Attendance was poor and last-minute cancellations were frequent, in both of the place-based witch groups with which I’ve circled in recent years. We struggled to develop common ritual, probably because we lacked a shared intention in the first place. In the first of these groups, nontheists like me wanted to get outside regularly, encounter the natural world directly, and gradually create localized ritual forms based in that direct experience; polytheists wanted to co-create trance experiences, in which we imagined new anthropomorphic deities to apply to our particular landscape. The second group included several newcomers to Pagan practice who were, I suspect, simply witch-curious and subsequently lost interest. When the second of these groups petered out, I re-joined the legion of solitary Pagans, or so I would have said at the time.
Detail of Grotto Wall at Sparky Park, by Berthold Haas
The course those circles took is not surprising, given trends in the Pagan movement as a whole. Between the Pagan Census of 2003-2005 and the Pagan Census Revisited (PCR) in 2009-2010, sociologist Helen Berger and other researchers found that the number of Pagans identifying as solitaries increased from 51% to 79%. Furthermore the surveys revealed that Pagans are becoming increasingly non-traditional and eclectic, with 53% of PCR respondents identifying primarily as eclectic practitioners.
Although survey results indicated that Pagans are becoming increasingly solitary, 73% of PCR respondents reported having practiced in a group at some time, and Berger spoke with some solitary Pagans who also met regularly with a group. “When asked how it was possible to practice both as a solitary and with others I was told that each person had her or his own form of spirituality and that no one attempted to change or reform another’s practice,” Berger reports. These Pagans gathered to discuss their individual practices, or took turns leading ritual in their various traditions.
The PCR findings parallel my personal experience. Since the witch circles in which I used to participate disbanded, I’ve been a solitary practitioner without really being solitary. I still have Pagan friends, and we still discuss our practice and the Pagan books we’re reading. We’ve taken turns hosting one-off rituals for each other, based in our individual interests and theological perspectives. And I still hope at some point to participate in a functional circle that develops shared ritual intentions and forms.
Takeaway: Pagan groups are trending informal, eclectic, and non-hierarchical. Most Pagans prefer to priestess for themselves, it seems, rather than submit to ceremonial training and initiation blessed by an elder. But even solitaries need a supportive tribe, as they do the hard work of crafting paths and practices from the books and blogs they read and from personal experience.