Grappling with Workshops and Festival Culture

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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?”


1 I’m a big fan.

5 thoughts on “Grappling with Workshops and Festival Culture

  1. Chas,

    You’ll be great, even if you just talk to yourself. I loved the two talks you brought North to us. (Come back?) But I can understand your reticence towards bringing academics into the festival environment. (For the sake of brevity, I will avoid making a Playgan commentary.) Long gone are the days when my friends flocked to Ecumenicon — a “con” I always longed to attend, but never had the cash for the travel. Now I have to import my academics. 😉

    ~ J

    1. That’s kind of you. I was not happy with my own performance, and it’s helping to motivate me now. But thanks for letting my experiment at the Agora, and I would love to come back some time.

  2. Sean Manning

    While I have to explicitly state that I’m not speaking on the behalf of Heartland as a whole, I do want to remind you that your academic work is what brought you to my attention in the first place: you are featured on the Works Cited pages of several of my undergraduate and graduate papers. Pagan culture has deep roots in academic and transformative traditions, and I think that you’re right in noticing a lack of that in pagan festivals. But a lot of attendees I’ve spoken with have also noticed this, and we’re trying to change it and round out the festival experience — more academic presentations, hopefully some discussion panels, and more interactive rituals.

    I very much look forward to your presentations. I think they fit perfectly in what we want to offer this year, and I hope that they are well received.

    1. I hope you’re right, Sean. My experience at FPG seemed to suggest that people came for (a) the theme camp-based socializing and (b) the performances. But that was just one big festival, one time.

  3. I properly hooted at ‘WWRD’, having been in exactly that situation many times; usually the best I can do is a fifth-rate knock-off. It’s the way he does them with apparently no preparation, very few notes, and complete, eloquent precision, leavened with wit. I remain in awe.

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