One Saturday evening on Main Street, a witch, druid, and Celtic neo-pagan walk into a bar.
This isn’t the setup for a joke: the three friends had come to downtown Durham bar Arcana to celebrate a special occasion: the tenth anniversary of the Triangle Area Pagan Alliance, the largest public pagan organization in North Carolina.
With a DJ, costume contest, and cash bar, the anniversary party didn’t look too far off from any other group of friends hanging out, though there may have been more pentacle jewelry than in an average crowd.
“They are just the sweetest community,” says Erin Karcher, owner of Arcana. Though she’s not a pagan, her underground and tarot-themed bar has proven to be a welcoming space for those who are.
Amanda Morris, social worker by day and coven member by night, is one of the original founders of the group. She says it started simply as a group of friends enjoying meals and drinks together.
The alliance, to her, is about community.
“We just want to talk to people about the cool thing that happened this weekend, or be in a safe space, where we can be openly pagan and know that we won’t be harassed,” Morris says.
Morris is part of a coven of Wiccans who, instead of celebrating American establishment holidays like Christmas or Hanukkah, follow the Wheel of the Year. The Wheel is a calendar that, in its current form, dates back to the mid-20th century and is based on ancient celebrations of the cycle of the seasons. Each sect, practice, or tradition of paganism has its own holidays and celebrations.
There’s no easy definition of paganism—Google, in fact, warns that the term is outdated and possibly offensive—but Morris doesn’t find the word offensive. She explains that pagans tend to believe in polytheism, ancestral worship, or a deep connection to the natural world.
“We’re not a unified community, and we’re not a unified religion at all,” she says. The alliance helps solidify community support that others may find in a church congregation. It’s sometimes about “just knowing that you’re not alone,” Morris says. They may support friends in need by helping out when someone is sick or getting a gift card for someone who’s had a tough time at work.
It’s hard to know how many pagans are in the Triangle, because many people are private about their beliefs. But Morris says they’re everywhere if you know where to look.
“We definitely have several Wiccan covens, we have heathen groups running around,” she says. “We have some druids, we’ve got a mix of folks.”
North Carolina, a Bible Belt state in which 77 percent of adults identify as Christian, never had witch trials as extreme as those in Salem, Massachusetts, but pagans still feel like they are pushed to the margins of society. Some forms of tarot and fortune-telling were even criminalized in North Carolina until as recently as 2004.
“There’s a good chunk of people who are scared and they’re worried about losing jobs,” Morris says, pointing to the satanic panic of the 1980s when unsubstantiated fears of ritualistic abuse ran wild. No one in the alliance worships the devil, she says. (Actually, according to Morris, many pagans don’t even believe in the devil in the first place.)
Mary Hamner, a witch and scholar of religion at UNC-Chapel Hill, points to Christian norms as the cause of the stigma.
“Something like contemporary witchcraft or paganism looks crazy,” Hamner says, “but it’s because we’ve all grown up with this backdrop of Protestantism.”
The alliance seeks to combat some of this stigma—sometimes by something as seemingly inconsequential as just existing in public. The group’s social calendar looks almost impossibly normal, including a writing hangout at Barnes & Noble, a hike at a state park, and a meet and greet at Arcana.
For Hamner, the emphasis on inclusivity extends beyond religious norms.
“I think a lot of pagans and witches, magical folk of all types, see themselves as kind of being in between and beyond the status quo,” Hamner says. “I feel like that is also a queer experience.”
Inclusivity is part of the story of the queer-owned and operated Arcana, too: a sign posted at the top of the steps to the basement bar reminds customers to be respectful and welcoming to all people. Karcher says this is why the alliance seemed like a natural partner for Arcana.
“The thing that I pride myself the most on is getting the feedback that we are a safe space,” she says. “And that extends to women, the queer community, trans community, people of color.” And pagans.
Hamner, who is working on a book about witchcraft, has spent time studying how elements of magic from corners of the internet have crept into the mainstream, even slithering into corporate boardrooms under labels of “manifestation” and “actualization.”
“If you’ve heard people on TikTok, or even in corporate culture, talking about ‘If you just change your mind-set, good things will happen to you!’ It’s rooted in some of these earlier new religious movements, but we don’t think of that stuff as religion anymore,” Hamner says.
She credits pop culture and spaces like #WitchTok, the mystical corner of TikTok, with increasing people’s exposure to nontraditional and polytheistic ideas. When she was young, she was bewitched by mid-1990s depictions of witches and magic through films and shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed, and Practical Magic. From there, she navigated her way through Wiccan chat rooms and DIY websites until she eventually found her own coven and became a formal member of a tradition.
“It wasn’t a phase,” she says with a laugh. “Sorry, Mom.”
The anniversary party at Aracana in September was also a fundraiser for the alliance’s upcoming winter solstice party. Like other December holidays celebrated by North Carolinians, the solstice party will be a time for celebrating friendship, family, and new beginnings on the longest night of the year.
“We invite all the groups in the area, old friends who we’ve not heard from in a long time,” Morris says.
They’ll celebrate another year—underground, in the shadows, together.
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