So this past weekend I visited the Many Gods West conference. I went for a variety of reasons: I live on the West Coast, I worship many gods, and one of the organizers just happens to be one of my ten favorite people in the world (I’m looking at you Niki Whiting). More than a Pagan gathering this was a Polytheist gathering, and I think the difference here is crucial. I certainly wasn’t the only person at MGW to identify as a Witch (and a Pagan) but by doing so I felt like I was in the minority.
I’m not saying that’s a bad thing either. Our extended-community is often a bit too Wiccan-centered and I like the reminder now and again that there are many different modes of thought of under the umbrella. However experiencing those different modes of thought made me realize just how vast our differences are from time to time.
Around the campfire (or while sharing a flask of rum) our disagreements often feel smaller; we can chip away enough at the obstacles between us to reach a level of shared understanding. I think that’s much harder to do in the middle of a ritual or lecture. Ideas in such situations are often articulated in absolutes* and the subtleties and nuances that often arise in a give and take conversation are subsequently lost.
One thing I realized about myself at the end of the weekend was that I like mystery. Shadows are a friend of mine. Certainly I have thoughts on big-picture ideas like the nature of deity, but I’m not convinced as to their correctness. They make sense to me, but I don’t expect them to make sense to everyone else. Ultimately, I just don’t know some things, and I’m not sure I’ll ever know them. (Though I really like looking!)
Nearly any argument made about the nature of deity can be flipped on its head with the inverse sounding just as correct. I don’t know what powers an archetypal deity; certainly it could be individual, specific deities who use such an approach to engage with a potential worshipper. But individual deities could also be a lens in which to sharpen a larger idea. Perhaps the individual figures are the gateways, existing to breach cultural differences? I’m not saying I know, because I don’t, and I’m OK with that.
While I remain a big fan of the Pagan Umbrella I think there are some holes in it, and I think I felt a few raindrops get through last weekend. During a workshop on building polytheist institutions it was obvious that any previously built “Witch infrastructure” was irrelevant. When discussing what to do with kids the fact that some Witch groups have been doing it now for several decades was either overlooked or ignored. It was strange. At the very least what groups like Reclaiming do might be a model for others.
Another thing I realized, I’m becoming more and more happy as a hidden child of the Goddess. I’m about as “out” as any Pagan in the United States. Google my name and you can just about figure out my street address, so I’m not advocating a life spent out of the public eye. However I don’t find myself needing or wanting a public temple-like structure. There were a lot of folks who seemed interested in such a thing, I’m extremely happy in my ritual room working with just twelve other Witches. But that’s my personal preference and I certainly don’t expect everyone to agree with it (and I’d happily kick in some money for an easily accessible Pagan chunk of land).
When I visit a gathering of the tribe it often feels like one big Pagan organism, this past weekend I couldn’t help but notice many different Paganisms. This goes way beyond Witch and Re-constructionist too, it was apparent amongst many of the people who self identify as a Polytheist. Someone trying to recreate the mysteries of Ancient Greece is going to have a different agenda than someone wanting to honor Egyptian deities.
I’ve been spending time with a lot of different Witches lately (Gardnerian, Feri, Eclectic, Reclaiming, Mohsian, etc.) and one thing I’ve noticed is that there’s really a common core there. We agree on far more than most people give us credit for. I’m not sure if the various threads that make up the broader Polytheist movement have those same connections. I felt I was looking at a lot of different groups that might not have the connective tissue necessary to build the institutions they want to build.
There is one thread that ran through all of Many Gods West-love and devotion to the various goddesses and gods that are a part of this world. That devotion was especially intense in a few places, and sometimes I felt like I was in the middle of a revival meeting. Generally that was a positive thing, but I find absolute certainty a bit frightening sometimes. Perhaps some of the exuberance was due to the total freedom that comes with being at a gathering where it’s assumed that everyone believes in deity. I know that I’m sometimes more cautious at festivals these days when talking about deity, at MGW I felt free of such worries (and I don’t think I’m alone).
If this picture I’m painting looks a little bleak I don’t mean it to be. Everyone at MGW was exceptionally nice, but the feelings the festival brought out in me were different than the ones I usually experience at Sirius Rising or PantheaCon. My experience was also my own and in no way reflects upon the experience of anyone else.
Judging by PSVL’s comment below some might take this post as a negative, it’s not meant to be. Generally anything that makes me think is a good thing, not a bad one. And because I didn’t leave with all sunshines and rainbows the experience is all the more powerful for it. I’m thinking out loud after a gathering, not simply congratulating someone on a great party, that says volumes.
Away from the gathering and at the evening watering hole I felt the differences and tensions dissolve away. After a day and a half of workshops my favorite little bit of the weekend was a 90 degree bar and the usual conversation that make Pagan (or Polytheist) gatherings so bloody rewarding. The umbrella has a lot less leaks when we break bread and drink cider together.
A Few Other Notes
Morpheus Ravenna was the keynote speaker at Many Gods West and her address was an impressive piece of theology. I didn’t agree with all of it, but she did argue her case rather well. As a speaker, I found her very engaging, and even a bit goofy (in a good way). We will probably always disagree on a great many things but that doesn’t make her any less interesting as a speaker.
John Beckett has long been the best blogger at Patheos Pagan, he might also be the best speaker here too. Again, I didn’t find myself in complete agreement with everything John said, but the way he expresses ideas is mightily impressive. He cuts through the crap and gets to the point with carefully considered words and ideas. I think John is to humble to ever say it, but he is one of the most impressive (and important) voices in Paganism today.
Gwion Raven is a pretty damned good story teller. I really enjoyed his talk on Cerridwen.
First time gatherings are difficult, but Rhyd Wildermuth, Niki Whiting, and PSVL did a tremendous job under difficult circumstances. The weekend’s heatwave made for some tricky navigation but everything came out all right. I hope we get to do this all again next year, or the year after.
Next trip . . . . Parliament of World’s Religions
*And I’m sure I’m completely guilty of this.