The Zen Pagan: Festival Paganism as Pilgrimage

Around 11,000 years ago — six millennia before Stonehenge was built or writing was invented — people started coming to the site known as Gobekli Tepe (“Belly Hill”) in what is now southeastern Turkey to erect a 25 acre complex of stone circles. It’s the earliest known human-made place of worship, constructed by our gatherer-hunter nomadic ancestors. What sort of rituals they performed there, what their notion of the divine was, we don’t know and may never understand for sure. But it may be the case that pilgrimages to this site, and the massive effort to coordinate the building and to feed the pilgrims, set the stage for the Neolithic revolution and the dawn of civilization. [Curry; Scaham; Schmidt]

People did not live long-term at Gobekli Tepe, they traveled there for whatever sort of rites were done, and it’s interesting to think that pilgrimage, travel for religious reasons, seems to predate civilization. In order to make spiritual progress, we have to keep shaking up our neurological patterns, and from the Islamic Haj to Zen monks wandering like “clouds and water” (unsui), travel is an excellent way to do that.

And it strikes me that the circuit of summer Pagan festivals provides something along this line. Pilgrims come from hundreds, even thousands, of miles to places like to Ramblewood and Wisteria to form periodic communities, temporary autonomous zones that appear, disperse, and reappear. The idea also applies in some degree to Burner events (Burning Man and the official and unofficial “regional” Burns) and even annual music festivals — and the emergence of music festivals that deliberately include some aspect of consciousness-raising is an interesting development — but I’d like to stick with festivals that identify as “Pagan” or “Pantheist” or “Magical” in some way here; specifically my “home event”, the Free Spirit Gathering, from which I’ve just returned.

I’ve been involved with FSG since 1998, in roles ranging from kitchen help to President of the Free Spirit Alliance, the 501(c)3 corporation that produces the event each year. So I can’t offer anything like an unbiased review. What follows are some personal musings and a bit of a look behind the scenes.

Friday Night Fire Circle at FSG 2014. Photo by Vann Godfrey.

FSG takes place each year in mid-June (this year it was June 10-15) at Ramblewood, a private campground about an hour north of Baltimore. It’s my experience that one’s time at a festival like this can be anything from a deep magical transformation to a raucous party — sometimes both. For me, this year’s event was something like a physical therapy session: difficult, painful at times, but strengthening. For others I spoke to it was a time of breakthroughs and firsts, such as the woman who performed in public for the first time at our Bardic Circle. Some came with longtime romantic partners and deepened their connection, others made new…friends…during the festival. Children were welcomed to their first Gathering, while one man confided in me that liver cancer might make this his last one. (May the Fates be kind and make it not be so.)

I repeated my role as Master of Ceremonies for the festival, a position for which I literally wrote my own job description last year, keeping the energy flowing between our large group rituals, our concerts, our Bardic Circle (like an open mic with a spiritual mission), and our nightly drumming and dancing Fire Circles. With the rainy weather it was the Fire Circles that took most of my focus, but with indefatigable folks working setup and a Fire Crew who can make anything burn regardless of the weather, we overcame all obstacles and once again made mankind’s oldest magic.

The theme for this year’s Gathering was “Home is Where the Hearth Is”, and so it seems appropriate that the images that stick in my mind from this one involve fire. Watching the firelight reflect in a rain puddle, drops falling almost in time with the drums; dozens of performers in a ring around a candle, a symbolic flame, at the Bardic Circle; or coming down to the remains of the fire Sunday morning after working magic until dawn, and finding a score of butterflies sitting on the ashes, basking in the warmth and energy.

It was hard work, but I’m proud to have been a part of putting on a great festival. And I learned some important lessons about leadership and trust. However, I’m looking forward to heading to the Starwood Festival in a few weeks, where I will not be responsible for anything other than teaching a few workshops!


Curry, Andrew. “Gobekli Tepe: The World’s First Temple?” Smithsonian Magazine, November 2008. <>

Scham, Sandra. “The World’s First Temple.” Archelogy, Volume 61 Number 6, November/December 2008.

Schmidt, Klaus. “Göbekli Tepe – the Stone Age Sanctuaries. New results of ongoing excavations with a special focus on sculptures and high reliefs.” Documenta Praehistorica 37 (2010): 239-256. <>

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About Tom Swiss

Tom Swiss describes his spiritual path as "Zen Pagan Taoist Atheist Discordian", which usually baffles questioners enough to leave him alone. Over the past decade he has built a reputation as a lecturer on subjects spanning the gamut from acupressure to Zen and from self-defense to sexuality. He is an NCCAOM Diplomate in Asian Bodywork Therapy, a godan (fifth-degree black belt) in karate, a poet, a singer/songwriter, an amateur philosopher, and a professional computer geek. Tom has previously served as President of the Free Spirit Alliance. He is the author of "Why Buddha Touched the Earth" (Megalithica Books, 2013). Find out more about his wacky adventures at

  • Padraig mac Lynne

    I know that for me, and for many others coming from a distance, the actual travel to the site, the literal pilgrimage, is a significant part of the experience.

    When driving down from New Jersey with my wife, we would say goodbye to our land as we crossed the Delaware Memorial Bridge, we would always stop at Chesapeake House for a snack, and we would hail Asphaltia, our goddess of the roadtrip, as we passed the statue for Mary, Our Lady of the Highways, on I-95.

    The road trip itself became part of my entering into ritual space – helping to set mind, in the same way that stopping at Waffle House on the way out, and the long drive home, helped me to return to mundanity.

    • Tom Swiss

      That’s a great point Padraig. When Starwood used to be at the Other Location Which Shall Not Be Named, somewhere over in West PA I would pass a sign telling me I was leaving the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and give a little salute. The little town of Cranberry became a waystation.

      (I would usually stop at the Giant Eagle there and grab something to eat and whatever last minute I-forgot-to-pack groceries I needed. I remember one time the cashier telling me she remembered me…considering I hadn’t been there in a year, either I made quite an impression or she confused me with someone else!)

      Now that my journey takes me to Wisteria, it’s crossing the Eastern Continental Divide, and fueling up and grabbing a snack at a certain Sheetz gas station in Morgantown WV that become part of the ritual.

      • JasonMankey

        Visiting places like Wisteria and Brushwood after flying across the entire country means even more to me now. There’s something truly amazing about those winding backroads after being in a plane for six hours . . . . . . .

  • shikyrie

    I couldn’t have said it better, my friend. Again, it was a pleasure and an experience working with you through the rain, heat and humidity, and look forward to next year. Peace, and Blessings

  • Jl Hatlen Linnell

    This year was my first visit to Free Spirit Gathering, and I found it delightfully rewarding. I have a good number of friends who attend regularly, and split my time between them and the many activities (workshops, open mic, ritual, etc.) available. I got to sing, to dance, to explore spiritual cocepts in new and inspiring light, and to meet new people with whom I look forward to sharing my spiritual path for years to come.

    Here’s what I had to say on facebook upon my return this year (redacted for friends’ privacy):

    I don’t get to vacation very often. Read that in the same tone as “glaciers have not covered Florida recently”. Last week, I went away for 10 days and had a LOVELY time at Free Spirit Gathering in Maryland.

    K and C arranged many of the details, including food, transportation and lodging. While I pitched in my share, the work they did was huge to make this possible – thank you both! …And thank you G for your company and contributions on the road as well!

    Got to spend quality time with friends and spiritual community near and far. I won’t go into listing everyone in the Blue Star camp who made the week what it was, but all in large and small ways made my time memorable and well-spent. And our new 2nd degree priestess gave me some friendly reminders of the way I use language which give me quality cues to consider how I unintentionally treat others. I’m thankful for her guidance toward intention.

    And beyond the Blue Star folks, I spent quality time with new friends S and K (really lucky I met those two) and a host of folks I haven’t even found and friended yet. And some folks I’ve known online for a stretch and several others I got to meet as real humans and share hugs and admire the depth of their commitment to their work!

    Some excellent workshops, too! A discussion of the commonalities and peculiarities between stage magic, spiritual magic, prayer, and worship was a far deeper conversation than I’d expected it to be, and stands out among some quality discussion. Discussions of organizational budgeting, ritual performance, were well-timed in my own personal development as clergy.

    And. And I got to sing, and hear others sing – in groups, in worship, in solo performance, in so many ways. Professional performers had their space on stage and most also joined us in other ways in drum circles, karaoke and more. Also – much opportunity to dance. I’ll tell you, I have long been ashamed of my attempts at dance. This week I let myself celebrate and loved doing so.

    Lots of good experiences all around. Thank you all (so many named and unnamed) for being part of it. The time you shared with me bettered me and I hope I was of value to your experience.

    And local friends – I’d love to do this again next year, let’s talk about a few more of us combining our efforts and making this both real and less of a financial burden for all of us!

  • Kat Stayduhar

    Maybe the woman who sang for the first time in public did so because of the great job the MC did both at the festival and at the Bardic Circle. Your words brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for doing such a fantastic job.