Proud to be Pagans

Theoretically, there are two types of witches.

"There are those of us who live in the broom closet and then there are those of us who" are more visible, said Joe Zuchowski, a Wiccan high priest.

A festival, he figures, just might help that.

In actuality, there are several varieties of pagans, a few of which will be represented at Augusta's first Pagan Pride Day, today at Lake Olmstead Park.

"We want to let people know there are pagans out there," said his wife, Jezibell Anat. She's a Wiccan high priestess and a coordinator of Pagan Pride Day.

The event includes music, dance, children's games and information sessions such as Ask the Wizard.

"We want to invite people in," Mrs. Anat said. "We want to explain what we are."

And what would that be?

"We are real people. We are about diversity," Mrs. Anat said. "We believe there is no one-size-fits-all religion. We are a genuine spiritual path."

Paganism is a family of faiths with ancient roots united by a reverence for nature and harmony with the earth, one another, and one's self.

Modern paganism takes many forms, but the faiths it encompasses have been around for ages, said Carolyn Jones Medine, an associate professor in the University of Georgia Department of Religion, whose work includes an emphasis on religious theory and thought, women's spirituality and writings.

"Paganism has been a legitimate path for a long time," she said. "If you look at Western religions, you find the influence of paganism. It underlines our major traditions. Things like the Christmas tree, that's early incorporation of a pagan tradition."

Events to raise the profile of Paganism and recognize its influence are growing.

The first Pagan Pride Day was held in 1998, with 17 celebrations in the United States and one in Canada. This year, more than 120 events are planned in 10 countries and 41 states.

"We want acceptance. We want respect. We want more than tolerance just because it's politically correct," said Michelle Boshears, a Wiccan high priestess named Dawnwalker.

She's a retired U.S. Army major who serves as the Distinctive Faith Group leader for Pagans and Wiccans at Fort Gordon. Her weekly services draw about 20 people.

It's hard to say just how many Pagans live in the Augusta area because many practice alone, but the local Covenant of Universal Unitarian Pagans has about 12 members, said Mrs. Anat, the group's liaison.

She joined the Unitarian Universalist Church after moving to Augusta with Mr. Zuchowski in 2007. Mrs. Anat, a belly dance instructor, and Mr. Zuchowski, who is chief custodian at the Augusta Jewish Community Center and moonlights as a storyteller, had been living in New York.

"People didn't bat an eye there. But we're not in that situation here," Mrs. Anat said. "People are afraid. They hide their pentagrams. They don't talk to their coworkers about it. They just mumble at Christmas.

''The first question you get is, 'What church do you go to?' What do you say when you're pagan?"

Mrs. Boshears counts herself fortunate that she hasn't faced discrimination. Her neighbors know what she believes, and she said they're fine with the fact that she conducts Wiccan rituals at her farm in Grovetown.

"If people come over, it's hard to hide the fact that I'm pagan. I've got five altars around my house," she said. "A lot of pagans, they're shy. If their parents or brothers and sisters come over, they hide their altars. They feel like they have to do that to avoid being chastised."

Mrs. Boshears has never had that problem.

"I grew up with an understanding that this was OK," she said. "My family was Christian, but I would not call us the mainstream. We went to church but we went to all different types of churches. You name it, I gave it a try."

Mrs. Anat grew up in the Methodist church.

"I knew early that this church, this one-God, one-faith wouldn't work," she said.

Her attraction to Wicca, the largest and most popular form of paganism, developed out of her interest in history and mythology.

"People thought I was this history geek before I was old enough to express it in theological terms," she said.

Mr. Zuchowski grew up Roman Catholic. He was 12 when he found his first book on witchcraft and 19 when he was initiated into his first coven.

Books by Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins fill his shelf, but so do a Bible, a Quran and the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

"Pagans are often portrayed as airy, fairy, new-age types," he said. "But we're philosophical. We don't understand how anyone can prove their faith, and so we're open to other ideas. We're all seeking the divine, and isn't that the point?"

Today at the festival, they'll find out if others agree, Mrs. Boshears said.

"We hope so, but it's a risk," she said. "There's confusion. Our focus is presenting paganism in a light that dispels some of the dark misconceptions."

Reach Kelly Jasper at (706) 823-3552 or kelly.jasper@augustachronicle.com.

WHAT IS PAGANISM?

The phrase is an umbrella for a variety of spiritual paths characterized by a reverence for nature and harmony with the earth, including the elements of fire, earth, air and water. Many believe in a variety of gods and goddesses, while others identify as atheists or animists. Several types of pagans live in the Augusta area, including those who follow Wicca, Asatru, and Druidism.

Each draws on different historical influences, but the traditions share a reliance on practices rooted in ancient and indigenous religions. Modern paganism, often called neo-paganism, attempts to re-create the religion of ancestors. Worship varies, but is often outdoors. It can involve magic, witchcraft and offerings to the elements found in nature. Some worship naked.

Paganism isn't bound to doctrinal beliefs and requirements, but a few ideas pervade. There's the Wiccan Rede, which states in part, "harm none, do what ye will." There's also the threefold rule: "three times your acts return to thee."

THE FESTIVAL

WHEN: Noon to 5 p.m. today
WHERE: Lake Olmstead Park, 3 Milledge Road
WHAT: Information, entertainment and workshops; harvest ritual 4:15 p.m.
CONTACT: augustapaganpride.blogspot.com

By the numbers

The number of people who identify as pagan or with varieties of paganism in America has grown from nearly 1.3 million in 1990 to 2.8 million in 2008.

The number, however, is still small. In 2008, people who followed "new religious movements," which include paganism, Wicca, scientology, Unitarian Universalism and Rastafarianism, accounted for 1.2 percent of the population.

Source: 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, released this spring

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