by Selena Fox
Pagan Spirit Gathering, also known as PSG, is one of America’s oldest and largest Pagan camping festivals. Organized and sponsored by Circle Sanctuary, PSG is a Pagan village community immersion experience that takes place during Summer Solstice week each year and that continues year round through social media and other forms of interpersonal communications.
PSG was an outgrowth of Pagan networking and seasonal celebrations that I, along with others involved with Circle Sanctuary, began doing in the 1970s. Pagan Spirit Gathering also is rooted in values prevalent in mid twentieth century social movements for peace, environmental preservation, equality, liberty, and justice for all. PSG is an opportunity to create and live cooperatively in a society founded on those values.
Pagan Spirit Gathering started in 1980 as a weekend Summer Solstice festival on private land near Sparta, Wisconsin. Although small, with only ninety people, this prototype PSG brought together Pagans from many paths and many places from across the United States and beyond to create and live in a Pagan village in a natural location. There was no program book and no pre-established times for workshops, discussions, music sharing, and rituals at our 1980 festival. Program activities were organized on site.
PSG emerged as a new kind of Pagan festival that focused on building connections and developing community among Pagans across traditions, as well as forming and strengthening spiritual relationships with sacred dimensions of Nature. Each day and evening of that first gathering, we came together to create and nurture community in meetings, workshops, and rituals. Festival drumming, which is now widespread across Pagan gatherings the world over, began at this prototype PSG.
The following year, in 1981, we expanded the length of our gathering to four days, increased the number of program activities from a dozen to forty, and published our first program book. Our festival also got its name -- I named it Pagan Spirit Gathering to signify its Pagan spiritual community focus.
At Pagan Spirit Gathering 1981, our community grew in size to 250 people. Our festival encampment continued to evolve as a village as we established several centers, including Information, Health, and Childcare. In addition, we began our work-sharing approach to festival staffing, which now has became commonplace for Pagan festivals organized by other groups in the USA and other countries.
Both our 1980 and 1981 PSGs were held at the same site in the forested hills of western Wisconsin. This was the most rustic of the places where the PSG Community has made its home. We hauled in all of our own drinking water, food, and other supplies, and, at the end of our gathering, hauled out all of our garbage and recycling. Bathing was in the pond. Toilet facilities were an open air outhouse and the woods. There was no electricity on site and no tents or other shelters for group activities.
Pagan Spirit Gathering moved to a new home the following year. This site was also private land. It was home to PSG in both 1982 and 1983. This second PSG site was in central Wisconsin along the Rock River near Oconomowoc. It was still very rustic, with no electricity, drinking water taps, or shelter buildings. We rented a large circus tent to have some communal indoor space, and under the big top, which we called “Tenthenge,” we had merchant booths and held some of our meetings and workshops there. We trucked in drinking water in 55 galloon drums, and we bathed in the river. For the first time, we brought in rented portatoilet units and had a parking lot for participants’ vehicles.
In 1982, we expanded PSG to six days long, beginning on the Friday of Summer Solstice weekend and ending on a Wednesday. Participants had the option of taking part in several post-PSG events.
At PSG 1982, we added gatekeepers and life guards to the list of community work jobs. We expanded the number and scope of program activities and began cross scheduling workshops. We supplemented the schedule in our program book by announcing activities via large posters on our bulletin board at our Information Center. Workshop presenters scheduled themselves by signing up for slots and locations when they arrived at PSG. The number of program activities increased to more than sixty that year and our program book doubled in size.
In 1983, PSG continued to grow. The length of PSG expanded to a full week in length and the size of our community increased to 450 participants. The Guardians, first known as the Guardians of the Fourth Face, formed that year and began doing PSG safety and security work. Merchanting at PSG expanded from a few booths to a diverse and colorful magical marketplace. Our growing Pagan village filled the entire 4-acre site. Also at PSG 1983, we had our first community-created full scale theatrical production for our main ritual, featuring a variety of costumed dancers, singers, poets, and aspecting priestesses and priests.
In 1984, PSG moved to a new and bigger place, the big valley of Eagle Cave Campground near Blue River, Wisconsin. This was our festival home for the next thirteen PSGs. Our gathering grew in scope and size during this time, expanding to over 700 participants in 1996. We added more workshop areas and more centers, including a place for counseling support, known then as the Centering Dome, and Amethyst Circle, an alcohol-free place with Pagan 12 Step AA meetings and other support for Pagans recovering from alcoholism and other addictions. PSG added concerts to its program activities, using a flatbed farm wagon as a stage and an electric generator to make amplification possible. The campground staff created a food stand and began selling meals and meal plans to participants.
This third home to PSG included an ancient cave. Eagle Cave, which is the largest onyx cave in Wisconsin, became a ceremonial place for us for several of our large community rituals, including my handfasting with Dennis Carpenter in 1986 and the Sacred Cave Mother Earth Communion Rite I led in 1995.
During our years at the Eagle Cave site, community drumming grew to be an important part of PSG village life. Drumming was a regular part of our town meetings as well as rituals. Experienced drummers began mentoring new drummers in workshops, rituals, and rhythm circles, and in 1996, developed drumming guidelines which our community adopted and continues to use.
During the time that PSG made Eagle Cave Campground its home, we expanded our work with Pagan youth to include programming for different age groups as well as a center with play area. Also during this time, we added academic Pagan presentations, and did a PSG Tribal survey as part of a Pagan Studies research project.
In late Autumn of 1996, Eagle Cave Campground staff and its site went through changes, and the big valley which had been our gathering home was no longer available. The quest for a new and larger home for PSG began.
After exploring a variety of places in Wisconsin and in several other states, PSG moved to southeastern Ohio. Our fourth site was Wisteria, a new land project being created by a group of owners that included longtime PSG Community members. Although not yet a campground, this site had plenty of flat space for camping and festival activities.
During the twelve years that Wisteria was home to PSG, we helped Wisteria’s group of owners develop their land as a campground and event site. Money we paid to Wisteria owners for the use of their land and services for PSG each year helped them pay off their land debt as well as provided funds for improving their facilities. Wisteria built a pavilion to use for operating their coffeehouse and a stage for concerts, ceremonies, and celebrations.
PSG Community members worked with Wisteria owners and staff on developing several ceremonial sites on the land. These included a couple woodland circle areas, a large ritual circle, and two mounds. During our first PSG at Wisteria in 1997 and the following year, we created a small conical ancestral mound near the ritual circle. At PSG 1999 and the two PSGs that followed, we created a large turtle mound made of rocks and soil in work sessions and rituals. It served as a meditation and ceremonial place for group rituals.
PSG continued to grow in diversity and complexity. In 1997, my husband Dennis Carpenter and I welcomed Chip Brown to PSG’s administrative team as Special Issues Director, and in 2004, we welcomed Sharon Stewart, also known as MoonFeather, as PSG Manager and Program Director.
During our time at Wisteria, the number and type of workshops, rituals, and other program activities grew. I began doing a yearly Pagan leadership intensive, the Tribal Dance and Drum Bonfire ritual took form, and the all-night Candlelight Labyrinth became a yearly tradition. In addition, we began developing Young Womanhood and Manhood passage rite programs as well as the Spirit Hunt, a transformative shamanic rite, later to be called the Sacred Hunt.
In Autumn of 2008, PSG’s time at Wisteria came to a close as the owners charted new directions for their campground, including sponsoring their own festivals. As we quested for a new PSG home, we looked for a place more centrally located in the United States and with improved facilities.
In 2009, PSG moved to a large music festival site in the magical Ozark mountains of southeastern Missouri near Salem. This site, known then as Camp Zoe, had once been a Summer youth camp, and it had the most developed facilities of any of the sites that had previously been home to PSG. In addition to electricity in multiple areas, it featured a full size professional stage with lights, large shower house, several cabins, and a beautiful crystal clear stream for wading, swimming, and rafting.
During our two PSG’s at Camp Zoe, we continued to innovate programming and community services. We increased the number of workshops and workshop areas. Training for Pagan priestesses, priests, activists, and other leaders expanded with the development of the Pagan Leadership Institute. The Tea Dance, which had first emerged as a PSG mixer at Eagle Cave in the 1980s transformed into Pan’s Ball, a costumed dance party. Our First Aid and Safety center got a cabin for the first time, we added media support for Pagan bloggers and podcasters, and merchants had the option for electricity in the marketplace area.
In November of 2010, we learned that Camp Zoe was in the process of being shut down due to legal problems stemming from other events they had held there. The quest for PSG’s sixth site began.
Starting in 2011, Pagan Spirit Gathering made its home at an eco-retreat and campground known as Stonehouse Farm. It is located near Earlville in rural northern Illinois, about seventy miles west of Chicago. This 37-acre site includes wooded areas, fields, gardens, a sandy beach and pond, several buildings, electrical hookups for campers and merchants, a new showerhouse, and its namesake, a historic stone house built in the mid nineteenth century by a Scottish stone mason.
Pagan Spirit Gathering 2015 was closed after just two days, due to flooding which rendered a large portion of the grounds unsafe. After an extensive and intensive search, we found our present home.
Since 2016, PSG has been located at the Tall Tree event campground near Vienna IL, about an hour north of Paducah KY. This 200-acre site features a lake, woods, open fields, and a Bonfire Circle gathering space on an island in the lake.
The Pagan Spirit Gathering and its community have continued to grow and evolve. Our activities include a variety of life passages, such as handfastings and weddings, pregnancy and baby blessings, coming of age rites, and cronings and sagings.
At our present PSG home, we have restructured some of our centers and added others. Our centers now include: Gate, Safety, Information, Circle Network, Raffle, Childcare, Warrior Spirit, Teen, EnChantment, Sweatlodge, Temple of the Sun God, Moon Lodge, Maiden Circle, Crone Temple of Wisdom, Sage Temple, Dancing Shadows Lodge, Psyche’s Grotto, Rainbow, Amethyst Circle, and others. In addition, there are specialty camping areas such as Presenters, Music, Family, Disability, RV, and Woods camps.
This Gathering is also about experiencing and celebrating Community; creating a magical Pagan village together; sharing songs, meditations, rituals, food, ideas, fun, magic; sharing work as well as celebration; teaching and learning from each other; examining ourselves collectively and individually as part of Nature Spirituality and Pagan culture.
Finally, PSG is about experiencing personal transformation: purifying, balancing, centering and revitalizing ourselves through spiritual encounters; living fully as our magical Pagan selves in spiritual community and letting this process enrich our lives. It is about the freedom to be the Wise Ones we truly are, about connecting with our ancient roots and expanding our consciousness to shape tomorrows. It is about making Magic and more fully coming to know ourselves as individuals and as a people. It is about carrying the insights and energy we experience into our daily lives to help ourselves, others, and the community of life on Planet Earth and beyond.
Blessed Be, PSG!
Selena Fox, also known as Rev. Selena Fox, is senior minister of Circle Sanctuary and executive director of Pagan Spirit Gathering. PSG founding vision at the conclusion of this history is adapted from her PSG introduction published at the start of the 1981 and 2015 PSG program books. A version of this history is published in Issue 121 of CIRCLE Magazine.