Despite local decreases, pagan groups find continued growth and support

by Amanda Hutchinson

While members of Wiccan and Pagan traditions made up less than 0.3 percent of the country’s population in 2008, according to the US Census’ 2012 Statistical Overview, the communities’ membership has increased more than forty-fold in the last 20 years. With almost half the population between 18 and 29 years of age, more groups have been formed to accommodate the explosive growth, including in New York State.

Ithaca in particular has seen a decline in the past decade, which may correlate with the end of what scholars call the “teen witch fad.” James R. Lewis, professor of history and religion at the Arctic University of Norway, explained in his 2012 paper, The Pagan Explosion Revisited: A Statistical Postmortem on the Teen Witch Fad, that many young women at the end of the 1990s were attracted to the seemingly feminist orientations of Wicca. After the turn of the millennium, growth slowed dramatically, which Lewis suggests indicates a maturation of Paganism and Wicca as opposed to the half-hearted participation of young adults.

“It turns out,” Lewis said in his paper, “that the period of apparent explosive growth in the early part of the new millennium was a noisy side act featuring an ephemeral fad that did little more than distract attention from the real story of contemporary Paganism’s emergence as a maturing religion.”

Lewis was unavailable for comment due to a business trip.

Part of this expansion of what statistical agencies such as the Pew Forum categorize as “new-age religions” is due to the variety of ways in which members can practice. In 2007, seven different Wiccan and Pagan groups existed in Ithaca alone, including a Pagan ministry as part of Cornell University Religious Work. Gail Wood, who serves as High Priestess of the Coven of the Heron just outside of Ithaca, said practices vary between traditions of Wicca as well as between covens within a tradition.

“Emphases can be different,” Wood said. “A coven might be shamanic, celebratory, teaching, healing, or something I can’t even imagine.”

Still others are solitary in their practices but may get together with fellow Wiccans and Pagans for events. Imagicka, a spiritual gift shop in Binghamton, hosts a Wiccan and Pagan meetup every second Sunday, and the group also gathers for events throughout the year, including an overnight celebration of Samhain on October 31.

Some groups such as Cornell’s United Pagan Ministries and the local chapter of the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans have since become defunct, but despite the local decrease in interest, others such as the Coven of the Heron and LunaSolis Coven continue to provide a place of spiritual growth and learning for members. Wood said growth within the coven has led to the formation of four others since 2005, and while the coven is not a social group, members become very close.

“We try to maintain an attitude of love and trust towards those we circle with,” she said. “Like family, we share our sorrows and our joys.

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