Stanislav Panin holds a PhD in Philosophy from Moscow State University and is a Doctoral Student of the Department of Religion at Rice University
The coronavirus pandemic has changed lives worldwide and influenced all religious communities, both large and small, but those who had important festivals during the spring were especially affected by state-regulated lockdowns. Among them were Pagan groups that celebrate a festival on May 1 often referred to as Beltane.
What is Paganism?
Scholars and believers alike do not have a universally accepted definition of Paganism. The Pagan Federation International, an ecumenical Pagan organization, defines Paganism inclusively as “a polytheistic or pantheistic nature-worshipping religion.” The worship of nature and “this-worldly spirituality” prevail in scholarly definitions of Paganism as well. Other possible characteristics include magical practices and belief in intimate connection and interdependency between divine beings and humankind.
The history of contemporary Paganism can be traced back to the late eighteenth century when Romanticism ignited interest in European folklore among educated urban audiences. By the beginning of the twentieth century, various Pagan groups existed throughout Europe and drew inspiration from local mythologies. After the Second World War, Pagan ideas were championed by British author Gerald Gardner, who claimed the existence of a pan-European Pagan religion that he presumably reconstructed in his books. Ideas advanced by Gardner gave birth to Wicca, one of the most successful branches of contemporary Paganism.
Celebrating Beltane Online
The name of the Pagan May festival, Beltane, originated from Britain where it was celebrated to mark the beginning of summer. Beltane was largely forgotten about until the second half of the twentieth century when it was revived by Celtic Pagans and Wiccans, for whom it became a pivotal religious festival. With the rise in popularity of various strands of modern Paganism, variations of this festival were adopted by other groups. Within Wicca, Beltane is part of an annual festival cycle marked by Solstices, Equinoxes, and four points in between them—one of which is Beltane. Other branches of modern Paganism often have similar festival structures and sometimes use the name Beltane as a recognizable label especially when the festival is celebrated together by various Pagan groups.
One of the most well-established Beltane festivals still occurring today was organized in 1988 by the Beltane Fire Society in Scotland. However, this year the celebration eventually moved online due to the pandemic. To help those who planned to attend the event, the Beltane Fire Society created what they called BonFire—Beltane Online Fire Festival—that included an organized collection of ritual texts, photos, and videos from previous festivals, and new videos recorded specifically for the occasion. Together these materials were meant to communicate a feeling of celebration during a time of unease and help to maintain a sense of connection and community.
Also, day-to-day religious life and smaller events maintained by local Pagan groups were affected by the pandemic as well. To learn how the pandemic affected them, I asked several Pagan practitioners from various parts of the world to explain how their lives changed as a result of the pandemic.
The United States
Stefan Sanchez from Texas, USA, calls himself a Heathen and a practitioner of Nagualismo, a native American religion. He is actively involved in the life of the Pagan community in Texas. Commenting on their usual festivals, he said:
In a normal year, we would have large community gatherings involving bonfires, rituals shared from multiple different participating communities, and many smaller group workings within those smaller communities. Many of us also perform one-on-one, in-person spiritual services for members of our communities , or hold lessons to train other community members to take leadership roles.
He pointed out that their usual Beltane festival that attracted people from all branches of Paganism for shared rituals, exchange of opinions, lectures, and workshops was canceled this year, but smaller groups moved their celebrations online. Не added:
Many of the smaller communities that make up our larger community have been holding their spring celebrations and their regular meetings over remote webcam services. As a teacher and a spiritual healer, I have been holding lessons with my students over webcam, and I have been holding a fair number of consultations over webcam. I have also resorted to distance healing techniques where I would normally prefer in-person techniques. Recently I performed a trance ceremony over the phone.
In Russia, Pagan communities and festivals are much younger than their peers in Britain and the United States and therefore tend to be smaller and less organized. The spread of Paganism in Russia coincided with the spread of the internet, and many Pagan communities initially emerged online. In recent years the general tendency among Pagan groups was to encourage the organization of offline events. The pandemic, however, made Pagan groups retreat to their virtual practices when Moscow, the capital of Russia, became an epicenter of the pandemic and introduced strict self-isolation regulations.
Polina Lopukhina, known among her Pagan peers as Par Nada, is a Wiccan priestess from Moscow. Their coven can be described as an ecumenical Wiccan group that does not associate with any particular branch of Wicca. Their coven used to meet for seasonal festivals and relied on online communication for discussions, reports about their day-to-day practices, and online meditations. Even before the pandemic, they had a well-developed set of practices that relied on digital technologies. Polina mentioned two particular types—online meditations that use synchronous video conferencing and video meditations that are recorded prior to an event and used without direct online communication.
Polina said that the pandemic made her coven move its festival celebration online, relying on a mix of contemporary technologies and esoteric practices. She pointed out:
We understood that the quarantine would not end by May 1 and because of it we started in advance to introduce more online and video meditations in our practice to get used to it. In the past, we had online meetings approximately once a month, but just before the Beltane, we started to organize them weekly . It is worth mentioning that in preparation for the Sabbath we started to work more actively with a technique for a shared astral temple. It is a shared place on a spiritual plane where we come together. We did more meetings before the Sabbath to shape and prepare this space.
Gwiddon Harveston, a Wiccan high priest from another Moscow group that practices the Gardnerian tradition of Witchcraft, explained that in their tradition covens gather during the eight annual seasonal festivals and every full moon to perform rituals together. During the warm part of the year, they would normally organize outdoor rituals in Moscow parks. Gwiddon said that the coronavirus lockdown leads them to shift communication online and focus on solitary rituals. “Due to the self-isolation regime in Moscow, which started in the middle of March, gatherings of people were forbidden by municipal government and parks were closed off. Our group members celebrated the Spring Equinox online and Beltane on their own in their homes.”
On the opposite side of the globe in Australia, Pagan groups also had to react to the pandemic. Although by the end of April the spread of COVID-19 had already plateaued in Australia, isolation measures still defined all areas of Australian life as the nation entered its winter season beginning in June. Because seasons are inverted in the Southern Hemisphere compared to the Northern Hemisphere, Australian Pagans usually have their annual cycle also inverted and celebrate Samhain, a festival traditionally observed on October 31 in the Northern Hemisphere, at the beginning of May.
Wolf MacDonald, a Gardnerian High Priest from Victoria, Australia, described how their coven used to meet at least once a month for rituals and socialization, but the coronavirus pandemic changed their usual pace. They decided not to move their rituals online and instead to focus on solitary practice. However, online communication plays a significant role in connecting members and maintaining discussion of their spiritual practices. They also intensified those practices that they deemed appropriate to move online. Wolf MacDonald said that “any in-person meeting was out of the question, so we shifted to structuring rituals for individual (or couple) use, with Zoom meetings to chat socially about it afterward, and with me recording guided visualizations that folks could listen to in their own homes, again, to be discussed afterward.”
Responses to the pandemic among Pagan groups were as pluralistic as the groups themselves. The two main solutions have been either to emphasize solitary practice or to rely on various forms of digital religion. Both have a long history, especially in those parts of the world where Pagan communities are smaller and less institutionalized. Going online, in particular, is a widespread solution, and in the past Pagans experimented with digital technologies by incorporating them in their teaching as well as religious practice.
An example of this is the Pagan Woolston-Steen Theological Seminary located in Washington state, USA, that teaches its curriculum and performs religious practices using a virtual campus created in the computer game Second Life. This might be a radical case, yet incorporating at least some digital elements, like guided meditations, is commonplace in Pagan communities. But it is not universal; some are more skeptical about moving religion online and prefer to focus on solitary practice when necessary, reserving digital instruments for teaching and discussions.
Contemporary Pagan leaders and practitioners often argue for the necessity of community building and moving from online and solitary practice to active real-life presence. However, in situations like the pandemic, Pagans had to turn back to remote formats. They relied more on online communication to maintain social connections, and when it comes to rituals it helped that Pagan communities had a long experience of solitary and online practice. This experience, albeit somewhat controversial, suddenly became handy in a time of social distancing.
York, Michael. Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion. New York University Press, 2003. P. 14