Lions and tigers and pagans — oh my!

SamhainmusicI don’t think I’ve written about paganism since I joined GetReligion. Hopefully this post will go over better.

Halloween is over, and that gives us another opportunity to reflect on news coverage of paganism, which so often gets pegged to a holiday that, like Easter and Christmas, has split roots.

Samhain, not to be confused with the punk band fronted by Glenn Danzig, is a Gaelic harvest festival that celebrates the end of summer. It also happens to fall on the same day as All Saints’ Eve (Hallowe’en) and is likely the reason kids don’t trick-or-treat dressed as St. Peter.

Certainly, there is nothing new about Paganism per se. From Halloween to May Day to Yuletide, said Prof. Diana L. Eck of the Harvard Divinity School, “there’s a way in which all of us, especially in the Christian tradition, follow a religious calendar that is pegged to ancient Pagan festivals.”

For newspaper editors, it’s easy enough to tell a reporter to file a story about how some Americans — the number is increasing! — are real witches and celebrate Samhain and not its secular offspring. Able reporters like Samuel G. Freedman, who wrote in The New York Times about the mainstreaming of paganism, in which he include the above quote from Eck, the task is more than manageable. But for many reporters it seems, well, a bit ghoulish. Take this from The Washington Post:

Thick, ashen clouds streamed above the quiet hillside and a fierce gust blew below, tossing a broom off the makeshift altar and sending shivers down the spine of a fairy princess.

“All right, there are enough witches here, let’s get this wind away,” implored one woman among the gathered crowd of maidens, knights, wizards and dark angels.

But perhaps the wind was meant to blow when the auburn-haired bride made her entrance, veil flying, long silk gown glinting with 1,500 garnet and citrine jewels, escorted by her father and the otherworldly strains of the theme from “Edward Scissorhands.”

The black-robed high priest and priestess presiding over this sacred rite would call forth the wind, along with water, earth and fire, to consecrate the vows exchanged Saturday by Christina Dorffner and Daniel Shank, one self-described Catholic witch and one pagan.

Talk about scary. But this is actually the intro to a story about a pagan wedding.

Monday, they leave on their honeymoon. Them against the world — Salem or bust.

Maybe it’s an accurate depiction, but it feels a bit too cute. (Sort of an incongruous concept.) I don’t speak for all religion reporters, but I used to write about other faiths through a modified Golden Rule: Treat other religions with the accuracy and sensitivity and attention to detail you would want yours treated.

I’m sure there were many, many horror stories out there that I missed. In the comments section, let us know.

Surprisingly — I say that in light of how it handled that abortion-addict story — ABC News delivered one of the best stories I saw explaining Samhain in light of Wiccan tradition:

Patti Wigington is a soccer mom. She is the vice president of her local PTA.

And she’s a witch. …

Most Wiccans are women, but “we are neither frumpy old ladies, or teenage sex-pots like the girls from ‘The Craft,’” said Wigington. “There are a lot more wiccans and pagans than people realize. There is a good chance you know one, you just don’t know who they are.”

With no central authority, anyone who publishes a book or creates a Web site, can say whatever they want about the faith, said Wigington.

With so much competing information, the Rev. Don Lewis established the Witch School to train the next generation of practitioners of Wicca and other so-called natural religions.

With some 250,000 students enrolled in online classes, the school recently moved its physical location from Illinois, to a far more likely setting — Salem, Mass., home of the famous 1692 witch hunt.

“Interest in Wicca has been building for years, but every year there is a spike in interest around Halloween. It’s a huge advertising campaign the world runs for us,” he said.

The practitioners all stressed that Wicca is in no way associated with Satanism or devil worship.

Why do they stress that? Well, because that’s the biggest misunderstanding about Wiccans; the other is probably that they’ll boil your children. And I don’t think the increased exposure of the Church of Satan, “the first above-ground organization in history openly dedicated to the acceptance of Man’s true nature — that of a carnal beast, living in a cosmos which is permeated and motivated by the Dark Force which we call Satan,” has helped the pagan reputation. News story sometimes confuse paganism with satanism and paint the Church of Satan as a fundamentalist version of paganism.

They aren’t. But that’s a different blog post.

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  • dalea

    Are you going to write about roman catholocism or pentacostals? Not capitalizing Pagan when one refers to a specific religious movement is demeaning.

  • dalea

    From the ABC story:

    Wicca is a relatively new religion, which its practitioners say is based on ancient precepts. A hodgepodge of ancient European pagan practices and new age spirituality, Wicca is practiced by a small but growing number of Americans.

    Actually, the standard position is that Wicca stands in direct line of descent from the ancient religions. This was Gardiner’s position; he did not claim to found a new religion but to have joined an existing one. This is a constant topic of study among Wiccans. Wicca is clearly older than the New Age; see Hutton’s The Triumph of the Moon.

    Modern Wicca, which draws its practices mainly from pre-Christian Europe, was established in the U.K. in the 1950s. Its popularity coincided with an in interest in other ancient religions that emphasize beliefs in magic and nature.

    What we call Wicca began in the late 30′s in England. It emerged in the 50′s with the publication of Gardiner’s book on the subject. Hutton shows that Wicca is the product of several centuries of development, beginning with the Renaisance.

  • tmatt

    dalea 1:

    That’s an issue for the Associated Press Style Manual, not GetReligion.

    My most recent edition does not address that. Thus, the issue would be referred to the newsroom’s dictionary of choice.

    Wicca is uppercase, of course. It would appear that in mainstream newsrooms the reference is down, as in a dictionary.

  • tmatt

    “Actually, the standard position is that Wicca stands in direct line of descent from the ancient religions.”


    I’ve interviewed people about this precise issue — scholars and believers. They all agree that their individual position on the subject is the “standard position.” My conclusion at this point is that the historical issues are quite complex and deserve to be treated that way.

  • Jerry

    About capitalization, it’s interesting to me that the recent NY Times article Brad cited Paganism, Just Another Religion for Military and Academia did capitalize Pagan.

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    I noticed that. It’s certainly not a settled matter. Hey AP styleguide, throw us a bone.

  • bob

    I’m so glad to get clarification as to who *real* witches are; I guess they went to one of those nationally accredited witch seminaries?

  • Stoo

    My understanding is, the Church of Satan don’t associate with Devil Worship either – they don’t believe in some kind of supernatural devil entity to worship in the first place.

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    Stoo, I think that’s right. Instead they embrace the behavior of being a satan, or adversary, and worship man’s inner desires and fleshly nature.

  • TedTylerEzro

    *sigh* Wiccanism really isn’t any older than the Victorians, and largely grew out of the Romantic movement and typical 19th century British literature and misinformation about my Church’s history.

    Wiccans and other neo-pagan believers are always going to lose their best and brightest until they acknowledge they don’t have any deep roots.

  • Jerry

    “And now for something completely different”:

    Dan Halloran, the Republican candidate for a City Council seat in northeastern Queens, actively practices Theodism, a neo-pagan faith which attempts to reconstruct the pre-Christian tribal religions of the European Germanic people.

  • Judy Harrow

    Brad, although I do prefer capitalization, your open minded attitude is far more important that a point of typography. Thank you!

    Bob, we don’t have a nationally accredited seminary yet. Give us about another 5-10 years.

    On the history question, I do think Ronald Hutton’s book Triumph of the Moon is the best available. He demonstrates roots going back to the 19th century romantic revival that Gerald Gardner synthesized into modern Wicca around the time of World War Two. So, while Gardner pieced it together, he did not make it up from whole cloth.

    While I find this history very interesting, what really matters to me is that it works. I mean, it provides me with wisdom and guidance for my life, community, and a sense of sacred contact. If anything, the fact that transmission was broken for several centuries, that we had to find our own way back to the Well – and it was there, waiting for us — is far stronger proof than historical continuity.

  • dalea

    tmatt says:

    I’ve interviewed people about this precise issue — scholars and believers. They all agree that their individual position on the subject is the “standard position.” My conclusion at this point is that the historical issues are quite complex and deserve to be treated that way

    Indeed, this is a very tricky subject. And particularly so for those of us Western Europeans whose ancestors did not speak English. Many of my ancestors were Sammi, a people amonst whom there are lots of nonChristians. Sweden was the last Western European country to receive Christianity. And the first to see it leave. Christianity just never caught on among Swedes.

    The issue here is the ‘reality’ of the Group in the New Forest. I accept that this group is real, ie it actually existed.

  • Judy Harrow

    Hi, dalea

    Yes, it seems clear that the New Forest group (Gardner’s group) actually existed. That is exhaustively demonstrated in the work of Philip Hesselton. The question is whether they had access to any sort of ancient and continuous tradition, or whether they were researching, experimenting and basically reconstructing British Paganism. The evidence seems to point to the latter.

    “And yet it moves!”

  • Sheherazahde

    I think Brad did a nice job with this article.

    As for the comments…
    I would not take anyone who called Wicca “Wiccanism” seriously. They obviously don’t know what they are talking about.

    As for the history issue. I like “New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought” by Wouter J. Hanegraaff from the SUNY Series in Western Esoteric Traditions. Hanegraaff places Wicca firmly in the Western Esoteric Tradition and traces that back 500 years. (His study did not try to go back any further.)

    I don’t believe that an active Coven survived from Pre-Christian times. But I do believe that the pre-Christian practice of Witchcraft was based in Pre-Christian religion and did survived to the present from then. For me it is not a question of whether a particular Coven survived, it is a question of how we define religion. I don’t believe that one “Church” is the same as “Religion”. If one defines “religion” as “belief and practice” than Pre-Christian religion did survive to the present in Europe. No scholar denies that Pre-Christian beliefs and practices survived.

  • Will

    Correction: Dan Halloran is the Republican-LIBERTARIAN candidate (and did not discuss his religion with the c/a/b/a/l/ caucus who nominated him.)

    I note another case which does not fit the MSM wisdom about Republicans being the fanatical bigots and “party of hate”… unless Asa-worshipers are considered part of the Religious Right (TM).

    And if we are impelled to take up the ways of our ancestors… half of my ancestors would not have spoken to the other half, no matter WHICH way you insist on slicing it up.

  • Will

    “Paganism” is not a specific religion. If you disagree, you can start by getting atheists to stop using the label.

    As a Magicknet poster remarked, “If I wanted to identify myself as what I am NOT, I might as well call myself ‘Not Tom Mix’.”

  • Dave

    There’s a wide difference between MSM coverage of Halloween and the panic found in the niche media. Check out for a taste of the latter.

  • Will

    Update: Republican-Libertarian-Conservative-Independence candidate Halloran wins!

    Now, it remains to be seen whether our friends will hail him as the first pagan elected to office in New York, or continue insisting that “Paganism” is a specific religion, and excludes him. Is he is or is he aint their baby?

    As far as Satanism goes… I have been exasperated by repeatedly reading assertions by neo-pagans that Satanists are “really” Christians… (Those male-principle-worshippers are all the same, y’know..) Sure, and anti-Semites are Jews, and anti-Communists are Communists, and for that matter, atheists are “really” Christians, since they seem quite specific on WHICH god they Don’tbelievein. (As Chesterton says, if you don’t think so, try blaspheming Thor.)