Amidst children shrieking gleefully in play and husbands kissing their wives as guests chow down on soup, potato salad and cake, it looks like every other familial get together with people talking, laughing and having serious religious conversations.
And it is, except the guests are wearing pentacles and there is a table-sized altar near the kitchen, the walls of the apartment are lined with pictures of fairies, and the scent of rosemary and lavender drifts through the air as herbs dry on the counter.
This is a party of witches and pagans.
While the word ‘witches’ brings up Halloween images of hideous green hags lurking to capture children or violent devil worshippers, real witches are very different.
The reality is there are witches everywhere. Law-abiding, vote-casting, hard-working mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters who live day to day in very much the same ways as everyone else, except that they believe in multiple gods and goddesses, magic and mythologies.
Wicca and Paganism are the fastest growing religions of the day, increasing without formal congregations, proselytizing, charismatic leaders or large advertising campaigns. Most people are drawn to it because of its mysterious nature, but stay because of a deep and spiritual religious faith that fills their lives.
It is difficult to speak of these groups by using one word. Not all Pagans are Wiccans, not all Wiccans want to be called Witches, and not all Witches are Wiccan. Centuries ago as the Romans first spread Christianity across Europe converting people as they went, pagan meant “country person,” or, as we might say nowadays, “hick,” and was used in a derogatory manner. Pagans these days are proud of the moniker, as it separates them from the religions of their youth.
“The fundamental belief of any religion,” said Seren, a Yuba college Student who has been a witch for 5 years, “is not to hurt anyone.” Paganism is no different. In spite of wild tales of sacrifice and blood rituals, pagans are a relatively peaceful crowd. Speak to a group of Pagans, and they each will give you a different explanation of their practices and beliefs, but almost universal is the idea of harming no one. The Wiccan Rede, or the law that is the basis of all within the traditions reads: “An it harm none, do what ye will.” Specifically, this means whatever you do, you should not hurt anyone, including yourself. Beyond those words, ritual and mythology vary from tradition to tradition, even person to person.
Elichtiah, a former student at Yuba College, mother and Internet business owner, was raised as a pagan. “My grandma was Pagan and my mom was Pagan until she got married.”
Elichtiah’s family tradition is rare. Most practitioners discover Pagan paths through books, the Internet, or sometimes they are introduced by friends.
Seren was 15 when the sister of a boyfriend gave her some books. Tana Faye-Ree, another student, was introduced by a friend of the family when she was a child, but it wasn’t until she turned 19 that she actually began studying Strega, an Italian tradition of witchcraft.
“I remember just pushing my nose into Italian Witchcraft going “oh, this is exactly what I think and feel!”” Tana Faye-Ree recalls. “I started collecting books on the various types of Paganism, and I just read them like time was running out.”
While for many years people tried to push the idea that la Vecchia Religione, or the Old Religion, was secretly passed on witch to witch through the centuries, most now concede that this is untrue. It is generally agreed upon that Wicca was created by Gerald Gardner shortly after the Witchcraft Acts of Britain were repealed in 1951. While he may have been initiated into a family tradition by a woman he called “Old Dorothy,” it is clear that his books “Witchcraft Today” in 1954 and “The Meaning of Witchcraft” in 1959 had many influences. Among them were Charles Leland’s “Aradia: Gospel of the Witches” and Robert Graves’ “The White Goddess.” Margaret Murray, Egyptologist and anthropologist who wrote “The Witch-Cults in Western Europe” also provided background information. His own interests probably inspired the rest of what Gardner wrote.
While many argue the validity of these sources, the fact remains that of the many spiritual paths made popular during the 1960’s; Wicca, its offshoots and Paganism in general have steadily climbed in popularity. Now there are endless traditions, covens, groups and solitary practitioners. As the movement grows witches are coming “out of the broom closet” so to speak, beginning to take a stand for their rights and form local groups.
Pagans on college campuses are beginning to form their own clubs, to meet similar thinking people and discuss their beliefs. Both Binghamton University and Dartmouth have had Pagan groups form on campus this past fall. On the Marysville Yuba College campus, Moonbriar, a practitioner for 7 years, is looking to create a group, named the EPA, or the Eclectic Pagans Anonymous, by this spring.
“It’s just a group that gets together for tea, coffee, potlucks, and good conversation,” said Moonbriar, who would like to eventually start teaching circles. “There’s a large Pagan population down here, and its time we came out of the wood work and got together.”
A group may be difficult to start on campus, as pagans often have to face open hostility by people who do not understand their beliefs and have no respect for their right to practice different religions. Tana Faye-Ree has had difficulty with a teacher on campus who openly speaks out against her and her religion while in class. These kinds of reactions can cause a Pagan to hide their religious beliefs rather than face verbal and possible physical attacks from strangers.
One would think that different religions would not have such a hard time existing in America, given the First Amendment guarantees the right to freedom of religious practice. However, with a strong fundamentalist Christian background and President Bush, who has openly voiced his belief that religions like Wicca do not have a right to exist, Pagans often find America a very hostile place to live. They persevere, firm in their convictions in the validity of their religions and in the First Amendment rights.
Anyone interested in joining the EPA and starting an on-campus group should contact Moonbriar at email@example.com.