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This wiccan mom is no fly-by-night

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Deniz Zoeller doesn't sacrifice children. She's raising a houseful.

Pouring juice, fetching crackers, taking away noisy toys and comforting hurt feelings in her split-level June Cleaver house, she seems to be an everyday mom.

Who would guess that, as Lady Larina, she is high priestess of the state's most famous witches' coven. Her husband, who runs his own construction business, is high priest.

Zoeller, whose Turkish parents are Muslim, stepped into the shoes (definitely not black pointy-toed lace-ups) of Lady Sintana, a former burlesque dancer named Candace Lehrman, who established Ravenwood near Little Five Points in 1975. Under Sintana's leadership, Ravenwood Church and Seminary of Wicca became the first tax-exempt pagan religious institution in Georgia and one of the first in the country.

It weathered moves, zoning battles, concerned neighbors, changes in leadership and schism before the Zoellers were hand-picked by Sintana to take over in 2000.

Their elevation to third degree, or top-notch, witches was celebrated with champagne toasts in a suburban neighborhood clubhouse.

Zoeller went to an open house at Ravenwood with a friend in 1988. She says she had already formed strong ideas about how the universe worked.

At Ravenwood, she said, "I was hearing my own thoughts echoed back to me by others." She started taking classes and worked her way up the Wiccan ladder. She met her husband, Lord Gaelin, there, and they married in a lavish ceremony with Sintana's high priest presiding.

Although they share the responsibility for their congregation of 50 or so witches, she technically outranks her husband because the faith is matriarchal.

They tend the worship circle in their backyard, organize classes, plan open houses, teach, schedule sabbath and holiday services, oversee rites and rituals, bless babies and marriages, perform funerals and make sure the books are in order to retain tax-exempt status.

They're also applying for faith-based-initiative money to provide housing for homeless veterans.

Recently, they've been hosting "witch craft" classes on mosaics, candlemaking and traditional broom construction.

Zoeller says her often-misunderstood faith emphasizes a balanced life, harmony with nature and service to others, she says.

"We expect people to be responsible for their actions and for the consequences of their actions," she says.

This time of year, things get tricky for witches. She prefers to enjoy the attention given to the craft, rather than to be offended at the stereotypes.

But for her, Halloween is sacred.

It's the Wiccan new year, when good witches look over their actions and activities of the past year and decide which they should carry forward and which they should drop.

Ritually, the witches of Ravenwood will set out a "dumb supper," or silent meal of bread, wine and fruit, for the spirits of those who have died. There will be food for dead pets.

Witches will light candles in tribute, then scatter the food and drink to return it to nature.

Zoeller doesn't mind that some schools hold "fall festivals" instead of Halloween carnivals because of pagan associations.

As long as people are celebrating the harvest and the change of seasons, they're celebrating important facets of Wicca, she says.

"That's the important thing, no matter what they call it."

Copyright 2005 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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