The Liminality of Festivals

For the past two years or so I’ve been blogging for Witches and Pagans. As some of you may or may not know, my life is currently in a state of upheaval.  While I’m not yet comfortable talking about that and while I sort out everything else that is going on, I thought I would start publishing some of those posts here. I don’t know whether or not I will stay at Witches and Pagans when all is said and done, but…I think a lot of those posts were really great and I would like to both share them with you and to be able to keep them.

So I will start with this one, “The Liminality of Festivals,” which I originally published July 25th, 2012.

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I just returned from Sirius Rising, a festival held at Brushwood Folklore Center in Sherman, NY.

For me, festival is a liminal experience. That probably sounds rather cliche in this context (who doesn’t like to bring up liminality?), but every time I go to a festival, something life altering ends up happening.

After the last festival that I went to, I hit a young buck with my car coming home. The police officer who arrived to help me, told my father as I was sitting on the side of the road next to my completely shattered car, that I was lucky to be alive. At the time, with a full Mabon moon riding red and heavy in the night sky, I assumed that I hadn’t given enough of myself that Mabon and that some more blood needed to be offered.

Now, looking back on the events of that festival and what happened in my life around that period (all of which started right before that particular festival), I’m pretty sure a particular God was giving me a very clear message about a decision that I had just made, letting me know that I was going to have to change course to set myself back on the proper spiritual path.

The events of that autumn changed me forever, and as with any initiatory experience, I think that I had to have that experience to get where I am now. I had to come face to face with the Underworld, both that night and once again later in that Fall at Samhain, to enter back into life. Yule, as it’s supposed to, brought the beginnings of the possibility of life back to me. While the Wheel of the Year is pretty clear in its metaphorical meanings, that year demonstrated many more of its actual practical realities on my life. And where I am now is a very happy, healthy place, largely because of the wonderful man that those events led me to.

This was, as I see it, my first real initiatory experience, though it was neither planned nor officiated by anyone human, and was messy and rather drawn out, with Death serving as a grim sort of Summoner. The Pirates of the C.U.C. Constantine had helped me put a name on everything that I had always felt up to that point in my life as Pagan, and this experience, assisted patiently by my pirate sisters, was my transition to my current Wiccan path.

This year, at the first festival I’ve been to since the last one, I took my next Wiccan elevation. While I’m still a ways away from actual initiation in my current tradition, I think that first walk between the worlds was the only reason that I was allowed to move onto this one.

b2ap3_thumbnail_tree_20120725-182000_1On another forum that I participate in, someone was questioning the role that initiation plays in Paganism. I feel I understand that role now. Without that initiation, nothing that has come since could have been allowed to happen. Initiation is a sort of death: it is the gateway through which you have to pass to move forward. You have to be tested, whether it is by someone else or by yourself; and you must face Death to move on. Festival plays a big role in this for me. It is a place that you go that is between the worlds (without you ever having to cast a circle). Going to festival takes you out of the mundane world. While I live my Pagan life 24/7, unlike many Pagans who are not able to be out of the broom closet, festival is still an important place for me to go to be fully myself. While I sit at my desk all day at my nine-to-five job, I have to curtail much of my true self. At festival, dancing naked around a fire, the wild, primitive me has a rightful place of existence. The Goddess flows through me and happily leaps with the excited beating of my heart in ways that She can’t manifest herself in the “real” world. Festival is a path between the worlds where you get to exist for a full week. Many things can happen in seven days when you walk between the worlds.

It also helps to remind me of the sheer joy of being a Pagan. While I study Wicca seriously and constantly, and love what I am doing, festival reminds me in a much more visceral manner about what being Pagan is and what has always drawn me to this life.

All last week, I kept stumbling across snakes. At the beginning of this festival, I had formally asked for my next elevation, but didn’t think that it was going to happen that week. I didn’t find out until near the very end of festival that it was actually occurring. Right before the actual ritual, I was sitting just outside of Brushwood’s amazing Labyrinth, starring at the Bottle Tree that they had erected for their Spirit ritual, contemplating what this elevation would mean to me. I looked up at the gorgeous and expansive night sky to witness two shooting stars. Stumbling out of the woods later, I happened to look up to see another one. The Gods were clearly walking with me once again.

This initiation was not as life altering as that very first one, but it will still have as many profound effects on my life. And I draw some satisfaction that correct decisions brought me to a much more peaceful and quick initiation this time. Would this have happened without the atmosphere of the festival? No. There was more than the usual amount of magic in that place that assisted me to further my journey into Paganism. Festivals can be many different things to many different people, but they allow for things to occur in life that perhaps can’t occur elsewhere. The level of magical energy simply amplifies all that one experiences. Whether I am hanging out with Pirates or with my Wiccan coven, festival is a place of spirit and family. While events around festival aren’t always pleasant (just ask that deer), they are vital to our existence as Pagans.

If you haven’t tried a festival yet, take a week and do it. It is not an experience that you will ever find anywhere else. You never know what might be waiting in the shadows of the forest for you, but festival is a place where you certainly might find out.

Walking with Spirit in Lily Dale

Last week I had the unexpected opportunity of visiting Lily Dale.

I had vaguely heard of Lily Dale before, but hadn’t realized that it was going to be so close to  the site of Sirius Rising in Upstate New York. I was at Sirius Rising  all week, and was very focused on being at the festival, but when it was pouring rain out one festival day, one of my friends suggested we take a field trip to see the great Spiritualist community.

The Fox sisters were infamous mediums of nineteenth century America, and were a large part of the Spiritualist movement. In 1927, the Fox sisters’ house was moved to the site that is now Lily Dale. Spiritualism is a fascinating movement that holds a little known place in American history. According to Wikipedia, Spiritualism is “a belief system or religion, postulating the belief that spirits of the dead residing in the spirit world have both the ability and the inclination to communicate with the living. Anyone may receive spirit messages, but formal communication sessions (séances) are held by ‘mediums’, who can then provide information about the afterlife”.  Many famous people were interested in Spiritualism in the mid and late nineteenth century. Mary Lincoln and her famous husband became very serious Spiritualists after the death of one of their sons. It was extremely fashionable to hold seances in your home and to invite mediums like the Fox sisters to come and speak in your communities. And whether you believe the Fox sisters actually were receiving messages from the other side or not, the movement that was built around them is still alive and well today in Upstate New York at the Lily Dale Assembly.

Lily Dale is a tiny little place that is open to visitors year round and to students who wish to come and learn more about being a medium or Spiritualism. The main Lily Dale website says “There are daily lectures on the wonders of mediumistic phenomena and the basic truths of God and Man, which Spiritualists adopt as their standard for living”. It costs $10 to get through the gate, but after the entrance fee, the community is open for your exploration.

When we arrived, we headed up to the Inspiration Stump, where mediumship demonstrations are held everyday at 1 p.m., and people gather to hear from several of the mediums. There are three types of mediums who speak here: The mediums that are registered and vouched for by the Lily Dale Assembly; visiting mediums from other communities; and student mediums. Originally the mediums stood on the huge stump that still sits at the top of the meeting place. That way they could see the audience gathered to hear the words of the spirits from above, and were able to pick out those who the spirits wished them to give messages to. Today they do not stand on the stump, but use microphones;  otherwise, the mediums still do the same thing that has been done for over 130 years. I was surprised by how many people were there. It was a truly fascinating experience. The mediums were introduced and immediately jumped right on into things. We were told at the beginning that this was considered to be a religious service for them and throughout the whole thing, the mediums were thanked for “walking with Spirit” after they were finished.

Inspiration Stump

Inspiration Stump

The Meeting Place in front of the Stump

The Meeting Place in front of the Stump

The Lily Dale website says:

Inspiration Stump is a spiritual retreat found at the end of the calm and quiet trail of the Leolyn Woods. It is not unusual to become more aware of the spiritual energies while in this open and receptive state at the Stump. you are invited to participate in the services held twice a day in the grove at no charge. Demonstrations of mediumship are presented by the mediums giving short messages to those in the audience. These services have been held since 1898. As well as possibly receiving a message of meaning at Inspiration Stump, you may well renew your own Spiritual energies. Spiritual awareness is available to all. Please show consideration for the mediums who are working and for those who are receiving messages by refraining from unnecessary noise or movement that disrupts the flow of energy.

I don’t know that they convinced me of their abilities or not, but they certainly gave us a show. Some of them were really good, and I’m sure, probably actually in touch with the Spirit world. Some were pretty abysmal, but they all kept us entertained. It was  an experience unlike any other that I’ve had.

After we left Inspiration Stump, we explored the rest of the tiny community. There is a small museum in the old school house, a library, the assembly hall and all the houses of the mediums, where you can stop and actually have a personal reading or channeling. We didn’t do this, since it gets quite expensive. But the mediums set up shop and open their doors all summer for the visitors and pilgrims of Lily Dale.

At the museum, they had memorabilia of the many things that had gone on in the Spiritualist movement and in Lily Dale. They had a wall covered with the signs from the houses of the original mediums, spirit slates that the spirits had supposedly written on and many other fascinating things.

The Main Square with the Assembly Hall and Library

The Main Square with the Assembly Hall and Library

Houses of Mediums and Readers

Houses of Mediums and Readers

We had lunch in the little cafe sitting between two mediums, which was a pretty hilarious moment in and of itself.

Jason Mankey, author and lecturer, was a particularly wonderful tour guide the whole day.

While we were there, I noticed that Pagan author Ray Buckland was supposed to speak the next day. While we didn’t run into Buckland himself, we did see his infamous corvette. I was amused.

After returning, I was sitting in Murdock’s, a tiny restaurant in Sherman New York (which is the small town that Brushwood resides in) writing this. The owner of the restaurant passed by my table and saw some of my pictures and asked me if I had gone to Lily Dale. When I told her that I had, she excitedly asked me what I thought and told me that that’s where she goes to church. Sherman is a tiny little place with one main street and gas station. It is the home to many farmers and people of the Amish/Mennonite communities. I was really surprised to find that Spiritualism also has it’s place here.

Spiritualism is not something that I have delved into before. And other than in romance novels and books of the paranormal, it’s not something that pops up for me very often. But this was a great look into a very different world, one where ghosts and messages from the beyond are common place and expected.This was a fabulous experience that I would recommend for anyone who is interested in the occult. Go and walk with Spirit in Lily Dale, you won’t ever be the same after!

A Pirate’s Packing List for Festival

Fancy Corset

Leather Corset

Plain Corset

Bustier

Pantaloons

Multi-pocket Belt

Nipple Shields

Pirate Shirts

Pirate Hat

Regular Hat

Sashes

Lacy see-through dress

Ribbon Skirt

Victorian Skirt

Multiple skirts for layering

Vest

Coyote Tail

Tall Leather Boots

Short Leather Boots

Thigh-high boots

Sandles

Assorted hippie dresses

Festival Pants

Eyeliner

Shower Kit

Traveling Altar

Altar Tools: pentacle and scourge, incense, bell, athame, matches, 3 white candles, 1 red candle, wand, candle snuffer, small candle, water dish, salt dish, salt, item that symbolizes the God, item that symbolizes the Goddess, chalice, cakes plate, Broom, Staff

Ritual Robe

BOS

Bug Spray/Sunscreen

Mandolin

Washboard

Tarot Cards

Pillow

Rum

Whiskey

Abita Strawberry

More Whiskey

Flask

(Camping gear provided by the itinerant musician that you live with and who is already on the road ahead of you).

This morning I was reading another blog, Writings of a Pagan Witch. The author does twice monthly interviews of witches (and you should definitely go and check it out, her blog in general is great). When she asked the lady that she was interviewing what else she would tell the world, one of the things she said was “Well, that and quit fawning over “Big Name Pagans” – most that I’ve met have been total assholes who are so full of themselves that they’d float if you tossed them in water.  If you want to join a coven and they charge for lessons, leave, because they’ll just keep pressuring you for money that you may not have”.

Which of course got me to thinking.

One of the things that I see as a problem when people are first trying to figure Paganism out, they don’t know where to look and they don’t know what sorts of questions to ask. It’s a lot easier to get yourself into a bad situation, as in all things in life, if you don’t have the right information.

Here then are a few suggestions:

Always research the local community first; we are lucky enough to live in a day and age where we have the Internet. A lot of Pagans that I know tell me that as they came to learn about Paganism they forget about the Internet. Big mistake: The internet provides some great resources and information about your local scene.

 Witchvox is an excellent site. You can check out local groups, and see what people are saying about them. You can look up the local clergy, shops, events, news etc. There are even personals. Witchvox in general has a lot of good resources available to its users. It’s free, you don’t even really have to sign up for an account, though I certainly recommend it. The site itself is not the easiest to navigate, but if you have a few minutes, you’ll figure out how to wade through its various pages to find information.

See if your city has a local meet up. Meetup.com is a free site that creates local groups of like minded people for pretty much any sort of hobby or interest. A lot of cities have pagan meet-ups. It’s a social gateway to your local scenes. New Orleans has a fabulous meetup group that addresses different paths, traditions and ideas within the local pagan community. If you’re interested in paganism, but don’t know where to start or who to talk to, this can be a great place to start.

Circle Sanctuary is another good resource. Lady Liberty League is also through Circle Sanctuary. Run by Selena Fox, she was instrumental in organizing and implementing this legal service that exists to help Pagans who are victims of religious discrimination. Need help with a custody case where the judge wants to take away your children because you’re Pagan? Have you been discriminated against at work for being Pagan? These are all issues that Lady Liberty League handles. It’s an amazing group and more pagans need to know it exists. Circle Sanctuary also puts out a guide to Pagan groups, Circle Network News, and many other resources for people who are looking into Paganism. They also run a large yearly festival, PSG. More on that in a moment.

Pagan Space is a Pagan Social Network (think Facebook or Myspace, but Pagan). This is not the best resource, but it can at least introduce you to other Pagans. Check out your favored social networking sites and see what other Pagan groups you might find. Many Facebook groups cater to local Pagan scenes.

The Wild Hunt and other blogs at Patheos are also good sources. Find blogs to follow and read; Blogs can introduce you to the many different traditions and practitioners out there. If nothing else, you can find people to email and ask questions of. While you might find a lot of people you don’t agree with, you will probably find a lot of people that you do, and these people are excellent sources of basic info.

If nothing else, get out there and socialize with people. There’s been a growing trend to have “Pagan Pride Days” in a lot of major cities. Google this and see if there is a local Pagan Pride Day in your community. Usually the people who put these things together try to make sure that the traditions in the area are present and available. A lot of local vendors come to these “Days” and in general you can start to meet the local Pagan community.

When looking for a teacher, use your gut. A lot of people who have terrible experiences have told me that they didn’t listen to their gut feelings because they assumed that negative responses were to things that were “just a part of Paganism.” If you get into a group and something is telling you that this situation is not ok, don’t go back. Most groups won’t dedicate you or initiate you until you’ve decided that they are actually where you’re supposed to be, and there is often an introductory period to initiatory groups. If you get into a group that just wants to throw you into things immediately and you’re not feeling good about it, take a step back and ask yourself what’s wrong.

If you’re getting involved with Wicca, no teacher should ever ask you to pay them. When one is initiated in a Wiccan tradition, one takes a vow not to charge to teach the craft. (This doesn’t mean that other services, such as readings that a Priest or Priestess can give you, are free. These people do use these things to make a living, so don’t assume that because they aren’t charging for teaching, that they won’t charge for other services. They should, however, always be upfront about those charges and not cover them up.) Also, if they are renting a space for an event or something similar for the group and ask you to chip in, that’s not charging for teaching. Ask yourself if you think the money is appropriate and if you can afford it. Usually in these situations, if you don’t have the money, your priest or priestess isn’t going to have a problem with it and may ask you contribute in another manner such as helping set up or helping with organization. People want to make sure you’re involved, and if money becomes an issue, there are usually other options.

Paganism is a fertility religion. Sex is something that is very present within Paganism. A lot of groups work “Skyclad”, which is working in the nude. To those who are not used to hanging around with nudists (I live with one, it always makes life a little more interesting) being Skyclad is not about being sexual; it’s about presenting your true self to your gods. Sex between student and teacher is frowned upon. If any teacher you come into contact with tells you that they won’t initiate you unless you sleep with them, leave that group immediately. That is an abuse of power that is never acceptable. Most teachers won’t even consider having an actual relationship with any of their students, unless pre-estabished, because they see it as any other teacher/student relationship. A lot of scandal that the media likes to dig up on Paganism usually deals with unethical teachers taking advantage of students in sexual situations. No teacher should ever require that you sleep with them (and I would say that this is a good lesson for life in general anyway). Blue Star unfortunately had a priest who was doing this. As soon as other initiates figured out what was going on, they banned him from teaching. Traditions are usually pretty good about cleaning up their own bad apples. Every group has them, but if the overall tradition is responsible, they try to make sure these people are not set loose on the public.That doesn’t mean that one of these bad apples hasn’t managed to escape their notice; always use your common sense. If you get the feeling that an initiate is abusing their power, they probably are. There are usually avenues within a tradition to address this as well. Get to know other people in your tradition, get to know the elders who are available. If you like a tradition, but don’t particularly care for the coven or group within that tradition that you’ve found, there are usually others out there, though they might not be as convenient to get to.

Unfortunately for those of you who are underage, while you may know that Paganism is for you, due to the sexual nature of the Craft, most groups won’t accept you until you’re of age (whatever that might be in your country of origin). This is unfortunately a legal issue. Groups can get into a lot of trouble if they are working Skyclad or discussing sexual issues when a minor is involved. I love that Blue Star is open to children, but if someone who is underage and who is not already associated with the coven through a family member wants to be involved, they have to have written consent from a parent or guardian and be accompanied by a parent or guardian. They also won’t be initiated until they are of age; it’s a matter of life experience. Most teenagers don’t have the experience to handle the rites of passage that lead up to initiation. While Paganism is a wonderful path for those of any age, the initiations, secrets and leadership skills are honed and developed over time. Anyone who is younger than twenty five probably won’t have a achieved the life experience to deal with initiation, most responsible groups won’t initiate anyone who is too young. And you should always be suspect of someone who is under twenty five and is claiming a high level of initiation. While it is possible to achieve initiation at a young age, most people don’t.

Just because a teacher doesn’t charge you money doesn’t mean that you aren’t going to work your ass off to be taught and initiated into a tradition. Organized traditions have a syllabus of study: the student is told what they will learn and how they will learn it. In Blue Star, students are required to help with setting up rituals and assisting with feasts. There is homework and reading assignments required. There is a lot of responsibility put on the student to actually take what the priest or priestess is teaching you and use it. While I’m not involved with the Voodoo community down here, I’ve been told that a lot of the Mambas will make you help with cleaning the temple and other tasks that need taken care of to make sure that you’re really serious about learning from them. Again, in these situations, use your common sense. If your priest or priestess is asking you to help clean your ritual area, that’s one thing; if they are telling you that you have to come over and clean their entire house and serve their dinner, that’s another issue entirely. Look at the situation realistically and don’t let people take advantage of you. Again, these people should be upfront in the very beginning about what is going to be expected of you as a student.

What are the priest or priestesses doing with their regular lives? Do they do things that you respect? If their daily life is something that you can respect, it’s probably a good sign that they are at least trying to be the best teacher they can. (If you see their personal life and don’t agree with it, should this person be in charge of your spiritual life?)

On what terms did former members of the group leave? Did they leave in anger and mistrust, or did they leave because it was their time to move off and start their own group? Is there still goodwill between former members and the old group? Does the group tell you to not talk to other members of the tradition or members of other paths? There might be moments of study where you shouldn’t be studying other traditions just so you can focus on what you’re learning, but you should never be cut off from talking to other people to get second opinions.

The worship in the group should be about the gods, not the leaders. If you get into a group and it seems like ego takes precedent, you should probably find a new group. A lot of drama and upset occurs when priests and priestesses lose sight of what they’re doing and are seeking their own personal power.

Do your own research before you join any group and if the leaders of this group seem to do things that run counter to what you already understand about Paganism, ask around to other locals or others in that particular tradition to see if there is a known problem with this group or its leaders.

Ask questions! If you’re a new person in a group, the leader of the group should never be upset about answering your questions. This is your spiritual path, you have every right to ask about everything that this particular teacher is going to teach/require of you as a student. In many groups, long time students are in charge of making newcomers feel comfortable and fielding reasonable questions: if you are a guest or a newcomer to a group, you should never be made to feel uncomfortable for asking a reasonable question.

There are also a lot of major Pagan festivals out there. A lot of the Pagans that I know have no idea that there is a larger pagan community out there that is pretty accessible to everyone. If you can’t afford the price of admission (usually @$150 – $200) for a week, many of these programs have financial assistance or work study programs that you can do to go. You might end up helping take the trash out for a week, but that’s a pretty good bargain for a week of workshops, classes and concerts from well known and respected teachers. For a list of pagan festivals, just go google “pagan festivals” or “pagan events”. My personal recommendations are for Brushwood’s Sirius Rising (New York/PA area), Wisteria Summer Solstice (Ohio), and Pantheacon (San Francisco), but there are festivals in all regions of the US and Europe. (Most festivals, unless explained otherwise, are family friendly. A lot of families go to festivals and there are a lot of children around. There is usually child care available, though you should research what a specific festival offers. Also be aware that most festivals are clothing optional, if you’re new to Paganism this can come as a shock.)

As to those Big Name Pagans, don’t use blanket statements for them. Some of them are nutcases, but some of them are Big Name Pagans for a reason. Again, use common sense; most of them are willing to sit down and talk to you and you can get to know them. One of the great things about the Pagan community is it’s actually pretty small. If you’re interested in something one of those Big Name Pagans are doing, email them. You might be surprised by the response that you get. I live with one of those Big Name Pagans and he’s a pretty amazing person. He loves it when people email him and friend him on facebook. He loves it even more when people find him at festivals and actually try and get to know him. He sees teaching as one of his first and foremost responsibilities and since he has been in the Pagan community for over twenty years, he has a wealth of knowledge to impart. I’m not saying that the crazies aren’t out there,  but our community should take advantage of learned people and their knowledge. Just remember that some of them are considered to be rock stars in the community and are overwhelmed by their correspondence, so don’t be disappointed if you don’t get a response. This doesn’t make them terrible people.

If nothing else, get out there and do your research. There is no excuse not to utilize all of the amazing resources available to you. Use your common sense and if you find a group that doesn’t work for you (for whatever reason), thank them for their time and move on. Don’t feel stuck with a group just because its the first one you’ve found, and you don’t think that there aren’t any others out there (another common first timers mistake). Have some patience, do the research and for the most part, you’ll get lucky and find some amazing people who will help you with whatever path that you’re meant to be on.

Information and Resources for New Pagans