So what does a witch do on Halloween?

  • Article by: BILL WARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 31, 2010 - 3:50 PM

The haunting truth: The beliefs and practices of Wiccans don't live up (or down) to the legends

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Louise Gastuch performs an invocation in the garb she wears at Wiccan rituals.

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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Amid all the Lady Gagas and Chilean coal miners knocking on our doors Halloween night, there are sure to be some girls wearing pointy black hats and brandishing brooms. But for some real-life witches, aka Wiccans, the public holiday ritual is largely over -- and it didn't involve any midnight flights, bubbling caldrons or eye of newt.

The Wiccan Church of Minnesota held its autumn celebration, Samhain ("sow-enn"), on Saturday night. And as with Day of the Dead rites in Mexico or All Souls' Day practices throughout Europe at this time of year, Samhain is, in the words of local Wiccan John Stitely, "a reverential communion with our ancestors and with our friends and loved ones who are still hanging around."

And they weren't hiding in the woods, either. Instead, they gathered at the Sacred Paths Center just off University Avenue in St. Paul. While many local Wiccans still shield their identities -- making estimates of their numbers guesswork -- the fears of witch hunts and "Satanic panics" have abated in recent years, especially in the Twin Cities.

"There has been an arc of acceptability," Stitely said. "Shoot, there are people who are openly 'out' and nobody blinks an eye. This town is sort of special that way."

According to Louise Gastuch, another member of the Wiccan Church of Minnesota, the Internet and outreach efforts such as next weekend's Psychic Faire have helped "dispel the misinformation about our beliefs and practices."

Among the long-standing misconceptions: devil worship. While Wiccans are part of a neo-pagan community that includes Satanists, they generally do not believe in Satan and often regard him as a Christian figure.

"There is no power of evil," said Stitely, whose long hair and beard give him a Merlin-like mien. "There is evil in the world, but the vast majority is generated by [humans]."

Wicca's origins debated

Wicca is not unlike many other religions, with divergent theologies, approaches and the inevitable schisms.

"Ask five Wiccans what Wicca is, and you'll get a minimum of seven answers," Gastuch joked.

Wicca's origins are a source of considerable debate, but the nature-based branch of neo-paganism -- others include Revivalists, Norse Pagans and Greek Reconstructionists -- is based to some degree on ancient folk practices. Stitely calls it "a mishmash of what has happened in Europe over thousands of years."

Wiccans believe in deities ("abso-freakin'-lutely," Stitely said), foremost among them usually a Mother Goddess along with a horned god of nature.

Much of Wicca is built around such duality and polarity: the relationship between life and death, light and dark, men and women, the physical and the spiritual. "We circle around and cycle through these opposites at all times," Gastuch said.

The two most important of Wicca's eight annual rituals, Beltaine (around May 1) and Samhain, represent the beginning and end of summer and the growing season, "a bellwether from the world being green to everything turning brown and dying," Stitely said. Samhain also is regarded by many Wiccans as "the time when the veil between the two worlds [living and dead] is thinnest," he said.

Wiccan ceremonies include chanting and dancing, and participants might wear robes and talismans. Individuals approach Samhain in their own ways, Gastuch said. And while they practice "magick" and use spells, these take the form of meditation and incantations that are akin to Christian prayers, she added -- no abracadabras or curses.

"Wiccans typically believe that we play an active role in the shaping of our reality," Gastuch said. "As such, we might use many means to help retain our mental focus, direct our energy or seek help from a 'higher power.' These techniques have solid psychological roots, such as ridding yourself of anger by pounding on a pillow, or keeping some token or using some phrase to remind us of something to do or to avoid."

Long and winding road

Paganism has been around for millenniums, with witchcraft perhaps peaking in the Middle Ages. Wicca is a more recent iteration, carrying many similarities to mainstream religions -- "It took me years to figure out that the burning bush is a good metaphor for that one-on-one experience we have with a god," Stitely said -- and the even more recent New Age movement.

Gastuch said she was drawn to Wicca in large part because of "the belief that there is a Power which is greater than each, any or all of us, and that Power is also manifest in every aspect of creation, and that we are each a part of that Power, and It is a part of us, making each of us co-creators of this existence."

There are many grown following sundry traditions. "The theology is very flexible," Stitely said, "and groups tend to be non-lasting." The Wiccan Church of Minnesota started up after a mid-1980s rift with the Minnesota Church of Wicca (whose website has been idle for more than a year).

There's not much of a hierarchy, with officers handling teaching and logistics but no high priest(ess) or recruiting director.

"Mostly we wait for people to come to us," Stitely said. "We have membership drives, but they're along the lines of 'If you're interested in learning this stuff, we'll teach you.'"

A study at Indiana University of Pennsylvania estimated that there are more than 750,000 Wiccans in the United States. But they're a long way from total acceptance. Delaware senatorial candidate Christine O'Donnell admitted dabbling in witchcraft in her younger days, but her first campaign ad began with her declaring, "I am not a witch."

That brought a chuckle -- and a sigh -- from Stitely.

"No one has a decent census, but I'm pretty sure there are thousands of [Wiccans] in this area," he said, "probably about as many as the Jehovah's Witnesses, and they're a little strange, too. But no politician would start an ad with 'I am not a Jehovah's Witness.'"

Bill Ward • 612-673-7643

By BILL WARD • bill.ward@startribune.com Amid all the Lady Gagas and Chilean coal miners knocking on our doors on Halloween night, there are sure to be some girls wearing pointy black hats and brandishing brooms. But for real-life witches, aka Wiccans, the annual holiday ritual is largely over -- and it didn't involve any midnight flights, bubbling caldrons or eye of newt. Wiccans held their autumn celebration, called Samhain, on Saturday night (it's always on the Saturday closest to Nov. 1). And as with Day of the Dead rites in Mexico or All Souls' Day practices throughout Europe at this time of year, Samhain is, in the words of local Wiccan John Stitely, "a reverential communion with our ancestors and with our friends and loved ones who are still hanging around." And they weren't hiding in the woods, either. Instead, they gathered at the Sacred Rites Center just off University Avenue in St. Paul. While many local Wiccans still shield their identities -- making estimates of their numbers guesswork -- the fears of witch hunts and "Satanic panics" have abated in recent years, especially in the Twin Cities. "There has been an arc of acceptability," Stitely said. "Shoot, there are people who are openly out, and nobody blinks an eye. This town is sort of special that way." According to Louise Gastuch, another member of the Wiccan Church of Minnesota, the Internet and outreach efforts with authorities and the general public via events such as next weekend's Psychic Faire have helped "dispel the misinformation about our beliefs and practices." Among the long-standing misconceptions: devil worship. While Wiccans are part of a neo-pagan community that includes Satanists, they generally do not believe in Satan and often regard him as a Christian figure. "There is no power of evil," said Stitely, whose long hair and beard give him a Merlin-like mien. "There is evil in the world, but the vast majority is generated by [humans]." Wicca's origins debated Wicca is not unlike many other religions, with divergent theologies, approaches and the inevitable schisms. "Ask five Wiccans what Wicca is, and you'll get a minimum of seven answers," Gastuch joked. Wicca's origins are a source of considerable debate, but the nature-based branch of neo-paganism -- others include Revivalists, Norse Pagans and Greek Reconstructionists -- is based to some degree on ancient Druid practices. Stitely calls it "a mishmash of what has happened in Europe over thousands of years." Wiccans believe in deities ("abso-freakin'-lutely," Stitely said), foremost among them usually a Mother Goddess along with a horned god of nature. Much of Wicca is built around such duality and polarity: the relationship between life and death, light and dark, men and women, the physical and the spiritual. "We circle around and cycle through these opposites at all times," Gastuch said. The two most important of Wicca's eight annual rituals, Beltaine (around May 1) and Samhain, represent the beginning and end of summer and the growing season, "a bellwether from the world being green to everything turning brown and dying," Stitely said. Samhain also is regarded by many Wiccans as "the time when the veil between the two worlds [living and dead] is thinnest," he said. Wiccan ceremonies include chanting and dancing, and participants might wear robes and talismans. Individuals approach Samhain in their own ways, Gastuch said. And while they practice "magick" and use spells, these take the form of meditation and incantations that are akin to Christian prayers, she added -- no abracadabras or curses. "Wiccans typically believe that we play an active role in the shaping of our reality," Gustach said. "As such, we might use many means to help retain our mental focus, direct our energy or seek help from a 'higher power.' These techniques have solid psychological roots, such as ridding yourself of anger by pounding on a pillow, or keeping some token or using some phrase to remind us of something to do or to avoid." Long and winding road Paganism has been around for millenniums, with witchcraft perhaps peaking in the Middle Ages. Wicca is a more recent iteration, carrying many similarities to mainstream religions -- "It took me years to figure out that the burning bush is a good metaphor for that one-on-one experience we have with a god," Stitely said -- and the even more recent New Age movement. Gastuch said she was drawn to Wicca in large part because of "the belief that there is a Power which is greater than each, any or all of us, and that Power is also manifest in every aspect of creation, and that we are each a part of that Power, and It is a part of us, making each of us co-creators of this existence." There are many subsects following sundry traditions. "The theology is very flexible," Stitely said, "and groups tend to be non-lasting." The Wiccan Church of Minnesota started up after a mid-1980s rift with the Minnesota Church of Wicca (whose website has been idle for more than a year). There's not much of a hierarchy, with officers handling teaching and logistics but no high priest(ess) or recruiting director. "Mostly we wait for people to come to us," Stitely said. "We have membership drives, but they're along the lines of 'If you're interested in learning this stuff, we'll teach you.'" A study at Indiana University of Pennsylvania estimated that there are more than 750,000 Wiccans in the United States. But they're a long way from total acceptance. Delaware senatorial candidate Christine O'Donnell admitted dabbling in witchcraft in her younger days, but her first campaign ad began with her declaring, "I am not a witch." That brought a chuckle -- and a sigh -- from Stitely. "No one has a decent census, but I'm pretty sure there are thousands of [Wiccans] in this area," he said, "probably about as many as the Jehovah's Witnesses, and they're a little strange, too. But no politician would start an ad with 'I am not a Jehovah's Witness.'"
  • PSYCHIC FAIRE

    What: Vendors, tarot readings and more.

    When: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sat.; concert at 7 p.m.

    Where: Sacred Paths Center, 777 Raymond Av., St. Paul.

    Info: 651-644-3727 or www.wiccanchurchmn.

    org.

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