Dispatches from the St. Louis Pagan Picnic

ST. LOUIS – This past weekend marked the 32nd annual St. Louis Pagan Picnic, held in Tower Grove Park in south St. Louis city. The picnic featured rituals, workshops, concerts, and a long line of booths featuring vendors, artists, craftspeople, and lots of interesting cuisine. (Try the empanadas from Tango Argentina Food – my toddler approves.) Alongside all of these were representatives from a number of Pagan and like-minded organizations, including the Temple of Witchcraft, Spirit’s Edge Shamonial Temple, and the Circle of Light Spiritualist Church, among others.

St. Louis Pagan Picnic logo [St. Louis Pagan Picnic]

The main ritual on Saturday night was led by Patrick Finney, president of the board of Oak Spirit Sanctuary, a Pagan church and land sanctuary in Boonville, Missouri, about two hours west of St. Louis. I caught up to him at the OSS booth on Sunday and asked him about the ritual. (Disclosure: Finney is an old friend and once helped me move.)

The goal of the ritual was for the participants to build a spiritual temple – or, as Finney says on reflection, “It’s not just building a temple – we are the temple.” He described the process for me, how members of the community joined themselves in a ring to build the walls of the magical structure, and then, having erected it, processed outward to raise a spire atop the walls with a bell at its peak. Then together the participants rang the bell, sending out a message: “We are here, and you are welcome.”

“The point was to build our community,” said Finney. “I had people come to me afterwards and say that it was meaningful, which is great, but also that it was fun, which is even better.”

Hávamál 127 sticker from Hearth Kvlt [E. Scott]

As I went exploring along the rows of vendors, one booth immediately caught my eye. It had a rack of black and white t-shirts that featured a cartooned Viking-era design and the famous stanza 127 of the Hávamál, the Old Norse wisdom poem attributed to the god Odin – “Where you see evil, call it out and give your enemies no peace” – just above a union bug.

The shop is called Hearth Kvlt, a “one-witch operation conjuring animist apparel, accessories, and agitprop out of St. Louis, MO,” according to their website. I asked the proprietor, who goes by the handle of Fairy Gothparent on TikTok and Instagram, to tell me a little about their business and philosophy. “I got frustrated with seeing Paganism dancing with the alt-right,” they said, “and I wanted to use my own skills to stand with justice and equality.”

That sensibility was on display all over the booth, including items that featured phrases like “Protect Trans Lives” written in rune-like characters on a Viking-style shield. Like the Hávamál shirts, these featured stark white lettering on black cloth. I mentioned that they reminded me of heavy metal designs – iconography that sometimes has been used by white supremacist elements in both the Heathen and metal scenes.

“We can have better values no matter what, though,” said FGP. “There are bands in that space like Heilung and Wardruna who are trying to be welcoming to all. Those are the kinds of values we can build on.”

FGP lives in St. Louis, but this was the first time Hearth Kvlt tabled at the Pagan Picnic. “But lots of people are saying they are happy to see us here,” they said.

S.J. Tucker between DragonCon workshops, 2016 [© Desosil Photography]

While I was at the Pagan Picnic, I went to the midday concert featuring S.J. Tucker and Ginger Doss, who were playing beneath the blue and yellow frame of Tower Grove Park’s Old Playground Pavilion – the place where, I remembered with a smile, I had proposed to my wife. Now, a decade later, we were chasing our toddler around the lawn in front of the same pavilion, where he cackled with glee as he tried to run up to Doss and Tucker, presumably to pursue a career in show business.

Midway through the set, Tucker took a moment to make an announcement. “Your girl is having a lumpectomy on Wednesday, on the New Moon,” she said. She had only found out that she would be having the surgery a few weeks before, on the prior New Moon. She had uncertainty in her voice, but behind her words, I also heard resolve.

Tucker asked for the audience to participate in her song “Witch’s Rune” to help make the procedure a success. Despite the baking noontime sun, members of the crowd rose to their feet and began to dance and sway along to the music:

With censor, candle, book and sword
And ringing of the altar bell
We tie a knot within our cord
To bind our magic in a spell

And suddenly we were in a ritual – not just observers to a concert but weavers of a spell.

I caught up to Tucker after her show to ask her about the set, and especially about that moment. “I’ve only recently started to talk about it,” she said. She was afraid that her fans would worry too much about her. She was also concerned that venues and festivals would think she would be too sick to perform and would cancel her gigs on her current tour, the first where she and Doss are touring together as a duo despite knowing each other and playing music together for the past 20 years.

But she changed her mind while playing a show in Memphis in early May. “Memphis was my hometown, back in the early aughts,” she tells me. “And I thought, these are my Witches, and they’re going to throw down with me.”

She has been sharing her news and asking her fans for support since then – not at every show, but wherever she feels it’s the right place and time to ask for the audience to send her some magic.

Tucker clearly has faith that her community’s power will work – she has shows with Doss planned later this month at Faery Fest in Willow Springs, Missouri, following this year’s Pagan Spirit Gathering, and at July’s Starwood Festival in Ohio.

The Roman Pavilion at Tower Grove Park, St. Louis [E. Scott]

At any Pagan gathering, there are as many stories as there are people gathered. I knew I could have trawled the merchants and the workshops and found many more items worthy of taking down in my notebook, and had I the time – I remind you that your dutiful scribe was also minding a toddler – I would have loved to have heard all of them.

But I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that the main feeling I came away with was a simple gratitude and warmth to see so many fellow travelers mingling in a path through through the park where I grew up. I exchanged laughter and hugs with many friends and made the acquaintance of some new ones.

As we arrived at the Old Playground Pavilion, looking for a place to sit for the concert, I caught a smiling face waving me over. It was Liv, one of the people I love dearest in the world, sitting on a blanket in the fleeting line of shade. She had come in with some other folks from Kansas City to give a workshop at the picnic. I hadn’t seen her since before the pandemic, and I tumbled to the ground next to her for a long-delayed embrace.

We were there in the park, listening to music, performing magic, chasing babies, and eating empanadas together. At times I think my joy rang out like the sound of a bell.

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