Blessed Be: Touching the Power of Witches

When I look back on it, I think I may have been a witch even as a kid.

Although I received no religious training as a child, something in me, some sense of connection or gratitude, demanded expression. I tried to believe in God, as I understood him. I would stare at the sky and try to convince myself that some real entity was staring back at me. I'd manage it — for a second or two.

The stars were certainly real, though, and miraculous enough. I could imagine them looking at me.

When I was only about 8 or 9, I used to go alone to secret places in empty lots near my suburban house to commune with plants and trees. Without knowing that anyone had ever done it before me, I celebrated the solstices and equinoxes with rituals. I would stand on a certain boulder, for instance, and say certain words to greet the new season.

It mattered to me when the season changed. New moods would sweep over me; everything smelled different; the world shifted. I had a mystical relationship with each season.

Twenty years later, when I encountered witches and their religion, known as Wicca, I realized that they were doing with their full adult power what I had done instinctively as a child.

Modern witches worship the physical world — the earth, their own bodies, the cycles of the sun and moon, life and death, light and darkness, and change, according to Starhawk, a San Francisco witch and writer. They have no deity but nature, though they use as a symbol and focus the earth Goddess, who was worshiped in various forms by people in ancient times.

Witches such as Starhawk believe that re-creating a modern version of the old pre-Judeo-Christian, female-centered religion is the best way to heal ourselves and others, find power and wholeness, and perhaps rescue the earth from the successes of its dominant species.

Witches for centuries have suffered persecution at the hands of those who have labeled their craft evil, heretical or satanic. I never rejected Wicca on those grounds. But at first I was skeptical, even satirical. I'd lived in California long enough to have had my fill of vaguely beatific people who don't believe in using the brains they were born with.

But the witches I met seemed surprisingly solid and sensible, and they radiated a sense of power — and a sense of humor — that attracted me.

"Witchcraft has always been a religion of poetry, not theology," Starhawk has written. It doesn't have a great deal to offer the intellectual. On the other hand, you don't have to "believe in" anything other than yourself. The rituals and practices tap into archetypes that speak to deep psychological truths.

I liked the way Starhawk and her followers combined their political passions — anti-nuclear work, environmental issues, feminism — with their religion. They seemed to be having fun, too: cutting loose, getting bigger and deeper as people. I felt a kinship with them.

But in my life, people don't go around talking about the Goddess, saying "Blessed Be" and singing songs to the moon, not to mention casting spells. It was embarrassing. It was dumb. I was torn.

Finally I took a deep breath and signed up for a week-long workshop in "Goddess spirituality." I drove to the Quaker Center in Ben Lomand on a warm Sunday evening in August in a cold sweat of anxiety.

I felt as if I were about to jump off a cliff.

There were about 45 of us — including several men — ranging in age from about 20 to about 60, about equally divided between gay and heterosexual. We came to the workshop from many directions, and not just geographically. There were former radicals, professional witches, lesbian farm couples, a half-Indian punk-rock enthusiast, a middle-aged West German man, a quiet woman who lived in her mother's house in a small town in Illinois and talked to trees. I feared that I was the most "normal" person there.

That first, utterly black new-moon night, we formed a circle in a clearing sheltered by redwoods and performed a ritual.

We faced each of the four directions in turn and called in the elements — air in the east, fire in the south, water in the west and earth in the north. We "cast a circle" around us to create sacred space, imagining a boundary of energy separating us from the rest of the world and binding us to one another. We sang simple songs over and over to invoke the presence of the Goddess in her triple aspects of maiden, mother and crone. Then we called on the Horned God, her child-lover, who, in the Wiccan tradition, dies and is reborn.

Of that first ritual, I mostly remember the strangeness and beauty, the way I felt that half of me was outside the circle, making fun of how silly it was, while the other half was doing it anyway, and feeling something stir inside.

That internal war raged all week. Making magic required the most delicate suspension of disbelief. I struggled to quiet the howls of outrage from my rational, tough-minded side in order to reap what I wanted from the practices I was learning.

I also sometimes felt overwhelmed. So much was being addressed to me, so much dug into and stirred up, that I sometimes felt that I couldn't contain it all. It was like trying to stuff a rhinoceros into my back pocket.

Those of us in the beginning track — "Elements of Magic" — spent the first part of the workshop learning a basic ritual in slow motion.

We did a grounding exercise, imagining roots growing from the bottoms of our feet, down through the earth to its center, and then imagining "earth energy" being sucked up through our roots into our bodies.

Then out teacher blessed some salt and a bowl or water, mixed the salt into the water with her athame, or magical knife, and told us to project into the salt water and negative emotions, stray thoughts or physical discomforts that might distract us from the ritual.

We imagined the water being transformed and filled with light. When we felt ready, we each touched the water or tasted it, to take in the purified energy.

Next it was time to become acquainted with the elements:

  • Air, the element of thought, morning, spring, childhood, the sky, the eagle, laughter, clarity and knowledge.
  • Fire, the Goddess' "bright spirit," the element that corresponds to passion, energy, noon, summer, and the will.
  • Water, the element that represents emotions, twilight, autumn, the ocean, everything that flows and adapts, courage.
  • Earth, the element of mystery and darkness, strength, midnight, winter, the body, vegetation, the power to listen and keep secrets.

I got pleasure from the poetry of the elements, and I explored their correspondences in myself.

Once the circle was cast, we danced and sang and beat drums. Toward the end of the ritual, we "raised a cone of energy" through our voices, making sounds together that rose to a peak we could all feel and then fell away.

One morning, Starhawk led us in a drum trance. She tapped a drum softly while she told us the story of our lives, punctuated by chants that we sang over and over.

After a while, I really did fall into a kind of trance, mesmerized by the singing, the ceaseless drumming and Starhawk's hypnotic storytelling.

We started, oddly, with the death. We were asked to imagine what it would be like to let go of life right now, leave everything unfinished, pass it along to others. I became frightened, almost paralyzed. Some people wept.

The she described a beat, a rhythm we could hear even in stillness; next, a sense of structure coalescing in the darkness. Soon we were growing and forming, and then being born.

We sang the song of our parents: "Welcome little one, we are so glad to see you." Some of us now were weeping with joy.

As she talked us through our life spans, I realized that Starhawk was describing life as it would be if everyone's human needs were honored. What if babies were always cherished? If puberty were celebrated publicly as the advent of a new kind of power, and young people were expected to search out and accept their unique spiritual path, and then were welcomed formally into the circle of their elders as equals? What if everyone had work that helped the community, and when we were old, we were allowed to rest and were honored for all we had learned?

As I listened, places — desires, maybe, or hopes — that in me, as in most people, are closed tight in despair began to unfurl a little.

By the time the week concluded, I felt as high as if I had taken a drug. The highway traffic, it occurred to me as I drove home, was a ritual. Here we were, tooling down the road in close formation, trusting our lives to one another's ability to do the right thing moment to moment — except this time out magical tools were huge metal juggernauts, and the ritual was far riskier than anything we'd tried in the woods.

When I got home, I took a walk, thinking on the way that by participating in Wiccan rituals, I had gone out on a limb. We had pledged ourselves to pass on the healing arts we had learned and had committed ourselves to keeping the energy we had raised rippling out into the world. Some of the participants had expressed what I thought were rather grandiose ideas about healing the earth and transforming society.

I'd been defensive about that part of the work. It was true that as a single, childless person, I often felt dissatisfied about living so much for myself. But I could see no path, no bridge to something wider.

As I walked home, I watched admiringly as five boys whizzed past me on skateboards. Suddenly, one boy hit an obstruction about a block ahead of me, flew into the air and crashed onto the sidewalk.

He was pumping his legs in agony and his arm we bent at a horrible angle. Blood was dripping slowly onto the sidewalk. His friends were standing over him with pale faces. No one else was nearby.

I asked whether they'd called an ambulance. They nodded.

I actually took another step, thinking, "It's taken care of," thinking half-consciously, "This is a pre-adolescent black kid. He won't want any help from a white woman. He'll be too proud. He'll be embarrassed. He'll be too hostile."

I looked at him, crying on the sidewalk. and in an instant I knew that those were crazy, alienated thoughts and that I had just spent a week trying to fill myself with something much more useful than that.

I sat down on the sidewalk, held him and soothed him, using techniques I'd learned from the witches, until the ambulance came.

Then I went home, lay down trembling in the back yard and thanked the Goddess for her message.

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