The altar was set with a cauldron and a jack-o-lantern. Students, most wearing black and dressed with masks and face paint, prepared for the observance of the Pagan sabbat, or holiday, Samhain. Guardians protected a cleansed circle waiting to be cast. Incense burned and candles were lit. About 25 people waited to be purified for the ritual about to take place.
So did they kill anything that night? Yes, a poorly conceived notion of what Paganism really is members say.
Paganism has long been associated with Halloween and many negative thoughts. Danny Jorgensen, professor of religious studies, said early European witchcraft, a denomination of Paganism, was an invention of Christianity for the purpose of developing its own theology–like that of Satan. Jorgensen added that Christianity used witchcraft to eliminate pre-Christian religions. Because of this, cultural images of witchcraft and Paganism have been formed that have had a lasting impression, Jorgensen said.
“Much of what people believe today about witchcraft derives from these cultural images, particularly the old crone (Halloween witch) who consorts with the devil and does all kinds of evil,” Jorgensen said.
And while modern-day witchcraft is different from this type of witchcraft, these images continue to evoke misconceptions about Paganism.
However, the United Pagan Allied Network, the student group who organized the ritual, wants to use their presence on campus to banish such misconceptions.
“The most important thing was to let people know we are here. We want to be a source of education and outreach,” said Erinn Day, Webmaster for UPAN.
To accomplish this, UPAN, which has been on campus for about 10 years, organized the public Samhain ritual.
Samhain, pronounced “sow-en,” is one of eight Pagan sabbats. It is referred to as the Pagan new year and literally means “summer’s end” in the Gaelic/Celtic language.
The sabbat, normally celebrated on Halloween night, is observed to honor those who have passed, such as ancestors and to celebrate the gift of the harvest that will see people through the winter, Day said.
The ritual, which is normally held at the Witchcraft and Paganism in America class, was performed at the solar rotary behind Cooper Hall. While such Pagan rituals have the potential to be performed anywhere, according to Day, the rotary was chosen for convenience.
“It’s circular, and there is already an altar in the middle. The directions (which are called to build energy) are already marked,” Day said.
The ritual was designed to be simple for those who had little or no experience with Paganism and was open for anyone to attend. Passers-by were invited to watch.
Junior Kenny Dixon, who is not pagan, found a flyer advertising the event and decided to go watch.
“For a while, I had read a bit about this (Paganism). There’s nothing like this back home in Panama City that I know of,” Dixon said.
Eight UPAN members performed the ritual, which included a dialogue asking the god and goddess for a plentiful harvest and a song with lyrics representing some of the basic ideas of Samhain.
The sabbat is a day for preparing spiritually for the new year. While Samhain can be celebrated many ways, this year UPAN performed the sabbat with Celtic traditions.
While Wicca and Witchcraft are the most widely known traditions, Paganism is multi-faceted. It includes many types of Wicca, Shamanism, Santeria and numerous other traditions.
“Pagan is a blanket term,” Day explained.
The meetings, which are held Tuesdays at 8 p.m. in CPR 126, cover many different aspects of paganism. Currently, there are about 40 members in the group, said Andi Resetar, vice president of UPAN.
Resetar said about 20 to 25 people attend each meeting.
Day said young college Pagans or those who are interested in the religion should know that there is a place for them to meet others.
“Too many people try not to make a big deal out of it,” Day said.
However, he also wanted to make it clear that UPAN is not a circle, which is a group of Pagans that meet in a sense that is similar to going to church.
“We are not a coven or circle; we are a support network to help people find others (who are pagan),” Day said.