Witches gather in a circle at Elayne Lockhart's apartment in Concord. It's neither a solstice nor a full moon, not a night of religious significance in the Wiccan world at all. They aren't even discussing upcoming plans for Samhain, the pagan New Year's Eve observance that nonbelievers celebrate as Halloween.
What brings these witches of Contra Costa together is educational rather than ceremonial concerns. They have come out of the broom closet, so to speak, to teach the uninitiated and the curious all about the enchanting world of witchcraft, Wicca, paganism and other forms of goddess worship. They won't cast spells on this night, merely dispel stereotypical depictions of this old-time religion that predates Christianity.
Jessica, a petite redhead in an attractive pantsuit, is one of the curious. She looks around the room, wide-eyed and smiling at the sheer, well, normality of what she sees.
"Where are the pointy hats and the crooked noses and the green faces?" Jessica asks, laughing nervously. "Only one of you here is wearing black. This isn't what I expected."
The witches giggle, nod knowingly. These self-described priestesses have heard it all before, all that Grimms Fairy Tale hooey. They set Jessica straight. They tell her that witchcraft -- these practitioners, by the way, prefer to use the traditional term rather than the more New Agey name Wicca -- is a nature-based religion featuring many gods and goddesses. Far from being satanic, paganism honors the seasons and phases of the moon through ritual that, yes, occasionally involves magic.
But, they tell Jessica, spells are used for good, not evil. "So," Jessica sighs, "that means you won't teach me how to turn my ex-boyfriends into toads?"
Hardly. In truth, the two-hour gabfest turns out to be as tame as a PTA meeting, as casual and collegial as a bunch of moms yakking it up while their kids frolic in the park. If you were to run into these women in the checkout line at the grocery store, you couldn't tell them from all the other soccer moms with minivans.
Lockhart, 41, has a chatty, girlish voice that belies her age. She has short red hair and wears a pink T-shirt and black stretch pants. RhosynTan of Lafayette (she declines to give her "secular" name because "I volunteer at a local high school") is married and has a 19-year-old daughter. She's a brassy blonde, as tart-tongued and funny as Lockhart is sweet.
And 30-year-old Jamie Kathan- Cole, of Concord, wears jeans and, seemingly, a permanent smile.
So much for stereotypes.
"We have jobs, we love kids, and a lot of us have them," Kathan-Cole says. "Being a witch, pagan or Wiccan means respecting the earth and preserving her as best we can. Part of the work a witch does is bringing balance, balancing ourselves with the universe around us."
Witches, too, seem to be all around us.
"There was a poll taken by a (metaphysical) store in Contra Costa about five years ago, to see how many pagans there were in the county," Lockhart says. "There were 3,000 who signed up. And it's probably twice as many now, since there are a lot of solitaries out there who aren't open about it. But they are out there."
Their problems are just like anybody else's. It's how they deal with those problems that may differ.
In June 1993, around the time of summer solstice, Lockhart thought it was time she got another man in her life. She had been divorced three years, had two kids and had only recently come out of the broom closet about her powers as a witch. It wasn't going to be easy.
So Lockhart went to the altar at her Concord apartment and sent out a spell for a man 10 years older than she, who was taller than 6 feet and who was like-minded and accepting of her witchcraft. Five months later, she met Dan, who fit all the criteria. Bewitched by one another, soon they were married.
What, a skeptic might ask, is the difference between a spell and merely a secular wish or a Christian prayer?
"It's very similar," Lockhart says. "Magical spell work is, basically, energy. It's sending out something positive. You have to learn the proper ways. You do not demand your god or goddess to show up. You have to learn to work with your gifts, cultivate your divination and feel comfortable with them. It takes time."
Lockhart should know. She says she was initiated into traditional witchcraft -- passed down to family members who show the aptitude to carry on the tradition -- in 1967. She was 10, living with her grandmother on a cattle ranch off Marsh Creek Road in Clayton. Grandma, she says, was something of an eclectic sort.
"She was a healer, an herbalist, a midwife, a self-taught vet, a psychic who read cards and a Catholic," Lockhart says. "Living with her, it was all about balance and nature, which you see everyday living on a cattle ranch. That's where I developed powers of observing nature to know what's going to happen in the future."
It wasn't easy, being a child witch in the suburbs in the late '60s and early '70s.
"My grandmother would send me to catechism, and I'd keep coming up with questions to the nuns like, `Well, what about Mrs. God?' Even back then, I saw that (Christianity) was patriarchal."
Then there was relating with her schoolmates.
"You just don't go up to a kid and say, `Hi, I'm a witch,' " Lockhart says. "My problem in school was with my psychic gifts. I don't like to see anyone get hurt, so I'd say to kids, `Don't go out on the playground today because you'll get hurt.' They'd go, get hurt, then come back and harass me for it. I learned how cruel children can be. No matter where I went to school, I was always labeled a witch, even if they didn't know my background. Maybe they just saw something different in me. I was more mature than most kids, more open to things beyond the physical realm."
In high school, Lockhart met her first husband, who was part Native American. Later, before they got married, she told her first husband, a firefighter, that she was a witch.
"I'm not sure he really believed me at the time," she says. "While we were married, I practiced while he was at work or after the kids went to bed. My ex could understand my beliefs from a Native American point of view, but things didn't work out, and on our 13th wedding anniversary, we filed for divorce."
Lockhart's children -- a daughter, 23, and son, 19 -- knew about their mother's religious beliefs since childhood, but it wasn't until they became teenagers that she started making public appearances at workshops. "Kids seem to handle it better than adults," Lockhart says. "My son's friends in high school would say `cool' when they found out. What the craft teaches you is that whatever energy you send out is going to return to you. You are responsible for all your actions. When something goes wrong in your life, you have to look at yourself first. But everything's also connected to Mother Earth. When a woman is attacked somewhere, it hurts all women. If a male witch is attacked for his beliefs, it also hurts everybody."
Neither of Lockhart's children is an initiated witch, but she says they both have "healing gifts" they cultivate in different ways. "My son is more in touch with his Celtic side, and my daughter's drawn to her Native American side," she says.
Neither RhosynTan's husband nor her 19-year-old daughter practice the craft. "But (her daughter) is kind, generous, respects others, is compassionate, so I guess some of my values rubbed off on her," she says.
On RhosynTan's front porch are her religious "decorations," including grapevine wreaths with pentacles -- five-pointed stars -- woven in. She has a stone circle on her fireplace hearth ("looks like Stonehenge," she says) and gargoyle statues throughout the house.
"Keeps the Jehovah's Witnesses away," RhosynTan says, laughing.
RhosynTan said she got the pagan calling at age 7 and her parents, though non-Pagans, did not discourage her. "Nothing mattered to them except whether you were a good person or not," she says. She's been a priestess since 1977 and heads a nematon (place made holy) called Awen-Celi Grove in Contra Costa.
She's known in the local pagan community for her outspoken nature. "I do not tolerate those who practice religions that seek to deliberately hurt others, that act out of or teach malice or hatred or that teach that there's only one right way. . . . I personally have nothing against Christians, so long as they are willing to be tolerant of my beliefs as well."
Six years ago, RhosynTan lost her job at a retail store, she says, because of a conflict with a co-worker who was a born-again Christian. "I consider myself lucky," she says. "I have known others who lost their children, friends, homes and families because they embraced a `benign' religious belief that is not one of the `acceptable' mainstream religions." Kathan-Cole, a solitary practitioner, grew up in a strict Protestant family in Concord and knows religious repression firsthand.
She said she also had a "Don't ask, don't tell policy" with her husband, a Catholic. Witchcraft has helped Kathan-Cole deal with the death of her infant son due to labor complications in 1996 and her divorce a year later. "My work as a witch is a healing path, but I'm not like some who deny there is a dark side to existence," she says. "The sun sets, death happens, life is not always pretty. But without the darkness, there could be no light. . .
. I just wish more people would understand that witches and pagans are out there working to heal the planet."
As the two-hour witches' forum breaks up, hugs are exchanged and Lockhart invites Jessica, one of the curious, to come back to another meeting. Jessica nods in acknowledgment, but adds with a smirk: "Yeah, but I'd still like to turn my ex-boyfriends into toads."
Don't call Steve Corum a warlock. He is a witch, the chief godhi (lawgiver) of an Asatru circle based in Walnut Creek. If you call him --or, for that matter, any priest in pagan or heathen traditions -- a warlock, it's considered highly offensive.
"Very derogatory," Corum says. "Warlock means oath- breaker." Seven years ago, Corum converted from Christianity to Asatru (meaning "speak the truth" in old Icelandic). This traditional Norse religion is similar to Wicca, says Corum. But he says it is decidely more male-centered.
"Most pagan religions are very feminine-heavy, but in Norse, we emphasize more the divine marriage between gods and goddesses," Corum says. "But we still give reverence to the old (religion). We're honest in our affairs with family, kindred. We believe in the Three Fold Law, that any negative spell you send out comes back to you three times negative." Corum says the Norse tradition differs from Wicca and other pagan religions in two respects:
We asked witches in Contra Costa and Cheryl Cabot of the Witches' League for Public Awareness in Salem, Mass., to dispel assumptions about witchcraft, Wicca and paganism. Here are their answers:
Q: Is witchcraft a religion?
A: Yes. Witchcraft is protected under the U.S. Constitution and has been acknowledged by the Internal Revenue Service as a religion. Under Title VII, pagans and witches are protected from job and housing discrimination.
Q: Are witches worshipers of Satan?
A: No. Witches believe that nothing is evil and that all things contain divine energy. "Satan is a Christian construct," said RhosynTan, a witch from Lafayette. "We do not perform blood or fire sacrifice of any living thing."
Q: What do witches believe?
A: "Practitioners call witchcraft a pantheistic religion, believing that God and Goddess energy is contained in all things," Cabot writes. Witches "also become aware of the belief in one universal energy that is polar and balanced. It is the union of this polar masculine and feminine energy that creates the perfect whole."
Q: What does the witches' rede, "An it harm none, do as ye will" mean?
A: Says witch Elayne Lockhart of Concord: "This has been misinterpreted to read, `Do what you want as long as it harms no one.' Originally, it meant to find your will and purpose in life and to follow it as long as you harm none in the process."
Q: What is a spell?
A: "It's a thought, a projection or a prayer," Cabot writes. Wands are used in healing for directing energy, she says.
Q: How do witches celebrate Halloween?
A: Says Lockhart: "It's Samhain (pronounced sow-when), the Celtic New Year. It's a time we pay honor to our ancestors, those who have left us. It's also our New Year, so we make wishes, like for a new home, a better job, peace."
Q: What about candy and costumes?
A: Says Lockhart: "That's just Santa Claus-type of stuff."
Q: What's the symbolism of a witch's broom?
A: Cabot writes it is "used for sweeping any harmful energies from the area. . . . Of course, on the practical side, you can use it to sweep your
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