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

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