CULTURE "I get asked by friends and family constantly about what pagan means," says JoHanna White, president of the Pagan Alliance's board of directors and parade coordinator for Berkeley's Paganfest. So, hey, what does pagan mean? "I always tell them the Alliance's definition: earth-based, nature- and justice-centered, and observant of polytheistic faiths and traditions."
That's a lot to wrap one's brain around. But be it Wicca, Hellenism, shamanism, or adherence to traditional indigenous faiths, more and more people are turning to paganism these days, evidenced by soaring attendance at events like Pantheacon, an annual gathering of rituals and healing circles that has regularly outgrown venues since its inception 16 years ago. White's colleague, Alliance cofounder Arlynne Camire, attributes the growth to "people's awareness of what's happening to the Earth," concerns over climate change, and other worrisome trends.
Camire helped start Paganfest in 2000 as a way to raise public awareness about the pagan faith, to render themselves visible. That first year involved a fair in People's Park and a procession down Telegraph Avenue. These days the fair includes several pavilions (druid storytelling, green, arts and crafts) and a dazzling array of community altars. A ritual is usually conducted and there are prizes for best kids' costumes and artworks. "There are pagans in every walk of life," says Camire, a Hayward city planner. "Paganfest is essentially a pride festival."
Public manifestations are important for any minority — especially one like paganism, a belief system that many come to in solitude, not knowing that a welcoming community of believers awaits. Festival organizers regularly provide masks to pagans who haven't yet made the decision to share their faith publicly, a process the community has dubbed "coming out of the broom closet."
As White tells me about the anxiety that can be associated with becoming an "out" pagan, I remark that it sounds a lot like coming to terms with one's alternative sexuality. "You should talk to this year's Keeper of the Light, Joi Wolfwomyn. She's a radical faerie and knows a lot about this stuff," she counsels. I take her up on the advice. Days later, I sit in a coffee shop in Oakland awaiting Paganfest 2010's parade marshal, realizing I neglected to ask Joi what she looks like. I needn't have worried. In walks a person with green dreadlocks down to the small of the back, piercings galore, and leaves tattooed over a bearded face, carrying a wooden staff and a fuzzy rainbow backpack. Joi, is that you?
It is. We talk for more than an hour and, by the end, the articulate trans person STET has taught me a lot about paganism: its inclusiveness ("To me, paganism just means you honor the earth."), its presence in pop culture ("Avatar was a very pretty piece of paganism propaganda."), and the advantages of embracing one's beliefs and values publicly("By creating myself as I have, all people have to do is be within 100 feet of me to think.")
Of course, not all pagans have etched their faith on their epidermis. Wolfwomyn is emphatic about the community's diversity in this respect. "There are pagan Republicans, there are pagan anarchists, there are pagan everything — but we all honor the earth." It's inspiring to meet a person so open to the possibilities of belief. In an instant, the possibilities of such an expansive faith dawn on me. A new kind of acceptance beckons. What has monotheism ever done for our society, anyway?
Sat/8 10 a.m.–5:30 p.m., free
Civic Center Park
Martin Luther King Jr. and Allston, Berk.