MISSOULA, Montana — On any given day in this city, on the main drag of sporting-goods shops and sleepy cafés, you may be surprised to pass a tall young man in a black trenchcoat and black lace gloves, his eyes painted purple. Raven Digitalis (born Colin Smith), 24, with his towering figure, pale face and goth style, could easily be mistaken for Billy Corgan's younger cousin. (In fact, he proudly owns some 130 Smashing Pumpkins CDs that he says helped him get through his high school days.)
Raven has been a Pagan priest for four years, practicing witchcraft and hosting rituals for local Pagans at his house, which is just 10 minutes from the downtown strip. "The Craft is one of the most empowering religions or spiritual lifestyles that exists," he explained.
But what is witchcraft?
Hollywood horror films would have us believe that anyone who identifies as a "witch" worships the devil and uses "black magic" to manipulate the wills of others. Actually, this is untrue: Witches do not worship Satan and hardly ever practice black magic. Witches or Wiccans, who practice similar strains of Paganism, may follow numerous ancient, Earth-based traditions of worship, but have a few simple beliefs in common: 1) a deep, spiritual respect for nature; 2) worship of a deity (or god) who is equally male and female (priests and priestesses have equal power); and 3) accountability for all your own actions. In other words, being a witch includes believing in environmentalism, equality of the sexes and karma.
And while witches and Wiccans do not believe in Christian concepts such as "original sin," most believe in a version of the Wiccan Rede: "An it harm none, do as ye will." Which simply means: Feel free to to pursue your goals as long as they are not harmful to others.
"Witchcraft, Paganism — these are healing spiritual paths," Raven said. "They're very positive and progressive."
Even if it's nothing like the dark bloodfest that movies would have us believe, this most prevalent form of the Craft is still far from the mainstream. So how does someone become a witch? For Raven, growing up in one of the only liberal enclaves in Montana meant he had the opportunity to explore, reading up on alternative religions until he found a spiritual path that seemed to fit. A surprising number of young witches MTV News spoke with also said that they became curious about their faith through misguiding pop-culture fare like the camp Neve Campbell vehicle "The Craft" and the "Harry Potter" series. (Guess a few conservative Christian groups were right about that one).
But many young people enter the Craft in reaction to a very conservative religious upbringing — Southern Baptist, perhaps, or Catholic. "Some people don't feel God in the church, so they seek out different expressions of God that are more personal or mystic," said Raven, who has mentored younger Pagans and is active in the online community. "[Witchcraft] is revolting against common views of God. That's a huge part of the appeal, especially for young people — that you don't have to follow the herd."
Whether we're talking about pastors, rabbis or imams, several denominations do not allow women to become spiritual leaders. The fact that Paganism gives women equal standing can be a big part of the draw. Madeline, who is training to become a priestess in Raven's coven, is proud that in her faith "the priestess is just as important as the priest."
Raven added, "In the Craft, there's equal emphasis between the god and goddess halves. They're seen as the yin and the yang of everything." Or as Abel, an 18-year-old senior at a Bay Area Christian high school, put it, "How can God be just male?"
In a less-common scenario, others come to the Craft through their families. Chelsea Jarvis, a 15-year-old from Michigan, grew up performing rituals with her mother and her two siblings in their backyard, and takes annual family trips to a Pagan gathering in Virginia. She began seriously studying Wicca when she was 12, and now proudly considers herself a witch. The Wiccan Rule of Three — the belief that whatever energy you put out into the world, whether positive or negative, comes back to you times three — has had a particular influence on her. "I've lived quite a lot by that, being careful what I do," Jarvis said, "trying not to harm someone else or myself in any way."
Some witches practice in covens (or groups), performing elaborate rituals that may include meditation, chanting and the use of herbs, incense and even swords. But despite the fact that Wicca is one of the fastest-growing religions in the United States (according to a 2001 survey by the City University of New York), much of the community is still underground, with most practicing as "solitary" witches, finding peers and mentors online. Abel was researching Wicca at the age of 15 when he met Raven online. The mentorship gave him the courage to continue his studies, and he is now an active member of the San Francisco Pagan community. "At this point I have in my local area friends I can call up," he said. "But before, I relied very heavily on online communities. For a lot of teenage witches that's the route you go, because it can be very lonely: 'Why am I the only one this way? The only one who practices?' You find out there are others."
And what about spells? It is true that these witches cast spells, but not to manipulate others. "Cursing or doing a love spell against somebody's will — that's kind of a no-no," Raven explained, "because it's interfering with another person's free will." Instead, spells often focus on healing and self-improvement — to give a boost to relationships, confidence, finances or grades. There are simple candle spells — "chill out" and "sweeten up" spells — to help end arguments, and even animal-healing spells to help a sick pet.
But although it's the flashiest part of the Craft, spellwork is not the most important. "Usually when teenagers get interested in Wicca, they're attracted to the spells. But that's really a smaller part," Raven said. "As I grew older, I was more concerned with honoring the tides of the sun and the moon and connecting with nature on a deeper level."
Many rituals and Pagan holidays, such as Yule, are about that connection with nature. "One [ritual] might be, upon waking, greeting the Earth and thanking [it] for allowing me to live on [its] body," Abel said. "The breath you breathe is sacred, every step you take is sacred."
Such rituals, however, are often performed in private, for fear of cultural prejudice. Coming out of "the broom closet," as it's called, can be a risky thing for young people in less tolerant areas of the country. In 2001, 12-year-old Tempest Smith committed suicide after incessant bullying at her public school in the Detroit area; she had been beaten and taunted for being open about her Wiccan beliefs in a predominantly Christian school. Her mother Denessa began studying Paganism to better understand her daughter, and created the Tempest Smith Foundation in her memory to promote religious tolerance. "I don't want everyone to become a Wiccan," Denessa said, "but people should be able to practice their religion in this country."
That's a sentiment shared by 16-year-old Inanna (identified only by her witch's name), who found that growing up in a small Southern Baptist town in Arkansas meant that she had to practice Wicca in secret, afraid of becoming an outcast. "My mother was scared for me," she said. "She was afraid if I told anyone we'd be run out of town." Inanna fears bringing new school friends over to her house in case they find the herbs and altar she keeps in her bedroom. "If I'm put on the spot and kids ask, 'Why don't you go to church?,' I say, 'I worship my own way,' "she explained. Chelsea, who has a lot of "extreme Christian" friends, added that she had classmates tell her, " 'I can't ever talk to you again, because every Sunday I'm told that you're evil.' And I thought, 'OK, well, then you're not my true friends.'"
Misconceptions about witches can range from the truly horrible to the fairly silly. "Witches aren't scary, ugly females," Jarvis said. "No, we don't eat little children. No, we don't poison apples. You'll meet some bad people along the way, but not all witches are evil — there are mean Christians!" Blair, a 17-year-old witch living in Vermont, said that when she wears her pentacle in public some people assume she's a Satanist — or at least intensely anti-social. "I'm an outgoing person, I make a lot of friends," she said. "So I'm not what people think of when they say, 'Oh, she's a witch!' "
But as numbers are growing and more young Americans are leaving mainstream churches, there's evidence that Americans may be growing more open-minded about religion. "If you tell somebody that you're a witch or Pagan nowadays, they usually know what that is," Raven said. And Abel, who initially had a hard time sharing his beliefs with his Christian classmates, now says, "As I shared these different beliefs from different cultures, people opened up to me and came to me and said, 'I didn't know there was all this other stuff out there.'"
For young people looking to get the facts straight on the Craft, many simply choose to visit a new-age/occult store to look at the bulletin boards and talk to staff, often practitioners themselves. There are social networks online for young Pagans, and online magazines created and run by young witches, such as Copper Moon. Several of the young witches MTV News spoke with mentioned the influence of a handful of now-classic introductory books, such as Silver Ravenwolf's"Teen Witch,", Jamie Wood's "The Teen Spell Book,", and Christopher Penczak's "Instant Magick : Ancient Wisdom, Modern Spellcraft." Raven Digitalis' own book, "Goth Craft,", provides a rundown of the lifestyle subcultures that overlap with the Craft. All give tips on how to better understand the Craft, how to explain the faith to others, and how to practice responsibly.
"In the Craft, no matter who you are, you are divine," Abel said. "However you interact with the world, you are sacred. God is not just out there. God is ever-present in the world."