This time, the pagan witches were worshiping Baba Yaga.
She’s the pointy-toothed, flirtatious goddess who lives in a house that walks on chicken feet.
“Hail Baba Yaga! Bone mother! Master of skulls! Guardian of the waters of life and death!”
About 15 women and five men of the Spirit’s Edge Shamonial Temple and Tradition in St. Louis recited this together, then chanted for several minutes while dancing around an altar and beating drums.
This is a pagan ritual. Yes, pagans still exist in the 21st century, even in St. Louis, in a religious landscape dominated by cathedrals and churches.
The 24th annual Pagan Picnic is being held this weekend in Tower Grove Park. The two-day event started as a simple potluck to let pagans share some sort of “pagan pride” and clear up misconceptions that others have about them, said Amanda Bell, picnic programming chair.
“Pagans are traditionally quiet about their beliefs,” she said. “Because of that, it’s very hard to find people like ourselves. So the people who first started the picnic really wanted something to bring the community together to let other people in the community know: ‘Hey, we’re here.’”
Like other religions, paganism helps these people cope with life. At the Spirit’s Edge ritual held earlier this year in Ladue, group members poured out anxieties about looking for a job, caring for dying relatives, starting college and losing weight.
It’s just that, instead of holy books or prayers, they use magical spells, stones like amethyst, wooden staffs, dancing and chanting.
“I’ve kind of come to the realization that you can put a name or a label on anything, but it’s really all after the same thing and the same purpose,” said Shea Morgan, founder of Spirit’s Edge.
When someone raises an eyebrow at the mention of magic, pagans ask doubters: Can you prove a prayer works any more than a spell does?
“Anything you can pray about, you can do spells, as well. It’s basically like a prayer, only we raise energy instead to the simple idea of asking a higher power, ‘Please help me solve this problem,’” said Mickie Mueller, a pagan minister in St. Louis.
It would take a library of books to document all the beliefs of modern-day paganism, partly because you can believe nearly whatever you want and call yourself a pagan. Paganism for many is intertwined with practices like modern-day witchcraft and shamanism.
But pagans share some common underlying values and themes.
“I mean, paganism is a joyous religion. It’s not a religion where you’re taught that pain is a necessary sacrifice,” said Wendy Griffin, a national expert in contemporary pagan studies and academic dean at the online-only Cherry Hill Seminary of paganism. “There’s a sense of wonder and a sense of play in paganism that is valued. Paganism is embodied, it’s physical, it involves things that open up the mind, like dance and drumming and chanting.”
Pagans tend to use natural objects tied to the earth, like stones, to connect what they call the “higher” or “divine power,” which manifests itself in thousands of deities as well as in nature. Pagans worship Baba Yaga, for example, because they believe she cleans their bones of things they do not need, concurrent with the changing of the seasons.
There’s also a value for all things feminine, Griffin added, that pagans say is missing from better-known religions.
Several women from Christian backgrounds drifted to paganism because they felt their churches treated them as being second to men.
Stella, a Spirit’s Edge member from Godfrey who goes by her pagan name for fear of being ostracized by her family, used to be a Christian minister and even did missionary work in Latin America for some years.
She became pagan because she says she never related to a male deity. She hides her paganism from her brother, a Christian minister, because she fears he might keep her from seeing her niece and nephew if he learned she had left Christianity.
“I felt it was out of balance to worship only one gender,” Stella said. “… I feel more in touch with my spirituality and what I feel is right and moral more than I ever did as a minister.”
Not all pagans have gone public with their identity — or, as they call it, come “out of the broom closet.”
To protect themselves from judgment and prejudice, some hide their identities, mainly congregating online or in each other’s homes. Some go by pagan names like “Dragonborn” or “Crow Spirit” as an alter ego.
Others, like Bell, didn’t see a problem with coming out, and hoped that their families and friends would understand.
“There were people who questioned it, people who were worried about me, that I was doing bad things, that I was going to hurt myself,” Bell said. “Because they didn’t know. The more people are informed, the less scary we become, and that’s important to me.”