INSIDE Chico State
0 March 14, 2002
Volume 32 Number 12
  A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
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Notes from a Pagan Campfire: A subculture arrives

Given these breakneck days of cultural evolution, fringe movements can surface in the mainstream almost before they’ve defined themselves. Thus one can say, with only slight exaggeration, that it’s possible to trace a new religion’s legitimacy from the time its devotees begin arguing among themselves and a university professor writes a book about it.

Sarah Pike’s Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves: Contemporary Pagans and the Search for Community (University of California Press, 2001) is an insightful, even-handed ethnographic study of Neopagan festivals, whose intertribal politics and growing pains indicate that, in the United States at least, this subculture has arrived. Pike, who for the past six years has taught a course on religion and ethnicity at CSU, Chico, began researching the subject eight years ago as a corollary to her specialization in American religious history.

“I became interested in new religious movement partly because it seemed a field that was fairly small and unexplored, and partly because it allowed me to look at the ways different subcultures conflict with the dominant culture,” she said. “I’m curious about what in our culture is being demonized or marginalized and why. Why do we have these figures that represent evil or darkness or threat? In a society that’s so pluralistic, we do have a lot more tolerance for difference, but still there are these conflicts and tensions between religious communities and subcultures.”

Though still considered an “other” by the religious, particularly the evangelical religious, mainstream, Neopagan religion—characterized as 20th-century, polytheistic nature worship based on pre-Christian traditions—achieved a sort of critical mass during the late 1970s; Pagan festivals began appearing during the 1980s. But the subculture wasn’t really recognized by the public, said Pike, until about 10 years ago. “Now when I say I’m studying Paganism to my classes, most people know what I’m talking about,” she observed. “Whereas when I first started teaching back in the late ’80s, nobody knew what it was. Or if they did, they thought it was Satanism.” (In her book, Pike quoted one disgusted Pagan, weighing in at a 1993 Internet forum, who commented that “neighbors have been known to harass folks for such tiny causes as ‘dressing funny,’ wearing ‘peculiar jewelry,’ and having ‘too many books’—occult or otherwise. …”).

Interestingly, Pike noted that with the increased awareness of Neopaganism by “mun-dania,” as festival celebrants often term the non-Pagan world, new tensions within the festival community have evolved. Public relations have become an issue as late-night drumming and unannounced police visits disturb neighbors and Pagans, respectively. Festival organizers now find themselves championing rules and mores for congregations that intensely value both untrammeled self-expression and group acceptance.

An early and very visible resident of cyberspace, the Pagan community discusses these issues and others online between festivals. Debates frequently highlight differences between disciplined ritualists and equally serious “chaos magicians” as they pursue their conflicting brands of religious development. Do we really want, asked one popular Pagan columnist concerning late-night behavior around festival fire circles, “loud, show-off blasts on congas, drying wet sox (etc.), cooking hotdogs over the ritual fire … overt sexual grabbing, and drinking songs? Is this really conducive to keeping the community trance energy?”

From Pike’s perspective as a scholarly observer, these questions ultimately relate to the process of self-definition, whether as a group or an individual. “In the book I talk a lot about the tension between the needs of the self and the needs of the community,” she said. “I think that’s a really general issue in America today—that we have a culture that’s very self-focused, that we should be able to create our own identity, find our own religion. Contemporary Paganism is very individualistic, and yet the rhetoric is to want to have a community, to do all these workshops and rituals to form community. All the conflicts that come up stem from these two forces.”

Besides teaching, Pike currently is researching this tension as it relates to adolescents, and writing a textbook on New Age and Neopagan religions for Columbia University Press.

Taran March, (B.A., English, ‘89) is a freelance writer, CSU, Chico graduate, and editor. She lives in Cherokee.

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