Psst. Don't tell anybody, but it's no longer scandalous to be a pagan.
Nestled among the antique gun collectors, the dogs and people playing flyball and the flea marketers, hundreds of North Carolina pagans held their annual Pagan Pride Day Festival at the State Fairgrounds this weekend.
It was the 10th annual event, and organizers happily touted its singular claim to fame: It is the biggest gathering of Wiccans, Druids, shamans and other Earth-centered spiritualists this side of New York City.
With more than 50 vendors and about 1,000 participants for each of the festival's two days, it looked like any other fair event with families and strollers and picnickers.
At the entrance to the festival, there were barrels filled with donated cans and boxes for the N.C. Food Bank. On Saturday, a Rex blood mobile unit was stationed nearby. Sure, there were the occasional women wearing pointy black witch hats and a few girls walking around with butterfly wings attached to their backs, but overall it was hard to tell this crowd apart from fairgoers.
Asked whether pagans still suffer from discrimination, Michelle Basnett of Cary, the event's coordinator, said, "It's gotten amazingly better."
Back in 1999, the YMCA of Greater Durham backed out of an agreement to lease its Wake Forest campground to a pagan group. But these days pagans are no longer considered devil worshippers or Satanists with blood-dripping rituals.
Though there will always be some intolerance - and some pagans will remain in the "broom closet," as they call it - pagans have won some battles this decade. Most significantly, in 2007, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs accepted the pagan star or pentacle for its list of emblems allowed on government-issued headstones for soldiers.
If anything, the nation has moved on, and people are directing intolerance toward other groups.
"We really feel for Muslims in this country," added Basnett, citing the threats of Quran burnings and resistance to mosques being built around the country.
Pagans have benefited partly from the wave of environmentalism sweeping the country. Pagans feel so connected to the Earth, some prefer the term naturalists.
Beyond their attachment to nature, the seasons, and the astronomical cycles, it's hard to describe what they believe. The word pagan is a catchall to describe a wide range of beliefs with no specific creed. Pagans tend to accept almost anything, so long as it is not immoral. Many say they worship the divine wherever they find it, in nature or in themselves. Some women, in particular, said they worship a female Goddess.
Sacred festivals honor celestial events revolving around the sun and the moon. Wednesday, for example, marks the autumnal equinox, when the length of the day and night are equal.
"Primarily, its people exploring what their European ancestors practiced before they forcibly Christianized," said Michelle Jenkins of Greenville.
But though some pagans have rejected monotheistic faiths, others say they've found a way to merge their Christian and pagan beliefs. Kay L. Soto of Wilson said she still attends Mass at a Catholic church a couple of times a year.
"Our rituals are not that different," she said. "We just do ours in a circle outside."
Like all Americans, pagans like to shop. The vendors at the State Fairgrounds hawked a huge variety of wares including rocks, crystals, incense, oils, herbs, wall hangings, and lots of jewelry and clothing. By all accounts, business was brisk.
There were hoop dancing and belly dancing lessons. One woman played a hammer dulcimer. A group of men displayed the ancient medieval art of sword fighting.
Unlike their Hollywood portrayals - think "The Craft," "Practical Magic," "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" - pagans don't have a slew of supernatural tricks at their disposal.
"We're not throwing fireballs or making things levitate," said Erik Goodwin of Raleigh.
Neither are they out to hurt others.
Stephany "Sam" Milidonis of Cary, said she follows the threefold law: Whatever energy a person puts out into the world, be it positive or negative, will be returned to that person three times.
"It's a very peaceful environment," added Milidonis. "People get along well. There's no drama."
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