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Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves Contemporary Pagans and the Search for Community

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Chapter One

Driving into Faerie

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.

During ELFest 1991, I met Kenneth Deigh, a man who plays many roles in the national Neopagan community. Kenn has been attending festivals in the United States for more than ten years, organizing and directing large group rituals and presenting workshops on various aspects of ritual work: Magical Mudras, a workshop on physical postures and gestures, and Invokation and Evokation, techniques of spirit possession, are two workshops Kenn offered at Starwood, a large festival that takes place at Brushwood sanctuary in southwestern New York. He also edits and publishes Mezlim, a Neopagan magazine. Kenn and a few friends organized their first Lumensgate festival in 1992, which was held on the summer solstice (June 21) at Brushwood. "Lumensgate," Kenn wrote me, "means 'gateway to light,' gateway to a place where we can transform, a place where possibilities are open to us." As a festival organizer Kenn is particularly conscious of what makes festivals different from the everyday 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.

The process of being transported to a different reality and changing states of consciousness is made possible by magic, an important factor of self-transformation at festivals. The notion of magic is central to Neopagan belief and practice. Whether they believe that magic is something that happens psychologically or in the physical universe, the explanations that Neopagans give for the concept of magic almost always include "change" and "transformation."[Note 2] One of the most famous definitions is occultist Aleister Crowley's (1875-1947): "The Science and Art of causing change to occur in conformity with Will."[Note 3] Florence Farr (1860-1917), one of the members of the Golden Dawn, a Victorian occult group that Crowley also belonged to and whose rituals have been important for many Neopagans, describes magic as "unlimiting experience," by which she means, "Magic consists of removing the limitations from what we think are the earthly and spiritual laws that bind or compel us. We can be anything because we are All."[Note 4] In its various meanings, magic is essentially a method of consciously separating oneself from the world of the everyday and moving into a realm where possibilities are open for physical or psychological transformation, which is what festival goers experience when they attend festivals.

Some outsiders and first-time festival goers--"festival virgins"--find Neopagan festivals strange and disorienting, while others feel immediately at home. Participants describe festivals as "magical" and "surreal" places for drumming all night, dancing naked around fires, going into trances, and traveling out of their bodies. They report intense emotional and physical experiences and say that they return home somehow transformed--their bodies marked with new tattoos, their minds with new ideas and memories. Neopagan stories and descriptions of festivals are shaped by the fantastic expectations people bring to them, especially the belief that festivals are "rehearsals for a hoped-for real future."[Note 5] How do Neopagan festivals come to be imagined and experienced as such different places from the world outside them? What must Neopagans do to change wooded farmland or campgrounds into "fairyland" and how do they make such a place feel like home? Or, in the words of geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, how does a space that is "open and undefined" become a "secure and" for festival goers?[Note 6]

As Neopagans work to make festivals transformative places, they confront two potential contradictions. Neopagans escape their homes and familial responsibilities when they journey to the festival "forest far, far away," and at the same time they expect festivals to be the location of "home" and "family." They also look forward to the festival as an opportunity for self-expression as well as an experience of community. It is in the process of drawing boundaries between the festival world and "mundania," a term Neopagans use to refer to the world outside, that these contradictions most clearly emerge and are addressed. And it is through this work, in response to these dilemmas, that festivals are turned into special places, where, as Kenn puts it, "Anything that happened there could not help but transform" participants.


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.

Neopagan festivals not only share several features with nineteenth-century Spiritualist gatherings, but Neopagans also count Spiritualists among their many ancestors. An anonymous participant in Arcana observes that "the best 19th-century social equivalent of the modern Wiccan/Neopagan groups is the Spiritualist movement," because, like contemporary Neopagans, Spiritualists "were largely a loose network of small, self-organizing circles without a central hierarchy." And for this reason, he says, both were "incapable of forming a widely-agreed upon theologyor ritual."[Note 8] Neopagan festivals are akin to the gatherings of nineteenth-century Spiritualists in their eclecticism and the challenge they represent to more orthodox and established religious practices.[Note 9] Loosely defined organizational structures resisted institutionalization and allowed both groups to accommodate participants from a wide variety of faiths at their gatherings.[Note 10]

Some Neopagans also claim Spiritualism as part of their ritual lineage to legitimate their own medium-like practices. Sandy, a "third-generation Spiritualist" I met at Pagan Spirit Gathering, is married to a medium.[Note 11] Rhianna, a participant on the electronic forum Pagan Digest, recalls that her grandmother, a spiritualist medium, held seances in her living room.[Note 12] At their gatherings, Neopagans also engage in mediumistic rituals during which they commune with spirits. During large rituals, ancient deities, tree spirits, angels, and the dead are invited to guide and help humans in their spiritual endeavors as well as their more worldly pursuits, such as, for example, reclaiming a stolen car. Spiritualists and Neopagans position themselves in imaginative ways in relation to invisible beings whose existence others fear and deny. Both movements might be characterized by hunger for more direct interaction with an invisible world of spirits and deities, also populated with loved ones who have passed away.[Note 13] In both cases ritual practices and assumptions that the spirit world was easily accessible diverged from more widely accepted religious behavior.

Like Spiritualists, many Neopagans have multiple religious commitments, interact with invisible realms of experience and personality, and encourage female leadership and social activism.[Note 14] In their attempts to be inclusive, Neopagan gatherings have attracted many people not as interested in contacting the world of spirits as they are in gaining support for alternative therapies like biofeedback or unconventional relationships such as polyamory. Historian Ann Braude propounds in her study of Spiritualism and women's rights that this was also the case for Spiritualist newsletters, lectures, conventions, and camp meetings that brought together "large audiences for promoters of radical causes" like women's rights, abolition, and free love.[Note 15] Abolitionists, women's rights activists, and other types of social reformers advanced their causes in conversation with each other, just as today Witches, Druids, Taoists, Zen Buddhists, and practitioners of religions from all over the world attend Neopagan festivals. Gatherings like these have become zones of cross-fertilization and hybridization where individuals with varied interests and backgrounds meet and interact, and share information about rituals, myths, and deities, bringing forth new religious forms.

Emergent religions whose practitioners worship at "alternative altars," in Robert Ellwood's phrase, define themselves in contrast to established religions like the larger Protestant Christian denominations. Neopagan festivals also contest accepted cultural norms by openly supporting gay rights and sexual freedom, female leadership, and nudity. Both men and women may wear black hooded cloaks or leather bondage gear and explore unusual practices such as out-of-body travel and psychic healing. Particularly important to both Neopagan festivals and nineteenth-century Spiritualist gatherings have been women's rights issues. Historian Ann Braude argues that Spiritualist gatherings exposed their female participants to new possibilities for women's social roles and that suffragism and Spiritualist activities were closely related. Neopagans are likewise concerned with equality for women, and women are prominent heads of Neopagan organizations (Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary), editors of important Neopagan publications (Diane Darling of Green Egg), priestesses and authors (Starhawk) and festival organizers (Ceil, of Wyrd Sisters, who produces Spiral Gathering).

Because of their support for radical social causes and their resistance to institutionalization, both Neopagan and nineteenth-century Spiritualist gatherings have been looked on with suspicion by outsiders who assumed the participants were either organizing subversive activities or indulging in "perversions" such as "free love."[Note 16] The many Christians who participated in Spiritualist conventions may not have rejected their Christian backgrounds to the extent that Neopagans do theirs, but they were still suspected of being "fundamentally opposed to a Christian worldview."[Note 17] In this way, Neopagans and Spiritualists are located by themselves and others on the margins of American religious culture, and indeed, define themselves in rejection of it.[Note 18] Some Americans, including the nearby neighboring conservative Christian congregations, imagine Neopagans to be satanic child abusers. Ironically, the evangelical forebears of Neopagans' Christian critics engaged in religious activities themselves that were viewed suspiciously by their neighbors and that also seemed to anticipate Neopagan festivals on the American religious landscape. Nineteenth-century evangelical camp meetings and revivals were "theatrical" and "carnivalesque," to the dismay of their critics but to the delight of participants. "Critics complained...but the setting of the revival, for the space of the few hours or days, often protected practices that were elsewhere forbidden," such as women preaching.[Note 19] Nineteenth-century men and women attended camp meetings for varied and often contradictory reasons, often as much to indulge the senses as seek conversion. Neopagans attend festivals for similarly diverse 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.

Evangelical camp meetings and Neopagan festival sites, particularly ones in out-of-the-way places, draw together the contradictory values of camp-meeting followers and festival goers and allow them to coexist temporarily, if uneasily.[Note 20] As sites of religious work and pleasure, these gatherings are given the task of coordinating the multiple interests and expectations of those who attend them. It is the very diversity of participants' backgrounds and interests that made nineteenth-century camp meetings--and today Neopagan festivals--suspicious to outsiders but attractive to participants. Critics of camp meetings "perceived a manifest subversiveness in the form and structure of the camp meeting itself, which openly defied ecclesiastical standards of time, space, authority and liturgical form." These outsiders felt threatened by "the intense enthusiasm of congregated masses, the unbridled communal force and overwhelming power that swept over these occasions," but were ineffective in preventing camp meetings from taking place because the meetings were so successful.[Note 21] Critics and supporters of camp meetings alike agreed that these were powerful experiences of "unbridled forces," and had very little in common in form and appearance with religious gatherings in mainline Protestant or Catholic churches.

Camp meetings took place in nature, distinguishing them from gatherings in urban lecture halls. Because their wild surroundings heightened the contrast to everyday life, controversial behavior like ecstatic dancing and swooning was exaggerated in these settings. Neopagan woodland gatherings and camp meetings in the hills of Kentucky seem strange and wild to city dwellers because they provide a sensual and aesthetic contrast to the everyday world--"be prepared for a crash course in Mother Nature" reads one Neopagan festival announcement. [Note 22] The establishment of national parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone in the 1870s and 1880s made possible a new kind of relationship to the natural world. These parks became destinations for pilgrims "with the leisure to 'rough it' for pleasure."[Note 23] As sites where city dwellers could more directly encounter the natural world than at their homes, these nineteenth-century attractions also anticipated Neopagan celebrations. Natural sites like Niagara Falls became attractive locations for tourists and pilgrims because they addressed a range of needs, functioning as pilgrimage sites, family vacation spots, and honeymoon destinations. Neopagans also take advantage of leisure and vacation time to get sunburned and mosquito bitten at primitive festival sites. Camp meeting grounds, state and federal park land, and Neopagan festival areas, are all sites that belong to a different reality than city dwellers are accustomed to; "roughing it" helps create the contrast that makes these places compelling.

Neopagans' view of festivals as spiritual frontiers in the wild is drawn on a thematic that powerfully characterizes American attitudes toward this land.[Note 24] Neopagans tap into the frontier myth that is at the heart of American religious diversity because it held the promise of endless imaginative space within which to create a new religious life and community. The wilderness is one of the most powerful symbols of the American frontier, although it has figured ambivalently in the American religious imagination as a place of danger as well as spiritual promise. The Puritans thought it was in the wilderness that they could carve out God's kingdom, a "city set upon a hill," to quote the Massachusetts Bay Colony's first governor, John Winthrop (1588-1649).[Note 25] Europeans like Alexis de Toqueville, who visited America in the 1830s, were fascinated by the wilderness as a place of contrast to European civilization and urban life.[Note 26] The American Romantics Thoreau and Emerson believed that "Wilderness symbolized the unexplored qualities and untapped capacities of every individual."[Note 27] Neopagans approach their festival retreats in the woods as places of personal testing and spiritual renewal.

These comparisons with earlier American idioms raise interesting questions about the future of Neopaganism. Camp meetings and Spiritualist conventions seem to have been antinomian stages in emergent religious movements that later became more rigidly structured and institutionalized. If religious Americans assume they have inexhaustible religious options--an open spiritual frontier--then where will Neopagans go next, and what other religious movements will emerge from Neopaganism? Will Neopagan festivals lose their subversive exuberance? The answer depends, in part, on how successfully they shore up the boundary between festival world and mundania. It is by establishing their identity in contrast to the outside that festivals become powerful places of meaning making. Neopagans thus follow a familiar American path of constructing spiritual space by rejecting the meanings and rituals proposed by culturally dominant Christian churches. Christianity becomes essential as that which is rejected--and which rejects--to establish Neopagans' own identity.

When Neopaganism is brought into the current American religious scene, several features of these other religious idioms come into sharper focus. The wilderness where gatherings took place and the woods where today's Neopagan festivals occur establish a sensual contrast to churches filled with orderly pews. The woods function as a sacred locale where men and women take their hearts and bodies to be made anew in what they see as an uncivilized and virgin wilderness. Certainly, successful revivals were held in ordinary buildings as well, but by setting the camp meeting next to Neopagan festivals, the religious importance and creative power of wilderness sites emerges more clearly in itself, as does the process by which the wilderness experience is made different from other domains of life.

Contemporary scholarship leaves unexamined key phenomenological issues about nineteenth-century religiosity; for example, how did certain spaces become sacred? And what does it mean to various participants to say that a space is sacred? These comparisons across the centuries suggest that the process of boundary making between festivals and the outside world is as important as what goes on within. These boundaries are not created by emerging religions alone; they are mutually constituted by the community within and that without. What forces and desires on both inside and out create the space of experience as special and different? Comparisons of nineteenth-century camp meetings, Spiritualist conventions, and tourist sites with Neopaganism help establish a kind of geographical genealogy for nineteenth-century sacred space. I turn now to examine more closely the specific ways in which Neopagan festivals are set apart from the rest of society, engaging these questions of comparison in a way that will contribute to the study of nineteenth-century religions and more generally of American religious culture.


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"?

When they separate festival from mundania, Neopagans follow a pattern they share with other ritualists and festival participants around the world. The festival is what ritual theorists, beginning with Arnold van Gennep's work in 1909, have labeled "liminal": a "transitional" or "threshold" experience. Van Gennep discusses the order of rites "within ceremonial wholes" like festivals, which he breaks down into three phases: rites of separation from a previous world, or "preliminal"; rites of a transitional stage (threshold or "liminal" rites); and ceremonies of incorporation into a new world, or "postliminal" rites.[Note 31] The structure of Neopagan festivals includes these three phases, the first of which I discuss in this chapter, along with some consideration of the final phase of reincorporation. According to van Gennep, the transitional or liminal period is characterized by "a suspension of the usual rules of living," which may include "excesses" and sexual license.[Note 32]

With their opposition of festival to mundania, it would seem that Neopagans expect this kind of liminality to characterize the festival experience. They also expect to experience a sense of oneness with other festival goers and the feeling of belonging to a tribe or an extended family: "a state of oneness and total unity...the very opposite of social structure with its emphasis on differentiation, hierarchy, and separation." In the liminal stage of rites of passage, "Moral choice, creativity, and innovation are possibilities that emerge from the agony of isolation and the joy of communitas."[Note 33] Certainly these are conditions that Neopagan festivals try to produce. According to festival belief, when participants return home, they are no longer the same people who walked through the gates several days before. Neopagans present a dualistic model of ritual and festival as liminal, antistructural spaces opposed to mundania--highly structured everyday society.[Note 34] Because of this set-apart quality, many festival goers approach festivals with an "anything goes" attitude, imagining them to be an occasion for dressing and behaving in ways that are unacceptable in the world outside festival grounds. Folklorist Beverly Stoeltje explains that "in the festival environment, principles of reversal, repetition, juxtaposition, condensation, and excess flourish, leading to communication and behavior that contrast with everyday life."[Note 35]

Festival worlds are fantastic and enchanting, say Neopagans, because they offer everything that mundania denies. After having observed the development and growth of Neopagan festivals, Margot Adler added a section on festivals titled "Pagan Festivals: The Search for a Culture or a Tribe" to the 1986 edition of Drawing Down the Moon, her classic study of Neopaganism. In it she gives a brief account of the history of Pagan festivals and responds to the question "Why did festivals catch on?": "Probably most critical was the fact that outdoor festivals established a sacred time and space--a place apart from the mundane world, where pagans could be themselves and meet other people who, although from a variety of traditions, shared many of the same values." Neopagan festivals offer a shared reality different from what Neopagans experience in mundania. Adler reports that one festival organizer described the difference this way: "It's a trip to the land of faery, where for a couple of days you can exist without worrying about the 'real' world."[Note 36] Salome, a college senior who has been involved with Neopaganism since she was a teenager, told me, "Everything seemed so vivid there. It was like a psychedelic experience. When we came back it was like back in the real world."[Note 37] Here "real" takes on the more common usage of "get real" and "real job"--in other words, being a responsible adult, or in this case, fulfilling the responsibilities of a college student. But Neopagans think festivals are more "real" because they embody an ideal reality, an intensity of experience unconstrained by practical considerations such as making a living or finishing one's college degree.

Mundania is cast as the antithesis to festival, as a world in which Neopagan values are rarely expressed and Neopagans must hide their identities. The contrast aimed for is moral and ontological, but this opposition between sacred and profane, carnival and work, festival and mundania is as much the production of a different reality as it is the negation of the everyday. Neopagans establish--through narrative, ritual, and fantasy--a contrast between the festival world and everyday society, in which the former takes on a heightened reality and represents for participants a world made over by Neopagan views of gender, ecology, and the nature of the divine. In this sense, festivals "operate not merely as models of and for society that somehow stand timelessly alongside 'real' life. Rather they construct what reality is and how it is experienced and understood."[Note 38] Jeff Rosenbaum, one of the principal organizers of the successful Starwood and Winter Star gatherings, believes that festivals are opportunities "for people to have sort of 'space stations' or safe places where they can go to learn and to become illuminated, to recapture that sense of being in reality rather than being asleep and dreaming in this world of illusion."[Note 39] For Rosenbaum, festivals offer a "reality" that is unattainable in the outside world. Australian Neopagan Vyvien shares with readers of Green Egg, published by the Church of All Worlds and one of the oldest Neopagan magazines in the United States, an impression from her first festival: "Everything I did