On a deliciously mild, late-dusk Sunday evening, an immense yellow smear of full moon rose low and silent through lacey tangles of bare tree limbs -- the perfect backdrop for my journey.
Destination: the Westside Intergenerational Center in Old Colorado City, to witness a full moon observance of Ostara, the pagan commemoration of the spring equinox.
Off to the right, Sacred Heart Catholic Church was aglow with light, organ music and people spilling out of a back door open to the mild night. Farther up the block to my left, Central Christian Church was also ablaze, the mumbly, declarative sound of a sermon barely audible through glazed windows as I strolled by and rounded the corner.
Apprehension unfurled into weird blooms as I veered across the street toward the Center entrance. I was about to enter a gathering of pagans, priests and priestesses of a pre-Christian nature religion, devotees of The Craft.
Contrary to the stereotypical image of witches as black-robed, pointy-hatted hags with gravelly voices, warty noses and hyena-like cackles, you probably couldn't pick out a witch in your average grocery store checkout line.
She or he is as likely to be the stony-countenanced biker as the beleaguered housewife with the whining kid, the navy blue-suited yuppette with the Reebok walking shoes, the silver-haired grandmother leafing through TV Guide or the tall, mellow dude with the ponytail.
Take Coreen Owens. An avowed witch, Owens is an administrator at MCI and a happily married 40-year-old mother of two kids, 18 and 5.
She was born and raised in New York City in "an Italian-Catholic version of the Ozzie and Harriet family." Mom was a homemaker, Dad a union plumber.
While regaining her bearings in the wake of a disastrous, short-lived marriage in her late teens, Owens took to reading metaphysical literature after viewing Shirley McClain's movie, Out on a Limb. "I know how hokey that sounds," she laughed, "but that movie was a real eye-opener for me."
These readings introduced her to paganism. "It suddenly dawned on me," she said, "that here were my answers. It was what I already believed, what I'm really about."
This is a theme that surfaces repeatedly in conversations with pagans: They didn't "convert" to paganism; they "came home" to it. Many say it's what they already were without knowing there was a name for it.
Owens' interest in witchcraft came accidentally, almost despite herself.
"I spotted a book in a bookstore called Hexcraft which I assumed was about Pennsylvania Dutch handcrafts," she said. "It wasn't until I got home that I realized it was about witchcraft. It scared me at first because I equated witchcraft with black magic and evil. The more I read, though, the more I loved how peaceful and wonderful it is. I had to know more."
Owens now heads her own coven. "We don't limit ourselves to rituals," she said. "We explore the spiritual side of science along the lines of Fritjof Capra's The Tao of Physics (Shambhala 1976) -- the idea, for example, that, at the quantum level, everything exists as energy."
Owens says her mother didn't bat an eye upon learning of her pagan beliefs. "Mom began telling me stories of how, when I was a baby back in New York, the little Italian women down the street did rituals over me because they said I was cursed with the evil eye."
In her free time, Owens handcrafts pagan ritual tools that she sells on the Internet and through a company in South Carolina. If sales are any indicator, paganism is growing by leaps and bounds.
"I finally stopped advertising because I couldn't keep up with the orders," she said. "I get customers from as far away as France. You'd be amazed at how many pagans are out there."
In the broom closet
Paganism is a modern revival of the goddess-centered, polytheistic, nature-based religions that dominated Mediterranean, Western and Northern Europe for thousands of years prior to Christianity.
According to the Institute for the Study of Religion in Santa Barbara, paganism is the eighth largest -- and fastest growing -- religion in the United States behind Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Baha'i.
And, alongside a burgeoning evangelical population, paganism is flourishing right here in Colorado Springs. Chris West, who heads up Earth Spirit Pagans, an organization that sponsors public pagan activities, estimates anywhere between 1,000 and 5,000 pagans live in the Pikes Peak region.
The number is difficult to estimate more precisely because pagans don't build temples, televangelize or establish formal churches. Many are solitary practitioners, and a large number keep their religion "in the broom closet," as they put it, to avoid negative attention that comes from a stigma that witches and their religion cross into the dark side.
Despite laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of religious belief, most pagans profess to know people who have been fired from their jobs, lost custody of their kids or were evicted from their apartments because they are pagan. A number of pagans interviewed for this article agreed to talk only if their real names weren't used or their identities revealed.
Looking for fireballs
We were in a room where the West Middle School band holds practice during school days and where community groups gather in the evenings. It was abuzz with chatting families, senior citizens, young professionals, flirting teenagers, darting-about little kids and mewling babies.
A handful of hooded robes and tattooed ankles were scattered among the 125 or so present, with a pentagram T-shirt here and ankh earring there. The vast majority, though, were wearing ordinary street clothes and hairstyles.
The ceremony was officiated by a young married couple. It began with everyone forming a large circle around an altar -- a card table draped with flowers, shells, candles, beads, bread and orange juice, and various decorative objects.
Dressed in a black robe, the male officiate silently circled the assemblage while performing ritualistic gestures at each of "the four directions" with a ceremonial dagger called an "athame." He then circumnavigated the worshipers a second time, cleansing the circle with sprinkled water, lighted candles, scattered pinches of salt, and incense smoke curly-cueing from a swinging censer.
That done, the head priestess sequentially faced each of the four directions, her arms held wide in supplication, to call upon a long list of protective figures and invite "the Goddess" to enter their midst in her springtime manifestation as flower maiden.
With everyone still seated in a circle on the floor, the only light coming from flickering altar candles, she proceeded to serenely narrate an allegorical tale laced with Celtic mythology and symbolism about the meaning of spring.
Next up was the interval devoted to ceremonial magic. My interest sharpened and my antennae zeroed in. Here, surely, some psychic sparks would fly.
The male officiate clicked on a tape deck to fill the shadowy room with strains of highly dramatic, ultra-Romantic piano music. We were instructed to "quiet our inner selves," visualize an image or desire, slowly gather energy around it and put increasing energy behind it, and then, at the dramatic climax of the musical piece, collectively release that pent-up energy as a visualized ball of light into the center of the circle and then up into the sky.
I panned the room for hints of a fireball, a shadowy epiphany, swooshing curtains or even a stifled giggle, but detected nothing.
A moment of silence later, the lights came back on and the bread and juice were passed clockwise around the circle, each person breaking off a piece and feeding it to the person to his or her left with the salutation: "May you never hunger." The communal juice was passed around to the salutation, "May you never thirst."
Last up was a "joys and concerns" session, where people related glad tidings in their lives or told of problems or needs. A string of announcements concluded the service, followed by cookies, chips and dip, coffee and informal socializing.
As church services go, it proved surprisingly similar, though perhaps more relaxed and informal to most Christian celebrations I've sat through. In fact, I experienced some oddly dj vu moments that took me back to the Wednesday night prayer meetings and "testimony" sessions of my fundamentalist youth.
Paganism encompasses a variety of loosely related sects, beliefs and traditions, the largest of which is Wiccan. "Wicca," the etymological root of the term "witch" is an Anglo-Saxon word meaning "to bend or shape." Witchcraft, then, is the craft of bending reality toward a desired end, much the way a Christian attempts to do via prayer.
The caricature of witches bending over bubbly potions in black cauldrons and consorting with the devil, making crops blight and cows run dry, dates back to the Spanish Inquisition (ca. 1450 to 1792).
Malleus Maleficarum (The Witch's Hammer), published in 1490, served as a reference text in witch trials. Witches, it claimed, fly on broomsticks, cause lightning and hail, change into animals, practice child sacrifice and cause miscarriages.
Historians estimate that between 1550 and 1650, at least 500,000 people -- most of them women -- were executed as witches, burned at the stake. And, during the 300-year Inquisition between the late 15th to the late 18th centuries, an estimated two million accused witches were executed, according to the Encyclopedia Americana.
Modern pagans refer to that era as "the burning times" and view it the way Jews do the Holocaust.
Joseph Pickle, a religion professor at Colorado College, suggests that present-day antipathy to paganism by some Christians is "a function of the rebirth of paganism in our century as an intentionally alternative religion.
"Pagans claim to seek a spiritual truth that is older, deeper and more primal than established religions," he said. "Certain fundamentalists take that as hostile to everything they hold important and see it as part of a larger, Armageddon-type conflict between the powers of evil and the powers of light."
"Most Christian groups, though, are more puzzled and bemused by pagans than they are threatened by them," he continued. "They think they're mistaken and wrong-headed, but not evil."
Pagans do not serve -- or even acknowledge the existence of -- Satan. The devil, they staunchly insist, is a Christian myth. As one elder witch, or "crone" put it, "Christians invented him; they can have him. We give no more thought to Satan than Christians do to Zeus or Ra."
The two primary pagan deities are "the Goddess," who manifests the female aspect of nature (as in Mother Nature); and "the God," which is a horned, Pan-like lord of the hunt who represents nature in its male aspect. Together, these deities form a kind of yin/yang composite.
The popular figure of the devil as a horned figure can be traced directly to the Spanish Inquisition. During that time the caricature of the Pan-like lord -- a horned figure with goat-like haunches, cloven hooves and a pointy tail -- became synonymous with the devil and became a part of popular folklore.
Pagans strongly believe it is this misconception that leads the public to equate witchcraft with Satan worship -- a fallacy that continues to be propagated by Hollywood. In consequence, many Christians presume witchcraft is sinister, dangerous and evil. "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" enjoins the Bible in Exodus 22:18.
Even some Wiccans object to being called witches because of the negative connotations it has with the general public. "I'm uncomfortable with the term," explained one, a co-owner of a janitorial business. "My spirituality is very sacred to me and 'witch' has too many negative connotations."
Others take pride in the term, but reject the satanic association.
Myles Lofton (not his real name) is 24. An information technologist, Lofton keeps his work world and religious life carefully separate.
"My beliefs might make some people I work with uncomfortable," he said, "and my fundamentalist friends would never stop trying to convert me, which gets tiresome.
Lofton is not at odds with his Catholic upbringing. "A lot of pagans seem to have had a more negative experience with Christianity than I did," he said. "I never made a clean break. My view of God and the universe has changed little from my Catholic days.
"I totally believe you if you say you've had certain faith experiences and have a personal relationship with God," he said, "but I don't believe yours is the only way. I still believe in the power of the sacraments, but I don't believe that power is limited to the institution run by the Vatican."
Lofton, interestingly, insists he became pagan in obedience to God's will. "I am pagan because on my personal journey God asked me to take a lateral step onto a different path," he said.
Believing God to have "many faces," Lofton reads widely in Buddhism, Hinduism, and centers his practice on the Kabbalah.
He met his wife, also an information technologist, in college. Well-known in local pagan circles, the couple co-lead many of the public celebrations sponsored by Earth Spirit Pagans.
An "earth-based" religion, paganism aligns its worship to the seasonal cycles, the so-called Wiccan "Wheel of Life." Services take place on new and full moons (esbats) and on the solstices, equinoxes and their midpoints (sabbats).
Pagans believe that all nature is alive with a vitalizing energy, or "life force," and that this force has both a male and a female aspect that is manifested in "the Goddess" and "the God."
One pagan explained it this way: "If you take the Christian Bible and put it out in the wind and the rain, soon the pages on which the words are printed will disintegrate and the words will be gone. Our Bible is the wind and the rain."
"When you come to understand and work with the natural rhythms of the world around you," another said, "you understand what it means to be pagan."
Pagans practice ceremonial magic as a technique by which to tap the vitalizing life force, "work up the energies," supply them with purpose, and then will them toward some target to promote healing or spiritual development.
Pagan magic utilizes chants, spells, gestures, singing, dancing, poetry reading, candlelight and incense, and occasional ritual nudity (what pagans call "skyclad") as tools for gathering, amplifying and transferring the energies inherent in nature from one locale to another in order to affect change.
It is considered unethical and a serious misuse of magic to manipulate anyone into doing something contrary to his or her will -- including falling in love -- but pagans believe it is entirely possible to do that.
As a self-styled crone disapprovingly observed: "In all my years in the pagan community, 85 percent of the men who get into Wicca do it less to work on their spirituality than to acquire power over others. You can do that, but never, never do it. That's a karmic debt that you will pay with regret."
Not everyone believes that pagan nature worship is benign. Some fundamentalists, in particular, take issue with pagan kinship with Mother Earth, claiming that worshiping anything other than Jesus is nothing more than being possessed by demons.
Likewise, many born-agains take issue with the central and matriarchal bent of paganism.
Paganism claims to honor the female aspect of divinity equally with the male, but pagan rites hail women as "first among equals," and the Goddess -- despite protestations to the contrary -- has preeminence over the God, though both are revered and considered essential.
By contrast, many fundamentalists have a specific aversion to paganism's feminist bent, calling it contrary to "God's plan" and a threat to the family unit. A 1999 Focus on the Family pamphlet entitled Satanism warns that "many modern witches are radical feminists who feel their 'religion' is the spiritual element of the ecology movement."
This caution is echoed in an anti-witchcraft Web site, www.forerunner.com, that links paganism with "rebellion," rebellion with feminism, and feminism with Jezebel, the wicked (rebellious) Old Testament queen and devotee of Baal.
Citing I Samuel 15:23 -- "For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is an iniquity and idolatry" -- the author warns that "rebellion is the foundation of witchcraft" and that feminism is the epitome of the rebellious spirit. It is the duty of Christians, accordingly, to "drive Jezebel out of the Church and from our nation. There can be no victory [for Christ in America] without the radical commitment to fight witchcraft."
First among equals
Theresa Colten, 64, describes herself both as a Wiccan crone and a recovering Christian.
"I grew up attending the Nazarene church, which taught that men are the head of the house in the same way that Christ is head of the church. A fundamentalist who thinks, though," she said, "won't remain a fundamentalist for long."
A retired librarian, Colten has a B.A. in German literature and a Master's in library science, both from the University of California at Los Angeles.
Upon leaving home, Colten tried out "a number of paths, everything from New Age to Mormon." In her 25 years as a librarian in the L.A. Public Library, she spent many a lunch hour exploring the facility's massive religion section.
"I was browsing the books on a shelf at eye level one day when, for no reason at all, a book about reincarnation fell onto my feet off the bottom shelf," she said. "It was through reading that book that I discovered Wicca."
Colten raised three kids as a single mother, never marrying. She moved to Manitou Springs in 1992 after she retired.
"I'm a raging, radical feminist," she proudly observed in her jolly, grandmotherly warble. "I was a charter subscriber to Ms. magazine. I respect paganism because it acknowledges the worth of women. When I heard a Wiccan teacher say that 'women are first among equals,' I shouted 'Yeaaaay!'"
The romance of the gods
Paganism touches a deep-seated romantic bent in many practitioners, especially those who relish the "ancient of days" aura of their faith and delight in legend, myth, costume and centuries-old ceremony.
One such person is Margo Adler, the National Public Radio correspondent and avowed Wiccan. She describes in her 1979 book, Drawing Down the Moon, her epical study of paganism in North America, how Wicca reaffirmed her childhood love of mythology.
Adler attended a unique New York City grammar school that encouraged students to immerse themselves in a favorite historical period. Choosing ancient Greece, she was fascinated to discover that the Greek gods offered "stronger and healthier role models" than anything else available to a young girl in the 1950s.
Years later, she was inspired by Princeton professor and best-selling author John McPhee's book, Encounters with the Arch-Druid, to search for a way to merge ecological with spiritual concerns. She discovered Wicca and was delighted to find it rekindling her love of mythology.
"I simply accepted, reaffirmed and extended a very old experience," she writes of her new faith. "I allowed certain kinds of feelings to come back into my life."
Live, eat, fight, love, die
Charlie Skinner grew up in the Bible Belt of rural Texas, but he was fascinated by the Norse pantheon. "I absorbed Christianity by osmosis," he said, "but the Norse gods seemed a lot more real to me than the figures I learned about in Sunday school."
Skinner was active in an evangelical group in college, but he began reassessing his beliefs and looking into "alternative traditions" when, at age 27, he lost his wife and two sons in a house fire.
His explorations included paganism.
"Paganism returned me to the love of my youth, the Norse gods," he explained. "These were gods I could relate to. They lived, they fought, they ate, they drank, they married, they cried, they died."
Skinner began studying Asatru, the branch of paganism based on the writings of the Edda, a 12th century transcription of an even older Norse oral narrative.
Asatru is centered on the Nine Noble Virtues of courage, truth, honor, discipline, fidelity, hospitality, industriousness, self-reliance and perseverance. It is the second state religion of Iceland, and almost half the population of Norway is Asatruan.
Skinner tells of encountering "The Wild Hunt" while driving home one night after the second shift at an East Texas manufacturing facility.
"We ran into a thunderstorm of epic proportions that manifested itself differently to me than to anyone else in the car," he said. "I saw lightning in colors that couldn't possibly exist, I heard the baying of the hounds, I felt the presence of the gods. I realized then and there that the gods had chosen me."
Now a full-fledged Asatru priest with bonafide clergy papers from the American Vineland Association, Skinner heads a group of 20 local practitioners.
"We believe in taking responsibility for ourselves," Skinner explained. "Our gods don't respect people who won't help themselves. There's no Big Daddy to bail us out if we screw up."
Whether you're aware of it or not, you likely know several pagans. Next time you spy a bumper sticker to the effect of "Goddess bless," "Blessed be," "The Goddess is alive and magic is afoot," "My goddess gave birth to your God," "Magic happens" or "Ankh if you love Isis," check out the driver.
Chances are he or she is pagan. A priest or priestess in The Craft.