Oct 29, 1992

What Halloween Means to a Real Witch

Paul De Rienzo spoke with her for New York Newsday;

Q. What’s the significance of Halloween?

A. All Hallows or Samhain, usually pronounced sow-en, is for witches a celebration that’s very sacred. It’s the Celtic new year, the day that was not a day in the ancient calendar. It was a day considered between the worlds of form and spirit. Because the walls between form and spirit were thinner, it was a day you could contact your ancestors. It’s a natural day to honor the dead. A lot of witches do get into the fun stuff, and their kids put on costumes and go trick-or-treating, but almost all witches who celebrate Samhain have some part of it be this solemn understanding that this is the time of year you can think about the whole question of birth and death, and rebirth and regeneration.

Q. How would you describe your role as a practitioner of Wicca, the modern witchcraft religion?

A. I’m a pagan and a priestess and all these other odd things that are completely different from the reporting I do for NPR.

Q. You also come from a famous family.

A. Yes, my grandfather was Alfred Adler, who invented the inferiority complex and saddled all of his relatives with it from then on. My father is an Adlerian psychiatrist, and my aunt, who is 92, is an Adlerian psychiatrist as well. I guess that from witch doctor to witch is not that far afield.

Q. How would an Adlerian psychiatrist diagnose someone who said she was a witch?

A. Schizophrenic, My aunt thinks that anyone who is religious at all is schizophrenic. Probably they’d think they were deeply sick. But my father basically thinks it’s fine, because he’s an old lefty and thinks it’s tied in with feminism—and therefore it’s got to be all right.

Q. How do witchcraft and neopaganism differ from mainstream religions?

A. We are living in a period of time that we think is forever, which is actually the last 2,000 years. Most of the religions of this period are religions of books, commandments, literal scriptures and prophets. But most of the religions during humanity’s bulk of time on the planet were based not on what people believed, but on what people do.

These ancient religions were not universal, they did not proselytize. They were based on tying in human beings to the seasonal cycles of nature, to the cycles of life and to ecological reality. They didn’t see deity as way up there and us sort of totally below. Sex was divine, work was divine, birth was divine, life and death were all divine.

Q. How did you discover Wicca?

A. In 1960 1 went to Berkeley and became very political and was involved in the free speech movement and the civil-rights movement. After the first Earth Day in 1971, 1 became obsessed with the environmental crisis. I came across an essay called "The Religious Roots Our Environmental Crisis," by the British historian Arnold Toynbee, that said in the Biblical book of Genesis, the whole notion of subdue the earth and multiply and have dominion over it gave license for exploitation. But the older, ancient animistic and polytheistic religions had a very different notion of the sacred, where everything was vital and alive.

Q. What’s the significance of the rituals in Wicca?

A. Ritual is a way of ending alienation from each other the planet and ourselves. Things like drumming and chanting and music and candles let the world disappear for a few moments and allow you to enter the dreamlike, artistic world.

Rituals that modern-day Wicca people and pagans do celebrate the seasons and are healing rituals. A lot are community bonding rituals for passages of life. For example, women today are beginning to create rituals to celebrate menopause, which is considered awful because it means you’re getting old and will be discarded by society.

Q. What connection is there between modern witchcraft and the witchcraft in colonial Salem?

A. Almost all the people who were arrested and killed in Salem were not witches. Most of the victims considered themselves good Christians. They were often widows who had some property and who weren’t liked by the community. The charge of witchcraft was used as a way of getting rid of almost any non-conforming type of person. During the Middle Ages, witchcraft was the charge used to get rid of heretics within Christianity. Q. Is modern Wicca the same as the witchcraft practiced in the past?

A. Nobody really knows, because a lot of the rituals from the past are lost forever. We’re creating as we go along, which is probably why this spiritual path is so creative.

Q. Evangelist Pat Robertson slammed witches tit the Republican convention. Why?

A. He sees witchcraft as the enemy. He confuses witchcraft with Satanism, a Christian heresy.

PAGAN PRIESTES Margo Adler is a correspondent for National Public Radio, and the author of "Drawing Down the Moon" (Beacon), a study of neopaganism in America. Paul De Rienzo spoke with her for New York Newsday.

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