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Pride of the pagans

Special to The Times

This is the first in a series of occasional articles exploring alternative cultural life around Southern California.

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If YOU think the meager little baton that Harry Potter has been waving around for going on six movies now is something special, you’ve never seen a real wand. The genuine article -- adorned with feathers, stones and a message in the runic alphabet -- was on display at a “Healing Faire” in, of all places, Studio City, this month. It was the creation of Jude Bradley, an actual witch. Or Wiccan, to use the appropriate term.

She was not wearing a pointed hat, and there was no black in her wardrobe (she was wearing jeans, in fact). She did say that she grew up in the Boston area and had spent a decent amount of time around Salem, Mass., a town that of course has some history with witches. Maybe too much, in fact.

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“It’s become very commercial,” said Bradley, who in addition to custom wands also makes meditation sachets and can do tarot-type readings with a regular deck of playing cards.

At the Unitarian Universalist Church on Moorpark Street she was in the company of various other New Age spiritualists, technologically savvy psychics, massage therapists and purveyors of therapeutic oils at this low-key event held as a fundraiser by the Los Angeles chapter of Pagan Pride, an organization that is striving to legitimize the practice of pagan religions and defend them against detractors.

They are completely serious, well-coordinated, and yes, they have some foes, including at one time current Libertarian presidential candidate Bob Barr. In 1999, Barr, then a Georgia congressman, sought to prevent pagans and Wiccans in the armed forces from engaging in religious practices on military bases (he’s since backed down from that position, perhaps fearing he’d lose the pagan/Libertarian vote).

Last year, the loose-knit movement won a decade-long struggle when the Veterans Administration approved the pentangle, a key symbol of Wiccans, for use on headstones. There are many forms of pagan practice, however, so the campaign has now shifted to allowing symbols associated with other unrecognized faiths. On Oct. 5, the local pagan community will gather in El Monte for its annual Pagan Pride Day celebration. Last year, 1,500 people attended the event in Los Angeles, and an estimated 40,000 turned out worldwide.

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Contemporary paganism doesn’t draw its inspiration from the multiple-gods worship of ancient Greece and Rome so much as from less classical, earthier antecedents (although pagans can and do worship different gods and goddesses). Think Druids, or the shamanistic traditions of Native Americans. Satanism, being associated with the post-Christian world, is not usually considered part of the neo-pagan movement although neo-pagans, being exceedingly tolerant, would probably not object to Satanists being allowed to do their thing, as well.

If all this puts images of Stevie Nicks, gauzy clothing, crystals and amulets in your mind, well, those are all present. But Pagan Pride L.A. also has a public affairs officer, Brian Ewing, who holds down a day job as an employment lawyer. They’re not living in pre-Christian times, either: Their Web presence is extensive, and they don’t shy away from modern technology.

The psychic at the Healing Faire, Debbie Reasbeck, had brought with her several thousand dollars’ worth of computers and software specifically designed for the analysis of auras. Place your hand on a sensor and a PC with a camera mount extrapolates your life force, displaying it as a penumbra of colors surrounding your body. (It can also scrutinize your chakras.) Reasbeck pointed out that her focus is as a healer. She practices the art of reiki, which is based on unblocking congested life-force energy. Obviously, you don’t need to be a pagan to have a life force, so her work can appeal to just about everybody.

“If you let your chakras shut down, it can affect your body,” said Reasbeck, who maintained that she has been psychic for most of her life (she first realized that she had the ability in second grade).

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Not surprisingly, the path to paganism isn’t always clear, and it can be lonely.

“I’m a solitary witch and always have been,” Bradley said, when asked if she practices as part of a group. “This has always been a bit of closeted community, but it’s getting better. A lot of people are involved with Earth religions.”

A fellow Wiccan, Glenda Tamblyn, who had brought bath salt “enchantments” to the event, seconded Bradley’s impressions. “It’s not like you wake up one day and decide you have a different path to follow,” she said.

Tamblyn’s craft can be tricky. “Different oils and plants have different energies,” she explained. She used lavender as an example, saying that a little can be relaxing. “But a lot of lavender is a stimulant,” she added. “You gotta find a balance with the lavender.” If the correct proportions are achieved, “the essence of the plant will have the power to stimulate you spiritually and physically.”

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People who are curious about pagan theories of wellness, along with assorted other paraphernalia of alternative health culture, can engage in one-stop shopping at DragonMarsh, a shop in Riverside that has been dealing in everything from costumes for theme weddings to a vast repository of teas, herbs, and spices for 20 years. Events manager Eric Du’Marn and spiritual oils specialist Amy Rose Blackstone held down the store’s booth at the Healing Faire.

“We encourage a lot of different paths in the neo-pagan life,” Du’Marn said, when asked about the spiritual predilections of his staff of six. He added that DragonMarsh has been participating in Pagan Pride events for the last “seven or eight years.”

He’s not above using a bit of spiritual assistance for personal gain, especially since Blackstone can create a “money blend” oil.

“I use a bit on the back of my hand,” he said, “when I go to Vegas.”

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