SAN DIEGO — "There are hundreds of thousands of witches now. They are all age groups. All types. Your neighbor might be one. Or your dentist," Raymond Buckland said. "What are they like? Very intelligent, usually. They're likely to be quiet, unassuming, community-conscious men and women with a deep affinity for nature."
A genuine witch, he added, is the sort of person who enjoys the way walking barefoot on grass feels. Someone whose remedy for depression is to sit quietly for a while with his back resting against a large tree.
"Witches are not anti-Christian," he said. "They're not anti-anything."
Buckland, 52, is a practicing witch himself. The author of 13 published books--the most recent, "Buckland's Complete Book of Witchcraft," is now going into its fourth reprinting since it came out in October--he is considered an authority on the occult and the supernatural.
Today's witches, he said, do still gather in groups called covens to perform dances, chants and rituals based on ancient fertility and crop-growing rites. (If the coven prefers to work naked, it's referred to as being skyclad--"clad only by the sky.") They do use "white magic" to draw to them the things in life they desire.
What a genuine witch doesn't do is worship the devil.
Don't Believe in the Devil
"Witchcraft, which is a religion of nature in which there is both a male and a female deity, evolved centuries before both Christianity and Satanism did," Buckland said. "So witches don't even believe in the devil."
He was speaking in his sun-splashed Pacific Beach living room. A soft-spoken, neatly dressed Englishman who holds a doctorate in anthropology, he seems a living illustration of the kind of community-conscious witch he describes.
In 1966, four years after he emigrated to New York with his wife and two young sons, he was the first witch in America to "stand up and be recognized." That was on television on the "Allan Burke Show."
The admission plunged him into a whirl of newspaper, radio and TV interviews. His Long Island neighbors saw this nice, quiet man, who worked as editor of British Airways' manuals, chatting about initiations and sabbats with Dick Cavett, Barbara Walters and Tom Snyder.
"I always wore a suit and tie, and tried to look as respectable as I could. In 1966, the average person's idea of a witch was someone rather evil," he said. "Someone warty and black-hatted, with a penchant for putting hexes on anybody rash enough to cross them. They thought witches were always ugly, always female and boiled up a lot of peculiar things in caldrons. Things like claw of dragon and eye of newt."
The "peculiar things in caldrons" myth dates to medieval times, Buckland said.
Made Medicine From Herbs
"Witches then were the 'wise ones' of their communities. They brewed the healing medicines from herbs," he said.
Most herbs were named for the way the plant looked. The crawly root was called "dragon's claw." The foxglove was "bloody fingers," the dogtooth violet "adder's tongue."
"Today they have Latin names. But, back in the 13th Century, a mother teaching her daughter how to brew a remedy would say, 'Toss in some mother's heart.' She wouldn't say 'Toss in some Capsella bursa pastoris! ' "
It wasn't exactly helpful to him that the movie of Ira Levin's book "Rosemary's Baby" came out shortly after he began speaking in public.
The story of "Rosemary's Baby" centers on a struggling actor who is persuaded by two elderly witches to let his wife be impregnated by the devil as the price of success.
"It was an entertaining movie. It would have been fine if Levin had done his research properly, and called it what it was--Satanism," Buckland said. "But all through the movie they were referred to as witches. True witches don't harm others. Just the opposite."
The one unbreakable rule of the Old Religion, as witchcraft is called, is, he stressed: "An it harm none, do what thou wilt."
Buckland was born in London, but not into a family of witches. His father was a full-blooded Romany Gypsy. Again, popular myth differs from the reality. Most people would picture a person born in 1934 to a Romany Gypsy as growing up in a caravan strung with rattling pots. Buckland's father was an executive officer in the Ministry of Health.
Childhood Centered on Theater
"He was also an award-winning playwright. My childhood revolved around the theater and writing," said Buckland, who sold his first article when he was 12.
"I did wear the two gold earrings that all Romany boys wear," he said, pointing to a single earring in his left ear. "When a Romany marries, he gives one earring to his wife."
He was 28 when he decided to become a witch.
After extensive reading--particularly the works of Dr. Gerald Gardner who, in 1954, was the first British witch to "stand up and be recognized"--Buckland decided witchcraft was exactly the right religion for him.
He was initiated as a Gardnerian witch by Gardner's high priestess, the Lady Olwen, in 1963.