The story below is an experiment in teaching that I’m using this year with Diana Circle. The Diana Circle, in case you are just joining us, is a witchy, feminist, trans-inclusive, social-justice group for 8-12 year olds. We have 6 chapters in the Philadelphia area, and each chapter has 5-10 girl*s. At the moment, I’m the facilitator for all 6 groups. Here’s how I’m using this story: I write a section like the one below, which I share with each section of Diana Circle. Then, after reading it, we’ll do an activity that essentially asks “what’s next in the story?” Once every group has had a chance to answer, I weave their responses together into the next chapter of the story. The characters are a fictionalized blend of the actual girl*s in the group. And of course, there’s me, Tara.
There’s a stream that runs under Clark Park in West Philadelphia. A part of Mill creek maybe? Artemis shakes her head. What kind of name is that? Surely, the creek had some other name, at some point. A name that recognized the spirit of the water.
The idea of covering up a freshwater stream in order to make a sewer makes Artemis angry. In the ancient world, freshwater was sacred. No one would ever think of polluting fresh water, because, DUH, it was and is the source of life for humans and animals alike. Artemis knows the distinct taste of each fresh water stream. Water is not supposed to be flavorless, lifeless. Water is an elixir that carries stories of mineral and light and air and season. It should tell your body these stories.
Artemis stands in the part of Clark Park that people around here call “The Dog Bowl” - it’s a sunken place about the length of a soccer field. Small sloping hills surround it on all sides. Lots of things happen here. Soccer, for one, and all kinds of other games and sports. Plus music concerts, plays, parades, and sledding in the winter. Underneath it all is the water that still flows. The sunken area was once a pond. They drained it, and buried the stream a long time ago to make the sewer for this neighborhood. Most kids don’t even know it’s there.
It’s the same in cities and towns everywhere. There are so many streams and tributaries that have been stolen, and forced below ground. Artemis lays on her belly and puts her ear to the ground. She can hear it. As the water moves she listens. Like the faintest whisper she hears it: Nanganesy. This is the creek’s true name in the Lanape language. A few tears drip from the corner of her eye and land on the dry earth. A tiny dark spot appears. Water calls to water. So Artemis cups her hands around the wet soil and speaks, as though calling to a friend. “I’m gonna get you out of there” she calls. “I just need to get some help
Tara sat at her home, on the little window seat that looked out over the wild tangle of green that covered most of her neighbor’s yards. Philadelphia isn’t a forest, but there are plenty of yards and empty lots where weeds and wild trees have defied people’s attempts to keep all plant life tame and controlled. Tara’s block looked like most other blocks from the street. But behind the houses were surprisingly large backyards that had been neglected by the home’s inhabitants. Through the window, Tara could see a white Geodesic dome that had once been a greenhouse. But now, it was filled and covered with honeysuckle, weed trees, and wisteria vines. It was the perfect portal for Artemis.
As the goddess of untamed nature, Artemis preferred her home in the far northern forests that were among the last remaining untouched places on earth. Untouched meaning, “never been logged.” But in the last few years, Artemis had been feeling tugged and pulled to leave the forest and help restore the wild in other places. One of them was Philadelphia. Why Philadelphia? And why this particular portal through the geodesic dome? Well, that came back to Tara, and the group of girls called the Diana Circle. But first, you need to know a little background.
In Ancient Greece, the people of Sparta, Delos and Brauron had many festivals and rituals that honored Artemis. But the one she liked best was the Arkteia. Once every four or five years, a group of young girls would be selected to serve as Arktoi - or, the “she bear.” The Arktoi would be sent to live deep in the woods for a whole year. There, priestesses of Artemis would teach them secrets and mysteries of being a woman. When they returned, a huge festival occurred. The Arktoi girls would wear bear skin robes, representing Artemis and the wilderness. Other young girls and sometimes a few boys would also take part in the ritual, carrying baskets of offerings like figs and cloth. The main ritual was a slow and serious dance, in which the ritual participants would act like the wild animals that Artemis protects. At the end, the Arktoi would shed their bear skin robes, and return to the cultivated world of their homes and families.
Artemis loved that time, when the girls would come to her forest. As a fairly gender-fluid goddess herself, she knew that sometimes there would be a boy or a non-binary girl who would join the crew, and she welcomed that. Anyone, really, who had the untamed spirit of the wild and a general preference to be with other girls was part of her pack. Animals were much less fussy about gender and sexuality. And generally speaking, Artemis felt that we could all do well by paying attention to how the wild creatures do things.
The good that came from the Arktoi ceremony was that even as civilization grew, people remembered the sacredness of the wilderness. And the girls and boys who took part in the ritual never forgot it. They would forever be a part of the Artemis pack. They would always carry the spirit of the bear, the deer, the wolf and all the other creatures of the wild with them. They had the sanctuary of the forest in their hearts.
All that was lost when the ancient greek civilization fell. It carried on in different way through the nuns who lived in convents. They, like the Arktoi, stayed away from men and from most of normal civilization. But they were not wild, really. Or, at least, most of them weren’t. And as time wore on, even the nuns became scarce. In her remote forest, Artemis had to admit that she was lonely. And worried. What would become of the wild? What would become of the girls?
All the ancient goddesses of the world shared similar worries. Ixchell, the Jaguar goddess of Mexico. Mayari, the Phillipino goddess of the moon and revolution, Morgaine, the witch-queen of Avalon, the fierce African Amazons, and many others. All watched with sadness and sometimes horror at the state of the world. On the rare occasions that they got together, they wondered what would become of them all? What would become of the forces of nature that humans alternately ignored and tried to control?
But then. Just when it seemed that nothing could stop the human men who were leaders and bosses and hell bent on gobbling up the beauty and power of the world with their greed, something happened. Something that could change everything...if only they had enough time. And that something was women remembering the goddesses. Not just a few women, mind you. Because in spite of all the efforts of religious leaders and governments to erase the goddesses from human memory, some women never forgot. But this was different. This was big. On a global scale, women were remembering the goddesses. Remembering their names and stories and what they stood for. Remembering that goddesses lived inside them.
When Artemis and others felt this shift they knew they had to help. So they began leaving their islands and forests and remote dwellings and making their way into the territory of cities and towns, hearts and dreams.
This is how Artemis came to be using the portal in West Philly. She felt the presence of girls who knew her. They sang songs about her. They did rituals. They were wild and fierce and funny and ridiculous at times. They were called the Diana Circle. Artemis thought of them as her modern Arktoi. Her Artemis pack. And she knew that if they worked together, they could save the world. But to do this, they would have to learn to trust themselves, trust each other, and figure out how to harness the incredible power of hope.
For this chapter, our follow up activity was making skits in small groups. There were a couple of big common themes that came out of the skits:
Diana Circle girls going into the spirit world through the portal
Going on a quest
A magical map
Dreams and visions
Pollution is the manifestation of an evil spirit...or maybe the evil spirit is an embodiment of pollution. Either way, the Diana Girls have to figure out how to transform, heal or contain the pollution being.