Event review: Mystic South 2019
Posted by Michelle Gruben on
Howdy! It’s me, your intrepid Pagan traveler with some notes from my first Mystic South event.
Mystic South, in case you haven’t heard of it, is a new-ish Pagan conference that happens every summer in Atlanta. Mystic South is a hotel-based weekend event and claims about 450 attendees. The event brings together Pagan authors, performers, and seekers from (mostly) the American South and Southeast. For us southerners, Mystic South is a welcome alternative to flying across the country to attend PantheaCon or going camping outdoors in the godawful heat.
Now in its third year, Mystic South is attracting A-list presenters and running like a well-anointed machine. I felt entertained, educated, and welcomed every minute of the weekend, and hope to return next year.
Mystic South was held this year at the Crowne Plaza Ravinia in the northern Perimeter area of Atlanta, some 24 miles from the airport. I flew from Dallas to Atlanta and took the MARTA light rail to the station near the hotel. It’s an easy 40-minute ride and costs about $3. I highly recommend this option over a taxi or Lyft, unless you have deep pockets. I'd never been to Atlanta and I don't have a smartphone for directions. But I figured it out, no problem.
Once at the hotel, the friendly Mystic South volunteers gave me a badge and printed event program. (I had registered online beforehand and scoped out the preliminary schedule.) I dropped my bags off at the check-in counter. And then it was off to my first session, a lecture on land magick with author and Druid priest John Beckett.
I hopped between workshops all afternoon, then went up to my room to get ready for a night out on the town...I mean, hanging around in the lobby with a bunch of goofy Witches.
With the exception of a few of the presenters, I didn’t know anyone at Mystic South. I’m shy and I was a bit anxious about traveling alone. However, I found most of the attendees to be friendly and approachable, and the hotel provided everything I need to be comfortable. (A/C and booze, mainly.) Aside from a short walk across the street for dinner, I spent the next three days at the Crowne Plaza immersed in a chatty, cerebral, magickal good time.
Mystic days and nights
I’ve been to many outdoor Pagan festivals. If you’ve read my Pagan festival guide, you can probably detect my mixed feelings about them. (To summarize: Love bonfires, starlight, and energy. Hate camping, sunburn, and bugs.) It’s a real treat to enjoy my favorite part of Pagan events—the people—in a space uninterrupted by weather and nature’s little annoyances.
Overall, the workshops were presented in a lecture or slideshow format in one of several meeting rooms, in one-hour time slots. Many authors were giving stripped-down or accelerated versions of longer classes, so it was helpful to have a phone or notebook to write things down. Handouts were minimal—yay for saving trees!—but most presenters have online resources available for later study.
Blessedly, I found that every single presenter started on time (often to the minute). Pagan Standard Time is like a naughty word at Mystic South—mentioning it won’t even get a polite chuckle. Cancellations and venue changes were few and adequately communicated, thanks to Mystic South's hardworking staff and volunteers.
At Mystic South, event programming begins at 8 or 9 in the morning and runs until evening, with short breaks for lunch and dinner. There are a minimum of five or six sessions going on at once, which inevitably requires some tough decisions. I chose workshops by authors whose books I’ve read and enjoyed, plus a few wildcards. Friday and Saturday were packed! Happily, there’s enough of a gap between sessions to grab a drink, have a book signed, or take a peek inside the vendors’ room.
Vendors? Oh yes! Usually, I’m vending at Pagan events—so it was wonderful to have the leisure time to shop on my own. Mystic South has a good mix of the usual jewelry and trinkets, apothecary items, original artwork, wood crafts, and a reader or two. I picked up a handmade brown and copper cloak from Gryphon’s Moon, a canvas print from Sylverlight Photography, and a handful of books from authors who were presenting at Mystic South.
This is my book haul from the weekend...all of them signed, none of them read (yet). Yep, I've got some homework this summer!
My favorite part of Mystic South was undoubtedly the Saturday night concert by Tuatha Dea. I’ve seen them about a half-dozen times now, and their special cocktail of Celtic, Appalachian, tribal drumming and classic rock never fails to get the party started. They are currently on tour and raising funds for a new tenth-anniversary recording, Project X.
After a little whiskey (Irish, of course!) I shook loose my inhibitions and spent the night doing my little faery wiggle on the dance floor. I wish I had taken more pictures, but due to the aforementioned beverages I thought it was prudent to leave my electronics in my room. (That’s me onstage in pink, dancing like a fool.)
Among the presenters, I especially enjoyed the workshops by Ivo Dominguez, Jr. and Jason Mankey. Ivo Dominguez, Jr. has a profound understanding of ritual magick and energy work. His book Casting Sacred Space is one I recommend over and over, especially to people interested in performing rituals in a group. I also snagged his new title, Keys to Perception, on the topic of psychic development.
I met Jason Mankey at another event in Denver last month after years of following his Patheos blog, Raise the Horns. He has a pragmatic, irreverent approach to Wicca that I find especially refreshing. I went to three of his workshops (my fave: "What's So Great About the Great Rite?"), and am currently reading his newest Llewellyn release, Transformative Witchcraft. (The photo is from Denver...I forgot to get one in Atlanta.)
Speaking of Llewellyn, on Saturday I wandered into a Llewellyn pitch meeting that was going on in one of the conference rooms. (This is basically an open session where aspiring authors get five minutes to present their book idea to a Llewellyn acquisitions editor. Think American Idol or Shark Tank for writers.)
It was an intense, busy hour and the nerves in the room were palpable. The session made me grateful for the following reasons: 1. We are in a Golden Age of spiritual publishing and there is an abundance of top-notch writing being produced every day on every conceivable occult topic. 2. I have a popular blog so I don’t have to give myself a heart attack by pitching a book in front of strangers, hooray for me!
Finally, I would be a bad sister if I didn't give a shoutout to the magickal Melanie Gruben. Melanie made her Eastern debut at Mystic South and presented a beautiful set of songs and poems on various aspects of the Fae. I've seen her show several times and she always brings something fresh and inspiring. Check out A Faery Song on her website, or get a CD copy right here at the Grove.
One of the first things you learn at Mystic South is that you cannot do it all. There were many positive encounters with presenters and attendees, more than I can mention here. Other notable guests included Thorn Mooney, Patti Wigington, Annwyn Avalon, Amy Blackthorn, and Byron Ballard.
So, should you go to Mystic South 2020?
Hotel conferences are not for everyone. Whenever I joke to my camping buddies that we should have next year's festival at the Marriott, I’m met with derisive stares. I love to sleep in a temperate, insect-free bedroom…but I can admit that it takes a skilled presenter to transform a dismal hotel meeting room into a space that feels remotely magickal.
Events at hotels also generally cost more to attend than outdoor festivals. At $100 for a weekend pass, I feel that Mystic South 2019 was an incredible value for the amount of content they provided. Still, with lodging and travel expenses, it’s a splurge for many folks. The conference (like all conferences) says that their room rate is the cheapest available—but I found a better rate by booking independently on Expedia, so I do recommend shopping around.
Mystic South bills itself as an academic conference, and the focus is on some of the drier aspects of the Pagan experience: Teaching, writing, teaching about writing, writing about teaching, Pagan history, the real Pagan history, the meanings of words, the real meanings of words, solving the problems of transphobia and colonialism from inside suburban hotel ballrooms, etc. (Pardon my snark, I’m just a grad school dropout who OD’d on cultural studies in the early aughts.)
It could have been very, very bad—but Mystic South, I believe, strikes the right balance between brainy and fun. They (wisely) keep the academic papers segregated from the non-academic workshops in a separate conference room. (Just kidding—I’m sure the papers were great and I wish everyone a future with much tenure and many citations.)
Still, those who are looking for ritual experience and hands-on interactions may be disappointed. With the exception of opening and closing rituals, Friday drum jam/karaoke, a late-night bondage workshop, and some discussion panels, it’s mostly a place to listen and learn. Crafts, skill workshops, and share circles aren't really on the menu at Mystic South. There are expressly no activities for children—which suits me just fine, but could be a drawback for larger families traveling together.
It’s worth mentioning that Mystic South is moving next year. Crowne Plaza Ravinia is proud of their newly renovated gardens and public spaces…a little too proud, it seems. In an effort to keep costs stable for registrants, Mystic South 2020 will be at the Hilton DoubleTree down the road. Both are good convention hotels, and while I will miss the Crowne Plaza's majestic greenhouse-inspired courtyard, it seems like a smart move for the organization.
Overall, I had a marvelous time at Mystic South. It’s astonishingly well-organized and packed with meaty workshops and presentations. My heart is full. My feet are sore. My reading list is long. My carry-on is heavy. It’s just like coming home from camping, but with less gear and fewer bug bites.
Thanks to everyone who chatted and danced with me! See you down the road.
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