REHOBOTH, Mass. -- An hour before sundown, 40 adults have formed a circle in a small back yard, the limbs of a barren tree overhead. Most are dressed in black, many in capes. But the occasion, a gathering of local witches' covens, is expectant, not somber.
In their midst, a blond woman raises a sword above her head, points skyward and walks clockwise within the group. "I would like you to concentrate on raising a circle of energy around us, to turn the wheel of the year," says Cheryl Sulyma-Masson, high priestess of one coven in this town near Providence, R.I.
After completing the circle, she adds, "We will change the future through tolerance, education and through love." All respond, "As a witch, I make this pledge."
Encouraged by federal court rulings recognizing witchcraft as a legal religion, an increasing number of books related to the subject and the continuing cultural concern for the environment, Wicca -- as contemporary witchcraft is often called -- has been growing in the United States and abroad. It is a major element in an expanding "neo-pagan" movement whose members regard nature as charged with divinity.
Given the movement's diversity, without essential texts, no central authorities and many solitary practitioners, estimates of how many people fit under the pagan umbrella vary widely, from 100,000 to three or more times that number. Some have found historical antecedents for their beliefs and work to re-create ancient Egyptian or Greek religions; some call themselves Druids.
Witches can be found at Pagan Pride Days in various cities and at an October festival in Washington. An Internet site called the Witches' Voice (http://www.witchvox.com) lists nearly 900 covens and other Wiccan groups. Fritz Jung, who created the site with his wife, Wren Walker, said nearly 17,000 people had listed themselves on it.
"These are people who say, `I want to come out, be identified as a witch and talk with other witches,' " Jung said.
To wear the label can pose a social risk, given that in many people's minds, witchcraft is associated with black magic, a result of biblical warnings against sorcery as well as historically more recent accusations. In 1486, two Germans wrote "The Hammer of Witches," which linked witchcraft with the demonic. It served as a prosecutors' manual for two centuries, during which many thousands of suspected witches were burned.
Witches today say the rituals they practice are beneficial, in keeping with the Wiccan Rede, an ethical code that states, "An' it harm none, do what thou wilt," and the conviction that what one does for good or ill returns to the doer three times over.
John K. Simmons, a professor of religious studies at Western Illinois University who has studied contemporary witches, said the clothing, the rituals, the focus on nature, all may remind people in their 30s and 40s who are seeking a spirituality of the sort of qualities they thought religion should have when they were younger.
"I think it feels familiar," Simmons said, "particularly to those of us who went through the '60s. And when you add feminism and environmentalism, it feels like home to people."
Sulyma-Masson, who is 39 and a veterinary technician, said a common denominator among witches was belief in a dual divinity, a goddess and a god. Behind them lies an all-pervasive energy, the basis of all reality, which may be tapped through spells and rituals, for healing or good fortune. Formal worship begins with "casting the circle," as participants gather, and, through chanting, drumming or singing, they concentrate on forming "a cone of power."
The presiding priest or priestess, Sulyma-Masson said, then declares the energy's "purpose," that it should be directed toward healing, financial betterment or finding love.
Seasonal rituals like the backyard gathering, which heralded the coming of the Wiccan New Year at Samhaim (Halloween to everyone else), "connect us with the cycles of nature," she said.
At a potluck dinner at her apartment, the witches who participated -- computer programmers, graphic artists, store managers and others -- spoke about how they came to believe what they do.
Audrey Jackson, 23, a credit analyst, began studying witchcraft on her own in high school. Now a high priestess with her own coven, she said she appreciated witchcraft's emphasis on nature and goddess worship. "It fit the empty spaces in my life," she said.
Many Wiccan practices derive from recent sources. A landmark date is 1954, shortly after anti-witchcraft laws were repealed in Britain, when an
Englishman named Gerald Gardner published an account of witchcraft that he said he learned from a coven he had joined. A Gardnerian tradition remains influential on both sides of the Atlantic.
For American witches, a watershed event occurred in September 1986, when a federal appeals court ruled that Wicca was a religion protected by the Constitution.
Since then, witchcraft's rise on the religious landscape has disturbed many who regard it as sinister. Reports last summer that some soldiers from Fort Hood, Texas, were conducting Wiccan rituals near the base enraged some local ministers and prompted Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., to demand to know why the military would allow its personnel to engage in such rites.
Sulyma-Masson wrote Barr, discussing Wicca's legal status and saying that contrary to rumor, witches do not conduct sacrifices. She identified herself as chairwoman of the Witches League for Public Awareness, a non-profit group formed to challenge stereotypes, a task that has her telling people that witches neither worship a devil nor believe in one.
Still, the uproar illustrates a point: One need not travel to Massachusetts to encounter Wiccans.
In Lincoln, Neb., for example, Jason and Cynthia Blodgett-McDeavitt serve as high priest and high priestess of the Order of the Red Grail, with about 20 regular members and an additional 30 or 40 who attend open rituals. Sunday, for Halloween, the group will gather on the Nebraska Capitol steps, Blodgett-McDeavitt said, adding, "I'm probably going to have a sign that says, `I'm Wiccan and I vote.' "
Such openness marks a sea change from 1983, when Sulyma-Masson began to explore witchcraft. She had a hard time finding books. Raised a Roman Catholic, she became interested in Wicca after meeting a witch from a coven in Salem, Mass., whom she credits with helping her recover from an illness that had defied antibiotics. These days her apartment is stacked with volumes on witchcraft and other pagan paths.
Beyond the basics, there is ample room for innovation, a theological spaciousness that appeals to seekers who dislike formal rules and structures.
"There's no dogma that tells you what you have to do," said Richard Cohen, 54, a veterinarian.
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