Temple Priests and Hospitality Vikings : The Role of Hospitality and Sacred Space at Pantheacon

 

This year was my fifth year attending Pantheacon, one of the largest Pagan gatherings in the world and one of the Coru’s most involved events of the year.  Pantheacon is an overwhelming and powerful event.  It’s a place to learn from brilliant minds and to attend rituals and ceremonies presented by an abundance of traditions and groups.  It’s a gathering of tribes, covens, traditions, and families.  It’s a bizarre concentration of potent and powerful people, spirits, and Gods set in a semi generic chain hotel in an corporate center next to a major airport.  Pantheacon is overwhelming, an energetic minefield and a maelstrom of energy……and Pantheacon has a hygiene problem.

I don’t mean that Pantheacon is dirty, the hotel and the con staff do an extraordinary job of maintaining the event.  The Doubletree is a decent hotel and the staff are excellent.  The Pantheacon staff itself are absolutely amazing as well and are clearly dedicated to making the environment there a safe and welcoming place to all.  And when I say that the Con has a hygiene problem I’m also not speaking about germs, although the con crud was brutal this year and if you go in the future I highly recommend doing everything you can to bolster your immune system and be conscious of the risk of flu.  The hygiene that I’m referring to is spiritual and psychic hygiene.

My first Pantheacon was a bit of a shock for me.  I had spent the previous seven years of my life living in remote regions in the Sierra Nevada mountains far away from most human contact.  I tend to prefer solitude and wilderness to cities and neighbors and find that I would rather deal with regular visits from bears, foxes and spirits than I would from strangers or solicitors.  My spiritual practice, which was always there with me, was strictly solitary.  I had some close friends, I had some allies, but for the most part my work was done alone.

That all changed about five years ago.  Circumstances were shifted, fates were rewoven, and a fiercely powerful Celtic Goddess grabbed me by the scruff of my neck with corvid talons and shook me back into action, called me into service.  Soon after that call I found myself walking through the doors of the San Jose Doubletree and into the energetic pandemonium that is Pantheacon and it was beyond overwhelming.

img_3616

Main Altar : Temple of the Morrigan  photo by Joe Perri

You see, there are far more attendants at Pantheacon than the 2000 – 3000 human guests.  An event like the Con, this gathering of magically potent people and seekers, also has a large population of non corporeal beings that gravitate to it.  People knowingly and unknowingly bring multitudes of spirits, hosts of ancestors, and pantheons of Gods to the event.  As well as that host, the energy of the Con acts as a beacon for every wandering or wayward spirit in the area, and at a place of crossroads like a hotel or airport, those spirits are multitude.

In an environment like this, hospitality is immensely important.  There needs to be hospitality for the humans and hospitality for Gods as well as space for the spirits and the wandering dead.  At this convocation of the worlds, hospitality must flow between the realms as well as between the people.

Hospitality suites are immensely important to the human community at Pantheacon.  They provide spaces for individuals and different groups and traditions to meet and get to know each other.  They provide spaces for smaller workshops and meetings to take place in, and they also provide essential places for people to rest and relax in private and more intimate places than the rest of the hotel.  I have also found that the  hospitality in some of these suites can be somewhat elusive.  I have often had the experience of walking into a group’s hospitality suite and finding it occupied by a small group of people engaged in conversation, ignoring visitors.  While I understand that the nature of the event makes for an environment of busy socializing and over stimulation, this act of being so involved with friends that you ignore guests and visitors is actually poor hospitality.

It can be difficult maintaining that level of hospitality while also being pulled in multiple directions and trying to take care of your own needs.  The nature of the event means that things will be missed and people ignored.  We never seem to have the time to spend time with everyone that we want to, but we should always be striving to improve and make those connections while also keeping an eye open for the stranger crossing our threshold looking for aid or company.

 

 

img_3619

Shrine to Nuada and Scathach : photo by Joe Perri

Hospitality means being greeted  by a welcoming face, an offer of food and drink, a warm conversation.  Hospitality demands connection and engagement and in a spirit rich environment like Pantheacon, hospitality should extend to the spirit community, to our ancestors and the dead, and most importantly, to our Gods.  The Coru’s Hospitality suite and the Temple of the Morrigan arose to meet the combined needs of hospitality to the the community as well as hospitality to the community of Gods, spirits, and ancestors with which we share our world.

Each year we have made changes and improvements to the way we run our hospitality suite with the goal of making it a safer and more welcoming space for everyone.  Our first year we had ourselves scheduled so fully that we were unable to provide the type of connection and personal conversations with the community that we were striving for.  To address this problem we found it helpful to have a person on staff during our open hours whose sole job is was to maintain hospitality.  Someone whose job it was to simply welcome everyone walking into the room and offer them a drink and a bite to eat, a Briugu, an ancient Irish term for hospitalier, or in the case of the Coru suite at Pantheacon this year, a Hospitality Viking.

hospitality viking

Hospitality Dream Team:  Hospitality Viking (Grant Guindon) and Dagda Priest (Jon O’Sullivan) in the Coru Suite  : photo by Joe Perri

The other step that we have taken in order to create and maintain a safe space was to create a very clear and enforceable Statement of Hospitality and Safety. This was created in response to members of marginalized communities within the larger Pagan community feeling unsafe and unwelcome in a number of rituals, workshops, and hospitality suites at the Con.  Our community is not free of issues like racism, transphobia, and sexual predators, and by creating and posting a clear statement that these attitudes will not be tolerated in our suite, we can start to maintain a space where people can feel safe without fear of attacks, alienation, and the microaggressions that come with unexamined language.  This type of statement is essential because not only does it make the language of what is and what isn’t acceptable in our space very clear and unambiguous, making it more unlikely for someone to come in an break that code, but it also makes a statement to anyone at the Con that they are welcome and that their safety and comfort will be maintained.

The Temple of the Morrigan was created for a parallel purpose. It was created to provide a sacred space, an area warded and set apart from the rest of the convention where people can spend time in communion with the Gods.  Where the hospitality suite is created and maintained for the human community, the Temple is created and maintained as a nexus between the community of spirits and Gods and the community of the living.  It’s a place for us to offer the Gods our hospitality and in return are treated to the hospitality of the Gods, a quiet place, where one can sit in the presence of the unseen and the divine.  It has also become a place for anyone who is experiencing spiritual trauma to find safety and a trained priest to help them navigate their experiences.  Over the past few years, the Coru Temple priests and those that aid us have had a variety of challenges walk through our door.  The nature of the Temple and its staff creates a safe space for people having intense experiences to find shelter and aid there.  Because we are one of the only types of space like this at Pantheacon and the fact that we have trained priests on duty there, it allows people going through events such as spirit possession, possession by Gods (Celtic and other), psychic assault, emotional breakdowns to have a safe space and allows the wandering and lost spirits and the dead, to all cross the threshold of the Temple and seek aid.  Having trained and skilled priests, people with skills at spirit work as well as pastoral care, is critical to keeping a space like the Temple safe for all.

img_3622

Brigid’s Shrine : photo by Joe Perri

This hospitality, this hospitality to the community, to the spirits, to the Gods, requires attending to.  It requires work and it requires devotion.  It requires dedicated staff and trained priests and spirit workers.  It requires time, and energy, and planning.   It requires commitment and it requires financial support.  These spaces add to the richness and depth of the Pantheacon experience.  They are places for us to share with our Gods and for us to share the richness of our Gods with each other.  I would like to see a number of Temples and sacred spaces arise each year at Pantheacon, each group honoring their Gods in their own way.  I would like to see more priests and more devotees there to share the beauty and power of their traditions and cultures with each other.  I would like to see Pantheacon full of Temples, temple priests, and hospitality vikings.  For we are better as a community when we recognize the need for true hospitality for all, living and dead, seen and unseen, mortal and divine.  We are better as a community when we build connections and learn from each other.  We are better as a community when we are of service to each other.

img_3617

photo by Joe Perri

Pilgrimage: The Everflowing Cauldron of Hospitality 

The practice of hospitality is one of the oldest and long-lasting human societal behaviors.  In early tribal cultures, hospitality was a method of ensuring mutual safety in an unsteady world, a code of conduct that guided people to treat strangers with respect and courtesy upon first meeting rather than hostility.  Hospitality is one of the many mechanisms societies use that enable people to live together peacefully.  Sometime a lost art in a world that encourages suspicion and fear of the “other”, hospitality is essential to having a functioning, healthy, and safe community.

One of the defining aspects in my experiences in Ireland was the overwhelming sense of welcome that we received everywhere that we went.  It is clear that hospitality is a cultural reality to the Irish people.  Historically, the Brehon Laws defined strict and clear rules of hospitality for both hosts and guests to follow and these rules were more than just guidelines.  The laws of hospitality were obligations that the rulers were stringently held to.  Failure of hospitality was a grave offense for a king to be accused of, and it could signify the end of their reign.

It would be difficult to find a more fitting symbol of Irish hospitality than the image of a pint of Guinness.  It’s a beer and a brewery that is synonymous with Ireland.  Along with the Irish people,  Guinness has spread around the world and its popularity and reach is a testament to the enduring and endearing quality of Irish hospitality.

So when the rest of the tour arrived in Ireland, one of the first stops that we made was to the Dublin tourist Mecca of the Guinness brewery.  I had expected this to be a simple stop, a trip to the well spring of what I would have to call my favorite beer. What we didn’t expect is a visit from the Dagda during our visit there.

The Dagda is a unique and quintessentially Irish God.  While many of the Irish Gods have continental cognates, Gods that have similar linguistic counterparts in other Celtic cultures, the Dagda stands alone, exclusively Irish, as ancient as the standing stones and passage tombs.

Dagda wall plaque byhttps://tressabelle.wordpress.com/2011/08/21/dagda-and-curnunnos-wall-plaques/

The tales of the Dagda run alongside the major tales of Ireland, influencing the major events but also extending beyond them as well.  The Dagda tracks across Irish history and legend, shaping the land, insuring victory for his tribe, altering time and space, and using law and language to trick others and get his way when he needs to.

Rough, undignified, and often considered vulgar to the sensibilities of the Victorians that were recording the tales of the medieval monks, the Dagda means the “Good God”, not good in the moral sense, but meaning skilled at everything.  As the keeper of the Cauldron of the Dagda, one of the four treasures of the Tuatha from which no company would ever leave from unfulfilled,  He is deeply connected with the concept of hospitality.

As we entered the massive brewery, it was clear that this was somehow the Dagda’s place.  He sidled up to us during the tour with a variety of requests:  “Grab a handful of that barley” “Get a closer look at that harp for me” “That’s a beautiful glass, I would like one”.  He walked with us, beaming with pride at the scope and size of the establishment, a pride that we assumed was just a natural delight in the national beverage of his land.

Guinness Harp photo by Joe Perri

Days later, during our trip to Brú na Bóinne and Newgrange, as we were telling stories of that place and of the Dagda and Boann and Aengus their son, our coach driver and guide, the mighty Druid of the Coach John Byrne (Sean O’Broin) told us a bit of history of the name Guinness.  John told us that the name Guiness is actually an anglicized version of the name Mac Aengus (or Mac Óengus), meaning “Son of Aengus”.
That bit of information hit us all immediately, of course the Dagda was present at the Guinness brewery, it is likely that it is his family’s business.  As we thought about this idea, a number of connections became evident to us.  The giant pint glass shaped structure that the brewery is built around as a reflection of the Cauldron of the Dagda, the symbol of Guinness, the Harp of the Dagda, the role in promoting Irish hospitality that Guinness plays, even the most common way the Dagda trick people and gets his way, through the manipulation of time and legal language evident in the 9000 year lease that Arthur Guinness secured for the location of that compound at St James Gate, Dublin, a lease that is built into the foundation of the brewery itself.

So that first day of the Coru’s tour of Ireland, we stood in the Gravity Bar of the Guinness Brewery looking out over a 360 degree view of that beautiful grey city and we raised a glass to Dublin, to Ireland, and to the Dagda, father of hospitality, master of the harp, and shaper of the land.

Poems for the Dagda
by Scott Rowe, Coru Priest

Good God of the mighty appetites

Your skill and prowess bring us awe

Dagda, play a lay upon your harp

So that the seasons go on for us all

photo by Joe Perri

Your life-giving club

Bringing ecstasy, full of joy

Leave your mark upon the Land

That Her cries of ecstasy bring victory

photo by Joe Perri

Victory without conquest

Conquest overturned

A tune of liberation

Libations poured out

Bellies very full

Cups full of drink

Drinks with comrades

The gifts of the Dagda

photo by Joe Perri

Hard work, labor’s end

Joy in the doing

A sheen of sweat upon his brow

Buttered porridge and beer awaiting

Cock and belly, club and cauldron

None leave them unsatisfied

Inspiration of the harp

Righteous battle is coming

Previous : The Cave and the Mound

Pagan, Polytheist, or Both? Why Labels are Sometimes Important.

Russia, Saint Petersburg, 2012 From the series "White Nights". Ivan Kupala, pagan rite which has its origins in the cult of Kupala, god of love and fertility.

Russia, Saint Petersburg, 2012
From the series “White Nights”.
Ivan Kupala, pagan rite which has its origins in the cult of Kupala, god of love and fertility.

Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending Many Gods West, a conference on Polytheism that took place in Olympia Washington.  It was a small, intimate event. An event that not only featured an astounding variety of speakers and presentations, but also powerful work with the Gods and land spirits, along with days and nights of deep conversations with brilliant people.

I have been to a number of Pagan gatherings, from the lighthearted and celebratory, to the deep and scholarly.  Being at a conference that was specifically Polytheist in scope was a meaningful and important experience, and different from any one that I have had before.

Why is a gathering of people who define themselves specifically as Polytheists important?  Why are these distinctions important to us, and why would the idea of having space for Polytheists to talk about Polytheist practice and theology cause problems among people who aren’t Polytheists?

One of the things that I noticed about Many Gods West is that even though the group gathered at the event was diverse and varied with attendees coming from a broad spectrum of religious practices,  there was a noticeable air of respect and courtesy towards each other and each other’s practices.  As a matter of fact, the only real display of discourtesy that I witnessed came from someone who seemed to be struggling with the feeling that they had of not being included in the Polytheist “group”.  I find this very interesting.  What I witnessed at this event and what I generally see among the Polytheist community is radical inclusiveness to anyone that shows that they have respect for other people’s beliefs and practices.  But the important factor in that is the respect for others.  When that respect is absent, or compromised by ego or judgements, Polytheists understandably distance themselves from that.

We are a minority within a minority, we have the right to have our own discussions about our practices, theology, and future without being interrupted by people hostile to those rights.  The importance of events like Many Gods West is to provide those spaces for people to have conversations and make connections, unmolested and uninterrupted by people who have deferring practices and theological structures.

This is one of the most important reasons for having events that are specifically for Polytheists to discuss Polytheism, to have a space free of hostile judgements and free of having to have theology 101 discussions with people who have differing views than Polytheists do.  We deal with hostility online daily, from arrogant atheists, atheo-pagans, and general assholes that feel that its their place to belittle what they don’t understand or believe.  We have spaces when we mingle with Wiccans, archtlpalists, and  monist / dualists, they are called “Every other Pagan  event”.  We have plenty of Monotheists telling us that  we are crazy or going to hell every single day.  Creating space for us to have the discussions that we need to have without them being hijacked by other people’s agendas is crucial for our future and its crucial to allow people to practice their religion safely and unmolested.

This is one of the main reasons that allowing these spaces is important for the rest of Paganism.  As a set of practices and beliefs that has a long history of being persecuted, it is of crucial importance that we don’t become the type of intolerant douchebags that attack and belittle religious beliefs that we don’t understand or agree with.

Paganism is not a cohesive set of beliefs and practices.  We are a collection of diverse and varied people and in that is our strength.  Our power resides in that diversity and more importantly our willingness to accept and celebrate that diversity.

But why separate ourselves from the larger “pagan umbrella” ?  Why are these labels important?   Because these labels are there in order to help us define our beliefs, and the act of defining our beliefs helps us to clarify them and allows us to have clear conversations about specific aspects of our beliefs and experiences.

I choose to define myself as both a Pagan and a Polytheist.  I see value in the broader term of Pagan.  I feel that there is strength in numbers in a world where the dominant religions are actively hostile to anything that is not their particular brand of monotheism.  I feel that having an open umbrella for anyone who feels marginalized in their religious practices is incredibly valuable.  We should all have a place to feel safe and sheltered while the monotheisms of the world tear each other apart  and attack us.  The large tent of Paganism provides that space for people.  A place for people to be their authentic selves without condemnation.

I identify as a Polytheist because I believe that not only are the Gods real and individual entities with agency and their own destinies,  but everything has its own agency and agenda.  To me, the Gods are not reflections of our psyche, or collective human creations, but beings that have lived alongside us  since the beginning of time, beings that I choose to honor and respect because I feel that they deserve honor and respect the way that all beings that we share this world with deserve honor and respect.

For me, these terms Pagan and Polytheist are not incompatible, for others they are.  Both views are correct.  The terms are there to help us define our beliefs and encourage deep thought about our theological views and systems.  This type of discernment and philosophical thought is important.

What I see in the Polytheist community that is sometimes absent in the larger Pagan community are these types of philosophical discussions that are so important to a religious community.  I sometime see Pagans defining their theology by what they don’t believe, not what they believe, the “I’m a Pagan because I don’t believe in Christianity” view.  When these people are asked what they do believe the answers get pretty nebulous.  Discernment and depth of thought should be valued in our community.  Discussions on morality and the nature of the Gods is important to deepen ones religious practice.

I believe Paganism and Polytheism hold deep value in the world that we live in.  That in a culture of materialism and injustice, Paganism and Polytheism are paths to a more authentic and healthy relationship  with the world and with the communities that we interact with.  But in order for us to provide those paths, to provide a valid alternative to narrow monotheisms, we must go deeper.  We must explore and discuss our differences and similarities, we must celebrate our diversity and allow it to flourish.   We must be more than people playing with wands in our backyards.  We must be the best witches/priests/druids/pagans/polytheists that we can be.  We must go deep and be articulate in our practices.  Most importantly, we must be accepting of other people’s beliefs and practices and we must give them the space to develop their own theologies.