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Published Oct. 18, 2005

It's not an ordinary room, even though it's in an ordinary gray frame house in an ordinary rural subdivision in Spring Hill. The mood in this room is hauntingly medieval. Single serene notes of a pan pipe float from a stereo, curling in and out of the background like an ancient echo. On one wall hangs a tapestry, thick with wine-red florals. There are shelves loaded with graceful statuettes, jars of dried herbs and chunks of ragged quartz and amethyst. Feathers, masks and animal skin wall-hangings glow in the dusky half-light of candles.

Four women and four men sit cross-legged in a circle on the floor. They are wearing, mostly, jeans and sport shirts and loafers and running shoes. They have jobs in business firms and retail stores. One is a free-lance writer. Another works for a health care center. The youngest is 19, the oldest 59.

They are witches. They have gathered here to talk about their religion _ known as Wicca, Witchcraft, Paganism, or simply The Craft. Or as they say, laughing, the w-word, because they realize that in many people's minds _ particularly at this time of year _ the word "witch" is nothing short of explosive, conjuring up dark images of crooked-nosed sorcerers, bloody sacrifices and toads.

"I don't have any problem with the word," says Dimi Everette, a technical editor for a bay area company. "If people ask me if I am a witch, I say "yes.' But in general terms, we talk about Wicca."

Everette, 33, became a witch 3{ years ago. She is the member of the Coven Avalon, which meets in Clearwater. A coven is a group of witches, usually 13 or fewer, who hold ceremonies and rituals. There are at least 15 covens in the Tampa bay area, as well as witches who practice alone _ called "solitaries."

Some covens include men and women, others are women-only. Many Wiccans aren't in covens, but get together in loosely formed groups for rituals. Nationally, there are as many as 200,000 people practicing pagan religion openly, according to Cerridwen Fallingstar, a California witch and author of The Heart of the Fire, a historical novel about witchcraft during the 16th century.

Wiccans tend to keep their beliefs out of the public eye, fearing they will be ridiculed or harassed, or lose their jobs.

Last summer, a public feud over the practice of witchcraft erupted in New Port Richey between the Coven Lothlorien, which holds rituals near the Moon Lake area, and a group of neighbors. In a civil lawsuit, the coven accused four New Port Richey residents of trespassing, destroying religious artifacts and disrupting ceremonies, following an incident during a ritual on June 17. Residents were quoted as saying the coven held animal sacrifices and worshiped Satan.

In subsequent reports, the residents told the St. Petersburg Times that accusations were exaggerated, and that their only complaint was that the witches were noisy late at night.

The incident was a blessing in disguise, says Mary Niles, a member of the Lothlorien coven. It stirred the cauldron, so to speak, and may have given visibility and momentum to what many witches call a revival of Pagan spirituality.

Niles, whose home is the site of this evening's discussion, pulls out a thick file of letters received from all over

the country after the Lothlorien incident hit the national news. "We even got a letter from England," says Niles, 45, a health care professional in Pasco County.

Wiccans trace their roots to a time long before the advent of Christianity, and they take their inspiration from mythology and folklore and ancient rituals of goddess-worship. The Goddess, symbolized by the moon, is the essence and source of all life and nature in the Wiccan belief. Many traditions in this extremely varied and diverse practice also worship a god, symbolized by the ancient horned lord of the animals, the hunt and the forests.

"Pagans are, for lack of a better term, nature worshipers. They consider the Earth sacred," says Tony Guagliardo, 33, who was already thinking witchy thoughts when he was ordained a Catholic priest in 1978. Guagliardo, who served as a chaplain in the Air Force, was censured by the church bishops two years later when he came "out of the broom closet," he says. Now, he sells books for a bay area bookstore chain and belongs to a coven in Tampa named Astra Australis, which means "southern stars."

Wiccans do not worship Satan, Guagliardo says. The basic threads of Wicca are the same as all other religions, including Christianity, he says. "We are not by any stretch of the imagination anti-Christian," he says. "We can take every teaching of Jesus and apply it to our religion and make it wonderful and good." Most pagan rituals are about healing the sick or honoring the sacredness of the Earth.

Six months ago Guagliardo helped found the Pagan Allied Network (PAN), a Tampa-based non-profit organization providing education and support "for Pagan rights and interests," according to the group's newsletter, The Magickal Messenger, which has a mailing list of 1,500. Most members are in the bay area, but also include witches in Louisiana, Texas, Georgia, Tennessee and Alaska.

Ron Parshley, a member of Astra Australis, says that he was a pagan at heart for more than 20 years, not realizing that there were others. When he began to learn about the Wiccan religion several years ago, "I felt like I was home. I'd finally found it. This is it."

The Wiccan religion is purposely un-codified, broadly embracing the concept that the essence of god is in all of nature _ but beyond that, making no prescriptions about how individuals celebrate this concept.

"Pagans are spiritual anarchists," Parshley says. "We are dogmatically non-dogmatic."

The only hard and fast tenet in the Wiccan religion is sort of a witch's Golden Rule: "Do what you will, and harm none." Today's witches say the purpose of their rituals is to promote good.

The healing business

Witchcraft has, at the very least, given religious scholars and sociologists something to have erudite debates about.

Most of the controversy centers on the origin of The Craft, according to Margot Adler, a journalist who conducted research into witchcraft in the United States and Europe. In her book, Drawing Down the Moon, Adler quotes some scholars who contend that modern witchcraft is a "hoax" based on myth and folklore. Others say witchcraft was the ancient religion of Western Europe, and point to archaeological artifacts that suggest people worshiped goddesses as far back as the 11th century B.C.

The most well-known witches are the ones killed in Europe during what Wiccans refer to as "The Burning Years." In a period from the 14th to 16th centuries, historians estimate that somewhere between 200,000 and 9-million people, mostly women, were tortured and executed for being witches. Most of the persecuted were farmers and country dwellers, often the midwives and healers of the villages, skilled in the arts of herbal medicine and divination. America had its own brief version of a witch craze, the Salem witch trials in 1692, when 20 accused witches were killed.

However, many historians point out that the three centuries of witch trials during the Middle Ages distorted our images of witches, creating the old-woman-in-black stereotype most people hold today.

During those trials, "everything the witches said was recorded by their inquisitors _ after they had been tortured," says Judith Ochshorn, professor of women's studies at the University of South Florida and author of The Female Experience and the Nature of the Divine. Convicted women's confessions of sorcery, evil spells and trysts with Satan were "by formula," says Ochshorn, adding that some women call themselves witches today "to celebrate and commemorate" what these women suffered.

Probably one of the most compelling reasons women are drawn to Wicca is revolt against traditional religions, which offer only a male god figure, Ochshorn says. "Men have always mediated between women and God," she says.

Sharon Carroll, 45, a member of the Coven Avalon in Clearwater, says she was raised in a Christian family. But she questioned: "How could people talk about "our Father which art in Heaven' without wondering? If we have a father who art in heaven, surely we must also have a mother."

Wicca not only provides a female deity, but also is a non-hierarchical religion _ "a religion without the middle man," Adler writes. The idea that the divine is in nature, not transcendent over it, appeals to both men and women.

Rev. Tanya Beck, an Episcopal priest at St. John's Episcopal Church in Clearwater, is concerned that pagan spirituality has an aspect of selfishness in it. When women isolate themselves outside the religious mainstream, "they miss many women who might otherwise be engaged by them," says Beck, who last year became the first woman priest allowed to give Holy Eucharist in the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida.

Beck says she would like to see the same energy dedicated within the Wiccan movement brought back into the mainstream church, to transform the church from within. She thinks it is possible for churches to embrace the idea of god as having both a male and a female essence, a view she personally holds. She also regards god not as a force "up there . . . but a very personal god, a god of community." In her small weekday services ("not on Sunday"), Beck uses hands-on healing techniques and speaks of "Father-Mother-God."

"The witchy stuff is biblical," she says. "This is what Christ did, this is what Gandhi did. They all were in the healing business."

Energy as power

When witches "cast a circle," the main Wiccan ritual, a certain space _ in a room or in the woods _ is designated as sacred by the use of wands or candles or other symbolic objects. "The basic notion behind ritual magic and spellcasting is energy as power," writes San Jose State University theologian Carol P. Christ in her essay Why Women Need the Goddess.

Through meditation and visualization techniques, the participants envision energy within the circle, called "raising a cone of power." This power is then envisioned as being directed toward a specific result, such as healing or world peace.

The empowerment of women is the goal of Diane Stein's practice of Wicca. Stein, who recently moved to the bay area from Pennsylvania, is the author of five books on goddess worship and the healing arts, including Casting the Circle and The Women's Spirituality Book. Stein conducts workshops and rituals and specializes in techniques such as herbal medicine, nutrition, and touch therapy.

Stein's rituals, which exclude men, are created to help women get in touch with emotions and needs. Since Wiccans believe that the energy created during a ritual can literally make wishes come true, these women experience the power they have to make changes in their lives, Stein says.

During one ritual, Stein encourages each women to direct the circle's energy to a particular result in her life. A lot of women aren't accustomed to asking for something for themselves, Stein says.

"I have to say: "What do YOU really want? Some are asking this question for the first time," Stein says.

These rituals directed to a specific result are called "esbets" and often are held when the moon is full or new. Witches also celebrate "sabbats," which correspond to the eight major festivals of European paganism, such as "Samhain" (pronounced sow-an), which is Halloween, and "Beltane,' a fertility festival on May 1.

Some covens meet in street clothes, some in robes, and others hold rituals in the nude, called "skyclad."

Few goddess worshipers doubt the power of their rituals. "Be careful what you ask for; you might get it" is an oft-quoted tenet of witchcraft.

"Healing is the most evident example of magic," says Dimi Everette, who believes that a healing ritual conducted by her coven speeded her recovery from gall bladder surgery. "I was back at work in one week," she says.

Rituals are often used to help people deal with issues in the workplace, Everette says. A couple years ago, she performed a "binding ritual," to help her deal with an overly critical supervisor. One week after the ritual, Everette was offered a new _ and she says better _ job with another company.

Witches looking for partners also do "love rituals," Everette says. In a love ritual, you ask for love in your life. (You don't ask for a certain person _ that would be interfering with that other person's will.)

"You've got to be specific," Everette says. Ask for someone to come into your life who's right for you. If you just ask for "love' _ well, maybe, here comes a dog."

Sharon Carroll cautions that the realm of witchcraft is fertile ground for exploitation _ people who claim to cast spells, and charge money for it. "Anyone who says they will do a magical act for pay," she says, "is a fake."

Wiccans have special rites for marriage, called a "hand fasting." Tina Phillips, 19, and Brian Downing, 22, from Hudson, are "married in the Wiccan way," says Phillips. There is no marriage license, only a commitment to stay together as long as they both want to.

Phillips was raised in Wicca, she says. Her mother, Linda Cornwell, is the high priestess of the Coven Lothlorien.

Wicca has a celebration for divorce, too. It is called "hand parting," a solemn ceremony followed by feasting and socializing. The witches consider this a joyous occasion, since the couple are acknowledging that their union is not working out.

"People fall in and out of love," Phillips says brightly. "The ceremony is just to let the god and goddess know that we no longer want to have our lives together."