The man at work selling computers suddenly has the feeling that the customer is one of his own. He follows his impulse and quietly greets him. "Merry meet," he says. The stranger instantly replies: "Merry meet." They smile.
Two witches in the electronics section of a department store.
"It's a signal you don't hear or see. It's a signal you can feel," explains the man, a practitioner and teacher of Wicca who has adopted the name Lord Hawthorne. "It's kind of like code."
The two do not discuss the matter further. Like the majority of those who practice the contemporary religion of Wicca, they do so under many layers of secrecy.
While not widely known or practiced, Wicca is a recognized religion in this country. Its practices are summarized in the handbook carried by military chaplains. Wiccan priests and priestesses are licensed to marry and bury, and they regularly attend interfaith conferences, easily talking shop with Catholics, Jews and Buddhists. The current president of Washington state's Interfaith Council is a Wiccan priest.
Still, it is a faith that is often the target of ridicule--even by those who consider themselves open-minded.
Practitioners of Wicca comfortably call themselves witches and use the tools so often mocked, such as the broom (a purifying symbol), the wand, candles, crystals and the knife, known as athame. They refer to their practices as witchcraft, or the Craft.
Wiccans generally describe their faith as a revival of the primitive pagan rituals performed before Christianity came along nearly 2,000 years ago. Early Christians described pagans as those who still believed that spiritual power came from the sun, the moon and the Earth rather than from a Christian god.
Wicca, say scholars who have studied its origins, was created by a Briton named Gerald Gardner in the 1940s, drawing on what anthropologists know of early paganism. The word "Wicca" is taken from the Celtic word for "bent ones" or the elderly wise ones in primitive societies who used herbs and magical spells to heal and cure.
Wiccans spend a lot of time explaining to nonbelievers what they do not do: They do not use supernatural powers; they call only on natural ones. They do not sacrifice children and animals--only grains and other such fare--to the gods. And, they explain with a roll of the eye, they most certainly do not worship Satan.
The number of Wiccans nationwide has been estimated by religious scholars at anywhere from 50,000 to 300,000, though all admit there is no accurate count of followers.
Wicca has many denominations and no centralized organization. Long Beach has a coven with 1,500 members. In Orange County, there is no single large coven, although at least one practitioner estimates the county is home to thousands of Wiccans. There is a scattering of bookstores--such as the Crystal Cave in Orange, Visions & Dreams in Costa Mesa and Lady Desiree's Bewitched in Huntington Beach--in the county that serves Wiccans and those interested in the occult.
At such stores, novices can take classes in spell casting and buy the stones, caldrons, crystals, athames, swords, wands and other tools of the Craft. They can buy books on herbalism, magic and philosophy that explain how to use them. And, for those looking for information from home, there are related web sites on the Internet.
This weekend, while Christmas shoppers are scurrying to do their last-minute errands, Wiccans will be toasting yule, the winter solstice, and celebrating the rebirth of the sun on the longest night of the year.
Worshiping a divine entity that is both god and goddess, Wiccans practice individually or gather in groups called circles or covens, where they call on the deities to guide them, sometimes using magic spells. Reincarnation and the concept of karma are closely linked with the practice.
There are no temples except for Earth itself, which is seen as a manifestation of the divine, Wiccans say. There are no commandments, but there is an oft-repeated point: "As long as it harms none, do what you will."
"All witches are pagans, but not all pagans are witches," explains J. Gordon Melton, an adjunct religion professor at UC Santa Barbara and director of the Institute for the Study of American Religions. Melton has been studying Wiccan and neo-pagan groups for 25 years.
Melton agrees that today's witches unfairly bear the misperception that they are devil worshipers. "In order to be a Satanist, you need to be a Christian first," he explains. "Satanism is an extreme Christian heresy. Satanists are fighting Christ; Wiccans are building a religion."
Many pagan ceremonial observances--or days of power--are based on an agricultural calendar tied to the cycles of the the moon and sun. Wiccan holidays are based on that calendar, as were many of the holidays established by early Christians. Yule logs, Easter eggs and other Christian customs are remnants of early paganism, Melton says.
Wicca was created from anthropology books, Melton says. Its founder, Gardener, "was a pretty good anthropologist," he says.
Gardner argued that Wicca was an ancient religion, passed down unchanged through the centuries, but there is no evidence to support that, Melton says. Paganism and witchcraft had pretty much been done in by the Inquisition--a tribunal established in the 13th century to punish heretics--and there is no evidence through the 18th and 19th centuries of the practice of Wicca, Melton says.
Wendy Griffin, an associate professor of women's studies at Cal State Long Beach, has studied feminist Wiccan circles and agrees that the ancient origins of Wicca are largely fiction.
"There are some practitioners who say that what we call paganism today is a continuous practice," she says. "But we have no evidence that that is true."
The linking of pagans and witches came with European witch-burnings during the early days of Christianity and up to the Inquisition, when women were particularly susceptible to persecution.
Whatever its origins, the philosophy of neo-paganism and Wicca spread in the United States in the 1960s. It drew feminists and others turned off by what they perceived as intolerance in patriarchal mainstream religions.
The priests and prophets of this new religion purposely did not shy away from the use of the word "witchcraft."
"Part of the reason it was originally chosen was because it was a loaded word," Melton says. "It attracted attention. You might not be interested in 'an Earth-based religion,' but 'witchcraft' carried an immediate connotation."
Witches say that they can be found in all professions and workplaces. They wear five-pointed stars called pentagrams and moon necklaces and other small signals to seek each other out.
Nonbelievers--whom Wiccans call Mundanes--undoubtedly rub shoulders with them more often than they know.
"They are doctors, lawyers and nurses," says one Orange County witch, who wants to remain anonymous. "I've seen people come to rituals in hospital greens. I've seen people come out of work and pull their pentacles out and sigh with relief."
"We have such a rich Wiccan community here," says Hawthorne, a student at Cal State Fullerton and a computer salesman. "But Orange County is so conservative and hush-hush, it's hard to be open."
Gregg Miner, a 25-year-old Vermont native who began exploring Wicca after he moved to California, says that finding other witches is a trial. "There are lots of [neo-pagan] groups in Orange County that you can go to to be with other like-minded people, but you have to know somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody."
"It is kind of hard," says Lianna, an Orange neo-pagan who asked that her last name be withheld. "I'm very careful who I choose to tell. They don't burn you at the stake anymore, but I'm sure there are some out there who would love too. . . .
"In my neighborhood I'm surrounded by fundamentalist Christians. . . . You can't discuss many aspects of your life with your neighbors and your co-workers. I'm hiding my belief and my spirituality, which is doubly hard because you want to discuss that with people. One's spirituality is what makes a person."
Some say that they have had to pay dearly for their Wiccan beliefs.
One O.C. woman, a 30-year-old counselor, felt drawn to the tenets of the faith at an early age, before she could put a name to her beliefs. When she learned about Wicca through an occult bookstore in Long Beach 18 years ago, she began studying the Craft and trained to be a priestess.
She married outside her faith and had two children. After a bitter divorce, Orange County's family court denied her custody of her boys because she is a practicing witch, she says. Her former husband and his lawyer dug up misconceptions about the Craft and pummeled her with it, telling the judge she was a Satanist, she recalls.
"He used all of the information from our relationship, my altar and everything, against me," she says.
She says she rejected a settlement offer from her former husband's attorney, who said the demand for full custody would be dropped if she would stop practicing witchcraft. She could no more do that than a Christian could be mandated to stop believing in Christ, she says.
"I couldn't stop believing, so I would have had to lie," she says of the offer. "I would have had to go against my tradition, my religion. . . .
"Those who walk this path walk it for a lifetime. It is not an easy path to walk in this country that has freedom of religion, although I'm not sure which religion is free."
Wiccans see Earth as imbued with powers and energies that humans, using rituals, are able to call upon and use for specific purposes. In other words, to cast spells.
Intense concentration by individuals or circles of people is the core of spell-casting.
"It is regular, sheer unbridled energy, and this gives it form," says Hawthorne, who teaches classes on spell-casting, herbalism, candles and magic.
Author Scott Cunningham, who wrote extensively about Wicca until his death in 1993, said its practitioners do not cast evil spells, because the laws of karma dictate that whatever you send out comes back to you threefold or worse.
Hawthorne, a former Roman Catholic, says he relishes the drama of ceremonies. The transition from his faith to witchcraft was easy because of its heavy use of ritual, he says. He conducted a full-moon ceremony during a recent open house at the Crystal Cave in Orange and invited witches and novices in the store to join in.
In a large room behind the retail section of the store, the lights were dimmed and blinds drawn as those assembled gathered around the altar where Hawthorne stood.
Hawthorne chanted to the four elements--fire, water, air and earth--for protection before invoking the power of a deity. "Angel Michael/spirit of the fiery realm/bind with me and work my spell/guard this ancient portal well," he chanted.
Together the group invoked the goddess Hecate, the Greek goddess of the crossroads, and asked for her guidance in the year ahead.
As in many other religions, seeking divine guidance is part of what observing Wicca is all about, its followers say.
Divine guidance comes from Earth, from within and from above, they say.
Some people, Miner says, respond to pagan impulses without being aware of it. It is actually a quite simple relationship to Earth, he says.
"Like my mother, for instance," he says. "She follows the moon and the sun and knows when the longest days are and when the shortest days are, and she burns candles in the house. She admires the nature of the Earth; she's just not aware that [paganism] is what that is.
"A lot of people are doing it without even knowing it."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Sun, Moon Mark Days of Power
Wiccans and other pagans follow an agriculturally based calendar for their holidays, called days of power. Most perform 13 full-moon ceremonies, called Esbats, and eight Sabbats, solar festivals that recognize the changing of the seasons. Here are the solar holidays and the dates on which they typically fall:
* Yule, Dec. 21: Takes place on the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. Celebrates the rebirth of the sun and marks the dead of winter.
* Imbolc, Feb. 2: Also known as Candlemas, celebrates the first stirrings of spring. Symbolically, the goddess is recovered from giving birth to the sun at yule.
* Ostara, March 21: Marks the first full day of spring and is seen as the reawakening of Earth. The tradition of painted eggs, now associated with Easter, was thought to have come from this festival.
* Beltane, April 30: Celebrates fertility and the bounty of Earth.
* Midsummer, June 21: Summer solstice, when the powers of nature are thought to be at their peak.
* Lughnasadh, Aug. 1: Marks the first harvest of the year.
* Mabon: Sept. 21: Autumn equinox and a celebration of the second harvest, when Earth prepares for winter. Thanksgiving is thought to be based on this harvest feast.
* Samhain, Oct. 31: A new year celebration and most important day of the Wiccan calendar. The veil between the living and the dead is thought to be at its lowest point this night.
Source: "The Truth About Witchcraft Today" by Scott Cunningham