Phyllis Curott presents her Book of Shadows

Phyllis Curott
Book of Shadows
Wiccan High Priestess
Phyllis Curott
photo credit: Bruce Fields

Phyllis Curott appeared at the Bodhi Tree in October, 1998 to talk about her book Book of Shadows and offered us a fascinating window on the world of a witches' circle. What follows is an edited version of that presentation by Camilla Denton.

"A witch is somebody who has learned to take the blindfold off and to see the world as sacred. When you realize this, you see that the magic is also in you. Magic is the relationship we have with divine energy." - Phyllis Curott

Phyllis Curott is a graduate of Brown University and NYU School of Law, and is a practicing attorney, dividing her time between New York City and her travels. In addition, she is a film producer and author. Also, for over twenty years, Curott has been a Wiccan High Priestess and the founder of the Temple of Ara. As a High Priestess she is president emerita of the oldest and largest international religious organization in the Wiccan tradition. She lectures frequently around the world and is widely respected for her work promoting civil rights and religious freedom.




The books of Phyllis Curott are:
          Book of Shadows: A Modern Woman's Journey Into the Wisdom of Witchcraft and the Magic of the Goddess (1998)
         The Love Spell: An Erotic Memoir of Spiritual Awakening (2005)
         Witch Crafting: A Spiritual Guide to Making Magic (2002)

Reviews of these books appear after the presentation by Phyllis Curott.


Phyllis Curott: When I started practicing twenty years ago, witchcraft was as far back in the broom closet as you could possibly get. There were only about a thousand other practicing witches in America, and we all knew each other. Now everything's changed. Every time I turn around I encounter somebody who is practicing Wicca.

A witch is somebody who has learned to take the blindfold off, and to see that the world is sacred. When you realize this sacredness, you see that the magic is also in you. Magic is the relationship we have with divine energy. And a spell is simply the means by which we transform our dreams into reality. When you realize this, amazing things happen: synchronicities, fulfilled desires, dreams that come true . . . Indeed, those of us who practice Wicca understand that there are ways to make our dreams come true that have an enduring effect not only on our own lives, but on the world.

On one level the book follows my life in a very glamorous entertainment law firm and on another, it introduces the philosophy, history and practices of Wicca: How spells feel when you use them, how they're done correctly and how they transform ordinary lives into magic. The passage that follows describes a particular healing ceremony attended by, amongst others, Nonna, the elder of my circle, and Maia and Bellona the high-priestesses who ran it. [the following excerpt from the book is abridged by the Bodhi Tree]

"The temple was resplendent: Pink candles and voluptuous bouquets filled each quarter. There were more flowers, ripe fruit, seashells and shining crystals on the altar. Exotic incense perfumed the air in floating lavender drifts. The women had covered the pillows in silk brocades and hand blocked Fortuny velvets the colors of a queen's jewels. Nonna rose slowly and with difficulty, but a soft glow colored her cheeks and she seemed to grow stronger as she invoked the Goddess. The Goddess was called from the misty realms beyond space and time . . . from the primordial expanse from which all life arose. She was stirred from the ashes of countless pyres on which women had been burned. Summoned from our hearts, from our bodies, from our ancient memories, she was called to share her blessings, her wisdom and her healing. I reached out for her with my longing but no image appeared, no gracious apparition, no irrefutable sign of acknowledgement. So I waited in the invisible and enveloping void.

"Nonna picked up the brazier and faced Gillian. 'With air and with fire I consecrate thee. Blessed be your breasts, created in beauty and strength that they might sustain life with the milk of paradise. Blessed be your womb, created in beauty and strength that it might create life.'

"She held the brazier before Gillian's right breast, moved it across to her left breast and down to her womb and back up to her right breast, leaving a smoky triangle floating in the air. She returned the brazier to the altar and picked up the bowl of saltwater. 'With water and with earth I consecrate thee.' Nonna repeated the gesture blessing her breasts and womb. When she finished, she gently kissed her and instructed her to repeat the ritual with Onatah, who was seated beside Gillian. In this manner, moving deosil - which is clockwise - around the circle, each woman received and bestowed consecration and blessings. Tears of gratitude sprang from my heart as a gruff Marsha enacted the ritual consecration with me. Her bear-like gestures bespoke the powerful grace of the warrior Goddess Artemis, who is also the protector of women during childbirth. Intimacy and trust encircled us, and with that embrace came a feeling like the love of a mother of infinite expression--peace, confidence and grace flowed through me as I, in turn, shared the sacred moment with Jeanette. Words and gestures, air, fire, water and earth and a sublime quality of generous purpose wove us together. Sitting in that sanctified circle with the other women, my heart filled with joy. It did not occur to me to wonder where the Goddess was to be found.

"Nonna held up the apple. In the Bible this is the fruit Eve ate--the fruit of knowledge. By eating it she was said to have caused humanity's downfall.

"She picked up her curfane - a small white hilt knife - and cut the apple in half, not as we usually cut an apple from stem to base, but along its equator, slicing not along but through its core. She held up the two halves. 'There is a secret that those of us who honor the Goddess know. Within the apple there is a star, symbol of the old ways. It is a symbol of the Goddess and her gift of divine life.' The circle murmured with delight to see five sliced seeds forming the shape of a star at the center of each apple half. Nonna smiled at our surprise and continued. 'We are priestesses of the ancient mother, of the craft of the wise. Though some in their fear and blindness may call us the daughters of Eve, we honor knowledge. We do not fear it. As we take a bite from this apple, we accept the responsibility of knowledge to use it wisely in the world and to share it with others. We reclaim our power as women, our sacred wisdom as priestesses and our knowledge of the gracious Goddess who resides in all things.'

"She bit into the apple and then handed it to Gillian who slowly held it aloft and spoke to us. 'I remember when women were priestesses, when women were healers. I remember when women were honored and I remember Avalon. I remember the Goddess in our hearts,' and bit into the apple.

"Tenderly, Onatah took the apple from her. Solemnity overtook her usually laughing beautiful visage. Her chin thrust forward and her eyes narrowed as if she were spotting game. She bit into the apple and a warrior spoke. 'I deny the power of those who would call me evil and I reclaim my power as a woman.' And so the fruit of knowledge traveled around the circle of wisdom.

"When the apple came to me I grasped it as the symbol of re-empowerment. It smelled sweet and my fingers were wet with the juice that ran from its golden pulp. I gave thanks to the knowledge that Eden surrounds us, that we have never left paradise. I gave thanks for the wisdom that will help us honor and protect the sacred earth, and its people. I gave thanks for the sisterhood who preserve the rights of the Goddess. And I bit into the apple. I reclaimed my power as a woman.

"I sat up straight, feeling the energies of life spiraling up my spine as I handed the apple to Jeanette. Cupping the rosy apple between her brown palms, Jeanette spoke. 'I honor the nourishment and the strength the Goddess has given me. She sustains me with the fruits of life.'

"She returned the apple to Nonna, who held the core aloft. 'One thing becomes another in the Mother, in the Mother.' Maia and Bellona began singing quietly, their voices blending in loving harmony. I leaned in to hear them and quickly recognized the melody from our earliest gatherings. 'We all come from the Goddess and to Her we shall return like a drop of rain flowing to the ocean.' Softly, supportively, we joined in. Spontaneous harmonies enriched our singing and soon we were chanting a call and response while Nonna kept the beat with steady clapping. We transformed the chant into a whirling round, and the power intensified as our voices soared into a song of deep empowerment. The song and its magical energy crested and ebbed. The power we had raised remained within as we sat in electrified silence. When I finally opened my eyes, I was astonished to behold the radiant beauty that surrounded me. Nonna seemed stronger and healthier and both Maia and Bellona looked more at peace than they had in weeks.

"'For women to regain their powers to create life and culture,' said Nonna, 'they must have a description and an experience of the divine that includes those aspects of being we call feminine and which Taoists call yin. Only in this way can women achieve wholeness. Only in this way can we emerge from the shadows to reclaim Eden.'"

Phyllis Curott: Nonna's words point to one of the most important aspects of Wiccan spirituality: The idea of personal ritual and revelation. Wicca is not a system of dogma or rules and regulation, it is a spiritual practice that each individual can master and make use of to personally experience the divine. Indeed, the divine is imminent and as well as transcendent, also feminine as well as masculine.

This means there's a witch in every woman - and every man too. No-one inherits supernatural powers - these are divine innate gifts belonging to everyone. But what we do in Wicca is cultivate them. As practicing Witches, we merely pay attention.

Twenty years ago women swelled the ranks of Goddess spirituality, but in the last five years more and more men have joined. Traditionally, Wicca has attracted women because there are very few spiritual homes for them. There's nothing else in the Western world that has any conception of the divine as female, or that honors women. However, if you look to nature as your spiritual teacher, which is what we do, what Taoists do, and what other indigenous religions do, you will find male and female are treated as equals. It is both our differences and our similarities that join us. We love the fact that men are joining. It's a model for the future.

However, some women continue to practice within women's only circles. And some gay women prefer to work alone, as do some gay men. Each group works with metaphors that are appropriate to their experience. Still, in all of Goddess spirituality, there is an attitude of tolerance and appreciation that really characterizes the entire practice.

We are all co-creators of divine reality. We all embody the Goddess. We are the living consciousness of the universe, at least in this part of it. Each one of us is like a little brain cell in the consciousness of it all. And we are uniquely gifted in our capacity to have awareness of the divine, and to be in communion with divine energy.

For this reason, personally, I rarely do spells. I rarely try to control the outcome of my life. I try to distinguish between what we call "Wand Work" - "I want this and I want that and give me this and give me that" - and the real work of becoming wise. If we approach Wicca from the perspective of lust and desire, then we are simply being adolescent. Rather, we need to be working through the grail and the cauldron to open ourselves. We need to use these techniques to remove the blindfold and to bring the sacred into our lives, to seek to see what is surrounding us, and what is within us. Then to use that relationship as a means of guidance - to make choices of how to take action, of what spells to cast, of how to go to the well of our own inner divinity and bring it forth into manifestation. If you trust in the wisdom and the gift of this greater reality, you will see how we inhabit an interactive universe, and how we can use this dynamic to guide us.

And we Wiccans are priests and priestesses of the Earth, for us the Earth is sacred. It is the body of the divine, but people are killing it. Even the scientists are pleading: "If you continue to overpopulate, deplete resources and pollute at the rate that you're going, we will reach a point of no return." Yet nobody listens. We've become paralyzed with fear and have gone into denial. At least those involved in the Earth religions - the Native Americans, the Shintos, the Taoists and the Witches have for a long time offered a connection to the Earth that's sacred and alive. We try to be as mindful as we possibly can.

To that end I tell people before you do anything, use the techniques of divination, commune with the sacred, get your guidance from that then go forward and act. The universe is perfect, and if we are in right relationship to it, then what we do is perfect. You may not generate the result that you first intended, but you will come to know that the result you get is perfect. It's the right thing for you, and your job is to understand both its lesson and purpose, and to receive the strength that you are meant to gain from it.

That is why, ultimately, this work is about spiritual maturity. It's about each individual taking responsibility for his or her own development. It doesn't require the abandonment of your intellectual gift, at the same time, it's not about, "Oh, I'm going to cast a magic spell to change everything." This is a profound and transformative path, which means that you have to deal with fears and challenges and sometimes defeat. The techniques exist for practitioners to access the divine and to become wise. Indeed, that's why Wicca is called the craft of the wise. Your power comes from your courage and your enlightenment.


Book of Shadows: A Modern Woman's Journey Into the Wisdom of Witchcraft and the Magic of the Goddess By Phyllis Curott
We most often think about Witches in terms of hurly-burly hags casting spells, licentious young women consorting with the devil, or wizards commanding demons to appear. If not that, then we may think of glamorous Veronica Lake in "I Married a Witch" or the adorable TV witches in "Bewitched" and "Sabrina". As a young philosophy student at Brown University, and then as an ambitious Manhattan attorney, Phyllis Curott thought no differently, if she bothered to ponder witches at all. But when she began to have psychic flashes and premonitions, she launched into what has become a twenty-year exploration of witchcraft, or Wicca. Her Book of Shadows - which, traditionally, refers to a Witch's record of spiritual wisdom, spells, songs, chants and rituals - is also the story of Curott's own experience of practicing Goddess spirituality in a masculine, materialistic, contemporary world. The word "Witch" actually comes from the old Anglo-Saxon word "wicce", and means a "wise one" who works with divine, unseen forces. "Witches lived close to the earth," writes Curott, "And respected their relationship with nature as sacred." Indeed, the "Old Religion," she says, "is as ancient as the history of humanity, and as modern as the theories of modern physics." This is a poetic and dramatic book: As it is a page turning saga of Curott's own evolution, it also resonates with the romance of Goddess spirituality and helps to guide readers into their own wisdom. In fact, one is left mourning the Witch-hunts of five hundred years ago that effectively wiped out hundreds of thousands of - mainly female - practitioners. What was the purpose of such awful genocide? Still, Curott offers hope of a new order. It turns out Goddess spirituality is the fastest growing spiritual practice in the United States. So, though the archetype of the horrific hag continues to typify modern culture's fear of women, sexuality and individual freedom, those with courage, curiosity and compassion are beginning to look behind the mask of the Wicked Witch and are finding the beatific face of the Great Goddess.



The Love Spell: An Erotic Memoir of Spiritual Awakening by Phyllis Curott

Phyllis Curott brings a rich experience to her writing in that she is an attorney, a film producer, and for over twenty years, a Wiccan High Priestess and the founder of the Temple of Ara. She combines intelligence, academics, and deep spiritual knowledge with heart-felt emotions to tell us her story. The Love Spell is part love story, part erotica, and part spiritual memoir. If you ever wondered how to apply spells in your life but did not quite see how to do it then this might be just the book for you. In it, Curott writes candidly about what she was thinking about, what she wanted, and what she experienced as she evoked various spells in her life. Reading this book is like being with a very good girl friend and talking about your loves and relationships, about what works and what doesn't. And what is special about this friend is that she is wise, warm hearted, adventuresome, a bit daring, and above all, very honest. Phyllis Curott seems vitally alert, warmly alive and quite real. When questioned about why she wrote The Love Spell, Curott said, "No one's written a first hand account of the real magic of love, and how magic can bring real love into your life. And

especially given the state of the world, I wanted to write a book that was sexy, romantic, full of magic, hope, and the kind of spiritual wisdom that's as close to you as the person you love." Her story is very intimate, revealing and deeply personal and along the way you learn a great deal about the wisdom of Goddess spirituality and applying magic to your life. Phyllis Curott's previous books are Witch Crafting and Book of Shadows, for which she was featured in the Summer/Fall 1999 (Number 21) issue of the Bodhi Tree Bookstore Review.


"I stared out at the water, thinking suddenly of the dark depths beneath the sparkling surface. I struggled to dive beneath the covering of rational explanations to the reasons hidden in my heart. 'It's very hard for me to . . . surrender.' That was the word 'surrender'. I was uncomfortable even saying it - like the fantasy, it was charged with conflict. To surrender was to be weak, but it was also a word conjuring forbidden pleasure." - Phyllis Curott in The Love Spell.



Witch Crafting: A Spiritual Guide to Making Magic by Phyllis Curott
Phyllis Curott's first book, Book of Shadows was an inspirational spiritual memoir about how an Ivy League Attorney found witchcraft, became a Wiccan High Priestness, and completely transformed her life. She experienced witchcraft as a spiritual movement - the tenets of which are Goddess worship and reverence for Nature. She found that Wicca spoke not only to her own deep inner needs but also to the problems facing society and the environmental disasters of Mother Earth. Now, an activist, Curott is devoted to transforming the negative stereotypes that burden the vibrant and authentic religion of witchcraft. She insists that Wiccca is a beautiful, powerful path that has much in common with Native American and other indigenous religions. Her practice and teachings reflect her immersion in both women's mysteries covens and shamanic techniques. The result is an experiential, Nature- based spiritual practice devoted to the magic of the Divine that dwells in all things.

In Witch Crafting, Curott explains the how and why of living a magical life. She writes, "The spiritual focus of Wicca is to feel, to experience, and to know the Divine and the ecstasy of communion with that divinity. Our practices are what enable us to commune with the Sacred."

The book offers groundbreaking theories on the mechanics of magic - the laws of Nature behind the techniques, invocations of deity, rituals, spell-casting, potions, energy practices, divinations, uses of herbs and other aids - and is designed to open your creativity and unleash newfound power to craft yourself as a witch. It explores the laws of the hidden Universe where real magic rules and shows how successful magic works in harmony with Nature. It also shows the significant role played by your emotional, physical and spiritual feelings in the making of magic.

Curott sets out to show that contemporary Wicca is a modern, vital, dynamic religion. She also challenges many of the assumptions that underlie aspects of Wiccan/pagan thinking and practices and offers radical new definitions of magic, spells, divinity and what it means to be a witch. "This book deconstructs the remnants of patriarchal theology that distorts the spiritual principles and practice of Witchcraft," she writes. "I'm going to critique mechanistic spellcasting, abstract magic, and projections of power and divinity. I'm also going to challenge the false and inauthentic ethics of the Threefold Law, and propose an entirely different basis for the ethics of Witchcraft."


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