Wolf Von DemBeck used to have a wand, but not anymore. Each of his wands mysteriously vanished when his airline luggage was lost.
One was a straight piece of driftwood from Laguna beach; the other was a stick he found on the street in New York City. “As they said in the Harry Potter films: you don’t choose the wand, the wand chooses the magician,” he told me at the Wiccan Family Temple’s midnight Samhain ritual last Thursday.
The Samhain ritual on Halloween night is Wicca’s holiest holiday of the year, celebrating the end of the Harvest season. Witches believe Halloween is sacred because it’s the night when the membrane between this world and the underworld is the thinnest. About 30 witches and other believers from all over New York came to the Samhain ritual, held this year on the Lower East Side, to summon Hades and communicate with dead relatives or ancestors. Elder Witch Starr Ravenhawk invited me when I interviewed her last week, so Halloween night I wiggled into my witchiest leggings and headed downtown.
Wolf insists he’s not a witch, but says he’s used magic for everything from controlling the weather to cursing presidential candidates. As a veteran, he was offended when John Kerry threw away his military medals after serving in Vietnam. “So when I heard the early reports on Election Day morning that he was way ahead in the exit polls, I put a black magical curse on him and his family, and his running mate and his family,” he said. “The next day they announced that the vice presidential running mate’s wife had cancer, so it must have worked.”
“Also, he lost quite spectacularly,” he added.
When he’s not casting hexes, Wolf makes his living as an online financial consultant.
Rising Storm has a more personal, emotional connection to Wicca. She has been a witch since she was 14, but strengthened her faith after her 17-year-old brother was murdered in the Bronx in 2011. “This religion really helped me get through my grief and really helped me understand why things happen,” she said. “So I’m not all about just spells, this is a real sacred thing to me. That everything has to live and die and get reborn.”
I spoke to Wolf and Rising Storm as they waited for the Samhain ritual to start at midnight. There were some musical acts preceding the ritual (think Kiss with a hint of Sixpence None the Richer) but most of the witches were milling around, checking their phones to see if it was time to summon Hades and commune with the dead. Hectuba, a high preistess dressed as Persephone, took tickets at the door. Starr Ravenhawk, my witch buddy, put out Coke and Sprite.
Not everyone was as friendly as Rising Storm and Wolf. One guy in a long mint-green robe with gold stars on it insisted he was not a witch, he just had this cloak lying around at home. One woman with fake blood all over her face only blinked when I asked her name. Another guy was dressed as a demon, complete with a full fur bodysuit with 2-foot horns, and a beastlike snout. A particularly intimidating witch sat in the corner in a lace dress and a pointy witch hat, tapping her long fingernails on the bannister and watching everyone.
Ashlyn Moonstone, a young witch from New Zealand, said she had had a prophetic dream about the Samhain ritual before she even knew she would be coming to New York. Did she foresee a terrible event? “Only sore feet,” she said.
Moonstone also once dreamed about throwing a can of hairspray at her boyfriend months before she actually threw a can of hairspray at her boyfriend.
When the clock struck midnight, the witches gathered on the tiny stage around a table loaded with ritual offerings. Kurt Talkinstone, a graphic designer who moonlights as a ritual drummer, beat a rhythm along with other drummers that resembled a human heartbeat. We stood in a circle and chanted, “Feel the magic/ Feel the spirit / Feel the power / Feel it here.”
Suddenly, a young man in a dark cloak with a gold mask emerged from the circle. “I am Hades, lord of the underworld!” he cried, throwing his arms in the air. “I take the god’s spirit into my body.” There was silence as the man shook and then became calm. “Welcome, Hades,” the group said.
Hectuba, the woman who had been checking tickets at the door, emerged from the circle to invoke Persephone in the same way. “Welcome, Persephone,” the group said.
Through chants and incense, Hades and Persephone did a ritual to lift the veil between the living world and the dead one. “Our ancestors are now among us,” Starr Ravenhawk said. “Any thought that comes into your head may be a message from the dead.”
The man dressed as a furry demon cried out to Hades. “Take care of our loved ones!” he said. One of his horns almost poked the green-cloak guy in the eye.
Rising Storm fell to the floor. Later, she told me she had felt her brother’s presence.
Hades and Persephone held up a pomegranate. “Behold the pomegranate. It is the fruit of life and death,” they said. “I taste the fruit of death,” the group said.
“Behold the apple, the fruit of rebirth,” they said next. “It gives us the promise of new life.”
“I taste the fruit of life,” the group repeated.
Pieces of parchment were passed around to write the names of dead loved ones or ancestors. The pointy-hatted witch put her parchment in her bra.
After the ceremony was over, when the incense was blown out and the tears were dried and the tiny pieces of parchment were submitted to the gods, the witches put on their cloaks and jackets and headed to subways and buses and taxies. Nobody got on a broomstick. Hectuba checked her iPad, still in her Persephone costume. The elders packed up the mini-cauldron and the sacred oils and took them home, following late-night Halloween revelers down Suffolk street.