Spelling Lessons: Wiccan Studies Is on the Rise

But in a down economy, paying for herbs and cauldrons takes more than a trip to Gringotts.

Lashette Williams clutched a dagger tightly in her right hand. Her black robes swung dangerously close to the candles on the altar in front of her. With a spell book to her left and a silver chalice to her right, she thrust the weapon toward the front of the room and began to chant.

It was graduation day at the Wiccan Family Temple Academy of Pagan Studies. In an old performing-arts building on the Lower East Side, Williams was ordained as a high priestess, the most prestigious level of expertise in the Wiccan world. Although the occasion was joyous, the small number of graduates—two—was a reminder of the academy's tough financial times.

The Academy of Pagan Studies was founded in 2007 by temple elders Starr Ravenhawk and Luna Rojas to teach local children about paganism and has since grown to offer a higher-education program for adult Wiccans. However, just like more traditional institutions, the academy has been hit hard by the economy. Increased cost of materials, high rent, and competition have put the temple at risk of going out of business.

Kiandra Venson samples her fellow Wiccan Michelle Gonzalez’s “power potion.”
Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato
Kiandra Venson samples her fellow Wiccan Michelle Gonzalez’s “power potion.”

"We have a lot of people that would like to take classes, and they can't. They can't afford it," Rojas says.

Tuition for WFT Academy is between $500 and $800 for the year—about $24 per class—depending on the type of courses and the level of study. Ravenhawk and Rojas have structured the academy after a traditional university education: Students must complete a set number of classes each year before they can move onto more difficult material. More than 70 courses are listed on the pagan-studies curriculum, with the newest additions to the syllabus including tarot-card reading, astrology, herbal intensive classes, candle "magick," and the "become a wealthy witch" class series.

In addition to the average pen and notepad, Wiccans add wands, cauldrons, incense, and semiprecious gems to their backpacks. They also learn how to cast spells.

Wicca is an open religion that prides itself on acceptance, drawing inspiration from Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Native Americans—any and all spiritual practices may be included in Wiccan worship. Thus, religious tenets are widely interpreted, with each high priest and priestess changing spells to fit their needs.

A spell "is about the energy, not about the words," Rojas says. "These words are only helping you get into the right state mentally."

Unlike in the Harry Potter books, real witches don't have a set spell for every occasion. (Shout "Lumos!" into the night, and nothing will happen.) Magic, Rojas says, is about channeling the invisible energy of the mind. A good spell is most often succinct, it should rhyme, and, most importantly, it has to fit the personality of the caster.

For example, when Rojas teaches her pupils how to create an effective love spell, she suggests invoking the power of smell, incorporating anything from rose-petal oil to catnip into rituals.

All of these materials—a single herb course at WFT Academy requires more than 42 plants—cost money. However, Ravenhawk said her main business expense is rent. She pays $30 an hour for each of her Sunday classes, which are held in downtown Manhattan.

In the past, Ravenhawk dipped into her own pocketbook to buy supplies, but no longer. She and Rojas decided to raise tuition in January, charging $5 more per class.

Even though the student population is diverse, composed of all different ages and backgrounds, Ravenhawk says many of her students have one thing in common—financial hardship. Many would-be witches have fallen on tough times, she says, and the high cost of tuition can deter students from continuing their studies.

Williams, for example, was in her last year of a three-year Wiccan-ministry program when she was forced to leave WFT due to financial reasons. She had lost her job at the New York City Department of Parks a year before and was unable to find work—or make payments to the academy.

Although Ravenhawk doesn't say it outright, her students might also be leaving to get their educations elsewhere.

Andrew McMillan runs the Bronx Wiccan educational center at Magickal Realms Studios, a shop near the New York Botanical Garden. In contrast to the academy, McMillan only offers one class. He shows his pupils how to cast a circle, set up an altar, and identify the gods and goddesses—essentially Wicca 101. McMillan only charges about $10 per class, using mainly salt, water, candles, and incense so as to cut down on expenses. Although his program is not as extensive as the WFT Academy, low costs make Magickal Realms a legitimate competitor on the Wiccan-education scene.

Despite the cost, Williams says her decision to get a degree in paganism was not influenced by the price tag.

"I can't get a better job for becoming a high priestess or make more money or go on great vacations with the degree itself," she says. "I've done this just for me."

The academy eventually agreed to defer payment of her debt so that Williams could graduate. Ravenhawk says she will make exceptions for certain students, especially those who show exceptional dedication to the craft.

Students who have mastered the basics are eligible to apply for priesthood, a state-sanctioned ministry degree that makes them eligible to officiate marriage and teach classes at the temple. These official recognitions didn't come easy. Ravenhawk and Rojas spent about two years trying to register the Wiccan Family Temple as a legitimate religious institution with the New York County Clerk's Office.

Rojas says that as a teenager, she struggled against the stereotypes that witches are evil. Without the Internet, it was difficult for her to buy books and study paganism without alerting her parents, who subscribed to a more traditional concept of religion.

Today's witches have it easier, Rojas says. However, there are still a lot of stereotypes and stigmas that witches have to work around. For Rojas, education is key to breaking the cycle—a venture threatened by the academy's financial hardships.

On graduation day, someone dimmed the lights, and a steady drumming enveloped the room. Candles flickered at the center of the circle. The witches dabbed their foreheads with oil and then clasped hands. Lifting their arms skyward, they called upon their gods and goddesses to provide them with safety, love, power, and, most importantly, wealth. They'd need it to pay the rent.

Kiandra Venson samples her fellow Wiccan Michelle Gonzalez's "power potion."

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9 comments
Kurt Griffith
Kurt Griffith

I was excited to hear about this article, but rather disappointed at the shallow and research-free treatment by a prominent progressive publication. But it is consistent with the general lack of rigor in what passes for journalism in virtually all mainstream media in the current era.

That said, I am partly of Native American ancestry and have been a guest instructor for WFT on Native American subjects and ceremonial drumming and singing. WFT's Academy has made a serious effort to be aware of and appreciative of all the many cultures of Earth Religion from across the globe, both their histories and modern expression. I have been aware of and have interacted with the NYC area Pagan Communities for many years. For the most part I have found them to be serious people with a true desire to learn and grow spiritually.

Wiccans and other Neopagans also absolutely add to the richness and diversity of our city and the philosophies and worldviews they explore and embrace have much to teach the mainstream about community, diversity and taking a bit better care of this planet.

Mitaquye oyasin.

Kitzie Winship
Kitzie Winship

I found this article to be more a lost opportunity and display of journalistic laziness than a potentially insightful cultural piece. The article not only demonstrates a complete lack of research into both the Wiccan religion and the NYC Pagan community, but also trivializes the effort and innovation such programs exhibit. Even the title is misleading: from the content, it would be more fitting to entitle this “Wiccan ‘School’ Experiment Gone Awry.” From referring to the newly ordained High Priestess’ athame (a tool used for directing energy) as a “weapon” to labeling Wicca an “open religion” with no implication of Celtic or British origins (esp. in the case of the WFT, which while certainly an Eclectic circle/school, bases its structure on British Traditional Wicca and the works of Gerald Gardner and observes Celtic holidays), this makes Wicca seem more of a New Age hodgepodge than an organized practice.

Schools like the WFTAPS are a fairly new phenomenon: Wicca is traditionally practiced in covens, which often remain secretive and out of the public eye. Studies were not exchanged for traditional currency, and often confined to the specific traditions of a specific group. To my knowledge, some of the founders of the Wiccan Family Temple’s school began as individual practitioners (known as solitaries) valuing the more DIY approach to witchcraft popularized and publicized by Scott Cunningham in the 1980s. Through the integration of these backgrounds, a new approach to Wiccan education emerged.

What the article’s example does demonstrate is a trend towards more public and mainstream approaches to the Craft and NeoPaganism’s evolving image and group structure. In cities like NYC, where rents are high and privacy is limited, the WFT’s approach is consistent with their surroundings, and has provided a bridge between Wicca/NeoPaganism and more mainstream religions. The eclectic, welcoming and child-friendly approach to Wiccan ritual and education practiced by the WFT is not representative of all who identify as Wiccan, but it’s certainly becoming more widespread. Nationwide, ordained priests and priestesses are now taking part in interfaith movements, conferences, and even gaining rights and recognitions previously denied.

Pagan Seminaries while yet to be granted accreditation, are becoming viable opportunities for graduate level study and vocational training for pagan pastoral counselors and community organizers. (Last year, Cherry Hill Seminary granted several Masters of Divinity Degrees to Pagan graduates, which is nothing short of monumental.) Web-based schools which charge fees for participation in message boards and online lecture and Skype sessions are plentiful. Pagan community centers, such as the center in the Bronx mentioned in the article and a major one soon opening in DC, are becoming viable housing options for Pagan training programs and community groups.

The Wiccan Family Temple of Pagan Studies may lack the funds and property of similar programs, but it is more affordable, culturally diverse, and family-oriented than anything remotely like it. At my ordination, we had in attendance representatives from many faiths, including an ordained Christian minister. Our classes included guest lectures from practitioners of non-Wiccan faiths, including Santeria and Native American traditions. The skills I acquired and strengthened in those three years, from pastoral counseling and spiritual guidance to teaching, have prepared me as a Priestess and scholar. It provided a supportive community that helped me through challenges beyond simply financial hardship. The Wiccan Family Temple and its Academy of Pagan Studies was (and I’d imagine still is) run as it was founded: as a labor of love. To see an article endorsed by a progressive publication belittle its cultural and greater historical significance by treating an ordination like an insignificant experiment of a failing storefront school is disappointing.

-Kitzie Winship, Baltimore, MD Wiccan Family Temple Academy of Pagan Studies, Class of 2011

Pamela Borck
Pamela Borck

I am grateful for those who are willing, and capable, to put up the fight for spiritual freedoms! Women such as these should be praised for their dedication, for helping others to comfortably and confidently walk their path!Thank you!

Mich06969
Mich06969

Laughable???? All religions had some type of sacrifice. Many sacrifices were volunteers for the love of the god and/or goddess. But as you stated that was very long ago, we have evolved. However, pagans never went to war to kill those that did not believe in their religion. Never in my research have I found that evidence. Today we still have the same killers and recruiters those that kill in their gods name and sacrifice themselves

Chuck
Chuck

Wicca... the fluffy droppings of real paganism.

Aisling
Aisling

I only have one problem with this article: The "dagger" is actually an athame, and it is a tool, not a weapon. It is never used against any living being.

annoyed
annoyed

Very true. Makes the rest of us pagans...you know...the historically conscious ones...grimace.

The Spleen
The Spleen

Are you grimacing while you practice human sacrifice? 'Cuz that is exactly what a large percentage of "historical" pagan religions actually did, ya know. Didn't matter if it was a goddess or a god-based religion either -- early matriarchies were just as blood-soaked as those crazy fuqers who liked to dance around in human skin while high on mushrooms and praying to the feathered serpent who lives in the heart of the sun.

The idea that the majority of pagans were peace-loving or any more in tune with the universe than any other religious group is laughable, anthropologically speaking.

wanda
wanda

I think annoyed was being sarcastic--its hard to tell over the internet, but...the extreme use of the ellipses...suggests that to me.

 
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