To anyone speeding through Carlsbad on I-5, the scene around Holiday Park's gazebo on Sept. 20 probably resembled a typical large-family gathering or weekend company picnic. That is, until about 4 p.m., when the high priest and high priestess of San Diego's The Circle of the Mountain Shadows cast a magic circle around a symbolic altar, and, in the presence of about 200 participants, provided a celebratory Wiccan ritual for the autumn equinox as part of San Diego's first Pagan Pride Day.
Stephanie Sullivan, of the Networked North Coastal County Pagans, coordinated the event, part of The Pagan Pride Project, the Indianapolis-based nonprofit that established the first Pagan Pride Day in 1998. The project seeks "to foster pride in Pagan identity through education, activism, charity and community... [and sponsors] Pagan public Equinox rituals and charity drives every September." The internationally held events also aim to debunk common misconceptions about, and draw political attention to, paganism. In 2002, total worldwide Pagan Pride Day attendance was reportedly 31,506 at 106 confirmed events.
Sullivan noted that although "you have your fruits and nuts in every barrel, for the most part, [paganism is] a very positive, open kind of belief."
But defining neo-paganism is challenging. Sullivan explained that pagans aren't required to adhere to any one set ideology. For clarity, the project primarily defines pagans as those who simply identify themselves as pagan. Under the pagan umbrella are Wicca, polytheism, shamanism, magick, Druidism and many other "traditions."
This diversity was apparent in the Carlsbad crowd. Numerous women wore floor-length capes made of shimmering material. Many were laden with silver jewelry and semi-precious stones. Other apparel displayed representations of winged women or animals. A 30-something man wore a t-shirt inscribed with the Wizard of Oz line, "Are You A Good Witch Or A Bad Witch?" Several other males wore kilt-like skirts. Pentacles were everywhere.
On the back of her denim vest, Rowan Wakefield had airbrushed a rendition of the Venus of Willendorf, an ancient goddess image. "Female force is very strong in paganism," she said. "You can define god as female."
Under sun canopies, pagan volunteers gave free tarot and palm readings. Scheduled workshops included the simply titled "Wicca 101." Children excitedly showed off face and arm paintings ("Mine's a skull and crossbones with glowing eyes!" one tyke bragged.)
A food-drive collection area (proceeds going to the San Diego Food Bank) was situated next to gift baskets full of pagan essentials for a door-prize drawing. In the gazebo, musicians played West African music while a belly dancer and other attendees gyrated.
As for evil stereotypes sometimes attributed to paganism, Sullivan said most pagans don't even believe in Satan, but "I know people who don't feel comfortable being openly pagan. I think that's wrong."
The main event was the formal harvest ceremony. In the middle of a large expanse of grass, a "sacred circle" would be "cast." A round, café-style table in the middle was draped as an altar on which a number of ritual tools were arranged-dragon-stemmed silver chalices filled with red wine, a plate of cookies, a bell, an antler surrounding a white porcelain statue of a nude female, a crystal-embedded wand. A double-bladed knife, or athame (for cutting on the astral plane only). A bowl of water, a jar containing salt (earth) and charcoal smoldering (fire) in a cauldron to burn a pale-violet, powdered incense (air).
"You can't just go down to 7-Eleven and buy [this incense]," cracked the high priest, a bald, middle-aged man with a dark beard and tinted shades.
Leaning against either side of the altar were a ritual sword-for establishing the circle's perimeters-and a fur-trimmed staff. A wicker broom, for "sweeping out" negative psychic debris, lay nearby. The large, red-haired high priestess, the pentacle of her silver headband centered on her forehead, was dressed head-to-toe in black.
Cornucopias and fall-colored leaves were placed at four points designating north, east, south and west, where ritual participants, mostly women in long gowns, stood, arms akimbo. Other participants walked clockwise within a circle.
During the approximately hour-long ritual, virtually all attendees joined in, standing side-by-side around the circle, holding hands. Poetic verse and frequent chanting-such as, "As above, so below. As within, as without. As with the universe, as with the soul"-were employed. Blessings written on slips of colored paper were collected from the cornucopia and redistributed to the people standing around the circle, who were told to close their eyes and choose just one.
"You will get the one you were meant to have," the high priestess instructed.
Earlier, a young woman had approached Wakefield to ask a few questions but rapidly put a distance between her and the circle once the ritual started. Wakefield took this in stride, emphasizing that while pagans aren't out to convert, they're not hiding either.
Instead, Wakefield said, pagans are increasingly reaching out to their peers and introducing their communities to something many people "never expected existed in their neighborhoods."