Student finds spirituality in paganism

by Joshua Zuckerman

Lu Vail, now a senior honors student in family social science, remembers, as a young girl, mysterious jars filled with “barky and pickled stuff” sitting on top of a shelf in her grandmother’s pantry.
Vail’s grandmother, a German immigrant, had a special place in her Minnesota community. Although she was a dedicated churchgoer, she was also believed to have healing and psychic abilities. Her reputation caused some to seek her help. Others stayed away and called her a witch.
From her childhood, Vail remembers her grandmother saying, “You come from special women. Don’t forget that,” and, “You have elves’ blood.” None of this made sense to Vail until 10 years ago when she picked up a book discussing pagan beliefs and witchcraft.
There were references to “actual Elvin tribes,” she said, and people doing magic. For Vail, this book shed light on many of her spiritual beliefs and life experiences, and began her conscious practice of paganism and witchcraft.
Paganism, said professor of classical and Near-Eastern studies Gerald Erickson, was a term coined by the Christian church during the Inquisition in the Middle Ages. It referred to rural people who were outside the urban centers where people were being converted to Christianity. In addition, paganism also referred to those reluctant to give up their fertility gods for Christianity.
The gradual collapse of the feudal system in Europe meant a loss of power for the church. It is a common theory among historians, Erickson said, that witches were constructs of the church used as scapegoats to rally the people around the power of the church.
In 1486 “The Witches’ Hammer,” a book written by two monks, was published. This book was the Christian church’s justification for witch-killing, Erickson said.
At first the most vulnerable were targeted, but the witch hunt eventually built to a paranoiac frenzy of friends turning in friends, Erickson said. Erickson estimates that close to 2 million people were accused of being witches and killed during the Inquisition, which lasted about 400 years.
Vail calls herself a witch to honor those who died during the Inquisition. However, she does express some inhibitions about telling people she’s a witch. “It makes you vulnerable because of all the stereotypes,” Lu says. People have their “head full of Disney,” she said.
Practicing paganism and witchcraft for Vail is about rituals. These rituals are often linked to the earth and fertility. Vail is an avid gardener because gardening is a way of taking part in the circle of life, a pagan practice, she said. Modern pagans vary in their ritual practices depending on their needs, she says.
In Vail’s bedroom is an altar facing a window. It consists of an overturned crate with a cloth spread over it. Personal artifacts, including pictures of women important to Vail and stones she has collected, decorate the altar. While at her altar, Vail performs rituals varying from mundane exercises, such as stretching, to casting spells.
Spell casting, for Vail, is an attempt to change the physical world by channeling her spiritual energy. Spells are a lot like prayers except they usually involve a physical object, she says. Vail uses chalices, knives and everyday objects in her spell casting and says she casts both good and bad spells. Some of them are directed toward individuals. But bad spells are always combined with a blessing, Vail said.
Above the entry way to Vail’s house hangs a toy skull. Written next to the skull, in chalk, are the words “Haunted House.” Although Vail takes her own pagan practices and the persecution of witches very seriously, she is also able to laugh at the stereotypes that surround her.