ON A 95-degree afternoon, Kestryl Angell and Cheryl Costa re-enact a hallowed summer ritual: Spread out on a picnic blanket, they pour Kool-aid, dispense ginger snaps, brush away ants and thread a conversation through the demands of Angell's two young daughters. It's no small feat, considering that they are trying to explain the basics of their pagan religion.
Next week the two priestesses from Laurel will launch "Kestryl & Company," the country's first cable television talk show devoted to witchcraft or "Wicca" to its practitioners.
Arlington Community Television, a public access station, will broadcast the witches' half-hour bi-weekly show to 47,000 households. The show will also air on cable stations in Delaware and Fairfax (it is not yet scheduled to be seen locally); other cable stations have expressed interest in running it as well, Costa says. (The witches are scheduled to appear on CNN's Larry King Live show June 6, the same evening their own show debuts.)
This program marks a turning point for Wiccans: Until now, they have usually relied upon non-Wiccans to tell the public about their faith. And the public's perceptions seem to run the gamut from considering witchcraft to be a societal quirk to imagining that it is spawning an evil force for Armageddon.
Angell and Costa say most lessons about the religion still begin with a recitation of all the things that witches are not:
They are not Satanists. They do not cast evil spells. They do not practice blood sacrifice. They do not ride brooms or wear pointy hats.
Along with other pagan denominations, Wicca is recognized as a non-standard religion by the United States government.
"Kestryl & Company" aims to inform general audiences about the history, traditions and rituals of the religion. It may also mark the first time that a television program has acknowledged baby sitters in the credits.
"We couldn't do the program without the baby wranglers," says Costa. "Just like we couldn't do the program without the lighting people."
It's a detail which points to one of the major attractions of the Craft, as it is also called: All practitioners are spiritually equal. All can become priests and priestesses.
Modern witchcraft is rooted in various forms of the "Old Religion," a nature-oriented worship that predominated in Europe before the conquests of Christianity. A religion which believes in reincarnation, it concentrates heavily on recognizing the Earth and the bounties of its seasons. Wicca calls for celebrating a god and a goddess; the religion has no devils or evil figures.
Most members meet in small, autonomous groups called covens or circles, although Wicca also makes room for solitary worship. No central authority determines liturgy or rites; practitioners are encouraged to create their own, using certain guidelines. All worship takes place within a consecrated circle.
According to "The Spiral Dance," a guidebook to the practice of modern witchcraft, the religion is based upon teachings it takes from the moon and other forms of nature, rather than upon any formal dogma or set of beliefs.
Although figures are hard to come by, Costa estimates there are as many as 1,200 Wiccans in the Baltimore-Washington area; most national estimates vary from 20,000 to 50,000.
"A lot of people are hungry for a spirituality which links them not only to other-wordly things, but also to this world and to nature. We've lost so much of that spirituality in the Judeo-Christian religions that a lot of people are searching for something less dogmatic," says Gretchen van Utt, chaplain at Johns Hopkins University.
Among other topics, "Kestryl & Company" will examine traditions of music making, dancing and mask making. Guests include high priests and priestesses of various other pagan traditions as well as Wicca.
Costa is a third-degree priestess -- the highest level -- in the Alexandrine tradition of Wicca. Angell will be initiated as a third degree priestess by an out-of-state council of elders later this summer.
Costa produces the show which her housemate hosts. In a previous job, Costa made industrial films. Now she works as a computer consultant for a "Fortune 500 company," as she puts it. Although she says her employer fully accepts her religious work, she keeps the company's identity secret because of the potential for public harassment.
The two witches have scheduled some of their interviews in a park in Savage Mill because they do not want their neighbors pestered with questions. Wire service stories from across the country suggest that pagans are susceptible to intolerance, sometimes bordering on persecution. Costa talks of friends who have lost jobs, homes and custody battles because of their religious beliefs.
Angell makes and sells holistic bath salts and massage oils as well as taking care of her children, ages 4 and 15 months. She agreed to host the talk show because she was so frustrated at the public's misconceptions of her faith.
"No other mainstream religion has to validate [its] religion. We have to fight tooth and nail to validate ours," she says.
Wicca emphasizes similarities between people rather than their differences, she says, pointing out that it recognizes marriages between people of the same sex. Its basic rule is: "And it harm none, do what thou wilt." But Wicca also cautions that you reap what you sow, in a three-fold way: "Do good and you get back threefold the good, do harm and that will also return threefold."
"Basically we ask that people maintain a positive outlook and a respect for the Earth, plants and animals," Angell says.
Angell, 25, was raised Presbyterian. Costa, 39, was raised Catholic. Both spent years searching for a religion that seemed to express their spirituality. Angell plans to introduce her daughters to many different faiths so that they will have a strong background in the history of religion before they decide which faith best suits them.
"Our intent with 'Kestryl & Company' is not to bring people into the faith, but to show people what we are doing," Angell says. "We are doing this for balance. Strictly for balance. You'll never see me asking for money on the air."