The campus acolytes of mother earth

July 11, 2003

The Wicker Man 's depiction of Summerisle pagans as sexually promiscuous, human-sacrificing, sinister hokey-cokey dancers is, not surprisingly, very much at odds with the campus activities of today's student pagan societies, writes Matthew Baker.

"We're no more sexually active than the average student really," laughs Rob Hadden, president of University College London's Union Pagan Society. "Some of us are actually quite conservative deep down."

Hadden, a 21-year-old medical student, says his ordinariness is typical of many student pagans. "We blend in very well on campus, and I don't think for one moment that the fact that I am a pagan will compromise my wish to become a doctor.

"Of course, we get questioned about our beliefs from time to time but nobody's really that shocked by us," he adds.

There are at least a dozen pagan societies in universities across the UK, and The Wicker Man perceptions are fast being replaced by a more holistic appreciation of paganism.

Hadden believes a campus renaissance could well be on the cards. He is quick to dismiss the long-running stories of obsessive priapic worship and sexual initiation ceremonies that have dogged paganism for years as media misconceptions.

He explains: "We're not amoral hedonists - pagans are very ethical people.

We respect earth-based spirituality and are very self-disciplined. Most of us engage in regular meditation and ritual visualisation."

But for pagans who are keen to "worship nature and reattune themselves to the earth's natural cycles", being a student in London can have drawbacks.

"It's hard to find nature here and very easy to lose touch," he sighs. "I'm very lucky to have Hampstead Heath, the Thames and Regent's Park in close proximity, but large parts of the city are a concrete jungle."

Hadden's group meets bimonthly for discussions and debates. In recent months, they have had guest speakers on the subjects of chaos magick and Greek mythology. They also run regular tarot workshops.

With eight sabbats, or key dates, in the pagan calendar to honour, there are plenty of opportunities for lavish rituals and hearty celebrations, which are not lost on student members. Yule, Beltane, the summer solstice, Samhain or Halloween and the autumn equinox are among key dates that are said to symbolise each phase of the wheel of life and require a show of pagan unity.

"There were 16,000 people at Stonehenge for the summer solstice," notes Rebecca Pollard, a 22-year-old geology undergraduate and president of Portsmouth University Pagan Society. "For lots of people, these dates are important shifts in nature and need to be honoured."

A typical ritual involves members casting a circle, positioning themselves around it and invoking the gods to join the group. Cloaks are worn, incense is sometimes wafted over members for cleansing purposes and, finally, cakes and ale are shared with the spirits.

The only problem is, as Pollard grudgingly admits, that they now have to do the ceremony indoors, thereby denying the al fresco majesty that normally befits such rituals. "We'd prefer to do it outside, but sometimes we don't feel safe outdoors so most of the time we have to do it in a house," she says.

Unlike in The Wicker Man, Pollard says her group's rituals are never performed "skyclad", or naked, nor do her members dance seductively outside strangers' rooms at night. "That film ultimately did us a lot of harm," she says.

Yet while a group of pagans is hardly likely to shock many students these days, Pollard admits that some give her a wide birth on campus.

"Unfortunately there are still plenty of people who think we're devil worshippers," she groans. "I think they're worried we might smite them with an evil curse."

She is quick to add that the underlying code or central law of paganism is that if you are going to hurt somebody, be prepared to receive ill luck.

"It's a karmic law that just goes to show we're not heathens," she says.

But what of the wild reputation that is associated with paganism? Does it no longer apply?

She pauses for a moment. "Well, we do get horribly drunk every time the society meets. I mean, spirituality without fun isn't really worth it, is it?"

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