About 25 years ago, I covered a meeting of pagans –- or witches –- or maybe it was both, for The Houston Chronicle. They were decked out in all manner of robes, rabbits foot talismans and jewelry. What struck me about this particular group was how most of the believers seemed to be aging hippies.
It reminded me of my Society for Creative Anachronism days where we all ran about in medieval dress, using modes of speech rich with “prithee sir” or "wouldst thou, fair knight, pour me a class of wine?" The costumes didn't change the fact that there were a lot of lecherous guys there who used the occasion to hit on me and my friends.
I still took a second look at the beautifully written Oregonian story on Beltane, the May Day feast celebrated by a pagan group in Portland that is very big on costumes. It’s not always easy to get the trust of groups involved in Wicca or Druids or other earth religions, so it’s saying something that this group allowed a reporter into their midst.
Jonathan Levy was bored. His girlfriend was busy with National Novel Writing Month. He sulked. "Make friends," she said, shooing him away.
The reasonable step, he notes with a laugh, would have been to join a kickball team or volunteer crew or any one of Portland's many social organizations. Instead, he launched a new religious congregation for neo-pagan Druids.
Plenty of Druids live in Portland, Levy said, but pagans tend to stay under the radar. Some worship privately. Friends organize their own rituals within their social circles. Groups share event information on closed Facebook pages. Levy instead became passionate about creating a welcoming congregation that advertised and invited newcomers to holiday rituals. The solution: opening a local chapter of Ár nDraíocht Féin (typically called "ADF" because few can pronounce the full name).
"There was a spiritual loneliness here," he said. "It feels more complete to do this worship with a lot of other people."
In the two years that have passed, Levy has done more than make friends. He's created a family. A motley, Faerie Song-singing, homemade-wings-wearing family. Some come from conservative Christian backgrounds. Levy's parents were atheists. Some honor Celtic gods and goddesses, others Hellenic or Roman deities. One is more drawn to Wicca than Druidism but enjoys the company.
The article got 1,200 shares during its first 24 hours online, so it hit a nerve.
Anyway, I was confused with the difference between Druids and pagans and whether the former is merely a Celtic version of the latter. And what was it with the wings?
I looked at the photos of this largely white, middle-aged, head wreath-sporting, cape-wearing group in Portland and was reminded of the ritual I attended in Houston. Were they truly practitioners or bored out of their wits with what traditional religion has to offer? It’s too bad that none of the ages of the participants were included, as I wanted to know if these folks were mostly over 40.
Is this group Middle America cutting loose? What was up with the woman who there in a Goth get-up (black hair, blue lipstick, purple dress)? Why, for one pastor’s son who sported fairy wings, was this family?
I am guessing that if the article was based on an interview with Levy and a visit to their celebration, there wasn’t the chance to get into the deep histories of the people there. Religious attendance is pretty low in the Pacific Northwest, so a low-maintenance group whose occasional meetings are centered on fertility festivals and solstice observances might have some appeal.
I would have liked to have known more about this group and if they meet regularly, take any kind of collection or dues and whether they are growing. Is there any way of life one pledges adherence to? I clicked around one of the links provided on the site and got a wealth of background about Roman and Greek gods and a bit about the group's organization.
One pet peeve I have with articles about pagan groups is they're often sanitized. This group dancing around a Maypole on a rainy afternoon in Portland seems very tame, but if you do an internet search for Beltane, let's just say the images that arise suggest that followers take the fertility part of this holiday quite seriously.
For instance, the Beltane festival in Scotland is a whole different animal: complete with fire ceremonies and people running around in horned headpieces.
One service that journalists provide in covering pagan or earth religions is to show that wearing robes and other ornamental clothing is not just something dreamed up by liturgical churches. Even those who profess no religion love to dress up for ceremonies.
That says something very deep about the search for meaning in every human heart. And the more on that in the media, the better.
The photo is from a poster from the Beltane Fire Festival 2016 celebration in Edinburgh, Scotland.