“Re-Enchant the World:” How Modern Paganism Teaches Me to Relish the Magic in My Everyday

Three years ago on a stormy night, my Spanish classmate told me he worshipped Thor.

I’ll admit it: I thought he was joking. I laughed, “like, the guy from the Avengers?”

But he was serious! He explained that he was aligned with Asatru, or Norse neopaganism. Asatru, he said, is just one branch of a revival movement of ancient pre-Christian religious traditions -- modern paganism -- where people fuse mythology, practices, and customs of old into their contemporary lives. He told me of the moment he felt called to devote to Thor on a rainy night much like this one, when he heard a crash of thunder and swears a voice (Thor’s) called his name.

I asked, “do you really believe that Thor and Odin and Freya and all that is real?” He asked, “why not?”

And why not? I had only been out of my fundamentalist Christian community for less than a year, where I was taught about other religions only to learn why they were wrong, never celebrated Halloween, and read Jack Chick tracts about the evils of witchcraft in between mall evangelism sessions. I was still wrapping my head around the idea that Harry Potter might not be dangerous, let alone something as deliciously forbidden as this.

Back then, I never could have guessed that modern paganism would one day teach me to reconnect with my Chinese cultural heritage, be a good ancestor, and seek my own sacred.

Paganism 101

My altar/ancestor shelf.  The White Rabbit candy represents Tu Er Shen, aloe is for healing and connection with earth, and the Augusta Ada King candle honors innovation and women.

My altar/ancestor shelf. The White Rabbit candy represents Tu Er Shen, aloe is for healing and connection with earth, and the Augusta Ada King candle honors innovation and women.

That night with Dash cracked open the world of modern paganism for me. After our conversation, curiosity got the best of me (surprise!), and I dove into exploration.

The most fun way I know how to describe modern paganism is “spiritual freestyling that reinvents the ancient and honors the inner.”

The most accurate way is that paganism is a big umbrella term for a range of spiritual and religious paths that arose out of feminist, environmentalist, and countercultural movements of the 1960s-70s.

It includes a range of paths radically open for interpretation, like Druidry, Asatru, Wicca, eclectic witchcraft, and Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Celtic, Canaanite, and many other reconstructionisms.

There are as many ways to practice paganism as there are pagans. Pagans (especially witches and Wiccans) may work with sigils, runes, divination, crystals, or astrology. We may create altars at home to leave offerings for ancestors or gods, honor nature, or remind ourselves of our values and power. We write our own spells and rituals with everyday objects: pebbles, ash, water, herbs, and candles. We may be secular or religious, devote to gods from one path or four, practice for one year or decades.

Chinese American Pagan?

As I explored, I fell in love with the affirming attitude at the heart of every modern pagan path. Time and again, I was told to research, research, research, to use my own critical thinking and intuition, and to experiment and grow as I built a practice that felt right for me.

What I never expected, though, was that modern paganism would give me a framework to heal my cultural wounds. As a biracial Chinese American, I have long felt distant from my cultural heritage: “whitewashed” is the word that comes to mind.

But one of the central tenets of modern paganism is drawing from your heritage to build a present that feels right for you. Paganism calls many people back to roots they’ve often never explored, with a couple guidelines: do your research. Listen to your intuition. Create your own fusion.

Reinvent the ancient.

I loved learning about deities that other witchlings were building their crafts around, like Hestia, Brigid, and Freya, but following in their footsteps didn’t feel right. As cool as those gods are, European heritage is not my heritage.

I also began to see whispers and shouts of racism in this world. Western witchcraft, as delightful as it can be, is still Eurocentric, culturally appropriative, and frequently racist -- it challenges traditional gender roles, but leaves white supremacy untouched. For example, Asatru, now the largest non-Christian religion in Iceland and officially recognized in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, is plagued with white supremacy, with links ranging back to Nazi Germany and even into the 2017 Charlottesville rally.

So I took a cue from modern paganism and turned to my own roots. As a woman who grew up praying with her mom, dad, and twin brother to “set a good example” while her grandparents worshiped “false idols” by practicing Buddhism or burning hell money for ancestors at the cemetery, I knew little about my own heritage. I dove into learning, making Google my library for all things related to Chinese mythology, festivals, and ancestors.

Myths can be metaphors.

Soaking up ancient Chinese mythology has probably been the most fun and inspiring part of this whole journey. Growing up, my impression of Chinese culture was that it was stiff and patriarchal… but the stories of the gods, goddesses, and figures I read were badass, funny, and remarkably open.

Modern pagans can interpret gods any way they want: as real, as metaphors, as archetypes, or as irrelevant. Chinese gods, though are frequently just people who were really talented or good and immortalized in memory. I see the gods as reminders, role models, and stories.

One of the first gods I met was Tu Er Shen, the Rabbit God, who protects homosexual love and sex. Coming from a Chinese Christian community where being queer was seen as a wayward betrayal, I was blown away by Tu Er Shen’s story. It turns out that Chinese mythology (and history) is rich with queer stories. After all, the Women’s Kingdom is an island of women who have relationships with each other, and Emperor Ai of the Tang Dynasty is said to have cut off his sleeve rather than disturb his male lover’s sleep.

Xiwangmu, Queen Mother of the West, oversees the garden of the peaches of immortality, wields the powers of creation and destruction, controls space and time, and lives with the ecstatic dancing Jade Maidens on Kunlun Mountain. Originally dark and fearsome, she was a tigress spirit and guardian of brides, daughters, prostitutes, nuns, and dancers, representing women who didn’t bow to societal norms of submission. When Confucianism swept in, her character was defanged, given a husband, and tamed into a goddess of longevity. Xiwangmu transformed my understanding of what it can mean to be a Chinese woman and reminds me never to relinquish my power.

And of course there are just plain sweet and funny stories, like the goddess of rain, whose name literally translates to “Rain Grandma.”

Burning hell money to recognize my ancestors.

Burning hell money to recognize my ancestors.

Intentional ritual.

A huge part of paganism is ritual. Many pagans celebrate festivals throughout the year, like the Wiccans’ Wheel of the Year. I wanted community and ritual too, so I’ve created my own celebrations of holidays that are still celebrated by Chinese people everywhere, like Mid-Autumn Festival, Double Ninth Festival, and Winter Solstice.

As I learn more about Chinese culture, I also learn more Cantonese, drawing me further into the language my parents hoped wouldn’t give me an accent as a kid, and the language I’ve always wanted to know.

Be a good ancestor (and activist).

Because of our roots in movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s, pagans are frequently activists, whether it’s in feminism, environmentalism, or racial justice. Hearkening back to my own lineage reminds me that I’ll be someone’s ancestor someday too, so be a good one.

My spirituality inevitably calls me to action. When I’m out in nature and feel that I and the earth belong to one another, that naturally means I should care for it. When I’m thinking about how the land I live on connects me with my neighbors, I feel called to learn its history and the Native Americans whose land I am now on.

When October rolled around, the Double Ninth Festival was next on my list to learn about. The Double Ninth is traditionally used to honor ancestors, the elderly, and how far your family has come. But when I read this poem about Double Ninth, the festival became about more than just a good view:

“Alone, in a foreign place as a foreign guest
At each festival I think more and more of home
Far away, I know my brothers are climbing up high
They’re all wearing dogwood, but they’re one person short.”

 -- “On the Ninth of the Ninth, Thinking About My Shangdong Brothers,” Wang Wei, 8th century

In my craft, the Double Ninth isn’t just about taking autumn hikes with friends and a good bottle of wine, baking Chongyang cake, or even honoring my ancestors with offerings at their honor table. It’s about taking the time to remember the pioneers, the strangers, the elders, the immigrants, and the refugees among us, whether by sending my grandparents a note to thank them for the sacrifices they’ve made, inviting someone who’s new to the area (or country) over for dinner, donating to my local refugee advocacy organization, or doing a day of community service for seniors.

Re-enchant the world.

Paganism is an imaginative path. It’s for people who don't want to be told what to believe or where to find meaning, but seek it out and create it themselves. To me, magic is just the act of creating meaning for yourself.

One of my favorite things to do right now is to team up meaning and magic with science and structure. I love learning about sacred geometry and the Fibonacci spirals from ferns to hurricanes to galaxies. I look at the sky and see the math in its beauty. When I make music, it’s magic. Dawn and dusk, magic. The way the sunlight falls, syrupy and golden, across your comforter when you wake up -- magic.

Paganism takes the mundane ways we find meaning and makes it the heart of the practice. As @witchcrafttips on Tumblr wrote so beautifully: When you write a letter to someone and burn it or project your anger into a stone and toss it into a lake, that’s a spell: an intention and an action. When you sit in the same chair with the same mug at the same time everyday, that’s a calming self-care ritual. Paganism is simple, creative, and human.

Not the Witches Your Parents Warned You About

My pagan path is growing, and in true pagan spirit, it always will. What matters in modern paganism is that you continue to learn about yourself and your heritage, to grow more connected to those around me, and to tap in to your own desires and needs. I find that simple, healing, and beautiful.

As diverse as pagan paths can be, they all affirm life and death as change, recognize our interconnected world, imbue the everyday with meaning, honor a deeper power (whether in nature, gods, or self), pursue justice, and center around the power of intentional, individually created rituals. (HuffPo has a great primer if you’re curious for more.)

Modern paganism is about recognizing those who came before you and remembering that you will be someone’s ancestor someday too — so be a good one! It’s about reinventing tradition and reconnecting with the strength, creativity, and intuition you’ve always had.

It’s about finding what’s right for you while respecting what’s right for others. Personal interpretation, curiosity, creativity, and flexibility are our dogma. The greatest blasphemy in paganism might be not doing your research.

It’s about infusing your mundane with magic and meaning, from the mysteries of space and science to the mini-miracles of snowflakes and seeds. It’s about understanding that this world is unlikely and extraordinary and yours.

Thanks for getting curious!