HOLLIS — Kevin Emmons is a happily married software systems administrator who lives in the house where he was raised.
He’s also Snowhawke, a druid priest, who says he can experience God through a coffee mug and find divine inspiration in a leaf.
“Everything has a story,” said Emmons, a 47-year-old man with a slight build and bright eyes.
His starts in Hollis.
When Emmons was growing up, the brown cape by the Bar Mills hydrostation was a Christian home. Next month, it will become the Maine campus of Druid College, a program of study developed by Emmons and his colleague James Lawer, who began holding classes this weekend in his apartment in New York City.
Emmons, who started to question Christianity in high school and dabbled in Eastern religions as a young adult, first discovered druidism –which he and many druids today prefer to call druidry – when he bought a book for his wife by Emma Restall Orr, a prominent author and priest in the religion. Orr, who lives in England, happened to hold a lecture in Portland soon after and Emmons’ wife asked him to go with her. Five minutes into the talk, he said, he knew he had found a tradition that fit him.
Modern druidry – a set of pagan beliefs – doesn’t aim to re-create the rituals of the ancient Celtic religion but, rather, is inspired by it.
“We only know so much about what actually happened,” said Helen Berger, an expert in contemporary paganism and the resident scholar at Brandeis University’s Women’s Studies Research Center.
Furthermore, some of the practices associated with ancient druidism, such as animal sacrifices, “are things that modern day pagans would abhor,” she said.
“Many are vegetarians. They wouldn’t even eat chicken for dinner,” said Berger.
But the general objective of ancient druids was to preserve their heritage – as poets, teachers and healers.
Modern druids try to fill the same roles within their communities, as keepers of their culture, Emmons said.
Protecting nature, then, is paramount. And nature includes everything, Emmons said, from a human being to a hydrostation.
Berger said the divinity of nature, the interconnection of all things and an obligation to care for them are at the core of all pagan religions, whose popularity has been on the rise.
Americans’ generally increased interest in spirituality and popular television shows such as “Charmed” and “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” helped spur interest in paganism in the late 1990s, she said.
That rate of increase has slowed in recent years as “we’ve moved on to vampires,” Berger said, referring to the popular culture trend.
But the pagan population is still growing. Based on the American Religious Identification Survey and her own research, Berger estimates there are about 1.5 million pagans in the United States today and that just under 60,000 of them are druids, about double the number in 2008.
She said about 72 of those live in Maine.
Emmons said he knows only about a dozen. Including him and his wife, there are four members of his grove – the druid equivalent of a congregation.
Ten students have enrolled as members of the first class at Druid College, a three-year program that consists of weekend-long gatherings every other month.
Class time may be spent on anything from meditations to a presentation on permaculture, a more natural and sustainable method of agriculture, Emmons said.
Tuition is $500 per year, mostly to cover the cost of travel for Lawer to come from New York. People who can’t afford it won’t pay at all.
After two years, students can state their dedication to the community – the true meaning of priesthood in this religion.
“A druid priest is somebody who helps craft sacred relationships to the land, the people and the divine,” Emmons said. “For me, it’s not a title. It’s an ideal. It’s an invocation.”
The third year of Druid College will be more like a practicum, he said. And then the real work begins.
“You get a degree and you never use it – that’s not what this it is about,” Emmons said. “The application is the most important part.”
Part of the role of a priest is to lead rituals.
Pagans celebrate eight holy days a year – both solstices, both equinoxes and with the others sandwiched between them.
Each celebration has a purpose, all tied to the land, from the celebration of fertility on the first of May to the honoring of death, or the end of the growth cycle, coming up on Oct. 31 – what most celebrate as Halloween.
Emmons usually celebrates those ceremonies with just his grovemates. Last year, he realized there was a need for a different kind of ritual – one that would bring together the whole community.
“People don’t know their neighbors. People don’t help each other out,” Emmons said. That’s something he’d like to see change, in general. “I think working within our own traditions is a good place to start.”
So he and his wife started The Weaving.
On the last Saturday of September, about 30 pagans gathered in a clearing in the forest in Casco, up the hill from a yurt where Emmons and his wife used to live.
The group – some in capes, others in cargo shorts and several without shoes – started the ceremony in a barn, where they sat on benches and shared with one another the skills they have and the ones they’d like to learn, from making sauerkraut to speaking Gaelic.
Outside, Emmons led a meditation, asking them to close their eyes, take in the sounds and breathe into the Earth. In between, they ate homemade bread and made references to Monty Python movies.
As the day got colder and darker, they started a fire. Standing in a circle around it, Emmons approached each member of the group in turn and cloaked them in smoke from a burning bundle of sage. He was followed by Faro Estella, a Norse pagan, who dipped her finger in oil and drew a hammer on each person’s forehead. Together, the group faced each of the four cardinal directions and hailed every one, asking for peace and inviting in souls. A 15-minute trance followed.
They opened their eyes and rose from silence to dance around the fire, hollering and chanting with the beat of the drums, before joining hands in a circle.
“When we gather, we grow stronger,” they sang in unison, over and over.
Lorelei Jones, who lives in Mechanic Falls and works at a call center, said she’s met thousands of people through pagan gatherings in New England.
She was introduced to the religion 27 years ago when her college roommate told her she was a witch.
“I said, ‘You’re a what?’ ” Jones recalled. After learning more, she found that the Wiccan culture and its roots in the Earth aligned with her own beliefs.
“There’s no sacrificing of chickens. There’s no baby-nibbling,” she said.
Jones, who now identifies as a shamanistic pagan, will be attending Druid College this fall.
She said she didn’t know if her beliefs would change because of it, but wanted to learn more.
“I’m open to it,” Jones said.
Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at:[email protected]@lesliebridgers