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Season of the Witch

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Hellenic altar. Photo credit: Caroline Kenner.

Halloween may be more than just costumes, candy corn, and scary movies. For many contemporary Pagans, it's considered a high holy day.

Gwendolyn Reece is not only a Pagan, but she's done extensive, quantitative research about the subject. In advance of Halloween, she discussed the philosophy of her religion, while shedding light on the types of people who practice it. At American University, Reece is the associate librarian and director of research, teaching, and learning in the University Library.

The Twilight Time

So, what exactly is going on during Halloween for contemporary Pagans? Traditionally, it's considered a Festival of Death, but it's really a whole Halloween season based on the Celtic calendar. Reece talks about how this is a "liminal" time. "You're not in one state, nor in another state. You're in this middle," she says.

As deciduous trees shed their leaves, a certain form of the world is dying. It's "twilight, where it's not day, and it's not night. Those are always times, in any of the magical traditions, that are particularly powerful," Reece explains. "Pagans are often doing ancestral work, we're doing psychic work, and we're doing work to honor those who have died."

Everything Old is New Again

Reece stresses how Paganism is a diverse religion, practiced in a variety of ways. But through her research and experience, she has drawn some general conclusions. Though it's a new religious movement, it's steeped in old traditions that can be traced to pre-Christian Europe. Paganism is a broad umbrella that includes Wicca. And there are Reconstructionist forms of Paganism, such as Celtic, Norse and Hellenic.

Though not universally incorporated, Reece says magic has a prominent place in these religions. And belief in reincarnation is common among Pagans. "One of the types of extraordinary spiritual experiences that many, many Pagans will talk about is past-life memory," she says.

She also considers Paganism an extension of Romanticism. Unlike the Enlightenment preoccupation with reason, it embodies certain undefinable spiritual discoveries. "A large part of what it is trying to do is establish the legitimacy of non-rational ways of knowing. Not irrational, but non-rational," Reece says. Pagans also "claim at a fairly high frequency to have had various kinds of what we might call psychic, or unusual, spiritual experiences," she adds.

Who are the Pagans?

Reece surveyed 3,318 practicing Pagans, many of whom are religious leaders and clergy. She said participants tend to be highly educated, and based on their professions, not hostile to science. They often work in health care, education, and the STEM fields.

American University associate librarian Gwendolyn Reece.

Most people come from some other strong—usually Christian—religious background. You're less likely to find an atheist turn to Paganism. These are people "finding a religion that reflects or accepts them in a way that maybe is more complete than what they had previously experienced," she says.

It's also a welcoming and tolerant community. "Women are very overrepresented, gay and lesbian people are very overrepresented, bisexual people are very overrepresented, and transsexual people are very overrepresented," she says. "There's a very strong element of acceptance, and really reverencing alternative sexualities."

Some Wiccans adopt the term "witch," while others eschew the label. As in fairy tales, women are more likely to embrace being a witch—a term that often connotes feminine power, she adds. "It does seem to be used primarily for women who have seized power in some way," she explains. "They're not dependent on the dominant society to give them value, because they claim their own value."

According to the most recent figures from the American Religious Identification Survey, there are about 682,000 people who identify as either Pagan or Wiccan. Non-Pagans are increasingly hip to the topic, and Reece credits the Harry Potter series and Buffy the Vampire Slayer for helping to popularize these traditions.

Challenges Ahead

Reece formulated her Pagan beliefs while living in southwestern Ohio in the 1980s. It wasn't an easy time or place to practice Paganism, as the notorious "Satanic Panic" was raging there.

In her intellectual pursuit of this subject, she earned a master's in religious studies from University of California, Santa Barbara. Establishing a doctoral dissertation committee on Paganism proved too difficult, but she later earned her Ph.D. in education from AU.

Reece belongs to a Wiccan coven. And as part of the Hellenic tradition, she's a priestess of Athena and Apollo. She's involved with a D.C.-based Pagan community, but she feels that practitioners of the religion will have plenty of challenges in the near future. There's clergy burnout, with most working as volunteers. Since it's a generally non-institutionalized religion (operating in house-churches, not larger buildings), it's unclear how they'll accommodate new members looking for accessible spaces.

"It will be interesting to see if they go the same direction that most other religions have gone at some point in their history, which is some sort of institutionalization," she says. There's a danger that its distinctiveness—what drew people to Paganism in the first place—will be lost.