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The Earth is Magick. And Bloody Cold.

Posted by spritzophrenia on December 22, 2009

For those who have an interest in paganism/wicca. I originally wrote this in 2007.

It’s been a few years since I did a little reading around modern paganism (also called neo-paganism), notably Margot Adlers’ sympathetic overview Drawing Down the Moon.

For those who are unfamiliar, the wikipedia article is a useful place to start, bearing in mind the dangers of relying on Wikipedia too much. (There are Wikipedia articles on other topics I’ve read which have, if not error, a misleading use of language.)
I’m not a pagan but I went to a pagan camp/festival near Levin over the Easter weekend to hang out with some friends. I’ve been thinking about the experience, partly in relation to other participants’ responses. I will divide my response in two, namely 1. my experience and 2. my reflection on the long weekend.

My experience and feelings while there
Disclaimer: I’m well aware that a non-adherent of a religion usually makes mistakes in emphasis, nuance and understanding when writing about it. My apologies for any factual errors.

There were about 70 people or so there for the whole weekend, and i imagine with visitors the numbers would have been over 100. The whole thing reminded me of a slightly tacky christian church camp of the kind I used to go to. Note, i do not identify as a christian any more, although even that simplifies things too much.

Most people camped; it was nice to be out under the stars drinking wine or cider and chatting. There was lots of free time to socialise, communal breakfast and evening meals, seminars and workshops and a sort of market where people were selling items like herbs, candles, jewelery and old-style “witchy” brooms (seriously). This was derided as Pagan ‘bling’ or ‘tack’ by one or two I was at the festival with. Pentacles abounded. (Star-like symbols, they can be six sided but the 5 sided pentagram type was more common. Not upside down tho’ – only naughty people wear those.) I went to 3 seminars that were focused on the academic or theoretical end of things which I really enjoyed. It was clearly stated several times by one seminar leader: “Modern Paganism/Witchcraft was invented by Gerald Gardner in 1954”.

Each night there was a ritual, followed by drumming and dancing around a fire. The rituals were not well received by a minority. Some had issues with the ritual elements themselves (eg, “I didn’t like it ‘cos they used four watchtowers which is from Freemasonry and they had a priest and a priestess leading it”). To be fair, the organisers were trying to do their best to make the rituals inclusive of the diversity that is neopaganism (see below.) Some people simply found the rituals tacky, contrived, unconvincing, fake or couldn’t respect those leading them. I was in this second group. Whatever its failings, one thing Episcopalian christianity has learned is how to do robed-up liturgical rituals well. The second night’s ritual was very late, and long. Fortunately I missed that as the second two nights a small number including myself chose not to go to the rituals because of our dissatisfaction.

The second and third nights were used to celebrate Samhein (pronounced “Sow-win”) two weeks early, the organisers acknowledged. The third night, the ritual was led by someone else and appeared to be much more satisfying. I liked the sitting around the fire talking, drumming and dancing and joined in that afterwards, tho’ it was much more restrained than i would have liked. For Samhein in remembrance of my Irish Celtic ancestors I painted my face and arms with woad. OK, it was acrylic paint and mud. Needs must. I thought it was cool, but no-one else did it. I must be a freak. No-one was nude (“skyclad”) at the fest by the way.

At Magick Earth I was trying to understand paganism, participate where I felt comfortable and simply experience, not to criticise. Sometimes that was hard as some of it seemed rather silly to me. But then much human behaviour is silly, and certainly other religions do silly stuff. What matters, is whether it is true. “True” is a loaded word, for some. More on that another time.

Robes were the fashion du jour, although mainly at night. At first I thought the robes were a bit laughable, but they’re very practical when your religion involves standing outside in the Autumnal cold for hours. Some robes were in crushed velvet. I saw one woman in a native South American traditional costume. I should also add the couple of women who were into belly dancing and dressed er… pseudo Persian at night. (There was a seminar on belly dancing too.)

It’s fascinating, i am at a unique point in history where i can watch a religion birthed and develop. Neo-paganism is a young spirituality, with the concomitant challenges baby religions face. Or rather, it’s a family of religions as Paganism is not a single unified entity.

Paganism is fairly diverse, although the Wikipedia article above does mention common threads. There are wiccans, who are pagan, but not all pagans are wiccans, and druids who can be pagan, but also can be christian or buddhist or other. Most people seemed to believe in a goddess. The goddess is often paired with a god. The exact cosmology, and how the world got here I can’t comment on. I got the impression some believe the goddess/god are like Jungian archetypes “made real” somehow. Some seem content to acknowledge their beliefs are “made up”, but it’s obviously still valid to them. I’d like to hear more of their opinion on that.

Some happily derive their beliefs and practices from a mixture of sources. Others are “reconstructionists” following mainly one type of spirituality, eg Celtic reconstructionists who are trying to reconstruct what we know of ancient Celtic religion. A small number were Christopagans and/or Christian Wiccans, trying to syncretise Christianity and Pagan beliefs. I learned New Age beliefs are not necessarily pagan, but many practices of New Age followers are also used by some Pagans, eg the tarot, astrology and the belief in the beneficial powers of crystals. No pagans are practicing satanists as such; nor do most believe in satan as they don’t believe in the christian worldview. These were generally what might be called ‘humanitarian’ pagans, although I’m interested in how a “dark” or “shadow” side might fit with this, and why it is not also practiced. There was the occasional belittling and discussion of christianity, with varying degrees of accuracy. Which might be expected if christianity is considered the dominant religious influence in New Zealand – a thesis which is arguable in my opinion.

And then there’s the sociocultural blends which are not explicitly pagan – or are they? Many festivalgoers seemed to be into tie dye or medieval clothing – 1 or 2 there were part of medieval reenactment groups. A few were in jeans and heavy metalish clothing. Plenty of tattoos and piercings, so i fit right in 😉 A few dressed pretty plainly. I couldn’t help thinking Paganism’s dress sense is remarkably similar to Boganism. Or hippiedom. Oh, and many of the pagans there at least had a sense of humour about all this.

I did think, if Magick Earth is representative of modern paganism, the people who write scaremongering books have nothing to fear.

Another thing I came away with was a renewed conviction that religion, spirituality and belief is something that should be discussed in the public domain. There is something in Kiwi culture that says it should be private in the same way most people don’t discuss their sex lives. I think open, respectful and frank discussion is vitally important both for society and to enrich/critique those who hold spiritual beliefs. Which, let’s face it, is the vast majority of people, much to many atheists’ disgust.

So much for this limited account of my experience. Overall I enjoyed myself, especially the chance to socialise and relax, and learn something new. Something I want to explore further is the concept of integrity and how it relates to pagan ethics. And perhaps a few other things.

I will save that for next time. Come back for Part Two. What’s your experience of modern paganism? Did I get it wrong?

today’s fun unrelated link Adam Sandler’s funny Channukah song (Judaism)
listening to After The Fire | Der Kommissar, DNA | Stereo Flip

15 Responses to “The Earth is Magick. And Bloody Cold.”

  1. FairyWyrd said

    I have to agree with you a bit here. I’ve been to one of the Magick Earth festivals, and it felt a bit like church camp. I will, at this point, say that the intent of the organisers was incredible. A lot of work goes into these festivals, and unpaid time etc. From what I remember, the majority of Pagans that were at the festival I attended were Wiccans, which made the rituals slightly difficult, as they were mainly Wiccan based, yet (as you said) not all Pagans are Wiccans. This left the non-Wiccan minority a bit disgruntled. After all, why attend a ritual if it’s based in another religion that you don’t follow.

    All in all it was a good weekend though. A bunch of hippies playing medieval times. The one I attended was at a great place (though the name escapes for for now…waaaay too early in the morning and my 2 year old woke me up…brain….kick…nope, not working, need more coffee!)
    One gripe from the organised workshops was that despite the ‘fee’ being a gold coin, a lot of people attended the workshops, but many of them didn’t pay. Now, to me, that doesn’t fit with the pagan/wiccan way at all, so the weekend was definately filled with mixed messages.

    In all though I had a great time. It was a fun weekend and the Saturday ritual in the grove was amazing. I have nothing but respect for the organisers as I know what a huge task they face for each festival. Everyone had an awesome time and there was much drinking, fire spinning, dancing, drumming and merriment. It’s something I’d like to do again sometime, though I’d take all the rituals with a grain of salt.

    Religion, is one of those funny topics that is personal to everyone. If I was to label myself, I’d call myself a Celtic Shaman, though recently, I’ve been exploring Buddhism as well. I find relevance and comfort in both, so I don’t know what that makes me (heh, confused? lol) I agreee religion should be able to be discussed openly and without bias, but I find too many people have the attitude of “If you don’t believe in my religion, you’ll burn in hell as you are wrong” Funny, my religion doesn’t have a hell…

    • Haha! I think “confused” would describe me too. *grin* I identify with your Celtic side. Perhaps I should write about that some time? I also value some insights gained from Buddhism, although I also have serious questions about the overall Buddhist worldview. Another blog post or 5 there!

      Thankyou for your honest feedback. And you’re right, putting on any kind of festival like that is a huge amount of work and I’m grateful they did. I learned a lot, even the negatives can be learning experiences do you think?

      Graciousness and respect is what I try to cultivate. I’m sure I don’t always achieve it.


  2. Freeman said

    That sounded like a fairly typical Pagan festival. Large public rituals are notoriously hard to do, and I have been to many that were complete failures. A few people can do them well, though.

    The fellow who was emphasizing the newness of Wicca was overstating the case a little bit, but he would have been doing so to counteract any remnant notion that Witchcraft is “the Olde Religion.” Based on Leland, Murray, and a bit of folklore, this belief was common enough until it was carefully studied quite a bit later. _The Triumph of the Moon_ by Ronald Hutton is the high-water mark of scholarship so far, at least as of its publication date, but there are some corrections to it out there by Heselton and others.

    Gardner didn’t really invent much. He synthesized Wicca out of a bit of Witchcraft folklore and a lot of OTO/Western Esoteric/Masonic material. It turned out to be what the time needed, and of course we can see how it has evolved since.

    As you point out, Wiccans account for somewhere around 40-50% of all Neopagans (depending on who counts how, where, and when), with the rest being a various stew of reconstructed traditions, modern Druidry, and who knows what.

    Very little of it is 100% new, but none of it is 100% old either, and contemporary Pagans have almost all come to terms with its relative newness, because there are real experiences to be had out there under the moon. With or without any Pagan bling 🙂

    • Freeman, that’s a very helpful perspective, thanks.

      The woman who said Gerald Gardner had “invented” wicca did her Masters in “Wiccan theology” at a department of religion here. Granted, she was saying that as a soundbite for memorability and I’m certain she’d acknowledge all the sources that Gardener drew on and synthesised. Of course, she’s only one person and may be wrong. But it surprised me to have such an experienced and highly educated witch say something like that. If (say) the Pope said something similar about christianity, the whole church would self-destruct within days. Which might not be such a bad thing, actually 😉

      That book you mention by Hutton sounds like it will have to go on my reading list. Would you be open to being interviewed (via email) one day about your perspectives? You seem to be well-versed in your traditions.

      Some of the ‘bling’ was quite pretty actually. Was tempted by some of the Pentacles.

      – Jonathan

  3. […] by spritzophrenia on December 23, 2009 Later today I’ll follow up my post on my pagan experience with something a little more chunky. Specifically, a look at integrity, hypocrisy and pagan ethics. […]

  4. […] I hope you gain insight and connection through watching them. I’ve written part two of my pagan experience, I aim to get that online soon. In the meantime, have you seen any of the above films? What other […]

  5. Nice blog. You’re article was spot on. Will you be writing a follow up article up on this? I’ve bookmarked your page.

  6. Iain said

    The one thought that struck me was that what was needing to be focused on was authenticity. It’s okay to be unhappy with the religious expressions of the person next to you, but perhaps in such a diverse gathering the easiest solution would be to provide a safe, nonjudgmental space for fellowship with each other and some kind of genuine, heart-felt religious communion.
    It the organisers are pressing the template for their ideal event on people who are used to their own individualised spirituality and more than a little bit of non-conformity then I can see why people might get their feathers ruffled.

    The successful night, as you describe, seems to be the later bonfire night. Perhaps people had spent enough time with each other by that point that they had taken down a few walls and were less self-conscious about expressing themselves around others. Personally having NO experience with paganism, I would imagine that if I had to run a night such as this then I would make sure we have time to talk (“powhiri”, so to speak, is important), make sure we have time to share a meal, and then perhaps provide a warm bonfire and an open space (with musicians?) and just let the authentic expression of joy emerge however it will.

    But what do I know? I’m speaking from zero experience of context.

  7. […] story lots of people liked. Atheist Sprituality. Is there such a thing? Alien Sex Cult! No, really. My Pagan Experience. In which I attend a pagan festival. Annie Lamott Is A Cool Chick. Well, she is. And a good writer. […]

  8. […] ‘participant observer’. This is part two of my thoughts, the first being my experience and emotional response. Here’s an incomplete reflection -abandoned rather than finished. Long blog warning, grab a […]

  9. […] http://freemanpresson.wordpress.com and http://ulbh.livejournal.com You can also read about one of my own Pagan experiences and another interview on Western-based Mysticism If you’d like me to interview you, leave a […]

  10. Wife of Congregational (read: super-liberal) pastor checking in. Thanks for a fascinating article and ensuing conversation. I have several Wiccan friends who, for my money, live out of love a lot better than many pew-potatoes (put money in plate, take it like a vaccination). I’m a Christian who considers herself more a follower of Jesus’ command to love; therefore, I’m often at odds with fellow Christians, though I don’t pick the fight. I accept all; I chuckled at the tacky displays, as they remind me of places that hawk stuff like “actual shards of the Cross” and “vials of Mary’s tears,” etc.

    Love you all, Amy Barlow Liberatore

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