Atlanta pagans give faith new meaning

Clad in tan dress pants and white blouse, Lady Maia* blends right into a crowd. Little would anyone know, she’s a witch. She looks just like everyone else: no pointy hats, no robes, no brooms or black cats at her feet.

For centuries, Pagans like Lady Maia have practiced their craft in private. If a Pagan publicly declared their faith, their life was at stake.

“Before, you never let anyone know that you were a witch,” said Lady Maia, the current High Priestess of Ravenwood Church and Seminary in Atlanta. “It cost you your job. It cost you your children. It cost you your house. There was a lot at stake to say that you were a witch.”

Since Ravenwood’s establishment as one of the first Pagan congregations in the country in 1982, Pagans have had the right to openly practice their religion. Ravenwood is known for its religious tolerance and education of witchcraft.  

“We were the first ones in the state of Georgia to say, ‘you know what? We’re a real thing, let us prove it to you,’” Lady Maia said. “Now we have the same freedom as any other religious organization.”

Now, Paganism has transformed into a widely recognized religion that thousands of people practice across the country. Atlanta is now home to almost 20 groups and covens who actively practice Paganism. While each group represents different sects of the religion, their beliefs center around similar principles: harmony, humility and tolerance.

Pagans celebrate the same eight holidays. All of these holidays take place over the Wheel of the Year, a sacred ritual calendar that marks the earth’s changing seasons, and the moon’s waxing and waning cycles.

“We don’t worship the earth or nature,” Lady Maia said. “What we do is follow the patterns of nature and look for the balance within it. We look for that harmony and nature within ourselves.”

These holidays, otherwise known as Sabbat days, are considered holy to Pagans. They believe that these celebrations are the key to personal transformation, healing and empowerment.

“We honor our god and goddess and their transition from one into the other,” Lady Autumn said. “We celebrate them taking over the seasons.”

To perform the Sabbat rituals, the Wiccans use their energy to establish a sacred space outdoors. Any negative energy is eliminated, allowing the Wiccans to be more in touch with nature. These rituals focus on revitalizing a Wicca’s spiritual energy, or honoring the season the Sabbat falls under.

“Everyone thought that we were burning people and that we all own black cats,” Lady Maia said. “Some of the ways that we are portrayed are so far away from my faith and what I believe that it’s insulting.”

The way witches are often conveyed in pop culture has diluted the core values of Paganism, says Lady Maia.

“Disney. Think Disney,” Lady Autumn said. “It makes it seem like we have long noses with warts on them, that we all cackle and that we are evil.”

This characterization gives witches a bad rap, according to Lady Maia. However, this is no longer the case. Witches aren’t being persecuted for their beliefs anymore.

“The perception of witches has definitely changed,” Lady Autumn said. “When I first started practicing, it was a very hush-hush thing. Now, there is a much more positive view of it.”

Ravenwood has established itself as a member of the Atlanta community by attracting locals. They hire performers and hold concerts that are open to the public. They also work with the Atlanta Braves and the Atlanta Police Department to communicate their message and transform the Pagan image.

Other events like Decatur’s Pagan Pride Festival introduce the faith to newcomers, and bring Pagans together for the Autumn Harvest.

“Pagans are people just like everybody else,” Lady Maia said. “We have wants and desires and brains like every other human being on the planet. We take joy in our celebrations, and we are all normal, approachable people.”

Still, there are people who are wary of witches and their beliefs.

“There’s a lot more tolerance for our faith than there used to be,” Lady Maia said. “However, there’s still a long way to go.”

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*The names of Lady Maia and Lady Autumn have been omitted due to their religious beliefs.