An eyewitness report from deep inside a Wiccan ceremony.
By Richard Knight Jr.
NOVEMBER 1, 1999:
It began with those striped stockings extending from under the farmhouse, and ended in a blaze of ruby slippers. That, and the dead woman's sibling demanding to know "who killed my sister?" was my first introduction to witches. All through my childhood and teen years, in fact, witches were everywhere: Endora, Samantha, Sabrina, Snow White's stepmother in witch drag offering her a poisoned apple. There was that nasty passel of witches menacing Jessica Harper at the Italian ballet school in "Suspiria," Hope Lange being pressed to death for denying Satan her soul in "Crowhaven Farm."
Warlocks, the male version, were not quite as prevalent. Uncle Arthur. Dr. Bombay. Ernest Borgnine melting in "The Devil's Rain." Not as glamorous, sexy. Evocative. During my high school years there were rumors of a coven practicing their rituals at the local cemetery. So one night in my senior year, Bart and Brad and Gail and I piled into my parent's Buick station wagon and parked out by the tombstones. Two a.m. on a moonless night. Visions of orgies dancing in our heads. And then we heard it. The chanting. No station wagon ever hit 60 that fast, and more than twenty years later I can still hear the moans. Was it the wind? Probably.
But witchcraft and all that it entailed remained, well, tantalizing. Not long before All Hallows Eve, an acquaintance at dinner party casually mentions that she will shortly be attending a Witches Sabbath, a Wicca ceremony, and invites me to attend. Upon our arrival--the event, oddly enough, is held in a Unitarian church in Evanston--my acquaintance greets friends, leads me into the large room where the service will be held, and points to a chair against the wall. I sit and contemplate the large space: a nondescript linoleum floor, concrete block walls, clusters of folding chairs, and a wall of stained glass windows. The ceiling overhead is high. A kitchen area is off to the right.
The service has been called for 7:30. Now, at just past that, people have begun to drift into the room, laying down coats, purses and refreshments. And although I suspected it wasn't really possible for Rosemary to have Satan's baby, the vicarious thrill once again rose up in me. What I encountered was a lot more Glinda, a lot less Margaret Hamilton. No matter. Part of me still remains that hopped-up kid in the Buick listening to the moaning and chanting at that tiny Nebraska cemetery.
The ceremony begins, and several people begin to softly play drums, tambourine and bells. Approximately thirty people congregate in the center of the room, sitting in a circle on the cold, speckled linoleum floor. A young boy of indeterminate age in a Dracula cape runs around the circle. A man dressed in black silk robes circles the group, beating on a drum. Four altars are set up around the room, two chairs placed front to front with a total of eleven red candles on the chairs. The candles are lit. A larger altar is placed at the head of the group, toward the windows. The music is rhythmic--very much like a Dead Can Dance album.
The participants remove their shoes. Boy in Dracula cape has black and white high-tops.
The music begins to slow down--dies off at 7:48. There is an equal number of men and women in the circle, with ages appearing to range from 20s to 50s.
Four circle fans spin lazily overhead. A man stands and calls the ritual to order, asking each participant to say his or her name. They do: Dan, Connie, Hunter, Essiah, John, Steve, Claire, Eli, Jean, Trudy, Paul, Michael, Brian, Marie, Esa, etc. Man says, "I am Christopher. We have a virgin in the audience"--the crowd titters. No questions," Christopher admonishes. "We ask the questions." At this point there is something about "Colorado Springs," but the acoustics make it difficult to catch each word. Christopher speaks softly with a slight lisp. He says something about "Germany," and I distinctly hear "Christians can only afford one God." The room echoes when he speaks, making it sound as if his voice is coming across water.
"It's late, let's get started," Christopher instructs. "Could we have someone drum, please?"
Several people do drum in earnest. A black man with beard takes a candle, goes to the middle of the circle, sets the candle down, pages through book he is holding.
A barefoot woman with a tabla walks around the outside of the circle, lights a black candle; overhead lights come up, drums keep beating. Boy in Dracula cape beats his red drumsticks on a black trunk, which is placed on floor in front of him.
Vince, the guy with the beard, is the leader of the group and has been for seven years. Mentions that this is an Egyptian ceremony. Says, "I like to do vibration." He kneels at head of circle and begins a singsong chant. Drums have stopped. Some heads are bowed. The circle contains thirty-four people plus Vince and the kid in the Dracula cape.
"Let's all stand," Vince intones. He wears a headband/scarf and a long black robe. Everyone stands and holds hands. There is "vibrations talk" from Vince--Syad, third eye, perfect time for Syad, etc. He sways back and forth. "Now take a deep breath and hold it." Everyone does. "Now, let's take another one." They do. The group appears to be in a meditative state, with eyes closed and heads bowed. "All tension leaving the body," Vince continues, speaking in clear, caressing tones, "feel the surface of your skin, feel your garments, feel the hands clasping."
Boy in Dracula cape removes it and the black and white high-tops and begins to run around the circle. He accidentally scrapes a chair. Several people open their eyes in irritation.
More meditation instructions: "Feel the soles of your feet."
The circle sways, clasped hands rise, chanting commences. "Sit back down," Vince says. The group obeys; chanting continues.
Dracula boy runs across linoleum, his feet slapping with each step.
"Heart energy's good," Vince says.
Dracula boy returns, sits on stairs, eats bag of Jay's potato chips.
Three latecomers join the circle. "Are you purified?" Vince queries.
Vince talks about Egypt, Cyrus, the underworld, a Ram's head, his "body cut into pieces," Isis trying to collect them. "Christmastime is when Isis assembles the pieces because Cyrus couldn't do it alone--he was in pretty bad shape."
There is something about the Big Dipper (the pot and the handle) being the gateway to the world for the underworld. Host spirits can get in at noon on Easter and at midnight on Halloween. There is something about a hippo and the spirits entering through the northwest altar because that's where the gateway is.
"The first thing is to confront the adversary--the bad part of ourselves," Vince says. He speaks in a melodious voice, pleasing to hear.
"Now the circle nears the horizon--this is a big deal in Egypt because everything's flat. I like circles, circles are cool," Vince observes.
Three women are dressed in black capes, another five in long skirts. One woman wears a T-shirt with a Christmas tree on front. A tall man with a pony tail wears a T-shirt that says "Blue Jays American League East Champions."
"Feel the darkness. Serpent, guide us," Vince intones. The group is again swaying. A balding man in gray sweater, ripped jeans, sitting cross-legged on the floor to side with drum in his lap begins to play. Group again standing, again chanting. The circle begins to move to the left and inward. Vince leads. Dracula boy slithers across floor on all fours.
The circle tightens, moves faster, pace picks up, group now skipping. Voices begin to harmonize. Christopher and a woman in black robes move around the outside of the participants playing drums.
Chanting, circle, drumming all slow down. Hands again raised in air. Vince says "Feel the vibration of the moon." Group sways.
Vince slowly circles group, speaking very quietly, goes to altar to make "offers." Chants.
Returns to circle. Members sway, heads bowed. Woman in Christmas tree T-shirt stares at Vince. Man in Blue Jays T-shirt undulates like stripper, really swaying. Christopher holds a hand to his eyes as if he has a headache.
Vince says "Do you see the forest? Look down on a great city." Group is now "a hawk flying over the city--can you see far, can you see clear?"
Two women abruptly leave circle, leave room. "Allow yourself to become yourself," Vince says, ignoring their departure. "Hmmmmmmmmm," he chants, "Peace. Sunset. Feel the darkness around us. Feel the presence."
Some people in the circle are beginning to fidget--Vince continues medi-rapping and swaying. There is more visualization: "Feel the darkness and the coils wrapped around our back, the darkness seeps through, seeps through, seeks, seeps through. Sees to take you away."
Tambourine man leaves room. Dracula boy screeches by. A smell of incense permeates the room.
All heads are bowed--except Christmas T-shirt--she stares at Vince and frankly looks around the circle and apparently pondering the room's thirty-four windows and four doors exiting onto the street.
"Become the sun--puck up energy," Vince instructs. "Mmmmm" increases.
"I see the great bear," Vince says.
Another woman leaves circle, with drum under her arm, black coat over her shoulder, and licking a cupcake.
Vince circles group with papers, several people now wandering in and out of the room.
Man in black T-shirt lights incense stick, held by woman with pentagram necklace.
Circle draws in tighter. Black T-shirt circles with incense burner. "We call upon loved ones, ancestors, to call upon us if they so choose," Vince intones. Black T-shirt now plays drum, chants. Faces altar with five bowls, candles.
Christmas T-shirt looks around room, sniffs.
Black T-shirt stops drumming, invites spirits "who wish to return for one evening if they so choose to."
Vince echoes the invitation, "I, too, invite you to return." He burns papers at the altar, says "Now's the time we can make our offerings to the dead so they can speak too." Picks up plastic bottle, uncaps it.
Lights go out. Candles burn in the darkness. Christopher goes to the altar, kneels.
Girl walks by with flute. Vince: "All that wish go to altar, kneel and make their offering."
Vince momentarily catches on fire. "Got it" he says just as three members jump up to help.
Dracula boy sneezes into the silence.
Vince pours more liquid on fire to keep it going.
Black T-shirt speaks quietly at altar. Flautist is next.
Flautist begins to play; the music sounds almost Oriental, very wistful. Vince goes to get more papers.
Couples start cuddling in the darkened room. Woman in cape and man lying of the floor hold hands and fondle one another. Others lie prone on the floor. There is the feeling of being around a campfire.
The fondling couple get up and leave in a hurry.
More people wander about; a woman in black stockings, a long black dress and antique jewelry asks where the bathroom is located. One at a time, the members are praying or speaking quietly to themselves at the altar. The hum of a furnace mixes with the flute music.
Vince circles the room, appears to be about 5'6", resembles the singer James Ingram.
Vince again at altar--begins chanting. The sound of a bottle being opened interrupts the chanting for a moment. The fire is almost out.
A woman prays at the south altar. Christmas T-shirt stares at her.
More prayers and chanting by Vince, pours bowl of liquid over fire. It goes out. "Guide those lost souls, help them, guide them," he intones as the smoke rises from the extinguished fire. He is wearing a body mic and it glows green in the dark.
Everyone stands, joins hands. More talk about a serpent by Vince. Room pungent with burned papers and incense. Group sways.
Talk of vibrations, stars, galaxies.
Vince walks around circle, wrapping up the ceremony, hands drop, couples hug. "There are refreshments," Vince announces, directing the group toward them.
Group gathers around refreshment, Vince hugs each member. Flute player continues to play, lights are still off.
Lights in refreshment area are turned on. Members socialize, eat chips, popcorn and devil's food cake.
I give a ride to my acquaintance and two other members of the group, a man and woman. Later my acquaintance tells me that the man has died of brain cancer and that Vince conducted a death ritual for him--which, considering the Wiccan ceremony, is the most frightening thing I've heard all year.