6/01/2012

Pagan trans-boundary networking

This blog post is about cooperation and networking between pagan communities from different countries. It is mostly related to the case of The Czech Republic and Austria. If I wanted this to sound really cool I would have called it a case study. Sadly, all I can offer is a limited insight of a biased individual. I will talk mostly about situation in The Czech Republic (in my surroundings), why I think this CZ/AT case developed the way it did and which factors were not really relevant.

In absolute numbers, I am aware of quite a large number of individuals from The Czech Republic who have travelled long distances to meet people who share the same interests. We are talking about people with desire to learn, to share experience and to enjoy the pagan ways with people that speak different languages and have different cultural backgrounds. I know I am contradicting my prevous post here, but again... let's put the word "large" into perspective. I am talking about 25 people maximum. Most of them are my friends. That makes my perspective even more biased. For some reason, people around me are probably a minority which is attracted to meeting people from different countries and to learning from them. Me being a notorious travel-hater makes this even more of a paradox, but that's not the point. Now, let's add to this perspective.

One or two years ago we had a global country-wide census. It was considered a big thing among the Czech pagan community at that time, mostly because it was seen as a opportunity to make a first step towards recognition by national authorities. The local branch of Pagan Federation International even contacted  authorities dealing with the census with a request - to include "paganism" into the census as one of the religions. Other pagan groups followed with their individual requests for the same thing. Interestingly, this endeavour was an unquestionable success. And no matter how important this success was for the future developement (time will tell), one thing is for certain. We now know that there is over 800 people in this country willing co call themselves pagan. My opinion is that one should add a bit to that number because of various rogue individuals (whithout need of state recognition) who wrote "Wiccan" as their religion (yes, this is a confession) or any other of their specific paths. To get back to the point, my estimate based on this would be that less than 5 percent of Czech pagans ever travelled abroad with the purpose of meeting other pagans or to learn or just to make friends. Yes, I know that the assumptions I made here are so blatant that one can hear them scream from this page. The two main points are that in relative terms, the number is probably very little (so my previous blog post is still valid) and that what I am going to say is very subjective, because it is based on a small sample. 

So to be more specific, I know at least one guy with a good contacts with Slavic groups in Russia. I know about at least five ecclectics that learned about witchcraft abroad. I know few people that made contacts with Wicca in foreign countries and traveled there. And here I do not refer only to Austria. Netherlands, Germany and Poland are the first to come to my mind. Few others travelled because of their link to ADF, OBOD and druidry in general. Of course, people have individual links to other people from all over Europe, even the World. But I believe that these people are still a small minority.

I don't know details about other cases of cooperation between groups and communities from other countries, so my following thoughts might be completely uninteresting. Perhaps all this is that will follow is completely normal. Yes, I also know that the Wiccan world in Europe is a very fluid thing crossborder-wise, but that's outside of the scope of this blog.

My main observation is that the Czech pagan community never really managed to establish a strong link to any country, with the exception of Austria. I say 'my observation', because it can apparently much further away from the real picture than how would I be willing to admit. When I say 'strong link' I mean cooperation between groups of people which involves regular participation on various events abroad, a regular contact, a regular communication and cooperation between multiple people, even multiple groups, and through various links, not just individuals. Strong link also means that there is a constant stream of influence in both directions. Speaking in numbers, we are talking about approximately 30 or more people in total, from both countries.

In this particular case (The Czech Republic and Austria), this prominently involves two sister events - Broomstick Rally Austria and Bohemian Moravian Witches' Conference attended by multiple people and groups from the other country every year. The cross-attendance does not only involve Wiccans that usually organize these things. It also involves both OBOD and ADF druids, shammans, ecclectics, one entire hereditary witchcraft group and even one native American. Many of the friendships which started at one of these two sister events got completely independent and began to live their own lives - creating other events or cooperation when organizing them (such as Damh the Bard's concert every year, but there is more). There is actually more than five years of history of cooperation between these two sister events that started the whole thing. This phenomenon is unprecedented in this country and there is nothing similar to it yet as far as I know.

Now the good question would be: Why Austria? And it's a good question indeed. 

The Czech Republic has a historical link to Slovakia. This link involves similar culture, a very similar language and almost a century of being one country. One would assume that The Czech Republic and Slovakia would be the countries where pagan communities mostly cooperate. You might be surprised. It's not necessarily the case. There are individuals visiting events in the other country from time to time of course, and I believe this is mostly the case with Slavic reconstructionists (I still think there is some link hidden from my sight, but who knows) and Asatru some years ago. But until lately there has been no real and strong cooperation between groups I would have noticed. The first such events that popped in my radar (well, I have actually participated) was a joint event of Slovak PFI members and Czech PFI members. And to be fair, the Czech part was mostly organized by people running a website called Stezky pohanstvi. To conclude this point, yes things are moving slowly on this particular border, not without problems and some drama, but the direction seems promising.

When it comes to other neighbouring countries, there have been individual contacts mostly. To complement this recount, let me note that you might have read about a planned Wyrd Camp, which was a specific case of intended cooperation of many European PFI branches that did not actually happen in the end of the day. I myself wasn't really involved in PFI stuff at that point of time, so I am not going to provide any opinion on this.

The historical and political circumstances surrounding the Czech/Austrian border are definitely not the best ones. When I was a kid (and here I refer to the communist era, yes I am that old) I learnt about Austrian Empire in our history classes. You guess right, we were told it was bad, oh very bad indeed. We were also told that the Czech nation was enslaved and exploited and that our culture suffered great damage because of this. There might be a certain portion of truth in this (I had to say it, I consider myself a patriot too), but this image seemed to be quite hammered into the minds of my generation way more than necessary. And on the other side of the border, The Czech Republic is still supposed to belong to the Eastern Europe governed by communists or Russian mafia. One should better not mention such controversies as Temelin or BeneŇ° decrees, but hey, there you go. I think Austria is probably the most unlikely case of friendship from this point of view. Yet it happened.

So, at least we have clarified what is more or less irrelevant in this equation. Languages, politics and political history surrounding borders. It's irrelevant at least to the people that are involved in this particular cross-country cooperation. It somehow appears to be a non-issue for druids, ecclectics and Wiccans. I have already heard people being perplexed, saying weird stuff about this Czech-Austria thing. So I can imagine how strange this must be for anyone unable to distinguish between nationalism and religion, but apparently it works despite these circumstances. Therefore my general conclusion based on this experience is, that geo-political situation and language do not necessarily imply a strong cooperation of pagan communities from two neighbouring countries and that they do not prevent them from developing it either. Apparently it is not about countries, languages, regions of Europe and cultures themselves, but about people and their relationships. 

The case I am speaking of is a prime example. The whole thing spontaneously developed around a particular Wiccan 'family' having its 'headquarters' in Vienna, but including people living in both countries. So in the beginning there was nothing else than a firm friendship and shared spiritual experience of few individuals. The current situation I have described earlier haven't developed over night. The two most notable periods of time are 2006 when Czechs started to attend Broomstick Rally and 2009 when people from Austria started to attend Bohemian-Moravian Witches' Conference. And it actually took 9 years to fully blossom, since the initial contact via Witchvox and PFI took place in 2003. Needless to say, without these two extremely useful means of networking, who knows what would or would not happen?

The following process however have been purely organic, with no particular plan, objective or intention, and got way beyond the Wiccan part of it.  One can say this just happened, because people have build more and more links and new friendships and that they were interested in activities of friends on the other side of the border. It also developed because of a core group of people from both countries that have kept regular contacts, but there are other important factors. The fact that there are active OBOD members or druids in both countries definitely helped. And in my opinion, a similar way of thinking and large amount of mature (well, not all the time, but you get the point) people from both countries contributed a lot as well.

I myself do not know whether this organic and spontaneous development that slowly builds up from very little, is the typical way how pagan communities of different countries (of different languages) form intense contacts. But the limited experience I have suggests that it is indeed a very stable, steady and healthy way how it could happen. I am deliberately not using vocabulary such as 'achieved', 'organized', etc. It seems to me to be something like that either happens or not, regardless any planning or concept.

Now few final words to this wall of text. Not only would it be cool to call this a case study. I think underlining this with a prognosis or vision of bright future would be even better. So where are we heading with all this? Well, for my part, I don't know. Yes, it's as simple as that. I can't wait to see my Austrian friends again and very much look forward to the next Broomstick Rally Austria. That's pretty much all I need to know. Nothing else matters.





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