In June 2022, after a two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Circle Sanctuary’s Pagan Spirit Gathering (PSG) was back at the Pulaski County Fort Leonard Wood Shrine Camp in Waynesville, Missouri.
Featuring daily concerts, ritual workshops and scores of pagan vendors offering sacred art, jewelry, magickal tools, drums, altar paraphernalia, candles, psychic readings, tarot and more, PSG is one of the United States’ oldest and largest pagan events.
Inaugurated in 1980, the week-long festival is held each year around the Summer Solstice and welcomes pagans from across the nation, and the world.
It is, according to Jason Mankey, a place to “feel that Pagan spirit” and remind him why he loves being a pagan. It is also a significant annual event in the U.S’s modern pagan calendar.
According to the American Religious Identification Survey, between 2001 and 2008, the number of people identifying as pagan increased from 140,000 to 340,000 and the number of those identifying as Wiccan increased from 134,000 to 340,000. More recently, the Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study, estimated that 0.3% of the U.S. population – around 1 million people – identified as pagan or Wiccan.
As part of sweeping transformations in U.S. religion and renewed interest in alternative spiritualities, modern paganism is tapping into a deep desire for self-empowerment, social engagement and reconnection with the natural world.
Inspired by, or derived from, historical pagan and nature religions, modern paganism is an undeniably broad, collective category that covers a diverse range of groups that can differ greatly in belief and practice.
While Wicca and divination practices like tarot have enjoyed a certain popularity for several decades, a wave of new publications has highlighted how personalized spiritual practices, home-brewed magic or metaphysical self-discovery are now enjoying their own renaissance.
Whereas the increasing visibility of modern paganism might signal a surprising new development or devotional awakening for some, for others it is “just another religion” in the U.S.’s ever-evolving spiritual landscape.
In this Reporting Guide, we provide helpful background information and research, definitions and delineations of this diverse community, highlight reporting on the subject and provide sources and experts for you to turn to in your own work.
Modern paganism is a relatively new religious declination, with roots in the U.S. that only extend back to the 1960s. Today, paganism is an umbrella term for a large group of loosely connected religions and spiritual paths that typically find at their core a reverence for nature, ancestor veneration, folk culture, magic and mythology. Pagan spirituality is both highly personal and highly creative, often involving a blend of multiple traditions. This decentralized nature can make it difficult to cover.
Synthesized within broader context of 1960s counter-culture, “neopaganism,” as it was once called, emerged as an alternative spirituality that rejected institutional structures and embraced personal spiritual expression. Born of its time, practitioners embraced the divine feminine and folk culture, pursuing equality and promoting environmental stewardship. Early paganism paired nicely with the arrival of Wicca, or British Witchcraft, the renewed popularity of all things occult, and the resurgence of New Age spirituality.
Despite the 1980’s “Satanic Panic,” the pagan movement continued to grow and congeal, although often quietly and underground. By the late 1990s, witchcraft was once again popular, and a pagan renaissance began. There was a publishing boom; new organizations formed. The internet further boosted the movement, bringing together isolated groups and solitary practitioners (or solitaries), if only in chat rooms. Since the 2000s, pagan religious traditions have continued to grow alongside the ranks of the unaffiliated and “spiritual, but not religious.”
Who is Pagan?
The term “pagan” has been traditionally used as a derogatory word to define those deemed to be on the outside or margins of mainstream Christianity. However, modern paganism has evolved with a far more distinct character. Buddhists, Hindus, and practitioners of Afro-Caribbean traditions, for example, do not identify as modern pagans even if they share some beliefs and practices.
The easy answer is to say a person is pagan if they say they are pagan. With no single institutional authority, authoritative doctrine or unifying text, modern pagan beliefs are diverse, variable and highly personal. Therefore, delineating who is pagan and who is not can be difficult, even from within the extended community. It is important to always ask how a person identifies, because the answer is not always obvious or simple.
The most recognizable forms of modern paganism originated in the United Kingdom and lean heavily on European lore, mythology and folk magic, as well as ceremonial magic, masonry and other occult practices. With that said, today’s practitioners do not solely rely on those cultures. Modern pagans also incorporate elements from a range of global mythologies, folk practices and religious structures. This borrowing practice has led, in part, to heated debates around cultural appropriation.
Decolonizing spirituality: The harmful effects of borrowing from someone else’s culture
By Camryn Cutinello, Echo Magazine
July 13, 2022
(Echo Magazine) – With the world going into lockdown March of 2020, people found themselves with a seemingly never-ending supply of free time. Some turned to bread making or knitting, some started exercising daily, and others turned to spirituality.
Malia Valentine, whose grandmother was part of the Unangan tribe from the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, says the pandemic also led people to search for healing through ancestral roots.
“I think building a relationship with yourself and your own ancestors, and your own ancestors’ story can really bring about a lot of healing, and, I think, a feeling of belonging that is maybe being sought after from looking at other people’s culture,” Valentine says.
Valentine said many Americans don’t have a strong connection to their own ancestors and cultural background anymore. Because of this, some have turned to cultures that are not their own.
The use of white sage to cleanse a room or person is one such popular practice among the spiritual community taken from Indigenous communities. It’s used in smudging, an Indigenous practice in which sacred herbs are burned for a ritual. Now, due to overharvesting of the plant, Indigenous people and conservationists have warned that white sage could be in danger of extinction.
Chakras, yoga, spirit animals and dream catchers have also been repurposed and mass marketed to the general public, ignoring the initial cultures they came from.
“It’s so much easier to see that sage plant, or that song, or that ceremony as just an object, some sort of isolated object that is just existing on its own, ready to be consumed,” Valentine says. “Instead of seeing it as its own entity, with its own deep, deep, deep stories, and its own large, large web of relationships.”
Valentine meets with Indigenous communities across the country, helping them protect their land and sacred sites; currently, she’s working with the Winnemem Wintu tribe of Northern California.
In doing this work, Valentine says, she’s seen the harmful effects of cultural appropriation firsthand.
Common Pagan Traditions
Below is a brief list of some of the most commonly found groupings of pagan religions or spiritual paths, generally listed in order of prevalence.
Founded by Gerald Gardner in the 1950s, Wicca came to the U.S. in the 1960s with Raymond Buckland. The religion is the most well-known and was, at one time, the most prevalent, although that may not be the case today. However, Wicca still remains the basis for many non-Wiccan pagan and Witchcraft practices.
Wicca is practiced by Wiccans, also called Witches. They can practice as solitaries in their own homes or as members of covens or temples. Those that practice with covens are typically practicing initiatory Wicca, which requires formal education and initiation. If desired, students can progress through degrees to eventually achieve Priest or Priestesshood status. Some choose to become chaplains or officially credentialed clergy, performing legal weddings and other life cycle services.
Those that practice alone may self-initiate. They can also become credentialed through membership in national pagan or interfaith organizations.
Wicca has many different traditions, or “trads,” which vary in practice, initiation expectations and teachings. Two of the oldest trads are Gardnerian and Alexandrian. Both are sometimes referred to as British Traditional Wicca. There are many other trads, like eclectic Wicca and Faery Wicca.
Wiccans may be polytheistic or pantheistic. Most are at least duotheistic – recognizing the duality of the God and the Goddess.
- Traditional Wicca: A Seeker’s Guide, by Thorn Mooney
- Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner, by Scott Cunningham
- Wicca and the Christian Heritage: Ritual, Sex and Magic, by Joanne Pearson
- Modern Wicca: A History From Gerald Gardner to the Present, by Michael Howard
- Wicca: History, Belief & Community in Modern Pagan Witchcraft, by Ethan Doyle White
Pagans honor the Earth on May Day. But for many, nature is not enough.
By Heather Greene, Religion News Service
May 2, 2022
(RNS) – On Sunday (May 1), some localities put up a traditional Maypole, named a May Queen and made flower crowns. Many modern pagans also celebrated the height of spring.
But one community’s vernal romp is another’s religious rite. “The life force is in everything,” explained the Rev. Wendy Van Allen, a Wiccan and spiritual counselor. “Nature is the holy book.”
May Day in Wicca and other pagan religions is celebrated as Beltane, a fertility festival originating in Celtic culture before Christianity.
And for some pagans honoring nature is enough. “In Atheopaganism,” said author Mark Green as Beltane approached this year, “we just say, here is the environment of planet Earth, and it’s sacred, and we are going to devote ourselves directly to that.”
But Earth-focused celebrations of the seasons often lead to a misunderstanding in the broader culture that all pagan religions are pantheist — the belief that a faceless spirit of the divine lives in all living things. In most Wiccan traditions, Beltane marks the joining of the god and goddess, the religion’s two main deities. The Maypole dance itself is symbolic of their union.
For many, the two divine beings are not entirely separate. Van Allen believes that the god and the goddess are two aspects of a single, genderless creator, not unlike the Eastern concept of yin and yang. Any other gods that Wiccans may call on in their rituals and spellwork serve as aspects of these two, she said.
Like Wicca, modern Druidry was also formed from the folk practices and lore of the United Kingdom. As early as the 1700s, there were attempts to revive the pre-Christian, ancient Druid tradition, much of which was highly romanticized. Modern Druidry, sometimes called Druidism, is a modern and sincere version of the efforts to revive the “old ways.” The religion arrived in the U.S. alongside Wicca in the 1960s.
Druidry centers around a distinct reverence for nature. Druids are generally polytheistic and typically focus on pre-Christian gods from Celtic regions like the Dagda of Ireland or Cerridwen of Wales. Druids do practice magic and can worship in groups – called groves – or alone. Rituals are typically seasonal celebrations and generally open to the public.
- Druids: A Very Short Introduction, by Barry Cunliffe
- The Path of Druidry, by Penny Billington
- Contemporary Druidry: A Historical and Ethnographic Study, by Michael Cooper
- The Book of Druidry, by Kristoffer Hughes
- Paganism Today: Witches, Druids, the Goddess and Ancient Earth Traditions for the Twenty-First Century, by Graham Harvey and Charlotte Hardman
- Essential Guide to Druidism, by Isaac Bonewits
21st-century druids: No animal sacrifices, but connected to community, history
By Katherine Nowicki, Arizona PBS
July 18, 2019
(Arizona PBS) – Mark Bailey comes from Scottish and Mexican heritage, and he prefers Irish pubs. On a late morning, he sits in a booth at Rosie McCaffrey’s pub in central Phoenix, chatting with the waitresses as they navigate the narrow space, balancing trays of Guinness and burgers.
Bailey’s arms are covered in tattoos carrying symbolic meaning, including a falcon and a jaguar. Bailey calls the big cat his primary deity and says the falcon reminds him to focus. Another tattoo is of Red Sonja, the heroine of the sword-and-sorcery Marvel comic book. To Bailey, the red-haired warrior epitomizes the Morrigan, a Celtic goddess linked to the cycle of birth and death. Red Sonja speaks to Bailey, an aviation worker, Army veteran, historian – and druid.
Bailey is a 21st century druid. He doesn’t sacrifice animals or worship nature, and he has nuanced beliefs about an afterlife.
Druids are steeped in over two millennia of history, originating with the elites and the educated among the Celts, an Indo-European people. Modern druid practices are tamer, reincarnation is debated and human and animal sacrifices are forbidden. But modern practitioners still have much in common with their ancestors, including such traditions as ceremonies, rituals and an emphasis on education.
The term paganism is also used alone as a religious identifier, with or without an additional qualifier such as Celtic paganism or eco-paganism. These pagans typically focus on natural rhythms, celebrating the seasons and finding spiritual guidance in nature’s energy. Some practice magic. Some do not.
Pagans can be theistic or non-theistic. Celtic pagans might revere the pre-Christian Celtic gods, for example. Atheopagans – or atheist pagans – focus on honoring the Earth itself without reference to divine agents. They revere science in their spirituality and use mythology to work on their own “beingness.”
- Modern Paganism in World Cultures: Comparative Perspectives, by Michael Strmiska
- Path of Paganism, by John Beckett
- Cyberhenge: Modern Pagans on the Internet, by Douglas E. Cowan
- Pagan Curious, by Debra De Angelo
- Handbook of Contemporary Paganism, by Murphy Pizza, James Lewis
- “Neo-Paganism” from the Association of Religion Data Archives.
- “Paganism” essays at the Harvard Pluralism Project.
- “A Political Profile of U.S. Pagans,” from Politics and Religion.
Could neo-paganism be the new ‘religion’ of America?
By Molly Hanson, Big Think
September 30, 2019
(Big Think) – The witch is impossible to ignore. Pop into an Urban Outfitters and you’re sure to find an array of tarot card packs, a beginner’s guide to crystals, and a spell book or two. Over at Barnes and Noble, Arin Murphy-Hiscock’s book, The Green Witch (2017) is among many “witchy” books being marketed to young women. On Instagram, a popular #witchesofinstagram hashtag is now widely used, and the account @thehoodwitch has a following on the platform of 434,000 followers.
Although neo-pagan, or contemporary pagan, beliefs have steadily gained popularity since their introduction in the 1960s, the past few years have seen neo-paganism and wiccan beliefs proliferate in mainstream American culture. While reports tell us that organized religion is going extinct in the United States, the rise in neo-pagan spiritualities suggest there might be more to the story of religion’s role in American lives.
According to previous research, this probably isn’t just a fleeting New Age aesthetic trend. Running three large, comprehensive religious surveys from 1990 to 2008, Connecticut’s Trinity College found that the religion of Wicca grew a considerable amount over that period of time. Picking up the baton on this effort, the Pew Research Center found that 0.4 percent of Americans (around 1 to 1.5 million citizens) identify as neo-pagan.
As neo-paganism draws more attention and its associated symbols become marketable, there’s a strong case to be made for recognizing the practice as a legitimate spirituality and understanding more than just its sensationalized aspects like spell casting, herbal charms, and divination techniques.
Neo-paganism has proved difficult to define as it is anything but a homogenous religion. Groups vary in size, structure, purpose, orientation, and ritual practices. Although the subgroup of neo-pagans that practice the Craft, or Wicca, and call themselves “witches” have attracted a majority of pop culture attention, it’s important to understand that not all neo-pagans consider themselves witches. In addition to Wiccans, neo-paganism includes groups such as Druids, Goddess worshipers, Heathens, and Shamans. Although it’s difficult to make generalized statements about neo-pagan practitioners given the lack of central leadership and dogma, there are a few uniting principals.
Another major movement in the pagan community is reconstructionism. These pagans aim to reconstruct ancient religions like those from Greece, Rome or Egypt. While Wiccans and others adopt or find inspiration in the mythology and practices of such cultures, they do not aim to reconstruct the religion as a whole. “Recons,” as they are often called, do.
Using archaeological and historical findings, reconstructionists seek to follow ancient traditions’ worship styles, calendars and beliefs. Aware of the impossibility of full reconstruction, they aim for as much accuracy as possible within a modern context and framework. The most common forms of reconstrunctist traditions include: Hellenic, Roman, Egyptian, Norse and Celtic.
As most of those cultures were polytheist, individual recons will often devote to one god while still honoring many. They also typically focus less on magic and more on worship, celebration and community building.
- Hellenismos, by Tony Mierzwicki
- “Reconstructing Old Norse Oral Tradition,” by Stephen A. Mitchell
- The CR FAQ: An Introduction to Celtic Reconstructionist Paganism, by Kathryn Price NicDhàna, C. Lee Vermeers, Kym Lambert Ni Dhoireann
- “Religious Minorities’ Web Rhetoric: Romanian and Hungarian Ethno-Pagan Organizations,” by Rozalia Bako, Laszlo-Attila Hubbes
- “Pagan Politics in the 21st Century: ‘Peace and Love’ or ‘Blood and Soil’?” by Michael Strminksa
- “Contemporary Germanic/Norse Paganism and Recent Survey Data,” by Joshua Marcus Cragle
Thor Is Beating the Lutheran Church in a Battle for Believers in the Land of Fire and Ice
By Julia Duin, Newsweek
September 24, 2021
(Newsweek) – The old Norse gods got to come out and play this week in Iceland during a fall equinox observance in honor of the likes of Thor, Odin, Freya, Frigg, Vár, Freyr and Loki.
On Wednesday night, 52 people gathered on a farm about 30 miles north of Reykjavik, on the shores of Hvalfjörður Bay, a serene body of water banked by mossy green hillsides sweeping up into fog-topped mountains. Directly south was Mount Esja, actually a volcanic range overlooking Reykjavik, the country’s capital. Rain from the day before had moved on, and the evening was clear and still.
Presiding was Jóhanna Harðardóttir, a priestess in Ásatrúarfélagið, known internationally as Ásatrú, Iceland’s fastest-growing religion—or spiritual movement. She began by hoisting a bull’s horn containing honey mead to the local goddesses, asking for blessings for the coming winter.
As a heathen movement first practiced by the early Vikings who trolled Iceland’s eastern shores, Ásatrú was resurrected from a 1,000-year sleep a few decades ago. Variations of it have appeared in numerous other countries, some of it embraced by neo-Nazi groups that have appropriated Ásatrú’s runes and Norse symbols.
But the Icelanders who founded the movement have no interest in a Viking-centric political movement. Their main preference is to get a planned temple near downtown Reykjavik up and running—an effort that, with cost overruns and COVID-19 complications, has stalled. But once more money is raised, the temple will be built, with features including a circular glass roof to give the effect of being out in nature.
While Heathens are typically classified as pagan, most will say they are not, and quite emphatically so. Heathenry is both a singular religious identifier and an umbrella term for religions that focus on Northern European pre-Christian practices and mythology. Asatru and Odinism are two Heathen traditions, although a majority will simply identify as Heathen.
Some Heathens are also Recons and are attempting to reconstruct the old ways, but many are not. Their primary source of inspiration are the Prose and Poetic Eddas, two Norse manuscripts that contain the bulk of Norse mythology.
Some Heathens practice magic, called Seidr; others do not. Non-solitary Heathens gather in groups called kindreds and they are often polytheists. In almost all cases, Heathens rely on Norse terminology, such that from old Icelandic, within religious practice. The ancient futhark alphabets are also commonly inscribed in ritual wear, temples or tools. Though Heathenry is not, in itself, a racist tradition, some white supremacists consider themselves Heathens, as is explored in the sample story below.
- “Heathenry,” by Jenny Blain and Robert J. Wallis
- Practical Heathenry, by Patricia Lafallve
- American Heathens: The Politics of Identity in a Pagan Religious Movement, by Jennifer Snook
- “The Negotiation of Racial, Ethnic, and Religious Identification in American Heathenry,” by Thad N. Horrell
- Elvies, Witches & Gods, by Cat Heath
What To Do When Racists Try To Hijack Your Religion
By Sigal Samuel, The Atlantic
November 2, 2017
(The Atlantic) – As white supremacists marched through Charlottesville, the high priest of a pagan religion looked on with horror from Reykjavik, Iceland. It wasn’t just their racist message that bothered him. It was that their banners bore the symbols of his religion: Ásatrú, also known as heathenry.
“I think it’s obscene,” the high priest, Hilmar Hilmarsson, said of the way white supremacists are coopting Norse symbols like Thor’s hammer because they believe the Vikings were a pure white race. This appropriation has been underway for a few years—not only in the United States, but also in Sweden, Germany, Canada, and elsewhere—and it’s rattling many of those who practice the Ásatrú faith in its birthplace. “We are absolutely horrified,” Hilmarsson told me.
Ásatrú is a new religious movement that attempts to revive ancient polytheistic traditions—like the worship of Thor, Odin, Freya, and other gods and goddesses—from Iceland’s pre-Christian past. The modern revival started with 12 men and women who met at Reykjavik’s Hotel Borg in 1972, and over the past few years it’s really taken off. Ásatrú is now the largest non-Christian religion in Iceland, and the fastest growing. It counts over 4,000 members, Hilmarsson said (the country’s total population is just 335,000). For the first time in a millennium, a new temple is being built to accommodate followers of Iceland’s old Norse religion. It’s set to open next June.
The faith also has a global footprint. It’s taken on various forms as it’s spread to about 100 countries, with an estimated following in the tens of thousands. Yet there’s a certain fragility at its core. As the modern iteration of pre-Christian pagan worship, Ásatrú is a very young religion. And it’s less a single codified religion than a loose cluster of religions: It has no central authority or agreed-upon dogma. Although many followers cherish this ideological openness, it may leave the religion vulnerable to misappropriation.
What about Witchcraft?
Witchcraft is a far broader term than other pagan identifiers and is loaded with accrued cultural baggage. Among modern pagans in the U.S., the term witch is generally used when a person practices some form of magic as part of their religious practice. Various people use this identifier for different reasons, including activists, natural healers, homesteaders, and teens. As noted earlier, it is best if a reporter allows the interviewee to self-identify. In other words, if the person says they are a witch, they are a witch.
Today, witchcraft can serve either as a religious identifier or a practice within other religious systems. For example, a pagan or Recon may or may not also be a witch. However, all Wiccans are witches. In fact, the term Wicca was once used interchangeably with Witchcraft. It still is in the United Kingdom.
Wicca is not the only witchcraft-based religion. Traditional Witchcraft is another example, recently gaining popularity. It is a non-Gardner based religion that also finds its roots in British folklore. There are also eclectic witches who have created their own religions based on a range of sources, including Wicca, folk and occult practices, Spiritualism, and mythology. One’s heritage – historical, cultural, ethnic – might come into play as well.
Non-religious witchcraft might be labeled a “spiritual path” or just simply a magical craft. If the latter, the witch may identify as a pagan, an atheist or even as a member of a more conventional religion such as Christianity or Judaism. Witchcraft purely defined as a magical practice is not owned by any one religion.
It is also important to understand that many non-pagan Afro-Caribbean traditions that support magical practice, such as Voodoo or Lucumi, might also have practitioners who call themselves “witches.” It is also important to understand that many non-pagan Afro-Caribbean traditions that include magical practice, such as Voodoo, obeah, or Santería (also known as, Regla de Ocha, Regla Lucumí, or Lucumí) might also have practitioners who call themselves “witches.” Similarly, there are other non-religious magical practitioners who will also use the term witch, such as those who practice hoodoo or brujería. These practitioners may or may not align with the modern pagan community as a whole. Again, it is always important to ask how a person identifies.
Finally, there are many magical practitioners who will appear to the outsider to be witch. They might do spells and work with herbs. Yet, they will not use the word “witch” due to the negative connotations. These magical folks might call themselves New Agers, in modern terms, or healers, in Indigenous communities, or doctors, in the mountain regions of the U.S. Once again, it’s best to ask.
The majority of modern pagans follow the “Wheel of the Year,” a seasonally-focused calendar. The wheel is divided equally between eight holidays – or sabbats – occurring about every six weeks. The actual holiday is celebrated with a ritual, social event, or both. Dates may vary depending on the tradition, but generally fall within a few days of each other. Celebrating these holidays is sometimes called “the turning the wheel” or “turning the tides.”
The following is a basic calendar with the traditional date and the most common names used for each sabbat:
- Samhain (pronounced Sow-in) or Halloween: Oct 31
- Yule or Winter Solstice: Dec 20-21
- Imbolc: Feb 2
- Ostara or Spring Equinox: March 20-21
- Beltane: May 1
- Litha or Summer Solstice: June 20-21
- Lughnasadh and Lammas: Aug 2
- Mabon, Fall Equinox, Harvest Home: Sept 20-21
While most pagans recognize this calendar, in whole or part, some do not. Heathens and Recons often have other holidays, like Lupercalia or Walspurgisnacht, based on the cultures that inform their practice.
Pagans, by and large, tend to practice as solitaries either partly or in full. Otherwise, they practice in small groups. They typically have altars or temples in their homes and perform private rituals of worship and magic, both indoors and outside. There is no singular doctrine or institution to lead or help form the community. However, there are many ways pagans do interact, which has produced a distinct and thriving culture.
A calendar full of community gatherings brings the community together to share ideas, socialize and practice with each other. During the winter months, most of these events are indoor conferences, such as Minnesota’s Paganicon or Delaware’s Sacred Space. In the spring and summer, events go outdoors for day or week-long festivals, like New York City’s WitchsFest USA or Circle Sanctuary’s Pagan Spirit Gathering, one of the longest and largest Pagan festivals in the U.S. During the late summer and autumn, the Pagan Community celebrates with local day-long Pagan Pride Day events across the country. Pride events typically include vendors, music, classes, rituals and a community donation, typically to a local food pantry.
Additionally, throughout the year, the community’s largest organizations, such as The Troth, Ár nDraíocht Féin (ADF), or Covenant of the Goddess, provide opportunities for pagans to gather at annual meetings and retreats.
Although relatively small, the community does have its own musicians and artists devoted to producing works used for entertainment and religious practice. Decades of pagan music, art and literature have been made more widely available via the internet.
Glossary of Key Terms
Terms like modern — or contemporary — paganism cover a wide range of traditions, from goddess movements to Wicca, heathenry to occultism, Druidry to reconstructionist movements such as Asatru.
The question of terminology and identification can be first and foremost when it comes to reporting on this diverse population. For example, neopaganism is not really used within the community anymore and while ‘Pagan’ is preferred by most, there is a lot of diversity in preferences. To confuse things even further, AP style recommends lowercasing “pagan,” while the community prefers to capitalize it.
Paganism is a decentralized, mystical community of solidarity and practice, centered on independent experience. Because it is both highly personal and highly creative, often involving a blend of multiple traditions, it can be hard to pin down.
To help clear up some confusion, here is a quick list of key terms for reporters to refer to:
- Altar: a place to work spells or center a ritual
- Athame: a ritual knife used only for ceremony
- Besom: a term often used for a broom used in ceremony
- Blessed Be: a phrase used at the end of a prayer, at times, but also a marker of the end of conversation, the closing of a ritual
- Blōt: a modern Heathen ritual that involves a “sacrifice,” or offering to deity
- Boline: a single edged ritual knife used to cut plant matter, cords, fabrics, candle wax etc
- Book of Shadows: a private witch’s book of spells, recipes and rituals
- Circle: the sacred space created by witches with energy. It is literally a sphere that encircles the ritual environment and can be created outside or inside. Used as a verb, it means to create a ritual circle. “Circle up” you might here someone say; or “Are you circling tonight?”
- Coven: a group of witches, Wiccans
- Esbat: moon rituals and rites
- Gothi: male Priest in Heathenry
- Grimoire: a book of spells often shared among people, although the definition varies
- Grove: a group of Druids, Pagans, or witches
- Gythia: female Priest in Heathenry
- Kindred: a group of Heathens
- Priest or Priestess: clerical terms used in most Pagan religions
- Sabbat: holiday celebrations, rituals, rites on the Wheel of the Year
- Seidr: Heathen form of Magic
- So Mote it Be: a phrase used at the end of a prayer or spell, similar to Amen, meaning “So it will be”
- Sumbel: a modern Heathen festive gathering or feasting
- Warlock: a term for ‘male witch’ that is mostly not used by modern witches
- Wheel of the Year: the holiday calendar
Issues and Story Ideas
Pagans in Prison
Paganism and Heathenry are popular paths for incarcerated individuals given its focus on personal spiritual growth. There are a handful of pagan and Heathen organizations dedicated to prison ministry and advocating for prisoner religious rights. Several U.S. prisons have dedicated circle sites for worship and allow for reasonable religious accommodations. Heathenry, in particular, is popular with male prisoners, which has led to the growth of Odinism, a branch that has become steeped in White Supremacy.
Pagans in the Military
Over the past 30 years, pagans have made significant gains in earning recognition in the military. This has afforded religious accommodations and protections from discrimination while on active duty. It has also resulted in the inclusion of the pentacle, awen, the mjolnir, being available for veteran grave stones.
The Sabbats and the Seasonal Celebrations
Pagan holidays move with the seasons, for the most part, and include many of the same traditions as non-pagans. These holidays are also steeped in old lore, folk tales, and history combined with personal touches. The sabbats are great opportunities for journalists to explore pagan culture and practice and how it weaves through contemporary life.
White Supremacy and Heathenry
The Heathen community has a small subset of traditions and practitioners that adhere to a white supremacist ideology. While this ideology manifests in different ways, these traditions or individual people will often label themselves “volkish” or “folkish.” They often express a belief that only white folks of northern European heritage can practice Heathenry and may limit membership to white members. In some cases, the groups might not be overtly religious at all, using Heathenry as a mask for the ideology. Similarly, there are far right extremists political groups, not connected to religion at all, that have adopted Heathen symbols. Most members of the Heathen community do not ascribe to these beliefs and will often intentionally label themselves “inclusive.” When reporting on these communities, red flags appear in the way of words and symbols.
As a minority religious group, pagans are often caught in religious freedom fights. This is particularly true in the stories that involve prayer in public spaces such as public schools, town meetings and government buildings. Pagans will also find themselves facing discrimination in the workplace, military spaces or anywhere religious observance might interfere with mundane duties.
Related but not the same, pagans do find themselves publicly harassed by some Christian groups. This has increased since 2016. The most common stories will center on preachers at events, defacing of personal property (homes or store fronts), and harassment at work.
Is it Satanism?
In contemporary society, modern Satanism and Witchcraft are not identical, although there has been a long standing tradition to conflate to two and they do have a shared legacy within Catholic history and culture. Today, however, true Satanism is either a living ideology or religion that is wholly independent of modern witchcraft practice. Most Satanists are atheists and adhere to an ethically-based ideology based on personal responsibility, community responsibility, and freedom. There are others that do practice Satanism as a religion. While some of these people may also practice magic in some form, most modern Witches do not work with a deity named Satan. Do some? Yes, but it is not the devil of Christianity.
BIPOC in Paganism
Among pagans, People of Color are a minority within a minority. The community has long been dominated by white folks and European-based modern religious practice. Today, many, not all, Pagans of Color are reviving magical practices that stem from their own ancestral and cultural heritage: including Hoodoo and Brujeria. Those that do often integrate these practices with paganism, and some leave the community altogether. Always ask.
Stories involving people of color will often involve concerns of overt racism, exclusion in community events, being given a voice at the table. They parallel mainstream concerns around race and religion.
LGBTQ+ and Inclusivity
Pagans are one of the most inclusive religious groups for the Queer community. However, there are spaces where that is not always the case. Issues of inclusion and expressed homophobia or transphobia frequently crop up within groups or communities. Furthermore, Wiccan practices can rely on gender binaries of “God” and “Goddess.” This duality may be off putting for the Queer community. However, the community has sought to address these issues in recent years.
Teen Witchcraft, Basic Witches, and Witchcore
Despite being a serious religious practice and spiritual path, Witchcraft will always have a certain pop culture cache that attracts teens and others looking for a way to creative or defiantly express themselves. Witchcraft’s history is one of being counter culture, for better or worse. Teens turn to the occult as a form of rebellion and identity seeking, particularly when it’s popular.
Although kids and teens are often drawn to paganism in some form, most pagan groups maintain strong rules and regulations about actually allowing children and teens into community practice. TikTok is its own forum for such expression and older practicing witches have a mixed reaction to what has become known as Witchtok.
Witches on the Screen
TV witches are rarely ever expressions of modern witchcraft or Paganism. More recently, there are hints of reality and positive expression of religious belief and spirituality, but it is rare. When a new film or show comes out, witches do love to talk about this very point. Is it real? How much is real? Is it offensive? There have been times when witches do protest a show for its depiction.
- Read “This Arizona Curandera Changed the Way We Think About Our Wellness Routine,” from Sunset Magazine on March 2, 2022.
- Read “Tennessee preacher Greg Locke says demons told him names of witches in his church,” from Religion News Service on Feb. 15, 2022.
- Watch “See Tennessee pastor burn ‘Twilight’ and ‘Harry Potter’ books,” from CNN on Feb. 6, 2022.
- Read “Meet the enigmatic wizards of the ancient world in ‘Druids: The Mystery Of Celtic Priests,’” from SBS Australia on Jan. 24, 2022.
- Read “How modern witches are enchanting TikTok,” from The Conversation on Jan. 19, 2022.
- Read “House of Intuition founders want you to tap into your ‘inner magic’” from Religion News service on Jan. 14, 2022.
- Read “A new aspect of the Tarot boom: Diversity in the deck,” from Religion News Service on Nov. 12, 2021.
- Read “‘We’re just normal religious people like anyone else’: Young, Springfield pagans find comfort in each other,” from The Standard (Missouri State University) on Nov. 10, 2021.
- Read “‘We’re in the middle of a witch moment’: Hip witchcraft is on the rise in the US,” from USA Today on Oct. 28, 2021.
- Read “How some ‘Jewitches’ are embracing both Judaism and witchcraft,” from Religion News Service on Oct. 25, 2021.
- Read “Wiccans in the US military are mourning the dead in Afghanistan this year as they mark Samhain, the original Halloween,” from The Conversation on Oct. 20, 2021.
- Read “BreadxButta Celebrates Indigenous Hispanic Heritage and Curanderismo Traditions Through Cannabis,” from Honey Suckle Magazine on Oct. 10, 2021.
- Read “Thor Is Beating the Lutheran Church in a Battle for Believers in the Land of Fire and Ice,” from Newsweek on Sept. 24, 2021.
- Read “Paganism, gods and goddesses aside, is the most LGBTQ-affirming faith in the US,” from Religion News Service on July 12, 2021.
- Read “The issue with commodifying witchcraft,” from The Gazette (Iowa) on June 13, 2021 (commentary).
- Read “Pagan politics are not as uniform (or liberal) as you think,” from Religion News Service on May 26, 2021.
- Read “Tarot booms as Generation Z sorts out spiritual path,” from Religion News Service on April 26, 2021.
- Read “Asatru UK reaches out with ‘The Traveller’s Guide to Modern Heathenry,’” from The Wild Hunt on April 4, 2021 (commentary).
- Read “Natural by nature, pagans expect some digital rituals to survive the pandemic,” from Religion News Service on March 16, 2021.
- Read “Why witchcraft is on the rise,” from The Atlantic in November 2020.
- Read “‘We’re reclaiming these traditions’: Black women embrace the spiritual realm,” from NBC News on Oct. 30, 2020.
- Read “How Hollywood Has Failed Black Witches, According to Real Black Witches,” from Variety on Oct. 30, 2020.
- Read “New Mexico Wiccan debunks myths, explains the pagan religion,” from the Las Cruces Sun-News on Oct. 13, 2020.
- Read “American Paganism: It’s not what the Religious Right thinks it is,” from Commonweal on Feb. 3, 2020.
- Read “Could neo-paganism be the new ‘religion’ of America?” from Big Think on Sept. 30, 2019.
- Read “Season of the Witch: Mind-Body-Spirit Books,” from Publisher’s Weekly on Aug. 2, 2019.
- Read “How Iceland recreated a Viking-age religion,” from BBC Travel on June 3, 2019.
- Watch “The Many Faces of the Occult,” from The Atlantic on Dec. 23, 2019.
- Read “The pagan boom – why young people are turning to non-traditional religions,” from Dazed on Feb. 8, 2019.
- Read “The US witch population has seen an astronomical rise,” from Quartz on Oct. 4, 2018.
- Read “What To Do When Racists Try To Hijack Your Religion,” from The Atlantic on Nov. 2, 2017.
Potential Sources and Experts
The Adocentyn Research Library is a multicultural, interreligious library in California’s East Bay Area. It collects, archives, preserves and makes available information related to paganism. The 13,000 books in the library’s catalog include a broad range of information on all Indigenous, tribal, polytheistic, nature-based and Earth-centered religions, spiritualities, beliefs, practices and cultures around the world and throughout human history.
Afe Adogame is a professor of religion and society at Princeton Theological Seminary, where he studies religious experiences in Africa and the African diaspora. He previously served as senior lecturer in religious studies and world Christianity at the University of Edinburgh, U.K.
Ár nDraíocht Féin: A Druid Fellowship is a pagan church founded in the 1980s. With chapters (groves) around the U.S., the organization supports local public worship, study and fellowship according to the Indo-European Druid traditions.
Lynsey Ayala, a Brooklyn-based artist and curandera, is the founder of BreadxButta, a small pop-up shop featuring art, traditional plant medicine and residence opportunities for art and creative projects. Ayala works with plant medicine to provide healing, using traditions passed down from her Taíno ancestors.
Helen A. Berger is a sociologist at Brandeis University. She studies gender and new religions, with a focus on paganism and witchcraft.
Henrik Bogdan is professor in religious studies at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden. His main areas of research are alternative forms of religion, such as Western esotericism, New Religious Movements and secret/initiatory societies.
The Buckland Museum of Witchcraft and Magick in Cleveland was founded in 1966 by Raymond Buckland. It is the first and only museum in the United States to feature a collection of witchcraft, folklore, the occult and their related cultures.
Cherry Hill Seminary is the leading provider of education and practical training in leadership, ministry and personal growth in pagan and nature-based spiritualities. Holli S. Emore is the executive director.
The Chesapeake Conjure Society is a Hoodoo society and community organization in Virginia and Maryland.
Chas S. Clifton is an American academic, author and historian who specializes in the field of pagan studies. Clifton holds a teaching position in English at Colorado State University-Pueblo. He is editor of The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies. He is also an active pagan.
Donald J. Cosentino is professor emeritus of the UCLA African Studies Center. Specializing in culture and performance (folklore, literature, visual and material arts, popular culture, African and Afro-Caribbean studies), Cosentino has done extensive fieldwork on African and diasporic cultures in Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Haiti and is the author of Vodou Things: The Art of Pierrot Barra and Marie Cassaise and The Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou.
Covenant of the Goddess is an international organization of cooperating, autonomous Wiccan congregations and solitary practitioners. Contact through the website.
Ivo Domínguez Jr. is a practitioner of a variety of esoteric disciplines, particularly active in Wicca and the pagan community since 1978. Domínguez was a founding member, and a past high priest, of Keepers of the Holly Chalice, the first coven of the Assembly of the Sacred Wheel, a Wiccan tradition. He currently serves as one of the elders of the Assembly of the Sacred Wheel, a Wiccan syncretic tradition. He is the author of The Four Elements of the Wise: Working with the Magickal Powers of Earth, Air, Water, Fire.
Selena Fox is a high priestess and senior minister of Circle Sanctuary, a Wiccan church and pagan resource center near Mount Horeb, Wisconsin. Wicca is a neopagan faith that relies heavily on nature and a belief in some forms of magic and the supernatural.
Heather Greene is a writer and editor who covers religion, art and the occult. She is the author of Lights, Camera, Witchcraft: A Critical History of Witches in American Film and Television. Contact her through her website.
Pam Grossman is a writer, curator and teacher of magical practice and history. She is the host of “The Witch Wave” podcast and the author of multiple books on witchcraft, including Waking the Witch: Reflections on Women, Magic, and Power. Vulture magazine called her “the Terry Gross of Witches.”
Mitch Horowitz is popular voice on esoteric ideas and writer-in-residence at the New York Public Library, lecturer-in-residence at the Philosophical Research Society in Los Angeles and a PEN Award-winning author.
Judika Illes is an American author of esoteric nonfiction books, aromatherapist and tarot reader. She has written the books Daily Magic, 5000 Spells, Encyclopedias of Spirits, Saints, Witchcraft and more.
Peter Jones, adjunct professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary in Escondido, California, is co-author of Cracking DaVinci’s Code and author of Stolen Identity: The Conspiracy to Reinvent Jesus.
Daizy October Latifah is known as “Los Angeles’ Hoodoo Woman” and describes herself as an ancestral astrologer, diviner and Hoodoo historian. She is also a certified clinical hypnotherapist.
James R. Lewis is associate professor of religious studies at the University of Tromsø and honorary senior research fellow at the University of Wales Lampeter. He edits Brill’s Handbooks on Contemporary Religion series and co-edits Ashgate’s Controversial New Religions series. He is an active, highly published scholar of New Religious Movements. He has written about Sikhism.
Najah Lightfoot is the author of Good Juju: Mojos, Rites & Practices for the Magical Soul and a regular contributor to the Llewellyn annuals and The Library of Esoterica —Volume III — Witchcraft. Her magickal staff is on display and part of the permanent collection of the Buckland Museum of Witchcraft in Cleveland.
Pagan Federation International exists not to promote a single aspect or path within paganism, nor does it presume to represent all pagans. Rather it is an umbrella organization with a membership drawn from all strands. It is an excellent source for international reporting on paganism.
Kathryn Rountree is professor of anthropology at Massey University in Palmerston North, New Zealand. She has published on contemporary paganism in Malta and New Zealand, feminist spirituality, animism, pilgrimage, embodiment and the contestation of sacred sites. Her books include Embracing the Witch and the Goddess: Feminist Ritual-makers in New Zealand and Crafting Contemporary Pagan Identities in a Catholic Society, and the co-edited Archaeology of Spiritualities.
Felicia Cocotzin Ruiz is a curandera, author, Indigenous foods activist and natural foods chef whose work is deeply rooted in the healing properties of all earth medicines.
Robert L. Schreiwer is the founder — and clergy member — of the Heathen tradition of Urglaawe. He is also the manager of Huginn’s Heathen Hof and also manager of Heathens Against Hate. He was formerly the leader of The Troth (2016-2019), an international heathen organization based in the United States. He founded In-Reach Heathen Prison Services, which is now a program within The Troth, and its counterpart for mental health facility visitations.
Teemu Taira is senior lecturer in the study of religion, University of Helsinki, and docent at the department of study of religion, University of Turku, Finland. His research has focused on three areas: religion in the media; the new visibility of atheism and nonreligion; and discursive study of the category of “religion.” He has published on paganism in Nordic countries.
Heather Greene and ReligionLink Editor, Ken Chitwood.
This Reporting Guide was developed with funding from the Henry Luce Foundation via the Luce-American Academy of Religion Advancing Public Scholarship Grant program.