This is a summer of notable anniversaries! The Pagan Princesses blog turned one year old last month, an event indelible in everyone’s psyche, surely. Ginger Rogers was born 100 years ago! (I ❤ Ginger Rogers.) The Titanic launched 100 years ago. One thousand years ago, Vikings plundered Canterbury. And this week, Burning Man turns 25. The event has grown steadily since its inception.* For the first time in it’s history it has sold out!
I have never been to Burning Man, but I have admired the festival from afar. For those of you not familiar with the event, is something like….something like….like. *Ppphhh* I have no idea what it’s like. From what I can tell, it is a giant festival where attendees (called “Burners”) gather in the Nevada desert to be active citizens in a temporary, barter-based, ecofriendly community and to embrace radical self-expression (installation art is encouraged) and self-reliance. Wikipedia has a great entry on the event if you’re interested in details.
“Trying to explain what Burning Man is to someone who has never been to the event is a bit like trying to explain what a particular color looks like to someone who is blind.” –Burning Man website
So what does Burning Man have to do with Paganism? It actually started in California as a bonfire ritual on the Summer solstice. And it remains steeped in ritual — a main component of the event is the burning of an effigy in the shape of an abstract man.** But Burning Man is not considered Pagan festival; it is considered a pagan festival. The difference is in the capital “p” where Pagan (n.) describes someone who follows a particular faith and pagan (adj.) describes an existence outside of systems or infrastructure (i.e, rustic or rural).
Lee Gilmore wrote a guest post on The Wild Hunt last year expounding on that very topic. She was pulling from her book which was informed by participant-observation, interviews, and on line surveys of 300 Burning Man attendees over a period of 10 years. Ms. Gilmore also has a blog through the Burning Man website where she has talked about spirituality at the art festival.
She describes the paganism of Burners as a “root religion” in which they share “constituted-primal religious tendencies.” Like Pagans, Burners embrace practices such as ritual — ritual celebration, ritual catharsis, ritual expression. Like Pagans, Burners share a deep respect and love for nature and preservation is paramount (preservation in the “do no harm” sense of the word). Like Pagans (Pagans who identify with a particular denomination), Burners strive to adhere to a set of values both determined by and upheld by the community. And like Pagans, Burners are not loved by everyone, attracting as much criticism as fandom.
“Just as Pagans gather seasonally to consecrate the rhythms of life, Burners annually create their event in order to celebrate catharsis and ecstasy.” Lee Gilmore, Burning Man, Paganism, and the Study of Religion
This event is sounding more and more awesome by the minute! Or by the sentence? By the word? *sigh* I think the differences between Paganism and Burning Man also merit mention. You don’t have to (or you shouldn’t have to) pay to attend a Pagan celebration. Pagans are Pagan all the time. [I honestly can’t say this with authority, but...] Burners (who don’t self-identify as Pagan) are pagan at Burning Man — not all the time. I don’t at all mean for this to be a criticism of the event. I just want to point out the difference between acting pagan and being Pagan for those who are not terribly familiar with either phenomenon.
I think its pretty cool this festival has Pagan roots and continues to propagate a pagan culture. I also think Burning Man should be congratulated for creating a spiritual space where people from all religions can gather and celebrate in solidarity. After all, that is one of the main goals of our blog, to figure out how to do just that in our small part of the world. And check this out! There is a Burning Man inspired festival in Central Texas called Burning Flipside. Neat!
What do you think? As a Pagan, do you cheer or jeer drawing similarities between Burners and Pagans? As a non-Pagan, do you give a hoot one way or another?
* As a demographer, I find it Interesting the growth in size of the festival has not yielded a growth in diversity. While more women attend the event now than in the past, there is less diversity in race (most attendees are white), education level (most attendees self-report as having at least some college or an advanced degree), and residence (most attendees self-report as urbanites).
** As best as I can tell, the burning of the effigy (and other art installations) at Burning Man is not an assertion of dominance or power over the thing (man) the effigy symbolizes. Like you would see at a pep rally. Nor is it an attempt to banish the thing the effigy symbolizes or to banish evil. Like you see in some rituals. So why is a wooden man burned in effigy? It appears to be an exercise radical self-expression — one of the basic tenets of the festival. I’m wondering if it an extension of the common Winter solstice practice, where you keep a fire burning through the night. The event did start at solstice, though at the Summer solstice, not Winter. Or maybe it’s more a “phoenix rising from the ashes” ritual. Please share if you have more information!