The high priestess lifts her arms to the crescent moon, her bright silver pentagrams shimmering in the light of a burning cauldron. About her stand hooded figures, some with long forked staffs bearing stag horns and hawk feathers, animal skins and other talismans. "Circle of power," she chants, "I conjure thee to ban such things as named by me... Attract such things as named by me... Be cleansed of all impurity... So mote it be." Surrounded by swarms of mosquitoes, the others chant back in litany, "So mote it be."
The ceremony is a "moon ritual," and the 20 people who gathered two weeks ago in this meadow in the middle of Texas believe it will change the world, if ever so slightly. That is because they are witches, and what they are doing in this incantatory rite is casting spells, in this case for "tolerance and understanding." And while card-carrying witches might seem remarkable enough, these are more exotic still. They are Army witches: colonels and sergeants and captains and privates. They belong to a group of 50 or so kindred spirits who assemble regularly at Fort Hood, the largest U.S. military base, in Killeen. They are, in fact, part of a boomlet in the armed forces of believers who call themselves Wiccans and follow a polytheistic, nature-based religion that centers on an earth goddess. Since Fort Hood gave official recognition to the Wiccans more than two years ago, four more military bases have sanctioned the religion.
Few people outside the base knew the Army had approved such a group until a couple of months ago, when a photo of a torchlight ritual appeared in a local paper. As word spread, Christian groups and politicians denounced the Wiccans as both satanic and inappropriate in the U.S. Army. Eleven religious organizations called on Christians not to enlist or re-enlist until the Army stops supporting witchcraft. "What's next?" asked Republican Congressman Bob Barr in a letter to Fort Hood's commander. "Will armored divisions be forced to travel with sacrificial animals for satanic rituals?" G.O.P. Senator Strom Thurmond vowed to introduce legislation to stop the armed forces from condoning witchcraft. The Army shrugs at such complaints, saying it has no plans to shut down "minority religions." "This belief is protected under the First Amendment," says Major General William Dendinger, chairman of the Armed Forces Chaplains Board. In any case, as he points out, "very few members of the military practice these beliefs."
In Killeen, Christians howl in protest. "We believe they are satanic and that they do not deserve to have any place at Fort Hood," says the Rev. Jack Harvey of the local Tabernacle Baptist Church, which sponsored a letter-writing campaign against the Wiccans. "Eighty percent of my congregation is military, and they are appalled by it."
Actually, Wiccans say they profess no satanism at all. Their paganism is drawn from pre-Christian European tribal religions that invoke spirits in nature and celebrate the seasons. They do not sacrifice animals or cast evil spells. Ron and Marie Smith, recently retired Army colonels, became Wiccans after having tried the Episcopal Church and Seventh-Day Adventism. "I was raised in the country, and in church I always felt enclosed," says Ron, 53, who is now a registered nurse, as is his wife. "I feel close to God in nature." Ron and Marie say they have paid a price for their beliefs. "We have had persistent threats against me and my wife," says Ron. "People have told us they will beat us up." Says Fort Hood high priestess Marcy Palmer: "I get threats on e-mail and calls threatening me at least twice a week."
While their beliefs and practices may be gentle at heart, their symbolism makes it fairly easy to demonize them. Besides calling themselves witches, they often prefer to conduct their rituals naked (Fort Hood has forbidden them to do so), use 9-in. daggers called athames in their ceremonies, cast magic spells, and worship, among others, "the horned god" found in pagan traditions. Wiccans are also pacifists, but believe that your actions come back to you threefold and are prepared to accept the consequences of what they do as soldiers. That the Army would be so progressive in its acceptance makes perfect sense to the Wiccans. "The Army has always been ahead of the civilian world on things like racial and sexual equality," says high priestess Palmer, a former military policewoman. "They're just a lot more tolerant. When you're in a foxhole, you don't care what religion the guy next to you belongs to." Army witches even have a sense of humor. At Halloween, Palmer turns her home, where she keeps a pet wolf named Spirit, into a haunted house for trick-or-treaters. "What could be better," she says, "than a haunted house with real witches and a wolf that howls on command?"
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