The good witches of the Internet Cyberpagans: They are abandoning their brooms for get-togethers on the information superhighway.

October 30, 1995|By Melissa Grace | Melissa Grace,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The modern witch has traded in her broomstick and black hat. She's gotten rid of her warts and pointy chin and thrown away her iron cauldron with its bubbling brew of eye of newt, wool of bat and tongue of dog.

Today's witch heads home from her law office or research lab or teaching job, kicks off her pumps and clicks on her computer. She's surfing the Internet.

There she meets Druids and shamans, Celts and more witches from this and other worlds. They hold hands, cast spells, dance under the full moon.

Tomorrow night, on Halloween, they'll go to their covens and circles in cyberspace. That's where all the technopagans hang out these days to practice their New Age nature-based religions.

"People are very into this, it's an open line of communication," says Marion Weinstein, a New York witch and author of several important works about witches. "The power of a community in a ritual is enormous, and absolutely, there is no question that if you have people focusing together on-line it can be very powerful."

Though witches hold festivals and feasts around the world, they say they don't have to be together physically to commune with each other and create healing energy. They must agree only to focus at a specific time; it can be from their backyards, rooftops or keyboards.

On Halloween, witches gather on the Internet to celebrate what they call Sawhain (pronounced sow-win), a harvest festival of death and rebirth. They call forth the spirits of their ancestors by typing messages to them.

Each witch brings a candle, a glass of water and a pile of dirt to the computer, symbolically linking them to the elements of the Earth.

Besides formal ceremonies, witches use the Internet to send e-mail greetings and notices of coming events to fellow believers from California to New Zealand. They exchange recipes for mead -- a wine made from honey and water -- and incense. They post notices for legal help if they are being harassed.

Witches have home pages on the World Wide Web and newsgroups on the Internet. There are forums with names like Pagan Place and chat rooms led by shamans and Druids on the CompuServe on-line service as there are on America Online. There are bulletin board services, or BBS, with a local focus, like D.C. Magic based in Washington and Ice Fire in Virginia.

"Our reasons for using the Internet are not that much different from other special interest groups. It helps with long-distance charges, we can communicate around the world, it's an information resource and a place to announce a special event," said Glenn Orange, a 25-year-old witch who goes to school at Catonsville Community College and works part-time at Grandma's Candle Shop in Baltimore.

No one knows how many witches there are or how many are on line. Their number is difficult to estimate because most wouldn't declare their religion to what they say is a hostile public.

But the Internet gives witches a community, a place to share their experiences, both the spiritual and the mundane, that is largely protected from hate groups. Their screen names keep them anonymous -- a benefit mentioned by every pagan interviewed for this article -- but they still have access to a much wider community.

"People who live in a small Southern Baptist town, who could only practice their religion with their cat, now have the opportunity to reach out to others of like mind," said Cathy Hammer, an on-line systems operator in Los Angeles. She is not a witch but has organized several on-line events for pagans.

Can witches really commune electronically?

Margot Adler, a witch and the author of "Drawing Down The Moon," a book many witches see as a seminal work, says they can. Several years ago, the National Public Radio correspondent was a guest speaker on CompuServe's Pagan Place.

"It was amazing," she said. "There is a point when you feel like you are in a more special place. People started to welcome their ancestors into this circle, they were very poetic. The hairs on the back of my wrists stood up. And this is across time and space. But it felt like it was in my living room."

More recently, in a Saturday afternoon CompuServe chat room, a reporter asked how the mental and spiritual energy used by witches worked on-line. The forum's leader-witch started to explain by writing: "It's dark outside and the full moon rises brightly above the forest in the valley. You look out your window and you SEE the land shifting and you find yourself on the hillside. Gone the mundane landscape, you have entered into a magical place lit by the silvery moon. Far off you hear the sound of a gentle bell calling you, calling everyone Deeper and deeper you go "

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