Witches come out of the 'broom closet' and into the mainstream
As darkness falls tonight, Lorene Couture and her family coven of witches will begin celebrating one of their year's most sacred nights. What is Halloween to legions of trick-or-treaters is Samhain -- pronounced SOW-an -- for pagans and witches. ...
As darkness falls tonight, Lorene Couture and her family coven of witches will begin celebrating one of their year's most sacred nights.
What is Halloween to legions of trick-or-treaters is Samhain -- pronounced SOW-an -- for pagans and witches.
For people who worship gods and goddesses and follow lunar cycles, tonight is a night for bonfires and divination, a time to think about transformation, death and rebirth.
"A lot of people play at being a witch," said Couture, a third-generation witch who teaches witchcraft classes in Duluth. "But to really be a witch is to live, function and worship as a witch."
Witches do some things you've probably heard about: casting spells, attempting to look into the future. But today, practicing witchcraft is more about meditation and timing personal decisions against the waxing and waning of the moon than wearing pointy hats, witches say.
Witchcraft has long existed, though centuries of persecution drove practitioners underground and into solitary practice, Couture said. Until the mid-1960s, it was nearly impossible to find books or other widespread information about the Wiccan religion. But after a British man named Gerald Gardner wrote a book about a coven of witches, the practice started to come out in the open.
Wiccans and pagans have more in common with Christianity and other major religions than most people realize, Couture said. "All religions are the same," she said. "We just have different names for things."
Couture said that more than 350 people, including police officers, doctors, lawyers, nuns and priests, have been attracted to her witchcraft classes in Duluth. Most are women, and many are searching for a little guidance. Many come from strict religious backgrounds that they found to be stifling.
Witches do practice magick -- the "k" distinguishes it from "rabbit-out-of-a-hat magic," Couture said -- and they don't believe in Satan or the devil, though they do believe in evil spirits.
That's why Samhain is such an important and powerful day to witches, Couture said. It's the day when "the veil between the living and the dead is the thinnest," and many witches attempt to contact people who have died using Ouija boards and other methods.
Sarah Nunn's most important day of the year precedes Samhain. On Oct. 23, Nunn and her family celebrate "Dead Horse Day." She created the holiday after her favorite horse died in 1983.
What has evolved on each Oct. 23 since is a "dumb supper," when Nunn and her daughter, Willow Nunn-Askevold, set out plates piled with oats, dog kibble or favored foods in memory of people and family pets. During the supper, the family sits in silence, remembering those who are no longer there.
Nunn has been a practicing witch for decades. She believes in all gods, and she believes that everything has its own energy. "People often do their own thing," Nunn said of Wiccans, which makes an individual's practice personally satisfying but can make it hard for witches to communicate with other witches.
Nunn's daughter also is a witch. Despite Dead Horse Day dinners, Nunn-Askevold, now 23, didn't think she lived a life all that different from her friends'.
It wasn't until she saw many of her classmates leaving school for religious education and returning with crafts and treats that she asked her mother why she couldn't do that, too.
"So she asked me, 'Well, which church do you want to go to?' " Nunn-Askevold said. And she realized she didn't want to go to any. Dead Horse Day, and gathering acorns to cast into a bonfire as a remembrance of loved ones made more sense. Nunn-Askevold doesn't follow her mother's beliefs to the letter, because she doesn't believe in any specific god. She does, however, believe in the value of positive energy.
Every once in a while, Nunn-Askevold will cast a spell on behalf of a friend, if he or she requests it. If someone is looking for a job, for example, she'll light a candle and cast a prosperity spell.
"It's not that different from other religions," Nunn-Askevold said, comparing it to prayer.
But the differences that paganism offered were what drew Mark Langenfeld of Foxboro.
Langenfeld's parents practiced strict Catholicism in a "cut-and-dry, all-or-nothing way," Langenfeld said. "It didn't leave room for my spirit; the message they were preaching didn't resonate with my soul."
One thing that did resonate with Langenfeld, even as a young child, was experiencing nature. His journey to paganism began when he sat next to a stream and read the Bible, and progressed to pagan gods and goddesses appearing in his dreams. He began reading books about divination and the occult.
Today, Langenfeld, who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Superior and Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College, is a practicing pagan. During the weeks leading up to Samhain, Langenfeld pulls out a journal called the Book of Shadows and starts his annual "life review," a time to think about the past year and to make new goals. It's a time to bring more balance to his life.
A central question for many witches and pagans is this: Will they live in or out of the "broom closet," as many call it?
Many practitioners don't feel that anyone's religion should be flaunted. Others are wary of being misunderstood, fired or evicted if people made assumptions about their practice.
Nunn is less "out" than she used to be. Not long ago, she and a group of local witches and pagans put on an annual "Witches Ball." The dance, open to everyone, was intended to "blur the line between pagans and non-pagans," and it attracted hundreds of people, Nunn said.
Today, Nunn works with a large corporation in Duluth. If people ask about her spiritual beliefs, she replies honestly, but she wouldn't bring it up. She does, however, often wear a pentacle necklace her mother recently bought for her.
And Couture is about as open about witchcraft as anyone could be.
With her witchcraft classes, tarot card readings and by talking openly about being a witch, she wants to "not make witchcraft the hidden tradition it was forced to be," Couture said. "I want to open the dialogue. I'm a warrior witch."
JANNA GOERDT covers the communities surrounding Duluth. She can be reached weekdays at (218) 279-5527 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org .