by Tanice G. Foltz and Wendy Griffin. in Composing Ethnography: Alternative Forms of Qualitative Writing . Edited by Carolyn Ellis and Arthur P. Bochner .Walnut Creek, CA:  AltaMira Press,  1996.  pps301-330.

 Our Reflexive Voices

The encounter with ethnographic others is a therapeutic quest for meaning, a search for identity that can be considered a form of healing in the broadest sense…it includes the process of ethnographic writing as well (Danforth 1989, p. 300).

 Postmodern ethnographers reject the concept of “objective truth” and remind us that writing ethnography is cultural construction, not cultural reporting.  Thus ethnographic writing is “always a construction of the self as well as of the other” (Stacey 1991, p. 115). Since all knowledge is socially constructed, the researcher, as the instrument of data collection and interpretation, plays a central role in creating this knowledge.  That is why Stanley and Wise (1983) emphasize the importance of researcher “vulnerability,” of beginning with our experiences as people in a particular situation.

This vulnerability has the potential for unexpected consequences.  While it is clear that field researchers will affect the members of the setting through their interaction over time, it is not immediately as obvious that researchers themselves often are changed by the research process.  Some fieldworkers report self transformation through the research experience, while, for others, this may be experienced as a “journey” of self discovery.(2)  Reinharz (1992, p. 194) claims: “Many feminist researchers report being profoundly changed by what they learn about themselves.  Changes may involve completely reconceptualizing a phenomenon and completely revising one’s worldview.”  Thorne goes even farther and argues that: What I have come to see…is that there is a deep logic to this way of writing, that these personal experiences were neither confessional, minor preliminaries, nor mere ‘how it was done’ appendages to the main study, but were closely tied to and even generative of the study and its substantive findings (in Krieger 1991, p. 250).     Informed by Reinharz’s (1982) experiential analysis and Marcus and Cushman’s (1982) exploration of ethnographies as texts, interpretive sociologists have connected with the growing movement of experimental ethnography.  This “experimental moment” (Marcus and Fischer 1986) values the narrative (Maines 1993; Richardson 1990, 1994), uses researcher experiences as primary data (Ellis 1991), and studies lived experience through investigating subjectivity (Denzin 1991; Denzin and Lincoln 1994; Ellis and Flaherty 1992).  Speaking to the representation of “partial truths” (Clifford 1986), experimental ethnographers are self-consciously including their subjective involvement in the creation of texts (Ellis 1995; Linden 1993).  Counting ourselves as part of this movement, we start from our situated experience as women and field researchers, and make our direct experience of the world and the research process the foundation for our knowledge as social scientists.

While writing this paper we found ourselves resisting the rhetoric of authority, authenticity, objectivity, and a “disinterested” perspective, all characteristic of traditional ethnographic writing (see Clifford, 1983).  Similar to Krieger (1991, p. 162), we decided that our resistance reflected our struggle with “alienated habits of research,” that encourage an artificial separation of the researcher and the researched.  As a result, we have attempted to modulate our academic “authorial voices” so that our ethnographic journeys of self-discovery can be “heard.” In the following pages we invite the reader along as we reveal our stories of self transformation through immersion into the world of feminist Witchcraft and magic. 

Our Identities Prior to the Research
In order to show the changes we underwent, we need to reveal a bit about who we were before we began our study and how the research came about. Entree was gained through a particularly bright student of Wendy’s, who stood up in class and announced she was a “Dianic priestess and feminist Witch.” She invited everyone to a ritual her coven was organizing. Initially, neither us of was interested, but for slightly different reasons.

I had been a lecturer in women’s studies and sociology for three years and a long-time feminist activist at the local and state level.  The only contact I had with feminist Witchcraft was in the late 1970s at a NOW conference, when a scruffy-looking woman entered a restaurant, sat down on the floor next to the cash register and began to chant loudly. I had no idea what was happening and frankly found it silly. In the early 1970s, however, I’d been briefly involved with a group that experimented with parapsychology so this made me somewhat curious about my student’s group, but not enough to go to the ritual alone.

Although I held feminist values,  I was not an activist.  Wendy and I shared an office at school and she invited me to the ritual with her. My immediate response was “no thanks.” It sounded too weird. Through previous research on an alternative healing group, I had experienced various forms of ritual and altered states of consciousness, and I had great respect for the mind-altering techniques I had learned (see Foltz 1987, 1994). I did not want to “play with fire” in a group about which I knew nothing.  Finally, our curiosity overcame our reservations and we decided to accept the invitation.

Spring Equinox Ritual: Our Initial Reactions (3/21/88)

In spite of my decision to attend, I was more than a little frightened about what to expect and I was extremely anxious while driving there.  Not only was I fearful of “Witches,” but the idea of “radical, feminist separatists” scared me.  When we arrived, a huge red-headed woman greeted us and I was even frightened of her size.  Although it’s embarrassing now, I categorized the nearly 30 women who participated as “lesbian” and experienced a homophobic reaction that I couldn’t shake.  This reaction surprised me, especially since I’ve had gay male friends.  I was extremely uncomfortable and, when the ritual began, I was absolutely terrified by a woman called Raging Dove who yelled her intention to create separate communities for “women loving women.” In spite of this, I found the chanting and guided visualizations, as well as the themes of the ritual–honoring the coming Springtime and the connection between mother and daughter–all deeply moving.  I began to believe this could be a fascinating research setting.

Coming from a family of straight, lesbian, and gay members, and having spent many years around feminist activists, I was comfortable with women of a different sexual orientation.  Aletheia, my student who greeted us at the door, played hostess and introduced us to everyone. I found the ritual strange and kind of fun, but not particularly moving. During the “feast” after the ritual, I got involved in a passionate discussion with Raging Dove about radical feminist separatism, with which I was familiar as an intellectual exercise but not as a deeply-held personal belief and lived experience. I found myself being lectured to about feminist principles, a very unusual and uncomfortable experience for me. I struggled to balance the roles of feminist, polite guest, and the role I then thought appropriate for a professor in a student’s home, with its attendant hierarchical shadings.  On reflection, I’m not sure I succeeded at any of these roles.  When Tanice wanted to leave, I was ready.

We later discussed the prospect of doing research with the group. Tanice was certain there was something important going on in the setting.  I wasn’t that sure. I was afraid they were “kooks” and, to be honest, I didn’t want to do research on anything that I thought could discredit the women’s movement. In addition, I was on the job market and had to consider how this research setting would look to the academic world. (3) I wish I could say that my decision to do this research was due to increased consciousness, but in the end it was because I needed a research topic, the Witches were there and welcoming, and Aletheia was no longer my student. I contacted the coven and we gained permission to do participant-observation. As part of the “research bargain” we agreed to actively participate in the group’s activities to our level of comfort.  Our presence at the Summer Solstice ritual marked the beginning of our journeys of self-transformation.

Our team research in the coven spanned from Spring Equinox 1988 through Summer Solstice 1989.  We used a triangulation of qualitative methods, engaging in participant-observation, taking fieldnotes, conducting interviews, and gathering information on Witchcraft from books, newsletters, and magazines.

Although we initially took “peripheral membership researcher roles” (Adler and Adler 1987, p. 36), which allowed us to maintain a certain distance between us and them, the Witches socialized us whenever we met.  While we always arrived for ritual at the time requested, coven members arrived according to “pagan standard time,” meaning whenever they got there.  During these pre-ritual sessions, often spanning several hours, we learned a great deal about ceremony and ritual and gained considerable understanding of coven dynamics.  We attended ritual planning sessions and eight major rituals (Sabbats), most of which took place in the home of Priestesses Aletheia and Spiderwoman, as well as weekend retreats in the mountains, a wedding, and a funeral.

Upon entering the setting our initial research question was, “What is going on here, and how is it feminist or political?”  Later on, however, our focus turned to examining how Dianic Witchcraft, or feminist Wicca, functions as a religion, and to explore coven dynamics and the use of ritual (see Lozano and Foltz 1990).(4) Our interview questions centered on life histories, involvement in Dianic Witchcraft and coven activities, and the magical training each had undergone.

Some time after publishing our original paper, we began to discuss how we had changed since beginning the study. This led us to re-examine our old fieldnotes for the purpose of turning the lens on ourselves. We treated our fieldnotes as continuous histories (Marcus and Cushman 1982) and in those pages of notes we found subtexts that addressed issues of identity and change. 

For these feminist Witches, the personal and spiritual are viewed as political.  A major goal of the “Craft” is to eliminate the patriarchal “mindframe” and to replace it with feminist consciousness and actions that lead to women’s liberation from oppression (Spretnak 1982) and to eventually eliminate all oppression.  The Craft’s emphasis is on personal experience and growth, and awakening the “power within,” or the immanent Goddess (Starhawk 1988).  The “Goddess,” which is symbolized as an autonomous female divinity, is also a metaphor for the earth, the Great Mother, and the interconnections between every living thing.  Feminist Witches experience the Goddess through ritual and meditative techniques, which they sometimes refer to as “magic.”  Noted Witch and author Starhawk defines magic as “the art of changing consciousness at will…the psychology/technology of immanence” (1988, p. 13).

Summer Solstice, (6/24/88)

When we arrived for the Summer Solstice ritual I felt more relaxed, more comfortable, and less intimidated than the first time there.  Aletheia was the only one home, and she showed me how to “anoint” my candle by selecting and rubbing special oils on it which were designed to bring something to me or to chase it away.  She further explained the process of “empowering yourself and your requests” by carving Witches’ runes–ancient alphabetical symbols–on my candles.

The ritual that night focused on transforming gender identities into those of our own making. At one point, Spiderwoman dropped a match into a small cauldron on the altar, and it poofed into flame. We were instructed to “sacrifice the unproductive,” symbolized by paper poppets.  As we threw these into the fire, the Witches called out their sacrifices:  “wanting to be liked by everyone,” “being a nice girl,” “thinking I can always help,” and so on. Aletheia, dressed in an animal headdress and carrying a bow, then invoked the Goddess Diana and aimed an imaginary arrow upward.  She spoke her magical intention, “to not be afraid of being wild,” and we followed her example: “to write,” “to be an artist,” “to teach revolution!”  The “magic” focused on creating strong self images and goals and was clearly different from any I had ever heard of before. (5)  Hearing the women’s vulnerabilities and affirmations helped to demystify Witchcraft, and I became aware that, beyond the term “Witch” and beyond what I perceived to be their lesbian identification, we as women had much in common.  I was impressed by their ritual focus on giving up taken-for-granted gender identities, which are at the heart of women’s oppression.

 Lammas (7/31/88)

The Lammas ritual celebrates the first fruits of the harvest. Spiderwoman began the ritual with a prayer-like chant focusing on the need for rain (we were having a drought), and the necessity of nourishing our personal projects, ourselves, and the earth.   While she relayed this message, she transformed before my eyes, and I later attempted to record it: 

 Spiderwoman is so poetic with her words and her style. Her face changes from normal life-space into the ritual space; her mouth curves downward like an upside down happy face…It looks very serious. She sways gently from side to side, slightly turning with her shoulders.  She makes an impact on her listeners, her words are carefully chosen.  Her words go deep, they hit deep places. I recognize her words… they ring true.    

During the ritual we sang songs for healing and chanted the sound “Ma.”  The group started the Ma chant in a very low pitch and eventually it spiraled upward and around the circle, as each person continued the sound after taking a breath.  I was awestruck by the effect of the chant, punctuated by one woman’s hauntingly beautiful voice.  I felt transported into an altered state:There was a great deal of chanting tonight, the chanting most definitely put me in an altered state of consciousness.  The sound was all-encompassing…it seemed to clear out the cobwebs in my head. …The sounds that came from this group are phenomenal… Most people do not experience this kind of release, power, strength, togetherness.  It had an incredible effect.  I was drawn totally into it, totally participating, not self-reflecting, as now.     Afterward, a knife was passed around and each woman cut away a hair, symbolizing something nonproductive to be pruned from our lives.  We called out, “procrastination,” “wasting time” and moved to more macro issues of “pollution,” and “AIDS,” while placing our hair in the burning cauldron. As we sprinkled water on a bowl of earth on the altar, we made commitments to ourselves, the women’s community, and the planet.  I listened to the others’ pledges and thought seriously about my commitment.  When my turn came, I vowed to begin recycling newspapers and aluminum cans.

Near the end of the ritual, someone started “libations,” toasts of gratitude to the Goddess.  Although many were personal, several concerned Wendy and me.  We were told they felt comfortable with “our new sisters Tanice and Wendy”; one woman thanked us for asking questions that made her think, another said she appreciated our presence.  At one point, Wendy said, “Sociology isn’t the only reason I’m here,” and held up the chalice of wine. Someone prompted me and I took the chalice and thanked the group for allowing us to be with them. Full of a warm tingly feeling, I put my hand on my heart and said, “Sure this is a great research setting, but it’s what’s being experienced in here that counts.”  Spiderwoman smilingly replied, “We know.”  I felt very alive and connected to the women in the group.

The end result of this ritual was that we were both energized by our experience and we began to feel a growing sense of spiritual community with these women.  This moment marked a significant step in our changing feelings about them, and apparently in their feelings towards us.  We felt not only comfortable with but also a part of the group. They must have realized that, as they took full advantage of the situation and redefined our research membership roles at the next ritual event.

 Full Moon in the Mountains (8/26-28/88)
The coven annually sponsors a mountain camp-out retreat. Advertised in feminist and occult bookstores, it is open to all interested women.  In a sense, this is the coven’s time to recruit potential coven members and converts to feminist Witchcraft.(6)  We looked forward to having the opportunity to “hang out” with the Witches for several days and expected to be thoroughly socialized into their philosophy, practices, and worldview through the scheduled workshops. We had counted on taking copious fieldnotes of our observations and conducting several indepth interviews.  We did not expect, however, to be placed in roles that would limit our goals as researchers, but this is exactly what happened.

The Witches effectively redefined our researcher membership roles from peripheral involvement to much more active ones by placing us in positions of responsibility, such as cooking for the group, moving equipment, and helping organize workshops and rituals.  Although we were flattered by this expression of inclusion and acceptance, these duties were draining and they took up all our time.  Attempting to keep up with their expectations, their tight schedule, and the rigors of primitive camping wore us out by the second day. It did not occur to us until much later that we had been manipulated into what felt like a greater commitment to the group.  At the time, though exhausting and frustrating, it simply felt like we were helping out our friends.  At one point, some women from another coven asked who we were, and the Witches introduced us as “being with” them, which somehow seemed protective, even possessive and flattering to us.  Perhaps we were being primed to become unofficial apprentices without our being aware of it.  What is clear is that spending an extended period of time with the women, and being encouraged to take on extensive responsibilities for the coven’s activities helped to forge our changing researcher roles.

During some down time we were talking with Spiderwoman and Aletheia and I noticed a huge lavender brassiere hanging from their tent post.  Being the naive field researcher, I asked if the bra had a meaning.  Without missing a beat, Aletheia told me it was the lesbian flag.  Although I was incredulous, I was learning about lesbian and Witch culture and took her explanation at face value. I later used this information in a lecture on Dianic Witchcraft, and, after class, a lesbian student told me that the women were pulling my leg.  I felt really ridiculous, and confronted the Witches at the next ritual. They laughed uproariously and said they were just playing. I decided to take this as a sign of growing affection, and afterward checked things out with others before considering any explanation as “truth.”

Autumn Equinox (9/24/88)

The Autumn Equinox marked a turning point for me in the evolution of my feelings towards the coven.  My fiance was facing a crisis where we both worked.  Because the situation was supposed to be confidential, I couldn’t talk about it with my work friends.  In effect I was silenced.  So when Wendy and I arrived at the next ritual and Aletheia hugged me hello, I found myself uncontrollably bursting into tears. For some reason, I felt completely safe with her; I knew I could cry freely here.  She did not ask questions, but just held me, breathing deeply, ritualistically, soothingly.  This was the same “huge” woman I had been so frightened of just six months before.

I asked for special protection and the others wanted to know what was going on.  Without giving details, I broadly sketched the problem.  They immediately set to providing spells.  One suggested pouring “sand or sugar over a machine, to stop the wheels that are in motion from going farther.”  Others chimed in with talk that seemed more prank-like than magic.  Spiderwoman suggested the “tree of life” meditation to create protection and to “put mirrors on the outside” of it so whatever was sent to me would “bounce back” to the sender.  The mirror imagery resonated with a meditative exercise I had learned from a Hawaiian Kahuna in earlier fieldwork.  In depicting my excruciating situation I found the group to  provide a “safe place” where I could express my silenced pain.  As a result, revealing my vulnerability was an important step in my changing researcher role.

Shortly after this discussion, we were told we had to “take care of business” before ritual.  This turned out to be a surprise celebration of my birthday.  The Witches gave me cards inscribed with flowing original verse, plus oils for anointing myself and my candles.  Other presents included a sterling silver pentacle and sterling and garnet spider earrings.  I had no idea that the coven knew or cared about my birthday, and I was very touched by the sentiments.  My fieldnotes reveal my surprise:

They ask me if I know the myth of Arachne and I say yes. I am EXTREMELY moved.  It is clear I have been accepted on a much deeper level than I expected.  I wonder what and who they see when they look at me. When they presented me with the pentacle, one of the priestesses made the comment “out of the broom closet and into the sky!”–suggesting they believed that I was becoming “one of them.”

Before ritual, Spiderwoman invited us to a “dark moon” planning session for Hallowmas the following month.  This act signified our status as potential recruits, since Hallowmas is October 31, the Witches’ New Year, and is a very important ritual traditionally closed to non-members.  Just as Wendy and I were reflecting on the invitation, we were asked by another coven member to come into the other room and “cleanse and purify” everyone and the ritual space–not an insignificant role.  Wendy’s fieldnotes acknowledge our apprentice-like status: 

Spiderwoman gives me burning sage in a censer and tells me to cleanse people.  Tanice is given water.  I know that means I am to wave the smoke at them from head to toe, as I saw it done at the Full Moon Ritual. Training is largely done by imitation, as explicit instructions don’t seem to be given often.  I have the feeling that we are considered apprentices of some sort–they tell us what to do and we do it… Tanice and I sprinkle and smoke (ceremoniously cleanse) them.    

At the Witches’ suggestion, we applied “flying ointment” to our pulsepoints, to facilitate altered states and bonding during ritual.  Wendy records:  “I find myself increasingly reluctant to record data the more I enjoy the women…must use more self-discipline!”

Neither of us attended to the specific activities during the equinox ritual as much as to our obviously changing status.  The evening marked a definite shift in our acceptance of the Witches as well as in their revealed acceptance of us.  Our willingness to try the flying ointment was a sign of our growing feelings of trust and comfort with them.  We had taken on more active researcher membership roles and knew we were becoming more deeply involved with the group. 

Dark of the Moon (10/9/88)

During the first planning session we attended, we found ritual planning to be considerably less exciting than ritual participation.  The consensus-based decision making process was tedious and boring, I was feeling sick to my stomach, and we both were ready to leave long before the three-hour session ended.  Just as we thought we were going to be released from this task, the group decided that it was still early and there was plenty of time for ritual.  So we all moved into the living room.

Spiderwoman asked everyone to sit around a small round altar and focus on “women’s tears, shed and unshed” and the pain we have experienced because we are women.  This event marked one of the most excruciating processes I had ever faced in a field research situation.  Spiderwoman shed her tears “for women who are raped,” and she gently sprinkled saltwater from a small bowl onto the altar.  As the bowl went around, the stories quietly and tearfully emerged, one by one:  being beaten by a father, abused by an alcoholic husband, raped at knifepoint in bed, gang-raped, being threatened with a gun for being a lesbian. The stories poured out.  They were sickening and nearly unbearable to listen to. Except for the sound of weeping heard around the circle, the room was silent.

Then Spiderwoman attempted to redirect the pain into “righteous anger and rage” with the words, “I am an angry woman because…” and each woman repeated the statement, filling in the blanks;  “…because children are abused…women are raped…men pollute the earth…”  The volume increased as we attempted to replace our sadness with righteous anger until Spiderwoman redirected us into a different visualization.

For me, the outstanding part of this ritual was the raw exposure to the hurt and pain each woman had experienced.  Sitting in a circle of women and hearing each one voice her pain and abuses radically transformed my feminism and served as a consciousness-raising experience.  I had an immediate visceral understanding of the violence committed against women world-wide in the name of patriarchy.  I was incensed at these injustices and at the same time I felt an incredible sense of spiritual community and bonding with all women.  I knew that women had to help each other develop their own power, and I definitely felt empowered by this experience and said so.  Wendy’s fieldnotes record this event: 

At some point, when things got a little lighter, Tanice said something about how we draw power from each other as women, and I suddenly turned to her and said, ‘Tanice, you’re a Witch!’  Everyone laughed. Tanice seemed very shocked.  Spiderwoman said, ‘Are you just figuring that out?’  Not sure exactly why I said that but was totally convinced of its validity.   

Although not comfortable with being called a “Witch,” I left the meeting with a heightened consciousness of the connection between patriarchal institutions and the perpetration and tolerance of violence against women.  This was what feminists call a “click” experience.  I embraced the group’s political analysis of sexism, and I grasped on a deeper level the meaning of the feminist maxim “the personal is political.”  This experience marked the culmination of milestones on my journey:  I had shifted away from my initial fear of  the Witches, I was moved by my shared experience and deep sense of bonding with them, and I was quickly developing a feminist spiritual and political consciousness.

We found that as researchers we were engaging in “role making.”  By participating more fully in coven activities and acquiring the Witches’ “first order perspective,” we began “to penetrate beyond a rational to an irrational, emotional, and deep understanding” of the Witches’ world (Adler and Adler, 1987:60). 

Hallowmas (10/31/88)
Hallowmas is a particularly significant religious holiday for feminist Witches and participation in the closed ritual is as close to mandatory as the coven gets. It is used to mark the “dark time of the year when the veil between the worlds is thin,” when the Witches remember and “call in” to ritual their “beloved dead.”  It is also a time to honor the women who were burned and hanged as Witches during the Renaissance, a period the Witches call “the Burning Times.” This is especially important to them because they believe that approximately nine million women died in this “women’s holocaust.”(7)

I was a bit ambivalent about the evening initially. My daughter had died eight years before, and the idea of inviting the “beloved dead” to join us was disturbing.  I didn’t know how I would handle it and voiced my concerns and the reasons for them. At the same time, I felt very privileged to have been invited and expected high drama and a real sense of what the Witches held sacred, which, incidentally, failed to materialize.  Overall, the ritual seemed somewhat artificial and I felt the group tended to lose focus and lack energy. Nevertheless, one incident during ritual was significant to me.

Early in the ritual, one Witch spoke dramatically about the time of year and its meaning. Draped in black veils, she waved her athame, traditionally a black-handled ceremonial knife, as we formed a line in front of her.  My notes describe what occurred.

 Aletheia steps forward and Nete points her athame at her heart and challenges her right to enter this space. When Nete demands to know who attempts to enter, Aletheia recites all her Craft names. Nete tells her that it is better to fall upon the point of her blade than to enter in falseness, and then asks her how she enters. “In perfect love and perfect trust,” is Aletheia’s reply. She is embraced and allowed to pass. Nete becomes the veil through which we all must pass into the darkness and each of us is challenged in turn. At one point, no one moves forward.  It feels really awkward, so I step forward. It feels strange to go before coven members and apprentices.     I’m unsure what prompted me to do this, but suspect it had something to do with my sense of the dramatic and a need to keep the action moving.  My move was greeted with warm approval by the coven members, as though I were an apprentice who had literally met an important challenge. 

The Funeral (11/25/88)
In late November, when Tanice was out of town, Aletheia’s father died.  Wendy was contacted and told it was important to the bereaved woman that she be there (See Lozano and Foltz 1990).

I found that I was expected to play a part in the funeral put on by the coven, in part because I had learned many of the songs and chants that would be used, unlike most of the people who had come to pay their respects to the deceased. In addition, I found my presence was a comfort to Aletheia and signified my changing research role, as she introduced me to the family as the “coven auxiliary.”  During the funeral, I finally came to understand “at a gut level” that this was religious.  Even though the Witches refer to their beliefs as a religion and the U.S. government recognizes it as one, I had never viewed the group or the experiences as religious.(8)   Yet at the funeral, I saw how this belief system functioned to create meaning through the use of Goddess/Witch symbolism.  In addition, there were elements in the ceremony that I found extremely moving. My fieldnotes refer to religious symbols that:

 were so universal that they spoke to me.  I find this religion or ethical belief system increasingly attractive.  I like the evergreen, not that I believe in reincarnation.  But I do believe we are all connected… each one of us, every redwood, every dolphin, every lizard sunning itself on every rock was born from the explosion of a star, and we all dance together on stellar winds.     It was one of the most meaningful last rites I have attended. It literally moved me to tears and I had never even met the deceased!  Although I knew the “personal was political,” the funeral rites revealed to me that the spiritual could also be political.  The Witches’ beliefs were creating a new identity and source of strength for women. Through expressing their relationship with the sacred, they attempted to articulate the way to live and die in and of this world. 

Yule (12/17/88)
The Witches celebrated Yule and the Winter Solstice as one and the same. Part of the ritual consisted of making pledges “to the earth.”  This was done while softly singing, “The Earth is our Mother,” as we hung home-made ornaments on a miniature fir tree standing near the altar. Each decoration represented a pledge.  For example, the red top of a spray can symbolized the promise not to use aerosol cans. The ornaments were hung on the tree with great seriousness, and each pledge was met with the group’s response and affirmation, “Blessed be!”

I had thought carefully about what I was willing to commit to do.  Although four months earlier, when Tanice took her vow to recycle, the issue hadn’t seemed important to me; it did now.  I cut out a Neolithic-shaped female form or Goddess from a newspaper article on pollution and, as I tied it on the tree, I made my pledge to recycle newspapers.  In the year that followed, I found myself taking my commitment as a “sacred oath,” which, of course, it was intended to be. Initially, I was surprised at how seriously I took it, but as I grew to know the Witches’ understanding of the interrelationship of all things, I became even more conscientious. Today, six years later, I am recycling everything that my city is willing to accept.

Candlemas (2/1/89)

Candlemas is the ritual when coven oaths are renewed, apprentices are initiated, and Witches are made priestesses. Several days before the Candlemas ritual, Tanice phoned to say the Witches had informed her they wanted to do the ritual in three parts. The first part would involve only the initiated priestesses while the rest of us waited upstairs. Then the apprentices would be called down, and finally Tanice and I would be invited downstairs to “do something” and the ritual would be over. I was very disappointed that we were so limited and decided not to attend at all. Later that day, I received a call from Aletheia, who was very upset at my decision. Aletheia confirmed my suspicion that the last part was being made up for us. I told her that I respected the fact the Candlemas was closed to non-members and appreciated the coven’s attempt to include us, but that it felt somewhat “artificial,” and I thought it best not to attend. My notes from this telephone call record her response. “It’s like you want to be with us because that is your work, not because you like us.”    GULP!  I did like her!  And I respected and appreciated the coven’s desire to limit full participation to its members. But if I was going to drive an hour just to get there, I wanted to do research, not do something “inauthentic” made up for us!

Although I knew the telephone call was data, somehow it didn’t occur to me that going there under those circumstances would also provide good data!  I also failed to realize that the Witches frequently made things up. That is the nature of innovative ritual.  As we spoke, it became clear that Aletheia’s view of my role had changed dramatically. She mentioned several times that the coven would be very upset when they hear we’re not coming. I asked her if they would be angry and she replied no, they will miss us. She said, “Any time you come and ask to be apprenticed, the coven would accept…but you haven’t asked.  That’s why your participation at Candlemas is so limited.” In an apparent contradiction, she said I was like a coven sister. It was a long, exhausting conversation and I hung up still annoyed.(9) 

Spring Equinox (3/18/89)

The Spring Equinox celebration was unique for me. For the first time, one year after meeting the coven, I gave myself permission to “let go” during ritual and attempt to feel what the Witches were feeling. That in itself marked how my own perception of the women, of feminist Witchcraft, and even of myself had changed from the preceding year. When the flying ointment was passed around, I joined everyone in putting some on my wrists and genitals. The “trance tea,” a blend of herbs supposed to facilitate altered states, was so bitter, I limited myself to one swallow. At the beginning of the ritual, where we usually “drew up energy” with chanting, Spiderwoman mentioned that there was a lot of energy in the room. We began a Ma chant and my notes reveal what I felt. 

The energy was incredible!!!!!! I tried the visualization techniques from Starhawk’s book, the tree of life as a path for energy through my body, and I began to feel this cone of energy rising in the air above the group and swirling…Tremendous energy. It was almost as though I could feel/see it whipping around the circle in yellow lines. I haven’t had this experience before. But I haven’t tried the techniques deliberately either.    

It is clear that by this time I shared the vocabulary and the images to articulate my experience in the Witches’ language. In addition, whether my experience can be explained by “interpretive drift,” (10) trance tea, or, as the Witches would have it, Witches’ “sight,” I had clearly stepped into a more active researcher role. The experience was exciting, even a little bit disturbing, and it certainly didn’t seem “silly” any longer.

Although the evening was not nearly as exciting for me as Wendy, I had clearly become very comfortable with the women–so comfortable that I accepted their invitation to stay the night–something I never would have considered a year before. I wanted to interview two women who were hard to contact, and as the coven members typically spent the night after ritual, this opportunity seemed ideal.  I had a great interview with Raging Dove, and afterward I slept soundly–no trepidation!–on a pull-out sofabed, with other women curled up in chairs and on another sofa near me.  I no longer saw them as kooks or as wild women who might attack me, but as women who had complex lives and families, who were seriously pursuing knowledge to become priestesses in their chosen fields of study–philosophy, ritual, acupuncture, herbal remedies.  Over the course of the year I had gained the utmost respect for these women, which clearly shaped my reporting as a researcher.
Beltane (5/1/89)
Beltane, like Hallowmas, is another ritual usually closed to outsiders and opened to the two of us. It is a celebration of the “maiden coming into flower,” of Spring, and self and sensuality. There had been considerable teasing about the sexual nature of Beltane, especially by the witches who were lesbians, and we had some concerns about participating.  Spiderwoman dealt with these with her usual insight and consideration, telephoning to say that anything that would happen would “be done in perfect love and perfect trust. No one’s boundaries will be violated.”  Thus reassured, we decided to attend.

The ritual included considerable playfulness.  At one point, after adorning ourselves with flowers, we stripped and got into the jacuzzi, which they referred to as “the bubbling cauldron of rebirth and regeneration.”  Eight women got into a tub designed for four and began to play “spin the goddess,” with each of us taking a turn curled into a ball in the center and the rest of us spinning her around and laughing/cackling loudly. When the hot water began to relax us, Spiderwoman called us into the house for a ritual massage. Beginning with the crone, the eldest, and ending with the nymph, the youngest, each woman lay on a large towel while the others all massaged her simultaneously. As this was being done, one women dipped her fingers in honey and fed the blessed one, inviting her to, “taste the sweetness of the Goddess.” Later another dipped huge strawberries in powdered sugar for her. All the while we massaged her with warm oils and sang songs telling her that she was a beautiful woman, she was loved, she was wonderful. One Witch with long black hair brushed it over the body of the woman being “ministered” to. Every part of the body, except the obvious erogenous zones, was thoroughly massaged.

My fieldnotes show my reactions.

I felt extremely alive and beautiful…I REALLY LIKED ALL THIS…What I really want to stress is how safe it felt. Sensuality is a very important part of life, at least of my life, and certainly in Wicca. ‘All acts of pleasure are my ritual,’ says the Goddess. This was an evening of sensual experience without ever crossing into sexuality or violating any of my boundaries…the honey and strawberries, the music, the hot tub, the massage with oil, the incense, the songs and laughter, the “hair  job”…it was a very safe and sensual and wonderful place to be.    

Our willingness to participate that evening was an indication of how much we and our perceptions had changed during the course of our research.  Our level of trust was so high at this point that we literally put ourselves into the Witches’ hands.

I had been somewhat anxious about Beltane because of its sensual, bordering on sexual, emphasis.  However, as I joined in the activities, my fears disappeared.  In their place I felt a sense of wonderment that people could be so nurturing, caring, and sensual, yet not sexual, with each other.  It was indeed a unique experience for me as a heterosexual woman.  I felt captivated and refreshed by my experience and Wendy and I talked about the ritual all the way home.    

As we grew more comfortable with the Witches and their ritual practices, we became more comfortable with their worldview.  Even though we gained an insider’s understanding of feminist Wicca we did not become “complete member researchers.”  This would have required us to become apprentices and to join their coven.  We did not choose to make that commitment of time and energy.  I knew I would be leaving California soon, and Wendy was already thinking about her next research project.  Nevertheless, it eventually became clear that the coven saw us as one of them.  At our final ritual in June 1989, Spiderwoman confided that the coven was very disappointed we had not asked to apprentice and were now leaving.  She said the women felt as if they were “losing two coven members in one year.”

After publishing our findings (Lozano and Foltz 1990), each of us went on to do further research in the field of feminist spirituality, Tanice with separatist Witches in the Midwest, and Wendy with a large California Goddess Circle that includes men in ritual.  We discussed how our experience had affected us, and agreed we really should write about it. But when it came to the actual writing, the self-revealing aspects of our experiences seemed to make us, as junior faculty, far too vulnerable.  We were concerned that the unconventional subject matter and the methods we used might negatively affect our tenure cases.  We were studying Witches, who are often mistakenly confused with Satanists, and some of these Witches were lesbians. Our methodology didn’t have the safety of a large quantitative study; we sensually celebrated Beltane, “shed tears” as we shared personal pain, and ritually and genuinely bonded with our “subjects.” Nevertheless, as we conversed over the five years that intervened between then and now, it became clear that those research experiences helped to shape the women and the academics we are today.  By silencing our own voices, we were missing an important source of data.  As researchers who found themselves on a journey, our research would be incomplete without commenting on the changes we experienced in our “inner landscapes.”

On an academic level, understanding the power of religion to shape social relations has led me to refocus my research from gender and family to gender and religion, an area in which I previously was not only disinterested but dismissive. In addition, the power of religion as a social institution that shapes our realities is a subject I now emphasize in my women’s studies classes.  Thus, this field experience has affected both the content of what I teach and what I now research.

For almost two decades I played an active part in the political feminist community.  On reflection, I realize this largely consisted of coming together with other women to work on a specific project or issue.  Many of us experienced burn-out during the Reagan years, giving out more energy than we were getting. When I began this research, I was dutifully doing grassroots activism evenings and weekends, and teaching feminism during the day. It was clear to me that, except for the teaching, the joy was gone.

It began coming back with my participation in the Witches’ rituals. An atheist since my early teens, I had never felt the need for a spiritual community. But on various occasions in my life, I had experienced what the Witches’ call immanence or the Goddess, that particular state of consciousness Spretnak (1991, p. 102) calls “grace” and describes as occurring when the membrane between the inner and outer worlds dissolves and one experiences “luminous moments of connectedness.”  The Witches gave me a framework through which to understand and a language to articulate that part of me which didn’t seem to fit in and which I’d been reluctant to examine. I learned that this was spiritual, that I was spiritual. So, although I still don’t believe in a divinity, I have experienced Her.

There was a sense of “naturalness of fit” about some of my research experiences.  It brought back long summers in Wisconsin at my mother’s camp for girls, where we would put on plays among the silver birch trees and have Sunday twilight meditations by the lake. I rediscovered the energy and creativity generated by women in “women’s space,” and so have a much better understanding and appreciation of separatist feminists and separate space.

My encounter with feminist Witches and the larger Goddess Movement was like coming home.(11)   I have available to me a spiritual community that is feminist and energizing, one that values the things I value, including play and intuition. I admit that I am not always comfortable with the intuition generated nor with the essentialism bordering on simplistic biological reductionism that I continue to discover among Wiccans.  As a sociologist, I cannot accept the concept of “the divine feminine.”  Nevertheless, the rethinking of the connections among mind, body, and spirit fascinate me. I presently drum in a women’s drum circle; it is my form of meditation and “body-prayer” (Spretnak 1991).

This research has forced me to rethink my own personal relationship to the planet. The fact that DDT in our rivers can be linked directly to breast cancer among women is an image that moves me powerfully. It is an easy step to saying we are on the verge of committing matricide.

And finally, I feel that this research journey has been a healing one, one of movement toward integration of the selves into the Self. This is a difficult task indeed in a world that encourages fragmentation of the female self.

This research endeavor has involved a great deal of growth and movement for me both professionally and personally. On a professional level, my encounter with feminist spirituality has created a sense of continuity in my research agenda.  My previous fieldwork gave me the academic and perceptual tools to understand the connections and resonance between the alternative healing group and feminist Wicca, where high drama, a sense of play, and performative ritual permeated each setting.  The Witches, however, provided something that was unique, a religious setting where the female principle is viewed as divine.

Doing fieldwork in such a setting has created a shift or movement in my life.  I have moved from thinking that Witchcraft was something weird and scary, to understanding it as an agent of women’s empowerment and change.  Politically, I have moved towards a more radical feminism through my consciousness-raising experiences with this group.  As a result, I bring attention in all my classes to issues of women’s oppression and violence against women, I teach women’s studies courses whenever I can, and perceive myself to be a feminist researcher.  I have become more active in my university and in my community around women’s issues. My academic interests lie in the interplay of religion and women’s health, with a focus on women’s spirituality, healing the self and the wounds of patriarchy, and recovery from addictions.

On many levels (emotionally, politically, socially, and professionally), I have moved into an understanding that the personal is indeed political.  My environmental consciousness has been reawakened by this contact and for six years now I too have been recycling “religiously.”  Finally, I have moved from earlier biases, which included homophobia and heterosexist beauty standards, to appreciating women regardless of sexual orientation or body shape and size.  At the root of this movement is the feeling of sisterhood and spiritual connectedness that I acquired through rituals with the Witches.  I now understand that spiritual separatism provides a safe place for women to discover their voices, which is an important step in the process of women’s healing.  Feminist ritual continues to provide a sense of deep communion and spirited playfulness in my life today.

The experiences that facilitated our individual journeys are similar to those observed by Christ (1982).  The legitimation of women’s power and authority came through the sacred history of goddesses and the view of Witches as healers (Eller 1993). Our bodies were affirmed and respected, our sensuality celebrated in a safe context.  Female will was affirmed during ritual as we did “self work” and made commitments to each other, the women’s community, and the planet.  The celebration of women’s bonding was an ongoing feature.  For contributing to our respective journeys, and for their generosity of spirit, we wish to thank the Witches who guided our first steps on this path.

We believe that the power of ritual had much to do with these changes in our inner landscapes.  Turner (1967) saw ritual as a passage where genuine transformations of character and social relationships may occur. In the rituals created by this small group of Witches, words and symbols provided new meaning, empowerment, and the restoration of balance and harmony that McGuire (1983, 1987) refers to as healing.  Mythical stories were told, guided visualizations were given, and chant and dance led us into the sacred reality that was being constructed.

Ritual consciousness is embodied, tactic knowledge (Grimes 1992).  Through these forms of “body-prayer,” we believe we experienced the transformative effects of ritual.  We achieved the “flow state” Csikszentmihalyi describes (1975) where “all sense of individual self vanishes.”  We had moments when we felt “in a time out of time, connected to ‘the way things really are'” (Neitz and Spickard 1990, p. 24).  The Witches taught us to call this experience of flow and connection “immanence.”

This theme of connection is important.  Participation in other kinds of rituals (whether religious, tactic, or self-healing) have not had the same effect.  Both of us have gone to traditional church services, dances, and had some counseling.  We were not transformed.  Jacobs (1990) says that women who are alienated from parts of themselves and from patriarchal culture experience a re-integration of self and community through women’s rituals. We ask, in a patriarchal culture where male and female are dichotomized and women are discouraged from being whole, what woman could not be alienated from some part of herself?

We believe the unique power of feminist Witchcraft lies in 1) the transformative potential of its innovative rituals, 2) the tactic experience of immanence through body-prayer, 3) the promise of integration of the self, and mind, with the female body, 4) integration of the self with a spiritual community, and 5) its vision of a truly humane, peaceful and ecologically sane world.

We are not suggesting that feminist Witchcraft is the only or even the best way to reach these goals, only that it is a way.  It is clear to us that, as researchers participating in feminist rituals, we created the women we became.  As our inner landscapes changed, they colored the way we view ourselves, our research, and the world.

1)  The title borrows from a Goddess chant by Starhawk, Witch and noted author.  It goes, “She changes everything She touches, and everything She touches changes.

2)  Interestingly, this is the same language used by women travel writers, according to Mary Moris (Ms.,May/June 1992:69). She Concluded that, unlike male travel writers, for women, “There is a dialogue between what is happening within and without.”

3)  I wasn’t sure if this small group of women was really worth studying or the subject matter important enough to help my career.  I now find it interesting that it never occurred to me that research on other alternative religions, all of which include men, might not be worthy of study.  Obviously, I had internalized some gender bias, a particularly ironic and embarrassing experience for someone teaching women’s studies.

4) Wendy Griffin was previously known as Wendy G. Lozano

5) Prior to this encounter, my minimal knowledge about Witchcraft came from the media, a highly unreliable and misleading source.  For example, the 1994 Encarta CD-ROM encyclopedia definition of Witchcraft reflects the views of the Inquisition.  This type of distortion is reinforced daily by television evangelists who rail against Satanists and Witches as if they were the same.

6)  Although the coven and most Wiccans would deny that they proselytize, sponsoring an “open” women’s retreat filled with workshops on Witchcraft can be viewed as a form of proselytizing.

7)  Although the women we studied did not know the origin of this number and accepted it as fact, it was an estimate made by Matilda Joselyn Gage in the late nineteenth century.  Contemporary feminist historian Anne Llewellyn Barstow (1994) estimates that closer to 100,000 people were executed, and 85% were women.

8)  Being raised a “Christmas and Easter Protestant,” I never thought about the role of religion in providing meaning or community.  To me, the word religion meant going to church and being bored listening to men preach about a divine father who might forgive me for something if I prayed hard enough, which I rarely tried to do, even as a child.

9)  With today’s understanding, I realize how unappreciative I was.  Ritual is an act in which metaphors are used to capture meaning.  The Witches had created something that was intended to evoke an alternative reality, provide meaning for us, and possibly redefine out relationship to them.  Candlemas is the time of oath-taking, after all.  But I didn’t understand that at the time.  I know I felt I was being manipulated into attending.  Perhaps that helps explain my strong resistance.

10)  Luhrmann (1989) describes this as the slow shift in interpretation experienced by a newcomer to a particular activity as she learns to perceive and ascribe meaning to new patterns.

11) I late discovered this was a phrase coined by Margot Adler (1986) to describe what women felt when they got involved in feminist Wicca.  Several women I have talked with in the larger Goddess Movement resonate with this phrase as well.


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If any part of this is quoted for any purpose, please cite the author and the journal where it was originally published. 
     Methods  Series,     Vol. 6,  Newbury Park, CA: Sage.