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. Bill

    Move over paganism and Christianity, the Church of Science is going to take top billing. They already have a large blinkd following in their Global Warming sect.

    October 31, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
    • Matt

      HAHAHAHAHAHA! Global warming exists whether you 'believe' in science or not... You're just ignorant...

      October 31, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
    • Bill

      Sure it does, Matt. Because some people calling themselves scientists say so.

      They appreciate your faith.

      October 31, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
    • Nonimus

      Science is not a religion and has no church, but I'm guessing you know that already.
      However, where religion and science disagree, religion should "move over," because it will always win, eventually. Just ask the Catholic church about Galileo and Copernicus.

      October 31, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
    • Logic

      science doesn't need faith. Science operates on evidence.

      Faith is the exact opposite of science, it's belief without evidence

      There is plenty of evidence of global warming and climate change – we have massive databases kept globally by independent sources of temperature data throughout history, and we have ways of measuring average temperatures from prehistorical times as well using some more complex methods. In addition we can see carbon content of the atmosphere in prehistorical times using glacial ice and rock samples combined with radiometric isotope dating methods

      Further we see glaciers melting, mountains that once had snow have turned to mud, the average temperature continues to rise annually, and we also can see more frequent powerful storms like hurricanes occurring in non-tropical areas due to warming of the waters (for instance new york may be hit by a cat 5 hurricane as waters continue to warm)

      we also see an overall rise in oceam level from glaciers melting

      faith would be saying "i belive this because someone told me so"

      I believe this because I have read dozens of papers on the subject. Do a quick pubmed search on global warming data and you can read a few hundred peer reviewed scientific articles clearly displaying their raw data and results for you to see. If you disagree you can tell me which paper and which data set you disagree with and why, but since you're likely at the education level of not even a GED I'd assume you haven't read any

      October 31, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
  2. Darkfeary474

    )O( Blessed Be and a VERY BLESSSED SAMHAIN TO ALL!!!!!!!!!!! )O(

    October 31, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
    • Thor

      May your days be filled with joy, happiness, pleasure, and the peace that you want. I love you!

      October 31, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
    • Quid Malborg in Plano TX



      October 31, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
  3. paganguy

    The true New Year's Day is December 21.
    I'd rather have a conversation with a bird or a coyote or a tree than dogmatic Christian. I don't need false idols to be decent.
    Every Judo-Christian and Muslim religion was created by self-proclaimed men full of themselves. Pied pipiers.

    October 31, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
    • gravis

      Be a good Christian. Put your money in the plate and keep your mouth shut.

      October 31, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
    • Nah

      pagan: "I'd rather have a conversation with a bird or a coyote or a tree than dogmatic Christian. I don't need false idols to be decent.
      Every Judo-Christian and Muslim religion was created by self-proclaimed men full of themselves. Pied pipiers."

      Dogmatic christians, false idols, and self-proclaimed men full of themselves?

      This was meant to be ironic, no?

      October 31, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
    • Quid Malborg in Plano TX

      You mean March 15.

      October 31, 2011 at 4:13 pm |
  4. gravis

    I'm not really up-to-date on Christian mythology, but I would like to know more about Sarah Palin's burning bush

    October 31, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
    • palintwit

      Bristol's going out tonight as a giant buttplug.

      October 31, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
  5. God you are good

    Thank you God, for your son Yeshuyah!!!

    October 31, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
    • ChihuahuaPirate

      Your god's son got here as part of a "virgin" birth, which is supernatural. So don't think your beliefs are better than those of pagans.

      October 31, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
    • Thor

      I know they are just as hard to believe in...!

      October 31, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
  6. Rainer Braendlein

    The German chancellor Angela Merkel has here flat in Berlin exactly opposite to the Throne of Satan (Pergamon Museum in Berlin). Why actually?

    Throne of Satan (now located in Berlin/Germany, opposite of Angela Merkels flat)

    Revelation 2:12-13: "Pergamos, where Satan's Throne is"


    The Pergamon Altar is a massive structure originally built in the 2nd century BC in the Ancient Greek city of Pergamon (today Bergama in Turkey). The temple was dedicated to the greek god Zeus. The Pergamon Altar was shipped out of the Ottoman Empire from the original excavation site by the German archeological team lead by Carl Humann, and reconstructed in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin in the 19th century, where it can be seen alongside other monumental structures such as the Ishtar Gate from Babylon.

    "Since the deified Augustus had not opposed the founding at Pergamus a temple to himself and the city of Rome." – Tacitus Annals Roman Historian

    October 31, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
    • Andrew

      wait, are you saying Zeus is in fact satan?

      October 31, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
    • Red

      We all saw this post the first 50 times, Rainer.

      October 31, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
    • Rainer Braendlein


      Zeus was the hightest God of the pagan Greeks (the Romans called him Jupiter). The Bible designates Satan as the prince of the darkness or Lord of the demons.

      Thus, it is logical that Zeus must be Satan. The hightest demonical leader was called Zeus by the pagans and is called Satan by the Bible.

      October 31, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
    • Thor

      Really? Do you think she will go to dinner with me even though I'm not Satanic?

      October 31, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
  7. hippypoet

    cnn needs more aticles that center around other beliefs like this one... that way they would totally make it more like the t!tle it has – religion blog – instead of what it seems like – christian blog – which is silly being jesus has his own facebook page, go talk there!

    October 31, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • pat carr

      agreed. i'm tired of this section being almost nearly always devoted to xianity

      October 31, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
    • Horvath

      @hippy That's great. So everyone else can share their beliefs, but not Christians? Imagine that, a double standard.

      October 31, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
  8. Red

    Whoa, whoa, whoa, speaking of zombies, The Walking Dead is starting up its own commentary on faith lately as well...right alongside Big Bang Theory and Dexter. #FallProgramming

    October 31, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
  9. gravis

    I believe in the great pumpkin. So I suppose I'm pagan

    October 31, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • ChihuahuaPirate

      Me too, and the Great Pumpkin is surely going to choose my pumpkin patch because it is indeed the most sincere pumpkin patch on the planet.

      October 31, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
  10. Derrik

    Personally I think all religion is non-sense. But, I've grown up with pagans and christians. Funny thing is, several of the christians in my family won't even talk to me any more because I'm NOT a christian. I've get more crap from christians that just can't seem to processes that I don't believe in anything for some reason. I've NEVER had one issue with a pagan, ever.

    October 31, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • pat carr

      how true. as an ex-christian i can tell you all my problems where with christianity

      October 31, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
    • Red

      Well, that's part of the problem that every CNN Belife Blog commentary has: Someone has a bad experience with one party or another and they generalize. Generalizing is great if you're trying to pull statistics for what stocks you wanna buy, but when you generalize with something like religion, conclusions often border on the non-sequitur and uninviting for discussion...

      October 31, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
  11. Shovel Ready

    Why aren't all you Athiest protesting and trying to keep Halloween out of our schools, after all its a religous holiday? Or is it that you just really just want to ban all so called Christan holidays?

    October 31, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
    • CW

      Awww... You need a hug.

      October 31, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
    • cykill

      i never said to ban any holidays....and i'm prob. what you in your narrow minded view consider an athiest. i'm all for christmas, hell i'm even for easter...try not to paint everyone with your 8ft wide christian paint brush,ok

      October 31, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
    • pat carr

      I'll be satisfied banning christian holidays first, yes!

      October 31, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
    • Derrik

      I'm not apposed to Christmas. As long as there is no christ stuff involved. Santa Claws is fine. Trees are fine. Presents are fine. Halloween is no different. If the schools started having seances and casting spells, I might have a problem with it. As long as it's just dressing up in a costume and eating some candy, I don't see any problem.

      October 31, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
    • Andrew

      I have no problem with "Christian" holidays, but you really don't find very many of them. Christmas is incredibly pagan in origin, and Jesus, if we take the bible at its word, could not have been born in December. Christmas was moved to December just to coincide with already present Winter Solstice festivals.

      Easter is fairly Christian, but most people recognize it for the eggs, which incidentally also have pagan roots when looking at the egg as a symbol for resurrection.

      Quit playing the martyr, no one is trying to make any Christian holidays illegal. This "war on ___ (Insert Christian tradition)" is entire bunk. At best, you'd be able to argue 'well, atheists wouldn't like the idea of forcing kids to do a christian school play', but I'd imagine you'd have just as much trouble with a school forcing kids to do a hindu based school play.

      October 31, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
    • Thor

      Hey the whole Yuletide season greetings thing is really cool and starts today! Celebrating the harvest, and ending with the Middle Eastern Terrorists bringing gold, incense, and myrrh for a baby to worship (wow whatever did Mary and Joseph do with the gold... could have paid a lot of Roman's taxes back then with that!..... maybe even start a church following!) Let's just wait until that Christmas day to arrive so that little children can worship that tree thing on their knees while they tear into pretty boxes with their greedy little hands. Gotta keep teaching that greed thing no matter what season! Trick or Treat? Dear Santa Claus ... I want a.....?

      October 31, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
  12. Steven

    Considering that is a pagan holiday, the christians just need to shut up and quit being stupid, christians take other religions celebrations and twist them around then want to claim them as their own. F.Y.I. Christmas, Easter and new years all Pagan holidays that christians have taken over.

    October 31, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
    • Thor

      Actually.... it's a combination of various religious beliefs.... "christians" included......

      October 31, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
    • Duh

      ""christians" included."

      Which one?

      October 31, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
  13. Sean

    Thank you CNN for sharing this report on our Highest of Days! I expect nothing but ignorant remarks from most of the Christians reading.. as they don't realize the magickal arts they practice on a daily basis. Happy Samhain everyone!

    October 31, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
    • Jake

      Why do you have to spell "magic" wrong all the time? It doesn't make you sound any more mysterious.

      October 31, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
    • Stephanie

      Magick with a k is to differentiate it from stage magic. Magick is rituals and spells, magic is David Copperfield.

      October 31, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
    • 808Guest

      Stephanie, I would just like to say thank you for being one of the few people to know and explain the difference in Magick and magic.

      October 31, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
  14. KAS

    I find it funny that Christians like to equate paganism or wicca, or anything remotely resembling the two, to satanism. To wit:

    "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."

    Yet these same folks have no problem worshiping a zombie.

    Kettle, pot. Pot, kettle.

    October 31, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
    • EdgarX

      Excellent point !!

      October 31, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
  15. Red

    "A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men" – Willy Wonka, 1971

    October 31, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
  16. Mit43

    How ridiculous. People are so gullible these days. By the way, there is no such things as vampires, werewolves, or Zombies either.....

    October 31, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Except, of course, for the Easter Zombie

      October 31, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
  17. joe


    October 31, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
  18. Rainer Braendlein



    October 31, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
  19. CrownRoyal

    LOoLOL as long as it's not a Christian in the article, CNN manages to write a "inspiring" or "pretty" article about it. ROFL

    October 31, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
  20. Steven

    Blessed Be.

    October 31, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16
About this blog

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.