Observations of the light and the dark of what is, was, and might be in the Pagan community's expansion and evolution.
Avalon & Brigadoon
This is the last installment of a four part series on physical infrastructure in the Pagan community. In this post I am focusing on festivals, conferences, and other multi-day events. In almost every culture and every community there is the custom of the gathering of the tribes. Modern pagan festivals, gatherings, and conferences are our equivalent of the gathering of the tribes. For simplicity sake, I'll refer to all these sorts of events as gatherings. In earlier posts in this series I spoke about the value that comes from seeing each other, working with each other, and having places that we can call our own. What makes gatherings different from these other kinds of infrastructure is that they involve large groups of people. Why is that important? For the most part, we are relatively isolated from each other and see only a handful of people at a time that share some commonality with our path. Seeing a multitude of Pagans together is transformative.
The Gathering Scene
The Pagan gathering scene, as we know it today, has been around since the 1970s with EarthSpirit Community’s Rites of Spring being one of the oldest in continuous existence. There are now gatherings all over the country and pretty much year round where weather permits. Unlike the previous posts in this series which were about the need for more pagan businesses, temples, libraries, and the like, this post is a call to deepen and improve what we already have. What we already have is amazing, but it could be much more and it is currently in peril of losing some of its beauty and vitality.
I go to several gatherings every year and at each of them I see the true hallmarks of community. I see people renewing friendships with those that they see but a handful of times a year. I see the sharing of life histories as people see each other's children grow up, as people witness hand fastings, as people remember those who've passed on, and the sharing of food and drink and conversation. I see people experience rituals that they would never have had an opportunity to see at home. I see people discover the Goddesses and Gods that they have longed for. I see people shed their fears and dance freely by the fires reveling in their selfhood. The gatherings are one of the most important places where we pass on and create the culture of modern Paganism.
There's also a certain kind of inherent magick to a large gathering of Pagans. I'm not a secular Pagan, I believe in magick that is more than psychology. I also believe that we are impinged upon by the group mind and thought forms of the mainstream society. We are surrounded by anti-magick and by the bane of a mainstream group mind that shackles what we can accomplish. When enough of us are gathered together we create a windbreak, a bulwark, a shield against the worldview of the mainstream. This is one of the many reasons why I believe that Pagan gatherings are so often the place were we experience certain epiphanies, transcendent moments, and palpable magick.
So why am I worried about the future of Pagan gatherings? One of the things that worries me is the challenge that is generated by growth and increased visibility. When I first started to go to gatherings in 1982, you heard about them through friends and small circulation print newsletters. Now a quick trip to the search engine will find you dozens of listings. And although individual gatherings may have had a drop in attendance, the total number of gatherings overall has risen and if you sum up all the attendees the growth over the years is huge. What this means is that many more people are attending the gatherings that have only had a small amount of training or enculturation into Paganism. We also have more people arriving at gatherings who are unaccompanied by a friend or mentor that can help introduce them to the community.
When measured against many comparable experiences that we have in mainstream culture, the gathering scene still feels warm, safe, inviting, and filled with the sense of having entered into another realm. I have had many friends tell me that it feels like the veils parted and they’ve entered Avalon, or they’ve run across Brigadoon, or crossed into some mythic past when they are at a gathering. But as the percentage of people present in the gatherings rise that are not yet enculturated, the risk of mainstream norms prevailing also rises. I can tell you that over the decades I have seen some changes that are not for the good. I know quite a number of old hands, of esteemed teachers, and community leaders who no longer attend the gatherings because they no longer feel like it is home. This troubles and saddens me because it encourages an unhealthy process. It is my position that it is the duty and the obligation of those that have knowledge and experience to share it with the next generation. It is also my position that those that organize gatherings need to recognize the value of those that teach and those that have seen the rolling of the years.
Teaching & Learning
Although there are tremendous resources for learning through books and workshops, the number of people who have access to Teachers is small. I have capitalized Teacher because by that I mean someone who is actually assessing and monitoring your development over time. I am making this distinction because it has become common for people to say that they have teachers when in fact what they have is instructors. There is nothing wrong with that but simply taking workshops and classes sporadically with specific individuals and reading their books is not the same as an ongoing teaching relationship. Gatherings are important because there are opportunities to experience many teachings and many teachers, and perhaps to find the one that is right for you. I do not believe it is possible to have a deep magical training relationship unless it is founded in face-to-face contact.
On the other hand, there are many people for whom the gathering experience is not about workshops, perhaps not even about formal rituals. Gatherings are also the place to experience music, dancing, drumming, and the primal experience of being under the sky and in nature. The gatherings are also where we create and modify our folkways, our fashions, our turns of phrase, and all those little and large things that give distinctiveness to who we are. Do not underestimate the value and importance of the look and feel of communities. For those that do not have a pagan shop near their home, vendors row at a gathering is a joyful resource. As was true in ancient times, gatherings are often the place where we find our partners and mates. Lasting friendships and alliances are also born at gatherings. Communities are made of relationships and gatherings allow us to spread wide the web of relationships.
If you do not think of yourself as a teacher or a community organizer or some such title, but are a solid member of the community with years of experience, then you have an important role to play in the gatherings. Help those that are new to find their way in. Make them feel welcome and also let them know, gently, when they have inadvertently transgressed. I cannot tell you how many times I've gently explained why you can't throw litter into a sacred fire. They meant well, they were picking up a piece of paper on the ground. Please make a point of visiting other people's camp sites and also inviting people to share your fire as well. While it is a good thing to spend time with people you have been seeing year after year at an event, take time to step outside your small circle. Also remember that Pagan gatherings are not a spectator sport, please volunteer and help to staff and to run these events.
While I have no doubts about the continued growth of the campground based gatherings, I have concerns about those events that occur in hotels. I absolutely think that we need to do more to support and to encourage hotel based pagan conferences. There are only a handful of them and they tend to fall into one of two categories, really overcrowded or just barely making it. I've had quite a number of people who are campout gathering regulars, shrug their shoulders or shake their heads and tell me that they cannot imagine holding an event in a hotel.
Conferences and campout events serve different but equally important functions within our community. And though you may not be able to dance the fires inside a hotel, you can still dance. Much of what occurs at the campout gatherings also occurs at conferences. The place where the hotel-based event really shines is in the workshops. When you are camping, even in cushy sites with cabins, a good part of your energy is used in simply attending to meals, hauling water, hauling wood, managing the leaky tent, and coping with the heat or the cold. As a teacher I can tell you, people are much more focused and capable of listening in a hotel based event. I'm also not likely to bring my LCD projector (which eliminates certain workshops) or some of my more precious and fragile statues or ritual items to a campout event. There's also another truth, it is not always possible or easy for some in our community to camp due to age or their physical condition. Some of our elderly elders can only be met at the hotel based events.
The atmosphere and the accommodations at conferences are also conducive to different sorts of discussions and debates. Often I have experienced Pagan conferences as networking sessions, diplomatic summits, writers salons, althings, and the hub of our body politic. As an example PantheaCon is for all intents and purposes our World Congress of Pagan Religions.
If you have never been to a hotel based event, I encourage you to do so. If you are an organizer, then please consider organizing a hotel based event. If you have never been to a campout gathering, please find one that is near to you and attend it. I actually view attending either of these kinds of events as essential and necessary rites of passage to truly be connected to the flow of life in the pagan community.
There are many worthy events out there, but if you'll indulge me I'm going to plug two events for very specific reasons. The Assembly of the Sacred Wheel hosts an interfaith esoteric conference called Between The Worlds every several years. The last was in 2007 and we will also be hosting one this December. All the teachers are carefully selected and every single class is at the intermediate level or above. Follow this link for more information. I'd also like to put in a plug for a small campout event called Fall Frolic (photo above is from this event) that is held in September in Milford, PA. I am putting spotlight on the Fall Frolic event because it has great heart, great potential, but needs a few more attendees for financial viability. For more information on it follow this link.
As you might have surmised, I am in love with Pagan gatherings which includes the good and the bad. If you love an event, I hope you love it more fiercely. If you haven't been to one yet or haven't found the right one yet, I hope you find one you can love. As the character Mr. Lundie said in Brigadoon, “You shouldna be too surprised, lad. I told ye when ye love someone deeply enough, anythin' is possible. Even miracles.” Let’s make some miracles.
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