True Story: I’m a Pagan

This is part of our True Story interview series, in which we talk to interesting, amazing people about their lives and experiences. Here Michelle talks about her experience becoming a pagan. Religion is a subject that people take very personally – I really appreciate Michelle’s candor in discussing her faith. I’m sure we’ll all treat this interview with the respect it deserves, right?
Tell us about your relationship with religion growing up.
I grew up in rural southwestern Missouri. My parents are both fairly moderate both religiously and politically – my dad is probably an agnostic and my mom, I think, would probably refer to herself as a nondenominational Christian. We didn’t really go to church on a regular basis growing up – I think I had probably gone maybe 3-4 times before I was seven or eight.

I was always kind of a “weird” kid. In second grade, I found a book in the library that was about superstitions, but the librarian wouldn’t let me check it out – she said it was too hard for me to read! This really upset me, and I went home and told my parents about it. It royally pissed my dad off, so he went in to the library next day and told the librarian that she shouldn’t be trying to stop kids from reading. She admitted it was the subject matter, not the reading level, and he told her that that was their (my parents’) job to worry about. So I got to check out and read the book.

And then two days later I was sent home with a note saying I was teaching the other children witchcraft symbols on the playground. *badumtish* (That’s supposed to be a cymbal noise. Like after a joke.)

I got curious about spirituality & religion when I was a little older (I’m thinking about nine or ten), and started going to church with my Mormon grandparents. I was baptized, but I don’t really think Christianity was ever going to be a good fit for me – I remember my grandma being baffled when I asked her if Mother Nature was our heavenly mother, since God is our heavenly father.

When did you become interested in Paganism
I decided that Christianity wasn’t for me at probably…hmm, I’m going to say ten or eleven? I was pretty young, I think sixth or seventh grade. I read up on a bunch of world religions and I’ve been some form of pagan ever since.

Could you tell us about the basic tenets of Paganism?
The thing about “paganism” is that it’s a very large umbrella term, and the definition depends on who you’re talking to. I would define a pagan religion as a non-Judeo-Christian or non-Islamic religion that places an importance on a connection with nature, and whose adherents self identify as pagan. The last part is very important, because Hindus or practitioners of Native American religions (or other people) sometimes get lumped in with pagans, and depending on the person, they don’t necessarily feel positively about that.

So under the umbrella term of paganism, you have a huge amount of religions. There’s Wicca, which is a newer religious movement that was founded by Gerald Gardner in the 1950’s. Depending on who you talk to, to be a “real” Wiccan, you need to be initiated into an official coven, or you can be a solitary practitioner who believes in the tenets of Wicca. I would say those tenets are duotheism (all deities are facets of the God or the Goddess), the Rede, and the Law of Three/Law of Return (which basically says, think about your actions because they have reactions, some of which will affect you). Those are pretty hotly debated within the Wiccan community, though – both the basic tenets and the solitary vs. coven issue.

There are also people who just refer to themselves as “pagan”, not feeling the need for any more specific term. Another example of a “subset” of paganism would be re constructionist or revival groups – people who seek to practice ancient pagan religions, more or less as they were then. The “more or less” is also a matter of debate within these communities – some individuals try to do things as close as they can to what was done back then, and some individuals allow for leeway, since the modern world is so different.

I would fall under that category (a reconstructionist/revivalist pagan, that allows for leeway). I’m a heathen, which is kind of a catch all term for a pagan who worships the old gods of Europe and Scandinavia. That’d be Odin, Freyja, Thor – that group. I prefer the term “heathen” to the term “Asatru”, even though Asatru is the more common term. To keep this interview from getting too long, I’ll just say you can check out this article if you want to see more about the different terms for us and why some prefer one over another!

The tenets of my belief:
I’m a hard polytheist. “Soft” polytheism is when a person interacts with the gods as individuals but thinks they’re all part of some greater “god” or “force” – facets of it, if you will. A hard polytheist, like me, feels that all of the gods are individuals “forces”. This means I also believe that, say, Zeus or Brigid or Thoth exists, I just don’t necessarily work with them. The term “animism” gets thrown around a lot nowadays, but it applies here. Quoth Wikipedia: Animism is a philosophical, religious or spiritual idea that souls or spirits exist not only in humans but also in animals, plants, rocks, natural phenomena such as thunder, geographic features such as mountains or rivers, or other entities of the natural environment. In heathenism, these spirits are generally referred to as “wights” or “vaettir” (they’re different forms of the same word).

A very large part of heathenism is showing respect for the local land wights – some people put more emphasis on this and ancestor veneration than on interaction with deities. For me, it’s more of like the wights are my close neighbors – interaction with them on a daily basis is a fact of life. The gods are more like friends that I might need to use a telephone to get a hold of, if that makes sense. Ancestor veneration, as mentioned, is also important – we feel that our ancestors watch out for us and since we wouldn’t be here without them, we make sure to remember them.

That covers the very basics – an in-depth overview could take ages! If you want to learn more, I’ll be happy to answer questions in the comments, or you can check out this website for a lot of links/information. If looking for a book, I’d recommend Essential Asatru as a very basic jumping off point. I will give you a heads up and say that when looking for information, there’s a good chance you’ll run into a racist group at some point. They are very unfortunately out there, but don’t represent the heathen community as a whole.

Tell us about how you incorporate your beliefs into your daily life. Do you go to ‘services’? Do you get together with other people who practice Paganism?
We have two altars in our house – the “main” altar, so to speak, is in our bedroom. (My husband used to be agnostic, but is now also heathen, after being “bopped on the head” by Freyr.) The top shelf of it has a painting I did in high school of Yggdrasil, as well as the land wight altar and the ancestor altar. There’s an incense burner between the two altars & a little cup for liquids.

The shelf underneath that – I use a bookshelf for my altars – is the gods altar, and statues, my bag of runes, an offering plate with a tree carved on it, candles, and stones. The house wight altar is in our living room, since that’s the room we’re in the most. We try to give him food or burn some incense for him on a fairly regular basis – probably every 2-3 days. I like to set aside some time in the evenings or before bed to burn some incense for my ancestors and the gods and thank them for our blessings, or just sit and meditate.

As far as ‘services’ go, there is a fairly informal group in Austin that has once a month social chats, and then does celebrations at the holidays. The last one was a disablot in February (in honor of our female ancestors, the disir), and Walpurgis (May Day) is coming up. This link has a pretty good overview of the main heathen holidays, although it has a ton of “days of remembrance” thrown in that I don’t observe (nor does anyone I know). We really enjoy those get-togethers, although we’ve only started going recently. There are a few general pagan meet ups active in Austin, and we sometimes go to those, though not necessarily regularly. They’re more social than anything else.

What does this belief system bring to your life?
Oh wow! What a hard question to answer! Not because it doesn’t bring anything to my life, of course, but because there just aren’t enough words. It gives me a feeling of being rooted – these are the beliefs my ancestors had, a thousand years ago. I don’t believe the physical world is “less than” the afterlife or other worlds, and so I take joy every day in the gift of a body that the gods gave me, so that I can taste and touch and feel. I look around outside and I don’t just see trees and rivers, I see fellow spirits and representations of the World Tree that is at the center of everything. My goddesses are not any less powerful than my gods, which is good, since I’m a feminist!

What are the biggest misconceptions that people have about Pagans?
One big misconception is that all pagans believe the same thing – we emphatically do not! If you’ll look at the description of Wicca above, and them compare it to my beliefs and practices, you’ll see we don’t have the same religion, even though we fall under the same religious category.

There’s also silly things like people thinking pagans today doing human sacrifice. Ancient pagans did, yes, but honestly if you’ll look at any ancient religion, they all did. One of the things that gets on my nerves the most is when people think or say that any deity that isn’t the Christian God is just a demon masquerading as a god. It’s offensive, patronizing, and quite frankly, it annoys the crap out of me.

Any advice for people interested in exploring Paganism?
Read, read, read! And do some soul searching. Are you more of a monotheist, or a polytheist? Somewhere in between? Does the idea of being an eclectic pagan, and making it up as you go along appeal to you? Or would you rather practice something with a grounding in history? Are there any particular deities who call to you?

As far as reading material goes, I’m woefully out of the loop with online sources. Witchvox is good for finding local pagans near you, of almost any stripe, although most of the members are Wiccan, I think. As far as books go, I’ve never read any of the following, but they look good & have good reviews: Which Witch is Which?, Paganism: An Introduction to Earth Centered Religions, and Drawing Down the Moon. You should be able to find one or all of these at a local library (don’t forget about interlibrary loan). If not, they’re easily ordered online through Amazon, or can probably be ordered through most book stores.

As far as heathen specific information goes, there are several Yahoo groups that are good (Asatru, Heathen Discussion, One Eye) – there’s a lot of great discussion and they’re not too abrasive to newbies. Ravencast is an amazing heathen podcast, with a decent amount of Asatru 101 podcasts. The aforementioned Asatru U link has a lot of great material. I’m a member of the Troth, which publishes a quarterly magazine and has a member’s email list that’s great for discussion and learning.

When reading about paganism, you need to have a good BS detector. There is a lot of crap out there. This is one reason to read as much as you can – you’ll get a knack for which authors are full of it, which ones tend to be a mix of good and bad, and which ones are generally trustworthy.

Are any of you pagan? Any (polite! respectful!) questions for Michelle?

29 Comments

Ashley Lorelle

Wonderful interview! I am Wiccan and I am impressed by how accurately and easily Michelle was able to explain the religion and Pagan beliefs. I don't have any questions for her, I just want to commend her for a job well done and thank her for doing this interview.

Reply
John Freyr

I’m Wicca and our roots go back thousands of years. I practice what is refereed to as Cornish West Country Wicca. Gardiner and others recently have taken the twisted writings of Aelester Crowley, Golden Dawn and other sex magick cults.. Gardiner uses many of Crowleys traditions and believe me he was a sick puppy in many respects.. If you are interested in the Old Wicca traditions read Rhiaan Rhyalls book “West Country Wicca”. We still exist and celebrate our rituals. Also for a video example search youtube video called “walpurgisNacht by Faun the Official Video.. https://www.youtube.com/watch?https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nLgM1QJ3S_I
Read the English Translation.
There is a imagery of a veiled priestess and the full moon this is called “Drawing Down the Moon” It is powerfull when celebrated by real Wiccans. We are nature oriented and we are hard to find.. then you will get a basic understanding of the Real Wicca, not this modern twisted rubbish.. Best wishes from Cornwall land of my ancestors.. Also research Crowley whose twisted sex rituals are use by some of those who wish to be Wiccan but they will never be…

Reply
Gem

Pagans REPRESENT! ๐Ÿ˜€

I've been Pagan since I was around 13, and although I almost never discuss it with anyone, it's something that strongly influences how I live my life. The respect for and connection with nature and the Earth is the most important aspect of Paganism for me.

Nice work, Michelle, and thanks for posting this interview Sarah!

Reply
~Kristina

Thanks for another great interview!
The quote from Michelle about the belief system giving her a feeling of being rooted is incredible.

Reply
Helen

I remember reading about paganism when I was younger (like…12, 13?) but I've never actually met one. It all seems really interesting!

Reply
Sarah girl

It's nice to hear a Pagan perspective. I used to work in a store that sold books and supplies for various Pagan religions and I loved learning about everyone's different beliefs.

I'm wondering what reactions people have to you. Are you open about your beliefs, or do only your close family/friends know? It sounds like your parents were pretty understanding, but how about your Mormon grandparents? Employers? I've just seen a lot of people have to keep quiet due to fears of prejudice and I'm wondering how you deal with that.

Reply
Michelle

Sarah girl – I'm fairly open about my beliefs; I had a few experiences back in Missouri where I would become okay friends with someone and then mention my beliefs in passing, and they would be all "What?! HOLD UP WE CAN'T BE FRIENDS" (which is, you know, really silly :P). So, even though most people in Austin are pretty cool, I've got in the habit of mentioning it within the first few times I meet someone, so that incidents like the above don't happen again.

As far as my family, it's…really weird. My parents know, but it's one of Those Things We Don't Talk About, you know? *shrug* Kind of like my sex life. ๐Ÿ˜› None of my grandparents know and my Mormon grandparents probably never will, just because the hassle of trying to explain to them that I don't worship satan and turning down offers of church and etc.

I'm lucky now in that I live in a pretty pagan friendly city (Austin, TX). I mean, obviously not everyone here is automatically okay with it, but I would have people find out I was pagan and harass me for days in Missouri. Or harass people in public for wearing non-Christian symbols (which happened to both me and friends of mine). Fears of prejudice are, unfortunately, fairly well grounded – I work at home right now but I'm looking to get a part time job and I'm a little worried about being able to get time off to go to religious functions, even in a city like Austin. It'll probably be fine though!

Reply
Rachel

Thank you so much for sharing! I've been agnostic for a while and it was very interesting to read your perspective.

Reply
Luinae

Great interview, really articulate!

I was actually almost "raised" Pagan- I'm 14 now. In my childhood, I lived in a very small village in the mountains of Wales, right by this huge lake and an old forest. The old lady who lived next door to us kind of told me all these stories, so I grew up with them. We never prayed to them or offered anything, but there there was always the feeling that Rhiannon of the Spring was THERE, and the Lady of the Lake (whom everyone thought lived in the lake, I don't know why) was THERE. There was a lot of Welsh gods and goddesses that I only remember vaguely, and I also believed in fairies. I'm more Atheist now, but I've always been so intrigued by it all, because it was how I was raised. I actually think that was a wonderful way to be raised, in this sort of old culture, because it gave me all these roots in my place of birth, in that little stone house, and with the world around me. I don't feel it anymore, but when I lived in Wales, I always felt so connected with everything- it might have been because I was a child, but I felt very safe there, like the world would take care of me. I may have to do some more reading on this- thank you so much!

Question: Do you ever get some people who think that Paganism isn't "real," or that it's like a joke?

Reply
Michelle

Luinae – Oh man, yes! I didn't mention that in the interview because it hasn't happened to me as much as outright "you're a satan worshiper, right?" stuff, but yessss that is obnoxiously common. (As far as people treating paganism like it's a joke.) Super super frustrating.

Your background is really interesting! That's so neat. I'm hoping to visit Germany, Denmark, Norway & Sweden next year (all in one fell swoop haha) and I'm really looking forward to being able to look at the things that are mentioned in the sagas & eddas and having them right in front of me.

Reply
quellerette

Progressive Pagan reprezentin here (eclectic Wicca I guess), and just want to chime in that I thought this article was a great representation of Pagan beliefs in general.

Reply
Anastasia

I actually got suspended in middle school because I had a book about witchcraft. My dad flippe dout (even though he didn't agree with me) he went up there and scared the shit out of my principal. Who was always really nice to me afterwards..like absurdly nice.

I have three daughters and its always a struggle on what to teach them. I don't want them to have one way they know. I want them to be able to make an educated decision. I was thinking of maybe taking them to all different religious meetings. I live in Austin too, and there's evena buddhist temple. I think it would be fun for me too.

Reply
AJ

I found this so interesting to read! Thankyou for sharing your experiences with us. I'm just a little curious about one thing – you mentioned your husband, did you encorporate your religion into your wedding ceremony? And if so, how?

xxx

Reply
Michelle

Thank you, quellerette! <3

Anastasia – TBH, I didn't know there was a Buddhist temple in Austin, but that doesn't surprise me! I was thinking about maybe seeing if the local UU church wanted to do meetings with people from different religions coming in and teaching children…interfaith work is something I'd like to do, but I don't know where to start really! (And you might check out the UU church anyways, there's a good chance they already do something like that.) (Also, I recognize your blog! didn't know you lived in Austin!)

AJ – Actually, at that time, my husband considered himself agnostic-ish, so no, not really. Our wedding was more of a legal formality, we're hoping to do a full on service & reception next year on our 2 yr anniversary, and at that point we'll probably have influences in it. I am not sure what exactly, because I've only ever been two like, two weddings that I remember & have no idea how they're constructed.

Reply
screwdestiny

This was a really interesting interview. I pretty much didn't know anything about pagans, and I enjoyed your brief information about it. ๐Ÿ™‚

Reply
Angela

Thanks for the great interview! I am a Pagan living in the deep South Bible Belt. If I even say the word "pagan" people automatically give me the look that says I worship the devil. It is very disheartening to live in such a confined environment. I am almost 40 years old and have lived here all my life. It is so disappointing to find our fellow beings can be so ugly.

Reply
Evangeline Ruby

This interview was very interesting! My parents always told me that I could choose my own religion. When I was about 6 or so, I asked my mom who God's mom was, and decided that she was Mother Nature. I was baffled that he didn't have a mom, according to religious scripture. I went to church infrequently as a child and this past year I attended a religion class at my university. When I was in grades 5-6, I identified as pagan/wiccan, but since then I think that I am more spiritual. Organized religion never really sat right with me. I'm an equality feminist and I didn't like how that wasn't an aspect of any of the major religions. I respect those who do identify with those religions, but I've come to terms with the fact that they aren't for me. I don't really have a label for my beliefs, they would probably be under pagan, but I am still exploring. Thank you for this great interview!

Reply
Kayden

I'm currently 13, and I am a pagan much like you, only I follow the Greek gods. I find it funny because I am not Greek at all. In fact, my ancestors followed the Norse gods, much like you. But the Greek gods have always been what I've felt closer to. Although I don't deny the Norse gods' existance. In fact, I believe that they are out there too, which is why I would like to learn more about them, exspecially since I feel like part of me should follow them as well, due to my Scandinavian heiritage (Sorry if I spelled those two words completely wrong)

Thank you for your wonderful insights, it will really help me since I'm rather young to be following a completely different religion (which is basically self taught) on my own:)

I have two questions: Did your husband ever feel awkward after he switched religions?
..and..
Was it hard finding a spouse who accepted you?

Reply
Michelle

Hi Kayden!

(Sarah, I'm not sure if she'll see this, so if you want to maybe email her my response I would appreciate it?)

Good luck, if you want any more sources or have any specific questions feel free to email me at michelle (at) wicked-whimsy (dot) com. ๐Ÿ™‚

I don't think Matt felt awkward, he was agnostic before, and he was familiar with my beliefs from me…well…talking about them all the time ๐Ÿ˜‰

As far as finding a spouse that accepted me, I totally lucked out with Matt. Before we moved to Austin, we lived in a very small town that was very conservative (which I think I mentioned in the interview). Which just goes to show you that in even really conservative spaces there are open minded people. ๐Ÿ™‚ It can be hard to make friends too sometimes; it doesn't happen in Austin but in Joplin I got in the habit of mentioning that I was pagan within the first few conversations of meeting someone, because I had a few too many incidents where I would mention it to someone I had known a while and they'd get really freaked out. There's really nothing you can do in that case but be a good example and change peoples' minds that way, unfortunately.

Anyways, good luck along your journey!

Reply
Athena

I really enjoyed reading this post, I've always been very interested in more natural religions as wicca and paganism. Christianity always seemed too harsh and male-dominated to me, but being an atheist doesn't feel right to me either. I've also always been very interested in mythology and history and actually read many books about wicca in my teens, but I didn't know anyone who was also interested in it and most people just though it was weird. Belgium doesn't really have much to offer in that area. I find the Greek gods very interesting, perhaps due to my name, but I feel a greater link with the Celtic deities. My love for Ireland might have something to do with that too. Pity natural religions with multiple deities are looked upon as something weird, your interest in it kinda stagnates and doesn't evolve into anything in that case. Once made an oral presentation about wicca in class, we had to present a religion, and people just giggled and didn't see it as anything real. Wish that wasn't the case!

Reply
Runaway Heart

I found this post to be very interesting. I'm a practicing Pagan, and have been officially practicing for about three years.

I'm doing a research paper on Paganism, and was wondering if I could use this interview as one of my sources?

Reply
Sarah Von Bargen

Runaway Heart,

I think you're good to go, as long as you credit Michelle (the interview-ee as the author). I'm just the blog it's posted on ๐Ÿ™‚

Reply
Kayden

Michelle, thank you so much for your response. I'm actually very glad that I checked back to this site, having completely forgotten that I was waiting for a reply. I think I'm going to check out as many books as possible on Greek mythology. I actually intend on studying classics in college, although I hope that my beliefs don't get in the way of the academic part of it. However, learning Greek and Latin in college would be beneficial to getting further into my religious journey ๐Ÿ™‚

Thank you again for your response; it's always nice to know that someone out there has been through similar experiences.

-Kayden

Reply
Whitney

Great interview! I’ve recently started reading about paganism, and I was drawn to the religion because of the connection. The only problem I run into is the acceptance from others. I want to learn, but everyone I’m around is very close minded Christian so I don’t really have people to go to. I also have trouble with books I’ve read, because they often contradict each other. So what would your advice on good material be? Overall thank you for the explanation and inspiring words ๐Ÿ™‚

Reply

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.