by Emily Frazier Brown

“Hail and welcome, visitors, kin and friends.”

Jack Taylor’s baritone voice fills the church without a microphone. He invokes the god Herne, a horned hunter. Similar to a Christian invocation, they call on Herne to be present in the room throughout the ritual. Some audience members conclude the invocation by whispering the words, “And so it is.”

Michael Patrick McGuire kneels before Jack at the altar.

“What do you seek?” Jack asks.

“The help of my brother, to become a better man,” Michael answers.

Kenny Poplin, the lord of the hall (an elected position) speaks on his behalf, promising to help him through the process of being a squire. Michael’s quest is to mentor at-risk youth to become positive members of society through athletic endeavors, citing “wrestling” and “non-traditional sports.”

“We hear and remember,” Jack repeats after each of Michael’s vows. The crowd echoes, “Herne, remember.”

Michael places his hand on the blade of a sword while repeating the code of chivalry: “Valor and adversity. Truth in speech.

Loyalty in service. Compassion. Prowess in action. Justice in judgment. Defense in need. Honor above all.”

A wooden staff is rapped twice on the floor in the back of the church to note the completion of the ceremony, and Michael rises to his feet, facing the lord of the hall to receive his sword. The audience applauds.

Immediately following the squiring ceremony is the Holly King and Oak King ritual, marking the Winter Solstice and longest night of the year. The event is actually taking place on the bitter-cold Friday evening prior to the solstice. They share space with the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greensboro, which has its Longest Night event on the actual solstice, so they compromised.

“Under his hand, the sun itself grows distant and cold,” Jack says of the Holly King, who symbolizes winter. “His wisdom — of that which is cold and still, that which demands more from us, that we save or at times starve.” He is cloaked in green, shielded by a vest.

T. Hawk, a Royal Order of the Knights of Herne member playing the role of the Holly King, speaks: “I freeze the world that man may find fire within himself.”

The Oak King, played by Kenny and cloaked in black, enters the room on behalf of Spring and Summer, attacking the Holly King with his sword. The ritual is a choreographed show in which the two rhythmically swing and connect their swords, each blunt blow to their body causing them to sharpen their breath. It doesn’t take long before they’ve locked their blades together to symbolize the climax of the battle, allowing the crowd’s anticipation to escalate before the ultimate demise of the Holly King.

“I always felt like it should be the Holly King who wins. It’s the longest night of the year,” says an audience member to my left. But because each day after the Winter Solstice is a shorter night, closer to warmth, the Oak King triumphs.

I know. You have a lot of questions. The Royal Order of the Knights of Herne is a fraternal society for people of earthbased faiths. Its history and a majority of its members identify with Pagans, but including Wiccans and several Native American tribes. Jack himself identifies as a Druid. In the simplest terms, it’s a service organization for men who want to accomplish good deeds… with swords.

Jack called me a week before the ritual, hesitation in his voice. I wasn’t sure where to begin with a self-identified Druid and knight on the other end of the phone, and he seemed equally lost explaining his male-exclusive, medieval-inspired service organization to a female Quaker.

“What do you want to know?” He started.

“Explain this to me as simply as you can.

A knighting ceremony….”

Jack cleared his throat, interrupting. “It’s actually a squiring ceremony.”

“A what?” “A knight probationer, or a squire, has a year to complete his quest. Then he’s knighted.”

“Okay, I know less than I thought I did,” I admitted. “Let’s go back to the beginning.”

Technically, Paganism is the attributed name to most classical polytheistic religions. But the modern religious practice of Pagans in America, or Neo-Paganism, is a recent development. It was in the 1960s that the Pagan community expanded rapidly in reaction to mainstream Western Christianity — Wiccans and Neo-Druids being manifestations of the modern Pagan revival. Similar to their ancient beginning, Modern Pagans also differed from Christians by paying homage to multiple gods.

More often, goddesses. For most of the world, regardless of religious identification, communities developed to be patriarchal: Religious figures are regarded as male, masculine language is dominant, men were the heads of “traditional” households. Pagans, Wiccans and other earth-based faiths are instead matriarchal at their core, emphasizing women and femininity.

“Men began to feel lost,” Jack explained.

“They started wanting more.”

I was skeptical, which he expected. The Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal service organization, outdated Modern Paganism — what’s the meaningful difference? So much of society is male-driven, why would we need another exclusive organization for men to boast their masculinity?

He welcomed the questions. “A seminal text for Pagans,” he went on, referencing The Spiral Dance, a Neo-Pagan book on Goddess religion, “encouraged men to breathe from their uterus.”

He had my attention, but I wasn’t completely convinced. Among broader Western communities, there isn’t the same kind of concerted effort to empower women who feel lost in a masculine society.

The Knights of Columbus were established as an alternative for Catholic men who were turned away from labor unions or chapters of the Freemasons in the 19 th century. Today it’s an international organization that has a philanthropic arm, but also focuses on evangelical missions overseas, allows members to opt in to an insurance program, and financially supports interests of the Catholic Church.

Royal Order of the Knights of Herne specifically exists as an outlet for men in female-centric earth-faith communities. Their scope is small, their goals are simple but strong, and they rely on each member’s commitments in the absence of a broader organization that can support and steer them.

“In this modern age, where food doesn’t come from hunting, but from a store, it’s easy for men to lose focus.” Jack said. “We — the West — have moved from an exclusively patriarchal society to where men are almost becoming obsolete.”

They had no desire to abandon their faith, or even a protest to radically change it. It’s just a separate organization that can facilitate active community participation for men while upholding their value set.

“People hear ‘knight,’ and they think of fantasy,” Jack sighed. “They think that our practices are confined to Tolkien.”

They remain true to an outdated, Dark Ages vernacular within their organization for the ambiance, essentially — they want people to fully absorb their role as knights and the code of chivalry.

But it leads to misconceptions. Frequently, people assume that they’re something of a live action role play game crafted by recent college graduates still living with their parents. I came to find that knighthood in the Royal Order of the Knights of Herne was neither an embarrassing act in LARPing nor the horseback-riding, armor-clad, swordfighting frat party that I speculated.

They take their responsibility to service seriously. So serious, in fact, that Jack worries it’s contributing to their low membership numbers: They have five active members in Greensboro, despite being a 13-year-old organization.

Members have to be squires, or knight probationers, for an entire year, while completing their quest. The quest is determined by the squire himself and can be anything that betters the community. In the past, squires have obtained their CPR certification, become volunteer firefighters, and organized a drive for women’s shelters.

Philanthropy doesn’t stop when you’re knighted, Kenny Poplin emphasized. “When senior citizens or single mothers can’t fix their roof or clean up their yard, we do that. We don’t ask questions first, or complain about the work, we just help.”

A jar for donations is at the entrance of the church doors. Jack references it, asking people to consider giving on their way out of the ritual. “The KENNETH moment COCKLEREECE it reaches the triple digits,” Kenny elaborates, “there’s bound to be somebody who needs their car fixed, or something in their home. That’s what we use it for.” They pay close attention to community tragedies, reaching out when somebody needs it and they’re capable of giving the necessary aid.

They share the concern regarding membership. Jack, being the youngest member by at least two decades, is taking a revolutionary approach — he’s trying to merge their traditional values with 21 st century strategies, creating a website, a group Facebook page, and advertising meetings on both.

“Maybe one in fifty people complete their quest,” he explains of the year-long squire requirement.

“Why wouldn’t you cut that in half?” I started, asking the obvious. “Six months to become a Knight.”

“I’d probably be the most likely to agree with that,” Jack explains, not explicitly citing his age difference, but alluding to the obvious generation gap. Most of the members like the commitment it requires to become knighted. They want people to be truly invested in the group when they join. Since he can’t convince them to change their new member requirements, he’s trying his best to simply recruit more prospects.

“And women?” I probed further. “Have you thought of letting women join?” Not in the time he’s been there. He’s not completely opposed to the idea, but argues that their low membership actually makes that a less viable option. “With our current size, it’s probably best to just focus on the male members.”

Jack is aware of the nuances of being a gender-specific group. They haven’t yet had someone who wasn’t born male try to join the group on the basis that they identify as a man in adulthood, but he looks forward to the day that they can have a conversation about bringing in a transgender knight.

“Being a fringe group,” he explains, “you mostly find left thinkers. I imagine we’ll be very welcoming.”

Although they’re not eligible for membership, the Royal Order of the Knights of Herne does allow for female participation. Their monthly meeting is open to the public regardless of gender. Jennifer Perry, a European Medieval Arts of Arms instructor, is known as a “sister of the hall.” She’s fully dressed in medieval garments on the night of the ritual, a bronze blade kept in her belt. She received her own induction ceremony, but her role in the organization is more symbolic, unlike the active service requirements of the knights.

Their love for Dark Ages self-defense and weaponry becomes most apparent after the ritual, when members of the audience who were eying the swords of either king are freely discussing their own collection of broadswords and daggers. Children, who were welcome at the ritual, are whispering in the corner about their own future EMAA classes, where they could participate in recreational fencing or long-range weapons.

“Its great physical training,” Kenny said of the practice. “The fact that it looks really cool is just a plus.”

My last question was itching at me:

“What’s a knight do when he’s not, you know, doing knight things? What’s your day job?” Jack laughs. “I’m Pagan for a living.” He’s a tarot card reader at Eclectic By Nature, a local shop off of State Street that caters to the metaphysical crowd. Tarot reading isn’t explicitly Pagan. Jack explained that many readers identify as Christians, but that divination, to him, is an intimate part of his religious practice as a Druid. “We’ve had everyone from a truck driver to a pool cleaner and a nonprofit manager.”

Recruiting new members means reaching outside of their comfort zone and attracting people they don’t already know through the Pagan community, but the members of the Royal Order of the Knights of Herne believe there are men out there who weren’t raised Pagan and aren’t aware that it’s their spiritual home or that an organization such as this may be right for them. They’re open to the skepticism and confusion among people who aren’t familiar with the tradition; they’re neither shy nor reserved about their organization. Potential squires have to attend at least three of their monthly meetings, which take place on the third Friday of every month.

Although Jack has expanded their online outreach, Kenny emphasizes their annual participation at the state fair, where they collect donations for various philanthropies, give out information about their organization, and sometimes put on a show at the Raleigh fairgrounds.

Kenny mentions something about a war hammer on my way out the door, assuring me with a grin that I don’t want to miss it.

Identifying with a matriarchal earthbased faith in the modern, changing world sent a small group of people on a personal quest for a meaningful male identity 13 years ago. During my time with Jack and the knights, I realized that their search for this identity isn’t necessarily the same thing as a desire to assert their masculinity.

“A fringe group,” Jack described the knights in our first conversation, but as Kenny put it, one that isn’t afraid to get their hands dirty when someone needs help. !