There’s no doubt that the world has a lot of conflicting opinions about Paganism. Some believe that the term is synonymous with witchcraft, while others simply equate it with full on Satanism. Recently, Kathleen Hartnett White, President Donald Trump’s nominee for senior White House adviser for environmental policy, likened global warming to a form of Paganism for secular elites. People — and the Bible — will even use “Pagan” to describe ideologies contrary to the historically dominant Christian tenants that have shaped American history. Misunderstandings are usually the major obstacles that prevent mainstream society from accepting Paganism as a religion.
Modern Paganism covers a broad swathe of beliefs, practices and ideologies; the International Pagan Federation’s website defines Paganism as “the ancestral religion of the whole of humanity.” According to the site, most Pagan religions emphasize the same three basic concepts: veneration of nature, polytheism and the “feminine face of divinity.” There are many different subsets of Pagan religions, including but not limited to Heathenry, Shamanism and Hellenism. Heathenry, is a polytheistic belief system that is centered upon the Norse gods among other beings. Heathen values include wyrd, a multidimensional force that connects everything in the universe, fridh, or the importance of keeping intergroup relationships peaceful and honesty. Shamanism originated from the religious practices of Native American cultures while Hellenism honors ancient Greek gods.
Although Paganism is far from being as pervasive as Christianity is, the population of religious Pagan practitioners has blossomed in recent years, especially with the rise of social media; organizations exist as far away as Iran and as close as Ann Arbor.
For the Rev. Rob Henderson, senior druid of Shining Lakes Grove in Ann Arbor, Paganism is all about what links people to one another and to the world around them: “Ultimately, I would say that it’s acknowledging your connection to various entities and forces around the universe and using them to the benefit of everyone,” Henderson said in a phone interview.
Out of all the modern Pagan — or Neopagan — organizations that exist, Henderson’s church, Ár nDraíocht Féin, or “A Druid Fellowship” is one of the largest and most public. The organization can be thought of as more of an umbrella group for congregation rather than a typical church, and currently has about 60 groups spread all over the world. ADF, which means "Our own Druidism” in Irish, was founded by Isaac Bonewits in 1983 with the intention of “creat(ing) an authentically Druidic Neopagan religion our ancestors would be proud of.” Today, that takes shape through a focus on acceptance, respect and positivity. ADF’s beliefs touch on everything from the ethics and neutrality of science and technology to the presence of an afterlife.
“Polytheism is a really tolerant and open thing. If you’re acknowledging that other people also have gods, our way is more ‘My way is right and your way is probably also right,’” Henderson said.
Henderson first joined the Pagan community in 1990, when he was a student at the University of Michigan. Growing up, he was raised Catholic, but his family left the church before Henderson took communion and he spent much of his teenage years as a radical atheist. However, he’d always had a spiritual connection to Paganism, even before he’d “officially” discovered the practice.
“Back when I was a child, I remembered hearing voices in my head that claimed to be the goddess Athena — I wasn’t particularly keen on sharing those with people around me for a while. In college I had a few friends who were involved with Paganism, and I figured, with my connection to Athena, why not?” Henderson said.
Along with all the belief differences that separate Paganism and more ubiquitous monotheist religions, Pagan practitioners also use different terms for members of different standings. The term druid has Celtic origins: Originally, the term came from the Welsh word for oak, and loosely translated means “person of the oak.” Back then, it referred to the priestly class of Celtic people, but nowadays it’s used in a much more general way.
“The problem is that people will point out, why are you using a Celtic word? Simply because it’s the best word. Even though we aren’t specifically a Celtic organization, ADF has a lot of European members. There was some talk of calling us Teuts, which means ‘people of the people,’ but I was not going to call myself a Teut,” Henderson said. “Another problem is that druid only technically refers to priests, and only 10 percent of organization is really priests, so the more accurate term might be ADF practitioner.”
In the almost 30 years of his journey with Paganism, Henderson has seen the movement change irrevocably, mainly as a result of the proliferation of technology and widespread usage of the internet. Most obviously, it’s a lot easier to share ideas with others — some who practice Paganism even participate in Facebook rituals, which Henderson isn’t a proponent of, as it lacks the energy and interconnectedness that physically being in a group can provide.
“Back when I first got started with it, it involved going to Borders and getting magazines. If you could afford to travel, you went to festivals around the country. Otherwise, you’d share books and ideas at group meetings, then go home to do things on your own,” Henderson said.
Like most who practice Paganism and alternative forms of religion, Henderson has had his fair share of dealing with nonbelievers, including those that write Paganism off as Satanic worship.
“I’ve given up arguing with those people. If that’s what you believe, then there’s really no point in me trying to argue against it,” Henderson said. “There’s sometimes this idea that we’re going against what other people are like just to be counterculture or different, but it’s not like that at all. We’re doing this for ourselves, to make a better world, not to annoy other people.”
Despite his devout beliefs, Henderson acknowledges Paganism may not be the path for every or even most individuals.
“There are other ways to feel connected to the universe and to other people, and I know plenty of atheists and monotheists who do that. This is one potential toolset of many, it’s the one that works for me, and for some of us it’s the best one,” Henderson said.
Out of all the Pagan religions that exist today, witchcraft may be one of the most feared and least understood by the public. However, modern witchcraft usually bears no resemblance to the green-skinned, warty, cackling hags whom movies publicize.
Although witchcraft falls under the umbrella term Paganism, Pat Barbary, high priestess of MoonFire coven, emphasizes the clear distinction between the two.
“Witchcraft is very specific because it’s the practice of using your will to blend reality or to venerate the different gods and goddesses in a devotional way, and I think that Paganism is a broad term that just basically involves everyone who isn’t Christian,” Barbary said in an interview with The Daily. “To some extent, some hardcore Christians even feel that Catholics are Pagan.”
Like Henderson, Barbary’s first experiences with the Pagan world also started when she was young, in the form of a feeling of unfulfillment that she couldn’t quite identify.
“I was raised Catholic — I was very spiritual and very devout — but I was always looking for more in the church. Once I figured out what was missing, I realized I didn’t have the aspects of what you’re really doing when you’re practicing a ritual, because a Catholic ritual is very, very boring as opposed to a Wiccan ritual, which is really happy and exciting, and you can feel the energy and flow — I felt like I was coming home,” Barbary said.
Her fascination with witchcraft specifically came into being when she was a seventh grader researching the Salem witch trials for a report.
“I remember I was just really intrigued that the hysteria had been caused by a servant girl’s beliefs in spirits, and from that I started researching astrology and tarot and a number of other things. Eleven years old, that’s when I started getting into it,” Barbary said.
After college, Barbary moved to Massachusetts and soon became involved with the EarthSpirit community, a Neopagan group that focuses on venerating the earth. In 1987, Barbary decided to start her own coven, which eventually became MoonFire. In the most basic sense, MoonFire follows British traditional Alexandrian Wicca, which was founded by Alex Sanders in the mid- to late-1900s. Similar to Paganism itself, Wicca contains several subsets of more specific ideologies and practices; Alexandrian Wicca is distinct from other types of Wicca, such as Dianic Wicca, which is female-oriented and goddess-centered, while Alexandrian Wicca worships both gods and goddesses, and strives to further knowledge.
“We believe that Alexandrian Wicca is an evolving spiritual path because you can’t ignore all the influences around you,” Barbary said. “Religion is based on the spiritual, and there’s a lot of things out there that haven’t been explored. My belief is that whatever you pray for or believe in, those intentions all go to the same source and it doesn’t matter what religious system you follow.”
Outside of MoonFire, Barbary and her husband Paul own Artes and Craft, a Pagan and witchcraft store in Hartford, Mich. Artes and Craft specializes in selling handmade, locally crafted and sourced products, ranging from soaps and candles to spell kits and ritual tools, and also caters to a wide range of Pagan religions and practices.
“My favorite part of owning a store is probably planning the events — I really enjoy having people do that discovery thing where they walk in and they go, ‘Ooh!’ — I like being able to show people that there are other people like them around, and it’s growing,” Barbary said. “I think the Michigan area is coming of age, whereas I think the East and West Coast came of age in the ’80s. There’s a mainstream group of people that are getting into occult who want to learn and are dabbling.”
But with the bloom of new blood comes certain boundaries. Newcomers to witchcraft tend to underestimate the dangers that come with the practice, and after years of experience, Barbary has two important cautionary points.
“People that are involved with the practice really need to be honest with themselves; they need to know who they are, because once you’re working to bend reality, if you’re in denial about something, that will mess with what you’re doing,” Barbary said. “People also have to be careful with the term ‘harming none,’ because if you bend, change, alter or manipulate, you are not capable of harming none. Any time you’re doing a spell or even wishing innocently, you are basically altering somebody else’s reality to some extent.”
On top of being knowledgeable enough to give advice, Barbary’s role in the Wiccan community has also changed throughout her journey with witchcraft.
“Paul and I are a team, and we have found ourselves in a position where we are elders. We’re the ones bringing young people into the fold and saying, ‘Yes, it’s OK to do this,’ and I feel like all those things I thought I knew when I was 20 or 30 have become things that I really do know now — it’s a nice place because it allows us to talk to people with confidence and experience,” Barbary said.
For now, change is still slow and steady. Witchcraft and Paganism still face significant sociological and cultural hurdles before they can be readily accepted by an American majority. Barbary, however, has high hopes for what is to come.
“I really do believe it’s the movement of the future, and I feel like the movement of Paganism is getting so widespread that it’s starting to feel like it’s going to be the next biggest ‘religious’ movement, and I say that in quotation marks because I feel like it’s more of a spiritual thing,” Barbary said.
Rob Henderson is equally optimistic about Paganism’s quiet growth, even though he doesn’t have full access to the Pagan community due to a disability that leaves him wheelchair-bound.
“There aren’t a whole lot of public groups in Ann Arbor these days — a lot of quiet groups are out there meeting in their own living rooms,” Henderson said.
When it all comes down to it, though, Henderson’s and Barbary’s experiences reflect an impression of Paganism that’s altogether different from the malevolent evil that non-Pagans might fear; Henderson points to the tolerance that Paganism offers, just as Barbary champions the positive energy that her rituals offer her.
“We’re all in the same universe, and we can at least help each other stay out of each other's ways long enough to get to where we need to go,” Henderson said.