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."