For most New Yorkers, Halloween means wearing slutty costumes and vomiting Svedka on the subway. But in Park Slope, the land of moms and strollers, many people gather on Halloween for an entirely different scene: the Witches Masquerade Ball.
Since I've always been interested in Wicca, the promise of a Hekate ritual, BYOB dumb supper, and psychic readings intrigued me. The ball's flyer advertised the starting time as 7 PM sharp, but when I arrived at 7:30, I only found four guests in a wood-paneled room listening to P!nk's M!ssundaztood.
"It's because they are running in PST, Pagan Standard Time, which means they are two hours late to everything," explained Tiger, a temporary transplant from Florida who had come to New York to celebrate Samhain (the name of the Celtic festival that Halloween evolved from).
For the Wiccan community, Samhain is the most important night of the year. Serving as the witches' new year, it is day where the veil is thinnest between our world and the one of those who have passed. It's a celebration that's about reconnecting with loved ones and reflecting on what you've gained and lost from the positive and negative experiences of the past year. Witches Masquerade Ball was a celebration and group ritual honoring Hades and Hekate, god and goddess of the Underworld.
Attendees who were meeting for the first time spent the evening getting to know each other and feasting on their dumb supper--which consisted of a ham/salami hoagie, Doritos and wine. Attendance was somewhat sparse, but "this Samhain celebration is not about numbers, it's about having it and demonstrating that we are in service and honoring Hekate," said Lady Morgana, high priestess of Hekate Sacred Temple, Torch Bearers of the Crossroad.
On the altar stood candles, an Ikea angel decoration meant to symbolize Hekate, incense, and water mixed with salt for purification. Though rituals typically run up to two hours, this one lasted about 20 minutes. In the end, instead of breaking bread together, attendees passed along potato chips and then parted ways.
In between these activities, I asked the Wiccans about their evening and history with the religion.
VICE: How did the masquerade ball come together?
Alexandra Morrigan Raven: This is a collaboration of a lot of the meetup groups here in New York, but this is actually being sponsored by the Hekate Sacred Temple and the Torch Bearer of the Crossroads. I am one of two of the high priestesses. What a high priest does is basically run the temple and lead the ritual.
What does leading the ritual entail?
We have a printed ritual, and we basically read from a script. We say prayers, we cast a circle, we call on the elements, which are north, east, south, and west. We face the directions and call to the Watchtowers. Then we invoke our goddess Hekate, and tonight we'll be honoring Hades, God of the Underworld. This is their night. Samhain is not only the witches' new year, but it's the time of the year when the veil between those have gone before us can travel back onto our plane.
Have you had real connections with them as a result of this?
I can't see spirits, but sometimes I can hear them and feel them. Some people can see them, but I can't. Sometimes they whisper. When it's late at night, I can hear the jingle jangle of my former dog Misty's collar.
How do you feel about Halloween and how it has evolved over the years?
I've always loved Halloween. Unfortunately people still look at Halloween as a devil's holiday. There's a very big misconception about Wicca and Pagans: We don't believe in the devil. We believe in positive and negative energy.
Where are you from?
Tiger: I'm actually from Florida visiting New York for the weekend. I was looking for a public ritual to do. I have been pagan for 25 years, practicing the Wiccan craft in the Blue Star tradition. In my mundane life, I'm a tour director. I just came back from doing a season in Alaska. I'm visiting family.
How did you find out about this particular event?
I found out about this site through WitchVox, which lists events all across the country and some internationally as well. I've found very good results with finding open circles. Samhain is an unusual one for where I live in Florida. Most of the groups down there [host] rituals that are very private because it's a very solemn sabbath for us. It's a sabbath for connecting with the dead. In the New York area, it's more open.
How would you describe the pagan community in Florida?
I would say that it's very friendly and open, but they are scattered. I know there's a lot in the Miami area. They're spread out across the state in Florida: There's one open group in St. Petersburg, one in Clearwater, maybe two or three in Tampa. Everyone's very open. I don't know if they are as open in their day-to-day life as they are here in New York. I don't have problems with it, but I live in an offbeat artistic community that accepts pretty much anything, so I gravitate to those like-minded people.
How did you reach this point in your Wiccan spirituality?
Lady Morgana: I didn't come from an abusive house; I came from a loving home. I was an only child who lived with my grandparents, auntie, mom, and dad. We were all in this big Victorian house, and it was quite amusing because I constantly played on the stairs and had all kinds of imaginary things. Yeah, I liked to play on the steps probably because there were ghosts. Fast-forward, I didn't know what my grandfather [who was a healer] did till I was in my teens. I saw it as an odd thing that nobody would talk to me about what he did, so I just dismissed it. When I got into my 20s I began to have full-blown visions of people dying before they died. I would walk into a room of people, and I would see someone in their coffin dressed in something they would be laid out in. This would happen over and over till I was shopping one day. I was in Stick, Stone & Bone, which is one of the city haunts that you go in to buy things. I started telling them what was going on, and they referred me to a mentor. I learned how to see good things instead of solely tragedy. It was very freaky.
What are the good things you see?
I would basically see things they wanted--mostly material things. Not to say that I wouldn't see an accident and warn them, but I stopped seeing death. An interesting fact: Everyone in my family has either died holding my hand, in my arms, or they would wait in the hospital for me to arrive before they left. I'm sort of like the transitioner, which leads me to where I am with Hekate, who is the transitioner from the realm of the dead.
What brings you here tonight?
Christy Artale: My mom is the high priestess of the ceremony.
What was your childhood like?
Growing up, I was raised very liberal. I did whatever I wanted because it was more non-traditional. I went to Catholic school, but after I graduated I just kind of went a different way.
Do you or your siblings practice Wicca?
No, I don't. My sister does, my brother does not. My sister reads cards here and there. She practices, but it's solitary and by herself. She's an introvert, so she keeps to herself and doesn't come to meetings. She knows about all of this stuff. She wears the Wiccan star. My brother? Not at all. He doesn't want to hear about it.
Is coming to a ritual like this an ordinary event for you personally on Halloween?
It does feel normal. I feel like to each his own. She can believe in one thing, I can believe in what I believe in. Whatever makes her happy.
Do you have a coven you work with?
Giuseppe Catanzaro: I define myself as a solitary. I usually practice by myself. I just moved to New York a year ago from Italy; it's difficult to find a community. You have to deal with a lot of things. Right now is the period of my life that I'm exploring. I'm also practicing with a different group called ADF, a group based on Celtic Paganism. This group tonight is centered on Wicca, which is a form of neopaganism.
How would you describe the pagan community here versus the one in Italy?
I feel there are a lot of people practicing in solitary, because Italy is a Catholic country. Sometimes being Pagan and being a witch has a stigma associated with it, so it's kind of difficult to form solid groups.
How did you feel tonight's ritual went?
JF Grasso: It went well. It was very pleasant and nice to meet new people. The Hekate Sacred Temple is a fairly new organization, and the organizational committee is most interested in ministry and outreach. For me in particular, this is a part of service. My tradition emphasizes service as well as scholarship. As I work toward my third degree in Braided Wheel, service, serving our community, and trying to help people find their own relationship with the divine is part of my calling.
What degrees have you received as part of Braided Wheel?
The first is academic as well as religious. The first degree essentially prepares you to be a competent participant in any ritual that you might come upon in any eclectic American Wicca. There is a lot of reading on the history of the movement, metaphysics, comparative mythology, and the history of the tradition. Second degree works more along the lines of personal paths of self discovery. It's more in depth. The third degree is more about service, teaching, and healing.
People come to the craft for all kinds of different reasons. This is not a dogmatic faith that ascribes an orthodox theology. I'm here to help people develop a relationship with the divine, and whatever my practical experience and religious education lends to that, I take a lot of gratification in.
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