Around this time last year, more than 300 people gathered at the Overton Park Shell to watch local musicians perform, attend workshops, and purchase crafts and other goodies. Many dined on the usual festival food -- corn dogs and funnel cakes -- and some used the opportunity to meet new people.
To casual observers, it looked like every other event at the shell. And then came the ritual.
About 25 individuals, some wearing robes, ascended the stage. As they formed a circle and called out the names of various gods and goddesses, it became obvious this was a unique event. A giant banner outside the fence of the shell announced "Pagan Pride Day 2003."
This year's festival is set for Sunday, September 26th, at the shell. Pagan Pride Day's Cerea, who asked the Flyer to use her craft name, is hoping the event will draw pagans and nonpagans alike.
"The purpose of Pagan Pride Day is to educate people about who we are so we can try to change those thoughts they have about us being devil worshipers and evil people," Cerea says.
Paganism is a broad term used to represent a number of different polytheistic beliefs. Wiccans, druids, shamans, and various other faiths fall under the pagan umbrella. It's a bit like using the term "Christian" to encompass all of its denominations.
While specific beliefs vary, pagans generally worship a number of gods and goddesses, and most believe those deities are part of one larger life force or creator. Paganism is also a nature-centered spirituality and is often characterized by a lack of strict doctrine. Pagans do not believe in Satan.
It's these basic tenets that Pagan Pride organizer Cerea and her team of over two dozen hope to teach nonpagans. Memphis' event is one of 135 planned for 44 states and seven countries this year. They are all part of the Pagan Pride Project (PPP), a nonprofit organization dedicated to eliminating prejudice based on religious beliefs. The first Pagan Pride Day celebrations were held in 1997, and there were only 18 throughout the U.S. and Canada.
The first event in Memphis was held in 1998 at Overton Park outside the gates of the shell. According to that event's organizer, Lynda Logan, about 50 people attended, while a few curious onlookers watched from a distance. Logan continued to organize Memphis festivals until she moved away in 2001.
"Then Cerea finally decided to quit waiting for someone else to do it," says Logan. "I turned all my ideas and contact numbers over to her, and she built what is now Pagan Pride Day in Memphis from the bare bones."
At Sunday's event, public ritual is planned, focusing on community-building and tolerance. Anyone, regardless of religion, may join in. Members of the Southern Delta Church of Wicca from Jonesboro, Arkansas, will also perform a skit about Mabon, a harvest holiday that celebrates the autumn equinox.
Pagan singer-songwriters such as Memphis' Skinny White Chick and Arkansas' Sede will play, and Rhythm Realm will entertain with drumming. The Shining Wheel Pagan Chorus from Clearwater, Florida, will perform ritual chants. Cedar Woman, a member of Summerland Grove's pagan church, will lead a Native American pipe circle.
There will be three workshops: one highlighting the differences between paganism and satanism, one on the importance of community, and another on druidism. A number of vendors will be selling everything from swords and etched glass to herbal soaps and dream pillows.
The festival is free, but Cerea suggests bringing two cans of food to be donated to Friends for Life. Last year, more than 300 pounds of food were collected for another local charity. When Cerea contacted the organization to tell them she had a donation, they never returned her calls. The food was eventually donated to Friends for Life.
Cerea sees the first charity's snub as the sort of prejudice she's hoping the event will quash. But she's ready for controversy.
"We're here to have fun, but everyone working on staff will have their eyes out for people trying to cause trouble," says Cerea. "We wouldn't cause problems at their church picnic, and we expect them to do the same." •
Pagan Pride Day will be held at the Overton Park Shell from 1 to 9 p.m. on Sunday, September 26th. For more information, go to http://www.geocities.com/paganpridememphis/PaganPride.htm