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Spell Bound

[whitespace] Wiccan priestess Phyllis Curott conjures up some 'Practical Magic'

By David Templeton

For over five years, writer David Templeton has been taking interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This week, he conjures up a rendezvous with Wiccan High Priestess Phyllis Curott, to see Practical Magic, the new movie about love, sisterhood--and witchcraft.

"Well, I think it's time for some practical magic," declares Phyllis Curott, matter-of-factly. She's referring not only to the new film Practical Magic--almost 25 minutes late owing to technical problems in the projection room--but also to ... well, to actual magic.

Phyllis Curott, you see, is a witch. And at this moment, a bit of witchcraft could do nothing but help.

The true meaning of "witchcraft," according to Curott and thousands of other modern day Wiccans--i.e., followers of the ancient pre-Christian religion of the Goddess--has nothing to do with the occult or the supernatural, and everything to do with connecting: establishing an intuitive link between all involved--animal, vegetable, or mineral--and filling that connective channel with a blast of positive, healing energy.

Or something. Frankly, I'm still working out the specifics.

While I do that, Curott--a successful East Coast lawyer who once fought the city of New York (successfully) to allow Wiccan "clergy" to perform legal marriages--leans casually back in her seat, closes her eyes, takes a deep breath--and lets it s-l-o-w-l-y out. She opens her eyes and flashes a bright, buoyant grin; 90 seconds later, the movie begins.

Just like magic.

Based on the novel by Alice Hoffman, the film stars Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman as Sally and Gillian Owens, two sisters who--like generations of Owens women before them--are witches. There is plenty of magic afoot, though the far subtler magic of the book is often intruded upon by noisy special effects and horror-show theatrics.

And even though it perpetuates some of the myths that have plagued Wiccans since the Catholic Church declared war on the Old Religion in the Middle Ages--witches are genetically unique beings able to pass their powers on from mother to daughter; witches dabble in zombie-making and the occasional animal sacrifice--the film does make some giant strides away from the hackneyed notion of witches as dangerous, child-devouring, Satan worshipers. The Owens women, while undeniably eccentric, like the marvelously offbeat aunts played by Diane Wiest and Stockard Channing, are clearly a force of goodness in the world; a family whose greatest power is their love of life--and of one another.

"I swear, some people are very disappointed when I tell them that witches are not evil and we don't cast spells on people," Curott laughs, bounding along the sidewalk in search of lunch after the movie. "People really want to believe that we have those powers. They want to be scared."

Spying a nearby bookstore, we abruptly change course and go inside. Curott wants to see if they carry her brand-new memoir, Book of Shadows: A Modern Woman's Journey into the Wisdom of Witchcraft and the Magic of the Goddess.

They have the book.

"Eight copies!" she sings, and gleefully offers to autograph each one. "It's my first book," she tells the manager. "I get excited every time I see a stack of them in a store."

"Well then," he replies, "we'll have to make sure these are displayed out in the open."

Grinning, she glances over at me and mouths the word "magic."

Book of Shadows is a first-person account of Curott's journey from skeptical rationalist to goddess-worshipping witch (she's now a high priestess and president emerita of the oldest and largest organization of Wiccans in the world). It's an emotionally satisfying, riveting read, arguably the best--certainly the most unusual--memoir of the year. One might even be tempted to call it "bewitching." Which brings us to the subject of ...

"Bewitched," Curott laughs, after we're seated and food has been summoned. "We can't underestimate the influence of that show. Goddess spirituality is currently the fastest-growing movement in the United States. And I swear it's in some measure due to the fact that we were all sitting around when we were 8 years old watching Bewitched and going, 'If I had those powers I wouldn't let Darrin keep me in the broom closet.'

As for Practical Magic, "It wasn't bad," Curott pronounces. " It's a love story, and love is the greatest magic. There was absolutely no discussion of the goddess, of course, but there was some truthful magic in the film. That wonderful scene where the two sisters are lying in bed, and they have that conversation, and Nicole is looking at Sandra, whose eyes are closed, and she mouths the words, 'I love you'--and Sandra, with her eyes still closed, says, 'I love you too, Jellybean.'

"That's magic. That's how it works. It's a heightened sensitivity to the connection between people."

Doesn't sound scary at all.

"In fact, it's necessary," she goes on. "I really believe we have tremendous wisdom to offer. Right now the earth is in trouble because of the abuse humanity has heaped upon it--but our religion understands that the planet is sacred, that it's the embodiment of the divine. One could make the point that Wiccan practices are almost critical to the survival of the planet.

"There's a reason that there's been such a powerful rebirth of Goddess spirituality, and a return to indigenous traditions. It's like the Wiccans are standing at the edge of a cliff, with technology pushing everyone closer and closer to the edge, and we're saying, 'Go back. Go back.'

"The politicians can't make up their mind how to save us," she concludes. "The religious leaders can't save us, because they're working out of the old patriarchal models that brought us here in the first place.

"What we do helps you feel the sacred in your bones, to experience the sacred in yourself, to experience the world. And once you've made that connection, everything shifts and flows from there. It's the magical moment in which everything--everything--changes."

Back outside, retracing our steps past the bookstore, we can't resist taking a peek inside to see if any of the books had been discovered while we ate lunch. There are now six copies; the store sold two in the last 45 minutes. Curott all but dances on the sidewalk. "This is so exciting!" she laughs.

She doesn't say it's magic, this time.

But we both know it is.

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Web extra to the October 29-November 4, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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