It’s not a Harry Potter fan club.
Instead, The Broom Closet is an organization for UT students who consider themselves magical to gather, practice and grow together. Weekly members gather to discuss culture, legends and stories. The club members also practice divination and other magical arts at weekly meetings.
Dalton Eisenstein, vice president of The Broom Closet and anthropology major, said The Broom Closet is a place for people to learn about paganism.
“The Broom Closet is a place for people to learn about these religions in a safe environment. We want them to be able to express themselves and to talk to others about questions that they have because sometimes [paganism] is not as accepted as main religions such as Christianity or Islam or Judaism,” Eisenstein said. “It’s a religious minority. We want to make sure it’s a safe place. We want to educate those who are not familiar with it.”
The Broom Closet meetings often involve workshops, such as sigil-making and using books of shadows. The members also join together in holiday celebrations that follow solstices, equinoxes and the mid-points between them.
Members celebrate their holidays according to a pagan calendar called the wheel of the year, which includes eight seasonal festivities called sabbats.
“They (sabbats) follow the wheel of the year, which is in line with the agricultural year. A little weird in the modern era because most of us are not farmers, but that is where we draw our holidays from,” Abigail Brennan, president of the Broom Closet and senior in anthropology, said.
The group began when three students met in a religious studies class centering around religion and witchcraft in fall 2015. After deciding to start a pagan club, the students asked their professor, Randy Hepner, to be the sponsor. Hepner agreed and is still acting as the advisor of the club.
“He (Hepner) lit up,” Eisenstein said. “He said he had been waiting for years — since he came here (to UT) — for someone to try and start one (a pagan club). He was on it.”
After gaining Hepner’s support, the students began stumbling through the process of starting a club. In the spring semester of 2016, The Broom Closet wrote their constitution and received official club status.
“We had two meetings that spring to talk about what we wanted to see the club do, such as celebrating group holidays and having workshops together to learn different skills,” Brennan said.
The members tabled at the engagement fair in fall 2016, and after some time, they managed to get 15 regulars.
Although not extremely prominent, paganism is popular locally, Brennan said. The Broom Closet members plan to expand by taking field trips to connect with other pagans in the area.
“We are planning to get more involved with the East Tennessee Pagan community,” Brennan said. “There is actually a large population of Pagans here in East Tennessee. They have a Pagan Pride every year.”
When compared to the other religious organizations on campus, The Broom Closet values privacy to a much higher degree to help members keep their identities hidden. Secrecy sparked the idea for the name of the club as the term “broom closet” refers to those who keep their religion a secret.
“A lot of Pagans are private about their religion, even at their job,” Brennan said. “Not everyone feels comfortable being out about their religion, or they want to keep it as a personal thing that makes it special to them. We offer a community for that.”
Club membership is open to anyone, even those that aren’t practicing and just want to see what the organization is like.
“We are open to people who aren’t practicing but want to know more about what it is about. As long as they agree not to out the other people in the club, they are definitely allowed to come and check it out and see what it’s about,” Eisenstein said. “We’re not affiliated with Harry Potter ... We have the cauldron and the broom in the name, and everyone says ‘oh is this a Harry Potter thing?’ No, we’re not Harry Potter and definitely not scary.”
The Broom Closet officers strive to create a familial community by providing support for those who choose to come out of the broom closet.
“Some of our core members have become family to us. We reach out to one another outside of class,” Brennan said. “Because Pagans don’t have a church that they go to, it’s a nice sense of community, something to go to when you’re going through things.”