Witchcraft in the #MeToo Era

New York Times/August 16, 2018

By Sanam Yar

In a secluded nook of Central Park, 13 witches stood in a circle on a cloudless Saturday, eyes closed, chanting. A makeshift altar on the forest floor bore a lantern, a silver chalice, a bowl of water, a jar of salt, a sunflower and a wand.

Denise Cruci, high priestess of North Wyldewood Coven, and her covenmate JoAnna Farrer guided the group through Midsummer, an annual ritual celebrating the summer solstice. In a billowy white skirt and flip-flops, Ms. Cruci resembled a free-spirited flower child.

The Temple of the Spiral Path, which includes the North Wyldewood and Stranger’s Gate covens, has performed rituals in this clearing, known among the witches as the green cathedral, for 20 years.

The worshipers sat cross-legged around a circle of flowers — dried calendula, chamomile, lavender and rose petals — carefully arranged in a spiral. Ms. Cruci led them through a meditation. Then they slowly joined hands and began singing, and one by one, they entered the spiral. Their dancing grew increasingly raucous as they intoned, “We are a circle moving, one with another we are, moving together we are one.”

In such a large and diverse city, it is no surprise that the Craft is fairly accessible, if you know where to look. Nearly 80 covens and pagan organizations operate in the New York Metropolitan area, according to the pagan networking site The Witches’ Voice. Exact numbers of witches in the city are hard to come by, as there are many solitary practitioners, but coven and community leaders estimate that as many as 10,000 witches live and practice in New York. Nationally, about 734,000 Americans identify as pagan or Wiccan, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey.

Nancy Guzman, a board member of New York City Pagan Pride, which stages an annual Pagan Pride Day festival (this year’s is scheduled for September in Battery Park) described the city’s witches as a diverse and accepting tribe. “Any kind of modern practice you can think of is here,” Ms. Guzman said. “If you’re here and drawn to that path, it’s much easier to find your people.”

In Manhattan, family-oriented witches attend the Wiccan Family Temple with their children. The Temple of the Spiral Path, also based in Manhattan, offers workshops and an introductory witch’s academy that meets weekly. New York’s pagan couples can be married by legally ordained Wiccan ministers offering their services on The Witches’ Voice; there’s even a Wicca e-group based in the Bronx. Catland Books, an occult bookshop in Bushwick, Brooklyn, offers weekly workshops, drawing a younger, trendier crowd.

“New York has always been open to alternative spirituality,” said Melissa Madara, co-owner of Catland. Over the last five years, she said, she has seen a millennial “witch wave,” an influx of young people drawn to occultism.

Wicca, a decentralized religion considered part of contemporary paganism, is experiencing a resurgence among young women, said Chas S. Clifton, editor of The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies and author of several books on the subject. “In the ’90s, you had ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ and ‘The Craft’ that popularized it,” Mr. Clifton said. The progression, he said, was natural. “It tides well with the feminist movement happening and internet culture popularizing it.”

Even Urban Outfitters, among rows of floral mini-dresses, offers a collection of witch-themed goods: a “self-love” spell kit with candles and crystals, and kitschy books that promise to help “tap your inner sorceress.”

Wicca’s history in America is a disputed one. In fact, there is no proven existence of the practice in the New World before the early 1960s, according to Ronald Hutton, a historian at the University of Bristol who studies contemporary paganism.

“When the tradition started, initiates really believed that they were being brought into something handed down in unbroken succession from ancient times,” Dr. Hutton said via email. Evidence now describes it as a young religion popularized by the British author Gerald Gardner in the 1950s and 1960s, with practitioners seeing it as a modern recreation that incorporates some ancient and medieval ideas. Gardnerian Wicca migrated to America in the 1960s, where it met with a receptive audience, particularly young women.

“The witch,” Dr. Hutton wrote, “is one of the very few images of independent female power which traditional culture has bequeathed to us.”

Sometimes it’s about empowerment, and sometimes it’s about bonding with friends over what Ms. Cruci calls the “Hollywitch.” On a recent Friday night, the witches of the Temple of the Spiral Path gathered to watch the spunky teenage witches in “The Craft.” The Temple occasionally hosts pagan movie nights. This one drew eight people — a few coven members and friends, to a Midtown dance studio where the group often meets.

JoAnna Farrer, 34, and her husband, who set up the projector, had never seen the 1996 cult classic, a supernatural horror film following a teenager who falls in with a clique of witches. Everyone else in the room, including Ms. Farrer’s close friend Ms. Cruci, expressed dismay. “How can you be a witch and have never seen ‘The Craft’?” one witch demanded, munching Doritos.

Ms. Farrer, North Wyldewood’s assistant head priestess, plays the violin with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. At 7, she was accepted as a scholarship student at the Juilliard School. At 12, coincidentally the year “The Craft” came out, she discovered Wicca.

Farrer spent her childhood jetting in and out of New York studying music while being home-schooled. From an early age, she read about Taoism and Christianity, intrigued by religious texts.

“I was really passionate about figuring out a philosophy of looking at the world,” she said. “I was asked to do adult things at a young age, like performing chamber music on stage, so I was looking for a way to deal with the pressure.”

It was a TV interview featuring a witch that led Ms. Farrer to research Wicca. As she read, she had an epiphany. “Oh, so this is what I am,” she said.

Wicca helped her develop a stronger sense of self-worth, she believes. “Studying goddesses and female deities, how could I not see women as being sacred, just as men are?” she said. “There is this feminist element.”

Ms. Farrer refers to her covenmates as sisters. Ms. Cruci, 50, a teacher’s assistant in a special education class, agreed readily. “Before Wicca, I felt disconnected and lonely,” she said, pulling out her phone and scrolling through images of her coven. There were shots of women holding one another and smiling, wearing matching sweatshirts at an apple-picking farm.

“I never had close relationships with other women,” Ms. Cruci said. “Now, I’m never alone. This is where I belong.”

Regardless, many witches, fearing judgment from family and friends, keep their practice a secret. The workplace can also be difficult to navigate, with some practitioners concealing pentacle jewelry and pagan-inspired tattoos that may raise questions from colleagues.

Ms. Cruci does not believe witchcraft will be widely accepted any time soon, though she notes it is much easier to tell people she is Wiccan now than when she first discovered it. Mostly, she just doesn’t want to see the tradition die, and her and others in the Temple of the Spiral Path hope to see their covens maintain healthy growth.

At the Midsummer ritual, as the witches reeled around the flowers, the occasional passer-by peered through the foliage before retreating. After the song and dance, the witches brought out individual chalices, into which Ms. Farrer poured herbal tea.

They capped the ceremony with a picnic, sprawled over blankets and chatting idly.

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