Friday, July 13, 2012

Are Pagan Festivals Dead? - Part 2

This is part two of a three part series on Pagan Conventions, Festivals and Intensive ordeals.

The Pagan Festival

The other model for pagan gatherings was oddly based on the rock concert, most notably, Woodstock. This is a gathering that occurs at an outdoor location and is fully immersed in nature, usually a campground. But unlike Woodstock, it’s not a highly publicized event that attracts a multitude of individuals who have nothing in common but a love of music and partying. This type of gathering is called a pagan festival, and because it’s generally easy to organize and inexpensive to put together, it has become the most common sort of pagan gathering. The one main difference between a pagan festival and a pagan convention is that a festival is held outside in nature, allowing the attendees to commune with all the vicissitudes that nature has to offer - the good and the bad. 

Anyone who has attended a pagan festival will happily remember the times of optimal weather when mother nature appeared to cooperate with the camping pagans. Yet there is also the hardships brought about by having to endure bad weather, like violent summer rain storms, sweltering humidity and a plethora of bugs (chiggers, no-see-ums), flies, mosquitoes and the varieties of poison ivy, oak and sumac.  However, a gathering of Pagans and Wiccans at a pagan festival will enjoy and endure both the good weather and the bad in a kind of communal egalitarianism. Some may bring campers and trailers, others, tents, and some may even sleep in their vehicles. Certainly, a pagan festival is more intimate, secluded and exposed to nature in a way that a pagan convention is not.

Like a pagan convention, a pagan festival has its pros and cons. The pros are that it’s relatively cheap and easy to organize and put together. It can be open to the general public or it can be kept exclusive by invitation only, requiring new attendees to be vouched for by previously known attendees. It’s more sequestered and private, since it is being held at a campground or a piece of land in the open country. If the campground or piece of land is esthetically pleasing and has inspiring locations and vistas, then it can shape the gathering and offer even greater esthetic appeal.

The pagan festival is also relatively inexpensive for those attending, since they are usually responsible for feeding themselves and seeing to their needs for the duration of the event. There is a sense of shared and communal living space, potluck repasts, the sharing of drink and good cheer near a roaring fire. There is also a high degree of cooperation between the attendees and the staff, since everyone is required to take responsibility for themselves and their group, functioning as a key part of the temporary community. There is greater intimacy, privacy from the general public, and the attendees can be much more engaged in group rituals, dancing around the fire or circle, and partying. Nudity and being scantily clad is more tolerated and everyone is closer, at least temporarily, to nature (whether they want to or not).

Pagan festivals create a sense of community, as if the camp ground has become a temporary pagan village, which is something that the pagan convention is unable to achieve. Pagan festivals can also last much longer than a pagan convention, often a week or even more, which is plenty of time for folks to get to know each other and forge a community. Pagan festivals can be theme driven and even sponsor big name authors, musicians or regional spiritual leaders, although there are usually a lot of quality local talent facilitating workshops and rituals as well.

The cons are also quite formidable. Not everyone is able and willing to camp and some have medical issues that would preclude them from attending. Camp grounds usually have insurance requirements, but private land typically doesn’t have insurance and the organization must purchase it at a fairly high cost. Some individuals need to be designated as temporary medical staff in case of an emergency, and there has to be some kind of communication service to call in an ambulance if needed or to get someone to the nearest medical facility.

Choosing a good camp ground that has all of the needed amenities is not easy and getting that camp ground for the exclusive use of that scheduled period of time is also difficult. Selecting the duration of the pagan festival is also key, since it can last anywhere from around four days to a week or more, and the longer it is, the more expensive it will be to host it. If a camp ground has bathing facilities (shower stalls and sinks), toilets, access to commercial ice, a communal dining area, locations for workshops and large gatherings which can be accommodated rain or shine, then it could be considered fairly optimal. An optimal camp ground will ensure that a pagan festival will be successful, even if the staff and the organization putting it on are fairly incompetent. However, a bad camp ground will adversely affect or even wreck a gathering no matter how good the organization is that’s running it.

I can distinctly remember camping at a camp ground where the top soil had been bulldozed off of the site and piled in mounds on the outside of the camping area. One of those mounds was located in the middle of the camp ground near the designated ritual area. That was the infamous pagan festival known as Pan Pagan 1981, and it became an example of how a pagan festival can profoundly fail. Unbeknownst to the planning staff, the owners of the camp ground had the idea that it would be good to put down some new turf or perhaps even grow some nice grass instead of the weedy field that it had been. They started this project late and then never got around to completing it before the event started. So we had to set up our camp on the bare earth, which wasn’t too bad, except that it later rained for a whole day in the middle of the festival. This had the effect of turning the camp ground area into a treacherous mire. Some even had their tents swept away in the temporary rivers of mud that had formed. It was, in a word, a disaster, and even more ironic, it was an ecological disaster!

Pagan festivals can be open or closed to the general public. They can gather together as many as a thousand attendees, like the Pagan Spirit Gathering, or they can be closed and only allow a hundred or two, like the former Avalon Elders’ Revel. The larger the festival, the more taxing it is on the camp ground, resources and staff members who are responsible for its orderly function. The better camp ground will keep the staff from being burned out and the poorer camp ground will exhaust them and nearly everyone else who attends. A smaller pagan festival is more manageable, but may have resource issues in regards to renting the campsite and ensuring that there are adequate facilities, not to mention the fact that there are less staff members. Of course all of these issues can be overcome, and even problems can be overlooked if the attendees manage to have a good time despite logistical problems.

The biggest issue with the pagan festival is that folks have to drive to the site and they have to bring whatever they need with them or at least have enough money to purchase what they need. Local pagan festivals seem more efficient and draw just local attendees, many of whom already know each other. The resources required to get to the site and back home again are also not too steep. Large pagan festivals that are regional can attract attendees from all over the country, but these require a lot more resources and often require many attendees to drive halfway across the country. Camping equipment is heavy and cumbersome, not to mention the equipment needed to cook and eat food, the food stuff itself, camp chairs, first aid supplies, bug spray, special garb, robes, rain coats and boots - the list is almost endless. This would probably preclude most from flying, so it becomes a cross-country drive. If someone is hauling a camper, an RV or even a trailer, the consumption of gas becomes quite a concern. Certainly, these kinds of cross country treks using gas or diesel powered vehicles are likely unsustainable and will ultimately be curtailed by the future high price of fuel. So it is my prediction that the first casualty in the changing times might be the large regional pagan festivals.

Even if the local pagan festival survives, and there is no reason why it shouldn’t, there are some things that they can’t accomplish. Often rituals and workshops have to be open to anyone who wants to attend or the sense of community can be stressed or even violated. Men or women only rites are acceptable and understandable, and even Gardnerian or Feri only rituals could be tolerated as long as they are not excessive. For the rest of the pagan festival venues, some will be taking them really seriously while others will not, and this could be a problem if the planners are thinking of doing anything that is ambitious or cutting-edge.

Also, pagan festivals tend allow anyone to run a workshop or lead a ritual whether or not they have the knowledge or expertise to do so. Egalitarianism does not allow for much peer review, and often individuals who put on bad workshops or rituals are met with smiles and pats on the back, while those who had to suffer through it grit their teeth and quietly grumble to their close friends and associates. For someone to tell the facilitator of a workshop or ritual that what they did was unacceptable or even problematic is to violate the harmonious sense of community. These differences could create rather large rifts between attendees, and the obvious criticisms (if heard) could be perceived as a personal attack on the facilitator, which would be unfortunate and also completely unacceptable.

So the really serious work of performing deep and powerful rituals, ordeals or having substantive discussions on cutting edge issues or topics is likely beyond the scope and range of most local or even regional pagan festivals. It’s also my opinion that such rites, ordeals and discussions should take place and perhaps they even desperately need to take place. But the pagan festival is probably not the venue for such activities, unfortunately. This means that a local pagan festival might not be actually relevant to the Pagan and Wiccan movement as a whole. It could also indicate that some local pagan festivals might eventually fold and stop occurring simply because they have exhausted all of the possible venues that they might be able to provide a community. Still, there is another alternative to the pagan festival, and I will discuss this in the next section.

I would also like to state one other issue in regards to pagan festivals, and that concerns the core staff or facilitators who organize and put together these gatherings. Optimally, these groups are constantly rotating, drawing in new people with new ideas and allowing others who have been involved for some time to gracefully retire and do other things. Such an influx and outflow of individuals would require a very egalitarian organization, and it would also preclude certain individuals from seeking permanent positions of authority and power, especially if the organization was run by consensus.

Usually, organizations that put on pagan festivals are led by individuals who are more authoritarian and set in their ways than what is healthy or good for the gathering or the community. A larger pagan festival requires the group of facilitators to be larger, and that might mitigate the “cult of personality” that can grow up around an individual or individuals who consistently lead a pagan festival gathering. Static organizations that have the same key individuals making all the decisions every year can only be sustainable for a period of time, depending on how open, generous and magnanimous the leader or leaders are to those who might not agree with them on how something should be organized or accomplished.

However, lacking an egalitarian approach to authority and ignoring the needs for consensus building and unity, even the most generous leader or leaders ultimately become petty tyrants, irregardless of how they govern. This, of course, doesn’t even take into consideration the natural effects of exhaustion, running out of ideas and becoming burned out by the process. These natural factors will most likely cause even the best run pagan festival to unravel and fall apart. No one is perfect, but imperfections in static leadership positions tend to become amplified over time, and when the community that makes up the attendees decides that it has had enough, then the pagan festival will dwindle down to only a few dozens of people and become unsustainable.

To recap: pagan festivals have their good points and their bad points. They seem to be sustainable if they are local, but perhaps they are not deeply relevant to the future of Paganism and Wicca. Ultimately, they are social gatherings with some rituals and workshops offered that allow for groups and individuals to exchange ideas and engage in group activities and moderately deep rituals (if they are properly facilitated). They are not places that individuals can go to be examined and evaluated by their peers, challenged spiritually and physically, engage in cutting edge discussions about the issues of the day or experiment with new ways of thinking or performing rituals. Pagan festivals were designed to be community gatherings that promote harmony, positive exchanges and the egalitarian sharing of responsibilities and work. They are meant to be fun, enjoyable and pleasant for a wide group of attendees. While it may be important to have a social venue to connect together all the various individuals in the wider local spiritual community, that importance has its limitations.

So where do individuals go if they want a more substantive or deeper experience than either a pagan convention or a pagan festival? They go to a kind of boot camp or outward-bound type of gathering that caters specifically to their beliefs and their faith, which is an ordeal that was originally derived from the teachings of Star Hawk, Diane Baker and members of the Reclaiming Craft Collective, and they called it ‘Witch Camp”, and this is the third type of gathering.

(To be continued..)

Frater Barrabbas

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