The moon, nearly full, rises over the black silhouette of trees on Lafayette Street, where a line of witches spills out the door of the First Unitarian Church of Denver, ready for ritual.
On the steps, a silver-haired Denver witch, the Rev. M. Alia Denny, chats with a young woman about Celtic deities.
“Hey, have you ever heard of the god Fergus?” she calls over to Jacqueline Weller, a short, jovial woman who has practiced witchcraft in Denver for 25 years.
“No,” says Weller.
This high priestess of Wicca, regally attired in a long scarlet gown and a maroon shawl fringed with red glass beads, looks thoughtfully at Denny, who as head of Hearthstone Community Church rents the Unitarian space for the monthly full-moon ritual.
“But it sounds like a good Celtic name,” says Weller, breaking into melodious laughter.
Wiccan lineage is tied to the ancient Celts of northern and western Europe. One of their most sacred holidays falls on Oct. 31, the last day of autumn.
Called Samhain (pronounced SOW-en,) this is the Celtic New Year, a brief crack in time when the worlds of the living and dead intermingle.
Centuries later in America, Weller is one of many witches who keep this tradition.
Each Halloween, she organizes the Witches’ Ball in Denver, one of the city’s hottest parties, which draws about 900 people.
It’s an extravaganza of trance drummers, psychic readers and merchants of the magical: swords and staffs, chain mail, altar tools, tarot boxes, crystals and gemstones.
A practitioner of the craft, Weller once ran the Dragonfhain Coven, the High Plains Church of Wicca, and founded DAWN, the Denver Area Wicca Network.
On this Friday afternoon in Denver, the 53-year-old high priestess has deftly navigated her blue Cherokee Laredo Jeep through rush-hour traffic on Colfax Avenue.
She has stopped frequently at metaphysical bookstores like Isis and Herbs & Arts on ball business, picking up money for tickets sold.
By 7:30 p.m., she’s worked her way over to the full-moon ritual, where she hands out fistfuls of lemon-yellow fliers to publicize her Halloween bash.
But she has a secret agenda.
A political witch, Weller recently founded WRAPP – the Wheat Ridge Alliance of Psychics and Pagans – to fight for religious and political rights.
This November, the group intends to sue Wheat Ridge over its anti-psychic zoning laws, and Weller is encouraged by her successful fight five years ago, when she and other psychics successfully overturned an archaic Denver law against fortunetelling.
Echoes of “a Salem witch hunt”
But, with the moon rising over the starry indigo sky, Weller is focused on Ramah, a small town on the Eastern Plains of Colorado.
Standing in the circle of witches, she explains that a Baptist minister recently went before the town board of Ramah and attempted to stop the first-annual Samhain Ball, created by the Secret Garden Coven in Calhan, which had rented space from the American Legion Hall in Ramah.
One trustee, who thought this violated the witches’ civil liberties, complained that the entire fracas was “reminiscent of a Salem witch hunt.”
The mayor even ate crow.
“All I can say is we do as a board apologize,” said Tamra Herrera to coven members attending the town meeting. “This has never come up before and never will again.”
So Ramah will have its Witches’ Ball after all.
“Some evangelical fundamentalist Christians in the area are freaked out,” says Weller, pacing the circle.
“They’re doing all they can to stop them.”
But this is not “the Burning Times” of the 16th and 17th centuries, when suspected witches were burned at the stake.
In the 21st century, witches are empowered to fight back. One powerful tool is the magic of visibility.
“Pagans and witches are coming from Fort Collins and Greeley all the way to the Western Slope to give their support,” she says. “People are planning to ride out from Denver.”
The witches are gathering.
Democrat to Republican
Heartened, the crowd continues with its church-basement ritual aimed at creating positive change in the world, a blend of song and ceremony that ends with apple cider and gingersnaps.
Despite the aura of victory, Weller knows that – at least in certain segments of our society – not much has changed.
“Unfortunately,” she says, “there are still many people who believe we are out there sacrificing babies.”
Some witches live in little huts in the woods. Others live on mountaintops in quaint stone cottages. But most live in ranch houses and split-levels, scattered anonymously across suburban America.
Weller lives in a small home in south Denver, tucked behind a large yard decorated with cement sculptures of gargoyles and crescent moons, where the urban wildlife – owls and hawks – isn’t quite as abundant as when she first moved here, nearly 30 years ago, from Vancouver, British Columbia.
It was in Denver that she discovered Wicca, the largest of the many Earth-centered spiritualities that form paganism, which is one of the fastest-growing religions in the United States, according to the Pluralism Project at Harvard University.
Though Weller loved Wicca, particularly its emphasis on the Goddess, she was mystified by Denver.
“For the first few years, I said, ‘Why am I in Denver?’ I’d moved from an amazing, wonderful, cosmopolitan city to what was kind of a cow town. Then I realized it was because the Rocky Mountain Front Range – Boulder, Denver, Colorado Springs, Fort Collins – the whole area has a high amount of alternative spirituality and alternative healing activity.”
It wasn’t just hippies living in mountain towns and pagans settling around sacred mineral springs.
Weller once met an American Indian woman who said that her tribe thought of the Rockies as the spine, or backbone, of the continent.
“Think of human and animal bodies,” says Weller. “The kundalini energy, the chi, runs up and down the spine. In terms of geomancy, the Earth energies – the lay-lines and all that – there’s huge energy running up and down the Continental Divide.”
Whatever the reason, Colorado’s pagan community has exploded the past 15 years. Covens of 13 witches sprouted into congregations of 200 and more.
These days, there aren’t enough teachers to train all the eager students. But when Weller first moved here, the witches’ world was small and secret, even competitive.
The so-called “Witch Wars” of the ’80s further fragmented the community with much sniping between rival factions.
Time, and cyberspace, shape-shifted everything.
These days, wannabe witches just fire up the computer and enter the world of magical folk, which covertly crisscrosses the state from Leadville to Pueblo and Longmont to Thornton.
It’s a rich brew of Buddhist Wiccans, hippie witches and techno-pagans. Republicans and Democrats, they include doctors, lawyers, computer geeks, accountants, construction workers and civil servants.
Pagan fascination is rooted in the fusion of ancient and modern, says Weller.
A cue from the Christians?
“There’s a desire by people living in technological societies to balance the rational, scientific mind with the mystical, religious and spiritual realm that has always been with us as humans.”
But to Bob Larson, whose Denver-based evangelical ministry focuses on witchcraft and demons, the “phenomenal growth of paganism in this country” is rooted, ironically, in Christian marketing.
The past decade, he says, the tremendous success of Christian books, movies, and media proves that conservative Christians have become very sophisticated at marketing.
“Now the pagan communities have figured out how it works,” he says, “and are just adopting those techniques.”
Details don’t include a devil
The National Geographic Channel re-airs “Is It Real: Exorcism,” a look at styles of exorcism, including that of Larson, at 4 p.m. today and 2 p.m. Monday on Comcast digital cable channel 273.
“As an exorcist, some of my worst-off clients are people who’ve dabbled in the pagan community,” he says.
“My belief is that what’s passed off as a nice, peaceful, Earth-loving community is really dealing with the devil.”
But witches like Weller say they believe neither in demons nor the devil.
Weller prefers to call herself a Wiccan because the word “witch” too often evokes evil associations.
“If you say you’re a witch, you get a recoil, a fear response,” she says. “We don’t curse people, we don’t do harm, but many people have that image.”
This is a woman who reads tarot cards at her kitchen table, someone who loves to work with the subconscious mind, particularly the altered state known as trance.
For years, she has taught such classes as Wicca 101 and the Ethics of Magickal Practice. Now a new generation is taking up the mantle.
A few years ago John Kulsar, 34, and his wife, Kaewyn , 29, bought the metaphysical store Herbs & Art from a high priestess named Morning Glory, who had recently started the College of Wicca and Old Lore in Wheat Ridge.
Just weeks before Halloween, Herbs & Art is bustling. There’s a brisk trade in things like Ancestor Incense, Samhain Incense and “magickal” candles.
Kaewyn drops two scoops of Goddess of New Moon bath salts into a bag for a customer as she waits for Weller who, as usual, is running late.
“Pagan Standard Time,” says a joking Kaewyn.
Dressed in a long skirt the color of freshly tilled earth, her dreadlocks wrapped in a twist of thick fabric, this witch says she’s no Wiccan.
“I’m into quantum consciousness and Earth stuff.”
She possesses nothing but highest respect, however, for Weller, the high priestess of Wicca.
After all, the Witch Wars ended decades ago.
“Jackie is a driving force for bringing the pagan community together,” she says.
“She empowers others to revisit their connection with the Earth. She’s just a righteous mama.”