“I hope I’ll get it as a gift for Solstice,” said Andrea Bunch at a recent party when talking about a bottle of wine she had laid eyes on. Solstice is December 21st, the shortest day of light in the year and it is celebrated by Pagans and NeoPagans around the world. Andrea, 31, is a teacher in Chicago, an accomplished musician with two albums, and a NeoPagan. Before you start thinking only about broomsticks and the Salem Witch Trials, think again; our interview with Bunch answers everything you ever wanted to know about Pagan spirituality but were afraid to ask.
BustedHalo: Were you raised with a particular faith or religion?
Andrea Bunch: Not specifically, but [my family] went to a Unitarian church. My mom and my dad and I would spend a lot of time outdoors and it would be very good quality time and they were instructive about noticing the beauty of those places and taking quiet time. As a child, I was outside a lot; running in the woods and those places.
BH: How many years have you described your path as Pagan? How did your family and friends respond to your spiritual path?
AB: I have named what I feel “Paganism” for probably 20 plus years. In the Davenport, Iowa, Unitarian Church my mom was the Director of Youth Religious Ed. She and the other teachers led a lot of rituals and study based on other cultures, many with animistic paradigms. We learned that Europeans called these folks ‘pagans’ and that indeed, anyone who was not a Christian was thought of as ‘pagan’. I connected most easily to systems of spirituality that were earth based, so, I thought of myself as a pagan as soon as I learned what the word meant.
I will never forget when we built a corn husk arch outside on the church hill one clear autumn morning. I was 9 or 10. I can’t remember many specifics of the lesson, or even the Native American tribe we were learning about, but as we decorated the arch I felt that unmistakable quickening of Spirit. It became clear to me that decorations, creating human made beauty out of nature, was an act of gratitude! I felt so much joy and deep connection to the corn stalks and the blue sky! In Iowa, corn & corn fields are everywhere, all the time. But I had never thanked the corn for feeding me and my family. I had never thanked the sun for offering the life force, the rain for quenching the thirst of all the plants and animals. I was blown away at how much I had taken for granted! I don’t think anyone knew how strongly I was feeling about the Sunday school project. Instead of going through the act of arch building as a way to learn about someone else’s religious story, I was swept into actually using it as my own ritual. This is one time I remember thinking “A-ha! This is Paganism, this is Animism”.
BH: How did you come across the notion of NeoPaganism?
AB: God, I hope it wasn’t Buffy the Vampire Slayer! (laughs) I can’t remember. I know I had a friend in college and I was studying biology at the University of Iowa and he had a Starhawk book [Starhawk is a well-known NeoPagan leader/author]. And I know I talked to him about it some and he may have turned me onto Starhawk. And I think, too, in that time of exploration I would just go to the bookstore or library and get books and see ‘Oh, what do these people do or think?’ Somewhere in there I must have learned about the notion.
BH: What is a NeoPagan?
AB: Any modern Pagan. We have to make [much of the spirituality] up now because we don’t know about what happened before.
BH: How did you come to be a NeoPagan?
AB: I felt a need to have ritual and to have something in my life where I could say, ‘This is a spiritual way.’ I didn’t know what way but I realized I was lacking something. In fact, I remember I saw the word “serenity” one day and I got stuck on that word. I thought, ‘I have no idea what that might mean to me.’ Later, someone asked what is sacred to me and I was floored! What is sacred to me? I don’t know. But I wanted to define it and give some energy to it and I went about figuring that out. And loud and clear it came: it was beautiful skies and trees and sunsets and sunrises, very natural things were sacred to me and I started there.
I also started to meditate and practice yoga and I realized that…my own body was sacred to me. It was my own little piece of terra firma that I get to treat really well and it gives me back so much clarity and feeling and so that physical practice became very important to my spiritual life, as well.
I also did a bunch of reading. I read the Tibetan Book of the Dead and I found the Pagan Book of Living and Dying. I was really stressed about the Tibetan Book of the Dead because it felt like if I didn’t get my ass to that mountain and meditate that I was going to hell (laughs). But I really liked reading the Pagan stuff…. It comforts me and makes me happy to read about it. And I definitely felt that some of the rituals I read about I liked and wanted to use myself and they connected me to the earth and seasons as a metaphor for my own spiritual development. For example, Samhain, or Halloween, was celebrated recently and it is about thinking about who has died and is it ok to die and to let them go. And you connect to people who have passed.
Some rituals are more elaborate. I’ll spread a sheet out and make a huge altar to north, south, east and west with lots of candles…or sometimes it is just yoga practice with one candle. Depending on what I have time for.
BH: What are the misconceptions about Pagans?
AB: I think there are as many misconceptions about Pagans as there are about Christians or Muslims… or anyone. In modern times, the mass media puts out a certain image and folks take it in. Their Pagan image tends to be an ultra hippie, usually making unreasonable demands about what people should eat or what the government should do. Many individuals write off the idea that one can intelligently, deeply connect to an animal or a tree, or a place. It’s out of their realm of experience, so they assume Pagans must be a little flaky, a little nuts.
BH: Do people think they are witches? Are they?
AB: Witches are Pagans, yes….the older misconception about witches leads us to the tough history between the Christians and the Pagans. For hundreds of years, being a witch or a pagan was a dangerous liability. The last witch burned in the US was in 1775. In other parts of the world though, people are still put out of their homes or killed for being a ‘witch’. Christians appropriated many Pagan stories and rituals, all the while killing thousands of Pagans who wanted to continue worshiping the way they always had. The Church made witches out to be ‘devil’ worshippers (Pan is a hooved, horned goat like figure who was used in many European Pagan traditions. He is very sexual and loving—but his energy was seen as sinful in the eyes of the Church). This dark, evil shroud thrown over the European pagans is a misconception that still echoes today, though it is fading.
Witches did not write anything down. If anyone had a “Book of Shadows,” a place to record spells, dreams, rituals, they burned it. Thus, Paganism in Europe and the new US was a very secret practice, which means that even pagans have misconceptions of pagans! It’s hard for us to tell exactly what they did. Many of their specific traditions and beliefs died with them.
I’m glad we got to this point, because it allows me to say thank you for being the peaceful, open minded Christians that you are! This article is one wonderful chance to heal the fracture between our faiths.