Pagan festival season is almost upon us. Many Pagans spend a portion of each summer enjoying the community, the openness, and the freedom of Pagan festivals. Many others are simply not aware of these events, or are only aware of Pagan gatherings in their own backyard. Some may have heard about large-scale Pagan fests, but have wondered, "Will I fit in? Will others have more knowledge and experience than me? Will I find like-minded people, or will I be uncomfortable?"
I have been extremely lucky that as a performer and presenter with a long-time presence in the Pagan community, I have had the opportunity to spend my summers for the past two decades attending and participating in many Pagan festivals. I have cherished my time at these events, which have allowed me to perform for a Pagan audience, network with Pagans, create long lasting friendships, and feel the warmth of a community.
Here is an overview of the Pagan festival phenomenon, strictly from my own experiences over the years.
First let's clarify the term Pagan Festival, at least for the purpose of this discussion. First we eliminate what it is not. Here, we'll refer to a Pagan event as a spiritually-focused gathering created by Pagans specifically for other Pagans, so while you might see a lot of people wearing pentacles at a Renaissance fair, a Science Fiction festival, a gaming convention, or a rainbow gathering, these events are not specific to Pagans, and do not have an exclusively spiritual focus. Next we'll eliminate Pagan Pride Day events and meet-ups. While these are indeed Pagan-created events, they tend to be small in scope and last only a few hours. A Pagan Festival is an event that usually lasts several days (some up to two weeks); involves Pagans camped or quartered together, creating a chosen community; and offers workshops, concerts, and rituals of interest to Pagans, Witches, and other Earth worshipers. Most Pagan festivals range from small (three or four hundred people) to medium (five to eight hundred) to very large (up to two thousand or more). These events are often clothing-optional, usually family-friendly, and always open and respectful to Pagans of many paths. (See my notes on a few festivals below).
A Little History Of Pagan Festivals
The Pagan Festival as we know it began in, of all places, Indiana, back in 1976. A group of Pagans formed the Midwest Pagan Council, and rented some land from Notre Dame University to hold a camping event. Word of PanPagan gathering spread, and several hundred Pagans showed up from all over the Midwest. Many of them had never seen any Pagans, Witches, or Heathens other than those in their own covens and circles. It was, in a word, awesome!
Another very early event was Rites of Spring, held in Massachusetts. Under a canopy of green forest, several hundred Pagans and Witches began meeting there in 1979 to celebrate with rituals and workshops.
A few people from PanPagan moved on to begin a new group. Jim Alan and Selena Fox had a vision of a Pagan land trust that housed rituals, a Pagan library, and a Pagan legal branch. They formed Circle in the late 1970s, and though Jim left the project, Selena has spent most of her professional life monitoring Pagan legal issues, setting up events, and lecturing in the media. Circle created Pagan Spirit Gathering (PSG) in Wisconsin in 1980, a festival that pioneered Pagan concerts and fire circle drumming.
A year later, Ohio saw its first Starwood, a festival with Pagan roots that broadened its scope to all alternative spiritual paths. Created by ACE, the Association for Consciousness Exploration, Starwood has featured an impressive list of presenters over the last thirty years that has included Timothy Leary, Paul Krassner, and Llewellyn author Christopher Penczak.
The movement mushroomed in the '80s and '90s, and Pagan fests began cropping up across the US. Each festival has a unique feel, and offers various levels of presenters, rituals, activities, musical acts, and accommodations.
Let's look at a few that I consider the best of the best for the coming summer. Remember, these festivals are listed simply because I've visited them in the past and came away with a personal feeling of satisfaction. These are my opinions only, and do not represent an endorsement by Llewellyn or a guarantee that your experience will be like mine.
That said, here is an opinionated overview of Pagan fests by month:
Free Spirit Gathering (FSG) is a festival I have attended for a couple of decades now. Held in a large Boy Scout-type camp in rural Maryland, the festival offers cabins, a pool, and a cafeteria meal plan. There are excellent Pagan concerts each night of festival, a very full workshop schedule, as well as rituals most evenings. This is a very quiet, well organized fest, with good children's programming and an excellent site. There is a very scholarly or intellectual focus to many of FSG's workshops.
Why You Might Go:
Indoor dining hall meal plan
Very good workshop line-up
Pagan Spirit Gathering (PSG) is one of the oldest festivals in existence. Once held in the organizers' native Wisconsin, the fest has recently found a new site in Missouri. This year's festival will include presentations by Llewellyn authors Joyce and River Higginbotham.
You might go for:
Good programming for adults, teens, and children
Always well-planned, innovative rituals
Wisteria Summer Solstice is one of the most stunningly beautiful Pagan owned sites I've been on, tucked into the welcoming Appalachian mountains on the Ohio-West Virginia border. As much a music fest as a Pagan festival, this year's concert line-up is an all star Pagan bill, with music on three stages each night of the festival. The site features an amazing stone ritual circle and miles of hiking trails. Though camping is primitive, there is a full service cafe and a well-stocked pub. Some programming will focus on ecology and the battle against strip mining, a local issue.
Insanely great Pagan music
Beautiful forests and meadows
Good food and drink
Programming for kids, family-friendly
WicCan Fest is Canada's oldest Pagan festival, held in rural Ontario. Jason Mankey will be a presenter this year, and his workshops are among my favorites on the festival circuit. They also have a great kid's program, which will involve a live-action role-playing game going on throughout the fest. These are about the friendliest bunch of Pagans you will ever meet, eh?
Great kid's programming, and very family-friendly
The refreshingly cold swimming hole
One of the best festivals for thirty years running is Starwood. More than a Pagan festival, Starwood is a tribal celebration, a taste of every spiritual path there is, an intense bit of chaos, and features the best drumming you'll ever hear at a gathering. Starwood's final night involves a bonfire ritual in which the wood for the fire is the height of a three-story house. A bit of a paradox, Starwood is both the most licentious festival I have experienced, and at the same time has the absolute highest level of knowledgeable, captivating presenters and great world class musical acts. This year's guests include Ina May Gaskin, who literally wrote the book on midwifery in America. The festival will be held for the first time at Wisteria (see above), a very lovely campground with a full cafe and a pub, a great stone circle, and an enormous stage.
The best drumming ever
Well thought-out presentations by top-notch presenters
A dose of craziness
Sirius Rising and Summer Fest are held back to back at Brushwood, probably the best Pagan-owned site I know of. The land (in upper New York, near Niagara Falls) is incredible, and the “roundhouse,” where nightly drumming is held, is a good deal bigger than my house! While Sirius Rising has been going on for a number of years, this year the fest will meld into Summer Fest, giving the option of a two week event (you may also choose to attend just one or the other). Also nice are the pool and hot tub.
The land is incredible
The drumming is great
The rituals are very good
Many things for kids to do, including a fenced-in toddler area and daily children's parties in the pool
Good food from two excellent cafes
Dragonfest is a spiritual retreat held in the mountains of Colorado. I have not been to this festival in a number of years (they've been running since 1985), but I do remember it being very friendly and very eclectic. Upon writing this their web site did not yet list this year's presenters.
Clean mountain air
An attitude of independence and eclectic Paganism
Looking into 2011...
Pantheacon is held in a hotel in San Jose, California each February. This convention is a who's who of stellar Pagan speakers and presenters. Every Pagan, Witch, and Heathen who has something interesting and important to say about our community will be there. Also, sleeping in a real bed is a good thing. As intelligent as the presentations are each day, wild private parties are held in individual hotel rooms nightly, and there is a Bacchanalian air over the hotel each time the sun sets.
The best presenters at any Pagan event
Wild parties each night
A mother and daughter tea time
I had the honor of performing this year at Beltania, a fairly new Pagan music festival in the Colorado Rockies in May. I was completely blown away by the festival's hospitality and the amazing line-up of Pagan musical acts. This festival could become the Woodstock of Pagan music. It is the Colorado Rockies in May, so bring very warm clothes!
Insanely great music
Very friendly, warm, homey feel
The Pagan mosh pit
The lawn mower story (ask anyone who was there)