Lashette Williams clutched a dagger tightly in her right hand. Her black robes swung dangerously close to the candles on the altar in front of her. With a spell book to her left and a silver chalice to her right, she thrust the weapon toward the front of the room and began to chant.
It was graduation day at the Wiccan Family Temple Academy of Pagan Studies. In an old performing-arts building on the Lower East Side, Williams was ordained as a high priestess, the most prestigious level of expertise in the Wiccan world. Although the occasion was joyous, the small number of graduates—two—was a reminder of the academy's tough financial times.
The Academy of Pagan Studies was founded in 2007 by temple elders Starr Ravenhawk and Luna Rojas to teach local children about paganism and has since grown to offer a higher-education program for adult Wiccans. However, just like more traditional institutions, the academy has been hit hard by the economy. Increased cost of materials, high rent, and competition have put the temple at risk of going out of business.
"We have a lot of people that would like to take classes, and they can't. They can't afford it," Rojas says.
Tuition for WFT Academy is between $500 and $800 for the year—about $24 per class—depending on the type of courses and the level of study. Ravenhawk and Rojas have structured the academy after a traditional university education: Students must complete a set number of classes each year before they can move onto more difficult material. More than 70 courses are listed on the pagan-studies curriculum, with the newest additions to the syllabus including tarot-card reading, astrology, herbal intensive classes, candle "magick," and the "become a wealthy witch" class series.
In addition to the average pen and notepad, Wiccans add wands, cauldrons, incense, and semiprecious gems to their backpacks. They also learn how to cast spells.
Wicca is an open religion that prides itself on acceptance, drawing inspiration from Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Native Americans—any and all spiritual practices may be included in Wiccan worship. Thus, religious tenets are widely interpreted, with each high priest and priestess changing spells to fit their needs.
A spell "is about the energy, not about the words," Rojas says. "These words are only helping you get into the right state mentally."
Unlike in the Harry Potter books, real witches don't have a set spell for every occasion. (Shout "Lumos!" into the night, and nothing will happen.) Magic, Rojas says, is about channeling the invisible energy of the mind. A good spell is most often succinct, it should rhyme, and, most importantly, it has to fit the personality of the caster.
For example, when Rojas teaches her pupils how to create an effective love spell, she suggests invoking the power of smell, incorporating anything from rose-petal oil to catnip into rituals.
All of these materials—a single herb course at WFT Academy requires more than 42 plants—cost money. However, Ravenhawk said her main business expense is rent. She pays $30 an hour for each of her Sunday classes, which are held in downtown Manhattan.
In the past, Ravenhawk dipped into her own pocketbook to buy supplies, but no longer. She and Rojas decided to raise tuition in January, charging $5 more per class.
Even though the student population is diverse, composed of all different ages and backgrounds, Ravenhawk says many of her students have one thing in common—financial hardship. Many would-be witches have fallen on tough times, she says, and the high cost of tuition can deter students from continuing their studies.
Williams, for example, was in her last year of a three-year Wiccan-ministry program when she was forced to leave WFT due to financial reasons. She had lost her job at the New York City Department of Parks a year before and was unable to find work—or make payments to the academy.
Although Ravenhawk doesn't say it outright, her students might also be leaving to get their educations elsewhere.
Andrew McMillan runs the Bronx Wiccan educational center at Magickal Realms Studios, a shop near the New York Botanical Garden. In contrast to the academy, McMillan only offers one class. He shows his pupils how to cast a circle, set up an altar, and identify the gods and goddesses—essentially Wicca 101. McMillan only charges about $10 per class, using mainly salt, water, candles, and incense so as to cut down on expenses. Although his program is not as extensive as the WFT Academy, low costs make Magickal Realms a legitimate competitor on the Wiccan-education scene.
Despite the cost, Williams says her decision to get a degree in paganism was not influenced by the price tag.
"I can't get a better job for becoming a high priestess or make more money or go on great vacations with the degree itself," she says. "I've done this just for me."
The academy eventually agreed to defer payment of her debt so that Williams could graduate. Ravenhawk says she will make exceptions for certain students, especially those who show exceptional dedication to the craft.
Students who have mastered the basics are eligible to apply for priesthood, a state-sanctioned ministry degree that makes them eligible to officiate marriage and teach classes at the temple. These official recognitions didn't come easy. Ravenhawk and Rojas spent about two years trying to register the Wiccan Family Temple as a legitimate religious institution with the New York County Clerk's Office.
Rojas says that as a teenager, she struggled against the stereotypes that witches are evil. Without the Internet, it was difficult for her to buy books and study paganism without alerting her parents, who subscribed to a more traditional concept of religion.
Today's witches have it easier, Rojas says. However, there are still a lot of stereotypes and stigmas that witches have to work around. For Rojas, education is key to breaking the cycle—a venture threatened by the academy's financial hardships.
On graduation day, someone dimmed the lights, and a steady drumming enveloped the room. Candles flickered at the center of the circle. The witches dabbed their foreheads with oil and then clasped hands. Lifting their arms skyward, they called upon their gods and goddesses to provide them with safety, love, power, and, most importantly, wealth. They'd need it to pay the rent.
Kiandra Venson samples her fellow Wiccan Michelle Gonzalez's "power potion."