The Telegraph of Nashua, Nov. 26, 2002
By PATRICK MEIGHAN, Telegraph Staff
Luke Finnell, 12, knows a witch when he sees one.
He spied a girl at his school wearing a pentagram necklace. It was in the days before Halloween, so when classmates were out of earshot Luke sidled up to her.
“Happy Samhain,” he whispered, if not witch to witch, at least pagan to pagan.
“Same to you,” she whispered back, acknowledging the celebration of the pagan New Year, which traditionally begins at sundown Oct. 31.
You wouldn’t suspect that Luke is a follower of a pagan faith. He seems like a typical preteen: good-looking, with a slight build and blond locks.
Not many of his friends know of his beliefs – he’s only mentioned his faith to a few of his closest buddies at his school in Ashburnham, Mass.
Even in modern times, it’s prudent for a witch to be coy. There is little danger of being burned at the stake anymore. But you do run the risk of being ridiculed, ostracized and discriminated against in other ways.
For many people, particularly those who ascribe to beliefs of the hard-core Christian right, the word “witch” sticks like a fish bone in the throat. Try to find a book about Wicca (witchcraft) or paganism in a library, says one believer of the “old religion,” which Christian?
For that reason, Baribault decided to start a local Spiral Scouts troop.
A different sort of minority
Spiral Scouts is the pagan answer to Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. It’s an international organization that allows children of pagan and other minority faiths to participate in activities that emphasize ecology as well as mythologies and traditional stories.
It’s open to boys and girls of a broad range of pagan faiths, not just Wicca. Unlike Boy Scouts, Spiral Scouts emphasize that membership is open to all such children, including gays and lesbians and children with gay and lesbian parents.
Jess and Ed Baribault applied for charter through the organization, based in Washington state. Volumes of paperwork had to be submitted, and the Baribaults agreed to a background check required of perspective leaders. To date, the paperwork has been filed, and the Baribaults are waiting for the charter to be granted. Until then, they can hold meetings but aren’t sanctioned for camping trips or overnight activities.
They’re also being helped by Jamie Gallant, a former preschool worker from Deering.
The fledgling chapter, which will be in the Fireflies division for younger children, has received a pledge of some monetary support from a group called WARD – Witches Against Religious Discrimination. The New Hampshire chapter is based in Milton, home to the state’s only other Spiral Scout troop.
The scout leaders spread the word about the troop largely by word of mouth and contacts with pagan organizations.
Spinning a yarn
The Spiral Scouts’ first meeting last week at the Toadstool Bookshop in Milford attracted seven children and their parents. There aren’t many such groups around, and families came from great distances – from Sullivan, which is near Keene, from Deering, from Manchester and from Ashburnham, Mass., for example.
Children ranging in age from 2 to 12, some dressed in the Spiral Scouts uniform of green shirts and khaki pants, listened to a Native American story by Stone Riley, an artist and storyteller from Temple. The story relates how the first mother gave her bones and flesh to nourish the earth so that corn would grow to provide for her family.
The young Scouts, Scout leaders and parents sat in a circle on the floor and spun a web story: A person begins a story, then tosses a bundle of yarn to someone else, who adds to the tale, and so forth. In minutes, the Scouts had created a tale about a child with robin wings who flew to an enchanted forest, a magic stone and a wonderful snowfall. They also had woven an elaborate web, each person holding onto an end of the yarn.
“Life is like a web sometimes,” Jess Baribault explained to the young Scouts. She noted that if one person let go of her end of yarn, part of the web collapses.
“When one person isn’t part of the web anymore, it becomes a whole different web,” she said.
As a final activity, the children made drums out of recycled material, keeping with the theme of conservation and respect for Earth that are central to the ideals of Spiral Scouting and to tenets of many pagan faiths.
Centered on Earth
As she stood watching her two children play with the recyclable material, Jenna Labadie reflected that her own pagan beliefs sprung from a love for nature.
“I’m one of those people who didn’t go out and choose a label, it kind of fell on my shoulders. I like having an Earth that isn’t totally polluted and ruined.”
Labadie isn’t Wiccan, but she adheres to an Earth-centered belief, describing herself as a former hippie type.
Melissa Greenwood of Sharon also isn’t Wiccan, but was attracted to Spiral Scouts because of its earth-friendly activities. She has occasionally attended the Unitarian-Universalist Church in Peterborough and home-schools her two children, ages 6 and 4.
“I was wanted to do something socially with them,” she says. “I was a Girl Scout when I was young, but they changed a lot. I think Scouting is a good thing, but I wanted something that was Earth-centered and ecology driven.”
Greenwood also said she was appalled by discrimination in the Boy Scouts against people because of their religious beliefs – for example, an Eagle Scout from Seattle recently made news when he was expelled for stating he was an atheist – and sexual orientation.
“That’s not what I think Scouting should be about at all,” she says.
Labadie also is fond of the openness of pagan beliefs, which allow there are many ways to acknowledge divinity.
“I can’t espouse any religious belief whose orthodoxy boils down to ‘we’re right, you’re wrong, and we’ll either kill you or convert you.’”
Jess Baribault has run headlong into that sort of hate in organizing the Spiral Scout troop.
In soliciting funding from organizations in New Hampshire, she encountered a person from a statewide arts group who blasted her, accusing witches of being behind the Sept. 11 attacks. Some ultra-conservative Christians attribute the terrorist attacks not to extreme Muslim factions, but to forces of evil, mistakenly lumping practitioners of Wicca into that category.
The president of the organization later wrote Baribault a letter of apology.
Most pagans are polytheistic, so some conflict of values with Christianity is inevitable, Baribault says.
“But not all pagans are anti-Christian,” she adds.
“When people hear the word ‘pagan’ or ‘witchcraft,’ people living in the 21st-century still become very frightened.
“People are really misinformed about how beautiful and peaceful the religion is.”
Words of the wise: A glossary of pagan terms
Pagan (Latin – paganua “countryman”): One who is not a Muslim, Jew or Christian. At the time of creation as paganua, most country folk still followed nature based beliefs or folk lore as their spiritual path. They were seen as non-Christian and therefore were considered to be heathens.
Wicca (Wicca – masculine/Wicce – feminine) (Old English – “wise one”): A nature-oriented mystery religion. Wicca practices have grown to such a degree around the world, that the U.S. Army Chaplaincy Handbook now includes a section on Wiccan worship. Most Wiccans believe the universal energy works through a polarity, a yin-yang or feminine-masculine interaction. In most traditions, this polarity is symbolized by worship of a god and goddess within nature as a whole, all-encompassing manifestation of the divine, of which they are part of. In other traditions, such Dianic witchcraft, only the aspects of the goddess are celebrated.
Witch: A person who practices the spiritual belief of witchcraft. Typically associated with Anglo-Celtic, Celtic and Southern Teutonic traditions.
Witchcraft: The craft or practice of the wise. Witchcraft is a religion and way of life that honors the male and female aspects of the divine universe through ritual, ceremony and example. It is a religion of respect, honoring all things in and around nature of the divine universe.
Spiral Scouts: A scouting group that provides an opportunity for pagan families to interact with their children, for pagan children to interact with each other, to instill in children the concepts of inclusivity, the balance of gender energies, tolerance for differences of belief and other useful cultural customs and values of the pagan world view to promote the growth and development of interpersonal skills and life skills.
Programs include the teaching of the many classical mythologies, both popular and obscure; basic commonalties of pagan faith beliefs; and the usual handicrafts of scouting and woodland lore, aimed at promoting the practice of sound ecology in daily life.
While the orientation of the Spiral Scouts program is based in paganism, the organization is designed to be used by other groups, nonsectarian and other minority faith groups. Religious-based programs are designed to be easily replaced by alternates based in other non-hostile minority faith traditions.