Pagan community leader organizes local festival, promotes tolerance

Local software developer and pagan Kurt Hohmann coordinates the Central New York Pagan Pride Festival each year to educate the community about the faith.

The phrase “Born Again Pagan” steered Kurt Hohmann on to a new path in his life’s journey about 20 years ago.

After seeing the words emblazoned on a bumper sticker in Salem, Mass. on a trip with his wife, Hohmann decided to do a little exploring.

“I’d obviously heard the term ‘pagan’ before, but I was like, ‘Who would put that on their car and why?’” Hohmann, now 48 and the local coordinator of the Central New York Pagan Pride Festival, said.

Photo: Megan Paolone
Kurt Hohmann discovered paganism about 20 years ago after a trip to Salem, Mass. He now coordinates the CNY Pagan Pride Festival each September in Liverpool.

He recalled entering the term on the early Internet protocol Gopher after the trip, and started reading: “While there seemed to be a diverse set of beliefs out there, there were a lot of things that I was very interested in and believed myself.”



Though his upbringing wasn’t “deeply religious,” Hohmann was raised evangelical Lutheran but said he began to develop more complex questions around age 16. “[The church] didn’t feel like a very good fit anymore, and though I completed my confirmation, I never went back after that.”

The next 15 years of Hohmann’s life became an important period of individual discovery. After spending four years “with no social life” at SUNY Buffalo completing his bachelor’s degree in engineering, “I needed to get back in tune with the more creative sides of my brain again,” Hohmann said.

He was hired as a civilian by the United States Air Force straight out of college, and did a great deal of solitary traveling for work, spending time alone in nature. The same type of spiritual enlightenment that Hohmann said others experience when they go to church, he encountered through his experiences with the natural world.

“I would be moved by things like sunsets … being clearly awed by that power,” he explained. “I had no idea what to call that, and I just figured, ‘OK this is me. I’m crazy just like everyone else.’”


Path to Paganism

Hohmann did a lot of informed wandering within the pagan faith during his years working at the Griffiths Air Force Base near Rome, N.Y., looking for communities and mentors locally, but also continually researching.

Used as an umbrella term, neopaganism as we know it today is a relatively new faith that dates back to the World War II era. The traditions “under the umbrella” are extremely varied, and consist of countless diverse communities attempting to reconstruct beliefs and oral traditions – particularly from pre-modern Europe prior to the spread of Christianity – relating to nature-based gods and goddesses with some common practices.

Since that trip to Salem, Hohmann said he has explored a number of faiths considered pagan, including Wicca (the most well-known version of modern paganism), shamanic and Native American traditions, and Druidism (identification with an Irish and Celtic pantheon of gods). Connecting with reconstructionists with different beliefs and exposing himself to divergent paths within the faith through both social gatherings and individual study, Hohmann said, has really guided him in defining his personal philosophy.

 “I would consider myself Heathen today … Those [Germanic and Norse] gods like Oden and Thor resonate with me best,” he said, citing a possible reason as his cultural heritage. He is a first-generation American with a German father.

In group practice, Hohmann participates in a spiritual drum circle in the area several times per month, and also with a collective of about 20 other pagans who primarily work individually.

“We’re a little chaotic,” he joked. The circle meets about eight times per year corresponding to the holidays and harvests on the pagan calendar to learn and worship. “Everyone brings a little piece of their spirituality to the others in the group so we all get exposure to different ideas.”


Quest for understanding

Mary Hudson, one of the members of Kurt’s circle and the pagan chaplain of Hendricks Chapel at Syracuse University, said the fluid discourse within the group translates really well to Kurt the individual, whom she considers a true scholar. She’s known him since 2001.

“Kurt’s always learning, searching and reaching to understand,” Hudson said. “He’s the guy that likes to build bridges between people.”

It’s this type of attitude that led to Kurt’s involvement in SPIRAL, the Student Pagan Information Relations and Learning group at SU that Hudson leads, as well as his decision to pursue a master’s degree in divinity.

Kurt and his wife Sam met in high school, and started dating during their college years. Though they’re both pagan, they practice both separately and concurrently since they have distinct beliefs and their own spiritual path.

Sam said Kurt is always helping others, “But he never asks for anything in return.” She described him as easy-going and generous, and recalled a time that she was up late working at their home in the woods in Palermo, N.Y. and heard a loud bang. Seeing that the roof of their garage had collapsed, Sam woke Kurt up, who responded in a way that she said truly exemplifies his laid-back disposition: “Well, at least we don’t have to paint the f--ker.” 


The festival

Kurt’s “pagan-related activities” are varied and far-reaching, but seem to culminate in social gatherings like the local CNY Pagan Pride Festival he coordinates, which celebrated its 13th year this past Saturday. “The festival’s primary goal is education,” Kurt said. “But it’s also an opportunity for the entire [pagan] community to come together for a day.”

The festival, held in Long Branch Park in Liverpool, marked the coming of the autumn equinox or Mabon, Sept. 22, which is an important holiday on the pagan calendar. For many pagan traditions it marks the end of the harvest and a time for giving thanks.

The sun shone as a cool breeze blew through the park, carrying the thick smell of incense from various vendors through the air. Visitors walked through grounds looking at the vendors and stopping by the workshops and performances, some dressed in brightly colored capes and dresses, others in jeans and T-shirts.

Clad in colorful skirts with many scarves and jingling hip wraps, Adi Shakti World Fusion Bellydance celebrated the divine feminine with a performance in Faerie Hollow in the center of the park early in the afternoon; onlookers swayed gently to the music. Members of SPIRAL did tarot card readings, while other booths offered oracle and palm readings. Luna Towndrow of Luna’s Creations, who has been coming to the festival for 12 years, sold herbs like mugwort, elder berry and cat claw bark for tea and home remedies.

Other vendors sold handmade crafts like jewelry, magic wands and crystal balls, as well as “witch’s calendars,” tarot cards and introductory pagan literature. There were talks on ghost hunting, Reiki and the magical use of household herbs, as well as a talk called “What is Paganism?” for those who came to the festival to learn.  

 It was the interactive rituals like drum circles and dancing, however, that made the experience so special. At 1 p.m. everyone gathered in Gaia’s Glen at the base of the park’s hill for the main harvest ritual led by the Grove of the Golden Horse. Participants gathered in a large circle with a basin of candles in the center, an altar on one side and four flags on the outside – each meant to represent a season.

Hohmann, standing near the top of the hill, looked down at the circle and began banging a drum fastened to his waist. A woman dressed in a long green gown and grey cape answered his beat with her own drum with a mallot, signaling the beginning of the ritual. The people forming the circle stood close together and looked on intently as the ritual’s leader began to speak, “What a beautiful day it turned out to be!”


Breaking the stereotype

Outside of coordinating the festival, Kurt works as a software developer for NaviSite in Liverpool, but said he doesn’t parade his beliefs around the office.

“I don’t like to throw [my faith] in anybody’s face,” Kurt said, and likened identifying himself to his family, neighbors and co-workers as pagan to coming out of the closet. “In most cases, the more you push it, they more they don’t seem to care.”

Kurt’s long-time, nonpagan friend Lee Livermore, who is a consultant and public health education coordinator in the Syracuse area, is working on a self-help book as part of his work as a professional speaker and life coach. Kurt, who also writes creatively, is lending a hand as a writing guide and editor.

Livermore also works with Kurt in a goal-setting group regularly, and said he truly looks to open up the minds of others to new ideas and opportunities.

“I respect him for who he is and what he can offer to others,” Livermore said. “[Kurt] really wants to experience life for all it has to offer, and he does it all in a really humble way.”

For many, the term pagan might conjure to mind the image of a woman in a pointed witches’ hat, or even the Hollywood-induced idea of satan-worshippers sacrificing babies at an altar. They’re images that Kurt, who is kind and approachable with graying hair and a beard, upends completely.

“I think a big part of paganism is just tolerance of other ideas,” Hohmann said. “I think a lot of people get this mental image [of what a pagan is] … and I don’t think realize that the person they could be sitting next to on the bus or at the office could be practicing something very different. Chances are they’re not going to be wearing their black robes to work.”

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