Life Among the Neo-Pagans
As a stand-up commentator, I rarely work the comedy-club circuit, preferring to appear at more offbeat venues. Several years ago, I performed at the Starwood Festival ("a Magickal, psychedelic & multi-cultural event") in Sherman, New York--Amish country on the border near Ohio and Pennsylvania--on private campgrounds, where clothing was optional. Many women were bare-breasted, and several men and women were fully naked, a practice known as "going skyclad."
On the outdoor pavilion stage, my opening line was: "I'm gonna start with two words that have been thought year after year at these festivals, but which have never actually been utterred out loud, and those two words are, 'Nice tits.' " The audience hesitated a nanosecond, because in that context this could be a politically incorrect observation--I had deliberately taken that chance--but then they laughed and applauded, because they knew it was true.
The annual Starwood Festivals have been presented by the Cleveland-based Association for Consciousness Exploration, a group of about thirty friends. ACE's co-directors, Jeff Rosenbaum and Joe Rothenberg, were both raised in traditional Jewish homes. Rosenbaum's parents were Holocaust survivors. He calls himself a pantheistic social libertarian with a psychedelic spiritual orientation.
"Everything is explored by altering it," he says. "The way you explore temperature is by seeing how different temperatures affect something. The way you explore pressure is by changing the pressure to see how that affects different things. The way you study consciousness is by changing your consciousness."
The first event was on a weekend, attended by 185 people, with twenty presentations and a bonfire built from an old split-rail fence. This July marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of Starwood; the weeklong event drew 1,600, with 150 presentations and twenty musical and theatrical performances. I attended several workshops, including "Shamans and Drugs" by Stanley Krippner, a psychology professor at Saybrook Institute, psychic researcher and co-author of Dream Telepathy. A member of the Rainforest Action Network, he mentioned a Brazilian tribe, the Guarani, whose members have hanged themselves from endangered trees. I related my participation at an ayahuasca ceremony in Ecuador where the shaman's shrine included a sealed-beam headlight from an old Buick and a gray clamshell-like item that opens up, revealing a head of the Virgin Mary that can be used as a Jell-o mold.
Krippner's explanation provided the missing link between indigenous shamans and contemporary politicians: "They take power from wherever they can find it." Krippner and his colleagues once turned down the CIA's offer of funding for their dream-telepathy work because of the Vietnam War, while other friends in remote-viewing projects accepted "tons of CIA money."
"Raising Our Kids in a Sex Positive Environment" by LaSara FireFox, facilitator of exploration-based workshops, practitioner of Neuro-Linguistic Programming and author of Sexy Witch (a blurb begins, "Wake up and smell the pussy!"): She directed discussions ranging from the similar negative approaches to menstruation taken by the Bible and the Koran, to the dilemma parents face when their child misinterprets the sounds of love-making as being caused by the infliction of pain. One father described how his young son was dismayed in just such a situation, and he had to explain that these were "happy noises." The boy repeated, "Happy noises," then proceeded to mimic the hedonistic moans and shrieks of his parents. His dad advised him not to tell his grandmother.
"Bulldada, Excremeditation, Acubeating and Stuporstition" by the Rev. Ivan Stang, leader of the Church of the Subgenius, author of High Weirdness by Mail and host of a syndicated radio show, The Hour of Slack: His widely circulated prediction--that, at 7 AM on July 5, 1998, Pleasure Saucers would descend to Earth as part of the great Rupture, taking away all those SubGeniuses who had paid $30 for the privilege--was totally unfulfilled. Now, though still in embarrassment mode, Stang put a retroactive spin on that failure: "We gave them the gift of disbelief. They ought to thank us for ripping them off. Scientology started out the same way, but they can keep a straight face. Are you prepared for 'pronoia'--being convinced that the whole world is out to make you happy?"
"The Growing Dangers of American Theocracy" by Phyllis Curott, First Amendment lawyer, Wiccan High Priestess, author of The Love Spell: An Erotic Memoir of Spiritual Awakening: She warned of the Christian right's stealth desire for achieving "biblical law" that would require the death penalty for blasphemy, adultery, homosexuality and witchcraft. Already, teenage witches are expelled from school; Pagans in the military are harassed by religious fundamentalists; there have been public burnings of Harry Potter books; a Wiccan couple is challenging a court order that they must protect their 9-year-old son from "non-mainstream religious beliefs and rituals."
Curott, named by Jane magazine as one of the Ten Gutsiest Women of the Year, told me that, according to her contacts, "Evangelical groups have been meeting with major chains to 'advise' them on marketing to their community, pointing out that Christian bestsellers like the Left Behind series, make the stores more dollars per square inch of shelf space than Wiccan, feminist or psychology books, and also that their community won't come to those stores unless they're not offended by what's being shelved in the stores and unless they're 'made to feel welcome.' The two groups I heard were spearheading the effort were Assembly of God and the Philadelphia Church. Pagans are in danger of becoming the new Jews in a culture that is increasingly fascist, however that fact may be obscured by being wrapped in red, white and blue bunting and religious platitudes."
As I wandered around the grounds of the Starwood Festival, I could see plenty of children--in the pool, at the Kid Village area, in the Giant Puppet Parade--and teenagers who produced their own improv show. I stopped to chat with Pagan elder Oberon Zell, a world-renowned Wizard and co-founder of the Church of All Worlds in 1962--now he wants to launch the Church of Your Choice, since there are all those billboards urging you to attend it--and, in Green Egg magazine, the first to apply the term Neo-Pagan to the newly emerging Nature religions in the 1960s.
I got a therapeutic massage on Healers Row and a sarong on Merchants Row. At a booth called Practical Rabbit, a woman named Alley had crafted a few sistrums--a musical instrument that can be described as a slingshot-shaped tambourine--out of twigs from Prospect Park, picture-frame wire and bottle-caps from beer and soda bottles. Stephen Kent, who has blazed a musical trail across five continents, told her it was the best sistrum he's seen since 1987, when he was in Senegal.
Kent, one of the foremost exponents of the Australian Aboriginal instrument called the didgeridoo in contemporary music, did a workshop at Starwood and performed in the pavilion. There were concerts every afternoon and evening--a truly eclectic selection of performers, including Incus (Tribal-Goth music for fire worshippers), the One Hat Band (an eight-member bluegrass family), the Prodigals (Celtic rock) and the founders and managers of Starwood, the Chameleon Club (medieval cover tunes and Pagan originals).
On Saturday night, one of the world's greatest percussionists, Airto Moreira, and his Brazilian Jam Band, provided the prelude to the bonfire. It was constructed from whole trees during the week--carefully piled fifty feet wide and twenty-five feet high, with a Chinese tower on top--by the Woodbusters, aided by a derrick. Choreographed volunteers with torches ritualistically teased this pyramid, finally setting it aflame--ostensibly.
Actually, I learned, you can't light a bonfire that size quickly with a few flaming sticks. When they're being thrust into the stacks of wood, someone pushes a button which electronically ignites flash-pots within the bonfire. Then, fireworks buried inside whistle and zoom into the sky, and this living bonfire was encircled by folks of all ages, running, walking, skipping, cavorting, screaming with delight and, as so many had done every night, dancing, drumming and partying through the morning.
Neo-Paganism may well be a canary in the culture-wars coal mine. Child custody battles are taking place in courts equating witchcraft with Satanism (and therefore child endangerment), people are losing their jobs, trumped-up charges are leveled against witches who come "out of the broom closet." There are now 130 members of Congress who are born-agains, and a President who thinks he's the end result of an Intelligent Designer. As governor of Texas, Bush was part of a movement to deny access to religious facilities for soldiers at Fort Hood who were Pagan. He declared that Wicca wasn't "a real religion." A real religion, of course, believes that there was a pair of dinosaurs on Noah's Ark.
Selena Fox, editor of Circle, a Nature Spirituality magazine, who had been a speaker and ritual leader at the first Starwood Festival, was stunned at the growth of this event, which, she told me, "was born in 1981 out of society's cauldron of the bubbling brew of human-potentials exploration, humanistic psychology and multicultural shamanism--movements which grew and developed in the social-change times of the 1960s and 1970s. Today, twenty-five years later, it still embodies the joy and fun of a counterculture tribal be-in."
As Sally, a librarian, who was at Starwood for the first time, observed, "It's such a warm-hearted celebration of diversity."