion. This is the joy of community.

As a vocation priestess, I could attend festivals and events only if I was hired to be there, being that my vocation doesn’t come with a salary or retirement plan. If I could attend for free (meaning, I would do an energy exchange for my food and lodging) or sometimes be paid, I could afford to come and participate.

I also have enjoyed being a Dianic “ambassador” to the wider Pagan community, often offering open workshops on Dianic tradition so non-Dianic women and men could be more informed about who we are and are not.

Christopher: How did you meet Cyntia Smith, and how did she become a musical collaborator? How long did you work together?

Ruth: I met Cyntia Smith in 1980, when she came to check me out as a dulcimer teacher. Our lesson became our first jam session. We recorded our first album together called Aeolus, in 1981. We were performed primarily traditional folk music with a focus on women in traditional song, and songs that we wrote that were “out” pagan in nature. We were one of the handful of pioneering pagan musicians to record pagan music. The others were Kay Gardner, Gwydion, Selena Fox and Jim Alan, and Lady Isadora.

Cyntia and I recorded and performed together for twenty years. When I left California in 2000, our musical partnership ended, and we now perform separately as soloists or with other musicians. We recorded five wonderful albums together.

I continued to record as a solo artist. My most recent, and favorite music projects have been The Year Is A Dancing Woman: Goddess Chants, Songs, and Invocations for the Wheel of the Year, Vols. 1 & 2, Garden of Mysteries, and most recently, Songs of the Otherworld. Garden of Mysteries was released in 2007 and features traditional folk music, original songs by some of my favorite songwriters, as well as my own contributions. The songs on Garden of Mysteries all share a common thread. They are about encounters with magic and mystery – be it with a lover, an Otherworld being, a goddess, a transition into a new state of be-ing, or the Earth Herself. I’ve been fortunate enough to be joined by some incredible musicians, including my talented Grammy nominated finalist daughter, Amanda Barrett (of The Ditty Bops). My eleventh CD, released in 2010, Songs of the Otherworld, is traditional and original songs, ballads, and instrumentals that celebrated the faerie realm and Otherworld beings.

Christopher: As a high priestess, why and how did you come to found the Temple of Diana? In what form does it exist?

Ruth: Here’s the longer story: After my ordination in 1980, Z handed me $50 with which to purchase some coven tools and said goodbye. As a new and very young Dianic High priestess (I was 27 years old), I was now in the position of teacher and ritualist through my original coven Moon Birch Grove, and faced with a huge challenge after the dust of Z’s departure from Los Angeles finally settled. Information in Z’s Holy Book of Women’s Mysteries was a place to start, but sparse for my needs, both for ritual and magical practice, and much of the spell-work included there I was not in ethical accord with. I kept referring back to my classes with Shekhinah Mountainwater and what I had learned about Women’s Mysteries as they overlay the seasonal holy days, and the power of sacred theatre.

I began to explore both within and outside of the goddess spirituality movement, seeking information from other Wiccan and Craft family traditions. I began to “borrow”, incorporate, and apply these magical practices in a Dianic philosophical context. I brought my own contributions to the content of the tradition through my own style of creativity, music, and intuition. Finally, I came from the perspective that religion should rightly evolve to adapt to social movements.

Over time I developed a core curriculum that provided a sound, consistent magical foundation and practice. This curriculum became the standard Dianic year and a day classes and beyond, at Circle of Aradia in Los Angeles for twenty years, and later for Temple of Diana (a national Dianic organization that I co-founded in 2000).

Women who were my students became ritual facilitators for the open community rituals held on most of the Sabbats. Imagine a room full of between 100-200 at times, with 30 ritual facilitators who knew how to work together. Many of these women made incredible contributions of time and energy to creating a large community of creative and caring women.

I kept learning and trying new things, working to find better ways to speak and show how women can work magic together. This cauldron in Los Angeles allowed thousands of women to evolve a common magical practice together, a body of practice that has endured and can be passed down to future generations. This is my contribution to the Dianic tradition that I feel I can acknowledge and name.

This kind of educational opportunity was rare in most places around the United States, and thus, the Dianic tradition evolved differently elsewhere, more often with emphasis on personal spiritual development rather than on a cohesive group practice and an integrated magical system.

My personal goal as a teaching priestess was, and continues to be, to crystallize basic tenants, beliefs, and develop magical practices that give women a solid enough foundation in the things I’ve found valuable, and where upon they can add their own contributions in time.

I had always planned on moving out of Los Angeles sometime after my daughter became 18 years old and out on her own.

I had been involved with Re-formed Congregation of the Goddess that headquarters in Madison, Wisconsin because I affiliated Circle of Aradia as a consecrated circle under their federal protection for several years. Therefore, I knew some of the women in Madison and liked the area. I wanted to live in a slower paced environment and anywhere out of Los Angeles promised a little more peace of mind. However I met Falcon River there who eventually became my life partner at a conference in Wisconsin in 1999, and she was living in the Madison area, so the time was right to re-locate.

Shortly after relocating, it became clear that it was time to create our own Dianic temple that specifically focused on our own tradition, with federal recognition and legal protections that were separate from Re-formed Congregation of the Goddess. This is how Temple of Diana, Inc. was formed. Temple of Diana currently has branches, or “groves” in California, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

My partner Falcon and I created and continue to teach a national Dianic training program called, The Spiral Door Women’s Mystery School of Magick and Ritual Arts. We created it as our dream program that focused on teaching ritual and energetic skills for use in the sacred every day and the ritual circle.

Women study with us, find or develop their own path of spiritual service informed by the skills they’ve learned in our program. Not every woman in the program has the desire to become clergy, but the focus is on making contributions to your local communities in a variety of ways.

I retired from my full-time volunteer job creating and supporting Dianic communities at Hallomas, 2010. I continue to priestess, mentor students, teach ritual skills and share my music around the country.

Christopher: What caused you to write Women’s Rites, Women’s Mysteries: Intuitive Ritual Creation? What were you not seeing covered in the books about ritual?

Ruth: I began preparations for writing my book in 1996 when I started recording some of my classes and transcribing the information. I wanted to de-mystify the process of designing ritual in detail for personal and group needs and celebrations, as well as provide information not previously included in books on the her-story and cosmology of Dianic tradition. I wanted to discuss the role involved with ritual facilitation and give my opinions about the priestess path.

With the exception of a very basic ritual work book I had seen, I was very disappointed by books that included ritual. Most were what I call the “cook book” variety or highly scripted ceremonies or rituals that did not make space or take into consideration an individual or group’s creative and spontaneous experiences. I wanted to write a book that would be able to assist individuals and groups to access her/their inner knowing and bring it forward out of her/their deep mind and then develop it into ritual.

My challenge as a ritualist was to put into words what ritual itself is designed to transcend. How to you read about energy and expect to know what to do to experience it? For me, ritual is about creating the possibility of transformation.

I believe that I have succeeded in giving useful information that people can experiment with and give themselves the training to become excellent ritualists. I wrote my book to address women’s needs, however the same ritual making process can be used by men who wish to design rituals for their personal and group rites.

The other challenge was to write in such a way to address differences in perceptual learning styles. Since books are most always written from the perceptual style of the author, I really made an effort to reach people whose thinking patterns for taking in, processing, and sharing information is different than mine. This is a huge body of work that has formed the foundation of my teaching in the past two decades, and involves understanding the ways our visual, auditory, and kinesthetic modes take us to different states of consciousness. I was blessed to have my life partner, Falcon work with me to expand my writing and address these differences. She is extensively trained in this field of perceptual learning styles.

I drew enormously on my decades of experience with small and very large group rituals, and put that insight into the book. Understanding ritual energetics is vital and often overlooked or not considered important. I include how to work with energy to move yourself and the ritual experience along to achieve your desired result. Some readers feel that this is one of the most important parts of my book. Knowing how to critically evaluate a ritual experience that can often be so subjective is in one of the chapters called “Every Ritual is a Teacher”.

Christopher: So where can people learn more about you, your music, your performances, your book and the Temple of Diana?

Ruth: There are a few ways that folks can learn more. I have a website Dancing Tree Music for my music. I also have a Facebook page for my schedule. Temple of Diana’s website is http://www.templeofdiana.org

Christopher: Is there anything else that you would like our readers to know?

Ruth: Music is one of the many tools that can be consciously used to move energy, change consciousness, or bring about a ritual transition. There are many paths to spirit, and music is one of the most ancient ways, besides dance. Learning how to become one with your chosen path of devotion and to serve artfully with grace is cultivated over time. There are no shortcuts to deepening.

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This interview was first published in the Ostara 2012 Issue of ACTION, the official newsletter of the Alternative Religions Educational Network (AREN)

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