A failed Methodist explores Wicca in the Upstate
BY KEN GILLESPIE
In 1486, two Dominican monks, Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, compiled an assortment of rumors, nightmares, and fairy tales into a book called The Malleus Maleficarum, or The Hammer of Witches. This book became almost as popular as the Bible, and over the next 250 years Inquisitors used it as a how-to guide for the sanctioned murder of nearly nine million accused witches, most of them women. Practitioners of any spirituality that could be perceived as witchcraft were forced underground, where they remained while the Church twisted their image into something dark and horrible.
Today, The Malleus Maleficarum has receded into obscurity, and Kramer and Sprenger are long dead. But the misconceptions and fear surrounding witchcraft, or Wicca, remain. Modern witches are beginning to emerge from cover, even in the Upstate of South Carolina, but their steps are cautious.
Baedun Hill is one of the founding officers of the Church of Wicca USA. "You will find that the Church of all Worlds, Unitarian/Universalist Church and Covenant of the Goddess are active national level organizations serving members in South Carolina," Hill said. "The vast majority of local Wiccan worship groups in South Carolina-whether called Church, Coven, Circle or any number of other names -remain very private and secretive for fear of persecution and undue harassment. The 'burning times' are still fresh in our minds."
As a three-time born-again Christian, I was intrigued by a practice that had endured such open hostility from the church. I found the web site for the Upstate South Carolina Church of Wicca, and I contacted the High Priestess, Lady Rhiannon. She quickly responded with an invitation to an open meeting that Sunday at the Quincy's on White Horse Road. Images ingrained by years of Methodist Sunday school and countless Halloween jamborees formed a vision of what this gathering might look like: Satanists dressed in black attacking the country sideboard with six-inch knives, while a knot of Quincy's employees huddled in a corner, clutching their brown vests and refusing direct orders to replenish the Chili-Mac. I felt the same fear and mistrust that must have fueled those medieval "burning times."
I arrived early, and the cashier didn't blink when I asked her where the Church of Wicca was meeting. She pointed to a small room in the back, where I sat and waited.
A small group soon arrived, led by a smiling man with a white beard, wearing a Harley sweatshirt and a USCCoW cap. He had no idea who I was, but he was eager to talk about his conversion.
"I still get emotional about it," said White Oak, who is the vice-chancellor of the church. "I was a born-again Baptist for years, but it never felt right. I could tell I was turning off other people by talking about it, and I felt ashamed. The whole idea of an old man sitting on a throne, pointing his finger and passing judgement on us just didn't ring true with me. I don't believe God is that cruel."
I asked if he had any regrets. "I regret I didn't discover this 20 years ago," he said. He found out about the church by accident. "I was on the Internet, looking for a way to get rid of the ladybugs that had taken over my house, when I came across the Wiccan Rede." White Oak reached into his folder and gave me a copy, and I read the first lines: Bide ye the Wiccan laws ye must, in perfect love and perfect trust. Ye must live and let live, fairly take and fairly give.
"That made sense to me," White Oak said. "I've lost friends since then, and I still can't tell my family. My mother and sister once refused to attend a Catholic wedding; they'd disown me if they ever found out about this."
More of the congregation arrived, and aside from one or two dressed in black, the scene could have been any church fellowship hall, complete with playing children.
Lady Rhiannon joined us at the table, and I asked her about the Church of Wicca's beliefs.
"Wicca originated in early goddess worship, when the leaders of the villages were female shamans," Lady Rhiannon said. "When the medieval Christian church gained power, these women were seen as a threat to the patriarchal system. The Church took our deities, like the Horned One, and transformed them into Satan. The Horned One is actually a deity of nature, not evil.
"We worship the goddess, the god, and their spirit, as well as the four elements: earth (body), fire (spirit), air (intellect), and water (emotion)." She reached across the table, took my legal pad and wrote, "And it harm none, do what thou wilt."
"That's what it boils down to," she said.
I asked Lady Rhiannon if there is a dark aspect to Wicca. "No," she said. "We have never worshipped darkness or Satan. Wicca predates the concept of Satan, which is part of the Christian deity structure. There are Satanists out there, and they do some terrible things, but their beliefs are not ours."
As the meeting went on, I found that the Church of Wicca is also involved in community service. Members volunteer for toy runs, at safe homes for victims of rape and abuse, and operate Project CARE, adopting families of the terminally ill.
"We honor life," Rhiannon said. "We're about freedom, openness and personal responsibility. I would welcome an ecumenical council meeting with other church leaders. I think they'd be surprised by how much we have in common."
In spite of the Church of Wicca's efforts to be a force for good, some of its members have had to retreat in the face of old superstitions. One member had to leave the church recently on the advice of an attorney. "She was in the middle of a custody battle for her son," Lady Rhiannon explained, "and her husband threatened to bring her affiliation with us into the argument. She was told that her membership could jeopardize her chances of keeping her child, so she resigned.
"We miss her, but we can respect her decision. Everyone is brave for being here tonight. We are entirely open, but we do not recruit members, so each of us has made the personal decision to accept the risk."
As I was leaving, I asked Lady Rhiannon and White Oak if they would prefer I used their pseudonyms. They both said yes, but then White Oak changed his mind. "My name's Tim Tackett," he said. "Go ahead and use it." White Oak became Tim, taking a step into the open.
Wicca is not the only spiritual alternative in the Upstate. Farther north, I met with a Clemson University employee whose beliefs are so eclectic they defy a label.
"I'm a second-generation Italian Catholic from Chicago," she said. "My mother was active in the civil rights movement, and she became disillusioned with the Catholic church's hypocrisy. Once she stopped going to church, I stopped going. This happened soon after my first confession, when I was around 10 years old, and I remember having to make up sins to confess. I developed an aversion to unexplained ritual, and after many years of not following any spiritual practice, I decided that spirituality and religion are not the same.
"My practice includes many different beliefs, from Jungian archetypes to Native American shamanism. I've taken the approaches that make sense to me and formed them into a personal spirituality."
When I asked if she had to contend with a negative side to her beliefs, she replied, "Everyone has a shadow. It's an aspect of everyone's personality that should be dealt with at a personal level, but some choose to project it outward. We have to journey into our shadow, even make friends with it, if we hope to bring it into the light. Life is a series of cycles through light and dark, and both are necessary."
The night was foggy when I left Clemson. On the way out, I saw two hooded figures loping along Highway 93, books tucked under their arms. Sprenger, I hissed through clenched teeth, and Kramer. Dragging their rotten tome to yet another torture session. I hit my high beams, rolled down my window and screamed at them.
"They're still here!" I cried. "You lose!" As I drove past I saw the tiger paw on Sprenger's sweatshirt, but it didn't matter. It had been a symbolic gesture, after all.
I missed the exit to Highway 123 and wandered the backroads. I knew I was headed in the general direction of Greenville, but I wasn't concerned with the specifics.
The third and last time I was saved was on an August night in a high school stadium. I was a confused, sweating adolescent, moved by an exuberant evangelist to give salvation another try. He told me my sins were forgiven, that I was a fine young man, that God was pleased. The euphoria lasted a week, until my hormonal dreams resurrected the Old Testament judgements, and I returned to the familiar guilt and shame.
Since then, the Bible Belt into which I was born (and reborn) had crept steadily upward until it had reached my throat. But now I knew there were others, refugees from organized religion who had unbuckled the belt and had found a way to save themselves.
I wound through dozens of unfamiliar roads before finding the way home.
Ken Gillespie lives in Geenville, where he collects stamps and stares into the hollow eyes of madness.