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She's Got That Old-Time Religion: Witchcraft

A Premonition Led a Lawyer to Find Her Calling as a High Priestess of Witchcraft

September 03, 1998|MARY ROURKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A witch walks through the lobby of a Laguna Beach hotel and no one even notices. She looks too normal. Wiccan high priestess Phyllis Curott, a sleek blond with a full set of teeth, has none of the storybook traits.

Nose, wartless; hair, snarl-free though long; complexion, more pink than green; outfit, above suspicion except for the chalice on a cord that hangs around her neck. Maybe it's just a vase.

Her life story, though, is a bit off-center. Curott is a New York native, graduate of Brown University and New York University law school, civil liberties lawyer and president emeritus of the Covenant of the Goddess, an international association of practicing wiccans. That was before she switched to real estate law and added "author" to her credits. "The Book of Shadows" (Broadway Books), about her 20 years as a witch, will be in stores in October.

Things feel surprisingly normal until Curott explains how she and her husband, Bruce Fields, met. "It was in a dream," she says, and the whole picture starts to tilt. There he was, a dark-haired man dressed in a leather jacket, standing in her doorway, holding flowers. She woke up; a friend called and said he wanted to fix her up with a guy named Bruce.

A nice girl from New York gets into witchcraft, you have to wonder how it happens. "It's the last thing I ever expected," Curott says. Ordinary touches, like her diamond solitaire ring and her ivory-colored nail polish, make you want to believe. "I was raised in an intellectual household. My father was a union organizer. When I asked him about the goddess, he plied me with books on Greek mythology.

"I was 25 years old, in my last year of law school. I hadn't done drugs, I had never heard of Esalen. I hadn't even read Carlos Castaneda." (Translation: The human potential movement hadn't taken off, there weren't many self-realization centers, and Castaneda's 1968 bestseller, "Teachings of Don Juan," about his journey into the peyote culture, went past her.)

It took a premonition about an Egyptian goddess named Isis, and a face-to-face meeting with her among the funerary objects at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to catch Curott's attention.

Chance introductions to practicing witches who doubled as secretaries, socialites and physical therapists convinced her. "It was a calling," she says. "I suddenly realized that the universe is alive and it interacts with you. It was a mind-blowing experience."

Our long afternoon's conversation spins around potions, spells, trances, visions, caldrons and wands, and leads naturally to Curott's disclosure that she trains others to be wiccan high priestesses too.

Witchcraft, the Ivy League way: Accept about 12 students at a time in a four-year program, feed them cultural history, Arthurian legends, Homeric hymns, ecology, and, most of all, give them experience. Curott regularly immerses her charges in a wicca circle, the witch's way of communing with the divine, where drumbeats and intense breathing are just the warmup. Her book explains the basics of witchcraft's history, and gives minilessons in forming a sacred circle and brewing potions.

It sounds remote but not scary to J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, who has studied wicca during the past 20 years. "Witches are a benign, nature-oriented group," he says. "Members tend to be urban dwellers with a lot of potted plants and a couple of pets."

Church Makes Room for Witchcraft

Witchcraft studies are now part of college courses on new, indigenous or goddess religions, he says. Melton places those studies closest to Native American and Hindu traditions that allow for many gods and hold a deep reverence for the earth.

The curses and spells are from folk tales and legends mostly. "Some witches are into working low magic," he says. "They will throw a hex once in awhile. Whether it works or not depends on how much you believe in magic."

Not that he is offering advice, but Melton does say, "The problem is the title, 'witch.' It's been their ticket to prominence and an albatross around their neck." Curott uses the original name, Old Religion.

Some people are less intimidated than others. The Rev. Darrell Berger, pastor of the Fourth Universalist Society, a Unitarian Universalist church in New York City, has been high priest to Curott's high priestess for a winter solstice celebration in the church. Members of his congregation now hold a wiccan circle every month at the full moon.

"If you are looking for images of god that are feminine, it takes you out of the Judeo-Christian bag into the pre-patriarchal bag," Berger says. Lately his congregation is more interested in the care of the environment. That has drawn some members into wicca.

Worldwide membership is not more than 80,000 witches, with perhaps 70,000 in the U.S, according to Melton. The number has held steady for 15 years. About 40% of members are men.

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