The Spiritual Side

Halloween is a time when children go door to door begging for candy and adults let loose at costume parties. Yet for Pagans, it is a time of spirituality and remembrance during a festival called Samhain.

Samhain, a Celtic celebration marking a new year, is observed today.

A ceremony is held with offerings of food and drink to honor all those who have died in the preceding year. For the ancient Celts, this was also a time to let loose and do things their strict culture would not allow.

This festival is not all about chaos and trickery to the Pagans. Holly Muller, a United Pagan Allied Network member, said most Pagans celebrate Samhain separately from Halloween. Samhain concentrates more on the spiritual aspects of this time of year for the Pagans.

Pagan traditions today are a blend of ancient rituals adapted to modern problems and occurrences. For example, in the Samhain ceremony that UPAN performed on Oct. 30, those who died in the Sept. 11 attacks were mentioned, and a moment of silence was dedicated to their memory. In this way, people in today’s society can find enlightenment from a religion that was created and practiced a time long ago.

Through the years, there have been many misconceptions about Pagans and those who believe in the occult. In Renaissance times, those who practiced witchcraft were believed to be mentally ill and often were tortured and burned at the stake. Since then, people who believe in magic are seen as a threat to society.

“Pagans are not Satanists,” Mike Matott, vice president for UPAN, said. “Pagans do not even believe there is evil, or a Satan. Also, we don’t sacrifice humans or animals. We do not believe in doing harm to others.”

But Danny Jorgensen, professor and chair for religious studies at USF, offers a different view.

“Most popular images of Neopaganism contain some truth, but distort these religions and particular symbols of them (such as the witch and cultural borrowings from Western paganism),” Jorgensen said. “Popular culture exploits these images positively and negatively, and the news media mostly has created inaccurately what is said about these religions.”

Paganism encompasses many specific types of religions. One of the more common religious paths is Wicca. Roughly half of all Pagans believe in Wicca, a recently created Neopagan religion. The religion has a basis largely in ancient Celtic beliefs and practices, as well as Masonic and ceremonial magical components. Wiccans generally consider themselves to be witches, but not all have this viewpoint.

Shelby Chambers practices Wicca and has her own interpretation.

“Wicca is a very nature-focused religion which acknowledges the male and female aspects of God,” she said. “Wiccans are, overall, peaceful and nature-loving, very different from what the media portrays as a witch.”

This religion attracts many different kinds of people. Young, old, male, female, gay and straight are all united in their search for enlightenment. Some of those who were in attendance at the UPAN meeting were not Pagans, but instead identified themselves as Catholic or Protestant. They come to the meetings because they are curious about Paganism.

“People are not dragged into Pagan paths, they come on their own,” Matott said.

Chambers said her parents didn’t want to force her into a religion, and she studied Wicca for six years before making a decision on what she believed in.

“I was drawn to Wicca because of the dual nature of the deity, the feeling I got from the religious leaders and the fact that it is a very accepting religion,” Chambers said.

She feels that those around her accept her choice of religion.

“I have been out of the broom closet for three and a half years, and most of my friends understand it.”

Muller said traditional religions all claim to be the one true religion.

“Not to mention the secondary and sometimes nonexistent status of women in these religions,” said Muller. “It is not a path I am comfortable with.”

Several other UPAN members have similar complaints. They recognize all other religions as valid and respect them as such.

This year, area Pagans are gathering at a campground in St. Petersburg for a three-day Samhain festival. Participants bring tents and camp out for what is essentially a religious retreat.

While this holiday has evolved to become an escape from reality, those who know its beginnings see it as a time to become more in touch with their reality.

Muller describes this large, yearly festival as “A way to immerse myself in my spirituality, if only for a weekend.”

Religious ceremonies are held around a campfire, accompanied with music and dancing. All forms of worship are accepted, as long as they do not include harm to self or others. UPAN leaders make sure that festival participants who are members are well versed in “festival etiquette.”

This includes everything from being respectful of those who are involved in a religious ceremony, to not dancing too close to a campfire.

“Pagans are notorious for leaving the campsite better than it looked originally,” Mueller said. “We are taught to respect our environment.”