Tales from the Road – Paganicon – Thoughts on Paganism in the USA and the UK

Tales from the Road – Paganicon – Thoughts on Paganism in the USA and the UK

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Last weekend Cerri and I went to the USA. I’d been booked to play music and speak, and Cerri gave two workshops at Paganicon in Minneapolis. Our good friend Kristoffer Hughes had also been booked and it was lovely to be met by Kristoffer in the foyer when we arrived.

Paganicon is a three day Pagan convention held in a large hotel in Plymouth, a few miles outside of the Twin Cities, and the festival literally takes over the space for those three days. There are very nice lecture theatres, a big stall space, two lovely restaurants, a couple of bars, and as it was held in the hotel most people took rooms there too, so there was always space and time for casual meetings and discussions. I guess there were about 900-1000 people, so a good size too.

This was both mine and Cerri’s first ‘hotel’ Pagan conference/convention and I have to say we both loved it. We don’t seem to have this kind of event in the UK. I guess the closest is Witchfest International, but that is one day, and held in a conference centre, so it’s not quite the same. Being immersed within the conference at the hotel and not really leaving the atmosphere really adds to the depth of the experience. Some may say it feels a little ‘corporate’ but I think there is space for camping in fields, communing outside within Nature, getting wet and muddy, and also having the comfort to chat and go deep in our discussions within a beautifully held indoor space over a few days.

I am very lucky to be able to travel, to meet Pagans all over the world, and to be welcomed into their communities through my music and my work with the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids. Since my first overseas trip in 2006, I’ve met some truly lovely and inspirational people, and many of them were there at Paganicon. But before we got chatting, we arrived, checked in and found our room.

I don’t really want this to read like a ‘what I did on my holiday’ essay. What I will say is that the presentations by the speakers were first class. There were at least two talks happening concurrently all weekend so it was impossible to get to all of them, but I was struck by the depth of knowledge and willingness to share that wisdom by all of the presenters I saw.

My first public outing was to play a song to welcome the Goddess during the opening ritual. The theme of Paganicon this year was Sacred Groves (probably why there seemed to be a lot of ‘Druid’ things happening) and the Well, so I chose to play my song Brighid. My time came and I stepped forward to play. It was a beautiful moment. My voice called for Brighid to be with us, and when I got to the chorus everyone joined in with me. “Ah!” thought I. “We are going to have an amazing time tonight at the concert!” The voices of everyone welcomed the Goddess of Fire, Goddess of Healing, Goddess of Spring, welcome again. Then as the song ended I asked those present to call out the name/s of their Goddess, to also welcome them into this sacred space. And thus the song ended in a cacophony of voices and names being called. Cerri then led a meditation to the well, the Cauldron, warmed by the Breath of the Nine, to bless the circle, the conference.

When I got to the concert hall it had been arranged with a large dancefloor area with the seats quite a long way away. So when I took the stage I invited people to come and sit on the dancefloor and chill for the first set as I played more reflective songs. Of course, the dancing would come later. The dancefloor filled up. It was a great night. A party and celebration of Paganism and folk music. When it ended I was buzzing and more than a little high on the adrenaline. Happily, we were invited for a Scotch Whisky tasting session in the room of Jason and Ari Mankey. I’m not sure if it was the amount of whisky, but I found that after a while, each one tasted became my favourite…

And no hangover the next day.

Hurrah!

The next day was filled with talks and workshops and I found myself one of four people talking about the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids on an OBOD panel. It is always so inspiring to hear how people all over the world work with the OBOD course. How Seedgroups and Groves practice their Druidry in other countries. How different Druidry in the USA can be to that practiced in the UK, yet still have that huge swathe of connection and community through the common language of the OBOD Gwersi. Truly wonderful. It was also wonderful to meet so many DruidCast listeners, and hear how the podcast had helped them to make the decision to join the Order. The time on the panel passed way too quickly. An hour and a half literally flew by. I love sitting on panels. As you sit there looking out and seeing the faces of those attending you know they can literally ask any question they want, and you are sitting there having to answer with no time to think, no time to prepare a reply. So the answers that come forth are from a very honest place.

Sadly that night the jet lag (and probably the whisky from the previous night…) caught up with me, so I couldn’t stay up for the masked ball, nor to see my friends Tuatha Dea perform. But I could tell from the sounds around the hotel that everyone was having a great night. As we sat in the bar having a nightcap before bed I saw two massive yellow ears moving downstairs. “I know those ears,” thought I. And sure enough a full sized Pikachu was walking across the hotel foyer on its way to the ballroom. Now that’s how to do a masked ball costume, I thought! We also saw Pikachu having his photo taken at a professional photograph stall that had opened in the foyer. Well, you have to have a go at these things, so me, Cerri and Kristoffer stepped before the camera. Look, there is a sensible and lovely photo, but this is my favourite. I can’t remember what was said but that is some explosive laughter right there.

Good times.

The next morning we walked into the restaurant area for breakfast and Jean Pagano (aka Drum), a lovely man and head of An Draiocht Fein (the ADF), came up to me and said, “Damh, you can have your Biscuits and Gravy today!” If you’re a regular reader of my blog you will know how much I love that dish. If you’re new you might be thinking, just as I thought when I was first told we were having ‘Biscuits and Gravy’ for breakfast that, to be honest, a digestive biscuit and Bisto does not sound very appetising. It’s not that at all. The biscuit is a savoury scone, and the gravy is a white sauce with spicy sausage, and it is delicious.

So I tucked into that. Noms.

That day, more talks, more discussions, more inspiration, and another panel, this one with Jean Pagano (ADF), Kristoffer Hughes (Angelsey Druid Order), and myself (OBOD). It was held in the ‘Druids of the Midwest’s’ hospitality suite. This was another thing I’d not encountered before. The entire second floor of the hotel was taken up with hospitality suites from different groups and traditions. You walked in and there were drinks and snacks, space to sit and chat about whatever the tradition or groups were. They weren’t big and quite a few people wanted to hear what we had to say, but everyone managed to get in and have a seat. Another round of intense and exciting questions and once more the time flew past.

Monday arrived too quickly. I remember being at the Pagan Spirit Gathering and watching everyone leave, as the campsite became empty once more, and I slept alone in the tipi, in the quiet and dark, ready to catch the plane home the next day. Paganicon ended in a similar way. Suddenly Pagan’s Pantry, the snack space was gone. Then the huge Paganicon banner in reception, then people walking across the foyer with their suitcases, then the stall area empty. Hugging friends who are all packed up and heading home. People you love that live in completely different continents, not really knowing when you might get the chance to see them again. I don’t like that bit. But it always arrives.

So soon we were back in the UK, a country seemingly chasing its own tail like Dill the Dog from the children’s program The Herbs, trying to work out the conclusion of the ‘B’ word.

Enough of that.

What did I take away from Paganicon?

I think it would be amazing if there was a Paganicon-style event here in the UK. If a group had the nerve (because it would be a huge financial risk) to hire an entire hotel for a UK Pagan convention. If a group did that, would people come I wonder? We hold an annual conference here in Sussex and just about get 180 people each year. For a hotel convention, you would need to guarantee 900 people at least to make it viable. Who knows. But I think it would be a good thing to have if the community got behind it.

American Pagans talk about their theology very openly. I love that. You can really go deep and chew the Pagan theological fat with American Pagans. Not so much with Pagans here in the UK (I am of course making a huge generalisation here). Maybe it’s because religion is still such a big part of the culture in the USA. Here in the UK much of the bloodshed over hundreds of years has been fought due to religious intolerance, so we are quite distrusting of ‘religion’, even going as far as preferring to use the word ‘Spirituality’ to describe what we do and believe and avoiding the ‘R’ word altogether. I think maybe the New Age from the 80s and 90s wore some of us a little thin when it came to spiritual and religious discussions. Add to that the culture of social media where there always seems to be so many people ready to ‘correct’ you, or slam you down when you open up about your Path and experiences. Well, that can’t help. I don’t know really. It’s just something that I’m very much aware of every time I go to a Pagan event in the USA, and sometimes I just wish it wasn’t so.

The other thing? Lots more young people. In my talk, I asked all those under 30 to raise their hands. There were loads. In the UK it feels like there is an aging demographic at Pagan events. I’ve been trying to get my head around why that might be. There are a lot of possible reasons and maybe it’s a combination of all of them, but it was so good to see so many young faces there. I’m not thinking that UK Paganism is in trouble, it’s obvious that’s not true. It seems that maybe instead of young people being enchanted by magic, spirituality, the environment (I’m thinking the 90s road protests here), as they were when I found Paganism, it feels that people in the UK are finding their Paganism later on in life. After they have maybe had their children, and they have moved out, taking that space and time for something important to them that they now have space and time for. From speaking with new members of the OBOD that certainly seems to be the case. Yet in the USA there are still many under 20s who are seeking out Paganism. Maybe that is also a result of the way religion is a big part of American culture.

Either way a Pagan from the UK would feel very much at home at a Pagan gathering in the USA, and also at one in mainland Europe and as far afield as Australia and New Zealand. Once more re-enforcing that there is a worldwide Pagan community that it is still very much evolving, changing, and growing.

A big Blessed Be to that.

17 responses to “Tales from the Road – Paganicon – Thoughts on Paganism in the USA and the UK”

  1. It is interesting to hear that you were so pleased with the indoor convention theme..I on the other hand dream of coming to the UK where my ancestry lies and seeing all the sacred sites, and meeting British Druids. I wish we had more opportunities to have ritual outdoors in Nature…and living in Ky. there are very few Druids..I have found a Seed grove, a small group of like minds…we gather for holidays and coffies, but not always outdoors…..people are not as accepting of nature path religions in the US as you think…many pagans are fearful of revealing their path to friends and in the workplace for fear of reprisal..just thought I would share another perspective with you..I am a Bardic student and love the forest path.

    • Thank you! Someone did say something very similar whilst we were there. About the UK Sacred Sites. I also think maybe there is a lot of theological discussion at the conventions in the USA because it’s one of the safe spaces to do so.

  2. Yes…safety in numbers.. and I am sure they were very honored to have someone of your notariety there to share their thoughts with.

  3. I came to OBOD and Paganism in my 7th Decade, after many years of exploration, disappointments and wrong turnings so yes I am Ancient in years but believe me, My mind is still very very receptive – I do feel that this is the reason there are not so many young folk, they have not yet walked the path of exploration, I love my Druidry and fully love the OBOD teachings and I defy anyone not to be absorbed by this Nature led movement.

  4. Glad to hear you had such a positive experience! And it’s not uncommon for newer, smaller events to only hire out a portion of a hotel rather than the whole thing. I’m not sure if that’s feasible in the UK, but perhaps someone will give it a go.

  5. I think a lot of the younger people are living their paganism in a more individual and electronic manner, Instagram for instance has huge ‘wiccansofinstagram’ and ‘pagansofinstagram’ type groups, mostly they are sharing picures and inspirational messages, It’s not the lack of interest but the shift in social media. I know for our moot we have a few young people, but most are of a similar age, I consider these to be those who are now at a point they want to seek out live communities rather than staying with the online one. It’s something I’ve been debating a blog post about at some point (being very new to Insta, I need to do some research into relative ages of the users)

    • I think a lot of the younger people are living their paganism in a more individual and electronic manner, Instagram for instance has huge ‘wiccansofinstagram’ and ‘pagansofinstagram’ type groups, mostly they are sharing picures and inspirational messages, It’s not the lack of interest but the shift in social media. I know for our moot we have a few young people, but most are of a similar age, I consider these to be those who are now at a point they want to seek out live communities rather than staying with the online one. It’s something I’ve been debating a blog post about at some point (being very new to Insta, I need to do some research into relative ages of the users)

      I too would love to experience one of the huge Pagan gatherings in the US. From the whole Podcast community, I gather it’s very much a different world. thank you for sharing your experiences Damh 🙂

  6. Many of the younger pagans in Paganistan are second or third generation pagans. Do they not have those in the UK? Who grew up with pagan parents, spent their youth at pagan festivals and rituals, and are now raising their own children as pagans?

  7. LOL – we weren’t always 900 people, you know! Paganicon started in 2011 with a fraction of the space in a smaller hotel and 140 people (all local) showed up. We had one Guest of Honor that Llewellyn graciously brought in for us and three tiny programming rooms, a vendor room 1/4 the size it is now, and a room for music that sat maybe 30 people. No Ball, no concert, no Art Show, no Party Suites…we gradually added stuff and spread out and increased our attendance about 20% each year. The trick is to start small, work your way up. If it doesn’t catch on, no big loss, but you never know! 9 years ago I would’ve never guessed we’d be where we are now. Thanks again for coming! You and Cerri were lovely guests. I do hope we’ll see you back someday. 🙂

  8. Drove 26 hours round trip to see you play at Paganicon. You did not disappoint! I will never again be able to listen to Scarborough Fair without smiling thanks to your added verse.

  9. It was great hearing you sing and speak at Paganicon…my first time there. I think I may be a Druid!! Blessed be.

  10. It was so lovely to meet you!! And I’m so glad you had a great time!

    A word about Paganicon, as I was on its board for 7 years, to anyone interested in starting a similar thing in the UK or elsewhere. Our first year, I think we had about 140 or 170 people in attendance. One guest of honor, everyone else was local. We rented I think two conference rooms (that could be opened up into one larger room for the guest of honor’s keynote) plus another two for the vendor room. Maybe a few other rooms, but we were very conservative. The next year I think we had 300 people and expanded into more parts of the hotel. After that, we’ve grown about 100 people per year, adding more conference rooms and programming every year, so income keeps up with expenses. This year the con made the move to this grand hotel that you saw, offering even more room than at our old hotel.

    I think the last thing you’d want to do would be to throw a huge con for 900 and only get 300 people in! So, there’s really no need to take a huge financial risk. Start small, saying, OK, we should get about X amount of people at such and such a ticket price, X amount of vendors at such and such a booth price, that would give us a budget of Y and we can afford Z number of rooms. Then work as hard as you can to make it such a great con that everyone will come back with friends the next year. Also, the more guest rooms you can fill, the sweeter a deal the hotel will give you for conference spaces, so there is an economy of scale.

    When you put on a great con, you’ll have no worries attracting more people. What you should be worried about is attracting enough volunteers to make sure it goes smoothly!! We have a core group of very dedicated Paganicon volunteers, and without them, the thing truly just wouldn’t work. Finally, Paganicon is run by a non-profit organization, so it’s always been about breaking even and not making a million dollars. This is a sustainable way to grow that won’t leave anyone feeling like they didn’t get their investment’s worth out of it (not to mention ethical questions).

    Anyway, good luck to anyone who should wish to try it! It’s a great way of fostering community for those of us in cold climates and for those who don’t camp, either because of disabilities, allergies, fear of giant blood-sucking mosquitoes and ticks, or who simply can’t be bothered to buy all the gear that entails. Plus we all love a comfy hotel bed!

  11. It was lovely to have you with us. I hope that your presence comes to join us again in the not to distant future.

  12. You really were a treat. Loved attending your Druidry panel, and enjoyed listening to your music. Hope you come on back and join us again, y’hear?

    I did not realize there were age differences between the US and the UK pagan explorations. You are right, though – here in the States, religion – particularly the rather conservative, restrained style of Evangelical Christianity – is front and center in social life. It has to do with our country being fairly young – when the pioneers moved into new areas, they tended to be homogeneous groups. Everyone in the settlement belonged to the same church, or maybe you’d have two flavors – Lutheran AND Catholic. And you grew up going to church with everyone in your family, and all the kids you went to school with, and didn’t really learn much about other religions, and this continued for generations.

    Then when immigrants from other countries came, they set up neighborhoods and towns with their own churches, praying in their own languages. Where I grew up, there were several Catholic churches – Irish, Italian, Polish, Hungarian, German, and. of course, “American” (damned hippies).

    As communication and travel opened up possibilities for young people to explore new ideas of faith, fundamentalism jumped in to draw them back to the fold. It was born of fear – fear that the great grandchildren of those first settlers might not stay in the place that great grandpa settled in, and go to the same church that all those forbears between attended, might change things. Might move – and not bring home with them. Or, worse yet, bring something strange back home.

    Paganism was a way for kids to rebel, like listening to rock music back in the day, but for many it stirred something deeper. And those young people have been pursuing knowledge with great fervor. Maybe because our country is so far-flung, and the beliefs and stories of our ancestors are so far away in physical distance as well as in time. We of European descent can’t just drive a few hours and be at a well that our ancestors honored as sacred. We’ve destroyed so much of the sacred areas of those native to this country, and laid waste to their cultures in an attempt to replace them with ours. Our youth are grasping for connection to meaning, to roots, to The Universe. And many are delving deeper – not just taking the trappings of paganism, but trying to do the work that makes it last.

    Sorry to have gone on, sir. As I said at the start, you were a joy to listen to, and here’s hoping we are graced by your fun and funny self at future Paganicons. Thank you!

    • Great analysis! I too enjoyed the druids very much. Pagsnicon hooked me up with my Duluth pagans. I feel born again

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