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Chicago Tribune
October 31, 2001 Wednesday
Woman News; Pg. 1; ZONE: C

A fair witch project

Tribune staff reporter Devin Rose goes to Peoria for a glimpse at the reality beyond the broomsticks and bubbling cauldrons

Devin Rose
Chicago Tribune

Peoria: The autumn night is hushed; threads of cloud skitter across the moon. A cloaked woman gazes around the campfire at the others gathered there, and her voice rings out:
"Dance, sing, feast, make music and love. . . . I am the mother of all living, and my love is poured out upon the earth."

Samhain has begun.

Scratch the surface of modern-day Halloween and you'll uncover Samhain (SOW-en), an ancient pagan festival that marks the coming of winter and, for some celebrants, the beginning of the new year. During Samhain, it is believed, the boundaries between the worlds of the living and the dead are very thin, making this a fitting time to honor the dead while celebrating the harvest.
Such rituals often have been practiced in secrecy over the ages. But with awareness and tolerance of paganism growing, the Central Illinois Pagan Alliance in Peoria decided to conduct its Samhain festivities in public for the first time Saturday.

"It just seemed the perfect time," says Bonnie Lansing-Seaman, 36, a member of the group, which calls itself a coven. "In this area, people have been asking for a public ritual."

A robed man lights a torch from the campfire and grandly waves it about. He is casting the circle, creating a sacred place, a place of concentrated power and energy. In a nod to modern times, he says to the few dozen people gathered, "Please turn off all cell phones and pagers at this time."
Most people probably know just enough about paganism to be confused. For example, Lansing-Seaman calls herself a witch, and she's among the estimated 1 million witches (including Wiccans) and pagans in the United States. A Wiccan is a witch, but a witch isn't necessarily Wiccan. Witches can be male or female (and, no, men aren't called warlocks). Some pagans also call themselves witches, while others don't.

So what's what and who's who? A quick summary:

Paganism, also called neo-paganism, broadly applies to many people who practice an earth-based belief system (in short, they believe power and energy can be drawn from nature). They strive to live in harmony with the earth and protect its resources.

Witchcraft involves the use of folk magic, which developed tens of thousands of years ago as people turned to rituals and spells to draw energy from the world around them.

Wicca is a modern form of witchcraft that reveres both god and goddess as forms of universal power.

For some, gods and goddesses are purely symbolic. Others actually worship them. But all believe that it's crucial to honor both male and female deities.

Today's witches and Wiccans both re-create ancient rituals and create their own.

"There's so much diversity in modern-day witchcraft," says Theresa Smith, professor of religious studies at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. "There's no pope of Wicca. On the other hand, it can get very confusing for people."

A woman circles the group with a broom, turning as she sweeps. She is sweeping negative energy out of the circle and positive energy in.

What draws people to present-day paganism or witchcraft? Many felt a deep spiritual hunger that they say was not satisfied by mainstream religion.

"It fits who I am," says Lansing-Seaman, who has been a witch for seven years. "I don't like organized religion. I had a problem with the patriarchy and the stoicism of traditional religion. I needed a place to call home with my spirituality."

Her husband, Dave Seaman, 39, would go play on his computer when Lansing-Seaman and friends were talking about witchcraft.

But he'd catch snippets of conversation, and in time he was calling himself a witch too. "I'd been spiritually seeking for a while," he says. "There's a lot of passion and poetry in this."

The group faces north and calls for the power of the earth; east and the power of air; south and the power of fire; west and the power of water. Then they invoke deities ("mother of the night, hear us now . . . ," "father of the night, hear us now . . . "). They cry out, "Old year out, new year in, let the witches' year begin!"

To be a pagan or a witch, it helps to appreciate a good ritual, which can involve everything from a lone person lighting incense to a large group putting on a play around a fire. Many rituals coincide with the changing seasons, and all are designed to strengthen the celebrants' relationship with the gods and goddesses.

"My friends in the coven indulge me when I want to do great, spectacular rituals," says member Rebecca Carey, 50. "I'd have chariots in the living room if I could!"

"Pagans love rituals," says religious studies professor Smith. "And they get to use all this really cool stuff. You've got your wands, you've got your [symbolic] daggers, and you get to light candles constantly."
Many people are charmed by the idea of magic, and spells are a big part of witchcraft. Spellcasters are seeking everything from true love to a safer world for their children. But spells are never supposed to be malevolent--a central tenet of witchcraft is "do no harm."

In his book "The Truth About Witchcraft," Scott Cunningham describes spells as words, chants and gestures with tools and says they're "the outer form only. The real magic, the movement of energy, is within the magician [who], by correctly performing a genuine spell, builds up the power within. At the proper time, this power is released to go to work in manifesting the spell."
In other words, the power is within the spell-caster, not the spell.

And spells don't take the place of plain old hard work, Carey says, "I'd rather go register voters than chant a spell to change things."

(Carey made the point of saying the group has a social conscience. For instance, the members plan to "adopt" members of the military who have declared themselves pagans and send them goody bags over Yule, another pagan holiday.)

As the campfire blazes, those around it clasp hands and sing a lone note. "Ahhhhhhhh!" And another, higher. And a third. This is the ritual of "toning," or raising energy.

Tell your relatives you're a witch or a pagan and the results could be . . . interesting.

"I was about 18 when I told my mom," says Peoria coven member Janea Godby, 26, a Wiccan. "She said, 'I've been practicing since before you were born.' She had been doing it in secret."
Godby's husband, who she says has "alternative spiritual views" of his own, is fine with her beliefs. Now she's teaching her 5-year-old daughter, Sabrina, about Wicca.

She also takes Sabrina to Jewish temple and Catholic mass. "I want her to know what's out there."
A 17-year-old at the Samhain ritual says she has been studying Wicca in private, reading books she keeps hidden and trying a few spells.

She says her mother was horrified when she found out. "I tried to explain it to her when I was 14, and she just flipped out. She said, 'I don't even want to know.'"

A lot of witches and pagans practice in solitude. Some fear how others might react, others are simply very private, and still others don't know how to find people who share their beliefs.

But these people are beginning to find each other, thanks in large part to the Internet. Web sites of the Witches' Voice (www.witchvox.com) and the Witches' League For Public Awareness (www.celticcrow.com) offer a wealth of information and offer ways for people to contact each other.

Alesea Oakstaff, 49, who has been with the Peoria coven since its beginning about five years ago, found her soul mates at a Wicca 101 class put on by the local Unitarian church.

"It's so good to find like-minded people," she says. "I was a pagan for years and didn't even know it. I had the beliefs, but I didn't know they had a name."

Those in the circle pass around a lighted jack-o-lantern. Each, in turn, holds it and speaks of someone beloved who has died. One mentions a childhood friend, another a sister, a grandfather, a bird. The others listen, nod and utter, "Blessed be."

Perhaps the greatest misconception about paganism and witchcraft is that they're synonymous with Satanism. Followers and experts say nothing could be further from the truth.

"Satan isn't even an issue, because they don't believe in Satan," says professor Smith. "There is no connection whatsoever between this benign, earth-based spirituality and devil worship."

She adds that "pagans are not interested in converting anybody, though they will explain what it is they believe. And they aren't after our children."

When Carey hears someone link Satanism and witchcraft or paganism, she says, "I just roll my eyes and say, 'No no no no noooooo!'"

Much of the misunderstanding centers on the pentacle. Among pagans and witches, the five-pointed star surrounded by a circle symbolizes the elements earth, air, fire, water and spirit. In Satanism, the pentacle is turned upside down, as is the crucifix, in a perversion of the true symbols.
"But people don't see that," Seaman says. "On television, it doesn't matter. In the movies, it doesn't matter. Right-side up or upside down, it's seen as a bad thing."

But Lansing-Seaman says she used to wear a pentacle around her neck all the time and never had a problem with anyone.

She finally stopped "because my birds kept chewing on it."

A man circles the group, stopping to hand each person an apple slice and say, "May you never know hunger, may you never know thirst."

The coven has included in its rituals remembrances of those killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
But they brush off any suggestion that the country's anger toward outsiders could result in a less tolerant climate for anyone "different."

Carey even says she has been "more aggressive since the bombings, quicker to flash the pentacle."
"Everything says 'God Bless America.' It's everywhere!" she says. Fed up, she recently told a local merchant, "Actually, it's 'Goddess Bless America.'"

The robed man waves the lighted torch and invokes the powers they have summoned to "depart in peace." He announces, "The circle is now open."

It's time for the group to feast together, on homemade bread, chunks of meat, hot chocolate and frosted cookies, enjoying the warmth of good food and friends as winter's chill closes in.
Which 'witch' is which?

Forget the pointy hats and warty chins. When it comes to real witches, you could pass one on the street and not even know it (just as she wouldn't know she'd just passed an ad exec or teacher or stay-at-home-mom . . . ). But our culture is loaded with made-up images of witches. Sit for a spell and take our pop-culture quiz:

This witch . . .
1. . . . met her demise screaming, "I'm melllllllll-ting!"
2. . . . was always a nose twitch away from getting into hot water with her dorky husband.
3. . . . lured children into her house to fatten them up for chow.
4. . . . is actually a trio of twisted sisters brewing up trouble with their prophecies.
5. . . . is the creepy character behind a recent movie with a cult following.
6. . . . is played by a Hart-throb pop star who's getting a tad old for the part.
7. . . . sent Dorothy marching down the Yellow Brick Road.

Answers: 1. The Wicked Witch of the West in "The Wizard of Oz." 2. Samantha Stephens (Elizabeth Montgomery) in the TV show "Bewitched." 3. Hansel and Gretel's wicked captor in a Grimms' fairy tale. 4. The witches in "Macbeth." 5. The Blair Witch, otherwise known as Elly Kedward. Hundreds of years after she was accused of witchcraft, three college students decide to make a documentary about the legend (for, you know, a project) and are never seen again. 6. "Sabrina the Teenage Witch," starring 25-year-old Melissa Joan Hart 7. Glinda the Good Witch of the North


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