COLUMBIA — A witch is an ugly old woman, with warts on her face, dressed all in black with a pointy hat who rides a broomstick and performs evil spells, right? Wrong.
Hearthfires, the Mid-Missouri Pagan Spiritual Alliance, presented a panel discussion on Sunday titled, "Which Witch is Which?" at the Columbia Public Library. The panel consisted of several members of the mid-Missouri Pagan community who spoke about the reality of witchcraft, in particular Wicca, as opposed to the popular culture image of witches. They also spoke about the origins of some of the traditions associated with Halloween.
According to the panelists, witches don't necessarily dress in black, they are not involved in any form of devil worship and they definitely don't perform the extraordinary acts of magic seen in movies and television.
"We do this forum because we want to make a distinction between the stereotypical little old lady riding around on a broomstick with a wart on her nose," said Steven Galbreath, a high priest of Wicca, board member of Hearthfires and a committee member of Pagan Pride Day.
"We don't ride around on broomsticks ... We're modern witches so we use Hoovers," he joked.
Wicca, founded in 1954, is a fairly new religion modeled on traditional European practices and pre-Christian beliefs, said Rose Wise, high priestess of Ozark Avalon Church of Nature and founding member of Mid-Missouri Pagan Pride. It is important to note that while all Wiccans are witches, not all witches are Wiccans, Wise said.
Wiccans celebrate eight festivals called Sabbats, which are based on the lunar calendar and correspond with the historical agricultural system in Europe.
For example, the Pagan version of Halloween, Samhain, celebrating the start of the Celtic new year on Oct. 31, recognizes the third harvest in the fall when animals are slaughtered for meat. Samhain, pronounced "so-wen," means "end of summer" in Celtic and is the time when the deceased are honored. Wiccans believe that the veil separating the living from the dead is thinner on Oct. 31 than other times of the year, which is why they honor their ancestors at this time.
Victoria "Taz" Chance said traditional Pagan homes might set up a table or a shelf with pictures of loved ones who have passed away.
"It's a reminder of the lessons they have taught us and is not meant to be morbid," she said.
Many traditions in this Celtic holiday honoring the dead have crossed over into modern Halloween practices. Dressing up, for example, was used by Pagans as a way to hide from evil spirits.This would provide anonymity from the outside world.
All those carved pumpkins lit up on Halloween night also have a tie to Paganism and witchcraft. In Europe, however, there were no pumpkins, so gourds would be carved instead. Pagan people would often wear black while carrying the lit gourds as they walked to a gathering site. According to Galbreath, Pagans would carve faces on the gourds to frighten the spirits away from their homes.
Witches do perform magical rituals. In simplest terms, magick involves "using the energy in your mind to influence your reality," Chance said. Magick is used to create an inner change so that you can accomplish your goals and make a change in your reality. Witches do not perform harmful magick, Chance said.
"Wiccans have a strong sense of ethics," she said.
The panel shared a laugh while they talked about how many of the techniques used in magickal rituals are recommended by modern self-help books.
Seileach Corleigh, a local Pagan, said educational panels on religion are important because of misunderstandings that occur in all faiths.
"Even in what we consider mainstream religion, such as Islam or Buddhism, there's a lot of disinformation out there, and so the purpose of programs such as this is to decrease bigotry and to help people to understand one another and to help them to be able to work together despite their differences," Corleigh said.
Most popular culture depictions of witches are inaccurate, but Galbreath says that aspects of the television show "Charmed" are closer to the mark than others, even though the supernatural magic portrayed is not at all accurate.
"In a lot of ways 'Charmed' has a lot to say about modern witches and modern witchcraft," he said. "They exaggerate our powers quite a bit. They exaggerate the battle between good and evil, and all that stuff, but they do talk about having the responsibility for the use of magic, the consequences for using magic and they have a lot of attitudes that we carry in everyday life."