It’s the season of the witch, so what better time to find out about modern-day pagans. The problem is, though, that with so many negative rumours circulating about them, they’re more than a little publicity shy. However, our Writer at Large tracked down the country’s most influential pagans for a chat. Warning: contains adult content

THERE is a therapist who joined his first coven in Edinburgh. A Scottish Government data analyst who is a druid. A former soldier who worships Odin. And an archaeologist who communes with the spirits of Orkney.

It is not every day you get to talk to Scotland’s pagans. They are an understandably secretive bunch. Not because they are up to anything dodgy. Quite the reverse. They are a serious and quite gentle group of people. Rather, they have been on the receiving end of decades of suspicion and fear.

The media has painted them as crazies and creeps, and they’re still stained with the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s when tabloids whipped up hysteria around modern-day paganism. Let’s be clear from the start: none worship Satan. Nor do they drink blood, have orgies, or sacrifice goats. If there’s any stereotype they conform to, it’s the “peace and love” hippy trope.

Beset by rumour, innuendo and mockery, it’s unusual for pagans to speak publicly. The Herald on Sunday, however, spent time this week with four of Scotland’s leading pagans for Halloween – or Samhain, as modern witches call the festival.

Paganism is on the rise. It’s currently impossible to say how many pagans there are in Britain but estimates vary from 56,000 to 250,000.

For the first time, the recent Scottish census provided a tick-box for paganism, so once those figures emerge we’ll know precisely how many people follow these ancient religions.

And it’s important to stress “religions”, not “religion”. Paganism is a catch-all term for a whole spectrum of beliefs ranging from Druidism and Wicca – a belief system like witchcraft – to the worship of Norse gods like Odin and Freya. Many pagans follow a sort of “pick and mix” approach, taking a soupçon of Wicca, a pinch of Druidism and a twist of other occult practices to craft their own individual faith.

To some, their beliefs may seem odd. But as pagans point out, in our society the dominant faith believes a man who died on a cross 2,000 years ago rose from the dead and is God. That’s not to say pagans are disrespectful of Christianity. Quite the opposite, they revere all faiths. Some include elements of Christianity in their own worship. That’s why they would like a little more respect and understanding for themselves.

They are also a relatively open and honest bunch. As in all faiths, there are bad characters who use religion for their own unpleasant ends. However, pagans, unlike many other creeds, seem keen to discuss any wrongdoing. One pagan highlighted a Scottish coven where the “high priest” used his position to “sleep with women”. Nothing “criminal” happened, but the man was a predator. The coven disbanded.

‘Not much nudity’

PAGANISM’S best ambassador is Matt Cormack, a charming 31-year-old from Penicuik. As a kid, he loved supernatural TV shows like Buffy and Charmed. They piqued his interest in the occult. By 15, he began thinking of himself as pagan and visiting Edinburgh’s witchcraft shop to buy books, candles and incense for ceremonies.

Cormack, a trained counsellor and therapist, grew up attending church. He has always felt “spiritual” but when he came out as gay during his teens, his mum spoke to her local minister. The gist was: her son would “go to hell”. Cormack needed “to find something more accepting of who I was”.

He was “initiated” into an Edinburgh coven that practised Wicca, which revolves around a “Mother Goddess” and a “Horned God”. The “Horned God” isn’t Satan, but you can see where the confusion and suspicion arises. Wicca “honours the Wheel of the Year”, Cormack explains – a series of festivals or “Sabbats” linked to the agriculture cycle of sowing and harvesting, like Samhain or Halloween.

Cormack also worships privately each week. “I do my main offerings for the deities and spirits, usually consisting of prayers, offerings of candles and incense. My prayers thank them for what they’ve done in my life, and I ask them to continue being with me on this path.”

As a counsellor, Cormack sees paganism as “therapeutic”. In his 20s, he was struck down with the debilitating illness myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) which wrecked his hopes of becoming an actor. “My faith helped me cope,” he says.

Cormack identifies strongly with Hecate, a goddess worshipped by some pagans. In ancient myth, Hecate is a guide leading others safely from the underworld. Cormack attended a recent Samhain festival which “honoured the dead, honoured our ancestors, and family no longer with us. The ritual called on the spirits and ancestors”.

He also practises “queer rituals which call on queer ancestors. I might not be connected to people like Oscar Wilde by blood but we’re connected as we’re both queer”.

Offerings were made of cakes and worshippers wrote on bay leaves. The words may be “something we ask ancestors to take with them, something we want to let go”.

Cormack sighs mournfully when the subject of “the myths” comes up – those myths being stories of pagans running around stark naked worshipping Satan and taking part in orgies. On naked ceremonies, Cormack explains that it’s not for him – he sometimes wears ceremonial robes, but usually it’s just jumper and jeans. Any occult mystery is slightly spoiled, though, when he explains there’s always a handy fire-extinguisher due to so many candles.

“If there’s nudity in a closed space with consenting adults, that’s their choice and there’s nothing wrong with that,” he says, then adds mischievously: “But Scotland’s cold. It’s not very practical.”

When it comes to orgies, he thinks “there’s a lot of fantasy” from non-pagans. Some pagans do use “sex magic” as many rituals revolve around fertility but again “if it’s between consenting adults” in private then he sees that as their choice. “Sex isn’t something wrong or sinful in pagan circles,” he adds. However, most groups don’t use “sex magic”, he explains.

While paganism “embraces” LBGT people like Cormack, he’s also honest enough to admit that there will be homophobes among pagans too. Cormack is happily married to a husband who accepts his faith but doesn’t share it. He also officiates at pagan weddings and funerals as a registered celebrant, and is the mental health and wellbeing officer for the Scottish Pagan Federation.

Cormack sees the “Satanic Panic” as absurd. He points out that when he was young, there were even claims that Pokemon was a gateway to black magic. For previous generations, Dungeons And Dragons was blamed. Still, the false Satanic claims terrorised the community.

“People were told their faith could be a reason their children could be taken away,” he says. “I’ve never come across anything remotely close to what’s been described, and I can’t think of anyone who has. If I did, I’d report it to the police immediately.”

He points out that there’s “more connection between Christianity and Satanism” than paganism as the notion of Satan springs from Christianity. These negative myths have real-world consequences, though. As a therapist, he says some pagans dread trying to access health services “as they fear their beliefs may be stigmatised and patholoigised as a sign of mental illness”. The same, evidently, wouldn’t happen to someone from a mainstream religion.

“When it comes to these ideas of being naked, sex rituals and dark, violent Satanic stuff, I’d just say ‘Hollywood is very good at movies’, but they’re just movies.” He dearly wishes there was more discussion around paganism in mainstream society which is partly why he’s speaking publicly today. That, he hopes, would lead to “a little bit of awareness which can open the door to acceptance”.

‘Only one Satanist’

HELEN Woodsford-Dean was born in England in the mid-1960s, the child of a police officer. Her first husband died young and she has never really recovered from the loss.

After his death, she retrained as an archaeologist, taught for a while, and finally moved to Orkney. She is currently deputy presiding officer of the Scottish Pagan Federation.

She remarried and her current husband, Mark, a former solider, is a fellow pagan. “We don’t have children, we’ve a stereotypical black cat,” she says. “I’m a real hermit. We live in the middle of nowhere.”

Like most pagans, she was “always looking for spiritual truth”. She became a pagan in her mid-20s, but she’s clearly wary of speaking publicly. “All pagans have learned to be on guard when dealing with journalists,” Dean says. She makes clear that paganism, unlike most mainstream faiths, “isn’t a proselytising religion”. Nobody will try to convert you. “Our numbers are going up but we don’t actively recruit.”

Dean came to paganism after her first husband’s death “pulled the rug out from under my feet”. She had been going to church but “got fed up” over the then debate about women priests. Dean started “doing magic and spells … folk witchcraft. Then I joined a coven”.

Today, though, she says: “I’d no longer refer to myself as a witch.” She has explored Druidism and Shamanism – the traditions of ancient native peoples around the world.

To non-pagans, it can be hard to work out precisely what Dean believes. She jumps from discussing Norse gods to the eastern goddess Guanyin at dizzying speed, and never fully explains what’s at the heart of her beliefs. She doesn’t like “the Western modern thing of putting labels on things … The path I follow is completely messed up”, she says, adding: “If there was a heresy test for pagans, I’d fail it.”

Perhaps the closest you can get to pinning down what Dean believes is when she explains her connection to what ancient Romans called the “genius loci” – the spirits of a place. Dean baulks at the word “worship” – it’s got too many Christian overtones – preferring to say that she “hangs out” with deities.

So, when she carries out rituals – and “hangs out” – what deities are involved? “I suppose my most daily basic practice is making offerings to the spirits of the place.” That might be something as simple as laying out bread or beer.

She is much more succinct when it comes to the negative myths around paganism. Dominant religions dismiss other faiths as “in league with evil”. Ancient Romans did that to early Christians. Today’s pagans suffer the “same slurs”.

When it comes to nudity, Dean says she’s “the biggest prude in paganism”. But she has “been naked in the countryside by myself in a very private, non-exhibiting way”, and found the experience “an awakening, so I understand why people would do it, but it’s not for me”. Ritual sex is used in lots of world religions, she adds, pointing to “eastern tantra”. When it comes to Satanism, Dean says she has “only met one Satanist in my life when I was teaching and that was a mixed-up teenager”. However, she is a “big fan” of Aleister Crowley, perhaps the most famous – or infamous, depending on your view – modern occultist.

Dean is also part of the campaign to memorialise women executed as witches in the 1600s - innocent victims, she says, who were society’s “scapegoats”. She sees refugees as the modern-day equivalent. Top of her wish list is a professionalised pagan “priesthood” where leaders are trained, vetted and earn some money.

At Halloween – or Samhain – Dean usually held rituals at Orkney’s standing stones, with about 20 people. But Covid “put an end to that”. So, she will have a “private practice, remembering the ancestors” this year and will put out some offerings. “A bit like leaving food and drink for Father Christmas.”

‘Gods are real’

JOE Parker-Kemp grew up “an RAF brat” in an air force family. He joined the army and was active in getting paganism established in the military as a faith. He once had to “battle with the chain of command to get my dog tags changed” so paganism would be listed as his religion. During training, he was told “to put a ‘real religion’ on paperwork”. Today, he is 28 and lives in Aberdeen where he works as an offshore surveyor.

Until he was 17, Kemp was an atheist, but felt a spiritual hole in his life. A “fascination with history” led him to Norse mythology. “It became a landslide,” he says. Kemp is now “spiritual leader” of a community which worships the Norse gods known as a “kindred”. His conversation is smattered in Norse language and he signs his emails “Í Fríðr” – Old Norse for “in peace”. He was attracted to the concept in Norse myths of “great heroes being venerated because what they did benefited their community. There’s a lot about the importance of wisdom”. Paganism isn’t about therapy for Kemp but “being tested to prove you’re worth being remembered as an ancestor”. Worshipping Norse gods is “an identity, much akin to nationality”.

He joined a “kindred” at 21 while still in the army, and refers to his faith as “heathenry”.

For him, “the gods are very much real”. Kemp says he has had direct “experience of the Gods” while worshipping deities like Thor, Odin and Freya. To understand these gods, read proper Norse mythology, not Marvel comics, he says, with a weary shake of the head. Norse gods are very human in their characters. Sometimes they are good, sometimes selfish and sometimes they can be “a******s”, he says.

He wears Thor’s hammer – Mjölnir – as a necklace and sports Norse tattoos. Kemp is acutely aware these symbols have been appropriated by the far right. “I’m very much against that. I’m not going to pretend it doesn’t exist within the community.” He sees myths of orgies and Satanism – “the depravity”, as he calls it – as simply a way of “denigrating” paganism. “It’s just sad people perpetuating lies. It’s drivel, made-up s**t.”

Heathens, like Kemp, don’t celebrate Samhain. Their nearest equivalent is “Winter’s Night” celebrated when the “first frost” falls. Heathens gather at an “outside altar”, spray each other with mead – Vikings once used real blood – and make a lot of noise with drums and horns. They ask Freya for prosperity for the coming year. Kemp dreams of a day when there’s a small number of pagan temples across Scotland, where believers of all the varying paths can worship.

‘I’ve walked between worlds’

LINDA Haggerstone is a spiritual adventurer. Born in Margate in 1958, the daughter of a Canadian airman, she has never really settled in her life. Since 2004, however, she has lived in Paisley and now works in data analysis for the Scottish Government, when she’s not the Scottish Pagan Federation’s interfaith officer.

She gets quite testy if the term “alternative lifestyle” is used about paganism. “It’s a way of life, a philosophy,” Haggerstone says, not an alternative lifestyle. Her grandmother influenced her path in life by “putting out saucers of milk for the fairies”, and she’s travelled the world experimenting with all sorts of belief systems including Shamanism with the Lummi tribe in America. A trained Shaman, Haggerstone has, she says, learned to “walk between worlds”. As a “child of the sixties” she also explored Hinduism and Buddhism as well as Christianity, visiting churches in America where believers “spoke in tongues and handled snakes”, and lived in fundamentalist Christian communities in Indiana. She even trained to become a Buddhist nun, and experimented with Shintoism in Japan. She is also drawn to Norse gods, especially Loki, as – like her, perhaps – he’s a “shapeshifter”. But it’s being a “Druid” which makes her most happy.

When it comes to the dark myths surrounding paganism, Haggerstone says she just “laughs, there’s such ignorance and confusion. Like, somebody has just watched The Wicker Man and they’re appalled. I’m like, okay, let’s talk about this. It’s a film first of all”. She once had a group of women from the Church of Scotland ask her about sacrifice. She pointed out that in some Christian denominations worshippers believe they’re “drinking Christ’s blood and eating his body”.

“I do laugh, but it’s not funny,” she says. “It’s incredibly frustrating because it’s hurtful to others. It makes me angry because nobody deserves this.”

Haggerstone’s “Druid Grove” – the name for both a Druid group and where they worship – “crashed, fell apart” after “the death of one of the elders”. So, currently she’s “without grove” and fed up with “solitary rituals”. However, this Samhain she will be in Manchester with the “Witches and Pagans Chaplaincy” dedicating a plaque to people who four centuries ago were just like her, Matt, Helen and Joe – victims of Britain’s witch-hunts.

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