On the morning of Saturday, September 26, the Pope left the island of Manhattan. A few hours later, the pagans descended.
In Washington Square Park, as part of the 15th annual NYC Pagan Pride Festival, Wiccans, druids, witches, and Kemetics, as well as many non-pagans, gathered to celebrate the harvest. The scene was overwhelmingly pleasant: Near a stall selling books like Wicca for Dummies and A Witch Alone: A Practical Handbook, an elderly, amply-bearded man in a rainbow Bernie Sanders shirt helped his wife pick out a pagan t-shirt. (Later, he met some fellow Sanders fans: "Pagans represent Bernie!" one of the witches in attendance yelled upon seeing him.)
A few feet away, an extremely jovial self-identified kitchen witch gave out samples of infused olive oils. "A kitchen witch isn't something you decide to become," she told me. "It's something you are." On the grass, various witches and pagans held workshops with titles like "How to 'Tune In' to the Spirit World," "The Real World of Voodoo," and "Working with the Fae."
Courtney Weber, a Wiccan priestess who had lectured on the Celtic goddess Brigid, took a moment to pontificate on feminism and Goddess worship. "It doesn't make sense—God ejaculating onto the earth and that's how we all got here?" she said. "I had a cab driver say recently, 'I'm gonna preach to you: We all came from God's seed.' I was like, 'No, we all came from a vagina.' It makes more sense to me: God being both male and female, God being beyond gender."
The event, part of the larger Pagan Pride Project, has been occurring for a decade and a half. "The event has grown in size and scope, but we've kept it to the basics: Create a space where Pagans can gather and the public can see that we're just everyday people who happen to have a different sense of spirituality, but share the same values—family, community, caring for the environment and our fellow humans," said NY Pagan Pride Project president Beth Mastromarino in an email.
According to Beth, many Pagans still face discrimination for their beliefs. "Every day, Pagans have to make a choice: In or out? Do I wear my pentacle tucked inside my shirt, or leave it out?" she said. "This is something those who wear a crucifix don't typically have to consider." At NYC Pagan Pride, however, that's not an issue. The afternoon closed with a harvest ritual; Lady Rhea, a Wiccan High Priestess known as the Witch Queen of New York, led observers in chanting goddess names while a young woman in a bikini bellydanced ecstatically in front of a harvest altar.
At one point, Lady Rhea decided that the chanting wasn't enthusiastic enough. "Am I with witches or what?" she demanded loudly of the crowd. Chastened, the group began yelling louder: ISIS, ASTARE, DIANA, HECATE, DEMETER, KALI, INANNA. Presumably, the goddesses were pleased.