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PAGANS.jpg
Isobel Arthen

AIR, SPIRIT, FIRE, WATER, EARTH , NATURE, DEATH, REBIRTH, PAGANISM
LIVING ROOM ALTARS, ANCESTRAL FOODS ARE KEY IN PAGAN HOMES
October 25, 2001

Halloween is known as "silly season" among some pagans. Not because it is frivolous, for it is not. It is a serious time for them to remember the deceased, but it is also the season when curious reporters tend to call with questions. Somehow, ghouls, goblins, and ghosts go together with pagans in popular imagination.

That's OK with Cat Chapin-Bishop, who welcomes the opportunity to talk about her faith. For her, the seasons of the year are part of an ongoing cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Samhain (pronounced Sowen), at the end of October, is an important date on her calendar. The harvest is in, her world is preparing for a period of dormancy, and death is in the air. For Chapin-Bishop, 41, that is not a bad thing.

"There is a recognition of our close ties with our ancestors and a recognition that the veils between the worlds are thin at this time of year," she said recently. She likes that on Wednesday night, children will go door to door "dressed up as fantastic things that you don't meet in everyday life."

The traditions in her Northampton household go beyond trick or treating, however.

On Halloween afternoon, she and her husband, Peter, will visit his grandmother's grave. "She was an English woman who was very fond of her cup of tea with milk and a sticky bun," said Chapin-Bishop. They will bring some of her favorite foods. They will pour the tea on the grave as a libation and leave the pastry behind. "We know that the ancestors may send squirrels to eat the bun," she said good-naturedly. "We don't tell the ancestors how to accept an offering."

As night falls, her family will prepare and eat their annual feast in honor of the dead. The menu will consist of foods that departed friends and relatives especially liked. They will set a full place for the ancestors and serve each of their favorite foods on the plate. Some pagan households call this a "dumb supper," and the meal is prepared and consumed in total silence. The Chapin-Bishops will talk, but the conversation will center on the people they are remembering.

"Since the place of the ancestors is in the earth, when the meal is done we'll put the ancestors' portion outside as an offering," said Chapin-Bishop. "Anything that's left in the morning, we bury."

Pagans base their ritual calendar on the idea of a wheel with eight spokes, according to Chapin-Bishop. The quarter points, corresponding to the equinoxes and the solstices, which fall on the first day of each season, represent the cycles of the sun. The cross quarters fall midway between the quarter points and represent the cycles of the Earth. Together they provide the basis for eight festivals.

The pagan renaissance in America is often traced to the publication of two books: "The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess" by Starhawk (Harper & Row) and "Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today" by Margot Adler (Beacon Press). Both were released on Halloween in 1979. By the time those books came out, the pagan movement in America had been gathering steam for about 15 years, according to Andras Corban Arthen, who teaches paganism through the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. He said the word "pagan" comes from the Latin "pagani," or "country dwellers," who, unlike the "urbani," lived beyond the city walls of Rome.

Arthen, 51, describes contemporary paganism as "the survival of the old pre-Christian, nature-based, spiritual traditions of Europe." There are ancient as well as modern ways of practicing paganism, he said, but the thread binding all pagans is a belief that the Earth is sacred. Their spiritual lives revolve around deities and spirits, many of which are connected to the seasons.

Arthen and his wife, Deirdre, 44, and their children, Donovan, 14, and Isobel, 10, live in a household of eight people in Western Massachusetts. With another two dozen others living nearby, they identify themselves as a family. All the members of their household have legally adopted the name Arthen. Together, they direct EarthSpirit (earthspirit.com), an educational networking organization founded in 1980. Arthen said his surveys show between 2 million and 3 million pagans live in the United States today.

"We don't really believe in a `God' god," said Isobel Arthen, describing her religion from a child's perspective. "The whole world is sacred. We see ourselves as a part of nature." She goes trick or treating on Halloween because "we like candy, too," but, she said, she is also very fond of her family's "dumb supper."

Deirdre Arthen's paternal grandparents, who perished in the Holocaust, were Austrian, so she serves an ethnic dish or sometimes a Linzer torte for them. Her mother's side is from the southern United States. "The things that I associate with that grandmother are very well-done green beans or biscuits," she said. Her husband's family is Spanish, so they often prepare paella, too. After the meal, they take the ancestors' portions to the woods to leave as offerings to the spirit world.

The family also has an ancestor altar in their house at this time of year where they display photos or belongings of forebears, including deceased pets.

Isobel said her favorite holiday is Yule. Coming on the solstice, the longest night of the year around Dec. 21, it is a time for gift-giving. The Arthens' tradition is to burn a Yule log from a tree they ceremonially felled the previous winter. Before they burn it, family members write some of their hopes and wishes for the coming year on the log.

Andras Arthen is a witch, someone who uses magical practices descendent from ancient European tribal cultures. He belongs to a coven, a group of witches who practice together. Some covens are very secretive about their practices, he said, while newer ones can be quite open.

Paganism goes under many names, including "wicca," "goddess traditions," "Earth-based spirituality," "neo-paganism," and "the craft." New practitioners take an almost playful delight in making up rituals, according to Laura Wildman, an administrative staff member at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and a pagan high priestess. Using her community name, Spellweaver, she has designed sacred practices for almost three decades.

"We created rituals and some of us had children," she said. "The children participated in them and they became a tradition."

As a legally recognized wiccan clergy member, Wildman is a designer of weddings and other rites of passage, and has the authority to marry couples.

Chapin-Bishop, who reveals only her community name to members of her coven, is especially fond of Imbolg, a February festival celebrating the return of life to the Earth. In her ceremonies, the youngest girls light candles to signify the Maiden of Spring's earliest return. "That was the most fun when my daughter was a little girl," said Chapin-Bishop. "You've never seen such solemn faces."

A sign of her witch existence is the brew that is always in some stage of fermentation in her kitchen. She uses the beer or mead for gifts and for libations on ceremonial occasions. Her house also has an altar in most rooms. The living room altar, which doubles as a bookcase, has symbols, statuettes, and icons depicting spirits and animals; photos of deceased ancestors, with a glass of water for them that is changed weekly; and tributes to gods and goddesses.

"Most pagans recognize male and female with the divine," she said. "Like life and death, they complement each other." Her male figure, the Old Man of the Forest, bears an uncanny resemblance to Santa Claus. Her female icon is a figure of the Greek goddess Athena, wearing a flowing robe and holding a spear and a shield. "She is a goddess that we particularly like because she is associated with safe boundaries and rational thought," said Chapin-Bishop. "Pagans can get a little wild, but with a child in the house, you want to have a little structure and a little common sense." ("We like feasting, we like dancing, we like drumming, we like music," she said, explaining the "wild" part. "We're a very celebratory religion.")

Also prominently displayed on her living room altar is a Pentacle, a five-pointed star representing spirit (at the top), water, air, earth, and fire, and a small cauldron for burning things safely. "We burn a lot of candles," she said. Since Sept. 11, a candle has burned continuously at her house.

Humor is an important part of her pagan home life. Deeply appreciative of her morning cup of coffee, for example, she has a thing for the Goddess Caffeina: "It's tongue in cheek, but it's also serious because it's all sacred," she said.

The broom she and her husband jumped over as part of their marriage ceremony is mounted on a wall in their bedroom. The origins of the broom-jumping tradition are obscure, she said, but it is a common custom among pagans. Tied to her broom are the ribbons she and her husband used during their "handfasting" ceremony, in which the couple's hands are symbolically bound together.

Chapin-Bishop, a licensed psychotherapist, said she also has used folk magic to help her teenage daughter through events of childhood. At one time, she kept a glass of water next to her daughter's bed to thwart bad dreams. The water absorbed frightening things and they would pour it out ritualistically in the morning.

Chapin-Bishop hopes her daughter will do the studying and make the commitment to join a coven, but said, "As much as I would like to pass my magic wand on to her, that's my ego. Any parent who has strong religious beliefs would like to pass them on."

In any event, Chapin-Bishop feels she has imparted to her daughter the ethics and a world view of a religion characterized by respect for nature and spirituality. "As a parent," she said, "I have to be satisfied with that."

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