Growing up as a pagan in the 20th century

Paganism in a socially conservative Christian-dominated society

Depiction of the Devil giving magic puppets to witches, from Agnes Sampson trial, 1591.

In the late 1990s when I first started identifying as a ‘pagan’, the Western world was a different place – in many ways it was still quite socially conservative (a hangover from the victorian era?), and paganism (or neopaganism) wasn’t exactly acknowledged as a real or serious religious view.

Back then, The Witches’ Voice (founded by Wren Walker & Fritz Jung; now defunct) was one of the most popular resources for neopagans – myself included. It was a goldmine of information and other resources, with sections for pagan families, teenagers, gay/LGBT+, and pagans in the military.

As well as providing a library of knowledge, The Witches’ Voice were also involved in activism concerning religious freedom. This was particularly interesting to me, being passionate about my spirituality and religion.

At high school we had an obligatory religious education class; it was a small department run by a Roman Catholic gentleman and a teaching assistant (who also doubled up as learning support). Having an RC teacher in the Presbyterian-dominated east coast of Scotland was unusual in itself, and as you may expect he was a no nonsense sort of fellow.

We spent one or two classes discussing ‘world religions’ – Islam, Hinduism, and Sikhism. The remainder of the term it was basically Sunday school, but mandatory. I was a little insulted that pre-Christian religion was never mentioned, we were given the impression that Scottish children are Christians by default – the ‘world’ religions were foreign religions for foreign people, and paganism never existed – in its original nor its contemporary form.

I wasn’t open about my spiritual beliefs, but I felt strongly about pagans being represented equally in society (or at least in school!). I had incense and candles at home, and was able to print a lot of resources at the local technical college where I took evening classes, and the local library had a number of interesting books I used to borrow.

As a relatively poor teenager, and couldn’t dare ask for money to buy books on Witchcraft, I would sometimes ‘borrow’ books from the local bookshop. It seemed reasonable – I needed access to religious materials, which somehow justified my thievery in my mind… it wasn’t like I was stealing superfluous, entertainment items like Pogs!

At this point, I was drawn to Goddess & nature worship; nowadays I suppose I am a monotheist/monist/omnist/pantheist – so not really considered a pagan by Torah/Bible/Quran standards, which would be a polytheist. I believe God as an all-powerful entity, that can present itself as individual gods, goddesses, nature, etc which we can use to channel His energy.

The Witches’ Voice had a petition for people like me – a petition for the recognition of paganism in school! It looked very professional and it was worded well, it wasn’t like I would be taking a handwritten note!

I printed the petition and took it to school, approached a few people for signatures and finally pinned it to the notice board in the main lobby; I was kind of excited – I thought it would also help me find others who were interested in Witchcraft / Wicca, etc.

The petition had disappeared by the end of the day, which wasn’t surprising. I wondered if it had been removed due to the content or the unauthorised use of the notice board, but I didn’t need to wonder for very long.

A couple of days passed and I returned home from school to a cold, thick atmosphere – not unusual, though I couldn’t think of anything ‘wrong’ I had done this time… and there it was. A letter on the table from the school.

Dear Mr & Mrs [redacted],

It has come to our attention that Tudorix has been approaching other pupils at the school with the intention of recruiting them to form some kind of cult. A printout was taken around the school and subsequently pinned to the notice board in the main hall.

I imagine that you will be as concerned as we are, and will talk to Tudorix to get to the bottom of this.

Yours sincerely,

(paraphrased)

What followed was a massive row and me being forced to throw hundreds of pages of printed and handwritten material, my incense, candles – everything, in the bin. It was devastating. For me it wasn’t just losing educational material and ‘things’ – it was removing what little power I had in the world.

Unbeknown to my mother, I had actually been performing primitive rituals since I was 7 or 8 years old in the early 90s – but lacked the structure, education, and tools.

It’s no secret that I have had a colourful relationship with religion through complex trauma and dissociative identities – I like to think the method and dogma changes but God, or The [infinite] One, remains. People fear what they don’t understand – and until I was in my mid-late 20s, I didn’t really understand mainstream religions or the people who subscribe to them.

I do understand now, and also understand the fear or even disgust my teachers and even step-mother (who, granted, wasn’t particularly interested until it looked bad on her as a mother figure) must have felt, knowing that I was involved in what may as well have been ‘devil worship’ from their na├»ve perspectives.

Ironically, Christians and agnostics today celebrate our pre-Christian festivals often without realising their origins – Christmas and Easter being the big two. Moreover, many of the oldest churches in Britain were built on ancient holy sites that were used by pagans long before Jesus walked the Earth and even before Jewish history began.

We have a lot more in common with each other when you remove the human, dogmatic aspect (including the corruption) of religion – belief in a great power that creates and sustains the universe, sometimes that power is personified as a god or goddess, as a person in our own image, or even the natural world around us.

The word demonise makes a lot of sense when you look at the history of how early Christians and Jews changed the world, transforming the spirits, gods, goddesses, and angels into malevolent demons; The fake news of years gone by.

The Western world is a lot more liberal now. I think growing up as an LGBT+ pagan today would generally be a lot easier than it was in the 1990s or 2000s (and of course the decades and centuries before then). That doesn’t mean we have equality and acceptance though – enclaves of ignorance exist everywhere, and if you’re young and/or still living at home – that is your universe and you don’t make the rules.

We may not be tortured or executed in the west any longer, but we are still subject to suppression, and I can only see that growing as we progress in linear time.

Torturing and executing witches
Medieval (14th century) manuscript portraying the torture & execution of witches

It will be interesting to see in light of growing Khawarij groups such as ISIS/Daesh and other ultra-orthodox, militant Islamic movements smashing ‘idols’ as part of their fervent hatred of mushrikoon (polytheists) how safe pagans will remain in the world. Also conservative Christians – evangelical and Orthodox, present resistance to the normalisation of our ancient ways and beliefs.

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