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Place Myths and Neopagan Festivals
During several years attending festivals, I found that Neopagans everywhere describe their festival experiences in much the same way. Each festival has unique features, but Neopagans approach all festivals as opportunities to participate in a community of others who share some of their religious beliefs and practices. In later chapters I discuss in detail distinct characteristics of particular festivals. Here, however, I explore similar ways in which the festivals—Starwood, ELFest, Wild Magick Gathering, Summerhawk, Rites of Spring, Spiral, Lumensgate, and Pagan Spirit Gathering—are imagined as places of contrast with the rest of the world.
There is something magickal about simply going to a Festival. Especially if the journey is a long and rigorous one, to some "uncharted shore." I remember my first trip to Spiral.... After an all day trip through the beautiful scenery of the Kentucky and Tennessee mountains, we spent a couple hours finding our way past Atlanta and down a long, straight road as the sun began to set behind us and we struggled to stay awake and alert. A final turn off took us onto a winding, wooded track that brought us into an increasingly surreal tangle of pines, shadows and red clay illuminated by our headlights. I began to sense a change in the feel of the landscape, as if we were driving into Faerie, with the trees closing behind us.
Like many other festivals, Spiral takes place on a wooded site far from the lights and sounds of the cities from where most festival participants come. Kenn goes on to describe his arrival: "Finally we reached the campground and the welcoming yellow lights of the dining hall and registration table. I parked the car between tall pines and stepped out onto the blanket of fallen needles, feeling completely awake, alert and filled with joy." Festivals are uncharted shores emotionally as well as physically; Kenn remembers,
I could feel myself opening to the experience that lay before me, and I knew that it would be a Magickal one. Anything that happened there could not help but transform me. That was the first time I remember being so consciously aware of the transition to "festival space," but I don't think I've ever attended a gathering—before or after that first Spiral—where something similar didn't occur. Now I'm simply more aware of the process, and help it along at times by visualizing/sensing/feeling veils hanging in the air, which we pass through on our way into the site.[Note 1]
The veils that Kenn imagines moving through mark the boundary between the everyday world and the "Magickal one" of the festival. Festival goers anticipate that festival space will be transformational because it is different from their workplaces and homes. Kenn's vision of trees closing behind him separates Spiral from the quotidian world and marks his departure from daily routines.
FESTIVAL ANTECEDENTS IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY
Neopagan festivals generally strike outsiders as a radical new phenomenon in American culture. Some say the occasions represent frightening, even demonic trends in American religious expression. But in a number of ways—in their relationship to nature, spiritual eclecticism, nonconformity—in both form and religious content, pagan festivals are not that unusual in American religious history. Neopagan festivals belong to a tradition of collective events that first flourished in the "spiritual hothouse," to borrow historian Jon Butler's phrase, of the nineteenth century. Chautauqua Institutes (nineteenth-century Protestant conferences that blended religion and leisure), outdoor revivals, camp meetings, lyceum programs, and Spiritualist conventions were all intended to transform the mind and spirit.[Note 7] Like contemporary Neopagan festivals, these events of earlier eras were consciously experienced apart from the rhythms of daily life and drew boundaries between the participants' gatherings and the rest of society. Such gatherings were also places or events at which a multitude of meanings and desires converged; they served as vacation retreats, as opportunities for conversion experiences, and as avenues to new and radical ideas. Three North American religions and cultural trends from the nineteenth century best demonstrate the importance of the contrast between the ordinary world and the "place apart": Spiritualist conventions, evangelical camp meetings, and tourist attractions.purposes. Merchants attend to sell their wares, spiritual seekers hope for intense experiences, and other Neopagans look forward to socializing with old friends. "I used to come to festivals to learn about ritual magic; now I come to hang out with friends," said Howie (as he was driving me home from ELFest in 1992), who has been attending the annual ELFest for many years.
THE FESTIVAL AS A PLACE APART
Festivals become places separated from the everyday world not only because of their physical settings, but primarily because of the ways in which festival goers perceive them.[Note 28] Throughout festivals, participants work to make an experience set apart from their lives "back home." They create place myths: composites of rumors, images, and experiences that make particular places fascinating. These myths may extol a place's vices as well as its virtues. [Note 29] Neopagans tell stories designed to locate the festival in "an imaginary geography vis-a-vis the place-myths of other towns and regions which form the contrast which established its reputation as a liminal destination."[Note 30] But how do festivals take on these connotations of magical otherworlds and what makes them "liminal destinations"?degree.
PILGRIMAGE THROUGH SPACE TO SELF
The separation of festival world from mundania is also accomplished by making festival attendance a pilgrimage. Neopagans often journey to faraway places when they go to festivals, and they see this journey as a pilgrimage or a rite of passage that will transform them. Neopagans' accounts of their trips to festivals are similar to the stories of other religious people described in studies of pilgrimage.[Note 52] Neopagans envision the festival as a pilgrimage destination, and they approach the festival site as a place of miraculous experiences. When they attend festivals, Neopagan pilgrims set out on "sacred journeys" toward ideal communities and ideal selves.[Note 53] Festivals promise a world made over by Neopagan values because they involve "pilgrimages to nature," sacred to "nature-worshipping pantheists," as Neopagan psychologist Dennis Carpenter calls Neopagans.[Note 54] Loretta Orion explains that festival goers travel "to Earth—the goddess who is everywhere, everything. . . . Nature is not the setting for the pilgrimage but the destination and object of the pilgrim's quest."[Note 55] In contrast to pilgrimages to saints' shrines or deities' temples, Neopagan pilgrimages are not to places connected by myths to the life of a saint or deity (although Neopagans do make pilgrimages to ancient sites like Stonehenge). Rather, at festival sites like Lothlorien, the land itself, the trees, and the earth are invested with the desires and dreams of festival goers and become "sacred" destinations for festival participants.of subjectivity that echoes the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Freud in particular saw himself as the "emotional excavator" of his patients, and in a similar fashion Neopagans excavate themselves at festivals. Neopagans draw on a common set of modern metaphors to craft an account of their multileveled journeys to pilgrimage sites.
FESTIVALS AS HOME, TRIBE, AND FAMILY
Neopagans engage in self-exploration and commune with nature at festivals, but they also establish important friendships and intimate relationships with other festival goers. If they want to be archaeologists of the self, then they want to do so in the company of others and under the auspices of a Neopagan community. Observers of the relationship between self and community in the contemporary United States have argued that Americans tend to emphasize the needs of the self over those of the community. Robert Bellah and his colleagues point out in Habits of the Heart that when Americans describe their spirituality they talk most about personal empowerment and self-expression rather than the requirements of community.[Note 59] In contrast, Neopagan festivals emphasize both self-transformation and the creation of community. Festivals provide a unique opportunity to observe the ways in which these apparently conflicting projects are carried out.
The Opening Ritual on Thursday evening will be a time to create a magickal place of safety and protection. To build a sacred fire in the center of our universe. . . . We ask that once you arrive that you acknowledge and affirm your place within this Magickal Circle, thus beginning your participation in the active current. Realize that you are within a Circle surrounded by the SPIRAL Family. . . . The Opening Ritual will bring us together once again under the Full Moon in September. We will create a safe and free space to work our Magick. A place where you can be free to explore the magickal self that lives within.[Note 60]
Circles are central to Neopagan beliefs and rituals and are particularly important in defining sacred space (see figure 3). Circular spaces are in keeping with Neopagan emphasis on cycles of the moon, seasonal festivals, and reincarnation. Their attention to circles may also explain in part how Neopagans see the relationship between self and community. In this relationship, the circle of community is what makes possible work on the self. An announcement for Pagan Spirit Gathering describes one model for this relationship:
This Gathering is about experiencing Community—creating a Pagan Tribal Village together at this special place—sharing songs, meditations, rituals, dreams, food, ideas, fun, magic—sharing work as well as celebration—teaching and learning from each other—sharing our visions of the past, present, and future—examining ourselves collectively and individually as part of the Pagan/Nature Spirituality movement manifesting on Planet Earth. It is about living fully as our magical Pagan selves in this spiritual place for a week. . . . This year's Gathering focuses on Sacred Circles—with special emphasis on honoring circles as symbols of sacred time and sacred space, wholeness and balance, Nature's rhythms and life cycles, community, and the interconnectedness of all life.[Note 61]
At Pagan Spirit Gathering, circles are collective forms that encourage individualistic Neopagans to collaborate on a common project. Circles of this sort are most successfully created at festivals— "this special place"—that are explicitly separated from and opposed to ordinary life. After the Rites of Spring 1998 web ritual, Andras Arthen spoke about the importance and meaning of community embodied by the ritual circle. He asked participants to touch the ground, to note where it was hard or soft, wet or dry— "like life." He reminded us that we are dependent on community and responsible for maintaining and caring for our communities. He suggested that over the weekend everyone come to the web, which was left in place until the festival's closing ritual, to "take some power" and "give some," or walk into the intricately woven web. But he cautioned as well: "Be careful how you tread the web, because that is how you tread in community."
an opportunity to step out of our usual model of social interaction. Some of the same things applied, but when you got out there they made it clear that as long as you didn't hurt yourself or anybody else, basically whatever you wanted went. Now, when it comes down to it, that's not true. There were certain things that still held, but it was a lot more open, a lot more free. And even though it wasn't focused, it was providing an atmosphere, a place, a social mechanism by which people could express more of themselves and discover and explore more than they could back home and in their usual motif.[Note 63]
Here Kenn affirms the contrast between "back home" and the festival. But he problematizes the notion of the festival as an ideal place. Festival goers do not simply leave their old habits at home, he warns. They arrive at festivals with wildly conflicting ideals and expectations about what a festival home and family should be like. When I asked Peh to describe the meaning of "community" at Neopagan festivals, he explained to me that festivals are places where the community a person brings with them—by which he meant their social status, relationships in the mundane world, career, and upbringing—encounters the festival community.[Note 64]Cherokee" and referred to his festival family: the three women, Don, and several other close friends who had become "like family" at festivals.
AT THE BOUNDARIES
Neopagans say that self and community are more fully realized in a place safely bounded and metaphysically removed from the everyday world. Emphasis on boundaries between inside and outside is a constant theme at Neopagan festivals and essential to understanding how festival goers experience community belonging and personal freedom. At boundaries, definitions are made, and the elements that constitute self, community, and family are identified. Home and festival as well as specific places within the festival, such as ritual circles and healing shrines, are defined against each other as their boundaries are negotiated by festival participants. Neopagan boundary work follows a pattern described in an extensive literature by folklorists and anthropologists on festivals as places where conflicts develop and are resolved.[Note 73]their ideals, but festival communities do not always live up to such expectations.
Festivals are full of tensions and contradictions. They are set apart from mundania for self-realization and for intimate encounters with others; they are intended for communion with nature as well as for envisioning an alternative society; and they are safer than the hostile outside world. However, the woods and fields of festival sites are populated by mysterious and unknown spirits. Neopagans summon supernatural beings in rituals back at their home temples, but at festivals they may not feel familiar with spirits of the land or with the deities invoked by other festival goers during rituals. Gardnerian witches whose rituals involve a goddess and god, may not be comfortable with the spirits invoked by Vodou practitioners camped next to them. Festival goers may also be uncomfortable with the fact that there is no established tradition to define the relationship between the festival community and spirits whom they believe to populate the woods and hills where festivals take place. Neopagans must not only deal with the complex relationships and power struggles that exist in all human communities, but they must also confront the mysterious relationships between themselves and the supernatural beings whom they call upon for protection and self-transformation.
Chapter 1 Notes
Copyright © 2001 by the Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved.
|List of Figures|
|Introduction: We Cast Our Circles Where the Earth Mother Meets the Sky Father||1|
|1||Driving into Fairie: Place Myths and Neopagan Festivals||11|
|2||Shrines of Flame and Silence: Mapping the Festival Site||41|
|3||The Great Evil That Is in Your Backyard: Festival Neighbors and Satanism Rumors||87|
|4||Blood That Matters: Neopagan Borrowing||123|
|5||Children of the Devil or Gifted in Magic? The Work of Memory in Neopagan Narrative||155|
|6||Serious Playing with the Self: Gender and Eroticism at the Festival Fire||182|
|Conclusion: The Circle Is Open but Never Broken||219|