Paganism in Utah: April 1992
On a March afternoon, three prominent members of the Salt Lake pagan community gathered with SLUG staffers to discuss their perspectives on Paganism in Utah. The three included Gretchen, a Dianic priestess and co-editor of Webster’s—a local Pan-Pagan zine. Gary, an initiate of high ceremonial magic, and Prdydd Ap Donn (A magical name pronounced “pridith-ap-dawn”), Wiccan priest of the Celtic tradition. All three consider themselves witches.
The ensuing hour-plus interview was lively and informative. The following represents excerpts of the interview, which has been edited for brevity.
SLUG: Who are Pagans, and what is it that they do?
Prdydd: To answer that question is impossible, other than to say that Pagans are individuals doing whatever they feel spiritually motivated to do. We could get into definitions of “pagan,” which simply means non-christian in modern use. There are lots of different practices and ideas, and there are as many different religions within the scope of Paganism as there are individuals. Every individual has a different way of practice, a different set of beliefs and different ideas. I am a Wiccan priest—Wicca being an earth-orientated, goddess-worshiping religion. But even within Wicca, you’d be very hard-pressed to find any two individuals with exactly the same beliefs. Each individual perceives their deity and the manner of their worship in their own way. If there are any unifying things, it is that Wiccans generally are people who have strong spiritual motivation, a sense that the earth and the environment are alive and sacred, that they represent the face of the goddess and the god, and they follow a prime decree or directive of harming no one and nothing while they carry out their will.
SLUG: What does your practice look like?
Prydd: My practice—what I think, how I worship and perform service to other pagans in the community and my relationship with my deities and patrons, changes every day. Ritual and ritual magic are an important part of the way I worship and perform services, and that carries as my understanding changes and as I grow and expand, so does my worship. The one thing I try to remember is that my spiritual motivation and alliance with deity is the most important part of the practice and that magic and the rituals should be focused on myself as part of the planet and mostly are involved with healing and governed by my relationship with deity, following the ultimate rule of harming no one or no thing.
Gary: I come from the ceremonial magic tradition, which is a lot more Jewish andGreek-oriented, and ceremony is very important to the worship. For the most part, in practice, it comes down to solo work, all by yourself. You’re part of a group, but the most work is done by yourself. And I think that the ceremonial things go a lot more with the mathematics behind it. We get a lot more left-brain about it, in that it’s very analytical, very mathematical and very scientific, which can be bad at times if you lose the creative essence. That creative essence is a divine spark, and if you’re going to worship, you have to worship the divine.
A lot of the ceremonial magic that I’m aware of is based on the Qabalah, which is where the numbers come from. It’s very numbers-oriented in that we use the Gematria and the Notariqon to make cross-references between various things, gods and goddesses—and incense and plants and whatever—and be able to recall them in an instant. When I say “Isis,” that word represents a whole myriad of concepts, a lot of which are actually lost in the word. So it’s easier, in a sense, to use a number.
Prdydd: Before becoming a Wiccan priest, I trained in ceremonial magic and did quite a bit of that work. There are a lot of Wiccan folks who use the Qabala, too, but I think that whether it’s Wiccan worship or ceremonial magic or any other focused and magic-using spiritual path, the whole point of it is personal development: the development of the self into a whole, and a balanced and more perfect individual.
Gary: There’s one place where we differ greatly. You’d say, “Save I harm none, do what thou will,” and I’d say “Do what thou will.” While I may agree that I don’t want to harm anyone, if it were my will, in theory, to bring harm to someone, which I kind of find impossible, I would. I would accomplish my will. To me, the prime directive is accomplishing my true will, which gets us in trouble sometimes, because will and want aren’t the same thing, and you can get confused. You have to kind of hope for grace.
Gretchen: I am an eclectic Dianic wiccan priestess. Eclectic because we draw on a lot of different traditions, past cultures, times, other traditions, other Pagan traditions. We’ll draw on anything, we’re not picky. Dianic, meaning women who feel particularly called to be priestesses of the goddess and don’t find themselves interested in working with gods, the masculine aspect of the divine. And we draw a lot on the traditions of classic English Wiccan, so we call ourselves Wiccans, too. Some Wiccans may not agree with us, some Dianics don’t even think we should be calling ourselves Dianics, but it’s the closest word I know that fits. So, we’re eclectic Dianic wiccans.
SLUG: Are you all women?
Gretchen: Yeah. There are Dianic groups that are men and women, but what I’m familiar with is groups of just women, and that’s who I’ve been working with. Some of us are married, have boyfriends, have sons. We do interact with the male population rather successfully but spiritually, that’s not our focus. We recognize the existence of gods, it’s just not who we’re working with. And I agree that it’s probably impossible to define Pagans. You could have a list of several things that most people would agree with, and then you’ll find a twelfth person who won’t. I think most Pagans really cherish that ability to not have to fit in and be like everybody else, and most of all, make up their minds. What makes us Pagan, maybe, is the willingness to believe in ourselves and what we can find out for ourselves. And that involves a lot of love and trust in ourselves, the people we work with and the gods and goddesses.
My group believes in learning it by doing it, talking about it, dancing it, singing it, doing ritual. Books are great for seeing other peoples’ experience, for check-back and new ideas and knowing that you’re not alone—but I’m not sure you can learn from books. If you learn it by doing it, then you can go back and read the books and know what books are talking about. We also see a lot of value in being part of the larger Pagan community in Salt Lake City. At one time, my group felt like we had to be very private and separate to protect ourselves, but that’s because we were insecure, and we’ve gotten stronger in our practice, in knowing who we are; we’re not afraid to do things in mixed groups, like Quickbeam. We realize that it doesn’t diminish us or our Dianic focus in any way to work or live with men. You don’t have to be separate to be pure. I think that it’s important to be involved in the larger community, especially for those of us who have sons. We don’t want our children to grow up thinking that spirituality is just women’s stuff. Another thing that we’ve been working on this last year is seeing this place, Salt Lake Valley, as a holy place, a sacred place and getting away from the idea that other places are sacred, but not here. We’re trying to honor the spirits of this place and make a commitment to the land right here: ur own backyards, our own city. We’re making an effort to reclaim this city for the goddess.
SLUG: How many people are in the Salt Lake pagan community?
Prdydd: There’s absolutely no way to find out. When I first started practicing as a teenager, I was amazed to find other pagans, wiccans and magicians in Salt Lake despite wiccan and craft tendencies toward privacy and secrecy—secrecy as in keeping it personal. I think what we’re talking about in terms of pagans as magic using, earth-worshiping, non-Christians—the majority of whom will never be public about what they do. And so it’s impossible to have any kind of a census, but I personally know of at least hundreds that I have met.
Gretchen: And if we’ve met hundreds…
Everyone: … There has to be thousands.
Gretchen: I think some of the need for privacy is fine, but I think that we have to recognize a lot of the need for privacy is just plain fear. That’s unfortunate and something that I want to do something about. I want it to be different for my son. If he wants to keep silence on things, great. But to be forced through fear to be afraid of losing a job, or to have rocks through your windows, that’s utterly wrong.
SLUG: Have you experienced persecution or discrimination because of your beliefs?
Prdydd: Never once. I think it’s to be expected, though, in this country, that anytime you’re part of a minority, whether it be racial, or religious, or sexual, anytime you’re not part of the majority of the people in your area, you’re bound to get some kind of lesser consideration or something. I think that being part of a minority, especially if the minority is dealing with issues that the majority of people either don’t understand or actively fear, you have to expect some ostracism.
Gretchen: Well that’s it, exactly. They’re not educated to know the first thing about us. We can’t really expect them to know anything, but that’s exactly why things like this article, and not being too much in the closet are important. How else are they gonna know if we don’t take the initiative to put something out there? It’s not like we have to put our lives on the line, but I think there’s some responsibility to not buy into the secrecy game.
Gary: We have other problems, though I don’t know if it’s necessarily persecution. About two years ago, KSOP radio asked me to do an interview, and I wish that I hadn’t. They interviewed us for two hours and played probably 20 minutes of it. While they’re talking to us, they had people calling in and saying “I want a spell to help my husband’s day go really well,” and I said “Well, give him a kiss on the cheek, pack him a good lunch, tell him that you love him and send him off. That’s the spell I know.” We were also reciting some poems that are used as spells, and they did “circus music” behind us. While we were in the studio, we couldn’t hear this, and we felt really good when we left, thinking we’d done a really good job of pushing the earth-friendly attitude and the open-minded idea of faith. When we got home and listened to the recording of it, I was furious.
Prdydd: On the other hand, there have been a number of very positive expositions in the press around here over the last few years. I did an article for the Ogden Standard Examiner some years ago, and they didn’t misquote me, quote me out of context or insert a lot of their own stuff. They really were interested in fair representation. My partner did an interview with the Chronicle, the University paper, and they treated us very fairly. But I think that by and large, the majority of the people would prefer that things they don’t understand be left in the area of things they don’t understand. And I think that they would prefer to make fun of those things rather than learn about them. I don’t think there is an attitude in this area or even in this country of open acceptance.
Gretchen: The theology of any orthodoxy is not going to be encouraging its members to look at other religions with open minds. They’re just not raised or encouraged to even be interested in learning about us.
Prdydd: There is also a Judeo-Christian prejudice dictum, found in the Old Testament of the Bible, against magic, magic users and witches.
Gary: Qualify that by saying that the English translation reads that way. Solomon was quite a magician. Moses was quite a magician. I just bought a book that’s written by Abraham to his son, The Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage. The Keys of Solomon are used in lots of practices.
Gretchen: Well, sure, If you’re a king and you’re a member of nobility, it’s fine, you can get away with it. If you’re just the village midwife, you’re not gonna be able to get away with it.Gary: In the Hebrew language, they separated sorcery from sacred magic, but in the English translation, they blend them together.
SLUG: Well, what about the word “witch”?
Prdydd: Again, that word is subject to a lot of discussion, both inside and outside the Wiccan and Pagan communities. Many modern goddess-worshipping magic users have decided to use that word.
Gretchen: I think we’re choosing to look at the historical, positive context of the word, as opposed to the negative Hollywood way to use that word. We’re deliberately reclaiming and deliberately choosing to use that word, instead of a prettier or “nicer” word because we see the power in it.e see the positive context.
Prdydd: The anthropological definition of a witch, which some modern witches and Wiccan practitioners would agree with and others would not, is that a witch is someone who claims to have supernatural powers and uses those supernatural powers to effect changes around them, either for good or evil.
Gretchen: The problem with that is, I’m not sure any of the three of us would actually believe in supernatural powers. I don’t think it’s super, other or other side. We think it’s all entirely natural. How much more “super” can you be than “natural?” For a long time, it was assumed that all magic, including the growing of plants, came from power given by a deity. Part of the problem is which deity a person claimed the power came from. If a person claimed that the power came from the coming ruling deity, then the magic was called a miracle, and you were doing the will of god, and it was fine. If a person happened to worship any other deity than that onecentral, cultural god, whether or not they claimed that their ability to do magic came from that deity, then it worked by magic and evil.
Gretchen: By the Middle Ages, you don’t even have to claim to worship a non-Christian deity. If you had power, you could hear, whatever, and you were not a priest, and not a medical doctor, and not a member of the ruling classes, you were assumed to bein with evil deities and evil power.
SLUG: What are common misconceptions of Paganism today?
Prdydd: The biggest common misconception is that we worship the devil. We don’t even believe in the devil.
Gretchen: Personally, I think the devil is just the Christian anti-god. They have a very dualistic system, so if you have good and god over here, you’ve got to have somebody else over there, and the somebody else is what they call the devil. I think we’re talking strictly Christian here. So, since I’m not working within a Christian mythological structure anymore, I don’t believe in that entity. I believe there’s negativity, I believe there is evil, but I don’t think the devil exists. For people who give him power and choose to have him as part of their universe, I know he exists. I think I have a choice over that.
Gary: You don’t believe in the devil?SLUG: You believe in the devil?
Gary: I believe in several devils. Life for me has kind of a polarity, and there’s not just a horizontal polarity, but a vertical polarity, and Satan would be one of the names of the Kings of the Qliphoth. And so you have Satan, Lucifuge (Lucifer) and Beelzebud (Beelzebub), and Leviathan, Lilith and Asmoday. There’s a whole hierarchy of entities.
SLUG: And how do they fit into your theology?
Gary: I think they’re servants or subservient spirits, in that if it be my will to cause change, I can affect certain things using their powers. But that’s often misconstructed; if I’m using demonic powers to cause a change, then I’m causing a negative change. That’s not true, because if they serve me, they cause the change I wish to have caused, which is usually really a blind force, not really positive and not really negative.
Prdydd: It’s like electricity.
Gretchen: Power itself is absolutely neutral. When you go around talking about doing things for power through power, people think you’re talking about something negative. In this society, it’s negative to desire power. I’m just talking about being healthy, being happy, being well-balanced and having my life be okay. Yes, I want power, because power will do those things for me. How you use it, to what end, there’s where the negative and positive comes in. Power itself is just the ability to live and breathe.
Prdydd: And that’s always an individual choice, how you apply it. Just like money in this society is power. You can use your money for good or you use your money for bad. The acquisition of power is exactly analogous to putting money in your savings account.
Gary: The greatest potential evil is within.
Prdydd: A little bit more about deific things, both positive and negative. As someone who is an initiate of both ceremonial magic and Wicca, I have a little different perspective. I learned and studied Qabalah for many years and was introduced to the use of those old Hebrew divine names in ritual. I have found that system is too archaic for me. I do not believe in any external disincarnate forces. My universe doesn’t have any sort of separate gods, demons, spirits or angels. I don’t call on anything like that for power. My deity and myself are one. And neither of us are independent of each other. To me, there is just one emanation of creation, and it is our whole cosmos. It is you, me, the goddess, the planet and everything. We start making smaller definitions of things based on our perception, so that we don’t go crazy. If I thought I was the tree outside all the time, I’d have problems getting to the supermarket; I wouldn’t be able to function. I know that I am that tree, and I am the mountain, and all these things are goddess, but I have to have some kind of definition. For me, the definition of Prdydd is an artificial one, just like the definition of my goddess, Danu, is an artificial one. They are covalent descriptions of different parts of one thing.
Gary: The Book of the Law teaches exactly what you’re saying. That’s Nuit and Hadit—Hadit being the really generic kind of idea and then making it more personal, the way you’ve done it.
Gretchen: But within day-to-day consciousness, we tend to see these aspects as independent deities. Ultimately, I guess they’re not. But, y’know, small human brain, big universe.
Prdydd: It’s the difference between thinking that things happen outside or inside of you. To me, one of the differences between most practitioners of ceremonial magic and Wiccans that I have met is that many ceremonial magicians truly believe that the power of the ritual comes from the deities, spirit powers and names that are invoked.
Gary: Sort of, yeah.
Prdydd: Well, I’m saying most that I have met.
Gary: I think that’s what the OTO (Ordo Templi Orientis) or the HGOA (Holy Gnostic Order Ararita) teaches, though.
Prdydd: I will invoke a specific deity, Danu or Cernunnos, or I will talk to faeries in my backyard. I know, though, that all those things are part of me, and that’s how I know and that’s very different. To me, the whole question of supernatural, or good and evil, is moot, because I see all creation as being a single existence. It is bipolar. There is positive and negative, active and passive, male and female, up and down, earth and sky. Dualism assumes that there’s something separating the two things, while being bipolar assumes that two things are the two ends of one thing. Just like a magnet is bipolar, there’s a positive and negative magnetic field generated on each end of a magnet, but it is only one magnet.
SLUG: Is Utah more active than the rest of the country?
Gary: I think so. People here are realizing that Utah is a holy place. I am of the opinion that big things are happening in Salt Lake—very, very big things, and that they’re going to surface in the next season.
Gretchen: Utah, obviously, is really polarized about religion and that brings it to your consciousness. I think if I hadn’t been living in Utah, I wouldn’t have gotten into these things as much as I have, as soon as I did. I would have been a lot slower about it if I’d lived someplace where people weren’t constantly thinking about and discussing religious matters. So, it’s been very positive for me that Utah is so hyper-aware of who’s who and what’s what. Maybe that accelerates some process here. I know it has for my own life.
Prdydd: I don’t think that Salt Lake is as active as other parts of the country where people have been extremely active publicly and privately and are years ahead of us in terms of consecration and conservation of sacred lands, public groups, press awareness and religious integration through multi-faith councils. I think that Salt Lake may be becoming more active now than it has been in the past; there’s more coverage, there’s more awareness, and more people are being more vocal and a little more public about it. I think that the land itself, the location itself, as a focus of spiritual energy and power, is very active.
Gary: That’s what I meant, I guess. As far as the people are concerned other places are a lot more active, but I think as far as the energies in Salt Lake are concerned …
Prdydd: There are so many magical places here!
Gretchen: This is a very spiritually aware place to live. You may not agree with your neighbor’s spiritual awareness, but they’ve got it!
SLUG: How would people who are reading this find out more about you?
Gretchen: Read books! Not to learn how to do it but just to get general information, like “does this feel okay to me?” Reading books is something you can do all by yourself, just to see what’s going on out there.
SLUG: What books would you recommend?
Gretchen: Maybe, Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon, which is an overview of paganism in America.
Gary: The Tao Teh Ching (Lao Tzu).
Gretchen: On the women’s side, I would recommend two to check out dianic practice, To Know by Jade and The Goddess Celebrates edited by Diane Stein.
Prdydd: I’d recommend Spiral Dance by Starhawk, which is a pretty balanced introduction to common craft practices and beliefs. But I think if you want to find out about paganism, ceremonial magic or wicca, the best thing to do is to visit our local pagan bookstores, Gypsy Moon, Fertile Ground, Golden Braid, and New Pathways. The best thing to do is go into one of those shops, I would especially recommend Gypsy Moon, and ask someone behind the counter if they have those books. Find some good books to read, and talk to some people who are already doing it. Those are the two ways to find out what people are doing and whether or not it’s right for you.
Gary: I would also suggest that you do go to public meetings. OTO masses are open, and there’s another high magic order in the area called the Holy Gnostic Order Ararita [HGOA] and they put flyers out.
Prdydd: The bookstores have bulletin boards, they have newsletters which contain information about local events. There are also people that are offering teaching and workshops.
Gretchen: You get the newsletter, find a bulletin board, see something and listen for a class or a ritual that’s coming up. Go to that event and meet some real live bodies, and you will start to find people you have something in common with, people you can talk to, people who are maybe beginners just like yourself. That’s a good place to start some personal interaction.
Prdydd: There are a lot of workshops, but I would recommend that you stay away from the pricey ones. I’m involved with a tribe here in Salt Lake called Greenway, which has open workshops, meetings and socials. The best place to find out about those is to check the bulletin boards.
SLUG: What is Quickbeam?
Prdydd: As a previous holder of the shield, I would like to say a couple things. Quickbeam is strictly an observance of all eight of the sabbats in an open fashion. It’s not a group—it’s a series of events. It does not have a membership or anything like that. Every year, Quickbeam has an individual [holder of the shield] who is responsible and who volunteers to provide the sabbats as a public service. All eight of them happen every year.
Gretchen: It’s a place to get some experience too, because you can volunteer. One person is in charge, and that person just makes sure it happens but still needs lots of help. Whether you bring the wine, or …
Prdydd: Or even lead the ritual …
Gretchen: It can be a learning opportunity. More often than not, it is a darn nice celebrational experience in community. And I think it’s really important for Pagans to have community and not be alone and isolated.
Prdydd: It’s a really good opportunity for first experiences because there are no demands other than etiquette.
Gretchen: You have to participate in the sense that you don’t get to stand 20-feet-away and just watch.
Prdydd: But there’s no commitments or demands and it’s a wonderful place to meet people. I think it’s one of the nicer things that’s happened to the public community in the last five years, and hopefully, it will be a tradition for a long time to come. Quickbeam has brought lots of us together, lots of folds that are not friends. It’s highly recommended, but not just for the merely curious. It’s not a place to seek a thrill or see witches but for sincere seekers of other folks, it’s wonderful.
SLUG: What is the most important message that your practice has to offer the modern world?
Gretchen: God in your own image, or, in our case, Goddess. That is an incredibly healing idea. I have never run into anything that mattered more to women who are working on their own healing as the idea of divinity who is me, who is like me.
Gary: The part answer for me would be “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law. Love is the law, love under will.” More importantly, I think it’s just self-realization on all levels. Levels that you’re not aware you have yet.
Prdydd: I think that what most needs to be communicated is that you yourself are divine, and it is possible to live your life in a way that is individual, unique, positive, whole and that unifies you and makes you happy.
SLUG: Anything else you want to add?
Prdydd: Just thanks to SLUG for the support and interest. I think SLUG is a forum for open-minded people, and it will be a place where people who might really be interested will see it.
SLUG: Thanks a lot for your time.
This is the first in the SLUG series on Paganism in Utah. If you would like to be interviewed, contribute to this series, or have questions, contact SLUG.
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