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."

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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."

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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. Joe

    Ummm... Christmas is a pagan holiday, too! I'm always blown away about how little the typical Christian knows about their stupid religion. Practically every "religious" holiday we celebrate originated from paganism. Hell, nearly all of the crap you find in bibles, the Koran, etc comes from pagan practices and ideology. It was because of that very reason that pagans were practically wiped off the planet. Paganism is the religion that nearly all religions branched out. It's the common denominator.

    October 31, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
    • barbara o

      A lot of what you say is true. But Christians will be the last to admit this. Won't even get into a conversation of Christianity's very own Queen of Heaven, Mary herself ... (smile)

      October 31, 2011 at 1:44 pm |
    • heresy

      they just stole them all to make the forced conversion easier. cant have a religion if you kill all your followers for not participating.

      October 31, 2011 at 2:09 pm |
    • Matthew

      Some of us do know our faith and it is beyond religion. Our faith comes from a higher source-named Jesus Christ! God will not have mercy on you paegans.But I pray for all your souls in the name of Jesus Christ. May you find him now. Amen

      October 31, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
  2. heresy

    i think its good they did an article on this..there are some that will always feel they need to convert us . i feel sorry for those. our "souls" shouldnt be any concern of theirs. we are not harming them in any way by existing.

    October 31, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
  3. Dave

    I have read the bible I was not impressed. As for the crap about it being literally infallible yeah right what a crock.

    October 31, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
  4. Starpath

    A request to the Editors

    If you're going to give Paganism treatment as a religious tradition, please do it the respect that you give Islam and Christianity and capitalize the "P".


    Your Local Grammar Nazi.

    (Also? Blessed Samhain to all those who mark it.)

    October 31, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
    • Tom Cruise

      Paganism being a pretty vast and diverse umbrella, the lower case is appropriate, as it is with monotheism. If it were a specific branch or family, say Wicca or Zoroastrianism, then it would be capitalized.

      October 31, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
  5. atroy

    Pagans and Christians are just alike.....they'll fall for any old fairy tale.

    October 31, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
    • Eugene

      Did you read or study history and the Bible? If not! That show you how ignorant you are.

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

      @atroy... I wish there was a like button on here! lol

      October 31, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
    • guest

      I really and truely do pity you and will pray for you

      October 31, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
  6. CNYWitch

    Waycist...in ancient Ireland they carved turnips and not pumpkins...to keep the evil spirits from enhabiting the children...thinking the spirits would inhabit the turnips instead. Strange, but true.

    October 31, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
  7. Martin Goff

    Makes sense to me. We are connected with nature and we constantly try and deny this in ourselves. The fear that others have is based on their ignorance, they would rather give their power to a church leader and be content being sheeple.

    October 31, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
  8. waycist

    What do turnips have to do with any of this nonsense?

    October 31, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
  9. CNYWitch

    Merry meet DarkFeary..blessed Samhain to you and yours. )O(

    October 31, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
  10. love you all

    Lord, we know your're the ony God to be worhip. I praise your Name!!

    October 31, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
    • Duh

      Which Lord?

      October 31, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Eenie meenie miney.... Quetzalcoatl!

      October 31, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
    • CNYWitch

      Lord = flying spaghetti monster! Hail all Pastafarians.

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

      The God of Isreal!

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

      Yes PRAISE ZEUS! The allah, zombie jesus and yahweh worshipers are all heathens and will rot in the pits of tartarus

      October 31, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
    • Billo

      I would love to know the name of your god.

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

      Yes! Thank you

      October 31, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
  11. humtake

    I'm not sure why they single out Christianity. ALL religions are against every other religion. It isn't just one.

    October 31, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
    • Logic

      that's not true at all

      only christianity and islam have vast histories of slaughtering others in the name of their religion

      the greeks and romans didn't fight over religion they fought over land, until the christians came and tried to convert them, then they had to fight over religion

      the crusades – a centuries long war fought to convert muslims to christianity

      and lets not forget the largest genocide in history – the murder of over 140 million native americans in the name of divine mandate, and subsequently the slave trade

      christianity and islam are really the only ones with histories like this. Judiaism somewhat but all recollections are from the bible which as we can see is not a very accurate historical account. But if you actually believe that silly fairy tale judaism has some violent history, but still nothing compared to christianity

      overall christianity has killed more people in the name of it's religion than any other religion.

      October 31, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
    • Logic

      So the real key here is monotheism. Polytheistic religions around the world (which are most religions) for the most part do not have a history of forced conversion. Nor do they send out people to infiltrate populations like sneaky christians do with their missionaries (hey we'll go send a few "doctors" your way but you have to convert to our zombie god's religion first)

      October 31, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Hey! Give other religions some credit!
      In 1487, the Aztecs reported that they sacrificed about 80,400 prisoners over the course of four days.
      That's a lot of still beating hearts torn from enemy chests and offerred to the Gods.

      October 31, 2011 at 1:44 pm |
  12. Andrew

    "Christians" do it all the time. They call it praying and it's based on pagan ritual. Then, they claim to talk, personally, to God and get to do what they want. It's a sham.

    October 31, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
  13. OneWayMinistry

    "The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men and women who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities–His eternal power and divine nautre–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified Him as God nor gave thanks to Him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like His creation (Romans 1:18-23 NIV).

    October 31, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
    • Matt

      Paganism and Atheism are 2 different things... Like for me... I am an atheist and I have never been happier 🙂

      October 31, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
    • FollowIAM

      @oneway, Amen brother glad to see someone in the light

      October 31, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
    • Huh

      That sounds like something they would read before the christians burned people for being witches....even though their god had stated do not kill. LOL! Funny thing is not all of them were witches. 😉

      October 31, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
    • Jules Winnfield

      "The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who in the name of charity and goodwill shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother's keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will KNOW my name is the LORD when I lay my vengeance upon thee!"
      – Ezekiel 25:17 (QTV)

      October 31, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
    • Huh

      "and you will KNOW my name is the LORD when I lay my vengeance upon thee"

      The sky is falling --the sky is falling....your god is nothing more than a tyrant!

      October 31, 2011 at 1:55 pm |
    • Obviously

      I love people who speak Gods word while using it to judge... No irony there....

      October 31, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
    • heresy

      @Jules Pulp Fiction 🙂 1st and only place i ever read/heard that

      October 31, 2011 at 2:01 pm |
  14. Bob

    This is no less valid than Christians communing with their Imaginary Friend.

    October 31, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
    • Matt


      October 31, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
  15. Esu Miwa

    The Honoring of the Ancestors is as old as humanity. ROmans had Larariums, Sabaeans have Eggun ceremonies, and on and on. Only monotheistics religions have lost the honoring of the ancestors. " On the shoulders of the ancestors, we stand."

    October 31, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
  16. truth

    I would rather have these people running the country than Mormons and Catholics who molest children. Mormons and Catholics would increase our debt a ridiculous amount by paying off families of all the children they've molested.

    October 31, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
  17. palintwit

    Autographed copies of Sarah Palins famous "crosshairs" poster were on sale the other day at Walmart gun and knife departments. Christian teabaggers were buying them up like crazy.

    October 31, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
  18. Matt

    There is no god... So stop worrying and enjoy life 🙂

    October 31, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
  19. Mohammad

    Allah Akbar! There is only one true God and LORD of man! the LORD of Abraham, Ishmael, and Issac.
    Destruction and hellfire await the People of the Book who will not honor the covenant (supernatural contract) of El Shaddai . No idolatry- period! Paganism (idolatry) always devalues human life and leads to human sacrifice (abortion). It is written (EX 22:17,LEV 18:21, Du 13:13) that destruction and doom will come to nations that practice paganism. Apostasy is fatal.
    Islam is knocking on your front door-wake up! Time to repent America and Europe.
    Holy Quran Surah 9:5
    "And when the sacred months have passed, then kill the polytheists wherever you find them and capture them and besiege them and sit in wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they should repent, establish prayer, and give zakah, let them [go] on their way. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful."

    BTW- Muslims have all the oil-so we get all your money, over $1 billion USD per day! The west is dying . Muslims have 8.5 children per family. Muslims will own this planet in 100 years. Keep on killing your children and buying pet food, kafir.
    Allah Akbar! Alhamdudela! Inshaalah!

    October 31, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
    • Soldat45

      I miss the day when trolls were just trolls. Now you have Arabic trolls, Christian Trolls, Nazi Trolls, White Power Trolls, etc...

      October 31, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
    • Rainer Braendlein

      Another proof that Islam means backwardness.

      October 31, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
    • Logic

      1. no muslims don't get the money. OPEC and the major gas companies drain your land and the leaders let them, THEY get paid for it. No citizen of any arab nation sees a dime of it

      2. Allah isn't real, mohammed isn't real, the quran isn't real, it's a fairy tale

      3. Muslims have 8.5 children per family – they overpopulate and this is why most arab nations are poor. They overpopulate and can't afford to sustain their own families. This is why the middle east will never leave the third world

      October 31, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
    • humtake

      Muslims have killed more Muslims than any other religion throughout history. Time to stop worrying about other organized religions and worry about yourselves...

      October 31, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
    • Normon

      Do not anger the Troll God. Trollites have as much right to this blog as anyone. Don't be prejudice just because their beliefs require them to disrupt as many blogs as possible and to spread the good non-sequitor to all the netizens of the world.

      October 31, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
    • Bill

      You say that Paganism and worship of idols devalues human life, yet you end your rant worshipping the material gains of oil anyways. And speaking of human sacrifice, I believe we've seen recent examples that the Muslims of the world are not immune from those extremists amongst them that would so readily sacrifice a human life. Words of hate and threats may win temporary complacency but only principles founded on love, compassion, and tolerance will earn lasting respect and admiration. This is true across all races, nationalities, and faiths.

      October 31, 2011 at 1:44 pm |
    • Bill


      October 31, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
    • Miki Dora

      @Mohammad – thankyou for providing further proof of your murderous Islamist agenda: "And when the sacred months have passed, then kill the polytheists wherever you find them and capture them and besiege them and sit in wait for them at every place of ambush..."
      Now you listen to me you backwards, cave dwelling, dirty bearded maniac; your oil is due to run out soon and when it does, the US and Europe will still have its nukes so come get some. Further, when your anti-semetic, anti-Christian brothers cease their hypocritical spending of our western cash and your hot Kuwaiti and Saudi women stop hoaring themselves to us westerners everytime they take trips to Bahrain without their slave-master 13th century husbands in tow – then maybe you can pass judgement on us. BTW....the pets that we buy our pet food for have far more intrinsic value then any of the 8.5 (soon to be dead terrorists) 'children" that are supposedly born every day in that rancid hole you call the Middle East. Glad I did my part to slap your inferior colleagues around during my tour. Jesus rules (your Allah sucks).

      October 31, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
    • Jules Winnfield

      "The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who in the name of charity and goodwill shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother's keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will KNOW my name is the LORD when I lay my vengeance upon thee!"
      – Ezekiel 25:17 (QTV)

      October 31, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
  20. pumpkin head

    so I'm confused. i should or should not carve jesus' face into my giant pumpkin? since he was a carpenter, i'm guessing he'd find it amusing.

    October 31, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
    • Logic

      it's funny that christians follow halloween at all since it is in fact a holiday rooted in paeganism

      October 31, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
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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.