BETHEL, Vt. –Whether or not there is such as thing as “Pagan community” is as slippery a concept as the definition of “Pagan” itself. The core question is whether or not people who follow vastly different traditions have enough in common to share a common label, or a common table. Some festivals are positioned to reinforce a feeling of community. For example, at the end of Pagan Spirit Gathering participants don’t just leave; they head out on a “year-long supply run.” This week, participants at CWPN’s Harvest Gathering are told, “Welcome home,” as they arrive at the camp.
This begs the question: can community exist if its members gather only once a year?One group of Pagans, who gathered in rural Vermont at the end of last month, certainly think so. They were attending the annual Lughnasad festival at Laurelin Retreat, where notions of community were reinforced by this year’s theme: “The Journey Home.”
For some, Laurelin is considered one of the most beautiful Pagan places that no one has ever heard of. It is located on over 50 acres of land that was once farmed a generation ago. It slopes gently upward from ritual fields into verdant forest. Earlier in the summer the site was descended upon by well over a thousand people who disappeared into the woods for the Firefly Arts Collective, a Burning Man regional feeder festival. But the aggressive leave-no-trace ethic makes that hard to believe.
The Lughnasad festival is a much smaller event with some 70 in attendance this year.
That number of people together for meals, rituals, workshops, and discussions for five days is small enough to form personal connections, but large enough that this bounding won’t happen widely without some effort. Attendees were randomly assigned to “houses,” color-themed groups responsible for aspects of the main ritual. Encouraged to wear their house color, they were also asked to sit together for lunch, whether or not they were on the meal plan. It’s not a new idea, but it encouraged people to forge connections they might have otherwise overlooked.
This is a far cry from the halls of Pantheacon, where people juggle massive schedules and often meet each other waiting for elevators. Only one or two workshops were held at a time, under the dining fly or the shade of the box elder tree. There were also daily guided discussions, and one of those was focused specifically on community. Since blogger Cat Chapin-Bishop — who wrote a love letter to the Pagan community — was in attendance, Laurelin host Kirk White tapped her to facilitate.
Chapin-Bishop is a teacher, she explained, and “during the school year, online is the only community [she] can find.” It was in that space that she has seen Pagans debate whether there is a community among these religions, and if it’s even important to strive for one.
“Some say we don’t share enough theology” to make that viable, she went on, but “that’s not at all my impression.”
White has been hosting events at Laurelin for at least 30 years, and said a loose definition of membership had been adopted: “If you’ve been here at least once, and identify yourself as part of the Laurelin community, then you are.”
People from many different Pagan traditions have crossed through the gate, he said, in part because of how he differentiates community from tribe in his thinking. “Tribalism is us against them,” he said, but he models community more on the annual town meeting tradition in Vermont. “People disagree with me on a lot of things, but we work together for the common good of the community.” It’s a broader concept than tradition or tribe, he explained.Walking the land and meeting the attendees reinforces that notion of community. Shrines to several deities, which were erected by a Hellenic reconstructionist group, dot the landscape in among old ritual circles used by White’s family in days gone by and sites which once held more temporary shrines to local spirits or foreign gods. The most prominent shrine is a standing stone on the cusp of the woods; this is the community shrine, where news of the year is shared as offerings are made.
High magicians and Witches alike participated in a Heathen sumbel, drinking to the many gods worshiped and honored by those around the fire. Some of the same people joined the five Quaker Pagans in silent worship. Conversations during meals or over a shared drink helped forge connections among people who traveled from as far as Texas and Michigan to be in attendance.
A common aspect of community, agreed those at Lughnasad, is the coming together over death and grief. One community member was even buried on Laurelin lands.
Not all aspects of community are tied to place, observed one traveler. “I feel a sense of community in Pagan gatherings all over the country,” she said. Chapin-Bishop characterized that as the cross-pollination which makes the next generation stronger as a result.“I don’t feel woven into a community until I return a third time,” Chapin-Bishop said, but even that depends in part on the nature of the event. She drew a distinction between what she called “consumer Paganism” — paying to be entertained at a festival — and the notion of “duocracy,” in which people who want to improve the experience simply do something to make that happen. The difference is partly cultural, and partly pragmatic. The more people in attendance, the more likely a festival will take on a consumer feel.
Another way White has tried to avoid the consumer feel is by employing something he has borrowed shamelessly from the Rites of Spring. Prior to the event, a group of village builders transform the site and make it ready for everyone else. By doing so, they create bonds which they attempt to infuse into the entire site. Then these builders are broken into different houses, so that they don’t just talk only to the people that they know for the rest of the week.
“It’s easy for the locals to hang out together,” White said, but he’s mindful that many Pagans are introverts. The goal is that it “doesn’t feel like you’re going to someone else’s family reunion.”
White’s daughter Killian has watched this community shift and change over 25 years. She likened the way people step into a central role for a time before backing away to “part of a tree breaking off.” That can happen for any number of reasons, including when it arises out of conflict.
“Are conflicts a bug or a feature of community?” Chapin-Bishop pondered.
Conflict can arise over theological differences, leadership styles, or personal relationships. One goal of community might be to find ways for people to experience conflict without one member feeling that they must leave, and never return. As one attendee said, “Real communities have ragged edges,” both as a result of conflict, and because the definition of who belongs can often get fuzzy.The community feel at Laurelin was palpable during Lughnasad. The site is more primitive than some with only porta-potties and limited running water available. But, this fact also may be considered a feature rather than a bug. It meant that worshipers of Caffeina tended to gather around the great central percolator each morning, and that dish washing after meals was also a communal experience.
That’s only possible because of the small number of people. However, White is confident that triple the number wouldn’t change that vibe or tax the facilities.
What a small festival doesn’t mean is a lack of options. A half-dozen or more vendors opened up shop for the week, and their number swelled Saturday afternoon to accommodate a psychic fair that’s open to the public. Lughnasad also has a history of attracting talented musical guests; this year Jenna Greene and Willowfire graced the stage for a concert that brought the energy levels up. Many later used that juice to climb the road leading to the fire circle in the deep woods, where drums and dancing continued until light returned.
One particularly poignant observation about community was made by Sybelle Silverphoenix. “I was one of the last 250 finalists for the Mars One project,” she told people at the community shrine. During the first round, 4,227 people applied, and she was ultimately not selected as part of the “Mars 100” finalists. Nevertheless, “It made me think long and hard about what home is,” and by extension, community as well. Silverphoenix is planning on applying to future rounds, and if she’s successful, she’ll become the most distant member of the Laurelin community to date.
This idea of community remains a moving target, particularly among Pagans who attempt to create it largely through the internet or annual gatherings. While this group of Vermont Pagans probably don’t have a universal key to the idea, they have at least found a sweet spot for creating community with Yankee flair.