Column: Summer is Here; Time to Check Your Pagan Etiquette

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I don’t know about you but, for me, it has come time to relish the outdoors with its warmth and festivals. So what’s on the checklist? Sunscreen? Check. Bug spray? That’s a must. Bottles for water, juice, or whatever slakes your thirst? Absolutely. Sleeping bags, tents, ritual items? Triple-check. Clothing may or may not be optional. You can pick up clothing that suits your mood, size, and need from a variety pagan vendors, so that won’t be an issue. Now we’re ready to go, right?

Well, not quite.

What about Pagan etiquette?

Some may look at this and wonder, do we have an Emily Post or Emily Vanderbilt for all things appropriate for Pagans out and about during the summer months or whenever Pagan festivals flourish? Not exactly.

Some types of etiquette, such as how one handles bathroom rites and the bodily functions that arise with those rites, are considered standard. If there are special considerations, event organizers might post signs to indicate a change in what might be called normative bathroom behavior. For example, at one indoor meditation retreat where participants were expected to remain in silence, there was a sign on the bathroom door reading: “If it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down.” The goal was to maintain the silence of the atmosphere, rather than to disturb those present with multiple incidents of loud flushing.

Ritual space at Sacred Harvest Festival [photo credit: Mike Bardon].

At an outdoor festival, this would probably not be a problem. Outhouses and secluded spots behind trees seldom make loud, interfering sounds. How many times have you seen hand sanitizer or wipes present to maintain a sense of cleanliness and good hygiene? It matters, and the last thing that you want to bring home from a gathering is an infection such as shigellosis, which could be prevented by simply washing one’s hands or using lots of hand sanitizer.

As we gather in large groups, the basic manners associated with social etiquette do seem to prevail. When we bump into someone, we say, “Excuse me,” or in more casual situations, “Sorry.” We may soften the interaction with a brief touch of hands or squeeze of the arm or shoulder to indicate that we did not mean to cause offense.

We introduce ourselves to one another, and take turns listening, in order to form new friendships.We try not to interrupt each other when speaking. Okay, that last one may go out of the window during the excitement and the joy of festival time.

When someone does something for you, whether it is helping out with a tent or getting a car unstuck from the mud, we say, “Thanks.” When we need help, we ask for it. The term “please” may be used, but some offer a smile or some nonverbal gesture to indicate something similar. When we know that we’ve crossed a boundary, we may say, “I’m sorry.”

These are the basic lubricants that keep the community flow going in many a public setting, both in the United States and beyond. Saying phrases such as “excuse me,” “please,” “thank you,”  “hello,” and, “goodbye,” are basic etiquette. In festival settings, we listen and try to put on our best social interaction skills as we understand them.

Sometimes we want let loose in order to have a good time. Is that when all of our basic etiquette rules go out the window? And, what about Pagan gatherings specifically? Are there special considerations?

Not so fast. If the use of manners is the common lubricant that keeps things going regardless of different personalities, social backgrounds, races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and Pagan traditions, then they need to remain in place regardless of the fun we are having.

In that respect, which manners matter most to Pagans when interacting with other Pagans at a Pagan gathering? While clothing-optional may be the first thing that comes to mind in response to this question, there are some things that might matter more.

First, be aware of other traditions. If you aren’t sure, ask.

Don’t presume that everyone at a festival is Wiccan or Druid or Celtic or British Traditional or solitary or even a Witch. The person next to you could be polytheist, a practitioner of Voudon, a Pagan atheist, Ásatrúar, or a non-tradition-specific Pagan. If there is a ritual solar holiday celebration, don’t presume that the name and symbolism is the same as what you celebrate in your tradition. It may be. It may not be.

Don’t touch ritual items of any sort without permission. You never know who, whether deity or person, might be disturbed or offended when you do. Watch how you use your ritual tools and when. Whatever you do or however you identify, be it in a tradition or as solitary, be prepared to interact with others who may have a completely different frame of reference of Paganism than you.

If your festival is tradition-specific, there is the advantage of attendees usually knowing the norms for that particular tradition. Even in a tradition-specific festival, that person in the corner may be new to the area or even from another part of the world. Enjoy yourself, but don’t take familiarity of shared tradition for granted.

If you are going to an outdoor week-long festival and you hate camping, do not ruin the experience for your neighbors or friends who came with you. Remember, for some, the one week outdoors with other Pagans, doing what might not be accepted openly in one’s hometown is their only vacation for the entire year. If you are unhappy due to the bugs, heat, mosquitoes, perceived lack of energizing rituals, not enough time or space or positive energy for unbridled sexual interactions, then do something about it, or go home.

Go home? Yes.

In short, Pagan etiquette includes ensuring the comfort of those around you.

If you are a newcomer, who is nervous about going, read up on the festival beforehand and find someone who has actually gone. If you showed up more adventurous, knowing nothing about the festival, take the time to find the main folk who have organized the gathering. Ask someone who has come every year to show you around.

Rest when your body is tired. Stay hydrated to enjoy the many experiences that will come your way. Remember why you came. Was it to experience amazing ritual? Attend as many as you can. Was it to find out how other traditions do things?

Go to what seems the most different from your home tradition or solitary experience and let yourself be open to the experience. Was it to find connection with other Pagans? Try to make friends and to be open with at least a few new folk. Better yet, offer to help. Volunteers are the life blood of any Pagan gathering; it is an excellent way to meet new people.

Know yourself and let others get to know you too.

If you are a seasoned festival-goer, remember that there are those who have never attended and who might benefit from your guidance. While it is comfortable to remain just with the familiar, our community as a whole can only grow stronger when each one reaches one. Who knows? You may just make more friends from other parts of the country.

Find at least one or two new people. Ask what drew them to this particular festival. Perhaps they are of the same tradition as your own. Perhaps they are wanting to know more about your tradition because it is so different from what they practice. Perhaps they just want to admire your attire, tattoos, or jewelry. The joy of festivals is often the warmth of genuine hospitality and friendship that abounds throughout the gathering.  Remember when you first went to a Pagan festival and what made you feel welcome.

Share the love. Pass it along.

For those who revel in sexual adoration, understand that not everyone is on the same page, and do not judge them for not quite catching up to where you are. Some people prefer an audience; others want just the persons involved and the gods. I am happy for anyone who experiences pleasure, but consideration and ear plugs can go a long way.

Likewise, clothing-optional means just that. Some may feel more comfortable in clothing; some may enjoy having all bits out and about to bless the wind, so to speak. Neither is good nor bad; neither should be treated as being less than truly and authentically Pagan, clothed or unclothed. The mosquitoes will love the meal in any case.

If etiquette is meant to smooth the way between and among members of a group, then Pagan etiquette can be a reminder of what we all know to do anyway. We take a break when we celebrate during festival season. This is a time to put a big stop sign to the usual “go, go, go” pace that so many of us have throughout the rest of the year. We renew our Pagan roots and our belonging to the overall Pagan community. If we bring our children, then we instill what it means to be Pagan, to gather, to laugh, to play, to worship, to make new friends, and to come back refreshed to our homes.  Etiquette helps make the celebration all the sweeter.

Now, where did I put that sunscreen?

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The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.