As pagans mark one of the most important weeks in their calendar, Rod McPhee met Britain’s oldest pagan society, Leeds-based Pentagram.
On Friday night, while you were enjoying the thought of the bank holiday weekend, a group of pagans gathered at a grassy stone circle to dance naked around a bonfire before sacrificing a goat and passing the animal’s blood around in a drinking goblet.
At least, that’s what many of us might imagine they did.
The truth is that 20 pagans congregated at a grassy stone circle – surprisingly in the middle of Leeds – and, yes, they conducted a ritual which was capped off by drinking, but it was wine and was accompanied by nothing more sinister than cake.
“I’ll often go to Sainsbury’s to stock up the weekend before,” says Jay Anderson, one of the senior figures within Pentagram, the Leeds pagan society that conducted the ritual. “I have to get gluten-free stuff because it doesn’t agree with my stomach.”
And that pretty much sums up the relative pedestrianism of paganism. So many of our darker preconceptions of this sphere of life are based on false, shadowy imaginings of what used to happen at Stonehenge or what happened to Edward Woodward at the hands of Christopher Lee in The Wicker Man.
But as Pentagram and numerous similar organisations around Yorkshire came together to mark Beltain – one of the red letter days on their calendar – most of the rituals were devoid of violence, devil worshipping or scenes of a sexual nature.
“I did a talk about this a while ago,” says Jay, also known by her Pagan pseudonym as ‘Raven’ “One of the questions I was asked was – do you make sacrifices, you know, humans or animals, goats that kind of thing?
“I can assure everyone that no children or animals have ever been injured in our rituals.”
The truth is that only some of those people attending a Beltain event will wear ceremonial robes, many just turn up in jeans and T-shirts.
Yes, they use an altar, but no blood is spilt on it. Instead they welcome the “four quarters” – north, east, south and west – with each point of the compass representing, respectively, earth, air, fire and water.
Every element is represented by the arrival of an elemental being, and each will be represented by an object on the altar, whether it’s incense to symbolise air or a candle denoting fire.
The central ritual sees them call on their gods and goddesses and make offerings to them, such as planting seeds and burning offerings. It may include burning lists of wishes, or burning objects to gain blessings.
“There’s no dogma or prescription to what we do,” says Jay “In fact I don’t know exactly what I’m going to say or do at the ritual, even through it’s just a day or so away. But then that’s the nature of paganism, it covers such a broad variety of beliefs. It can be whatever you want it to be.”
There are a few basics about paganism which are fairly fundamental. Firstly, there is no single God, but many gods and, secondly, the basic theory goes that rather than having a divine being acting as some kind of overlord, divinity is in all of us and in our environment. So, the focus is more on humans and nature.
And this is perhaps the source of paganism’s patchy PR. The emphasis on nature is invariably used as a stick to beat them with, an easy way for mainstream religions to smear them – hence the wild imaginings of nude people dancing around bonfires.
At the same time, it doesn’t pretend to have a cosy, conservative heritage. For example, Beltain (a counter- celebration to Samhain, held exactly six months later, acknowledging death and ancestry) is all about the arrival of the new season and a new generation. The whole week surrounding May Day is crucial in the pagan calendar as it holds unique spiritual, often sexual, meaning.
“It’s a festival marking the arrival of spring and it’s about procreation,” says Jay. “Traditionally, on Beltain eve all the boys and girls would kind of eye each other up then go off into the woods. So Beltain is a sort of a celebration of the day after the night before so to speak.”
However, there wasn’t anything like that occurring at Rosebank Road. That’s the location of the stone circle (which is a spiral, to be precise) on the edge of Hyde Park. It’s a surprising location, but so too is paganism’s Leeds following.
Quite when Pentagram was established isn’t clear. Some members – who are usually made up of Leeds University students and alumni – believe it stems from the 60s, others the 70s and 80s.
The mystery surrounding its origins isn’t helped by the fact that it has had a few titles over the decades, ranging from Kabbalah to the Leeds Occult Society.
But the enduring appeal of the organisation is beyond doubt. They now have around 120 followers, with varying numbers attending their various meetings, talks and ceremonies, organised throughout the year.
This enduring appeal may also be attributed, in part, to a rejection of the rules and beliefs of mainstream religions, it certainly was for Pentagram’s president, Alex Chadwick, who is still a student at Leeds University.
“I went to my first Pentagram session three years ago with nothing more than an academic curiosity. But quite quickly I became fascinated. Then I found, through Pentagram, a Wiccan group that seemed to ‘fit’ with my individual spirituality and beliefs.
“There’s no pressure to conform to one system of beliefs or practises, and no controlling organisation. It’s a very individualistic faith system.
“As a result of this, I believe that many pagan traditions empower the individual far more than other religions, or even political doctrines do. Pagans generally take responsibility for their own beliefs, actions, and forms of worship, changing what they don’t like and implementing what they do.
“It’s a very modern, ‘living’ faith that evolves – it’s telling that very few people are ‘born and raised’ to be pagan. They choose it.”
Alex is happy to tackle head-on some of the misconceptions as well. Firstly, paganism isn’t actually anti-Christian, or opposed to any other faith for that matter. It is about plurality of belief, so, in theory, it’s possible to be pagan and Christian.
She also points out that the devil is, in fact, a Christian concept, so the concept of devil worshipping isn’t one tied in to paganism’s centuries-old customs.
“Unfortunately, in any religious groups there often exists fringe groups,” she says. “Christianity has its fringe groups, and pagans have Satanists. However, while Satanists may exist out there, and may even call themselves pagan, they do not represent mainstream pagan beliefs, and I personally have never, to my knowledge, come across a Satanist in the pagan community.
“I still think that a lot of people view paganism as something dark and sinister. I don’t think that’s fair at all – neo-paganism is not at all like the evil witches or Satanists portrayed in movies or books.
“There certainly aren’t any animal sacrifices, and things like curses and black magic are prohibited in Pentagram and similar societies.
“In fact, pagans are very much normal people – they don’t run around in robes waving wands around in their day-to-day lives, just like Christian priests don’t wear their ceremonial robes at home or work.”
Alex also likes the fact that paganism is much less prescriptive and judgmental of people. She is a lesbian and has found that gay and lesbian people, and people from all walks of life, are embraced by paganism.
But however compelling an argument pagans make, they accept that they face a challenge in changing minds en masse.
“Anybody involved in campaigning like this has to have a sense of humour about the whole thing,” she concedes.
“Because there is a lot of misinformation, stereotypes, and just outright lies about neo-paganism out there, and sometimes you do just have to laugh and take it all in your stride.”
More information on Pentagram can be found by visiting: www.leedsuniversityunion.org.uk