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Learning the art of the 'craft'



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APPELSCHA, Netherlands - A game of Quidditch, anyone? Sorry, not here.

Margarita Rongen is a huge fan of the Harry Potter books but "witches flying on brooms? Such a stupid thing!"

She says this with a dismissive toss of her hair, streaked with a color that glows volcano-red in the dim candlelight of a tiny cottage. Shadows dance over bottles and beakers, murky vials and tufts of dried herbs. A spinning wheel sits in the corner.

With Halloween near, it seemed an appropriate time to visit a bona fide witch. Like Rongen, who runs the Netherlands' only museum and school of witchcraft.

This isn't Hogwarts, that vast, supernatural domain of Harry and his friends. And you get to this northern Dutch village by the No.16 bus, not a train rocketing through the night from a phantom platform.

Still, Rongen's school recently won a significant stamp of legitimacy. Last month, a judge ruled that Dutch students can deduct tuition, which runs to about $2,200 for a 366-day or "13-moon" course.

The case was brought by an actor who argued that the training she received from Rongen will help her earn a living, including portraying a witch at an ancient Dutch castle.

The ruling stands for now, though the Christian Democratic Appeal, the country's biggest political party, says it will revisit the matter in parliament. Skepticism that witchcraft is a valid, er, occupation reflects a common misconception, Rongen maintains.

"This idea that we are evil - that was the church in the Middle Ages. The church wanted to have a lot of power, and when you want to have power, you frighten people.

"We teach everybody to respect all living things on Mother Earth. You can have other religions, other ways of looking at it, but respect is the spell."

Rongen says she hails from a long line of witches that included her late father. At age 6, she realized she was different from other kids by the strange looks she drew on remarking, "There's a full moon tonight!"

Now 56, she dresses as one might expect. Around her neck, a five-pointed pentagram representing energy and the four elements of earth, wind, fire and water. Her skirt and top are pitch black, but she cautions against reading anything into that.

"I hate shopping, and I work with herbs and other things that get dirty."

Nine years ago, Rongen founded Heksehoeve, or "witch farmhouse," and offered lessons in spells, potions, rituals and divining. Most course work is done over the Internet, but students who live nearby spend one weekend a month at the house. Fees cover room and board, wine and a "moon-fest," celebrated at the time of full moon.

For those considering evil spells on a cheating spouse or obnoxious boss, Rongen stresses the two laws of witchcraft: "One, never, ever, harm someone. Two, everything you do, you get back three times. When we do bad things, we get bad things back three times."

Since the school opened, she has had about 170 students, including ones from as far away as the United States and Brazil. The youngest: a girl of 18, the minimum age for initiation as a witch. The oldest: a 76-year-old woman who "all her life had an interest in herbs and Mother Earth, but didn't know what to do with it."

Publicity over the tax ruling has prompted widespread, global interest. For space reasons, Rongen limits the number of students each year to 10, though she has added workshops and English-language CDs.

The curious can also visit the museum, where Rongen and her daughter-in-law, a former pupil, sell herbal remedies for eczema, migraines and other ailments. Those in the job market can pay 9.95 euros - about $12 - for a magic job-finding kit that includes a vial of water, tinted green for success and money.

"We teach everybody to respect all living things on Mother Earth. You can have other religions, other ways of looking at it, but respect is the spell."

- MARGARITA RONGEN, who runs the Netherlands' only museum and school of witchcraft

The growing interest in witchcraft has been widely attributed to the enormous popularity of the Harry Potter books. But even before those, Rongen says, people were searching for "the old wisdom and knowledge" in fast-moving, traumatic times.

"Nine years ago, people came to me and said, "You're a witch, tell me what to do.' So I made a museum where I can show them the energy of Mother Earth and all her gifts to us, the herbs, the plants, the stones. That's very comforting to people."

But back to Halloween, which has become increasingly popular in the Netherlands. It turns out that witches don't celebrate Halloween, but Samhain, when they commune with departed loved ones on Oct. 31.

"The last three years there have been big parties," Rongen says, "so this year Dutch TV called and said, "We want to film you that night.' I told them, "I'm talking to my father and I don't need a camera in my face."'

--Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com

To see more of The St. Petersburg Times, go to http://www.sptimes.com .

© St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.

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