Pride and Paganism in the 21st Century

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.”

A Brief History of Paganism in America

A Brief History of Paganism in America

Author:   CoyoteSkyWoman   

Author’s note: This essay was originally a submission to my American History class at Southern New Hampshire University. I felt that I should share it with the Pagan Community at large since it was apparently well received by my professor, who had no previous background or knowledge in Paganism. It is written in APA style, so the notations in the reference section are correct. The reference to Witchvox will probably give you a chuckle. – Deb J.

There is a religion in America today that has been slowly growing since the late 1960’s and has been gaining in popularity and acceptance throughout the years. Neo-Paganism, which includes such diverse branches as Wicca, Druidism, Asatru (a worship of Norse deities) , and many other reconstructionist and revivalist groups often based on the deeply researched practices of the ancients. Far from being the Hollywood vision of witches and witchdoctors, the “worldview of witchcraft is, above all, one that values life” (Starhawk 1979, p 32) , and is tied closer to the natural world than many world religions, save for other nature-oriented sects such as Buddhism and Shinto.

The roots of the modern Pagan movement in America can be traced back to the early 1950’s in England where a man by the name of Gerald B. Gardner first made public his beliefs in an older Goddess based religion called Wica (also known as Wicca, the Craft of the Wise, or simply, the Craft) that had persisted from ancient times. Aidan Kelley, founder of the New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn states that “it really makes no difference whether or not Gardner was initiated into an older coven. He invented a new religion, a ‘living system’ and modern covens have adopted a lot of it because it fulfills a need” (Adler 1979, p 80) . Gardner himself claimed that a lot of what he taught came directly from an ancient coven, and that he was initiated by an old neighbor woman by the name of Dorothy Clutterbuck. The veracity of this claim has never been firmly established, and although birth and death records for “Old Dorothy” have been uncovered, how much involvement she had in Gardner’s vision still remains a topic of hot debate.

It is the view of many Neo-Pagans including Kelley that Gardner has never properly “been given credit for creative genius. He had a vision of a reformed Craft. He pulled together pieces from magic and folklore; he assimilated the ‘matriarchal theology set forth in (Robert) Graves, (Charles) Leland, and Apuleius. With these elements, he created a system that grew” (Adler 1979, p 83) .

Whatever the true background of the first English branch of Wicca, by the early 1970’s “all of the main English branches of Pagan Witchcraft had arrived in the United States: and “the books of (Margaret) Murray, Graves, and Gardner found a wide readership” (Hutton 1999, p 341) . There is some evidence that there were indigenous branches of American Paganism on record as early as 1938 when “the very first self-conscious modern Pagan religion, the Church of Aphrodite, ” was ”established in Long Island”, (Hutton 1999, p 340) , however, none of these had the staying power of the English branches. By 1975, Paganism was becoming firmly entrenched on our soil.

The next phase of the assimilation of English Pagan beliefs was a large turning point for the blossoming American Pagans. The radical feminist movement, which was developing during the mid seventies, came into contact with these very Goddess-oriented, female affirming worshipers, and there was a great merging of beliefs. By the mid 1970’s the “view of witchcraft expressed being ‘female, untamed, angry, joyous, and immortal’ “ and this “became embedded firmly in American Radical Feminism” (Hutton 1999, p 341) . The problem was that the feminist view overtook the religious aspects and by the late seventies, witchcraft had decayed into a feminist-rallying cry, centered around the so-called Burning Times when men dehumanized women and supposedly burned them at the stake because they interfered with the newly created practice of the doctor.

Midwives and herbalists were claimed to be some of the targets of this attack, so naturally, feminists flocked to this banner of outrage, seeing it as proof of continued patriarchal persecution.

Not all of the Pagan feminists lost sight of the religious aspects, however. In 1971, a young woman by the name of Zsuzanna Budapest formed the Susan B Anthony coven in Hollywood, CA, and went on to become one of the most respected feminist Pagan writers of the period. While she was staunchly feminist, she also was very much a follower of Wiccan beliefs, and was one of the most influential writers those who were to follow in her footsteps. In 1980, she wrote The Holy Book of Women’s Mysteries which went on to become an instant classic, and is one of the standards by which modern Pagans judge all other books in the genre.

Another feminist writer gained fame when she published her first book, The Spiral Dance, on Hallowe’en in 1979. The woman’s penname was Starhawk, and her book gained much praise, not so much for its religious material that was extensive, but also for its poetic prose. Starhawk was a Witch who had been “trained by Gardnerians, and then initiated into one of the homegrown American strains of Pagan Witchcraft which had also absorbed some material from Wicca, the Faery (or Feri) , taught by Victor Anderson” (Hutton 1999, p 345).

Starhawk described her vision of the Craft as “a joyous, life-affirming, tolerant path; a religion of poetry not theology, which yet demanded responsibility” (Hutton 1999, p 346). Starhawk is one of the most often quoted Pagan writers, and The Spiral Dance is considered to be one of the top five selling pagan books of all time. Starhawk’s vision of Wicca floats through the words on every page, and the words are lyric and insightful. The Spiral Dance does not so much instruct readers on how to follow Paganism, but more leads by telling stories and giving examples of what the Pagan life is like through the eyes of a Pagan. Starhawk’s following books, Dreaming the Dark and Truth or Dare delve more deeply into the history of religious movements and examine the dualism present in most religions. Although somewhat darker than The Spiral Dance in tenor, the books never the less contain important ideas that have helped to develop Paganism into the new millennium.

The 1980’s were a time of great change for the Pagan movement in terms of the spread of information and the pursuit of general acceptance. The word was out, either on the newly created Internet or in the increasing number of books available. By the end of the 1980’s there were thousands of established Pagan groups across the country, and festivals were being celebrated on the eight major holidays in the open. While there was still a lot of prejudice, especially in the Midwestern Bible-belt, in the North-East and West coast, there were more and more publicly announced rituals and events that were open to the public. New England’s own Earthspirit community was among the first to hold an annual Beltaine or Mayday event at Sheepfold Meadow in Medford, MA. Complete with Maypole, donated foods by participants, and drumming and dancing, these yearly events were no longer hidden and performed in seclusion, but were held out in the open for all to see.

Other events followed, becoming more widespread and more diverse. By the early nineties, what had once been a small celebration between invited guests in Salem, MA on Hallowe’en or Samhain had become a giant affair involving most of the local merchants and Pagan groups. Huge psychic fairs were held at the Olde Town Hall, and lines went out the door for attendees of such events.

Elsewhere in the country, other similar events were being held, and a website devoted to the progress of the Pagan community as a whole in the U.S. was formed. The Witches Voice or Witchvox as it was commonly known, was a place to meet local pagans, promote events, post informational articles, and advertise skills such as clergy and tarot readers. Most groups interested in promoting their events would post their information online for everyone to see, and from there, hold their events. As of the time of this writing, the Witches Voice community listings are still the most popular way of getting information on upcoming Pagan events.

The amount of Pagan oriented books skyrocketed in the 1990’s. With the publication of books by SilverRavenWolf, Amber K, Edain MacCoy and countless others, the amount of information available at any local bookstore or online bookseller was staggering. Whether it was information on various Pagan holidays like Llewellyn’s Wheel of the Year by the Campanelli’s or on legal issues, like Dana Eiler’s Pagans and the Law, there was a reference out there for anything you could want.

That did not mean that the information was always solid, and there was a lot of repetitiveness, especially since the publishers at Llewellyn knew a good thing when they saw it, but by the mid-nineties, there was no longer a question of whether the Pagan movement would be dying out any time soon. Neo-Paganism was here to stay.
A testament to how deeply entrenched the alternative culture had penetrated the minds of America came from an unlikely source. On November 27, 1995, “an episode of the cult science fiction show, The X-files neatly had its ideological cake and ate it too…” While dealing with a cult-oriented murder case, “the heroine (Agent Scully) burst out that ‘Wiccans love all living things’ – and that settled the matter. Suddenly, the story was in the 1990’s” (Hutton 1999, p 386).

The X-files was not the first television show to portray pro-pagan sentiment. The most stunning “display of motifs taken ultimately from Wicca in the 1980’s and 1990’s” was the hit show broadcast first in the UK and then over here in America. Hosted by Showtime, the show “Robin of Sherwood” produced by HTV was a hit both in America and across the pond. With its stunning scenery and costuming, Robin of Sherwood starred both Michael Praed and, later, Jason Connery, as the title character. The show “portrayed Robin Hood as a pagan guided by the antlered god of the greenwood – here called Herne” (Hutton 1999, p 388) . This show would influence an entire generation of Neo-Pagans, and flavor their view of magic and mystery for years to come.

Now, in the new century, Paganism is alive and well. Annual Pagan Pride events that take place across the country serve as educational tools for both Pagans and non-Pagans alike. Books and movies continue to act as influential means of education, and Paganism continues to grow. As a positive, life-affirming religion, it has its heart in the right place, and as long as it remains so, with its goals intact, it will continue to prosper and spread its message of peace for many years to come.

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References

Adler, M. (1979) . Drawing down the moon. Boston: Beacon Press.
Hutton, R. (1999) . The triumph of the moon: a history of modern pagan witchcraft. New York: Oxford University Press Inc.
Simos, M. (Starhawk) , (1979) . The spiral dance; a rebirth of the ancient religion of the great goddess. New York: Harper and Row Publishers.

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