Transformational Festival Culture

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  October 2, 2011 — 12 Comments

The TEDx Youtube channel recently uploaded a talk by Jeet Kei Leung from TEDxVancouver 2010 on transformational festivals. The half-hour presentation focuses on West Coast-oriented festivals and events like Faerieworlds and Burning Man and talks about how these events re-merge spiritual/religious practices with secular festival culture.

Jeet Kei Leung specifically references how many of these festivals have adopted practices and rituals from modern Paganism, incorporating opening and closing circles, altars, invocations of sacred land, and pre-Christian (often Goddess) imagery. I’ve written about the Pagan current within Faerieworlds before, and many scholars, including Sarah Pike and Lee Gilmore, have talked about the Pagan (and “pagan”) elements within Burning Man.

While I appreciate Kei Leung giving voice to this growing trend, I do think its far larger, and older, than he might think. Yes, something unique did happen when rave/dance culture intermixed with the West Coast’s tendency to hold events in nature, but modern Pagans have been holding multi-day outdoor festivals with many of the elements he describes for over 30 years. In addition, these events, like Pagan Spirit Gathering, Starwood, Brushwood, and Wisteria, are held in the Midwest or East Coast. The reason Pagan threads have woven so easily into modern transformational events like Burning Man is because we had a thriving festival culture of our own. I also think that indoor events (like Dragon*Con), while fundamentally different from outdoor events, are starting to take on the same liminal/numinous/spiritual/tribal features.

Finally, any discussion about how Western festival culture has taken on a spiritual dimension should recognize the great debt we owe to European festival culture. Not just to 1990s Rave culture in England, but to the vast tapestry of long-running music and (sub)cultural festivals that have slowly evolved into entrenched tradition. It’s in Europe, after all, where even the Goths go camping. Faerieworlds, for example, is very much in the tradition of fantasy-oriented European festivals like Castlefest, merged with Pagan, Burner, and Tribal elements. Still, no 30-minute talk can cover everything, and I appreciate Jeet Kei Leung articulating this as an important trend. I look forward to his in-progress book “Dancing Together into The Great Shift: Transformational Festivals & The New Evolutionary Culture”.

Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • A great find, Jason. Thanks for posting. I know it’s shameless self-promotion, but I am one of the scholars who has noted this as well in my MA thesis which is now published as a book through Lambert Academic Publishing: I look forward to engaging this scholar and adding to my own evolving understanding and appreciation for this festival and culture.

  • Soliwo

    Just one more comment. Castlefest is great but the Elf Fantasy Fair (also in The Netherlands) is much bigger and better known.

    I am very happily surprised though that we get mentioned at all up here. Thanks for the reference to my country and Europe in general 🙂

    • My pleasure! I would love to do more on Europe in general, but news is hard to come by, and often isn’t in English.

      • Soliwo

        I understand of course, and though I am Dutch I do not speak much more than English and a few words of German.

        Perhaps we need a PNC Europe, perhaps in coordination with the Pagan Federation.

  • We’ve noticed a profound connection between the average secular street festival based on agriculture, such as an Apple Festival or Cornhusking dance, and the older Pagan religio-magick festivals of Europe, the customs of many of which survived right up to the 1940s. (TV and WWII killed ’em, NOT Christianity, BTW).

    Enjoying the many harvest festivals here in the heartland between Lammas and Samhain time, many of which have similarities to the religious celebrations of agriculture from olden times.

  • Pitch313

    One festival that I think was influential on Pagan sorts of gatherings were the Renaissance Pleasure Faires that began in California during the 1960s.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      I’ve always thought that the large Haight-Ashbury Summer of Love gatherings, culminating in the Human Be-In but led up to by other events including a Summer Solstice observation in 1966, were precursors of Pagan festivals.

    • Go back even farther, Pitch–to the outdoor religious “brush arbor” camp meetings of the Second Great Awakening. Americans have a long tradition of going out into the woods and fields to get religion.

  • Charlotte

    I appreciate the speaker sharing his detailed observations..and yes it is all really positive. But I agree that this is nothing new. It just seems natural that people will gather and celebrate in a sacred way. Of course, I am glad there are more of this type of conscious art/music/dance inspired gatherings going on. “stumbled upon” ?? not sure about that and BTW what is an Eco-feminist?