Calm down, drop the wand: UNF’s Pagan Discussion Group speaks out on what really goes on in the woods

Spinnaker

When the forces that be asked me to cover the UNF Pagan Discussion Group’s upcoming events, my first reaction was, “We have a Pagan group? That’s whimsical.”

And then I thought to myself, OK, I’m familiar with Paganism, I briefly dated one once, but his definitions were rather ambiguous.

I once watched TLC’s a Pagan Wedding Story, but truthfully, if Ben Bailey asked me to define the term, I’d walk away cab-less and cashless. So when I met up with Pagan group head Justin Robson, information technology sophomore, and devoted member Jaclynn Woodward, an English junior, my learning adventure ensued.

The group established itself in fall 2009 and holds two open discussion panels Feb. 24 and March 30 in the Student Auditorium 58W.

Robson’s roots permeate nostalgic southern Baptist, and after 18 years of appeasing his folks, he decided it wasn’t for him, for various reasons, and began his search for something that fit him.

“I found Ásatrú, a distinct path of Paganism as a whole,” Robson said. “And it was already what I thought. For the past five years, it’s worked out really well.”

Woodward also follows Ásatrú but came into it much more recently. Her parents raised her in an agnostic environment, and she didn’t come into Paganism until she met Robson, she said.

They both preferred not to delve into their particular path of Ásatrú, saying that the group is for every type of Pagan and non-Pagan, and wanted this piece to encourage everyone interested or with questions to attend their events, not to isolate their chosen path.

Instead, they offered some Pagan basics. From the Latin word paganus, meaning “country dweller” or “rustic,” Pagan is a blanket term used to refer to various polytheistic, non-Abrahmic religious traditions.

Robson said the exact definition will vary depending on who’s answering the question.

Most Pagan religions focus on reviving the worship of multiple deities from many areas of the world. But basically it breaks down into three classifications: Neo-Pagan (Wicca and Eclectic), Historical Pagans (Re-constructionists) and Indigenous (African and Asian).

Robson went on to explain that it’s not common to find a creed or even a holy book within Paganism, but rather, certain mythologies that provide a creation story, an insight to practices and depictions of the deities that are worshiped.

“We’re often understood,” Woodward said. “And honestly we’re very nature-venerating and peaceful.”

The interview took on a humorous tone when the conversation turned to the many Pagan myths that exist.

“Oh, there are some good ones,” Robson said. “Like, we’re Satan-worshipers, that we make human sacrifice and that Paganism was only created to justify practicing ‘magic.’”

Hollywood has popularized most of these, particularly the human sacrificing bit, and while it may have occurred in the past, Robson said it’s obsolete in modern times.

Robson’s favorite myth, however, is that they can make fireballs and can fly, he said.

While Pagans definitely don’t sacrifice babies, there are some paths that still participate in animal sacrifices.

“In this case, it’s a very humane sacrifice,” Woodward said. “And all of the animal’s parts are used.”

The first Feb. 24 open discussion panel covers the topic, “What is Paganism?” Robson expects everyone to adhere to the Golden Rule and to come to the group with respect for others’ beliefs.

They imagine the panel to be a level-headed conversation intended to further one’s understanding of the topic at hand.

“We want you to have questions that you are looking to have answered,” Robson said. “There will be a discussion topic each night, but there will be plenty of time afterward for a question and answer session.”

The second open discussion, March 30, revolves around a wide range of Pagan holidays. Once again, the holidays celebrated and the traditions involved differ for every path, but most take place on the solstices and equinoxes.

“Typically, Pagans will gather somewhere in nature and bring a cake or something similar as an offering to a particular deity they’re honoring,” Robson said. “But there’s usually a big feast involved.”

One thing the group stresses is the fact that they don’t proselytize. These forums are not for conversion, for Pagan religions or any others.

For the greater Jacksonville area, Paganism dots around haphazardly.

“You have the occasional drum circle gathering downtown and at various other locations,” Robson said. “But there isn’t too much activity.”

This led me to the question: How does one actually practice Paganism?

“Well, it’s very group-oriented,” Woodward said. “It’s about forming bonds, it’s really a way of life.”

Meditation is the general way to “practice,” she said. One can walk through a forest, sit next to a river and just honor the gods and goddesses in his or her own way.

When asked what they enjoyed most about being Pagan, Robson and Woodward said they both appreciate its incredibly familial environment and its low pressure pace.

The discussion group holds regular meetings every second and fourth Wednesday in the Interfaith Center and encourages anyone interested to send any questions about meeting times or comments to [email protected] or to Robson’s personal e-mail at [email protected]