The Pagan Revival: an Inside View
By BONNIE WELLS – Staff Writer
Those who decorate with evergreens, mistletoe and holly this season will be participating in a tradition thousands of years older than the approaching Christian holiday.
The trees and berries were sacred to the earth- and nature – centered religions of northern Europe for millennia. To groups like the ancient Druids or Asatruars, the planet itself, its products and patterns were all invested with divinity.
The peoples who celebrated the seasons of the earth at the solstices and regular points in between brought evergreens into their dwellings at the winter solstice, or Yule, to symbolize their faith that, on the darkest day of the year, light and life would return. Today, practitioners of a variety of nature-based religions go by the general name of Pagans, and their numbers are growing. Because they gather in small groups in homes or natural surroundings precise figures are hard to come by, but a recent New York Times article pegged the current ranks at somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000 souls.
Ellen Evert Hopman, local herbalist and author, wears the ceremonial robes of her station as a Druid Priestess.
Who are they?
In her 1996 book “People of the Earth: The New Pagans Speak Out,” local present-day Pagan and herbalist Ellen Evert Hopman presents interviews with Pagans from around the world, representing a wide range of beliefs and practices. She says 98 percent of Pagans practice Wicca or witchcraft, while all the other varieties comprise the remaining 2 percent.
She is herself a Druid.
“In the dictionary, a Pagan is defined as godless,” Hopman says.
“But we honor many gods and goddesses.”
Still, for the uninitiated, the word may conjure up visions of unspeakable acts committed by the light of a full moon.
“We got a very bad rap during the Inquisition, when they took our forest god, who happened to have antlers, and made him into Satan, this horrible demonic creature, Hopman says.
“The hysteria spread, and it was all manufactured.” The designation Pagan reflects the power politics of the times.
As worshipers of nature-based gods were being converted to Christianity, the first to convert were those in the city and coastal areas, while those in the country lagged behind, Hopman explains.
The Latin Paganus means country person.
Green skin and warts Hopman was recently featured in a documentary aired on the Arts and Entertainment channel, which explored present-day Druidic practices in England, Ireland and the United States at best, she says.
But “Most Hollywood movies make us look scary, like we have supernatural powers and can turn people into toads.
Then there are those horrible Halloween cards that picture witches with green skin and a big wart.”
To bring some truth about the Pagan revival to the small screen, Hopman invited Ernest Urvater of Sawmill River Productions in Amherst to videotape a full year of Pagan sacred celebrations here in the valley.
“Pagans, The Wheel of the Pagan Sacred Year,” a personal, informal look at how Pagans from several traditions actually practice their faith, will have its first public screening Sunday, Dec. 19, from 3 to 6 p.m. at the Red Barn at Hampshire College.
Admission is free and a reception with the show’s creators will follow.
With Hopman as creative consultant, and Urvater producing, the show was shot by award- winning Boston videographer James MacAllister and includes an original music score composed and performed by Paddy Keenan of the Bothy Band.
The 65-minute tape records eight ceremonies, drawn from several traditions, starting with the Yule celebration of the winter solstice.
Highlights include Morris dancing at Beltaine, egg decoration at the spring equinox and the feast of the dead at Samhain.
The production explores how the ceremonies are planned and carried out and how individuals came to embark on their own personal journeys to Paganism.
“It’s the first depiction of us as we really are,” says Hopman, “how we really look, how we really worship, what we really do.”
“Pagans The Wheel of the Pagan Sacred Year” is available from Sawmill River Productions in Amherst.
This article appeared in the Amherst bulletin, December 17th, 1999