what about a Pagan festival
March can host blizzards, near-zero temperatures, early blossoming flowers, rainy days, or all of the above. The unpredictable nature of the beginning of spring after a harsh winter is the perfect time to gather with friends at a Pagan festival. Each March since 2011, Paganicon emerges after a difficult Minnesota winter as a celebration of all that is Pagan.
While there is a challenge in hosting hundreds of participants, each year’s theme provides a new avenue for community exploration. This year’s theme, Fire and Ice, explored the Norse saga of creation and emphasized a focus on Heathenry. While many traditions regularly appear at annual Twin Cities Pagan Pride in September or Paganicon in March, the Heathens largely have been absent for some time. This year’s Paganicon helped to clarify where the local Heathens went and why.
The first step on the journey into discovery of the Heathen experience was an opening ceremony that focused on the art of welcoming all into the Paganicon home for the weekend. The use of a two-handled welcome cup, blessings by four culture bearers, and three types of water created a unified start to the entire conference. Culture bearers blessed the water in many ways: Mother Amoke Kubat gave a Yoruba blessing; Sancista Brujo Luis and Nsasi Vence Guerra blessed space with dancing fire and water; Diana Paxon did a Nordic blessing with the power of Laguz, representing all the waters that collect together; and the Mdewakanton Sioux Community blessing included a welcome to the Dakota homeland spoken in Dakota and the use of sage and water.
The blessed water was poured back into the blot bowl, symbolizing the unity of all and the combined blessing and creation of community. The combined waters from Coldwater Spring, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, and the Norwegian Voss were used in the blessing with a birch branch whisk and the mark of Gebo, the gift rune. The singing of Sigrdrifa’s Prayer welcomed the gods and goddesses in song. Overall, the opening ritual demonstrated how to create community through needfulness.
For the traveller through Heathenism, nearly all time slots had at least two presentations highlighting what makes Heathenism special. Shane Orthman’s “We Are Nature: The Gods, The Myths, and the Runes” explored a deeper understanding of the primary Norse gods through the natural world, the seasons, the runes, the cycle of life, and values. Prudence Priest delved deep into Romuva through the Baltic folkloric calendar, the sash of fire-signs, and the meanings of the nine fire patterns seen at the fire festival in Vilnius along the Neris river. Priest pointed out the importance of the horse pattern and the prominence of the Othila (property) rune as a symbol in the Romuva tradition.
Ritual space at Paganicon functioned as healing space even when the ritual was not specifically culturally Heathen focused. For those seeking ancestor veneration and remembrance, “Offerings to Osiris: Sharing with the Dead” provided sacred space to remember how Osiris transitioned from a living king to become the ruler of the dead in a culture and mythos where a ruler of the dead must be dead, where a god’s death could not be by suicide or at the hands of another god.
The Kemetic explanation of the mutual sacrifice by Set to endure eternal hatred for his role in the death of Osiris and by Osiris to leave everything to rule to dead provided a firm introduction for all who wished to mourn loved ones and find community in a shared honoring and appreciation of our beloved deceased.
For those who needed more ritual healing, “Awakening the Black Bull” combined a teaching of the mysteries with group ecstatic movement to invoke the power of Dionysus Zagreus into each person’s life. After the formal ritual concluded, all participants were permitted to return one-by-one to speak with the oracle and Dionysus Zagreus.
Diana Paxon’s Oracular Seidh spread healing through the energy of the woven wyrd. This was one of several sessions at Paganicon where answers were found from the spirit world.
Two presentations by guest speaker Sancista Brujo Luis focused on knowing the difference between spirit guides and ancestors and constructing ancestral shrines. Connecting with the ancestors can be very healing; the act of shrine construction and knowing the proper method of cleansing both the ancestral shrine and the self are helpful for continued healing.
In Heathenry, the rune Mannaz represents humankind and the community as a whole. The Minnesota Heathens Panel with eight participants not only helped to dig into why so few Heathens are seen at other types of Pagan events, but how the embrace of their religious culture makes their actions logical and expected. While the eight panelists did not represent all of Heathenry gathered at Paganicon, they did give a larger understanding for non-Heathen audience members of what to expect from Heathen traditions.
Members of Volkshof Kindred candidly explained how earlier in their kindred’s history they were more present with public events in the larger community, and ran an event for The Troth. Unfortunately, they discovered that it was not good for the group. They realized that they needed to focus on internal workings of the group rather than maintaining a large public presence. The kindred’s goal shifted to create an intentional community built in an urban area; they protect the inner guard very closely.
Although the question was not asked until later in the discussion, panelist Val Miller explained that when people join our group, it’s like marrying them. It’s a long process. The kindred is very family oriented. Others on the panel nodded in agreement. Like Volkshof, Runehof Kindred also spent time in the public sphere before retreating to focus on the inner guard.
During the panel, Volkshof Kindred was also happy to announce that they will be hosting the popular Northern Folk Gathering this year.
One area where kindreds have continue to serve publicly and to represent is in prison ministry. With the growth of Heathenry and Asatru in the prison system, the kindreds have a larger audience in need of spiritual volunteers to convey the positive essence of Heathenry, the speakers said.
During the talk, the panelists did not shun or turn away from the more difficult questions, such as what is the role of the Heathen community in addressing and lifting itself out of the association with white supremacy.
Donald Engstrom-Reese, who identifies as Sami and a Heathen Witch, noted that the community lifts itself up by being shameless. “I work with witch groups, but my primary foundation is Heathenry,” he said. “If you embrace a foundation of art and poetry, then there is no premise to stand for white supremacy.” He said that he was active in his own neighborhood, an area known for wide-ranging diversity.
Another panelist, Volkhvy agreed Engstrom-Reese, adding simply that culture is learned.
Panelist Val Miller gave examples of talking with her own children as a means of dismantling white supremacy. She observed that a part of white privilege is that one can easily trace ancestry, and that there is a need to have tools to have those conversations.
Brody Derks, a panel member with Volkshof Kindred, added that it is “better to understand one’s own culture first and then you can better navigate other cultures.”
Panelist Sara Axtell spoke of the group Healing Roots that was born out of a need to understand what the over-culture is and what its effects are. The Healing Roots Community calls for an end to structural racism while working to understand European-American culture.
Panelists noted the presence of a Frith Forge group that is creating inclusive Heathenry, and reminded the audience of how The Troth is taking the lead in this area. On its website, The Troth statement dated January 8, 2017, states:
The Troth is open to all who seek to know and to honor the Gods, ancestors, and values of the Germanic Heathen traditions, regardless of gender, race, nationality, or sexual orientation. The Troth stands against any use of Germanic religion and culture to advance causes of racism, sexism, homophobia, white supremacy, or any other form of prejudice.
By that point, time was quickly running out for questions. Engstrom-Reese concluded by saying, “We are all one species. Africa is the mother of [us] all.” But the conversations did not end there; panelists were eager to speak with those present afterwards, and those talks spilled out into the halls.
While it would have served Paganicon better to have had this open and necessary conversation about Heathenry earlier in the program, perhaps on Friday night or Saturday afternoon, the fact that it was held at all is a testament to the desire of the Heathen community and of Paganicon as a whole to address issues that matter to a large number of people.
As a result of multiple clergy-related scandals over the past several year, Paganicon organizers took a proactive approach by including a 4.5 hour session called “A Sacred Trust: Boundaries Issues for Clergy and Spiritual Teachers” on Friday afternoon and a seperate panel, “Creating Safe Communities- Abuse, Predation, Coercion, and Addressing Complaints Ethically.”
At first glance including these sessions might appear to distract from the overall theme of Fire and Ice, which is a an embrace of all things Norse. However, both fit perfectly within the Heathen concept and practice of boundary setting and speaking truth in order to heal.As Kari Tauring noted, “[Heathen culture] ritualizes the telling of truth and that is what heals.” These two sessions permitted the start of an honesty that is sorely needed.
For those who wanted more of the clergy boundaries sessions, Becky Munson, Paganicon Programming Chair noted that there are plans to offer more of such programming during future Paganicon events. If the larger community does not feel free to discus matters of community building techniques, boundaries, and safe spaces, then the viability of the overall larger Pagan community is at risk of disintegration.
Such sessions are like a much needed spring cleaning for the home: we address what is needed to refresh our home, we dispose of what is not needed, and we open the windows to let in the fresh air of spring.
For many outsiders, the notion of Heathenry and Asatru appeared to be one and the same. The culture equals the religion that equals the culture. In reality, Paganicon reminded all who attended how Heathenry is just as much about Scandinavian culture as it is about a religion, if not more. This is particularly true in Minnesota, which has a large supportive environment for Scandinavian and Northern European culture and learning.
Is this confusing for non-Heathens? Absolutely, Simple religious tags permit an ease of putting concepts, religions, and people into certain areas.
But, for many of the local people in attendance at Paganicon 2018, there is religion and there is culture.
As for the Heathens, the gift is the remembrance of culture and family, as was expressed. This is very private. While many Pagan traditions will emphasize a stance of non-proselytization, Heathens focus on the family unit or inner core of various kindreds. While this may lead the curious to online forums to find a kindred or to learn more, the core of Heathenry is face to face.
The good news for those interested in the subject is that this Paganicon showcase of Heathenry in all its glory will not be the last time that locals have a chance to interact with the Heathen community. In Minnesota, the Northern Folk Gathering will be returning in 2018; nationally, the Troth has events listed on its website.
As one member of the Heathens panel advised a woman who is just starting her own journey, it is best to find these live events and see Heathens face-to-face as she would not get a lot in the social media realm of Heathenry.
Each year, Paganicon embraces a specific theme that reflects the times. With nearly 800 attendees, Paganicon 2018: Fire and Ice did not disappoint. There was discovery, needs that were met, and healing through open conversation. While this was the last year for Paganicon in its current location, the event will continue in 2019 in a location that can accommodate the increasing numbers. The theme will focus on Druidry.
[Rune graphics provided by Kari Tauring]