Read an Excerpt
Memoirs of a Spiritual Outsider
By Suzanne Clores
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2000 Suzanne Clores
All rights reserved.
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 Dawn 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 Soiv-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 well-being 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 shorthaired, 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.
Excerpted from Memoirs of a Spiritual Outsider by Suzanne Clores. Copyright © 2000 Suzanne Clores. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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