In the early evening of a full moon, on the day following the summer solstice, second-year priest Colin Smith and fourth-year priestess Esthamarelda McNevin are preparing for a celebration. According to the Encyclopedia of Wicca and Witchcraft, the summer solstice is one of eight seasonal rites that encompass the Wheel of the Year, known as a sabbat—and Smith and McNevin are hosting an outer-circle gathering, open to the community, to mark the occasion. Later, under cover of darkness and in the privacy of their ritual room, the two will lead their six-person coven, an intimate assembly of practitioners, in an inner-circle ceremony to celebrate not just the full moon, which is called an esbat, but also the group’s first birthday.
In other words, this is a big day—and it’s pure coincidence that they are meeting with a reporter who called out of curiosity because the blockbuster film Bewitched has just opened nationwide.
“That’s how it all works,” says Smith, sharing a glance with McNevin. “It’s the nature of the universe.”
“This is the way it was meant to be,” McNevin adds.
Smith and McNevin practice a neo-pagan form of witchcraft which, as Smith explains, includes religions like wicca, which is a specific form of modern witchcraft, druidry and a collection of other pagan paths that emphasize “personal power, and that one has an inherent ability to change and alter reality with will and intention.” The religion is defined by Ways of the Wicca as “pre-Christian” and “based on remnants of simple Pagan traditions handed down in folklore and country custom…[with] more sophisticated beliefs from the more formal Paganisms of Rome, Greece and Egypt.” Wicca involves the development of magical psychic powers, as well as the wisdom to know how to use them.
“We harken back to the Celtic tribe, the Norris tribe, and I have a lot of Corinthian art and Corinthian history,” explains McNevin. “We draw from all over the world when we do any sort of event [like a sabbat]. We really are universalists.”
Smith, who works at the University of Montana’s KBGA radio station as director of public service announcements (he’s also DJ Raven on Saturday nights), has black eyeliner illustrations on the outside corners of his eyes. McNevin has a religious tattoo of a crescent on her forehead and, to mark the holiday celebration, she’s decorated her face and arms with additional black dots and red markings. Both Smith and McNevin are used to people being skeptical, dismissive or intimidated by their practices, and are patient with those curious to learn more. The biggest problem in communicating about witchcraft, they say, is fighting the stereotypes that society—most notably Hollywood—attaches to their religion.
“Do we fly on brooms? No, absolutely not,” says McNevin, not answering a direct question but assuming that’s what people believe. “I could tell you the reality [of that misconception], if you want.”
Instead, it’s Smith who explains that the broom was at the root of a fertility ritual performed by European hedge witches (those not part of a coven) to help with growing crops.
“They would typically have a hallucinogenic ointment that was a concoction of up to 30 different herbs and poisonous bugs mixed with lard that they would apply to the naked body and onto the broom so it would get into the vaginal area and into the skin,” he says. “Male witches would do it, too, but they would use pitchforks. And what they would do is go into their fields, be under the influence of the substance and dance around, and they felt like they were flying on their brooms or pitchforks.”
The broom is still an important symbol in witchcraft, used in wedding ceremonies as part of fertility rituals and to seal perceived “doorways” during coven ceremonies. But for flying? No. Nonetheless, Nicole Kidman’s character in Bewitched flies on a broom. In fact, the movie’s promotional poster features the prop.
“It’s very insulting,” says McNevin. “To some degree it’s completely degrading of a religious movement that has been suppressed for a very long time by the Judeo Christian church. For lots of different reasons, the stigma behind pagan or polytheistic religions in the western world have been political. Because of that, you always see the same stereotypes within society regurgitated.”
And Smith and McNevin would know. They watch pop culture references to their religion closely; they’ve already downloaded the online theatrical trailer to Bewitched and plan to see it at the dollar theater or on DVD. The Hollywood interpretations serve as a reference when talking to people not familiar with the craft.
“It’s good to keep up-to-date on what society at large is feeling about our practicism because the film, television and music industry have such great influence on Western society and civilization,” says Smith. “I have to admit, our guilty pleasure is watching ‘Charmed.’”
In the case of Bewitched, McNevin says she’s almost certain, even without seeing the film, that no effort was made to show witchcraft in a thoughtful or realistic fashion.
“With something like Bewitched, you have someone [in Kidman’s character] who’s completely different, an outcast from society, wants desperately to be normal but isn’t—all of which is to deny the self and suppress the ego in order to attain some sense of normality,” she says. “But in the end, she is not, in fact, normal and has to compromise. It’s done in such a way that makes it not a religion but a sideshow.”
Smith says Kidman’s involvement adds to his disappointment, noting that the actress is not unfamiliar with cinematic witchcraft.
“[Kidman] was in Practical Magic, and Practical Magic had a lot of practical craft references,” he says. “So did the movie, The Craft. Those are the two that are actually the closest to portraying witchcraft in a positive and actual way…Then there’s the Harry Potter series, which teaches it in a fantastic and also very positive way. It’s presented in a way that, if you want to learn more, you can.”
In the middle of the interview, Smith and McNevin are interrupted by their neighbor and her small child at the door.
“What time does tonight get started?” asks the neighbor about the solstice gathering. The neighbor is wearing a sun dress and her daughter is in a tie-dyed t-shirt. “We’re really looking forward to it. Do we need to bring anything?”
Smith says outer circle gatherings typically draw between 10 and 20 community members—supportive friends and those just curious about learning more about the group’s practices. For tonight, McNevin has baked a batch of lemon cookies to share with the group. She’s prepared readings for the solstice sabbat, as well as written the ceremony for the coven’s private ritual.
“One of our major roles as priest and priestess is to draw down or invoke the god or goddess into the self and have them channel through you and communicate to the rest of the group,” says Smith. “Tonight’s ritual will be about invoking the energy of the sun into the circle and honoring the light that it gives.”
Smith says part of the ritual will include a recitation of “The Witches’ Rune.” This verse is similar to another used by some covens, called “The Witches’ Creed.” The latter ends, “An Do What You Will be the challenge/So be it in Love that harms none/For this is the only commandment/By magic of old, be it done/Eight words the Witches’ Creed fulfill: If it harms none, do what you will.”