Broomsticks. Pointy hats. Vengeful spells. These are common stereotypes incorrectly associated with witches. What many people ignore is the spiritual depth and theological complexities of Paganism and witchcraft in all its forms. While the average person might be stunned to learn that he or she has at some point interacted with a witch, the likelihood is quite high.
"Real life witches," or properly termed--followers of the Pagan faith--have a worldwide following, including a significant number right here in western Canada. This summer, these individuals have once again organized a gathering of the Pagan community with their fifth- annual PanFest--a celebration of Paganism with a focus on all genres of the ancient religion.
Started by a small group of Pagans, PanFest has become one of the largest and most well known Pagan festivals on the prairies. Planning for this year's festival started a year ago. It is being held at an undisclosed location in central Alberta and will take in attendees from British Columbia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan as well as Alberta.
While Paganism is the umbrella term used to describe Pagans, Wiccans, Druids, Shamans, Ceremonial Magickians and other individual groups of the religion, there is often turmoil between the different factions. These are termed "witch wars" and are perceived as unnecessary and problematic to certain Pagans. This year's festival theme is "creating family within the community." As a result, organizers believe that uniting all Pagans for a weekend of demonstrative awareness can help bring about unity.
"Festivals such as PanFest show all the followers of the different faiths that they're not really all that different and it really gives them a sense of just how broad a scope Paganism covers," says PanFest Events Coordinator Keziah Arsenault.
All groups can observe and learn about each other's spiritual traditions at rituals and workshops from the singular faiths and the Pagan merchant area. In addition, the festival will highlight certain values which are the basis of all Pagan thought.
"One of the things that attracts people to Paganism is the absence of Dogma, the sense of freedom and the idea that you are set out to find your own way," says PanFest Registrar-Treasurer, Hawk.
Pagans believe in a definite connection with nature and a very deep understanding of the wholeness and connectedness of the universe. Several rituals which will be demonstrated at PanFest throughout the festival, such as the Lughnasagh Druid Ritual, celebrating the season of first harvest, and the Full Moon Ritual, which lets members participate in an enriching and revitalizing spiral dance, are based around these general beliefs.
Although many individuals are unaware of the seriousness of the religion, Paganism prides itself on its in-depth essence of spirituality, self-development and creating a positive internal force. Arsenault, who has been a Pagan for seven years, calls herself an eclectic witch and describes Paganism as extremely personal.
"One thing people really don't understand about Paganism and why we can do some of the things we do is because we have a better understanding of ourselves than most people do," explains Arsenault.
She also recalls recently coming out of the "broom closet" to some of her co-workers.
"When I came out, somebody automatically said 'can you hex my ex-husband?' and I just remember thinking I could but I won't."
Although Arsenault maintains a good sense of humor, unfortunately both she and Hawk have dealt with a variety of stereotypes associated with being Pagan. Stereotypes, which they say, are acquired mainly from Hollywood's portrayal of modern-day witches.
"We do get many misconceptions," says Hawk. "And they come from two categories of people. Those who've watched way too many movies and want to be like the Charm girls and those who just don't know."
"It even comes down to calling ourselves witches--something we don't do too too often simply because it freaks people out," adds Arsenault.
However, neither has encountered any kind of discrimination and both claim that there is growing support of Paganism. Through festivals such as PanFest, individuals who know little about the faith can come and witness an array of unique and educational demonstrations.
"We have had non-Pagans there before who were just interested and that is the perfect opportunity for them to go and see everything," informs Arsenault.
"The best way to get rid of stereotypes is education, so non-Pagan involvement is absolutely encouraged."