Comment: Spirit of the Age: A post-modern witch's brew

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The Independent Culture
THERE WAS a time when we really did think it was all about broomsticks and black hats. Today, of course, we are all supposed to know better. But Phyllis W Curott, as well as being a witch, is an anti-discrimination lawyer from Manhattan and therefore not used to taking anything for granted. She has, consequently, prepared a list of obvious questions (and their answers) to be given to ignorant journalists before they interview her.

Witchcraft: Myth vs Reality, it says at the top. The myths include: witches worship the devil, cast spells to harm people, boil eye-of-toad and wing- of-bat, and trick young maidens into eating poisoned apples. None of these, you will not be surprised to hear, are true. (Though witches do wear black from time to time, says Ms Curott, but only because as a colour it is slimming). She should know. She is not just an ordinary witch but the founder and High Priestess of the Circle of Ara and the Minoan Fellowship in New York.

We should not scoff at the crib sheet. The svelte High Priestess has just written Book of Shadows: rediscovering the ancient wisdom of witchcraft and magic and has been on tour across the US to promote it, doing up to 30 interviews a day, with TV and radio chat-show hosts who cannot find the time to read a book from one Hallowe'en to the next. There an eight- point Q&A list comes in very handy.

But those of us who are a little more diligent might like to skim it. The opening gives you the general idea: "Moonlight filters in through the city skylight. The air is fragrant with the scent of flowers and the smoke of burning incense. Candles flicker and glow, bathing our bodies in golden light. Holding hands, we begin a quiet chant: `Isis, Astarte, Diana, Hecate, Demeter, Kali ...' Singing the names of ancient goddesses, our voices blend and rise, our bodies sway and dance, faster and faster we circle ..."

Very Hammer House of Horror. But modern witchcraft, the high priestess insists, is nothing to do with the black arts of popular imagination. "This is Wicca. It is a revival of the ancient religion of the Goddess. It is a religion of nature," she says. She smooths down her off-duty-lawyer designer casuals, and shifts uncomfortably among the piles of books and over-flowing papers. We have met in the cramped office of her UK publishers, Piaktus Books, in a tiny street just off Tottenham Court Road.

There she begins talking about the cycles of the earth, rhythm of the seasons and a "spiritual practice" drawn from the metaphors of agriculture. And if most modern witches are, as she admits, urban professionals that only points to what is lacking in modern life.

"Ours is a profoundly alienated culture in which people are unhappy because we have stripped the sacred from our world," she says. So she goes back to the religion of the old times - of the sibyls of Alexandria and Ancient Greece, the native peoples of the Americas and the folk religion of Europe until it was suppressed by the Church in medieval witch-hunts which amounted to "the women's holocaust".

This, of course, is a load of romantic tosh. The idea that modern witchcraft lies in unbroken tradition with what its adherents like to describe as "the old religions" has been demolished over the past decade by scholars such as Ronald Hutton, who have shown that very few traditions go back beyond the 18th century and many of these were self-conscious post-Restoration revivals after the decades of Puritanism that followed the English Civil War. Worse than that, many of the modern Wiccan rituals were invented in the 1950s by a chap called Gerald Gardner.

Most British pagans get cross when you say this. But Phyllis Curott, being a post-modern kind of American witch, has the good grace to acknowledge all that. "Yes, this is a new spirituality. There's no way we could be practising the Elysian mysteries from 4,000 years back - no-one knows what happened in the temples of the ancient world precisely because the rituals were secret."

But to her, historical continuity is not the point. Similarities and parallels are enough. And she is happy to find them wherever she can. "There's been a tremendous amount of scholarship, especially in Gaelic and Sanskrit, that has enabled us to more accurately reconstruct the practices of the past. Other things have survived through folklore among families in southern Italy or in West Virginia, who brought them from England in the 16th century. Ours is a magpie religion."

Indeed it is. Along with Gardner's occultist confections she mixes into her witch's cauldron hefty dollops of feminism, Jungian psychotherapy and the new eco-consciousness of our times. Such syncretism she sees as a strength rather than a weakness. "It helps us address the imbalances of the modern world - breaking through to a non-scientific level of reality."

Witchcraft is, she insists, a very contemporary religion. "It is consonant with quantum physics and chaos theory - the idea that everything is bundles of vibrating interacting energy."

It also allows you to dress up in long silken gowns, make references to Kubla Khan and Xanadu, address members as thee and thou and bring your incantations to a close with olde worlde phrases like "So mote it be!"

"It's just a reminder of how old all this stuff is. I'm not afraid of being mocked. Only those who feel threatened resort to mockery," she concludes, with a clever bit of lawyer's rhetoric. It could have been much worse. She could have placed a hex on me. But then modern witches don't do that sort of thing.

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