My recent post about John Bennett, the Pagan who was stabbed by his neighbour after holding a drumming ritual in his garden, attracted a lot of attention. At the end of the post, I asked for readers to let me know if they had ever felt scared about holding a ritual in their own garden.
Lots of readers shared their own thoughts in the comments below the article and on Facebook. This offered a very interesting insight into the range of experiences Pagans from around the world have had holding rituals in their garden. I thought I’d share some of those here.
Thankfully, a number of Pagans said they had no problems holding a garden ritual, and reported positive experiences:
“My neighbors know what I do and it’s not a problem. 2 even came over to watch and thought it was cool.”
“We frequently hold rituals out doors on our property. We also host public rituals in parks here. Drumming, chanting, singing, often including a spiral dance. Sometimes we get “observers”, whom we invite to join in if they like. Never an issue :) thank the Goddess. In 10 years, only once have I seen a heckler and that was at a Pagan Pride gathering when someone started making disturbing comments during an OTO ceremony.”
“Thus far I have encountered no threat which warrant me even considering safety problems. Even if some emerge which do no yield to reasonable approaches. I will not give these bastards the power to drive me out of my own space. I’m not a violent or militant sort, but living in the country I do, I have a hell of a lot more formidable weaponry at my disposal than carving knives.”
“UK Pagans enjoy a very high level of tolerance, indeed. I’ve always been completely “out” (I’m in my 60s), but don’t shove my beliefs and practices in folks’ faces, either. I’m sorry if anyone feels afraid, and especially sorry if they have been given a real reason to. It does happen. But I feel that we need to be careful not to make people feel afraid needlessly. The only way to “normalize” Paganism is to be open about it. I am still willing to take the risk.”
But others reported less positive experiences. Some complained of being watched by neighbours, which bothered them:
“Once I held a group ritual in my back yard and the neighbors watched. I’ve never done it again.”
“My old neighbour used to gawk at us when ever we did any kind of ritual in our backyard. Thankfully they have moved.”
Arguably, there’s nothing inherently menacing about being watched during a ritual. As some of the commenters above said, in some cases curiosity can lead to building friendships with neighbours.
But others did report being harassment during rituals in their garden. Some of the incidents were pretty disturbing:
“I stopped doing my sacred dance in the yard because some white guy (why is it always a white guy? This is a fairly diverse neighborhood!) insists on interrupting my prayer and focus. Usually to not have anything to say when I stop. I feel threatened.”
“My group holds Beltane at a private home every year and this home just happens to be along a main road with usually heavy traffic. Every year, we’re harangued by passers by, especially by people who’ve stopped at the stop sign on the corner that abuts the house. One year, someone threw something at us as they drove by and it almost hit me in the head. Another time during another holiday, the neighbors were gawking at us from their window. So awkward and kind of uncomfortable. It doesn’t deter us though. It’s just odd.”
“I’ve had my tree vandalized after holding ritual outside.”
“I stopped using my garden for anything spiritual, out of fear for my own safety. Items of a magickal nature were stolen from my shrines and I was constantly being watched (even when simply weeding the garden). Eventually, I even took down my outdoor altars and offering places because of a neighbour that called the police to report drug use in our yard (when it was actually Copal incense). I worry for my safety, and that of my child, and I really just don’t want any hassle. All of this despite never being disrespectful.”
“A couple of years ago my neighbor shot a firecracker rocket at my mother [and] me because we were drumming in our stone circle in my backyard.”
One Pagan didn’t refer to any specific incidents, but said that they took precautions regardless:
“…Living in the bible belt if I do anything outdoors it’s quiet and I have a sword, and have several times considered bringing a gun considering how people are around here.”
Quite a few Pagans said they avoided holding rituals in their garden altogether, particularly in urban areas:
“I’m a very private person. When I do rituals outdoors, I make sure I have full privacy. What’s the point of casting a circle if you can’t keep nosy neighbours out? I do have a garden but I don’t do rituals in it.”
“…I am mostly solitary, with typically indoor rituals. Because people have vastly different and sometimes violent responses to pagans and unless you’re way out in nature or your property has very tall and opaque walls someone will see you, and the more people you’re with the more likely you are to be seen.”“We did our rituals indoors until we moved out to the country. We have 15 acres of wooded land. The neighbors won’t see anything.”
“I don’t participate in outside rituals because I am surrounded by neighbors who have clear views of me. It is very awkward for me.”
“I live in a very small, conservative Christian town. I have a huge yard that is very exposed and because of all of these things I’m scared to do anything outside of the “ordinary” in my yard. Other than bbq-omg dinner or sitting on the deck doing nothing I don’t do anything in my yard for fear of neighbour repercussions. So sad. The church bells ring every hour, they have lots of special Christian days but anyone who isn’t Christian feels “other””
“I live in the country, and no I didn’t hold them in my garden either when I lived in town.”
It appears from these comments that Pagan experiences in garden rituals vary considerably. Pagans living in sparse, rural areas generally seem to feel more at ease practising in their garden than those living in more densely populated urban areas, particularly in neighbourhoods with a conservative or Christian population. It’s heartening to see that Pagans generally perceive the UK as tolerant and safe, and that many have had overwhelmingly positive experiences when performing rituals outdoors.
Nevertheless, I think it is rather sad that, in the 21st century, so many Pagans avoid holding rituals in their garden because they do feel so uncomfortable. And in some cases, there really have been incidents that have discouraged Pagans from doing so, from verbal harassment to acts of vandalism.
I think it’s safe to say that most Pagans are nature-worshippers. Therefore, the freedom to practise outside in the open air is an important part of Paganism. Nobody should be restricted from holding a Pagan ritual on their private property anymore than they would holding a party or a barbecue. Exactly the same rules of respect and courtesy should apply: Neighbours should not make an undue amount of noise or otherwise disturb other residents, and they should also mind their own business and respect the private lives of others.
That’s why I think it’s a shame if many Pagans feel that they cannot hold a quiet, peaceful ritual in their own gardens because they’re worried about the people around them. If they wouldn’t feel afraid having a picnic or reading in their garden, why should they feel afraid to hold a ritual? But like many of the other Pagans who have commented, I too no longer feel comfortable enough to hold a ritual in my own garden.
Finally, a large number of readers commented on the specific incident of John Bennett himself. Many were very critical of Mr Bennett’s behaviour; a few even sympathised with the couple who attacked him. But the majority said that while he may have been wrong to hold a noisy ritual it did not in any way justify the attack. Many expressed surprise at the seemingly lenient sentence.
Others pointed out that the attack was probably nothing or little to do with the fact that Mr Bennett is a Pagan, and more to do with personal issues between the two men involved:
“Pagan practice may have colored public perception of the Denyer-Bennett affair, but I don’t believe it was central to the dispute. I suspect this was a case of two socially maladept middle aged alpha males who both went out of their way to stoke a dispute which likely could have been easily defused with a bit of reasonableness. From life experience and a career in journalism, I’ve become very skeptical of conflict narratives where one party essentially says “There I was, just minding my own business, and this dude went psycho on me!” Sometimes, rarely, that’s true. In every epic neighbor feud I’ve ever seen, there has been a long leadup of mutal escalating idiocy among all parties before someone got hurt. This in no way justifies a knife attack, but when push comes to shove, you don’t know where your opponent’s breaking point is. Often times they don’t even know until they cross it.”
But another commenter who claims to know Mr Bennett personally gave quite a different story:
“I do know John personally, and I can confidently say that he is a respectful, kind and gentle person. He was drumming in his garden. I do not think that that solicits such an abhorrent reaction. The neighbour was wholly in the wrong and the news article (conveniently) skips over previous antisocial behaviour from Mr and Mrs Denyer. John didn’t use his faith as an excuse to behave however he wanted; if he were asked politely to keep the noise down he would make every effort to do so. Instead, the couple regularly hurled abuse at John and his partner. I was horrified at the character assassination in the article in the Guardian. He is a lovely man and neither he nor his partner deserved to be treated thusly, and the sentencing certainly didn’t fit the crime. They were victims of two unstable individuals. We were shocked as a community to hear about this crime.”
Since the incident was reported in the mainstream press, The Wild Hunt got in contact with Mr Bennett and gave further details that were not included in previous reports, including the extent of Mr Bennett’s injuries.