Tom Cornwell had a secret stashed in the ottoman of his Savannah, Georgia, home. A former Jehovah’s Witness elder and minister for 20 years, he worshipped the Egyptian goddess Isis. Cornwell, 62, thought his secret was safe — until his devout Jehovah’s Witness wife announced she’d found his cache of witchcraft books.
Cornwell (not his real name) came out of the pagan closet to her that night, and says she took it better than expected. “I think the Goddess was watching over me,” he says.
A year later, he studies with a Wiccan coven and is a member of Savannah Pagan Meetup. Cornwell, who still hasn’t come out publicly about his beliefs, says he joins a growing number of pagans in the South peeking out of the broom closet.
Three years ago, only one pagan group reigned in Savannah; today nine exist, says Stevie Kirby, organizer of Savannah Witches and assistant organizer of Savannah Pagan. “It’s not easy being a pagan or a witch,” says Kirby. “And it doesn’t help if you’re in the Bible Belt,” he sighs.
Kirby says members of his group have lost their jobs, had their cars and homes vandalized, and been beaten and chased out of their residences because of their religious beliefs.
Broadly defined, pagans are believers who are not Jewish, Christian or Islamic. A more common meaning is polytheism associated with folk religions or the occult, such as Wiccans and Neo-druids. Kirby claims that pagans are on the rise in the South. He says that in 2006 Savannah Witches had 91 members, and today the group has more than double that amount. And in a new book, Generation Hex, religion researchers Dillon Burroughs and Marla Alupoaicei write that according to some estimates, by 2012, Wicca will be America’s third-largest religion. “But one thing all pagans share,” says Kirby, “is a desire to live their faith, grow their community and be understood.”
Meet A Cowboy-Witch
A Confederate flag drapes the back window of an old pickup truck parked on the side of a dusty country road outside of Little Rock, Arkansas. Calling himself Southern Magic for this interview, a cowboy hat and boot flaunting twentysomething lounges in the back of his truck with his girlfriend and fellow Wiccan, Morning Star.
“I’m a cowboy-witch with a lot of Druid and Celtic influences,” the green T-shirt-clad Magic declares, sounding almost like a sommelier describing the flavor profile of his favorite wine. “The three things I love the most are the Confederacy, my pagan path and horses,” he says as he tries to kiss the black lip-glossed but suddenly affronted looking Star. “And also my girlfriend,” Magic adds as she permits the kiss.
Magic, who says he once had a knife pressed to his throat and was beaten and tossed in a dumpster for admitting he was a witch, insists that three years ago the only pagans he knew in Arkansas were himself and Star. “But little by little, more and more are coming out,” he says.
First up, explains Star as she pulls out a book of spells from a black felt bag she calls her witch sack, “most pagans don’t even believe in the Devil.” Wicca honors the nature-based deities and celebrates the change of the seasons, she says.
Polishing a long double-edged knife to be used in a ritual that evening, Magic nods and adds that pagans don’t sacrifice humans or animals either. “One of the basic Wiccan tenets is, ‘Do whatever you want, but don’t harm anyone else,’ ” Magic says, wagging his knife for emphasis.
Standing outside a cathedral-like church in Memphis, Tennessee, a teenager (who asks to be called Moonlight) sporting a pink blouse, a matching pink iPod and a small silver pentacle necklace, says she owns every Harry Potter book and that it cultivated her interest in Wicca. “But witches don’t fly on broomsticks or say a couple of magic words and — poof — change stuff. That’s just Hollywood,” Moonlight says.
Real magic focuses will or desire to achieve a result, she explains. “Like, if I want to hit a home run in a softball game, I’d visualize myself hitting that home run over and over again. Visualization is actually the starting point for magic.”
Moonlight, who conceals practicing witchcraft from her devout Christian family, says casting a spell adds more elements — including candles, incense, drums and chants — to enhance the energy level. “But be careful what you wish for,” she says. “Once I did a love spell and got the guy I wanted, but when he wouldn’t leave me alone I had to call the cops.”
As a young witch, Moonlight is still learning. “I’ll never do a love spell again because it interferes with free will, which is not allowed in Wicca and is dangerous.”
And Moonlight isn’t the only Southern witch learning lessons. T.K., a 22-year-old woman in Savannah, says that in high school she once turned to a group of classmates and blinked, turning her eyes from blue to green. As she continued to blink and baffle, her teacher ordered her to the principal’s office for practicing witchcraft.
Afterwards, T.K. says, she got a splitting headache, the divine’s way of punishing her for showing off with magic. T.K. hasn’t showboated since and is now headache-free.
Content with her eye color, Gina Molter, a Wiccan who holds a master’s degree in library sciences, squirmed in her church pew. Listening to the evangelical pastor declare that Wiccans are going to hell, she wanted to leave.
But Molter, 32, the daughter of a Methodist minister, says she occasionally attends the conservative megachurch in Beaufort, South Carolina for the music, the feeling of community and the celebratory nature of worship. “I find God everywhere,” she says. “Even in church.”
Relaxing with a group of pagan friends in the living room of a Correllian Wiccan priest, deep in a wooded patch of Lady’s Island, South Carolina, Molter seems especially at ease. The Church of the Circle in the Oaks meets every Tuesday night. Describing itself as a Wiccan community, it boasts a small pagan oasis in a state that ties Alabama and Louisiana as the nation’s most church-attending.
Despite the June humidity smothering the faint relief offered by a laboring floor fan wedged in an open window, Molter remains animated. She says Christianity is removed from nature and teaches that God created the earth to be subdued by humans and consequently exploited. “But the nature-based religions,” she insists, “believe that nature is not to be conquered, but celebrated, and a source to connect with the divine.”
But Bruce Richards, the 62-year-old salt-and-pepper-bearded leader of the group, says that witches and Wiccans aren’t picking a fight with Christians. “If someone has a relationship with Christ and that makes them happy and fulfilled, that’s great. They got it,” he insists. “We’re not trying to convert anyone to our path.”
However, Richards says power pulsates in his path. His grandmother, a witch, once told him that when Germany tried to invade England by sea in 1940, a group of up to a thousand witches gathered to do a spell to prevent the invasion. After the ceremony, a terrible storm raged and the naval invasion was aborted, she said.
“A witch that can’t kill, can’t cure,” Richards says. A question about whether he has ever done such a spell went unanswered and wasn’t pursued.
Christians Peeking into the Broom Closet
In a trendy Italian café in coastal Georgia, the warmly smiling Rachel Cotton-Smith describes herself as an eclectic pagan, who pulls in ideas from Taoism, Christianity and various other faiths.
Cotton, 31, who was raised a Christian, always felt closest to God in nature. She says she finds church-attending Christians increasingly curious about Wicca. “They don’t want to know about dogma,” she says, “they want to know how they can connect with God.” And one way Cotton teaches them is through meditation. “Prayer, for me, is talking to God, and meditation is listening,” she says.
Cotton also teaches them “candle magic,” which sits people in a circle with a candle, with each in turn projecting good energy into it and then handing it to the next person. After the candle completes the circle, it is burned and its good energy released to the universe, solidifying the request. Cotton says the ritual isn’t much different from Catholics lighting candles in church. “Ultimately, all religions are tied together by the same thread of spirituality,” she says. “It’s just the dogma that varies.”
But Father John Geaney, CSP, spokesperson for the Diocese of Memphis, says all religious dogma is not the same because Wicca — unlike Judaism, Christianity and Islam — is not based on the monotheistic God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Additionally, Geaney says, Wicca involves witchcraft, which the church teaches against.
“As Christians, we ought to know that when we have spiritual or other needs, they can be best cared for in our faith,” says Geaney. For example, he says if someone is ill, the church can have a priest bless the patient. “We try to be thoughtful and caring of those who practice Wicca, but it’s not for Christians.”
Little Pink Skulls
And Moonlight says there is something that speaks truth to her in Geaney’s words. Still standing in front of the Memphis church she attended as a child, Moonlight says she has been thinking about returning to Christianity. “I don’t know. Somewhere deep in my Southern heart I feel Wicca might not be for me,” she confides.
Turning away from the church and twirling her pentacle necklace while careful not to scuff her bright pink nails, Moonlight says she’s still uncomfortable about wearing it in public. “Southerners are conservative about things like this, but they still are the nicest people,” she says as an elderly couple exit the church.
Slipping her pentacle underneath her pink ruffled blouse, Moonlight turns and smiles big at the couple and hollers out a cheery, “How’re y’all?” After exchanging pleasantries, the couple moves on but Moonlight still stares after them, explaining that they were old church friends. “If I stay a witch, I still want to raise my kids in the South,” she says with moistening eyes. “This is my home, and I love its small town-values,” she says, fingering her homemade bracelet, a string of little pink skulls.
[Editor’s note: Some readers may wonder why Busted Halo® — which is sponsored by a Catholic organization — addresses various approaches to belief (or non-belief) and spirituality like the one above. Busted Halo® is an online magazine for the millions of spiritual seekers who already live in a competitive marketplace of ideas, philosophies and beliefs; our mission is to empower them to explore their own faith journeys through an open, honest discussion of their fellow seekers’ experiences.]