One of the wold’s oldest religions is now one of the fastest growing movements in America. Why are the Wiccans finally coming out of the broom closet?
by Janet Brennan
The name of the coven is the Iseum of Hidden Mysteries, but nothing looks mysterious about the antique red farmhouse that is its headquarters.
As I enter through the back door, I’m warmly greeted by coven leaders Julie and Lawrence, an ordinary-looking married couple. I instantly feel at ease as their gentle hound strolls over for a pat and a black-velvet kitten scampers after a shoelace. But this Sunday afternoon promises to be far from ordinary for me, for I am attending my first pagan ritual, performed by a coven of witches.
The word pagan means “country-dweller” — an appropriate description for Julie and Lawrence, who live in the thick pine woods 30 miles from the coast of Maine. They are members of The Fellowship of Isis, a pagan church with about 14,000 members worldwide who focus their worship on Egyptian deities. But while Julie feels an affinity for Egypt, she actually considers herself a “hedge witch” — one who practices an eclectic mixture of Druidism, Native American shamanism, and many other forms of pagan worship. “We don’t feel we need to reinvent the wheel,” Lawrence explains. “We use whatever works,” Julie adds.
While Julie was brought up Catholic, Lawrence was exposed to many world religions as a child. He later became involved in the ecology movement, which drew him to the nature worship of paganism. He and Julie met in the U.S. Coast Guard, and today, they are legal clergy in the church headquartered at their farm, where they teach meditation and visualization techniques — both essential components of witchcraft magic.
Most covens will not admit outsiders to their rituals, but I was granted entry on one condition: I would have to attend as a full participant, not merely as an observer. I had agreed to their terms, but I was nervous about what I had gotten myself into. I already knew that, contrary to popular myth, pagans are not devil worshippers and don’t offer living sacrifices. But would I be expected to dance naked under the full moon or something?
Once in a Blue Moon
My apprehension melts away as the other group members arrive: a quiet, pretty girl, a genial young man, an ebullient widow in her fifties, and her more subdued friend. Their occupations range from construction worker to personnel director of a school district. This very normal, casually dressed group of people gathers in the cozy living room for Julie to explain the day’s ritual.
The date is January 31, 1999 — a special day for witches. Not only is it an Esbat (a full moon), it is also a rare blue moon (the second full moon in the month). The power of the full moon will be used in the ritual, but the ceremony will primarily focus on celebrating Imbolc, the ancient holiday marking the first stirrings of spring. Imbolc occurs on February 2, but to take advantage of the full moon and the weekend, the coven is celebrating a few days early. The ritual will not take place in moonlight, but rather at 2:30 in the afternoon — after all, some of the witches have Super Bowl parties to attend.
Julie explains that the changing seasons can mirror the changes in our own lives, making it a good time to end an old project and begin something new. Lawrence passes out pens and paper, and Julie instructs us to write “I release all that is written here” on one piece, followed by something in our lives we want to end like a health problem or souring relationship. On another slip of paper we write “I welcome all that is written here,” followed by any new activity or condition we would like to have in our lives, whether it be better health, a new boyfriend, or a new job.
Julie passes out some prayers she has written for the ceremony, and dons a purple robe. Lawrence remains in jeans and a sweater; he later explains that he doesn’t bother with “ritual clothes,” but he does refrain from wearing things to the ceremony that he feels may carry negative energies, such as his watch, wallet, or money.
We adjourn to the ritual space in the hayloft of their barn. The orange glow of a kerosene heater and sunlight streaming through skylights make the room bright and cheery. Egyptian paintings on the walls and gold stars swirling in spirals across the blue ceiling lend the barest touch of mystery. Four low tables serve as altars, holding candles, Egyptian statues, crystals, and seashells.
First, Lawrence “purifies” each of us by smudging — waving a feather through incense smoke. Julie marks our foreheads with a dab of saltwater. Thus we are purified with the four elements: earth (represented by the salt), air (the feather), fire (incense), and water.
A typical pagan ritual usually involves consecrating sacred space (“casting the circle”), invoking the spirits of the four directions or the elements of earth (“calling the quarters”), praying to the deities, and sharing a consecrated meal. Lawrence leads us in a few minutes of deep breathing and meditation to quiet and center ourselves. Then, Julie casts the circle. As we stand in a circle, she walks behind us, holding her “athame” (ritual knife) at waist level, casting away negative energies. With the tip of her knife, she draws a “circle of energy” in the air which will contain our psychic powers. Next, the group “calls the quarters.” Facing each direction in turn, four members read Julie’s prayers. Each prayer invokes the spirits of the north, south, east, and west.
Now, it is time to do a little magic. Julie invokes the Goddess and Lawrence the God, asking them to bless our new endeavors. One by one, each coven member approaches the northern altar and says, “I release all that is written here.” Each member then lights his or her “old things” paper in a candle flame and drops the burning paper into a small cauldron. In turn, each person says, “I welcome all that is written here,” burning the paper on which his or her desired goal was written.
The next part of the ceremony is either called “bread and ale” or “cakes and wine.” In a ritual sharing of nature’s bounty, we pass a chalice of white grape juice around the circle. Each person offers the cup to his or her neighbor in the circle and says, “May the blessings of the Goddess be upon you.” The recipient answers “Blessed be,” takes a sip from the cup, then offers it to the next person. A loaf of bread is likewise passed. “May the blessings of the God be upon you,” we say. Some giggling ensues when people have trouble ripping off pieces of the crusty loaf. Amid the playfulness, I feel a real sense of communion with these erstwhile strangers.
We casually pass the chalice and loaf around the circle for those who have actual hunger or thirst rather than just a symbolic need. We chat for several minutes about plans to decorate the temple. Then it is time to end the ceremony. Still standing in our circle, we meditate for a few moments to send our psychic energies back into the Earth. Our priest and priestess thank the Goddess and God, and we offer prayers of thanksgiving and farewell to the spirits of the four quarters. Julie declares the circle opened, and with the words “Merry meet, and merry part, and merry meet again,” our short Imbolc ritual is over.
What Is Wicca?
America has always held a dual view of witches. The first white settlers brought their fear of evil witches with them from Europe — a fear that culminated in the persecution and execution of suspected witches, not only at the infamous Salem trials but in many towns in New England and Virginia. At the same time, every village in colonial America had its “wise woman” — an herbalist, a midwife, the closest thing to a doctor many settlers would ever see. These women were respected and well paid for their folk cures. They were, in essence, witches, as the word witch is said to come from the Anglo-Saxon word wicca, meaning “wise one.”
The rise of science and technology in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries diminished the perceived power of both the wise women and the black-magic witches. In the second half of this century, the entertainment media further trivialized the image of witches by creating the droll nose-wriggling blondes we see on TV shows and movies. These fantasy creatures provide a perfect excuse for amusing special effects, but they have little relationship to reality. As the twenty-first century dawns, practicing witches are finally coming out of the broom closet, and they’re bringing a message our high-tech culture needs to hear.
Witchcraft — also called Wicca or simply the Craft — is recognized as an official religion by the U.S. government. A major branch of paganism, Wicca today is a modern update of various pre-Christian, Earth-based shamanic traditions, with a little feminism, environmentalism, and quantum physics thrown in.
Witches believe all of the universe is a physical manifestation of the Divine. Therefore, they revere nature and see the spirit of the Creator in people, plants, animals, stones…everything. Just as there are two sexes in nature, the Deity is also perceived as comprising both genders, so witches worship both God and Goddess. Some witches like to use ancient archetypes for the God and Goddess drawn from Celtic, Egyptian, Norse, Greek, or Roman mythology.
Because witches see nature as sacred, they often worship outdoors, and they time their ceremonies to the change of seasons and phases of the moon. They worship in covens, or by themselves if they are “solitaries.” Often, personal power is raised through meditation, chants, drumming, or dancing. This power is used for healing or other magical purposes.
This use of magic — combined with the negative portrayal of witches in mainstream media, religion, and even Halloween decorations — is probably what lends witchcraft its negative image. Uninformed people fear that an evil witch could place a “hex” on them. Even the World Book Encyclopedia describes witchcraft as “the use of supposed magic powers, generally to harm people or to damage their property.” Webster’s College Dictionary still defines witch as “a woman supposedly having supernatural powers by a compact with the devil.”
Nothing could be further from the truth. Unlike other religions, witchcraft has only one rule: “And it harm none, do what you will.” This rule, known as the Wiccan Rede, is akin to Christianity’s Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”), and is to be strictly adhered to. Since witches see every aspect of the world as a manifestation of the Divine, they do not want to harm any other person, animal, or thing — to do so would be hurting God and Goddess. If a witch should fail to follow this rule, retribution will be meted out by the universe according to the Threefold Law: “That which you send out will return to you threefold.”
Punishment for causing harm comes not in Hell (which witches don’t believe in), but in this life, and three times worse than the witch’s original act. Likewise, every kind action or positive energy the witch puts into the world returns to him or her threefold.
It’s a Magical World
One misconception about witches is that they get magic powers from the devil. This is uninformed propaganda, for the simple reason that witches don’t believe in Satan. While some witches think evil entities exist, all reject the notion that wrongdoing is caused by people succumbing to the temptation of a devil. Rather, evil is an individual failing. “With the Craft, you are responsible for your own actions, and can blame neither man nor God for your mistakes,” says Pennsylvania coven leader Silver RavenWolf, author of Teen Witch and other books.
So, if they’re not consorting with the devil, where do witches get their magical power? From within themselves. Witches learn to access their divine natures by practicing meditation and visualization. Witches also derive magic through use of the energies present in colors, sound, movement, fire, water, plants, and stones.
The non-witch world views magic as something supernatural, but to witches magic is simply natural. “You can’t separate magic from life,” says Arwen Evenstar, a former New York City news photographer and teacher now practicing as a Gnostic pagan in Maine. Witches, so closely attuned to nature and with the ability to see God/Goddess in everything, easily appreciate the magic of life itself. But they also use ritual magic — that is, spell-casting.
A spell can be as simple as lighting a candle while visualizing your desire, or so complicated that it requires pages of incantations, specific oils and incense, certain colored candles, and careful timing with the moon phase, day, and planetary hour. But does magic work? Yes it does, witches say, though sometimes in unexpected ways.
“I have never seen anything so remarkable that the Fox network would want to air it,” says Acadia Elle, a thirtysomething witch who cares for her special-needs child. “But I have seen it transform a frantic mind into a calm and peaceful one.”
For Galadrielle, a 32-year-old witch and mother of four teen witches, magic is much more dramatic. “I have only had need in my life on one occasion, when my husband and I were buying our dream house,” she recalls. “We saved like crazy for the down payment, but we found out that we needed twice the amount we had. I knew our situation was bleak.
“I turned to magic with a money spell. I put my heart and soul into it. The next day we went to the bank and applied for the loan. Not only did they give us the money on the spot, they gave us extra so that we wouldn’t use up all of our savings account and would still have money for the Christmas season! I was astonished but grateful.”
Sometimes, however, magic brings unexpected bad results. “The Threefold Law, in which all magic returns to the sender three times, has rebounded on me in cases where I’ve done an unethical spell,” admits Jane Raeburn, a 33-year-old newspaper editor and author of a book on Celtic Wicca.
Lady Crystall, a grandmother in Blaine, Washington, has a similar admission. “Most of my magic has had positive results, but there was one spell when I was still a bit new to all this that really backfired. The Rede says, ‘If it harm none, do what thou will.’ Well, that also means not messing with someone else’s free will. I did a love spell naming a specific person. It turned out to be a real bad mistake; he became obsessed with me and abusive. It took me three and a half years to get out of that one.”
Sometimes spells go wrong simply because of inexperience. “Most witches have horror stories, especially from when they were first starting out,” notes LunaKala, a teen witch. “I needed a job desperately, so on the morning of an interview I did a spell. I thought I had the right incense, stones, and herbs; while I did get some of my choices right, others were not good at all. And I was too relaxed in my presentation of casting the spell. That can be a bit disastrous…. During the interview I zoned out. I couldn’t help it. After that embarrassment I didn’t do a spell for a while until I had gained a bit more knowledge.”
These witches’ anecdotes suggest that magic works, but we don’t have to just take their word for it. Twentieth-century science provides evidence that magic is possible through a natural part of our reality, albeit an invisible one. Physicists studying the theory of quantum electrodynamics have shown that all atoms constantly send out streams of subatomic particles, which mingle with the streams of subatomic particles from other atoms, so that all matter is continually interacting with other matter and with magnetic and electrical fields. In other words, the universe is one vast web of interconnecting atoms, each affecting and being affected by the others. Wiccans say they can direct their own energy to bend that stream of ever-changing reality to their will, weaving their spells into the web of the universe.
Quantum physics provides “a scientific explanation for that which many of us have intuited over centuries,” says Marilyn R. Pukkila, who teaches a course on Wicca at Colby College in Maine. “Magic is developing a consciousness of that connectedness and then using that consciousness in a conscious way. The goal is to work with energy, to bend or shape it in some fashion.” In fact, the word Wicca is also thought to come from wicce, meaning “to bend.”
“The herbs, candles, incense, and other tools may themselves contribute to the effect by the quality of the energies they are releasing, but it’s up to the practitioner to focus the energies and direct them, being very, very clear about the desired outcomes,” Pukkila emphasizes. “‘If it harm none, do what ye will’ doesn’t just mean ‘Do whatever you like as long as you don’t hurt anyone.’ One’s will must be engaged for any effect to be achieved.”
Other witches agree that willpower is an essential ingredient in magic. Galadrielle says she put her “heart and soul” into her successful mortgage-loan spell, while LunaKala made the mistake of being too relaxed with her job-interview spell. Silver RavenWolf says magic is not hocus pocus, but rather “it’s hocus focus.” Witches might be better than most people at maintaining focus, as they spend years learning meditation skills so they can clearly visualize their desired outcomes.
In addition to using their own will, witches tie into the power of a greater will — the Divine Will — by calling on the God(dess) or other spirits. “Magic is ritualized prayer,” RavenWolf says, “and prayer contains more magic than you can possibly imagine.”
So does magic work because of individual mental powers — will — or does it work because of divine intervention?
“No amount of magic can actually manifest change in a lasting or meaningful manner without a loving connection to the sacred,” Wiccan author Phyllis Curott writes in Book of Shadows. “This is the secret of true, spiritual magic. The focusing of one’s mind and the directing of one’s will are essential, but ultimately, the truly magical ingredients are you and your connection to the Divine.”
“God is like a giant, glittering diamond; each facet on that diamond is the belief system of a positive religion,” RavenWolf says. And, as all witches know, there’s magic in believing.
Witchcraft on the Rise
Witchcraft has been practiced in some form since the earliest humans developed the capacity to wonder about the world around them and use symbols to try to control it. Some anthropologists think the cave paintings at Lascaux, and other places were created tens of thousands of years ago as magical symbols to influence a successful hunt. Over the millennia, witchcraft evolved into something resembling its present form, with practitioners making use of astrology, herbs, and stones to bend reality to their will.
Trouble for the Craft started in a.d. 392, when Roman Emperor Theodosius I outlawed all forms of worship that were not Christian or Jewish. When the Roman Empire fell, the Roman Catholic Church became the major unifying force in Europe. The Church considered witches and other pagans dangerous to its authority, and it took action to wipe out the heretics. Its Inquisitions resulted in the hanging, stoning, and burning of vast numbers of suspected witches; estimates of the death toll range from 300,000 to 2 million. Despite the persecution, families of witches secretly handed down their traditions to younger generations.
The Age of Reason gradually brought an end to the anti-witch hysteria. The last documented witch burning occurred in Scotland in 1722. In 1736, Britain decreed that witchcraft, though still a crime, would no longer be punishable by death. It wasn’t until 1952, however, that Britain finally took its last anti-witchcraft laws off the books. That opened the door for British witches to come out of the closet at last.
Gerald Gardner, a British civil servant, is credited by some with starting the modern Wiccan movement. In 1954 he published Witchcraft Today, which described the traditions into which he’d been initiated. Inspired by his openness, other witches published books detailing their own traditions and attracting followers.
During the 1960s and 1970s, the rise of the feminist and environmental movements — and anti-authoritarian attitudes that encouraged personal responsibility — contributed to the increased popularity of witchcraft and paganism. “When I was growing up as a Christian I couldn’t understand why people insisted God was male — I always figured there had to be a female aspect to deity,” says LunaKala. “I researched other major religions but most were so rigid and few valued females.”
“Mainstream religion is pretty much all about male dominance, and to me everything needs a balance, kind of a yin and yang,” agrees Lady Crystall. Adds Jane Raeburn: “In Wicca men and women are truly equal. Women are encouraged to perform priestly roles, and at least half the divinities worshiped are female.”
Not all feminists are women, and neither are all witches. Joshua ben David, 45, works in a chemical plant and spent 10 years in the Coast Guard with Wicca listed as his religion in his personnel file. “I am personally dedicated to the Goddess in all her forms, by all her names,” he says. “I honor the horned God, but I am her creature, as I have been for many lifetimes.”
Acadia Elle learned Wicca from her brother, who studied it in college in the 1970s. “It was appealing in that it was eclectic; there was no doctrine or dogma you were expected to unfalteringly believe. You were encouraged to think for yourself rather than unquestioningly accept what others tell you,” she says.
The culture’s growing environmental awareness has brought as many people to Wicca as feminism has. “I always knew there was something different about me inside. When I was little, my solace was a big tree in our yard. I would sit down with my back against it, and I would be calmed by the energy that would fill my body,” says Galadrielle. Lady Crystall describes her connection to nature more prosaically: “I got involved in Wicca about eight years ago, but I already had been recycling and talking to trees, et cetera.”
Perhaps it’s ironic that witchcraft —the most ancient, nature-loving religion — has exploded in popularity in the 1990s thanks to a high-tech modern invention: the home computer. Centuries of persecution had left a lingering fear that kept witches hidden and practicing in secret, keeping witchcraft “occult” in the most literal sense of the word. But with the advent of the Internet, would-be witches have ready access to information, and practicing witches can connect with others while withholding their names and addresses. Many witches say they first learned about the Craft via the Web. As they gain strength in their identity, the stigma once attached to witchcraft is lessening.
Since so many witches practice as solitaries, it’s impossible to know how many adherents the religion numbers, but by all accounts its popularity is exploding. One study estimates that the number had grown from 50,000 in the 1980s to anywhere from 83,000 to 333,000 in the early 1990s. “I’ve seen this rapid growth first-hand,” says RavenWolf, who lectures on Wicca nationwide. “People are entering the Craft from all races, all ages, and all economic backgrounds.”
Arwen Evenstar, who runs a Gnostic Pagan grove, agrees. She says thousands of people are entering the Craft due to “feminist spirituality, love of nature, or just plain not feeling ‘at home’ in a mainstream religion. But then we may be becoming mainstream ourselves.”
Witches believe the resurgence of their culture can only have good effects. “If you believe, as witches do, that every person is a Divine Embodiment and all acts of love are sacred rituals, then you will actively support civil rights for any minorities of race, religion, class, gender, or sexual preference,” says Pukkila. “If you believe that the Earth is sacred, recycling is not just a civic duty, it is a spiritual obligation.”
Witches, after all, bring an important message: The Earth is our mother, and she deserves our respect and protection. And since everything in the world is a part of our Divine selves, we can use our innate “magical” powers to change it for the better.
Deviled Eggs and Garlic Bulbs
Back at the pagan church in Maine, we return to the house, and feasting begins. “Pagans do a lot of eating,” Lawrence says jovially, as everyone digs into the potluck spread of soup, homemade bread, muffins, cheese, and taco chips and salsa. There are also herbal teas and small glasses of sweet, potent mead, as well as some tasty deviled eggs — no pun intended, for as Lawrence says, “Pagans don’t believe in the devil. It’s not a part of our philosophy; the devil is a Judeo-Christian concept.”
One of the group members, an organic farmer, passes out Imbolc gifts he grew himself. Everyone receives a pot of ivy (“a sacred plant in ancient times,” he says), tomato seeds, and a garlic bulb to either plant or eat. “I may be a witch, but I’m certainly not a vampire,” one woman laughs as she appreciatively sniffs the garlic.
The conversation is more interesting than the usual cocktail-party banter. The friends relate first-hand accounts of strange coincidences and psychic experiences, obviously at ease in a group where intuitive abilities and religious beliefs don’t have to be kept secret.
Amid laughter, one witch laments the reaction of an office co-worker who recently found out that the person is a witch: “Oh, you’re a witch? Do you know how to cure this rash I have?”
The response: “Sure. See a doctor.”
Janet Brennan is a frequent FATE contributor on the subjects of Celtic mythology, archaeoastronomy, and mystic places.