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She was dressed all in black, save for her ashen skin and her hair, which was three different shades of red, covered by a black bandana. Her black T-shirt was Satanic in persuasion—Misfits or Danzig or Metallica—and her black cargo jeans were streaked with scar-zippers. Her eyelids dripped black liner. She wore black jackboots and a hangman's noose worth of necklaces, and her ears were trimmed with enough silver to stop a pack of werewolves.
The first thing this young darkside waitress did when she encountered Anna Mahan-Miller at a West Bank eatery was lock on to the pentacle hanging from her lunch customer's neck. To the Gnostics, the pentacle symbolizes the magic and mystery of the nighttime sky. For the Druids, it is the godhead. The Pagan Celts ascribed the pentacle to the underground goddess Morrigan. But to the waitress, it was only jewelry—a sign of a poseur that clashed with the business-casual attire of the petite Filipino-American customer before her.
Her purist goth sensibilities duly offended, the waitress mean-girled, "So you're a witch?"
"Yes," said Anna Mahan-Miller.
"Funny, you don't look like one," sniffed the teen, and walked away.
Mahan-Miller didn't elaborate. She didn't explain that she, a 33-year-old military brat and self-described professional "techie," has identified as a witch for more than 10 years. She didn't say that her husband, Scot, a photographer and employee of Mesaba Airlines, is also a witch. She didn't say that she is the current editor of The Minnesota Pagan Press, or that their neighbors don't blink twice now when they see the Mahan-Millers don robes around a firepit and perform rituals with friends in the backyard of their home near the Mississippi River. Nor did she cop to the fact that, upon discovering her witchdom a couple of years ago, a once-friendly co-worker told her she was going to hell.
"I run into somebody who thinks they're a witch or a pagan two or three times a week," says the University of Iowa grad, clad in decidedly un-spooky jeans and a black sweater over a dinner of vegetables and a one-shot mocha at the Riverview Café in Minneapolis. "And a lot of them are young—17, 18, 19, 20. How many of those would I consider a witch? One or two, over the course of a month, who are really dedicated to it, and this really is part of their life, not just an 'I think this is cool so I'm going to say I am' type of mentality.
"You say the word 'witch' or the word 'pagan,' and people don't think of someone like me. They think about someone like the stereotypical woman in flowing dresses who's a little wheeee about everything and was Cleopatra in a past life. But the ones I know are professional people and raising kids and living our lives. It's no different from someone in the next cubicle being Catholic."
In fact, Mahan-Miller was raised Catholic. But at the periphery of all that blood-drinking and flesh-eating church ritual in the Philippines was a history of faith-healers, little people, and the herbal kitchen witches known as aswangs. When she lived in Rome, she was surrounded by gypsies and attended international school, which offered not history classes, but mythology classes. Her youth, then, was spent "immersed in the whole idea that there's a whole set of gods and pantheons of gods, not just one."
When she was 21, she broke away from her parents and Catholicism, and decided to follow paganism. "A person is part of everything," she offers as a summary of her beliefs. "You're never really alone. You feel like it at times, and get depressed about it, but it's never truly the case. The air that a tree emits is the air that you breathe, and it's the same air the cat down the street breathes, and you walk on the same ground. You're a natural being. You're a cosmic being. You're part of everything."
For years Mahan-Miller was what is known as a "solitary" witch, unaffiliated with any group or coven. (Though several of her friends are pagans and/or witches, she has no handle on how many witches or covens exist in the Twin Cities). She underwent a "first degree" initiation, which sealed her witch status. She still "practices" rituals by herself and for herself—mostly to commemorate pagan holidays—with candles, a small knife, a chalice, incense, salt, water, and a pentacle.
"Usually what it consists of would be a quick little circle," she says. "Light a few candles, send my wishes and wills out to the universe, and close it down. You invite whatever spirits want to join you and celebrate. It takes about 20 minutes. I'm not a high magic person, so mine don't take hours and lots of planning."
If it sounds silly, or made up, or the product of an overactive imagination, the real deal has her doubts as well: "There are days when I wake up and I still feel like I'm 12 years old and my whole life is made up," she says. "My father says that sometimes when he's in [Catholic] church, even though it's an organized religion, he feels like it's made up. I'm the same way. There is no one true way with all this, because there are no -isms or dogma. You wouldn't believe the witch wars that go on. But I refuse to get into that."
Enough of this darksider doubt. The season of the witch is nigh. The cackling leaves, rustling darkness, and harvest moon conjure spooks and spirits of all stripes. Most of us call it Halloween. Some, All Saint's Day. The witches and pagans call it Samhain, also known as the Witch's New Year.
"This is the time of year when the veil between the worlds is lightest," Mahan-Miller says, "the veil between the other side where people go when they pass on and the world as we have it now. It's the best time to contact your ancestors, to do divinations, to remember those who have passed on and those who are to come.
"You'll also hear witches and wiccans say that at this time of year, their dream work is the strongest. The dreams are fast and they're heavy. I know for me, in the next couple weeks, I'll be dreaming constantly."
So whatever does the good witch Anna have planned for October 31? What dark spirits will she conjure, what spells will she cast, what black magic doth she bring? Verily, what primordial universal truths will she tap into?
"I'm giving out candy," she says, with a smile that could raise the dead.
Jim Walsh can be reached at 612.372.3775 or firstname.lastname@example.org