We bought bitter, found somewhere to sit, and began what turned out to be a three-hour crash course in modern paganism, one of the fastest-growing religions in Britain.
‘It’s time for us pagans to make ourselves heard,’ said Steve. Steve is founder of Pebble (the liaison committee for British paganism) which has given all the various pagan factions — Witches, Druids, Heathens, Voodoo Priestesses, Shamans, Chaos Magicians — an official voice. ‘Look at the 2001 census,’ he said, ‘the results have just been published. We’re the seventh largest religion in the country — there are at least 40,000 of us. It’s time that we were taken seriously.’ What sort of people are pagans? I asked. ‘Ooh, every sort: lawyers, teachers, nurses, pensioners, students. There are lots in the Civil Service,’ said Steve, who works for the Charity Commission. ‘There’s even one writing regularly for the Daily Telegraph.’ Who? Steve chuckled, raised his eyebrows and took a pull on his pint of Pride. Anne Robinson? I thought; Bill Deedes? I asked, ‘What is a pagan these days anyway?’
‘Well,’ said Steve, relaxing, ‘the first thing is that we’re not Satanists and we don’t sacrifice babies.’ He rolled his eyes. ‘The Devil is a Christian concept. We worship the ancient, pre-Christian gods and goddesses. A pagan is defined as a follower of a polytheistic nature-based religion which incorporates beliefs and rituals from ancient traditions.’ As he laid a line of Golden Virginia on to a Rizla, I examined Steve closely for signs of in-leagueness with the Devil. There were rolls of grime under his fingernails and some red scratches on his right hand.
So, can a modern pagan just pick any god to worship? I asked. Egyptian? Roman? African? Are there any rules? Steve put his hands self-consciously under the table, ‘No rules,’ he said. ‘Being a pagan is about being free from institutional rules. And the gods? Once you start seeking they choose you, really. Everyone has their own path, but we all celebrate the same festivals: the summer and winter solstices, spring and autumn equinoxes and four other festivals: Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane and Lughnasad.’
Pagans, I discovered during our second pint, are also united by their sense of the injustices done them by Christians. The last 2,000 years of history, as explained by Steve, is a heart-wrenching tale of innocent occult revivals squashed by ignorant, scaredy-cat Christians; of forced conversions by English kings desperate for Roman approval; of goddess-worship suppressed by chauvinist orthodoxy and cries of ‘Burn the witch!’ Eventually, after a tour through the Enlightenment (good), Freemasonry (also good), Constantine (bad) and Dominican monks (Satan spawn), we reached the 20th century, where, said Steve, paganism was once again revived by a man called Gerald Gardner. In 1957, after 20 years of frolicking with a coven of witches, Gardner wrote Witchcraft Today — a mix of folklore, Masonic rituals, nudism, sex and Aleister Crowley-style magic which became a sort of handbook for the modern Wicca witch and inspired the whole postmodern frogspawn of spiritually and sexually liberated pagan sects. ‘Paganism today is continually evolving,’ said Steve. ‘There’s no right or wrong thing to believe, so even if we disagree, it’s impossible for pagans to be schismatic.’…