"We don't believe in the devil"

Pagans prefer to say they're "nature based"

Richmond Times-Dispatch/April 24, 1999
By Wes Allison

Over the fire pit and boiling cauldron, among the drum circles and pagan faith healers, the witches are gathering in York County.

And you're very welcome to join them.

The Spring Gathering of the Tribes continues today at New Quarter Park near Williamsburg, a four-day semiannual affair of pagan networking and the sharing of ideas. It's also designed to let non-pagans learn more about what devotees call an oft-misunderstood religion.

"A lot of the propaganda that's been put out over the centuries about us is so wrong," said Ann Dunn, a practicing Celtic Wiccan witch and a coordinator for Out of the Dark Inc., a nonprofit pagan resource center in Norfolk that's sponsoring the conference.

"We don't believe in the devil, we don't believe in demons. We are nature-based, and we believe the divine is part of everything and everyone."

About 100 people pre-registered for the event, which began Thursday afternoon, and organizers are expecting 500 to 550 over the course of the weekend. Many are camping at the park among towering hardwoods and lush green meadows on the bank of Queen's Creek.

Participants will hear from national pagan leaders, including Robin Wood, author of "Robin Wood Tarot" and a workbook on ethics from the pagan/Wiccan perspective, and Silver RavenWolf, author of "To Ride a Silver Broomstick" and other books.

Workshops range from "Out of the Broom Closet, Into the Courts," a Wiccan high priestess's tale of the barriers she encountered while adopting her daughter, to "GOD(S)," an exploration of pagan principles and practices with African roots.

"It's an energy-level raiser to be with other people of like mind," said Katee Bernstein, who runs an art supply and framing shop in Norfolk. "It fills you up."

By yesterday morning, more than a dozen vendors had set up tents in the bardic circle to purvey things pagan, from fanciful jewelry and tie-dyed T-shirts to votive candles, healing oils and incense.

Electra, a practicing witch whose shop, Mystic Moon, is also in Norfolk, offered a virtual library of books on paganism, including the "Good Witch's Bible," "Advanced Candle Magick" and "Norse Magic."

She said that paganism takes many different forms, and there are as many branches as there are of Christianity. Some pagans believe in multiple deities, others in a single great spirit that connects humans, animals and plants. Others say one superior being may manifest itself in a number of different personalities.

The religion generally forbids proselytizing. But for people looking for a good primer, Electra recommend "The Truth About Witchcraft Today,"by Scott Cunningham.

Although pagans say their numbers have grown in recent years, acceptance has remained elusive, and they often are met with fear and unease.

"We have Pat Robertson here," Electra said, referring to the Virginia Beach TV evangelist and Christian Coalition founder, "and they seem to try to shed a bad light on us any chance they get."

"But we are not anti-Christian, we are pre-Christian -- these were the basic religions before there were churches. I'm not anti-anything except negativity, hatred and intolerance."

Pagans from Florida to Vermont had arrived by yesterday afternoon, though most were from Virginia. Several said they had been raised as Christians but switched to paganism after long, often difficult spiritual journeys.

"I just couldn't say 'Amen!' to everything," said Mary, a former Christian from Hampton who asked that her last name not be used.

She and others say they like the religion's connection with the natural world, and that pagans are welcome to question or even disagree with elements of the faith without having to abandon it.

Out of the Dark Inc. has sponsored spring and fall gatherings for five years, and another group held it for five year before that.

Betsy Ashby, director of Out of the Dark, said the number of participants has grown each year. Her mailing list now includes 20,000 names.

"It's just for a few days, but it lets people know they are not alone out there in their private covens," she said yesterday.

Ashby, who provides security at gay rights rallies, folk music festivals, and other events where tolerance is a central theme, said she found Norse paganism 24 years ago after being raised in a strictly Christian environment that she described as overly male-dominated.

"God was a very punishing, vindictive daddy," she asserted, petting her constant companion, Grithorn, a 110-pound chow and Rottweiler mix. Its name means peace and protection.

"I believe my creator is a much more tolerant being. And I don't believe our creator would have created such diversity if he didn't mean for us to live together."

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