Milwaukee Wiccans find faith in the craft

Chris Barncard
Tribune Staff

It's easy to find a witch during the Halloween season. They are taped to windows, sitting on porches and hanging from grocery store ceilings. They are also delivering our mail, standing in front of you in line at the bank and sitting next to you in class. But don't look for a black hat, a broomstick or hairy moles. "I can't turn my hair colors," said Jasmine Schmidt, the 26-year-old high priestess of Twilight's Calling, a Milwaukee coven, or assembly of witches who perform their rituals as a group. "I don't ride a broomstick. I only wear black hats on Halloween because I think it's funny."

Sure, Schmidt has a mole, but her brand of witchcraft doesn't resemble a typical Halloween story or Hansel and Gretel or Sleeping Beauty. She's serious about being a witch. It's her religion. Schmidt, along with a growing number of Milwaukeeans, practices a Pagan religion. In her case it is Wicca, and she considers herself a Green - as in environmentally conscious - Witch. Schmidt said Wicca is a subset of Paganism, and witches a group within Wicca. In general terms, Pagans practice a polytheistic, nature-centered religion that draws many of its customs from various pre-Christian, western European religions.

In most cases, there is a mother goddess regarded as the central deity. But Pagans never fit general descriptions. What is it that they believe? And what is the importance of Oct. 31?

"You can talk to 15 different Pagans and get 20 different answers to these questions," Schmidt said. The coven of Wiccans she leads, Twilight's Calling, only has four members because a larger number could lead to too many different and possibly conflicting beliefs.

Pagan beliefs have become popular enough in Milwaukee that while it isn't all that easy to find 15 different Pagans, it can be done. According to Sean Schuetz, an advertising freshman, Marquette University has its share. "There are a lot more Pagans on campus than you think," Schuetz said. An Oct. 2000 informal census by Covenant of the Goddess, an international organization of solitary Wiccans and Wiccan congregations, estimates that there are about 12,800 Wiccans in Wisconsin.

Seeking Acceptance

Most Pagans keep their beliefs to themselves when it is not obvious that they will be accepted, Schuetz said. "When I let everybody know I was Pagan, I lost a few friends and my parents damn near disowned me," he said. Fear of persecution is a large part of Pagan history. Theresa Roden, Milwaukee, who considers herself an eclectic witch, sees Pagan apprehension as stemming from the bad old days when witches were burned at the stake. "We tend toward secrecy, but not because there is something we need to hide," she said. "We don't go shouting it from the mountaintops. There was a time when that could cost you your life."

The consequences may not be so dire these days, but Schmidt said people still associate Pagans with evil. The largest misconception, and source of what Pagans see as unfounded anger, is the idea that Pagans worship the devil.

All the Wiccans The Marquette Tribune interviewed said the same thing: How can you worship something you don't believe in? "We're not out to convert anybody, we just want them to know we don?t worship Satan or something like that," Schmidt said. "There are no sacrifices, there is no devil worship."

A Hallmark holiday

Paganism is most inaccurately associated with evil around Halloween, Schmidt said. "I know of a family that won't let their kids do the Halloween stuff because they say it's a Pagan holiday," Schmidt said, sighing. "Halloween is not a Pagan holiday. Samhain is a Pagan holiday. Halloween is a Hallmark holiday."

Samhain (pronounced sow-ann) is one of eight major Pagan holidays, called Sabbats. A Sabbat is celebrated at the beginning and midpoint of every season, logical dates for a nature-based religion. This particular Sabbat takes place tomorrow. Just what it signifies depends on whom you ask. Schmidt, Schuetz and Roden believe that on Samhain the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead is at its thinnest, providing an opportunity to communicate with, or channel, the recently departed. "(Samhain) is when we honor and grieve the dead," Schmidt said. "That is when they are the closest to us, and we heal those in pain, living or dead."

Hector Rodriguez, who sells Pagan books and ritual tools through his shop, Inner Circle, 1125 W. Oklahoma Ave., sees Samhain as the Pagan New Year, the beginning of the "turning of the wheel of the year." "The stuff with the dead, that sounds more like Santeria to me," Rodriguez said, referring to the religion of magic and spell casting that his father practiced in their native Puerto Rico.

Finding a home

It was the Santeria his father taught him that led him to Wicca. Rodriguez said he practiced the "darker" craft with his father until he had a psychic reading. "The psychic told me to let it (Santeria) go because I kind of had the devil on my band wagon," he said. "Wicca was a better fit for me."

Roden thinks many Pagans come to the religion after leaving another with which they thought they had a strong connection. She and Schmidt had Christian upbringings, and both became disillusioned after deciding that many of their fellow Christians were not practicing what they preached.

"I don't believe spirituality should make you feel guilty," Schmidt explained. "Christianity made me feel guilty all the time." The rest of the story is typical of many Pagans. Schmidt had a friend who was into tarot readings and divination (foretelling the future) who introduced her to Raymond Buckland's guide, The Complete Book of Witchcraft. "It was like everything I believed," she said of the book. "It was like coming home. I think it's like that for a lot of people - it's like you have found your place."

For Schuetz, several books served as the trigger, but The Complete Book of Witchcraft was not one of them. "I'm a little wary of anything that has ?complete? in the title," he said, noting that even though there is plenty of reference material available, Pagans have to be careful with what they take as genuine.

Rodriguez hopes his shop can help Pagans pick the good from the bad. "I figure if they're going to do it, they should do it right, you know?" he said.

Modern ritual

Along with his wife and 16-year-old daughter, Rodriguez will observe Samhain with a ritual taken almost directly from The Complete Book of Witchcraft. Many Pagans will write their own rituals, as the religions have no set liturgy. "A good portion of us who work in this city don't have time for that," Rodriguez said of ritual writing. "So we fall back on (books like Buckland's)."

Pagans have such disparate beliefs that the content of homemade rituals can be vastly different. There are some similarities, though. Roden will celebrate Samhain with a group of eight or nine friends. Schmidt and Schuetz will attend a celebration sponsored by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Pagan Student Fellowship (PSF) at Rejo's Cafe, 3041 N. Oakland Ave. While the PSF celebration will include events that will appeal to the broader public, like costume judging and tarot reading, most Pagan rituals will include what Rodriguez referred to as "erecting the temple." The groups will "close the circle" by physically standing in a circle and calling upon energy to protect the participants from what is going on outside the circle (as well as those outside the circle from what's going on inside.) This is generally followed by "calling the corners," invoking the elements as represented by the cardinal directions north (earth), south (fire), east (air) and west (water). To complete the erection of the temple, ritual participants invite a higher power to participate, usually male and female presences often regarded as the "Lord and Lady."

Beyond those initial steps, Rodriguez said, rituals head off in many directions. For example, Roden's ritual will include some timely issues. "We're using this as a time for positivity," she said. "We're going to try to clear out some of the negativity that?s been let into the world since September 11." Roden's group will counter that negativity with magic, which is essentially, to many Wiccan practitioners, the power of positive thinking. Roden compares the members of her group to rain drops. "We are all small drops, but together small drops can make a strong rain," she said. "And a strong rain can wear away a mountain."

Strong community

The focus in Paganism is on positive energy, Roden said. Simply believing in the devil, whom Pagans believe is a human construct, is allowing a source of negative energy to cloud that focus. The level of misunderstanding Pagans deal with, as well as the religious fervency of their vocal detractors, keeps them from practicing their religion as openly as they would like, but Schuetz, who came to Marquette from Los Angeles in August, is more comfortable in Milwaukee. "The community's very closely knit," he said. "People have told me that after two years I'd know everybody." That closeness is the strength of the community, which put together 200 Pagans on Sept. 23 for Pagan Pride Day, an event Schmidt helped organize on the UW-Milwaukee campus.

"We use the community telephone," Rodriguez said, referring to the ease with which news spreads, via word of mouth, through Milwaukee's Pagan population. "Everyone knows everyone else, so you can circulate news that way. The Internet has brought us together, too, even the ones who don't want to come out of the broom closet so to speak."

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