This weekend I attended a Pagan conference and met some interesting and helpful people.
Have you ever had a period in your life where you appear to be in Grace? Where challenges emerge and are defeated easily? Where it seems simple to be calm and powerful? The voices of the divine and your own truth seem strong and clear? I seem to be in one. My music is going fabulously, I’m attracting all kinds of resources I’ve needed, and most importantly, other people’s gunk seems to be sliding off my back like I’m coated in Teflon(R).
Pagan gatherings are a quite a bit in feel like science fiction conventions – a variety of flavours of modern neo-paganism are represented. One thing I realized, that unlike the women-specific spiritual events I’ve attended, which are generally attended and organized by smart, highly competent, healthy and empowered women, the mixed Pagan ones attract a nerdier, more fringe crowd. This is not to say that most of the people I met weren’t remarkable and nice, but that I noticed a distinct difference in general social functioning, on the whole, with several people who didn’t seem to be doing well at all. Seeing how it was a Canada wide conference, I attended to see what was going on and do a bit of networking.
Amazon warrior that I am, I got into several heated intellectual discussions (which I enjoy, for the most part) and at least one controversy.
There’s a split in modern Paganism, or perhaps only in the sub-category of Wicca or Witchcraft, between the folks that are into a fertility based practice and those whose practice is ecstatic. Fertility practice of Wicca (also known as traditional or Gardnerian Wicca) is essentially a religion that gives relatively equal prominence to both Goddesses and Gods (with Goddesses being slightly more central), celebrates heterosexuality as a manifestation of the creative power of the Gods, and is based in the tradition started 50 or so years ago by Gerald Gardiner. The most central imagery, rituals and practices are often concerned with celebrating heterosexual sexual expression. This is NOT to say they’re having orgies all over the place, it’s just that the erotic attraction between men and women occupies a similar symbolic place in traditional paganism that for example the imagery of torture and murder via crucifiction occupies in Christianity. Christianity isn’t all about or even mainly about torture and death, but the imagery of crucifiction, which was a historical method of torture/execution, is a big part of their imagery and festivals such as Easter. What’s interesting to me is that unlike the traditions I practice, the women-oriented facets of fertility, particularly virginity, pregnancy and birthing, don’t get nearly the amount of emphasis in these ‘fertility’ traditions as the sexuality itself. Gods are seen primarily as lovers or fathers and the Goddess as lover or mother. Sister and brother Gods or virgin Goddesses do not carry much importance and do not appear to be emphasized. In some of the traditions I have experience with the Gods as brothers and sisters are just as important and provide important models of respect and cooperation between the sexes.
By contrast my own practice is in the ecstatic and social justice traditions (some examples are Reclaiming, Dianic, Goddess Sprituality and Feri traditions) which are not nearly as focussed on heterosexualily and more on relationship with the Gods and taking positive action in the world. Understandably as a gay woman, heterosexual sex, while as sacred as any other, is not of interest to me, so my expression is more about individual growth, recovering and celebrating my own body, intuition, honouring the Earth in action (environmentalism) as well as observance, and creating and discovering rituals and connections with the Divine Feminine that reinforce me and other women in being powerful, effective and strong. It is based in both Feminism, Goddess Sprituality and Wicca, with a social justice component from a tradition called Reclaiming.
The controversy began when a non-pagan film-maker presented her film about witches and invited discussion and feedback afterward. The only voices represented in the film were from fertility traditions, some of whom represented that in contrast to male centred religions, Wicca was about the balance between God and Goddess. Since the film maker was looking for feedback, I pointed out that my style, which is primarily about the Goddess, had not been represented. At this point, some reps of the other style – all older males, told me in paternal tones that while I was certainly Pagan, I was not a Wiccan because I didn’t give equal importance to male Gods worshipped via the imagery of straight sex as they do. I was, of course, offended, but couldn’t help but remember a conversation years ago with someone from an Evangelical Protestant sect who told me straight faced that Catholics weren’t Christians. Seeing how Catholics invented Christianity (or are at least the earliest surviving version I know of) this is patently ridiculous, so I had the perspective that all religions seem to do this infighting thing over stupid differences in practice. Similarly, I’m pretty certain that if they start up the bonfires to begin burning witches again, assertive female activist feminist witches will be the first they want to throw on the pyre. Our enemies know we’re all witches, so these boys need to just get over it.
I defended my point pretty well I thought, and even though I could have felt ganged up on (those in the room who I later found shared my beliefs kept their mouths shut), I didn’t really. I mostly just saw their rigidity and dogmatism as coming from their own insecurities, as older men holding onto what privilege they’d scrounged together in a religion that is, at least officially, led by women (The high priestess is technically the leader of each worship group, although a high priest may also serve). Most religions do this kind of infighting. It’s too bad, but really nothing personal.
Standing up to the patriarchy and heterosexism, and being a misunderstood minority in a room full of peers, really ought to have worn me out, but didn’t particularly, do my great surprise. I’m truly grateful. Perhaps this preparing to dance at or on my fathers grave is changing how I see sexism and oppressive men. It’s like exercising over a period of time for awhile, and then suddenly realizing you can run up a flight of stairs without getting out of breath. Mostly, thoughout the weekend I felt confidence, happiness, acceptance and warmth for and from the people there.
On the helpful people end of things, I made contact with a pagan social activist from my home town, who I asked for information on who I could connect with up there about my sword dance ritual. He said he and his wife (who is also pagan) would help, and gave me the name of a woman’s shelter contact who he thought I should make contact with as well. It feels like a Goddess-given connection.
It’s very interesting to me that men seem to be among my important allies in this sword dance ritual – from my friends who helped me search for a sword, to this man. Brother allies are a good thing. It looks like the person I’ll be taking sword dance classes from will be a man too – the women teachers I approached weren’t interested in teaching adult women.
I’m finding more allies than I expected.