press sectional graphic


Setting the Record Straight on Burning Man Myths
(and a few new ideas)
by Larry Harvey

Top Six Burning Man Myths
  1. Burning Man is a Pagan event
  2. Burning Man is a 90's Woodstock
  3. Burning Man is a hippie festival
  4. Burning Man is based on the "Wicker Man'"
  5. Burning Man is an apocalyptic anarchist party
  6. Burning Man was founded when Larry Harvey did...

I invite you to read about the following myths and then consider some alternative ideas about Burning Man. However, there's always the easy way out.

Hundreds of accounts of Burning Man have been recorded and written over the years. Intriguing images of our event are inexhaustible. Sensational descriptions abound. The market for such material, however, is ultimately limited. Facts dwindle, fashions change, and images grow stale. The only renewable resource for a journalist is a good story.

Ironically, because of the sensational nature of Burning Man, the actual story of our event remains largely unexplored. Indeed, certain anomalous facts suggest the lurking presence of a much more interesting story than has been widely reported. Why does Burning Man persistently lurk in the media in so many unexpected and elusive ways? Why are so many people from the communications and computer industries drawn to it as participants? How has a supposedly "underground" occurrence gained such status, and why has news of this "alternative" event continued to spread in so diverse a fashion? It has been called a "hippie" event, a "cyber" event, a "pagan" event, and an "anarchist" event. How could it possibly be all of these things, and why does the scale of it continue to increase so rapidly? In order to answer any of these questions, it is first necessary to clear aside some debris.

Media Myth #1

Burning Man is a pagan event

In the popular imagination, paganism is associated with forbidden forms of pre- or anti-Christian worship, including witchcraft, Satanism, ritual orgies, animal and human sacrifice, and secret gatherings. Modern paganism is, in fact, a loosely organized syncretistic religious movement with roots in the Celtic Revival of the 19th century and popular writings of the 20th century. Its practices are benign, and its structure is informal. It is characterized by various animistic beliefs and magical rituals.

Practitioners of paganism often belong to small social groups. The contemporary history of paganism, particularly in northern California, intermingles with counter-cultural movements of the 1960s. Pagan affiliation is often more a matter of lifestyle than sectarianism. As a romantic revival of ancient tradition, it largely derives from literary sources. The assumption that a modern pagan is a member of a sinister and secret cult is like assuming that a Shriner is a practitioner of Egyptian mysteries. Moreover, labeling a man in a Viking helmet, body paint ,and thong a "pagan" is like asserting that a college boy, attired in a toga, is an ancient Roman.

Burning Man was not founded by pagans, and we have never attached any kind of supernatural dogma to its practices. Undoubtedly, the act of pilgrimage to a remote location and the ritual sacrifice of a ceremonial figure has real religious resonance for many people, and any spiritual faith, however arrived at, is certainly worthy of respect. Valid comparisons have also been drawn between events at Burning Man and religious ceremonies in the ancient world -- in particular, the observances of the Mystery Religions of the Hellenic and Roman eras.

The ritual aspects of Burning Man, however, have wholly evolved in the context of artistic endeavor, and their significance, as with any work of art, is explicitly left open to interpretation. It is undoubtedly true that modern pagans, along with fans of UFO's, yetis, and many other creeds or constructs of belief prevalent in popular culture have been attracted to Burning Man. It is also probable that an equal number have been repelled by our refusal to endorse esoteric notions. In any case, it is unlikely that their numbers exceed their proportion in the general population. Indeed, judging from the prevalence of wonder stories featured in tabloid publications at supermarkets, such convictions are probably underrepresented. Participants in Burning Man tend to be highly educated, often work in the professions, and are likely to be more familiar with the writings of Debord, Baudrillard, and other postmodern intellectuals than with the works of Edgar Cayce.

Media Myth #2

Burning Man is a 90's Woodstock

The famous Woodstock Festival was a rock concert that got out of hand. Thousands of young people crashed the gate, a rainstorm ensued, and kids danced in the mud. These two events -- a nation of youth on the march and the outbreak of spontaneous celebration, both wholly unplanned -- are what made it memorable. Otherwise, it was just a commercial music concert.

Burning Man intentionally creates a noncommercial environment in which spontaneous activity is free to happen, but here this partial resemblance ends. Burning Man is not a "youth" event. Many people in their 20's and early 30's attend, but so do people from every other part of the age spectrum. The latest tendency is the appearance of family reunions, uniting parents, sons and daughters, grandparents and kids. This is hardly characteristic of a youth counterculture. Furthermore, Burning Man is not a concert. Participants come to Burning Man in order to entertain one another, not to consume headline entertainment. This may take any form and is not limited by the conventions of any subculture. Participants are entirely responsible for providing their own music, and the result is eclectic. Except for a small stage for acoustical music in our central cafe, participants create their own venues. Musicians who desire a stage must build it themselves.

Media Myth #3

Burning Man is a hippie festival

This assertion is related to the Woodstock myth. Hippie-ism was a movement produced by the convergence of the Baby Boom and the Great Society. Hippies helped create environmental ethics, founded communes, wore colorful clothing, courted mysticism, and distrusted the modern industrial economy. In some ways, this counterculture bears a resemblance to aspects of Burning Man. Hippie society was also a youth movement that often revolved around drugs, music, and checks from home.

Burning Man is about "radical self-reliance" -- it is not a youth movement, and it is definitely not a subculture. Participants in Burning Man return to very diverse lives when the they leave the playa. Journalists often attribute massive drug use to participants, and yet the number of drug-related medical emergencies we encounter represent only a fraction of those that would routinely occur at an ordinary rock concert. It is, however, easy to assume that a naked individual painted with polka dots has taken some kind of hallucinogenic. To paraphrase our Survival Guide, within an activist community in which consciousness is already altered -- and in 110 degree heat -- perhaps the ingestion of drugs is not a creative choice. It appears that a majority of Black Rock City citizens have heeded this advice.

Finally, in the face of assertions that Burning Man is a hippie-fest, it should be remembered that this is the 21st century, and most "hippies" are concerned about their kids, have passed 50 years of age, and, if they come to Burning Man, are more likely to do so in a rented RV with a shower than a painted school bus.

Media Myth #4

Burning Man is based on the "Wicker Man"

The Wicker Man is a film starring Edward Woodward as an earnest Methodist who is burned alive inside a huge human effigy woven from wicker. The provenance of this is Celtic, and alludes to human sacrifice as practiced by pre-Christian pagans of the British Isles. In The Golden Bough, Sir James Fraiser informs us that the practice of burning large wicker effigies survived in Europe among the folk of Normandy past the turn of the 19th Century. In the movie, made in 1973, Woodward plays a policeman dispatched to a remote British island to investigate the disappearance of a young woman. Here, he discovers a surviving remnant of the ancient pagan culture -- an odd cross between fantasies of unbridled Nature worship and a louche version of the London Mod scene (leeringly presided over by Christopher Lee).

The movie is part kitsch, part classic, and has nothing to do with Burning Man. The giant human figure pictured in this movie, stuffed with chickens, goats and, of course, the hapless Methodist, bears very little resemblance to his supposed American cousin. Larry informs us that he had not seen this film in 1986 when he first burned the Man. However, while listening to the sound track of a video made in 1988 at Baker Beach, he did hear a bystander shout, "Wicker Man". Provoked by this, it occurred to him that "Lumber Man", would be a more appropriate, though not particularly inspiring, name. He decided to call the figure (which had been anonymous), "Burning Man", and so it has remained. Any connection of Burning Man to "Wicker Man" in fact or fiction -- or, for that matter, to Guy Fawkes, giant figures burned in India, or any other folk source- -- is purely fortuitous.

Media Myth #5

Burning Man is an apocalyptic anarchist party

The popular notion of anarchy revolves around the ideal of total freedom, and this is naturally applied to our event. In its crudest form, this results in the assertion that, "you can do anything at Burning Man", yet this is not quite the case. Burning Man promotes "radical self-expression". Our literature recommends a broad tolerance of other peoples tastes and ideas, and, unquestionably, the 1st amendment is better exercised in Black Rock City than in any other community in America. This tolerance, however, has never extended to anti-social acts. Our temporary city is consciously designed to create an intense sense of community. It forms an ordered civic entity that is created with the aid of hundreds of volunteers. Like any such community, it has rules and these are published in our Survival Guide. Far from glorying in displays of diesel powered destruction, we have actually banned the use of motor vehicles. The display and use of firearms is also prohibited. This myth is partly the result of confusing certain exhibitions of machine art with "Mad Max" scenarios, a popular movie-inspired fantasy. The comparison summons up visions of a gutted landscape populated by violent outlaws. Yet, what self-respecting version of Armageddon would create its own volunteer security corps numbering in the hundreds? It is a fatuous association, and mainly derives from the fact that many of the artworks at Burning Man are, in fact, burned. This is part of an esthetic which focuses on immediacy and evanescence and is more related to our Leave No Trace and Tread Lightly policy of land use, than to thoughtless mayhem and destruction.

Philosophic anarchism, on the other hand, does have a long intellectual pedigree that relates to certain aspects of Burning Man. The essential anarchist idea is that cooperation and mutual aid are the natural state of man. All that is necessary for harmonious living, it is held, are certain useful customs that have no need of law to insure respect-- and, largely, we have found this to be true. The basic rules of Burning Man are only ten, and such as may be understood by anyone with common sense. Our Black Rock Rangers practice non-confrontational techniques that work quite effectively. Through careful community planning we have created a city of thousands where serious crime is virtually unknown-- certainly well below the rate in any comparable city.

Media Myth #6

Burning Man was founded when Larry Harvey burned a statue that represented:
a. himself
b. his broken heart
c. his ex- girlfriend
d. his ex-girlfriend's new boyfriend
e. his ex-girlfriend's lawyer
f. all of the above

All of these answers are incorrect. This myth began in 1994 when Larry incautiously informed Larry Gallagher, a journalist writing for Outside Magazine, that, on reflection, he thought that the time and place of the first burning of the Man coincided with a sentimental anniversary of a lost love affair. He still thinks this is true and adds that he can also attribute some part of the conception of the wooden man to his father -- a man of more than ordinary stature and a carpenter. He adds that psychoanalysis could probably reveal several more personal associations. He is, however, adamant in insisting that Burning Man was never intended to actually represent anything, nor were any of the current associations with this act actually present in his mind in 1986. "It was simply," he assures us, "an act of radical self-expression."

This genie, however, is now out of the bottle, and the story of Larry's intentions, in its myriad forms, seems destined (without your help) to travel around the world.

Ideas we've found useful

The many labels attached to Burning Man often represent a groping for superlatives. Mad Max meets Disneyland meets 2001 meets Woodstock certainly sounds impressive. In reality, of course, these are attempts to compare Burning Man with something already known and familiar. However, what makes Burning Man news is its newness and its pertinence to our present time, not any incidental resemblance to entertainment products or events that have occurred during the last 40 years. To explain some of this novelty, the following ideas may prove useful:

Idea #1

Burning Man is a populist phenomenon

Burning Man eludes many demographic categories. It transcends divisions of age, income, and class, and it does not exhibit the normal boundaries of a subculture. This is because it is essentially a populist phenomenon. Populist movements tend to be egalitarian and easily accessible. They appeal to a common denominator in human nature and spread at a grassroots level. Very often they are reformist and seek to redress perceived ills in society at large. They also appeal to the need for community among those who feel uprooted and powerless to effect change. They spread very quickly, often by word of mouth. They operate beyond the boundaries of established institutions, and they are synthetic in nature -- often combining groups of people who normally adhere to very different bodies of belief. Populist movements inspire immense enthusiasm.

Idea #2

Burning Man is propagated on the Internet

This is a continuation of the previous idea. The Internet is, in several ways, an inherently populist medium. Unlike conventional media, the Internet is radically accessible, interactive, egalitarian, and non-hierarchic. It is not easily made subject to central control. Because it is so readily available to vast numbers of people, it has the potential to generate manifold personal connections that transcend normal boundaries within our society. Burning Man is an analog of this process. It forms a concrete image of the Internet. Participants in Burning Man are empowered to create unique virtual worlds of their own devising, much as web sites can be generated within cyberspace. They are also enabled to interact with other people on the basis of an absolute equality. People are judged at Burning Man for what they do and immediately manifest. Furthermore, Burning Man does not advertise itself in any conventional sense. Its method of propagation has been person-to-person, and, in recent years, this communication has principally occurred on the Internet. Many groups distributed over a large geographic area now meet in real time and real space -- precipitated into social contact by Burning Man and the communication tools provided by modern computer technology.

Idea #3

Burning Man is a social experiment

Burning Man is very obviously a celebration. It forms an endless spectacle of self-expression. However, this Mardi-Gras-like atmosphere sometimes obscures its underlying order. Such actions are colorful and easy to report, yet, due to their very strangeness, yield little in the way of interpretation. Burning Man is certainly a kind of party, but it is also a carefully crafted social experiment. Talk of community at Burning Man is not merely shorthand for a loosely shared life-style. The physical and social infrastructures of Black Rock City are devised with certain goals in mind. We have tried to create an environment that functions as an incubator of the social process that give rise to human culture and this, by extension, functions as a critique of society at large. This utopian agenda may appear grandiose, but in our actual efforts, sustained over 22 years, we have employed very pragmatic methods. Every year we literally wipe the blank face of the Black Rock Desert clean, and, unencumbered by historic dispositions of property, power or established social status, originate our world anew. Black Rock City does not exist to illustrate some exalted theory of human nature. Instead, we have worked with human nature, year after year, with the sole purpose of producing a model of society that connects people in a dynamic way.

Idea #4

Burning Man is an alternative to mass culture and consumer society

This idea is related to the last. It explains much of the content of Burning Man as a social experiment. It also helps to explain the nature of its popularity. The continual emphasis on such concepts as radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, immediate experience, Leave No Trace and Tread Lightly is part of a critique of consumer society. This is made especially evident by our traditional ban on all vending. In 1998 a small group of participants were arrested at the event for selling quantities of drugs. This was done by the Washoe County police in close cooperation with our Black Rock Rangers. The action was met with widespread approval by participants. The offending parties had violated our rule against vending. In a 1997 piece produced by Nightline, a participant repeatedly proclaims to the camera, "It's better than TV! It's better than TV!" This anti-consumerist passion also accounts much of the distrust of the media that is sometimes exhibited at Burning Man. Our policy has always been pro-media, and we work closely with journalists to give them access to stories. It should be recognized, however, that some participants are not necessarily flattered by the prospect of 15 seconds of fame. We strongly recommend that journalists present themselves as participants in the experience. For the majority of participants this anti-consumerist message is not an ideology -- it is an ingrained ethic that is inherent in all aspects of the event. For many, Burning Man is a specific antidote for the passivity, anonymity, and alienation of modern society, and this explains its populist appeal to such a wide array of people. Survivalists, counter-culturalists, communication industry professionals, users of the Internet, blue-collar workers, artists, young people, retirees, Democrats, Republicans -- all seem agreed on one thing: Burning Man feels, in a very immediate way, like part of a solution to our modern malaise.

Idea #5

Burning Man supports a "gift economy"

Perhaps, the most radical characteristic of Black Rock City is our ban on commercial activity. Journalists often report on our event as if it were a "festival", but the colorful stalls and amusements featured at festivals are normally aspects of commercial activity. In this sense, Burning Man is not a festival at all, but a community. The countless art works, theme camps and participatory events that create this public environment are freely contributed by our citizens. Reporters sometimes write of Burning Man as if Black Rock City were a colossal theme park and these things had been provided by a vendor, but this is to miss the essential story behind the spectacle. In the past, the best accounts of Burning Man have focused on the efforts of people as they prepare to participate in this massive exercise in gift giving. Every theme camp or art work represents hundreds of hours of effort undertaken by a network of committed participants. Why are they willing to do this? The story of their tribulations and travails, as they struggle to create these public gifts in a sometimes harsh and challenging environment, is one worth telling. It gives human scope and dimension to the many extravagant spectacles you'll observe in Black Rock City. Burning Man doesn't simply "happen". It is the result of serious and passionate moral commitment. Why are all these people willing to travel hundreds of miles and, in some cases, spend thousands of dollars in order to give something to strangers? Ask them.

Idea #6

The significance of Burning Man extends beyond the event

Burning Man is not confined to the artificial limits of Black Rock City. It is more than an event. It has become a social movement. Very typically, participants found significant new relationships or resolve to undertake ambitious projects as a result of their experience. Just as often, they end old relationships, deciding to get divorced or quit their jobs. The typical statement one hears sounds like a conversion experience: "Burning Man has changed my life", and this is manifestly true. Few remain indifferent or return sated, as from a consumption-oriented experience. These changes also have a larger social consequence. The prospect of thousands of people sharing resources and engaging in highly cooperative, collaborative and creative endeavors, has inspired many to begin new enterprises or originate their own events. These efforts are extremely diverse, but are based on certain principles participants absorbed at Burning Man. Burning Man, the organization, exists throughout the year and, increasingly, via the internet, it has become a crossroads for much of this activity. The Burning Man Network currently lists over 140 Regional Contacts in 100 locations, including Canada, China, Italy, France, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom. It's growing fast.

The foregoing ideas are merely ideas. They are not stories but could form the context of stories. Whether they are valid is for each journalist to judge. If you find them useful, please employ them. Since actual stories are manifested through the lives of human beings, we will do all that we can to connect you to people at the event. The heart of Burning Man is immediate experience, and we are here to help that happen, not to hype a contrived image or to sell a product.

The Easy Way Out ...

If, on the other hand, the task of understanding Burning Man seems insuperable or inconvenient, we have prepared an easily employed device for instantly generating copy. The following Burning Man Phrase Generator© has been compiled from many reputable sources and requires no thought whatsoever. Using it, it is possible with the simple addition of a few participles, conjunctions, hyphens, and whatnot to generate hundreds of pages of material. To operate the generator, randomly select one word from each of the four columns below. These may then be strung together in a sequence. The Burning Man Phrase Generator© is capable of generating 160,000 colorful descriptions. It has been thoroughly tested.

The Burning Man Phrase Generator ©
Burning Man is a: