In a ritual that represents the connection between the earth and the sky, more than 300 pagans danced around the maypole on Thursday in the woods at a campsite in southwestern Massachusetts.
By Friday evening they numbered nearly 500 - many of them self-described Druids, faeries, Dianics, Wiccans, Asatru and ceremonial magicians, as well as practitioners of Norse, Celtic, Germanic, Greco-Roman and other pre-Christian European traditions. They came for the annual Rites of Spring festival.
"The pole is the symbol of the axis mundi, a symbol of our connections with each other and of our connections with all of creation," said Andras Corban Arthen, who, with his wife, Deirdre Pulgram Arthen, is a principal organizer of the weeklong festival, which ends Monday.
Both are witches belonging to covens, putting them in the mainstream of this gathering, which is in its 27th year and is among the oldest and largest pagan festivals.
Paganism is the umbrella term for nature-based belief systems; although the exact number of practitioners is unknown, experts say the movement is growing in the United States. Rites of Spring is among a growing number of pagan festivals - one popular Web site (www.witchvox.com) lists 50 in the United States this year.
"Up until five years ago, there used to be four or five big ones, now everybody's got one," said Sabina Magliocco, a folklorist and anthropologist at California State University, Northridge.
Helen Berger, a professor of sociology at Westchester University, said paganism "includes a number of different religious expressions that fall under the category of earth-based spirituality."
Ms. Berger, the editor of "Witchcraft and Magic: Contemporary North America," which is to be published next month by the University of Pennsylvania Press, estimates there are at least 200,000 practicing pagans in this country. Other academics put the number as high as 700,000.
"Some people are reluctant to identify as pagans because there is a lot of very real persecution," Ms. Magliocco said. (Indeed, organizers of Rites of Spring, part of a nonprofit educational organization called EarthSpirit, asked that the exact location of their lakeside camp not be named because of harassment at a previous site.)
Ms. Magliocco favors the higher number based on data like surveys, sales of books with pagan themes and attendance at festivals. She said, "Paganism is one of the fastest-growing religious movements in North America."
At Rites of Spring, the maypole ritual started with a circle. Moira Ashleigh, the witch leading the ceremony, asked participants to divide themselves into the "pole people," who, singing a West African chant, fetched the 30-foot trunk of a birch tree festooned earlier with colorful ribbons, and the "hole people," who then planted it in the ground, chanting, "Back to the river, back to the sea, back to the ocean, home to me."
The ribbons were then unfurled and, to the accompaniment of a group of drummers whose rhythms built steadily to a frenzied peak, were ceremonially woven together as people took the ends and danced around the pole in opposite directions.
Afterward, those moved to speak came individually to the middle to touch the pole and to share experiences of the previous year. Announcements ranged from an emotional plea to bless a child born with a serious heart condition to the celebratory sharing of having completed various academic degrees. One man heralded his new job as a firefighter; a woman told of her new position organizing Earth Day celebrations for her municipality. "These people don't even know they are pagans," she said, describing the kinds of events with ritual content she is planning for her city next year.
Besides large group rituals, like the maypole, the "weaving of the web," "fire circles" and a coming of age ritual in which three teenage boys were ceremonially welcomed into the adult world, the festival included dozens of workshops on topics like "Productive Interfacing with 'Mainstream Religions' "; "Which Witch is Which?" where Mr. Arthen explained distinctions between the practitioners of traditional witchcraft and modern pagans; and "Polyrhythmic Roads to Ecstasy." A medieval-style feast is planned for Sunday night.
Margot Adler, who was to present a festival workshop on the state of the movement this weekend and is also a National Public Radio correspondent and a recognized witch, has been tracking nature-based religions since 1979, when she first published "Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess Worshipers and Other Pagans in America Today" (Penguin). The book is credited with both documenting new religious impulses and being a catalyst for the panoply of practices now in existence.
In an interview, Ms. Adler said, "This is a religion that says the world, the earth, is where holiness resides; it also says that there is no one path to the sacred."
"You don't have to get it whittled down to one answer, one god, one way of being, one form of society, one philosophy," she said.
Ms. Adler and others who study paganism credit its growth to several factors, including the rise of the women's movement, which was attracted to the notion that the divine includes feminine forms, and to environmentalism, which is prompting the search for religious expressions that see spirituality as being a part of nature rather than above it.
This was the fifth year that Joan Hunt of Middleboro, Mass., attended Rites of Spring. Ms. Hunt was raised a Roman Catholic, spent 15 years as a Jehovah's Witness and then became a Baptist, she said, but none of those practices fulfilled her.
"Walking in the woods made me feel alive spiritually, it fed me," said Ms. Hunt, 63. "Then I began to hear of this group of people for whom the earth is sacred; it gave me goose bumps."