Some Wyo. followers keep pagan beliefs secret

By Laura Hancock

Casper Star-Tribune

Published: Thursday, Sept. 20 2012 5:45 p.m. MDT

Various Pagans from around Wyoming meet at Washington Park in Laramie on Saturday evening, Sept. 8, 2012. Pagan Pride Day at the park gave Pagans from different backgrounds a chance to meet other Pagans and discuss their beliefs.

Kyle Grantham, Casper Star-Tribune, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

LARAMIE, Wyo. — Becca Haskins has "the best job in the world," she says, working in a lab at a Powder River Basin coal mine.

For that, she thanks her faith — paganism.

Before Haskins got the job, she performed a spell with candles. Then everything fell into place.

Haskins is 22, lives in Gillette and applies her faith as a "solitary practitioner," meaning she is not affiliated with a group.

Among pagans, Wyoming is a state of solitary practitioners, the result of low population, wide spaces between cities and towns and dozens of pagan sects. The exception is Laramie, which has the Wolf Tree Kindred.

Last week's Pagan Pride Day in Laramie was a time to reflect on paganism in the Cowboy State. About two dozen pagans and people curious about paganism participated in workshops on ritual work, divination, magical languages and how to be a solitary practitioner.

Many Wyoming pagans are reluctant to reveal their spiritual path.

Although Haskins easily identified herself as a pagan to the Star-Tribune, some people who attended asked not to be named.

"They're closeted," said Jo-Ann Aelfwine of Laramie, who has been practicing paganism for 50 years.

Wyoming is a conservative state, and people aren't always open to differences, Aelfwine said.

"We have to worry about things like losing your job, having your kids taken away from you," she said.

Six years ago, Aelfwine participated in an online discussion group that tried to survey, informally, the number of pagans in Wyoming by asking everyone in the group to consider the pagans they knew. The pagan census in Wyoming topped 500 people.

Like Christianity, Judaism and Islam, paganism is a faith with many sects, such as Wicca, Druidism, Rodnovery and Asatru. Many of the sects have sub-sects.

There is harmony among the sects since the faith focuses less on doctrine and more on discovering an individual spiritual path.

"It is a living and reconstructive faith," said Amber Walton, a Laramie pagan who follows Asatru, which emphasizes Norse gods and traditions.

Some pagans begin rituals with wands to direct power and energy. Other pagans use swords, walking staffs and "athame," which are ritual daggers. Some don't use anything.

While beginning a ritual, some form a circle by calling upon the elements - earth, water, air and fire - to influence and help rituals.

"North might be earth," said Bronwyn Thompson, who organized Pagan Pride Day. "And you call upon it for stability and renewal. South might be fire and fire is the flame of creativity and the soul."

Some of the sects practice magic more than others. Magic and rituals are seen as tools to discipline the mind.

Some longtime Wyoming pagans talked about no longer practicing magic. They can invoke their gods and goddesses just by taking a walk and focusing.

There is no tradition of missionary work in paganism. It's possible that your neighbor or colleague practices and you don't know.

Haskins, the coal mine worker, discussed recently having blood drawn for a medical test in Gillette. The woman drawing the blood noticed the tiny pentagram tattoo on Haskins' arm and casually said, "I'm pagan, too."

"In Wyoming, people like to hide it more than any place I've ever been," Haskins said. "People are not so nice here."

Haskins discovered paganism a decade ago when she was a "Bible-thumping" preteen in Gillette.

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