The Boston University classroom is abuzz. A dozen students, gathered for an extracurricular meeting, bounce around, sliding in and out of the kind of archaic classroom desks that feature thin beige tabletops attached by metal bars to unbearably uncomfortable seats, sucking down takeout, giggling effervescently about Facebook and 21st birthdays. Co-president Amber Dame, a BU senior, is writing out the evening's discussion agenda on the blackboard. Items include: the full moon, dark gods and goddesses, a bake sale, Salem.
"I am not going to Salem on Halloween," exclaims senior Alex DeSimone.
"But it's a really fun way to embrace the stereotype!", Dame replies.
These students are members of Nemeton, an officially recognized religious organization for people in the BU community who practice Wicca.
Oh my Goddess!
Lots of people define Wicca as “modern witchcraft,” which is partially true. Others write Wicca off as a stigma of evil and weirdness — dirty hippies and pentacle-wearing, elf-eared, 12-sided-dice rollers. The truly clueless associate Wicca with devil worship and sadistic rituals, like goat sacrifices and Republican rallies.
In truth, modern Wicca is a peaceful, ethereal sort of belief system, loosely rooted in ancient pagan custom and ritual, and based on a reverence for nature and the Earth.
"In short, being Wiccan means seeing the divine as an equal balance of feminine and masculine forces known as the Goddess and the God," explains Emerson College sophomore Emily Robinson, 19. “[It’s] worshipping these forces in nature and within ourselves, celebrating the cycles of nature, showing respect for all living things and alternate beliefs, refraining from harm wherever possible, and believing in the power of karma to punish or reward our actions."
Not as exciting as The Craft, huh?
The religion, as Robinson describes it, is relatively young, popularized in the 1950s by a British civil servant named Gerald Gardner, who published several books on the subject and is widely regarded as a central figure in the Wicca movement.
On college campuses, where teenagers struggle to define themselves outside of preconceived boundaries, a fair number of students are searching for spiritual validity. And many find their spiritual and social needs best met by adopting a belief system that is the polar opposite of the one they were introduced to as children. After all, college is famously a time of rebellion, self-expression, exploration. No better way to stick it to Mom and Dad than to cast a circle and chant incantations over an herbal sachet, right?
But Wicca isn't really too far a cry from, say, Christianity, the holidays of which are partially, sometimes outright, based on ancient pagan rituals. Those who mock Wicca with sneering indigence might take a second to meditate on the custom of bringing a pine tree inside your house and decorating it with lights and fruits, or carving a face into a pumpkin and throwing on a scary costume. Gardner himself wrote, in his 1959 book The Meaning of Witchcraft, "To a Roman Catholic who believes in transubstantiation, that is, that the bread and wine of the mass are literally changed into the flesh and blood of Christ, a ceremonial insult to the host would be the most awful blasphemy; but witches do not believe this, so it would simply be absurd to them to try to insult a piece of bread."
Many Wiccans practice "magic," a solo or group ritual effort to effect some kind of change, which seems akin to, oh, I don't know, prayer. As for dressing oneself in robes and flowers in order to perform a secret candlelit ritual, as many Wiccans do, think back to your fraternity or sorority days. See? Surprise! You're Wiccan and you didn't even know it.
Ariana Zarate, 19, a sophomore at Wellesley College, and UMass-Amherst sophomore Joshua Berkowitz, 18, were raised in Christian households, and turned away from church after years of discontent and curiosity.
"One of my friends got into Wicca, and, at the time, I was very religiously Christian," says Berkowitz. "So, I studied Wicca in order to try and persuade her out of it. The more I studied Wicca, the more I respected it."
A few years later, Berkowitz is active in the western Massachusetts Wiccan community, and he's a member of the UMass pagan organization SPIRALS (Students Pagans Integrating Religion and Life Spiritually). He recently founded a new Wiccan tradition, the Avatarian Rite of Wicca, which, he says, will function much like a secret society.
Stop rolling your eyes. William Howard Taft, Senator John Kerry, and that idiot currently running our country are members of a secret society called Skull and Bones. Which is a much, much creepier name than "The Avatarian Rite of Wicca." Plus, no Wiccans ever played Russian roulette with our tax dollars, and lost.
Both Zarate and Berkowitz say that the shift in their respective religious beliefs aligned with their decisions to come out of the closet. "Wicca felt open and accepting. While I was Catholic, I felt a little odd being queer," says Zarate. "I heard so many things about the Catholic community not being accepting of non-heterosexuality. There was no such feeling in Wicca."