Coming into a new community involves all sorts of new things. And of course, there are many different communities and cultures within modern Paganism.
Covering every possibility is impossible – there’s a lot of variety between groups. However, here’s a guide to some things you can expect to see fairly regularly when you’re interacting with other Pagans. (If you’re working on your own, of course, that can be quite different.)
Many Pagan communities have specific guidelines about confidentiality and privacy. Sometimes this is simply the nature of what we do together.
In smaller groups, people may share things that are personal or that make them feel vulnerable – talking about what we love and what we’re mourning can both do that.
In larger open gatherings, these things may also come up, but with people we don’t know well. Having a shared understanding about how we treat each other’s trust helps create and support those spaces and opportunities.
It’s common for people to use a first name, a nickname, or a chosen name (often referred to as a Craft name) when they’re at public gatherings or interacting online.
I go by Jenett (or Jenett Silver) basically anywhere that isn’t work or that doesn’t require my legal name (hello Facebook.) It’s a much more helpful name to have if you’re looking for my interests outside of my professional life.
While Paganism and witchcraft have gotten a lot more public in the past decade or two, there are still people for whom being out as a witch or Pagan can cause big problems. It’s still an issue for some custody battles, some kinds of jobs (usually very public-facing ones like teachers, medical professionals, lawyers), or some other family, professional, or personal situations.
Respecting other people’s choices about how ‘out’ or publicly visible they are helps everyone be able to participate in the community, regardless of how public they are in the rest of their lives. If you’re not sure how someone would like to handle it, ask them what they prefer.
When you’re new to the community, using a nickname or a Craft name or an account that’s not directly tied to your legal name/identity can also give you a chance to develop your thoughts, beliefs, and practices in more privacy.
If you use the same legal name account for everything, you might find yourself in an awkward conversation with your Aunt Alison or Uncle Edward or a boss or co-worker before you feel comfortable explaining things to them.
(After all it takes time to learn things, and usually a bit more time to figure out how to talk to someone about it, especially someone who may start out confused or even hostile.)
What to expect:
- You can decide for yourself what you’re comfortable sharing.
- Other people may not share their full legal name when they meet you.
- They may not use a photo of themselves online in Pagan settings (or only one that isn’t very identifying.)
- Photographs may be forbidden or limited at events. If you do take photographs, check with the people in them before posting them, or tagging people by name.
- Other people may check with you about your own preferences or needs when it comes to privacy.
It’s usually fair to ask for some identifying information once you reach the point where you’re looking at joining a group that meets in a private home. (That’s a point where you should expect to be asked the same.) You may need to share some before that for registrations or payments that require a legal name as part of the payment process.
If you’ve got questions about a group or event’s privacy policies, just ask – it shouldn’t be a strange or uncommon question for them.
Modern Paganism is a participatory community, in general. While it’s normal to be nervous about turning up at something new and participating, rituals open to new folks (especially entirely public ones) are designed to include the people who turn up.
Our rituals often take place in a circle, and in many cases, everyone is expected to participate in creating the ritual space. It’s common to have a number of people in the group take on different ritual actions.
It’s also common for everyone at the ritual to participate in some key ritual actions, such as helping create the shared space, singing or chanting, sharing thoughts related to the ritual (such as a memory, a goal, an aspiration), and lending their energy to the working of the ritual.
Lurking at the back and only observing isn’t a thing for many groups. It can feel creepy to the people who are participating. Some of us have past experiences with people coming and not participating who then had bad intentions (an exposé, a desire to make things things difficult for Pagans, etc.) And it definitely makes some ritual activities that are designed to bring people together and make magic happen difficult.
There are some rituals which may be okay with it. Usually those will be an event specifically focused on education about Paganism for people who aren’t Pagan, like a Pagan Pride or other public education event. Other times, it may be possible to come for parts of the event (like discussion or the social and potluck time after), and find something else to do during the ritual.
What to expect:
- Consider asking in advance what the expectations around participation are. That will let you prepare and ask any key questions.
- Let people know if it’s your first ritual (or your first time with that group.) They can give you guidance on what to expect and what your options are for participating.
- If you have accessibility needs (like needing large print, a space where you can lip read, a chair), check in advance. A week or two before the ritual or event is a good time to start the conversation in most cases, but if it’s a big convention or festival, try a month before.
- Considering attending other kinds of events, where silent listening is much easier. Presentations and book signings, and some workshops or classes are great for this. Attending a class about different ways to do ritual might help you get comfortable with more participation.
Sharing in making things happen
Related to the point above, in most Pagan groups, many people help make events happen.
We generally don’t have paid clergy, or office staff. Usually all the people making sure an event can happen is doing it as a volunteer. That’s whether that’s a ritual in someone’s home or a big multi-day festival. And that means they’re doing it around all the other things we all have in our lives – some combination of jobs or kids or family or wrangling other people’s bureaucratic demands or dealing with health issues.
That’s why it’s important to do your part to make events happen. When you start out, the expectations are pretty simple. Show up. Don’t make things unnecessarily difficult for people trying to make the event go.
Most of all, help chip in, in whatever way is possible for you. Many groups will ask for a contribution to help cover costs, and often something for a potluck. These are simple small actions that support the entire community that’s coming together, and that make it possible to do it again in future.
Obviously, if you need something, or need to know something to be able to participate, ask! If you may show up early (because you have to get a ride or use paratransit), check where the best place to wait is, and bring something to amuse yourself (book, quiet games on your phone, whatever.)
How to help
- Show up at the indicated time (usually people running the event will be there earlier to get things set up. If you turn up too early, they may not be ready yet.)
- If there’s a donation, bring it in appropriate change (these days, online payment methods like PayPal or Venmo are often an option.)
- Potluck contributions can be simple if you don’t cook, but bring something better than chips from the corner store. (If the corner store is your only food option, consider picking up things to drink, instead. Often under-represented at potlucks.)
- If you’re able, offer to help with small tasks like setting up tables and chairs, or cleaning them up afterwards. This is a huge help (and also often a great way to make friends and connections.)
- Pay attention to guidance about who to ask if you have questions.
When it comes to questions, people may be busy setting up before the event starts. If you have several questions, ask who is best to help you. There may be someone with a sitting-down task that can help you.
During the event, hold non-essential questions, and don’t chat about extraneous things. (I still remember the people who spent a good 10 minutes in an otherwise somber Samhain open ritual discussing baseball right behind me.)
When things finish, give the people who were running things (the priestess/priest/other key folks) a chance to get something to eat and drink and sit down for a couple of minutes before launching into questions.
This is the tricky one to talk about, because, as a community, we have a lot less structure than many religions (and sometimes less than other types of community groups.) Many Pagan groups want to include people who don’t always fit into other kinds of groups – whether that’s being socially awkward, having specific interests sometimes seen as ‘weird’, or otherwise not fitting into mainstream society in some ways.
However, if we want group things to happen, there usually needs to be some structure to do that.
Permits to use a park space or rent an indoor space don’t just pop out of thin air. Rituals need to be planned, people need to prepare for their part in the ritual or class or whatever else. And of course, these days, many groups are more aware of the need for a code of conduct for people at their events – and to have steps they take if someone can’t follow that.
There’s also one other piece, which is that groups do ritual in a certain way, usually for some specific reasons. A group may experiment with different options, or a public event may rotate through different groups. But generally, we do things the way we do for a reason. Sometimes it’s because one method helps people join in. Sometimes it makes the magic flow better. Sometimes it’s just plain safer on a physical level.
It’s fine to ask questions about what to expect, and what the structures are (and where they come from), and you should. But you should also generally expect there will be some structure and limitations on what a particular group does and how they do it together.
What to expect:
- People usually do things for a reason. Ask them why if you need to.
- Sometimes the reasons may take a lot of context (or some of them may be private or oathbound). In that case, people should tell you what you can expect/will be asked to do, and what the options are if you’d like to learn more.
- A ritual will probably have multiple steps or sets of actions and activities, with transitions between them. Open rituals or those with guests regularly will usually explain the basics before you start.
- It can be worth asking what to do if you’re not sure about a particular step. For example, it may be okay to say “pass” or bow your head silently, in a number of cases.
The last cultural value is that a lot of Pagans, particularly people who’ve been doing this for a while, tend to value patience. We’re a group of religions about cycles and seasons that last months or years.
Many of us who’ve been around for a while have also seen a lot of people show up who are interested for a little while – a month, three months, six months. But when they don’t get the keys to all magic quickly, they wander off again. That’s fine! People should find the places they want to spend their time.
But for the people in long-standing groups and communities, it often means being cordial and amiable with new folks, but not expecting all of them will stick around. Once someone shows up regularly, or at least repeatedly, then you’ll often find people including you in more ways.
If you want to meet people and learn more faster, volunteering to help out is a great way to get started. Not only do you establish yourself as someone who wants to help, it’s often a great chance to chat one on one with a couple of different people at the event while you’re helping them.
Finally, there are some logistical reasons for patience. Most Pagan groups are small, and many will not be open to new group members all the time. Those who are open to new members (if they’re a focused group) probably have a process for considering new people. That doesn’t happen overnight.
What to expect:
- It will take some time to get to know people in the community. It may take some people a while to warm up to you, or to have deeper conversations.
- Showing up regularly, volunteering to help, or finding other suitable chances to demonstrate you’re serious all help.
- It’s fine to politely check what the options are if you want to learn more or to ask people if they can suggest somewhere further to look or learn.
Politely in this case means “Check that they’re not trying to focus on something else right now”, “Wait for a natural break in conversation, don’t just walk into an ongoing discussion”, and “If someone says they can’t help, sorry, then thank them, and don’t bug them about it.”
Posted October 10, 2020. Reformatted November 2020.