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Wicca (a word that has many possible origins—one is the Old English root wic, meaning "to turn, twist, or shape")—is a religious practice based in part on the remnants of an archaic nature religion of Britain: paganism. The word pagan has Latin roots and once meant "country dweller," but now refers to a group of people who follow an Earth-based belief system. Pagans, or neopagans, worship a goddess and a god. A large number of witches are pagans, though not all pagans are witches.
Despite its mysterious image as both satanic and chic, Wicca is a bona fide spiritual practice. It is not satanic. Its negative reputation stems from attitudes developed during the Inquisition in medieval Europe, when many thousands of women were tortured for practicing midwifery, herbology, and other pagan healing practices. Wicca today attracts people who feel more comfortable with either a duotheistic or female concept of divinity than with a traditional male God. Many women who embrace Wicca focus solely on the Goddess, while more traditional witches embrace both male and female aspects of divinity. Witches either work alone or gather in covens to perform or create rituals, practice divination (methods of looking into the future), and spell-casting to bring about changes in their own lives. Witches recognize the divine forces of the universe within themselves and within all of creation. They often are extremely private about their practice.
Even before I began this quest, the thought of witches instantly brought Halloween to mind. Oh sure, there was the powerfully ugly villainness in The Wizard of Oz, who proved that witches could do very bad things any time of the year. And Samantha and Sabrina, the housewife and teenager with their own TV shows, demonstrated that witches could walk through daily life as domestic partners and high school nerds. But my impression of a witch as a real woman, one who secretly possessed powers to communicate with supernatural forces and invoke the dead, arose from Halloween and its lore. Tradition said Halloween was the day witches came out of their homes, flew on their broomsticks, and cackled in the night. Somewhere along the way I learned that witches could blend with the forces of nature on All Hallow's Eve (Hallow means "Holy" or "Saintly" in Old English; the day originally honored the dead). Witches were mysterious, wise, and dangerous. In stories like "Hansel and Gretel" and even Macbeth, witches lived alone in the woods awaiting foolish children or predicting the future of human affairs. Although the only witches I ever saw were trick-or-treaters dressed in pointy black hats and wearing too much of their mothers' makeup, I still believed another secret truth that was not fully represented in the spooky folklore that bound witches and Halloween together.
While it remains one of the few "holidays" in our culture that isn't well known for its religious significance, Halloween seemed to the carry the weight of some kind of commemoration to me. But then, I had a closer affiliation with Halloween than the average person: October 31 was supposed to be my birthday. When I arrived two days later—a foreshadowing of the late sleeper I was to become—my Irish-Catholic grandmother insisted my in-utero self was waiting to be born on November 2, All Souls' Day. All Souls' Day is the Catholic feast day that remembers the un-saintly, the imperfect, the everyday people of the past as they move from this world into the beyond. Grandma's reverence for the day had little to do with my birthday experience of it, which over the years grew to resemble New Year's Eve. I didn't know that the trilogy—Halloween, All Saints' Day, and All Souls' Day—did mark a New Year according to the beliefs of Wicca. We didn't learn that in Catholic school. And my grandmother, though she probably knew, kept quiet about it.
To Catholics, All Souls' Day is a solemn feast day. As a young Catholic, I thought this yearly memory of souls was the most decent day on the Catholic calendar and was more inclusive than other holy days. It reached out to more people than the Feast of the Immaculate Conception or even Christmas. All Souls' Day called to all persons beyond Jesus, Mary, or any of the saints, and extended respect to non-Catholics as well. All Souls' Day was a chance to remember all dead people and hope for their peace in the afterlife.
In a high school history class, I learned that November 2 is known as the Day of the Dead in Mexico, where it is widely celebrated. People flock to cemeteries with food and wine. They meet their living relatives around the graves of dead ones. Some towns have parades, and people make and sell tiny skeletons, whittled of wood and molded of clay, or baked skull cakes and miniature candied corpses in assorted celebratory poses: smiling, lavishly dressed, playing the guitar. When I asked the nun about this day's origin, she said it was a leftover pagan tradition from before Mexico became Catholic. She spoke with a tone of disgust as the word pagan slithered through her teeth. Needless to say, I felt included in her disgust. Without even doing anything, I shared a bond with paganism by birth.
Religion had very little influence on my life once I realized the choice was mine to make. Yet every November 2, strangely, I felt an internal pull toward the calm atmosphere of the cemetery. It was as if All Souls' Day acknowledged a commemoration of—maybe even a belief in—a spirit world I could make my own.
In autumn 1996 I decided to revisit the nun's word of disgust—pagan—on my own. A few days before Halloween, I bumbled into a magic shop in the East Village of New York City. Friends who went there to buy gothic-looking candlesticks and other housewares that would look fashionable on a mantle had told me about it. They'd mentioned it was a store and center for "pagans," so of course I walked through the store and checked out the folks inside, thinking I might find myself among my own. When a thin, serious-faced man asked if he could help me, I asked him for the book that would best explain the pagan holiday the Day of the Dead. He immediately pulled what looked like a paperback encyclopedia off the shelf. It was entitled Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Religious Pagans in America Today and proudly displayed an eerie photograph on the cover: a beach at night lit with a circle of red candles and a silhouette of a woman, her hands raised to the sky, dancing in and out of the flames. I bought it.
For the next three days I read through the 580 pages. In the index I looked first for Day of the Dead, then All Souls' Day, but neither was listed. Finally, I settled for Halloween. It said, "One of the greater Sabbats." (What was a Sabbat, I wondered?) "Samhain (Halloween ...); the Celtic New Year, the day when the walls between the worlds were said to be thinnest and when contact with one's ancestors took place." Ancestors? Lots of information about Halloween speckled the book's pages, but I didn't find any references to Mexico or the Day of the Dead. It didn't matter, though. That Halloween acknowledged "the walls between the worlds"—even celebrated the "other world" and dead ancestors—was enough of a discovery. Proof of an historical link changed my concept of the folklore I'd been carrying around. How much of the Halloween and witchcraft folklore I'd learned was actually fact? I wondered what it would feel like to go to a Wiccan celebration of Samhain instead of a typical Holloween party in the East Village. Curiosity empowered me to pick up the phone and call the magic shop.
"Any special celebrations for Samhain?" I asked, slinging my new vocabulary with confidence.
"You mean Sow-an?" came a humored woman's voice on the other end.
"Um, yes," I said, mentally acknowledging her pronunciation.
"Well, the Witches' Ball was last night. Too bad you missed it, it was awesome. Everyone is hung over."
My heart fell. I'd missed it.
"But come down tonight," the voice continued. "There's a Minoan Circle at six o'clock. Bring some kind of food or drink to share. And dress warm." She hung up. I had no idea what Minoan meant. Checking my new book, I found no definition. Still, I had an invitation, and I couldn't see turning it down just because of my ignorance.
I stopped at the Farmers' Market at Union Square to find food or drink that I could share with the other Minoans. Most of the vendors had closed down, but the apple carts were still open. I grabbed a bag and paid a lean, gray-haired man wearing a flannel shirt who pranced unself-consciously in a giant, distorted, handmade mask. He pocketed the dollar and I watched him continue to bounce. This country-dweller's exuberance caused me to wonder what modern-day pagans did to celebrate. It's possible, I thought, that the event I was about to attend might try to make me prance like this vendor. I hurried away, dismissing the thought, wanting to keep an open mind.
I entered the magic shop and the powerful smells of incense greeted me, though I couldn't identify any one scent. This time I looked closely at everything I'd ignored on my first visit. The shop appeared to be one of those "cool" stores, where a whole fashionable scene took place separately from the business. A steady, roving crowd of visitors and salespeople evoked the mood of a private club. Canisters full of herbs stacked on the far wall, a glass display case showing tools and symbols, and bookshelves stocked with esoteric reading held mysterious secrets and invited intimate browsing.
I had fifteen minutes to browse through the wares: male and female body-shaped candles in assorted colors, little sacks labeled "gris-gris bags," mortars and pestles, incense burners, and sticks of dried sage. The canisters on the wall were filled with earth-toned powders and labeled with names like "Mugwort" and "Dragon Powder." In the display case were neatly arranged shiny sterling silver daggers, pentagrams, and chalices. Two entire walls were stocked floor to ceiling with books. The extensive collection had odd spellings of subjects I recognized but now felt mystified by: Faeries, Magick, Vodou. They had entire sections on Trance, Shamanism, Goddess cultures in Crete and Malta, the Minoans, the Greek Goddesses, the difference between white magic and black magic. From one of these books I learned that the Minoans were members of an ancient culture who worshiped the Goddess on the Greek island of Crete, but I couldn't help but feel slightly daunted at how much I didn't know. Concern for my own wellbeing ticked like a bomb in my head.
Did I really know what I was getting into? Like girls who hitchhike out of a sense of adventure, would I know harm if it pulled over in a pickup and patted the seat, inviting me to jump in and sit? These were real witches. But what did real mean? Witches, the stereotype goes, were mysteriously powerful women connected to dark truths, who could raise the dead and communicate their request for power. They could fly, too, I remembered. What was I looking for anyway—a group to show me how to talk to the dead? Power? How much control I would have over that experience, even if I found it, was unclear.
* * *
Particularly threatening, as I scanned books with such titles as The White Goddess and The Book of Black Magic and Ceremonial Magic, was the line between white and black magic. I had no idea where that line lay, or even if there was one. Any kind of black magic I'd ever heard about was safely couched in a movie plot. But looking around the shop now, smelling the powerful incense, I reconsidered evil's existence. Was it possible that people walk around practicing evil in the name of witchcraft? The idea was almost laughable. Did witchcraft like this—organized, urbane, hip, available for purchase—affect anything in the world beside a small, believing community? I was poised to find out, but I started to rethink my being there at all.
Before I had a chance to back out, a stocky man with wild hair and horn-rimmed glasses pointed to my apples and asked if I was there for the Minoan Circle. I nodded, and he returned the nod with a strange air of respect. He walked me to what looked like an infrequently used back door, which led out to a garden. "There you are" he said stopping at the door, motioning with his hand. I walked outside. The sun had gone down and the air had gotten cold.
The garden was small and dingy, with a few stunted New York City trees, some shrubbery, empty flowerbeds, and dirt where grass may have otherwise grown. Still, it was a garden. A high fence, behind which stood blank walls of apartment buildings guaranteeing seclusion, closed it in. Three young women greeted me. I told them my name.
"Are you here for the Minoan Circle?" one of them asked as she pulled down her jeans and casually stepped out of them. Standing in her underwear, she reached behind her to where a charcoal gray robe hung on the fence.
"Uh-huh," I said, trying to hide my surprise.
"Don't mind me," she said, now arranging her necklace to sit straight before pulling the robe over her head. "I'm changing for ritual."
I showed her that I'd brought some apples, and she told me to put them on the altar, pointing to a circle of chairs surrounding a little table. It had other things on it—a funky goblet, a bottle of wine, a tin incense burner, a handful of votive candles, and a blunt, harmless-looking dagger. The display had dignity, legitimizing the power of each object. At the same time, the arrangement of objects was modest compared to any other religious altar I could recall. It was not even remotely sacrificial, though I still feared what was to come.
Next to the altar a shallow pit surrounded by rocks awaited a fire. Circling the altar and firepit were white plastic chairs. The ceremonial set-up—its dependence on the outdoors, the attendees, and the objects they brought—obviously followed a different charter than the one with which I was familiar. Partially I was reminded of little girls setting up a tea party, the honor and care for the event becoming more apparent now than it ever had been when I was five. Still, I felt out of place. "Need help with the fire?" I asked two short-haired, husky women breaking up sticks and crumpling newspaper, laying it carefully into the pit.
"No," said the one with the dark hair.
"Are a lot of people coming?" I asked, figuring she was just shy with new Minoans.
"A decent amount," she answered curtly. We three sat there in silence. Why weren't they talking and why wouldn't they let me help? Maybe they knew I didn't belong. The blonde left to get coffee, leaving just the two of us. I was fidgety.
"Will there be any men coming?" I tried again, speaking louder, leaning forward, hoping she'd address me more directly. The dark-haired woman stopped what she was doing and looked up at me for the first time.
"No men. It's a Minoan Circle. All women," she said.
"Oh," I said.
A trickle of women, long-haired, wide-smiling, brimming with enthusiasm, poked their heads into the garden one by one. An atmosphere of excitement grew with every passing moment, relieving me of my awkward self-consciousness. The fire finally sparked and the fire-builder stood up proudly, wandered to the corner, and picked up a drum. I looked back at the gate. Women were arriving in droves now, laughing and hugging each other. Now that the garden was lit by the blazing fire, I saw that all the women wore ceremonial cloaks of dark purple, charcoal grey, and black, resembling priestly adornment for an occasion of great importance. These were women well versed in witchcraft, ready to take part in a ceremony that could, for all I knew, last all night.
It only hit me then, as the mood in the garden escalated, that what was about to occur was a formal holy day service. Perhaps this was the Celtic New Year celebration itself. What was I doing here? I didn't know. Wishing I'd been better prepared, I stood up abruptly, hoping to make my getaway discreetly. I figured I'd slip out before the drums got any louder, and I told myself that I'd return for a more amateur event. I was too late. Before I could take a single step toward the door, a powerful looking woman in a black robe strode quickly into the garden. The gate door closed behind her. Through the window, one of the shopkeepers waved out to us in the garden, visibly sliding the bolt into the lock. The night was about to begin.
I took my seat next to a beautiful Peruvian woman, and we introduced ourselves. Her name was Sunshine Eagle. We sat quietly together in front of the fire, which was in full blaze and crackling in the autumn air. Sunshine Eagle pulled out a foot-long stick of hand-wrapped sage, lit it, and waved it around in slow, circular motions. Smiling easily, she watched the others in the garden. Her calm presence allayed my nervousness about spending the evening with witches.
A middle-aged woman with curly gray locks had brought sparkling shellac to spray in everyone's hair. She waved it in the air until a few interested parties lined up. The two short-haired women who built the fire rolled their eyes and continued playing the drums they held between their knees. I sat doing nothing.
Walking across the garden, a woman wearing large plastic-framed glasses carried a long, wide wooden box full of straw and dried corn into the corner. She asked others who were chattering and rolling cigarettes to help decorate. "Let's get this place looking festive, for Goddess' sake!" she yelled. Someone started carving jack-o'-lanterns, another started throwing them around, shrieking things like, "Oooooooohhh, isn't it scary!" An elegant looking blond woman began dancing, gyrating, to the drums beside the fire. Everyone seemed to be doing something but me. I was relieved at their respect for my privacy, and watched silently as this collection of women in robes transformed into a pack of wild girls.
The drums stopped abruptly and the garden simmered down when the High Priestess stood. Her hair was sandy and thin, and it rested on her broad shoulders easily. She was not tall but walked with tremendous confidence. When she spoke, she used normal, everyday sentences. She was probably about thirty, and appeared very comfortable in her role.
"Welcome everyone, to this Minoan Circle. In the tradition of our Greek sisters we'll be honoring the feminine divine—all aspects of the Goddess—in this Samhain ritual." She explained the significance of Samhain. We were celebrating the end of the season, the passing of autumn into winter, the beginning of a new cycle of life, which always begins with death, dormancy, and the long sleep of the earth. Tonight was an evening to connect with the dead and embrace death into our lives. Her description of the earth's life cycle—and the inevitable process of death—made sense to me. I listened. Her presence was a far cry from a priest standing on a pulpit. I was as far as I could get from Sunday Mass, yet I felt equally, if not more, attuned to worship.
It was time to open the circle, she said. Could the four officers step forward to call the four directions? Four women stepped forward grandly, and in turn shouted to the sky words for the north, the south, the east, and the west. Each direction had its own characteristic, I learned upon hearing the sky-bound messages. North called to darkness, south called to warmth, east called to brightness, and west called to the underworld. The characteristics were metaphors; none was good or bad, more or less powerful. According to the rules of the circle, all forces of nature were equal and necessary in their influence on our lives. They were forces that balanced the universe.
Drums began to pound again. A strange sound shook me, and I glanced around the garden. Every woman had begun to chant, loudly.
Dark mother scream, dark father howl, listen to your children at this sacred hour.
Dark mother? Dark father? Were these satanic parents we beckoned? Everyone else seemed comfortable, and there was nothing evil about chanting in general. Yet, in a bad movie this situation—women in cloaks in a garden at night raising their voices to dark mothers and fathers—would signal an approaching presence of malevolence: the opening of a giant black pit out of which poured flames, foul-smelling vapors, and Christopher Walken. Racking my brain for a more settling and realistic explanation, I recalled a portion of Drawing Down the Moon that talked about Carl Jung's theory of archetypes. He said that archetypes were sources of energy rooted in the human psyche. He proposed that mythological gods and goddesses of all ancient cultures—Egypt, Africa, Asia—may have been based on these ancient, nameless energy sources. Farfetched? A little, but it was all I had to get me through the moment without passing out from anxiety. Dark mother, dark father. I didn't know how far Jung's theory went, but I ran with it. I thought of these dark parents as energy sources. We were calling to the unconscious, hidden side of ourselves that, once tapped into, would reveal new truths. This was a chant asking those forces within us to sit up and listen.
Not wanting to wear the mark of the uninitiated, I joined in. We chanted loudly, and began to clap. Some women could not stay seated and leapt up to again decorate the garden, hanging gourds, bunches of straw, dried corn, tossing clusters of leaves and small pumpkins to each other while the chanting continued. I remained seated, remembering myself as a kid in church acting with minimal awareness, sitting, standing, and kneeling along with everyone else while tuning out the liturgy. Such detached behavior was not possible here. Energy was moving around, in and out of people, at all times. It was an emotionally and mentally engaging experience. I was tired after about ten minutes.
But that was just the beginning. The priestess stopped the chanting and started it again, with different words. We took hands, and began moving in a figure eight. The priestess had mentioned that the two sides of the eight represented two interconnected circles, one for the living, the other for the dead. We were symbolically walking from one world to the next. Passing the straight-faced hooded woman representing the underworld, who stood immobile holding a candle on the intersecting points of life and death, I feared for my safety and thought of all the dead people I ever knew. They were mostly elderly aunts and uncles and a grandfather, all of whom had lived long, happy lives. Fortunately, I presumed, they had passed on to a peaceful place. Then I remembered an acquaintance who had been accidentally murdered in a drug disagreement. His name was Tom. I pictured him as he was at every party, dressed in a trademark black raincoat that waved like a cape. He had always arrived on a skateboard. I shivered. There was a chance his spirit was unsettled. Though he was a great guy, I couldn't think of a better reason for a dead person to hold a grudge than being murdered at the age of twenty.
I wondered if my thinking about Tom during this ceremony would call him up. If so, would it be a breach of some kind of larger divine law? Would he be angry? What if he just appeared, either as a ghost or as a crackle in the fire or as a spirit that manifests in the body of one of these women? I'd seen that before—in the movies. What would I do if anything happened? If nothing happened? I told myself these fears were ridiculous, but didn't fully believe it. I actually felt quite threatened throughout this ritual, though nothing happened besides my brainwork.
The priestess asked us to form a straight line on the outside of the life circle. This was the ritual that would initiate us into the New Year.
"What happens?" I whispered to the skinny, middle-aged woman next to me.
"You give her your new name," she said quickly, not wanting to miss a verse of the song. I looked at her with confusion. She kept singing.
"I don't have a new name," I said a little louder, over the chanting.
"You can use your old one," she said, "as long as you want to bring it with you into the New Year. You'll be anointed as whoever you want."
One by one the women before me took the hand of the high priestess, walked under the veil that hung from the center tree, exchanged words I could not hear, and then moved on to where the west woman stood again, the area of the garden designated as the Underworld. I was growing tired. Things were getting intense, and I didn't know what the hell to say once it was just me and the priestess talking under the tree. What name would I give? I only had one. Confrontation with the priests—the representative of a supreme force was freaking me out. It seemed like a pledge, a commitment to witchcraft. What would I say?
The High Priestess approached me and took my hand, led me under the tree. She said a long, ancient-sounding verse that made me feel like a knowing participant. A phrase that obligated me to be responsible.
"Do you of your own free will choose to be seen as a daughter of the Goddess, and swear to serve her for a year and a day?" she asked me.
"Yes, I said.
She dipped her finger in a small bottle of oil, frankincense I think, and drew a star on my forehead. "State your name," she asked, her finger still on my forehead.
"Suzanne," I said, and smiled.
She looked at me blankly. After a moment she said, "No, I mean your circle name."
"My circle name?"
"The one you pick for yourself, for the New Year," she prompted, holding back a smile.
"Star," I said quickly, remembering the shape she drew on my forehead. She was satisfied, even a little relieved.
"Star," she affirmed, and reanointed my forehead with oil. "Pass under the veil, Star, under the gaze of the Earth Mother, and enter the Underworld."
She let go of my hand and I proceeded to the Underworld with my new name.
After that there was a dramatic shift in focus, as the women individually turned inward. No one was shrieking, clapping, or acting out any more. Individual witchiness was over. The women united with each other and with the garden, and the garden became a womb. Each witch became introverted and meditative, shut her eyes, trusting that the space and the previous ceremony would hold her like an amniotic sac. All at the same time, we entered our own personal trances,
I had little on which to meditate, I found. To be in both a group trance and an individual trance is not a usual experience. There was no reflex that kicked in and helped me remember what to do, like riding a bike or treading water. An analogous experience might be the experience of being at a rock concert or an event like the Lilith Fair. A big stadium show that demands high levels of audience participation, in which the individual surrenders to the intent of the crowd. I felt the intimacy and joy that comes with being part of a group of unrelated people all doing the same thing. No longer did I feel like an outsider, but rather like a spoke of a wheel, a wheel of a machine, a star in the sky, a part of the whole. It felt sacred—the sisterhood, the commonality that we were all here, creating a bond over the death of all things past. I felt an amazing connection to these people I did not know.
Though they were still in trance, most of the women had gathered around the central fire, I noticed suddenly, and were staring at it intently. All was quiet, and my gaze was captured by the blaze as well. Some women sat in chairs, others sat on the ground. Each had lit a votive candle, so I lit my own. It was the moment to feel my connection to the persons in my life who had died.
Desire to feel the live presence of a dead person had brought me here. I thought of my grandfather first, but hesitated when his memory became rich and real. I looked around. Every woman in the garden had become deeply embroiled in her own emotions. Some bent over and held their heads in their hands. The two fire-building women weren't next to each other anymore but in their own worlds. The dark-haired one was bent on one knee toward the fire, the blonde stared straight into the flames as if she were watching a movie. I heard a wail and looked back to see the underwear woman shuddering; a few others had broken their trances to hold her while she cried. It was cathartic knowing that I had found a place where, if I wanted to, I could freak out about death—grieve for those lost, even contact them—and people around me would know what to do. But I didn't want to. I wasn't ready. That one moment of my grandfather's memory felt like a warning. I didn't know what kind of emotion would flood into the garden if I opened up.
Three hours after we opened the circle, we finally closed it. I felt like I had traveled across the country to a secret mountain society for the night. I joined my fellow coveners at the food table. Eating the home-cooked dishes, I was about to ask someone more about the year and a day service to the Goddess when a fierce pounding on the back door to the garden made everyone look up.
"That's it," the woman who had bolted the door shouted in an exasperated tone. "The cops called. We're scaring people ... with the fire, the chanting." She broke into a laugh. "Leave it to New Yorkers to complain." Everyone mockingly agreed. I wondered for a moment if we really were scaring people, or if neighbors just wanted to get to bed on a Monday night. I could not quite believe that our behavior actually scared anyone. Drums, chants, candles, and fire. It was all so harmless. Then again, I remembered that I had been terrified three hours ago.
Feasting cut short, we cleaned up quickly and quietly and headed out of the garden, out of the group. Everyone split off and walked in various directions down the street, back into their ordinary lives in Manhattan. No one specifically asked me to come back. They just waved good-bye with a slightly more personal nod and said, "See you at Yule."
|Finding God: Foreword by Rebecca Walker||ix|
|ONE Weekend Wicca||17|
|TWO The Shamans of Suburbia||47|
|THREE Reformed Yogaphobic||77|
|FOUR The Veil of Vodou||103|
|FIVE Sufi Living||133|
|SIX Shambhala: The Battle of Sitting Still||165|
|SEVEN The Act of Surrender||195|