BY MOLLIE SIMON
The greenery and warmth of spring bring fresh energy and excitement to the air. While most people give little notice to the changes though, Pagan students at the University of Georgia find special meaning in that energy.
For Pagans, March 20 and 21 not only mark the spring equinox, but they also represent the holiday of Ostara, one of eight “sabbats” on their wheel representing a year. It celebrates strengthening of light, fertility, new life and elements being brought into balance, Pagan Student Association president Jess Dinsmore, a junior biochemistry and molecular biology major from Augusta, said.
Not unlike other religions, at its core, Ostara is a time for self-analysis.
“As a student on campus, it is easy to get caught up in the semester and work and to lose track of time and a sense of self. I like to take time with the sabbats because it is a chance to look back and reflect and think about how I can work on different aspects of my life,” said PSA secretary and treasurer Rhiana Barkie, a fifth year water and soil resources major from Augusta.
In the United States, the number of Pagans has increased recently, going from 140,000 in 2001 to 340,000 according to the 2008 census.
Pinning down who identifies as Pagan is not so simple though as it can encompass a wide variety of practices. For example, Dinsmore considers herself atheistic and shamanistic, while Barkie is agnostic and believes in aspects of animism.
“Paganism is very much an umbrella term for anything that isn’t in the big five religions. Typically Pagans are nature oriented and polytheistic, but there are others who are monotheistic, atheistic, or monists,” PSA public relations officer Jeff Patterson said.
Patterson, a senior philosophy and sociology major from Atlanta, discovered PSA on campus while he was researching Pagan traditions.
“I found them interesting and like the openness they have and the dedication to education, so I decided to stick around,” he said.
The student group follows the motto, “community, advocacy and education.”
Dinsmore has found that with an abundance of stereotypes and stigmas surrounding Paganism, particularly in the south, it is important to create a safe place for Pagans. She also views the organization as a means of spreading accurate information, having found that many people will discover the faith through sources like Wikipedia, which can often be inaccurate.
While PSA is in a rebuilding year after the graduation of members, they are hoping to extend their sharing of information into the future by creating an online library, Dinsmore said.
Beyond this, they also generally table at Tate on Mondays to spread awareness, answer questions about their beliefs and share ideas with Pagans of differing backgrounds.
“On average, people are accepting, but when they are not accepting, they are not accepting in a big way,” Patterson said.
Dinsmore said most people are respectful of their tabling, but they do sometimes receive negativity. People are more likely to run into criticism downtown than on campus though, according to Patterson.
“Some people say it is really cool [that we table] and give a thumbs up, but once a person said, ‘hell is waiting on you all.’ A student ran after him though and said that was not okay. It was really cool of them to support us and respond like that,” Dinsmore said.
For many people, the misconceptions about Pagan practices stem from not understanding what may seem foreign at first.
While tabling, the group has received questions about devil worship and animal sacrifice, neither of which are part of their traditions.
“The majority of Pagans don’t believe in the Christian devil, much less worship him,” Dinsmore said.
In reality, Paganism shares tenets and practices of other religions.
In the mornings, Dinsmore’s morning ritual is to say spells, which are similar to what other religions call prayers. They utilize rhyme as a means of helping individuals concentrate and focus on controlling energy and invoking feelings such as calmness, insight, and healing.
Barkie said a lot of Paganism comes from experiential learning and forging your own path to find meaning. For some Pagans, this means reaching out to others who share beliefs and traditions.
For example, by listening to what properties and meaning other individuals attribute to water, Barkie has formed a framework for what she personally believes.
Self-discovery within Paganism also extends to meditation, and Dinsmore said some of her learning has come from what she calls spirit journeys or vision quests. These involve going into a deep meditative state and seeking guidance from ancestral and animal spirits.
While some people may equate cinematic portrayals of witchcraft with Pagans, this too often creates an inaccurate picture of the belief system.
“To me, witchcraft is looking at what qualities and energies are concentrated in different materials,” Barkie said.
Not unlike determining who falls under the definition of Pagan though, defining terms such as witchcraft can be complicated because of the varied roots of modern Pagan beliefs.
“I know well enough not to try to define it,” Patterson said.