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Their Guiding Light

No pointy hats or eyes of newt here. Modern witches espouse a religion of nature, love and mutual support--plus a bit of beneficent magic.

October 29, 1998|TERESA WATANABE | TIMES RELIGION WRITER

It's 7 p.m. in West Hollywood, and in the back room of the Goddess Shop on Santa Monica Boulevard, the witches have gathered.

Ruth is the personable, powerful instructor who co-founded Circle of Aradia, one of the largest and oldest witchcraft communities in Southern California. Ally is in film marketing and describes herself as a "baby witch" who embraced the religion, known as Wicca, two months ago after failing to find a comfortable home in Christianity, Buddhism or Transcendental Meditation.

Dawn is a glamorous blond in a black miniskirt who declares she intends to ask for Halloween off as a religious holiday and wears a pentacle to ward off bad vibrations. Linda says witchcraft has dovetailed with her lifelong passion for nature--the cycles of the moon, the shifts of the seasons. Her husband, a Christian, supports her spiritual journey wholeheartedly and even cackles, witchlike, into the couple's telephone answering machine.

In the hands of these women--part of an estimated 60,000 witches across the nation--Halloween will be far more than a night of revelry, flamboyant costumes and trick-or-treat goodies.

They have gathered to study Halloween rituals, history and symbols, and for them, the eve of the pagan New Year that witches call Hallowmas or Samhain will be laden with deep meaning and transformative rituals to remember the beloved dead and commemorate spiritually the eternal cycle of death and rebirth reflected in the seasonal change.

The commemoration will entail a night of introspection to drop the negative baggage of the last year like so many falling leaves and plant the seeds, through affirmation, of new goals to blossom in the coming year.

"This is the night where the veil between worlds is thinnest: between this world and the spirit world, light and dark, the old year and new year. The symbol of this time of year is the crone, the old hag, symbolic of the old letting go to the new," says Ruth, who agrees to the use of her last name, Barrett, unlike many other witches still fearful of public attacks.

The workshop--and a dramatic community ritual the following Saturday--sum up part of what life is like in a witchcraft community. For two Southern California witches' groups--the all-woman Circle of Aradia and the mixed-gender Reweaving--Wicca offers rich rituals and powerful symbols to give meaning, wonder and poetry to the passages of life.

Personal growth through deep introspection and constant efforts at self-transformation are an important emphasis. Sacred nature is celebrated in eight annual festivals and rituals tied to the agricultural holidays of old Europe.

A Talisman for Earthly Love

Jim Buslip, a Venice engineer who turned to witchcraft four years ago, shares what many nonpagans secretly want to know: Yes, the witches learn spellcraft and magic to gain power over their lives and shape it in favorable directions. Some witches work spells for world peace, good health or better jobs; Buslip confesses he has cast them for love.

Over a seven-day period that ended on Valentine's Day, Buslip fashioned a talisman by stuffing an orange with herbs and cloves, wrote in a journal and meditated on his desire during the planetary hour associated with Venus, the goddess of love. After a false start--he says he forgot to explicitly visualize a sexual relationship and ended up drawing in a host of platonic female friends--he met his girlfriend, Lynn, at a pagan festival. The two plan to get "handfasted," the pagan commitment ceremony, in April.

But he and others stress that ethical witches don't put a dreaded hex on others or attempt to control others through their magic. Wiccans honor one basic law: "Harm none and do what you will." They also adhere to such guiding principles as the law of cause and effect and believe that whatever you send out, good or bad, comes back threefold. Such principles make altruism a matter of "enlightened self-interest," Buslip says.

"I see Wiccans as re-mythologizing life--reclaiming magic to make life more interesting, creative, colorful and poetic," says John K. Simmons, a religion professor and Wiccan expert at Western Illinois University. The growth of Wicca in the United States, he says, "is a response to 200 years of the scientific method that drains the magic, the mystery, from life."

Not that all witches are ethical or altruistic. The Witches' Voice Web site (http://www.witchvox.com) reports on several raging "witch wars" across the country involving battles over power, money and sex. People identifying themselves as witches have been collared for crimes ranging from murder in Texas to tombstone vandalism in Michigan.

And many Christian groups find witchcraft a disturbing descent into the realm of malevolent occult forces. Microsoft's Encarta, the multimedia encyclopedia, defines witches as "servants of the devil" who gain their power in a Faustian pact with Satan.

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