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In Your Own Backyard: Angels and goddesses

Students practicing paganism and Wicca dispel myths about their beliefs

 by Katie Kelberlau  published on Thursday, February 17, 2005

<em>photo illustration by Shaina Levee / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE</em><br>
Theatre senior and pagan Megan Brice-Heames meditates over a candle Sunday during her morning ritual of worship.  /issues/arts/692039
Shaina Levee
photo illustration by Shaina Levee / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE
Theatre senior and pagan Megan Brice-Heames meditates over a candle Sunday during her morning ritual of worship.
 

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Every day, theater senior Megan Brice-Heames worships gods and goddesses.

She is not, however, worshiping the Christian God, Islam's Allah or the Buddha, but rather the pantheon of her own faith: paganism, a religion not so uncommon at ASU.

Paganism, roughly speaking, is a belief in many gods, goddesses or spirits, though each practitioner has his or her own personal twist.

Wicca is a similar belief system, but it is not the same as paganism. Wicca is commonly known as witchcraft and is a specific practice that falls under the umbrella of paganism. Practitioners of paganism and Wicca say there is virtually no one within the religions who practice the same way or believe in the exact same thing.

As for Brice-Heames, she says she believes everything around her in the world has energy, and as a pagan, she has the opportunity to interact with these energies.

Raised Catholic by her feminist mother and father, Brice-Heames always had a problem with the patriarchal basis of her childhood religion. Paganism, by contrast, is very matriarchal, as goddesses play equally important roles as gods.

With her short, dark brown hair, nose ring and woven blue-and-white sweater, Brice-Heames looks nothing like the stereotypical granola-munching, feminist liberal. She does say, however, that most pagans tend to be eco-friendly and feminist.

Brice-Heames' goddess symbol is La Virgin, the Virgin Mary, a product of her Catholic upbringing. She says the use of Christian symbols in paganism is relatively uncommon.

"I guess I am a product of my generation," she says. "We can pick and choose spiritual beliefs to fit who we are. But you know, I see nothing wrong with that. I have found a belief that makes me centered."

Carly Foreback, a Japanese and psychology junior, identifies herself as both a pagan and practicing Wiccan but says she cannot speak on behalf of either; there is just too much variety.

Foreback is also president and co-founder of the Pagans and Associates Network at ASU, which was founded about two years ago.

The pagan club mostly functions as a social club for solitary practitioners on campus. However, as Foreback says, "Trying to organize pagans is like herding cats." Though the club's listserv reaches 40 to 50 people, only five or six regularly attend the group's weekly meetings.

Pagan is a type of umbrella term encompassing a plethora of belief systems. Basically, Foreback explains, the dictionary definition of a pagan is anyone who is not Christian, Muslim or Jewish.

She says there are people in the club who are oriented toward worshipping Eastern traditions like Taoism, and Greek, Egyptian and Norse gods.

Wicca, she says, is a subset of paganism. But again, there is tremendous variety in beliefs and practices. The only beliefs on which they agree, she says, are to not intentionally harm other people, plants or animals; and the Law of Three, which says any energy sent out into the world comes back times three.

Wicca is associated with witchcraft, which conjures all types of symbols in the popular culture. But Foreback says comparing the TV show "Charmed" to Wicca is like saying "Star Trek" represents NASA.

Foreback says she practices Wicca by making requests and then giving thanks by burning incense or candles, not by stirring a cauldron of boiling animal parts, wearing a pointy hat or waving a wand. Though she doesn't know any Wiccans who wear pointy hats, she says items like the hats can be used as tools to channel energy or help focus the practitioner.

Both Wicca and paganism are so poorly understood by popular culture that a number of grossly inaccurate stereotypes have been circulating for eons. Foreback wants people to know pagans do not worship Satan or any other personification of evil, do not sacrifice babies, usually do not practice in the nude and are still waiting to be invited to the famed orgies.

Last year on May 1, Foreback explains, her group was on the Student Services Lawn performing a fertility ritual.

"I was dressed as the high priestess. This guy came up and asked about the dress. When I told him we were doing a pagan ritual, he asked if we worshipped Satan. I said, 'No, that was a myth.' He said, 'Oh, OK, I'll spread the word.'

"I think that was one of the nicest things anybody has said to us," she says with a laugh.

Like Brice-Heames, Foreback was raised in a religious family. She realized, however, that Christianity was not for her. She discovered paganism at about age 16 while she was "shopping around" for a belief system with which she connected.

Neither Foreback nor Brice-Heames typically wear any pagan symbols while at school.

"If I wanted to hang a pentacle in my cubicle at work or set up an altar space in my dorm room, it would make people uncomfortable," Brice-Heames says.

She reaches across the table and draws a picture of a pentacle, a five-pointed star usually encased in a circle. The five points correspond to the five elements: earth, wind, water, fire and spirit. It is a symbol with which all pagans identify, but Brice-Heames does not wear one.

"I wear the trinity knot," she says, fingering her necklace. "Catholics also use it as a symbol of the trinity, so it's a little harder to pinpoint as a pagan symbol."

She says she can be reluctant to talk about her beliefs because the most common reaction she gets is a condescending, "Oh, that's cute." Even her accepting parents, she says, seem to think it is just a phase.

"People think it is a hobby or a party trick. I hate to disclose that I am a pagan in classes because then I am the pagan," she says.

Also, they always assume she is Wiccan, but she says, "That's like if someone tells me they are Baptist, and I say, 'Oh, so you're Catholic.' "

Foreback and Brice-Heames agree paganism is a non-proselytizing religion, meaning its members don't try to convert people.

"I have never liked the concept of being saved," Brice-Heames says. "It indicates that the way you are living now is wrong."

Reach the reporter at katherine.kelberlau@asu.edu.



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