Sylvan Forest

This profile was last updated in 2006

Though not a large community, Sylvan Forest is a vibrant Wiccan community with unique celebrations and rituals. Because Wiccan communities have been persecuted nationally and in the metropolitan Atlanta area, Sylvan Forest is very private. However, a GSU faculty member developed relationships with several Sylvan Forest community members. As a result of that relationship, the High Priestess, Lady Arden, and other Sylvan Forest members agreed to individual interviews with students (as well as classroom presentations), which form the basis for this profile. In order to safeguard the community, however, no photos are available at this time.

Menbership/Community Size

There are thirteen members of Sylvan Forest, including both regular and transient members. Most members live in the metropolitan Atlanta area, although a few live out of state. Sylvan Forest is organized into a five-level training and initiate program. Lady Arden emphasizes that these levels are used more as a measure for personal growth than status within the community. The levels (from lowest to highest) are as follows:

Student/Seeker:
A student or Seeker is someone in the first three months of taking introductory classes. The student may study in a group setting or receive individual instruction.
Dedicant/Neophyte:
A Dedicant or Neophyte is someone who has successfully completed his/her introductory training and passed a written test. In addition, a person at this level has participated in a Dedication and Naming ceremony, receiving both Inner and Outer Court names. Inner Court names are to be known and used only by those in the coven, while Outer Court names are the names members generally use outside of the coven. For example, in social or public settings, one would refer to the High Priestess as Lady Arden, her Outer Court name. However, within the Inner Court, or within the context of rituals performed by members of Sylvan Forest, an Inner Court name known only by coven members is used. At this level, the student becomes an official Outer Court member and continues to take Neophyte classes. A white single stranded cord is worn by Dedicants or Neophytes to signify their level of instruction and membership.
Initiate/Novice/First Degree Initiate:
In order to obtain this degree, one must have studied for a minimum of one year and one day, although it is rare to reach this level in such a short period of time. In addition, one must complete Neophyte training, pass the first degree test, and be initiated. At this level, students become members of the Inner Court and become an integral part of the group. A three-stranded red cord is worn by members at this level, and their motto is “know thyself.”
Apprentice/Second Degree Initiate:
This level is obtained only by those who have completed a minimum of one year and one day of Initiate training, passed the second degree test, and fulfilled other requirements that may be established for them. Again, it is rare to obtain this level after the minimum period. Students act this level are viewed as stewards of the four elements. A three-stranded green cord is worn to signify the Second Degree level, and their motto is “know the world.”
High Priestess or High Priest/Third Degree Initiate:
This level is obtained by someone who has successfully completed at least one year and one day of Second Degree Training. As with the prior levels, it is difficult to become a High Priestess or Priest in the minimum required period. A third degree initiate is qualified as a Priest or Priestess and acts as a steward of the fifth Element, Spirit. This entitles the initiate to the title Lord or Lady. This person then has the right to form a separate group. Responsibilities associated with this level include the duty to replace oneself (that is, to train another initiate to the third degree level); to serve one’s own Initiator for one year and one day; and to practice the Craft for a minimum of five years. In Sylvan Forest, only a Third Degree may confer an Initiation. A member at this level typically wears a three-stranded blue cord, and the motto is “know the Gods.”
In addition to these levels, three other titles are used. They are as follows:
Elder:
An Elder is someone who has replaced himself/herself, completed five years of service, and agreed to serve on the Council of Elders. Elders mediate any disputes that arise between Third Degree members. Elders are also responsible for continuing traditions, establishing new teachings, and mentoring Third Degrees. Female Elders wear a three-stranded silver cord and male Elders wear a three-stranded gold cord.
Queen:
A Queen is a High Priestess who has hived (separated) a minimum of three groups; that is, she has formed three groups from her original one, and she has performed community service. In some traditions she is elected by Third Degree members for a term of nine to thirteen years, and she oversees communities within the tradition.
Magus:
A Magus is the male equivalent of a Queen.
Note: Members are not required to move up the hierarchy; some members stay Dedicates or Neophytes the entire time they belong to a coven while others progress through different levels. Readiness to move up, dedication, and desire may affect how quickly one moves up the hierarchy (if at all). Sylvan Forest has five Initiate level members, three First Degree members, one Second Degree member, and one Third Degree member (Lady Arden).

Demographics/Ethnic Composition

Members of Sylvan Forest reflect the demographics typical of many Wiccan groups in America. They are largely Caucasian, about 96%. The remaining four percent consists of one Hispanic member-the High Priestess of Sylvan Forest-and Native American and Asian students and members. Most members of Sylvan Forest are female, which is also typical of Wiccan covens across the country. All of the Sylvan Forest members have completed high school. Several members have obtained a Masters Degree, and one member has a Ph.D. The high education level among Sylvan Forest members could be due in part to the fact that they emphasize higher levels of learning as part of the spiritual practice.

Affliliation with Other Communities/Organizations

The Sylvan Forest community is a daughter group of “Grove of the Unicorn,” another Wiccan coven located in Atlanta. Custom holds that after hiving from a parent group, the daughter group should have no contact with that parent group for a year and a day. Many groups stay separated beyond that one year period, with almost no contact. Sylvan Forest maintains the closest ties of all the daughter groups to Grove of the Unicorn, and members still communicate with one another frequently.

Sylvan Forest is loosely tied with others that are part of the “Unicorn Tradition.” However, a precise articulation of what the “Unicorn Tradition” is has yet to be established, and leaders are somewhat secretive about this to outsiders. Ties to sibling groups are based on historical connections more so than on commitments to common doctrine or practice.

History

The history of Sylvan Forest really centers on Lady Arden. She is the founder and organizer of the group, and she guides current practices as well, so the coven is a reflection of her. Sylvan Forest was founded in 1996 after Lady Arden hived from the Grove of the Unicorn where she was high priestess for a year and a half. Lady Arden began to attend Wicca meetings formally when she was eighteen, but she says that her understanding of Wicca beliefs goes back much earlier in her life. Her mother is Episcopalian and her father is Catholic. She grew up in an orthodox Jewish neighborhood, and her early schooling was in this Jewish context. She and her mother were active participants in the Episcopal Church, and she attended Catholic school for a year and a half. By the time she was 18, she began to realize that she had beliefs that differed from Christianity, and she began merging these beliefs with Christian teachings. Ultimately, she determined that Wicca most closely resonated with her beliefs.

Lady Arden characterizes Sylvan Forest as “American Eclectic Wicca.” In characterizing the community this way, she distinguishes Sylvan Forest from Gardnerian Wicca (a major stream of Wiccan thought and practice in the United States).
Lady Arden also characterizes her form of Wicca as very experiential. She does “energy work” with both masculine and feminine forces. Usually a Wicca group has a Priest and a Priestess, which allows each of these energies to be better addressed. However, Lady Arden does not feel that the masculine energy is neglected in any way by Sylvan Forest, even thought there is no High Priest.
Lady Arden’s interest in taking on new students prompted the founding of Sylvan Forest. The Grove of the Unicorn (her parent group) had become increasingly focused on developing the students who were more advanced in energy work, and the leaders did not want to take on beginners. Lady Arden used the separation as an opportunity to take on beginning students and to develop them from a neophyte level. Because of this history, Sylvan Forest is very accessible to those with an interest, but lack of training, in Wicca.

Activities and Schedule

The members of Sylvan Forest do not meet on a weekly basis. In part, this is because the community does not own any common property. Ritual celebrations take place at a member’s house or on a member’s private property. Sylvan Forest celebrates eight Sabbats a year, following the astrological calendar: Imbolic (generally celebrated in February), Ostara (March), Beltane (May), Litha (June), Lughwasadh (August), Mabon (September), Samhain (October) and Yule (December). In addition to the Sabbat celebrations, the members of Sylvan Forest celebrate each new and full moon. Full moon celebrations are only open to initiate or higher level members. Lady Arden explains that the energy work required for these celebrations can only be done by practioners at those levels. For example, initiates can open energy doorways. In addition, teachings are passed down in theses settings that are intended only meant for initiate level members. Finally, Lady Arden asserts that the energy core is stronger when initiate or higher level members are present.

In addition to ritual observances, Sylvan Forest also offers a wide range of classes for those interested in Wicca. These classes have no fixed times; instead, they vary according to the participants’ schedules. (In addition, teaching sessions are arranged privately, to protect the members). The classes offered are taught by Lady Arden and are as follows:
Introduction to Wicca and The Sylvan Forest:
This class includes a history of Paganism, an explanation of mystery religions, an overview of the different types of Wicca, and an outline of the structure of Sylvan Forest. Instruction also explains why members work with nature and magick and how the tradition views metaphysics in connection with ritual practices. Most concretely, instruction covers activities such as using a magick journal and the basic elements of “grounding and centering.”
The All:
This class includes instruction about the seven planes, the All, the interconnectedness with all things, the interconnectedness of religions, and the stages of physical space and consciousness.
The God and Goddess:
Students learn about the God and Goddess and more about the belief structure.
Elements:
Students learn about the four elements, divisions of the physical plane, and divisions of consciousness.
The Witch’s Circle:
Students learn more about the witch’s circle, preparation for the circle, cosmic cycles, lunar and solar cycles, and the cyclic course of events.
The Wheel of the Year:
Students learn more about the wheel of the year, the tides and Sabbats, and the Pagan Manifesto.
Meditation and Awareness:
Instruction covers meditation, the eight steps to meditation, visualization, and the need for balance and harmony.
Energy-Personal and Circle Use:
Students learn the uses of sonics and chanting, singing, sympathetic and contagious magic, and high and low magic.
The Language and Uses of Symbols:
Students learn the uses of parables and allegories, hermetic axioms, language of symbols, pentagram and pentacle, and the witch’s pyramid.
Color and Magick:
Students learn the seven rays and the magic of color.
Karma, Rebirth, Magical Name and Personality:
In this class, instruction covers karma and reincarnation, Spirit guides, what it means to be a group mind, magical name and personality, and astral support.
In addition to Sabbats, new and full moon celebrations and classes, Sylvan Forest also participates in festivals throughout the year. These festivals are attended by many Wicca groups from around the region, and they provide an opportunity for socializing, learning, and networking.

Physical Description

Sylvan Forest does not own a building for community events. Several factors contribute to this. First, Wiccan communities tend to be small (traditionally 13 members), and there is no structured system of tithing or membership dues. Members are encouraged to contribute what they can and what they feel is necessary. As a result, there is little disposable income to spend on the purchase or upkeep of property.

In addition, Wiccan communities are often misunderstood, even feared, and this is particularly true in the Bible Belt. Indeed, Wicca is not widely accepted in Atlanta. Many practitioners, including Lady Arden, can share anecdotes about attempts at vandalism and other violent acts they have witnessed or experienced. Lady Arden recalls a time when she was an active member of Grove of the Unicorn, a community that does own property: “I remember turning on the TV and seeing the police smashing our altar.” As a result Sylvan Forest has determined that it is prudent for the community not to own property. This allows members to feel more secure by keeping a low profile, meeting in members’ homes and renting vacation houses for special ritual celebrations.
Finally, Sylvan Forest does not feel a strong need for a permanent structure. Wicca teaches that rituals should be performed in close relationship with nature. Natural cycles determine the timing for ritual celebrations (as noted above), and natural settings promote strong connections with the god and goddess. In order to facilitate this connection with nature, important rituals are often conducted in a “retreat” or vacation setting, which is rented for that specific purpose.

Central Beliefs

The theological belief system is perhaps the most important element of Wicca tradition. There is a general understanding of a “divine essence” called “the All,” which is onnipresent and is the ultimate source of all that we encounter. The “All” radiates from a divine source, and as it descends into the lower planes of existence it begins to fragment into different entities. Yet, it is difficult to describe the All without first considering the different planes of existence.

To understand “the All” one must understand the different planes of existence. According to Wiccan teaching, the All emanates from the Celestial plane (the highest plane). Nothing exists here other than the divine source. This source is one entity and is, as its name suggests, a culmination of all in creation. Next is the Duatic plane. This is where the first “split” occurs in the All, the separation into the God and the Goddess. The God and Goddess are not essentially wholly distinct divine beings, but merely separate manifestations of the one All.
More separations occur on the next level, the Spiritual plane. It may best be compared to a prism, which when hit with light divides into an array of elements. On this plane the God and the Goddess are separated into various gods and goddesses. Next comes the Mental plane, a realm of thought. On this plane one is likely to encounter great spiritual guides. Following this is the Astral plane, where most of the energy work from circle is performed. This is the plane of emotions, and it exists outside of time and space. Therefore, energy can be transferred over large distances very quickly if transmitted on the Astral plane. Partnered with the Astral plane is the Ethereal plane, a realm of forms or blueprints. It acts as a mirror between the Astral and Physical planes. As an idea ascends from the physical plane, the Ethereal plane “diagrams” it and reflects it into the Astral plane. The “lowest” of the planes is the physical plane. This is where we exist. According to Lady Arden, Wiccan practitioners begin on the physical plane and attempt to ascend to the Ethereal, Astral, and Mental planes in their practice. (Higher planes are inaccessible to humans.)
Reincarnation is another major aspect of Wicca belief. According to the tradition, when a person dies, the spirit goes to “the summer lands” where it rests and recuperates before deciding to return to the world. The idea of free will is very strong in Wicca tradition. It is taught that spirit returns to the earth when s/he is ready and that s/he chooses the situation into which s/he is born.

Unicorn Tradition

There are some essential elements to the theology and practices that distinguish the Unicorn tradition from other Wicca groups. The first and most obvious is the use of an astrological calendar. All festival dates are based on the astrological calendar and related to the position of the sun.

The Unicorn tradition also has a distinctive understanding of the elements and cardinal directions. Each of the four elements is associated with a cardinal direction. The fifth element, which Wicca regards as Spirit, is located at the intersection of the four other elements. East is associated with the Earth, a feminine element, and is equated with the beginning of life. East is seen as the body’s entrance point to each lifetime. South is associated with fire, a masculine element, representing courage, energy or power, and maturity. West represents water, which is an element of emotion. Since water seek stasis and serenity, it is associated with emotion. This is a feminine energy. North is associated with air. This relationship is rooted in an ancient idea of the “cold north winds.” Air is also associated with the spirit world.

Student Researchers

Julie Dumoulin and James Fallaize