Archives For Heartland Pagan Festival

A statue of the god Pan, found somewhere in MacLouth, Kansas. Photo by the author.

A statue of the god Pan, found somewhere in MacLouth, Kansas.
Photo by the author.

Some things remain constant despite life’s tumult. Though we may find ourselves in the midst of many changes, still some things remain: the sun doth rise, the moon doth wax and wane, and the rain doth obliterate everyone’s campsite at least once every Heartland Pagan Festival. I have been attending Heartland off and on since I was a little boy, and every year, there is a wash-out thunderstorm. In my memories, it’s usually on Sunday afternoon, just before the end of the festival. I remember once standing in the open field where the merchants set up, looking up at a roiling sky and realizing that, even if I ran as fast as I could back to camp, I’d never make it before the rain hit. Some kind soul pulled me into their shelter and fed me rabbit stew, and we waited, eight or nine of us crammed beneath a 10×10 pavilion, for the storm to pass.

The storm at this year’s festival hit on Saturday evening, just as the Vision Quest ritual was supposed to begin, and it kept going for twelve hours. The Vision Quest asks its participants to walk alone through a trail in Camp Gaea’s woods, and along the trail the walkers encounter figures who advise, challenge, and bewilder them. I was scheduled to be one of those aspects that evening, and had already put on my costume and set up my station when the rain hit. Most years, aspects spend seven or eight hours out on the trail, seeing more than a hundred visitors. But the trail is largely unimproved, and it can be a challenging hike even in good weather. The ground had already absorbed all the water it could from preliminary storms earlier in the week, such that even after several sunny days some parts of the trail had become shoe-eating soup; once the rain began, it became clear that somebody was going to break an ankle if we proceeded with the ritual.

So instead we sat beneath the pop-up back at camp, our rain-soaked costumes left hanging, if not exactly to dry, then at least to drip, on a line, and we watched the storm. My wife built a fire in our Smokey Joe barbecue for warmth, while I tried to comb the biscuit dough out of my hair. (My aspect was an old man, see, and I thought, well, I can make my hair gray by rubbing some flour into it…) Sarah, one of my oldest friends, was also there, as was her boyfriend. It was far too early to consider going to bed, and far too wet to consider leaving camp.

Somehow this led to us discussing Weird Al Yankovich, who, I must admit, is my standard proof that we do not live in the best of all possible worlds. But I was the only one who held that opinion among the four of us.

Eric has very particular tastes in music, my wife said. He has his music that he likes, and anyone who likes anything else is wrong. I found this statement to be both totally unfair and reasonably accurate.

He gets that from his dad, said Sarah. He’s the exact same way.

I have been turning that thought over in my mind ever since.

There’s a gag from the Three Stooges where Moe, the bossy one with the soupbowl haircut, receives a bill and does a double-take, snapping the paper between his fingers as he comes to a realization about the difference behind the figure on the paper and the figure in his wallet. My father has revived this gag every time we have gone out to dinner; it is part of the ritual of the meal. Every time my wife and I go to a restaurant, I perform it too. It’s automatic, unthinking, a reflex. As soon as the waiter hands us the bill, my wife knows to expect it, and smiles anyway.

I have a lot of tics like that one – little gestures, sayings, tones of voice. The way I flirt, the topics I choose for small talk, the voice I use when talking to animals and small children. Ways of acting that I fall into automatically, only realizing afterwards that they come from my parents. I would guess that everyone has things like that – it’s how we’re socialized, and, I suppose, part of what it means to be someone’s child. We don’t get to choose them; they come with the package.

My Paganism, I come to realize, is full of these unnoticed assumptions and inherited behaviors. It has always been an issue I’ve struggled with in writing about Paganism, actually – because I grew up within a coven, I unconsciously assume that the ways we practiced Paganism are the backdrop everyone else has as well. I often feel as though I am a poor authority on these matters, because so much of what I know I received through the slow course of maturation. I absorbed ways to enter a circle, chants to sing, formulae to invoke; but I also learned ways to conceive of the divine, ways to format a ritual, ways to lie about who I am to bosses and in-laws. Nobody ever sat me down and taught me any of this, but I know it just the same – just as I never made an agreement with my parents to mimic their other behaviors, and yet I do so anyway.

At the edge of the mud pit that was our camp’s kitchen, underneath an evergreen, there is an old statue of the god Pan. The statue has seen better days. If I remember correctly, it used to be displayed in the yard of the house where Sarah and her brothers grew up; I remember seeing it through my child’s eyes, but it is always hard to tell where that kind of memory ends and photographs begin. These days, Pan is chipped and broken, the holes in his side and torso revealing the hollow cavity of his belly. In the thundering darkness of the storm, his image is lost to me – our lights don’t stretch that far. But in the morning, when the rain has begun to clear, I walk over to his tree and find him just as we left him before – dry, even, barely touched by the rain.

I look at this statue of the little goat-footed god, this artifact brought to Gaea from my childhood dreams. My parents have a statue just like it at their home. I look at Pan, and I wonder about the things that remain constant.

Festival season is now underway as the wheel turns and the weather continues to get warmer. Pagan and Heathen communities around the country are stepping outside for daylong, weekend long and even weeklong adventures and community-building. While the early festivals focus on a re-connection to the outdoors after months of cold weather; the midsummer events celebrate the high season of long days and hot sun; and the fall festivals welcome the harvest.

Drummer's Altar at Phoenix Phyre [Photo Credit: Lisa Perez Darmana]

Drummer’s Altar at Phoenix Phyre [Photo Credit: Lisa Perez Darmana]

Although festival season begins in earnest in May for most of the country, the state of Florida gets an early start due to its climate. Leading off in March are festivals such as the newly created Equinox in the Oaks, held near Ormond Beach, and Phoenix Phyre, held in Lakeland. Florida’s warm temperatures and sea breezes allow for comfortable camping in early Spring.

As the Florida festival season continues, other areas of the country join the fun as the warmer temperatures slowly move north. States in the Southeast begin to see festivals in April. These include daylong events, such as the Atlanta Marketplace of Ideas, in Georgia, or longer camping events, such as ADF-sponsored Trillium Spring Gathering in Virginia. The Washington-based Aquarian Tabernacle Church holds its Spring Mysteries festival at this time. While it is run similar to a festival, Spring Mysteries is mostly held indoors due to the weather.

As April turns into May, festival season truly takes-off across the country. Whether it’s Beltane, May Day or another reason entirely, the first weekend in May seduces people into coming outside and connecting to nature and to their communities. As explained by the Beltane Fire Society, based in Scotland, “the growing power of the sun … provides an opportunity to cleanse and renew the conditions of a community – both humans and their animals – that had spent the dark months indoors.” Since 1988, the society has hosted its annual Beltane Fire Festival on this weekend, as a marker of community-building in that region.

Here in the United States and Canada, the beginning of May sees an extraordinary number of festivals, both big and small; ranging from local celebrations hosted by individual covens to bigger region-wide events. Many of these early May festivals are Beltane-inspired. In Pittsburgh, for example, Grove of Gaia hosts a daylong festival called Grove of Gaia Fest. This year’s event attracted over 400 attendees, hailing from many religious practices. Further south, Florida Pagan Gathering, run by the Temple of Earth Gathering (TEG), holds its weekend long Beltane festival; in Connecticut, the Panthean Temple runs Beltane: Pagan Odyssey Festival; and, in Colorado, Living Earth Church hosts Beltania: a Pagan Celebration and Musical Festival.

There are also many non-Beltane events during May. These fesivals simply encourage people to get outside and come together in community. The Bay Area Pagan Alliance rebooted its popular, daylong spring festival this year. Over Memorial Day weekend, many people head to Kansas for the Heartland Pagan Festival; while in Massachusetts, Earth Spirit Community celebrates the Rites of Spring. During May, Southern Pagans and Heathens drive through the Tennessee mountains to attend Pagan Unity Festival. During this year’s event, Tuatha Dea ran its group drumming workshop. After a rousing grand finale, Danny Mullikan said to the group of drummers sitting in a circle around him, “You all were just communicating. That is community.”

As spring moves into summer and the days get warmer, the population of festivals increase. June sees as many events as March, April and May put together. The biggest, and arguably most well-known, festival is Pagan Spirit Gathering in Illinois, sponsored by Circle Sanctuary. Beginning in 1980, PSG attracts over a thousand attendees and hosts over 400 events. As Circle Magazine editor Florence Edwards-Miller said, “Like Brigadoon appearing from the mists, Pagan Spirit Gathering is essentially a bustling Pagan town that manifests the week of the Summer Solstice every year.” This year’s PSG marks its 35th anniversary.

[Photo Credit: S. Fox]

PSG 2014 [Photo Credit: S. Fox]

Nearly as old as PSG is Canada’s WiccanFest in Ontario. Despite its name, the popular five-day festival is open to all Pagans and Heathens. Canada also sees the Sun Wheel Music and Arts Festival held in Alberta near the end of the June. And, it is impossible to talk about Canada’s spring events without mentioning the biggest one: Gaia Gathering. Held annually over Victoria’s Day Weekend in May, this event is actually an indoor conference that changes cities each year and attracts attendees from around the country. Gaia Gathering’s mission is to bring people “together to talk about who we are, where we’ve come from, and where we might be going as a religious community in Canada.”

Other popular events in June, include the two-day St. Louis Pagan Picnic, now in its 23rd year; Wisteria’s Summer Solstice retreat; Free Spirit Gathering, Michigan Pagan Fest and EarthHouse’s Midsummer Gathering. The Troth holds its own national event in June called TrothMoot. This year’s four-day festival will be held at Camp Netimus in Milford, Pennsylvania. Next year, TrothMoot will be on the West Coast. Additionally, for Heathens, the Volkshof Kindred sponsors the four-day Northern Folk Gathering in Minnesota.

New to this year’s June festival season is Pan Gaia in California. Sponsored by the North Western Circles Association, the festival will take its “maiden voyage June 20.” Organizers describe it as, “a delightful event of vendors, performers, and presenters distilled down from the best of the best of magical festivals over the past 15 years.” The two-day festival will be held in Fair Oaks, California, and will feature vendors, workshops and a Jim Morrison ritual by Patheos editor Jason Mankey.

The endless opportunities to be outdoors celebrating with fellow Pagans and Heathens continue throughout the summer months. In July, for example, there is Kaleidoscope Gathering; Free Witchcamp; Sankofa Festival; Chrysalis Moon, and Sirius Rising. Wisconsin sees a nine-day Summerland Spirit Festival, described as an “Earth-reverent spiritual retreat where you can experience personal growth, connect with nature and make new friends. And, in Ohio, the long-running Starwood Festival, which began in 1981, kicks off its seven day extravaganza of music, vendors, workshops and more.

In August, there is Pan Fest in Alberta, DragonFest in Colorado, Festival of the Midnight Flame in Michigan and Coph Nia in Pennsylvania. At this point in the year, the festivals begin to take on a harvest theme, such as Harvest Gathering, hosted by the Connecticut Wiccan and Pagan Network, or Sacred Harvest Festival, hosted by Harmony Tribe in Minnesota. Additionally, one of the longest running Pagan events occurs in August. Now in its 39th year, Pan Pagan Fest, sponsored by the Midwest Pagan Council, is held in Monterey, Indiana and this year’s five day festival theme is “Open Spirits, Open Hearts.”

By August, the schedule begins to shift, providing a array of new community opportunities. The Pride season begins in many areas as the longer festivals disappear. Additionally, this is the month that Covenant of the Goddess hosts Merry Meet, its annual meeting and conference. Over its many years, Merry Meet has been both an outdoor festival and an indoor conference. And, finally, this year marks the launch of a new indoor conference, Many Gods West, to be held in Washington. It is one of the few indoor summer events.

Regardless, the U.S. and Canadian festival seasons wind down quickly in September as the focus turns to Pagan Pride Days, Witches Balls and other autumn fun. However, there are still a few remaining festivals left for those who cannot get enough of camping. Lightening Across the Plains, the biggest Heathen-focused event, is hosted in September and held at Gaea Retreat outside of Kansas City. Dubbed a “regional Midwest thing,” the four-day festival includes “Asatru and Craft workshops, Viking Games, a Heathen auction” and much more.

Tuatha Dea leads Community Drum Workshop at PUF 2015 [Credit: H. Greene]

Tuatha Dea leads Community Drum Workshop at PUF 2015 [Credit: H. Greene]

Many of the groups that sponsor early spring events also host autumn events. In September, Wisteria invites guests to attend a four-day festival called Autumn Fires. Earth Spirit Community holds an October retreat called Twilight Covening. In Canada, the WiccanFest organizers stage a second festival called Autumn Fest. And, Phoenix Festivals, Inc. hosts Autumn Meet in Lakeland, Florida. Then, finally, in November, TEG hosts a second Florida Pagan Gathering to close out the year.

It is not surprising that Florida, and other southern regions begin and end the festival season. This cycle is wave of warm-weather fun that migrates just like birds. Of course, the many festivals listed above are only a small sampling of what is actually available every year across the country. There are floating festivals, like Hawkfest, and outdoor intensive retreats, such as Reclaiming’s Witchcamp, that appear in multiple places across the country at different times. In 2016, there are already new festivals scheduled, such as the Dragon Hills Pagan Music Festival to be held in May in Bowden, Georgia.

Additionally, there are many smaller very local and private festivals and outdoor events during the entire season. Together with the winter conferences, the Balls, the Moots, the Picnics, the many Pagan Pride days, the year is filled with opportunities to connect to community, find inspiration, enjoy creativity, shop or just kick-back within spaces dedicated to the Pagan, Heathen, Polytheist religious cultures.

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

David Chaim Smith, Blood of Space 2, 2009. Graphite/ink on digital print. 18x22” NFS.

David Chaim Smith, Blood of Space 2, 2009. Graphite/ink on digital print. 18x22” NFS.

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.