Around 11,000 years ago — six millennia before Stonehenge was built or writing was invented — people started coming to the site known as Gobekli Tepe (“Belly Hill”) in what is now southeastern Turkey to erect a 25 acre complex of stone circles. It’s the earliest known human-made place of worship, constructed by our gatherer-hunter nomadic ancestors. What sort of rituals they performed there, what their notion of the divine was, we don’t know and may never understand for sure. But it may be the case that pilgrimages to this site, and the massive effort to coordinate the building and to feed the pilgrims, set the stage for the Neolithic revolution and the dawn of civilization. [Curry; Scaham; Schmidt]
People did not live long-term at Gobekli Tepe, they traveled there for whatever sort of rites were done, and it’s interesting to think that pilgrimage, travel for religious reasons, seems to predate civilization. In order to make spiritual progress, we have to keep shaking up our neurological patterns, and from the Islamic Haj to Zen monks wandering like “clouds and water” (unsui), travel is an excellent way to do that.
And it strikes me that the circuit of summer Pagan festivals provides something along this line. Pilgrims come from hundreds, even thousands, of miles to places like to Ramblewood and Wisteria to form periodic communities, temporary autonomous zones that appear, disperse, and reappear. The idea also applies in some degree to Burner events (Burning Man and the official and unofficial “regional” Burns) and even annual music festivals — and the emergence of music festivals that deliberately include some aspect of consciousness-raising is an interesting development — but I’d like to stick with festivals that identify as “Pagan” or “Pantheist” or “Magical” in some way here; specifically my “home event”, the Free Spirit Gathering, from which I’ve just returned.
I’ve been involved with FSG since 1998, in roles ranging from kitchen help to President of the Free Spirit Alliance, the 501(c)3 corporation that produces the event each year. So I can’t offer anything like an unbiased review. What follows are some personal musings and a bit of a look behind the scenes.