“Ritual has the power to end our alienation from the earth and from each other. It allows us to enter a world where we are at home with the trees and the stars and other beings, and even with the carefully hidden and protected parts of ourselves that we sometime contact in dreams or in art.” –Margot Adler
Margot Adler died of cancer on July 28, 2014. A Pagan priestess, she asked for memorial events to be held in the season of Samhain, also known as Halloween. At this time of year, the rituals of many religious traditions remind us that we are all connected, the living, the dead, and those to come, one continuous communion. In this spirit, I offer a tribute to the late Margot Adler.
Though I must have heard her distinctive voice on National Public Radio where she served as an innovative and eclectic journalist for thirty years, I encountered Margot Adler’s work more intimately by accident—or synchronicity—as countless others have. I had recently found myself face to face with the goddess. As if in answer to my question: “Who are you and what do you want from my life?” a hefty book literally fell off a shelf in a small-town bookstore: Margot Adler’s ovarian work Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and other Pagans. Writing as both observer and participant, Margot brought into fruitful union the spiritual seeker and the fact-finding reporter, the social activist and the ecstatic celebrant. I had found a trustworthy guide for my own explorations.
In Drawing Down the Moon, Margot calls the Neo-Pagan movement “a religion without converts.” She notes that whatever provides the entry point, “these events merely confirm some original private experience.” In her case, a school girl passion for the Greek goddesses Artemis and Athena and the spontaneous rituals she created in Central Park. Set aside as a childish fantasy, this memory re-surfaced powerfully when Margot encountered others who worshipped the goddess “who of old was called Artemis, Melusine, Diana, Brigit, and many other names….”
Born to parents with a strong sense of social justice (“our religion was the Brotherhood of Man”) Margot was also a lifelong activist, attending Berkeley in the tumultuous years of 1964-1968. She participated in the Free Speech Movement, for which she did some jail time, went to Mississippi to register voters in the summer of 1965 and was present at the infamous 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. When she saw an open letter in a newspaper from a soldier in Vietnam, she entered into correspondence with him for the duration of his tour. These profound, sometimes painful, always respectful exchanges between a left-wing activist and a soldier on the front lines are included in Margot’s memoir Heretic’s Heart, A Journey through Spirit and Revolution.
Her openness was also a trademark of her career in radio. Early on, she hosted a show called The Hour of the Wolf for WBAI. She writes, “At five in the morning, there is nothing that can’t be changed. Mostly there are questions and feelings and yearnings. Anything can happen…In the 1970s on that 5:00 a.m. show it was possible to create a community of seekers.” As an NPR reporter, she continued to be an explorer, noting “I still begin each project with the question, What can I do to turn the world upside down, to question assumptions, to undermine received wisdom?”
In 1971 Margot became involved in the ecology movement. She began to search “in books and articles for an ecological-religious framework compatible with my own politics and commitment to the world. “ From books she went to correspondence and interviews with diverse Neo-Pagan individuals and groups. The diversity, like the diversity of a healthy eco-system, impressed her, diversity not only of practice and belief, but age, occupation, class background. The reasons people gave for their involvement also varied: “a need for beauty, intellectual satisfaction, feminism, growth, environmental response, freedom.”
In Heretic’s Heart, Margot writes, “My own evolution over the last twenty-five years, to embrace the earth traditions, the Pagan traditions, was partly a way to make peace between the dreamer and the doubter, this person who loved multiplicity, who would never be pleased with a single reality, truth or map. These traditions say that all is holy, the body, the mind, the imagination, birth, sex, death—and that the stuff of the sacred is all around us, right here, right now.”
Margot became a beloved member of the extended Neo-Pagan community and her keenness of mind and generosity of spirit helped to shape its evolution. She had a gift for leading others in the amazing wealth of ecstatic song and chant that flowered in the Neo-Pagan movement. I had the good fortune to participate in a number of rituals she led and still sing songs I learned from her.
Though I met Margot several times, I know her primarily through her books, which include the recently published Vampires are Us: Understanding our Love Affair with the Immortal Dark Side. In preparing this article, I asked her close friend and colleague Karen Michel for a remembrance of Margot. She writes:
“Margot was a marvelous storyteller, able to find the heart of a story and convey it to listeners, whether about a political protest, trees in Central Park, an artist. The subject almost didn’t matter.
There was always a sense of understanding, a revealing to the listener that understanding, an advancing of the story beyond the same old. And always relayed in that gorgeous voice of hers, a speaking voice familiar to listeners and a singing voice some of us were fortunate to hear in non-broadcast settings. ‘We are one with the universe, one with the earth,’ she would sing, and now she truly is.”
Note: All quotations are from Heretic’s Heart or Drawing Down the Moon. From the latter I include a quotation from “The Charge of the Goddess” quoted in many books and publications, used in ritual by many Neo-Pagans, often attributed to Doreen Valiente.
Elizabeth Cunningham is best known as the author of The Maeve Chronicles, a series of award-winning novels featuring a feisty Celtic Magdalen. Her third collection of poems So Ecstasy Can Find You will be published in Fall, 2015 by Hiraeth Press. She is currently working on a mystery series. A Pagan priestess and an Interfaith minister, she is also a counselor in private practice and a fellow emeritus of Black Earth Institute.