Pagans in South Africa Defy Religious Discrimination

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — The lounge in a suburb that epitomizes middle-class Johannesburg suburbia is gloomy, lit by a single candle. Its flame flickers in the slight, cool breeze that wafts through an open door. A loaded silence pervades the atmosphere, broken only by the whisper of soft rain soaking the ground outside.

Adults of varying ages, and a few children, are seated on sofas or cross-legged on the floor. Their eyes are closed, their palms turned upwards.

The soothing voice of a bare-footed and bespectacled middle-aged man, salt-and-pepper stubble covering his chin, shreds the quiet and leads the meditation.

Swaddled in a shiny navy robe, he exhorts the group to inhale and exhale, “to let go of all negativity, to feel your roots reaching into the lava at the center of the earth.”

He’s the High Priest, preparing his fellow Pagans for a ritual that was first performed thousands of years ago. He wants to be identified only by his first name, Greg.

“My family and friends know I’m a (high-ranking) Pagan but only one or two of my work colleagues know. We can’t share what we do with everyone; they don’t understand,” he says.

Most Pagans present here are professionals. By day, they’re businesspeople, accountants, teachers, even doctors... Several nights a year, they meet to observe important dates on the Pagan calendar, such as the seasonal equinoxes.

“We observe the rites of our ancient elders, or our ancestors. Most of us in this coven come from ancient Celtic roots,” explains High Priestess Shanyn Pearson, her long, golden blonde hair streaming down her dark brown satin cloak. A silver five-pointed star hangs around her neck.

She continues: “Our roots go way back, thousands of years before all the accepted religions such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam. We believe in the earth, we revere the earth; the earth is our mother. Without her, we will die. We worship the Mother Goddess way above us all.”

Roots in Greece, Egypt and the earth

Greg says Pagans “venerate” the natural world.

“We show this by honoring the old Gods of earth, from various ancient civilizations, such as the Greeks. One of our Gods is Herne. He is the stag, the God with antlers. He is the lord of the greenwood,” he explains.

“Then we have Demeter, another Greek Goddess. She looks after the land; she gives us the crops, so we have food. Women who cannot fall pregnant very often give offerings and pray to Demeter and beg her to make them as fertile as she is.”

Nearby sits another senior Pagan, cloaked in a snow white tunic edging off with royal blue material and trimmed with rich gold fabric. He holds a wooden staff that’s hewn in the form of a patterned, spiraling cobra.

Pearson introduces him as Rico. “He is our Scribe,” she says. “He does all our paperwork and voices our rituals. He practices the Egyptian side of Paganism. He is our conduit to the Gods and Goddesses of ancient Egypt.”

Tonight, The Grove - one of Johannesburg’s most eclectic Pagan covens - is observing an Esbat, a full-moon celebration.

Marching slowly in a muddy backyard

After the meditation, the Warden, a young man in a black, hooded cloak, beats a drum to “consecrate” the Pagan’s Sacred Circle, to drive away all evil, says Pearson.

The Pagans, some shaking rattles, march slowly in a row to a muddy, tree-filled backyard, with a table in the middle of it. Jagged daggers, an ivory white conch, a golden statue and ceremonial wine in pewter chalices decorate the table.

Wooden poles mark a large circle.

“A circle is a ring of power; it has no beginning and no end, that’s why it’s so powerful,” the High Priestess whispers.

Rico the Pagan Scribe then “challenges” each person who wishes to enter the circle by pointing his crook at them and demanding, “How do you enter?” They reply with phrases such as, “With love in my heart and knowledge in my soul,” and “In perfect love and perfect understanding.” The Scribe replies, “Welcome, child of the Goddess. You may enter. Blessed be.”

Each Pagan announces his presence in the circle with a name taken from ancient times, such as the age of the Vikings of Scandinavia, around 800 AD.

One dark-robed man introduces himself as “Svehaltrihar;” a woman in a hooded blue cloak calls herself “Ilvalon Kestavar.”

They believe they’re reincarnations of people from bygone epochs.

Reverence for Selene of the Full Moon

Then, the Pagans call out the names given to God by various religions, such as the Hebrew, Adonai, and the names of their “archangels.”

They chant: “In front of me, Rafael. Behind me, Gabriel. On my right hand, Michael. On my left hand, Uriel. For about me flames the pentagram. Above me, now within me, shines the six-ray star. Shala, descend upon me now! Atar, Malkut! Vigibra, Vigillah, Laiulam; amen!”

They call upon their Goddess of the Full Moon, Selene, who they revere for her “nurturing and mothering” nature.

“She brings things into fruition,” says Greg. Pearson adds: “Young girls, who are maidens, go and they pray to her because she’s the closest to them, she understands them; she understands what they’re going through. They’re virgins, she’s a virgin; she’s pure and untouched, they are…”

In the ceremony, the High Priestess clutches a knife and shrieks: “We call upon the great Selene! I invoke thee thus with the powers of shadow and dark! We reach for the stars and call down the moon! I bow before the moon, I bow before the moon!”

‘Salamanders of fire’

The Pagans demonstrate deep reverence for nature, worshiping the elements of water, air and fire.

“Hail Lord Jin!” shouts one. “I call to thee, my Lord. Come into the circle tonight! Bring your passion; bring your fiery creatures with you. Come salamanders, salamanders of fire! Play with us in the circle… Fire on this Esbat night, fire burning, burning bright! Come to me! So mote it be!”

They ring a bell to welcome their Gods and Goddesses, and sing a melodious Pagan song, the chorus of which rings: “All that’s born shall rise again… We all come from the garden, and to her we shall return. Like a drop of rain, falling into the ocean…”

The celebration ends with the traditional Pagan parting: “Merry we meet, and merry we part, and merry we meet again. Blessed be!”

'We have to be discreet about our beliefs ...'

After the ceremony, the Pagans reflect on the prices they’re forced to pay for their unusual beliefs. Society often brands them deviants, and even Satanists.

“Look,” says the High Priest, Greg, “we’re not ashamed of being Pagans but because of all the prejudice out there we have to be discreet about our beliefs and practices.

“In this country, and throughout the rest of Africa, there are witch hunts and people do get burnt and things are blamed on satanic rituals. It happens very often, more often than people realize…”

He adds: “What is taken very out of context and why people believe that we are Satanists and that we worship Satan, is that we worship Pan… He is the goat-footed God. However, he is absolutely a nature-based God. He is so far from Satan, you couldn’t possibly believe it! He is the God you call on to have absolute fun; he is the lord of the wildwood.”

‘Live and let live’

Pagans “honor and cherish” many of the same deities that Christians do, Pearson says.

“We believe very strongly in Jesus; he’s the god of little children in Paganism. We also believe very strongly in Mary, because she’s a virgin goddess… We venerate her; we adore her. She’s somebody that young women go to and can pray to very easily, from a Pagan point of view.”

But the High Priestess also maintains that there are “just too many aspects” of other religions that Pagans cannot believe in.

“We cannot accept that women are unclean when they’re having their period, or that women are inferior to men, as in Islam. And we disagree strongly with certain religions seeing themselves as superior to others.

“I don’t believe that we must hate everybody else that’s not of our religion. I don’t hate you because you’re not a Pagan. I do not discriminate against you because you are a Christian. You are welcome in my circle, because the (Earth) Mother says you are my brother.”

According to Pearson and other Pagans, they’re a “breed apart” because they’re “seekers.”

She emphasizes: “Unlike other religions, we don’t believe that a kind of paradise, or true meaning in life, can be accessed using only one, righteous path, to the exclusion of all others. We say live and let live, respect and love everyone.”