Pagan Spirit Gathering isn't easy to explain, and I'm not sure I can encapsulate its mystique in a blog post. I've spent some time being introspective on the whole experience and I'll convey as much as I can, but it's definitely something one should experience for themself.
When you arrive people welcome you home, when you leave it's just a supply run for next year. Everything is designed with the idea in mind that this is a safe haven, a resting place for those spiritual wanderers that consider themselves Pagan, or closely related. It's the place you come to, and then come back to, that you were always meant to be.
In some ways this isn't far off. Despite sounding overly romantic, Pagan Spirit Gathering really does represent a space to be absolutely and unabashedly Pagan, and it really hammers home how seldom that's true elsewhere in the world. It takes place in a campground in Illinois, so unlike most conferences and conventions that take over a hotel in the middle of a city of otherwise uninterested people, PSG creates an entirely Pagan space and then shuts the rest of the world out for a week. Everything is done in an effort to shut off the space, physically and energetically, from the mundane world. To paraphrase one of the gatekeepers, "even if the cops showed up, we'd make them wait at the gate like anyone else a ticket." It's a place for Pagans to be Pagans. That's welcoming.
It's only in being in my actual home again that I've been struck by just how much the atmosphere of PSG is different. Casual, desexualized nudity is probably one of the most obvious things when you arrive, and even the clothed people are usually in whatever makes them most comfortable, whether it's something reminiscent of a Renaissance Fair or simply whatever best expresses one's identity. Clothing is only the tip of the iceberg however. Being able to go into a crowded space and discuss esoteric concepts, knowing for certain that you won't be attacked by someone because your faith makes them feel insecure in their own, is powerful. No one stares at you when you thank the gods or shout a rousing "hail Thor!" while standing in a downpour. Your right to express your faith is taken as a given. It's shocking how alien this is in the rest of the world, and how easy it is to forget the ways we're restricting ourselves.
In some ways it's still not-quite home. The paths are full of vendors selling handmade clothing, books, ritual objects, statues, drums, staffs, and Pagan themed bumper stickers. Food vendors sensitive to vegetarian and vegan needs (and really good at providing delicious food) show up throughout the week. Fire spinners pop up frequently at nightly events to put on a show. Concerts occur two or three times a day with a large number of Pagan bands playing. There's still a definitive festival atmosphere to the whole place. It can be easy for new attendees to feel completely overwhelmed trying to make it to as many things as possible. Aside from the concerts there are numerous rituals hosted by Circle Sanctuary (the organizing group) itself, or other groups within the camp, workshops held by community members on a variety of Pagan related subjects, and throughout the Gathering there are numerous energy workings, get-togethers, mingles, meetings, discussions, debates, and late-night coffee groups (thank you Goblin Traders for a very unique experience. And cookies.).
At the beginning of the week a number of rituals are performed to set up the major landmarks of PSG: the bonfire circle whose flame burns continuously through the weak and is filled with the ashes of the previous PSG fire each year, Psyche's Grotto as a space for psychological counseling and healing, the Rainbow Camp which serves as a space for Queer Pagans, the Moon Lodge and Temple of the Sun God, Amethyst Circle for Pagans in recovery, and the Crone Temple dedicated to older women in the Pagan community. Meetings are held at spaces for children and adults alike to get everyone settled in and welcomed. At the end of the week they're taken down again with equal ritual consideration. The PSG community pays special attention to making sure people of all ages have adequate programming available to them, as well as offering numerous rites and rituals for both men and women in each age range. I'll be writing more later about PSG diversity, where it succeeds and where it fails, but for now I'll just say there is a LOT of stuff going on for a large variety of people.
Community altars are also created, with people bringing in their own contributions to dedicate to a collective sacred space. Altars for ancestors are covered with pictures, altars to different elements are set up around the bonfire circle, and even a weatherworking altar is assembled in the hopes of keeping away both heat and rain (to mixed amounts of success). Over the course of the week a labyrinth of candles is put together and taken down, a sacred hunt is held over one night, and a large drunken revelry known as Pan's Ball is held as a way to focus energy away from over-enthusiastic partying the rest of the week. Everyone from the Gnome Camp (who were apparently very active this year) to the Ghetto Shamans camp ("So mote that shit") creates their own spaces with their own magics and customs for the span of the week. Everything buzzes from sun-up until well after sundown every day. All of it watched over by the incredible Selena Fox, flitting too and fro in her golf cart, getting people to chant whatever she wants and raising up positive energy.
There's so much else involved in PSG, but I can't list it all here, so I'll be writing a series of posts. It's also not a perfect place, and I'll be discussing more of that soon, but it is an incredible place. It's a place that allows a Pagan the space to express their faith without the looking specter of Christianity looking over their shoulder. It's a place to connect with people on a beautiful spiritual level and make amazing friends. It's a place that feels, despite any flaws it may have, an awful lot like coming home. I miss it already.