Druid ritual set for Saturday stirs controversy in Athens, Tennessee

Angela Wilson
Angela Wilson

Athens, Tennessee, Archdruid Angela Wilson says the Christians opposed to what she calls the first-ever public druid Samhain ritual on U.S. soil set for Saturday afternoon don't understand her religion.

"I get really hurt when people think that it's demonic and Satanic when they don't understand what a druid is," Wilson said.

Samhain - meaning "summer's end" and usually pronounced "sah-ween" or "saah-win" - in many pagan traditions refers to the Festival of the Dead around Nov. 1 each year and often is associated with Halloween, according to Circle Sanctuary, a pagan nonprofit "Nature Spirituality" church founded in Wisconsin in 1974. Samhain, the last of each year's three harvest festivals, is associated with death and the dead as part of nature's rhythms. Related activities often include honoring ancestors, foreseeing the future and understanding death and rebirth, according to accounts on the sanctuary's website.

photo Angela Wilson


The prayer service on the McMinn County Courthouse steps is set for 2:30 p.m. Saturday. The courthouse is at 6 East Madison Ave.The Wayist Druidic Order Samhain event is set for 3-6 p.m. Saturday at the Athens Market Park pavilion at 106 South Jackson St.

Wilson said the ritual in Athens will be "no more dangerous than walking down the Halloween aisle at Walmart," but she's seen "huge opposition" from some Athens folks. Some people have made threatening and harassing comments, she said, though a seeming majority of Facebook posts about the issue support the druids' rights to perform their ritual.

Wilson's group, Wayist Druidic Order, has acquired city permission and insurance for the ritual to take place at the Athens Market Park Pavilion downtown from 3-6 p.m. Saturday, and city police will be on hand to keep the peace, she said.

There is a lot of discussion on social media about a protest of the druid event, but that is not the intent of a prayer service set for 2:30 p.m. Saturday on the steps of the McMinn County Courthouse, said East Athens Baptist Church pastor Jason Robertson. Robertson came up with the idea for the prayer service.

The two activities will take place about a city block apart.

"It's not a protest. We're not protesting anything," Robertson said Thursday. "We are simply coming together and praying for our community and just lifting up the name of the Lord, proclaiming the name of Jesus.

"We're not out to hurt anybody or say anything bad towards anyone," he said. "It's just an opportunity to pray for our community."

Robertson said he was not concerned about Wilson's event, though he said the prayer service was timed in response to it.

"Whether it's social media, or whatever it may be, the word 'protest' has never been used, at least by me or our church," he said. "It's a time to come together and lift up our community."

That much the same message Wilson had regarding the event at the pavilion.

"I want people to watch and understand; 'Wow, that wasn't scary or spooky or Satanic or weird at all,'" she said. "I want them to come away with an understanding about how their ancestors worshipped. If they can't look at it as a religious event, they can at least look at it in a historical context."

McMinn County Sheriff Joe Guy, also the county historian and a history author, posted his observations on Facebook, remarking how "It's funny how we get riled up about one 'pagan' thing but are ok with another ... " citing local annual American Indian powwows filled with "dancing and ceremony," Christmas trees, Yule logs and names for the days of the week and months as supporting evidence.

"And whether we agree with someone else's celebration or not ... I'm thankful to be able to worship as a Christian, and free to share that belief as truth, in a free country," Guy wrote in his post. "I don't recall the Apostle Paul protesting anything or threatening anybody when he stood among all the pagan idols and altars in Athens Greece in Act 17."

Government folks in Tennessee's Athens, despite some initial confusion over access and insurance, have been very helpful, Wilson said.

"The city has been nothing but supportive of me and [has] taken excellent care of me," she said.

Wilson is concerned because some of the remarks she's seen are threatening or harassing, she said, and some of the people who were planning to come to the pagan event have canceled their reservations out of fear.

"There's a lot of pagans that are in this area who are afraid to stick their heads out because they don't have a base of other people that they can worship with, have fellowship with; and I was giving those people a place to come for church," she said.

"The response I've gotten, in the thousands, [has] blown up my phone," she said of other pagans reaching out. "That's sad that people are living in that kind of fear."

Wilson said residents of East Tennessee already are familiar with druid lore, but they don't know it.

"There's still a lot of the old ways that are being practiced, but they don't know why they do them and they don't know it's even part of what I come from," Wilson said, pointing to making seasonal predictions by looking at the height of spider webs and the coloring of woolly worms as examples.

"I find it ironic that they don't understand why they do this stuff, but they know it works," she said. "When we migrated to America, we brought those old ways with us and they're still being practiced today. People just don't know what it is."

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.

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