Notes and Blog

"Post Gazette Article" New local network welcomes witches, pagans and othersThursday, October 29, 2009

Posted on April 10, 2014 at 3:10 AM

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

 


By Kathy Samudovsky


Bob Donaldson/Post-Gazette


Getting acquainted with Sue Arlott's cat, Jessie, are Je'Amour Matthews (left) and Lisa Slagel, members of the Black Hat Society Network, a group of practicing witches who gathered for an afternoon brunch at the Arlott home.Even as a child, Je'Amour P. Matthews knew her life path would not be mainstream.While staunch Roman Catholic parents were teaching her about that church, she said, some maternal aunts were secretly grooming her to be the family's next strega -- Italian for female witch. It made for an interesting childhood -- with memorable Sunday services."I was dragged to church relentlessly. Any time I could retaliate, I would," recalled Ms. Matthews, of North Braddock.


"Once when I was 9 or 10, I waited until the vestibule was absolutely packed and acted like I was going to bless myself. Then when I dipped my hand into the holy water, I let loose a roll of Alka-Seltzer and started to scream, 'It burns! It burns!' I was such a rotten child,' " she said.Today, Ms. Matthews, 49, said she is a modern-day witch and proud of it. She said she practices a traditional form of witchcraft called Italian Stregheria, a nature-based religion whose followers worship the forces of nature personified as gods and goddesses.In August, she organized the Pittsburgh Black Hat Society Network, an Internet-based social network intended to offer support, friendship and knowledge to solitary witches -- those who practice alone, not in covens-- pagans, neo-pagans and others.Members meet in their homes or at restaurants and discuss topics such as recipes, herbs, deities and metaphysics."I love the whole philosophy behind the Black Hat Society Network because, first off, it's like what you get with the Red Hat Society -- it's a social thing, it's fun and there aren't any group politics. We plan to hold potluck dinners, tea and coffee socials, maybe charity drives, things like that," Ms. Matthews said.Her organization is part of the Pennsylvania Black Hat Society Network, headquartered in Quakertown, Bucks County. The Pittsburgh group is the first independent chapter in the state.Jennifer Seitzer, founder of the Black Hat Society Network, said several other chapters exist throughout the United States. She's working to trademark the network's name to distinguish it from unrelated groups using the Black Hat Society moniker.The Pittsburgh chapter has more than 70 male and female members who follow Wiccan, Shamanistic, Druid, Celtic, Norse, eclectic and other pagan paths. Non-pagans who share interest in nature and earth-based energies are members, too.South Park hosts ballThe chapter's first public event, the Western Pennsylvania Witches Ball, will be from 6 p.m. Saturday to shortly after midnight at the Home Economics Building on Buffalo Drive in Allegheny County's South Park. The alcohol-free festival will celebrate Samhain (pronounced sow-in), the witches' holiest holiday. Midnight will mark the start of their New Year.Samhain, also called Day of the Dead or Halloween, is a time to remember and honor loved ones who have passed, Ms. Matthews said. For witches, it's a solemn and sacred day when they believe the thin veil between human and spirit worlds is lifted, allowing for communication.The ball will feature opening and closing rituals, music by an acoustic guitarist, vendors and more. The night will conclude with a spiral dance, an old pagan ritual symbolizing renewal. Participants hold hands to form a chain moving in spiral formation, Ms. Matthews said. Community members can participate or watch.About 50 percent of Pittsburgh Black Hat Society Network members are "still in the broom closet," Ms. Matthews said. Network member Bob Lardin, 63, of Pitcairn, a former ordained Catholic deacon, understands why."The worst thing I found about being a witch is you're seen as the devil or the anti-Christ by people who don't know anything about it. Ignorance is bliss, and we have a lot of happy people out there," he said.Reference books often still link witches with black witchcraft, the devil, hexes and doing harm, all which is "incorrect and misleading," Ms. Matthews stressed."Satanists are pagan or neo-pagan, but not witches," she said. "It goes against the grain of what witches practice in the first place. There are witches who do more dark craft, but they're not following what is natural to the core of the practice. They're the fringe element."True witches follow two ethical codes, she said. She called them:• The Wiccan Rede, which says that practitioners can do what they will but harm none.• The Three-Fold Law, which says any evil they do will return to them three times over."Witches are simple country folk who live off the land, honor the earth and respect nature," Ms. Matthews said. "Most believe in healing and giving of self to community."She said those who say they cast spells do so for protection, healing, rituals, to invoke positive energy and other reasons."A spell is nothing but focused intent," said Sue Arlott, 43, of McKees Rocks, who called herself a Wiccan-in-transition.Ms. Arlott, a ball organizer but not a network member, is among many who blame Hollywood for the pervasive negative stereotypes."First of all, we don't even believe in the devil; that's something Christianity thought up. Do I use a broom to travel? No, I take an airplane just like everyone else. We're not green, we don't have hooked noses and we don't have warts,'' Ms. Arlott said.Network member Lisa Slagel, 40, of Ross, who manages a rental car company, follows an eclectic path focused on a love of nature and animals."I'm about as normal as they come. I have a couple of witches' hats, but they're only for fun -- like sometimes, I'll vacuum in them," she said.People sometimes ridicule or distance themselves from Ms. Matthews once learning she calls herself a witch. But in her view, it's some organized religions that should be targeted.Lots of witches hereMr. Lardin said most people would be surprised to know how many witches are in the Pittsburgh region."There are oodles of different kinds, close to thousands," he said.In the Pittsburgh society network, members include lawyers, veterinarians, doctors, plumbers, farmers, horticulturists, nurses, dog groomers, psychologists and nutritionists. And the network is only one of a number of local witch and pagan organizations.According to a 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, conducted by Trinity College and released in March, witchcraft or Wicca and other earth-based pagan traditions are among the fastest growing religions in the United States. Nearly 2.8 million people now identify with dozens of new religious movements labeling themselves Wiccan, pagan and the like, the survey said."I think paganism and the craft are growing because people are just tired of the commercial, soul-less, cold, blighted culture they've been served up in their lifetime. They're looking for something more," Ms. Matthews said.Wicca, a common starting point for witches, is a legal religion in the United States, recognized by the government, private sector and military. The witches' pentagram is approved for display in military cemeteries. In witchcraft, points of the pentagram represent the five elements of life: earth, air, fire, water and spirit.Ms. Matthews said she's clairvoyant, has spirit guides, reads tarot cards and hugs trees but also loves camping, bike riding, a good book and reading foreign press."We're like everyone else, just maybe a little wiser in some ways," she said.Her altar is the center of her practice, with an incense holder, a symbolic cauldron, jewelry from each parent, a ritual knife called an Athame, a chalice, crystals and favorite photos.She wears her witch's hat and cloak in public when the mood strikes, and she has a homemade besom -- or broom -- for cleansing, not flying. The notion of a witch flying on a broom referred to "astral projection, which some witches do as a point of practice," she said.Like all serious witches, Ms. Matthews said she keeps a Book of Shadows, a journal of sorts for prayers, rituals, recipes and more. Covens keep a collective book, she said.She said her two tabby cats are her "familiars" -- those animal-shaped spirits who are said to serve their owners -- but neither is black.A cast iron Dutch oven is her active cauldron.She spent most of her life working in the restaurant service industry and also was a professional dancer. These jobs were on her path but not of her calling, she said."I know when I was born, there was a map and a pattern that was laid out in my mind, my heart and my soul that has led me to being a witch and has guided me through it. Even when I stumbled and fell, I always got back up and found my focus again," Ms. Matthews said.Tickets to the Witches Ball are $15 each. For tickets, e-mail thepghblackhatsociety@yahoo.com. For more on the Black Hat Society Network, visit www.meetup.com/The-Pittsburgh-Black-Hat-Society/ or thepghblackhatsociety.blogspot.com.Freelance writer Kathy Samudovsky can be reached at suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/09302/1008943-56.stm#ixzz0VsWIykKB

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