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Pagans!

Celtocentric. Norse-style. Wiccans—solitaries and coveners, witches all. Druids Irish and Welsh. Shamans. Poverty-line pagans, middle-class pagans. Feminist pagans, female and male. Queer pagans, straight pagans. Military pagans. Pagans for peace. Pagan art directors, writers, musicians. Pagan information systems managers, pagan accountants.

Pagans! They walk among us!

Or maybe we walk among them, we of the majority monotheistic path. In Europe, in the Americas, in North Africa and nearly all the Middle East, in the formerly godless and communistic Russia and the still godless and communistic (sort of) China, the deities acknowledged by embrace or suppression are singular: God, Yahweh, Allah. Even the U.S. of A., with its supposed separation of church and state, operates, according to the Pledge of Allegiance, as “one nation under God.”

But a surprising number of Americans now operate under two gods, three, many. And those on religious roads-less-traveled are talking up their traditions, revealing, if not secret rituals, then at least belief systems. They hope education might persuade a society often set violently against them to accept their existence.

(Still, some pagans remain uncomfortable with the idea of the spotlight. More than one interview subject asked to remain anonymous, or be mentioned only by “craft” name—appellations employed in coven or group instead of “mundane” birth monikers, to preserve secrecy and honor nameholders’ mystical aspirations. Some didn’t even want their craft names used. Unless otherwise noted, I have honored those requests.)

Paganism, according to its most enthusiastic adherents, is the fastest-growing religion in the U.S. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints might beg to differ. However, unlike the Mormons, pagans don’t proselytize. This renders all the more impressive estimates that put the metro pagan population at 5,000-plus and the national census at about 500,000. The D.C. area is home to one nest of the Church of All Worlds, and the Mugwort Grove of Ar nDraiocht Fein or “Our Own Druidism” (Baltimore’s grove is Cedar Lights). There are several Wiccan covens, scores of groups—sometimes called “circles”—of less formal structure, and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of “solitary practitioners” pursuing aspects of pagan worship.

Pagandom offers something for everyone. A matriarchal focus lures feminists. An emphasis on nature worship draws the eco-minded. By rejecting patriarchy, paganism attracts gay men and lesbians. And minority status brings in not only those the majority culture rebuffs as geeks and losers, but more socially successful types who see themselves as isolatoes.

Believers track a Western mystical tradition dating to the Upper Paleolithic; like conspiracy theorists, they draw tortuous lines to connect today’s practices to a time when hunters and gatherers were becoming farmers and herdsmen. Others scorn that notion, pointing to “traditions” no older than the 20th century, and no deeper than the imaginations of a few kooks.

The Witches’ Almanac, whose publishers expect to move 75,000 units of the 1995 edition, offers a list of questions intended to gauge a reader’s potential for the path: “Have you always been intrigued by the occult? Do you prefer night to day? Does a storm stir in you an inexplicable sense of excitement? Are you a sensualist? Have you always felt different from most of those around you, set apart? Do you instinctively respond to animals? Are you comfortable alone? Are you relatively indifferent to material possessions? Have you had fleeting glimpses of former lives?”

A skeptic might ask: Do you think you’re smarter than your job, your co-workers, your boss? Is work something that subsidizes your real life, which tends to take place in your head? Like to read, especially speculative fiction and ancient history? Surf the ‘net? Enjoy ritual and costume? Ever lose yourself in pleasurable reverie at a Renaissance fair, a Society for Creative Anachronism event, a Star Trek or similar science-fiction convention? Has your childhood faith wilted amid the cruelties of the adult universe? Desperate for a template with which to make sense of a chaotic world? Do you have a life?

Interest in paganism has expanded despite a couple of millennia of bad press that culminated in a host of 20th-century phenomena. To name a few: the primitive ecstasies of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance; the Wicked Witches of the East and West tormenting Dorothy and crew; the Nazi fetish for occult symbols; exhortations to generations of Catholic schoolchildren to help the Bishops Relief Fund buy pagan babies to save them from eternity in limbo. Locally, the brawling antics of a few knucklehead Harley cultists guarantee that the instant association with the word “pagan” is not religion but outlaw motorcycling.

If not bikers or barbarians, who are the area’s pagans? They are lapsed Roman Catholics, lapsed Episcopalians, lapsed Lutherans, lapsed Jews, lapsed Methodists, lapsed Baptists—and many raised in no religion. Some take Cartesianism to extremes, keeping a hand in mainstream churches while maintaining a pagan worship schedule.

Not counting the region’s practitioners of Candomblé, Santería, voodoo, and other animist religions rooted in Africa and South America, D.C. pagans are overwhelmingly white. In matters other than melanin, however, they’re all over the board: young, middle-aged, and old; dour and ebullient; homosexual and straight; liberal except for the conservative; secretive except for those trumpeting their affiliation; intensely activist except for the indifferent—in sum, hardly different in demographic from any mainstream congregation. As if to emphasize their ordinariness, pagans engage in parish- or synagogue-style bickering over ritual, coven management, even allegations of sexual predation by those in leadership positions.

Local pagandom’s caucasoidal tendencies were evident at an April 1 social in the basement of Christ Congregational Church on Colesville Road in Silver Spring, Md. The party was to start at 8, but by the appointed hour not even the DJ had shown (believers josh about “pagan time” running significantly behind mainstream clocks).

Gradually, though, the hall filled, and human scents replaced the ammoniac tang of cleaning fluids. Once “Dancing Queen” and “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” as well as more pagan-sounding material, were booming, members of the crowd danced or gathered in knots, exuding the fellowship one might encounter at a Knights of Columbus lounge. I didn’t have to work for interviews. People eagerly explained paganism’s pull: a sense of coming home, of finding kindred spirits, tolerance for all beliefs, gender equality, attunement to nature. Many were ruddy from Arbor Day tree-planting ceremonies.

At the front door, wearing a T-shirt proclaiming “Practice Random Kindness and Senseless Acts of Humor,” sat Charles R. Butler III. An ample, amiable Venn diagram of intersecting religious circles, Butler had chronicled his pilgrim’s progress for me in earlier phone interviews. He was born in 1952, the fourth of five children and only son of a missionary family. After an infancy in Brazil, he grew up in small-town America as his father, an itinerant preacher, pastored a series of Pentecostal churches.

Butler’s pagan awareness began in his teens. Reading about spirituality, he acquired a smattering of knowledge about witchcraft. He realized he could predict the future—at his house, no big deal. “In a Pentecostal household, you are always looking for visions and keeping an eye peeled,” he says. “Your awareness may be opened. I had a gift.”

In 1970, Butler enrolled at the University of Michigan on a Navy ROTC scholarship. He majored in Latin American studies, joining a tightly knit Catholic pentecostal community. When he came out three years later, it cost him his uniform and his once-inviolable ties to family and church. The military granted him an honorable discharge as a conscientious objector; but when his family and Catholic pals learned he was gay, they retreated. Thinking the universe had turned its back on him, Butler spent his final college years in study and inward reflection.

After graduation, he moved to D.C. and joined the gay congregation at Metropolitan Community Church, feeling as if he’d come home. Butler worked as a temp, as a security guard at the now-defunct International School of Law, as a clerk in a time-clock repair shop, as a parole office functionary. One day he went for coffee at a friend’s apartment, where he noticed a pagan altar. “Blessed be the great mother,” Butler said. His buddy’s jaw dropped, and they launched into a discussion of witchcraft.

Even then, Washington was no stranger to pagandom. In 1967, weisenheimer Vietnam War protesters had sought and received a permit to conduct a pagan exorcism ceremony in which they attempted to levitate the Pentagon from its foundations. Someone on the official side had a sense of humor, too; the maximum altitude on the permit was 10 feet. In 1976, a witches’ convention drew several hundred practitioners to a local Sheraton hotel.

Butler wandered the pagan provinces, a one-man program of alternative ecumenicism. He organized a covenstead—four to 20 people who convened at his home for the moons and holy days. But unlike many born-again pagans, Butler didn’t shuck Christianity. “Truth is truth,” he says. “Both craft people and Christians look at me as if I am very crazy, but my refusal to drop Christianity allows me to move between the worlds. Craft folk recognize me as a priest; Christians, as a religious educator.”

In 1986, Butler and his lover founded Ecumenicon, an annual conference on witchcraft and pagan themes. The first occurred in July 1987 in Arlington; nearly 200 people participated. “Ecumenicon brought the witches out of the woodwork,” Butler says. Subsequent editions drew as many as 300 people. The next is set for July 1995 at the Dulles Ramada Renaissance Hotel.

Butler is proudly eclectic in his worship technique. “People who come to rituals I have run are amazed at the mix of elements,” he says. “I do what I feel called to do.”

He sees his sexual honesty mirrored in his approach to religion. “Trying to find where my sexuality fit into a spiritual context required me to look very hard at the Christian scriptures,” he says. “The broom closet and the sexual closet are similar. If you are homo sexual, you are going to hear yourself called gay, faggot, queer. There is a parallel in the craft, where many reject “witch’ as a label because of the negative connotations. I use the word for all its meanings. I don’t have time to be closeted again.”

The etymologies of terms like “witch” and “pagan” bear out the principle that not only history books but dictionaries are written by the winners. The word “pagan” derives from the Latin pagus, for “village” or “rural district.” Pagus is the noun of pangere, “to fix or make fast,” to trade nomadic life for a static homesite—which is what early man began to do around 8900 B.C., the period when semiorganized worship of nature deities began. (Among the early idols were a female fertility figure and her companion, a man with horns growing from his skull, prefiguring the Diana/Pan cult. Followers honored the goddess at seasonal cusps and full moons, praying for the essentials of agrarian life—good hunting, fat herds, heavy crops, good weather, many children. Humans lived in small groups, so they worshiped similarly, in circle ceremonies beneath the sky.)

Nearly nine millennia later, as Rome spawned cities, the word came to mean country folk—hayseeds, rubes, hicks,’bamas. Centurions not only called barbarian adversaries “pagans,” but used the word to slag civilian countrymen. By the fourth century C.E. (for “Common Era,” which sect-sensitive scholars substitute for A.D.), when the last polytheistic emperor died and Rome went Christian, “pagan” was a general term of derogation. Over time it came to describe anyone still worshiping the old gods instead of Jesus Christ.

A less culturally charged definition of paganism, as well as a dense history of the pagan revival, appears in Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, God-Worshippers and Other Pagans in America Today, by Margot Adler, a well-known National Public Radio correspondent. A pagan, Adler says, is “a member of a polytheistic nature religion, such as the ancient Greek, Roman, or Egyptian religions, or, in anthropological terms, a member of one of the indigenous folk and tribal religions all over the world.” Adler also quotes Isaac Bonewits, founder of modern Druidic group Ar nDraiocht Fein (ADF). Bonewits uses the term “neo-pagan” to refer to “polytheistic (or conditional monotheistic) nature religions that are based upon the older or Paleopagan religions; concentrating upon an attempt to retain the humanistic, ecological, and creative aspects of these old belief systems while discarding their occasional brutal or repressive developments.”

Since the 1800s, the ancient ways have seen a series of revivals. In France and England, interest in ceremonial magic (which believers distinguish from legerdemain by spelling it “magick”) led such notables as W.B. Yeats and Arthur Conan Doyle into alchemical experimentation. In her 1921 book, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, Egyptologist Margaret Murray explored goddess worship on the theory that it never died out, only went to ground to escape persecution.

Similar logic underpinned the writings and teachings of Gerald Brousseau Gardner and Alex Sanders. These Englishmen, each of whom claimed to be initiates of ancient covens, lent their names to distinct schools of witchcraft. Followers of both refer to their religion as “the path” or “the craft”; more formally, they call it Wicca. Sanders’ acolytes, known as Alexandrians, follow a relatively relaxed path; the Gardnerians have been described as “the Catholics of Wicca.”

Besides being more didactic, Gardner was more prolific, especially after the 1951 repeal of Britain’s last remaining anti-witchcraft law. His books Witchcraft Today and The Meaning of Witchcraft were early ripples in what has become a persistent and growing wave of volumes on the subject. To ride it, you don’t have to hunt up an esoteric bookshop; at the Borders in White Flint, nearly an entire bookcase is devoted to witchcraft.

Gardner defined his strain of the craft with the specificity of Joseph Smith dictating the Book of Mormon. Gardnerian precepts include the 9-foot circles in which participants worship nude, three degrees of priestess and priest, and the so-called Great Rite, in which female and male coveners assume the personae of goddesses and gods, sometimes engaging in intercourse during a ritual. This last has given Gardnerian craft a sexy tinge, though the old in-out occurs with equal rarity and secrecy.

“To him, Witchcraft was a peaceful, happy nature religion,” writes Adler of Gardner. “Witches met in covens, led by a priestess. They focused primarily on the Goddess; they celebrated the eight ancient Pagan festivals of Europe and sought to attune themselves to nature.”

Sympathetic revisionists like Bonewits have scathingly deconstructed Gardnerian historiography; the Alexandrian tradition attracts similar refutations. In neither instance, however, have debunkers discouraged a steady flow of would-be initiates to these or other bands on the pagan spectrum. That is the conundrum of modern paganism, an evolutionary worship mode trying to meld tradition with DIY fluidity.

Witchcraft as practiced by today’s pagans is better-known as Wicca, or simply “the craft.” While subdividing along several lines drawn by competing schools of revivalist thought, Wiccans generally worship a goddess and her consort god, whom they associate with European folklore and myth of the pre-Christian era.

(“Witch” and “Wicca” may derive from the Indo-European root weik, meaning “to turn or bend,” as in bending or shaping reality. “Witch” implies no gender. “Warlock,” popularly understood to mean a guy who practices witchcraft, actually refers to male Wiccans who ratted out their covens during the witch hunts of the Middle Ages. The word’s origin lies in the Old English waerloga, combining the words for “covenant” and “betrayer.”)

If other earth religions gave the Church a pejorative, Wicca provided a scapegoat. Christianity’s single, infinitely good god required a maleficent opposite. So, Wiccans say, theologians transmogrified the horned male consort of the goddess cults into the devil, forever linking paganism and satanism. (The first thing most pagans explain to an inquiring bystander is that they do not worship the devil; in fact, since their theology shuns the Manichaean dichotomy, they do not even acknowledge Satan’s existence, except as the transmogrified image of the consort god.)

During the Middle Ages, the fertility goddess and her priestesses came under literal and figurative fire when a society eager to place blame for the Black Plague fingered witchcraft as the cause. In the jittery religiopolitical setting of colonial Connecticut 300 years later, the Salem trials repeated the process.

The current Wiccan revival traces to the turn of the century, starting with American folklorist Charles G. Leland’s 1899Aradia, or the Gospel of Witches. Murray’s book, now generally discredited, was a big seller, priming the market for Aleister Crowley’s 1929 Magick in Theory and Practice, and Gardner’s 1950s-vintage books Witchcraft Today and The Meaning of Witchcraft.

Contemporary paganism is heavily print-driven; the list of books that have shaped the modern movement is long and growing longer. Adler’s Drawing Down is considered a key text, as is The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess, by a witch named Starhawk. The neopagan Church of All Worlds (CAW) was spawned by Robert Heinlein’s 1961 Stranger in a Strange Land, with its jargon (“grok,” “share water”), Christlike hero, and naturist/reincarnationist orientation.

Book-spawned coteries are not confined to pagans; groups have coalesced around the ordering of an imaginary universe that Frank Herbert accomplished in his “Dune” trilogy, Marion Zimmer Bradley with her “Darkover” books, and Robert Anton Wilson with his “Illuminatus series.” And if you’re tempted to consider these as minuscule marginalists, I have one word to say: Scientology.

Sometimes the pagan connection stirs not only the literary but the creative and commercial juices. “Arianna,” a 33-year-old Rockville resident, returned to long-fallow musical talents after finding her inner pagan. Like many pagan women, she was drawn to Wicca’s matrifocal approach.

“I had no [religious] training except the standard stuff you get in this culture,” she says. “I always got along with Jewish kids; I shared the sense they had of the Christian culture being very pushy. I identified with not being part of the majority.”

She and a similarly inclined band of outsiders gathered to chant, read esoteric books, and dally with ritual through high school. “Just before graduation, we read Drawing Down the Moon, which gave a name to what I had been experiencing,” Arianna says.

After a stint in the Maryland state college system, she quit school and followed her father into computer systems management. “I don’t have technical training, but I do have a knack,” she says. “The thing that draws me to computers resembles the beginning appeal of paganism—the idea that you could control your circumstances through magic or prayer or whatever.”

Grown distant from her high-school friends yet lonesome for a group experience, she posted notices at likely locations. This brought an invitation to a meeting that led to the creation of the Silver Web coven, which combined Native American and Celtic traditions, with an emphasis on chanting. At a Wisconsin festival, Arianna realized pagan chants were sounding pretty generic. In fact, a folkish duo on the pagan performing circuit, Kenny and Tziporah, had a sure-fire laugh-getter in a parody that went, “A-ay minor, D-ee minor pay-ay guh-un chant.”

Arianna had studied and abandoned the French horn in high school. She began writing chants, then formed a four-woman band, Pomegranate. “We gave it that name because of the seed symbol, the image of the red ripe fruit,” she says. “All that lush yonic stuff.”

The musical group became her spiritual group. They played colleges, pagan festivals, coffeehouses, and bookstores, calling it quits following a performance at the 1989 Rites of Spring festival in Massachusetts. Afterward, baking in a sweat lodge modeled on those of the Indians, Arianna pondered her next musical career move. She had a vision: another band, with a new name honoring the site of its conception. Since then, “Kiva,” which includes a couple of former Pomegranates, has released five recordings. The group works the same circuit Pomegranate played, as well as a venue Arianna created: Cerridwen’s Coffeehouse, named for the Celtic goddess of the cauldron, which in turn symbolizes death and rebirth.

“Christ Congregational rents me the space. They are very open-minded,” she says. “A lot of churches would not allow this strange group of people to be in their space monthly, but they do.”

There’s no Billboard “Pagan Power Play” chart, but Arianna is happy with sales. “Our album Mother Wisdom is a top 40 seller in the Ladyslipper catalog, which is based in Durham, North Carolina,” she said. “The New Leaf catalog carries it. And you can order the disc from Tower Records.”

A pagan primer: The religious year counts eight high holy days, or sabbats. These include the new year, Samhain (given the Irish pronunciation SAW-wane), celebrated Oct. 31; Yule, the winter solstice, on Dec. 21; Imbolc, the feast of the goddess Brighid, also called Candlemas, on Feb. 2; Ostara, the vernal equinox, on March 21; Beltane, or May Day, on May 1; Litha, the summer solstice, on June 21; Lughnasadh, the harvest feast, on Aug. 2; and Mabon, the autumnal equinox, on Sept. 21.

To accommodate the working faithful, big feast days often shift to the weekend. For example, May Day this year fell on a Monday, but the Free Spirit Alliance’s annual Beltane fest takes place noon to dusk—ritual at 2 p.m., maypole at 3—on Saturday, May 6, in the Holly area of Greenbelt National Park.

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Pagan liturgy is also flexible. Some groups follow strict rites, others sample many sources, with solitary practitioners pushing the edge even further. However, most group activities, especially for the high holy days, refract one another. A pagan of one orientation could attend another group’s Ostara and have no problem grasping its meaning.

Besides the holy days, pagans worship at the new or full moon. These rites, called esbats, are among the most diverse and experimental. “One of my favorite rituals at a moon ceremony involved three women in the group. They honored what Native Americans called the “Three Sisters’ food crops—squash, beans, and corn,” a self-described “witch and shaman” told me. “Each woman took the role of a vegetable and talked about how it fostered human life. That is the sort of experimental, creative thing that is so wonderful about paganism.”

But outside a small circle of intimate friends, this rite—no doubt tender in its moment and powerful in its emotional charge for those present—also sounds rather, well, goofy. That worries some pagans as much as the Inquisition’s trials by ordeal did their forebears. “The fear of appearing silly even to oneself is one that 99 percent of pagans are trying to get away from,” my source said.

Goofiness and gravitas are the antipodes of pagandom, which yearns as much for joy as for solace, and searches endlessly for friendly forums in which to find both. At first, those places existed mainly on the printed page; for the first 35 or 40 years of modern paganism, the only people involved were heavy readers, according to Bonewits of ADF.

“The vast majority were intellectuals and artists, literate people interested in reading about unusual ideas,” Bonewits says over the phone from his office in East Syracuse, N.Y. “This helped create an overlapping series of subcultures—science-fiction fans, medievalists, computer techies, occultists, and other groups whose members read a lot, have high IQs, and exhibit great creativity.”

When the digital era began, pagans were swift to segue from paperware to software, according to Fairfax County resident Larry Cornett, who since 1982 has tracked pagan rituals, holy day celebrations, and festivals around the world, publishing a circular listing them. “Neopagans tend to be people who do a lot more thinking for themselves,” he says. “They are pretty creative, and they see computers as tools to take drudgery out of putting ideas on paper. We generally embrace both modern science and the wisdom of indigenous peoples.”

Nationwide, Cornett tallies more than 100 computer bulletin boards and networks on pagan and magickal themes. Local operations include the Inn of the Sleeping Cat, run by the military branch of Witches Against Religious Discrimination, as well as Area of Anon and Ice Fire. A member of the Triskelion Nest of the Church of All Worlds, Cornett updates his list several times yearly. He counts several hundred festivals and more than 90 organized groups sponsoring or participating in them.

Among other influences, Cornett credits feminists and environmentalists with helping to rejuvenate paganism. He sees two archetypical “families”: those rooted in feminism, environmentalism, and the counterculture, and those re-creating traditional nature religions or ancient Norse and Celtic beliefs.

“But there also are eclectics, who work with whatever works,” he adds. “They usually are people who have gone beyond the limits of whatever religion they were raised in. They may have practiced meditation or magic on their own, then show up at a pagan gathering on a hunch and find there are thousands of people like them.”

Charlie Butler threw the April Fools’ Day party mostly to raise funds for Florida’s Church of Iron Oak, a Wiccan organization enmeshed in a court fight, but also to provide a reason for local pagans to converge. There was a buzz to the evening; the artist Nybor and his wife Elspeth, elders of greater D.C.-area pagandom, were to make an appearance. Elspeth and Nybor regularly meet and greet the faithful at open rituals sponsored by the Shaken Tree bookstore in Rockville, but the chatter at Christ Congregational was about Nybor bringing a shipment of artwork.

When he arrived, the hype was justified. Nybor has a fluid hand with a pen. In appearance startlingly Vikinglike—burly, muscular, with red face, white hair, and a beard—he looks like a perfect Nybor, though his mundane name is James Robin Odbert (the nom de crayon palindromes his middle name, swapping “Y” for “I” to heighten the Scandinavian effect).

“I grew up in La Crosse, Wisconsin,” he told me. “I’m 59 years old. I’ve known all my life I wanted to be an artist. I sold my first piece of art when I was 6, to the congregational church my family attended. It was a drawing of the church building.”

After art school, Odbert spent eight pre- Vietnam years in the Navy, then went into commercial art, first in Minneapolis, then in New York City. The ’60s were in full flaming glory. By now long-lapsed from congregationalism, Odbert dabbled in the occult and became aware of publishing opportunities in fantasy. Days, he designed trademarks and logos and typefaces and assembled annual reports for Fortune 500 firms; nights, he produced illustrations for sci-fi and mystery magazines and paperback book covers.

In the early ’70s, he encountered the tarot, and began to design his own intricate and highly erotic deck. He is only now finishing it; one of the big problems has been finding a print shop open-minded enough to do the job. “There will be 10 cards that have alternative versions,” he said. “I’m planning a limited edition—to be sold only under specific conditions—that will be more erotic, so much so that it might be considered by some people to be pornographic.”

His tarot project drew Nybor, by now married to Elspeth and fled from base Gotham to more leisurely West Virginia, to sell his art on the pagan festival circuit. Pagan commerce led him further into pagan spirituality. He began to offer workshops on what he calls “men’s mysteries”—the progression of duties any culture expects of its masculine members as they mature. He and Elspeth formed a group to acquire land on which a community could develop into self-sufficiency. They sponsor a Saturday night “family circle” at which any and all pagan perspectives are welcome.

“It’s not Norse or Wiccan or Gardnerian or Saxon or Isian or Aquarian Tabernacle,” he says. “People began to come to us with their problems, and we advise them. About two years ago, the D.C.-area pagans made me a sage of the community.”

How does a faith that once dared not speak its name flourish in the absence of missionary work? Like the pagan traces that abound in the dominant culture—right down to the names of the days, that business with the pyramid and the eyeball on the $1 bill, and the ubiquitous five-pointed star of federal authority (the newsletter of the U.S. Marshals Service is called The Pentacle)—pagandom is never far from the societal surface. Start asking around, as I did, and it takes no time to encounter a friend of a friend or a high-school classmate who has accepted the revelation. Scratch a citizen, find a pagan.

But how do citizens scratch that pagan itch? They start by inquiring obliquely. In olden times, a pot in a window or a broom by the doorway would alert kindred spirits. Today, bookstore and herb-shop bulletin boards provide one medium of inquiry, computer networks another. Face-to-face encounters occur at Renaissance fairs and public rituals on the high holy days. Pagan coffeehouses like Cerridwen’s attract the curious and the committed. Publications like Green Egg, Circle Network News, and Enchante: The Journal for the Urban Pagan carry ads from groups looking to expand. And there is the simple technique of spotting signifiers: pentacle amulets, goddess art, books by leading pagan publishers Llewellyn or Samuel Weiser.

“It is difficult for initiates in any tradition,” says one witch. “It takes a lot of time and networking to find the right group for yourself.” Many may decide they are called, but somewhat fewer are chosen. One leader estimates that several score seekers yearly do not make his group’s cuts. Leading reason for rejection: an express desire to learn magic to obtain power over others. Leading reason for acceptance: a humble acknowledgement of interest in learning more about the old ways.

The druids are among the most accessible of pagan outfits. ADF rituals are public; while not messianic, the druid group will send a sheaf of information at the drop of a dime. Callers dialing 1-800-DRUIDRY hear a cheery greeting from the puckish Bonewits. He closes by saying, “If you’re one of those fundamentalist Christians who’ve been leaving violent and obscene messages on this tape, you should know that this is a violation of both federal law and Christian theology. We can and will have you arrested for the former, while the latter you should discuss with your pastor.”

In the D.C. area, there are at least four local pagan computer bulletin boards, six pagan-oriented bookstores, and several umbrella organizations, like the Free Spirit Alliance, that schedule pagan festivals and seminars, maintain communications among groups, and provide settings in which to air topics of concern to greater pagan Washington.

Recently, a cadre of 25 to 30 activists met at the Turning Wheel bookstore in Pasadena, Md., to do that which is most antithetical to paganry: organize. They chartered a formal pagan rights group to fight workplace and housing bias and use of pagan affiliations as a cudgel in child custody cases, as well as to support pagan groups under attack for daring to practice their rites in anything less than total secrecy. The Coalition for Pagan Religious Rights (COPRR) intends to work at raising public awareness of what paganism is and is not.

“There is so much negative claptrap in the mainstream media, which often focus on Samhain, or what nonpagans call “Halloween,’ ” explains one witch. “For us, that day focuses on ancestors who have passed into death. We are acknowledging death as part of life, loving it—because without death there would be no life. The two are inseparable. We see life as a series of cycles, and we honor those periods in every life where change leads to death and decay. We are trying to unhook the negative association our culture holds so strongly towards death.”

But COPRR also acknowledges the need for self-defense. “We are organizing on threats to our religious freedom. It is only a matter of time before it becomes more of a necessity for mainstream people to understand our religion,” says another meeting participant. “The public perception is of paganism as a very fringe entity. We are so often confused with satanism, which is a real problem when it comes to hostile spouses who have turned against each other and are willing to grasp at any straw. Our religion is a factor in child custody suits; it has been used against pagan women in particular.”

The witch factor tends to lie beneath the surface of divorces; the pagan card is often played sub rosa, triggering settlements that never see the inside of a courtroom. Pagan religious-rights cases are more clear-cut.

The Church of Iron Oak, an English-tradition Wiccan outfit in Palm Bay, Fla., is warring with civil authorities over members’ right to celebrate holy days at the home of high priestess Jacque Omi Zaleski. Her group is considered a church rather than a coven because of its size; coven ranks rarely exceed 20, while Iron Oak counts nearly 40 in its congregation.

An affiliate of Seattle-based Aquarian Tabernacle Church, Iron Oak maintains a commercial building in Melbourne, Fla., where public and members-only ceremonies take place six nights a week. The ruckus in nearby Palm Bay erupted in February 1994, when a neighbor complained to city officials that by standing on her roof she could see a nighttime Candlemas ceremony involving about 40 adults and children in Zaleski’s one-acre yard. Police in Palm Bay, located between Cape Canaveral and Vero Beach, ignored her. So the neighbor went to planning and zoning officials with tales of bloody knives, nudity, and animal sacrifice—all of which Zaleski energetically denies.

Citing Zaleski and husband Roger Coleman, Iron Oak’s high priest, for operating a church in a residential area without a variance, the bureaucrats threatened fines and arrest if more than five pagans congregated at the property for worship or prayer. After three days of hearings that included pro-Iron Oak testimony from ministers of Protestant churches in the area, the zoning board found for the church. However, the neighbor’s allegations and city officials’ actions have made Iron Oak a target of everything from vitriolic pamphlets published by Operation Rescue to barrages of oranges thrown at Zaleski’s house and its occupants.

To fight back locally and to get Wicca recognized as a religion by federal judges, Iron Oak is suing Palm Bay in Orlando U.S. District Court. Its tool is the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, intended to protect the exercise of worship by all religions from government interference. A trial has been set for July 1996, with preliminary hearings in December.

Precedents do not come cheaply. “We need $50,000 to go to federal court and $250,000 to go to the Supreme Court,” says Zaleski. She pegged legal costs so far at $22,000, obtained mostly via a home-equity loan on her house. To rally support and raise funds, Iron Oak has begun a vigorous propaganda campaign. “If Pagans ever want to hold their heads high, we must fight this battle!” exhorts a broadside from the church. “If we take our religion seriously, we must fight this battle! If we want to worship our Goddess and God in peace in our homes and on our property, we must fight this battle!”

The Washington area sees anti-pagan bias, too. On March 20 or 21, someone entered the unlocked offices of the Pagan Student Union (PSU) at Prince George’s Community College in Largo, Md. According to PSU President Meghan Newkirk, intruders wiped the office blackboard clean of PSU writings, then scrawled in blue chalk, “Ye creatures of evil shall burn in a lake of fire Accept Jesus now” and used a red marker from Newkirk’s desk to scrawl “EVIL” repeatedly on the bulletin board and wall.

“The only follow-up on the graffiti has been bad energy and negative karma. Some people have shown sympathy; they say they may not agree with us but they would never do that,” says Newkirk, 20. “No one has been telling me I will burn in hell for all eternity. But I’m used to being called a satanist or devil-worshiper. Unfortunately, it is a fact of life.”

A Wiccan since 16, Newkirk joined the student group to discuss religion and philosophy outside the Jewish/Christian/Muslim context. She grew up in nearby Lanham, Md. After her Catholic father and Episcopalian mother divorced, Meghan, then 3 years old, lived with her mother. They attended St. George’s Church in Glenn Dale. When she was 14, however, she decided something was missing. “The church orientation was that children were to be seen, not heard,” she says. “How many times can you hear the story of Noah?”

When her mother died, Meghan moved in with a half-brother. Searching for a new spiritual setting, she scrolled through the menu of alternative disciplines: born-again bible thumping, shamanism, Buddhism, even a brush with satanism. Nothing took. Wicca presented itself through a friend’s link to an eclectic Alexandrian coven. Newkirk belonged to that group for about 18 months, but the high priestess’s ego began to crowd her. “She had a greater-than-thou attitude,” the PSU president says. “It occurs about as often in pagan society as in regular society.”

Newkirk endured heckling in high school. Seeing her pentacle amulet, schoolmates at Eleanor Roosevelt High in Greenbelt called her a devil-worshiper, and said she’d burn at the stake. She now describes herself as completely out of the broom closet.

“I don’t wear my jewelry inside my shirt,” Newkirk says. “I am really proud of it; it has a beautiful cut amethyst at the center. Why should I have to hide that when a Christian can walk down the street wearing a cross?”

By the time Newkirk graduated from high school in 1992, she had started her own group. When she enrolled at the community college a year later, though, academic pressures forced her to trade the coven for solitary practice. “I don’t have the time to deal with the 10 other people or more that you have within a coven,” she says. “I’m very eclectic. I incorporate a little of everything—Celtic gods and goddesses, Hindu and Native American deities, Greek, Roman.”

Despite the recent vandalism, the college has been less resistant; Newkirk even wrote a paper on Wicca for one course. In the workplace, paganism has been problematic; baby-sitting clients have dropped her like a used Pamper. But she also worked four years without remark at her former church’s nursery school, and now clerks at a video store where her boss has no gripe with her witchy ways. “She dates a Jehovah’s Witness,” Newkirk said. “He saw my pentacle and asked me about it. We had a long conversation. He is a really nice guy; he totally changed my view of Jehovah’s Witnesses.”

I was pondering Newkirk’s closing remark when I encountered a dispute that made witchcraft seem ever more like any other sect. I’d been interviewing a fellow who goes by the craft name Orion. He is high priest of a coven in Laurel, Md., and his story echoed many I’d heard: small-town upbringing; knew he was different from way back; out of several closets by the time he hit D.C.; pursued the Gardnerian degrees; “hived off,” as they say, to open his own coven.

But midway through several telephone conversations with the high priest, I started receiving fax and voice communications from ex-coveners. They accused Orion of manipulative interpretations of doctrine, of delegating responsibility but not authority—and of using his priestly office to get laid. Orion, according to informants who don’t want to be identified, engaged in sex with a student—in Wicca, as in more mainstream settings, a decidedly unsavory act.

Hearing these charges at coven meetings, Orion had booted his accusers, they claimed. One dissenter faxed me an ominous message he’d received: “Reports of your ignominious actions have been brought to our attention. Said actions were those of a coward….we have no recourse but to take the following action….” There followed a runic inscription—stick-figure drawings that could have been from any of a half-dozen Scandinavian alphabets—then the phrase “Council of the Midnight Wing,” with a smeary hand-drawn pentagram beneath. The recipient claimed Orion was behind the runic threat, which also branded him a warlock and oath-breaker.

Orion acknowledged sexual contact between himself and a student. However, he said, they had known one another outside the coven beforehand. This changed the context, according to the high priest. “I do not have sex with students.” he said. “I am very against it, not because the craft says not to, but because I have personal ethics about that.”

I asked if he’d heard of the Council of the Midnight Wing. “Oh, the one that sent so-and-so that letter?” he said. “I’ve been asking all over, but, as I told him, I haven’t the slightest idea. Some of my friends are not happy about how I was treated, and they are not as kind as I am.”

Then Orion launched into a soliloquy about what he called “witch wars”—pagan infighting. “We spend more time lighting the bonfire under each other’s asses,” he complained. “We should be able to influence votes and legislation and policy, but we can’t, because we are so busy fighting one another. Paganism is in its adolescence. An adolescent is not a child and not a grown-up and the result is a lot of acting-out behavior. We will grow out of it, but it is a difficult time.”

When I recounted the episode to ADF archdruid Bonewits, he was not surprised. “Pagans are not more virtuous than other religions, but our population is more alert to the early signs of abuse and more likely to denounce it quickly than to try to bury it,” he said.

Such behavior is on the wane, according to Bonewits, although he notes that it was rampant 20 years ago. “Back then, there was a more highly charged environment,” he said. “People were exploring the cutting edge of the relationship between spirituality and sexuality, and they were doing so without guidelines. In the period since, we have had time to develop guidelines. And since we don’t usually require that our leaders be paragons of virtue, we don’t have to sweep their misbehavior under the rug.”

Orion had proposed to his coven that I attend their April 15 esbat. But the rumpus over his leadership had left his people wary of strangers, he said, so he had to turn me down.

However, a full-moon ritual did reveal itself, practically in my back yard. Rick Campbell, a solitary eclectic practitioner who calls himself a Celtic shaman, organizes circles that weave together Wiccan, Native American, and other influences. His April 15 meeting took place in an apartment at a tony complex not far from Washington Cathedral.

The ceremony was set for nightfall; I arrived early enough to enjoy the twilit display of flowering trees and shrubs that decorate the building grounds. An appropriately Dianic statue guarded the entrance.

Once inside, I listened to Campbell, a bearded but boyish 42-year-old in flannel shirt and jeans with a small pentacle hanging from his neck, tell his story to the tune of a Pomegranate cassette on the stereo. A native of Northwest D.C., he is the older of two sons, a loner who from the age of 10 had felt a strong attraction to the woods. He bought camping gear with his newspaper route earnings, persuading his folks to take him to the Shenandoah Mountains and drop him off for solo treks. A couple of years into college, he parted ways with the educational system to work as a mechanic and carpenter, gradually homing in on solar technology as a vocation. He says he now holds 25 patents in the area.

In the mid-’70s, feeling he’d tilted too far into high-tech, Campbell began to study martial arts—kung fu, tai chi, chi gong—as well as herbal medicine and massage therapy. The last was the hinge that swung him toward the alternative spiritual realm. To obtain certification as a massage therapist, he had to do 1,000 hours of training massage work, then spend 600 hours employed in a legitimate massage setting. He found a minimum-wage job at a Holiday Spa, where the massage staff worked in an unventilated cinder-block room. Campbell fought the urge to walk, using tai chi meditation techniques to lighten his outlook. He found himself unknotting not only clients’ muscles, but their psyches. “Sometimes there would be a catharsis when I would work with someone,” he said. “People would scream, laugh, experience the full range of emotions.”

While he developed his massage technique, Campbell widened his interests to include Wicca, Celtic shamanism, and Native American healing. He joined several covens, taking from each what he found functional. Lessons from his childhood camping came back to him. He felt himself growing new means of communicating with and touching others. He was so sure a third eye was sprouting in his brow that he had his skull X-rayed.

From the threads of many disciplines, he began to weave what he calls a tapestry. “When we work on these things we are not making something new—we are putting the tapestry back together,” he says. “As the Indians say, we are fixing the broken hoop.” He studied the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Kabbalah. In 1994, while participating in a spiritual workshop, he found himself communing with a tree.

The specified exercise was to command the tree to open a porthole into another dimension. Campbell considered that ridiculous; you can’t command a tree to do anything, he thought. But he does believe you can learn from trees, and from this particular tree he heard a message: If humans were to ask trees nicely, trees could help heal emotional trauma by channeling it into the earth. However, the tree told Campbell, the earth is out of balance, thanks to human pushiness. If you want us to help you heal, you have to heal yourselves first.

That summer Campbell organized a weekend workshop; he called it “Healing the Inner Warrior.” Ads drew 40 registrants at $150 apiece to a location in rural Virginia for several days of shamanic ceremonies, sweat lodges, yoga, massage, and healing circles from various traditions. Breaking even on the balance sheet, Campbell felt enormously enriched in the spiritual column. “Those 40 people fell in love with one another,” he says. He repeated the workshop in the autumn, and answered requests for some continuing experience by starting to convene full-moon circles such as the one that was about to begin.

As we talked, nine other people arrived, each bearing food or drink or both for the post-ritual potluck. Some were neophytes; others, seasoned spiritual travelers. When I identified myself and described my assignment, a few said they reject the label “pagan,” but most reacted hardly at all.

As the sky dimmed, Campbell lit kosher candles and smaller votive lights evocative of those I’d carried as an altar boy. He told us to doff our footwear. The apartment acquired an odd perfume—half locker room, half sanctuary. We moved furniture to make room for a fidgety ellipse, six women and four men, all in the 34-to-48 demographic, while Campbell ducked into the bedroom. I noticed other people stowing their watches and did likewise.

Campbell emerged clothed far more dramatically. He’d stopped flying the flannel to don a monkish black robe secured by a wide leather belt on which hung a chunky pouch. Lighting a small mound of charcoal in a miniature cauldron on the dining room table, he added incense granules and explained what would happen, noting that not only was tonight’s moon full, but in eclipse—a special event. We would cast a circle, cleansing ourselves with sage smoke and summoning the goddess and god, as well as the four directions and their attendant spirits. We would hug. We would chant. We would dance. He would drum. He would pray. He would lead us in guided imaging on a journey to what South American shamans call the “lower world” in which humans find their animal spirit counterparts.

These things came to pass in a two-hour ceremony that would not be alien to anyone who has resided in Group Therapy Nation. For the benefit of newcomers (and, no doubt, visiting reporters), Campbell took time at each ritual to explain its purpose. There were a few potentially hilarious moments of the “I forgot my mantra” variety—such as when the sage bundle stopped smoldering and had to be re-fired. We invited the four directions (east is air, south is fire, west is water, north is earth), the earth mother, the sky father. The evening’s chant, chosen by one of the women, was “Enlighten my path, lighten my load.” Her aim in composing it, she said, was to help her find the positive in situations where she tended to dive into the slough of despond. I could relate.

Pausing to refuel the incense burner, Campbell took up a miniature drum, directing us to move clockwise. We could dance if we wanted. He would maintain the meter, speeding it to a crescendo. We began to move. There wasn’t much dancing space, so the one circle became two, one smaller and congruent. Campbell’s leaping performance at the center shamed our dorky, constricted shuffle; we were shambling like the monsters in the cave in Invaders From Mars. As the drumbeat accelerated, the chant’s volume rose—my mumbling participation summoning memories of many a Mass gone by—until I wondered what the upstairs and downstairs neighbors must be thinking. I thanked the gods for reinforced concrete construction.

That was probably when I began to check out. For the next exercise, everyone but Campbell lay on the floor, eyes closed. Tapping his drum, the shaman narrated our mental journey into the earth. I got as far as making the acquaintance of a big praying mantis perched on the bark of an old oak tree. Then I remembered I’d promised to be home by 9 to help organize Easter brunch. It was way later than that, and where was I? Proboscis to proboscis in the imaginary underworld with a big predatory insect—and somebody in the room was snoring.

Finally, Campbell guided us back to the surface of our mental world. We sat passing cookies and cups of wine cooler or soda. Several participants described their imaging journeys. To end the ceremony, we stood for the closing of the circle. To bid farewell to the deities we’d summoned, Campbell drew a pentacle in the air at each point of the compass and then toward the sky and earth. With the circle closed, he extinguished the candles and tweaked the rheostat controlling the room lights. We stood blinking in the renewed brightness.

The others bustled into a round of food preparation. I strapped on my sandals and left, happy to be alone in the cold night, but also thinking about what the Church of Iron Oak priestess had said about her fight to enjoy what Louis Brandeis called the most valued right any citizen enjoys.

“I want to say to them, “Will you just leave us alone?’ ” Rev. Zaleski told me. “We honor Mother Earth. We try to comfort people. Will you just leave us alone?”

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Charles Steck.