Who You Calling a Witch?

Pagans struggle to come out of the broom closet

Charleston City Paper/July 30, 2009

A crowd of more than 20 people gathers around an altar in the center of a room. On top of the altar rest a chalice, a dagger, seasonal fruits and vegetables, incense, a rattle gourd, and a block of marble in which a pentagram has been carved. The old building with its pinewood floors, high wooden beams, and Gothic ceiling offer the perfect setting for this ancient Pagan ceremony.

Michael McGreggor addresses the coven. "I would encourage everyone, in all your relationships with other people and other creatures, to get in touch with your energy and bring that energy to your relationships." He is leading the ritual.

"We are about to go into the dark time of the year," his wife Jean McGreggor says in response. "You've got to look out for yourself and take care of yourself and reflect on what's important and what you want to keep and what you want to let go of as you go into the darkness. Understand that it is a time of quiet and reflection in anticipation of new life and new light."

It's a warm autumn evening, and the Coven of Unitarian Universalist Pagans are holding a full-moon ritual in the social hall at the Unitarian Church in Charleston. This occasion was one of the 13 full-moon rituals in the Pagan Wheel of the Year calendar celebrating the Goddess. There are also eight Sabbats, or days of power, marking the sun's cycle of the year, for a total of 21 ritual occasions.

Some of those ritual days are more familiar as Christian and secular holidays. The Pagan day of Yule, or winter solstice, was co-opted by the medieval church to be the birthday of Jesus. (That holiday later slipped four days out of sync thanks to a pre-scientific calendar.) Ostara, the vernal equinox, became Easter. Imbolc, the midpoint of winter, is recognized in Punxsutawney, Pa., and around much of the northern hemisphere, as Groundhog Day. And, of course, Samhain, which begins the winter cycle, is known as All Hallows Eve, or Halloween.

Another Pagan day of observance is Lughnasdh. This ritual day is held in late summer, in anticipation of the first harvest. This past September various Pagan organizations of the Lowcountry took the day of Lughnasdh and used it as an opportunity to spread the word about their religion. They called it Pagan Pride Day, and the event was held at the North Charleston National Guard Armory. It was one of more than 100 Pagan Pride events held around the U.S., Canada, and Europe, part public relations, part fun and games, part spiritual rekindling. Several hundred turned out for religious ceremonies, Tarot card readings, and seminars.

But outside the armory, a band of 20 local churchgoers gathered to pray for the souls of the apparently misguided pagans inside. The pagans, however, would probably say that they don't need their Christian neighbors to fret over the status of their souls. They're doing just fine.

However, one of the problems with being a spiritual minority in America, especially in a culturally conservative state like South Carolina, is that you and your religion are frequently misunderstood by the population at large. Pagans and Wiccans, one of the many groups in this broad religious category, have long been associated with casting spells, riding broomsticks, and otherwise committing godless mischief. From Macbeth to Bewitched to Charmed, they have been the source of terror and spoof - as well as the object of ridicule and persecution. For that reason, many local Pagans remain undercover, or - to use the Wiccan vernacular - they choose to stay in the broom closet.

Darla Wynne of Great Falls, S.C., chose not to hide. In 2001, Wynne, a practicing Wiccan, sued the town of Great Falls over the invocation at the beginning of town council meetings. Wynne asked that the prayers not be delivered "in the name of Jesus Christ" or that alternative faiths be heard at invocation. She offered to lead such a prayer, in her capacity as high priestess of a group of about 35 Wiccans in the area. The Chester County town of 2,100 refused her request, and Wynne went to federal court.

But with the aid of the American Civil Liberties Union, she prevailed over the next four years in the U.S. District Court and Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. The town appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case. The council ceased praying in the name of a Christian deity and was even ordered to pay Wynne's legal expenses. But the battle took its toll. Wynne reported more than a dozen cases of vandalism and harassment to local police.

Being different has never been easy in South Carolina.

The Cyclical Nature of Time

Wicca is one of at least 17 forms of Paganism - or Neo-Paganism, as many practitioners call it. And not only is it the fastest growing form of Paganism, according to a 2001 study by the Graduate Center at the City University of New York, it's the fastest growing religion in America. However, its numbers are miniscule in comparison to the 76 percent of Americans who call themselves Christians. The CUNY survey found among other things that there were 134,000 Wiccans in the U.S. Another form of Paganism, Druidism, also shows a sizable memberships with 33,000 followers. But because there has been no comprehensive survey of state religious affiliations, there is no way of knowing how many Pagans live and practice in S.C.

Paganism is a confusing and at times competing hodge-podge of sects. But the one thing nearly all Pagans hold in common is an Earth-based spirituality, usually objectified in a goddess. The old sects were polytheistic, but the Earth goddess often remained at the front of their pantheon. Of course, it must be pointed out that Pagans do not believe in hell or Satan, a fact they find amusing since they are often denounced in the same breath with Satanists and consigned to hell by Bible thumpers.

For Pagans, time is cyclical. The eternal universe is constantly being reborn, much the way the seasons follow a yearly cycle. All of life is part of this endless cycle. This cycle and the changing of seasons are what pagans celebrate.

Not surprising given their view of the universe, most Pagans believe in some form of reincarnation. Life, like energy, they say, cannot be destroyed. It merely takes different forms.

In contrast, Judeo-Christian time is linear, beginning with a creation and ending with a cataclysm (the coming of the Messiah in Judaic tradition, Judgment Day for Christians) in which the wicked and the just shall receive their rewards. Jewish and Christian holy days celebrate historic events in this linear history.

Perhaps a good way to understand Neo-Paganism is to compare it to Christianity 1,900 years ago. As you may well know, Christianity began as a religion of the oppressed and dispossessed. It appealed to slaves and conscripts and the displaced masses who thronged the cities of the Roman Empire (Think of it as globalism circa 100 A.D.) Likewise, modern Paganism draws heavily from the disenfranchised - the working class, gays, lesbians, transgenders, pacifists, feminists, and anti-globalization activists.

For some, facing a world of global climate change, economic displacement, and the possibility of mass extinction, Paganism offers a new (or is that old) vision and a hope for a better world. It acknowledges the sacredness and transcendence of a living Earth, a view not shared by many of those following the Judeo-Christian traditions, which generally sees the planet and its creatures as something to be subdued and consumed.

Teaching Tolerance

Mary Dellucci was raised a good Catholic girl in Nyack, N.Y. She loved to read. The Bible was one of her favorite books. But she was troubled by the inconsistencies she found there. Her elders told her she had to have faith.

"It was faith or hell," she said recently in the kitchen of her North Charleston home. At the same time she was wrestling with the illogic of the Good Book, she remembers sitting outside her home and talking to the moon. She knew she was different.

In the past decades, she has done a stint in the Army, raised a family, been through a marriage, and today works as a solid waste accounting manager for Berkeley County. Dellucci is completely out of the closet about her beliefs. She has no secrets from her employers. But the battle for acceptance is not over.

Which is where the Lowcountry Council of Alternative Spiritual Traditions (CAST) comes in. According to Dellucci, who is chair of the group, CAST does community relations work, such as Pagan Pride Day, and even has a group to work with teens. In her capacity as leader and spokesperson, Dellucci speaks to social groups, churches, and anyone who would like to learn more about Paganism. CAST also serves as a clearinghouse for local Pagan groups and activities.

"We must take away the fear and the erroneous information that has been passed on from generation to generation about us," Dellucci says. "The religious leaders made us 'evil' in their effort to control their flocks. They painted us with this brush. We fear what we do not understand, and they have used that fear against us. They killed off the herbalists and the midwives (in the 15th and 16th centuries), and the ones they didn't kill they silenced. But the goddess still survives, and she is part of us. It is time for us to take away that fear."

She adds, "We are your neighbors. We pump your gas, we clean your teeth, we teach your children. And this time we're staying."

One of the rituals practiced in many Pagan groups is drumming. People have drummed in solitude or in groups since the dawn of human history, and it is an ancient and almost universal expression of Paganism.

"Drumming feels good," Dellucci says. "It doesn't hurt anyone. It's good therapy at the end of a bad day ... It helps energy work. It connects with the rhythms of your own heart. It can serve as a trigger to send you into a trance and control your energy - energy to help you feel, energy to help you love, energy to help you get over your fears."

On a warm autumn afternoon a few weeks ago, about 15 Pagans sat in a circle in Dellucci's backyard, thumping on a variety of drums, led by an experienced shamanic drummer, who gave instructions as he changed cadences. There was a potluck feast in the kitchen, along with wine and beer. Dellucci's old dogs wandered among the drummers, looking for some attention from this strange, if friendly crowd.

This was not a formal drumming circle. No, these beginners were hardly ready for that. This was what Dellucci called Drumming 101. "As the cadences go up and down, it helps you become attuned to the universal heartbeat, to the heartbeat of the community," she says. "When we stop thinking as individuals and become part of the heartbeat, the heartbeat is stronger in all of us."

One of the drummers there that afternoon was "Frances" (not her real name), a teacher in a local private school. Frances was an officer in the Armed Forces, where she held a security clearance; today she holds a Ph.D.

"Drums are traditionally involved in trancing, which is part of the religious experience," she says. "It is conducive to the ecstatic experience. It is conducive to contacting spirits and ancestors."

Frances was raised in the United Church of Christ, where she was a deacon. But she became angry and disillusioned when some church members turned against their minister for being too tolerant for their tastes. At about this time she met a witch who began to teach her about the female deity.

"She really tried to walk what she was teaching," Frances says. "I had not seen much of that in the church where I was a member."

For Frances, Paganism "just felt right." She apprenticed to her Pagan mentor in 1992 and started wearing the pentagram (also called the pentacle) around her neck. In the years since, she has lived in several parts of the country where she was comfortable wearing her pentacle openly. That changed when she moved to South Carolina.

"South Carolina is extremely behind the times when it comes to tolerance of any sort," she wrote in an e-mail. "I have never worn my pentacle openly, except for the first few weeks here. I only wear it now to specific gatherings. I am afraid of having the school board force my firing if it were discovered that I was a Pagan. My boss knows and has absolutely no problem with it. The same cannot be said for many of the parents or board."

Gloria has had a similar experience. A Tarot card reader and teacher, she works in shipping and receiving at a local scales company. Her employers know she is Pagan, but to shield them from any abuse, she asked that her real name not be used.

She has a degree in religious education and music from Penn State University and landed here as a Navy wife some years ago. The marriage ended, but she remained. Times have not been easy. She was working in a big box office supply store, wearing her pentacle on a chain, when a supervisor told her to put it inside her shirt.

"Being poor and needing to work, I did," Gloria says, still angry over the incident. "I have to draw the line between what I believe and paying my mortgage. I had to put it aside and do my job.

"People are afraid of what they do not understand," she said. "They are content to let society tell them what to be afraid of."

The Start of a New Year

In a few days, Pagans around the Lowcountry and the world will have another celebration. This one will be the observance of winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. It's an ancient tradition, full of somber reflections on mortality, but it's also a time of joy, as Pagans welcome the next day and with it the few extra minutes of sunlight, and after that, the promise of spring. But if Pagans are angry that their holiday has been hijacked by another religion - along with the tree and the lights, the holly and the eggnog - it apparently doesn't show. Seasons come and go, and the darkness of night is followed by the dawn of a new day.

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