WITCH PEOPLE by Bill Norton / Star Magazine - copyright 1989, Kansas City Star Company. De

---
Master Index Current Directory Index Go to SkepticTank Go to Human Rights activist Keith Henson Go to Scientology cult

Skeptic Tank!

WITCH PEOPLE by Bill Norton / Star Magazine - copyright 1989, Kansas City Star Company. Dec 17, 1989. Witches they don't ride broom sticks, they don't worship the devil and they don't show up just at Halloween. What do they do? You know all of those things you've know for years about Witches? They're Wrong. One morning in mid-October, Sue Westwind was doing her morning tarot reading in her Lawrence apartment when she turned over the 10 of Wands. Staring back at her was the grim face of Jason - Argonaut, adven- turer, friend of Hercules, lover of Medea, savior of the Golden Fleece. But this tarot-card Jason, peeking between some stakes, looked trapped. And the stakes were on fire, Westwind identified, She was burning out on being a public witch. In just one year, she'd taken on public television's Mister Roger for telling children witches didn't exist. Westwind wrote back for the Witches League for Public Awareness saying there may be between 100,000 and 2 million witches in the U.S. and around the world. She even wrote a tart note to comedian/ actor Dan Akroyd for say- ing he'd recruited witches to hex "Wired," the unflattering movie about the drug and drink excesses of his late sidekick, John Belushi. Witches, she wrote, don't do negative magic. But her biggest effort had been aimed at countering Geraldo Rivera's sensationalized October 1988 TV special purporting to expose devil worship. Today's witches are practitioners of a religion; they call it Wicca. Here is how writer and National Public Radio reporter Margot Adler described her faith in her acclaimed book,Drawing Down the Moon: "Followers of Wicca seek their inspiration in pre-Christian sources, European shamanistic nature religion that worships a goddess who is related to the ancient Mother Goddess in her three aspects of Maiden. Mother, and Crone. Many Craft traditions also worship a god, re- lated to the ancient horned lord of animals, the god of the hunt, the god of death and the lord of the forests." But largely Christian societies have linked Witchcraft to devil worship form as far back as the Fourth Century. The 20th Century is on different, In 1988 at the University of Kansas, a traveling evangelist preached two long sermons in which lumped Dungeons and dragons, heavy metal music, Ozzy Osbourne, the Television show "I Dream of Jeanie," various mass murderers and the entire leadership of Adolph Hitler's Third Reich together as devil worship. Then he repeatedly used that term interchangeably with Witchcraft. It wasn't surprising, then, that Rivera's primetime tabloid-style report titled: "Devil Worship: Exposing Satan's Underground," left a residue of confusion. Rivera had come to Kansas City to examine the grisly murders committed by shopkeeper Bob Berdella and erroneously linked the killing to devil worship. Almost immediately the owner of the Magick Lantern, a New Age Bookstore in Kansas City, began receiving phone calls. "We're going to get you satanists!" "God does not want your bookstore here!" It didn't seem to matter the caller that among the 1,200 titles in the store, there was exactly one book on Satanism; the rest were on astrology, tarot, magic, Eastern and nature religions, even liberal Christianity. In Lawrence, 40 miles west,where there had been no ritual murder and where the largest institution in town was the University Kansas, Westwind prepared a program of her own. She put together a slide show, contracted a professor of religious studies and a police officer. Then she assembled a panel of two male witches, a witch from an all-female coven, and a woman who practiced the Craft along with Catholicism. She tacked posters around the campus announcing her lecture at at the Ecumenical Christian Ministry three days after Rivera's show. Those who came were confronted first by member of the Mustard Seed Christian Fellowship passing out handwritten Biblical warnings: "God Loves People But All Forms of Witchcraft Is (sic) SIN. (1 Samuel 15:23). "God Will Bring Judgement (sic) On Those Who Practice Such Things." About 230 people made it into the room. A contingent of clerics from St. Mary's attended wearing robes. A priest knelt in prayer during much of the program. Westwind wore pink. "I thought they'd expect to see me in black with Elvira's make-up," she said a year later. She tried a few jokes - about how witches who go public "come out of the broomcloset," and how witches who practice their religion alone, rather than in covens, "are called Craft singles," Her humor drew only a few chuckles. What she tried to get across to the audience was this: To her, witchcraft isn't broomsticks, black hats and warts on the nose. It's not the Wicked Witch of the East of the potion-brewing, cauldron-stirring "Double double toil and trouble; fire burn and cauldron bubble" witches of Macbeth. Believing in a religion that, she says, has roots older than the Christian church, a faith connected by its holidays to the cycles of the moon and the seasons on Earth, a religion guided not by a single God but by a Mother Goddess, no less, and her consort didn't make her a devil worshipper, Satanism was Christian heresy, she said. If you don't believe in God, ran her logic, how can you believe in Satan? In her Lawrence lecture, Westwind tried to depict some of the pagan origins of her beliefs with slides of goddess statues form pre-Christian times. She also put up some pictures of latter-day witches at a ritual. The witches, who were shown standing in a circle around a fire, wore robes with little daggers in their belts. Pretty benign stuff compared to a photo of a Medieval woodcut that Westwind says depicted a Catholic Church view of a witch ritual: people on broomsticks, women flying about with their skirts hiked up, and other people kissing the north end of a southbound goat (romancing goats being a sure sign of devil worship). The religious studies professor then took his turn and said that Wicca is a religion (more valid than Mormonism, he said later). Then the Police detective told the crowd he'd found no connection between those who practice Wicca and those who worship the devil. When midway through the evening, two witches sang a goddess chant and much of the audience began to join in, Westwind relaxed she'd been talking to a roomful of people who didn't need much convincing. The tension in the room broke. "The whole night got magical," she says. ****************************** The ceremony was over, robes were folded and packed, as were the ceremonial daggers, The men had taken off the small goat horns they had worn tied to their foreheads with leather thongs. Food still filled the dining room table -meat form five turkeys, home-made breads, fruit, pies, yams, cheeses - more than enough for the 75 pagans who had jammed the three-story house in Midtown Kansas City for Sabbatsmeet, a gathering held every year around Samhain (Halloween to the uninitiated) by pagans and witches form covens in Kansas City, St. Louis and Springfield. In the lingo of Witchcraft, witches are also pagans. But not all pagans are witches. Generally, a pagan is someone who believes in a nature religion. The word comes form the Latin, paganus, which means, literally, outside the walls. In Medieval times, for example. pagans were people who tended to live outside the walled cities of Europe. They had their own religions tied to the seasons and folklore. But current Wiccan beliefs and practices may, in fact, be no more than 50 years old. Modern Witchcraft didn't even come to the United States until the mid-1960's.. It was apparently revived and revised - and even that's in dispute - by a man named Gerald B. Gardner. Gerald Gardner was a retired British civil servant, amateur archeologist and nudist. As early a 1939, Gardner claimed he had been secretly initiated into the last remnant of a pagan religion nearly wiped out by Christianity. He later wrote books with detailed rituals. Some historians now say Gardner was winging it, that he borrowed the details of magic and rites from the writings of others. At the time, no one seemed to notice of care. Later, when Gardner's book. "Witchcraft Today", was published in England in 1954, the Craft quickly drew a following. Real or invented, Gardner had created a religion that emphasized female deity. Rather than male, that looked to a god within rather than a "sky god" or god above. Most pagans at this feast were Wiccan. Nine of them gathered in the kitchen, five men, four women. Not all of them knew each other, if they did, it was only by Craft name. "It's kind of an unwritten thing," one witch said. "We don't ask." Names or not, they were asked if they'd tell, generally, what they did for a living. Here's the list. One school district employee, a computer operator, two clerical workers, a city hall employee, a dock worker, a chemical technician, a federal employee and a medical student. (A survey of Neo-Pagans taken in 1980 showed that most were "white-collar, middle-class professionals." Computer-programmers, therapists, teachers, doctors and lawyers were among those counted in the survey.) Did their bosses or supervisors know they were witches? Would it make a difference? "I'd get fired," said a witch who works as a clerk at a hospital. A few other nodded. Only the dock worker said his immediate boss knew his religion; he felt secure enough to wear a dangling crystal earring. A few said some of their co-workers who weren't witches knew. But not many. One man said he was asked in the Navy what his religion was. When he said witch, people just laughed. After thinking a few minutes, the chemical technician said she wasn't afraid to let anyone know she is a witch. In fact, she said, she wants people to know so they'll see someone can be a witch and not be nuts, Her Craft name is Brianne. She's been married 19 years to the City Hall employee who didn't want his bosses to know. His name is Laneowyn. He discussed the origin of his beliefs over coffee one recent afternoon. He said he'd been baptized a Presbyterian but didn't feel right sitting in communicant classes. He gave up the Gospel, dabbled in the Eastern mystics, tested Judaism, then gave up on religion for 20 years. Then about two years ago, Brianne, a Catholic, discovered Wicca. "My wife caught the tail end of a television program where people were talking about Wiccan beliefs and practices, She thought it sounded interesting and thought she'd check it out. She couldn't find much and then she got "Drawing Down the Moon". The more she got to reading and talking about it, she says, "You know, I think I might be a witch. 'I said,'Yeah, right, How about a beer?' I thought witches had warts on their noses and turned you into newts." But he started reading what she gave him and then he, too, began to say he thought he was a witch. "Almost all witches find out about it by accident. They weren't looking for it." If Laneowyn and Brianne had a religious bumper sticker, it might read, "It Found Me." Instead, the one on his car shows a picture of the planet and beside it the words, "Love Your Mother." He says he connected almost immediately to the concept of revering the Earth. "Somewhere in the Bible it says something about having dominion over the Earth. But it forgot to mention stewardship. You'll find almost all pagans are borderline eco-warriors. You find out there are names for the beliefs you hold. In paganism, god is everything, including you. I'd never thought of a religion being fun. But a lot of our rites are like parties. The thought of going on a three- or four-day religious retreat used to make my blood run cold. Now it's like going to school and taking only the classes you want to take and there are no grades." When they do leave for weekend-long ceremonies,the couple leave their two children with relatives. Whenever someone used to ask where they were going, they had to fudge: "Oh, going camping." In October, Brianne broke the new to her mom. One of her mother's first questions was, "Does that mean you worship Satan?" When Brianne said no, her mother replied, "Then maybe you are Satan." "The bottom line?" Laneowyn says. "The bottom line is that some people believe what it says in Exodus, 'Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.' I guess a loony might kill me. Or, I could be a Catholic in Belfast. Or a Muslim or a Christian in Beirut." During a ritual held locally on evening this fall, the presiding high priest asked the 70 pagans and witches crowded the room with him to observe moment of silence "for the 9 million killed for this religion." A Craft historian puts the number of dead between 2 million and 9 million, most of the deaths occurring in Europe between the 12th and 17th Centuries. Most dying in flames at a stake. Witches refer to that period as "the Burning times." The numbers may be exaggerated, but it's a fact that many so-called witches were victimized - along with heretics and Jews - during various phases of the Inquisition. That witches should be put to death was Biblical; Exodus 22:18 "thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." But many of the "witches" tortured and executed in the Middle ages were simply the wise women of towns, the herbalists, the midwives. In the late 15th Century, two Dominican monks wrote a book, "Malleus maleficarum or Hammer of Witches." It was a sort of diagnostic manual to make witch-detection easier. Witches, the monks wrote, could call in plagues of insects, could render men and women infertile, and with the merest glance could turn love to hate or make someone die. Women were more endowed with these powers than men, the monks decided because the were a little more sensual, a little more frivolous. By the mid-15th Century, those who kept records of the Inquisition recorded at least 30,000 witch-burnings in the preceding 150 years. In the next century, well in the Reformation, Germany alone accounted for killing 1000,000. Queen Elizabeth of England ordered them burned, as did James of Scotland. In 1692, 19 persons were hanged and hundreds more arrested when witch-mania swept the Puritan stronghold of Salem, Mass. "Christians have always been afraid of Wiccans," said a witch named Robin Fox. "I don't know why. We didn't burn them." The apprehension reverberates today. Coven meetings are kept secret, as are sites of rituals. Those who agreed to be interviewed for this story did so on the condition that only their Craft names would be used. In Lawrence, witches who practice their Craft alone, not in covens, have formed a loose network. They call it the Web of Oz. One of its members, a woman whose Craft name is Dorcas, describes the Web as a protection against witch hunts. ******************************* The time was the late Sixties, the Age of Aquarius. "Hair" was running on Broadway. The Beatles had met the guru. Gwydion was an occasional Catholic fascinated with ghosts and superstition and fantasy. He was looking for a religion that embraced nature ("every rock and every tree"). He wanted a religion that included goddesses as well a gods ("because anything else would be out of balance - women will never achieve equality in a society that ha no place for a goddess"). He sought a religion that said psychic experiences were okay ("that they were not the work of the devil"). His search took him to readings about pre-Christian religions. But his revelation came from "The Tonight Show." Johnny Carson was interviewing a British woman named Sybil Leek. She'd just moved to America and published the story of her life, "Diary of a Witch". Gwydion listened attentively. What he learned that night he's been practicing in one form or another for nearly 20 years. Hezrah was a Baptist only when her family went to church, which wasn't often. Otherwise she was a witch. When she was 12, she accepted a friend's invitation to attend a Youth for Christ camp in Kansas. One day at camp. She says, she knelt under a tree and bowed her head. "They thought I was doing black magic. I wanted to sit there and I wanted to be with the tree." She says she was told to move. She had a unicorn on a key chain; it was taken from her, she says. She'd drawn an ankh, which Webster's defines as an Egyptian symbol of life, on her purse. Someone at the camp made her cross it out with ink, she says. "It was explained to me that these were symbols of the occult, that you shouldn't have these things." Growing up, Rhiannon's mother tore up the "playgirl " magazines she found under Rhiannon's mattress. Rhiannon can't imagine what her mother would have done had she learned that the books that opened her eyes to Witchcraft appeared under the harmless titles of "The Golden Bough" and "The White Goddess". She hadn't hidden those. Crystone was raised a Methodist, then she became a feminist, then a Taoist, who, when she discovered Wicca and Neo-Paganism, felt "like I was coming home. All the pieces fell in place. "I had no problems with God the Father. That's just not all there is. There's a real need for positive images of the male and female of gods and goddesses. Dorcas was a "foaming at the mouth Born-Again" who stayed with that until it no longer worked. "I was trying to do what any religion should make you do; it ought to make you feel holy, feel special and sacred." She found comfort in the Wiccan belief that people are divine. "Your can't get any closer to god than being god." But just ask those five people if they have found the same thing. "If you've got a room full of 100 pagans, you're going to have 125 definitions of paganism, depending on how many Geminis you have in the room." says Dorcas. They bunched around a glowing hardwood fire, five huddled against the cold but away from the smoke so the soot wouldn't fall on their jackets, jeans and woolens. A farmer's wife. An ex-GI whose last tour was with a tank outfit in West Germany. An unemployed data processor turned starving student. An art student. A doctoral degree candidate at the University of Kansas. They stood in a field in the dark of night, preparing for a Samhain ceremony. Wiccans have no preachers, no popes or ayatollahs, no synagogues or churches other than the outdoors, no Sundays, tithing, Bibles, Torah or Koran. They designated high priestess for the celebration that night. The woman whose Craft name is Dorcas, hung a flashlight on a thong around her neck to help her read the cue card on which she'd written he order and the words for the ceremony. She'd made it up herself. When the witches gathered within their magic circle and stood around their altar - a tree stump covered with a white cloth, candles in wide-mouth jars and a ceremonial cauldron the size of a soup bowl - each invoked different gods or goddesses to help them call out to the dead. Some of the deities were Celtic, some Germanic. The witches could just as easily have invoked the names of goddesses and gods form Egyptian or Greek or Norse mythology or any other that happened to fit their whim. Different gods and goddesses for different days. A witch in Lawrence calls this "god du jour." Stormraven, a psychiatrist in Kansas City, uses the analogy of radio frequency. She keeps her gods on one frequency; her goddesses on another. She flips the dial according to need. They call on their deities for the serious as will as the mundane. "This happened two-and-a-half months ago, I swear it," says Dorcas, She had company coming and a week's worth of dishes to do and cat hair everywhere in her Lawrence apartment. She called on Silkie. Silkie is a Scottish house spirit, so named because she wears silk dresses, Silkie helps with house work. "I said, 'Well, Silkie, let's you and me get to it.' I swear, it took 45 minutes and the place was sparking." Was this magic? Magic forms far less a part of Witchcraft than people really believe," Gwydion says. "We do spells occasionally, when there's a real need. It takes a lot of work, a lot of time, If it was as easy a wiggling a nose like Samantha (on the TV show "bewitched") we'd do it more often." Not long ago, a friend of Gwydion wanted a new job. For two hours a night, on night a week for a month, the two met in the friend's house. In this case, Gwydion served more as an assistant, making sure candles stayed lit, cueing the right music, while his friend chanted spells based on the Cabala, a Jewish occult philosophy. "It's like a theater production - cues, lighting and setting," Gwydion says. "If done right you get a real tug right here (his fist taps the center of his chest)." According to Gwydion, His friend found a better job for more pay. The only drawback is that he had to move out of town to take it. "Christians do magic when they pray." That comment comes form Rhiannon. He grew up in a home where "God's will" was used to explain misfortune. She was six when tow cousins ran a stop sign and were killed by a train as they drove across a railroad track. Why did they have to die? she asked. "It was God's will," someone told her. She replied, "Well, didn't God put the stop sign there?" She was hushed. "If Christians are focusing in on something that they want and then asking their deity for divine intervention, how is that different from what I do when I light a candle and focus my will on what is to happen? Usually I preface it with 'An it harm none..." That's the beginning of the Wiccan Rede, the only creed in this religion without dogma: "An it harm none, do what ye will." Not a lot unlike what Christians say: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, for this is the law and the prophets." Or what Buddhists say: "Hurt no other with that which pains yourself." Witches then follow that with what they call the Law of Three-fold return: The effect of every thought and deed will be returned three times to the source. Which echoes of Confucianism: "What proceeds from you will return to you." And Christianity, too: "Whatever a man sows, that shall he also reap." For a dozen years, Rhannon wanted a baby but couldn't get pregnant. She underwent fertility testing, She was doing spells all along. The one time she did get pregnant, she lost the child and any chance of ever giving birth to one of her own. She tried foster parenting. Thought about adoption. And kept doing her spells that she would someday have a child. "I focused my attention on the fact I wanted a child. I did rituals to focus on that, like a prayer session. I used Danu, and Irish mother goddess. She's my goddess and i asked her basically for a baby." About two years ago, at the Heartland Pagan Festival, an invitation-only gathering each spring of several hundred pagans in Kansas City, she met a woman. The woman had once considered being a surrogate mother. Rhiannon kept doing her spells. She says she sensed the goddess had a child for her. Somehow she had to get it into the real word. Rhiannon wrote a ritual and she and about seven other people tried to call this being into life. On Candlemas, Feb. 1, one of the lesser of the eight holidays on the witches wheel of the year, Rhiannon and the woman interested in surrogate met again. The woman agreed to have Rhiannon's husband's child. One year later, precisely to the day, a baby was born. "I still think it was a miracle," Rhiannon says as she dandles her son, now nearly 11 months old, on her knee. The Rede, says Rhiannon, makes it almost impossible for a witch to do what some would call black magic, negative magic. The night before Samhain Sabbatsmeet, which was held in Rhiannon's home, a toad-choking rain fell on the city. The celebration was to have been held outdoors in a wooden park area. Rhiannon was asked if she was going to try to work a little weather magic, make it dry off in time for her party. No, she said, calling off the rain would hurt farmers more than it would enhance a good time. The night of the celebration, the rain stopped before the party began. One of the witches spoke to the Goddess: "I noticed the rain stopped. Thanks, Mom, Nice touch." A year has gone by since Sue Westwind defended Wicca against Geraldo Rivera's style of journalism. The Kansas City New Age bookstore, threatened by people who tied the Berdella killings to Satanism, and the threatened again after Rivera's devil worship program, found even its regular customers staying away. The store closed this year. In North Kansas City a teacher lost her job when a student's parent discovered her name in a guide to the occult in Kansas City. Gwydion, once Kansas City's most public witch (he taught at Communiversity), stopped teaching, drifted away from his coven and is, for the most part, underground. In Lawrence, Westwind is still getting her masters in religion and still fighting for the image of witches. Now she it taking on some people who want to ban children's books that contain favorable portrayals of witches form a public library. In mid fall, she found herself in front of 50 young people who'd come to hear her introductory class on magic at a local bookstore. As she spoke she heard herself saying "...and were are not in any way associated with Satanism. We consider Satanism a Christian heresy."

---

E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank