A lot of our introductions to pagan religions probably would have come from Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, where enigmatic symbologist Professor Langdon debunks the origins of popular symbols synonymous with dark magic or devil worship, like the pentacle (which actually represents the elements of nature and balance) and the pitchfork ( Poseidon’s trident). With the resurgence of neo-pagan religions, Wicca emerged as the most popular, gaining numbers worldwide, and India hasn’t been left out of the wave. The sense of intrigue and fascination about these spiritual traditions which were quietened by the forces of the church in early history culminated in a meeting with the owner of The Wiccan Shop in Mahim, Angel Serrao.
Angel Serrao was bought up in a traditional Catholic family in Mumbai. At a young age he had a vision of someone he couldn’t quite place at that point, but later realised was Goddess Kali. His parents and the priests told him that it was the devil he had seen and that he had to pray hard to rid himself of the after effects. During his late teenage years, Serrao set out to be a priest and joined the Carmelites in Goa. During the course of his journey to becoming a priest, there came a moment when Serrao wasn’t entirely sure if this was the path for him. His apprehension was reaffirmed when one fine day his mother showed up at the monastery to take him back home.
Fast forward to when he was an 18-year-old in San Francisco and was led to one of the oldest Wiccan stores there by his tarot-reading aunt (a hushed secret from his rather traditional family, of course). That is when he met his teacher for the first time, but at that point he was as disbelieving as could be. “I thought I was sinning, I even said my Hail Mary’s before going in there. The first question I asked her was whether witches sacrifice lives! But my doubts resolved when she explained to me what Wicca truly is. She told me that the goddess walks with me, and asked me of any visions of a particular goddess I had as a child. I decided to be her student and my journey began there,” fondly recalls Serrao. Eventually, he completed the three-degree training to become a fully practicing Wiccan High Priest, which took all of three years and three days.
In the new age, though not threatened by witch hunts, neo-Pagan religions are still facing the stereotypes and misconceptions passed down through the ages. This resistance was definitely something Serrao had to overcome. When he returned from the US after completing his Wiccan studies, his father burnt his book of shadows (spell book), smashed his crystal ball and burnt his wand. But things are definitely better now, his parents are now fully aware of the true nature of Wicca and even participate in the festivals and rituals with him. Now, his father even wears a silver pentacle around his neck.
“The important thing people should know is that Wicca doesn’t need you to banish your previous religious beliefs. You don’t become any less of a Wiccan by simultaneously going to church, temple or mosque.” explains Serrao.
So what does Wicca actually constitute? “A lot of things. This isn’t an organised religion, it’s a spiritual system that embraces a wide range of beliefs and practices, each as valid as the next,” says Serrao. New age Wicca draws upon basic spiritual practices of pre-Christian religions, such as Celtic and Gaelic cultures but also incorporates regional beliefs. Serrao, along with celebrating typical Wiccan festivals like Samhain, also celebrates Navratri, as it indicates the nine nights where the goddess is most active. In fact, Serrao’s interfaith minister’s stole, is adorned with the symbols of the major religious systems of the world, such as Judaism, Taoism, and African Voodoo.
Wicca is a practice of very few rules, the one basic principle being “Do what you must, but do no harm.” This builds the foundation for everything Wiccans do, from their spells to their potions. Serrao explains “For instance, if you’re agitated by someone in your workplace and you use a specific brew to help, it won’t do any harm to them. It would simply take them away from your space, leaving you at peace. Maybe the person would get a promotion, or even you might get a promotion or transfer away for example.”
Serrao turned down a corporate job to start his own shop, after briefly working with another Wiccan priestess Swati Prakash at Magick in Bandra, which is no longer functional. “I had constant disagreements on certain things such as the prices of the items. They were quite high and people had no option but to buy them as it was their only source,” says Serrao. He subsequently found a satisfactory place and opened up the store, to create more accessibility for the community.
The shop is a small space in Mahim, and feels like a hybrid of an apothecary, an alchemist’s workshop and a regular modern-day general store minus the milk, eggs, and sugar. It stocks a variety of items most Wiccans use for their practice, such as oils and potions, herbs, a range of teas like chamomile and lavender, crystals, tarot cards, candles of different shapes and colours, calendars, wooden chests, mini cauldrons and more. Most items are imported, such as the potions which are concoctions of different herbs and essential oils brewed in the United States. Articles such as the crystals are locally sourced. The items are purchased even by non-Wiccans, an example of which is an elderly gentleman who frequents the store to stock up on chamomile flowers to help him sleep better.
There is a cozy attic-like space above, which houses the altar, the only official Wiccan temple in India with an affiliation with the Correllian Nativist Tradition, a larger umbrella organisation of Wiccan traditions from around the world. The altar has the triple moon goddess (Artemis, Demeter, and Hecate), along with idols from the Hindu pantheon like Durga, Ganesha, and Mariamman. A mural of Kali is upon the wall, a token to Serrao’s earliest visions that put him upon this path.
the space also hosts the main festivals on the Wiccan calendar, such as Samhain (pronounced Sow-ayain), which takes place on the October 31, and is historically the origins of Halloween. It is believed to be the day when the veil between the physical realm and the spirit realm is the thinnest and the presence of souls on earth increases. They use this day to honour their ancestors, and as it is also revered as the Wiccan new year, therefore members make resolutions for all that they wish for in the coming year, such as love, peace, and prosperity.
“We also have a delicious pumpkin cake fused with lavender!” Serrao tells us. Their celebration is open to non-Wiccans as well and starts at 8:30 pm.
Kushal Pillai, a 25-year-old fashion artist and PR assistant while talking about his experience with Wicca says “It’s about manifestation and being in sync with the universe. At first, I didn’t want to believe in certain aspects of it but I saw the logic and science in a lot of the practices, such as alchemy, astronomy, and herbalism. I saw the medicinal properties in certain herbs used and so on. I like how I can still pick and chose the things that make sense to me.” Sonal works with Serrao as a healer and is also a student of Wicca. She tells us how Wicca has helped her heal emotionally and mentally, through tremendous heartbreak, the death of her father, and even suicidal thoughts. “ The change has been 360 degrees, today I am on the other side where I try to help others who have been through grief and loss.”
In its essence, Wicca is a tradition that asks you to be who you are, making no qualms about gender, background or sexuality. It is in no hurry to establish specific laws or consolidate itself into a formal religion, the peaceful existence of multiple strands of thought within its realm is a testament to the multicultural nature of the faith. I ask the High Priest if there’s anything else he’d like for people to know. “Just tell them we don’t sacrifice children or anything for that matter. I faint at the sight of my own blood!” he chuckles.
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