Merry Meet! Social and Spiritual Community in a Boston Pagan Group
Written by Benjamin Grimm *(posted with permission and written as a part of religious ethnography undertaken as part of his studies at Harvard University). Thank you Ben!
With her hand raised and her gaze directed toward the astral plane hanging just above our heads, Shelley proceeded around the circle, reciting an incantation. “By the blessings that the God and Goddess unfurl, the circle is cast; we are between the worlds.” By flickering candlelight, the quarters were called and the space cleansed with salt and water. Sitting around the dimly illuminated altar to Sulis-Minerva, Angel led the group in a breathing exercise. As we focused on the breath flowing from one nostril to the other, the noise of the improvisational comedy show in the next room grew louder through the thin French doors separating us.
“I need a word or a phrase from the audience…Cheese grater? Here is the history of the cheese grater,” announced the muffled voice of a confident actor. “You see, in medieval times, everyone was worried about finding witches. And everyone knows that witches love cheese!” The atmosphere in the ritual shifted as people struggled to maintain measured breathing against rising snickers. “So when the king’s men wanted to find a witch to burn, they would follow the trails of grated cheese that witches leave everywhere to find their lairs!” Although objectively quite a poor display of comedy, the ritual broke apart into laughter, our reaction to the ironic juxtaposition of a group of witches next to the unsuspecting comedians dwarfing the reaction of the actual audience. We wheezed and wiped tears for a number of minutes trying to regain our composure.
After the ritual, Shelley explained that as they take place in a “community space,” the rituals often overlap with other events. Of all the groups she has encountered, she finds the comedy group the most enjoyable to work with. Shelley then leaned me aside with her and lowered her voice. “You got lucky this time,” she told me. “Once it was a flamenco group.”
The community aspects of contemporary paganism have been largely ignored in academic study. The paucity of attention paid to pagan communities owes its impetus both to the (assumed) individualistic thrust of paganism and to the comparatively private nature of pagan practice in the United States when considered alongside more historically-visible Judeo-Christian communities. While, in the past four decades, earth-based spiritualities have received an increasing amount of dedicated study, focus has remained primarily on practical elements of pagan practice and the historical emergence of neo-paganism, and not upon the human aspects of pagan community – a focus which has blossomed in the ethnographic literature of other religious traditions. Community, however, is as vibrant and as vital in a pagan context as in any religious environment; in fact, because of the historical ostracizing of pagans from public religiosity and the only recent possibility of online networking, community perhaps occupies an even more salient place in the minds of pagan practitioners in modern America.
This paper emerges from three months of fieldwork with a pagan community group in Boston called the Cornucopia Collective. This community group is run by a married couple, Shelley and Angel, who graciously welcomed me into their fold. Going into the project, I was armed with a number of lofty expectations. I intended to focus on the role of the sacred community in paganism and the act of creating sacred space, evoking the specter of Durkheim. During my first interview with Shelley, I fumbled for appropriate terminology, asking “How would you describe your…coven? Collective.” Politely, but firmly, Shelley corrected me: “Community.” It was clear quite immediately that despite being a project centered around religion, the community saw itself on an important social level. The scope of my project thus quickly changed, and while the issue of sacredness did not disappear from view, it receded into a broader landscape that privileged experience and the individual over theoretical considerations.
In this work, I hope to evince a number of the issues that emerged through my encounters with individuals in the community: leadership, openness, belonging, and happiness emerged as recurring forces at stake. I found that essential aspects of the community experience undergirded the spiritual nature of the group; individuals sought out the group and returned to it because it enriched their lives on a deeply personal level, beyond the bounded spiritual sphere. I discovered that the discourse of leadership revealed a clear intentionality in shaping the community to this end; choices are frequently and intentionally made about what type of community the group wants to foster and what types of issues they endeavor to address. I thus strive to explicate some of the active dynamics which continue to shape the development of the group.
I endeavor to achieve a balance between the register of academicism and everyday speech, an equilibrium demonstrated for me by many of the individuals I spoke with. In doing so, I attempt a mimesis of their artful blend between formal and casual language, hoping to stay true to the type of discourse that takes place within the community itself.
Coming to the Community
The Cornucopia Collective was started by Shelley and Angel in January of 2015. Though a fledgling group, it has established itself as one of the most active in the Greater Boston area. While the group bears an official title, I rarely heard it referenced as such; instead, Shelley and Angel call it “the community,” or simply “the group.” This open group holds three types of events, each occurring about once a month: rituals and classes are offered, along with a newer ‘process group,’ a more informal gathering in which to discuss personal issues of spirituality in a confidential space. The community is comprised of an “inner circle” of leadership and an “outer circle” made up of the variety of individuals who come to events. Membership is conceived of very generously; anyone who comes to the circle “in the spirit of perfect love and perfect trust” is welcomed with no initiation or qualifications necessary. Within the outer circle, certain individuals emerge as ‘regulars.’ A core cadre of perhaps a dozen people come to almost every event. In total, during my three months in the community, I met some fifty different individuals. Many come once and do not return, though some return on-and-off depending on their availability. For those who commute from outside of Boston, attending events becomes a significant commitment.
The rituals are held in Harvard Square, in an unusual building called the Democracy Center, a “21st century meeting house” in which groups and individuals can rent rooms for incomparably low prices. The first ritual I attended with the group, recounted in part in the opening vignette, was my first visit to the Center, and I was surprised to find it nestled in a stretch of businesses, just beside a popular restaurant to which I have been a number of times. I climbed the steps of the rather unimposing edifice and entered the foyer. The building is old – I heard somewhere that it was an old fraternity house that was later purchased and renovated, and it has that paradox of renovation, old, musty walls meeting anachronistically chipper wood floors. The Center has four rooms available for rent, and the pagan group uses the second largest for rituals, with the space beside it as a pre-ritual gathering place and post-ritual space to stay and chat.
Because of the nature of the Center, it is always a toss-up as to what groups may be sharing the space on a given night. The close proximity of simultaneous events is naturally not ideal. Besides noise problems, the confluence of events often leads to confused comedy fans, book club attendees, and heavy metal rock players walking into the pagan meeting by accident. When Shelley notices someone peeking into the room with minor confusion, she will ask matter-of-factly, “Are you here for the comedy show, or for the witches?” Despite the annoyances, Shelley considers the overlapping schedules to be, at the very least, good practice at tuning things out and remaining in the ritual mindset.
As I walked into the Center for the first time, Shelley greeted me and welcomed me with a hug. I had met with her over coffee to discuss my project once before, and with her brilliantly vibrant red hair – dyed, although by some magic I have never once seen a root growing in – she was not hard to remember. She introduced me immediately to her wife Angel, whose dark, curly hair and freckled brown skin contrast charmingly with Shelley. Sitting uncomfortably in a circle of folding chairs, I stayed quiet and listened to the casual conversation of those around me. As soon as Shelley began introducing the ritual, the room came to attention. Shelley and Angel proved immediately to be charismatic leaders.
Although their personal paths to paganism are quite different, Shelley and Angel share a passion for fostering a welcoming and vibrant community of pagan practitioners. Coming from a tight-knit pagan community in Maine, Shelley felt quickly isolated and disconnected by the lack of pagan connections in Boston. She and Angel decided to start their own group. In shepherding the group from its origins to its present state, Shelley and Angel were sharply aware of their intentions. They are both bright individuals. In their extemporaneous speech, they display not only extensive factual knowledge and an impressive working vocabulary, but also a constanly reflective self-awareness. It thus comes as no surprise that their conceptions of leadership are carefully formulated and articulated.
Shelley and Angel are, plainly, excellent leaders in every right. In addition to their careful consideration on an intellectual level, they orchestrate impressive community events, such as a joint Beltane ritual with another pagan alliance and a partnership with an artist focused on the environment. Shelley is a natural performer – shifting between formal and informal dialogues, assuming voices and accents, she easily inhabits a performative role in a group setting, while admitting that she is naturally more reserved, and that “this is really hard for me.” She has fought past her natural reticence because she feels a true calling to help the community. Angel is naturally quieter, speaking up on occasion to supplement or reinterpret what Shelley has said or to offer a joke. Together, they orient the group without forcing its path, and create an “openhearted’ environment, in the words of one member.
The most important aspect of leadership to both is service to the needs of the community. They reflect thoughtfully having “tried to format some rules and structures” for the group at its inception, and finding that it had adverse effects. “That kind of made us go back to the drawing board [and focus on] what is the need that is waiting to be filled and letting it evolve.” A force that has to be balanced in serving the needs of the community is the issue of finance. Shelley and Angel run the group on donations in addition to their ‘day jobs.’ In a perfect world, Shelley and Angel would love to establish a steadier financial base for the group so that they can open “pagan community center,” a dedicated space for the Boston pagan community. The circle often runs at an emotional and financial cost for Shelley and Angel. At the same time, however, their reliance on donations is emblematic to many of their authentic nature. At an informal post-ritual gathering, a member of the group mentioned that they had considered joining a coven in Salem, only to find out that their two-day workshops cost up to five hundred dollars to participate in. Everyone expressed their discomfort with viewing a spiritual community as contingent upon money, and praised Shelley and Angel for their sacrifice for the community.
Something that Angel and Shelley value very highly is their authenticity as leaders. A word that they gravitate toward is “conscientious.” For Shelley, the “starting point is keeping my ego in check.” While technically a priestess, she emphasizes that titles are “made up,” and that everyone has to “come to this work very humbly.” Angel takes a different angle on the qualities of good leadership. Coming from a background in hospitality work and as a chef, Angel prioritizes “helping people know, and making them feel like they are in good hands.” Both emphasize the importance of individual experience: “you’re not buying a thing, a service…I’m not a provider of spiritual whoosie-whatsits” Angel once explained. Shelley concurred that “we have that consumer culture idea that ‘I want my money’s worth’…I can’t provide that experience for you…it’s not an intravenous drug I can shoot you up with.” Their leadership is focused explicitly on the needs of the individual, to whose service they dedicate themselves fully.
The Individual: meeting S
Shelley and Angel’s centering of the community on the needs of its individual members necessitates a close consideration of how the individual functions within their group. Individualism is often characterized as occupying a significant role in earth-based spiritualities. Though all religions function on an individual level in some way, the historical persecution and persistent ostracizing of pagan practitioners created a fertile environment in which for secrecy and staunch individualism to root. Moreover, because paganism is not traditionally inherited from family, most pagan practitioners discover it on their own, often books or more recently, on the internet. As a result, the majority of the pagans I have encountered began practicing in solitude before joining a community. This contrasts greatly with the Abrahamic faiths, in which most members are inducted into the community from childhood. Because it is rarely easy to find, community tends not to be taken-for-granted; people are aware of what they are looking for and make active choices as to what types of groups with which to involve themselves.
While stories of coming to paganism are variegated and ubiquitously interesting, one individual from the community has a particularly fascinating journey. S works as a geneticist in Boston, and has been involved with Shelley and Angel’s group for about six months. Known to wear neutral colors and a long tan trenchcoat – they admit a love of the style of reserved British men – they are an instantly endearing individual. Reserved, but insightful, their quiet demeanor does little to suggest their complex religious journey. Growing up in Southern Massachusetts, S was raised in a quite devout Catholic family. At a young age, they felt a calling to a vocation in the Church, and began candidacy to become a nun after graduating from college. However, the election of Pope Benedict led to new and invasive questions about prospective religious leaders’ sexual orientation. As a result, S was dismissed and told “we’re never going to give you an option or an opportunity to do this. You’re not the right kind of people.” After a period of reflection, S joined an Episcopalian order of nuns for two years. However, after realizing that they could not honestly assent to the idea that Jesus is the Messiah, they left the order.
After living intermittently in a Hindu ashram, a Buddhist monastery, and with an Orthodox Jewish family, S developed a fascination with Norse mythology, and began to attend a number of Norse meet-up groups in Boston. However, their experiences were largely negative:
[At the] first meet-up that I went to I had to have an argument with someone about how folks of color are actual human beings with dignity and rights…[once] I had a man try to convince me that he could ‘cure me’ of my ‘lesbianism’ and he followed me to the T to the point where I had to ask a friend to come meet me.
As a result, S was greatly discouraged about the prospects of finding community relations beyond work and family. Through their study of Norse mythology, their interest in pagan spirituality was piqued. They heard about Shelley and Angel’s group and thought “I’ll give it one more chance and if I can’t find a community that doesn’t feel hateful and cruel and oppressive, then I’m just gonna give up.” When they came to their first ritual with Shelley and Angel, they were immediately struck by the fact that the group was led by a lesbian couple – “at least I can probably tack homophobia off the list,” they thought. After hearing Angel speak about her experiences with prejudice against people of color in paganism, S became more and more comfortable: “there were increasing numbers of things I [didn’t] have to worry about,” and Shelley and Angel’s awareness of intersectional issues made them “more likely to come back.”
While S’s story is certainly more complicated than many of the individuals in the group, it does reflect a common struggle to find a place of belonging not just in a spiritual, but also in a personal sense. S expresses their impulse to seek out a pagan community as “just that quintessentially human desire to be around other people who might be jazzed about the things you’re jazzed about.” Many individuals do come to the circle seeking spiritual guidance, or more nearly, help discovering resources that can help them develop spiritually – it is not uncommon to hear members asking Shelley for book recommendations. Yet, individuals continue to return to group activities for reasons beyond spiritual counsel. S astutely notes that “the actual practice of ritual is really important but also there’s a reason why we all don’t just practice by ourselves.” The vital force at play is the social dimension of the community, especially for individuals, like S, who have felt repeatedly excluded and set apart from other types of community spaces. While community is important in the ritual aspect, rituals can be performed alone, and often are. Being part of a community improves their experiences spiritually not necessarily because a community is necessary to perform acts of reverence, but because the very human social interactions improve their sense of belonging and quality of life. The words that people use to describe the circle reflect its beneficial social roles: “welcoming,” “grounding,” and “stable” are emotional, human-oriented perceptions of the community’s worth.
The Sacred and the Social
Among the initial intentions of this project was to reach an understanding of the means by which sacred community was imagined. Part of the theoretical bedrock of this initiative was the idea of community as the locus of the collective symbol. In his incisive volume Symbolic Construction of Community, anthropologist Anthony P. Cohen argues that “people construct community symbolically, making it a resource and repository of meaning, and a referent of their identity.” The notion of identity contained within the community is echoed in the work of Émile Durkheim, who argues that religion is an “eminently social thing” which reflects and shapes the collective identity of those who contribute to it. Admittedly greatly influenced by these authors, I surely entered my fieldwork with a biased sensitivity to the question of community construction and symbolizing the sacred.
I found, however, that the crux of the spiritual experience in Shelley and Angel’s group lies not in the division of a sacred sphere from the mundane, but instead in the confluence and interplay of the social and sacred dynamics. Ritual represents a clear occasion in which the two intermix. Like many pagan groups in the United States, Shelley and Angel’s group does not have a purpose-built edifice under which they gather. A physically sacred space, as well as a spiritual temple, has to be built anew at every meeting through the focus of psychic energy. Shelley articulates before the ritual that the act of casting the circle acts as a way of dividing mundane and sacred modes of being. This liminal realm exists apart from the timbre of daily life, “between the worlds” – that is, the worlds of humans and gods. The group as a whole is drawn into this special space, lifted out of the mesh of the mundane and suspended, for a while, in a state with greater access to the divine.
However, as revealed through the farcical interposing of the improvised comedy show, the mundane world can never fully blocked out from the sacred – neither physically nor conceptually. Of course, the group functions at times on a purely social level. After the larger festival days, the group hosts “post-ritual potlucks” where people gather after the event to stay and chat, sometimes for hours, about politics, television, and beer. However, while there exists a sacred and special ritual space, it is not disconnected from the tenor of normal life. In this sphere, the continuum of the social runs through every ritual moment. Shelley cherishes the ability of the group to move so fluidly between the two extremes:
We follow a very, traditionally Wiccan framework for our ritual. But there’s air to breathe. When the comedy group next to us is cracking us all up, there’s room for us to all go ‘holy crap that is awesome’…There’s absurdity in everything we’re doing, and we embrace it…We play with these different paradigms of absurdity and sanctity.
The capacity to intermix sacred and mundane makes Shelley and Angel’s rituals incredibly resilient. The ability to recover from a laughing fit during a healing ritual is one among many stories of adaptation. Some adjustments are small, such as passing the offering of bread, around the circle a second time because it is so tasty. Other situations require greater coping. During the group’s first celebration of Beltane, the celebration of May involving the maypole, they got rained out and had to move indoors. An hour before the ritual was meant to begin, Angel was shoving a large wooden dowel into a Christmas tree stand, pouring quick-set cement around it, and frantically blowing on it so that it would dry before the ritual began and so that the maypole would remain steady. Nevertheless, shortly into the procession, the whole structure toppled, so Shelley ended up sitting cross-legged on the ground, hugging the maypole to her chest for support and singing “In! And out! And in! And out!” Angel smiled while telling me this story, seeming to recall how the absurdity of the moment only made the celebratory ritual even more of a celebration. The intermixing of sacred and absurd indeed seems only to enrich the spirit of the group. Angel connects the ability to adjust to non-ideal situations to turning focus from outcome to experience: “It’s about not being attached to results…I’m a little more prone to attachment because of my hospitality background.” The goal, in ritual as in broader community initiative, is not to follow structure for its own sake, but to respond organically to the individual.
The flexibility of the sacred mindset functions endows the group with the necessary ability to continue even under difficult conditions, but it also makes their gatherings simply fun. The ability to laugh and enjoy the lighthearted interactions within the ritual space enriches individuals’ experience of spirituality and draws people back time and again. People are drawn to Shelley and Angel’s group for a panoply of reasons beyond just spiritual experience; they come seeking all of the emotional and personal boons that come from having a community of loving and kind individuals. S credits the older women in the group for being “really emotionally available [and] very open about being new to paganism, [which] really normalizes not having to be an expert.” The acceptance and belonging which many feel in the circle enhances their spiritual experiences, grounding them in a loving environment. In short, spiritual prosperity rests upon social prosperity.
…and Merry Part, and Merry Meet Again!
From the beginning of my fieldwork until its end, I knew that I had hit upon a rich community dynamic inhabited by vibrant individuals. Moving quickly away from my ossified expectations, I began to notice just how important the social dynamics of an ostensibly religious group wree. Everyone, it seemed, was thinking actively about the type of community they wanted to experience. While Shelley and Angel considered the responsibilities of a conscientious leader, individuals in the group worked toward forging an open and accepting atmosphere for all. The startling realization made during this project was that these actions operated most crucially on a humanistic level; at least in this particular case study, ‘community’ came to take precedence over any of the modifiers that might come before it (religious, pagan, local). The issues of pagan community are the issues of any community – leadership, outreach, comfort – and though their richness lies in their particular emplacement within a pagan environment, their power comes in their reflection of broader dimensions in any social group. The social stratum underlies the spirituality of the group, and although a sacred space is delimited for rituals, it is shot through with the mundane. This relaxed and open environment fosters positive, rich relationships between members of the group, and between the individual and the divine.
At the end of the day, as the candles from ritual are being extinguished and the table runners folded, what matters most is that the experience of the people who share in the community, who join the circle as it is cast wider and wider, is positive. Shelley glows as she reflects on the fact that “the intention that we set has come to fruition…We have that community. It’s alive. It’s amazing.” S too remarks on the fulfilling nature of the group. They also find a broader lesson in their experience: it reveals both the “beauty and faults” of being in a community, and it teaches “you not to place expectations on people that limit their humanity.” In encountering a group of intelligent individuals who already consider the same issues of community that I hoped to address in my study, I found, like S, a group of people “jazzed” about topics about which I was passionate, and thus I too was enchanted by the group like so many others. The only criticisms that I heard during my time were the traditional gripes: more classes, different focuses, more advertising and so on, in whining monotone. The group, still young, will continue to grow, and with Shelley and Angel leading it, will forge exciting new avenues.
Ending my first interview with Shelley and Angel in March, I asked if they had any of their own goals for the group in the future. Growing a bit misty-eyed, they spoke about their dream of a community center. They hope also to expand the offerings of their events, and to offer “a queer group, a pagans of color group, a men’s group, a women’s group” and other spaces in which intersectional identity can be directly addressed. In the meantime, however, they will continue to serve the needs of the community where they see them. Despite the impressive growth of the group in just over a year of existence, Shelley and Angel concede that they still have ambitions that outpace them. Angel admitted once during a conversation “we need people to help us grow. We can’t do it all.” Playing innocent, Shelley asked in a childish voice, “I can’t?” Angel leaned over and said lovingly, “No, baby,” to which Shelley responded “You sure? I try so hard to do it all,” before both broke into smiles.
Adler, Margot. Drawing down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today. New York: Viking, 1979. Print.
Barner-Barry, Carol. Contemporary Paganism: minority religions in a majoritarian America. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005
Berger, Helen A. A Community of Witches: contemporary neo-paganism and witchcraft in the United States. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1999.
Cabot, Laurie. The Power of the Witch: The Earth, the Moon, and the Magical Path to Enlightenment. Delta Books, 1990
Cohen, Anthony P. The Symbolic Construction of Community. New York: Tavistock Publications, 1985. Print.
Cunningham, Scott. Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner. Llewellyn Publications, 1989.
Durkheim, Émile. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Trans. Karen E. Fields. New York: Free Press, 1995. Print.
Harvey, Graham. Contemporary Paganism: religions of the earth from Druids and witches to heathens and ecofeminists. New York: New York UP, 2011.
Hastings, Heather Ann. The Wiccan Religion: a case study of a symbolic community. New Brunswick: University of New Brunswick, 1998.
Smith, Kenney. “"You've Been Wonderful Neighbors": Key Factors in the Successful Integration of a Wiccan Coven into a Suburban Community in the Southeastern United States.” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, Vol. 12 (1). Berkley: University of California Press, 2008. 103-115.
 The Celto-Roman goddess of the sacred well in Bath, England, also known as Minerva Medica and Aquae Sulis.
 See Adler, Cabot, Cunningham, among others.
 From a pagan perspective, Adler, while academically see Barner-Barry, Harvey, and White.
 Those works that do address community aspects of Wicca (Smith, Hastings, Berger) are largely unknown.
 This coven, like most private groups, runs for profit and requires initiation to achieve membership. Unlike Shelley and Angel’s public group, these covens rarely advertise.
 Viz. Santería and vodou, in which communion with the divine often, although not always, takes on the character of a plea for intercession and efficacious results on the individual level in exchange for devotion.
 See Adler
 S, who uses they/them/their pronouns, uses a monogrammatic title instead of their legal name for personal reasons.
 S does not identify as female and considers themselves asexual and attracted to folks of all genders. They admit however that they are often perceived as female and most of their relationships have been with women, and thus to many removed parties, “it reads as lesbian.” Speaking of their dismissal from the Church, they said in joking seriousness “There was no nuance on the part of the Catholic Church. I know you’re surprised.”
 Cohen 118
 Durkheim 9
 At the beginning of each ritual, Shelley casts a circle by lifting her hand up above our heads and, her eyes gazing off toward the astral realm, walking around the circumference of the circle and reciting an incantation that invokes the goddess. The circle casting defines the sacred space and its visitors.
 “It is like being asked to plan a wedding or something,” Angel once joked. Despite advertising in 9 different online location, Shelley says they still continue to get complaints that they should advertise more.