Pagan Pride Day to offer Utahns a peek at low-key but growing community
They wear multicolored robes in a highly choreographed ritual. They read from sacred texts. They sing their praise, chant their truths and hoist their hands to the sky. They kneel before heaven's mystery.
Though their worship includes elements from early Christianity, these practitioners are not Christians. They are pagans.
And they are part of a growing body of believers who have moved away from monotheistic faiths such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam into the wide world of syncretic spirituality.
More than a million Americans now practice some form of Wicca, or traditional witchcraft, Ceremonial Magick, Hermeticism, Shamanism, Asatru (German/Nordic religion), African religion such as Voodoo, according to patheos.com, a multifaith website.
Unfortunately, modern pagans often are quiet about their beliefs, fearing ridicule or, worse, outright discrimination.
"It isn't usually the most blatant bashing," says Russell Erwin, a member of the Ordo Templi Orientis that meets once a month at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Salt Lake City. "You just won't get called back for a job or people don't want to talk to you because they think you're crazy."
Such avoidance is a "big mistake," says Erwin, acting as a spokesman for the state's pagans. "We all have a lot to learn from each other."
And so Utah's burgeoning pagan community is doing what other groups do to oppose bigotry and bring their faith into the open. It is sponsoring the ninth annual Salt Lake City Pagan Pride Day on Sept. 11 at Murray Park.
The day will begin with an opening ceremony and group rituals. Participants then can explore different avenues of paganism displayed in various booths.
The event will provide a "fascinating and edifying experience," Erwin says, "especially for those who are specifically interested in these various faith traditions, or in the field of comparative religion."
Paganism refers to beliefs and practices that "are magical, polytheistic and/or animistic, and often anchored in agricultural or fertility rituals," Carl McColman writes in a recent essay at patheos.com.
Paganism is simultaneously a prehistoric and postmodern religion, McColman writes, that encompasses two key characteristics religious and spiritual practices concerning the worship of, or devotion to, the Earth, the natural world, and/or the manifest physical universe; and/or belief in spiritual beings: goddesses, gods, nature spirits (fairies, elves, power animals) and ancestral spirits.
The word "pagan" originally derived from ancient Rome and referred to a country dweller who wasn't up on the latest customs and conventions in Rome, including religious conventions, according to the event's organizers.
Early Christians who worshipped their own deity instead of Jupiter (and others) may well have been called "pagans" in ancient Rome along with others who didn't pay homage to the official gods of the big city.
Just as early Christians were demonized as baby eaters by Roman polytheists, organizers write in their history, so later-day polytheists of older traditions likewise were slandered by Medieval European Christians: using precisely the same descriptions before they were persecuted during classical Christian domination.
Erwin is fascinated by this history of pagan faiths, the groups that emerged and how they practiced their beliefs.
"Some of them I practice, but mostly I just study them," says Erwin, who has about 2,000 books on magic.
The Salt Lake City landscape artist was reared as a Christian in Texas and then lived in New York before moving to Utah a few years ago. Here he joined the Unitarian Universalist Church in Salt Lake City and still enjoys many of their services.
But Erwin also has become involved with Ordo Gnostic Templar, or the Order of Oriental Templars, or Order of the Temple of the East. According to its website, the group is dedicated to "securing the liberty of the individual and his or her advancement in light, wisdom, understanding, knowledge and power through beauty, courage and wit, on the foundation of universal brotherhood."
Like other pagan practices, Erwin says, the order combines elements from Judaic Kabbalah, Islamic Sufism or Christian Gnosticism.
Its ritual, written in 1913 by Aleister Crowley, who devoted himself to the study of magic, draws on the symbolism of colors, such as yellow to represent the sun, as well as on Hindu and Buddhist practices such as yoga.
"You get a great sense of the history of religion and cross-cultural ideas," he says. "It's pregnant with meaning, beautiful and affecting, rich on many psychic levels."
Pagan Pride Day
When • Sept. 11, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Where • Murray Park