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