Creating sacred spaces and cycles of pilgrimage and festival ... Sue Charman and Sam Wernham of Devon's Wood Sisters introduce their modern mystery school for women
As with so many projects, it began with the telling of a story - the story of the Red Tent, from the book of the same name.
Anita Diamant's 1997 novel views the biblical book of Genesis through women's eyes, and the red tent of the title is a women's space, a place of retreat and refuge and mutual support. In 2012, encouraged by the idea, we embarked on a community build of a 21' alachigh, a North Iranian nomads' tent, as a sanctuary and space for exploration through storytelling.
Seed-funding was raised through the Wood Sisters Winter Storytelling Festival in Dartington, Devon, supported by then UK Storytelling Laureate Katrice Horsley; poet Alice Oswald; playwright, actor and storyteller Peter Oswald and storytellers Martin Shaw, Chris Salisbury and Clive Fairweather. The modern Red Tent was completed in 2012 and toured to two festivals in its first year, with an exciting and varied programme. At Quest Festival and the Westcountry Storytelling Festival, myth and story were explored in depth through discussion and ancient approaches including trance-telling, guided visualisation, creativity, crafts, and simple, natural ceremony. Women storytellers were featured, including Shonaleigh, Caitlin Matthews, Rachel Rose Reid and Tarte Noire Playback Theatre. In 2013 the Red Tent was nominated for the BASE Outstanding Community Project, taking women’s tales to the Devon Show and Exeter Respect Festival. This year, both Shonaleigh and Jane Flood are telling tales again in the Tent, and it has been invited back to Quest Festival to function as a sanctuary, and a space for a programme of workshops, storytelling and crafts.
But there has always been more to the Wood Sisters' work than the Red Tent. We originally set up the school in 2010, after two years on Dartmoor with Martin Shaw and his band of pirates at the Westcountry School of Myth. We took our name from a version of a well-known wonder-tale, The Handless Maiden, cited by Marie-Louise von Franz, in which the Maiden and the King spend seven years at the Inn of the Wood Sisters and the Inn of the Wood Brothers respectively before they are ready to marry a second time. Our founding vision was to dig up, dust down and breathe life into pre-patriarchal stories and myths where the female characters are strong and central, from Inanna to Isis and Baba Yaga, to the Handless Maiden herself.
And so we have done. Regularly, every year, we have gathered for the eight Celtic Festivals, to tell stories that start back in pre-history, and have travelled through Sumeria, Canaan, Egypt, Greece, Rome, the old forests of Europe, Russia, the Norse country, and the lands of the Celts as far as Arthurian Britain, tracing the path of the Western Mystery Tradition from its roots to the present day. Making this pilgrimage annually, with different stories, has been entertaining, enchanting and an education in what lies beneath the surface of our current culture, and the wisdom that our ancestors encoded in their oral and spiritual traditions.
For collective wisdom lies at the heart of what the Wood Sisters do, and stories are imbued with this wisdom, having been told by different people in different places at different times. By hearing what motifs in the story have struck others, and resonated in their inner worlds, listeners get an enriched, rounded picture of the depths of a story and notice the links in the web and the vastness of possibility.
At the same time, telling stories as part of a sacred tradition is not about telling religious or even serious stories. The space that is held is sacred, but varied stories - playful, modern, irreverent - can be told within it. Many of the stories told in Wood Sisters Circles and in the Red Tent are personal stories, for it is easier, in a sacred space, to enter the world of the soul, the world of the unconscious, the Otherworld, and for these worlds to co-exist with our everyday reality so that wisdom from both sides can be absorbed.
Sometimes, over this years a few Wood Bothers have got in on the act, too. This is a Red Tent for our times. The media feed us daily stories of the plight of women world-wide, and there are men as well as women who are aware that the suppression of the divine feminine in stories is as important an indicator of outdated patriarchal values as women’s often-disregarded right to education and respect.
And that acknowledging the Goddess back into the invisible realms will impact the tangible world.
The Wood Sisters will be at Embercombe in August and September this year for a Red Tent Residency, including a course in Holding Sacred Space.