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Witches: Folks like us

Cackle if you must, but Wiccans say they're good, earthy people who just want to live and let live. They have a big event Sunday (no, not that).

By SHERRI DAY
Published October 29, 2004

TAMPA - Ollis Bajon Hughes is working on a spell.

About a month ago he put rosemary, oil and a dollar-wrapped quartz crystal in a pouch and hung them from an altar in his back yard. There, he says, the pouch bathed in moonlight, gaining strength until Wednesday's full moon.

Hughes, 60, plans to use the herbs to cast a spell Sunday, the night trick-or-treaters take to the streets. But he's not summoning evil or sending destruction to his enemies. He's invoking financial prosperity for others. He also plans to cast a second spell for himself, banishing guilt and negativity from his life.

Hughes is not a voodoo priest or shaman, but a third-degree high priest of Wicca, a neopagan religion. Quite simply, he's a modern-day witch.

"People who don't know start getting the wrong image, images of evil," said Hughes, who is a purchasing agent at Tampa General Hospital. "We don't believe in the devil. We believe in god and goddess. We believe that deity manifests itself within nature."

For Hughes, who lives in Brandon, and thousands of other Wiccans in the Tampa Bay area, Oct. 31 marks the day when the public shows a passing interest in their beliefs.

But while the secular world celebrates Halloween, Wiccans will observe the beginning of their new year. Known as Samhain (pronounced SOW-IN), the Celtic word for summer's end, it is one of the holiest days in the pagan calendar. Wiccans give thanks for the harvest, prepare for winter's challenges and make new year's resolutions.

Perhaps the most sacred time is the witching hour, which begins at the moment the clock strikes midnight. That's when Wiccans believe the veil between the living and the dead is the most transparent.

At Samhains past, Hughes, who has practiced Wicca for 25 years, made contact with his grandmother, he says. This year, he plans to lead his coven, a small circle of Wiccan followers, in a ceremony to communicate with ancestors.

They'll cast spells. They'll write negative personality traits or worrisome life issues on parchment paper and burn them in a caldron, banishing them. And when the clock strikes midnight, the witches plan to meditate and wait for the spirits to come.

Then there will be feasting, dancing and singing. Finally, Hughes expects to lead his coven to a cemetery to burn sage and ring a bell to honor the dead.

"All religions have some kind of death and funeral provisions and rituals, and I suppose to people who did not understand them they could be viewed as kind of weird and scary," said Danny L. Jorgensen, chairman of the department of religious studies at the University of South Florida. "The stuff the Wiccans do is no stranger than anything else if you understand what they do and why they're doing it."

Because many Wiccans practice in secret, Jorgensen said it's difficult to gauge the population's size. He estimates that 5,000 to 10,000 witches, both male and female, live in the Tampa Bay area, among 500,000 nationwide.

Wicca is not devil worship. Its practitioners worship Gaia, the earth mother, and Lugh, the sun god. Wiccans do not believe in sin, hell or the devil. Wrongs are righted through the laws of karma, which witches say returns their deeds threefold. Their motto - And it harm none, do what thou will - is hardly the stuff of horror movies. (Hughes meditates daily and nears tears when he speaks of feeling the presence of the goddess in a breeze or seeing god's face on the side of a mountain.)

Despite the public's increasing tolerance for Wicca, some witches still fear coming out of the proverbial broom closet. The days of burning witches at the stake are long over, but modern witches fear losing their jobs.

"We're here amongst you all the time," said Artha of Dragonwood Circle, a Zephyrhills witch who declined to give her legal name for fear of persecution. "We don't just appear at Halloween."

Few are as visible as Hughes. At Tampa General Hospital, where the hallways fill with medical professionals in pastel-colored scrubs and uniforms, he strikes an imposing figure. At 6 feet 3, with salt and pepper close-cropped hair, he wears a pentacle around his neck and dons only black clothing. (He says he is partial to black because of its magical properties.)

On his right arm is a tattoo of the moon birthing the sun and two paw prints, in honor of his partner, Mary Francis, a Wiccan high priestess. (Three years ago, the couple united in a handfasting ceremony, which mandates that they stay together as long as love may last. Hughes, who like most Wiccans believes in reincarnation, says he first met Francis in another life about 300 years ago.)

In his hospital office, Hughes has an altar filled with quartz, feathers, stones and statues of fairies. Images of goddesses line his walls and in the corner, just behind a fish tank, sits a poster of a wolf, Hughes' spirit guide.

He wasn't always so bold. He spent a decade in solitary study, practicing Wicca at home and sharing his faith with no one. He wore his pentacle inside his shirt for fear of being discovered until he saw another hospital worker openly displaying the symbol. Convinced that the hospital valued diversity, Hughes began showing allegiance to his faith.

"There's doctors in this hospital that are witches," he said. "There's tons of nurses that are witches. There's just such a large diversity of people that we want people to know that being a witch is not a bad thing."

Now Hughes tells anyone who will listen that witches are just regular people who practice one of the world's oldest pre-Christian religions. He started with his mother, an Episcopalian who raised him Catholic.

"At first I didn't know what it was," said Velma Shaw, Hughes' 77-year-old mother. "But once you meet the people and you see some of their activities, you realize that they're not bad people. They're very good, caring and loving people."

In addition to leading a coven, Hughes is the facilitator for the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans, an association of pagans affiliated with Tampa's Unitarian Universalist Church. In January, the group will offer Wicca 101, a course for people interested in learning about the religion. Study topics include the history of witchcraft, the goddess and the god, ritual basics and ethics.

At times it is easy to see how cliches about Wicca stick, Hughes said. He does, after all, engage in stereotypical witchcraft acts. Hughes and Francis make besoms, or broomsticks, and sell them to witches for use in ritual ceremonies.

Hughes says he doesn't worry much about popular culture's version of Samhain. He will ply early trick-or-treaters with candy and decorate his home in celebration of the harvest. But he wants the public's portrayal of green-faced witches with pointy noses and long, crooked fingers to change.

"I'm very happy to see that you don't see the children in ugly witch costumes," Hughes said. "They're Power Rangers, Spider-Man, ghosts. You just don't see the witches being portrayed anymore. I think people in general are becoming more open-minded about everything."

- Sherri Day can be reached at 813 226-3405 or sday@sptimes.com

Wicca, a primer

What is Wicca?

Founded in England in the 1950s, Wicca has roots dating to ancient Celtic societies. It is an earth-based religion that recognizes deities and the divinity of nature. It also includes some practices from the Masonic Order and witchcraft. Wiccans do not believe in hell, heaven or the devil.

How many Wiccans live in the Tampa Bay area?

From 5,000 to 10,000, estimates Danny L. Jorgensen, chairman of the Department of Religious Studies at USF. He says an accurate count is not possible because many Wiccans practice in secret.

Why are Wiccans linked with Halloween?

Many pagans celebrated Samhain on Oct. 31, when Wiccans thanked their gods for the harvest and honored ancestors. The early Christian Church adopted its own harvest observances, All Hallow's Eve and All Saint's Day. Popular culture and Hollywood did the rest, associating goblins and ghouls with Wiccans' attempts to commune with the dead.

What is a pentacle?

It is a star with five points and closely resembles the Star of David, which has six points. For Wiccans, it is akin to the cross that many Christians wear.

What other religious observances do Wiccans observe?

There are eight major religious ceremonies, each based on the agricultural cycle. They include Samhain, Yule and Beltaine, now commonly known as May Day. Some Wiccans conduct monthly Full Moon rituals and lesser ceremonies such as Wiccanings, the neopagan version of christenings.

[Last modified October 28, 2004, 14:57:26]

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