Juneau fans of paganism gather

Posted: Monday, January 31, 2005

Phyllis Smith doesn't mind if people call it Groundhog Day.

People have been calling it Imbolc longer, she said in front of a fire in one of the Auke Bay Recreation shelters. It comes from an old Celtic word that many believe translates to "ewe's milk."

"Imbolc is always on Feb. 2," she said. Because people work, the beach barbecue celebration among Juneau pagans was held on Sunday.

"We're celebrating that in six more weeks it will be spring," said Smith, who organized the celebration. "We've made it this far."

Unlike the tradition of Groundhog Day, which also falls on Feb. 2 to mark the midway point between the summer solstice and the vernal equinox, no one speculates about animals seeing shadows.

Sunday, though, only a few people came out to celebrate Imbolc.

"It's a crappy day," said Kathy Rado at one of the picnic tables, sheltered from the wind and drizzle.

She said she finds it pointless in Juneau to wait for the weather to improve to have a good time. "I love the beach, especially in the winter."

Rado brought the buffalo meat to barbecue, along with chicken and pork ribs - and cheese and butter as necessary substitutes for the absent lactating sheep.

The cornbread - though not extant in the Old World before Columbus - was another part of the celebration, Smith said. She added that she brought the Jiffy Pop for fun.

There are probably a little more than 20 pagans associated with the Juneau group. Beliefs among them vary, Smith said. Last year's summer solstice celebration included words by a man who was a South American shaman.

Many of the people they get, though, are women who find earth-based philosophies more appealing than mainstream religions that traditionally have not treated women very well.

Smith said that when she was growing up in Ketchikan, she went to whatever Sunday school was closest. She later discovered paganism in a book. Given a chance, she'll talk about how poorly women are treated in the Bible.

She said things that are wrong are wrong because they're wrong, not because the Bible calls them wrong. And if she wrongs someone, it will be that person she will ask for forgiveness.

"This is our church," she said near the beach at Auke Bay. "Sometimes it's in a different spot, but it's always outside."

A man who helped bring firewood and cut it to keep the fire going for Sunday's gathering asked to remain nameless, in part because he associates himself with the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

The food was great, he said.

Smith said she guessed she would be taking some of it home. Even after setting out a small plate "for the fairies," which she said would satisfy a few squirrels, there was more than they could finish.

She said people walking along the beach for one of their events are welcome to join the party without hearing anything about their religious beliefs. The extent of Sunday's ritual was just a few words expressing thanks that spring is on its way.

At the bigger events, many people bring non-pagan friends who aren't expected to participate in any rites that would be considered pagan.

"Nobody will make you do anything to make you feel creepy or make you fear for your soul," she said.

The next event will be the vernal equinox, which Smith called Ostara. The weather should be better, and the holiday has traditions such as egg hunts, she added.

Traditions, though, aren't wrapped up in specific dogma. Juneau pagans are made up of people who observe earth-based religions, Smith said.

"And have a desire to hang out and have a good time," Rado said.

• Tony Carroll can be reached at tony.carroll@juneauempire.com.

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