STAUNTON — On Saturday, whether alone or in covens, area residents who call themselves Pagans will celebrate Yule, a celebration of the changing seasons on winter solstice.
“As Pagans, we celebrate the turning of the wheel,” said Elaine Sutherland. “This is a celebration of nature.”
Nature is a focal point for the wide variety of Neo-Pagan religions in Augusta County that stress a communion with the Earth and all people on it.
As their beliefs often involve a wide knowledge of different gods and goddesses and often incorporate spells, most Neo-Pagans come to the religion as adults.
Many, like Sutherland, began practicing Paganism when traditional worship left them wanting more.
Raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, Sutherland said she began to question the religion’s beliefs in high school, particularly its extremely conservative views about women.
“Women are pretty low on the totem pole,” she said.
After pulling away from it, Sutherland spent several years spiritually blank, searching for a belief system. On her 22nd birthday, a Wiccan friend gave Sutherland a book called “A Grim Moor of Shadows,” though she didn’t know anything about the religion.
“I read it and said, ‘This is what I’ve been looking for,'” she said.
Sutherland said she was attracted to Wicca and other nature-based religions because of the equality of men and women, celebration of the elderly and belief in treating the Earth and others with respect and dignity.
According to Jereme Parks, a 10-year veteran of Paganism, the live and let live teachings were exactly what interested him as well.
“The Wiccan creed is, ‘As it harms none, do as you will,'” he said.
Parks was also raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, and he distanced himself at 19.
After moving out of his parents’ home, Parks began researching various religions online, and he eventually stumbled onto several Neo-Pagan religions.
Parks settled into Neo-Paganism because it allowed him to personalize his belief system and keep it from becoming too strict or cookie-cutter.
“I like the freedom it gave you,” he said. “There’s all these religions out there, and they’re all screaming they’re the one true thing. And they’re all alike.”
Saya Nereida of Staunton describes herself as simply “a witch,” and she also came to Paganism after being raised in a Christian religion. After leaving the Catholic church, she tried Baptist and open Bible churches, but she wasn’t satisfied. She attended her first Circle on Samhain, the Pagan holiday in October, and said she knew she had found her place.
“The energy, caring, compassion and acceptance of those in attendance was amazing,” she said.
Sutherland, Parks and Nereida said that, even though Staunton is a predominately Christian city, they haven’t had many negative reactions to their belief systems, aside from some who have tried to convert them to Christianity.
“I usually end those talks (by) saying something like, “We don’t have to agree. We likely never will,'” Nereida said. “‘I do accept your beliefs because they give you peace. My beliefs also give me peace. In the end, as long as we live a good life, does it really matter who we say our ‘prayers’ to at the end of the day?'”
Sidebar: Paganism Defined
The term Pagan has many definitions and even more negative connotations, but a Pagan essentially is someone who doesn’t follow one of the world’s three most common religions: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. A Buddhist is technically a Pagan, as is a Sikh, a Wiccan, an Atheist or a Hindu.
Neo-Paganism is one of the most popular branches of Paganism in America, and it stresses a reconnection with nature and often involves magical elements such as spells. Many Pagans in the area consider themselves practitioners of one or more branches of Neo-Paganism and pull their beliefs from a variety of nature-based religions.
Elaine Sutherland has been practicing for almost 10 years. She considers herself about 60 percent Wiccan, but she also dabbles in Shamanism and Buddhism.
“I’m kind of a mix,” she said. “I think, in order to make my magic stronger, I need to learn a little bit of
all of it.”
A reverence for nature and tendency toward magic are the beginning and end of the similarities of nature-based religions and the witches who practice them. Some, such as Sutherland, cast simple protection spells. Others prefer to just study the religion or pray to statues of various gods and goddesses. Some practice in groups called covens, while some, like Sutherland, prefer to be solitary.
“Eighteen years of my life was spent in a structured environment,” she said. “I just feel like being loosey-goosey. But some people need that structure.”
“It’s easier (to practice) with other people,” said Jereme Parks, who has been practicing on and off for 10 years. “I’m bad at keeping any sort of schedule.”
Because there is no national organization, exact numbers for Neo-Paganism are unavailable. But in 1999, there were an estimated 1 million Neo-Pagans in the United States, and an estimated three dozen in Augusta County in 2007.