What is PantheaCon?

Heather Greene —  February 18, 2015 — 22 Comments

SAN JOSE – This past weekend, close to 3000 Pagans, Heathens, Polytheists and others of diverse religious beliefs descended on Double Tree Hotel in San Jose, California to attend the annual PantheaCon event. This is the largest indoor conference of its kind in the United States. Held over President’s weekend in mid-February, PantheaCon boasts “more than 200 presentations that range from rituals to workshops and from classes to concerts.”

pantheaconWhile PantheaCon is very popular and attracts an international following, there are far more people who do not know what it is, don’t care to attend, or do not have the time and means to attend. As observed by Jason Mankey in his post “Pagan Festivals and the .25%,” the number of people who actually attend PantheaCon and other community-based large events is relatively small compared to the number of Pagans and Heathens in world. While it is impossible at this point to assess whether his figure of .25% is statistically correct, Mankey’s assessment provides a perspective on the place of large festivals and conferences within the global Pagan movement and within our collective communities.

So for those who wonder “What is this PantheaCon?” Here is look at this year’s event.

PantheaCon is held in a Doubletree Hotel near the airport in San Jose, a city located in California’s Bay Area. For decades, this region has been the birthplace of and provided the nurturing soil for many influential American Pagan works and organizations. It is, therefore, not surprising that the largest such conference has grown up in this area.

Krampus with author and Wild Hunt columnist Crystal Blanton

Krampus with author and Wild Hunt columnist Crystal Blanton

PantheaCon began as a small, local event, but quickly expanded under skilled, experienced management and teamwork. Today, the conference fills nearly the entire hotel, including 48,000 square feet of “function space,” guest rooms and hospitality suites. There are only a few people roaming around the hotel, outside of the staff and personnel, who are not with the conference. And, these people could easily feel overwhelmed by the conference’s crowds, bewildered by the community, or just simply confused when Krampus strolls by their breakfast table.

This year’s theme was Pagan Visions of the Future: Building Pagan Safety & Social Nets. PantheaCon didn’t always have a theme, and the event is so large and diverse in its offerings that it really doesn’t necessarily need one. As organizers will say, this diversity is very calculated and scheduled. They aim to provide a healthy range of representation – a little bit of something for everyone who attends. For example, this year the events ranged from practical application workshops, such as A Witch’s Guide to Wands by Gypsey Teague, to intense panel discussions, such as Honoring or Appropriation? What is the Difference? hosted by T. Thorn Coyle. There were many rituals, such as CAYA Coven’s Wake up to Spirit, Ekklesia Antinoou’s Teenage Gods and Heroes, and Victoria Slind-Flor “Grandmother Ritual.”

There are also a significant number of hospitality suites offering their own workshops, presentations, rituals and parties. Organizations and religious groups, such as Coru Cathubodua, Church of All Worlds, Ár nDraíocht Féin: A Druid Fellowship, Covenant of the Goddess, The New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn, The Order of Bards, Ovates & Druids, The Temple of Witchcraft, provide a comfortable place for their members to relax, connect and greet visitors. In addition, there are non-group affiliated hospitality suites that serve as a safe spaces or learning centers. Such rooms included the Pagans of Color suite, Reiki Explorers, Pagans in Recovery, Pagan Scholars Den and more.

PantheaCon officially opens at noon on Friday with a ritual led by Glenn Turner and friends. After that, attendees make their way from scheduled event to event, through meals, socializing, and shopping in a packed vendor room. The bustle of activity begins at 9 am and doesn’t end until well after midnight. The entire conference comes to a close on Monday at 3:30, when Turner leads the final ritual.

Over the course of the next week, many bloggers will detail their personal experiences from PantheaCon 2015 and share their takeaways from the weekend. Social media is currently flooded with talk of PantheaCon; what happened and what didn’t. Each attendee’s experience is different because there is no way for one single person to absorb the conference as a whole.

Despite the weekend only just having ended, there are a few posts already published. P. Sufenas Virius Lupus has posted several articles written throughout the weekend, all of which detail the ups and downs of eir experience as both a presenter and attendee. On Saturday, John Halstead published an inspirational post from his hotel room at 5 a.m.

Patheos Pagan Channel’s Niki Whiting and Jason Mankey have both shared their accounts of this year’s conference, including highlights from presenting and socializing. Whiting wrote, “But Pantheacon, guys. I’m still high as a kite, giddy, and ready to fall asleep on my feet after five days of friends and travel and provocation and heart-expanding discussion.” Whiting plans to expand her PantheaCon discussion over the next few weeks, as many others will.

In addition, three other writers have published PantheaCon inspired articles, but in all of these cases, the writing is on a single, very focused topic and event. These blog posts include Jonathan Korman’s “open letter” to the “mysterious writers of the PantyCon schedule” and Taylor Ellwood’s “Pantheacon, Bringing Race to the Table, and Racism.” Finally, Shauna Aura Knight also published an article on this topic. For The Pagan Activist blog, she wrote:

This weekend I was proud to be part of a panel discussing Racism within the community. Unfortunately, that panel began on a sour note as I learned that there had been something hurtful and racist written in one of the various newsletters distributed at Pantheacon.

What happened? This discussion panel was called Bringing Race to the Table and inspired by Immanion/Megalithica’s newly published book of the same name. However before the panel began, a PantheaCon volunteer informed the panelists and attendees about a problematic write-up in a satirical newsletter called PantyCon. This flyer, written and published each year by an anonymous group, is a mock-up of the convention schedule and pokes fun at the entire event and the community itself. Although originally created by PantheaCon, PantyCon was abandoned by the organizers years ago. It was, then, picked up by an anonymous group and has no affiliation, sponsorship or association with the organization.

The offending write-up in the satirical PantyCon schedule was titled: Ignoring Racism: A Workshop for White Pagans. As noted by both Korman, Ellwood and Knight, many attendees and the PantheaCon organizers felt the joke was simply not funny and that it had violated the conference’s strict anti-harassment policies. Organizers very quickly attempted to collect and remove all copies, and they also welcomed everyone to an impromptu discussion session on Monday at 11am. Detailed in Knight’s post, the Monday talk allowed for a far deeper discussion of the issues at hand.

Luna Pantera [Courtesy Photo]

Luna Pantera [Courtesy Photo]

After the announcement and apology was made, the schedule panel, “Bringing Race to the Table,” was able to continue successfully. However, it ended with Luna Pantera standing up and delivering an emotionally powerful speech on safe spaces, race and the pain she experienced, specifically caused by PantyCon. When she was finished, the room of attendees rose up in speechless applause and support.

Through his post, Korman is now asking for the anonymous writers to apologize. He has also welcomed others to sign their names to the letter in the comments.

As is seen from the multitude of accounts both in social media and in these blogs, PantheaCon is not always easy and not always fun. Although it can be both of those things as well as many others. While only a small percentage of the population attend the conference, the experiences are carried back into the smaller regional communities, through the travelers, blogs and social media. In this way PantheaCon becomes bigger and more influential than ever would be possible with the limitations of its actual time and space.

For those few who can attend each year, the journey to San Jose is a type of pilgrimage, as noted by Whiting. Through this pilgrimage, one can meet old and new friends; network and share experiences; learn and expand horizons; be put in uncomfortable situations and comfortable ones; find a connection through religious culture; and possibly even build an extended community.

Heather Greene

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Heather is a freelance writer, film historian, and journalist, living in the Deep South. She has collaborated with Lady Liberty League on religious liberty cases, and formerly served as Public Information Officer for Dogwood Local Council and Covenant of the Goddess. She has a masters degree in Film Theory, Criticism and History from Emory University with a background in the performing and visual arts. Heather's book on witches in American film and television will be published by McFarland in 2018.
  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    For me, this is the core of Korman’s open letter to PantyCon:”I doubly dread the prospect of White Pagans looking at what you said, reading it as I did [as ironic critique of inept white responses to racism], watching the reaction it has produced, seeing you criticized while CoG remains welcome at PantheaCon, and coming to the exact wrong conclusion — that they had best not engage in discussions of racism at all, lest a misstep make them a target of overwhelming criticism by the community. We need this moment not to chill White engagement in fighting racism in our community.”

    • Anon

      I struggled with a response to this entire situation, but in the end decided to remain silent for the very reasons you mentioned. I want to be part of the fight against racism, but am afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing and getting attacked from both sides. It is not worth the risk.

      • Baruch Dreamstalker

        Been there, getting it from people I regarded as fellow liberals when I backed what they regarded as dangerous approaches to racial issues. (Talkin’ 1969.) It’s not fun, and there are many layers, all bitter, but afterward nothing of the same nature scares you. When you get involved in issues you know you don’t have to tiptoe.

  • Charles Cosimano

    Nothing like good old fashioned censorship is there. I hope the writers not only not apologize but put the offending material online. And if they are afraid to, send it to me and I will in my website.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      I feel strongly about censorship.I also feel strongly about the right of someone who paid good money to go the event, not to confront the same crap they put up with all the time, and had a reasonable expectation that this was a safe space. When something is incessant like racism it typically comes in different strengths, and what looks like competent irony to a white person may be triggering to a person of color. I regret I can’t boil this concept down into one loaded word like “censorship;” perhaps the language will evolve.I don’t expect an apology. I’ve known relentless ironists and they have a “no prisoners” attitude.The material is already on line. Click on the like to Korman’s open letter; he reproduces the specific entry.

      • kenofken

        I’m going to have a look at it before I render judgment. If it’s truly racist or exploiting race just for a cheap edgy laugh. If it’s satire that takes on the issue in a provocative manner and invites the reader to grapple toward justice, I’m not going to condemn that or support people’s “right not to be offended.”

        Is the reaction against this bit of satire truly about creating a safe space from racism or is it creating a safe space from the issue of racism? I don’t know yet, but I do know our community has done an awful lot of the latter. We have done a lot of talking around the race issue and virtually no talking about or through the issue because it makes us uncomfortable and doesn’t feel “safe.” Our recent engagement of the Ferguson incident was a perfect example of that. COG put out a statement which was perfectly “nice” and perfectly safe and perfectly empty.

        We in turn produced a discussion which was made safe from the issue and avoided the ugly core of it at all costs. Those of us troubled by patterns of race-based brutality in law enforcement had our say. Then we had the inevitable visitations from those of the “European heritage” bent with a landfill’s worth of “soft racism.” Their stuff and the responses to it were almost all deleted, which had the perverse effect of helping them polish their image and conceal themselves within our movement. The whole thing was shut down as soon as some ugly reality began to surface.

        So we had a limited and truncated discussion about issues which are literally killing people for lack of engagement, and the only record we do have of it reflects a discussion we wish we would have had, not the one which was actually had. We ended up doing essentially the same thing COG did: We said the obligatory “right thing” and we moved on before anyone got uncomfortable.

        This is not a failing in any way unique to the Pagan community. It is the exact template white mainstream America has followed since King died and defeated blatant apartheid. The issue was “solved”, so the thinking goes, so let’s all just move along and not reopen old wounds. That is the very reason why black and white Americans, existing within feet of each other every day, are still living their lives in two completely different countries with radically different standards of living and human rights records.

        I hope this little bit of satire, if that is what it is, survives the sanitation and censorship attempts if it has any power to become the catalyst that forces us to engage the issue, because I have little confidence left that we will engage it on our own initiative.

        • dantes

          That is intelligently and beautifully said !

    • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

      PantheaCon is not a public event; those who pay the admission fee are expected to treat each other in certain ways, and they have established policies around these issues. It’s no more “censorship” than it would be if I came to your house and you asked me not to use certain words around your kids (if you have kids), etc.

    • CindyWoodruff

      Way to misuse and misrepresent the meaning of ‘censorship’. Censorship as a concept applies to public entities, not private. Pantheacon has an anti-racism policy and this was in violation of that policy. Take your boo-boo twisted understanding of what censorship is elsewhere, OK?

      • kenofken

        It’s true that it was not censorship in the technical sense of the word. There is no First Amendment right to public expression in a private forum. Whether it’s technical censorship or not, the action still were informed in some measure by the same unfortunate instinct that adults cannot be trusted to engage controversial content on their own.

        That bit of satire, as disruptive as it was, could have been the entry point to a substantive discussion about the underlying issue. Rather than doing that, the energy was put into shielding people’s eyes from the satirist’s well grounded if indelicately put charge that the Pagan community is not dealing with racism.

        We’re so concerned with creating “safe spaces” in the microcosm of our forums that we’re insulating ourselves from the overarching problem of making ALL space in this country and world safe space for people of color and all people whether or not they have the power of traditionally privileged majorities. Getting angry at this particular messenger and trying to scrub convention space of their message does not make the underlying issue go away or prevent the corrosive effects of continuing not to deal with the issues of race.

        The same thing was tried a few years ago when organizers tried to soft-shoe around the transgender inclusion issue. Nobody wanted to deal with the issue lest it hurt anyone’s feelings. As real and deep issues always do, it boiled back to the surface anyway and had to be dealt with. Far beyond the environs of Pantheacon, our community got real good at not dealing with sexual abuse and harassment at festivals and in other settings. Nobody wanted to ruffle any feathers. Now that mess is burning through the containment vessel.

        As a private event, Pantheacon is well within its right to exclude any message or debate it wishes from its confines. The community it serves and inspires will not always be well served by doing so.

  • Guest

    And the winner of this year’s PantheaCon Controversy goes to…. Racism!

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    There’s a phrase I’ve heard many Catholics use in the past: “The Church is a whore, but she’s also our mother.” Not that the PantheaCon organization, or anyone involved in it, is quite like that, but it is something that has often caused more controversy than it has solved…It does a great deal of good to provide that space with the groups of people involved, which is why I go every year, and yet this matter, and the trans*/gender incidents of the past few years, and so many other things often make me wonder what it is worth and whether it is worth it. Nonetheless, I’ll keep going, at least for the next few years. “Whores” and mothers are not mutually-exclusive for Pagans, and neither are they necessarily negative or pejorative. 😉

    • kenofken

      At least with the transgender incidents, PatheaCon, and I think to a large degree the rest of us, had a useful and substantive discussion and came to a rough consensus that moved the ball forward toward justice.

      I recall the whole “whore, but our mother” bit as being Catholic, although it also has a nice Thelemic-ish ring to it 🙂

  • Sarah

    A long response purporting to be from the authors of PantyCon has been posted in the comments on Korman’s blog post. http://miniver.blogspot.com/2015/02/an-open-letter.html

  • anonymous

    When any frank discussion of a contentious subject requires multiple
    “trigger warnings,” as in Korman’s letter, I think it is long past time
    for everyone to put on their grown up britches, take a deep breath, and
    quit taking themselves so seriously.

    Yes, it is a serious subject and deserves attention. Right now, everybody’s egos are so busy being offended that little positive work can be done.

  • Thank you for this in-depth description, and all the links that allow more exploration. Unfortunately many of the conferences I have read about are held far away from my home in Canada but I would adore to attend one and love learning about them. I appreciate learning all I can about the community I have so recently discovered, … the first I have ever felt a profound desire to find a place in.

  • Emerald

    This seriously sounds like the most un-fun thing ever. I desperately wish that there was a pagan community for people that don’t fit in with this current mainstream pagan culture.

  • Edward G Rickey

    I have to agree with the sentiment about being White; I did not feel safe to speak to the issues of racism.

    This was my first Pantheacon, and I did not agree with much of the racial politics that community engages in. We all know lives matter, regardless of color, but whether one agrees with a hashtag or not ought never to be used as a litmus test for one’s devotion or value.

    But sadly, it is.

    So as a libertarian, White, devotional polytheist from Florida, I kept my mouth shut. I avoided the conversation about race, keeping my own experiences to myself. None knew that I have multiracial family, that I come from a nonwhite community, that I am bilingual.

    All they would see is my pale skin and judge me not sorry enough for it.

    So thank you p con, for confirming to me that the one thing the pagan community excels at is eating our own.

    • Deborah Bender

      I commend you for taking the risk of attending a huge convention full of
      strangers most of whom come from different cultural and political
      background than you. A lot of people wouldn’t have the nerve to be that
      adventurous. But that’s as far as your courage took you. It would have
      been better to actually engage with those strangers and find out what
      they were really like, person to person.

      If you kept all your thoughts to yourself, your expectations about how people would react to your expressing those thoughts was not tested. If you had spoken your mind, maybe people would have been hostile or judgmental. Maybe you would have been pleasantly surprised. Maybe you would have gotten mixed responses. (I would bet on the last.)

      You never gave anyone the chance to rise above your negative expectations about how they would treat you. “All they would see is my pale skin and judge me not sorry enough for it.” That’s an assumption. “None knew” about your interracial family, and so forth, because they aren’t mind readers and you could not find one person among two thousand to have that conversation with. And now you are blaming “them” for things they didn’t say to you. You walked in with stereotypes about people who are not libertarian, White, devotional polytheists from the South, saw some things that fed those stereotypes, and selected whatever information confirmed your pre-existing world view. Don’t you think that’s ironic?

  • Thanks for the shout out Heather. I saw you a couple of times at the Con, but it was always when both of us were rushing in opposite directions. I’m sorry we didn’t get a chance to connect. Next year!

  • I’m glad to have crossed paths with you, Heather–and when that interview goes live (print or podcast), do let us know where to find it.

    I was able to connect with many of the Wild Hunt authors I enjoy–but was Eric here? I don’t recall seeing him.

    I too am a daughter of a woman of color–she was the little dark foreign girl at an Irish Catholic school, and she wouldn’t let me wear green at all. Some Middle-Easterners can see my Lebanese heritage upon seeing me, but I’m not sure how. I didn’t grow up learning how to hate anyone–except for bullies, and even then “hate” does not describe what I felt about them. I probably did live in my own little mental bubble, moving to often to establish roots. My awareness of the subtle or pervasive racisms around me has grown, and now the statement “if you’re not outraged, then you’re not paying attention” rings truer than it ever did.

    Between the issues of personal pronouns and gender expression or identity, how we identify ourselves (individually) in terms of our religious or spiritual paths, ethnicity (choose the one that fits best, right), and likely other factors I can’t get my brain to provide, I’m seeing too much rejection of one’s ability to define oneself. “I know you better than you know yourself” is one statement that will send a book flying full speed into the nearest wall, as well as killing a conversation for me. It’s blasted rude, to begin with, and I wasn’t reared to be rude.

    I will take you, any of you, at face value, should we encounter each other in print or in person. I will accept you as you define yourself, without arguing, or stating that defining some aspect of yourself is not as important as starving children of parents dead from Ebola or MRSAs.

    If we seem to be unlikely to be on friendly terms, I’ll accept that, too–I don’t expect the whole world to like me! If we get into a lengthy conversation, I’m sure I’m going to learn something previously unknown to me. If I say or do something that hurts you, tell me. I won’t break, and I’d prefer not to hurt people through ignorance or accident.

  • BTW, we just refer to ourselves as “Nuh-rood” NROOGD. Whoever invented the name had no expectations of the organization or new tradition taking off. New, we were then, Reformed, Orthodox–are you nuts?, and we had nothing to do with the Golden Dawn, of whichever incarnation. The G can be silent…