Out of the broom closet, sort of

When the words Paganism and Wicca come up, lots of folks picture sacrificial chickens and chanting nymphs frolicking in a forest. And many also give the Devil his due. But Beelzebub was nowhere to be found on Saturday, September 23, at the fourth annual Pagan Pride Day Festival.

With nary a dead chicken nor frolicking nymph in sight, musical performances, knighting ceremonies and about 15 stands with jolly craftsmen peddling stained glass sculptures, candles, soaps, herbs, incense and medieval weaponry attracted more than 300 people from all over Virginia to this year’s event at Walnut Creek Park.

“The whole idea of Pagan Pride Day is to bring people from the outside in,” says Branwenn WhiteRaven, local coordinator for the festival, “so they can see what we are really all about.” WhiteRaven (whose real name is Paula) sits in a wheelchair as she explains her religion’s mission. Four women gather around her and with their hands begin to perform the healing art known as Reiki on her body. “I twisted my hip last week,” says WhiteRaven, “they are healing me.”

Neither stock characters from Harry Potter nor “Bewitched,” the Wicca devotees attending the festival have no interest in turning people into toads. “We’re not here to convert you,” says WhiteRaven, “we just want people to come and meet us so we can break out of old prejudices.”

Not that all the Pagans in attendance at this vernal equinox celebration seem so proud of their chosen path. A man reading Tarot cards for a small donation to the Jefferson Area Food Bank and the Charlottesville SPCA hides his head as a newspaper photographer approaches him. “I cannot have my name or picture in the paper,” he says. “My employers would never understand.”

Heather Wood, selling her fabric, wood and clay crafts from one of the dozen booths lining the County park bike paths, says her Southern Baptist husband couldn’t believe she was making the trip to Charlottesville from Northern Virginia to attend this “crazy Pagan festival.”

“It’s just human nature,” she says. “People fear what they don’t understand.”

Derived from earth-based spiritual practices, Paganism celebrates nature, the sacredness of all life and the duality of creation. Humanity isn’t the center of the universe in this crowd, but nature is. Lord Dragon of Ember (aka Tony), co-director of safety and security for the celebration, believes Paganism saved him more than once. He’s an ex-firefighter from the James City Fire Department. After walking out of burning buildings time and time again, Tony adopted his Wicca name because it signifies the strength of triumph or “the phoenix from the flames,” he says.

Tony was raised in what he calls a non-observant Baptist family. At an early age, he says, he found Baptism simply wasn’t for him. “I was constantly outside,” he says, “and nature was always more real to me than going to church when it was convenient.”

As a large horn blows, people begin following a pack of “knights” into the woods for a “Warrior’s Guild Demonstration and Knighting Ceremony.” Lisa Starnes, who is pursuing a religious studies degree from James Madison University, leads the ceremony. Other knights raise swords and shields upon her command. One day she hopes to teach a class on Paganism and Wicca traditions, but on this day, her job as a spiritual warrior is to challenge the newly knighted member to be the best he can possibly be.

“When I was knighted I literally felt this transformation come over me,” she says, “and I became the upright person through personal growth that I always wanted to be.”

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