By Noah Howard
Remove your shoes out of respect before you pull back the curtain. The piece of cloth was thin, but it seemed soundproof; stepping through created a genuine sense of separation between the two tight-knit hotel rooms, one bustling with levity and conversation, the other a dark and serene meditation den.
My ears were no longer assailed by chatter, but by an ambient soundtrack consisting of one of those unplaceable instrumentals mostly found at the end of self-indulgent indie sci-fi movies. There were altars on all sides, some with images, some with artifacts, all with a bottle of wine and a small bowl in which to pour it. Suddenly hit by the exhaustion of the night, I sat down on a small bench alongside a stranger and closed my eyes. Never one for meditation, my serenity didn’t last long before the onset of boredom. I quietly got up, walked over to a beautiful statue made from a decorated cow skull (representing a deity of death or of life, I couldn’t quite tell), poured some wine into the already overflowing cup and walked out of the room, nearly forgetting my abandoned shoes.
Giving an offering to a pagan god is what, in Judaism, could frequently be called “a big no-no.” But over the period of about a month, I put aside my Jewish upbringing to explore the many branches of spirituality collectively self-identified as paganism or Wiccanism, which I discovered by chance simply by researching lesser-known American spiritual groups online. Despite Judaism’s importance for my cultural identity, I’ve never been a “believer” in the strictest sense (I don’t accept the Judeo-Christian God as fact), and so have kept myself open to alternate modes of spirituality. Given its universal demonization within Judeo-Christendom, paganism’s forbidden-fruit nature made it an appealing alternative.
The relatively small (but rapidly growing) Bay Area pagan community was difficult to pin down, but I eventually made contact with Valerie Voigt, High Priestess of the Temple of Inanna and Dumuzi, a group of worshippers in San Jose. She graciously agreed to meet with me over coffee at a cafe near the Stanford campus. “I’m wearing a green sweatshirt,” I messaged her. “I’m dressed like a stereotypical witch,” was Ms. Voigt’s reply.
That was no exaggeration. She emerges from her car dressed head-to-toe in elegant, flowing black clothing, the one exception a silvery pentagram hanging around her neck. We both order coffee — mine black, hers with mountains of sugar (a byproduct of growing up in the South, she explains). I hope that my instinctive intimidation from being seated next to a self-identified witch was not immediately obvious, but Valerie is friendly and dynamic, pulling out of her black bag pages upon pages of information on the history, sects and traditions of modern Wiccan groups. When she hears I have an academic interest in ethics, she pulls out a pamphlet on pagan ethical frameworks. When my collection of pulp sci-fi is mentioned, her bottomless bag produces a yellowed pamphlet, published and distributed decades ago by a pagan group based on a church from a sci-fi novel.
I leave the cafe with a book’s worth of papers, a paper of potential books and an invitation to Pantheacon, the nation’s largest pagan convention. It’s there that, after hours of reading and research, that I give my first offering to a decorated skull.
I brought two Jewish friends with a shared interest in exploring alternative spirituality, and we drove our way to the San Jose Doubletree, a surprisingly blasé location for a building soon to be filled with all manner of magic, rather than the stereotypical chain hotel audience of an upper-middle-class family of four.
Stepping through the doorway showed that some stereotypes can be rooted in reality: I tend to wear a lot of black (an unfortunate side effect of listening to too much punk rock), but in this environment my “black-wearing-ness” was perhaps in the 30th percentile. If I was starstruck sitting next to one practicing pagan, imagine my shock at facing 1500 of them.
I was a novice, and it was obvious. At the vendors, I hardly knew what questions to ask, as I embarrassingly struggled to tell the difference between pretty adornments and holy sigils. I circled the outskirts of panel discussions and presentations, where other audience members nodded knowingly about the construction of curses; meanwhile, I had only just learned that curses were even a part of some pagan canons.
But my humiliation was unnecessary. The community was as friendly and welcoming as I had come to expect from Valerie, each group happy to explain their unique belief system without any semblance of pressure or conversion. “What I like about this tradition is how non-dogmatic it is,” said one convention-goer when I brought up this openness.
My friends and I were privy to celebrations, beautiful traditional Irish music and a spellbook signing. At one point, we found ourselves in a drum circle, my arms flailing about to the beat in a way that I had never, until that point (and have never since), done. We rounded out the night with a party hosted by Loki-worshippers, a gathering that proved itself difficult to find, given its elusive gimmick of sending us on a wild paper-trail scavenger hunt around the hotel to incorrect party locations (after half an hour we thought the prank might be that the party never actually existed; happily, we were mistaken).
The fact that such a community carries with it such a history of oppression was, sadly, hardly shocking. From a Judeo-Christian perspective their practices are truly alien, embodying everything (idolatry, pantheism, female-centric deities) that modern Western religions often react negatively to. Through much of modern history, even being accused of identifying with one of these groups was sufficient to garner a death sentence, and even now, despite its growing popularity and mainstream appeal, claiming to be a pagan is enough to warrant, at best, odd glances and, at worst, utter fear (if the faith had been normalized, this article wouldn’t have any reason to exist). Nevertheless, despite my continued lack of belief in anything supernatural, my time spent with the pagan community has been nothing short of magical, revealing a rich and ancient set of cultures and practices far beyond what I could ever contain in a single article and far greater than what could be absorbed in a lifetime.
Contact Noah Howard at noah.howard ‘at’ stanford.edu.