By Shannon Caine
Paganism is alive and well in Northwest Arkansas.
Events promoting pride among the Pagan community are becoming increasingly popular, both in the United States and abroad.
A popular Pagan website, witchvox.com, lists more than 30 Pagan Pride Day events, in addition to many other festivals and events.
The local Pagan Pride Picnic has become an annual event in Fayetteville, and was coordinated this year by Debra Ravenswood, with assistance from Bruce Allen and Carrie Lundgren. Approximately 500 people attended this year’s picnic on Sept. 15. Attendance at last year’s picnic was estimated by event staff to be over 1,000. Attendance was down this year for a variety of reasons, including a storm that moved in during the afternoon.
The guests of honor at this year’s picnic were Gavin and Yvonne Frost, internationally famous Wiccan authors. The Frosts founded the Church and School of Wicca in the 1960’s, and are quite active in the Pagan community. They have authored over 30 books on Wiccan spirituality.
The Frosts spoke about healing, among other subjects. They spoke about ways that Wiccans go wrong, which ties in with their book, “Good Witches Fly Smoothly.”
During their stay in Fayetteville, the Frosts were interviewed on Community Access Television, where they spoke about Wicca in general, as well as their status of promoters of the Wiccan religion. In the 1970’s, the Frosts were instrumental in getting federal recognition of Wicca as a legitimate religion.
The Pagan Pride Picnic in Fayetteville not only gives regional Pagans a chance to socialize and network, but also allows them to represent themselves to the general public. Non-Pagans are welcome to attend and learn what Paganism is all about.
“We see all kinds of people at the picnic,” Ravenswood said. “It’s not only Pagans who show up, but also Christians, Buddhists and other non-Pagans, too. It’s for everybody.”
As the Frosts were delivering an afternoon lecture, storm clouds began rolling in, darkening the skies around the North Pavilion of Lake Fayetteville Park. When the rain began to fall, one of the attendees, perhaps hearkening back to the days when witches were called upon to do weather-related spells, pointed up at the sky and made a simple announcement:
“Hey, I didn’t do it.”
Witches in the kitchen
Community Access Television in Fayetteville regularly airs a program called “Kitchen Witch,” that was developed by Northwest Arkansas witches, Cat Fury, Emerald Twilight and Jessica Alexander. Although Emerald Twilight recently left the program, the remaining two producers say that new episodes will continue to be filmed. Thirteen one-hour episodes of “Kitchen Witch” have been shot so far.
When asked what “Kitchen Witch” was about, Cat Fury said that it is not one of the program goals to promote her own beliefs. “I’m not trying to educate people about my beliefs. I don’t actually believe in some of the concepts that I present on the show. I just want to showcase some ways that others have thought about magic and spirituality, and encourage viewers to think about their own beliefs.
“I’m a firm believer in the ‘many boats’ theory of religion. What could be called ‘The Truth’ is an island out there on the ocean, but you can get there by raft, inner tube, airplane, swimming, or a cruise liner. So this program is much like showing people a boat catalogue and saying, ‘You could try any of these ways to see what works for you. This is just to get you started.”
Another component of “Kitchen Witch” is its hands-on practical approach. Fury stresses that people don’t need hundred-dollar ritual tools to be Pagans.
“Kitchen Witchery is like meatloaf,” Fury said. “You see what ingredients you have in your kitchen, and what leftovers might be in the fridge, and you don’t use a recipe. You just have a general idea of meatloaf in your head, then you throw it all in the oven and it turns out all right. In other words, you use what you have, and you do whatever works. Religion, spirituality, and magic should be practical. Of course, everyone thinks their mama’s meatloaf is the best.”
Fury says that the show is geared toward beginners. It’s practical spellcraft, designed to be both highly eclectic and inexpensive. No fancy occult gear necessary. “Anyone can do this,” Alexander said.
When asked about their beliefs, Fury said that she doesn’t want to be called a Wiccan, but would rather just be called a witch. Alexander agreed, saying that she’d also prefers to be known as a witch.
One ongoing feature of “Kitchen Witch” is the “God Of The Week” series. The producers said that Yahweh will be featured soon. Fury and Alexander don’t have a problem using gods outside of the traditional Pagan pantheons.
“After all, Yahweh is just another god to us,” Alexander said.
The big umbrella
The term “Paganism” can be something of a catch-all phrase. It seems as if there are almost as many different definitions of Paganism as there are individual Pagans. Most people agree that it is something of an umbrella term used to describe a rather wide of different spiritual traditions.
Paganism can include the many different sects of Wicca, as well as shamanism, reconstructionist religions, various family traditions (or “FamTrads” as some like to call them), the sacred ecology movement, Druidry and a number of other beliefs.
There is some disagreement as to whether ceremonial magick, Santeria and Voudon should be included under the heading of Paganism. Some lists of Pagan religions do include them. Still others state that everything that is not an Abrahamic religion should be filed under the Pagan heading. Using that definition, if a religion doesn’t fit within the confines of Christianity, Judaism or Islam, then it’s Paganism.
Others disagree, saying that practitioners of Hinduism, Buddhism, Native American religions and other beliefs shouldn’t be classified as Pagans. So it’s a somewhat broad and nebulous term. To many people, Paganism is often associated with Wicca, which is probably the best-known of the Pagan religions.
One thing that many Pagans would likely agree upon is that they have a nature-based approach to their spirituality.
Pagans live in harmony with the cycles of nature, which includes not only the changing seasons, but also the cycles of birth, growth and death. Another common theme is that not only male gods are honored, but goddesses, as well. The worship of these deities, and the general understanding of them, can be quite different depending upon one’s own tradition. But rather than having a single patriarchal god, one often finds within Paganism the duality of a god and goddess. These deities can be viewed as quite literal beings by their devotees, or simply as representations of universal archetypes.
Many Pagans don’t wish to be associated with the New Age movement, which to them, is something else altogether. Some groups that are frequently categorized as Pagan actually prefer to use the term “Heathen” when describing themselves. This is particularly true of some of the groups with Northern European origins, such as Asatru, which concentrates upon the Norse pantheon of deities. Practitioners of Norse Heathenry are often very quick to point out that they are not Wiccans, and vice versa.
The actual term “Pagan” comes from the Latin word “paganus.” The most common explanation is that the term was used to describe people who lived out in the country. When Christianity got its start, it was largely spreading within urban areas, and eventually became so widespread in the cities that it was primarily rural people who still continued to cling to their polytheistic beliefs. Another theory is that the term was used to mean “civilian” as opposed to the Christians of the day, who considered themselves soldiers for Christ. Yet another suggestion is that “paganum” simply meant “outsider,” which Pagans would have likely been as Christianity continued to spread.
It’s only natural
Many new houses of worship are being built or remodeled in Northwest Arkansas. However, Wiccans aren’t competitors in this religious building boom. That’s because a building isn’t necessary for Pagan worship. All of nature is regarded as sacred. All one need do to be in the presence of gods and goddesses is to simply step outside the door.
Pagans generally take a different view of nature than their Judeo-Christian counterparts. For instance, in the Biblical book of Genesis, mankind was given dominion over the Earth and all living creatures that dwell upon it. In the Pagan view, humankind’s place is within nature, and never over it. Life is meant to be lived in harmony with nature rather than in opposition to it.
Some Pagans are quick to say that they’re not nature worshipers, despite practicing a religion that is frequently described as “nature-based.”
You probably won’t find a Wiccan in your backyard bowing down to dandelions. Instead, they recognize that there is a strong spiritual presence within all of nature, and feel that all beings in the natural world are brothers and sisters. All natural beings have spirits, not just humans. All life is interconnected.
As Debra Ravenswood puts it, “We consider the Earth our Mother. We believe we are part of the Earth and all that is upon it. Therefore if we hurt ourselves, we hurt the Earth and vice versa.”
The wheel of the year
Some Pagan groups, particularly Wiccans, celebrate the natural cycles of the seasons. This is known as “The Wheel of the Year.” Eight festivals, sometimes called sabbats, are held at certain special times, such as the solstices and equinoxes. The complete cycle of annual seasonal observations completes one round of the Wheel.
In Paganism, time can follow the Wheel of the Year eternally. Before one’s lifetime, there was the wheel. After death, the wheel keeps turning.
“Christianity sees life and the world as linear,” Ravenswood said. “It has a beginning and an end, from the Creation to the day of judgment. The Pagan view, however, is circular. There’s an endless cycle of the seasons, a cycle of death and rebirth. There will be no end of the world, or of the universe. The Big Bang was not the moment of creation, but the last rebirth of the universe. For example, Christmas celebrates an event which happened 2000 years ago, whereas Yule celebrates an annually recurring event, which is the rebirth of the sun.”
One of the major festivals is Samhain, the feast of the dead, which occurs on Oct. 31. Later comes Yule, occurring in December with the Winter Solstice, marking the rebirth of the sun and the gradual lengthening of the days.
Imbolc (Candlemas) marks the beginning of Spring and the return of the goddess, and Ostara is the Vernal Equinox. Beltane (May Day) marks the beginning of summer and growth, and the union of the god and goddess. Midsummer (Litha) marks the summer solstice in June. Lughnasadh, or Lammas, is in August, and is a festival of the corn harvest. Mabon celebrates the Autumnal Equinox, fruit harvests, and the fall season. Then it’s back to Samhain, and a new turning of the wheel.
Samhain corresponds with Halloween, Yule with Christmas, and Ostara with Easter. The seasonal celebrations are observed at different time in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, because of the differences in the seasons.
Some Wiccans have a narrative about the god and goddess that accompanies the Wheel of the Year. The goddess gives birth to the god at Yule. The young, growing god gains power at the Spring Equinox, and the goddess is a beautiful young maiden. They become lovers, with the god impregnating the goddess at Beltane. He begins losing strength at Lammas, enters the underworld at Samhain, and is reborn once again at Yule. The stories can vary somewhat. In some tellings of the story the god dies, whereas in others, he does not. The goddess keeps pace with the seasons, going through her endless cycles as maiden, mother, and crone.
There is another traditional narrative about the turning of the seasons, and that’s the story of the Holly King and the Oak King. These two kings are always competing with each other. By Midsummer, the Oak King is strong and vigorous, while the Holly King is weak. But with the arrival of the Autumnal Equinox, the Holly King becomes stronger, ultimately defeating the Oak King at Yule. As warmer weather approaches, the Oak King becomes strong once again, triumphing over the Holly King at Midsummer, and their age-old battle resumes.
The ultimate recycling
Many Pagans believe in reincarnation, believing that there are many lessons to be learned during the course of our human existence, so many lessons, in fact, that one lifetime is insufficient to learn everything. Because of this, people come back to live out successive lifetimes, and in that way, get an opportunity to complete unfinished spiritual work.
Yvonne Frost compares death to graduation from one school to another. She and Gavin believe that there’s no such thing as going backward in reincarnation. People aren’t going to be coming back as grasshoppers.
“Using the graduation analogy again, it would be a waste of time to send a doctoral candidate back to kindergarten,” Yvonne said. People accumulate knowledge over a series of lifetimes, and keep moving forward. Someday, reincarnation will cease, and the individual won’t need to return to this Earthly plane and be reborn anymore.
A few misconceptions
One frequent allegation against Paganism is that its adherents worship Satan. But the concept of Satan is primarily a Christian one. Pagans are not Christians, so they don’t recognize the validity of the Christian devil, much less worship such a figure. Pagans have nothing to do with Satanism, which is a different belief system altogether.
Another misconception is that all Pagans practice animal sacrifice. Many Pagans view animals as familiars or spirit guides, and would be horrified at the idea of harming animals by sacrificing them.
Some people believe that all Pagans meet in covens that contain exactly 13 people. Some do, but a great many don’t. It is fairly common for Pagans to be solitary, practicing their religion by themselves. Others may meet in groups, but don’t call them covens. Other covens may have more or less than thirteen people, although thirteen is a traditional number.
The returns department
Some Pagans, particularly Wiccans, believe in something called the “Rule Of Three,” which is also called the “Threefold Law” or the “Law Of Returns.” The rule is one of cause and effect, stating that whatever energy one sends out into the world, whether for good or ill, it will be returned to the sender threefold.
Good is met with good, and evil with evil. In other words, for people who follow this rule, learning magical skills for the sole purpose of making your boss’ car explode into flames would definitely be frowned upon. The bad intent belying such an action will come right back to the individual who sent out the negative energy in the first place. However, proclaiming a blessing upon the same annoying boss would produce a threefold return of positive energy. Give a blessing, and you’ll be blessed. Curse somebody, and you can guess what happens. In triplicate.
There are some Pagans, though, who dismiss the Law Of Three. Cat Fury is one of them.
“I’m not afraid of hexing and cursing. I’ve done it, and nothing bad has happened to me yet as a result.”
Jessica Alexander agreed. “You’ve got to look at the big picture. If taking action against a destructive person brings about a good outcome in the end, then it was worth it.”
Another type of moral code observed by some Pagans is the Wiccan Rede. There are many versions of the Wiccan Rede, but one of the most common renditions is, “An it harm none, do what thou wilt.” In this case, the word “An” is usually read as “if”. One interpretation could be that if your actions aren’t going to cause harm to others, then do what you like. The Rule of Three and the Wiccan Rede are used by some, but not all, Pagans as a moral compass.
“Wiccans are bound by their Rede, and as such, cannot perform acts of malice or mischief,” Ravenswood said. “But, having said that, the Rede also states, ‘Lest in self defense it be…ever mind the rule of three.’ You do have the right to protect yourself and your family, and you can go to any legal means to do so.”
People choose to follow the Pagan path for a number of different reasons. Many Pagans were not brought up in Pagan homes, but came to Paganism after being raised in other religious traditions.
“I’ve always known that something about Christian doctrine was not right for me,” Ravenswood said. “I attended a Christian college for a time, and while there, I studied Christian philosophy. Unfortunately, the more I studied, the more I questioned. When I asked these questions, no one could answer them. One day in the 1970’s, I just tossed it all in the air and walked away.”
Cat Fury says that as a young child, she was appalled when an adult told her that Christ died for her sins. “I didn’t ask him to do that for me, and I wouldn’t have asked him. Why should I feel grateful when someone does something I don’t want them to do?”
She reminisces about her childhood, saying, “I was the kind of kid who couldn’t bear the idea of hurting anyone. I would cry when my dad cut firewood. Before he cut a tree, I would sneak up and ‘put it to sleep’ so it wouldn’t feel the saw. I wasn’t sinful. I wasn’t evil just by being born. I was a pretty good little person. So when I was told that I was sinful and needed Jesus to save me, it made no sense to me. Who was this Jesus guy from 2,000 years ago to arbitrarily decide that I was a bad person just because I was alive and breathing? I didn’t see Christianity as a path that would work to make me a better person.”
Today there are Pagan parenting options, including newsletters like The Blessed Bee, online communities such as paganparenting.net, where parents can share tips about raising Pagan children. There are also activity kits, coloring books, literature and rituals geared toward Pagan children.
When asked why Wicca is a growing, Yvonne Frost replied, “Just take a look around. There’s obviously something wrong. The current way that our society does things isn’t working.”
Some Pagans feel that what’s not working is mainstream religion.
A growing number of gays and lesbians are turning to Paganism because they find it more accepting of their sexual choices. Other people feel that mainstream religion in America is too judgmental and uptight. Some people find church services dull and irrelevant and want something more spiritually uplifting.
Elizabeth Essex of Fayetteville, said she felt that she just didn’t fit in with the religion in which she was raised. “I attended church in my youth, but around age 13, I realized that I was no longer interested in being a Christian.”
However, she waited until early adulthood to take a new religious path. Now she wears a pendant representing the hammer of Thor, the god with whom she most closely identifies.
“The Norse path has a great deal of spiritual power,” Essex said. “To me, Thor represents the warrior spirit, prosperity, honor, loyalty, and ties to the common man.Thor is also the only god I’ve called upon who actually gave me a direct response.”