Athens Pagans 2

A member of the Athens Area Pagans sits in discussion on Saturday, January 25, 2020 at Hi-Lo Lounge in Athens, Georgia. The group meets in the lounge. (Photo/Julian Alexander, jalexander@randb.com)

Once a week at 5 p.m., an unseeming group of five to 15 people meets in the large room of Five Points’ Hi-Lo Lounge. They’re a group of friends, there for a weekly reunion over draft beer and hot tempeh sandwiches, and you can spot the group by looking for its secretary, Jim Grimes, an older man, wearing glasses, a long, white beard and a pentagram necklace.

The Athens Area Pagans meet every Saturday to chat about their weeks, what’s irking them and, generally, all things related to paganism. It’s a “social network rather than a practicing group” with a formal meeting agenda, Grimes said.

The group is a “bunch of folks sitting around the table” at Hi-Lo, Grimes said.

There are many definitions associated with paganism, but the Athens Area Pagans define it as a class of modern religions, according to Lachele Foley, the group’s financial officer. The term is also used to describe people who are not comfortable with identifying with Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism or Buddhism.

“We have the social infrastructure of a religious group without the dogma,” Foley said. Foley is the founder of the Athens Area Pagans — she’s easy to spot at Hi-Lo, with a distinctly small frame and long, dark brunette hair.

While there are multiple sects of paganism — such as Northern Pagan traditionalism, Greek paganism and Celtic paganism — one of the more well-known areas is the Wicca religion, which focuses on the worship of a God and Goddess deity, Grimes said. Most pagans are polytheistic, Grimes said.

Pagan practices

On eight days a year, during the four cross quarters and four quarters of the sun, the group practices a form of worship called “circling.” Circling is one of the more common ways that pagans practice their religions. The form of worship involves meeting outdoors, forming a physical circle and using the space as their temple for the duration of the worship. The River Temple of Athens hosts gatherings and rituals for worshipping pagans — often on Foley’s property — that offer religious services to those new to the area or curious about paganism.

The group’s more public event, Athens’ Pagan Pride Day, takes place in October of every year in downtown Athens, featuring pagan and non-pagan vendors from across the southeast. The event is open to attendees of all beliefs, where they can browse art, jewelry and learn more about paganism.

The Athens Area Pagans hosts the annual event to bring visibility to the group and to paganism as a whole “so people see us,” Foley said. Visibility and availability are why the group exists in general, too — they have a Facebook group which is readily responsive, and they meet on a regular basis in public for a reason. Foley also runs a library out of her home on the eastside of Athens, ready to lend out books about paganism to anyone who stumbles across the group’s Facebook.

While accessibility is important, some members wish to remain anonymous due to a stigma around paganism. One member said that his degree would be “basically worthless” if his name were to be associated with paganism. This stigma comes from many people not knowing what paganism really is, Foley said.

For example, the Athens Area Pagans don’t perform “gruesome sacrifices” of animals, Foley said. This stigma is something the group combats with their public online accessibility and annual pride day.

Online beginnings, real time community

Foley and Grimes currently run the group's online presence, and the group began online too.

“The internet has transformed things for Pagans,” Foley said. Without it, the group may not be where it is today.

Foley began the group when she was practicing by herself as a solitary in Athens — she was a pagan individual without a group to worship with. Although she was “happy being solitary,” she thought it would be a good idea to try to form a group in town and she would be able to find other pagans in the area.

Foley then began a discussion on a now-defunct website called “The Witches’ Voice,” an online community for pagan and Wiccan communities to connect. She wanted to see if there were other like-minded people in the area who wanted to meet. Grimes was one of the first people who responded, and in July 2005, the Athens Area Pagans had their first meeting at The State Botanical Garden of Georgia.

Student pagan involvement

Though the Athens Area Pagans welcome anyone to learn about paganism, there’s a group on the University of Georgia campus that is specifically designed for students.

The Pagan Student Association meets every other Tuesday in the journalism building. Jeff Patterson, the group’s president and a graduate student studying sociology, said the group is also more like a social gathering with five regularly active members. Each meeting features a different presentation topic, such as herbology, and a subsequent discussion.

The group has an understanding that paganism is different for everyone, and that attendees may be more generally interested in learning about paganism.

“Defining paganism is basically impossible,” Patterson said. Most commonly, paganism is a nature-oriented or nature-worshipping religion, and that’s why most presentations are science-based, Patterson said. The group partakes in “no religious rituals” and is “open to everyone,” Patterson said, emphasizing accessibility and the ability to learn with an open mind.

This message rings true to the Athens Area Pagans as well: today, as in their beginnings, the group aims to cultivate community and ensure availability.

“Our purpose is to be accessible to other pagans,” Foley said. “We’re not trying to convince anyone.”

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