Main Street in Smithtown is just like any other Main Street on Long Island—local pubs, delis, and places you’ll find the best and worst coffee you’ve ever had, all within a 1-mile radius. Just outside the center of town, winding roads are dotted with small churches scattered among sprawling ranches with wind socks flying from front porches and lawns that stretch to meet cherry tree-lined streets.
It is here where the annual summer craft fair will take place in the church basement next week, where mass begins at 8 a.m. on Sundays, and church bells ring at noon sharp every day of the week. It is on Main Street where bars and cafes will soon open their doors to the summer crowd. And it is in the backyard of one of these idyllic suburban houses where a group of women stand in a circle once a month under the full moon, one holding a sharp blade toward the sky, all of them trying their best not to scare the neighbors.
“My religion is an open secret,” says Raven through strands of blond hair blown by the wind out from under her black hooded cloak. She is hosting this month’s full moon ritual at her home. “I don’t hide what I do but I call it yoga and meditation because yoga doesn’t terrify people. People don’t question yoga. They don’t question meditation.”
Raven is part of a large community with deep roots on Long Island, one that exists mostly under the radar, except when Halloween comes around or when the latest Harry Potter flick hits the big screen—but she’s used to that.
“The thing that bothers me most is that so much of the time my religion, which in essence is not all that different at it’s core from the mainstream, is defined by dark-eyed teenagers draped in black going through ‘a rebellious phase,’ or eccentrics running around with faerie dust and pawning love spells to anyone who will pay them,” she says. “This is my spirituality, this is who I am and it is hard to see your faith so misrepresented all around you.”
Raven is a witch. And she is joined by thousands of others—Wiccans, wizards and everyone in between—who identify themselves as pagan, or “other,” here on Long Island.
IT STARTED IN
Paganism, an umbrella term for those who follow a non-Christian, usually Earth-based, faith, includes Wicca, a relatively new religion, which was heavily influenced and made public by Gerald Gardner in 1939 in England, and draws on ancient gods and goddesses. Shortly after becoming initiated himself as a Wiccan in England, Raymond Buckland moved to Brentwood, bringing Wicca to the United States, along with a direct lineage to British traditional witchcraft that has spread clear across the country; he later became a professor at Hofstra University, and created the First Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Bay Shore, which has since closed. It was the first of its kind on Long Island—and in the United States. Buckland today is widely considered the Father of American Wicca.
“Long Island has a very, very strong witch and Wiccan presence because of Buckland,” says Rev. Mark Lyons, a high priest of “eclectic” witchcraft, a path that doesn’t strictly adhere to a Wiccan tradition as defined by Gardner or his contemporaries. Whereas Wicca is a religion, witchcraft is a practice.
Wicca, which often utilizes witchcraft, is an Earth-based religion that honors a god and a goddess as aspects of one supreme deity, or energy that is found throughout nature and within every human being, linking the entire universe together as a whole. Wiccans, as well as witches, celebrate the changing of the seasons, or the wheel of the year. Wicca has since splintered off into many traditions, as Christianity has, and in 2007, Wicca became recognized as an official religion by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, meaning the pentacle, a five-pointed star representing Wicca or witchcraft, would be added to the list of religious symbols veterans could have engraved on their headstones in national cemeteries like Calverton National Cemetery.
But even before that, Long Island has attracted big names known worldwide in the pagan community. Two weeks ago, The Silver Broom, Lyons’ store in Sayville, played host to Janet Farrar, co-author of A Witches Bible, a well-known book of rituals and information for practicing witches, and Gavin Bone—both of whom were part of the early Wicca movement in England decades ago. The duo have toured the world making stops in Milan, Vienna, Glasgow—and Sayville.
“It’s great to have them on Long Island,” says Lyons, who has hosted them at The Silver Broom before. “They realize on some level that Buckland planted a lot of seeds here.”
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That he did. Wicca has since spread from coast to coast over the past several decades and is now the fastest growing religion in terms of percentage, according to a survey conducted by the City University of New York. Wicca now has more followers than the Society of Friends (or Quakers, as they are commonly known), and its population has more than doubled since 2001.
THE CRAFT OF THE WISE
Qumran Taj knows the Bible backwards and forwards, as well he should. He was a Christian minister for nearly 20 years, traveling from church to church, giving lectures and conducting Bible studies and training groups. The more he studied, the more his beliefs expanded to the point where they couldn’t be contained within the Christian dogma. Taj is still a minister now, but in a different way, he explains.
“I realized that Christianity was only one of an almost infinite number of valid, spiritual pathways that bring us closer to God,” says Taj. “When Nature herself decides the world needs only one kind of bird, only one kind of flower, only one kind of human being, I will accept that there should be only one method to worship.”
Today, he sits in a room with golden walls, candles burning and the smell of incense in the air. Taj, who owns Wizards in East Northport, is, well, a wizard.
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And while the word “wizard” may bring up images of characters like Gandalf, a wizard in J.R.R. Tolkein’s novels, or the guy at the end of the Yellow Brick Road in Oz, Taj is neither. And perhaps more surprisingly, his beliefs don’t radically differ from those that have gone mainstream, like those in the bestselling book The Secret, which is based on the Law of Attraction, a universal law that has been utilized for centuries, which states that like attracts like and therefore one’s thoughts attract similar realities and circumstances. But even so, Taj’s path can’t be found on the shelf of a Barnes and Noble with an Oprah Book Club stamp of approval on it.
“If you ask the average person on the street what their impression of the Law of Attraction is, they will tell you one thing,” he says. “If you ask them what wizardry is, they will tell you something completely different—everything from Dumbledore the Wizard to some dark black magic-practicing sorcerer.”
So, what does a wizard do? The word “wizard” is derived from the word “wisdom,” and Taj uses his knowledge of several crafts to perform magick—the manipulation of energy, or “prayer with props.” Things like stones, herbs and symbols are believed by Wiccans to carry energy that can help a person focus their own energy, the main ingredient of a spell.
Taj gives guidance to his community, just as he did as a Christian minister. He hosts live music on Saturday nights, stand-up comedy and provides a safe, alcohol-free and supervised hangout for adults, families and kids of all ages. Taj claims to be psychic; he says he can read photographs, auras and the tarot—abilities he believes every single person possesses in some form or another.
“Everyone has a spiritual side to them, and because they have a spiritual side, there are spiritual senses,” he says. “The only difference between me and someone who doesn’t do readings is that I have focused in and developed and become more sensitive to those things, while other people, they become accountants.”
But these days it isn’t all that unusual for someone to be both.
THE BROOM CLOSET
In a landmark case in 1985, the District Court of Virginia declared Wicca as “clearly a religion for First Amendment purposes…their broad concern for improving the quality of life for others gives them at least some facial similarity to other more widely recognized religions.”
It has since become more mainstream, or as Lyons would say “less freakish,” especially on Long Island, where pagan meet-ups like Pagans in the Pub, Witches’ Night Out, online dating services, college organizations and annual events like the New York Witch Festival and Beltaine in the Park are regular outings. But a decade ago George W. Bush, then governor of Texas, said on ABC’s Good Morning America, “I don’t think witchcraft is a religion. I would hope the military officials would take a second look at the decision they made,” disapproving of Wiccan soldiers being given the right to worship at Fort Hood, Texas. But things have changed, and Wicca is gradually becoming more accepted by those who follow more mainstream belief systems.
“We have it a little bit easier here on Long Island,” says Lyons. “Because we’ve got the free-wheeling, anything-goes Lady Liberty style of Manhattan, but with the nice weather and nature—and witches thrive on that. I have friends down in Florida and they say, ‘You guys have no idea how good you have it up there.’”
But some still fear being open about their beliefs, especially those with children.
Raven, who only goes by her Wiccan name when speaking openly about her beliefs, does so because of her school-age children and the fear that “coming out of the broom closet” would get them picked on by their peers.
“My religion is my choice,” she says. “Even though I want to believe that my kids would be accepted, I can’t take that kind of chance. This is my choice, not theirs.”
“We don’t have a book and a pope,” says Richardson. “So, there’s room for lots of people to just say they are witches, start a coven and initiate other witches. The longer you’re involved in the Wiccan path you can start to pick out those who are doing this because it is different or cool, and those who really feel it inside.”
Richardson has also worried about being judged for her religion.
“It did take me a year to be comfortable with wearing a pentacle because you are ingrained, at least in this culture, that [the pentacle] means devil worshiper,” she says. “Satan is not a god or a deity in my path. Satan exists in the Christian theology, so being Wiccan and worshiping Satan? No, it does not happen.”
The pentacle—the five-pointed star—is a common symbol of witchcraft. It is often misrepresented in movies as something evil, but it is actually an ancient protection symbol, representing earth, air, fire, water and spirit, elements of nature Wiccans consider pieces of the energy that make up the universe and themselves. Richardson is also a doula—one who provides support to women during childbirth—and in one case she was not hired when a client found out she was Wiccan.
“People who are massively Christian probably aren’t going to want the Wiccan doula,” she says. “And they didn’t.”
Michael Thorn, a Wiccan for more than 30 years and former president of Covenant of the Goddess, a national Wiccan organization, grew up in Huntington and has seen discrimination against pagans on Long Island firsthand. Thorn remembers taking the train to visit Buckland at his Bay Shore museum in the ’70s. He also remembers the calls from the police about his own Mastic store, The Sacred Space, in the ’90s.
“There were constantly people calling the police saying that the store should be closed because of the type of store it was,” says Thorn. “There was one person who had a home business and a coven of her own and people were leaving rosaries on her mailbox. So, the bias unit was trying to figure out: Is this a bias crime? Is this a threat?”
Two decades later, Taj also faces issues and misconceptions in his neighborhood, but has also found acceptance.
“Here in East Northport it’s a mixed bag,” he says. “There have been people who have come into my store and asked whether we sell evil things or whether we worship the devil. There are people who won’t even enter this store because it has the name ‘wizard’ on it. Half the town absolutely loves us, and half of the town still believes stereotypes about us.”
The Harry Potter series has put the subject of witchcraft center stage nationwide over the past decade, with many claiming the books are meant to spread some kind of “witchcraft agenda” to children. National groups like Muggles for Harry Potter, now called kidSPEAK!, which some Long Island bookstores have since joined, have sprung up across the country to defend the books.
“Hogwarts is the school of witchcraft and wizardry,” says Taj. “That scared the crap out of many people, as well as Christians who thought we were going to have them do all kinds of wicked things. But those with a more balanced view saw Harry Potter for what it was: fantasy and fun. I encourage people to learn and gain knowledge, because we fear the things we don’t understand and the things we don’t know.”
And the magic in Harry Potter has little to do with magick, differentiated with a ‘k,’ by those who practice natural magic, as opposed to Hollywood magic.
“What pagans in general do is much more about natural energy, it’s about visualization and focusing on a goal,” he says. “It’s not about wands where lightning bolts shoot out or you turn a rat into a cup.”
Back in Sayville, a young woman walks down Main Street in front of the general store, holding a big black pointy witch hat in her hands. There are more than a few reasons this isn’t very out of the norm on a May day in this town. Sayville is considered a “witchy” area by many locals due to a little bit of history, and a lot of folklore.
“It really depends on who you ask,” says Lyons. “There are some people who say that Sayville was a reconstruction of Salem Village, that witch burning moved from up there to down here, but I don’t know how true that is. I’ve had people who lived here and had family here for years who say that’s not true at all, but I will say Sayville has some odd witch stuff associated with it.”
Lyons points to a string of coincidences capitalized on by local teens, websites that compare Salem to Sayville, saying Melissa Joan Hart, who starred in the TV show Sabrina the Teenage Witch, grew up here and that the town symbol is the lightning bolt—the same lightning bolt that is on Harry Potter’s forehead, and the school colors are purple and gold which are the same colors from Hogwarts. Some say “Sayville” is an abbreviated form of “Salem Village” coined by early settlers that moved from Massachusetts to Long Island.
But despite the stories, the true and the imagined, Lyons, whose shop is just off Main Street but set back from the main road, keeps a low profile and steers clear of the wild stories.
“You could drive right past us and never know we’re here,” he says. “If you were to watch the people coming and going from here they are normal looking. For the most part we’re dealing with professionals over the age of 25, all sorts of different professionals from doctors to lawyers to teachers—everything comes through these doors.”
In fact, Lyons, wearing khakis and a dress shirt, doesn’t really look like “a witch” at all.
“I have long hair; that’s probably the extent of how odd I am,” says Lyons. “I’m wearing more Calvin Klein than I am black.”
Because witches are not the stereotypical image the media often portrays, local shops like The Silver Broom often help connect people within the community, providing links to businesses run by other witches, from therapists to accountants.
“There are doctors, lawyers, chiropractors, tech people, professional people of all different walks of life in the Wiccan and pagan communities,” says Fran, the owner of Instant Karma, a staple in Rockville Centre for the past 20 years.
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As the owner of a business that caters to the pagan community, Fran hears a lot of stories, including that of a local woman in the middle of a custody battle whose husband is accusing her of acting inappropriately around their children because she is a witch.
“Sometimes people play the witch card,” says Fran. “No one is going to wiggle their nose, but like they say, ‘You can create your own reality.’”
But Lyons is positive about the future of his religion and craft.
“Things are evolving and that’s why the craft will never die,” he says. “There will always be people in need of simple wisdom—and these witches don’t melt.”
“The craft is a very attractive spiritual path for people,” he says. “It reveres the Earth and nature and our connection to it, and I think more and more people around the world are paying more and more attention to our environment and trying to undo some of the damage that has been done.”
FROM LONG ISLAND
It’s a cold and rainy May evening in Salem, Massachusetts. Aside from a few skateboarders, the streets are empty. It’s the “off season” in this village that becomes inundated with tourists in the months before Halloween, then clears out like the start of December in the Hamptons.
Once the site of the infamous witch trials in the United States, witchcraft remains an essential part of this town—from the police cars that display pentacles, to Laurie Cabot, a local witch who has reached celebrity status not only in the town but around the world, to the museums, to the local cemetery where accused witch Giles Corey was pressed to death, to the tours that take place nightly.
“Hey, Harry Potter!” screams a passenger in a car full of guys to the tour guide, who gets visibly irritated in a way that makes it clear this kind of thing happens to him all the time.
Here, in Salem, there are two kinds of witches—those who lie buried in centuries-old cemeteries who were accused during the mass hysteria that raced through their Puritan society, targeting those who were good with herbs, disliked in the community, or simply just unlucky—and those who practice a modern form of witchcraft today. Salem Village pays homage to them both by using its sordid history to teach tolerance and provide a safe haven for those who practice a religion often maligned as evil. And the town attracts those in every category. But 30 years before the Salem Witch Trials took place, Long Island had it’s own witch trial.
THE WICKED WITCH
OF EAST HAMPTON
It’s mid-May and the line of cars is already streaming into East Hampton, a town originally settled by Puritans from Massachusetts. It’s hard to enter East Hampton without passing its founding members, like Lion Gardiner, the most prominent citizen of the village, who now lies in a sarcophagus surrounded by pillars nearly four feet high.
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In South End Cemetery all of the townspeople are buried, only three steps down off another Long Island Main Street. Generations of Long Islanders going back to the 1600s rest here and many believe Goody Elizabeth Garlick, accused and acquitted of witchcraft in 1658, is buried here in an unmarked grave.
Garlick, then in her 50s, was accused of bewitching and killing the daughter of her employer, who just happened to be Lion Gardiner, as well causing the deaths of several infants in the neighborhood, according to village records. The case, including depositions, takes up several pages in the printed records of East Hampton. Like the Salem Witch Trials, the trial was based on hearsay and lies.
Garlick was sent to the General Court of Connecticut, since East Hampton was then within the jurisdiction of the colony. The jury found Garlick not guilty on account of lack of evidence. Her date of death has not been found, and her burial place remains a mystery.
What do the witch trials of the past have to do with modern witchcraft? Not much. Those who were persecuted back then were not Wiccan and most likely not practicing witchcraft at all. Many, like Garlick, were adept with herbs and in the healing arts, things valued today by modern witchcraft practitioners and Wiccans.
One denomination on Long Island has made extraordinary efforts to be a welcome institution for everyone.
“We don’t have a corner on the truth,” says Rev. Paul Ratzlaff of the Huntington Unitarian Universalist Church. “There are the big questions: whether God exists or not, what happens after we die, what’s the purpose in living—these kinds of questions we really don’t have answers for, and we respect that people have come up with very different answers, including Wiccans and those with an Earth-based spirituality.”
At a recent Sunday Service at the Church, there is a bright yellow peace sign on the pulpit and the congregation sings hymns written by Bob Dylan. It is a special service today, called “Marching For Justice.” All are welcome here, even Wiccans, witches and wizards, a huge step in the right direction for pagans still fighting for acceptance on Long Island.
“I would like people to understand that people who are wizards or witches or Wiccans or pagans have more in common with you than you could possibly imagine,” says Taj. “Just learning about Wicca does not require that you become Wiccan. Just learning about it will simply give you knowledge of things you didn’t have before. It will give you perspective and it will let you know that wizards, witches and Wiccans are people just like you. We’re on the line at Walmart just behind you. We’re looking for sales. We love our children. We love our wives. We love our husbands. We love God. We love the Earth. We love our country. We are patriotic Americans. We are just like you.”
And as for Lyons, he’s not too worried.
“They tried to stamp us out before,” he says with a smile. “It didn’t work.”