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Wicca's Charm | Reviews | Praise | Excerpt


"Bewitched by Wicca; Unorthodox religion counts increasing numbers under its spell," The Washington Times, October 28, 2005

Many Americans expect to find cute, pointy-hatted witches on their doorsteps this Halloween, candy bags in tow. But elsewhere that night, real witches will be celebrating the beginning of the Wiccan new year, Samhain, when they believe the veil between the living and the dead is thin.

Wicca, recognized by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals as an official religion, has experienced tremendous growth in recent years. Covenant of the Goddess, the oldest and largest organization of witches in the United States, conducted a poll in 1999 that estimated the number of witches and pagans in the country at nearly 800,000. Because some Wiccans are reluctant to identify themselves, the number may be much larger. Researchers estimate that two-thirds of Wiccans are women.

Wicca is a ritualistic religion that emphasizes the unity of nature and the divinity of human beings. Most Wiccans recognize the Mother Goddess, who manifests herself in nature. In addition to Samhain, most Wiccans celebrate eight festivals, called sabbats, throughout the year. On these days, Wiccans meet and hold rituals. Self-described witch Starhawk, author of "The Earth Path," said that this Halloween she and other Wiccans will meet to perform a circular dance that signifies rebirth and regeneration.

Because they believe the Earth is sacred, most Wiccans are devoted environmentalists.

"Right now, globally, we're in a major crisis of survival, in terms of our relationship to the planet we live on," Starhawk said. "People ... are searching for a way to really re-envision our spiritual connection to the Earth. That's the core of what Wicca offers. We need to respect the Earth we live on and live in harmony with her."

The growing number of Wicca practitioners can be attributed to several forces.

Catherine Edwards Sanders, who researched the religion for her book, "Wicca's Charm," said one explanation for the growth of the religion is the proliferation of magic- and witch-themed popular culture.

"The popularity of 'Harry Potter' absolutely fueled the growth of Wicca," particularly among teens, Ms. Sanders said.

The teen shelf of most bookstores is amply stocked with stories of young wizards, witches and other magical beings. Teens interested in witchcraft even can purchase the "Teen Witch Kit," a handbook that comes with magic coins, a crystal and a pop-up altar.

Some teens looking to learn more about Wicca often turn to the Web.

"Wicca really grew because of the Internet," Ms. Sanders said. "Wicca used to be kind of underground, kind of hard to find."

She said the Internet provides a place for those interested in the religion to share information. Community message boards and information on spells, rituals and sacred pagan texts are available online.

The 1996 film "The Craft," about a group of high school students involved in the occult, and television shows such as "Charmed" and "Supernatural" add to the mystique of magic. Of course there's "Harry Potter," J.K. Rowling's phenomenally popular book series and the movies it inspired.

Some Wiccans think the abundance of supernatural culture is an outshoot of Wicca's growth, not the cause of it.

"I think there's a lot in the popular culture right now partly because people are very hungry for that sense of connectedness," said Starhawk, who has been a practicing witch for about 30 years. "There are kids that get attracted to Wicca out of growing up on 'Harry Potter' ... but that attraction really represents some sort of deeper yearning for a real, deep, spiritual connection."

Ms. Sanders agreed. "Teens are looking to have a real experience, a supernatural experience," she said. "They are very interested in spirituality, but they are not interested in religion."

Ms. Sanders, a Christian, said the church should work harder to reach out to people with spiritual hunger.

Women's attraction to Wicca often is linked to a rejection of more traditional religions. Some witches say they were drawn to Wicca because it holds that women are powerful and divine, whereas other religions tend to marginalize women.

"We envision the sacred as the Goddess," Starhawk said. "There's a strong emphasis on the power of women, and the power of life and those who bring life into the world. And that's often lacking in some of the other religious traditions."

Ms. Sanders said Wicca's emphasis on respect for women is strange, considering the religion was largely founded by men, notably Gerald Gardner and Aleister Crowley in the mid-20th century. Mr. Crowley was known for his avid sexual appetite and was said to wander London's streets in search of women. Wiccans often are content to ignore such history, Ms. Sanders said. "They're more interested in the experience."

That experience varies from one Wiccan to another. Some say they see visions or describe entering a trancelike state. Others envision faces in mirrors or encounter spiritual beings floating near the roof. Not every experience is the same, and adherents say open-mindedness is important.

"The only thing orthodox about Wicca is that it has no orthodoxy," Ms. Sanders said.

Wiccans say most people have misperceptions about their religion, particularly that it involves Satan worship. Devil worship "really has nothing to do with it," Starhawk said. Most Wiccans do not even believe in the existence of Satan.

Ms. Sanders agreed that most people do not understand Wicca.

"The emphasis Wiccans place on the environment, their love of the arts ... and their desire for a spirituality that honors women should serve as a wake-up call to the church, to make sure Christians are living their faith holistically and authentically," she said.

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