Interview with Abby Willowroot, Pagan artist and writer

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SAN FRANCISCO –When members of the Wilmington city county approved a new prayer for opening meetings, there was some interest in the Pagan priestess who penned that prayer, Abby Willowroot. While that name is not well-known to Pagans and polytheists who have come of age since the dawn of Facebook, Willowroot was shaping the Neopagan movement for decades.

She agreed to talk to us about her many contributions.

Abby Willowroot [courtesy photo].

Abby Willowroot [courtesy photo].

“I was really thrilled to hear about Delaware,” she said, where one of her prayers will be used to open meetings for at least the next four years.

Willowroot wrote a series interfaith prayers for public meetings because she was frustrated by the non-demoninational prayers that are frequently offered; the term “non-denominational” refers to denominations of Christianity, and therefore are not inclusive of anyone following a non-Christian path.

“They all started out ‘dear Lord’ or ‘Jesus,’ and I didn’t think you can address a specific deity” and be fully inclusive, she said. This is not an issue just for the polytheists in attendance either; many Buddhists don’t revere any deity, she pointed out as an example.

As part of a larger project of interfaith prayers that were compiled into a book titled Life Changes, Willowroot wrote a handful specifically for use at public meetings. They’re intended to bolster decision-making, collaboration, and the intention to serve the greater good.

One of them was adopted by a Michigan nonprofit group, but Wilmington may be the first place where one of her prayers is being used to open a governing body’s meetings.

Willowroot has considered herself Pagan for 56 years, since she was 15 years old. However, that process began when she was much younger. Growing up Roman Catholic, she recalls hearing stories of the religion’s deity and being skeptical.

“If God was that powerful, he would not be that petty,” she said, adding that, as a little girl, “I was convinced I was being lied to.”

She had other influences as well, like her babysitter “Mrs. Julia,” who she said, “brought us to the salt marshes and taught us about nature.”

There was also a grandmother who instructed her in the ways of the “wee folk,” and why it’s never appropriate to rush back into the house for a forgotten item because that will offend them. “To this day, if I have to go back inside, I sit down, read a book, or otherwise occupy the space so that they recognize that I am not an intruder, and don’t hide my keys on me.”

However, those various influences didn’t stop Willowroot’s artist father from turning her into a cover girl for Catholic Miss magazine.

This being the 1950s and 1960s, the first organized Pagans Willowroot encountered were Gardnerians, when she was coming into adulthood. They stood in stark contrast to members of her Catholic faith from whom she learned that women were “unclean” and limited in their participation.

In her mind, goddess spirituality and second-wave feminism alike were spurred by Catholic and Jewish women frustrated by being deemed second-class people.

“It pushed a button in us,” Willowroot said of the overt sexism of the time, but “they didn’t realize what they were doing.” Women learned all that was important and powerful about religion, and then decided that they didn’t need men if they shaped their own faith.

“It was easy to turn our backs on the whole thing; we’d been pre-rejected. That’s what happens when you take people with talent and brains, and continually piss them off.”

Before the turn of the century, Willowroot identified and addressed a new need: information on the internet. While the new medium opened the doors to Paganism far wider, she felt that much of the information wasn’t as helpful to newcomers as it could be. Most web pages she found “were not useful to the beginner,” she recalled, and in her opinion were more about “talking to the converted” by writers who felt the need to “prove how much they knew.”

That’s why, in 1997, she launched as an “on-ramp to Paganism.” She said she wanted a page for the curious, where people could “find out what Pagans believe.” The goddess-focused site is packed with information about Pagan spiritual paths, and to date has racked up close to two billion hits.

The site even includes a page on secular Paganism, which might be one of the oldest resources about Paganism without gods.

“I think we all are born with an overcoat,” she explained, “and some of them have god pockets. Those god pockets have got to be filled, or the person feels incomplete. People who don’t have god pockets don’t understand what the big deal is.”

Willowroot is proud of the fact that has no advertising of any kind, making it a space where seekers can find information, rather than marketing.

She’s no stranger to advertising, either: she has worked in that business for many years, and is well aware of the power of branding.

Spiral goddesses by Abby Willowroot [courtesy photo].

Spiral goddesses by Abby Willowroot [courtesy photo].

Branding, as it happens, is why she picked the term “spiral goddess” to name her site. Willowroot is the artist who designed the popular Spiral Goddess statues that are endemic in many goddess- and Wicca-focused traditions.

“I’m the first woman in America to make goddesses as a contemporary religious icon,” she said. And, the design was intended to be a just that. She said, “It’s now been knocked off so many times it blows my mind.”

Willowroot saw it as important because ancient symbols do not always resonate. “It’s great to have Greek and Roman goddesses, but we need symbols created by a living, breathing culture,” she explained. Her design has no facial features because she wanted people of any ethnicity to be able to identify with it.

Not long after she started her web site, Willowroot recognized another trend in Paganism, namely a shift toward a more consumer culture. She feared that this would lead to many cheaply-made, poorly-designed spiritual items being marketed to her co-religionists, which she believed imperiled the entire movement.

This led her to start the Goddess 2000 Project, a 1998 grassroots effort to create sacred imagery.

“If I could get non-artists to make goddess art or nature and sacred art, I could screw with what was becoming the bible of contemporary pagan imagery. The spiral goddess was popular, but others without content were solidfying. They were created to hawk merchandise that could be made cheaply.

“I saw it as the death knell. The minute you’re designated a consumer group, you’re dead in the water. They just pitch product to you.”

Coordinated entirely online, the Goddess 2000 Project had over 25,000 participants in 56 countries. The idea, that people with a passion creating images would push out cheap consumer items, worked astonishingly well in her opinion.

It also brought together Pagans from different traditions, which was not common at that time. She lists the Goddess 2000 Project as the least-impactful of three community ventures that broke down those barriers and divisions. The others that she cited are Pagan Pride and The Witches’ Voice, both of which also began during the same time frame.

“People started coming together and talking as a community,” Willowroot said. “It was a pretty wonderful benefit that I hadn’t anticipated.”

Willowroot continues to practice her brand of Paganism, wielding the same athame she has for forty years, a kitchen knife she bought at a thrift store. “The handle was totally worn, and it was one of the most sacred objects I’d ever seen,” she said.

Her house is full of simple altars, and she spends much of her days designing goddesses, offering bowls, athames, and other objects for Sacred Source, where a wide variety of her iconic images can be found. As for her own spirituality, it was and is largely about the power of nature.

“As a kid, I saw a wave move a 30-foot sea wall a block. Nature is greater than myself, that’s the core of my Paganism.”