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
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.
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?”