Jason Ginsburg

Writer and Digital Producer

Jan 21, 2021
Published on: DoubleViking
2 min read

After writing articles about historical witchcraft, several modern-day pagans reached out to me. They told me their faiths still exist today—and are still sometimes persecuted. I wanted to help bring their religions to a wider audience.

I spoke to Tami Olsen, a member of Ár nDraíocht Féin: A Druid Fellowship, and Paige Zaferiou, a solo "eclectic pagan" who follows a path of animism. We discussed their religions, the rituals, and the magic. Their responses were delivered by email and have been edited for length. The images don't represent either faith.

What do you call the religion or path you follow?

Olsen: I call myself a druid. Specifically I'm Celtic Druid with Norse influences.

Zaferiou: My background is diverse and my practice is influenced by several traditions. The one core belief of my faith is animism, [a] belief in the spiritual life of natural phenomena: plants, animals, weather, and water bodies among them. Each of these is simply one part of the greater sentience of the Universe. Everything is alive, and everything is connected.

If you weren't born into the faith, why did you choose that particular path over other pagan traditions?

Olsen: I was raised Lutheran and became a Methodist when I got married. Over the years I started to realize what I was being told about the Christian religion wasn't what I felt in my heart. I started a search for the religion that was closest to the way I felt the world to be.

Zaferiou: The eclectic path unfolded organically for me, rather than being a conscious choice I made at the outset. It makes the most sense for me personally; my lineage is varied, and eclectic paganism allows for me to work with all of my ancestors, their own gods, and the many spirits of the land. As Tom Waits sang, "Everything you can think of is true," and the eclectic path allows me to engage with any of the spirits and deities of my bloodlines—including those of Christianity.

What is a ceremony or ritual like?

Olsen: We have certain times during the rite to ask for blessings, call to the kindred, perform specific workings, etc. The rituals my grove performs are usually pretty short... 15-20 minutes. Privately, we can use the core order and modify it for solitary purpose, or we can just do whatever feels natural.Rituals all have an element of sacrifice to them, and en element of blessing. Druids don't do animal or blood sacrificing in modern times. Our sacrifices are food, flowers, crafts we have made for the kindred, songs, incense, alcohol, oil, and other things we think they'd like as gifts. The important thing about sacrifice is that it's a gift given freely.

Zaferiou: Most of my rituals and ceremonies are performed alone, but I occasionally team up with one of my roommates or with an informal circle of women. I like to keep things somewhat spontaneous, but the format generally follows the same rhythm: entering sacred space, communing with my spirits, making offerings of smoke, flame, water, and food, and saying "thank you" before closing out the sacred space. This format can be adjusted depending on the purpose of my ritual or ceremony: it might be a petition to ask for help with a mundane concern, or it might be a devotional ritual for a specific entity, or it might be spell-work done on behalf of a client.

Is there magic in your tradition? How does it manifest itself?

Olsen: We can see [magic] in the stories told about our ancestors. They were supposedly able to control the weather, tell the future, change their shape, and curse their enemies. Druids were healers, leaders, and bards. Druid magic has to do with nature, and the forces of nature. A lot of magic is just stories, or it's exaggerated.

Some druids never get into doing "magic" but some do. It usually follows along the same lines as the old stories, and is similar to what you'd see in Wiccan religions. Druids do a lot of healing magic, blessings, weather, and other things related to the earth.

Zaferiou: The traditions which inform and make up my eclectic path all contain magic, from the simplest hands-on practical magic spells (protect the home, increase prosperity) to the more elusive techniques of dream-walking and astral projection. Magic infuses every aspect of my path. I would say that "living a magical life" is my prime objective on this path.

Magic manifests itself in every aspect of my life, both mundane and otherworldly. It's present when I wake up and record my dreams, when I take a morning walk, or work out, or cook, or text in emojis. Magic is part of my daily routine as well as a special event. I use it for myself, my loved ones, and the clients who come to me for help with their own lives. To me, "magic" means "using your awareness of the unseen connections between everything to make change manifest" and I take it very seriously.

Have you witnessed or experienced magic?

Olsen: In my personal experience, a lot of druid magic is very subtle. It's more of an influence of natural things. I do divination work, which is considered magic of a sort. Divination is different than telling the future, because we are basically asking for guidance rather than specific details. We get the broad strokes, not names or lottery numbers. I've also had success with dowsing, which is a fun thing for anyone to try.

Zaferiou: Many, many times. Even still, I occasionally wrestle with the voice of the ego, who insists that this is all make-believe. Then I'll see the undeniable effectiveness of a piece of magic, and it never fails to leave me profoundly awed. Having this sense of wonder is, I believe, what makes the magic effective in the first place. When you believe in magic and become familiar with its rules -- because metaphysics, like regular physics, abides by laws and rules—so much is possible. Just as a belief in science and knowledge of its rules allows you to do things that non-believers wouldn't dream possible, so a belief in and knowledge of magic allows one to create and engage in many experiences that, to the non-believer, appear incomprehensible.

Have you seen magic used for selfish or malevolent ends?

Olsen: Never. Most pagans believe any harm you cause to another will come back on you in some way. We try to live good lives and bring happiness to others because that's how happiness comes to us. Druids also work to protect the earth and nature. In the old stories druids would curse people, but those people were always bad people who had hurt others and brought it upon themselves.

Zaferiou: Have I ever! I've seen curses, bindings, and witnessed the effects of serious spiritual attack, which can manifest as symptoms such as painful headaches, sudden loss of dexterity, immense bouts of bad luck, technological issues, and other unpleasant scenarios. Magicians can be just as petty and vindictive as the rest of humanity.

Are there supernatural beings—ghosts, spirits, faerie, etc.?

Olsen: Definitely. We honor the kindred, which is three parts: The ancestors, those of our blood and of our land and of our hearts; the shining ones, those who we worship as gods/goddesses because of their knowledge and power; and the nature spirits, which are spirits of all the animals and plants, spirits of the rivers and land, and all the various lesser spirits of the fae.

The world is full of spirits for a druid. Most of these spirits are not "good" or "evil". Some are more mischievous than others, and we will give offerings to bribe them away. We ask the spirits to help us in our daily lives, and with our magical work. We work with the spirits to care for the land, because the nature spirits are tied to the land.

Zaferiou: As one with an animistic world view, I absolutely believe in the existence of supernatural beings, spirits, and deities. My experience has only served to strengthen this belief. I work with some of these entities very closely in my practice. I would like to say that popular culture has created some rather unrealistic expectations about these entities, although there are nuggets of truth in the fiction. They are not quite as limited to, or firmly grounded in, the material world as we are.

What is your belief in the afterlife?

Olsen: Druids believe in reincarnation. We believe when you die your soul is guided to the Otherworld by a psychopomp, a gatekeeper. It lives a whole separate life there, among the souls of our ancestors. You can be called upon by the people still here, and influence the lives of your loved ones, protect them, guide them. Eventually you will be reborn into this world. Some people think it's a choice to be reborn, others think when you "die" in the Otherworld you are reborn here.

Some druids believe you continue in this cycle of rebirth until you are able to surpass it. The shining ones we worship as gods and goddesses were once mortal people who became deities. At some point you become enlightened enough not to reincarnate unless you want to. Who knows? There may be a state even beyond that where we become one with the cosmos.

Zaferiou: I believe in reincarnation. I believe that the Christian Hell is a fabrication created by the Church to control through fear. I believe that those who went before us are accessible as helping spirits and guiding forces in our lives, provided their spirits have been resolved—that is, they've crossed over. I believe that there are unresolved spirits causing trouble in the world of the living.

What's one thing you'd like people to know about pagans?

Olsen: We don't worship devils or demons. We don't make blood sacrifices. We are good people that want to protect life. We don't want to be "saved" and our souls aren't in danger. It's not a phase we're going through to rebel against Christianity, because we actually are quite happy being pagan. It's not something we made up and called a religion, because Druidry is thousands of years old and predates Christianity. Overall I think I'd want people to know that we aren't a joke, or a threat.

Zaferiou: "Pagan" is a very broad umbrella term that includes a wide variety of traditions, beliefs, and practices—some of which are more religious than others.

Jason Ginsburg is the senior digital producer for Discovery Channel. He lives in New York.