Holding her hands over a huge amethyst crystal, as though warming them in front of a hearth, a blond woman named Peggy invites the goddess to come into the room.
Candlelight flickers against the purple crystal as she chants: "Sea spawn, sea spray. Love us, we pray, Aphrodite ..." The six men and women, who are sitting cross-legged in a circle around a tiny altar, answer her. They are praying for peace in the Persian Gulf. Together, they are envisioning a blue-green rainbow of mist composed of peaceful thoughts extending all the way to Kuwait.
The members of this circle -- which includes a computer analyst, an artist, a weaver and Peggy, the owner of the Turning Wheel bookstore in Glen Burnie -- are among an increasing number of men and women who are turning to goddess worship, a religion that rejects the idea of God as only being Father and incorporates the idea of God as goddess.
Goddess worship, some believe, is both a logical outgrowth of the feminist movement of the '70s and part of a larger search for spirituality throughout society.
"There is a resurgence of interest and searching for meaning. You see it in the growth of fundamentalism or in the rise of pop psychology or interest in mythology," says Susan Kromholtz, professor in the Johns Hopkins School of Continuing Studies. "It's not that women are returning to this one pagan cult, but that women in general are searching for expression in spirituality. Maybe this is where the women's lib movement's next step is."
To Peggy, who has asked that her last name not be used, the idea of a feminine deity was at first hard to accept, then appealing. "God is always referred to as a male, so to say deity is either male or female is really different," she says.
Peggy's beliefs are a blend of paganism -- in her case, an eclectic mix of many ancient beliefs ranging in origin from Egypt to Native America -- and wiccan, or witchcraft, which has roots in Celtic tradition.
Some pagans are wiccan; some are not. In addition, there are lesbian-separatist circles, all-male groups and feminist groups that may be either all-female or integrated. Some adherents of goddess worship, like Peggy, include both god and goddess in worship as part of a balance.
Alaina, a Baltimore teacher who is a Dianic wiccan priestess, finds the idea that God is a man illogical. "It's stupid to think life comes from a man. All other life comes from women, why would it be different on a higher plane?"
Adds Steven Waxman, a graphic designer from Riverdale, "We see men and women equally as reflections of that which is sacred. After that, if you ask 10 of us what we believe, you'll get 10 different people practicing 10 different things."
Signs of the burgeoning interest in goddess worship or, as some call it, feminine spirituality, can be seen in bookstores and on bulletin boards in restaurants, college dorms, New Age health stores and businesses.
There are approximately 100 newsletters and magazines available, such as the Maryland-based Free Spirit Alliance newsletter, says Margot Adler, National Public Radio correspondent, whose book on paganism is titled, "Drawing Down the Moon."
"It's a hot topic," agrees Jean Bradford, chairwoman of the psychology department at Goucher College. "I think, quite frankly, in the women's movement, the whole area of spiritual growth and getting in touch with spiritual energies had been neglected and not much had been done on the inner spiritual growth of women until about 10 years ago."
While not a goddess worshiper, Dr. Bradford is interested in what she calls goddess psychology. "It empowers women to know that God was once a goddess. ... Thousands of years ago, women were powerful, were deities," says Dr. Bradford, who next spring will teach a course with her husband, Norman, on human relationships and the gods and goddesses.
The appeal of goddess worship for many is the emphasis on individualism. "I don't feel I have to say a certain prayer a certain way or wear a certain thing," says Mr. Waxman, who is wiccan.
Others identify goddess worship with the environmental movement. "Clearly the general pagan perspective on the environment -- that you should honor the Earth, that the Earth is a part of everything and vice versa -- is a reason for the movement's growth," says Ms. Adler.
Goddess worship also transcends race and nationality, says Char McKee, executive editor of Woman of Power, a Cambridge, Mass., magazine dedicated to interdenominational feminine spirituality. "There are a lot of goddesses in African traditions and there are a lot of black women who are working to bring those goddesses into their culture."
Despite the growing popularity of goddess worship, many who hold these beliefs keep them private.
To non-believers, the words witchcraft or paganism may evoke images of boiling caldrons or Satan worship, says Alaina. "I have heard of people being harassed, of losing jobs, of being bothered by neighbors because people don't understand what they believe."