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Mother Knows Best

A COMMUNITY OF WITCHES: Contemporary Neo-Paganism and Witchcraft in the United States. \o7 By Helen A. Berger (University of South Carolina Press: 250 pp., $24.95)\f7 ; BOOK OF SHADOWS: A Modern Woman's Journey Into the Wisdom of Witchcraft and the Magic of the Goddess.\o7 By Phyllis Curott (Broadway Books: 320 pp., $25)\f7 ; GODDESS UNMASKED: The Rise of Neopagan Feminist Spirituality.\o7 By Philip G. Davis (Spence Publishing: 420 pp., $29.95)\f7

November 08, 1998|MARY LEFKOWITZ | Mary Lefkowitz, the Andrew W. Mellon professor in the humanities at Wellesley College, is the author of "Not Out of Africa."

Don't look now, but your next-door neighbors may be witches. The probability is higher if you live in California or its antithesis, Massachusetts. How can you tell? Look for someone who is middle-class, white, well-educated and a responsible citizen, either straight or gay. Sound unremarkable? In many respects, so is the kind of witchcraft that these witches practice. They convene at established times in houses of worship set up primarily in their own homes. All of them have found new meaning for their lives and community in a world from which they became increasingly alienated.

Most witches believe in the efficacy of magic and imagine that they are reviving a venerable popular religion that had been driven underground by organized Christianity. The principal deity of this cult was not a god, the credo goes, but a goddess, who was known by many different names.

The process of conversion to the worship of the goddess follows a typical pattern: The candidate for the new creed finds herself alone, the deity appears to her and the epiphany reveals new understanding and deep emotional contentment. Perhaps some of their rites of passage do seem a tad eccentric, at least when compared with Christianity's. Conventional baptism rituals are certainly less gory than the initiation ceremony for the newborn described by sociologist Helen A. Berger in her book "A Community of Witches." The infant, held by its mother, is carried clockwise around a circle of power; then the father places the afterbirth (which has been kept in the freezer) in a hole in the center of the circle and anoints the child with its birth blood (kept frozen in a separate container). I couldn't help wondering how this ritual could have been enacted in the days before refrigeration.

Phyllis Curott, a practicing lawyer, would seem at first like the last sort of person to be converted to "the Craft," or "Wicca," the term used to describe late 20th century witchcraft. The term is used to distinguish the modern practice from ancient witchcraft, but in fact the word "Wicca" derives from the same Indo-European root as "witch" and "guile." She was attracted to witchcraft because it gave her strength and confidence and allowed her to become part of a supportive and nurturing community. In her partially fictionalized autobiography, "Book of Shadows," she tells us that she became interested in witchcraft in an attempt to understand and cope with the stress and emotional strain of practicing law. Talking to older, wiser Wiccan women was a first step. Their ability to predict the future and their conscious connection with the past was another attraction. She responded enthusiastically to the idea of joining other women in worshiping a female deity. Using time-honored herbs in rituals and taking trips out of the city allowed her to reconnect with the natural world. Curott read about witches in the religions of ancient and medieval civilizations. As she attended meetings of an all-female coven and participated in its rituals, she began to take control of her life and to be able to stand up to the male attorneys who had been exploiting and harassing her for years.

Curott is now a Wiccan high priestess (and still practices law). She wrote her book to encourage others to follow her down the path to self-awareness. Any woman can easily put herself into Curott's place because her story follows the familiar pattern of conversion stories (lost, now found; once in darkness, now in light). Its characters are good (mainly women) or evil (mainly men). The book can also be used as an introductory witchcraft manual. An appendix provides a calendar of the Wiccan year with its distinctive holidays, like Imbolc and Beltane, and the text of some spells to address the common problems of life such as depression or lack of confidence. Lists of recommended books and resource centers as well as recipes for brews are also included. As an academic fighting on the front lines of the culture wars, I was tempted to try the recipe for "Amulet of Protection and Empowerment: Artemis' Shield." But our local supermarket doesn't have some of the key ingredients like rue and nettle. Something is always missing. Remember Zero Mostel, in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," looking for mare's sweat?

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