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Halloween is the customary time to acknowledge witches, but people don't become witches for only one day. Ancient earth-centered pagan religions like Wicca are year-round spiritual disciplines, some of the followers take on the label of witches, and the beginning of spring is also important to that old faith.
Pagans celebrate a sabbat, or sabbath, called Ostara — not Easter — at the start of spring. The Circle of the Sacred Grove Temple of the Old Religion, a group of Wiccans based in Erie, Mich., will hold its Ostara sabbat with an open circle at 8 p.m. today. Their sabbat wasn't observed at the actual spring equinox for a practical reason: the coven members have jobs.
Lady Bona Dea Lyonesse (Patricia DeSandro of Erie), the founder, and Lord Gwydion and Lady Arawyn Lyonesse (Dorothy and Anthony Doherty of Toledo), the high priest and high priestess, are spiritual descendants of the late Lady Circe (Jeffrey Cather), who lived in Toledo 35 years and was Lady Bona Dea's first teacher. She "brought witchcraft to Toledo" and got her "Old Religion" government-sanctioned in 1971, Lady Bona Dea said.
"Our temple is 15 years old," Lady Arawyn said. "Lady Bona Dea started it in 1999, and she handed the reigns over to Gwydion and myself in 2011. We meet with students once a week and we have sabbats every eight weeks; there's eight sabbats total in a year." The circle is registered as a church in Michigan, and its priests and priestesses can sign marriage licenses and take other actions of ordained ministry.
"Our core teaching is that we look to a creator," Lady Arawyn said. "Being human and being masculine and feminine, we see the creator as male and female; that's how our minds can perceive it, and we give them different names because each name can have a different aspect that you want to bring in strength, courage, loving, nurturing. So you might call a certain goddess for those aspects, and you might call a certain god for those aspects, but they all come down to the core of a creator, the divine power that is in all of us."
Lady Bona Dea said, "All spiritual beliefs have love at the core. It just gets covered up with a bunch of crap."
The Ostara ritual is important to the Wiccans in part because spring represents "new beginnings," Lady Arawyn said, "the potential for the future to come, the whole green cycle starting up again, the obvious weather changes, but [also] the spiritual path of that, which is what we like to focus on. We don't just celebrate the weather patterns and the agricultural cycles; we establish the spiritual component. ... Spring is when we plant those ideas, then we actively start the manifestation process."
At the ceremony, Lady Arawyn said, the priestess leading the service will call in the goddess Persephone, "who's coming up from the underworld to reunite with her mother, Demeter; bring spring forth; and we're honoring the gift of spring."
"We have myths and legends that we use as teaching stories," Lady Bona Dea said, "but we know that they are myths and legends," not literal truth.
Also in the open circle, "We're waking the animals and calling on them," said Lady Arawyn, "and we're also blessing seeds for the coming year—not only seeds that we're putting in these little eggs filled out with dirt, but also seeds in ourselves to help them grow for the coming year."
"With the seed ritual, we're really focusing on what seeds are we going to bring in our spiritual growth, what are we planting for our growth," said Lord Gwydion.
"And right after we start our ritual, we're doing our relic chant," Lady Arawyn said. "We have this little relic; it's like a round stone ball that has a bunch of fossils in it, and we see this as a connection to our ancestors. Everyone who comes and visits our circles always touches it, puts their energy into it, and it's a way to connect to everyone."
While embracing the term witch for women and men, members of the coven do not use warlock. "That's a term that means oath-breaker," Lady Arawyn said. "It means you've done something really bad. ... In our tradition it's someone's who's declared war on us by breaking an oath, so we lock them out." And speaking of bad, Lady Arawyn said that they "have no concept of" the devil. "There is no embodiment of evil," she said. "It's all personal responsibility."
And "you can wear your pointy hats and striped socks if you want to," Lady Bona Dea said, "but that isn't what this is about."
Today's Ostara ceremony will be held indoors, and those interested in attending must first contact Lady Arawyn by way of the circle's Web site, circleofthesacredgrove.org, to receive directions and a welcome letter giving information about sabbat rituals.