A City Unmasked

Discovering Urban Witchiness on Halloween

Witches celebrate the holiday of Samhain—Halloween's ancient European forerunner, a rural New Year's festival—as a portal to the shadowy zone between our living world and the afterlife, where energy more easily responds to one's intent and anyone or anything can be transformed. Christopher Penczak, New England-based author of the 2001 City Magick: Urban Rituals, Spells, and Shamanism, calls Samhain—pronounced SOW-wen or sah-VEEN—a great time to explore New York or any city with fresh, unjaded eyes. East Village writer and editor Katherine A. Gleason avoids the Halloween Parade's mania, preferring a quiet remembrance of the departed at home in the soothing company of her black cat, Elphaba. But, for her, New York's vortex glows with everyday magick—the glamour of the theater district and its shape-shifting actors, the bustling Greenmarket at Union Square, the awe-inspiring Assyrian collection at the Metropolitan Museum, and places drenched in cultural history like Mulberry Street's Old St. Patrick's Cathedral or Ellis Island. Co-author of the completely intelligent Complete Idiot's Guide to Wicca and Witchcraft (Alpha Books) and consultant to Nashville Ballet's new production of The Bell Witch, Gleason says, "So many people are drawn to New York's strong energies despite the physical and psychic challenges, the crazy lifestyle. That's why we're flocking to spiritual practices like yoga, meditation, and tai chi to ground and focus ourselves."

For Penczak, out-and-proud gay witch and author of books on the Craft, spirit guides, and Reiki healing, magick is "the art and science of communicating with the universe" to work positive changes in self, environment, and circumstances. (Neopagans often add that final "k" as a nod to magick's quaint origins and to distinguish it from David Copperfield's stage act.) In a recent chat, Penczak recommended a practice called "side walking" as a good way to stretch one's psychic muscles and tap into New York's pulsing undercurrent at Halloween.

"You walk the 'sideways paths,' the spirit paths, along familiar streets," he explains. "Wander around a neighborhood with no particular destination in mind, using the rhythm to move into a meditative state. By paying attention to energies around you and images in the corners of your eyes, you might catch glimpses of people's auras or see spirits or simply be more open to intuition."

illustration: Jessica Mazurkiewicz

Some energies, though, really bear watching. We often find ourselves dodging speeding cop cars and taxis, keeping our sixth sense on Orange Alert to evade muggers, and avoiding that co-worker who has nothing good to say about anybody and, unfortunately, is not Dorothy Parker. Witchcraftiness can help here, too.

"Before you leave home," Penczak advises, "take a few moments to imagine yourself enclosed in a bubble of energy, like a crystal ball, that will let in what you need but block unwanted influences. Carry a protective stone, such as hematite or black tourmaline, or take a few drops of yarrow flower essence to help create your personal boundary."

Like the world's great temples and cathedrals, cities were often built on earth's ancient power points along ley (energy) lines, says Gleason. But, she adds, New York's polyglot, multicultural riches and its position as the world's premier arts, communications, and financial dynamo offer even more fabulousness for a perceptive, crafty witch to employ. "Stand still in a spot like GM Plaza and look around in a mindful way. It feels amazing! Wall Street has a vibe going, too, with layers of history to be felt there. You know, we have to be careful not to take this 'country good/city bad' position coming out of 19th-century romantic traditions. It doesn't serve us well."

Even while commuting from high-rise to skyscraper and grappling with pollution, noise, hectic pace, crowded subways, and deadening workplaces, we can happily commune with nature, Penczak believes. Can't run away to Prospect Park or Riis Park? Learn to regard everything as natural, he says; even plastic, asphalt, concrete, and construction rubble. They're all "thoughts in the divine mind," no less than our bodies, the stars, and the core of Mother Earth. Can't display a pagan altar without alarming your nosy neighbors or suspicious boss? Arrange something pretty and seemingly innocuous—for example, an essential-oil diffuser, box of matches, bowl of seashells, and some flowers or stones. This collection will honor the traditional four elements of ritual—air, fire, water, and earth, respectively—and do the trick. When planning a binding spell, don't overlook the symbolic potential of those humble paper clips and pushpins in your desk drawer. Throughout centuries of oppression, witches and other spiritual dissidents have flown beneath the radar of church and state, cleverly using commonplace objects like brooms, kitchen knives, and cauldrons as secret charms and tools.

Having a queer Wiccan eye influences how Penczak sees activities like dressing up and going out, and not just at Halloween. "Putting on makeup or special clothes—with intention—can be a ritual in itself," he says. "Changing from my business suit into leather pants alters my attitude and persona, how I interact with the world. And a dance club's tribal rhythms induce trance. It can be your temple, your gateway to the underworld, to the unconscious, to what is hidden within you, within society."

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