Witches leaving broom closets

The witches ball included the midnight spinning of the "Wheel of the Year" and a chance to gaze into the "Fire of Transformation" before the faithful were guided into the "Underworld and our Ritual Space."

The Samhain celebration last weekend in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., also included deejay music, dancing, door prizes and fun for the children.

"No photos at rituals! Some of us are still closeted," said the online invitation from the MoonPath Chapter of the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans. "Perhaps it's time to come out of the broom closet?"

There were plenty of signs this Halloween that more witches and wizards are doing precisely that.

Are there SpiralScouts circles in your area offering pagan parents an alternative to the rigid morality of the Boy Scouts? Have teen-agers formed reading clubs at school to dig into popular books like "Wild Girls: The Path of the Young Goddess" and "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Wicca and Witchcraft"?

Many parents and mainstream religious leaders are afraid to ask these kinds of questions, said Catherine Edwards Sanders, author of a new work of Christian apologetics entitled "Wicca's Charm." Instead of freaking out, they need to pay attention to the changing religious marketplace.

"Wicca is here and we need to face that," said Sanders, a speechwriter for the U.S. Department of Justice. "We can be threatened by these trends or we can see all of this as a sign that people are hunting for something that is greater than themselves, yearning for spiritual experiences they can call their own. They want to rebel against the secular culture and find a way to get back to nature."

Sanders is convinced, based on her interviews with modern pagans, that most are fleeing from two types of organized religion -- cold, rational liberalism that shuns the supernatural or suburban brands of conservatism that substitute rigid rules for the mysteries of ancient rites, art and traditions.

"Our culture has tilled the soil, making it fertile enough for the seeds of Wicca to grow," writes Sanders. "This may be of concern to some, and for others, cause to celebrate. But to dismiss this spirituality as fringe or something practiced by an insignificant minority group would be to miss the point of what is really happening."

Conservative Christians who read this book may be offended.

Pagans who do so are more likely to be amused, according to writer Jason Pitzl-Waters. Sanders made a good-faith effort at fairness, but the lens of her Christian faith warped everything, he said.

"It is somewhat sad to see so earnest an author come so close to understanding our culture and ideas, but missing the mark," said Pitzl-Waters, at his Wildhunt.org website. The result "makes me wonder if a full and rich dialogue about each other's faith can ever be engaged between a modern Pagan and a Christian."

Modern paganism includes Wicca and other forms of earth-based spiritualities rooted in the worship of ancient gods and goddesses. Court cases rooted in what could be called the separation of coven and state now pop up on a regular basis, from family-law courts to military bases to public-school classrooms. In 1986, a federal court declared Wicca a constitutionally protected form of faith.

The key, said Sanders, is that it's impossible to lock pagans inside one doctrinal box. A witch is not a druid. A "Gardnerian" witch dedicated to the teachings of British writer Gerald Gardner, with his emphasis on nudism, scourging and the rites of high witchcraft, may rarely agree with feminist witches who worship the goddess Diana, alone. Some pagans believe drugs are a crucial part of worship. Others totally disagree.

Modern pagans are the freest of free-market believers, said Sanders. Many are striving -- quite literally -- to honor the priesthood of every believer. They may worship alone at secret altars, linked to believers near and far by the Internet and networks of witchcraft supply companies.

"This is especially true with the thousands of young girls who are experimenting with Wicca," she said. "They see something in a movie or on TV and then they hit the Web and, with a few clicks of a mouse, they're ready to try it out. ...

"This trend is so American. It's so individualistic. The neo-pagans don't want to sit in pews anymore and follow anybody else's rules."

Harry Potter for grownup believers (of all kinds)

ORLANDO -- Lee Hillman's nightstand contains a copy of Sir James George Frazer's classic "The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion." It's a condensed version, not the two-volume 1890 epic or the12-volume monument from the following decades. The single volume contains more than enough magical minutia for ordinary readers. Six dense pages will usually put Hillman to sleep.

Nevertheless, the practicing pagan keeps reading. It has helped give perspective on her other passion -- reading and writing about a certain young wizard in England.

"There is no relationship set up in the Harry Potter books between magic and religion," said Hillman during Nimbus 2003, the first global convention dissecting the 2,715 pages published so far in the series. "This had to be a deliberate decision by J.K. Rowling. ... She is using literary conceits drawn from throughout Western culture."

She scanned the crowd at a panel discussion last weekend entitled "Harry Potter: Witchcraft? Pagan Perspectives." Then she said the same thing again, as a Wiccan believer and another miscellaneous pagan nodded in agreement.

"There is nothing in these books that relates magic to any particular religion," said Hillman. "There is no connection. None. None. Zero. ... They are not really about witchcraft."

Don't misunderstand. Hillman still loves the Potter books. That's why she was wearing a spectacular witch's hat and robe, a flash of purple that even stood out among the 600 other colorful fans at Disney's Swan Hotel. Among online Potter devotees, the 31-year-old secretary from Rochester, N.Y., is known as "Gwendolyn Grace, Minister of Magic" and she was the driving force behind the gathering.

Nimbus 2003 sprouted out of the Internet, where the "Harry Potter For Grownups" email list has 10,000 members and a "Fiction Alley" list dedicated to stories written by fans for other fans has 30,000 members.

With this kind of reach, organizers attracted participants -- about 90 percent female -- from across the United States, as well as from England and Australia.

In hotel hallways, witch wannabes raised their expensive, professionally carved wands and fought imaginary duels with tickling spells and other incantations. In the lecture halls, others heard papers on everything from Harry Potter and the First Amendment to "Greenhouses are for Girls, Beasts are for Boys? Gender Characterizations in Harry Potter." There were packed sessions on so-called "slash" fiction in which online scribes write gay and lesbian themes into new Potter stories.

Organizers also dedicated an entire track of lectures and panels to spiritual issues, addressing topics such as "Seven Deadly Sins, Seven Heavenly Virtues: Moral Development in Harry Potter" and "Can Any Wisdom Come From Wizardry?"

Hillman and other pagan panelists were convinced that Rowling -- who has said she attends the Church of Scotland and does not believe in magic -- is a wonderful writer for children, but is clearly not interested in witchcraft. This is not the magic in which they believe.

"There is a cause-and-effect relationship to everything in these books," said Hillman. "You say the spell, you see the effect. ... It's like turning on a light. You flip the switch and the magic is there. That just isn't how things work."

Meanwhile, evangelical writer Connie Neal enthusiastically found echoes of biblical stories and parables in the Potter canon. Her book "The Gospel According to Harry Potter" has been banned in many Christian stores, but "this only seems to have made the secular stores more interested," she said. She keeps challenging people to set up evangelistic reading groups that mix Bible study and Harry Potter discussions.

A Jewish cantor found echoes of the Talmud. A Mormon speaker found strong family values. And classics teacher John Granger aired the thesis of his book "The Hidden Key to Harry Potter," arguing that Rowling has soaked her work in centuries of Christian symbolism and spiritual alchemy themes shared with Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, C.S. Lewis and countless others.

"The human person was designed for resurrection, in love. That is what we yearn for because that is how we were created," he said. "That is what these books are about. We respond to them because we are human. Rowling is using symbols and themes that have worked for centuries. And you know what? They still work."