TOPSFIELD — Pagans around New England need to come out of the "broom closet."
That's the mantra of Eastern Mass Pagan Pride, an organization which strives to promote pagan education, understanding and unity. The group took another step toward that goal yesterday at "Eastern Mass Pagan Pride Day," a festival at Bradley Palmer State Park in Topsfield. It was a day for pagans of all sorts to come out, celebrate their culture and beliefs and dispel some of the misconceptions about the group that has seeped into the mainstream psyche. No, Wiccans don't worship the devil.
"This (festival) is a place for folks to get together and express themselves without the fear of persecution," said Carol Fairbank, the local coordinator of EMPP. "(Paganism) is just starting to be something that is acceptable to practice out in the open. We're hoping people will come to this festival, look around and think, 'Wow. Look how many of us there are.'"
The little-known festival, which is in its 11th year, attracts about 1,000 people annually, most from Eastern Massachusetts but several from other New England locales. It's part of the international Pagan Pride Project, which has had nearly 50,000 people attend Pagan Pride events in six countries
At yesterday's event, there were workshops, speakers, dancing and discussions about the faith, beliefs and lifestyles that make up the pagans existence. Robes, gems, amulets, crystals and other hallmarks of the culture were in full force, but there were also plain looking folks in Red Sox hats in attendance.
"We came here years ago and it was a good time," said Che Arrjj of Lawrence, who said he is not a pagan, and describes himself as "half hippie, half punk rocker."
"I like being anywhere that is a deviation from the norm, that's different from a cultural aspect. As long as no one is judging me, I'm fine. People are generally cool here."
Tolerance is a mainstay of pagan tradition, according to several festival attendees.
"As long as you're not hurting anyone," is a key pagan theme said the Rev. Brother H. Bruce Baldwin of Boston, a practicing witch for more than 40 years.
"We are the only religion that has never killed anyone in the name of a god or goddess," said Lori Bruno, a 70-year-old who said she is a "Hereditary High Priestess and Elder of the Sicilian Strega line of the Craft of the Wise." She said that, to her, "witch" is an acronym meaning: "wisdom, integrity, truth, courage and honor for all human kind."
Most pagans believe individuals are responsible for maintaining the earth, being kind to others and caring for all things. If you don't "you will answer for it in this life, not in any heaven or what lies beyond," Baldwin said.
The term pagan is a catch-all, which refers to any spiritual person who doesn't self identify with the big three: Christianity, Judaism or Islam. Pagans are Druids, Wiccans, and any number of other non-defined groups. Some, like Baldwin, would include Hinduism and Buddhism as well. Many people who don't subscribe to any personal god, but do believe in some higher power — a fast-growing segment of the population, according to studies — are also classified as pagan. According to a 2008 American Religious Identification Survey of almost 55,000 people, conducted by Trinity College, more than 12 percent of the U.S. population can be described to have pagan beliefs — a marked rise since 1990, according to the authors.
Despite its growth, there are still widespread misconceptions among mainstream society about what a pagan is, Fairbank said. To many, pagan is still a pejorative word. Much of that stems from pop culture and movies, and stretches back centuries to the ancient propaganda campaign propagated by early Christians to wipe out pagan beliefs completely, Baldwin said.
"There are religious and culturally-based classifications of what is reality and truth," Fairbank said. "Pagan beliefs don't align with what is thought to be OK or right in society. Most of us have a very wholesome, ethical belief system, but it all comes down to the perception."
"People are fearful of what they don't understand and that is unfortunately still the case today," said Geo Walsh, a witch from Boston. "But the climate is definitely getting much better."
Many of the wild beliefs — that pagans worship the devil, that they perform ritualistic sacrifices, cannibalism or worse — can be traced to the first centuries AD when the western world underwent a rapid and dramatic shift to a monotheistic belief system. Almost overnight, it became a capital offense to believe in more than one god, or to not believe in any.
Bruno, the witch from Salem, says she knows full well the evils of persecution. She is a direct descendent of Giordano Bruno, the first man to conceptualize the stars as the same as our sun, she said. He was burned at the stake in Rome in 1600 for heresy. Another relative, Donna Marietta, was burned alive in Sicily in the 1340s. Bruno's family, however, was one of the few who did not stray from the ancient traditions, despite facing brutal repression. Still, the stigma against pagans and witches has maintained and had kept her family quiet about their beliefs for centuries.
"Since I was a baby, my family was afraid to come out," she said looking out on the happy crowd of pagans. "I love seeing all of our people together and all the good energy we have. My hope is for justice to be done so in the future, paganism will be recognized as a mainstream religion."