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<p>PHOTOS BY GINA PEARL</p><p>The pagan Sacred Sekhmet Goddess Temple its located in near Cactus Springs outside Indian Springs. Sekhmet is an Egyptian Warrior goddess, she if often depicted as a lioness and it is said that her breath formed deserts.</p>
<p>Symbolic pagan flags and cloths surround what will be an alchemical fire circle prior to a recent ceremony in the Nevada desert.</p>

“We have the blood of the ancients, it flows through our veins, our forms change, but the rhythm of life remains. We are spirits wearing skin, we are spirits deep within, we are spirits dancing bones, we are spirits standing stones,” the chants slip through the breeze carried by 100-strong voices.

Pagan loosely translated from Latin means “country dweller,” as in, those crazy hicks still worshiping those old gods. It was a derogatory term used to belittle those that worshiped the old ways. Later the word referred to anyone who wasn’t Christian, and was still thought of as unflattering. However, in the modern age we pagans have taken back the word.

Yes, we’re pagan. We worship strange gods, dance naked under moonlight, and perform rituals around roaring fires. There are three things that almost all pagan communities have in common. First, there is a masculine and feminine polarity, in other words, a god and a goddess, a father and a mother. Second, we have a reverence of nature, and third, we share a belief system that our relationship with the universe is interactive. Some people call this magic.

The dust breathes heavy at a recent fire circle in the Nevada desert (exact location withheld), swirling in thick clouds, gathering strength as bare palms pound faster against drum skins. An alchemical fire circle is a pagan ritual in which witches dance and chant around a bonfire from dusk until dawn, moving to the music, praising the divine, showing our gods our love of their creation. The ash sprinkles down, leaving footprints in tangled hair. The faces inside the circle come from around the world, from different countries, from different ethnicities, but each have found home here in Las Vegas.

It’s alchemy. Transformation. The lead of difficult life experiences transforms into the gold of spiritual wisdom. You take all those nasty horrible things from the year and throw them into the fire. When the sun rises, what was negative becomes positive, what was painful becomes understood, what was darkness becomes light.

Occult loosely translated from Latin means “knowledge of the hidden.” It is impossible to come up with an accurate representation of how many active pagans there are in this world. There are tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, in the United States at least.  To Ride A Silver Broomstick: New Generation in Witchcraft  by Silver RavenWolf, a how-to guide to “the Craft” of witches, has sold over 300,000 copies to date, according to Amazon.com.

Most witches are forced to keep their beliefs hidden or risk losing their children, their jobs, their entire way of life. History has shown us that most people are frightened by what they don’t understand and fear can very quickly turn to anger or hatred. It wasn’t too long ago that pagans went through their own version of persecution called “The Burning Times.” According to Wikipedia, between 1480 and 1750, in Europe alone, an estimated 40,000 to 60,000 witches were burned. Modern day witches speculate that over 100,000 were killed.

And so for most of us, when that little white box on the survey reads religion, we mark “other” or quickly lie with downcast eyes. But we are here nonetheless.

“The diversity of the community within the pagan movement is its greatest strength,” says Leslie McQuade, an Isis High Priestess in Pahrump.

The pagan religion is unorganized. There is no clergy or set book of rules. We all find our own path and believe our own beliefs. We write our own spells, worship whichever gods we happen to fancy, and do so in our own way. Some pagans go to temples while others opt for the sacred space of their backyard, surrounded by trees and flowers.

Some of us pray to no gods and try to become our own. Some of us merely try to be one with nature and the energy of this planet. Some of us believe in symbols of power, while others pay heed to herbs. Others dabble in oils and inks.

We call ourselves Wiccan, Druid, Thelemite, Golden Dawn; the list goes on and on.

“All religions have mystical traditions within them. These should be their salvation,” said a participant, Kim, a cosmic ranger.

I had always been a solitary witch, keeping my pentacle necklace inside my shirt, refusing to get sucked into religious debates, just keeping quiet. What I took back from my first fire circle was the overwhelming sense of joy and comradery from my fellow pagans. So many smiles, so much laughter. All those hugs, all these friends who have now become my family.

I feel truly blessed to have found the pagan community here in Las Vegas. Under the stars and inside the circle of fire we are all equal, we are all human beings struggling to make our way in the world, we are together and we are loved.

What we are not is devil worshippers. We are not trying to lure away children to eat them or taint their souls. We are working people living our lives as best we can, as family should. And so I encourage all fellow pagans out there to seek your community, wear those pentagrams proudly, with heads held high.

GINA PEARL is a pagan living openly in Las Vegas.