WITCH PEOPLE by Bill Norton / Star Magazine - copyright 1989, Kansas City Star Company. De
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?
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
"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
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
And Christianity, too: "Whatever a man sows, that shall he also
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
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