Kaitlain Creed holds up a bowl and calls the Goddess to
bless its contents.
She slowly makes her way around the circle, anointing
each celebrant's forehead with oil, tracing the pattern of a pentagram.
The 23 novice witches gathered in this small New York City garden to celebrate
the Autumn Equinox range in age from early 20s to late 50s. They are teachers,
paralegals, writers and computer programmers.
In the distance a motorcycle screeches, and a plane roars
overhead. A group of singers rehearses an off-Broadway show. But here the
witches are "between the worlds."
"This is like Wicca 101," says Creed, the "head
witch" at the ceremony.
"Wicca" is the religion of witchcraft. Most
practitioners worship a goddess and god, which they believe are manifest
in all things. They celebrate the changing of the seasons and believe the
earth is a sacred place.
In fact, let's set the record straight:
are not Satan worshippers. They don't subscribe to Christian deities or
say they do cast spells. But they're very similar to prayer. Witches cast
a spell to get rid of a migraine or successfully complete a pesky project
at work. It's not quite Samantha crinkling her nose to conjure up a pot
roast for Darrin.
have their own version of the Golden Rule -- they call it "the threefold
law." It holds that any spell a witch casts comes back to her three
times over. So if a witch sent a nasty case of boils to her neighbor, she
better stock up on some boil balm herself.
30% to 40% of witches are men. They prefer the term "witch" over
"warlock" -- a derogatory term meaning "oathbreaker."
witches worship naked -- they call it "skyclad." But because
the ritual today is public, celebrants wear jeans, T-shirts, skirts and
is no cauldron on the premises today. The only broom is of the mundane
variety and it's shoved in the closet with the vacuum cleaner. A black
cat prowls the grounds, but he seems more interested in catching a pigeon
than transforming into a familiar.
course of the ceremony, there is no cackling. No thunder slices the air.
No one is sacrificed. No one levitates.
Believe it or not, ceremonies take place in backyards
and living rooms across the country. While no one knows exactly how many
witches practice in the US, estimates range from 50,000 to as many as 200,000.
There has never been an official witch survey and even
if there were, many witches probably wouldn't respond. They fear being
fired, risking their reputations, even losing custody of their children.
Wiccans, the people who do openly practice witchcraft, joke that those
witches are "in the broom closet."
Real-life witches are in an ongoing battle to take back
the "W" word. Many of them say they still identify with "the
burning times," the era of persecution dating back to the Inquisition,
including the events at Salem.
While some men did suffer during that period, the victims
were primarily women. The authorities feared anyone with access to power
outside official channels, including women abortionists and healers. Other
women were persecuted simply because they were especially ugly or beautiful.
(Seems you can't win either way.)
Despite or perhaps because of this loaded history, something
about witches captures our imagination and fuels our creativity. The witch
ideal seems especially tantalizing to women. Traditionally, "witch"
is a term reserved for women. In olden times, "witch" referred
to healers or wise women. Now it's a derogatory term for strong-willed,
commandeering and independent women.
But in either context, the word retains a ring of power.
It is a desultory insult spoken out of fear or a rubric for special powers
not easily conquered or understood. In both instances, femininity is not
an obstacle to that power, but a channel for it.
Each witch is her own priestess and is responsible for
her own magic. Therein lies the real beauty of witchcraft -- it's an inherent
world view in which the magic we imagined as children does exist and the
power to access it is within each of us.
As the evening draws to a close, the witches-in-training
bid farewell to the spirits and break for pretzels and punch. Looking over
her class blithely munching on snacks and joking about the latest Ikea
commercial, the high priestess Creed looks at me and shrugs apologetically.
"When you take away the human sacrifice and the
thunder and lightening that everyone thinks is involved," she says,
"we're just as boring as Episcopalians."
Well, not quite.