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Phyllis Curott

by Gail Roddy

This successful attorney and renowned author of a best-selling spiritual book talks about Wicca, now the fastest growing spiritual practice in the United States. This European Old Religion, an earth religion similar to Native American spirituality and Taoism, helps people (not just women) to discover the divine within themselves and in the world around them in a spiritual perspective that understands there is a feminine aspect of the divine, not just a masculine.

- Reading your book, The Book of Shadows, last fall just before All Hallows Eve had me thinking about what most of us were told about Halloween in general and witchcraft in particular. Could you please explain what Halloween really is?

"Halloween is actually the old Celtic New Year. In the old language itís called Samhain and it was the beginning of the year. It was also a holy day, a very spiritual moment in time. It was the time of year when the Celtic people could commune with the spirits of their ancestors. For us it is a time when we say the veil between the worlds is finished."

- I see, so it really has nothing to do with "goblins" and all the other things weíve been told.

"No, I think the folk remnants of ghosts and skeletons and goblins and fairies and the other things traditionally associated with Halloween is that idea of the spirits of those who have passed over."

- So it was always "other worldly," but not in any frightening, negative sense.

"Not in a negative way at all. It was simply a remembrance of those we love who have passed over. What we do is make use of these very ancient shamanic practices and, in essence, visit with our ancestors, to learn from them, to honor them. Interestingly enough, the date corresponds with the time when many Native American tribes celebrate the ghost dance. One of the things you will find is that earth religions all over the globe, because they are earth religions, have similar experiences of the divine in the world. So a lot of their practices are similar and their holy days frequently correspond."

- Before your book, I had never heard of the 500-year-old bestseller of its time, the Hammer of Witches. I was appalled to read of this bookís existence. Surely the Vatican that once sanctioned its printing and use has now rescinded such a book.

"You would think that they would have and it is certainly overdue that they should. In fact, I hope that during my trip to Italy I will be able to meet with a representative of the Vatican and discuss this with them. If I canít, I will be sending a letter. The Pope has just apologized to the Jewish community and it is certainly overdue that the papal edict that authorized torture to get confessions from alleged witches "and real witches" has never been rescinded.

"And, while people may not be aware of it, the failure to rescind it is certainly part of the reason why people continue to have these terribly mistaken and negative stereotypes about witches and witchcraft. People believe it is Satanism, because 500 years ago the Church accused practitioners of the Old Religion of worshiping Satan. About a hundred years prior, they had accused other Christian groups, such as the Cathars, of being Satanists and wiped them out. Then they accused Jews, and then they had the Inquisition.

"There is no Satan in the indigenous, European Old Religion. It is an earth religion, very much like Native American spirituality. Very much like Taoism. Satan is a biblical figure belonging to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He has nothing to do with the Goddess. However, that accusation led to hundreds of thousands of people being killed, 90 percent of them women. Yes, women raped, tortured and sodomized by Dominican priests into confessing to witchcraft. Such sexual perversions perpetrated by a clergy claiming abject holiness, all in the name of God!"

- Can one still purchase a copy of this Hammer of Witches?

"Unfortunately, one can. Not only can one, but also it is beginning to surface on the internet. We have found it being referred to on various neo-Nazi websites as a justification for reinstating the persecution of Old Religion practitioners. And of course, we are very concerned about that, particularly in light of recent violence that has occurred. This is the kind of thing, that if it is not addressed in the culture, people donít have an opportunity to learn the truth. These kinds of things fester and become the source of future abuses.

"Thatís the reason I wrote The Book of Shadows, to explain to mainstream America and to the New Age community, to those who have not had an opportunity to go exploring as I had, to find out what it really is all about. And that is particularly important, because Wicca is now the fastest growing spiritual practice in the United States."

- Yes, I read that, and it is so timely now that youíre going to Italy and will get a chance to go to the Vatican. This needs to be talked about and if the Vatican will rescind this book, perhaps that will help somewhat.

"It certainly would. My expectation is that I will be rebuffed and this will be the initiation of a long campaign to try to open a dialogue. But Iíve been participating in various interfaith forums for quite some time now and was met with a range of reactions.

"I was a keynote speaker at the Parliament of World Religions. That was a very important opportunity to explain what this is really all about. And then we unfortunately have people like the Greek Orthodox, who didnít even want to listen and left. Then last week, I went to this interfaith gathering of about two dozen very important leaders from the worldís faith traditions in the United States. They were concerned about discrimination. There were Muslims, Orthodox Christians and evangelical fundamentalists. We all sat around the table and talked and no one got up and walked out. I was treated with a lot of respect as I explained the Old Religion of the Goddess. So maybe weíre making some progress."

- So when did you become a member of Wicca, this "clandestine religion of the goddess"?

"Yes, and itís no longer so clandestine Iím happy to say! About 20 years ago. My journey began during my last year in law school. I started having all manner of spontaneous spiritual experiences that I really didnít have a framework for. I began to explore what they were, where they might be coming from. I couldnít really find much in the way of explanation, though, because it was 20 years ago. And you didnít have New Age learning centers. You had Esalen, but that was way out in California. I was kind of young at the tail end of the í60s, but I hadnít done any drugs or read Carlos Casteneda, so I really didnít have any framework. What happened was a kind of spontaneous "opening of the door" between the worlds -- between the mundane world and sacred world."

- So it was kind of a synchronicity, perhaps?

"Many, many synchronicities. And images of the Goddess that came to me in dreams and in coincidences. I began to feel that the universe was alive! I had been a practitioner of yoga for quite a number of years before that, so I had a framework of some spiritual practice. But my experiences were now going far beyond what Iíd ever experienced in yoga, particularly with the appearance of goddess figures in my dreams and in my waking life. So I began to follow this pattern of coincidences and they led me to the last place Iíd expect to be, and that was with a coven of witches in New York.

"I couldnít possibly, in a million years, have anticipated or intended it. Yet when I got there, nothing there coincided with the stereotype -- nothing. There were these fabulous women."

- Well, Iím such a woman energy person and the descriptions of the love and joy you women felt as you performed these rituals -- the singing, the deep breathing, the bowl passed around -- evoked shivers of recognition in me, as well. Can you speak a little as to why these rituals are so powerful to women?

"Well, there are a number of reasons. I think one the most powerful reasons is because our spiritual perspective understands that there is a feminine aspect of the divine -- not just a masculine. And so we have images of a goddess. When a woman looks into the face of a goddess, sheís looking into a mirror and sees self as wise, powerful and beautiful, capable of creating music and art and culture. She sees in her reflection spiritual truth."

- Oh, that makes so much sense.

"That is a validation, itís empowering, deeply, profoundly liberating. The rituals open a womanís life to the experience of the divine that the culture has long denied us."

- So can these rituals be as powerful to men or to children?

"Absolutely. In fact, in the last five years, more men have been coming into the practice of the shamanism of the Old Religion. I would say now between 30 to 40 percent of the shaman practitioners are men! And itís wonderful, for these are feminist men, men who honor women, who respect women as priestesses.""

- And then in turn, men are honoring self.

"Yes, and they are honoring the divine feminine wisdom in themselves. We are witnessing a tremendous healing as men recover their lost emotional lives and their sexuality. Again, it is very empowering for women to be in the presence of men who honor and respect them and donít need to oppress or deny them. Everything in nature is female and male. We look to nature as our spiritual teacher. For us, everything in nature is an embodiment of the divine. It is very much in keeping with quantum physics, in that everything is energy and everything is interconnected. As awakened human beings, we have a capacity to interact with each other and with the rest of the living world at a deep level of spiritual consciousness."

- Do you think this is the reason people are drawn to Wicca?

"Yes, and another reason it is so popular, not just with women but with men, is that people are so much more educated today. We are less willing to accept somebody elseís interpretation of anything as important as the divine."

- Especially an interpretation that is thousands of years old, in a world now that is totally different from that world.

"Yes, incredibly modern with modern problems. People are looking, I think, for tools and techniques that work, for tools they can use to make their own spiritual journey -- to discover the divine within themselves and in the world around them. The great gift of the shamanism of Europe is that it works. These are practices that anyone can master. When you learn to work with them, you take off the blindfold and experience the world weíre living in as sacred. And when you see it and taste it and touch it and hear it and know it as divine -- in both masculine and feminine ways, as well as in ways that are neither -- you see it as all part of the web of life."

- You are a practicing attorney and have been for 20 years. What messages, if any, are you getting about your priestess work from the general legal community?

"Iím delighted to say that there are increasing numbers of attorneys who are Wiccan, or Pagan or Neo-Pagan, as some people prefer to call themselves. A pagan is simply someone who lives in the country, lives close to the earth and follows the nature cycle. When I started with Wicca, I seemed to be the only attorney. Now there are Wiccan lawyers all over the country. Thatís very important, because we are in the midst of forming groups to battle the discrimination that exists for us.

"Iím in the midst of setting up a network of attorneys that can be called upon to give advice and take cases. And we are finding a tremendous acceptance and assistance from attorneys who are not Wiccan, but who understand that this is a very ancient, beautiful, peaceful religion and how important it is to women and to all of us. But of course I find that some of my older, stodgy, male clients are not calling, particularly since my book has become more public. But Iím also acquiring more women clients."

- So the book promotion has been going well. What doors has it opened for you?

"I find that I truly enjoy writing. The response to the book has been incredibly moving. When I wrote the book, I wanted to write it as though it was a novel, using that ancient craft style of storytelling. I think the book is unique in the literature about Wicca, in that it speaks to what these practices feel like and how they transform us. Itís kind of like a Castaneda for the í90s. Itís doing incredibly well. We are in our fifth printing, and itís been released all over Europe. And yes, I feel Iím doing my lifeís work, what I came here to do. Iím doing a lot of lecturing, workshops, traveling all over the country. People want to know and learn. But there arenít enough teachers of the Old Religion."

- Youíve had much media exposure in recent months. Iím told you appeared on Roseanne, and The View. You conducted Wiccan rituals invoking the goddess. How did it go? Iíd love to have seen the reaction of ďBW,Ē as Star Jones calls Barbara Walters.

"It went beautifully. Roseanne gave us quite a bit of time and did the ritual with us. She has a background in goddess spirituality from many years ago. We did a very simple and clear ritual on The View. The tragedy was that after weíd finished and left the sound stage, Star Jones came on and began the next segment by saying that what we had done reminded her of the anti-Christ."

- Well, speaking of Star Jones, from my experience as an African-American woman, Iím aware that many African Americans are still steeped in Christianityís rejection of paganism. I am very curious about whatever feedback you are getting from my folks.

"Part of the tragedy for us, I think, is that though Star Jones clearly identifies herself as a born-again Christian, because she is a black woman, in one sense, one would have hoped she would have been more judicious in saying something that is essentially a kind of bigotry. And though it may have come from ignorance, when you make an effort to educate people, when you take a great risk in confronting these negative stereotypes, you sort of hope people will temper this stereotypical behavior. You hope that they wonít rush to judgment, that they will look deeper into the origin of those stereotypes, particularly when a person has himself or herself been a victim of bigotry.

"It is true that Christianity has been a powerful force in the African American community. A prominent method of cohesion, a place for joy. But I am seeing more and more black women of all ages, not so many black men, but many black women coming to this religion. I think it is because the goddess is not just white, but Afro-Caribbean, Hindu and Chinese. One of the women in my original circle was a black woman from Jamaica, and we frequently worked a ritual invoking the Afro-Caribbean goddess of justice. I remember that as an extremely powerful invocation.

"We understand that when we are working with a particular divinity, that it is a metaphor for a quality of divine energy. So we are very open, appreciative to the vast array of cultural perceptions that humanity has conceived of and envisioned the divine."

- I have found, in myself, that my spirituality has to change as I change, evolve as I evolve through my life, from day to day.

"Yes, I think thatís an incredibly wise insight. In the Old Religion, the phases of the moon literally correspond to the stages of a womanís life. In this is the understanding that as you grow and change, your spirituality automatically changes and grows. It matures and transforms. Older women especially hold all of these moon phases within them. Patriarchal religions banished this wisdom, and that is such a shame. Fortunately, itís coming back now. It has to. Iím hearing many so-called "baby boomer" women who are coming into menopause saying how wise and centered they feel now, in a way theyíve never felt before. Awesome power in this collective."

- The goddess has returned.

"Yes she has, Gail. Indeed she has.

Copyright © 1999 Gail Roddy

Phyllis Curott

Phyllis Curott is an attorney. She wrote the acclaimed Book of Shadows, and was honored by Jane magazine as one of 1998's Ten Gutsiest Women. President emerita of the Covenant of the Goddess, the oldest and largest international religious organization in the Wiccan tradition, she founded the Circle of Ara and the Temple of the Sacred Earth.

She writes in her book: "Most people know intuitively that when you fall in love, the world is full of magic. What they don't know is that when you discover the universe is full of magic, you fall in love with the world."

Order Book of Shadows : A Modern Woman's Journey into the Wisdom of Witchcraft and the Magic of the Goddess (20% off the price!) now through by just clicking here


The author

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Meanwhile, let's introduce her. She is

Gail Roddy

Gail Roddy

She is the author of the book Belly of the Beast. She is also co-founder with her husband, Bill, of Osiris Organization, a life-skills counseling service for youth.

This article was first published on the magazine The Edge - Exploring the Evolution of Consciousness. You can find it at

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