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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 was as the first time and therefore seemed clearer, more focused, more real."[Note 40] For Neopagans like Rosenbaum and Vyvien, festivals are different from ordinary life because they are "more real," allowing for a more direct experience of "reality" and sharpening the senses in ways that are not possible in everyday life. Neopagans say that going to a festival is like traveling to a more real world of heightened experience and perception. "People feel starved for something real in their lives," I overheard in a conversation at Wild Magick 1992 about why Neopagan festivals are growing in number. Peh, an ELF elder who dresses in black clothes and long robes at festivals, expressed relief at leaving his work clothes behind. In contrast, when I met him in mundania during his lunch hour he was dressed in a business-like trench coat over khakis and a polo shirt, his silver pentacle necklace hidden beneath his clothes or left at home.

So what is more real? Neopagans' expectations that festivals will be especially "real" point to their intense dissatisfaction with the everyday world and the depth of their desire for something more. The power of festival space is in the possibility for natural and supernatural experiences otherwise unavailable. The stronger their rejection of mundania, the more vivid the festival world becomes for them. They highlight at festivals what is lacking for them in mundania--religious tolerance, for instance--in order to focus their desires and energies on making the festival special. In order to create a "super-real" festival world, Neopagans imbue the festival space with meanings absent from the workplace and urban landscape. They set aside spaces for "healing" and "trance-work." These spaces, often unavailable in the outside world, make possible "real" healing, healing that is spiritual as well as physical and that is helped along by friendly spirits. Massage tables are set out in the middle of wooded campsites and marked with signs offering massages for low cost or barter or for free. Pagan Spirit Gathering includes the "Centering Dome" for people who need emotional support or a quiet place to sit and relax. The free community kitchen is another festival feature that is part of an attempt to gain a fresh perception of community by offering an alternative to the outside world's consumerism. A group of volunteers at ELFest 1992 set up a community kitchen that offered free food and coffee to all festival participants. Another way in which the festival holds out an ideal, "more real" existence is by drawing festival participants into an awareness and appreciation of their connectedness to the natural world. A popular festival chant attests to the important relationship between human and nature: "Earth my body, water my soul, air my breath, and fire my spirit."[Note 41] Neopagans make an effort to create, for a week, reality as they think it should be, a world that heals body and soul and encourages interaction with nature.

By emphasizing the sacredness of the natural world and the boundaries of ritual and festival space, Neopagans make material the belief that the divine is "immanent," meaning that the gods and goddesses live in the earth and trees and are more accessible in forests and farmlands removed from the distractions of urban life. Some Neopagans use the term "nature religions" or "earth religions" in order to be most inclusive and to emphasize the more socially acceptable elements of magical groups, that is, their nature-centered identities, rather then spell making and magical work.[Note 42] Ritual leaders draw on the belief that spirits surround them. At Ancient Ways 1997, the "Hermes and Hecate" ritual included a call "to the spirits of the land" to join the ritual. At the end of the ritual, everyone was asked to breath out "ahhh," in order to "send off all our energy to the spirits of the land." At ELFest 1991, participants in the "Descent of Persephone," a ritual based on the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone, had to make their way blindfolded through dark woods where they encountered a Persephone figure--a priestess dressed in a Greek-style gown. Festivals are disorienting because they are very different from the spaces most festival goers frequent. Even more disorienting is the dark; no streetlights illuminate the paths, and a step away from campfires and candles is the dark of the woods which some might feel threatens them as much as it promises transformation.

Like many other religious people, Neopagans emphasize the importance of "sacred space" for effective and powerful rituals. Festival sites are "sacred" because they are "dedicated to or set apart for" specific practices.[Note 43] In an introduction to "Reader's Forum" in Circle Network News (a quarterly newsletter published by a Neopagan church) on "Sacred Space," Moonstar writes, "Sacred space provides the setting and contributes to enhancing the mental set necessary for connection with the deeper spiritual aspects of the human psyche. By deepening these connections, we become able to channel the Spiritual Energy of the Inner Self for healing ourselves, for healing others, and for healing the planet."[Note 44] Sacred space is what links the individual to realities outside the self and makes enduring changes in self and world, according to Moonstar. In the same issue of Circle Network News, Caitlin observes that "a special place for Magickal workings becomes the ground, becomes the World, where we can focus and intensify our power, where we can affect reality, where we can experience the ecstasy of oneness with the Divine."[Note 45] Festival participants expect that sacred space will make it possible for them to both go deeper into the self and to act more powerfully on the surrounding world. In this way sacred space is a method of manifesting "interconnectedness," the belief among Neopagans that the layers of the self, including past lives, are vitally connected to the rest of the planet and its inhabitants.[Note 46] Sacred space is meant to be active. It acts on ritual participants and shapes their experience at the same time that they act on it, inscribing space with meaning.

Establishing festival sites as special and powerful places begins in promotional material. A flyer for Spiral 1994, a gathering held near Atlanta, Georgia, tempts potential festival participants with a description of "two hundred acres of enchanted woodlands with a 275 acre lake" and "a private road with locked gates." Inside a mailing about Lothlorien events, I also received a brief description of the site itself: "Lothlorien--a vortex of life tucked away amongst the forested hills, fertile valleys and limestone quarries of South Central Indiana.... Lothlorien is a 'stargate between worlds', a mythic memory being recalled, a haven for Flora and Fauna, a spiritual gathering point." In ELF's "Wild Magick 1993 Bulletin," Lothlorien is described as "a Rainbow Bridge, an interface...a magickal nature sanctuary" that "fills a gap between the tame and the wild." Festival sites also may be seen as special and unique because of physical or geological features. Circle Sanctuary, where Circle's smaller festivals and workshops are held, is "located in southwestern Wisconsin in the Driftless area, which often is called 'enchanted' because it was the only place in North America to be totally surrounded by glaciers and never touched by them." Because Neopagans are practitioners of what they describe as earth religions, these aspects of a land's history invest the festival site with special meanings that shape religious beliefs and practices.

The isolation and hiddenness of most festivals also facilitates their separation from mundania, further enhancing their sacredness. Festivals differ significantly from the cities and suburbs festival goers come from because they take place in isolated wooded sites like Brushwood in New York, or on nature sanctuaries like Lothlorien in southern Indiana, or Wotanwald ("Odin's Forest") in northern California.[Note 47] Each of the three festival sites I visited during my first year of research was reached by traveling off main thoroughfares and through forests or down quiet country roads. Going to the woods to establish a relationship to the land itself is an important part of the festival experience for Neopagans. Hidden deep in woods far away from home, festivals allow Neopagans to forget the rigors of the workplace and families that are antagonistic to their chosen religious identity. In his interpretation of Brazilian Carnaval, anthropologist Roberto DaMatta writes: "What explains the style of Brazilian Carnaval is the necessity of inventing a celebration where things that must be forgotten can be forgotten if the celebration is to be experienced as a social utopia. Just as the dream makes reality even more vehement, Carnaval can only be understood when we discover what it must hide in order to be a celebration of pleasure, sexuality, and laughter."[Note 48] Festivals create a sanctuary in which festival goers can escape the discrimination and harassment they face outside, just as in the outside world they repress desires and hide the identities that they explore and release at festivals. Their view of festivals as intensely real and special events makes easier the task of forgetting the persecution and suspicion of conservative Christians or dismissal by an American public that associates "witches" with The Wizard of Oz and "magic" with David Copperfield's elaborate stage performances.

At festivals, Neopagans also try to escape mundania's attitudes toward nature, spirituality, sexuality, and the body. Body and movement, as well as forest settings, facilitate the shift from mundania to the festival community. Festivals promote sensual enjoyment and self-expression, and in so doing they enable participants to go beyond their usual ways of carrying themselves and acting toward others. Changes in bodily actions such as moving more slowly help festival goers forget "what needs to be forgotten," such as the fast pace of their everyday lives. Festival guides and programs encourage people to treat the festival as a place of play and relaxation, in one example revealing in public what is usually hidden--lingerie: "After the Opening Ritual we will gather in the Dining Hall for Ragnar's Pub, a wild and wonderful party that allows us to get down and loosen up, to let everything out and leave the mundane world behind. Bring your favorite dance music, get all decked out in your most outrageous lingerie (men and women) and be prepared to dance like a fool to shake off the outside world."[Note 49] For festival goers, "dancing like a fool" is not something that is possible in the mundane world, but it is perfectly appropriate in the festival setting. Festivals are "more real" because at them Neopagans feel safe to express themselves in dress and behavior that would be considered excessive or bizarre elsewhere (see fig. 2). Anthropologist Loretta Orion explains it this way: "Neopagan gatherings, like other pilgrimages, are retreats from the constraints of quotidian existence. In sacred space (removed from the constraints of mundane existence) it is safe to shed clothing and other conventions linked with the secular world, as it is safe and efficacious to assume a different appearance by wearing masks or costumes."[Note 50]

Festival goers describe the festival as a place of enhanced sensory perceptions or altered awareness. They also say their experience of time changes. Michael, an architect from the East Coast puts it this way: "Starwood is long enough so that you live there. Your time frame just shifts down and becomes more attuned to the day. You walk slower, act slower. . . . There's a sense of just being outside of time. . . . You forget that there's an outside world."[Note 51] "Pagan Standard Time" takes over at festivals, indicating that events will take place eventually, but often not at the hour when they are scheduled. Nude and costumed, dancing and chanting, festival participants express a reality that sharply contrasts to their mundane lives. Festival participants shake off assumptions about time and the body, about proper behavior and social roles. But the party is not simply a celebration; it also functions as a rite of passage from one kind of world to another.


The separation of festival world from mundania is also accomplished by making festival attendance a pilgrimage. Neopagans often journey to faraway places when they go to festivals, and they see this journey as a pilgrimage or a rite of passage that will transform them. Neopagans' accounts of their trips to festivals are similar to the stories of other religious people described in studies of pilgrimage.[Note 52] Neopagans envision the festival as a pilgrimage destination, and they approach the festival site as a place of miraculous experiences. When they attend festivals, Neopagan pilgrims set out on "sacred journeys" toward ideal communities and ideal selves.[Note 53] Festivals promise a world made over by Neopagan values because they involve "pilgrimages to nature," sacred to "nature-worshipping pantheists," as Neopagan psychologist Dennis Carpenter calls Neopagans.[Note 54] Loretta Orion explains that festival goers travel "to Earth--the goddess who is everywhere, everything. . . . Nature is not the setting for the pilgrimage but the destination and object of the pilgrim's quest."[Note 55] In contrast to pilgrimages to saints' shrines or deities' temples, Neopagan pilgrimages are not to places connected by myths to the life of a saint or deity (although Neopagans do make pilgrimages to ancient sites like Stonehenge). Rather, at festival sites like Lothlorien, the land itself, the trees, and the earth are invested with the desires and dreams of festival goers and become "sacred" destinations for festival participants.

Neopagans are also pilgrims through "landscapes of the self." Neopagans say they constitute "new selves" on the trip between festival and mundane worlds. Neopagans see festivals as both passageways and destinations. Kenn Deigh describes Lumensgate, the festival he runs, as the way to a place apart as well as that place itself. In this view, personal changes and spiritual experiences take place during the festival, but are ongoing. For instance, when I asked Leaf, a member of ELF, about her experiences at Lumensgate, she told me that she was still experiencing profound changes brought about by a Lumensgate ritual two years earlier. For her, the Lumensgate ritual and the changes it instigated were all part of an ongoing journey of self-exploration. Festival goers speak of going to a festival as a journey to what festival "pilgrim" John Threlfall calls "spiritual homeland." In "Pagan Gatherings--Discovering Spiritual Homeland," which appeared in Circle Network News and Circle Sanctuary, Threlfall discusses his first trip to Pagan Spirit Gathering as a pilgrimage across the country: "I have come to see my journey across America that summer of 1989 as my own Hajj... I was drawn forth on a pilgrimage of my own making, seeking a holy land that, ultimately, I could find only in myself."[Note 56] For Neopagans, festivals make possible a journey to a "true" self, which is a territory to explore. As one festival organizer puts it, these gatherings are "a wondrous revival of the old regional fair except that this region is one of the mind."[Note 57] Metaphors that integrate place and self commonly appear in Neopagans' descriptions of self-discovery at festivals, a topographical sense of subjectivity that echoes the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Freud in particular saw himself as the "emotional excavator" of his patients, and in a similar fashion Neopagans excavate themselves at festivals. Neopagans draw on a common set of modern metaphors to craft an account of their multileveled journeys to pilgrimage sites.

This is not to say that Neopagans are Freudians. They are more likely to participate in group therapy than psychoanalysis. But like Freud, they make use of spatial analogies when they work on the self in workshops and rituals or when they describe traveling to festivals as "a pilgrimage to and through self." They sift through their personal histories and past lives for information about themselves, and they organize rituals intended to heal broken selves and to bring about changes in behavior. At ELFest 1991 Kenn Deigh's ritual of self-transformation required participants to take a token to represent some part of the self that they wanted to cast out of their lives. During the physical and emotional journey of this ritual, participantswere given seeds symbolizing those aspects of the self they wanted to nurture. Because ELF literature pictures the festival site populated by the spirits of trees and plants, the land itself was imagined to aid participants who followed Kenn's directions to "journey to the self's underworld"--in actuality to be led blindfolded through the dark woods. As they stumbled along the path and were guided by ritual helpers, participants felt disoriented in time and space, but they leaned on the arms of their guides and focused inward on the changes the ritual had set in motion.

Festival sites are imagined in such a way as to facilitate this self-excavation or "topoanalysis": "the exploration of self-identity through place." Festival spaces specifically set aside for healing and for contemplation of death, for example, present these aspects of human experience to festival goers in concrete visual forms.[Note 58] Dimensions of self and space are interconnected for Neopagans; boundaries are fluid between self and other, imagination and reality, and human and nature. Festival space dissolves these boundaries by telling participants through their senses that the space belongs to them and is different from the other spaces they live in. The appearance of festivals--handpainted signs welcoming them to Lothlorien, a colorful banner with ribbons flying in the breeze--and the sound of drums or flutes signals its difference.


Neopagans engage in self-exploration and commune with nature at festivals, but they also establish important friendships and intimate relationships with other festival goers. If they want to be archaeologists of the self, then they want to do so in the company of others and under the auspices of a Neopagan community. Observers of the relationship between self and community in the contemporary United States have argued that Americans tend to emphasize the needs of the self over those of the community. Robert Bellah and his colleagues point out in Habits of the Heart that when Americans describe their spirituality they talk most about personal empowerment and self-expression rather than the requirements of community.[Note 59] In contrast, Neopagan festivals emphasize both self-transformation and the creation of community. Festivals provide a unique opportunity to observe the ways in which these apparently conflicting projects are carried out.

A flyer advertising a festival in Georgia illustrates the explicit strategies incorporated into festivals to create communities that can coexist with and enable self-transformation.

The Opening Ritual on Thursday evening will be a time to create a magickal place of safety and protection. To build a sacred fire in the center of our universe. . . . We ask that once you arrive that you acknowledge and affirm your place within this Magickal Circle, thus beginning your participation in the active current. Realize that you are within a Circle surrounded by the SPIRAL Family. . . . The Opening Ritual will bring us together once again under the Full Moon in September. We will create a safe and free space to work our Magick. A place where you can be free to explore the magickal self that lives within.[Note 60]

Circles are central to Neopagan beliefs and rituals and are particularly important in defining sacred space (see figure 3). Circular spaces are in keeping with Neopagan emphasis on cycles of the moon, seasonal festivals, and reincarnation. Their attention to circles may also explain in part how Neopagans see the relationship between self and community. In this relationship, the circle of community is what makes possible work on the self. An announcement for Pagan Spirit Gathering describes one model for this relationship:

This Gathering is about experiencing Community--creating a Pagan Tribal Village together at this special place--sharing songs, meditations, rituals, dreams, food, ideas, fun, magic--sharing work as well as celebration--teaching and learning from each other--sharing our visions of the past, present, and future--examining ourselves collectively and individually as part of the Pagan/Nature Spirituality movement manifesting on Planet Earth. It is about living fully as our magical Pagan selves in this spiritual place for a week. . . . This year's Gathering focuses on Sacred Circles--with special emphasis on honoring circles as symbols of sacred time and sacred space, wholeness and balance, Nature's rhythms and life cycles, community, and the interconnectedness of all life.[Note 61]

At Pagan Spirit Gathering, circles are collective forms that encourage individualistic Neopagans to collaborate on a common project. Circles of this sort are most successfully created at festivals-- "this special place"--that are explicitly separated from and opposed to ordinary life. After the Rites of Spring 1998 web ritual, Andras Arthen spoke about the importance and meaning of community embodied by the ritual circle. He asked participants to touch the ground, to note where it was hard or soft, wet or dry-- "like life." He reminded us that we are dependent on community and responsible for maintaining and caring for our communities. He suggested that over the weekend everyone come to the web, which was left in place until the festival's closing ritual, to "take some power" and "give some," or walk into the intricately woven web. But he cautioned as well: "Be careful how you tread the web, because that is how you tread in community."

Neopagans attend festivals to experience a sense of belonging to a community, but it is in part their experience of marginality that unifies them. Festivals become meaningful places as extensions of participants' own feelings of marginality. Many Neopagans see themselves as social outcasts and their Neopagan lifestyle as a rebellion against mainstream society. The separateness of festivals allows for a community-wide recognition and a communal self-affirmation of Neopagan marginality and its historical roots. Often, events are commemorated at festivals that identify the Neopagan community with other ostracized and persecuted groups. One of the main rituals at Pagan Spirit Gathering 1992 was a memorial for people executed as witches in seventeenth-century Salem, Massachusetts. As I discuss in chapter 5, many Neopagans recall being ostracized by their peers during adolescence because they dressed strangely or spent too much time reading books, but in adulthood they find a place of belonging and a sense of community in the Neopagan movement and at Neopagan festivals. At festivals Neopagans who have felt ostracized celebrate their outcast status and make it into a defining identity in a space constituted as powerful because it is outside the ordinary, as they are.[Note 62]

The relationship between Neopaganism and mundania, like the relationship between New Religious Movements (NRMs) and more established religions, is not simply one of binary opposites. Rather, it is a far more complex and dynamic relationship. Festivals are both distant from and closely connected to the world against which they constitute themselves, and the boundary between festival and mundane worlds is more fluid than is generally admitted by festival goers. Kenn observes that festivals provide

an opportunity to step out of our usual model of social interaction. Some of the same things applied, but when you got out there they made it clear that as long as you didn't hurt yourself or anybody else, basically whatever you wanted went. Now, when it comes down to it, that's not true. There were certain things that still held, but it was a lot more open, a lot more free. And even though it wasn't focused, it was providing an atmosphere, a place, a social mechanism by which people could express more of themselves and discover and explore more than they could back home and in their usual motif.[Note 63]

Here Kenn affirms the contrast between "back home" and the festival. But he problematizes the notion of the festival as an ideal place. Festival goers do not simply leave their old habits at home, he warns. They arrive at festivals with wildly conflicting ideals and expectations about what a festival home and family should be like. When I asked Peh to describe the meaning of "community" at Neopagan festivals, he explained to me that festivals are places where the community a person brings with them--by which he meant their social status, relationships in the mundane world, career, and upbringing--encounters the festival community.[Note 64]

Festivals are not only strange places apart from everyday life, but also Neopagans' home and family. Annual journeys to festivals are simultaneously adventures to exotic "uncharted shores" and to familiar, home-like, memory-laden places. The world Neopagans represent as the fringes of mainstream culture becomes the center of their most meaningful activities. Self-described festival pilgrim John Threlfall puts it this way: "There is a family out there, ready to embrace me whenever I feel lonely or out of touch. All I need is to find a Pagan gathering and I'll be home."[Note 65] "Welcome home" read the sign on the registration booth for Wild Magick 1992. Festival goers set out from their mundane homes and often journey long distances in order to reach their festival home. At festivals, Neopagans make marginality more real than the real world that excludes them and travel to festival sites in order to be home. They excavate themselves precisely amid such ambivalence and contradiction.

For many participants, festivals are an ideal way of being with others, and for this reason the participants relate more intimately to each other at festivals than in other social environments. Festival goers expect festival communities to be egalitarian, tolerant, nurturing, creative, and supportive of personal expression. At festivals they find sympathetic friends who listen to their stories of their personal lives and give them advice for dealing with family members who do not understand their religious beliefs. One participant in Pagan Spirit Gathering 1994 particularly appreciated "living in our family/tribal community, in perfect love and perfect trust, without fear of ridicule or reprisal."[Note 66] The intensity of festivals also encourages greater and more immediate intimacy. At Wild Magick 1992, ELF's fall festival, tattoo artist Laughing Starheart camped next to three women from Pennsylvania and Cherokee tribe member Don Waterhawk, an artisan and prominent workshop leader at many of the festivals I attended. As the festival progressed these neighbors began to spend time together talking about their lives, sharing food, and doing small and intimate rituals--a pipe-smoking ceremony and a gift ritual. During the summer festival season the following year they continued to meet and camp together at several festivals; they spent holidays at each other's homes, and they helped each other through crises--a skiing accident and a divorce. In the year following Wild Magick 1992, I met Laughing Starheart at another ELF festival. His tent was decorated with a colorful batik banner that read "Ohana." When I asked him what the banner meant, he explained that it was "the name for 'home' in Cherokee" and referred to his festival family: the three women, Don, and several other close friends who had become "like family" at festivals.

I have repeatedly watched festival "families" develop in this way. Festival goers who were strangers at the beginning of a festival, by the end have become like family members who visit each other at their mundane homes, who phone, write letters, e-mail each other regularly, help each other through difficult times, and celebrate important rites of passage. Certainly not all festival goers become members of small families. Some prefer to camp alone, while others attend festivals with covens or ritual groups from their home towns, and some Neopagans refer to the entire festival community as their family or home.

Orion relates a powerful story about the importance of the festival family to Neopagans who feel they do not fit in the broader society. She witnessed a handfasting (Neopagan marriage ceremony) between two gay men: "Although they had been sharing their lives for several years, Nat and Garland decided to ask the 'Spiral family' to acknowledge their union after it became clear that Nat would die of AIDS within a few years. The community was empowered to create the union...that mainstream society would not acknowledge." She reports that two years after the handfasting and a month before Nat's death, the couple returned to Spiral so that Nat could "say good-bye to his 'Spiral family.'. . . " These rites of passage demonstrate that Neopagans have developed their own kinship systems: "To some Neopagans these bonds are peripheral, to others they constitute the most significant of their social relationships, surpassing and substituting even those based on kinship by blood (consanguinity)."[Note 67] A flyer for Lumensgate festival reads: "The overall focus of Lumensgate is creating and working with Magickal Community--our Chosen Family!"[Note 68]

Festivals become home-like places where participants can be the kind of children they want to be, can share intimate secrets and play in the ways schools, parents, and religions in the outside world deny them. The festival is constituted by desire for a family to accept them as witches and magicians, a family who will appreciate their arcane knowledge and admire their tattoos and jewelry. In Drawing Down the Moon, Margot Adler identifies the central role of Neopagan festivals in Neopagans' search for a home in the world: "Many festival organizers have told me that the most frequent feedback they receive is the comment 'I never knew there were other people who believe what I believe, let alone several hundred at one place. I never knew that I could come totally out of the closet and be what I am openly.' The feeling of being at home among one's true family for the first time is the fundamental reason that festivals have spread throughout the country."[Note 69] At festivals, Neopagans discover and create families that nurture new identities and allow them to reveal parts of themselves that they usually hide: "I come here to see family," asserted one woman at an ELF council meeting at ELFest 1992 where the purpose of the festival was being debated. ELF elders like Peh facilitate these meetings, solicit comments, criticism, praise, and stories from festival participants in order to make them feel that they have a stake in their festival family and a voice in the creation of the festival as a home-like place (see fig. 4). Festival organizers actively promote these images of the festival as family. Fliers and pamphlets for Starwood, Wild Magick, and Pagan Spirit Gathering advertise "a global tribal village," "spiritual community," "family," and "home." Announcements of festivals try hard to be inclusive. For example, a flyer for a pagan retreat called Harvest of Light in Missouri welcomes "all races, traditions, alternative family structures, and sexual orientations."[Note 70]

Participants feel that they can be their "real selves" in the festival families they have chosen. They can dress as they please, worship foreign goddesses and gods, explore their sexuality, and express their sexual orientation as they are unable to do in their given families. Festivals also make possible a community space where political organization around issues of religious and sexual freedom or "alternative" families can take place.[Note 71] Starwood XIV (1994) offered workshops on "The Path of Polyamoury" and "Dysfunctional Families and Group Energies: The Gaia Conspiracy," and Pagan Spirit Gathering 1992 held workshops on "Bisexual Spirit--Bisexual Pride" and "Out of the Broom Closet: An Open Discussion of Craft Homosexuality." At festivals I witnessed gay as well as straight handfastings, and a handfasting between two men and a woman. In the festival setting, invented families are a haven from the struggles of daily life, and they call into question accepted norms such as heterosexuality and monogamy. Handfastings are typically defined as commitments for "a year and a day," but they are also legally recognized marriages when performed by Neopagan clergy like Selena Fox (see fig. 5).

Festival organizers promote this sense of festival as family or tribe in their literature: "Coming from a variety of spiritual orientations and ethnic heritages, participants cooperate to create a global tribal village in which they live, work, play, and do ritual together for the week of the Gathering. This special Gathering is the Pagan Spirit Gathering (PSG).... PSG focuses on developing the sense of spiritual community and global tribal culture. PSG is a chance to live a holistic Pagan lifestyle on a totally Pagan space. PSG is an opportunity to attune deeply to one's own Inner Self in a natural, magical environment." Pagan Spirit Gathering's organizers identify the double nature that is central to Neopagan festivals: PSG is a place for self-expression, but it also offers an experience of community and a sense of belonging to a common "tribe." The notion of a "global tribal culture" clearly expresses Neopagans' desire to include diverse individuals and cultures in one community. Festivals are imagined by their organizers and participants as opportunites to develop multicultural and tolerant families and provide accepting and supportive environments in which everyone can attune to their "Inner Self."

Festival gatherings may be the only communities where Neopagans feel fully themselves, and for this reason, ironically, festival communities are necessary for the individualism that Neopagans value. "These festivals restore my faith in humanity," I overheard one Starwood 1992 participant say. Rose explained to me that being at gatherings allows people to feel support and to recognize others who share their own values and experiences. At these events, she said, "My higher self can connect directly with other higher selves without going through a lot of preliminaries."[Note 72] For Rose the "higher self" is a side of her personality unconstrained by everyday roles, a self that emerges most easily in an accepting and supportive group context. A festival goer at Summerhawk festival in New York concurs; what he likes most about festivals is "leaving the masks behind." Peh is an ELF elder, cofacilitator of the Bloomington, Indiana, Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans chapter, and a magician who has organized and participated in countless festivals. He describes a similar sense of being free of constraining roles during festivals. As Peh was driving me to Summerhawk, he discussed his relief to be far away from the strains of his marriage and the stress of his job at a university computing center. Peh looked on the festival as an opportunity to escape from his daily familial and work responsibilities as well as to connect with old friends and to gain a fresh perspective on his life. "I wear many hats," he explained to me, "and lately they have become reified." He expected the festival could change all that, but only because he defined it in contrast to the things in his life that needed to be fixed. By going to Summerhawk, he felt he would be able to enjoy a more fluid identity unconstrained by role expectations. He believed the festival would enable him to explore those parts of the self that were obscured by marital and vocational concerns. The relationships among "higher selves" create community for Peh and others. But such a community is possible only in a place where the usual "masks" and "hats" are unnecessary, but at which new masks and robes can be tried on.


Neopagans say that self and community are more fully realized in a place safely bounded and metaphysically removed from the everyday world. Emphasis on boundaries between inside and outside is a constant theme at Neopagan festivals and essential to understanding how festival goers experience community belonging and personal freedom. At boundaries, definitions are made, and the elements that constitute self, community, and family are identified. Home and festival as well as specific places within the festival, such as ritual circles and healing shrines, are defined against each other as their boundaries are negotiated by festival participants. Neopagan boundary work follows a pattern described in an extensive literature by folklorists and anthropologists on festivals as places where conflicts develop and are resolved.[Note 73]

An uneasy dynamic that develops at festivals reveals the tensions between individual and community that festivals are intended to harmonize. Neopagans gather to share a common experience, but in so doing they may discover the many differences that separate them. By emphasizing first their separation from the outside world and, second, their unity as tribe and family, Neopagan festival communities try to downplay inner differences and contradictions. They cling to the symbolic identification of the festival community with the circle and assert their unity in the face of inner dissent. But a festival goer may find that he or she is as different from others in the festival community as from the outside culture. For instance, some participants are more willing to be rebellious than others. Most Neopagans are to some extent countercultural simply by their presence in this marginal festival space, and most of them identify to some extent with a common inheritance of persecution and otherness. On the other hand some festival goers live in ways that compromise with the expectations of mundania, while others live further outside mundania. Some Neopagans are completely "in the broom closet" about their practices, but others display pentacles around their necks and let their coworkers know that they are Neopagans ("born-again Pagans," in the words of one popular button). Another tension emerges between those who are looking for a "wildly imaginative party" and others who want to work hard to change and heal society. Orion suggests that on occasion, festivals perpetuate the social problems they want most to change, such as rigid and hierarchical structures.[Note 74] Participants expect festivals to embody their ideals, but festival communities do not always live up to such expectations.

The festival bounded in time and space, then, becomes a place in which all sorts of imagined festivals intersect and conflict with each other. Thus the opposition between festival and mundane worlds is often complicated by the many differences among festival goers. I return to these internal tensions in later chapters, as I continue to problematize the distinct boundary Neopagans attempt to draw between festivals and mundania. Whether festival virgins or veterans, festival goers arrive at a festival site with a range of desires and expectations. Memories of past festivals on the same site and of festivals at other locations, as well as festival stories told by friends or appearing in Neopagan publications, all contribute to a festival's history. The Neopagan festival as a place takes shape in the encounter between representations of festivals and people's actual festival experiences.

If there are many differences within festivals, there are also points of connection between festivals and the outside world. Participants from different geographical areas take with them pieces of their local communities, their covens, or their other magical groups. They also take home their festival experiences, rather than leaving behind their "new" selves and communities. The Pagan Spirit Gathering Village Guide suggests that festival goers take home ashes from the ritual fire after the closing rites. People also leave the festival with new books, clothing, or jewelry bought from merchants, made in workshops, or given to them by other members of the festival community. In her account of "Womongathering," a women-only festival in southern Pennsylvania, Watersnake describes feeling sad as she prepared to return home, but reassures herself that the festival experience will remain with her: "I knew I would be taking home with me many experiences to share with others, and a new sense of self that will be with me for the rest of my days." After the closing ritual, all the women say their good-byes and pick up "small stones from the sacred circle to take back with us to our homes...keeping the energies created that weekend alive in the rocks in our hands...and in our hearts."[Note 75] These souvenirs provide material links between the disparate worlds of festival and everyday life. At a workshop on the Santeria orisha (elemental powers personified as spirits; in Vodou they are called Pwa) at Starwood 1992, the workshop facilitator suggested that the orisha Oshun was directing the "bridge-working that's being done at Starwood," helping festival goers carry "feeling" back to cities where no one is making sacrifices to connect themselves to the spirits.

In some sense, then, Neopagans meet new deities at festivals. These may be deifications of parts of self or spirit presences believed to inhabit the land or those invited into ritual space. While closing rituals are intended to say "thanks and farewell" to guardian and other spirits, festival goers often feel that they take something residual with them from the encounter. In some sense, these spirits go home with participants just as the feeling of community stays with them when they leave. Neopagans also take home the changes they go through during a festival. As Watersnake describes it, she returns to mundania with "a new sense of self," perhaps less tangible than "small stones from the sacred circle," but nonetheless real. Neopagan festival goers say that emotional and spiritual changes stay with them after they leave a festival site. Vyvien puts it this way: "For a few weeks afterwards I felt that same summer sky spaciousness inside my head, and I trust that some corners of it still sing in me somewhere."[Note 76] At the end of her first gathering, Orion reflected on what festival goers take home with them and what they leave behind: "These pilgrims returned home from a pilgrimage site that existed only in their memories, leaving their seeds to sprout in the deserted straw field."[Note 77]

Home and festival exist in a dynamic relationship, never truly separated. Festivals provide a space to work out problems of home, and home is where the effects of festival experiences will continue to be felt and reincorporated into life there.[Note 78] Using words and images, Neopagans build up boundaries between festivals and mundania at the same time that in practice they break them down. They leave "their seeds" in offerings to shrines at festival sites, and they take home tokens of the festival community--shes from the fire--along with memories of their festival selves and newly acquired spirit helpers.

Festivals are full of tensions and contradictions. They are set apart from mundania for self-realization and for intimate encounters with others; they are intended for communion with nature as well as for envisioning an alternative society; and they are safer than the hostile outside world. However, the woods and fields of festival sites are populated by mysterious and unknown spirits. Neopagans summon supernatural beings in rituals back at their home temples, but at festivals they may not feel familiar with spirits of the land or with the deities invoked by other festival goers during rituals. Gardnerian witches whose rituals involve a goddess and god, may not be comfortable with the spirits invoked by Vodou practitioners camped next to them. Festival goers may also be uncomfortable with the fact that there is no established tradition to define the relationship between the festival community and spirits whom they believe to populate the woods and hills where festivals take place. Neopagans must not only deal with the complex relationships and power struggles that exist in all human communities, but they must also confront the mysterious relationships between themselves and the supernatural beings whom they call upon forprotection and self-transformation.

Festival spaces are powerful in part because they are in the process of becoming; they are being defined at the same time that they are experienced. Order is brought to bear on the unpredictable nature of festival experience by bounding and defining smaller spaces within the festival site. The dynamic aspect of festivals is particularly clear in the processes by which Neopagans map festival space as they set aside certain areas for healing, camping, workshops, and ritual dancing. I turn next to look more closely at the ways in which Neopagans express their identification with other religious idioms in the spaces within festivals and, in so doing, work out relationships with the spirit world.

Chapter 1 Notes

  • [Note 1] Kenn Deigh, letter to author, 2 June 1992.
  • [Note 2] For general, cross-cultural studies of "magic" as a category, see Daniel O'Keefe, Stolen Lightning: A Social Theory of Magic (New York: Continuum, 1982), and Marcel Mauss, A General Theory of Magic (London: Routledge, 1972).
  • [Note 3] John Symonds and Kenneth Grant, eds., Magic (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973), 131. Also see Starhawk, Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex and Politics (Boston: Beacon Press, 1982); Doreen Valiente, Natural Magic (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1975); and Isaac Bonewits, Real Magic (New York: Berkly Publishing, 1972).
  • [Note 4] Mary K. Greer, Women of the Golden Dawn: Rebels and Priestesses (Rochester, Vt.: Park Street Press, 1995), 64. Greer's book provides an insider's perspective of the ways in which women involved in the Golden Dawn used ritual and magic to transform their lives.
  • [Note 5] Quotation from Loretta Orion, Never Again the Burning Times (Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, 1995), 262.
  • [Note 6] Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977), 6. Other important works on the construction of place and space are Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. Maria Jolas (New York: The Orion Press, 1958, reprint 1964); Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Blackwell, 1974, reprint 1992); and Edward W. Soja, Postmodern Cartographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory (New York: Verso, 1989).
  • [Note 7] R. Laurence Moore discusses Chautauqua Sunday School Institutes in Selling God: American Religion on the Cultural Marketplace (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994). Moore writes that the institutes "lasted for two weeks and were organized around lessons, sermons, devotional meetings, plus concerts, fireworks, bonfires, humorous lectures, and music" (151). In 1998, a Starwood participant pointed out to me that Chatauqua was ten miles down the road from Brushwood, Starwood's current site.
  • [Note 8] An anonymous message on the electronic "Arcana Discussion List for the Study of the Occult" (6 March 1994).
  • [Note 9] In Alternative Altars, Robert Ellwood Jr. identifies a stream of alternative religious expression, including Spiritualism, to which contemporary Neopaganism clearly belongs (Alternative Altars: Unconventional and Eastern Spirituality in America [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979]. . . ).
  • [Note 10] See R. Laurence Moore, In Search of White Crows: Spiritualism, Parapsychology, and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977).
  • [Note 11] Neopagans typically go by pseudonyms or first names only at festivals, both to protect anonymity and to reflect the informality and intimacy of festivals' atmospheres.
  • [Note 12] Rhianna, e-mail to author, 25 April 1995.
  • [Note 13] When talking about where their own dead have gone, some Neopagans use the term "Summerland," an adaptation of Spiritualists' name for the land of the deceased.
  • [Note 14] Neopagans are active in a wide variety of causes; environmentalism is probably the most common. Dennis Carpenter proposes in Spiritual Experiences, Life Changes, and Ecological Viewpoints of Contemporary Pagans (Ph.D. diss., Saybrook Institute, 1994) that environmental concerns arise among Neopagans as a direct response to their spiritual experiences.
  • [Note 15] Ann Braude, Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women's Rights in Nineteenth-Century America (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989), 19.
  • [Note 16] Outside criticism did not succeed in disrupting Spiritualist gatherings. Moore suggests that attacks against Spiritualists resulted in bonding and solidarity. See his "The Occult Connection? Mormonism, Christian Science, and Spiritualism," in The Occult in America, ed. Howard Kerr and Charles Crow (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983), 135-61.
  • [Note 17] Braude, Radical Spirits, 43; Moore, In Search of White Crows, 40-69.
  • [Note 18] Neopagans make a point of disavowing other available religious options and affirming their individualized religious practices, whereas participants at Spiritualist gatherings might identify themselves as Christians or Quakers as well as Spiritualists. Neopagans are also generally much less concerned with social acceptance. Spiritualists worked hard to gain acceptance, to prove that their practices were scientifically verifiable, but Neopagans seem to celebrate and thrive on their own difference.
  • [Note 19] Moore, Selling God, 45-46. See also Leigh Eric Schmidt, Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995).
  • [Note 20] Philosopher of "place" Eugene Walter argues in Placeways that "A place is a unity of experience, organizing the intercommunication and mutual influence of all beings within it" (Walter, Placeways: A Theory of the Human Environment [Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988], 23). See also John F. Sears, Sacred Places: American Tourist Attractions in the Nineteenth Century [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979]. . . ).
  • [Note 21] Nathan Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 50-52.
  • [Note 22] Flyer advertising "Harvest of Light: A Pagan Retreat," held near Columbia, Missouri, on Labor Day Weekend, 1993.
  • [Note 23] Sears, Sacred Places, 8-9. See also D.. . . W. Meinig, ed., The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes: Geographical Essays (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979).
  • [Note 24] Historian Richard Slotkin argues in Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America that the frontier myth is the United States' most characteristic one (New York: Atheneum, 1992). The frontier myth was originally detailed in Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in American History (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1920, reprint 1962).
  • [Note 25] Winthrop set out his vision in "A Model of Christian Charity," in Puritan Political Ideas, 1558-1794, ed. Edmund S. Morgan (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965).
  • [Note 26] Alexis de Toqueville, Democracy in America, trans. George Lawrence, ed. J.. . . P. Mayer (New York: Doubleday, Anchor Books, 1969).
  • [Note 27] Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967, reprint 1973), 89. Nash traces this theme through the writings of John Muir and Aldo Leopold and discusses its manifestation in the 1960s counterculture.
  • [Note 28] My understanding of festivals as "places apart" has been helped by Beverly Stoeltje, "Festival," in Folklore, Cultural Performances, and Popular Entertainments: A Communications-Centered Handbook, ed. Richard Bauman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992); Jean Duvignaud, "Festivals: A Sociological Approach," Cultures 3, no. 1 (Unesco Press, 1976): 13-25; Alessandro Falassi, Time out of Time: Essays on the Festival (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1987); and Frank Manning, ed., The Celebration of Society: Perspectives on Contemporary Cultural Performance (Bowling Green, Ky.: Bowling Green University Press, 1983).
  • [Note 29] Neopagan festivals are marginal sites, or "heterotopias," to borrow Michel Foucault's term. There are places in every culture, says Foucault, "which are something like counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which. . . all the other real sites. . . are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted." "Of Other Spaces," Diacritics 16 (1986): 24. Other kinds of heterotopias that Foucault discusses in this essay include fairgrounds on the outskirts of cities and Polynesian "vacation villages." Much of Foucault's work is taken up with issues of power and space. My understanding of festivals and power has also been helped by Derek Gregory, Geographical Imaginations (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994).
  • [Note 30] Rob Shields, Places on the Margin: Alternative Geographies of Modernity (London: Routledge, 1991), 112. G. Rinschede and S.. . . M. Bhardwaj describe "place mythologies" as narratives of the virtues and sanctities of specific sites (Introduction to Pilgrimage in the United States [Berlin: Reimer Verlag, 1990], 11). But the sites they identify, like Neopagan festivals and the seaside retreats described by Shields, probably have negative associations as well. Other studies of place mythologies that have helped me understand festivals include John A. Agnew and James S. Duncan, eds., The Power of Place: Bringing Together Geographical and Sociological Imaginations (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989); Anne Buttimer, Geography and the Human Spirit (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993); James Duncan and David Ley, eds., Place/Culture/Representation (London: Routledge, 1993); and Tony Hiss, The Experience of Place (New York: Knopf, 1990). For some good examples of place myths see James Griffith, Beliefs and Holy Places: A Spiritual Geography of the Pimeria Alta (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1992); David Chidester and Edward T. Linenthal, eds., American Sacred Space (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995); and Jamie Scott and Paul Simpson-Housley, eds., Sacred Places and Profane Spaces: Essays in the Geographies of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (New York: Greenwood Press, 1991).
  • [Note 31] Arnold van Gennep, The Rites of Passage (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), 21.
  • [Note 32] Ibid., 115. The importance of the liminal phase in ritual is most thoroughly explored in the work of Victor Turner, and especially in The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1969).
  • [Note 33] Barbara Myerhoff, "Rites of Passage: Process and Paradox," in Celebration: Studies in Festivity and Ritual, ed. Victor Turner (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1982), 116-17.
  • [Note 34] In Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1974), Victor Turner contrasts flexible, egalitarian liminal events to the stratified, normal world (200-201). Neopagans explore a similar contrast in their literature about festivals.
  • [Note 35] Stoeltje, "Festival," in Bauman, Folklore, 268. In his study of Brazilian Carnaval, anthropologist Roberto DaMatta describes the process by which a "special space" is "produced" for Carnaval by opposing "street" to "home" in the same way that Neopagans oppose festival to mundania (Carnivals, Rogues, and Heroes: An Interpretation of the Brazilian Dilemma [Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991], 81-84).
  • [Note 36] Margot Adler, Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986), 424.
  • [Note 37] Salome, interview by author, 9 July 1993.
  • [Note 38] Margaret Thompson Drewel, Yoruba Ritual: Performers, Play, Agency (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), 174.
  • [Note 39] Quoted in Orion, Never Again the Burning Times, 146.
  • [Note 40] Vyvien, a Neopagan from Canberra, Australia, describes her first trip to a Church of All Worlds gathering (Pagan Summer Gathering 1992) in Australia (Green Egg 26, no. 101 [summer 1993], 30).
  • [Note 41] I heard this chant at many festivals, but most recently at Ancient Ways, 1997.
  • [Note 42] This places Neopagans in an American tradition of nature religion described by historian Catherine L. Albanese in Nature Religion in America: From the Algonkian Indians to the New Age (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990). The concept of a "tribe" also turns up in an important phenomenon closely related to Neopagan festivals: the Rainbow Gatherings. Rainbow gatherings are held on both regional and national levels and sponsored by a loose network of people called the "Rainbow Tribe." I have met many Neopagans at festivals who had attended at least one Rainbow Gathering; some festival participants even became exposed to Neopaganism through their involvement with the Rainbow Tribe. The national meetings are much larger than Neopagan festivals, with more than 10,000 participants.
  • [Note 43] The American Heritage College Dictionary, 3d ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993).
  • [Note 44] Moonstar, Introduction to "Reader's Forum," Circle Network News 7, no. 3 (fall 1985): 9.
  • [Note 45] Caitlin, Circle Network News 7, no. 3 (fall 1985): 10.
  • [Note 46] Starhawk discusses the links between changing consciousness and social change throughout Dreaming the Dark, but especially 114-34.
  • [Note 47] Lothlorien is the home of ELF festivals as well as festivals sponsored by other Neopagan groups such as The Trolls, who put on a spring festival called "Chants to Dance" or the Illuminati of Indiana, who have held several solstice festivals at Lothlorien. Wotanwald is based on an old Norse design and is the site for yearly gatherings "with a strong Norse/Teutonic flavoring" (Circle Network News 7, no. 3 [fall 1985]: 4).
  • [Note 48] Roberto DaMatta, "Carnaval, Informality, and Magic: A Point of View from Brazil," in Text, Play and Story: The Construction and Reconstruction of Self and Society, ed. E.. . . M. Bruner (Washington, D.C.: American Ethnological Society, 1984), 230-46.
  • [Note 49] Announcement for Spiral Gathering, Atlanta, Georgia.
  • [Note 50] Orion, Never Again the Burning Times, 133.
  • [Note 51] Michael, cassette tape to author, 9 June 1992.
  • [Note 52] See for instance Victor Turner and Edith Turner, Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture: Anthropological Perspectives (New York: Columbia University Press, 1978); Robert A. Orsi, "The Center out There, in Here, and Everywhere Else: The Nature of Pilgrimage to the Shrine of Saint Jude, 1929-1965," Journal of Social History 25, no. 2 (winter 1991): 213-32; Alan Morinis, ed., Sacred Journeys: The Anthropology of Pilgrimage (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992); David L. Haberman, Journey through the Twelve Forests: An Encounter with Krishna (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994); and Barbara G. Myerhoff, Peyote Hunt: The Sacred Journey of the Huichol Indians (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1974).
  • [Note 53] Morinis, Sacred Journeys, 2.
  • [Note 54] Carpenter, Spiritual Experiences, 8-9.
  • [Note 55] Orion, Never Again the Burning Times, 154.
  • [Note 56] Circle Network News (published by Circle Sanctuary), "Pagan Gatherings Issue" (summer 1992).
  • [Note 57] Kenn Deigh, Mezlim 3, no. 2 (1992).
  • [Note 58] Anne Buttimer, "Home, Reach, and the Sense of Place." Many of the essays collected in The Human Experience of Space and Place, ed. Anne Buttimer and David Seamon (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1980) deal with the relationship between place and self-understanding (167). See also Winifred Gallagher, The Power of Place: How Our Surroundings Shape Our Thoughts, Emotions, and Actions (New York: Poseidon Press, 1993).
  • [Note 59] Robert N. Bellah et al, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985). Other commentators on late twentieth-century American religion and culture have made similar observations. See for instance Wade Clark Roof, A Generation of Seekers (San Francisco: Harper, 1993); and Walter Truett Anderson, Reality Isn't What It Used to Be: Theatrical Politics, Ready-to-Wear Religion, Global Myths, Primitive Chic, and Other Wonders of the Postmodern World (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1990).
  • [Note 60] Spiral Gathering announcement, 1999.
  • [Note 61] PSG 1993 "Village Guide."
  • [Note 62] J. Milton Yinger observes in his study of "countercultural" religions that New Religious Movements tend to move in two directions, often both strands of movement within one group: "One branch adapting in some measure to the world around it while another pushes strongly against the dominant norms." J. Milton Yinger, Countercultures: The Promise and the Peril of a World Turned Upside Down (New York: The Free Press, 1982), 247. Movement in both directions is evident at Neopagan festivals.
  • [Note 63] Kenn Deigh, interview by author, November 1992.
  • [Note 64] Peh, conversation with author, 1 July 1993.
  • [Note 65] "Pagan Gatherings--Discovering Spiritual Homeland," flyer for 1993 Pagan Spirit Gathering.
  • [Note 66] From a mailing announcing Pagan Spirit Gathering 1995.
  • [Note 67] Orion's discussion of kinship and rites of passage is in Never Again the Burning Times, 244-54.
  • [Note 68] Flyer for Lumensgate 1994: "Opening the Way." Lumensgate is a small festival held at Brushwood Folklore Center in southwestern New York and sponsored by N'Chi, publishers of the Neopagan magazine Mezlim.
  • [Note 69] Adler, Drawing Down the Moon, 424.
  • [Note 70] Flyer for Harvest of Light, 1993.
  • [Note 71] Several of the festivals I attended held workshops that dealt with issues concerning religious freedom and alternative families, such as homosexual partnerships and polyamorous arrangements, where multiple sexual partners were described as an extended family. I also attended gay handfastings.
  • [Note 72] Rose, conversation with author, 29 May 1992.
  • [Note 73] Roger D. Abrahams, "Shouting Match at the Border: The Folklore of Display Events," in "And Other Neighborly Names": Social Process and Cultural Image in Texas Folklore, ed. Richard Bauman and Roger D. Abrahams (Austin: The University of Texas Press, 1982), 303-21.
  • [Note 74] Orion, Never Again the Burning Times, 262-64. My understanding of boundary making has been informed by Anthony P. Cohen, ed., Symbolising Boundaries: Identity and Diversity in British Cultures (Manchester, Eng.: Manchester University Press, 1986), and by David S. Hess's study of boundaries and the construction of self against other in Science in the New Age: The Paranormal, Its Defenders and Debunkers and American Culture (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993).
  • [Note 75] Circle Network News, "Pagan Gatherings Issue" (summer 1992), 17.
  • [Note 76] Green Egg 26, no. 101 (summer 1993): 30.
  • [Note 77] Orian, Never Again the Burning Times, 140.
  • [Note 78] Anthropologist Alan Morinis describes the continuity between pilgrimage and home: "While the sacred place is the source of power and salvation, it is at home once again that the effects of power are incorporated into life and what salvation is gained is confirmed" (Sacred Journeys, 27).
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