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For growing ranks of pagans, October 31 means a lot more than Halloween
A pagan altar constructed for Samhain, the pagan new year, which is October 31.
October 31st, 2011
09:54 AM ET

For growing ranks of pagans, October 31 means a lot more than Halloween

By Susanne Gargiulo, Special to CNN

As pumpkins, witches and faux cobwebs have taken over much of North America for Halloween, Clare Slaney-Davis is preparing an October 31 feast that some would consider much spookier, with table settings for her grandparents, a great-aunt and other relatives who have passed away.

As she and her living guests eat, they'll share stories and memories of loved ones they've lost.

The Christian debate over Halloween

Slaney-Davis, who is based in London, isn't preparing the feast for Halloween. Instead, she and pagans around the world are celebrating Samhain, the beginning of the pagan new year, a night when the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead is believed to be the thinnest of any time during the year.

That's why it's a night devoted to ancestors. "We honor them, and we recognize that we don't live in a world of people who are merely dead or alive," says Slaney-Davis, 46. "Ancestors are central to us."

Along with the Catholic holiday All Saints' Day, Samhain is considered an ancient forerunner of Halloween. Samhain began as a Celtic celebration marking the end of harvest and the beginning of winter's hardship.

Today, pagans play down the Halloween-Samhain connection. But the growing popularity of the pagan new year in Europe and North America is part of what many experts say is a global revival of paganism.

Slaney-Davis, who trained as a witch and a druid, says her religion has nothing to do with ghosts and ghouls. "To me, being a pagan means being in divine balance with nature and being responsible for my actions," she says. "I understand that my behavior has an effect on people I don't even know exist. It is not a theology of perfection but one of belonging."

Over-the-top jack-o'-lanterns

But it is a theology that's gaining ground. According to the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, the number of members of "other religions" or "new religious movements," categories that include pagans, more than doubled between 1990 and 2008, to 2.8 million.

The survey, conducted byTrinity College in Connecticut, reported that the numbers of Wiccans and neo-pagans had also doubled in that time.

Contemporary pagan religions like Wicca and druidism are considered neo-pagan movements.

"(Paganism) is one of the fastest growing religions in the world," says Michael York, a retired religious scholar from Bath Spa University in the UK. "True numbers are impossible to come by because many people are wary to admit they are pagan, and reliable statistics just don't exist."

Movies that scare the people who scare us

While paganism covers a range of individual religious groups, including Wicca, druidism, and shamanism, they're bound by some common denominators, such as roots in ancient, pre-Christian beliefs, and their view of nature and the whole physical world as sacred.

"In traditional religions you have a conflict between God and nature," says York. "But for pagans, nature becomes the truest expression of the divine."

That, he says, is a big reason why paganism is seeing a revival: "If nothing else, because of the impending destruction of our environment, and our focus on finding a way to live in balance with nature."

Another key pagan belief is the freedom for each person to determine his or her own way to and view of the divine. "Paganism doesn't put restrictions on what you can and cannot believe," says Jason Pitzl-Waters, co-founder of the Pagan Newswire Collective and the pagan blog The Wild Hunt. "It grows out of an ethos that there isn't just one sacred way to understand the world."

But that lack of dogma has become something of a stumbling block for the movement. "Because paganism is very individual, it creates the problem of not having a unified voice, because nobody speaks for the movement as a whole," says York.

Another problem pagans face is one of image: For centuries, including during the Roman Catholic inquisition, pagans were denounced as heretics and devil-worshippers.

"One of our greatest challenges is to overcome the hostility of groups that still see us as evil," says Pitzl-Waters. "To some conservative Christian groups, we are an early warning sign of societal collapse."

Just last week, an opinion column in The Christian Post, an online newspaper, warned that the "dark festival" of Samhain is an invitation to the devil. The column said that "even though you don't consciously call upon Satan, his demons are nevertheless present any time a Wiccan goes through a spiritual door by using magic." It calls on Wiccans to ask forgiveness for their sins and to turn to Jesus.

"Part of what is scary for conservative religions is that as a pagan, I consider myself part of the divine," says Holli S. Emore, executive director at South Carolina's Cherry Hill Seminary, which has one of the world's first graduate-level programs for pagan ministry. "That means God lives in me, and that is blasphemous to some. To me, it's a big responsibility to do good and act right."

Scholars say that the neo-pagan view of God being everywhere and in everything is not a foreign idea on the global religious stage. "Much of modern paganism looks to older religions like Shinto, Hinduism and indigenous religions, which see spirit in everything," says Jenny Blain, senior lecturer in sociology at Sheffield Hallam University in England and author of several books on paganism.

"If you add all those to modern paganism, that is a considerable part of the world that does not live with traditional Abrahamic views," she says.

There are signs that paganism is gaining some acceptance in the nonpagan world. For the first time last year, the government of Britain recognized druidism, an ancient pagan belief system, as a religion.

"People either see paganism as dangerous or as a joke," says Pitzl-Waters. "But it is a serious global movement. Paganism has arrived as a world religion. It's not just a bunch of counterculture types playing witchcraft games."

That said, traditional witchcraft rituals, like gathering in circles and uttering spells, have an important place in modern paganism, which further unsettles more traditional religious believers.

"Because Christianity is more conservative, anything seen as supernatural or magic automatically becomes of the devil," says York. "Because of that dichotomy, paganism is automatically seen as satanic."

"People fear what they don't understand," says Emore. "But spells are basically prayers with props. What we call magic is the intentional use of power to achieve change, and just like with prayer, what you are doing is tapping into an inner resource. Gathering in a circle and acknowledging the four elements is nothing new this is something Native Americans and many ancient nature-based religious people did as well."

For neo-pagans, the four elements  earth, air, water and fire  are closely linked to their view of a sacred planet. "The attributes associated with each element become tools in our meditation and in practices such as spells," says Emore. "Water is associated with emotions and intuition, air with intellect and communications, earth with foundation and stability, and fire with passion and action."

To York, paganism's ancient rituals also help bring a sense of enchantment back into life.

"The ancients had a sense of the magical, but with Christianity came a diminishment," he says. "The magical was denied, everything became inanimate, and from a pagan perspective we lost our connection with the sacred. I think we are rediscovering that now."

"Pagans understand there comes a winter, which is a time to ready for rebirth," York says. "For us, the last 2000 years has been the pagan winter."

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Halloween • Paganism • Uncategorized

soundoff (1,367 Responses)
  1. Johnny 5

    Christians debate over everything.

    October 31, 2011 at 11:50 am |
    • clay

      because it's necessary. The Bible is over a thousand pages long, and it doesn't include the forgotten books. it takes forever to work out everything...

      October 31, 2011 at 11:57 am |
    • Phillip McGill

      Odd, I see all manner of beliefs debating here. Why the finger pointing?

      October 31, 2011 at 11:22 pm |
  2. LizardBreath

    I had a boyfriend once that used to introduce me as "my girlfriend, the Witch". I told him if he didn't stop, then I'd start introducing him as "my boyfriend, the Excommunicated Jehovah's Witness." And folks wonder why we keep our Beliefs to ourselves...*sigh*

    October 31, 2011 at 11:45 am |
    • Anonynony

      Sounds dysfunctional. :\

      October 31, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
  3. Rainer Braendlein

    http://www.formerthings.com/throneofsatan.htm

    October 31, 2011 at 11:43 am |
  4. Downafewpegs

    Paganism is for D&D dorks and cat ladies.

    October 31, 2011 at 11:43 am |
    • Lokari

      Another perspective – Christianity is for mindless sheep.

      October 31, 2011 at 11:56 am |
  5. bachmanntwit

    Bachmann 42 1/2 : 198

    October 31, 2011 at 11:42 am |
  6. Bizarre

    Of all the lovely harvest fruits and vegetables, they chose fugly beets as an altar decoration??? Ugh! (sorry, Dwight)

    Oh well, I guess if they are going to sacrifice and burn them, it'd be ok.

    (p.s. I won't even mention the "oh, no, Mr. Bill figure)

    October 31, 2011 at 11:39 am |
    • Kim

      Those are turnips, you idiot. It's a fall crop, appropriate for the holiday, just as much as squashes are.

      October 31, 2011 at 11:50 am |
    • Bizarre

      Ah, beauteous turnips it is, then...

      October 31, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
    • Christina

      Turnips would be more historically accurate with the history of Halloween from the Celtic tradition. It all goes back to when Jack was tossed out of Hell....

      http://www.history.com/topics/jack-olantern-history

      October 31, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
    • Clark Nova

      Jack-o-lanterns used to be carved out of mangelwurtzels, also known as horse turnips, instead of pumpkins.

      October 31, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
  7. theoldadam

    I'm a Christian who loves Halloween!

    Lot's of fun...especially for kids!

    Then...back to the real stuff, the next day...

    http://lcmarchives.wordpress.com

    .

    October 31, 2011 at 11:39 am |
    • Tony

      For you, it is just back to a different fiction.

      October 31, 2011 at 11:42 am |
  8. hippypoet

    "To understand the living, you got to commune with the dead."

    October 31, 2011 at 11:39 am |
    • LizardBreath

      "Don't commune so long with the Dead, that you forget to LIVE." ;)

      October 31, 2011 at 11:46 am |
    • hippypoet

      love that movie....." If you're thirsty, a drink will cure it, if you're not, a drink will prevent it. Prevention is better than a cure."

      October 31, 2011 at 11:48 am |
  9. amandawhiting

    As a Wiccan I celebrate Sahmain in which I honor my mothers parents who were Southern Baptist, a catholic grandfather, my grandfather, aunts, uncles, friends all those who have passed before me and I give my pets an extra specail treat as they are the gaurdians. Yes my family is Christian but they love the fact that I honor my ancestors even if it is in a different way it allows Halloween and Sahmain to I say this because my boyfriend is Lutheran so we have a variety of beliefs in our home.

    October 31, 2011 at 11:37 am |
    • CJ in Victoria CAN

      Thank you for telling everyone what the true name of Halloween is! Samhain is the celebration of the ancestor sprits and so it should be! This is how I shall celebrate it tonight! Kids coming to the door will be greeted with candy as well!

      October 31, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
  10. NOo..oON

    As a neo-pagan, I believe only new things have spirits.

    October 31, 2011 at 11:36 am |
  11. happy13

    BLESSED BE! And Happy Samhain, everybody!

    October 31, 2011 at 11:34 am |
    • amandawhiting

      Blessed be and Happy Sahmain to you as well

      October 31, 2011 at 11:40 am |
    • Laurie

      Back at ya, happy13!!!! Blessed Be to you too!

      October 31, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
  12. Reality

    Mocking Wicca and Paganism?

    Spells, curses, covens, black magic, witches, voodooing dolls, hoodooing the results, shadow books, maypoles,
    horned god(s) and triple goddess(es), Gerald Gardner et al??

    Never!!!!

    October 31, 2011 at 11:34 am |
  13. Jimmy

    John 3:16

    October 31, 2011 at 11:32 am |
    • JT

      Psalm 137:9

      October 31, 2011 at 11:37 am |
    • Bob

      Bob 1:11

      October 31, 2011 at 11:37 am |
    • Tony

      Jill 7:47

      See. I can play too, with useless references to books of fiction and fictional books.

      October 31, 2011 at 11:39 am |
    • bachmanntwit

      Bachmann 42 1/2 : 188

      October 31, 2011 at 11:43 am |
    • hippypoet

      the book of herb – 4:20

      October 31, 2011 at 11:45 am |
    • Everything in Moderation

      264.1 of the Criminal Code of Canada

      October 31, 2011 at 11:53 am |
    • myweightinwords

      Ralph 18:21

      October 31, 2011 at 11:55 am |
    • crazypete

      I like jimmy johns, especially their Italian sub. I think it is more than $3.16 though...

      October 31, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
  14. Alan Rudnick

    Should Christians Celebrate Halloween? http://onthebema.com/2011/10/31/should-christians-celebrate-halloween/ Find out why Sponge Bob helps us discover what the real evils of the world are.

    October 31, 2011 at 11:32 am |
  15. FunniestCartoonCom

    Pagans are at least better than those Christians. Christians – Most hypocritical group of people you could ever meet.

    October 31, 2011 at 11:32 am |
    • Calvin

      Sure, uh huh,

      October 31, 2011 at 11:40 am |
    • Downafewpegs

      All pagan broads are fat. All pagan guys are gamer Dorks. They're the same people who like to dress up for those Renaissance fairs – the chronically socially maladept.

      October 31, 2011 at 11:45 am |
    • Erica

      actually Down, having worked at a renaissance fair, I can say with fair accuracy that most of those who show up tend to be self-proclaimed Christians. Some of the best re-enacters I have ever seen were quite devout Christians.

      Do try a different 'insult' please.

      October 31, 2011 at 11:46 am |
    • myweightinwords

      You keep thinking that downafewpegs. I'll keep all the Pagan hotties for me, okay?

      Especially the ones who like to show up in really skimpy costumes or celebrate ritual skyclad. Being Bi, Polyamorous and Pagan? I may be a fat chick, but I'll tell you I get more in a single weekend than judgmental folk like you get in a year.

      October 31, 2011 at 11:58 am |
  16. Plug1

    Christians, should research things before they bind follow icluding your religion.

    October 31, 2011 at 11:31 am |
    • Reggie

      i knowingly celebrated it knowing what it was. I'm a catechumen looking to convert to orthodox christianity.

      October 31, 2011 at 11:45 am |
    • Downafewpegs

      ...and you should proofread your writing before you post it. That was English in only the most casual sense.

      October 31, 2011 at 11:46 am |
    • Reggie

      it's a very informal forum; proper english is required

      October 31, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
    • Reggie

      *isn't...lol

      October 31, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
    • Phillip McGill

      Yeah, like the spelling of "including"

      October 31, 2011 at 11:27 pm |
  17. Andrew

    The traditions of Halloween as performed by the masses are vestiges of a thoroughly pagan past. Just another example of how Roman Catholicism absorbs non-Christian and downright un-Christian pagan rituals in order to gain "converts". If you "Trick or Treat", you ARE a pagan already!

    October 31, 2011 at 11:30 am |
    • sockpuppet

      haha that's funny....so if you call out "Jesus christ!" when you stub your toe, does that make you a christian?

      October 31, 2011 at 11:32 am |
    • Reggie

      disagree. it's like non christians or non-practicing christians who go to an orthodox church. just because they go to church, doesn't mean they're going to church. you have to do a lot of other things to absorb the full experience of the orthodox church. the whole anti-paganism thing from the way i was told has to do with individualism. individualsim is what breaks up a relationship with Jesus Christ. Halloween is also an enabler to masking your true self. I don't totally understand or sympathize with that viewpoint as, but I do understand just because it's good, doesn't make it a good work. There are probably many good things about Paganism, but if we a christian fully believes in Jesus Christ, it does little to reinforce that relationship wtih Jesus Christ by partaking in other religious festivities...that's like a Christian celebrating Hanukah...just no need.

      October 31, 2011 at 11:42 am |
    • NickB5

      Christmas and Easter too for that mater.

      October 31, 2011 at 11:50 am |
    • Reggie

      y'know that happened over time...Christians came into lands that had people who happened to be Pagan...in order to communicate with the Pagans they related it to ways of Jesus Christ...and the old church doesn't use the word Easter or Christmas...we call it Pasca and Nativity

      October 31, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
    • Reggie

      Nativity is a fixed feast...we actually celebrate it on January 7 but commemorate the birth on Dec 25th which is a fixed feast...Pasca or literally "The Passover" is celebrated based on the last fullmoon after Passover on the Julian calendar.

      October 31, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
    • Andrew

      It's more accurate for me to say that, over time Christians absorbed many non-Christian religious rituals and practices. It would begin with a nation or group of people who refused to give up their old beliefs, the Church would eventually give up trying to get them to reject their old religious rituals, try to put a superficial Christian face on them and soon the "FUN" practice would spread to Christian populations far & wide. The early Roman feast and rituals of Dec. 25th for example which were connected with Sun worship were quite different from what we see connected with modern day "Christmas", but they were things that the Roman people were unwilling to give up after being, basically coerced into becoming so-called Christians. Later more non-sense was thrown into the mix in the form of Santa Claus and the whole "Lives at the North Pole and delivers gifts by reindeer drawn sleigh"

      The point is that the meaning of the word "Christian" is 'one who follows in the footsteps of Christ or patterns his life after him'. How can you imitate somebody you don't know? The only way to know Christ is through the Bible. Of course many people call into question the accuracy, authenticity etc. of the Bible and suggest that there's no real way to confirm anything so just go ahead and do whatever suits your fancy as lone as it doesn't hurt anybody else. It has gradually formed into a gigantic web of philosophies and lies which enable the acquisition of a common goal, which is to elevate one's self above God and do whatever one pleases.

      October 31, 2011 at 11:46 pm |
  18. MumsToo

    Oh come on... everyone knows that Pagans are a bunch people who like to dress up in long robes and pointy hats, light candles, chant, eat flesh and drink blood. Oh, wait... that's Catholics.

    October 31, 2011 at 11:29 am |
    • Tony

      Good one. Too funny Mum, and true.

      October 31, 2011 at 11:40 am |
  19. Devara

    I used to commune with the dead. Then I wised up and divorced him! LOL

    October 31, 2011 at 11:27 am |
    • mom of one Jax

      LOL! Been there done that too!

      October 31, 2011 at 11:44 am |
  20. Roscoe Chait

    I once had to deal with a pagan/Wiccan high priestess. Although I have no preconceived ideas one way or another about pagans, this witch was the most evil creature I've ever encountered. She did everything she could to deceive and manipulate others and destroy people's reputations and lives. She has her own coven and I can only imagine what she teaches her sisters. I doubt that this is what a high priestess is supposed to be like, but, like Christians or anybody else, there can be a bad seed. Unfortunately, after this experience, I approach all pagans and Wiccans with a degree of caution.

    October 31, 2011 at 11:25 am |
    • phoodphite

      Ann Coulter?

      October 31, 2011 at 11:33 am |
    • reptile

      Maggie Gallagher?

      October 31, 2011 at 11:41 am |
    • Tony

      phunny.

      October 31, 2011 at 11:41 am |
    • Shortercake

      Yes. That is always a wise thing to do, judge an entire group of people by the bad seed you encountered. Imagine if we did that with all belief systems.

      October 31, 2011 at 11:41 am |
    • Erica

      Pagans are just as likely to have their jerks as any other faith. Ours just tend to not be as visible as, say, Pat Robertson. Thank the gods.

      October 31, 2011 at 11:42 am |
    • amandawhiting

      Yes there are some bad apples in the Pagan faith they are the ones who give us a bad name but I can say that we are cautioned to distance ourselves from those who would act as the priestess you described and that if she does continue down that path then the Wiccan Rede states and it will happen that her actions will come back on to her threefold.

      October 31, 2011 at 11:42 am |
    • emma65

      This person is as much a real Wiccan as a suicide bomber is a real Muslim: Wiccans believe that 'as ye sow, so shall ye reap', basically that how they behave creates the kind of world they live in therefore doing evil contributes to creating an evil world, which they have to live in. This person is creating 'bad karma' that will only come back to her.

      October 31, 2011 at 11:58 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.