All photographs by Terence Spencer
Friday, August 22, 2014
During the sixteenth century, followers of Martin Luther labored long & arduously to compute the number of "existing devils." They came up with an estimate of 2,665,866,746,664. For this number, church fathers were able to make a rough guess at the number of witches abroad. Four centuries later, in New York City alone, the number of self-styled "witches" is increasing daily.
Although California is still the nation's occult capital (with Southern California sects and covens competing for Satanic recognition with Anton Szandor LaVey's "First Church of Satan in San Francisco"), New York is rapidly catching up. With the new zeal for witchcraft at an all-time high, there are accompanying problems. There is not now, nor was there ever, any practice so interesting or flamboyant that it could not be made to seem a bore when too many people endorsed it. It is silly, no doubt, to accuse the city witches of divesting witchcraft of its secrecy and fascination -- after all, the number of devotees to sorcery should be a most satisfactory proof of the witches' success -- but it is a point. Just as the mumbling of "right on" at strategic points in a conversation does not make the speaker a revolutionary, so the possession of a deck of Tarot cards and a copy of The Egyptian Book of the Dead does not make a lady a witch.
It is hard to come up with a workable definition of witchcraft in the 1970s, since some people claim that it is a religion that demands only that one believe in its prinicples, while others maintain that you must be born a witch and cannot join the ranks, no matter how earnestly you believe, unless it is predestined. It is common for younger witches to claim to perform their works through "acts of will" alone, although many use spells, incantations, and familiars to help things along. Most make a marked distinction between "White" and "Black" witchcraft; the former is essentially harmless and practiced with benevolent motives in mind, while the latter involves pacts with the devil and a somewhat more ritualistic approach. Many among the new breed of witches seem to confuse their roles: "I'm a White Witch," says a teen-aged sorceress righteously, "do you know where I could see a real Black Mass?"
Lillian, who lives on the Upper West Side & enjoys a modest reputation among her friends for rendering men impotent through witchcraft, is most atypical. She has never read a book on the occult, is unaware of its current far-reaching mystique, and spends her days industriously managing a switchboard in a seedy West Side hotel. Lillian is 30-ish, but her unfashionable, stiletto-heeled shoes and highly teased flame-red hairdo give her an anachronistic air, much like someone you might encounter on the Late Show. Lillian is extremely nervous when her legendary "powers" are mentioned and assumes a school-teacherish attitude in defending her position, tapping a murderous looking fingernail against a pad of pink message sheets to accentuate a point.
"It's dangerous to talk about these things," she explains sternly, while tapping. "We're talking about POWERS," she pauses dramatically to make sure the point has been taken, "which are against the law!" When asked how they are illegal, she purses her lips and shakes her head, ignoring the question. "If I tell you my methods for doing things -- who knows? You might decide to try them yourself. Then what?"
When pressed, Lillian will admit to "working" with images carved of soap; she began this practice upon discovering that the man with whom she had lived for a year had been unfaithful to her. She placed a straight pin in what she refers to as "the area of love" and then recited an incantation she made up herself. She has used this method ever since, whenever she feels a man has treated her badly. "The effects," Lillian says with a hint of pride, "generally last for six months."
"I never harm anybody," she explains while deftly plugging and unplugging a switchboard which winks and buzzes continuously, "unless they harm me first." She strongly believes that evil is to be found everywhere and is likely to "come back on you" if you meddle in affairs that are none of your concern. For this reason she will never tell the fortunes of strangers (she reads from a plain deck of cards, something an aunt taught her when she was a little girl), nor disclose her "incantation" for making men impotent. She considers herself a witch on the basis of her ability to "get a person's vibrations" alone. "You know, vibrations that person gives off can tell you a lot." As for unfaithful lovers, Lillian becomes indignant when it is implied that the power of suggestion may be what works for their downfall. ("Are you kidding? None of them ever saw those little soap statues. They would have killed me!")
"I'm pretty accurate with the cards," she says with an abstracted air, poking at her towering coiffure with a pencil, "but I don't tell anything bad. If I see a death I keep it to myself." Staring morosely into a cardboard container of coffee, she sums up her whole ethos: "I am a good witch. I don't hurt anybody who's nice to me."
- From Witchcraft Today (A Signet Mystic Book, 1971)
Stay tuned for Witch No. 2: Dorothy...