FARGO - To some, pagans, witches and Wiccans are characters found in history books and fairy tales. To others, pagans are friends, family and spiritual leaders.
"I'm pagan because I use what works. I am pagan because no other umbrella fits me," says Omni Rogers-Mueller, a- 37-year-old practicing pagan and Covenant of the Moon High Priestess.
Rev. Scott Wardzinski, an ordained druid priest who has been studying various forms of paganism for more than 10 years, says paganism can be categorized broadly as any non-Abrahamic religion. Unlike the "God of Abraham" which is worshipped in Christianity, Judaism or Islam, many gods and goddesses are recognized in various forms of paganism.
"Personally, I don't work with specific deities but there are a lot of pagans that do," Wardzinski says. "They will follow the Norse tradition, Celtic tradition or the Egyptian Pantheon."
The druid priest describes his solitary practice as eclectic with earth-based worship at its center. Rogers-Mueller says she would generally call herself a Wicca practitioner because she does not follow complete Alexandrian Wicca rules. (Wiccans can follow either Alexandrian rules - founded by "the King of Witches" Alex Sanders - or Gardnerian practices founded by Gerald Gardner.)
When asked about the differences between paganism and Wicca, both say it can be confusing since "pagan" is an umbrella term and not all pagans are Wiccans. And while Wicca and druidry have similar holidays and traditions, they are not completely the same either. A person could be pagan and Wiccan or pagan and druid but usually not all three. Since Wicca and druidry are so similar, most don't follow both paths.
"Wicca in my mind is more of a faith," Wardzinski says. "There are more ceremonies and rituals with very beautiful motions while druidry is more of a lifestyle."
Covens and Covenants
Wardzinski was ordained in 2014 when he had a desire to facilitate druid wedding ceremonies. But others like Rogers-Mueller and Thomas Punton, a 41-year-old who identifies as both a pagan and witch, have been studying and practicing some form of paganism for more than 20 years. Both Punton and Rogers-Mueller also chose to found their own groups or covens.
The Lake Agassiz Pagan Community was created on Meetup.com during early 2006 by Punton and a small group of acquaintances so they could find like-minded individuals.
"What's hard when you're alone and practicing is that you don't really know if you're on the right path," he says.
Today the Lake Agassiz Pagan Community has between 20 to 40 active members.
During the fall of 2016, B'Aylana Morgan of Grand Forks founded a study group that would grow into the Order of the Aurora Coven (OOA) by 2007. This coven was a founding member of what is now known as the Spiral Tree Tradition - a Wiccan Tradition that includes covens regionally and in states like Kansas and Washington.
In 2013, the second North Dakotan coven - the Heart of the Pentacle Fellowship - was founded by High Priestess Sarashun in Rugby, N.D.
When Rogers-Mueller became ordained in 2016, she "hived" off the OOA and founded the Convent of the Moon in Fargo. She now has six members in her conven.
"For a group like the Spiral Tree Tradition to be together this long (more than 10 years) is unheard of in the pagan community," Rogers-Mueller says. "It's really is an extraordinary feet."
Practicing paganism in public
Wardzinski estimates there are approximately 200 practicing pagans in Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo. Punton agrees, estimating a 50/50 split between those who practice in public and those who do so in private.
"The Twin Cities actually has one of the largest groups of pagans in North America," Wardzinski says. Each year in March, a large indoor conference called "Paganicon" is hosted by Twin Cities Pagan Pride.
In 2011, Punton started the "Great North Pagan Podcast" which discusses a variety of topics about Wicca and paganism.
"I always make sure to record when we get permission to film a ritual and upload it to YouTube," he says. "I do this because it's a great way to educate people to show that we are not as horrible as some people think we are. We worship in the most respectful manner."
Wardzinski coordinated the eighth annual Fargo-Moorhead pagan Pride Parade in August and also helps dispel misconceptions through a panel hosting leaders from the three major paganism sects: druidry, Wicca and Heathenry, or those who follow the Norse mythology.
During this gathering, "ritual etiquette" instructed others on what's expected during a pagan ritual.
Wardzinski says if the ritual is open to the public, it will be relaxed. But research is always recommended before attending an event.
Punton, Rogers-Mueller and Wardzinski all say they choose to practice paganism because it's a personal, hands-on approach to spirituality.
"I don't want a certain dogma to really define who I am. And that's what paganism is about," Rogers-Mueller says. "It's about redefining you, and recreating yourself within the confines of your spirituality and, of course, within your morals and ethics, but everything else is just free to interpretation."
Read about the misconceptions Punton, Rogers-Mueller and Wardzinski have all experienced at aprilknutson.areavoices.com.
Three degrees of the Spiral Tree Tradition
A degree system in Wiccan traditions helps set out a path for new practitioners. Rogers-Mueller says the Spiral Tree Tradition uses three degrees: Path for Self, Path for Others and Path for Ordainship.
"When pursing the first degree level, it's just very basic," she says. "It is kind of like Sunday school. There is history, herbalism, science, theory and theology."
In each degree, the practitioner will have to complete assignments, tasks, tests and interviews.
"The assignments that I can include in this interview would be certain ones about researching different gods and goddesses, noticing the difference between immanence and transcendence, and knowing the differences between altars," she says.
Before a practitioner can move on the next degree, there is a final interview before initiation "to make sure you are truly ready and this what you want," Roger-Mueller says.
The next degree - the Path for Others - is about compassion.
"It's about preparing things that the community as a whole needs," she says. "I'm not talking the pagan community but about your community. It's about saying 'Yes I am here' and we all have a purpose or goal."
The third degree is the Path for Ordaniship, or path for enlightenment.
"This path is for everyone else that needs you spiritually," Rogers-Mueller says.
After the practitioner ascends to the next degree, he or she obtains the right to a spiritual name. Rogers-Mueller says this spiritual name will come to you and may be presented in a dream or vision. She received her spiritual names after she reached her second and third degree. In her practice, she is known as High Priestess Duvessa Sarrat-Irkalli.