On the weekend of the summer solstice, my manfriend and I took up the call and went for a weekend getaway at his friends’ co-run pagan summer festival. Distance and lack of convenience made the Shenandoah Midsummer Festival an ideal event to camp, but unfortunately a lack of both time and planning prevented adequate camping plans for us. We made a single day of it and “got our pagan on” in one crammed session. The main attraction for our attendance was the fact his band, Cassandra Syndrome, was headlining the concert entertainment.
The grounds were lavish yet reserved. It’s difficult to explain the simple beauty of these campgrounds, rented from a spirituality retreat in remote North Virginia. The ponds, trees, brush, flowers, etc all seemed undisturbed, yet there were clearings for gatherings and trails to man-made grottos. Fire pits were plentiful, and shade was a welcome relief from the roasty sunbeams. Although I did not see any snapping turtles (their presence was boasted on many a warning sign), my wildlife voyeurism was placated by the conversely cult-like presence of squirrels. The grounds also had two labyrinths built for guests’ exploratory pleasure—one in a traditional spiral and the other shaped like a heart. The mazes were designed with ankle-length rocks and crowned by precious stones at their centers.
While early morning plans of yoga and a sweat lodge dwindled due to trip constraints and event cancellations, I filled my afternoon and evening plans accordingly to cram in for lost time. Earthy, raw shopping garnished me with homemade soap, a wooden forest god décor, and a talisman necklace. I moved on to a workshop teaching entry level knowledge of Voudon tradition and its offspring religions around the world. After I had my fill of hearing hipsters deigning to “correct” the workshop leader (although the amusement that followed was worth it as each sequentially was shut down) I moved on to dinner and had the fortune of sitting next to the Voudon lecturers, where I could satisfy my other curiosity: people’s life stories. In their case, I wondered how do intelligent, liberal minded people get involved in religion, particularly as a professional vocation? I had an intriguing chat with both the Voudon mambo and his husband, an interfaith minister, collecting their life stories. The concert and fire dancing performances followed, and then the night’s zenith arrived after sundown: the incense offerings and the drum circle. At the point in the night where everyone gathered around the firepit, dancing and beating their drums, I realized finally where the heart of the festival lied. The morning was powerful, the day instructive, the evening enjoyable, but the night—the night surged. Pheromones, energy, smells, rhythms, timbres, chanting, and dance all met in a grand festival catharsis. Matt, energized with Ethiopian wine and many a mead swig, took up the call of the bongos and set to work contributing to the ambiance.
I learned many lessons at my first pagan festival:
- Fire dancing is one of the most impressive feats in the world.
- Home-fermented meads and wines are never quite so abundant and generously portioned as they are at a drum circle.
- Incense makes everything better.
- There are few pleasures in the world half so innocently empowering as being one’s self in a crowd where no one is judging you for anything—not for how you’re dressed, not for your age, and not for your features. That was the crux of the festival: unity.
While my presence was observant and ephemeral, the festival still succeeded in impressing me and found itself a new fan. If the band plays again next year, I will certainly tag along, this time with a tent, a cooler of groceries, and a bongo.