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Modern-Day Witches

Religion: More often misunderstood or maligned than practiced, Wicca is a recognized belief system of pagans--including O.C. residents--whose temple is Earth.

December 20, 1996|LESLEY WRIGHT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The man at work selling computers suddenly has the feeling that the customer is one of his own. He follows his impulse and quietly greets him. "Merry meet," he says. The stranger instantly replies: "Merry meet." They smile.

Two witches in the electronics section of a department store.

"It's a signal you don't hear or see. It's a signal you can feel," explains the man, a practitioner and teacher of Wicca who has adopted the name Lord Hawthorne. "It's kind of like code."

The two do not discuss the matter further. Like the majority of those who practice the contemporary religion of Wicca, they do so under many layers of secrecy.

While not widely known or practiced, Wicca is a recognized religion in this country. Its practices are summarized in the handbook carried by military chaplains. Wiccan priests and priestesses are licensed to marry and bury, and they regularly attend interfaith conferences, easily talking shop with Catholics, Jews and Buddhists. The current president of Washington state's Interfaith Council is a Wiccan priest.

Still, it is a faith that is often the target of ridicule--even by those who consider themselves open-minded.

Practitioners of Wicca comfortably call themselves witches and use the tools so often mocked, such as the broom (a purifying symbol), the wand, candles, crystals and the knife, known as athame. They refer to their practices as witchcraft, or the Craft.

Wiccans generally describe their faith as a revival of the primitive pagan rituals performed before Christianity came along nearly 2,000 years ago. Early Christians described pagans as those who still believed that spiritual power came from the sun, the moon and the Earth rather than from a Christian god.

Wicca, say scholars who have studied its origins, was created by a Briton named Gerald Gardner in the 1940s, drawing on what anthropologists know of early paganism. The word "Wicca" is taken from the Celtic word for "bent ones" or the elderly wise ones in primitive societies who used herbs and magical spells to heal and cure.

Wiccans spend a lot of time explaining to nonbelievers what they do not do: They do not use supernatural powers; they call only on natural ones. They do not sacrifice children and animals--only grains and other such fare--to the gods. And, they explain with a roll of the eye, they most certainly do not worship Satan.

The number of Wiccans nationwide has been estimated by religious scholars at anywhere from 50,000 to 300,000, though all admit there is no accurate count of followers.

Wicca has many denominations and no centralized organization. Long Beach has a coven with 1,500 members. In Orange County, there is no single large coven, although at least one practitioner estimates the county is home to thousands of Wiccans. There is a scattering of bookstores--such as the Crystal Cave in Orange, Visions & Dreams in Costa Mesa and Lady Desiree's Bewitched in Huntington Beach--in the county that serves Wiccans and those interested in the occult.

At such stores, novices can take classes in spell casting and buy the stones, caldrons, crystals, athames, swords, wands and other tools of the Craft. They can buy books on herbalism, magic and philosophy that explain how to use them. And, for those looking for information from home, there are related web sites on the Internet.

This weekend, while Christmas shoppers are scurrying to do their last-minute errands, Wiccans will be toasting yule, the winter solstice, and celebrating the rebirth of the sun on the longest night of the year.

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Worshiping a divine entity that is both god and goddess, Wiccans practice individually or gather in groups called circles or covens, where they call on the deities to guide them, sometimes using magic spells. Reincarnation and the concept of karma are closely linked with the practice.

There are no temples except for Earth itself, which is seen as a manifestation of the divine, Wiccans say. There are no commandments, but there is an oft-repeated point: "As long as it harms none, do what you will."

"All witches are pagans, but not all pagans are witches," explains J. Gordon Melton, an adjunct religion professor at UC Santa Barbara and director of the Institute for the Study of American Religions. Melton has been studying Wiccan and neo-pagan groups for 25 years.

Melton agrees that today's witches unfairly bear the misperception that they are devil worshipers. "In order to be a Satanist, you need to be a Christian first," he explains. "Satanism is an extreme Christian heresy. Satanists are fighting Christ; Wiccans are building a religion."

Many pagan ceremonial observances--or days of power--are based on an agricultural calendar tied to the cycles of the the moon and sun. Wiccan holidays are based on that calendar, as were many of the holidays established by early Christians. Yule logs, Easter eggs and other Christian customs are remnants of early paganism, Melton says.

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