Witches Work Their Magic in Hurricane Zone

Oct. 31, 2005 — -- When Tracey Johnson first moved to Petal, Miss., and opened The Circle of the Green Faery, she didn't receive the warmest of welcomes. It seems not everyone in the small, rural southern Mississippi community was willing to accept a witch who sold supplies for pagan lifestyles.

But ever since Hurricane Katrina, Johnson's shop has been bustling.

"The divination tools have flown out of here," Johnson said. "Tarot, pendulums, runes -- anything that people consider fortune telling."

Johnson has expanded her selection of stones, stocked over 75 herbs, and now offers products such as Raven Flight Dragon's Blood, a line of oils and potions. She's found that people who come into her shop are looking for things that will help them heal after the storm, and are willing to try methods they may never have considered before -- even magic.

"Pagans talk about magic as the art of changing consciousness at will," said Grove Harris, a paganism expert. "It's not the same thing as some of the TV shows that portray a witch winking her nose and creating physical change."

Similar to Prayer

Harris is the managing director of Harvard University's Pluralism Project, whose mission is to "help Americans engage with the realities of religious diversity through research, outreach and active dissemination of resources." One of Harris' areas of expertise is paganism, including witchcraft or Wicca, a polytheistic neo-Pagan nature religion. The central deity is a mother goddess, and the religion includes the use of herbal magic and benign witchcraft.

"The way pagans can work with energy and clinical magic, in some ways it's similar to prayer," Harris said. "It's the sending of energy with intention."

Several witches turned to magic in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, as well as in its aftermath.

Starhawk -- who is self-proclaimed leader in modern Earth-based spirituality, author and global justice activist -- was outside of President Bush's Texas ranch supporting anti-war protester Cindy Sheehan just before Katrina made landfall.

"On the night before the hurricane was due to hit, I made a ritual with a small group of friends to support the spiritual efforts that I knew were being made by priestesses ... all over the country," Starhawk wrote on her Web site. "That same night, Christians were praying and Orisha priestesses were working Oya and the hurricane did shift its course, slightly, and lessen its force, down to a Category Four."

Starhawk is currently doing relief work with a group of pagans in New Orleans' Ninth Ward, according to her site.

Gaining Local Support

Back in Petal -- a town of 7,579 people across the Leaf River from Hattiesburg -- Johnson said wards over her store where she rode out the storm with her husband and two children, as well as over her trailer home. The glass and automotive store right across the street from the Circle of the Green Faery was almost destroyed by the storm, but Johnson's store was virtually untouched, and the only loss she sustained on her trailer was a 6-inch water pipe.

"The statement has been made that it is because of the lifestyle I lead and the way I present myself in the community," Johnson said of her luck. "People say it had to be my faith and the fact that live the way I believe."

Johnson's neighbor, Andie Gibbs, said wards over the 120-acre camp she directs, Camp Sister Spirit.

Her trees were torn down and some of the buildings on the campground were damaged, but the house where she and her girlfriend waited out the storm was unharmed.

The local pagan community, as well as lesbians, Amish, Muslims, reform Jews and transgender people sent rebuilding supplies to the camp. A Pagan band in Adelaide, Australia, is planning a charity concert to benefit the camp.

Donations made to Camp Sister Spirit have been able to support the Petal community which, in turn, has come to accept Camp Sister Spirit as it had not in the past.

"A guy who shot at us at the front gate years ago, his wife and mother just left (the camp)," Gibbs said in a recent interview. "This little town has hated us for so long, but then Hurricane Katrina hit and the government failed them so miserably, while we were able to get relief from the gay, lesbian, pagan, Muslim and Jewish communities."

Since Katrina, Gibbs said many have been able to accept her as a lesbian, but some have struggled with the fact she is a witch. On the other hand, she has been amazed by the foot traffic at the Circle of the Green Faery.

"People feel so out of control right now, so magic becomes a way for them to participate in what's happening or push away negative things, or a way to deal with their grief," Gibbs said. "In their minds, they're doing something that helps them in some way. They're not reaching out in a blank universe or to a god, they are participating in a ritual to get peace."

Gibbs hoped to wind down her community relief efforts by Samhain, also known as Halloween, when witches and pagans honor their ancestors, mourn those who have died in the past year, seek to contact spirits of the dead and celebrate the birth of babies born in the past year. Samhain is sometimes called the Witches' New Year.

"We keep getting invited to Samhain celebrations, but I'm so tired," Gibbs said. "There's still so much to be done."

Johnson has not decided if she will celebrate Samhain yet, but said the holy day will hold special meaning for witches in hurricane-affected areas this year.

"We've got so much to be thankful for," Johnson said. "After midnight we start celebrating and we get to put the past behind. This year we have a lot to put behind."

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