In the middle of the Temple of the Mystic Light’s June 1 blue moon celebration at the 5 Center Place Learning Center, the Rev. Pami Griffith breathes heavily, her face flushed and sweating as she recovers from “pulling down the moon.”
She does not intend or claim to have physically moved the heavenly body, only to have drawn upon its divine energy.
She worries that those unfamiliar with her faith don’t understand the meaning or purpose of her rituals.
Griffith, head of the temple and a priestess in the Correllian Nativist Church, wants to dispel myths among those unfamiliar with Wicca.
Employed at risqu/ T-shirt manufacturer Big Johnson Co. (most Correllian clergy work full-time in secular jobs), the Holabird Avenue resident is open about her faith but says others cannot be.
“There is so much prejudice,” she says, “While I practice openly, a lot of people still can’t.
Disappointed by the reference of many to a passage from Exodus — “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” — she points to modern Biblical translations, arguing, “the original word was €˜poisoner,’ not €˜witch.'”
“We don’t roast babies, we aren’t Satanists, we’re not out to hurt people,” she says, noting the basic Wiccan moral teaching: “Do what ye will, harm ye not.”
“We do have moral teaching about respecting ourselves, others and nature,” she notes, “We’re as moral as any religion.”
She admits, however, that her faith is more sexually tolerant than most.
“Sexual morality is man-made. We celebrate our bodies,” she says. Still, she doesn’t practice what Wiccans call “sky-clad,” or nude, worship.
“Trust me, you don’t want to see me naked!” jokes the zaftig 50-ish priestess.
Spells, she says, are the source of much misunderstanding.
“It’s not turning stuff into other stuff or putting curses on people. It’s influencing the universe to bring about things we hope for,” she says. “It’s just prayer.”
She says people cast spells without knowing.
“Ever sing, €˜Rain, rain, go away,’ or make a wish when blowing out candles?” she asks. “Know it or not, you’re casting a spell, or trying to.”
“Today people use €˜magic herbs’ like eucalyptus, echinacea and St. John’s wort,” she says. “Not long ago, people thought those things were nonsense.”
Nature is central to Wiccan belief. Lunar and solar cycles, the seasons and the elements of air, earth, fire and water all determine the faith’s calendar, beliefs and rituals.
Griffith says a relationship with nature is part of the attraction of Wicca.
“Primitive people built religions around nature because they needed to be in touch with nature,” she says. “More people want to find that in their own lives today.”
€˜Not so far out’
Other factors in the growth of Wicca, according to Griffith, are the rigidity of many traditional churches and the lack of roles for women.
“Mainstream religion is starting to turn some people off,” she observes, “especially women, since most churches don’t allow female clergy, and they worship a male god.”
Wiccans believe in a dual deity, the God and the Goddess, whom she relates to the Buddhist principle of yin and yang.
“There are two sides to everything,” she says, “and our faith addresses that.”
Born in West Virginia to an Italian immigrant mother, Griffith learned both European and Appalachian folk practices even as she was raised in a Roman Catholic faith in which they are frowned upon.
“Churches say these things are bad, but a lot of people go to church and also to a psychic or a tarot reader,” she notes. “I’ve given readings to priests. We’re not so far out.”
Even the rituals aren’t as strange as they seem, she says, noting that opening prayer, purification with water, and use of incense and candles to call upon the divine are all found in Catholicism.
“When my ex-husband saw his first ritual, he said it was €˜so much like Mass that I almost fell asleep,'” she recalls, laughing.
More similarities appear as the ritual continues. Where Catholics say “intentions” with “Lord, hear our prayer,” members of the circle, as a Wiccan congregation is called, write their hopes on slips of paper that are burned in the cauldron on the altar, the smoke carrying their prayers outward.
What follows is called “cakes and ale” but clearly resembles the Eucharist.
A bowl is passed around the circle. Each person takes a cake and passes the bowl, saying, “May you never hunger.”
The process is repeated with a chalice of Griffith’s homemade honey mead, passed with the words, “May you never thirst.”
Griffith’s concelebrant, the Rev. Darius Morningstar, closes the ritual with a prayer, saying “the circle is open, but never broken.”
Later, the group enjoys a few hours of fellowship. Morningstar treats a few to the Reiki stress reduction technique in which he is trained. Griffith reads tarot. Others engage in conversation.
JoDee Davis is also known as Ita Keylay. (“Wiccan names” are often used; Griffith is known as Pixy.) Raised Jewish, the former social worker found traditional faith lacking and calls Wicca “a much more personal religion. It talks about our real needs in our real lives.”
She credits her faith with helping her recover from drug addiction and a bad marriage.
Similar credit is given by a woman calling herself Catt. Overwhelmed by the duties of motherhood, she recalls that, “one night Hecate appeared to me. She told me everything was going to work out, and it did.”
Her husband is traditionally religious, but “he knows [Wicca] helps me, so he accepts it,” Catt says.
Morningstar has found acceptance from a surprising quarter.
He serves in the U.S. Air Force as a language specialist at Fort Meade. Not only have his colleagues been tolerant of his faith, he says, but policy changes have made the military more friendly to Wiccans.
Wiccans now worship openly on military bases. After a controversy in the late 1990s at Fort Hood in Texas, where many local Christians objected to Wiccan activity, the Defense Department said Wiccans, as a recognized religion, had the right to practice on base as other faiths do.
In April, the Department of Veterans Affairs settled a lawsuit filed by families of Wiccan veterans by adding the pentacle to the list of 38 approved religious symbols allowed on VA-issued headstones for placement in military and civilian cemeteries.
Morningstar, pleased but surprised at the resistance, says his faith is “not so distant from all the others. We all create our own deity as a gateway to the divine.”
Take what we can get’
Griffith sees a trend toward tolerance and points to the popularity of the Harry Potter novels and the television series Charmed, saying, “People are more ready to accept us.”
She says she has served as a district religious emblems counselor for the Boy Scouts of America and that most she meets wouldn’t guess her faith.
“We don’t preach,” she says, “We just try to live our lives.”
She looks forward to fall’s Baltimore Pagan Pride festivities as a chance to show more people the truth about her faith, and to the establishment of a dedicated space at 5 Center Place.
“It would be nice if it was more than an exercise room,” she jokes, “but we’ll take what we can get.”
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