When Denise Zimmermann and Carol Swartz opened Bell Book & Candle in a Belair Road shopping center last June, they didn't predict the overwhelming response to their fragrant emporium of oils, texts and birthstones, where customers can experience past-life regression or have their Tarot cards read in a candle-lit chamber. "I thought we would be OK, but I had no idea we would be this welcome," says Zimmermann, a practicing witch with a broad sense of humor.
Not only did nature-worshiping Neo-Pagans flock to the new store to peruse crystal balls, caldrons and books like "A Kitchen Witch's Cookbook," but about 50 people also signed up for Zimmermann's course on becoming a witch; professionals, truck drivers, teen mothers and women in their 70s among them.
Last Saturday, 25 students filled a back room in the store for their monthly Belair Road witch project, taking a break for bag lunches and to chuckle over a member's gift to Zimmermann: a replica of a Halloween witch, complete with broom, pointy hat and cackling grin. Then it was time to return to class for their divination lesson.
No, it's not Hogwarts, the school where Harry Potter and friends are wizards-in-training, but Zimmermann's overflowing class signifies the escalating appeal of witchcraft, which she calls the "fastest growing religion in the country."
Zimmermann's contention is not easily proved. One conservative estimate puts the population of Pagans, of which Wicca and witchcraft are rather like denominations, at 150,000 to 200,000; author and Wiccan high priestess Phyllis Curott places it in the 3 million to 5 million range. But on the eve of Samhain, the Celtic New Year holiday that witches celebrate, also known as Halloween, finding examples of witchcraft as a hot topic across the popular and high culture spectrum is as easy as winning a Quidditch match with a fleet of Nimbus 2000s.
From Professor McGonagall of Harry Potter fame to the Blair Witch, from Silver RavenWolf's "Teen Witch: Wicca for a New Generation" to a witch-hunt conference at the University of California at Los Angeles, from Wiccans in the military to the Dragon Heart Coven in Middle River, from movies "The Craft" to "The Crucible," there is a witch for all seasons and all stripes.
Long time coming
For longtime practitioners, the popularity of witchcraft is not an out-of-the-blue phenomenon, says National Public Radio correspondent and practicing witch Margot Adler, whose 1979 book, "Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess Worshipers, and Other Pagans in America Today," is a landmark work for those who practice the rituals of Wicca and other forms of benign magic.
"I'm not sure how much bigger it is," Adler says. "In fact, I think that there's been a huge movement in publishing books and scholarly papers for quite a long while."
The difference, Adler says, has more to do with Sabrina and her telegenic counterparts' influence on teen-age girls and less with the gradual growth of the modern Wicca and the Pagan movements, which began in England in the 1930s and spread to the United States in the '60s.
Another difference, Adler says, is that books about witchcraft "are being marketed in a mainstream way." She cites as an example Curott's "Book of Shadows: A Modern Woman's Journey into the Wisdom of Witchcraft and the Magic of the Goddess," published by Broadway Books and as available in larger, general-interest bookstores as in smaller New Age and women's bookstores.
Adler explains witchcraft's appeal as "a desperate search for roots. If you think about where all Americans have come from, every single one of us, there are three paths. African Americans have usually come here through slavery, and their traditions were destroyed. For Native Americans, traditions were destroyed through colonialism and the practices of white folks. And the rest of us, immigrants, wanted to Americanize, so we threw away all the songs and stories -- the 'juice' of our religions."
Adler says the thrust of the Neo-Pagan movement is "to get back the juice."
The juice is squeezed from ingredients drawn from pre-Christian religions around the world, resulting in any number of witchcraft blends: Eclectic Wiccan, Dragon Wicca, Druidry, Cat-Based Magick/Shamanism, Celtic, to name a few.
For the most part, witches, no matter what path they take, no longer hold that a "universal old religion" once existed, but the notion still serves as a working metaphor in their beliefs and rituals, Adler writes.
This "pick and choose" approach to creating the form of witchcraft right for you leads to wildly disparate interpretations concerning witches' heritage, purpose and credibility -- and to passionate debate. Naturally, not everyone sees eye to newt on this subject, as discussions in recent issues of the Chronicle of Higher Education, the New Yorker, History, the National Review and numerous witchcraft Web sites reveal.
Questions and objections abound across the board: If the "old ways" are a myth, and those executed in European and American witch trials were not actual witches, then how can contemporary witches see themselves as their heirs, certain scholars ask. Should witches and Neo-Pagans boycott the "Blair Witch Project?" Wiccan members wonder. Is witchcraft a legitimate religion? Are stereotypical witches cavorting on switches a harmful stereotype or celebration of the old crone?
On the academic level, such questions and discussions reflect an increasingly multidisciplinary approach to studying witchcraft, says Walter Stephens, a Johns Hopkins University professor of Romance languages whose book, "Demon Lovers: Witchcraft, Sex, and Belief," will be published next year.
The new strategy shows "more humanists who are fooling around in the social sciences, and more social scientists who are interested in historical problems like this," Stephens says. "It's a really interesting field. There are a number of explanations out there that will give you a good perspective on what was happening; none of which necessarily excludes the others."
In his book, Stephens contends that in 15th and 16th century Europe, Catholic church officials, who had previously dismissed witchcraft as superstition, decided it was real and widespread as a way of buffeting wavering spiritual doubts. By finding "evidence" that certain women consorted with demons, professional inquisitors could prove demons were real. And if demons were real, so was God, halting the slippery slope of doubt. In their quest for faith, theologians oversaw the execution of thousands of accused witches.
Stephens finds an ironic parallel between today's witches and 15th century inquisitors. Both doubt Christianity. As for whether witchcraft is a bona fide religion, Stephens has his doubts: "It's a religion to the extent that it's a defense mechanism against the fear of death," he says.
"If practitioners keep their faith personal and private, fine." But, "the minute that they start trying to prove it's real and requiring other people to believe look at Kansas," says Stephens, referring to the state school board's recent rubber stamp of teaching Creationism.
Not just for the young
Real or not, witchcraft has matured to the point where it has become the focus of graying communities across the United States. Helen A. Berger's "A Community of Witches: Contemporary Neo-Paganism and Witchcraft in the United States," is a 10-year study that examines the practices, structures and evolution of Neo-Paganism.
Children have had an important effect on the religion, says Berger, a sociology professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. "It's one thing to be a witch or Pagan when you're young and a little wild and crazy. It's another thing when you're middle-aged with kids."
Like more mainstream religions, Neo-Paganism has also become "routinized" with more structured worship and a "shift toward greater homogeneity," Berger writes.
As she does research around the country, Berger has also found that witches often become persecuted scapegoats, as they were in Europe and Salem. In that sense, witches, even if they are not witches in the age-old supernatural sense, still have the ability to bring out the worst in human nature.
But that does not stop people like Denise Zimmermann, of Bell Book & Candle, from practicing her faith. "In each and every lifetime, a witch searches until she finds [herself]," Zimmermann says. "You come back to being a witch again."
Bell, Book and Candle, 7684 Belair Road, celebrates Halloween weekend with two events, a Psychic Fair from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. today and a "Samhain Circle," from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. tomorrow. Reservations are required for tomorrow's event. Call 410-668-8933.