Growing Up Pagan: an interview with Avens O’Brien

Cara Schulz —  April 19, 2016 — 4 Comments

TWH – Most Pagans, Heathens, and polytheists were once something else, and then converted to whatever flavor of Pagan they currently enjoy. Many of us have to unlearn, study, and translate the religious beliefs tucked within our brains, almost as if we were speaking a second language. While this eventually may become natural for some, it is never the same for people raised within Pagan homes. In those cases, Paganism is the norm, and they are totally unself-conscious about their religion. This shows in ways both large and small.

What if you were not only raised as a Pagan, but you were raised in a household where some of the most famous Pagan authors often dropped by? Where you could learn, through casual interaction and observation, from the founders of major traditions?

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Avens O’Brien had just such an upbringing. Her mother, Domi O’Brien, was friends with some of the most well known Pagans of the era as well as some of the top intellectual luminaries of the budding libertarian movement. Magic and monetary policy, a person’s Will and the right to self-agency were part of O’Brien’s home life and festival vacations.

I met up with Avens O’Brien while looking for younger libertarian voices, who were also second generation libertarians, to fill a keynote slot for the Libertarian Party of Minnesota State Convention. A fellow Pagan suggested Avens. This piqued my curiosity. Then I looked at Avens Facebook friends list which reads like a Who’s Who of both the Pagan and libertarian communities. A video of her dancing with Jeffrey Tucker? Childhood friends with Arthur Lipp-Bonewitts?

I booked her for the convention, but I was also intensely curious about her childhood and how growing up Pagan is different from converting. She agreed to talk with me. 

Avens O'Brien and Domi O'Brien [Courtesy Photo]

Avens O’Brien and Domi O’Brien [Courtesy Photo]

The Wild Hunt: When you spoke in front of the Libertarian Party of Minnesota as their keynote, you talked about how your childhood, although normal to you was a bit different. You related how your mother made dinner for Murray Rothbard, which drew some envy from the crowd. You also mentioned during your keynote your mother was a Pagan High Priestess, also not mainstream. Can you tell me a bit about what religion, or religions, you were raised in?

Avens O’Brien: My mother’s a Druid High Priestess, former Preceptor for ADF, who honors a fairly reconstructionist path of Celtic & Norse pantheons & rituals. She started her own grove in New Hampshire and her own group called the Druidic Association of North America. My father is Pagan clergy as well, more eclectic Wiccan, I believe. I’m less familiar with his variation of the faith because my parents divorced when I was fairly young, and I rarely spent religious holidays with him, but he leads rituals even now in a fairly eclectic Pagan circle called Hands of Change in New Jersey.

I grew up with Pagan Yule Carols, and going to festivals where my parents would often speak on Pagan rituals or traditions, and going to events centered around usually Druidic practice. One of my mother’s long time friends was the late Isaac Bonewits, and he was at times a bit of a mentor to me. His son is like family to me.

Mum really likes ritual and trying to incorporate what we know historically about the cultures we draw from. Imbolc, Beltaine, Lughnasadh and Samhain were celebrations with feasts, offerings, and rituals and stories pulled from what we imagine or speculate our ancestors did. For equinoxes and solstices we followed a more Norse set of rituals, with an Oath, Toast & Boast. We gave blood to the fire on Imbolc to put ourselves under the goddess Brigid’s protection; we raised a Maypole during Beltaine; we played funeral games in honor of Lugh’s mortal foster mother at Lughnasadh and built a great fire and honored our ancestors at Samhain. Yule, we stayed up through the night with the fire, to make sure the sun would return on the other side of the longest night

TWH: At what point did you realize that not everyone raised a Maypole or celebrated Imbolc?

AO: I was probably 6 or so. We had some Christian neighbors, and their kids found it simultaneously interesting and mock-worthy. Mum let them come to ritual with their parents’ permission (or with their parents). I was interested in their beliefs, so they promptly told me about the devil and Hell and not believing in Jesus would send me there.

Mum explained that there are many Gods out there and the Christian one is a bit jealous and can be cruel to his followers, and she had no interested in worshipping that God. We were protected by our own.

I had Jewish friends and Catholic relatives, so I actually got heavily exposed to their faiths. I didn’t ever believe in them, but I thought some traditions were kind of neat. I always wanted to know what Communion bread tasted like. I went to Catholic Mass with my friend and almost pretended to be Catholic just to try it.

TWH: How do you think being raised in Druidry affected your world view?

AO: Sometimes I am not sure if my religious faith or my political chances that I was raised in had more of an impact or if they simply worked very well together. I’ve always felt Paganism and libertarianism were natural bedfellows.

Because my mother was polytheistic I embraced the idea that there were many gods and many different ways to worship them, and there was no one true way to believe in something sacred or divine. The gods that I believed in were gods of my ancestors, and it didn’t make sense for everyone to worship them so I never thought to convert anyone. I have taken a similar stance in my life in my respect for other people’s beliefs and choices. My moral codes have always surrounded respect for an individual’s agency in making their own choices and the idea that consequences for those choices should simply be whatever the natural consequence of that happens to be and not some arbitrary rules in a book.

I was raised that honesty was honor, word is bond. My mother has a saying, that “Work as worship, service as sacrament, and hearth as altar.” I’m sure there are many ways to interpret what she means, but even as an adult, [now] as an agnostic atheist, I think of my service to others and my ability to help others as an expression of my faith in community and other human beings, I think of the work that I invest myself in as honoring that which I value, and I think of my home and my dinner table as the place to offer food, drink, rest and shelter to those I respect.

I find that many of the lessons I was raised in, and traditions we had, have an interpretation I can still utilize without theology.

[Courtesy Photo]

[Courtesy Photo]

TWH: You had many well known and well respected people in Libertarianism and Austrian economics in and out of your home as guests. Was the same true for well-known Pagans? And did the two groups ever mix?

AO: One of the weird factors of childhood immersion into this stuff is sometimes people come into your life when you’re a child and you don’t actually realize how significant they are to the outside world.

When we were attending events like Rites of Spring and Starwood and other large Pagan gatherings, we knew most of the people there, including well-known authors and speakers. Every once in awhile, I forget that not everybody is Facebook friends with individuals who literally wrote the book on modern Paganism, or run the largest Pagan organizations in the country. The late Margot Adler heard me sing Isaac Bonewits’ song the “Hymn to Brighid” and loved it. She actually used a recording of it on NPR when he passed away.

Our religious community was mixed in terms of their political beliefs – mostly liberals and libertarians. But we had a significant enough group of libertarians I always assumed the two worlds came together more than they actually do.

I don’t remember anybody “famous” within the two groups intersecting, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t, especially in the 70s before I came along.

TWH: What anecdote best shows what it was like to be raised as a Druid?

AO: I have so many random stories. I was side by side with my mother through much of my childhood. She didn’t shield me from realities of the world; she just made sure she was there to explain the sad and the weird and the hardships. She raised me as a bit of a priestess-in-training. To this day, I can draw tarot, tell you about your sign, walk you through a tree meditation, or even lead a proper Druidic ritual if I was so inclined. She brought me with her during prison ministries, visiting local schools with Druidic groups, and going to Costco to purchase bulk food supplies to give to people who had less than we did. 

When my dearest fellow-Pagan friend got her first period, I was maybe 10, she was 13 or so. Our Grove (the term for a group of Druids) incorporated a womanhood ceremony into our normal ritual, and she was presented with a dagger, which she was told could be used to protect her. The symbolism of the dagger was cloaked in euphemism (some dirty jokes and some very tactful statements) during the ritual but it was effectively “you’re now an attractive young woman, and if someone tries to rape you, cutting him is entirely acceptable.”

That young woman is actually one of the most vocal advocates for consent and for rape victims I know to this day. I didn’t like the ceremony though. As I mentioned, there were plenty of bawdy jokes, and I found it uncomfortable with a Grove of mixed gender, to commentate on a woman’s budding sexuality and fertility. I asked my mother not to do the ritual for me when it was my turn, and she respected my wishes, which I was very glad of. My mother felt, beyond religious preference, that my agency and comfort were important, and she wouldn’t force me to participate in a ritual I didn’t desire.

I knew a number of other Pagan children – I’d say I probably had 4 or 5 kids I spent a lot of time with who were also Pagan (besides my two older brothers). I knew a lot more though. There’s a Pagan group out in Western MA that does a lot of events and rituals, and there were more kids there; some I was close to at different times in my childhood, depending on how well our parents were getting along. When other kids attended the rituals, we were always given jobs to do to help with the ritual and the feast and the gathering in general. It was a lot of fun.

TWH: How do you think it’s different, to be raised as a Pagan, rather than converting?

AO: I think much like my political affiliation, I feel much less compelled to “defend” it or prove myself. I know a lot of young Pagans who convert and go through a very anti-Christian stage or “persecuted Pagan complex.” I never really had that stage. I have always known my rights, and I never looked at Paganism as a rebellion. It was just standard.

To be fair, there are many people who do not fall into that “anti” stage at any point, and I hate mass generalizations. I think it just comes down to a natural comfort with the “weird” Pagan stuff. I always said things like “oh my gods” and sang Yule carols, which were practically Christmas songs with Pagan lyrics. I realized recently I don’t even know the lyrics to the Christmas carols.

I think the main difference is simply just what one is most familiar with. My childhood memories, in retrospect, seem filled with magic. Maybe everybody’s do, mine was just more literal about it.

[Courtesy Photo]

Speaking at LPMN Convention [Courtesy Photo]

Cara Schulz

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Cara Schulz is a journalist and author living in Minnesota with her husband and cat. She has previously written for PAGAN+politics, PNC-Minnesota, and Patheos. Her work has appeared in several books by Bibliotheca Alexandrina and she's the author of Martinis & Marshmallows: A Field Guide to Luxury Tent Camping and (Almost) Foolproof Mead Making. She loves red wine, camping, and has no tattoos.