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The candles illuminated the small room. The sharpened sword glimmered in the candlelight. The smell of incense enveloped the area. A gold chalice sat full, resting in the middle of the table, surrounded by wilting flowers. He tied on a black mask and picked up the sword.

He walked around the circular table, stopping at the first of four candle stands. He bent his head over the sword he held, kissing its glistening blade. He gave thanks to the god of earth. He walked on to the next stand, the flame flickering with his movement. He held the sword and kissed it once again, this time thanking the god of water. He did the same for air, and finally for fire. And so began his Pagan celebration.

Dominic Vicchiullo, age 19, did not always kiss swords, wear masks and pray to nature. Growing up in Eustis, Fla, he was raised in an Italian Catholic family. Yet he always felt a connection to nature and had a spark for magic that led him to put his faith elsewhere.

“I had trust issues, and so I receded from my family and friends. I wasn’t myself anymore, and I wanted to feel like myself again. That led me to these religions. I was always fascinated with the occult. Me and magic were meant to be. I just believed in magic,” he said.

Occultism embodies the use of magic, Christian thought and Pagan symbols. It is an ancient philosophy that centers upon reaching a divine state of being, being one with God. As Vicchiullo tampered with occultism, it led him to discover other earth-based religions, like Wiccan and Neo-Paganism.

The origins of such religions can be traced back to the religious practices of Greece and Rome. They focus on how one’s ancestry worshipped the gods and goddesses. Vicchiullo considers himself a Pagan.

“I’ve always had a feeling something or someone was looking out for me. Like there was a force working in my favor,” he said

He practices different forms of folk magic, and worships a variety of deities. As he has studied and branched out to different aspects of these religions, he has fallen in love with all the gods and goddesses. He celebrates them like Greeks and Romans once did.

There are several holidays that the Ancients acknowledge, the major one is Panathena, a holiday honoring the Greek Goddess Athena’s birthday, which is held from July 23 to 30.

Pagans celebrate the four seasons of the earth, and revel in changes each one brings. Minor holidays are the autumnal equinox and vernal equinox, which marks the first day of spring.

The Summer solstice is an important fire festival honoring the sun, embodied by the Greek god Apollo and the Roman god Helios, and the fertility of earth. The Winter solstice is a water and earth based festival that honors the death of the earth, yet more importantly, the promise of her return in the spring.

Among other minor holidays that Vicchiullo celebrates, Samhain is an ancient Celtic holiday that he celebrates to honor his ancestors who have died and passed from this world into the paradise known as Elysium.

While there are particular pagan holidays to practice, Vicchiullo celebrates each new day, considering them a gift he needs to cherish and be thankful for.

Each morning he wakes up, goes to his makeshift alter and picks a deity for that day. He appeals to the different gods and goddesses based on what strength he needs. If he needs healing, he turns to Apollo. If he wants a deeper connection to the earth, Gaia. Wisdom, Athena.

“Each one gives me something different. I pray and feel their power. I just prefer the variety,” he said.

But to fully feel the power bestowed upon him, he seeks a peaceful place to revel in it.

Paganism is an earth centered religion. Perhaps that is why Vicchiullo finds such solace in the calm and peaceful forest that is minutes away from him. A home away from home, the leaf scattered pathways, the shady trees and the whispering winds offer him an intangible sense of refuge.

“Ive always felt that the forest was a very powerful place. When I go into the forest I feel free. I don’t want to hurt anyone, and I feel no anger,” he said.

One hot summer day, while perusing the makeshift paths that twist and turn throughout the forest, Vicchiullo began exploring parts of the forest he had yet to venture to. He stumbled upon a small clearing, and right in the middle, a massive uprooted tree. The coolness of the shade drew him in. The sound of a nearby stream was like music. The leaves of the trees even seemed greener.

“It felt like a dream, not even real. You know how if you go to church and take mass, you feel holy? That’s what it felt like when I found this place. It was just amazing,” he said.

Vicchiullo set to work making the small dwelling emulate the power he believed it possessed. He hung prayer flags, placed tokens around the area and hung a mask on the highest upturned root. It represented the forest idol he began to worship.

When he first gets to his claimed part of the forest, he thanks the statue of his mercy goddess, that awaits him at the entrance. He spends his time talking to the forest and thanking its spirits.

“I stay there until I need to. Until I feel the energy of the forest spirits. The good energy,” he said.

The forest is not a means to become a recluse, but instead it offers Vicchiullo a short escape that allows for self reflection and peace of mind.Yet sometimes, leaving the forest does not offer that same sense of serenity.

“While I rarely feel angry at people, I just get so frustrated that people don’t appreciate the earth. Other people take it for granted, and I see the earth as a gift from the gods,” he said.

He quotes the Gaia theory, a belief that the world is a living organism. Earthquakes, tornadoes, tsunamis and any natural disaster are natural acts of god, in an attempt for the world to heal herself.

“My religion keeps me conscientious. If we don’t give thanks to the earth, she will punish us,” he said.

While Vicchiullo is strong in his beliefs, there are those who question him about them. That being said, he has never been ostracized because of his beliefs, and his family was never bothered by their different faiths. It has always been a matter of describing his beliefs and what made him get there.

Nicholas Vicchiullo, age 17 and Dominic’s younger brother, has always been his brother’s best friend. However, these two brothers are completely different people. Yet that doesn’t affect their bond. Instead, they embrace their differences.

“I’m always fascinated by Dominic’s dedication to his religious ceremonies. It’s very interesting to watch something that someone feels so strongly about. Yet it’s something you know nothing about,” he said.

Christina Vicchiullo, age 20 and sister of this pagan forest-dweller, does not share the beliefs of her brother. That being said, she realizes he has found happiness in his choices and she would never condemn his faith if it offered him such.

“I don’t really agree with his choice but it’s not my choice. Ultimately it doesn’t bother me and I am just so glad he is happy. Since we were little, I always said that Dominic uses his powers for good,” she said.

And if these mystical powers, passed down from the gods themselves, are utilized for good, what  is it that Vicchiullo wants to do with them? He says he is studying Herbalism, the study of the medicinal values of plants.

“In a sense, pagans hold a view that modern medicine that hurts people is bad. But we are in favor of modern medicine, not witch doctors. Therefore, Herbalism plays a part in pagan life for treatments of basic human aliments,” he said.

Herbalism does not stray too far from modern medicine. They both seek to use chemical compounds to heal the body. All around the world, herbal remedies are used to treat human disease.

And while Paganism will not appeal to everyone, there are lesson to learn from each religion. In understanding the origins and meanings behind each belief, an underlying message can be found and perhaps be applied to everyday life, even for nonbelievers. By realizing what other people are passionate about and what philosophy they worship, it can awaken a sense that the cause they  pray for may be a universal need. Paganism is an earth-based religion.

“I think it will impact future generations on environmental issues, like it will help us to be mindful and respect the earth without depleting its resources. We will live in harmony with nature,” Vicchiullo said.

In lieu of the upcoming Winter solstice, Vicchiullo will once more light the candles, bring out his glistening sword, fill his gold chalice and tie on his black mask in celebration of the earth and all it gives.