Exercising their rites
Standing barefoot underneath a leafy tree on fire with the setting June sun, nearly two dozen witches quietly prepare themselves to celebrate the longest day of the year, the summer solstice, or to these Wiccan faithful, Litha.
For this evening’s Sabbat, one of eight religious rituals held on Wicca’s sacred days, the worshippers are dressed in everything from their solstice best – flowing robes of varying colors – to the more casual jeans, T-shirts and wraparound skirts.
“We come into the light half of the year, the hope of a new day and a new sunrise. We take all the negative things of the past and put it behind us,” says Loye Pourner, the lay leader of this Wiccan circle based at Travis Air Force Base, addressing the group on Litha’s significance. “The sun’s up. We’re alive. We’re together. It doesn’t get much better than this.”
The ceremony officially begins with Jennifer Bristow and Pourner walking slowly around the gathering, building an imaginary circle and calling on the earth’s four directions and elements. Loye carries smoldering incense in a wooden box around the circle. Its sweet-smelling smoke, representing wind and fire, curl from holes atop the narrow case, symbolically, cleansing the worship space not unlike the censer in liturgical Christian services. Jennifer follows, gently sprinkling a mixture of salt, representing the earth, and water around the worshippers. The group then turns to each direction, calling elements of the north, south, east and west to be present, similar to an invocation. Pourner, in full-length red robes cinched with a length of cord, draws with two fingers the pentacle in the air.
It is this symbol of the Wiccan faith, an encircled five-pointed star, which seems to cause modern witches and pagans the most trouble. Most recently, the Pentagon refused to allow the symbol to be placed on the marble tombstone of a fallen soldier, causing a stir in the Wiccan community. President George W. Bush even lamented that the military allowed Wiccans to practice on-base, saying he didn’t believed “witchcraft” to be a valid religion. Pourner, who served in the Air Force for two decades and began the Wiccan circle at Travis Air Force Base in 1996, says the controversy is nothing new, even though the federal government recognizes Wicca as a valid religion.
“It’s a battle I’ve been fighting for years,” he says, noting that Travis chaplains often lent their support to the cause as well.
The hang-up, he and other Travis pagans say, is that people often mistakenly associate the pentacle with Satanism, which actually inverts the Wiccan symbol. Some at the local Litha celebration note that Satan is a Christian belief, not pagan. Wicca, they explain, is an earth-based religion, comparable to the traditional beliefs of Native Americans. In its current form, Wicca is only a century old, but many modern pagans trace their religion’s roots to anciet paganism from northern Europe. Both worship god and goddess. Today, though, the use of and belief in magic – a term that seems to describe sending “energy” to others – varies wildly. The secrecy that tends to accompany Wiccan rites usually is for the practitioners own protection, considering some of the extreme attitudes and response they have encountered over the years.
None of the stereotypes commonly found on television and in movies apply. Their faith doesn’t support devious, vengeful magic spells, they say. The first ethic of Wicca is to do no harm to others, followed by the three-fold principle, in which one’s good and bad deeds eventually return to the doer, multiplied. Still, the false stereotypes persist, even though Wicca/Paganism is among the fastest growing in the country, increasing 17 fold between 1991 and 2001.
“Even at work now, some people still can’t get it out of their heads that I’m not a Satanist,” explains Pourner, who, before retiring from the Air Force, had earned the puckish nickname of “The Base Witch” for his faith. “What we’re doing is no more frightening or evil than any other religious rite.”
In fact, the Litha ritual bears some striking similarities to other religious services. An opening invocation and an inspirational talk similar to a sermon are followed by a time for worshippers to share their joys and burdens with the circle.One young woman talks about her sister who needs surgery and a small rock is passed around the circle. Each witch holds it in his or her hands, “concentrating positive energy into it,” Bristow says, the Wiccan version of a prayer. Finally, the worshippers enjoy a “simple feast,” in which members pass around a plate of crackers and a chalice of sparkling cider, serving and saying blessings over each other. They even have potluck dinners after their religious ceremonies.
As military witches, though, members of the circle also can face scrutiny from other witches. Like other mainstream religions, Wicca adherents debate the compatibility of taking up arms against other nations.
Abbie Tesch, who is married to an airman, says she would find it difficult, given her Wiccan beliefs, to serve in the military and likely would be a conscientious objector. She, however, is the minority in a circle that features mostly active duty and former Air Force soldiers.
“People never equate a nature-loving faith with the Armed Services,” Pourner says. For him, though, the justification is simple, especially for a witch. The United States gives witches the unique freedom to practice their religion without government persercution, which is a relatively recent development in the world. That’s what Pourner says military witches are protecting. A safe place to be witches.
“A lot of pagans don’t think you can be both. But the willingness to kill or be killed for our country is something sacred in and of itself,” Bristow said. “I’d still take a bullet for Bush.”