Pagans and Renaissance Faires

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Pagans and Renaissance Faires

RenFaire isn't specifically Pagan, but you'll see a lot of us there. Image by Dave Fimbres Photography/Moment Open/Getty Images

Every year, especially in the fall, I get a few emails from people asking why Pagans seem to really dig the cultural phenomenon of the Renaissance Festival or Faire. This got me wondering – I myself go to a nearby RenFest each year. I pick a weekend in September, get dressed up in full garb, and drive two hours to spend a day with my friends in the town of Willy-Nilly On the Wash. We drink mead, flirt with large jousters, and we helpfully point confused, non-garbed visitors to the nearest privy (there seems to be an assumption at RenFest that if you’re in garb, you automatically know where stuff is).

On the other hand, I’m under no illusions about the renaissance or medieval eras being any sort of wonderful utopias either – I’d have probably died in childbirth or the plague or whatever the disease du jour was, and heaven knows that sanitation and hygiene were not exactly a priority.

That said, though, I started thinking about this – I really do run into a LOT of other Pagans at RenFest. While the Renaissance Festival, whichever one you may be attending, isn’t inherently Pagan itself, it’s definitely a Pagan-magnet. Why is this? I had a few thoughts about this, and obviously this is hardly a scientific journal, but just something based on my own observations and discussions with people I’ve encountered who are both Pagans and RenFest-goers.

Renaissance Festival as Counterculture

Despite the portrayal of Ye Olde Merry Days Gone By, today’s Renaissance Festivals are not, in fact, a thing of centuries past. They actually started up in the 1960s and 70s, in California. Author Rachel Lee Rubin, in her book Well Met: Renaissance Faires and the American Counterculture, refers to the whole thing as “a 50 year-long party, communal ritual, political challenge and cultural wellspring.”

Rubin’s work, which traces the evolution of the 1960s festivals created by Phyllis Patterson to the commercial juggernauts of today’s faires, theorizes that the founding of RenFaire and other festivals were a direct response to the bleak America of the post-Vietnam era. It was a revolt against all of the modern conveniences that America stood for, and for a short period – whether it was a full weekend or a single afternoon – people could get together in brightly colored clothing that they’d sewn themselves, watch bawdy Shakespearean presentations, buy and sell handmade craft items, and forget about their mundane lives. The original event, known as the Renaissance Pleasure Faire, was considered a bit subversive and radical.

It was make-believe on a grand scale, and welcomed to people who were creative and freethinking, during a period in American history in which gender roles and sexual practices were shifting and changing at an alarming rate. Many of the people who, for these reasons and more, embraced the institution of the 1970s Renaissance Faires just happened to be Pagan as well.

Early Harvest Festivals and Fairs

All of the above, of course, is not to say that the Renaissance Festival has nothing at all to do with early history. Back in the Merry Days of Yore, most people’s lives revolved around agriculture and the changing seasons. You followed the weather to know when to plant and when to harvest, and once that harvest was done, it was a time of great celebration, not just for individuals, but also for entire communities. Harvest festivals, country fairs, and even games of strength and stamina took place around the time that the crops were being gathered.

In many rural areas, fall was a time to meet up with your neighbors, plan your employment for the coming year, sell your livestock and crops, and even find a future spouse. Today, a lot of larger Renaissance Festivals take place during the autumn months, around the Mabon season, as homage to our agrarian history.

Renaissance Festivals Today

If you live in the United States, chances are good that you’re within a few hours drive of a big RenFaire. Vendors have figured out that while the Festival itself isn’t specifically Pagan, an awful lot of the guests are, which means you’ll see a lot of Pagan Stuff there.

In other words, don’t be surprised if right next to the woman weaving straw baskets and floral crowns at her booth, you see a guy with a cart selling stained glass triple moons, or a wall hanging with the Wheel of the Year on it. It means that after you’ve watched the joust and eaten more turkey legs than you should, one of the King’s Men may well tip his hat to you, look pointedly at your Very Obviously Pagan necklace, and call out “Nice pent!”

So is a RenFaire a Pagan event? Not at all. Is it something important to Pagans? Not necessarily, depends on the individual. But what a Renaissance Festival does have is many of the elements that attract today’s Pagans – creativity, a chance to live a bit of a fantasy life for a day or two, and the opportunity to encounter other Pagans in the wild. Not only that, it's fun. All of these make it worth the time it takes to sew up some garb and go enjoy yourself – and if you happen to spot me at Willy-Nilly on the Wash, be sure to say hello!