Halloween Shines Light on Witchcraft Today

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Modern witches such as Denise Zimmermann have a much different and more straightforward explanation for the appeal of witchcraft: "Magic works—we use it all the time" says Zimmermann of Baltimore, Maryland, the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Witchcraft and Wicca.

In witchcraft, as in some more traditional religions, beliefs center on a vision of harmony in the natural world. Zimmerman and other self-proclaimed witches believe that the deity is in everything, and that all living beings in turn are part of the deity.

"We have a deep connection to the earth energy," says Zimmermann. "No one animal or species is any more important than any other. The deity is in everything, so you have to honor everything."

Explaining the source of magic's power, she says: "There is an existing energy that through the use of the deity we can manipulate."

Yet, she is quick to add, magic doesn't exist in good and evil forms.

"Magic itself is not black or white—it's just energy," she says. "It's the people who use it who decide whether to use it for good or for negative purposes. You've got good people and bad people in any religion. There is good and bad in the world, and the whole lesson in life is to keep everything in balance. That's what we try to do."

In many cultures and religions, life is viewed as a constant struggle between good and evil.

Many Africans think witchcraft is inextricably linked with this pursuit of balance. They believe that unacknowledged witches live among them and can exert power unconsciously, even in their sleep. As a result, suspected witches often become scapegoats for misfortune and other problems such as failed crops or village feuds. In such cases, a traveling "witch cleanser" may be summoned to expose a local witch and restore harmony to the community.

Witches Among Us

It's been a long time since a belief in witches was widespread in Europe and the Americas. For centuries, alleged witches were persecuted because they were seen as collaborating with Satan. Thousands were put on trial, as in the famous witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts, and many were burned at the stake.

Today in the United States and the United Kingdom, witches are followers of a religion known as Wicca. While acceptance is growing, followers of the practice generally adopt a low profile because of public skepticism.

"You've probably been around witches and not even realized it—we're just average everyday people," says Zimmermann. "We're in all walks of life: lawyers, doctors, nurses."

Many witches today are nurses "because there is a lot of healing in Wicca, dating from its early days," she adds. "The ancient witches were the herb-gatherers, midwives, and healers of their villages."

Zimmermann says her coven, or group of witches, embraces some of these ancient roles in modern ways but don't engage in practices that are often unfairly associated with witches, such as sacrifices and Satan worship. "We do healing circles," she says. "We do fund-raisers for homeless animals, or go camping and clean and care for the forest."

They also strive to reconnect with the natural world, which Zimmermann says draws many people to Wicca. "We've gotten away from nature so much," she says. "That's an inner need. We need that connection, and when we lose it we lose a sense of who we are."

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