Home again from Pantheacon, and reentering the mundane world after four days spent in liminal space. I have so many friends and family members from outside the Pagan world, and I often wonder what they would think if they were to step inside Pantheacon.
(Pantheacon is an annual conference or convention for those of us who follow many non-traditional spiritual traditions. You will find everything from traditional British witchcraft; Heathenry; Dianic Wicca; Egyptian, Celtic, Roman and Egyptian reconstructionism, religions of the African diaspora, and Hinduism, just to name a few. It takes place every year in San Jose, California, and draws Pagans from all over the West, as well as participants from as far away as Australia and Wales. Many Pagans from the Midwest, the East Coast and even the South also attend).
I remember the time I walked through the door at the first Pantheacon I ever attended. I had been a member of a women-only circle that was very wary of sharing ritual space with men. I came to P'con on a Saturday morning, which is the day in which many of the men don kilts. The first thing I saw was a kilted tall broad-shouldered man with a fierce-looking beard and wild tangles of shoulder-length hair so dark that it was almost blue black. He was wearing leather boots that were almost knee height and had various other leather devices and bags attached to his belt. He was the vision of my worst nightmares and I almost walked back out the door.
Now, when I see the same guy, I rush up to give him a hug for I know him to be the gentle and kind man who has shouldered so many of the burdens associated with the Pagan Alliance, of which I am a member. And besides, it's a lot of fun to hang out with him.
I remember going to presentation and rituals that first time, some of which were fun and easy to understand and others that left me quite puzzled, like the ritual in honor of Inana, at which the priestess passed out raw asparagus sprinkled with cinnamon, which she maintained had been revealed to her to be the proper food for devotees of that Sumerian deity.
That Pantheacon was more than a decade ago. And I've been going ever since. It's the huge annual gathering of all the Pagan tribes that takes place over the Presidents' Day weekend. Paganism is the big-tent religion that is practice rather than belief-based. So we can and do all gather together, celebrating rituals, focusing on environmental and social-justice issues, and learning from scholars despite whichever pantheon we honor.
Pantheacon is held at a hotel, unlike many Pagan festivals in other parts of the country, and while I balk at the cost, I am so thankful that this means sleeping in a bed, having flush toilets and letting others do the cooking. This way we can focus on what's important and, except for the dedicated volunteer staff that takes care of logistics, we don't have to worry about structure.
I always go to Pantheacon alone, even though I am so eager to meet up with friends once I'm there. I find this weekend to fill up so much of my head and heart that I need solitude in order to make sense of it all.
This year the theme was ``Making Changes: Open mindedness, togetherness, tolerance, inclusion, benevolence compassion.'' I would say that the subtext was radical inclusiveness. I think over the past five years, every year more pains are taken to make sure that all in the Pagan world know they were welcome, and that people are working hard to remove barriers to inclusiveness. I saw people who range in age from in utero all the way to very ancient seniors tottering around. And over the years we have much more of a rainbow in terms of people of color, and sexual orientation and gender presentation. As the priest who was leading the Dionysos Hestios revel and devotional said ``you're all welcome here regardless of the color of your skin or the configuration of your crotch.''
And indeed, if you had seen the throngs dancing to the wild drumming, you would have seen a cross section of all humanity. I'm the old crone who walks with a cane and my dancing days are over, yet I was invited to sit in a chair amid the dancing, and we less mobile ones were brought our cups of wine before anyone else. I saw one bearded man dance by, wearing only high-heeled shoes with white anklets, a teeny bikini bottom, and a gold chain mail tank top, if that gives you any idea. Lots of women my age, as well as wild and energetic young people, some with crowns of grape leaves in their hair.
Probably the most moving event for me was the Sacred Mass in Celebration of the Dark Mother, presented by the Order of the Black Madonna. The ritual commemorated the 1100 people of color killed by police and trans people murdered in hate crimes. The ritual was simple, dignified, elegant and powerfully moving.
Many of us came to the Pagan world from Rome, and I think this ritual hit all our buttons: our love of the community from which we came, the betrayal or rejection that led us to leave, the gratitude for the good things we brought with us, and the powerful grief and loss for all we had to leave behind in order to proceed with integrity and authenticity. I could look across the room and see those among us who came from the same roots and I could tell that this was an earth-shaking ritual for each of us. And I was happy that our late friend Amethyst Moonwater was one of those who was commemorated in a special way at the ritual. And oh, the music was absolutely transcendently beautiful!
Lots of really good scholarship was presented this year. Most compelling, I think, was Gus DiZerenga's presentation on German neo-Pagan religion from the late 19th and early 20th century. Oh my, who knew? Some of the photos he showed us of early-day German Pagans and their families could very easily have been shot out in Golden Gate Park or up in Sonoma County in the 1970s, or even last week. Gus explored the differences and similarities, and the diverging paths that led, on one level to Neo-Paganism as it is experienced today and, to the dark side, the evils of Nazism. I cannot wait until he publishes a paper on the subject. I expect many eyes to be opened.
I also really enjoyed Max Dashu's presentation on Norse shamanic seeresses. Max has devoted her life to independent study of women's history in earth-based religions, and, as usual brought a wide range of imagery that I'd never seen before and opened my eyes to new aspects of our Pagan/Heathen culture. I'd never before seen the seidstaffs -- used by the seeresses and symbols of their power -- as distaffs. Now I find myself thinking about that image of Mater Admirabilis so beloved by women who have been educated by nuns from the Society of the Sacred Heart, and wondering if one of the reasons for its appeal is the ancient memories that are awakened because of the distaff standing at Mary's side. Guess I'll have to talk to Max about that some time.
There are several different branches of Druidry that were present at Pantheacon, and I attended a ritual aimed at bringing more rain to California conducted by the ADF Druid Fellowship. We did our best, and apparently more rains are due beginning tomorrow.
Patricia LaFayllve is one of our Heathen scholars, and I was glad I had a chance to hear her presentation on Seidhr, which is a Heathen oracular practice. (BTW the term ``Heathen'' refers to those who practice the reconstructed pre-Christian religion of Northern Europeans). I have sat in the high seat and acted as a seeress on a few occasions, and it was good to learn more about the history of the practice as we can decipher it from the Eddas, and to hear about others experiences and ways of doing Seidh.
As usual I had to go to my friend Prudence's presentation on Romuva, which is the Baltic version of Paganism. I see many similarities between Romuva and some of the Heathen practices (and garb), and we have, in fact, imported Romuva's tradition of circle-casting into our own circle because of what we have learned from Prudence. As is the case with many other forms of Paganism, Romuva was revived by cultural scholars and has rapidly caught on with many who are exploring their cultural roots.
Three notable Pagan scholars -- Sabina Magliocco, Tanya Luhrmann and Sarah M. Pike -- presented a panel on what is happening with Pagan studies in the academy and what they are observing in Pagan culture here in the U.S. What I found interesting was the comment that as Paganism is more widely accepted, many Pagans are returning to solitary practice, perhaps no longer needing the support and secrecy of groups. There was also a discussion of the growing Paganification -- if such a word exists -- of practices and even the physical arrangements -- within traditional churches. Certainly the recent photo I saw of women sitting on yoga mats in the sanctuary of St. Joseph's, the Jesuit parish in Seattle where I grew up would bear that out.
Trust me, we did a whole lot more than listen to lectures. I always say the real Pantheacon takes place in the coffee shop and maybe on the ledge in front of the lobby fireplace. It is like a family reunion and I was so happy to see so many friends and spend time in deep conversations with them. Even my Pagan ``cousins'' from Minnesota's Harmony Tribe were there and, to my delight, are coming out with a book on ritual practice.
I don't usually hang out in the hospitality suites, but this year went with a friend to the OBOD -- Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids -- suite, where I sat there laughing for more than half an hour as a woman who plays the part of a young lad at the Dickens Fair every year got into character, and acted/told us funny stories about what happens behind the scenes.
I missed most of the late night events -- hey, I'm a crone, after all -- but I know many folks danced and drummed and Goddess only knows what else -- at some of the late-night sessions. I did stay up way too late one night having a lengthy conversation with Rowan Fairgrove about the Parliament of the World's Religions, about which I had previously had only an imperfect understanding.
And I pretty much avoided the huge vendors' room where just about any Pagan-oriented merchandise was available. Not because I don't like the stuff, but because my present lack of freelance work is meaning I have to be careful about money, and also, my task as a crone is deaccession rather than acquisition. I did take my precious amber sølje to Just Rewards to see if one of their genius craftsman could repair the accidental damage I did to it the first time I wore it. And because I am a bestemor, I did have to pick up a little something from Practical Rabbit for my Star Boy grandson. But that's what grandmas are expected to do, right?
A lot of workshops addressed social justice issues or those relating to personal growth. Black Lives Matter was very much on peoples' minds, as are transgender inclusion, environmental issues, interfaith work, and Pagan prison ministries. (The latter is a growing field, not because many Pagans are going to prison, but because many people who are incarcerated discover Paganism and are not having their spiritual needs met by chaplains who too often are fundamentalist Christians and cannot tolerate other world views).
I am sitting here now looking through the program and seeing all the great presentations, rituals and other events that I missed. There is literally just too much going on, but that's a good thing because there is something for everyone and then some. And equally important is skipping a few workshops just to hang out with friends.
One of the best parts of Pantheacon for me this year was a lengthy breakfast with Michael R. Gorman, a Druid from Sacramento. We've both experienced similar losses with respect to our family and spent some time sharing coping mechanisms. We came up with an idea for a ritual for Pantheacon next year -- unrelated to family stuff -- and I'm really eager to start working with him on it. It will be the first time I've ever developed a ritual with someone outside the community of women with whom I circle, so it should be a real growth experience for me, and I hope for all who attend it.
The first time I came to Pantheacon, the reporter/Capricorn judging part of me was working overtime and I kept looking around at the participants in their crushed velvet, leather corsets, animal horn headdresses, belly dance hip wraps, pounds of amber jewelry, multiple piercings, tattoos, combinations of beards and prom dresses, kilts, and turquoise-dyed hair and thought to myself ``WHAT are these people thinking, going out in public like this?''
But how I've changed over the years. Now, every time I step through the doorway into Pantheacon's space, the same work by Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins -- ``Pied Beauty'' -- comes to mind. The only thing I would do would be to change the poem to a more polytheistic orientation. Otherwise, it's exactly what I see when I encounter my Pagan sisters and brothers all together, all at once:
Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: