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Magick in Missoula

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Photo of Raven and Estha by Chad Harder Photo of Raven and Estha by Chad Harder

An inside look at a modern-day coven

Hoof and horn, hoof and horn, all that dies shall be reborn. Corn and grain, corn and grain, all that falls shall rise again!

One by one each woman raises a candle set within a sideways crescent moon before reading from four cloth banners that decorate the walls. Fire, water, air and earth: the elements and their corresponding astrological signs are celebrated in a clear, childlike script. Taking turns, the priestesses speak the painted words aloud, faces eerily illuminated as the other women follow one syllable behind in a chanted round.

The ritual began at 11, so it has to be past midnight. Doesn’t it? No one knows. There are no clocks, and like much in the witches’ house, the passage of time seems strange. Now, offerings are made to Aima Elohim, described by High Priestess Estha as the mother of all gods and goddesses. Crawling under a glittery black veil, the women keep their eyes lowered as they leave gifts of pine needles, leaves and (in Madeline’s case) hair. The veil serves an important purpose: if Aima is looked at, her power will manifest itself in unknown, yet very dangerous, ways. This explanation is given without any trace of laughter. There are no twitching cheeks, no upturned lips. Reaching through the single small window above the goddess’s altar, a ghostly light braces the shadows. Superstition comes naturally.

Magic, however, must be learned.

Emerging in the 1950s, New Age witchcraft (Wicca) weaves Greek, Roman, Jewish, Hindu and ancient Celtic ideologies together to create a unique structure. Groups of witches are called “covens,” and can be led by one priestess, or both a priest and a priestess. Rarely do priests have sole control of a coven. Although men are also referred to as witches (“warlock” and “wizard,” while used by some Wiccans, are considered Hollywood terms created to emasculate the idea of magic), pagan religions are traditionally matriarchal. They are also polytheistic. Praying to multiple gods makes sense, says 27-year-old Estha McNevin, who started the Missoula coven with her partner, High Priest Raven Digitalis (26-year-old Colin Smith) in 2003. Both are occultists, not just witches. This means that there are formulated ceremonial habits within the coven, and a distinct “clergy,” or priest and priestess leadership. But unlike other religious clergy, they believe that Deity should not be a distant, unreachable concept. In Wicca, everyone is seen as a sacred child of the gods: a being of limitless potential. The energy created during ritual and spell casting channels this divine power through the body to bring a person closer to Deity. Spells, Estha explains, are just prayers.
“Some people do think that we’re up to some kind of devil worship in our temple, but that isn’t what we are about,” she says. “We are practicing a more concentrated form of prayer that’s older than our own American culture.”

Raven is arranging feathers on a square of paper in focused silence. Usually, he says, he casts spells “for friends and family who are traveling, or in a hard place, or who just need some attention.”

Raven and Estha were introduced in 2002 by a mutual friend at a birthday party. They hit it off, but didn’t see each other again until they reunited during a University of Montana sociology class on alternative religions. Professor Robert Balch says the two sat together every day.

“I think Colin and Estha recognized that they were both interested in the same thing,” Balch says.

Called Opus Aima Obscurae, the group that was born out of Raven and Estha’s mutual interest in occultism “helps people find their will, formulate their will, and get to their divine path,” Estha says. Translated literally, OAO refers to the different or “obscure” work. This religious sect focuses on the idea of paying respect to all religions and gods, not just one. Raven is the face of OAO – the person who handles the outward marketing of the group – while Estha has larger influence on the home front. Both work together in an effort to build understanding about alternative religions and provide community services that deal with human rights issues, healing and education.

Raven and Estha became interested in occultism and alternative religion as teenagers. Growing up in Montana (Raven is from Missoula and Estha is from Plains) Estha studied Hinduism and mysticism in high school and Colin studied Buddhism. Although one must be 18 years old to join the coven (“Because some of our rituals are more adult, and in general to be in a devoted Wiccan coven one must have a level of maturity” Estha says), for many, the interest in paganism starts during the tumultuous years of high school and early college when people are trying to build an identity. Witchcraft is heavily focused on personal empowerment. Spells are a study in willpower, rituals center on the idea of humans as godlike vessels, and divination is in essence soul searching.

Despite the strangeness of these practices, Wicca is also not any different from other religions in terms of how it got started, Professor Balch says. He adds that “Every religion that is around today started as a cult.”

It’s Wednesday night. Tucked into the right arm on the couch, Estha has a warm yet commanding presence. Anywhere else she would look completely out of place, but this is her sanctuary. She is surrounded by charms to ward off evil, five-pointed pentagrams, ethnic masks, spinning tarot cards that float from the ceiling on fishing wire, and pictures of family. Excepting the shriveled brown apples carved into grotesque-looking heads, it’s decidedly cozy.

It’s also far outside the realm of average.

Sweeping into the room wearing a long, ratted coat, Raven sets a tiny figurine on a Hindu altar, watched over by the four-armed god Shiva. A grin flashes across his hairless face as he pushes glasses up the bridge of his nose. “I like casting spells,” he says, pulling cigarettes out of a deep pocket with black-tipped fingers. His voice is gentle and smooth, as are his movements. The only sharp thing about him is his hair: two spiky black hedges growing from an otherwise bald head. Estha never joins him on the patio, though Raven smokes at least once every hour.

River, another coven member, looks up from the whip she’s making on the living room floor. She doesn’t let her cat set foot outside during Halloween.

“People think we’re evil,” she says, shaking her head and cutting long strips of leather. “But Christian boys are the ones out torturing helpless animals. Not witches.”

Raven and Estha are both animal rights activists, as are most of their coven members. But that doesn’t mean that all of the group’s practices are nonviolent.

As River says, the whip isn’t just a conversation piece.

Every year certain pagans host a public ritual in which one coven member gets “flogged.” The scourge, or whip used in the symbolic ceremony, is a traditional tool of initiation in Wicca. Usually a person volunteers for this ritual, but sometimes they are designated to participate by other group members. On Halloween, River will be whipping her husband, who says that although the flogging will hurt, he trusts his wife completely. The whip itself is pale lavender. “Isn’t it pretty?” asks River with a giggle. The ritual serves a spiritual purpose. It’s meant to exonerate the year’s sins and prepare the body for renewal. Seated around the low coffee table, other coven members squeeze their eyes shut, some turning red from exertion as they push delicate pins into tangy lemon flesh. Another cleansing ritual – less violent and a bit easier to conceptualize given that Estha’s living room smells like its been hazmatted with Pledge. Each pin is supposed to represent a negative thought. After transferring their negativity into the lemons, participants will hang the makeshift pincushions in their homes, where they’ll continue to collect bad energy until they blacken and must be de-pinned and tossed into a river or buried.

“They really work,” Madeline says. Since the ritual, a stylist has tamed her butchered hair into a neat pixie cut. Only a few telltale spots give away that she chopped off her 3-inch dreads in the dark. “I did an experiment once where I hung my lemon charm right by the TV and left Fox News on all night. By morning, the lemon was completely black.”

Like many coven members the night before Halloween, Madeline is finishing her poppet. Poppets are dolls that are created in a person’s own image. Part of yet another cleansing ceremony, these muslin effigies will be stuffed with the split ends collected during ritual, leaves, newspaper or anything else that people want to burn (along with their negative, old-year associations) on Halloween. Some even fill their poppets with parking tickets. Most poppets will be anointed with a single drop of blood, Estha says. As she speaks her robe falls down her shoulder, revealing long horizontal scratches.

While the OAO never condones cutting with a blade, a scratch, Estha explains, is enough to “stir the blood and lend extra energy and ancestral power to some rituals.”

Blood-letting is supposed to heighten whatever power is called forth by worshippers during the pagan holiday of Samhain, or Halloween. Estha tells the coven that if a woman is fortunate enough to be on her period during All Hallows Eve, she can smear her poppet with “divine” blood. Women are sacred, and menstruation is considered auspicious, particularly during a holiday.

For the male and other less-fortunate poppet makers, sterile diabetes pins are set out on the coffee table.
Shaking her pointer finger upside down, Madeline winds the plastic tab, loading a coiled spring that will release with swift efficiency when she’s ready. You have to hold the tiny barrel tight against your skin, or the needle won’t pierce deep enough to draw blood. Squeezing her eyes shut with a grimace, Madeline jumps as a faint click indicates that the weapon has found its mark. It’s never that bad, she says, it’s just hard to anticipate. She reaches for her poppet as a crimson bubble threatens to spill onto her robes.

Because the coven is in essence a family, there is a varied stream of people going in and out of the house when night falls. About 80 are on the coven’s mailing list, and of those 30 people come and go regularly. Right now four are fairly permanent fixtures. Madeline Keller, Anjuli King (who also goes by Sky), Maia McGuire, and Ben Kinder are “priests and priestesses-in-training.” Ben studies under Raven, while the women are under Estha’s tutelage. This neotribal division is meant to encourage male and female “Mysteries” exploration, strengthening a person’s spiritual connection to their sex. While some covens allow or even encourage illicit relations between witch and pupil, Estha and Raven say that respectful boundaries must be present to ensure a stable learning environment. They loathe being compared to what they call “promiscuous covens,” sexually open groups that practice public sex.

Getting kicked out of the group is a huge blow, and not only because the coven is family. It takes an enormous amount of time, energy and training to become a witch.

Each student of magic must study history, aura or chakra healing, herbs, tarot, astrology, divination, and neopagan ethics to be considered a professional in the craft. Even so, full training within OAO isn’t completed for more than 22 years. These steps represent the 22 “Major Arcana” tarot cards – which indicate life’s significant issues by illustrating everything from birth to enlightenment. Not even Estha, who began studying mysticism at age 19, has reached the “22 milestone.”

After three years, however, students are considered clergy. They go to Monday evening lectures (“Which have lasted all night before,” Sky recalls with a rueful grin), write weekly research papers, and are expected to keep up with readings, rituals and weekly community service at their nonprofit of choice. They also have special pagan training videos, which leave an unmistakable mark even before the film rolls. A disclaimer for one such video reads: Please do not copy or reproduce. This product has karma protection, with a copyright curse in place. All of the women studying under Estha are under 25 and still take classes at the University of Montana.

“We are always busy,” Madeline says. “But we really want this, so the work is worth it.”

Priestesses also have to wear their robes constantly. This is to indicate to the public that they are pagan clergy members and are willing to serve and heal anyone in their community.

“I can’t even take off my robes when I go dancing at a club,” Estha says. “It’s a lot of sacrifice to become a priestess, but this is what I want to do. It’s the same way for Raven. This is who we are.”

Like the High Priestess, student priestesses must wear their robes in public, even to classes. Some people believe that they are brainwashed, forced to dress and act strangely by the group leaders, but Robert Parker, a friend of Raven’s who is not Wiccan, says that this is the biggest misconception people have about alternative religions.

“I’ve never seen any evidence of ‘brainwashing’ within the OAO or any other new religious movement,” he says. “What I have seen is strong social influence, but no more so than what’s exerted by sports organizations or the U.S. military.”

Raven finishes a tarot reading and reemerges. Tarot readings are $2 an hour, and it’s just one of the ways Raven and Estha pay the bills. Raven has been with a nonprofit for years, and has also written two successful books, Goth Craft: The Magickal Side of Dark Culture and Shadow Magick Compendium: Exploring Darker Aspects of Magickal Spirituality. His third book is set to come out later this year. In addition to the money brought in by these (they sell well on Amazon), both witches own Twigs and Brews, a home-run business that specializes in healing herbs and oils. The tarot readings they give are also from home, and both Raven and Estha frequently disappear for 20 minutes at a time to divine someone’s future.
Tarot readings are a serious business.

“We train for years to become proficient in readings,” Sky says. “We have a Code of Ethics that doesn’t leave room for us to bend the truth when interpreting someone’s future.”

Estha folds back the coffee table runner to reveal a small hidden drawer. Inside, buds of hash are tucked neatly into tins and jars. As one of the oldest shamanic substances, marijuana has been used in divination ceremonies since the 6th century. The pipe circles for two hours before everyone is ready for the ritual.

“Not for the fainthearted,” Estha says, tonight’s black mirror divination ceremony will part the veil separating living and dead. Scrying is an important technique for connecting with the spiritual world’s dark side. The art of interpreting shadows, one can scry in water (recall Nicole Kidman in Cold Mountain) or using any dark surface, but it’s especially effective if looking into a special glass: a “black mirror.”

Outside, the rest of the women start their own preparations. Before stepping into the small, converted garage on the side of Raven and Estha’s house, everyone must be “smudged.” Sky gives a faint smile and holds out a smoldering bouquet of sage. “Arms up,” she says, voice rising into the night with the pleasantly acrid scent of the herb. Smudging is a ritual cleansing practice meant to remove bad energy. Sky runs the smoking bundle down the body with smooth strokes, under one foot, then the other. Her movements mimic those of airport security scanners, but are gentle, slow. She blows softly to waft the sage onto the back of the neck, leaving a tingle that heightens with anticipation when entering the place of worship.

“We will need a Happy Chain,” Estha says in a mystical voice, carried on air hazy with frankincense.

Watched by Sky’s dog Kyrie and Estha’s only other cat, a silky black one called Uba, each woman speaks the name of the most comforting thing they can think of.

A warm cup of tea, a unicorn, fun, a cozy blanket, a well-stocked library, and love.

Six happy thoughts for six women.

“If you are overwhelmed or upset by anything you see tonight, speak up and we’ll call on the Happy Chain to diffuse the negative energy,” Estha continues, unwrapping a small black glass and setting it reverently into a metal stand. Seated on pillows, the women close their eyes and begin a soft chant. Taking turns, each slowly approaches the mirror, peering into its depths.

Estha raises her arm and rings a bell. The high-pitched chime pulls Madeline out of a 5-minute reverie. Sitting down and staring around at inquiring faces, she speaks: “Happy chain,” she says, tears flashing down her face as the words circle.

A warm cup of tea, a unicorn, fun, a well-stocked library, love.

Finally she is steadied enough to whisper her own positive thought. “A cozy blanket,” she says with a shaky smile.

No one will know what Madeline saw in the flickering shadow. Magic must be learned, but it can never be fully understood.

Photographer Chad Harder is an award-winning photojournalist with the Missoula Independent  and the photo editor of Montana Headwall, a quarterly magazine about Montana’s outdoor recreation scene.

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Jessica Whalen Jessica Whalen grew up in Sandpoint, Idaho, and has lived in Montana for five years, where she is completing her degrees in print journalism and business marketing. She loves writing stories that reflect the unique spirit of the Northwest, and someday hopes to write permanently for a local journal or magazine.

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witchcraft, wicca, Missoula, coven

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