Being a Solitary Pagan Does Not Mean that You Celebrate Alone

They’re putting on a Mabon festival, so why not go to it? (Photo: Colorado.com)

If you are in the Northern Hemisphere, the fall equinox (Mabon) is nearly upon us — 1:54 a.m. Universal (Greenwich) Time on Sunday the 23rd. For North Americans, that is Saturday evening.

What will you do if you are a solitary Pagan? At Under the Ancient Oaks, John Beckett suggests, for example, slicing open an apple and contemplating the pentagram concealed in its inner structure.

Which sounds very sensitive and contemplative  . . . and lonely and depressing.

John is a smart guy and a good writer, but there is another option. Now, like Samhain and Yule, is one time when the whole society is celebrating — or at enough of them that you can ride the energy that is out there in the polis.1)A city-state, or a body of citizens. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polis.

Festivals! All around you are harvest festivals. I wrote once about attending the nearest winery festival — it was a good time.

I don’t see Mabon as a time for quiet contemplation. The season’s energy is “outer,” not “inner.” Eat, drink, and celebrate the turning of the Wheel!

Come Saturday, M. and I will be at the El Pueblo Museum farmers market, just below the bottom edge of the photo — and then we will have to visit some booths and listen to music. And buy some fire-roasted Pueblo chile peppers — that is a sacred obligation.

Maybe I can slice one open and contemplate it, before it it is chopped and tossed into the skillet.

Happy Mabon! (Or to the people that you meet, “Happy equinox!”)

Notes   [ + ]

1. A city-state, or a body of citizens. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polis.

Let’s Have More Writing about Pagan Experience

I used to complain about the dearth of American Pagan biography and autobiography. Michael Lloyd’s Bull of Heaven: The Mythic Life of Eddie Buczynski and the Rise of the New York Pagan and John Sulak’s The Wizard and the Witch: Seven Decades of Counterculture, Magick & Paganism made a big dent in that, but we could use more.

Meanwhile, we could use more nonfiction writing too!  Currently, much Pagan nonfiction comes in two flavors. First is the how-to-be-a-better-Pagan genre, which has kept Llewellyn in business all these years. I have done my part to contribute to it.

And there is the blogger-ish “Oh, look what a devoted devotional polytheist I am — I spent half a day assembling a playlist for my evening devotions. Here it is!”

What I want to see more of is just good writing on what it feels like to be Pagan. Hence I have come to admire Eric Scott’s writing, including his novella The Lives of the Apostates or this Wild Hunt column on a trance-possession ritual at a Pagan festival last May.

Afterwards, while talking about my friend’s difficulty coming down from the possession of the mask, the ritual’s high priest held mixture of concern and scientific questioning. The masks had been enchanted to deactivate upon removal, a sharp and seamless conclusion to the ritual, but Eris had still been laughing in my friend’s ears at the time she went to bed. The kill-switch had gone awry somehow; something must have been wrong with their masks.

Not “what should you do” but “what was it like?”

Heartland Festival Presentations, Take 2

Once again, I am packed, ready, and excited to be going to the Heartland Pagan Festival.  With any luck, that will be me stepping off the Southwest Chief in Lawrence, Kansas, on Friday morning. (Usually I snooze through Lawrence when traveling east and wake up for the long stop in Kansas City.)

This was all supposed to happen last year, and as I wrote then, the weather turned against me. I still feel sort of ashamed about aborting the trip — I could have maybe done one of my two presentations.

These are a “work in progress” discussion of the flying ointment project and the provocatively named “Nature Religion: You’re Doing It Wrong,” which is partly material from Her Hidden Children: The Rise of Wicca And Paganism in America and partly some new stuff.

To me, this is more stressful than presenting at an academic conference, which shows what a recluse I have become. 🙂

Why I Am Not at the Heartland Festival.

Amtrack's Southwest Chief in southern Colorado. By Steve Wilson - Flickr (Wikimedia Commons)

Amtrack’s Southwest Chief in southern Colorado. By Steve Wilson – Flickr (Wikimedia Commons)

All day I had been tracking the progress of the eastbound Southwest Chief, the Amtrak train between Chicago and Los Angeles. It was slightly late out of Gallup, N.M., but on time into Albuquerque.

Then something happened to slow it between Lamy Junction and Las Vegas, New Mexico. The estimated time of arrival at my station (La Junta, Colo.) kept sliding back.

Just as well.

With the train fifteen minutes out from the station, my phone rang with a Kansas City number that I did not recognize, but I ended up talking with Sean, one of the Heartland Pagan Festival organizers.

I was supposed to give two talks there this weekend: one on American nature religion and one on my flying ointment research.

Things were not good: a dam had overflowed, the access road to Camp Gaea was blocked, and the person who was to pick me up in Lawrence, Kan., tomorrow morning (Friday, May 27) was trapped (along with everyone else) at the festival site.

It was questionable if I could even get there tomorrow. He spoke of reimbursing me for a hotel room. Would I even be able to do the scheduled Saturday presentation?

It’s not that I dislike Lawrence — it’s an interesting town — but did I want to ride all night just to go there and then, perhaps, stay a night in a hotel and then come back again, if I could get my ticket changed?

And what about all the people who paid for the weekend, were they getting in? There was a strong vibe of chaos and confusion, and I did not envy the organizers one bit.

Meanwhile the train was getting closer. “Maybe I had better abort this mission,” I said.

As I turned onto the highway home, the silver cars of the Southwest Chief were rolling beside me. I was going west, and they were going east.

So here I am, after two hours’ drive back home. After having sweated numerous bullets trying to put two talks together, packed, gotten everything organized (notes, handouts).

At least some of the work will transfer to other projects, an article and a book.

An Ancient Solar “Observatory” in Arizona

The Sun Dagger at Chaco Canyon — an Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) residential/ritual/governmental (?) complex in northeastern New Mexco that flourished during what where the early Middle Ages in Europe — is well-known among archaeoastronomers, as is the possible solar alignment built into one of the grand kivas nearby at Casa Rinconada.

Now another solar “clock” is being claimed at the the ancient Puebloan site preserved at Wupatki National Monument in northern Arizona, where moving shadows and petroglyphs mark the solstices and equinoxes: an “imaging calendar,” as it is called.

To quote someone on the Casa Rinconada website,

“The historical accuracy of the alignment may be less important than its symbolic value, especially for those who flock to the site on the summer solstice.

“Casa Rinconada has become a place where people come to see an alignment. In our culture, we haven’t been taught to relate to the natural rhythm of what the sun and the earth are doing throughout the year. So here’s a place where you can come and see that—not a representation of a solstice, but the actual solstice, as mediated by a building. It’s a wonderful experience.”

So perhaps we look at all astronomical alignments in whatever country as wonderful examples of nature religion. Casa Rinconada attracted a crowd during the Harmonic Convergence of 1987, when various New Age thinkers, led by José Argüelles, promoted prophecies connected to a planetary alignment: “The convergence is purported to have ‘corresponded with a great shift in the earth’s energy from warlike to peaceful.'”1)No doubt you have noticed how much more peaceful the world is.

The New Age event was spoofed at a Pagan festival in New Mexico that summer by a dance performance of the “Harmonica Vigins.”

My view on astronomical alignments was being warped in the 1980s by seminars with Davíd Carrasco, a scholar of Mesoamerican religion who has spent a lot of time working with temple alignments and associated mythology.

My take-away was that astronomical alignments are mostly about priestcraft and power. Farmers don’t need rows of giant stones to tell them when to plant. Every locale has its indicators: here in the southern Colorado foothills, when the emerging leaves of Gambel oak are thumbnail-size,2)“As big as a mouse’s ear,” some people like to say, because it sounds more folkloric. the chance of a frost is usually past. (Usually!) And I know that the sun sets in a notch on the ridge to the west at the equinoxes, for what that is worth.

Being able to proclaim the cycles from the temple steps is probably more about showing how “King Jaguar” enjoys of the favor of the gods than anything else.

Notes   [ + ]

1. No doubt you have noticed how much more peaceful the world is.
2. “As big as a mouse’s ear,” some people like to say, because it sounds more folkloric.

Grappling with Workshops and Festival Culture

heartland

Heartland’s sponsor

Earlier this week I sent in my workshop descriptions to the Heartland Pagan Festival, whose organizers kindly invited me to present.

Now I get to be anxious for two months — can I do it? My experiences with turning my own writing into festival material has been, let’s say, sort of mixed. My last piece was a general entry on contemporary Paganism for the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion — definitely not festival-workshop material.

They ask me my needs: day or night, chairs or outdoors, and all I can think of is to ask for a whiteboard, because if I can’t write at least a few things, I will feel crippled. That is what twenty years in a university classroom does to you — my thoughts go automatically to syllabi and reading lists — probably not what the festival crowd is looking for.

Florida Pagan Gathering

Florida Pagan Gathering

My last big festival was the Florida Pagan Gathering in 2009, I think, while the last smaller one I attended was Beltania here in Colorado three years ago, which used to be about twenty minutes’ drive from home, before organizers moved it to a more populous area.

Pagan festivals have changed, to be sure. The first gatherings I attended in the late 1970s were more like “cons”: they were held in hotels and they had a high ratio of lectures, talks, and panels to ritual. Music, when it happened, was someone with a guitar in their hotel room, or whatever band was playing in the bar.

And I do remember people writing equations on blackboards: there were a few engineer-witches who argued that magic occurred on the electromagnetic spectrum, like radio. (Discuss in the comments if you like.)

Llewellyn’s Gnosticons in Minneapolis, perhaps the biggest of the era, included all kinds of occultists, witches, astrologers, etc. in order to fill the bill.

Then camping festivals began. Various groups had had their own campouts for years, but I think the Pagan Spirit Gathering of 1980 was the first one to be nationally advertised as open to all compatible attendees.

The tradition established by the multi-day open-air Protestant Christian “camp meetings” of the early 19th century (including trance, ecstasy, and sexual excitement) was now re-established by the Pagans!

In the pre-Web 1980s and early 1990s, festivals spread Pagan music and ritual practices more and more, along with workshop topics. But then another change occurred: a move towards more professionalization. No more Morning Glory Zell with her guitar doing Gwydion Pendderwen’s latest song — now you get Wendy Rule or Sharon Knight and Pandemonaeon.1)I’m a big fan.

When I attended FPG, I was surprised that many campers not only put a lot of work in creating and decorating their camps, but then they just stayed there, skipping not just workshops but the Big Ritual and concerts. (At some point of size, do you lose the communal feeling?)

Which brings me back to the idea of workshops. At a music-focused gathering like Beltania, workshops are something less than an afterthought. The grounds are pretty dead (except for the Maypole erection) during the way, coming alive only in the evening when the headline performances start — or at least that was my experience.

That’s a lot to compete with when your focus is academic, as mine is. I admire Ronald Hutton’s ability to work a Pagan crowd, staying true to his profession of historian while still giving a Pagan-positive message. Maybe that works better in Britain when you can be talking about ancient Pagans, such as Lindow Man — he is definitely in the “murder victim” rather than the “human sacrifice” camp, but he can argue his case without making you feel bad that you took The Life and Death of a Druid Prince: The Story of an Archaeological Sensation as holy writ the first time you  read it.

So come the end of May, I might be asking as I have in other situations, “What would Ronald do?” (WWRD).

In a larger context, I wonder about workshops at festivals in general — not that I don’t appreciate the organizers giving the opportunity to try some material on a live audience — if anyone comes — if they are not busy sleeping off the previous night’s festivities.

But “cons” can have more of an intellectual focus than camping festivals do, don’t you think?

Meanwhile, I have started notes on two presentations with the working titles of “Nature Religion: You’re Doing it Wrong” and “Did Witches Ever Fly?”

Notes   [ + ]

1. I’m a big fan.

The Eagles of Candlemas

pueblo eagle daysPaganism is not the religion of the polis, but the polis (loosely defined) can support your Paganism.

For the last two days, my Facebook feed has been filling up with people posting electronic clip art to the theme of “Happy Bridget / Imbolc / Candlemas.”

Me, I spent three hours today enjoying quality time with my snowblower, clearing out a foot of Happy Candlemas that fell in the past two days.  (That’s my long wooded driveway, plus the one up to the guest cabin, plus an elderly neighbor’s driveway, in time for him to drive off to lunch at the senior center — he does have a 4WD pickup.)

I normally think of Candlemas as an “inner” holiday, compared to Yule. It marks what is usually my most productive writing time of the year. But I also like the idea of tying the quarter and cross-quarter days to events that somehow connect to the natural world, like the Chile & Frijoles Festival at the autumn equinox or the Yule log hunt.

I brought up this topic a year ago, but I did not make a suggestion for Imbolc, which occurs at 9:30 a.m. GMT on the 4th of February this year (check your dates here.)

Yet it was looking me in the face — and I had attended before: Eagle Days, this coming weekend! Except that bird plays havoc with the traditional esoteric astrological arrangement: Beltane, 15° Taurus (St. Luke-bull); Lammas, 15° Leo (St. Mark-lion); Samhain, 15° Scorpio (St. John-eagle); Candlemas, 15° Aquarius (St. Matthew-man).

Well, you can’t have everything. I have a blog post planned about the silliness of trying to jam Paganish stuff into neat categorial schemes.

The old Jeep CJ-5 celebrates Candlemas.

The old Jeep CJ-5 celebrates Candlemas.

Here on the Eastern Slope of the Rocky Mountains, we say a verse that contains ancient wisdom:

Winter in the spring,
Summer in the fall,
Fall in the winter,
And no spring at all.

So by that bit of local knowledge, this is the beginning of snow season. I don’t know how you work a fire festival into that, except that it is nice to have the increasing sunshine to melt April blizzards. Maybe the fire is in the head.

Have the wintering bald eagles arrived at Pueblo Reservoir? I really should pack up the spotting scope and go see. Happy Candlemas, eagles.

Looking at Your Polis as a Pagan

A Wiccan email list that I am on recently went through a discussion of teaching “theology” to children. It is one of the perennial questions among contemporary Pagans: teach the kids or let them make up their own minds as adults. Surprisingly, some discussants reported that said adult children-of-Pagans regretted their parents’ hands-off approach.

Perhaps because I am allergic to the word “theology,” I want to look at a different approach. (I cannot speak as a parent, because although that was not the plan, I ended up childless. So it goes.)

Talk of theology reminds me of some of the writings of the 17th-century Puritans, like the ones who founded Massachusetts Bay Colony, who worried that their children would never have the life-changing born-again experience that their parents did in that religiously tumultuous century. And even today among evangelical Protestants, you find teens worried that they have not been authentically “born again,” and so what is wrong with them?

Paganism should spread through experience and art, not theology. The theology comes later, if it comes.

Suppose it were the autumnal equinox — not a powerfully magical time in my experience, but worth noting. Here in my part of southern Colorado, I have a choice between a winery’s harvest festival in Cañon City and Pueblo’s Chile & Frijoles festival, now twenty years old.

Yes, both are commercial creations: the Chile & Frijoles [chile peppers and beans] festival is sponsored by Loaf ‘n Jug, i.e. the Kroger grocery chain, and it was created as part of a economic development-driven rebranding of the old multi-ethnic steel mill city on the Arkansas River. And the winery wants to sell wine.

Paganism is the religion of the tribe or of the polis, and selling stuff is part of what the polis is about. (In reflection, Pueblo counts as a polis, but Cañon City is probably too small — perhaps it is part of the city-state of Pueblo. They are in the same SMA.)

Even though Wicca was designed as a small-scale mystery religion for adults only, one can also bring its outlook to the life of the city. And as Raven Kaldera and Tannin Schwartzstein write in Urban Primitive, “City spirits are, not surprisingly, quite social creatures, and they love to be acknowledged, so it’s worth your while to learn to speak to them.” You do that, they continue, at the city’s “heart” or strongest location — and, coincidentally, that might well be the place where urban festivities are held!

Get creative. What’s the Pagan take on Mike the Headless Chicken Days, held in May in the little agricultural town of Fruita, Colo.? Or Nederland, Colo.’s Frozen Dead Guy Days, coming up in the March? That one should be easy.

Imagine the kid whose mental construct of Pagan identity includes not just structured ritual but the vendors’ food stalls on Pueblo’s Riverwalk and whatever mix of norteño and classic rock is coming from the bandstand, flavored by the scent of roasting chile peppers by the truckload? Living headless chickens? Well, you have to leave some space for the uncanny.

So it’s not officially Pagan? You can still live it as Pagan.

Blogging Break Over, Book Stuff Ahead

I have taken a brief and unwanted break from blogging, but I hope that it is over. First the MacBook Pro that I use for writing and blogging developed a weird, possibly demonic (or daemonic) directory corruption that flummoxed even the specialists up at Voelker Research. About the same time, my desk/computer chair broke, which felt like a sign. A sign that I should just go hiking and read more novels, possibly. And ponder some vivid and meaningful dreams.

That was wonderful, but I have to give a couple of talks next week, and I needed to prepare. So there I was out on the veranda with a legal pad and a stack of books and print-outs, preparing. If I have learned anything in teaching it is that I am not as good at “winging it” as I like to think I am—unless it is a course that I have already taught ten times over.

So while I am doing that, here is an interview with Doug Ezzy about his new book, Sex, Death, and Witchcraft: A Contemporary Pagan Festival.

The book is both a rich ethnographic account of controversial Pagan festival and a provocative reflection on the role of emotions, symbols, and ritual in theories of religion.  The festival involves “a recreation of the Witches’ sabbat . . .  It’s R-rated, it contains adult themes, nudity and sex references”, according to Harrison — one of the festival participants I interviewed.  The theory develops what Graham Harvey and I are calling “relational theory” in the study of religion.

It is on my reading list.

And speaking of reading, expect more book reviews here over the next few weeks.

Beltania Festival Moves Closer to the Capitol

Maypole procession 2011 (Photo by Robin Vinehall).

Maypole procession 2011 (Photo by Robin Vinehall).

It was nice while it lasted, having a Pagan festival near enough that, if my schedule was too crowded, I could at least buy a day pass and hear the best concerts.

Not any more. Beltania is pulling out of District 12* (where the coal miners once toiled) and moving closer to the Capitol — into District 1, you might say.

From Florence Mountain Park, it now goes to La Foret Conference and Retreat Center in El Paso County (not burned in the 2013 Black Forest Fire), where, according to a news release. there will be “enhanced amenities” and it will be “closer to Denver!”

Built as a rural estate, La Foret is now owned by the United Church of Christ.

(Colorado is a very centralized state. There is the Denver-plex, and there is The Rest, which exists to keep Denver amused, with green lawns. Not like, for instance, Oregon, where the population is equally concentrated in the Willamette Valley, but at least the seat of government is not in the largest city.)

Originally, the organizers tried having Beltania at Beltane, because that is the ancient Celtic thing to do. But this is Colorado, where I have seen two feet of snow on the ground on May 1st — or it could be uncomfortably hot. Or both in the same day. I do usually shut off the furnace on May 1, but the wood stove is still used. Spring in Colorado is a “putrid” season, as Dad the forest ranger used to say.

Then the date started sliding later and later, so that in 2015 it will start on May 14th. At least there is some bioregional wisdom in that decision.. At worst it might be rainy.A September festival would be more predictable weather-wise, but it would not have ancient Celtic precedent?

Meanwhile, I have coal to dig.

* Movie reference.