- The Washington Times - Friday, June 20, 2003

Witches are a poorly understood bunch these days. They may not be forcibly drowned or burned at the stake anymore, but they’re a long way from mainstream acceptance. Just ask Jennifer Lane, a practicing Wiccan from Waldorf, Md.

“When people learn that I’m Wiccan, the first thing I’m asked is, ‘Do I sacrifice babies?’” Ms. Lane says. “I find it very offensive that people associate Wicca with Satanism.”

Enter a plucky, bespectacled boy named Harry Potter.

At midnight this morning — the bewitching hour, aptly enough — thousands of children draped in black cloaks began lining up at bookstores across the country to plunk down their allowance money for “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” the fifth installment in author J.K. Rowling’s astonishingly popular book series.

Harry Potter books have found a large and voracious audience, but even those who haven’t opened their pages know, if only incidentally, what they’re about: the adventures and travails of a young student of witchcraft.

Most parents raising children in the traditional monotheistic belief systems of Judaism, Christianity and Islam don’t seem to mind Potter’s pagan imagery; they’re just thrilled their children are entertained by something that isn’t electronic or remotely controlled.

But the fact remains: The milieu concocted by Miss Rowling runs roughshod over monotheistic orthodoxies.

There are, to be sure, pockets of discomfort over the Harry Potter phenomenon, especially among conservative Protestants.

In the current issue of Time magazine, for example, Jack Brock, a pastor of the Christ Community church in Alamogordo, N.M., says, “The next book, I understand … is going to be going deeper and deeper into witchcraft. Anyone who thinks that’s healthy, I don’t understand.

“God says in Deuteronomy that witchcraft is an abomination. Whatever God hates, I hate,” Mr. Brock says.

The Roman Catholic Church is taking a more liberal line, folding Potter into the benign universe of fairy tales and ecumenical morality stories.

The Rev. Don Peter Fleetwood, a member of the Pontifical Council for Culture who contributed to a recent Vatican document on New Age religions, told a news conference in February that “I don’t think there’s anyone in this room who grew up without fairies, magic and angels in their imaginary world.”

Harry Potter books “aren’t bad,” he added. “They aren’t serving as a banner for an anti-Christian ideology. If I have understood well the intentions of Harry Potter’s author, they help children to see the difference between good and evil.”

While Christians, liberal and conservative, mull over Potter, there’s a similar process occurring on the other side of the fence, among witches themselves.

Good witches, of course.

Washington and the mid-Atlantic region, generally, is home to a fairly diverse community of neopagans, Wiccans, astrologers and mystery cultists who practice variants of a noncreedal faith system that is tied to the Earth’s cycles and rhythms.

Some, but not all, pray to gods and goddesses; they hold ancient rituals and fire festivals; they’re known by association names that, if you didn’t know better, seem lifted straight out of Potter mythology itself — Mugwort Grove, for example, a District-based group of neopagans that practices a form of Celtic or Druidistic nature religion.

So what do neopagans think of this pop culture phenom? Are they wild for Harry Potter? Do they think he will draft them into the sunny uplands of the mainstream?

The answer? Yes … and no.

Carol Campbell, an Oakton, Va., resident who maintains a Web site called www.cronestones.com, says she loves the books simply because they have inspired children to read.

As a practicing pagan spiritualist, Ms. Campbell says that the British author offers kernels of the real thing but that nature religion isn’t really what makes the books tick.

“I have read the four Harry Potter books, and my personal belief is that Rowling knows a thing or two about pagan spirituality,” says Ms. Campbell via E-mail, “but the stories really are simply born of her imagination and her ability to tune into what children dig.

“Who wouldn’t like for an owl to drop messages on your lap? Or learn to play rugby on a broomstick?”

Ms. Lane, a member of the Sisters of the Silver Branch, says the Potter books reflect well on neopagan religions.

“Harry Potter shows good witches and bad witches,” she says over the phone. “It clearly draws a line between people who behave well and people who don’t behave well.”

To her, that’s the crux of the religion she practices.

“If you take ethics out of Wicca, it’s not Wicca, anymore. It’s just ceremonial magic,” she says.

Conversely, Ivo Dominguez Jr., an elder in the Assembly of the Sacred Wheel, a mid-Atlantic community of Wiccans, thinks Harry Potter books, while inoffensive in and of themselves, are a lousy depiction of neopaganism.

“How would you feel if you were a Christian and the only truly visible expression of Christianity in the media was ‘Touched by an Angel’?” he says via phone, alluding to the popular CBS series — which just completed its run — about the earthly works of a touchy-feely, Hallmarkian deity.

Harry Potter books are “not representative of our belief system,” insists Mr. Dominguez, a resident of Georgetown, Del.

Humorless hooey, counters Caroline Casey, an Ivy League-educated writer and radio-show host who also happens to be an astrologer. She lives in Cabin John and describes herself as a “visionary activist” who weds spirituality with social action.

“If you can smuggle intelligence into the mainstream, God love you,” she says, arguing that Miss Rowling’s books are “inventive” and occasionally “beautiful.”

Ms. Campbell, too, thinks the author is entitled to take fictional liberties.

“On the concept of magic, I think that Harry Potter is far more sensationalized, but that is for the benefit of the younger age group,” she says. “Real magic is far less glamorous and far more meditative than many audiences would ever have patience for if it were dramatized in a novel.”

A liberal in her politics, Miss Casey argues that our culture lacks initiation rites and ignores the inner-life of children — which is why they’ve flocked to the world of Harry Potter.

“The major theme is: young child; parents no help; evil grown-ups that want to kill; children must find their magic to save their world,” Miss Casey says in a phone interview. “That’s something that all kids, regardless of their circumstances, crave.”

Miss Casey works with at-risk youth and has watched them hungrily devour Harry Potter books.

“These kids were finishing 600-page books in three days,” she says. “It was clearly such a rich nutrient.

“Kids really go for the deeper content in all this. I think [Miss Rowling] has done great good. [The Potter books] create an enhanced receptivity for smarter works in a similar vein,” she says.

After devouring the Potter books, Miss Casey says the children she has observed often moved on to more challenging books by authors such as Philip Pullman, another writer fascinated by pagan underworlds.

As dark and spooky as those worlds can be, Ms. Campbell says we have nothing to fear.

“Neither the books nor the pagan faith is part of a satanic cult,” she says. “I see in both expressions of wonderment and love. This may sound corny, but Harry’s story at its core is about those he cares about. It’s how he makes it through each day.”

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