MONONA — Before she sat down for a chat, Selena Fox took off her witch’s hat.
“None of that Harry Potter stuff going on here,” she said. “Don’t want to give people the wrong idea.”
Indeed, there were no apparent Patronus Charms or any such sorcery going on at Winnequah Park on Saturday as believers of various alternative stripes gathered for the 17th annual Pagan Pride Day.
The Madison-area gathering is one of the four longest-running events in the country and brings together a broad spectrum of nature-based spiritualists from Wiccans to druids to heathens. They all fall under the umbrella of Paganism.
Fox, senior minister and executive director of Circle Sanctuary near Barneveld, admits that many of the terms have some public relations issues.
“When some people hear the word ‘pagan’ they may think that we’re primitive or superstitious,” Fox said. “But that’s not true. Unfortunately, the ‘pagan’ word still has some baggage. Some Wiccans are trying to reclaim the ‘witch’ word and use it in a real positive sense, but it’s still a very complicated term. I will put a hat on or use it as a teaching aid to bring attention to how that word is used in a lot of different ways.”
The mission of Pagan Pride Day is twofold. One is to provide an opportunity for like-minded believers to gather, sell items at the 20 or so booths and share notions about the meaning of life. The other is to satisfy the curiosity of those who happen to wander by and, hopefully, dispel a few myths along the way.
“It allows the community to see who’s pagan, but not in a bad way,” said Jessica Maus, local coordinator of the event. “It’s just kind of getting to learn ... this is who we are.
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“Pagans are people that come from the earth and are trying to really work with nature. ... There are a lot of people who come to this event because they don’t know where they fit. It’s kind of a bunch of spiritualities that don’t fit in other places.”
Maus, 32, grew up in a household with a Catholic father and a Baptist mother. At age 8 she decided she didn’t believe in God.
“I told my parents, and my mom cried,” she said. “She was like, ‘How are you going to go to heaven if you don’t believe in God?’ ”
Over the years she discovered her thoughts were aligned with paganism. Eventually, Maus met others who shared those ideas.
“It was really a good thing because the people in the books always had crazy eyes,” she said. “And the people I met were normal, not crazy people.”
Maus estimated about one-fourth of those attending were simply curious about paganism.
“We’re not here trying to get converts,” Fox said. “We’re here trying to build bridges of understanding so that when people put a face to a belief system, it humanizes it and hopefully makes it safer for all concerned.”
Said Maus: “I would say we’re people who work with you every day. We work at the hospital, we work in your IT department. We’re just sometimes a little afraid to tell you we’re pagan because we don’t know how you’re going to respond. We just don’t want you to think we’re that weird.”