After a spring and summer of scrutiny, witches at the nation's largest Army post are calling a retreat. The group, known as the Open Circle, held its last public ritual to which media were invited this past weekend. In the future, its nature-based rituals will be closed to the glare of camera lights.
It has been a "hard and taxing year," said the Rev. David Oringderff, high priest and founder of San Antonio's Sacred Well Congregation, which sponsors the Open Circle. "I want to focus on the religion and get the attention away from the Army."
The Wiccans, as witches call themselves, have held rituals at Fort Hood for three years. But after news reports including photos of a monthly ceremony were published in late spring, critics jumped forward. They were especially incensed that the Pentagon accords Wiccans the same right to worship as traditional faiths.
"We've told our story," Oringderff, a retired military intelligence officer, said Friday. "Really, it is a massive coordination effort to invite the press -- and to keep focused on our ritual."
One of the first to object to their rituals was the Rev. Jack Harvey, pastor of the 200-member Tabernacle Independent Baptist Church in nearby Killeen.
"These people are demonic," Harvey said. "We don't say they might be."
First, Harvey organized a letter-writing campaign by his congregation. Now he plans a protest march starting at 10 a.m. Labor Day in front of a Killeen mall. He hopes to draw 50 to 100 demonstrators.
"We'll also have picket signs against alcohol and homosexuality," Harvey said. "But especially we'll be emphasizing that God hates witchcraft."
Also objecting was U.S. Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., who tried and failed to attach an amendment to a military appropriations bill outlawing Wiccan practice on military bases.
"This move sets a dangerous precedent that could easily result in the practice of all sorts of bizarre practices being supported by the military under the rubric of `religion,' " Barr wrote to Fort Hood's commander, Gen. Leon J. LaPorte, in an attempt to get him to ban Wiccan activities on the sprawling Army post. "What's next? Will armored divisions be forced to travel with sacrificial animals for Satanic rituals? Will Rastafarians demand the inclusion of ritualistic marijuana cigarettes in their rations?"
U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., added his opposition. In June, 13 conservative religious groups urged young men and women to refuse to enlist or re-enlist until the military changes its policy. Later, two groups, including the Christian Coalition and the American Family Association, dropped that demand. Texas Gov. George W. Bush said in a TV interview that he didn't think witchcraft was a religion and that he wished the military would rethink its position.
The witches say their critics have it all wrong.
"Wicca, witchcraft, paganism, whatever you want to call it, is not Satanic," said Bill Smith, a Houston-area witch and computer programmer. "It is not evil. It holds as its highest principle a regard for life and the sacredness of life."We don't sacrifice animals. We don't have horns sprouting out of our heads. We don't even believe in a figure called Satan or any being that is the single embodiment of all evil. Satan is a Christian heresy, in my view. Our gods contain the same flaws that we do. They are good and bad. They are duplicitous; they are noble. They are light and dark. They are everything that we are."
The chairman of the Armed Forced Chaplains Board estimates there are fewer than 100 Wiccans among the country's 1.4 million active-duty military personnel.
But Oringderff says there are 125 to 150 Wiccans at Fort Hood alone.
"Not all of those come to the Open Circle," he said. "A lot of them are solitary." A solitary is a Wiccan who practices witchcraft alone, rather than in a group.
Staff Sgt. Philip Campanaro, an ordained deacon in the Fort Hood circle, began participating after several years of study. Campanaro, who was interviewed with the permission of Fort Hood officials, was reared Catholic. Now 34, he joined an evangelical church in his 20s.
"After a while, Christianity didn't seem to fit anymore. I studied the Bible rather extensively, including the times it was written in, the culture it was derived from. The more I studied, the less I agreed with. "But in 1993, I decided I wasn't going to be Christian anymore."
He settled on Wicca in 1994.
"I think the main thing that took me away from Christianity, from the Bible, was that the Bible -- the way it was taught -- it was very restrictive on personal growth. In contrast, Wicca is about learning about yourself.
"You study not only what the tenets of Wicca are, but you also learn how they apply to you and how you can grow within Wicca. In witchcraft, when you try a system or try some way and it doesn't feel right for you, you're not told you must stick with this. The emphasis is on finding things that work for you."
Campanaro said Wiccans do not recruit members. "We believe if someone is going to become a Wiccan, they will find a way. If they come to us for help, we will help if asked."
Wicca is part of a pagan renewal movement that grew most rapidly from the 1960s through the early 1980s, said J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, Calif. He estimates there are 50,000 pagans -- about 80 percent of them Wiccan -- in the United States today.
The moral frame of reference for the nature-based religion is different from a monotheistic faith, according to religion scholars. Lynn Mitchell, University of Houston religion scholar-in-residence, said Wicca's lack of formal doctrine attracts many of its followers.
Others leave more traditional congregations for Wicca because their home churches, temples or synagogues have inadequately instilled a particular faith in the next generation, or failed to help seekers develop a mature belief system as adults.
In a sense, Wicca is "just simpler" and more easily comprehended, Mitchell said. "In other words, you don't hear a revelation of a message from the outside. You seek all truth and meaning in yourself and in nature."
The real difference is the concept of God, he said.
"In paganism, there is no concept of a loving creator who actually created people because he wanted to have fellowship with them and to love them and to establish a personal relationship with them and redeem them," Mitchell said.
Melton sees the group maturing. Wiccans "have been trying as middle-aged adults not to stay out on the fringes, but to come back to the mainstream," Melton said. "They want to bring Wicca into the mixture of what they see as the pluralistic religious world and find a place for it in this country's religious landscape."
While a lot of young adults are attracted to Wicca, "only a small percentage stay with it," he said. "It's growing, but not at a rapid rate.
"What I have found is that the folks who stick with Wicca are tending to create a much more mature faith. They're gaining some sophistication. They're developing scholarship," he said. "For a group that hasn't been around for very long, Wicca has a surprising number of Ph.Ds, including people who've earned their Ph.Ds while they were Wiccans."
Among practitioners, Wicca is often known as "the Craft," meaning the craft of the wise. In belief, Wiccans are polytheists who believe in a "divine spark" responsible for all life. Deities often are personified as Mother Earth and Father Sky. In rituals, leaders may invoke deities like Freya, a Norse goddess.
"Most often the names are Celtic, Greek or Latin," writes Margot Adler in her well-known resource guide, Drawing Down the Moon (Penguin/Arkana Books, $16.95).
"Some covens meet in robes, some in street clothes," Adler writes. "Some work nude -- the revivalist term is `skyclad' -- generally because of the freedom they feel nudity engenders or because of its leveling quality."
Most Wiccans do magic, meaning directing "psychic energy" designed to heal, protect and aid members. Often the word is spelled "magick" to differentiate from card party trickery.
Paul Premazon, who owns the Magick Cauldron in Houston, views magick as including positive thinking and prayer. The "so-called ingredients are merely tools of the mind," said Premazon, whose Montrose-area shop stocks healing oils, ritual clothing, jewelry, reference books and other items Wiccans use. Premazon, a former Wiccan, returned to Reform Judaism after five years of training in witchcraft. He still owns the shop because he thinks there is a need for "legitimate, open exchange of information."
The number of Wiccans in Houston is unknown. Some observers estimate there are 1,000, but others insist there may be twice that many. They practice alone or in covens, meeting like-minded thinkers on the Internet or at seminars and spiritual retreats. As many as several dozen attend a monthly social gathering called Pagans' Night Out, which is held at different area restaurants.
Houston Wiccan Jim Kirk studied a range of traditions before settling on Wicca. Kirk, a computer operator, is a solitary who has practiced the craft alone for 16 years. He doesn't call himself a witch because of the associated negative connotations."Wicca teaches -- along with many traditional tribal religions -- that we were created as a part of nature," he said. "To Wiccans, the phrase `Mother Nature' is a simple statement of fact. I was never comfortable with the idea of a Holy Family consisting of a Father and a Son but no Mother. This simply wasn't what I saw while growing up."
Being Wiccan denotes "a conscious awareness that I am connected to the natural world, even if I do live and work in the big city."
In the course of a year, Wiccans observe eight festivals, called "Sabbats," to attune to the seasonal rhythms of nature. They include spring equinox, summer solstice, harvest and winter solstice. Most groups also meet at each full moon.
Many date the current witchcraft revival to the work of Gerald B. Gardner and others in the early 20th century. Gardner publicly declared himself a witch after Great Britain's anti-witchcraft laws were repealed in 1951.
Today, there are traditions that claim to have been derived or descended from hereditary sources. And there are Gardnerians, family traditions, traditions linked to best-selling books and groups that have developed their own traditions over time.
At Fort Hood, the practice followed is called Eclectic, meaning a blend of several traditions and personal preferences.
To gather on the post with the Army's approval, the Wiccans had to meet basic requirements, including being sponsored by the Sacred Well Congregation. Since they were approved, similar groups have been sanctioned by the military at Fort Wainwright in Alaska, Kadena Air Base in Okinawa and Fort Polk in Louisiana.
In the heat of public debate this summer over their existence in the armed services, the Fort Hood Wiccans held a ritual on a coven member's 10 wooded acres near Killeen. They already had asked the base commander to ban media from their on-post ceremonies, and they allowed only four reporters to watch this service, which was a special plea for understanding. Active-duty soldiers were about two-thirds of the 20 people present.
Oringderff's wife, the high priestess of the Open Circle, celebrated the ritual for tolerance.
A card table draped in a black cloth emblazoned with a white pentagram served as a makeshift altar. The sacred elements of life -- salt, bread and water -- were included. Ceremonial herbs were burned in a caldron. Parsley evoked cleansing. Sage dispelled negativity. Fennel assuaged worry. Wine was consumed from two silver chalices, to represent the dual godhead most Wiccans believe in. Near its closing, the priestess chanted: "May this parsley clean the palate of hurtful and negative speech.
"As the vapors of these herbs rise into the universe, they carry our prayers and hopes and magick for peace, love, tolerance and understanding in all of the family of man.
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