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Women Find Empowerment in Pagan Traditions

Kids will stuff their painted faces with bite-sized Snickers.
Gay and straight grown-ups will leave their everyday personas
behind to strut their inner Streisand, Schwarzenegger, or Pope John
Paul on Castro Street. But, come this October 31st, some very
modern, Bay Area women including a downtown realtor, a U.C. faculty
member and Mills sophomore Sakura Vesely who also happen to be
witches will trade in their classrooms and cubicles for moonlit
beaches and wooded parks. That’s where they’ll celebrate the most
sacred day in a witch’s calendar, Halloween, in scenes that could
be happening a thousand years ago.

“It’s the time of the year when the veil between the living and
the dead at is thinnest,” says Mills student Vesely, a self-defined
witch since the age of 12. “As a kid I always loved Halloween, now
I think of it as Samhain (pronounced SAW-n), a witch’s New Year’s
Eve,” she says. With her low-slung tight jeans, James Dean
tee-shirt and freckled smile, nothing about Vesely immediately tips
you off that she practices Wicca (derived from the Anglo-Saxon word
for witchcraft, “wicce-craft” and used synonymously with pagan);
except the pentacle ring, a five pointed star in a circle, on her
right hand.

Asked how she and other witches use the magic and spells they
learn in their Wicca practice, Vesely explains the “Wede,” or,
so-called “Golden Rule of Wicca,” that says, while a witch can
attempt to bring good things to herself – abundance, love, success
she cannot bring harm to anyone else. It’s an unbreakable rule,
Vesely explains, forbidding the manipulation of another person by,
for example, putting a spell on someone to get them to fall in love
with you. “I tried that once, Vesely admits, when I was younger and
just starting out. It was a disaster. Oh, it worked for three
months, but the break up was terrible.”

Vesely, who was raised in Walnut Creek and is a psychology
major, reports most people on campus react positively when she
reveals her identity as a practicing Wiccan. During her freshman
year, Sakura served as one of the coordinators of the Mills Pagan
Alliance, a loose organization of Wicca and other pagan
practitioners, but, due in part to her current academic load, the
club is no longer functioning. Instead Vesely describes her current
practice as that of a “solitary Wiccan.” In her dorm, she’s taken
on one of the traditional roles of witches in ancient Celtic times,
that of healer. “I have a chant that can get rid of a headache; I
give it to my dorm mates if they ask. I make my own soap with oils
I charge so that each time I wash my hands I can attract money or
whatever it is I need.” She adds, “Of course magic isn’t going to
solve all your problems.”

Magic spells, nature-based rituals, chanting…not activities
you ordinarily associate with the worlds of academia or science.
But they are essential for both her work and spiritual practice,
says Barbara* a professor in the biological sciences at a major
Northern California U.C. campus. “I think I’ve been a witch all my
life,” explains Barbara, who is now in her early fifties. “I just
didn’t realize it until five years ago.”

With her cropped hair, no frills drawstring pants and notepad at
the ready, Barbara looks every bit the thoughtful, orderly
academic, wife and mother of two teenagers that she is. But, in her
persona and lifestyle, she blows apart the popular stereotypes of
witches. Leaving you to wonder, for what earthly purpose does this
academic (with a Ph.D. from MIT) participate in something in a
practice that has long been considered an anti-science,
anti-Christian cult?

To find out more, I joined Barbara on a Friday evening last
summer for a Wicca gathering. It was held at the home of another
high-powered Bay Area woman: Rene*, a successful San Francisco
realtor who spends her off hours as high priestess to a coven of
witches. At 37, with her long hair pulled back to frame Romanesque
features, Rene could have just strolled out of the gilt-enclosed
image of a statute of the Goddess Venus that sits on an “altar” in
her elegantly furnished dining room in Pacifica. The 10 women who
joined hands around Rene’s large dining room table varied in age,
with tattooed hipsters positioned alongside gray-haired
(self-described) “crones.” The occasion for this gathering, Rene
explained, was a beneficent astrological aspect that day involving
the planet Venus, a symbol of “the divine feminine.” According to
Rene, many modern witches study the ancient art of astrology as
well as a variety of indigenous traditions from the (pre-colonized)
Americas and Africa, along with a pantheon of Goddesses from
Greece, Italy, Hawaii, and Eastern Europe.

To begin the evening, Rene asked the circle to assist her in
“calling in the four directions” (a Native American spiritual
practice to bring forth powers associated with the north, south,
east and west poles of the earth). In response, the women started
to chant, sing, buzz like bees, shout, clap, and move their arms
and bodies. These are all means, Rene explained over the din of
their noise, to raise the energy of the group. Their ultimate aim,
she elaborated, is individual attunement with nature: the source of
all Wicca power.

After this warm-up, the evening took on the atmosphere of group
therapy, as each woman shared a painful past or present personal
experience, among them: a sexual assault, a husband lost to AIDS, a
painful affair with a married man, a troubled relationship between
mother and daughter. As each participant released her individual
trauma to the group, Rene invited the spirit of the Goddess Venus,
“to help each woman heal her own wound.” The evening ended with
hugs and laughter along with sharing of plans for future Wicca
gatherings and rituals. Later, Rene described the evening as an
enacted meditation, where they suspend belief, like watching a
play.” The result, she says, is “women gaining personal power and
ultimately, a larger place in the world for the healing powers of
the divine feminine.”

So, how does all this empowerment show up in Rene’s life? After
eight years in real estate, Rene believes her sales record – she’s
negotiated over 700 transactions, including 12 new developments –
is a testimonial to her own personal growth through witch craft,
which she sees as a process of building confidence and leadership
skills. She also says that with the ability Wicca has given her to
“read energy” she’s better able to spot and avoid disreputable
people and shaky deals in the Bay Area’s notoriously cut throat
real estate business.

Biologist Barbara tells of an instance when a Wicca spell helped
her get through a professional crisis at her university. It
happened during the process of attaining tenure as a professor. “I
found out that a particular gentleman was actively lobbying against
me, writing and speaking to others in the department very
negatively, and I thought, unfairly. I decided to do a ritual that
is a protection against slander. I set up an altar with candles and
I created a doll to represent him. I put ribbons on the doll, to
bind his mouth and hands, but it was not intended to harm him in
any way. I chanted and put my complete focus on directing energy
that would prevent him from harming me. I repeated it four times
over two months. Then, without my doing or saying anything, the
chair of the department sent out a memo putting a gag order on all
faculty members. This gentleman dropped his issues with me, and my
tenure went through.”

In their practice of witchcraft and other pagan rites, these
women may be representative of a larger cultural trend. Loosely
associated with the New Age movement as a reaction against
organized religion, Wicca is identified as a religion by the U.S.
Army in a handbook for army chaplains, where it’s listed with other
established minority religions including, “Islamic groups, Sikh
groups, the Church of Scientology, and the Native American Church,”
among others.

Barbara was a life-long, active Catholic until five years ago,
when “she could no longer tolerate the church’s marginalization of
women.” She found an East Bay coven of witches who became her
teachers in the craft. Barbara and the other witches interviewed
for this story eschew any associations between witchcraft (past or
present) and devil worship, and popular Wicca literature states
emphatically that it is a pre-Christian, not an anti-Christian
religion. These sources also point out that the holiest days of the
Christian and Jewish calendars actually mimic ancient pagan earth
festivals, and overlap with the traditional Wicca “sabbats.” These
include the mid-winter Yule (Christmas), the spring harvest
festival originally named after the Goddess Eostre (Easter), and
Halloween or Samhain.

With their New Year (Halloween) approaching, Barbara, Sakura and
Rene speak with excitement and anticipation about the unique
opportunity this time of year presents to renew themselves. In the
outdoor Samhain ritual she will lead with her of eight-member
“Coven of the Sacred Feminine,” Barbara says, they will consciously
reconnect with their female ancestors. “We’ll actually call each of
them in by name,” explains Barbara, “it’s a powerful experience
that allows us to connect with those women, to honor them and, at
the same time, honor ourselves.”

*names changed upon request