Friday, March 30, 2012

Pagans and Politics

Most of you know that I do some blogging over at Patheos now.  I blog over there because they get more traffic than a stand alone site like this one (I certainly don't do it for the money, over there I make nothing!).  When I write something, I want it to be read, and for it to be read it needs to reach as wide of an audience as possible.  So even if there's no compensation in writing over there, I get the satisfaction of sharing my work with others.  It's cool.  Sometimes I feel as if what I want to write about won't fit in over there, so I write about it on DPT.  Sometimes those "don't fit" musings are about things specific to me, like my experiences at a festival or something along those lines.  I also won't post anything "political" over there either, the audience is too large, and I'm scared of taking too many liberties with "Pagan Thought."

Over at Patheos my blog posts are part of a larger blog called "Agora," it's sort of a clearing house for bloggers over there without their own dedicated space.  Last week I published a piece on Atheists and Pagans and the often strange alliance between the two.   It was not my best work.  Mostly it was a few observations that I tried to link together.  I think I have a tendency to be a bit wordy, so anytime I post over there I intentionally try to simplify things, so there wasn't as much depth to it as I had originally wanted.  I don't have access to page-view numbers over there, the only thing I can really see are "the shares" on Facebook.  That little piece was linked to on Facebook 67 times, and since I didn't see it on Facebook 67 times I'm pretty sure that it was passed around by more than just my friends.

The same week my "Atheist/Pagan" post went up a number of "Political Pagan" pieces also went up.  Most of them were about the "War on Women" currently being waged by some members of the Republican Party (I was pretty sure we had come to an agreement on contraception, apparently I was wrong).  What was interesting to me was how little those articles were shared, topping out at 26 shares.  Can we, as Pagans, feel political fatigue?  How much should we really write about politics anyways?  Perhaps people, when they visit a site about Paganism, want to read about Paganism and not the antics of Rush Limbaugh?

One of the problems with writing about "The War on Women" (and please remember, "men" aren't fighting a war against women here, some idiotic men are, and there are some women in that number as well), is that everyone has been writing about The War on Women.  I can go to Huffingtonpost or The Daily Beast to read about it.  It's certainly not something that's being under-reported in the liberal news sphere.  I'm not belittling the issue, I think it's very important (I'm not of fan of going back to the Middle Ages), it's just how many opinions or articles about it do you need?

Unless I'm reading The Wild Hunt I'm not sure how much "body politic" I want in my Paganism (and The Wild Hunt deals almost exclusively with issues relating directly to Pagans).  Sure, there are some things which have turned political that are hard to divorce from Paganism, things like preserving the natural world, and issues of equality (especially related to gender).  But you can be a Pagan, and be either pro-choice or pro-life, there's not a litmus test.  I know Pagans who are against abortion rights, despite what's often portrayed in the blogosphere, there are conservative Pagans.  As I've grown older I've tried to stay away from sweeping generalizations about our political leanings as a whole; politically we probably aren't as diverse as the various gods we worship, but there are dissenting opinions out there.

(I will admit to being baffled by "Pagan Republicans."  I can understand being politically conservative, but I'm always confused by Pagans who identify with the Tea Party and folks like Sarah Palin.  I can't imagine being buddy/buddy with someone who would happily take away my religious freedom.  I also can't imagine being a Republican and being in favor of gay rights-though some Democrats aren't all that progressive on the issue either.  I understand being a Libertarian leaning Pagan, especially the self sufficient "live off the grid" types, but I'm sorry folks, Ron Paul is not the answer.)

When Pagan liberties are being threatened, and religious freedoms are being trampled upon, we should certainly comment on those things, but do we need to put our athames into every aspect of the greater culture wars?  It's one thing to comment on the asinine things being done by a misguided few, it's another thing to inject our spirituality directly into the controversy.  I get annoyed when a Christian Pastor talks politics in the pulpit, or talks about them as a member of a religious order.  You probably do too, why should Pagans be any different?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Israeli Antiquities, Courts, and a Bone Box

As someone with a keen interest in the origins of Christianity I've been keeping up with the developments in the trial of Israeli Antiquities Collector and Dealer Oded Golan.  Golan is best known for bringing attention to the alleged ossuary (bone box) of St. James, the brother of Jesus, a box that most in the scientific community think is a forgery.  Seven years ago Golan was charged with forgery; today he was acquitted of those charges, unfortunately that verdict has been reported with very little context.
The James Ossuary

The Golan case has been featured on programs like 60 Minutes, and in various magazines and cable programs.  The sensationalism around the ossuary can be attributed to three words that appear at the end of the inscription on the ossuary "brother of Jesus."  Believers in the authenticity of the bone box have the messed up belief that the words "brother of Jesus" proves something, generally that Jesus was a historical personage, and then through a leap of logic totally unrelated to the ossuary, that Jesus was the Son of God.  

Ossuaries were commonly used by Jews living in Israel during the Second Temple Period.  The practice was discontinued when the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE.  Jewish burial customs during this period generally called for dead bodies to be laid in a cave for a year, and then moved into an ossuary afterwards, when all the soft tissues had decomposed.  Since the practice was popular, and ossuaries were made of stone, thousands of them survive to this day, some people in Israel even use them as flower boxes.  An ossuary is not a rare archeological find, what makes the James Ossuary unique is the inscription, or inscriptions.

One part of the inscription on the James Ossuary is beyond reproach.  That part of the inscription reads "James, Son of Joseph."  The words "James, Son of Joseph" mean very little on their own, those names were extremely common during the time of Jesus.  It would almost be like finding a gravestone that said "Jason, Son of Michael," those two names are so common that they provide little insight into anything.  Jesus was also a very common name two thousand years ago, and it's not outside the statistical realm of probability that there were several people in the Holy Land with a Joseph for a dad and a James for a brother.  The second part of the inscription on the James Ossuary, the "brother of Jesus" part comes from an additional hand.  Even scholars who believe in the complete authenticity of the box agree with this, their argument is just that the inscription occurred shortly after the original one.  

The inscriptions on ossuaries were very brief, and generally didn't include statements beyond "Douglas, Son of Fredrick," the listing of a brother on the James Ossuary is extremely unique.  Believers who are attempting to use the ossuary as a tool for converting souls argue that the extra inscription was added because Jesus was unique in history.  That's not a completely unreasonable argument, but James, and his followers in Jerusalem, were also pious Jews.  It just seems unlikely that they would have bucked convention, they did all follow Jewish Law for example.  They didn't see Jesus as the Messiah preached about by Christians today, they most certainly saw him as a Jewish Prophet, and someone who was a part of Judaism, not someone out to create a new faith.  So it seems odd to me that those individuals would have added the "brother of Jesus" tag to the ossuary, it doesn't feel consistent with how they would have acted two thousand years ago.

The inscription is also written in Aramaic, which is extremely problematic.  Both Jesus and James would have spoken Aramaic, no question about that, but ossuary inscriptions were generally written in Hebrew.  If James, brother of Jesus, died in Jerusalem (likely), this would have most certainly been the case.  It's not outside the realm of possibility for the inscription to have been written in Aramaic, just unlikely.

Most scholars believe that the "brother of Jesus" part of the ossuary is a modern addition, probably an addition by Golan, or one of his associates.  Golan has (allegedly) associated with Egyptian forgers in the past (for the record those alleged associates refused to testify at his trial).  I think it's likely that they added the inscription to his, legitimately old and inscribed with "James, Son of Joseph," ossuary.  I'm not smart enough to describe the ins and outs of the inscription forgery business, but most experts argue that the patinas on the two parts of the inscription are obviously different.  

In addition to the patina issue, the "brother of Jesus" inscription has various other problems which are absent from the "James/Joseph" inscription.  Words are spelled incorrectly, the letters are not of consistent size, and the letters are not in a straight line (they are in the other part of the inscription).  This  all argues against the authenticity of the Jesus line.  If the "brother of Jesus" inscription is legitimately old, it might still be a forgery, perhaps one from the second to fourth centuries.  "Christian relics" were in large demand by then, this would have been an easy one to create.  

Ossuaries, since they are made of stone, are impossible to date.  The only way to date an ossuary is by the inscription placed upon on it, and that only dates the inscription.  The actual ossuary could be hundreds of years older than the inscription, especially if the inscription is a forged one.  So even if the inscription was not made by Golan or his associates, it's impossible to date to the time of James or Jesus, there are too many variables.

One of the things that today's verdict did not do is prove the authenticity of the James Ossuary.  In his ruling the judge involved with the case wrote "This is not to say that the inscription on the ossuary is true and authentic and was written 2,000 years ago, . . . . .We can expect this matter to continue to be researched in the archaeological and scientific worlds and only the future will tell. Moreover, it has not been proved in any way that the words ‘brother of Jesus’ definitely refer to the Jesus who appears in Christian writings."  

I'm always baffled why people get so caught up in these arguments to begin with.  While there's nothing in the archeological record confirming the actual existence of Jesus of Nazareth, most scholars believe that Jesus was a historical person.  Yes, there are some rather rabid atheists who will argue otherwise, but it shouldn't be surprising that a Jewish peasant from two thousand years ago died without a paper trail.  The complete authenticity of the James Ossuary then proves very little.  Due to the common occurrence of all three names, naysayers could easily dismiss the box even if the inscription was beyond reproach.  For Christians who want to use the ossuary to prove the divine nature of Jesus, good luck, if anything the box (if authentic) speaks to the ordinariness of Jesus.  If my brother was the Son of God I'd expect a little something extra at my burial (or reburial).

While the New Testament is populated by historical figures (much like Celtic Mythology and the Iliad), the divine nature of those figures always comes down to faith.  A bone box doesn't prove the holiness of anyone, not does it discount that holiness.  Understanding the context in which a faith arises is a worthy enterprise (and in my mind, makes the experience of that faith more meaningful), but by their very nature, historical details can't prove the supernatural.  At the end of the day, you either believe or you don't, and no amount of Aramaic inscriptions, authentic or forged, should change that.    

Friday, March 2, 2012

Post "Insert Con Here" Update-Part Two

If you missed Part One of the "Insert Con Here" Update, you can find it here.  It's certainly not essential to read Part One before reading Part Two, or to even read Part One at all, but you might like the compare and contrast between festivals.  In a lot of ways going from festival to festival is like "continuing the experience," and other times it's like entering an entirely different reality.  Going from PantheaCon to ConVocation falls somewhere in between.

After getting back to Sunnyvale from PantheaCon (a twelve minute drive I might add), Ari and I immediately went to work on packing for ConVocation.  For me, it means washing the same "festival clothes" and putting them back into the same suitcase.  Ari either has so many clothes that she's got lots of great festival outfits, or (as she claims), she simply dresses like she normally dresses at festivals, so she doesn't need to worry about washing that special pair of spandex infused jeans that hug the butt and (in my case) show off the crotch.  

Packing for ConVocation posed some extra challenges, just because you can't take very much with you when you are flying.  You get your one big suitcase and your carry-on bag, and since flying costs so much already, who wants to pay more for an extra bag?  I had some "extra" stuff to take with to ConVocation, mostly because I was doing different workshops.  A Real History of Tarot Cards lecture meant that I needed to take a few decks of cards with me, and since I was going to Michigan there were jackets and hats to pack.  Gods, I really hate wearing anything other than sandals at this point in my life.  Yay California!

Part of our Michigan trip was spent seeing family.  So after getting into freezing cold Detroit Tuesday night* we spent the next day in our old stomping grounds (Lansing MI), before setting out for Con (me) and to Grand Rapids (Ari-where her family lives).  One of the weirdest things about being back in Lansing, and Michigan in general, was noticing how dirty and small it was.  The roads felt empty, and there was actually green space between strip malls.  Areas of Lansing that I remember as being vibrant and alive seemed dormant, and there was a missing vibrancy to everything that I take for granted out here.  I'm not trying to disparage where I used to live, I'm just commenting on how different it looked (and felt) to me.

So after driving on empty interstate that moved either at, or above, the speed limit I was at ConVocation.  This year's Con was in a new location, unsurprisingly a DoubleTree Hotel.  After getting my room key and noticing that it looked EXACTLY the same as my room key at the DoubleTree in San Jose I had a WTF moment.  I didn't even need to plug a new internet password into the iPad, a win for my frazzled brain.  

ConVocation is about a third of the size of PantheaCon, but 800 people is no number to laugh at.  Every year Con seems to get bigger, and this year they even added more classes to the grid.  I think they said there were nearly 200 workshops this year.  Wow.  The biggest difference between the two festivals is probably at night.  PantheaCon always has lots of concerts (even comedy shows!) in the evening, along with workshops and rituals.  ConVocation tends to just have two or three rituals, and more traditional party fair.  There's a Masquerade Ball Saturday night which is the highlight for a lot of people, and karaoke on Friday night.  No live music, no workshops, so instead of having to pick from 18 things you only really have to pick from three or four.  A lot less room parties too, and no hospitality rooms, though there's usually a group or two with a suite.  Con would probably really benefit from group hospitality rooms, there are enough groups in Michigan that I could see some people doing it.   

During the day though, the festivals are a lot alike.  Some years they tend to feature many of the same workshops too.  I already mentioned Selena Fox, but Amber and Azrael K hit both festivals this year (I would have built a link for them as Amber K's "True Magic" was an early favorite book of mine, but I couldn't find one!), and there might have been one or two others.  So the two festivals tend to have some overlap, especially at the top.  And for both of them, it's wall to wall rituals and workshops during the day.  So there you go, especially those of you who asked about differences between the two.   

Since I pointed out that we were in a new hotel I feel obligated to comment on it.  Con's old hotel was continually bought and sold over the last few years, meaning the service there seemed to be in continual decline.  It was also getting too small for the size of the festival.  I mostly liked the new digs, but it seemed to lack a comfortable "common area."  There is a huge common area at the DoubleTree Detroit, but it's in the middle of the lobby, and since it wasn't an entirely Pagan hotel (they had other guests) it felt sort of weird.  Also, because the hotel was so much bigger, the meeting rooms were more spread out where as before everything was in one pretty central location.  These are not complaints.  The change in hotels was absolutely necessary, and I was happy with most everything, even if some of the new conference rooms were a little on the small size (this becomes important later on).

While I've met a lot of people in California over the years (remember I was visiting for years before we moved out here), I know far more people at ConVocation.  I go back 16 years with some of the people there, so there's a lot of backstory and a lot of mutual growing up together.  Being reunited with those folks is just an emotional thing to begin with, add the energy of a Pagan Festival and it's even more electric.  There's something truly special about hugging folks, making eye contact with all kinds of people, and feeling that closeness.  I also probably know more people at ConVocation because they list me as a "Special Guest."  Along with Kenn Day and Michelle Belanger I've been a consistent "Special Guest" for the past six or seven years, with my name on program materials and my ugly mug sent out in flyers. It's flattering, and a big difference from PantheaCon where I'm just one of a hundred presenters, even though I do tend to get "Rock Star Rooms."

So I always feel like a bigger deal when I'm in Detroit, which can be kind of douchey of me to say, but I always like to share the truth with people.  I do feel more like a rock star in Detroit, which means after reading this all of you out in the Midwest are going to be meaner to me next year, don't blame you.  Since I was a "Special Guest" I had to go to the "Opening Ritual."  I tend to avoid opening rituals as a matter of course, but Con likes to introduce the special guests and big name authors so I headed up there after a cider and an hour of hiding in my hotel room.  I ended up sitting next to Selena Fox where I said to her "I wonder if this will even feel like a Pagan Festival without the tran-gendered/women only ritual debate going?"  

I really like Selena, such a humble woman, and considering all she's done for the Pagan Community the last 30 years, she has no business being humble.  She's also incredibly high-energy, I think I got tired just sitting next to her.  She's just so vibrant and giving.  If you told me I had to pick one person to represent Paganism on a talk show I'd pick Selena.

Post-Opening Ritual I hustled back to my room for a hard cider and my notes and equipment for the premier of my "Bigfoot is Real!" workshop.  I have been threatening to do a Sasquatch-centered workshop for years, but Ari has always put a stop to it.  "No one will ever take anything you do after something like that seriously," was always Ari's argument.  On a whim, and kind of as a joke, I submitted "Bigfoot is Real" to Convocation, and they accepted it!  After they accepted it I even wrote back asking "Why?"  Never in a million years did I expect that thing to get picked up.   

So how did Bigfoot go?  Pretty well I think.  It was an interesting mix of information, slides, and Bigfoot home movies.  A friend of mine, who is usually pretty rational, and was definitely sober, even said that I made her question her skepticism on the topic.  I thought that was pretty cool.  Will I ever do Sasquatch again?  That's a pretty open question.  It's probably not doable at most of the outdoor festivals because it really, really, requires a projector.  There's no way to do it without a slideshow and the videos.  I'm not sure I'd ever submit it to PantheaCon either, it's not as eclectic as Convocation.  (There's a lot more "non-Pagan" stuff at Con.)

One of my goals this year at Convocation was to increase my class sizes.  I take the turn out thing pretty seriously, and I want to present things that people will want to go and see.  (If a festival is going to let me present, I should present things that draw, it's as simple as that.  In addition, if I spend months preparing something I want there to be an audience for it.)  Pantheacon and Convocation have very different audiences.  There are Pagan rituals, workshops, groups, and classes probably happening everyday in the Bay Area.  It's a huge Pagan hotbed, and authors from out of state frequently visit various bookstores and events.  As a result PantheaCon has a lot less "entry level" workshops.  ConVocation always has a great line-up of speakers, but some of the more basic classes tend to draw big there, just because you can't see a lot of this stuff anywhere outside of ConVocation.  As a result some of my more cerebral stuff doesn't attract the same size of audience as it does out West. Deep down I understand how this stuff goes, but I'm a fragile goat, so the workshops I submitted this year to Con reflected a desire to get away from some of the more scholarly rambling I usually do.  The results were positive too, and this change in tactics had the desired effect.  

My second workshop, on Friday, was called "Tarot:  A Real History" and while it certainly wasn't dumbed down, that type of thing tends to be a lot more accessible than me talking about Gerald Gardner for 90 minutes straight.  It was my first time doing that workshop too, and while I did mispronounce a city name, it was also fine.  Lot of smart tarot readers and historians in that room though, which was cool, because they didn't ever really call me out on anything.  In a lot of ways the Tarot workshop was kind of light because there were 80 some odd slides of tarot cards to look at.  The actual history of tarot is no big secret, the cards were originally a game, and the more occult parts were grafted onto that several centuries later, but it's not something most people talk about.

One of these days I'd like to write a long piece on "Eight Things You Don't Have to do to be a Pagan."  One of those eight things would be tarot.  I've read tarot cards in the past, and I love tarot decks as works of art, but card reading is not something I'm particularly drawn to.  What I'm always more interested in are the rather more mundane origins of things (like tarot), and the rather limited time frame these things have been around for.  Easily accessible books on reading the tarot only date from the late 50's and early 60's, but tarot always feels like it's something that has always been around.  This fascinates me, and makes all the reading and research worth it.  I also enjoy tracing the "legendary origins" of things like tarot and figuring out where the crazy rumors like "The tarot was started in Egypt" come from.

It snowed most of Thursday night and Friday at ConVocation, which was fun to look at, but not fun for Ari who had to drive in from Grand Rapids to Detroit (three hours) on Friday.  Most of you are probably wondering what I tend to do between workshops, hang out with friends and drink cider is the easy answer.  Since it's ConVocation, drinking scotch in the Scotch Room is also high on the list.  (Yes, we have a Scotch Room at Con, but you have to have an invite, luckily I know these guys so I do get the invites.)  It was nice to have a non-party room, though the room did become a party room on Saturday night (more on that later).

Due to the jetlag and general tiredness, Ari and I slept in pretty late Saturday, wasting nearly the entire morning and probably some of the afternoon.  That was fine really, I was only really interested in one thing Saturday-beating the shit out of that "Drawing Down the Moon" workshop.  Weirdly it was also scheduled on Saturday, and also near 4:00 pm.  Need a late afternoon workshop?  Apparently Mankey is your man.  I had a lot of people telling me they were looking forward to it (and the reviews from PantheaCon the week before certainly didn't hurt), so I felt a little extra pressure, but no sweat.

It went mostly like it did the first time, but I left some things out, and inserted other things.  I wasn't using the slide show for it, so I probably looked at my notes more than I did the previous week.  The stories though . . . they still inspired that passion in my voice, and nearly brought a tear to my eye.  Making it even more special was that my High Priestess from that first Samhain Ritual was actually there in the room listening to me gush about her, I hope she knows how special she is.  So yeah, pretty awesome.  When I was finally done, I even felt a bit dizzy, almost like I was drunk.  I'm not sure if the dizziness was a good or a bad sign, but as I've previously pointed out, I like to be exhausted and giddy when I'm done presenting, and I achieved that.

The only real downside to the workshop was that I was in a rather small room, and we ran out of space.  There were people who tried to get into the workshop and couldn't because there was no space left.  While that's very flattering, it also kind of sucks for the people who can't get in.  When I first got into the room, ten minutes before my scheduled start time, the room was already pretty full.  Apparently a lot of people knew how small my room was and wanted to make sure they got seats.  I even had a few people sitting on the floor right in front of me, which meant I couldn't move around as much as I usually do.  

When I was done with the workshop I couldn't use the "I sold some books so I know I didn't suck litmus test" because by then I only had one book left to sell.  I was stunned by how much I sold at PantheaCon, so I only had six books left by the time I got to Michigan, and sold all but one of those before the workshop.  Next year, I'll bring more swag.  

Dinner at The Olive Garden followed the workshop, nearly immediately, which meant I was odd buzzy company for dinner.  I really need that decompression time.  Post-dinner Ari and I took a solid one hour nap.  She had been battling a cold since Pcon, and I was starting to feel like my own cold was inevitable.  It's easy to get sick at a Pagan Festival, there's the lack of sleep and the horrible diet, but there's also the dry air of the hotel wrecking havoc with the sinuses.  We still aren't recovered and it's been almost a week.  

Post nap I felt like a million bucks and was ready for drinking and mischief.  Before some of that could truly begin in earnest, there was Mekong to sing.  What is "Mekong?"  It's true that it's a river, and an alcoholic drink, but it's also a song by a band called The Refreshments, and it became something of an anthem while we lived in Michigan.  "Something of an anthem" doesn't do it justice, it was the high point of every social event.  Imagine anywhere between 15 and 80 people forming a large circle and singing an obscure song while toasting each other and going absolutely fucking nuts.  That my friends is Mekong.  It holds such a special place in my heart that I can barely stand to listen to it without a drink in my hand and twenty close friends near by.  So lots of people were looking forward to singing "Mekong" at ConVocation, and a few of them had never even done it before, the song just has that sort of effect.

"As cliche as it may sound, I'd like to raise another round, and if your bottle's empty help yourself to mine, and here's to life!"  No lyric better articulates my philosophy in life.  Hell, Ari and I use "Here's to Life" like "Blessed Be" in ritual.  That's how important the song is.  So anyways, we told people we'd be singing Mekong at 10:00 pm and to be in our room around then.  We didn't actually start singing it until about 10:30 pm, and by that time we must have had 30 people in our hotel room or something like that.  Before "Mekong" we sang along to Journey and other assorted horrible things, all pumped out of the one speaker Ipod player.  A lot of the delay was to make sure that our friends who had been singing it with us since the beginning were there, and they were kind of scattered around the hotel.  At one point Ari looked at me and said "We aren't starting this without Eddie, and I think the only people who are here are the newbies who have never sung it before!"  (That wasn't totally true, but if someone's only been doing it for three or four years, we sometimes see that as barely counting.)

So eventually we blasted the Mekong, and I, of course, did cry.  It had been about a year since I've been able to sing that song with such gusto and passion.  It was amazingly awesome, and if I hadn't presented at ConVocation the whole trip would have been worth it for that one moment.  Realizing that all of us would probably never be standing in that same room all together ever again, I was asked to tell the Dionysus and Cheez-Its story, which I did.  The written version will never compare to a dramatic telling of the tale, and as I was a bit tipsy, the version was especially dramatic, with me crawling on the floor and making up new details and bits that I'd never used before.  The whole thing got caught on film (computer chip?) too, if it ever goes up online maybe I'll link to it.

After all of that, what's the point of doing anything else?  You can't top it can you?  Well, you can't, but you can sing Mekong a second time, and we did, this time at the Masquerade Ball since one of our number had missed the first singing of it because he works on the Con Staff.  I've never done Mekong twice in a night, so it was an interesting experience.  Still enjoyable though.  Post-Mekong there were flirtations and dalliances, but I don't talk about that stuff on this blog.  Safe to say a drunken Jason crawled into bed with his Ari around 3:00 am after running out of parties to go to.

Since our plane left late on Sunday, I even had a chance to do some shopping in the Vendor Room (necklace for Ari!) and attend a workshop by my friend Melissa on Male Moon Gods.  Who knew such things existed!  (Well I did, but not in depth.)  Delightful!  After that it was hugs, goodbyes, and off to the airport.  By Sunday night when we finally landed we were both completely wiped out.  Ari even took Wednesday off from work in an attempt to recuperate.  

So it was a pretty amazing eleven days in all, and we had a blast at both festivals.  I love PantheaCon!  I love ConVocation!  And I especially love everyone I was lucky enough to share a hug or a cider with.  Here's to life!    

*I think it was only 38 out, but at this point in my life, that was plenty horrible.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Post "Insert Con Here" Update

Writing a "Post Insert Con Here Update" has nearly become an expectation.  Every blogger who visits a major Pagan Festival, whether it be Pantheacon or Convocation tends to do it, and as I'm not always a very original thinker, I'm doing the same.  The only difference between me and most of those other bloggers is that I'm brave (dumb?) enough to hit both.  So yeah, two Pagan Festivals, eleven days, and a whole lot of exhaustion.  Welcome to my world.


Until this year I had never really noticed that it's not "Pantheacon" and that the organizers spell it "PantheaCon," with the upper case "C" at the end.  I guess there are always lots of things I don't notice about PantheaCon, probably because it's just so big and overwhelming.  This year they had about 2500 attendees (I've been in towns with less people), and almost 300 workshops, panels, concerts, etc., and that doesn't even count the off the grid parties in various rooms and suites.  So yeah, overwhelming, but always oh so rewarding.

This year was a very different PantheaCon experience for me because I ended up staying in a hospitality room on the second floor.  Hospitality Rooms are basically a way for groups to distribute literature, information, and to promote themselves.  As a newly minted resident of the Bay Area's South Bay, I thought it was important to try and promote some of the groups I hang out with down here.  For the uninitiated, the San Francisco Bay Area is composed of several moving parts, and in the Pagan world it's the East Bay (Berkeley/Oakland) that tends to host the most Pagan events.  Since I believe in staying in your backyard, I thought that reminding the world that Paganism exists in the South Bay was a noble idea.

The idea was noble, but not all that I hoped it would be.

If you run a hospitality room, PantheaCon wants that room to be open for large parts of the day, fair enough, but since I hadn't thought everything through very well, I started to feel like I was trapped in the room.  I had many people from my local community tell me that having our "own room" made the festival for them, and for that I'm happy, but sometimes I just wanted to close the door and decompress, or head out in search of mischief elsewhere.  What I should have done was sign people up to be in charge of the room for various chunks of time, but as I was new to all of this it didn't occur to me beforehand.  It wasn't a complete disaster or anything, and I did have some fun singing along to various rock songs in the room and engaging in esoteric conversation there, but if I do it again, it'll be done differently.

What's most important to me about PantheaCon are my workshops, and those took up nearly my entire Saturday.  Presenters at PantheaCon don't generally do more than one workshop a day, somehow I ended up doing two workshops in a pretty compressed period of time.  I did one at 3:30 pm and a second one at 7:00 pm.  I've done that kind of thing before, but since PantheaCon is so much bigger than any other festival, each workshop takes more out of me.

When I present I generally want to lay it all out on the floor.  In a figurative sense I want people to leave my workshops with the feeling that they are taking a little piece of my soul with them.  I want to end the thing with my guts spilled out on the floor, with every ounce I had to give given freely.  I honestly believe in really putting myself out there, and burning up every ounce of RedBull and Hard Cider in my system while doing it.  Sometimes I feel like I achieve all that, and sometimes I don't, but it's always the goal.

Every year I also tend to favor one of my workshops over the others.  Sometimes that's because it's a "new" one, other times it's because some of them are just closer to my heart.  This year I was favoring my Drawing Down the Moon:  The Mechanics of Invoking Deity above all the others.  I had a lot of reasons for favoring this workshop:  I had been working on it for over a year, and because I think the practice of DDtM is vitally important.  "Nailing" that workshop was my number one goal of the weekend, before cider, the ladies, selling books, or promoting the South Bay.

While I had a lot of energy invested in it, I also had a lot of fears about it.  The biggest fear was that no one would show up for it.  DDtM was scheduled at 3:30 pm that Saturday, the same time as workshops from Christopher Penczak, Raven Grimiassi, and Orion Foxwood (yes Midwesterners, you've never heard of Orion Foxwood, but he's a huge deal out here), in addition to those heavy hitters there were another eight workshops going on at the same time.  To make matters worse I was presenting in what some of my friends call a "Rockstar Room."  The Rockstar Rooms are the biggest rooms at Pcon, holding 100 or so people.  I was legitimately worried that I'd be presenting to 15 people in a cavernous space; my soul crushed and my insides bruised, but that was only one of my many fears.

Drawing Down the Moon is an intensely personal thing, and by talking about something so personal I thought the workshop had the potential to piss people off, or at least upset them.  An experience with deity is always going to be unique to each individual, to try and sum up all of those different unique feelings in an hour would be near impossible.  My best hope was that people would forgive me for my transgressions with their experiences while not leaving in the middle of my presentation.  My workshop also contained a section on practices that bear a resemblance to Drawing Down the Moon in other faith traditions, traditions I'm not an expert on.  Getting corrected in the middle of a workshop sucks, and since I was going to comment on Voudun and the Golden Dawn I was pretty sure that someone was going to interrupt me.

So there are three fears laid bare, and there is still one to go, the fear of the unknown.  I know how long my Horned God and Pan workshops are, and I can nearly do them blindfolded, but this workshop was all new.  As a new workshop I wasn't sure how long it actually was going to be, or whether the various sections of it would link up properly.  I also tend to throw in a few personal bits and stories (especially at the beginning), I wasn't even sure those would work since I had never really spoken about some of those experiences before.

One thing I had complete confidence in was a ridiculous pre-workshop slideshow designed to mimic those obnoxious "Did you Know?" type presentations you find in movie theaters before the previews start.  The moment it started the laughter was loud and noticeable.  The whole dumb idea went over far better than I thought it would too.  People seemed to enjoy seeing a graphic that said "Did you Know?" with the statement "Jason will probably be sober for this workshop" underneath it.  The whole thing worked so well that I thought about not doing the actual workshop at all and just leaving people with the slideshow, but I thought I might get in trouble for that, so I proceeded with the workshop.

One of the most amazing Pagan experiences I've ever had was when I first felt the power of the Goddess during a Drawing Down the Moon ceremony.  Our High Priestess that night literally glowed in the darkness, there was an energy radiating from her that I had never felt before, and have only really felt a few times since then.  Part of Modern Paganism's appeal is that it offers its practitioners an opportunity to literally interact with deity, to find joy and fear and awe and love in the presence of the gods.  That's a lot of what I was hoping to articulate at my workshop, and when relating that story nearly brought me to tears, I considered the mission accomplished.

I don't usually cry while presenting, but I think I did for just a second at PantheaCon.  A lot of the things I present are "just for fun."  They are things I find interesting, and sometimes transformative, and while I hold many of those things close to my heart, they don't move me.  Talking about the power of the Goddess while inside of her human vessel moves me.  Reciting a few paragraphs from The Wind in the Willows about the Great God Pan moves me.  Paganism is religion, Paganism is interaction with deity, Paganism makes me laugh, smile, cry, and tremble, and my faith moves me, and when I find myself, on a good day, able to articulate that passion I feel very good about myself.  So if you were wondering how my workshop went, I think it went well.

If no one had said anything to me about it when I was done, I still would have thought it went fine, but at the end I had a big line of people wanting to buy books, and they don't buy books if you suck.  In some ways that's "proof" of not going over like a lead balloon.  My friend Angus summed up my workshop with these words:  "Anyway, his presentation on Drawing Down the Moon was vintage Mankey: Peerless research coupled with a totally bonkers presentation. He traced the concept of invoking deity across the arc of History and across all the cultures of the world, illustrating it all with wonderful slides and sprinkling his trademark Junior High level humor throughout. It was like the History Channel had been overtaken by Beavis and Butthead."  (I think he meant all of that as a positive.)  I even got a "Best in Show" award on the Doing Magick blog for having the best workshop at PantheaCon.  Since Robert is someone I truly respect and have admiration for, it's a high honor.

I ended up back in my hotel room around five, and after a workshop I tend to keep to myself (or cuddle with Ari) and decompress.  Since I was in the hospitality room I couldn't do that, so I entertained people and had a cider.  In what seemed like ten minutes I made my way back to one of the "Rockstar Rooms" to give my "Alcohol:  Elixir of Life" workshop.  The Alcohol Workshop is one I put together a year or so ago, and one I'm not all that happy with.  I originally wanted to do a workshop on how Ancient Pagans used alcohol in religious practice.  Since alcohol was such a large part of their lives, I could never find a way to truly unravel the mundane use of alcohol from the spiritual.  So instead of being a workshop on alcohol in religion, it instead became more of a general history of alcohol in the Ancient World, plus a bit on its use in Monotheistic Religion.  It's not a bad workshop, it just didn't turn out exactly how I wanted to.

Since I was pretty wiped out, I can't say that my 7:00 presentation was all that great.  It was sort of fun, it wasn't horrible, but it wasn't my best moment.  I had been so passionate about the previous one, that I didn't have a whole lot of energy left over.  Talking about alcohol is fun, but I'm not passionate about it.  I also had about half the class size that I had at 3:30, not surprising since I was up against some rituals, dinner, and a whole host of other things.  My favorite part of that workshop is the term "social jollification" which is a phrase the early Mormon Church used when having a drinking party.  They believed that alcohol provided social jollification, and I'm going to do my damnedest to bring that phrase back.

I'm sure I did other things Saturday night at Pantheacon (usually the height of the festival), but I don't remember what they were.  By midnight I was running on less that fumes, I think the car was just stuck in neutral and was only moving because I was going downhill (or being dragged around).  Ari was out until three, so someone was keeping the Mankey flag waving.

Sunday was a pretty low key day, and offered me a chance to just talk with some people and hit some workshops.  Sunday morning I got my "fanboy" on and went to a Philip Heselton talk.  Heselton is a historian and researcher who has done a great deal to shed some light on the origins of Modern Witchcraft.  To say he's one of my favorite authors would be understating it a little bit.  I got there pretty late (I slept for a small eternity), and ended up with a horrible seat and couldn't quite make out all of his slides, but no biggie, most of the pictures he showed I've already seen.  I did get a little bit irritated that people kept interrupting Heselton while he was talking.  Anyone who presents workshops on the early Craft tends to get interrupted, and I don't get it.  Yes, we know you are smart too, but if you want to present your own workshop, then by all means do so.

After Heselton I had lunch at what Angus calls "Cafe Ho-Hum," (the mediocre in-hotel restaurant) with Robert from the Doing Magick blog I linked to above.  I only see Robert once a year at Pantheacon, and I always try to make sure I carve an hour out of the schedule to chat with him.  He's much of a ceremonial magician than I am, so I always appreciate his rather different perspective on spirituality.  Post-lunch Ari and I went on a vendor room shopping spree, spending far more than we ever dreamed we would.  Surprisingly we didn't buy any statues, but we did get window treatments, clothes, crowns for ritual, and a bunch of other stuff.  I don't think I bought any books either which is very weird for me.

Dinner was spent with Community Seed (Pagans from Santa Cruz) before heading to Club Max(!) to see Angus do "Pagan Humor IV:  A New Hope." (Club Max is a club in the hotel, usually reserved for the mundane folks on the weekend, and had never been used at Pantheacon before.) What is Pagan humor?  It's comedy from a Pagan, and let me tell you, Angus is just born to do it.  I laughed so hard that I cried a few times.  He also insulted every car I've ever owned.  I don't give praise lightly, and I never imagined that I would give a giant thumbs up to a Pagan humorist, but I'm doing it.  If you ever get a chance to catch Angus, go do it.  One of these years I want to take him out East with me and show him off at other Pagan Festivals.

Sunday Night I actually went out and tried to party a bit, but I just wasn't feeling it.  I really missed the usual "Green Fairy Party," nothing compares.  There were lots of folks trying to pick up the slack, but the vibe was different.  Eventually the party I was at got invaded by hotel mundies.  Have to give credit where credit is due though, the Pagan Alliance folks went out of there way to be hospitable, and it was a good place to decompress and drink for a few hours.

Monday morning Ari and I shared an elevator with T. Thorn Coyle who smiled at me and said "I didn't know Dionysus drank coffee in the morning."  I didn't know that T. Thorn Coyle knew anything about me!  I had big stupid grin on my face after that the rest of the morning and it made the packing and leaving that much easier.  Coyle is a top-notch writer, someone I deeply respect in the community, and a fantastic presenter and ritualist.  So yay to me I guess.

For those of you who keep up with the Pagan blogosphere, you are probably aware of the controversy stemming from Z. Budapest's "genetic women only" ritual Sunday night at Pantheacon.  In addition to the ritual, there was also a "sit in" outside of it, protesting the exclusion of trans-gendered women.  The link above is a great place to get caught up on the issue, and while I have opinions about it, I'm not sure I have much to offer the conversation.

Paganism has always been exclusionary, and as an initiatory tradition that shouldn't be a surprise to anyone.  Not everyone who wants to be initiated into a traditional group gets to do so, and a coven based on "perfect love and perfect trust" is always going to be selective, and that's as it should be.  However, those groups don't tend to offer public rituals where credentials are checked at the door.  There's a time and a place for everything, and then there are times and places where perhaps some things shouldn't be done.  I'm of the opinion that if someone thinks of themselves as a woman, then they should be allowed to go to a woman's only ritual in a public space.  I'm not arguing that a group can't exclude someone, just that exclusion should probably not be occurring at an open festival.  It's not my festival and I don't make the rules, and on the plus side, the controversy does open up a dialogue, one which I hope will be beneficial to the entire community.

How many words is this?  Too many.  I'll write about Convocation later this week.