Mary Caldwell has spiky pink hair, tattooed arms and works in customer service for a software company. She’s also the leader of a Wicca meet-up that gathers every other Monday at Monkey Nest Coffee on Burnet Road.
On a recent Monday evening, she led the group in a discussion of numerology – the belief that numbers have mystical meanings – as well as rituals and personal experiences with spirits. Recently, some members of the group had visited a local cemetery to commune with spirits.
“Some of the people in the group just see them, some just hear them and some of them just smell them,” said Caldwell, 44. “It was great fun.”
Wicca is a modern version of ancient pagan religions, created in England and brought to the United States in the 1960s. Its followers worship a goddess and a god, honor the Earth and practice ritual magic. They follow the Wiccan Rede, a statement of principles that stresses the importance of doing no harm.
“We believe that everything is part of the One,” said Ed Fitch, 80, a Wiccan senior high priest and a member of Caldwell’s meet-up group, one of several Wiccan or witches’ groups in Austin. “Everything in the universe is linked to everything else in the universe.”
Because Wicca is a highly decentralized religion with no central authority, it’s hard to get a tally of its members. The American Religious Identification Survey, which periodically surveys 50,000 Americans, said the number of self-identified Wiccans increased to 342,000 in 2008, up from 134,000 in 2001. The 2008 figures are the most recent available.
Wicca’s growth tracks the changing religious landscape in the U.S., as a growing number of people leave established religions and become either unaffiliated or switch to alternative religions. About 5.9 percent of Americans followed a non-Christian faith in 2014, up from 4.7 percent in 2007, according to the Pew Research Center,
“The number of people who have institutional affiliation are declining in general, so [Wicca] is part of a larger trend,” said Jennifer Graber, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Texas at Austin. “People are not aligning themselves in traditional religious ways.”
Wiccans come from all walks of life, including in the military. Fitch is a former Air Force officer and a retired technical writer and engineer. There are Wiccan covens on military bases, including at Fort Hood. The Pagan Student Alliance at UT includes Wiccans and followers of Paganism and other nontraditional faiths.
Philip Elmore, 22, an alliance member, said he was attracted to Wicca because of the equality in its theology.
“Traditional religion is very hierarchical, or even patriarchal at times, while paganism has always been focusing on everyone is equal,” Elmore said. “We don’t just have god, who in Christian values is a white male. We’ve got a goddess. They are equal to each other.”
Fitch said he’d been interested in alternative religions for many years, and was initiated into Wicca in 1967. He’s part of the Gardnerian Wicca tradition, one of the earliest branches, created by Gerald Gardner in England in the 1950s.
“There is not a fixed order of authority in Gardnerian Wicca,” Fitch said. “Anyone who gets trained can become a high priest.”
Unlike other versions of Wicca, the Gardnerian tradition requires that people be formally initiated by a high priest. Initiation separates “plastic Wiccas,” or people who claim to be Wiccan but aren’t serious about it, from true believers, Caldwell said.
“If I run into a person who claims to be a Gardnerian Wiccan on the street, I will ask him ‘Who’s your high priest?’” Caldwell said.
“We like to know who initiated who,” Fitch added.
Caldwell dabbled in Wicca when she was a teenager, but said her interest faded as she grew up and had children. It was not until eight years ago that she became fully devoted the religion.
“My kids were a little bit older and I could actually get more time for myself,” said Caldwell. “So I got back to my spirituality.”
Both she and her husband, Joe, are third-degree Gardnerians, meaning they are serious students of Wiccan theology and have the ability to lead a coven.
With Wiccan signs hanging on her office wall, she said her coworkers know and accept the fact that she’s Wiccan.
“It’s funny, because I’ve got people who are devoted Catholics coming to me and saying, ‘I’ve got a problem, and can you do a spell for me?’ ” she said.