“We are in the third hour of Mars, which is the hour of death and destruction,” said Bill Lyres, black priest of a witches' coven. “I'm sure you'll think it's ironic that you should have chosen this time, on this day, to come here.”
“Ironic” wasn't the word. I laughed nervously, and remarked that perhaps we shouldn't perform any rituals, given the nature of the hour.
“If you had come last night like we planned,” said Lyres. “I was going to try and summon the Goddess of Beauty, to give you eternal love and beauty. But this is a bad hour for summoning.”
Lyres has been a member of what he refers to as the “Old Religion” or witchcraft, since childhood. It goes back five generations in his family; his parents taught him its precepts and rituals, just as his friends' parents taught them Christianity and sent them to Sunday school. He grew up in Missouri and came to San Diego about 10 years ago; now in his mid-thirties, he has been active in covens since he was 17. Neither his wife nor his children practice his religion, though he's taught them about it.
“You'd be amazed how many people follow the Old Religion,” Lyres said.
I was amazed. To some, like Lyres, it is the Old Religion, handed down from parent to child like any other religion; to others, it is being born with special powers to develop, a “sensitive”, selected for witchcraft as a way of life; to still others it is one more path along the spiritual route which runs from transcendental meditation to Raja-yoga to Zen to Krishna consciousness to astral projection – and on and on and on. But what was the most singular about my witchcraft seeking this Halloween season was that once I began looing for that which I had never even glimpsed before – the practice of magic and witchcraft — I found it everywhere.
“I'll tell you this, it's no landlady's religion,” said Lyres to my friend Anna and me.
“You know how when you move to a new apartment, the landlady gives you about 27 'Thou shalt not's'? 'Thou shalt not have children, thou shalt not have pets, thou shalt not play the radio loud after 9 p.m.' Well, we teach indulgence in anything that will bring you peace and contentment, as long as it doesn't bring wrath down upon you and to others.”
“I'm a television repair mans,” he continued. “So I go into a lot of homes. And I see the signs of the Old Religion in more houses than you'd believe. But it's highly secretive, so most outsiders wouldn't even know that it exists.”
Lyres emphasized the difference between witchcraft and the much-publicized Satanism, with its Black Mass. The Old Religion is probably the oldest religion, he said; another word for it is “Wicca”, meaning wise – thus, witchcraft, craft of the wise; and it recognizes God as the supreme being. Satanism, on the other hand, of course puts Satan supreme and began during the Renaissance – its Black Mass a deliberate defilement of whatever Christianity held sacred.
Since the high priestess has denied my request to attend a coven meeting, Lyres agreed to describe to me what takes place. His coven – which practices both black and white magic -(black magic doing harm and whit magic, good) – consists of twelve women and one man, the Black Priest; woman is the center of the universe and key to the power. The high priestess, who can be appointed only by another high priestess, is the coven's absolute ruler, second to God; her will goes unquestioned.
“The only clothing we wear is black robes, which the high priestess purifies under the full moon,” explained Lyres. “We kneel on a baphen, a goatskin made out of the hide of 12 goats” –at the moment serving as a throw-rug in his den – “ad draw a circle, exactly nine feet in diameter, and a pentagram inside it. That's the only safe place to be during the ritual, inside that circle.”
“At the start, the high priestess sounds a bell and makes a recitation to the four powers of darkness – pointing in each direction with a magic wand made of ash wood, 19 ½ inches long – asking them to leave us in peace. Then the women drink a mixture prepared by the high priestess, and she prays to God and conjures the desired spirit, asking it to appear in a comely form.”
“So that it doesn't come with, say, the body of a goat and the head of a frog, something too hideous to look at.”
All of the foregoing does not guarantee success, Lyres added. Sometimes only something small happens, like a glass moving across the table, or the conjured spirit might appear in smoke; if you wish it to assume a more 3-dimensional form, you can make a small cut on your finger – since fresh blood gives the spirit body.
He held out a candle, of slightly reddish tint, in a shot glass, for our inspection. Ordinary enough, except for the red, at which I ventured a guess. “Yes,” Lyres replied promptly, “that's human blood. But what's really amazing is that this candle, which the high priestess made, has been burning through our coven meetings for five years. And the wax has never gone down, never been replaced.”
Lyres now confessed that at his first meeting with Anna and me – over coffee at Howard Johnson's – he had been frightened. An interesting twist I thought. What scared him?
“You,” he said to Anna. “I think you have special powers, even if you don't know it”—and suggested that she would probably make a good high priestess. “The things I could teach you...” he mused aloud.
Lyres gave us what he had prepared for our beauty ritual: a glass, with a special inscription on its base, a Gerber's jar with a mixture Gerber never dreamt of – red wine, Egyptian spices, and just a tiny bit of human blood.