An Interview with South Bay Circles
April 20, 2012 in Pagan Groups
South Bay Circles has been doing public Pagan ritual in the South Bay for nearly twenty-five years. Next Saturday, April 28th, they will be hosting an open Beltane Ritual in Palo Alto at 2:00 pm. Information on that ritual can be found at
southbaycircles.org and on their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/SouthBayCircles.
In honor of 25 years of ritual I was able to interview Amy Baldwin, one of the original members of South Bay Circles. What followed was a fascinating (and sometimes humorous) look at the origins of SBC.
When did South Bay Circles first start?
SBC had its first ritual for Beltane 1987, so it met a few months prior to that in
order to organize.
Why was it established?
In the fall of 1986 the Santa Theresa branch library noticed that a lot of books on Wicca and paganism were being checked out. So assuming a general interest in the subject, they invited Z Budapest to speak. Libraries have a program budget for this sort of thing, so they offered her a $25 honorarium. They posted fliers for the event. As the story goes, a tween/teen saw the flier and told his/her parents who, being Christian fundamentalists, immediately grew horrified and took it to their church who decided to mount a demonstration the day of the event because “their public tax dollars were being used to promote religion”. Yes - a DEMONSTRATION over $25! That’s what a group of 4 people can easily rack up in expenses for a single visit to Starbucks.
Pagans also noticed the flier and told Valerie Voigt who was a very public pagan in the South Bay, who decided to mount a counter-demonstration in support of Z and free speech. Word got back to Z about the issue who refused to accept the $25 and spoke for free. Valerie alerted the pagan community and we turned out in droves.
So you can imagine the scene. The library program room was full of both demonstrators and counter-demonstrators leaving very little room for the actual public who just wanted basic info on paganism. Outside were more demonstrators and counter-folk. I don’t remember actual numbers, but I’d say there were fewer than 50 people total outside the library.
Z delivered a slide-show presentation for 20 minutes, followed by Q&A. From a pagan perspective, the talk was standard anthropological goddess fare consistent with what was being written in the late 1980′s with no scandalous subject matter at all.
The library loved it. No other program had EVER received the amount of attention or attendance this one did. Outside there were TV crews from minor stations; Valerie and demonstrators of both sorts were interviewed. I don’t remember any chanting or shouting (maybe there were some signs), just people milling around staring at each other, the pagans having a whole lot of fun, and the Christians mostly awkward. After all, since Z gave back the money, their whole tax-dollars argument went right down the tubes, so why did they even bother? All they accomplished was to promote even MORE interest in the subject. In addition, as a pagan pointed out, there was a display on the Baha’i faith inside the library at the same time! This did not elicit even a peep from the Christians.
So afterwards, Robin Blackhood and Joe McMahon, other pagan elders, called a number of known pagans together and proposed starting a community group who would present pagan rituals for the public in a semi-accessible way. It was noted how the library program indicated how invisible the pagans were to the general public and each other, and how that could and why it should change. (Note: Waxing Moon Circle was formed before SBC, is a semi-open circle, and remains a group that functions in similar ways and for similar purposes.)
Is SBC affiliated with other groups such as COG?
No. SBC has one purpose: to present rituals of the Wiccan sabbat calendar to the general public in a semi-accessible way. We don’t teach, proselytize, do political/social action, or become affiliated with other groups.
On the website and the Facebook group there are never any directions to events or locations listed. Why aren’t directions to rituals publicly posted?
The founding group also discussed a need for additional opportunities for pagan seekers to meet each other in a safe environment. We have used public parks, rented spaces and private homes for our events. No one wants their home invaded by unknown or unvouched-for strangers, nor did we want to be so public as to invite demonstrators to show up on the ritual’s doorstep. This is the reasoning behind the rules about invitations, behavior, and publicity, and why we don’t publish the addresses of our meeting places. In other words, you have to know someone who comes before you can come. That, however, is very easy to arrange. Marion and Bill are listed as the contact persons on our website.
The “by invitation only” topic has been a recurring one over SBC’s history. In all these years, we have never been bothered by anti-pagan gatecrashers. I feel that this rule is a remnant of an earlier, perhaps somewhat reasonable, paranoia of the time. In 2012, with all the diversity changes that have happened in the valley, the rule is quaint and outdated.
Who is SBC open to?
Everyone. We do not, however, allow minors to come alone unless they and their parents are known to us and they have their parents’ permission.
Who does SBC generally does cater to?
Wiccans. The rituals are not required to be Wiccan; other pagan rituals have taken place, such as Zend Avesta, Egyptian and Norse. However, overwhelmingly, rituals are Wiccan, goddess-oriented and even outer-court Gardnerian in style and substance.
Is SBC an “official circle” or more like a gathering of the tribes type of thing?
SBC started as an umbrella organization of groups in which only functioning covens, not individuals, were invited to participate. Of course, people move and covens dissolve, so that structure eventually became unworkable. Currently we have a few covens and quite a few individuals and couples who put on rituals.
Anything else you want to tell us?
In 1987 there were few public venues for pagans in the South Bay. Valerie Voigt was running Waxing Moon Circle and the Pagan/Occult/Wiccan Mensa SIG, and Eric Meese and Stephan Abbot were running the New Age Renaissance Fair. If you wanted to participate in rituals or meet others, you had to go through them or new age magazine ads, or go to Berkeley or SF. I feel that SBC has been an important part of South Bay pagan history for establishing a place where pagan seekers can meet like-minded others and experience rituals. After the initial success of SBC in the early internet age (and we were a big success!), other public groups began forming – Luna Circa, Bay Area Pagan Assemblies, and individual covens, for instance. I call 25 years and 200 rituals a worthy accomplishment.
Submitted by Jason Mankey, Pagan Newswire Collective Bay Area