by BB Bishop

On a brilliant midsummer afternoon, MaryEllen Pride is at the top pf Reservoir Hill in Riverwest, explaining the practice of calling the quarters, part of the Neo-pagan protocol of casting a ritual circle, to a crowd of several dozen nonbelievers and practitioners alike. The occasion, a hand-fasting, or Wiccan wedding, is a joyous one and the relentless sun agrees. Under parasols, the rapt celebrants take in MaryEllen’s melodic elaboration of the act as well as the underlying faith. Like the rote of a ranking professor, it’s discernible she has given this exegesis often.

Since the 1970s, MaryEllen has been a practicing witch; more importantly, her journey has been one of advocacy and education, challenging the stigma surrounding paganism to legitimize the religion and its practitioners. While some consider paganism, neopaganism and Wicca to be distinct paths, they are rarely separate. Raised Catholic, the young devotee found similarities between the rites of both faiths; but was attracted to the ecological and feminist aspects, having emerged from the sixties and the women’s movement. Similarly, the religion’s contemporary height of popularity she feels is resonating with more people than ever, again concerned with Mother Earth and gender equality.

Initially, her introduction to the occult was fortune telling, perhaps a grocery store palmistry pamphlet that proved lucrative in the middle school lunchroom. Popular astrology at this time was in its heyday, and a young MaryEllen, born on a cusp, found herself trying to determine which sign she was. According to the methodology used, she may have been a few “degrees” either Virgo or Leo, and a lifelong path of inquiry was sparked. To this day, she prefers to use a heavy printed ephemeris, a tome that contains every planetary aspect of every birth time of the last two centuries; now in her fifth decade of practice she has worn through over a half-dozen copies.

As a Wicca practitioner, MaryEllen has a direct lineage to Alex Sanders, the British founder of one of the two main branches of Wicca. The other, Gardnerian Wicca, was brought to the States by the legendary occult author Ray Buckland, a penpal of hers. Both Gerald Gardner, an anthropologist, and Sanders developed their craft in the era following the 1951 UK repeal of the centuries-old Witchcraft Act. Her correspondence wit Ray may some day end up in  Buckland’s Museum of Witchcraft & Magick; in one letter, she dictates her response to Buckland’s gripes regarding a publisher’s slack-paying by quoting a money-magic chant which is quite familiar in neopagan circles: “Dear [Publisher]: “Money Money Money, Me Me Me, Now Now Now!” (Reprinted for reader use—anyone is welcome to try, even devout atheists.)

Her work brought MaryEllen to become the head of the national chapter of Covenant of the Goddess in the early 1980s, amidst a nascent Satanic Panic which would last for over a decade. Conservative media incited paranoia from the religious right; shows like Pagan Invasion painted a picture of a devilish alliance that had nothing to do with the nature religion. Having moved “back to the land” near Mukwonago, WI, her children were bullied and there was even fear of surveillance.

Returning to the east side of Milwaukee brought a closer connection to a practicing urban coven, which used to meet in the early 90’s behind the curtained storefront of an former gallery on Fratney and Clarke. Being able to household along with her practicing—and platonic—high-priest, an MPS teacher, brought a sense of family as she raised her daughters following a divorce.  MaryEllen was photographed by Frank Ford for the cover of Milwaukee Magazine in October 1991, which brought positive local coverage, and then soon helped lead the local Congregation of Unitarian Universalist Pagans (CUUPS). She was consistently voted Milwaukee’s “Best Psychic” in the Shepherd Express—the category was abandoned after she took top prize year after year. Since those years she has also guided the inquisitive locally, emerging as a preeminent elder figure for a now thriving Milwaukee pagan community.

Ms. Pride has lived in Riverwest for the last 13 years. These days, along with the Earth-Sky connection on Reservoir Hill, which she calls the “top of the world,” convenient for moon viewing as “one can see for miles,” MaryEllen finds spiritual connection amongst the woods along the river. “There’s a very strong nature/elemental vibe. The forest has taken back buildings and businesses which once existed there. A forest in the midst of a city has a calming vibe that helps us reconnect to nature and our ancestors.”

The relationship between witchcraft and psychic ability may have its roots in shamanism. Ancient herbalism practices sometimes included psychedelic substances used to heighten the senses. In spiritualism, seances are used not only to connect with those who have passed on, but sometimes to ask what the future may hold, as the relationship with time is not as distinct in their realm. Although not an advertised part of her psychic practice, MaryEllen, when requested, will perform a ritual connection to contact

the deceased. At the holy eve of Samhain (Halloween), “the veil between the worlds becomes thin, the world will begin to fall asleep.”

Contact info.  MaryEllen Pride 414-224-6446.