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Pagans Embrace Solstice

Hartford, Conn. — Lisa Tonner was living in Fairfield County, Conn., and knew nothing about Paganism when, in the late 1980s, she accepted an invitation to go to the city.

“My friend said, ‘Do you want to go to New York? We’re going to a magic shop’,” she recalled. “And I thought, magic, like pulling rabbits out of a hat. As it turned out, they were going to the Magickal Childe, a popular Manhattan store for the Pagan community.

“I thought wizards and witches were the stuff from Lord of the Rings and movies and fantasy books, and I walked in, I took a look around, and (I said) this stuff is real. And I was immediately fascinated and I started buying books and teaching myself,” said Tonner, who grew up in a non-churchgoing Episcopalian household.

She saw a notice for the Fairfield County Witches Network and got involved. “That actually became the Connecticut Wiccan and Pagan Network,” she said.

Of all the days of the year, the sun stays longest in the sky today — the solstice — a day of special significance to Pagans, a small but growing population in the U.S., fragmented by different traditions and practices but united in their devotion to the divine in nature.

The summer solstice, also called midsummer or Litha, is one of eight primary Pagan holidays, equally distributed through the seasons.

The Connecticut Wiccan and Pagan Network will observe the solstice with a gathering at a state park.

people are able to attend, starting at 2 p.m. with a ritual, followed by a potluck picnic and a drum circle.

Pagan is an overarching term that includes Wiccans, Druids, Celtic Pagans, Norse Pagans, those who don’t specify a single tradition, and others. Some practice alone, others gather in rituals as varied as the traditions they follow.

“The summer solstice is very important to the Druids, so we thought it would be good to have a Druid ritual (Saturday),” said Tonner.

She described the ritual this way: Everyone gets in a circle, marked as sacred space by walking around the edge of it with a sword or a staff. The four elements - earth, air, fire and water - are honored, as are ancestors and the “universal creative force.” There are prayers to the sun, and a “Bard’s Blessing” in which anyone can recite poetry or sing. The ritual closes with an expression of gratitude to ancestors, again, and the participants.

“The purpose is basically to give thanks to the Divine, or God, or however you call it, and to remind us that we all have a connection to the earth and the universe and each other,” Tonner said.

Helen A. Berger, a resident scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University, said she witnessed a similar Wiccan ritual. At one point in that ceremony, participants danced faster and faster until everyone lifted hands to send out energy - and then reached down to touch the ground. The ritual raises what Berger called a “magical energy,” often directed toward some cause, often one that brings about healing.

Berger is an authority on Paganism in the U.S. She has twice surveyed contemporary Pagans, most recently in 2009 and 2010. “This is a minority religion, but it’s a pretty quickly growing one,” she said.

The American Religious Identification Survey at Trinity College counted 342,000 Wiccans and 340,000 pagans in the U.S. in its 2008 survey - double the totals of only seven years earlier. Researchers said Pagans, Wiccans and others in “New Religious movements” gathered adherents at a faster rate in 2000s than they had in the 1990s, although Berger said there is some evidence that the rate of growth has slowed in recent years.

Berger said her research suggests Connecticut has a slightly higher per-capita pagan population than the national average. No one knows the exact Pagan population.

The Connecticut network has 75 dues-paying members, Tonner said, but that number is hardly indicative of the state Pagan population.

“It’s really hard to say how many Pagans there are in the state or the country because a lot of people are so afraid to let it be known,” said Tonner, who now lives in the Hartford area. She said she has never run into a problem because of her beliefs, though she knows that misperceptions abound.

“I think that people see us as being maybe anti-god, anti-religion, which we’re not, really,” she said. “We’re not anti-Christian or anything. And there’s that old thing that we ‘worship the devil,’ which is not true.”

Selina Rifkin of Trumbull, Conn., is executive assistant to the director of Cherry Hill Seminary, a national non-profit that offers online training in Pagan ministry.

Rifkin is in a syncretic tradition - a mixture of beliefs - called the Sanctuary of Tellus, after a Roman earth goddess. She said she was still undecided how she might mark the solstice, perhaps with kindreds - friends in one of the northern traditions - with a blot, a ritual that honors the gods in part by offering mead, consumed or poured as a libation.

Prominent in Pagan rituals, Rifkin said, is the concept of sacrifice - food or drink, or, less traditionally, a sacrifice of time. For example, she said, because she has an earth-centered deity, she might volunteer at a community garden.

Berger said Pagans are generally more accepted by outsiders these days. “The more people who come out, and say who they are, and (others see) they’re fairly normal people, more people will be accepted,” she said.

“What my surveys have shown (is) they’re pretty much middle-class Americans,” Berger said. “If they differ, they have a higher educational rate, on average, and they tend to be more liberal, politically, regardless of geography,” with an acute concern for the environment and gender equity. But in many respects, she said, they “remarkably unremarkable.”

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©2013 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)

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