Modern culture, practicality lessen nudity at Pagan festivals

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The 1960’s and early 70’s Pagan culture was born of ecofeminism, British Traditional Wicca, and the counter-culture hippie movement. The Goddess (or God) within was explored and nature in all its beauty was celebrated as more conservative ideology was abandoned. An outward manifestation of these new ideals was often expressed though nudity. Nudity was seen as a statement of freedom from conventional structures and a way to worship the divine in all its forms. The Charge of the Goddess specifically said, “And ye shall be free from slavery; and as a sign that ye be really free, ye shall be naked in your rites; and ye shall dance, sing, feast, make music and love, all in Her praise.“

Dancer pauses at a Pagan festival, photo credit Cara Schulz

Dancer pauses at a Pagan festival [Photo credit: Cara Schulz]

When Pagan festivals sprouted across the US in the late 70’s and early 80’s, nudity went from the living room to the campground. If you attended a festival it wasn’t uncommon to see nude Pagans dancing around a fire or listening to music. The Great Rite was celebrated literally and allegorically, and workshops on the Five Fold Kiss didn’t raise an eyebrow. Even into the early 2000’s nudity and Pagan gatherings seemed to go hand in hand, but is Pagan culture’s attitude toward nudity changing?

Changing Culture?
Those around in the the early days of Paganism say it is. “I recently watched a little video about Starwood that was filmed in the late 70’s or early 80’s. There was a LOT more nudity, body painting and primal expression,” says Shouting Mountain.

Shauna Aura Knight said she also noticed a trend towards less nudity at events, “I had the experience of going through all the archival photos from the Diana’s Grove retreat center, and I noticed that the pictures from the 90’s indicated that there had been a lot more nudity in the past.”

Pagan musician Arthur Hinds agrees. In a post on the Pagan Spirit Gathering (PSG) Facebook group, he asked:

Over the last 15 years or so, I have notice a profound shift in the body gestalt at pagan festivals in general, and PSG in particular. It used to be that by day two or three, the level of clothing had fallen considerably, and by the end, it was quite jarring to return to the “normal world” and see folks wearing it. We, as a population, don’t seem to be any different than we used to be. We have the same mix of really hot, really normal, and really comfortable bodies we always have had. It isn’t a matter of weather either. Now, I don’t often totally strip down, but I am of pale pale stock, and there are parts of my body that I don’t want to have burned or slathered in sun block. The fact that folks needed a special skyclad ritual says a whole story. Most rituals used to be a lot more skyclad. I am curious as to your thoughts. Do we have more body issues than we used to, and if so, are there things we can do to help each other? I think we are all beautiful-marks, scars, wrinkles, rolls, and all. Is it a bleed over from the larger society, and nudity concerns around children? Old and new folks (both age and experience) throw in your 4 cents.

While some commented they were uncomfortable due to “creepers,” those who attend festivals for voyeuristic reasons, others offered varied perspectives on the perceived decline of nudity at Pagan festivals.

The most often mentioned reason for why people choose to remain clothed at festivals dealt with the body image issues. These issues affected men as often as they affected women.

Body Image
”I don’t know how many guys will own up to it, but I know there is a penis issue for a lot of men. Women have beauty zines to make them feel bad. Guys have John Holmes,” said Rik Roberts.

Colleen said, “…the other thing that changed my approach was comments I overheard a few years back, and again this year to the effect that “you always see naked the ones you don’t want to, and never see the ones you do”. I would love it if our community operated outside of all the body politics of the regular world and was truly enlightened enough to have the attitude you express. Arthur, but it is not.

Much like the convos about garbage and recycling, we are all products of the ways of our larger society, and there seems to be less effort put forth in our community today to rise to and hold ourselves to a higher/different standard than the masses. We bring our ways in with us and those often now include body shape/size ideals that are unrealistic, and hand-in-hand with these come all our learned hangups about being unattractive.”

Advancing age, and the changes it brings to a person’s body, was also mentioned as a reason why they no longer wish to be seen by others nude.

Others talked about how the changing mainstream culture outside was affecting the culture inside of Paganism.

Mainstream Culture
“Seriously, I think it is due to culture change in the mundane world; back then we were closer to the culture of the 60’s, when we were more free & experimental. Now the mainstream culture is very certainly more conservative is some ways, if less so in others. If we want our culture to be otherwise, we will have to work at it consciously,” said Pangur Ban.

Tracie “Sage” Wood finds liberation in going nude at festivals. She says she’s gone from feeling overweight to feeling her body is is powerful. She hopes others are able to throw off the messages from modern media. “…let’s help each other get over the message that magazines and T.V. send to us. We love each other, and we need to love ourselves.”

“Having spent my formative years in the 60’s, I feel that society today is much more paranoid than it was then. Everyone is afraid of how society will react and the horrible consequences resulting from free expression. People are afraid of being judged, laughed at and ridiculed for being a free spirited human being. Everyone pretty much knows how I stand. I enjoy being mostly naked. I enjoy it a lot. If others enjoy being naked, I try to encourage them to do so. However if people want to wear burqkas, that is wonderful too. And you harm none, do as you will,” says Shouting Mountain. He noted that he’s seen an increase in nudity at Pagan festivals in the past few years.

Ĵames ßelmont thought mainstream culture was impacting nudity at Pagan festivals, but had a slightly different view of what, in modern culture, was driving the change, “I’m also wondering … that in this technological age and social media age, where the picture is worth so much, that people were hesitant to be nude to avoid ruining someone’s picture, or making sure they could be taken a picture of Goddess knows I had to delete quite a few of mine, and were strategic about some others. Maybe as our method of communication and memory preservation has changed, it has also changed out attire at festivals.”

Bugs, Sunburn, and Weather
Practical reasons were frequently mentioned. Rilla Foxdancer said that weather plays a crucial role in Pagans decision to go clothed or nude, “Wisteria and Zoe were brutally hot. Stonehouse, while it was still pretty hot and humid when it wasn’t raining, is nowhere near that bad. That plays a part.”

For Daisy Peterson being nude or clothed is something she plays by ear and might change at a moment’s notice, “For me being naked is just a matter of practicality and comfort. Sometimes clothing can protect from too much sun or give a nice feeling on your body. But when clothes are sticking, I will take them off. I got dressed and undressed outside my tent. I took a rain shower outside my tent. Sometimes I walked to the porta potties without clothes. When I tried on clothes at the vendors I just did it right there, naked. And when I was way too sticky to put on clothes I walked naked to the shower house. Being without clothes should be about feeling more comfortable. If you don’t feel comfortable without clothes wear something that makes you feel comfortable. I definitely don’t do it for show!”

Shauna Aura Knight prefers to be clothed at rituals because she finds it physically  more comfortable, ”…in an ecstatic tradition, we’re dancing and moving, and things are flopping and bumping. Plus, closer to the fire equals bits burning. Similarly, sunburn, sweat, and chafing don’t really make nudity practical for me at an event like PSG.”

Legal Considerations
Others find discomfort in nudity for an entirely different reason – legal problems that could arise when adults are nude around children. As festivals become more family friendly, this concern is increasing. Some states still have laws on the books that bar adults, even parents, from being naked in front of children. In hotly contested child custody cases, even something as innocent as attending a Pagan festival where nudity is allowed is a concern.

A 31-year-old woman from Wisconsin, who asked not to be named, summed up the position of some parents, “My fiance’s son from his previous marriage is special needs, so I just can’t risk being labeled an exhibitionist. If either of us being nude gets blown out of proportion, we could lose visitation rights.”

Fashion and Diversity
Shahara Fay had a far less serious reason for choosing to wear clothes more often than going without, “I like to wear weird funky thrift shop clothes at PSG that I can’t always wear in public. I think some just like to play with fashion instead of the boring ‘nude’ we see ourselves in the mirror every day. Though it’s sure nice to strip and walk about if we want!”

Paganism, and Pagan festivals, have become far more diverse in the last two decades. Today’s Pagans are not finding the religion through traditional Wicca or eco-feminism, and hippie culture is one of nostalgia, not daily life. For them nudity, as stated in the Charge of the Goddess, plays no part in their religious practice, “As far as I’m concerned, I do not come from a tradition that observes skyclad rituals. I do not consider nudity to be any more or less sacred than ritual garb, and ritual garb will help reduce unnecessary distractions from religious observation compared to being exposed to the elements,” says Sara Barlow.

Attendees dance at Pagan Spirit Gathering, photo credit cara Schulz

Attendees dance at Pagan Spirit Gathering [Photo credit: Cara Schulz]

Arthur Hinds is supportive of what ever choices Pagans make regarding nudity. In examining the lessening numbers of Pagans choosing to go nude at festivals, he says:

My only concern was about the body image issue. I think the feminine form is a glory to behold. I love all of the shapes and hues. It always takes the average man a couple of days to settle down from, ‘OMG there are breasts everywhere’ to a subtle ‘that’s nice.’ Being naked does have etiquette that must be learned. I did not see anyone, anybody, that was not beautiful … One thing that wide spread nudity does, is that is lets you see that your body is really just like everyone else’ body. They have the same wrinkles and rolls and scars that you do. They are trying to hide the same stuff you are. You are just as gorgeous. This realization can be very freeing. 

Is Pagan culture changing its view of nudity and sensuality? Are we becoming more diverse, falling prey to mainstream culture, becoming more practical, or losing our freedom to legal sensitivities?

“While doing my ecstatic naked fire revelry, I would occasionally fall exhausted in to the sand. Once or twice while holding a man’s hand. I was immediately met with screams of “no great rite!” Of course I had no intention of having sex there. But it did make me wonder – What kind of witches have we become?” wonders Melanie Moore.

Only time will tell how these changes in culture affect the religious nature of Paganism itself.