Pride and Paganism in the 21st Century
Author: Melanie Marquis
As one of the fastest growing and multi-faceted religions in America, Paganism has lately enjoyed more understanding and awareness from the mainstream community. Today, more Pagans than ever before choose to openly express their beliefs and practices. But what led to these changes?
I talked to many of today’s most notable Witches and Pagans, those who have been legends for decades, and those on the cutting edge of the modern Craft, to find out where the magical community stands today in terms of openness, expression, and public understanding, and to shed some light on how we got here.
“Hiding one’s magickal inclinations can be detrimental, ” says Raven Digitalis, Neopagan Priest, Gothic DJ, and author of Goth Craft (Llewellyn 2007) and Shadow Magick Compendium (Llewellyn Sept. 2008).
“It can be mysterious to a point, and perhaps manageable if someone only dabbles in charmery or kitchen witchery, but for someone who lives the magickal lifestyle, hiding and denying this part of one’s constitution can reinforce ideas of shame and insecurity, which builds up and can become suffocating over time. I have never hidden my beliefs, practices, or lifestyles; I simply see no need to do so unless the self-protective necessity is absolutely dire, which is the case for a handful of individuals.”
Considering that handful used to be a gigantic armload or two, we’ve come a long way.
Gwinevere Rain, college student and author of Llewellyn titles Spellcraft for Teens, Moonbeams and Shooting Stars, and Confessions of a Teenage Witch, is the founder and Editor of Copper Moon, http://www.copper-moon.com, an ezine for Wiccan and Pagan young adults. “I think that my generation and those younger than myself are more open about being Wiccan, ” she says. “I hope that ‘staying in the broom closet’ is a fading custom, but I guess, only time will tell.”
Early Pagan leaders like Circle Sanctuary’s Reverend Selena Fox, who organized one of the U.S.’s first officially recognized Wiccan churches, and spearheaded the ultimately successful effort to get the U.S. military to recognize the Pentacle as a religious symbol that can be used on military graves, have been catalysts in the evolution of modern Paganism, speaking out about their beliefs in a time when doing so entailed a lot more risk and a greater amount of boldness and bravery than it generally does today. They’ve witnessed firsthand how Paganism has transformed over the years, and they offer insight into the forces behind that change.
“Since its revival in the mid-20th century, ” says the Reverend Selena Fox, “Paganism has grown in size, scope, diversity, maturity, and visibility. The quest for equal rights for Pagans in the USA and in some other countries has had many successes through the years due to the combined efforts of those of many traditions.”
Carl “Llewellyn” Weschcke, current Chairman of Llewellyn Worldwide, the U.S.’s largest and oldest New Age/Occult/Magick publishing house, has been a major force in educating our communities about Paganism for decades, through the countless books published by his company, and also through his own willingness to be a Pagan in the public eye in the 1960’s and 1970’s, his magical and metaphysical practices and beliefs being the focus of media attention for many years. Commenting on the changes he’s seen regarding the Pagan community, Carl points out that even the word “Pagan” has much different connotations today than it did in the past:
“People may challenge our beliefs, ” he says, “but there is far more respect today for ‘alternative spirituality’ than 50 years ago, and when we use the word ‘Pagan’ today, most people know what we’re talking about. The basic change is that “Pagan” no longer means just ‘non-Christian, ’ or worse, ‘anti-Christian, ’ but is more often recognized as “alternative spirituality.” Paganism shares very little with Indian or Japanese Buddhism, for example, as non-Christian religions. On the other hand, Japanese Shinto does compare comfortably with European and American Paganism.
As a further point, ” he says, “modern Paganism is much more than Celtic spirituality and more and more is inclusive of Nordic, Germanic, Spanish, Italian, Greek, and on to Egyptian and African Spiritism, to Mayan and Afro-Caribbean, and native American traditions. “Paganism” has become a word for Earth-based spirituality – with nurturance of Nature and non-human life, visible and invisible, as key principles. Not all non-Christian religions share that with Paganism.”
“There are obviously several factors at work, ” says Ray Buckland, who is known as The Father of American Wicca due to his enormous role in introducing Witchcraft to the U.S. “Number one is probably the education that people of today have, both in general and specifically regarding paganism. They are more inclined to think for themselves and to take an interest in and express that interest regardless of what others may think or say. With the knowledge of what paganism – and especially Neo-Paganism – is, there is not the fear of being branded as a tool of Satan! There seems to be more of a thirst for knowledge these days, than in earlier generations. All of this, in turn, has led to the openness of mass media to previously occult subjects that, in turn, have led to more seeking and enquiring about what is presented.
“In the past there has always been a general fear about this whole field; that fear due to ignorance as to what was involved. It is by examining and learning all about a subject that such fear is erased. With today’s Internet access, among other things, there is the ability for anyone to research anything. In the “early days” of Neo-Paganism, Wicca, and the like, a few “pioneers” set out to straighten misconceptions and to show what was really believed and practiced. I think that started the ball rolling and today, with computer access so readily available, the ball (of enlightenment) is now traveling at very high speed!”
Brian Ewing, Membership Coordinator of the Pagan Pride Project that organizes large public gatherings, reports that their events are growing in popularity, with tens of thousands participating in activities each year around the world. Like Ray Buckland, he also credits the Internet with helping to facilitate some of that growth. The Pagan Pride Project’s website at http://www.paganpride.org serves as a source of information and a means of communication for people interested in the project.
“The Internet and email lists greatly facilitated the growth of the Project, ” he says. “Being able to connect quickly, despite living in different cities, and finding out about each other’s plans and existing events, helped us band together.
“The Internet also helps us advertise our events more widely, and for less money, than was possible in the past. In this way, we attract more people to our events. I also believe that Pagan events, including our own, are growing rapidly because our religion is now growing rapidly. We reached some kind of critical point, when there was enough practicing Pagans that they wanted to hold larger events where they could practice and worship together.
“Lastly, Pagan Pride events, and probably other events, were partly galvanized by the election of George W. Bush, and the fear that a neo-conservative administration would adversely affect our movement. I remember in 1999 George W. Bush and Congressman Bob Barr were both making some pretty negative comments about Paganism. People responded to that by writing to newspaper opinion sections and starting events such as Pagan Pride Days.”
Thriving and ready to take action, it seems that today’s Pagan community has undergone a lot of positive changes in recent years. Of course, not all the changes are seen as positive.
Flash Silvermoon, creator of The Wise Woman’s Tarot, a matriarchal Tarot deck, describes some of the negative changes she’s seen in the Pagan movement.
“One of the main differences that I see in the changes within and without this movement if you will is the fact that most of the movers and shakers in the early 70′s were powerful women, and most specifically, the Dianic branch of Wicca.
“This rising tide of Women’s Spirituality blended a Goddess centered Spirituality with Feminism, which is really humanism when you get down to it. The Womanspirit Movement swept through the country like wildfire, creating a more fluid and anarchistic style of Goddess Worship than some of the more traditional Wiccans.
“One of the problems that I have seen with the new mixed Pagan groups is that most are not at all really reverent of the Goddess or women. The talk is there but the walk is not, and most of the Pagan fests that I have attended bear the same old world sexist practices of male domination and sexual objectification of women. I realize that this can’t be totally true of all the new pagan groups but it sure seems to predominate. Even the women in some of these groups can tend to be very hierarchical.”
However, the Pagan faiths still generally enjoy a reputation of equality and respect for both sexes. Copper Moon’s Gwinevere Rain explains, “I was first attracted to Wicca because it was very empowering. It showed women being equal to men; additionally, the idea of magick was so appealing to me. The religion represented everything I wanted: to be equal, empowered, and spiritually comforted.”
So where do Wicca and the other branches of Paganism stand today? Have we really moved past a need for secrecy and concealment?
“I have had mail from guys in prisons who are openly allowed to practice their craft, ” says Ly de Angeles, outspoken environmentalist, screenwriter, and Australian author of Tarot Theory and Practice (Llewellyn 2007) and the collaborative work, Pagan Visions of a Sustainable Future (Llewellyn 2008). “I have also had a long connection with another guy who is in the US army, and I am very aware that Wicca (not Witchcraft) is a recognized religion and yet … the open expression of Paganism is still seen as fluff and twaddle by most; a bunch of very evil people by others.”
Gwinevere Rain agrees that negative and false stereotypes still exist. “I hope that the stereotypes about Wiccans and Witches are changing, ” she says. “It used to be that people’s vision of a witch was a green old hag; now that that has subsided, other images are at the forefront of people’s minds. It seems that one of the persistent false stereotypes is of real witches seeking to hurt people by casting hexes and curses.”
Because of such myths, some Pagans are deterred from expressing their beliefs openly. Christopher Penczak, teacher of magick and author of the popular Temple of Witchcraft series published by Llewellyn Worldwide, explains, “I think we are blessed to live in a time and place where more Pagans feel comfortable being out of the broom closet. While it’s important to be grateful for great strides we have taken in the recent decades, it’s also important to remember that not all Pagans and Witches have the same freedom, both across the world, and even in more conservative areas of the United States. Thankfully, most of us can live openly if we desire, and I think most pagans who can do so safely, do live an open life.”
When I asked Carl “Llewellyn” Weschcke if he feels that Pagans today are more open about expressing our beliefs, he also pointed out that where we are has a lot to do with it. “The best I can do for a short answer is to presume that today most of us are relatively comfortable in speaking about being Pagan in most selective social environments, ” he explains. “In other words, we can’t be particularly comfortable as Pagans at a Baptist convention, but we are comfortable doing so in our family and familiar social environment.”
The Pagan Pride Project’s Brian Ewing states, “The rapid growth of Pagan events, including Pagan Pride Days and many others, has allowed people to reveal their practices in public. But there are still many Pagans who practice in private, because there are occasional, but very real, instances of discrimination in the workplace or among neighbors.”
Brian reports that their events have been fairly well received by the public. He recounts only one protestor that he’s personally seen, at an event in Los Angeles. The protestor simply held a sign that read “Jesus Saves” on one side, and something about “You’re going to Hell” on the other side.
Raven Digitalis, who likes to host community worship circles in his hometown of Missoula, Missouri, reports that his gatherings have not attracted serious protest. “We are getting quite an outer circle going on! We have even performed some circles in the yard, ” he says.
“Living on a busy street, many cars have witnessed this; the reactions have been varied. Most people in this case simply drive by and look strangely, while others stop their cars to watch. It hasn’t escalated beyond that, luckily, though nearly all of our circles are now held in private places because the ‘public’ energetic exchange should only be reserved for certain times, places, and intentions.”
Tierro, lead guitarist and producer of the international Pagan tribal psychedelic rock band Kan’Nal, recalls an incident where his band encountered “polite” discrimination:
“Kan’Nal was booked to play a high end ‘Captain Planet’ fund raiser in Atlanta last year. The booking agent delicately requested that we not do anything ‘Pagan Like’ on stage in fear of offending the guests. We all laughed as if of course we would behave, but never said we would not… As far as I am concerned, the act of being born is a pagan act; it proves our equality and connection to the animals, plants, and the mysteries of the universe. To breathe is a pagan act, for we breathe together with the trees, fish, birds and bees. To experience joy, love, sorrow and loss is a pagan act, for all these emotions are reflected in the animal and plant kingdoms. So to show up and rock out a Kan’Nal set … well that alone is definitely a pagan act.”
So what is it about our religion that stirs our passions to the point that we want to speak out about it, wave our wands in the face of dissent and proclaim our magical faith to a world that, despite an increase in public awareness of what Paganism truly is, still couldn’t hardly care less? Says Christopher Penczak, “The more witches we have out and open, the more it becomes ‘normal’.”
Raven Digitalis expresses a similar sentiment. “It shatters commonly-held notions for a person to see a ‘Witch’ looking and behaving like a (relatively) ordinary person, ” says Raven. “When people learn about the validity of the modern Craft, it brings a modern and more realistic context to an antiquated stereotype. People see us operating and functioning and being progressive in our own lives, and not choosing to hide ourselves (and not having many adverse responses as a result), which can encourage others to do the same.”
Gwinevere Rain first started writing about Paganism when she was 14 years old, publishing articles in Cauldrons and Broomsticks. “I wanted to show others that young Wiccans can be as serious about religion as adults, ” says Gwinevere. “At the time there were many stereotypes about young practitioners just practicing Wicca to be ‘cool.’ I wanted to help counteract this misconception. For me, it’s worth being open or ‘out of the broom closet’ because Wicca is a part of who I am. I don’t want to hide a significant part of myself.”
Of course, not everyone wants to be open about his or her Pagan faith. Says Gwinevere, “It is important to do what is best for yourself and not succumb to any pressure within the magical community. Just remember that everyone moves at their own pace and you may not be ready to become an outspoken figure of this beautiful religion.”
Christopher Penczak stresses that the individual’s chosen path should be respected: “We should respect our sisters and brothers who wish to be secretive, as the spiritual path is a personal, and sometimes secretive, path. We cannot decide to out someone who wishes to remain private.”
Raven Digitalis emphasizes that the ways we express our beliefs to others should be appropriate for the person we are talking to. Says Raven, “There is always a balance. I believe that people should be communicated and interacted with based on their own levels of understanding. Whereas it might be appropriate to call oneself a ‘Witch’ to someone familiar with magick, it might be better to call oneself a ‘Wiccan’ or ‘Pagan’ or even ‘Earth-honoring Healer’ to someone else, who instead understands the definition of that vocabulary.”
So, what does the future hold for Paganism? How can we publicly express our beliefs in a way that ensures the well-being and growth of our community? “One of the best ways of showing Wiccan/Witch pride is to be a good person, ” says Gwinevere Rain. “Society will catch up with us if we make a collective effort to be kind, healthy, and smart people.”
Ly de Angeles also says that responsible actions are key. Ly explains, “The open expression of Paganism and magical beliefs, in my opinion, needs to be backed with very real and credible behavior, as I have seen way too much hubris and listened to way too much jargon and sheer wankery. I apologize to those who are not that way (and you are many) but the rest really need to look to what you wish to achieve for the greater community of Paganism in the future. Education and knowledge in diverse areas is the key. Acting on that is a way through. I suggest we enter the sciences, politics, the education system, as well as the Green movement.” She also shares a warning: “I am disturbed by the rising tide of radical right-wing fundamentalism, in the USA in particular, and suggest it may be very necessary for openly expressed Pagans to watch their constitutional backs in the future. This is not paranoia but prophecy, darling.”
The Wise Woman’s Tarot creator Flash Silvermoon comments that respect for women is integral. “To my thinking, ” she says, ”one earns their position through study, dedication and commitment, and if one truly loves and worships the Goddess, then women must be more empowered and respected as Her surrogate.”
Raven Digitalis is hopeful about the future of modern Paganism. Says Raven, “I think Neopaganism is becoming more and more personal and personalized every day. As more and more people are drawn to the ways of magick, self-empowerment, and mysticism, personalizing one’s own beliefs and practices will serve to allow the Pagan movement to grow and establish itself with much fuel and dedication behind it.”
The Reverend Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary puts it in a way that resonates throughout the heart of Paganism: “It is important that Pagans of many paths and places continue to find ways to work together in our quest for freedom and in bringing more health and balance to the greater Circle of Nature of which we are all part.”