Salem forum: Witches more popular, less scary

The Salem News/April 14, 2008

Salem - Witches get more respect than they used to here in the Witch City.

That was a recurring theme among about 40 witches, pagans and Wiccans at a city-sponsored forum held Saturday night to educate the public and challenge stereotypes about their religion.

Salem resident Mike Gleason said local witches are no longer shunned or feared. During Halloween, little kids ran up to him to ask questions. Ten years ago they cowered behind their parents.

"By being out there and being open I think we have changed things," said Gleason. "Occasionally we get a nasty remark. We get a dirty look. But 99 out of 100 times they are going to accept us. It's wonderful."

The forum, sponsored by the city's No Place for Hate Committee, drew about 80 people to Old Town Hall, on a cold and rainy night where comments were occasionally punctuated by claps of thunder. About half of the people in the audience identified themselves by a show of hands as "interested spectators" and not part of the local witch community.

Jerrie Hildebrand, a Salem resident and Wiccan priestess, and Margot Adler, host of National Public Radio's "Justice Talking" and also a Wiccan priestess, served as panelists. The discussion was moderated by Salem State professor Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello.

Throughout the evening, the panelists described a mainstreaming of their religion that they never dreamed possible. Today modern paganism is the 19th most popular religion in the United States, said Adler.

"Wicca has exploded as far as numbers," she said.

There are now Wiccan-based charities, Wiccan-based AA chapters and Wiccan groups adopting highway beautification projects. Pagan studies courses are offered in major universities, she said.

Growing acceptance

In Salem, the city has benefited from a witch-friendly mayor, Hildebrand said.

Recently, Hildebrand wrote a short piece about the modern-day witch that was included in the city's official tourism guide for the first time. In a further sign of her religion's growing legitimacy, Hildebrand serves as the first Wiccan chaplain for the state Department of Correction.

One of the difficulties of educating the public about witches is the wide range of beliefs. Most witches identify themselves as followers of Wicca or paganism, but not all. Some dress head to toe in black; others who came Saturday night wore conservative, blue-striped, button-down shirts and wire-rimmed glasses. Most psychics are not witches.

Adler tried to give an "elevator-ride" description of her religion, as requested by one person who attended.

The one thing followers share is "a state where you feel connected to everything in the universe." Both women talked about feeling a oneness with nature at an early age, always more at home in a meadow than a church.

Salem resident Hannah Diozzi told the crowd the word pagan was an "epithet" when she was growing up. Hildebrand explained it means "people of the Earth."

A freelance writer with Modern Witch magazine wanted to know if either woman thought it was racist to put a broom-riding witch logo on city police cruisers.

Hildebrand said she doesn't hear many complaints about the flying witch. She likes it.

"I love that our high school team is known as the Witches. If the kids are throwing that kind of intention into their games, I think that's great," she said.

Adler said she wishes she could fly on a broomstick.

"The only one I have trouble with is the really old hag notion," she said. "I also don't like when women are described as witches, when what they really want to use is the 'b' word. I will call people on that."

The fight continues

Despite the many gains, there is still discrimination. Hildebrand said she would not feel comfortable wearing her pentacle pendant - the symbol of Wicca and other Earth-based religions - in her small town in upstate New York. She gets calls from parents in danger of losing custody because of their religion, and from workers afraid to "come out of the broom closet" for fear of losing their jobs.

Here in Salem there's more tolerance, but also a higher standard placed on witches, Hildebrand said.

She said she would be reluctant to report a hate crime, not out of fear, but because she would worry that the media would sensationalize the case, and witches around the country would be harmed.

"It's embarrassing sometimes when I have to listen to what other people think a Salem witch is," she said.

Nial Hartnett, a witch who lives in Danvers, wondered if this growing acceptance is a good thing.

"You have mentioned the word 'mainstreaming' several times. I wonder if we are in danger of losing who we really are, the mystery and the magic," he said. "Maybe we don't want to be like everyone else."

But Hildebrand insisted that the freedoms gained to practice their religion will be lost unless they work within some official structures, like the federal government.

Adler agreed the community is not "as edgy" as when she began practicing 35 years ago.

"There are compromises one makes," she said. "There are gains and there are losses."

Peabody resident Jimahl DiFiosa has been a member of the Wiccan community for 25 years. After the forum, he said he was thrilled that people seemed genuinely interested in learning more about his religion.

"In the small hometown where I grew up I can't be openly Wiccan," he said. "I think people in a community like Salem take it for granted."

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