Report from the 17th Pagan Studies Conference

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CLAREMONT, California – The 17th annual Conference of Current Pagan Studies  ran from Jan. 16 to Jan. 17. Due to pandemic restrictions, the conference was conducted solely online via Zoom, with no in-person component.


The conference focused on how the year’s changes affected the Pagan communities. COVID-19 had the greatest impact. At any given time, the number of attendees ranged between the 50s and the 60s.

Organizers separated the conference into four sections and two keynote addresses. Each section consisted of several presentations. Summaries of some of the presentations follow.

Trance, sacred space, and cyberspace

Melissa Harrington felt that online rituals could provide a way to examine ritual dynamics. The experience of ritual in cyberspace could change a Pagan understanding of sacred space and trance work. None occur on the physical plane.

According to Harrington, healing rituals showed that energy could travel. The person seeking healing seldom shared the same physical space as those doing the healing.

Challenges to ritual process in online ritual

Many people reported problems with group chanting and singing. In a face-to-face ritual, these group sounds created social cohesion. In online meetings, the sounds of song or chant may lack synchronization, causing disharmony.

Several people mentioned the lack of physicality as a deficit of online rituals. Harrington interviewed one person who said, “I miss the sweatiness of the circle.”

Issues of Access In Online Ritual

Harrington said that online rituals worked better for introverts than face-to-face rituals. She reported that people on the autism spectrum have found online rituals difficult.

James “Pigeon” Fielder noted the presence of class issues in online rituals. People need access to computers, cell phones, and cams. In contrast, Harrington stated that online rituals and conferences removed the barrier of travel time and costs. She said that without the online format she could not have come to this conference.

Pagans responded to social distancing in many different ways

Murtagh anDoile examined the impact of COVID-19. He conducted interviews across traditions and generations.

In southern New England, anDoile reported that a group had set up a large outdoor area for ritual. They held socially distant, masked rituals. Only the priest and priestess went without masks.

A group in Seattle did something similar. The Minoan Brotherhood found online ritual impossible. One coven/circle became a quarantine pod. Some groups stopped doing rituals and now, only do online classes. ADF broadcast some rituals on YouTube.

anDoile reminded people that Pagan online rituals began before COVID-19. People in covens or circles move out of the area. Sometimes those covens/circles have used online rituals to retain those members.

According to anDoile, some interviewees experienced division in online rituals. Those with formal roles became ritual participants. Those with no formal roles became ritual voyeurs. The more professional and polished the video, the greater this division became.

Jeffrey Albaugh spoke about Pagan practice from his experience in theater. He explained that sense of division. Some online rituals stress performance with staging and camera angles. Those rituals resemble the passive experience of watching a movie or a TV show.

Diana Paxson’s keynote address: “It Was the Best of Times, It was the Worst of Times”

Pagan author, Diana Paxson described her expectations for 2020. She said, “2020 was supposed to be the year when every month I was supposed to go to a conference or festival.” Her plans changed. She described 2020 as an “endless weekend of quarantine.” Paxson reminded people that “the story of contemporary Paganism is the story of change.”

In her address, Paxson alternated between two voices. One voice spoke in a standard conference presenter tone. The other voice spoke from deep within sacred space. She moved between the two voices effortlessly. She also quoted Dylan’s “The Times, They are a-Changing.”

Paxson suggested using of the symbols of the U.S. civil religion to challenge domestic terrorists. She noted the appropriation of heathen symbols among the people attacking the Capitol. In contrast, she asked, if Pagans could, and should, work magic with symbols of the U.S. civil religion.

In the ancient Roman civil religion, people burned incense as an offering to the Emperor. Paxson argued that Roman Pagans would burn incense to the Emperor’s higher self. They did not sacrifice to his living being with all his flaws.

U.S. Pagans could do something similar with U.S. symbols. The U.S. flag has accumulated spiritual power over the years. Troops fighting against Nazis and the Confederacy carried it. Other troops, however, carried it when they seized land and massacred Native Americans.

Paxson argued that U.S. symbols contain more than its flaws. Modern Pagans could work with U.S. symbols with the intent of strengthening their higher ideals. Those higher ideals include democracy, liberty, and justice for all.

Paxson closed with, “The time for talk is ending; the time for work has begun.”

The Witches of TikTok

Angela Puca reported on “The TikTok Witches.”  TikTok, a relatively new social media platform, features one-minute videos. These videos range from dance moves to concise explanations. While largely designed for smartphones, TikTok can also be accessed using a desktop computer.

Image credit: Travel Sourced from Pixabay

A community of witches has developed on TikTok. They produce one-minute videos that explain a single aspect of witchcraft. Their videos have focused on making a potion or casting a spell.

The Witches of TikTok appeal to younger witches and people new to the craft. Some older witches produce TikTok videos, but it leans to the young side. These videos stress reading books besides watching the videos. Puca described their message as, “If I can do this, you can do this.”

A new vocabulary has emerged from the Witches of TikTok. “Baby witches” refer to people just getting into witchcraft no matter what their age. Several conference attendees found that term disempowering and infantilizing. “Cottage-core” refers to a sub-culture with an idealized view of rural life.

Re-mything

Nancy Meyer presented on re-mything. She argued that the modern, secular world lacks the gravitas of sacred myths handed down over centuries. Instead, it has calcified texts with fixed meanings.

In contrast, the stories of the ancients changed over time and with locations. For example, in Dionysia, Greek poets reimagined the living myths of the Greek world. Those re-imaginings fostered debates about the ancient Greek world.

Re-mything would involve looking at classic myths from different perspectives. These re-imaginings would foster debate about the modern world.

The keynote address of Michael York, “Matter Matters.”

According to York, Paganism has no concept of evil. Under animist theory, all things, including viruses, are living beings. If all life is divine, then a virus also partakes of the divine.

He said, “As Pagans, we may not like it, but we have to accept it.” He quoted Howard Zinn, human history is “not only [a story] of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, [and] kindness.”

COVID-19 has ravaged the most vulnerable and least powerful. When someone from the audience questioned York about this, York replied “We are all in this together, none of us are immune. It will hit everyone.”

Witchcraft in film and TV

Heather Greene spoke on “Witch Waves in American Narrative Film and Television.” Greene examined the relationship between practicing Pagans and how Witches appear in film and TV.

Greene identified three periods of intense focus on witches in US film and TV. Each period lasted for roughly ten years. About twenty years separated each period. Greene argued that the narrative of the witch in US film is the narrative of the American woman. Each wave reflects anxieties about women’s role and power.

The first wave ran from 1968 with “Rosemary’s Baby” to 1978. The second wave lasted from 1987 with “The Witches of Eastwick” to 1998 with “Practical Magic”. The third wave has lasted from 2011 with “American Horror Story” to the present.

[Editorial Note: Greene is the former managing editor of The Wild Hunt.]

Atheopaganism

Mark Green presented on Atheopaganism. An atheist since birth and a Pagan for 30 years, he defined Atheopaganism in opposition to hard polytheism. The latter considers deities to be distinct, conscious beings, with independent personalities. The former is a non-theist tradition. It includes people who reject deities as well as those who view deities as metaphors or archetypes.

Atheopagans have organized on the internet. They accept the universe as described by peer-reviewed science. The practice of Atheopagans involves small, intimate gatherings, and ritual workshops. It also includes a monthly book club and circles on Facebook.

A non-scheduled sub-theme involved political polarization on familial, social, and Pagan networks. No good answer emerged.

York, like Paxson, spoke about the history of the Pagan revival. This engendered a discussion of the need for a Pagan oral history project.

This conference provided a forum in which to explore those changes that COVID-19 wrought. It also introduced many present to TikTok and its Witches. James “Pigeon” Fielder gave a fascinating presentation on the relationship of online gaming to ritual space. Unfortunately, that complex presentation could not be summarized in this space. Intellectually stimulating, this conference offered another way to look at modern Pagan practice.