Have you ever had the wonderful opportunity to travel some place totally new, by yourself, for the express purpose of recharging yourself at every level–physically, mentally, emotionally, but especially spiritually? That’s precisely the kind of restorative experience I recently had at my first-ever Paganicon, which took place from March 22-24, 2019, just outside of Minneapolis.
Organized by the Twin Cities Pagan Pride Board and sponsored by several Pagan businesses (such as the well-known publisher, Llewellyn Worldwide, LTD) and individuals, Paganicon is an annual, hotel-based Pagan conference or festival anchored by a theme (this year’s was “Sacred Groves”) that is expressed through workshops, rituals, and musical performances led by featured guests and many dedicated, passionate, and skillful facilitators and volunteers. People come from near and far to participate.
This was my first time attending a hotel-based Pagan conference/festival that spans several days, as I’ve only ever done outdoors-based, week-long camping Pagan and Heathen festivals like Pagan Spirit Gathering (produced annually the week of Summer Solstice by Circle Sanctuary) or Trothmoot (produced annually in the month of June by The Troth). PantheaCon, held annually in mid-February in San Jose, California, is the more well-known hotel-based Pagan conference, but for my first indoors “con,” I wanted to stay in the Midwest and the Spring Equinox weekend was an ideal time for me to take a short road trip and do something by myself, for myself. Besides, several friends of mine, from openly Pagan Chicago police officers to professional diviners, had been raving about how amazing an experience Paganicon had been for them the past couple of years, and I absolutely must not let the opportunity pass me by if my schedule and my finances permit the excursion.
So I made my Paganicon and hotel reservations and I rented a big-ass SUV to hold no less than 5 suitcases: one of which contained nothing but food (dry goods plus hard-boiled eggs and PB&J sandwich ingredients to last me a week, plus a case of bottled water and 8 Vitamin Water bottles) and another was solely dedicated to packing my elaborate, Renaissance Faire/Steampunk-mashup outfit I would wear for the March 23 Equinox Masked Ball (featuring acclaimed musical group Tuatha Dea).
On the Road (Apologies to Jack Kerouac)
I left my Chicago home at 5 o’clock the morning of Thursday, March 21. I wanted to have ample time to settle into my new Minnesota digs for at least half a day before the intensity of Paganicon was upon me. Once I had crossed over the border into Wisconsin via I-90, I was finally able to relax (the drive through Illinois being much more congested and riddled with construction zones) and enjoy the beautifully scenic, 7-hour drive beneath snow-capped, densely forested hills and over several wide, ice-coated rivers (the most beautiful being Black River Falls in Jackson County, Wisconsin).
I had my musical playlist well-chosen to accompany the epic scenery–everything from Scandinavian metal bands like Enslaved and Amon Amarth to the shamanically superpowered grooves of Gabrielle Roth & The Mirrors to, naturally, Tuatha Dea’s rollicking Appalachian Pagan folk-rock rhythms. Despite stopping three times at a rest stop to use the loo (I was committed to keeping myself hydrated) and having to fill the Toyota Highlander’s massive gas tank twice, I rolled into the parking lot of my Residence Inn hotel in Plymouth, Minnesota, exactly at high noon.
The Workshops I Attended at Paganicon
I’m going to organize my experiences at Paganicon into 2 blog posts: this one will cover the workshops I attended all 3 days of Friday, Saturday, and Sunday (plus the shenanigans of the Equinox Masquerade Ball), while Part 2 in my series details my ritual experiences over the span of Paganicon’s 3 days.
Workshops Day 1: Friday, March 22
After obtaining my name tag and program guide from the helpful folks at the registration desk shortly after 8:30 a.m., I had my first Big Name Pagan encounter: I accosted the delightfully charming and hilariously funny native Welsh Druid and author, Kristoffer Hughes, in the hotel lobby. One of the two Guests of Honor (the other being American Conjure teacher and rootworker, Dr. Beverley Smith), Kristoffer is the Head of the Anglesey Druid Order and the 13th Mount Haemus Scholar of the Druid Order of Bards, Oates, and Druids.
I had brought my copies of his books The Book of Celtic Magic and From the Cauldron Born, and he was supremely cheerful and enthusiastic to chat with me before signing my books, which I greatly appreciated. His fellow Britons Damh the Bard, one of Paganicon’s featured musical performers, and workshop presenter Cerri Lee, joined us, and Kristoffer hospitably introduced me to them. Warm and hearty hugs with strangers-turned-friends was a most delightful way to kick off my Paganicon!
At 9 a.m., the first slot of workshops began. Of the very compelling choices described in the program guide, I decided to go with “Beginning Traditional Witchcraft,” taught by a young local queer Witch named Kelden. His youth belied his experience and his commendable presentation skills. He did a great job of detailing the ways in which Trad Craft, as it’s sometimes called, differs from Wicca. Traditional Witchcraft is “an umbrella term that covers a vast array of non-Wiccan practices,” he explained. Those practices are largely informed by regionally specific folklore, and this is where the term “tradition” comes in to play. One of the chief differences between Trad Craft and Wicca is that in the former, rituals are ecstatic and spontaneous, not pre-planned. The ritual tools used are practical and utilitarian, having both magical and mundane uses. An area of overlap between Traditional Witchcraft and Wicca is the use of natural items (herbs, stones, etc.) in spellcraft.
”Traditions are not static; they are living, ever-changing entities.”—Kelden
At the workshop’s end, he announced that he had recently published, and had funded via an IndiGogo campaign, his first oracle deck and it was Trad Craft based in terms of content. Intrigued, I looked at a sample copy and fell in love with the artwork his friend did and the booklet he wrote, so that turned into the moment of my first Paganicon commercial transaction with a vendor (I brought a modest cash budget to allow for purchases). I’ll be writing a blog post that reviews this deck, so stay tuned!
At 10:30, I found myself in a much larger conference room for the workshop entitled “Elements of Transformation,” which was led by another Big Name Pagan author, Jhenah Telyndru. I’d asked her to “Friend” me on Facebook in January 2018, after a dear friend in the Pagan community who was a Polytheistic Priestess of the Welsh Goddess Rhiannon died; Jhenah’s book Rhiannon: Divine Queen of the Celtic Britons was a resource that helped me not just with my grief but with navigating my surprising, newfound relationship with the Goddess Rhiannon as well. I also brought my copy of the book in the hopes that Jhenah would sign it, and like Kristoffer, she was exceptionally warm and excited to spend a few moments in conversation with me. Besides the Goddess Rhiannon, we talked about astrology, actually, and I was happy to hear Jhenah’s take on the Classical Elements assigned to the planets; something that would make its way into her talk, e.g., when people tend to think of themselves as “Airy” because they’re Geminis, etc., and how that actually may be a misleading (certainly limiting) way to identify one’s self as being “solely” of one Element.
“Our overculture doesn’t encourage us to become who we really are; we’re conditioned into capitalism, patriarchy at the expense of our authentic selves. The goal of magic is to become our Authentic Selves.”—Jhenah Telyndru
My biggest take-away from Jhenah’s workshop was the idea of living a full experience of each of the Five Elements, going in sequence starting with Earth and culminating with Spirit, for a period of 5 weeks total (one Element per week). From the food choices we make to the color schemes and even materials of the clothes we wear, to the symbols we can meditate upon and the rituals we can do, there are many ways to incorporate an Elemental awareness into daily living. The process actually doubles as a cleanse, culminating in a period of fasting, so there’s an added health bonus, too!
After a quick lunch break of hard-boiled eggs, a PB&J sandwich, and a handful of Goldfish crackers that I’d tucked into my tote bag before leaving my room in the morning, I had a 10-minute sweep of the Paganicon Vendors’ Room on the first floor, which was adjacent to the Art Room that was exhibiting a juried Pagan Art Show. I had heard of a Minneapolis-based company called Magus Books and Herbs and I wound up buying from them a morbid-looking, kind of Avante Garde new tarot deck called New Era Elements Tarot, which I’ve been meaning to get. Two booths away stood the lovely and talented Witch artist and author, Laura Tempest Zakroff, who had copies of her original paintings and prints for sale as well as t-shirts with her designs and copies of her books. I bought a copy of The New Aradia: A Witch’s Handbook to Magical Resistance and asked her to sign it. Before long, her booth got very crowded.
One o’clock arrived faster than I would have liked and it was time to return to the conference room where Jhenah had just presented; this time it was her friend (and fellow Sisterhood of Avalon Priestess) Tiffany Lazic giving an informative workshop called “Ogham: The Wisdom of the Whispering Trees.” I really appreciated Tiffany’s historical overview and traditional grouping of the Ogham of four groups of five letters (each grouping known as an Aicme, Irish Gaelic for “Tribe”) per the 15th-century Irish Gaelic text that has come to be translated as The Book of Ballymote. I found myself thinking about the way Runes are divided into Aetts. But there’s a lot more associations with the Ogham than at first meets the eye, and I truly wonder if it’s a divination system that I’m ever going to get more than a surface level acquaintance with. Still, it was and is a topic worth exploring, especially given the landscape that surrounded us at Paganicon, brimming as it was with the wisdom and the spiritual properties of so many healing trees, especially white birch trees: my favorite!
For the 2:30 afternoon workshop slot, I decided to go with “Anglo-Saxon Witchcraft” by Alaric Albertsson. I was immediately struck by how much older he is than the author’s photo that circulates in his Llewellyn books! He was a wonderfully witty and humorous presenter, however. His definition of an Anglo-Saxon witch is “Someone who Witches and does it within some kind of Anglo-Saxon cultural context.” He gave a greatly edifying historical overview, based on his own lived experience going back to 1971, when he joined Raymond Buckland’s first coven of the Seax-Wicca tradition.
“Your language shapes the way you think. This is what’s been passed to us by our ancestors.”—Alaric Albertsson
After that, Alaric talked at length about Anglo-Saxon culture and the elements of his own Saxon Polytheistic practices that inform his style of Witchery.
“There is nothing more intimate than your magic. Don’t let anyone tell you how to do your magic.”—Alaric Albertsson
Happily, I saw that he had some copies of books to sell, including one I had never heard of called Travels Through Middle Earth: The Path of a Saxon Pagan. I also bought a copy of the Martin Anglo-Saxon Futhorc rune deck. Very lovely cards!
The highlight of the day was meeting up with the lively, lovely, and liltingly voiced Kristoffer Hughes again, as his 4:30 workshop entitled “The Dead Pagan–The Quandary of Quiddity” was a deeply emotional and wildly funny examination of our Western culture’s views about death—in other words, our “mortality salience training” or the lack of it. Among his many roles, Kristoffer is a royal coroner to Her Majesty, and his Druidic beliefs and practices certainly inform his work as a mortician. In highly secular Britain, however, he has observed that people are yearning for a mystical way to process their grief over the deaths of their loved ones, but nothing is filling the gap for them.
“We’ve made death a medical experience under institutionalized control. … Our secular world is governed by visceral insulation, which has made death a clinical experience.” —Kristoffer Hughes
Pagan religious traditions and the Pagan approaches to dying and mourning are certainly viable options. Kristoffer encourages us all to set aside days like the Samhain period to help us engage in badly needed dialogue with each other about death and even simulate our funerary experiences. “How will your death reflect your living?” Kristoffer poignantly asked.
Kristoffer shared his ongoing grief over the death of his sister, Rachel, who, like my brother Mark, died in her early 20s suddenly and unexpectedly in an accident. As I sat in the front row and Kristoffer often made eye contact with me, I felt that we were drawn into a deeply intimate shared space of trauma as he voiced his feelings of loss and sadness.
“Grief is part of the song of your humanity.”—Kristoffer Hughes
I started crying and I saw that he was crying. But it proved itself to be a deeply healing, not a scarring, moment. And Kristoffer’s penchant for creative cuss words and drag queen theatrics pulled us all out, emotionally, from the risk of getting stuck in an Underworld moment.
Honestly, this one workshop experience more than justified my registration for Paganicon! I’m now of the mindset that I will be at a Kristoffer Hughes event no matter where and when he comes to the U.S. (I know he’s the Featured Guest at this year’s Pagan Spirit Gathering!)
Workshops Day 2: Saturday, March 23
My morning was comprised of two back-to-back rituals, which I’ll detail in my next blog post, so my first workshop of the day occurred at 1 p.m., and it was actually a panel discussion on the subject of “Pagan Polyaffiliation: Identifying and Practicing Multiple Religious Paths–Just Like the Rest of the World Does.” Led by Professor Murphy Pizza, Ph.D., from the Anthropology department of the University of Minnesota, this panel discussion was right up my alley! I was delighted to hear stories similar to mine, of Pagans and Polytheists simultaneously practicing different traditions, a personal syncretism that doesn’t need to make sense to anyone else but you.
“Folk religions around the world pile religions on; they don’t ‘pick a team.’”—Murphy Pizza, Ph.D.
One of the panelists was an older gender-fluid person named Volkhvy, who, besides being a Slavic Polytheist and Witch, is a very well-respected Shinto Priest; they lived in Japan for many years to undergo rigorous training in the ways of Shinto, which they lovingly share with Westerners in various parts of the U.S. The other panelist was a Witch and Freemason named JRob Zetelumen. He was funny and poignant.
Dr. Pizza was interested in hearing anecdotes from the audience. I shot up my hand and mentioned that I’m a first-generation Serbian-American who was brought up in the Eastern Orthodox Church, schooled in Roman Catholic schools through the Archdiocese of Chicago, I became a Gardnerian Wiccan in 2001 shortly before becoming initiated as a Co-Mason, I joined the Fellowship of Isis (FOI) in 2002, and I have been actively serving as legally recognized clergy in the FOI since 2009. Last but certainly not least, I became initiated into the African Traditional Religion of Ifa in 2007.
I said the only people who have ever given me flack for practicing diverse strands of Polytheistic Witchcraft have been FOI members–a most ironic fact given that the FOI itself is, by its very nature, a Polyaffiliated organization! (The room roared with laughter when I imitated the accent of a well-known English Big Name Pagan FOI Priestess, one who arrogantly deigned to tell me that I am TOO Polytheistic for her liking; in fact, she said to me, “Anna, darling, your Deity diet is too rich. Why don’t you pare it down to the level of my Gods? I only recognize Sekhmet and Ptah,” she snootily said.)
Dr. Pizza asked us all to think long and hard about the following:
“Is Paganism working towards institutionalization? Are we still dealing with the tension between institutional and folk religions in burgeoning Paganism?”
—Murphy Pizza, Ph.D.
One key takeaway from this panel discussion: As Dr. Pizza observed, people who were raised bilingual (I was) might already be cognitively hard-wired to be religiously polyaffiliate people. “Our brains and souls are too complex to be put into a box; there’s a great benefit to switching spiritual gears,” she said. Food for thought!
At 2:45, I headed back upstairs to the first floor to attend “What’s So Great About the Great Rite?”, a workshop led by Big Name Pagan (but very accessible and friendly) author/Patheos blogger Jason Mankey. He gave a very compelling presentation on why the Great Rite, that staple of Wiccan religious ritual, should be thought of beyond the consideration of (heteronormative) sexual coupling and be thought of instead as a merging/transcendence of Cosmic dualities; in that sense, it’s the apotheosis of ritual that can and should be inclusive for everyone.
Before beginning his presentation’s PowerPoint proper, Jason shared a slideshow of photos from travels taken with his wife, Ari, throughout Europe last summer. He peppered it with goofy and illuminating trivia questions (winners could get signed copies of his books). He’s also a very funny and approachable person, eager to talk sports when he isn’t talking about Witchcraft. I was happy to learn that he is more of a Hellenic Polytheistic Witch than a duotheistic Wiccan, and he is deeply devoted to Dionysos, Pan, and Aphrodite in his personal devotional practices.
My 4:30 time slot was devoted to participating in another ritual, which I’ll detail in my next blog post. That wrapped up the day and then it was time for me to return to my hotel room and change into my costume for the…
Equinox Masquerade Ball with Musical Guests Tuatha Dea (7:30 p.m. to Midnight)
Comprised of Gatlinburg, Tennessee natives and nuclear family members, Tuatha Dea is a Celtic/World Music/Rock band that lends wonderful energy to any venue where they play. I’ve seen them headline Pagan events at PSG as well as concerts in Chicago, and I find that it’s impossible to not toe tap, at the very least, to their dynamic, djembe drum-driven songs. The dance floor for the Equinox Masquerade Ball got crowded right away.
If you didn’t feel like dancing, but eating and drinking the night away instead, the fine Paganicon folks had you covered. They had catered a very high-end appetizer and dessert buffet and there was a cash bar to help the evening flow along on Piscean alcoholic currents, even though we were ringing in the Spring Equinox and the Sun’s annual transit in Aries.
Best of all, the night lent itself to wonderful people-watching–this was a Masquerade Ball, after all, and the overwhelming majority of attendees came dressed to impress in original, well-thought-out costumes. I saw at least two Medusas! My owl mask with my Steampunk/Ren Faire costume ensemble was well received. I made two new friends that I hung out with for pretty much the entirety of the Ball; we bought each other rounds of drinks, we went outside to check out the bonfire in the snowy marsh grass, and when the Ball ended we went upstairs to the hotel lobby to discuss horror films and other neato subjects into the wee hours of the morning. As you can see from the ensuing photos, I really enjoyed myself.
It was a wonderful way to celebrate Paganicon in style!
Workshops Day 3: Sunday, March 24
My final day of Paganicon began with a group ritual experience, which I’ll write about in my next post, so my first workshop of the day was the most excellent one by Steven Posch entitled “Sacrifice Revisited.” Like me, Steven, a Druid/Celtic Reconstructionist, is something of a paradox: a Polytheist who became vegetarian decades ago as a personal rebellion against the factory farming industry, but a person who nonetheless offers his Gods and Holy Powers animal sacrifices as devotional offerings.
“To live, we must eat. To eat, we must kill. If we must kill, it’s best to kill in a sacred way.”—Steven Posch
Steven gave a great, linguistically grounded overview of various terms in Old English, Latin, Ancient Greek, and Old High German/Old Norse that have to do with the related concepts of “wholeness,” “holiness,” “making sacred,” and “sacrifice.”
“The Latin term sacer initially meant ‘something that was owned by a god.’”
I mean this as compliment when I say that I almost felt as if I were back in grad school.
As my day was evenly split between workshops and rituals, the only other workshop I went to was at 2:45 p.m., and it built upon the themes encountered in the “Polyaffiliation” workshop from the day before. Rev. Clio Ajana and a fellow named Moon Raven gave a stunning talk on “African Threads in the Fabric of the Hellenic World.” They are two African American Polytheistic Pagans and scholars who have cultural ties to Greece by way of the history of the importation of what were called “Aethiopians” in the ancient Mediterranean; specifically, thousands were brought to the town of Avato in the Xanthi region of Greece.
Moon Raven in particular is a practitioner of Hellenic culture and is studying both modern and Ancient Greek as languages and belongs to a Greek Orthodox Church in Jacksonville, Florida. He practices a Polyaffiliated Paganism that includes Hellenic Polytheism, African Diaspora, and, to my surprise, Serbian Witchcraft and Slavic Paganism/Native Faith (Rodnovery)! (He serves on the board of a Belgrade, Serbia-based Asatru group!) When I shot up my hand and announced that I’m a first-generation Serbian-American who found her way into the African Traditional Religion of Ifa, he and Rev. Clio squealed with glee and I knew we were going to be besties from here on out; we hung out for quite a while after their workshop ended and exchanged personal contact information.
“Multicultural Paganism, for me, is a spiritual DNA revolution. My advice is to respect the culture and learn the language of the Deities of a given culture.”
Clearly, Multicultural Paganism/Polytheism/Polyaffiliated Practices form a vital core of today’s NeoPaganism and will only continue to grow and thrive into the future! For this, I am very, very glad.
So, to summarize, the workshops of Paganicon 2019 were immensely enriching experiences. Far from being mere vehicles of left-brain-centric content to passively absorb, each workshop I attended was deeply engaging at an emotional level, highly relevant, and absolutely unforgettable. But the workshops were just one half of my Paganicon equation: let me detail for you the transformative rituals I experienced!
- African Diaspora Religions
- Alaric Albertsson
- Big Name Pagans
- Damh the Bard
- European traditional witchcraft
- Jason Mankey
- Jhenah Telyndru
- Kristoffer Hughes
- Laura Tempest Zakroff
- Pagan festivals
- Paganicon 2019
- Saxon Witchcraft
- Steven Posch
- Tiffany Lazic
- Tuatha Dea
- Twin Cities Pagan Pride Board