Micaela Bartram first became interested in Paganism while she was in middle school after her friend suggested they look up a love spell.
Despite her friend’s eventual loss of interest, Bartram continued to look up information on Paganism. After years of research, Bartram, a sophomore studying studio art, now practices a combination of earth religions and witchcraft.
“I’m a weird eclectic mix of a few different things. … I’m definitely Pagan and a witch, but not Wiccan.” Bartram said. “You have a preconceived idea of something that everyone talks about, but then when you experience it for yourself, it’s disappointment and not what you thought.”
Bartram knows only two other Pagans on campus, but according to the Pagan Federation International, the religion is growing, and the organization has more than 4,000 members. Among Pagans, there are are multiple definitions of what the religion is.
A nature-based religion
Pagans are individuals who follow a polytheistic and pantheistic nature-based religion. Polytheism is the belief in multiple deities, and pantheism is the belief a god or gods and the universe are the same entity, and the belief in “rejection of any view that considers God as distinct from the universe,” according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
“Neo-Paganism is a recent development where people have began to identify themselves with reconstructed classical European religions,” Brian Collins, the Drs. Ram and Sushila Gawande, Chair in Indian Religion and Philosophy, said. “What’s interesting about Paganism is it’s kind of based on the hundreds of years of scholarship of religion.”
Some Pagans follow ancient traditions, like the ones that come from ancient Greek and Norse mythology.
“(Ancient religions) were dead, and that’s why we’re (trying to) revive them," Bartram said. "It feels like, culturally, we were forced to lose them.”
Paganism is very connected with nature, and honoring the Earth is an easy way for Bartram to practice.
“Usually I meditate, but simple things like taking a walk through nature and recycling are other things I do,” Bartram said. “Aside from practical spellwork, we care a lot about the Earth.”
Pagans may fall under the same name, but their beliefs on deities and spirit heads may differ.
“It’s all connected and we can agree and disagree,” Bartram said. “I personally do not (believe in a spirit head), but a lot of Pagans do. One person will believe in the Greek gods and that they have real personality, while someone else will just think of them as cosmic energy that is just given a name to use.”
Reverend Crow Swimsaway has been a practicing shaman for more than 30 years and has also practiced aspects of Paganism.
“Pagan is a huge bag that all kinds of interesting stuff gets tossed into,” Swimsaway said. “Paganism is nature; it’s not a religion of structure, and there is no book … It’s not so much of a belief as an experience. Spirit exists. Spirit is in all things. Spirit manifests in different ways, each of which is valid."
Different Pagans have different practices. Collins said some see the religion as communing with nature, while others perceive Paganism as a feminist religion, and some practitioners believe it can connect them with their ancient pre-Christian roots.
Many Pagans have tools of trade they use in their practice, Bartram said, including runes and herbs.
Something that interested Bartram in Pagan beliefs is the prominence of feminist ideologies. In many cases, females hold major leadership roles in the church.
Collins said there are some Neo-Pagans who will focus only on goddesses from different religions as one “divine feminine power.”
“(Paganism) is a nature religion. It has a body and structure and is about honoring the god, the goddess and the creative spirit in the world,” Herron, who has been practicing Paganism for more than thirty years, said. “There’s duality in this reality. We balance ourselves to the masculine and feminine.”
When shamans are practicing, Swimsaway said their work is assisted by “allies”, which are spiritual guides seen during trances, which could appear as plants or animals. A trance is a natural hallucinatory state usually induced through repetitious sounds.
“The trance state can be induced by all kinds of things, but drumming and rattling are the most (commonly used),” Swimsaway said. “Something about steady repetition helps you leave ordinary reality and go into the shamanic reality.”
Swimsaway also helped begin The Church of Earth Healing. The church offers “teaching, healing and spiritual counseling within a shamanic framework,” according to its website.
“The church is not a building. It’s a church of minds and of spirit,” Swimsaway said. “As a church, we have a weekly service called a shamanic journeying circle, and people who know how to do this get together and do the journey to help ourselves and others.”
“Journeying” is the core practice used in healing work, Swimsaway said. It’s the use of trances to make a connection with the spirit, and that’s where one meets their ancestors and guides.
Points of Power
Halloween falls on one of the eight holidays of the year for Pagans, called Samhain. The holiday begins Oct. 31, and lasts until sunset Nov. 1. It marks the beginning of winter.
“I personally will light a candle (for Samhain), pray and meditate after that,” Bartram said. “A lot of people will get together in a coven and will have a ritual and chant and pray to the goddess.”
Herron said that the Halloween most non-Pagans celebrate is a “candy-coated version,” because Halloween marks the new year for modern Pagans.
“We celebrate our ancestors, and the veil of the spirit world is very thin, and we can more easily contact them,” he said.
During the full moon and new moon, many will do spellwork at “points of power” in the universe, Bartram said.
“Mostly it’s just telling yourself something will happen. It’s like positive reinforcement,” Bartram said. “People do them to attract love and money and to pass a test. It makes you feel better.”
Herron said he normally performs spells of protection as well as ones focusing on money and self-esteem.
“There’s a process and a circle that I bring people in and perform a rite,” Herron said. “The circle is a barrier of protection.”
Perceptions of Paganism
Heather Greene, the managing editor of The Wild Hunt, a news blog on modern Paganism, said Paganism is not seen as a serious religion and is not given respect.
“The communities may look different or feel different than many mainstream religious communities, but they are just as serious and just as deserving of respect,” Greene said in an email.
Negative stereotypes of Pagans mean many practitioners don’t feel comfortable sharing their religious beliefs.
“We’re put down upon as weirdos and evil,” Herron said. “(Current beliefs often) put us in a bad light.”
Despite the negative perceptions of witches and Pagans, Herron said that they are very open and down-to-earth people who want to share their abilities.
“Don’t be afraid of the shamans and witches,” Herron said. “We want to heal this planet, so that we can heal others.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misquoted Gary Herron. The article has been updated to show the most accurate information.