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Greta Rybus

Greta Rybus is a photojournalist and photo editor living in Portland. She started her blog, “Who I Met," as a way to begin juicy conversations with interesting people she meets. The blog has migrated with her from Montana, Europe, and, finally, to her new and dearly-loved home in Maine. You can see more of her work at www.gretarybus.com

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Who I Met with Greta Rybus
Posted: December 16, 2014

Nikki Starcat Shields – pagan priestess

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You have probably heard Nikki before. Her voice is often announcing the call letters for MPBN’s local station affiliates. She worked for MPBN for several years and still sometimes works at the station. They used to call her, lovingly, “the house pagan.”

Nikki is part of a modern community and long tradition of paganism. She holds a sacred reverence for nature, the seasons and the cosmos. As a pagan priestess, she performs rituals to honor the forces in the world that Nikki refers to as “sacred energies.” On the day that I meet Nikki, it was bitingly cold. She walked out towards the ocean and set up an altar on the rocks and performed a ritual to welcome the calm and quiet of winter.

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TELL ME ABOUT HOW YOU FOUND PAGANISM

I was raised in a family that didn’t have any religion. My parents were atheists, basically. So I think I was always pagan and I just didn’t really know what it was called. My mom always talked about Mother Nature and we did a lot of camping and hiking and that sort of thing. When I got to college, I read “Drawing Down the Moon” by Margot Adler, which is sort of a survey of pagans all over the country in different practices. She’s a journalist, she passed away last year actually, but she was a journalist for NPR too. So I connected with that and thought, “Oh, there are other people who believe in nature and the natural world and practice that way.” That’s kind of the basis of it – that everything’s sacred, everything’s divine and we’re part of the earth too. We try to live naturally and be in touch with the seasons and moon phases.

WAS THERE AN “AH -HA” MOMENT WHEN IT CLICKED?

It was reading the book, but also it was connecting with other people in Maine. The Earth Tides Pagan Network has been around since ’89. I was in college in the early ’90s, so there were already people who were active in Maine. They had a newsletter when I found them. It just kind of clicked when I found people who felt the same things. Not the exact same things, because it’s really an eclectic practice. We call it a religion but it’s not a religion in the sense that there’s dogma, it’s more of a movement of people who believe in earth-based spirituality.

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TELL ME A LITTLE BIT MORE ABOUT WHAT THE PAGAN COMMUNITY IS LIKE IN MAINE

In Maine, because we’re so rural, it’s spread out everywhere. So a lot of small groups spread out across the state. But in the spring there’s a holiday called Beltane, which is May Day, with the maypoles, etc. And there’s been a group meeting for pagans on Popham Beach on Beltane. I think it’s been 30 years since the gatherings started, but nowadays it’s easier to get the word out because we have Facebook and we have internet. So if it’s a nice day on Beltane, there’s upwards of 300 or 400 people that come, mostly families and kids. There’s usually five maypoles and people dance the maypole. It really great. That’s the biggest event in Maine.

WHAT KIND OF EVENTS OR CELEBRATIONS OR RITUALS ARE COMING UP?

Winter Solstice is on the 21st and I don’t know of a big, public gathering like there is for Beltane, probably a lot because of the weather, because it snows and people can’t drive. But we have a private gathering in our home and a lot of people do that with friends.

HOW DO YOU CELEBRATE THE SOLSTICE?

Our tradition is to light a fire, we have a fire pit in our backyard, to light the fire at sunset and keep it burning all through the night. We stay up. That’s what our ancestors did, as far as we know. Because that’s the longest night and after that they could observe that the light starts returning. Days get longer. It’s an encouragement of light. We don’t know what they actually believed but they may have believed they needed to keep this vigil in order to bring the light back, but now it’s symbolic, sort of like, “Okay let’s celebrate that the light’s going to start coming back.” In Maine, the coldest part of winter hasn’t even come by solstice, but when you get up in the morning and it’s a little bit lighter than it was last week, it’s encouraging. So we celebrate that. We’ve been doing that for more than ten years.

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TELL ME A LITTLE BIT MORE ABOUT WHAT MODERN PAGANS ARE DOING AND HOW IT TIES HISTORICALLY INTO WHAT PAGANISM IS.

Some people are called “reconstructionist pagans,” and that’s not what I do, but they figure out what the ancestors did and, maybe not replicate it exactly, but bring those traditions into their lives. It’s hard to do because back then, it was mostly oral history. We don’t really know what they did. What a lot of more modern pagans do is not really try to do that but capture the essence of it. For me it’s all about stories. From every paganist you’ll get different answer. My conception of the divine is energy and it’s what everything’s made of. But within that there’s all kinds of stories, there’s stories of the goddesses and the gods and different mythology and all over the world there are similar stories. I read about it, but I’m a writer, too, so I like to write stories.

YOU HAVE TWO TEENAGE CHILDREN, A SON AND A DAUGHTER, WHAT IS THEIR RELATIONSHIP WITH PAGANISM LIKE? WHAT IS IT LIKE FOR THEM TO HAVE A PAGAN PRIESTESS AS A MOM?

We raised them pagan but with the understanding their spirituality is their choice. So we expose them to different religions, not in an in-depth way but enough that they know they have a choice. My son, who just turned 18, considers himself an atheist, he decided that paganism is not really his thing. My daughter, who is 15, considers herself a pagan, too.

DOES SHE TAKE PART IN CEREMONIES AS WELL?

Yes, she does. And my Mom, I call her a natural pagan. She doesn’t do the rituals as much but she’s started to. I belong to a pagan women’s group that is based in a church in York County, and she’s started going with me and it’s great. It’s a lot of older women and they’re fantastic. The stereotypes are “the evil witch” but it comes out of the wise old women who had all the knowledge they had learned throughout their lifetime and had been passed down through the matriarchal line.

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TELL ME ABOUT THE ACTUAL TOOLS OR MATERIALS THAT YOU USE IN A RITUAL AND WHAT MAKES A RITUAL.

A ritual is just setting aside a space in time and acknowledging that it’s a sacred container. If you meditate, you’re kind of doing a ritual. So you start with an intention: What are you doing this for? Maybe it’s for healing for someone who’s ill or anything like that. And you set aside that space. Usually outdoors is preferable. In the winter maybe not so much! You can do this on your own or with a group of people, it’s up to you, so you set that intention and that sacred space and then what a lot of pagans use, and what I like to use, are the elements. Those are air, fire, water, earth and spirit. If you’ve seen the pentagram, that’s what the points of it stand for.

So if you’re casting a circle, (we like to work with circles) the orbs of the planets are spheres and there are a lot of circles in nature and cycles. I use air in the east, fire in the south, water in the west, earth in the north and spirit in the center. So I have tools that I use for these different elements. Fire is easy, you have a candle and I have a wand that I’ve made. For earth you might have a crystal or stone, something earthy, the pentacle, if you had a symbol of a pentacle you could use that.

CAN YOU TELL ME A BIT MORE ABOUT THE MEANING OF RITUAL? HAVE YOU SEEN EFFECTS?

What I like to do is use it as a place of connection with everything. If you believe that everything is divine and sacred then you want to be in tune with that and the easiest way to do that is just go for a hike. You feel different when you go out and walk in the woods and you feel that connection. Use that and bring it into your daily life. I focus a lot on the spiritual practices, so things I can bring into my life – meditation and yoga, things like that. We all have this huge to-do list and we’re rushing and we’re trying to get things done and just to remember enough to relax and relax into it and enjoy your life.

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DO YOU HAVE A RITUALIZED DAY? ARE THERE RITUALS YOU DO ON YOUR OWN?

Ritualized, yes. The ones that I do on my own are usually to so with the seasons. There’s eight sabbats, which are the holidays. It’s the summer and winter solstice, fall and spring equinox, and then, if you imagine that like a wheel those are cross quarter and then if you can imagine there are four other between those. One of them is Beltane, which I talked about, then in the summer it’s Lughnasadh or Lammas, which is first harvest, and then the one you always think about with pagans and witches, which is Halloween. And then in early February there’s Imbolc or Candlemas, there’s different names for them from different traditions.

WHERE DO THOSE WORDS COME FROM?

A lot of the ones that I use come from the Celtic Isles. When I first started getting into this a lot of the Native American practices are similar with the elements. But I read this book about trying not to co-opt somebody’s culture – you have to be sensitive to not co-opt somebody’s culture. Am I Native American? No, but I come from Scottish and English backgrounds, so I looked into the British Isles and what they did there. You kind of start with whatever your blood ancestors are. You can also work with your spiritual ancestors, there just might be someone you connect with. Like if you love Greek mythology and you’re not necessarily Greek but you have an affinity for Athena. It’s done with respect. So a lot of it’s Celtic because that’s my background.

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THERE’S ALMOST A CULTURAL DISMISSAL OF PAGANISM WITH MOST AMERICANS AND IN THE MEDIA. HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THAT?

I think a lot of it comes from fear and the unknown. America has a lot of Christians and a lot of religions. Some of the religions believe that there’s one way to be and in paganism it’s about “many paths up the mountain.” With all religions, we are all really talking about the same sacred energies. I went this summer for the first time to a Catholic wedding, which was a high mass. It’s a huge ritual, really, and I could feel that divine energy there like I can in the woods. It’s kind of the same thing to me but most people don’t believe that. And it’s true that some who call themselves pagan have come to paganism from wanting to rebel against a religion, which is fine, in a lot of ways it’s legitimate. Our culture’s so patriarchal. A friend was just telling me her little girl, who’s eight years old, she’s raising her pagan. And whenever someone starts to talk about Christianity the little girl says, “You know, I just don’t understand that, how can you have the god without the goddess?” So I think that a lot of feminists, and I consider myself a feminist, are drawn to it because there’s the acknowledgement that the divine is both masculine and feminine.

TELL ME A BIT ABOUT THE BOOKS YOU’VE WRITTEN, HOW PEOPLE CAN FIND THEM AND WHAT THEY’RE ABOUT

My first book was published, let’s see, in 2013, just last year, and it was actually a collection of essay’s I’d written over the previous ten years about paganism for the the Earth Tides newsletter here in Maine. It doesn’t exist anymore, but when it started, it was just one of those photocopied, stapled-together newsletters and it evolved. So they’re essays, they’re arranged by the seasons, the different holidays, and most of it – as I said, I like to write about bringing it into your daily life, how can you live as a pagan. Starcat’s Corner was the name of my column that I had for that so it’s called “Starcat’s Corner, Essays on Pagan Living.”

So it’s how to bring it into daily life. It’s on Amazon. So that one was published by a small publishing house in England, actually. Then the second book I’ve published so far I self-published. It’s called Cultivating Self-Love, Your Path to Wholeness.” That’s something we’re really not taught in this culture, the opposite, in fact. We’re told “you’re flawed” and “you’re a sinner,” so you basically start off feeling worthless when really we’re all children of the universe. We’re all here and why are we here? That’s one of the major questions, so to find that from a place of love, rather than a place of judgment. So that’s quite a journey. I wrote that to share with people and not just pagans. The first book was pagan, directed at pagans, people who are curious about it, but the second one I wanted to broaden it because it doesn’t matter to me if you’re pagan or Christian or Buddhist or whatever. Being in touch with your connection with that divine, however you see it, is really important to have a meaningful life.

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IT CAN BE EASY TO LUMP PAGANISM IN WITH TAROT OR HOROSCOPES. HOW DO ALL OF THOSE THINGS FIT TOGETHER?

They do connect because a lot of pagans use those as tools to gain insights, like the tarot and astrology. You can delve into anything really deeply, become an astrologer, have the whole practice, but a lot of pagans use those as tools for self-reflection and then to help other people. Using the cards you might give someone a reading. I actually do reiki and reiki has nothing do with religion at all, it’s energy healing, and I use that as part of my practice for healing. So a lot of those are tools that can be incorporated. Paganism is a huge umbrella term. So if you say you’re a pagan, under that umbrella you might be a druid, you might call yourself a witch, you might be a Celtic reconstructionist who follows the path of the ancestors as closely as you can. And then there’s all the different mythologies, you might worship the Norse gods, or Greek gods, etc.

I identify with the Celtic Pantheon, especially Brigid. She’s a Celtic goddess of poetry, smith craft and healing. We actually named our daughter Bridget after her and my daughter is a red head very fiery and Brigid-y. I connect with Brigid, the poetry part, the writing, is just really similar that I resonate with in that Pantheon. I follow the seasons and sabbats and the lunar cycles. I celebrate with a small group, on the full moon and then for the new moons I do a solo ritual that involves tarot cards. I do a reading for myself for the new moon and then just you watch the cycles, keep an eye on them. You get messages, I think all the messages and information that’s something we have in us, we’re just bringing it out.

IF SOMEONE WAS READING THIS AND WONDERING, ARE THERE ANY RITUALS THAT ANYBODY COULD DO?

I think if you’re starting the most important thing is really just listening and meditating. I would say my favorite way of meditating as a pagan is to take a walk in the woods or by the ocean. Somewhere natural by yourself and just walk and you’ll start off thinking of your grocery list or whatever but as you walk just breathe intentionally and feel that energy and let those worries sink down and go away and then see what arises. You might think of something that you hadn’t, some project that you were interested in years ago, just some message from your inner self. Focus a lot. For my part it’s on creativity, because I think everyone’s creative, we’re innately creative beings, so getting in touch with that and letting that be part of your life is a really cool feeling.

WHAT IS MOST IMPORTANT TO YOU IN YOUR LIFE?

Love and family. I have a really great family. A lot of pagans have their extended family, maybe your parents and your siblings and your aunts and uncles, don’t really understand what this whole pagan thing is and can be either judgmental or fearful or can be some weird energy there. I don’t have that. I have this amazing extended family, they’re really supportive. It might not be their thing but they say, “live and let live, whatever makes you happy” and I just love it and my kids are great. Family and love are primary.

WHAT IS A LESSON YOU’RE LEARNING IN YOUR LIFE OR HAVE LEARNED RECENTLY?

I am learning how to make my passions become my living as a writer. Some people who read this might know my name from MPBN, I worked for years on Maine Public Radio and I still do some of that on air once in a while. But I worked there full-time for years, 16 years, and so about five years ago I left that world to pursue my writing career. And plus I had to home-school the kids as well. It just was important to me. I love the people there and the work is great and it’s a wonderful place – support MPBN! – but it wasn’t my calling. I felt like I really wanted to write.

It’s not necessarily easy to put together that kind of lifestyle financially and my husband’s been great. He’s been a great supporter and helper. At this point, I practice, practice, practice, I’ve been writing enough that I feel confident in my writing but it’s that marketing yourself or getting the word out that I’m learning about. So that’s my big learning curve right now is how to market yourself ethically, because that’s really important. In 2015, I’m going to be writing a monthly column for this website called Kind Over Matter to get the word out more. So that’s what I’m learning right now, to make a career out of this.

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WHAT IS THE GREATEST GIFT OR BLESSING IN YOUR LIFE RIGHT NOW?

The time to focus on my writing career. I feel like I’ve been blessed because my family’s so supportive with time to do that and I love it. When I’m sitting there, so I’ve written the two non-fiction books, now I’m working on fiction, I’m working on a novel. It’s the second one I’ve written but this one’s the one I’m focused on the most and it’s so much fun, it’s so much fun.

WHAT IS YOUR GREATEST STRUGGLE RIGHT NOW?

Finances. I do some work for MPBN, like I said, and I do some other work other than my writing, but we have primarily one breadwinner in the family. And financially it’s a struggle. But a lot of pagans are really environmentalists, because you’re really into the earth. So I think some of the things we are sort of forced to do are great because it’s also environmentally and financially friendly like buying your clothes at thrift stores, things like that, eating a lot of home cooked meals.

IF YOU HAD A MOTTO OR MANTRA, WHAT WOULD IT BE?

Well I use affirmations a lot so I’m going to grab one of those. One that I really turn to a lot is: “All is well because of love.” I think that the energy of the universe is made up, essentially, of love. It’s like how people say in many religions, “God is love.” Is god the energy that the cosmos is made up of? I think a lot of the things that pagans do with energy – like setting intentions and sending energies outward – science is going to find and is finding out the usefulness and science behind them. For example, how scientists have shown the power of gratitude to change your brain chemistry. My husband has this really great saying, he wants to put it on a bumper sticker, he says, “Now that science has proven that magic exists I’d like an apology.” So anyway: “all is well because of love.” I think if we remind ourselves that, here we are- wherever you are reading this you’re okay, right now, you’ve survived all the things that led up to where you are at this moment so all is well. We worry too much.

WHAT IS THE BEST MOMENT OF AN AVERAGE DAY?

I really like waking up and starting the day intentionally. I can do that because I work for myself, I don’t have to jump up and rush around. To just start the day with an intention, “What do I want to do today? What do I want to accomplish?” And do that mindfully. That’s really special to me, to begin fresh every day

Find out more about Nikki, and read her writing

Starcat’s Corner, her blog and author website:  www.starcatscorner.com
Feline Dreamers, her business: www.felinedreamers.com

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