Burning Man festival a focus for parties, religious yearning

BLACK ROCK DESERT, Nev. (AP) -- Rising from the desert in one of the flattest, most remote places on earth is an 80-foot temple topped by the stylized figure of a man.

It wasn't here last week and it won't be here after Saturday night, except for a pile of ashes where it is to be ritually burned to the ground.

In one of the most bizarre rites of the Silicon Age, nearly 30,000 people are camped in the middle of the Nevada desert 90 miles north of Reno to build and then destroy a temporary city built around a religious icon.

"This can be anything from a kind of playfulness, to narcissism, to a more serious spiritual quest," said James Donahue, president of the Berkeley, Calif.-based Graduate Theological Union, a consortium of nine theological graduate schools. "It is what you make of it. People bring their own interests and desires to it."

At its most basic level, the annual Burning Man event is nothing more than a weeklong bacchanalia organized by a bunch of San Francisco-area dot-comers.

Yet since its spontaneous origin on a California beach 17 years ago, participants have often found deeper meaning in the elemental dance of the flames.

"The people who are going to Burning Man -- Boomers and Xers -- are the most educated generations in history. They're trained to question," said Jerome P. Baggett, who teaches religion and society at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, Calif.

They're more likely to see religion as a lifelong search for meaning, and to look beyond a single traditional faith, he said. For a week, they can experience mass rituals that can mean everything, or nothing at all.

Jill Jacobs of San Rafael, Calif., wearing a tiara, goggles and not much else, wrote prayers for herself and her friends on a memorial temple Friday afternoon.

"Burning Man touches something primal -- it doesn't have words," she said.

Never has Burning Man encouraged that search more than this year, with its most overtly spiritual theme yet -- "Beyond Belief."

"It's always been about 'beyond belief,"' Dwight Harbaugh of Palo Alto, Calif., said after taking his own turn portraying a modern Christ. "Maybe now we're calling it what it really is."

The Aztec-style pyramid and its wood-and-neon Burning Man mark the center of Black Rock City, with avenues laid out in the four primary directions. Concentric circles of streets carry such names as Authority, Creed, Dogma, Faith, Gospel, Reality and Vision. Cross streets are labeled Sacred, Profane, Real and Imagined.

The pyramid deliberately evokes ancient ceremonies and symbolic sacrifices that barely echo today in modern mainstream Western religions.

Costumed or painted pilgrims guided by "temple guardians" take turns filling one of 16 niches at the pyramid's base, becoming human shrines to whom passers-by are encouraged to leave offerings, primarily drawings, paintings and sculptures. Others come forward with flowers, buttons, beads and other trinkets.

Annette Himelwright of Klamath Falls, Ore., stripped off her virginal white diaphonous costume Friday afternoon and climbed onto the central of three crucifixes mounted near the pyramid.

"I couldn't tell you if it's about religion or not," she said, putting her clothes back on. "It's about a good time -- freedom."

Celebrants leave still more sacrificial offerings at altars within the wood and canvas pyramid, to be burned with the entire structure.

Jason Ayers of Phoenix dressed as a "neo-Pope" to visit the memorial temple where dozens of people wrote the names of loved ones on the intricately crafted and painted walls.

"There's really nothing else in the United States that lets people memorialize their loved ones and then burn it," he said.

They also climb to the top of the structure, where the Burning Man itself rises over "an omphallos," or "world navel," and looks out over a ground-level labyrinth.

In the distance is a second temple, this one dedicated to the dead. Visitors there leave more offerings to be burned during a second ritualistic conflagration Sunday night.

"It can be a religious experience, but there's no particular dogma that's adhered to," said Sarah Pike, who teaches religious studies at California State University, Chico. "Hundreds of people come and write messages to people who've died, to relatives, to friends who've committed suicide. This is moving for people who don't feel comfortable with organized religion."

Organizers and the setting itself actively encourage participants to shed their old views of themselves and their world.

They are literally in the wilderness, far from home, in a make-believe city with few rules other than "do no harm." Many are painted or masked, anonymous in a way that prompts a similar loss of inhibitions at Mardi Gras or Halloween parties.

"People talk about it being transformative," said Pike, who has written two scientific papers on the Burning Man phenomenon. "People do go there to party, or people go there to have life-changing experiences -- or people go there to party and have life-changing experiences."

Besides the cumulative immolations of the two temples, throughout the week there are drum circles, parades, yoga and meditation gatherings. Candles, incense and shrines to no one in particular are scattered around the tent city.

Gael Shepherd of Roseville, Calif., was dressed as a purple pagan goddess as she took a turn in a ceremonial niche in the pyramid on Friday.

"I'm a pagan and this is a chance for me to dress in a bizarre way, but also to flaunt my paganism," she said. "People have come up and blessed me and given me gifts" -- incense, a bracelet, a glow-in-the-dark star.

Jacques Rossouw of San Francisco sat in another niche playing haunting reverberating music on a didgeridoo, an instrument he learned living with an aboriginal family.

"I find Burning Man is spirituality without the church, without all the religious practices," he said. "It doesn't come with any of the traditional strings attached."


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