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A witch's tale - Wicca gains ground in New York

Published:Sunday | September 29, 2013 | 12:00 AM
High Priestess Starr Ravenhawk. Contributed

Dr Glenville Ashby, Contributor

Forget spells, hexes, flying brooms and the long-nosed pimpled-faced women of yore; or the contemporary portrayal of the alluring woman who changes destiny with rhyming words and the snapping of fingers. Meeting a real-life witch is no longer folklore or legend, at least in New York City.

Scheduling conflicts had put off my meeting with ace witch, Starr Ravenhawk for weeks on end. But it was worth the wait. Amid the bustle of the famed Union Square, I met Ravenhawk, a name she chose since becoming a member of Wicca. She is a native of Trinidad and Tobago who was raised in Canada and the United States. She has been a witch for more than 30 years.

"Wicca," she explained, "is a religion, a philosophy and a way of life." She was steadfast,  images/Layout1_1_PFYRNTheBookoAM.jpg

unswerving in her commitment to its ideals. "It wasn't easy at first," she said, adding that "even now, my mother is still trying to save my soul."

Starr, as she is called, exuded an air of confidence, an unmistakable assurance of faith. She was articulate, passionate, analytical and visibly comfortable in her skin. She described life as a young girl, raised in Roman Catholicism.

"There was an incident at school that I will never forget." It was the catalyst that led Starr to explore other spiritual expressions. "I asked the priest why do students rely only on Catholic books, and not the Bible for spiritual knowledge. I thought this was an honest question, but it angered him to the point that he harshly reprimanded me."

This was Starr's epiphanical moment. It dawned on her that she was at odds with religious orthodoxy and institutional control.

"From that moment, my eyes opened to other philosophies."

But of all the alternative faiths at her disposal, why Wicca?

Unflinchingly, she said that it answered many of life's mysteries, while leaving the door ajar to new possibilities.

"Why is God presented as a male when nature itself has a dual aspect? Why can't there be life on other planets and dimensions? Remember, the earth was believed to be flat at one point," she stated, with raised hands, to make her point.

She assailed the Church for promoting insularity and misinformation on paganism and Wicca. "The word pagan means country folk, period. It has nothing to do with cultism or worshiping devils."

The devil is a christian concept

She argued that her belief system does not include a devil. "This concept of the Devil and Satan is, for the most part, very Christian in origin." However, she conceded that evil exists, but only as a projection from within us. Humankind, she opined, creates evil entities through the energy of the mind. "If the Devil is part of one's reality, it can become a powerful force. If you empower something, it has power over you. Witches do not give energy to negativity, so we cannot be harmed by self-created demons."

Starr described Wicca as an earth-based philosophy that promotes coexistence with nature. "That is what also attracted me to the religion. We disavow anything harmful to our bodies and the environment. A healthy living style is promoted."

She attributed Wicca's growing appeal to its tenets regarding nature and its experiential philosophy. "We have a truly diverse membership that is reflective of New York. Wicca has never been embroiled by race, class and gender issues. There are scores of covens and several temples in the Tri-State area with high-profile members, who, for obvious reasons, are reluctant to espouse their faith." Starr, though, is different. She is intrepid with a slice of hubris.

She was dismissive of the term 'spells', commonly used by 'outsiders' when describing aspects of Wicca. "A spell is nothing more than a prayer. When a Christian prays, he is really casting a spell, so to speak. He is asking an invisible force to come to his aid. No different to a witch who makes an invocation for help."

She was also quick to point out that the words 'warlock', does not exist in Wicca lexicon. "The word 'warlock' means, "an oath breaker," again, this is another derogatory connotation that is attached to our movement. Males and female are called witches," she noted.

Wicca, interestingly, holds that angels, elementals and entities are neutral. True to her faith, Starr offered a provocative explanation. "When you study the history and functions of angels, you realise their dual role. They can defend or destroy," she said, citing St Michael as an example. "It's all about your perception of these neutral forces that are there to help us."

A strong proponent of karma, she advocated, "right thought, and right conduct," which she called universal principles and part of natural law.

She detailed common practices of witches, for example: formal spiritual gatherings under the full moon and new moon, along with a Sabbath that is timed according to the equinox and the solstice. "We work in tandem to the rhythm, the cycles of the planet," she instructed.

use of the pentagram

She defended the use of the pentagram, which she called "a symbol of protection," adding that "it is not alien to Church architecture." She described the witches' circle as "sacred," and a shell-like defence where "you are guarded and guided by the gods, who I'd like to believe understand and empathise with us."

She viewed Wicca as a movement of spiritual and mental healing.

Séances, she said was just one psychotherapeutic method of providing a sense of peace and closure to the grief stricken."

As a polytheistic faith, Wicca is attuned to trans-cultural entities that have existed throughout time but called by different names when seen through varying prisms. "The energies or the gods are the same, whether you call that power Horus, Apollo, Zeus, Shango, Ogun, or whatever, it boils down to perception and interpretation."

Today, Starr is the high priestess of the Wicca Family Temple in East Village, New York, where aspirants study the Book of Shadows and perfect the teachings and practices of the religion. It offers classes twice weekly, leading to theological credentials after three years of study. Wicca, she said, more than any other faith, promotes "a full and complete life, as intended by the gods".

Dr Glenville Ashby is the president of the Trinidad and Tobago Interfaith Council Int'l. Feedback: glenvilleashby@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter@glenvilleashby.