Photos by Elizabeth Johnson & Huw Nesbitt
Black magic, human sacrifices, ritualised orgies and naked chicks jumping through fire - you may think of such things when considering paganism, or you may simply think of washed up acid casualties from the sixties and irritating eco-hippies. Neither is an entirely accurate description of the diverse range of spiritual practices and historically observant disciplines that make up the modern Pagan community of Britain. Today, Paganism is becoming increasingly popular, to the extent that the Pagan police association have negotiated leave for pagan officers on holidays such as Summer Solstice. Even Pagan offenders now have a right to a pagan chaplain in prison. But why are so many turning to the dark side?
Kids these days are raised on a diet of recycled, bullshit folklore. What with The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and World of Warcraft it’s no wonder impressionable young kids become beardy, weirdy wand wavers. But these new arrivals on the pagan scene are securing its future, ensuring that ancient rituals and knowledge are not eclipsed by 21st century monotheism and consumer capitalism.
Druid Morgan blesses an offering to Pan of cider and Doritos
The misinformation spread by the media adds further fuel to the fires of conflict burning in the pagan underworld. Paganism isn’t a religion per se, rather an umbrella term used to describe the numerous forms of polytheism, pantheism and nature worship practiced internationally. The most commonly encountered forms in Britain include Celtic Druidism, Nordic Heathenism and Wicca. Followers of these spiritual paths frequently mix and match their beliefs with those of other religions to suit their tastes. A modern neo-pagan may worship Dionysus, the Greek god of beer and wine when at the pub, Odin the Nordic god of war when having a scrap outside and finally Anahita, the Persian Goddess of semen when getting a sly blow job off some tart in the gents.
There are, however, some things that unite the disparate groups within the community. These include a respect for nature and all living things, an interest in pre-Christian beliefs and a love of cider, fondly referred to by many as “druid fluid”. On the 8th August 2009, in an ancient forest in North London, the Pagan federation performed a ceremony in honour of the Greek god Pan. These are some of the people working to keep paganism alive.
What is it that attracts people to Paganism?
Paganism doesn’t close you in with rules. You can worship in your own way as long as you have respect for all living things. It’s not restrictive like other things are. I think people quite like to rebel against restrictive ideologies now. It’s a good thing because people are becoming more open and embracing of paganism, whereas in the past it’s been frowned upon. People haven’t understood it and haven’t wanted to. There’s that fear because people don’t know what it is and aren’t willing to find out because it isn’t mainstream like Christianity, Islam and Judaism. It’s an underground movement and people have been frightened, but people are becoming more aware of alternative beliefs.
Is there a conflict of interest between different factions within the Pagan community?
There can be. The ego often gets in the way of things. People tend to think my way is the way that will work. Just because it works for one person, doesn’t mean it works for everyone. But mostly people are respectful of each other’s paths and are embracing of them all.
What advice would you give to someone who was interested in Paganism?
Read as much as you can, do research on the net, come along to public events. There are a lot of public events that are organised now, conferences, picnics, outdoor and indoor rituals that people are welcome to attend. But don’t take everything that you read in books as the gospel because they are just people’s opinions. Don’t lose sight of your own beliefs.
Who is your favourite deity?
I really like the Hindu deities. I work with them sometimes.
Is Paganism becoming more popular? If so, why?
I think it is. I’ve been Pagan all my life and although young at heart, I’m no spring chicken. It’s always been there, it’s never gone away. I believe that everything is becoming more open, so people are able to enjoy something without feeling as isolated or misunderstood. People are getting more in tune with the earth. They’ve started to recognise ecological issues and what we’re about, where we belong in the grand scheme of things, in the universe and on our own planet. Paganism has always been about that, some people are realising that all of that works hand in hand and that it is a gentle philosophy that works and is fulfilling.
Did you get into Paganism through your parents?
Yes it’s in my family. I am Wiccan. Wicca is an initiated religion. It is a mystery religion that accepts a goddess and a god. It is one of many Pagan religions. It is a particular path that has always been a part of my ancestry.
Is there a conflict of interest between different factions within the pagan community?
Yeah of course there is. That’s people for you. For the most part we’re a pretty friendly bunch and don’t believe in attacking others and we certainly don’t believe in trying to convince other people that our path is any better than theirs.
Do you support those who choose to worship alone? Is that allowed in Wicca?
Strictly speaking, Wicca is in need of priesthood. It is not a solo path. Having said that, there are plenty of Pagans who self dedicate, and do things on their own. They might meet up with like-minded people but they don’t necessarily have to. Wicca needs both priest and priestess and a congregation. It varies, Paganism is very flexible nowadays, I think people can choose the path that works for them.
Who is your favourite deity?
My temple is the temple of Ostara (Ēostre). She is the Saxon goddess of Spring. It is from her name we take the word Easter. Ostara also happens to be my daughters name as well so she is quite special.
Why are you wary of media coverage of ceremonies?
I am the publicity officer for the Pagan Federation. It’s not that we want to remain a closed community; it’s simply that we don’t want our message to be misconstrued. If we offer an opening, we offer power in a real and magical sense that certain organisations can then abuse. This occurred earlier this year when the Telegraph sought pagans within the London community to be interviewed. They were going to depict us as normal people but that idea was completely scrapped. There was too much focus on pomp and circumstance which creates more mistrust in the media. Then there’s the complete misconception by right wing columnists like Richard Littlejohn who have made completely absurd claims about pagans. Apparently we must always combine our ceremonial work with our professional lives. This is not the case. It would not be the case if there were a Pagan Police Association.
Are you aware of the unmanned police sky drone that was monitoring the summer solstice proceedings at Stone Henge?
I have a mixed view on that subject. As a licensed CCTV worker, I believe that sort of thing is necessary to prevent the need for an unnecessary manned presence at these gatherings. However it can seem intimidating if individuals haven’t consented to it.
Is Paganism becoming more popular in Britain?
Paganism is starting to be considered one of the fastest growing religions in the world. In Britain the numbers rival those of Hinduism and Judaism. I think this makes an impact for the expansion of events and the provision of them for everybody. One can only hope that you get more people coming in who are willing to be active. One might look at other religions and see them all as patriarchal, “thou shalt not” and everything like that. There is an attraction based on understanding our roots, understanding where more general religious ideas came from. Simple things like the origin of terms like honeymoon. The lunar cycle within May is known as the “honey moon”. People notice these things and realise we have a Pagan history. We have more Pagan history than Christian.
I come from a circle of people who have emerged from fascinations with fantasy and related genres. There are crossovers with Shakespeare and with William Blake, who was a druid himself. I’ve considered doing a talk on how Paganism has been impacted by video games. Some Japanese developers have created entirely new depictions of Norse mythology in their games. That path is understood now as an opening to many great things.
Who is your favourite deity?
I’ve begun working with a pantheon known as the goddesses of Avalon or the wheel of Brigid-ana. The wheel of the year and its eight festivals are symbolised in eight archetypal Goddesses and at the centre of them is the lady of Avalon.
During the ceremony, I heard you complain about a lack of vitality in the readings.
Yes. The opening ceremony involved a hymn to Pan that was written by Aleister Crowley when he was at his most vital. It was delivered today by a geriatric. There is no way you can stand there and say "I personify the embodiment of the male generative force in nature," when you’re 95. They should have got a guy that could actually get it up! The only way these old guys are gonna get it up in the night is with their bladders. He is an elder, but there is a time in an elder’s life when he must be told that if he doesn’t relinquish his power he will become a tyrant. The fool becomes the king. The king becomes the tyrant if he is king for too long.
Are there enough young people involved in modern paganism?
It’s difficult to say. Things like Charmed and Harry Potter entice young people towards the craft. There are really embarrassing chat rooms full of teenagers talking about spells and charms, but it’s all bollocks. The only way these youngsters can learn proper witchcraft is by becoming an apprentice. Youngsters come in, they read a bit on the internet and in a couple of books and they think they know what they’re doing. You cannot be a witch unless you are initiated.
Who is your favourite deity?
I am a priestess of Set, the Egyptian God of Chaos. It was his Birthday yesterday. In Egyptian mythology the Apophis serpent was the serpent of not-being. Set killed the serpent of not-being. He allowed you to exist, but in doing so he was a bit malevolent and mental - A god of chaos and a god of not making an omelette without breaking eggs. This is why we have blood on our foreheads. I am blessing this woman with blood because her ex is being a bastard and she needs armour.
I am a bit like a bishop or an archbishop, perhaps I should say. I am a guest here today and shouldn’t be doing interviews. I’m supposedly a figure of authority but in fact I am not a member of any particular druid order. My opinions don’t carry any weight. I don’t expect to be treated with anything more than the respect I would give to any other human being. For some reason, possibly because of my training in theology or that I do these rituals in public… I mean you witnessed the other ceremony, which was really rather a mess. It’s reaching towards something, but I do feel they should work at it.
I also get the feeling that an awful lot of pagans are taking religious faith unto themselves, rather like after the reformation. A lot of the things that are regarded as folklore in this country are actually ordinary people taking over the festivals that they previously did in church, in Latin. Because of the reformation they thought we want to make certain our fields are going to grow properly so we will do plough Monday. They took over the festival you see. There is no Plough Monday. It’s not in the Book of Common Prayer.
I have no favourite deity; I am not pantheist, monotheist or polytheist.