Look Who's Coming to Dinner...,
In the waning years of the millennium, the amount of followers of Paganism in America has
grown exceedingly. We are going to take a closer look at this ancient religion known
as WICCA and ask, why the sudden popularity?
Pagans In America
by Dave Schwartz
I'm sure that I am predating some of you, so perhaps I should explain. It's the
title of a dusty old movie from the early 60's featuring a young white girl from an
affluent background who brings home her intended to meet the family for the first time.
The twist? Well, her intended was Sidney Poirtier. Pretty racy (forgive
the pun) subject matter for a major studio in a day when blacks were knee-deep in the
struggle for personal freedom and equal rights. It was an important film and a very
good film. Given the opportunity I recommend that everyone take the time to enjoy
this classic to discover where America was in the 60's and discover how far we have come
and the lessons we have learned.
Many of you are already wondering what that has to do with pagans in America. They
are strange bed fellows but bed fellows nonetheless. Many pagans today live their
religious lives in utter secrecy to protect themselves from the similar social
intolerance, discrimination and oppression experienced by blacks and now today's gay
community. This intolerance has kept pagans "in the closet" for centuries.
But as Bob Dylan once said, "these times they are a changing," and you're
about to learn how much.
The link to the movie, "Look Who's Coming To Dinner"? It's fairly obvious.
With today's social paradigms, the growth of paganism in America, Australia and
Great Britain, paired with the inability of so many to express their own religious
non-exclusivity, has led to people keeping mute on the subject of religion. This in
turn, leads to a simple reality... you just never know who you may be sharing the
table with. So I offer this as simple fair warning- if you're looking for a cyber
burning of the witch, move on. You have better things to read on this web site.
Much of this article was assembled from text borrowed from other web sites. It is
not my intent to take credit for the work of others. You will find links to the relevant
web sites at the end. This article is intended as strictly informational. I will offer
limited opinions but will draw no conclusions, I'm afraid that is up to you. But I will
offer a hint: This isn't an article about religion.
First of all, we should cover some basic definitions. The term Wicca is a moniker that
loosely includes witchcraft; goddess worshipers; neo-paganism, paganism, Norse (or any
other ethnic designation) paganism, earth religion, old religion, druidism and
shamanism among others.
The population of active Wiccans is difficult to discern. Estimates include
"50,000 in the United States", "somewhere between 300-30,000 covens"
to "over 4 million neo-pagans worldwide". In the end, it is impractical to
even attempt an accurate count due to the secrecy of each coven. But all involved
agree that the popularity of Wicca is increasing dramatically.
As I hope that you will discover, the line between pagans and Christians is not as defined
as some would have you believe. Much of Wicca owes its lineage to the early pagan Celts.
The first missionary to the Celts may have been Saint Paul. He sought converts to
Christianity in the Celtic land of Galatia as recorded in his Epistle to the Galatians of
the Christian scriptures (New Testament). Later missionaries and the Roman army gradually
spread Christianity across Europe, easily converting the rulers and the druidic
priesthood, but having less success in bringing the common folk in the more rural areas to
the new religion.
Many believe that much of Christianity was derived from pagan sources, this includes the
sites of many cathedrals, the lives of many Christian saints (who were really recycled
pagan goddesses and gods), many Christian holy days, and many cultural celebrations. There
are many vestiges of paganism which remain a part of our culture, for example, Groundhog
Day, Christmas, May Day, Halloween, the names of the days of the week and months of the
year, common sayings, and numerous traditions associated with holidays. It shouldn't be a
huge surprise to most of us.
Later I will discuss the "Burning Times", but for now it is more relevant to
stick to the more recent times. Modern Wicca had it's twentieth century origins thanks to
writers like Robert Graves, anthropologist Margaret Murray and Gerald B. Gardner. In
1951 the anti-witchcraft laws in England were repealed. Soon after, Gardner publicly
declared himself a witch and began teaching a small group of students. Beginning in 1954,
Gardner and his priestess, Doreen Valiente, wrote a series of books on witchcraft. The
first book published was "Witchcraft Today," based on a thesis
by Margaret Murray. She believed that witchcraft had existed since pre-Christian
times but was hidden by its practitioners for fear of
persecution. In 1962, Raymond and Rosemary Buckland, students of Gardner, emigrated
to the United States and began
teaching the Gardnerian form of witchcraft.
Although many of Gardner's claims have been refuted in recent years, it is still believed
that Wicca has existed before Christianity. As always, the theories have evolved
over time, but the basic truths are still evident. Today it is believed that the old
religion of Wicca focused more on herbal medicine and magical lore.
Another prevalent form of Wicca, Dianic, found its roots in the United States during the
late 1960s, early 1970s. The Dianic tradition formed in two separate locations,
first in Venice, California, by Zsuzsanne Emese Bedapest, and in Dallas, Texas, by Morgan
McFarland and Mark Roberts. Dianic has many similarities to the traditional forms of Wicca
with one important difference. For the traditional Wiccan, the Goddess is a symbol
of nature and for the feminist Wiccan, the Goddess is the symbol of the enpowerment of
women, but the Dianic tradition is based on the worship of Diana, the
ancient Greek Goddess. Most other traditions worship two deities, the God and
Goddess, as equals where none deserves more importance than the other. This usually
translates into a balance between the feminine and masculine forces in a coven, in this
aspect the Dianics also differ. Feminist practitioners such as Zsuzsanne Bedapest
and her branch of Dianic Wicca have emphasized the feminine aspect much more than
traditional Wicca, to the extent that men are excluded from their covens. Since its
connection to Wicca, the feminist movement has focused its purpose on stripping away all
the dark connotations of the word "witch" and restore to it instead the old
attachments of healing and female power.
In 1975, the Covenant of the Goddess was formed. The CoG is a very diverse group of
covens that secured the legal protections and benefits of church status. They
accomplished this by incorporating the CoG in California. This forced recognition by the
Internal Revenue Service. For the first time, Wicca had been recognized as an
organized religion by a branch of the United States government.
Wiccans usually worship in groups, but there are also a number of individuals who choose
to practice their faith alone, they are known as solitaries.
Some Wiccan covens worship in the nude ("skyclad") as a sign of attunement with
Almost all Wiccans use an individual ritual knife (an "athame") to focus and
direct personal energy.
Covens often also have ritual swords to direct the energy of the group. Other commonly
used ritual tools include a bowl of water, a bowl of salt, a censer with incense, a disk
with symbols engraved on it (a "pentacle"), statues or art work representing the
Goddess and God, and candles.
Wiccans worship the sacred as eminent in nature, often personified as Mother Earth and
Most Wiccan groups also practice magic, by which, they mean the direction and use of
Many, but not all, Wiccans believe in reincarnation.
Most groups have a handwritten collection of rituals and lore, known as a "Book of
Because of the basic nature orientation of the religion, many Wiccans will regard all
living things as sacred and show a special concern for ecological issues.
There is no sacred text encompassing all of Wicca.
It is very important to be aware that Wiccans do not in any way worship or believe in
"Satan," "the Devil," or any similar entities. They point out
that Satan is a symbol of rebellion against and an inversion of the Christian and Jewish
faiths. Wiccans do not revile the Bible, they simply regard it as one among many of the
world's mythic systems; less applicable than some to their core values, but still
deserving just as much respect.
Wiccans do not proselytize and generally resent those who do. They believe that no one
"Path to the Sacred" is right for all people, and see their own religious
pattern as only one among many that are equally worthy. Wiccans respect all religions that
foster honor and compassion in their adherents, and expect the same respect. Members are
encouraged to learn about all faiths, and are permitted to attend the services of other
religions should they desire to do so.
The folklore of "black magic" has long been told. During the Middle Ages, prior
to 1400, there was a widespread popular belief that witches existed as evil persons,
primarily women, who devoted their lives to harming and killing others through black magic
and evil sorcery. But the Catholic church at the time officially taught that witches did
not exist and it was a heresy to say that they were real. This all changed in the 1430s,
when Christian theologians started writing articles and books which "proved" the
existence of witches. The Church created an imaginary evil religion, using stereotypes
circulated since pre-Christian times. They said that followers of the old religion were
evil witches who kidnapped babies, killed and ate their victims, sold their soul to Satan,
were in league with demons, flew through the air, met in the middle of the night, and
Human sacrifice is another popular legend. Evidence does prove that there were many
societies that did partake of animal and human sacrifice rituals, so clearly it is
possible that pagans, did as well. Today's Wiccans, however, do not partake in such
rituals. Any sacrifices that are made in today's society are of a more personal nature and
have similarities to many of the more mainstream religions. They include fasting and the
lighting of candles to name a few.
Most Wiccans meet with a coven, a small group of people. Each coven is autonomous.
Most are headed by a High Priestess, often with the assistance of a High Priest. Some are
headed by a High Priestess or High Priest without a partner, and some regard themselves as
a gathering of equals. Covens can be of mixed gender, or all female or all male, depending
on the preferences of the members. Every initiate is considered to be a priestess or a
priest. Most covens are small. Thirteen is the traditional maximum number of members,
although not an absolute limit.
The core ethical statement of Wicca, called the "Wiccan Rede" states "an it
harm none, do what you will." The Rede fulfills the same function as does the
"Golden Rule" for Jews and Christians, and all other ethical teachings are
considered to be elaboration's and applications of the Rede.
The second law that Wiccans follow is the "Threefold Law," which simply states
that a person's deeds return to him or her three times over. The Threefold Law has large
implications in governing one's behavior because it applies not only to good works, but to
bad actions as well.
The final belief is that of reincarnation. Wiccans do not believe in heaven or hell since
death is considered to be another form of existence.
Social forces generally still do not allow witches to publicly declare their religious
faith without fear of reprisals such as loss of job, child custody challenges and
ridicule. Prejudice against Wiccans is the result of public confusion between witchcraft
and Satanism, thus concealment has become a traditional defense against persecution.
Wiccans celebrate eight festivals, called "Sabbats," as a means of attunement to
the seasonal rhythms of nature. These are January 31, called Oimelc, Brigit, or February
Eve, March 21, Ostara or Spring Equinox, April 30, Beltane or May Eve, June 22, Midsummer,
Litha or Summer Solstice, July 31, Lughnasadh or Lammas, September 21, Harvest, Mabon or
Autumn Equinox, October 31, Samhain, Sowyn or Hallows, and December 21, Yule or Winter
Solstice. Some groups find meetings within a few days of those dates to be acceptable,
while others require the precise date.
Ritual jewelry is particularly important to many Wiccans. In addition to being a symbol of
religious dedication, these talismans are often blessed by the coven back home and felt to
carry the coven's protective and healing energy. Many Wiccan or pagans choose to
wear a pentagram and are not neo-nazis or Satanists. It's similar to a Christian wearing
the Cross or Crucifix or a Jew wearing the Star of David.
THE BURNING TIMES
(circa 1450 to 1792)
All kinds of religious heretics, non-conformists, and devout Christians were targeted as
Satan worshippers, individually tortured and burned alive during the "Burning
Times" in Europe. This extermination was facilitated by a book: Heinrich Kramer &
James Sprenger, "Malleus Maleficarum" (The Witches' Hammer), published about
1490. This book was extensively used as a reference text by judges and torturers during
the subsequent witch trials. The authors claimed that witches flew through the air on
broomsticks, caused lightning and hail storms, changed from humans into animals, became
invisible and committed other inhuman feats.
Wicca, in all its incarnations, is probably one of the longest and most persecuted
religions in history. With the coming of Christianity in Europe, the old religion was
almost immediately opposed. Although the rulers easily converted, the common folk were
less accessible. Eventually during the 15th century, what became known as the
"Burning Times" came to pass. As the Church spread lies about the Wiccan
tradition and accused female practitioners of being handmaidens of Satan, hysteria grew
and Wiccans were increasingly persecuted. With the aid of witch-hunting manuals such as
the "Malleus Maleficarum," thousands of accused witches across Europe, a large
portion of which were not even practitioners of the old religion, were hunted down and
killed. This continued well into the 18th century. Even today, the actual number of people
who died during that time is unknown.
While the Burning Times were moving towards their end in Europe, in 17th century Salem,
another witch hunt was beginning. As with the European witch hysteria, Salem fostered a
similar environment- strained as its inhabitants were between economics, lifestyles and
politics as a result of their new surroundings, as well as their Puritan values and
beliefs. With the addition of an interest in the occult and some knowledge in voodoo lore
from a slave, the stage was set for another general panic and witch hunt to begin.
In 1692, a group of closely knit girls ranging in age from nine to nineteen started to
meet together to discuss the future. Because of a slight fascination with magic, one of
the girls eventually created a crude crystal ball and from there, the path to the Witch
Trials began. As time went on, the girls' parents began to show concern about their
children's "odd" behavior and most likely were the original instigators of the
belief in the presence of witchcraft. Only under persistent questioning did the girls
finally begin to accuse other people in Salem of the practice of witchcraft. At this time,
members of the clergy were struggling to reassert authority and create religious fervor.
The accusations served as an opportunity to do exactly that. With the aid of Cotton
Mather's "The Wonders of the Invisible World," the witch craze was justified and
even further driven into a panic. Before the Witch Trials ended, several people had been
hanged and many more had been tortured or spent months in prison.
Almost unbelievably the witch hunts have persisted to the present day. As recent as
1986-1996 in South Africa, thousands of people have been accused of witchcraft, although
the term does not apply to a religion and practice similar to that of Wicca. The victims
have been accused of powers that are remarkably similar to the accused powers of witches
in Medieval Europe. Despite all beliefs to the contrary, witch hunts have continued to
occur across time and culture.
The Legacy of the Burning Times
Most people realize today that Kramer and Sprenger's beliefs were false, groundless and
based solely upon fear, misogyny, myth, rumor, and a pre-scientific understanding of the
world. But these same (or similar) beliefs continue to be promoted today. James Clement
Taylor, a conservative Christian has commented: "these people of Wicca have been
terribly slandered by us. They have lost jobs, and homes, and places of business because
we have assured others that they worship Satan, which they do not. We have persecuted
them..." To date, all of the sources for this misinformation that we have been
able to locate come from a small minority of authors within the Fundamentalist/Evangelical
communities. Generally speaking, they tend to rely upon other conservative Christians for
source material. On the other hand, some conservative Christian groups have published
accurate descriptions of Wicca, based on primary sources. Mainline, liberal, and academic
Christian sources have also disseminated accurate descriptions of Wicca.
The Horned God
One of the more common and present day controversies of Wicca, one that has its links to
the European witch hunt, is that of its supposed link to Satanism. One of the underlying
reasons for this is the marked similarity between the visual representations of the Horned
God and Satan. More than one theorist has suggested that one of the ways the Church aided
in the persecution of Wicca and its predecessors was taking the Horned God and making Him
into the Christian incarnation of evil. Such a legacy probably helps to further the
present-day prejudice against Wiccans. There have been allegations of members losing
custody of their children and facing discrimination because of their religious beliefs.
Despite all the misinformation concerning Wicca in popular culture, it should be obvious
that none of it applies to true adherents
of the belief. Ideas such as human sacrifice and child molestation are in direct
opposition to the Wiccan Rede. Unfortunately, this ignorance and misinformation is a
direct result of the tendency for Wiccan practitioners to remain anonymous and unnamed.
Even with such public awareness groups as the Witches' League for Public Awareness and The
Witches' Web, the stigma that has been associated with the word witch is likely to remain
for a long time.
The Witch Speaks
With all the informational text behind us I think it's time to put more of a
human face to this article. I contacted several pagan friends and asked them to respond to
a group of questions that I had assembled. Some replied and some did not which seems
completely inline with the Wiccan tendency to remain anonymous. I suspect that others were
just plain busy and didn't get to their e-mail in time to respond. Regardless, we do have
two who did take part in my survey. Since the above text was more informational I decided
to ask questions of a more personal nature.
I would like to introduce you to Xavienne (email@example.com) and Tom. Two very
diverse individuals that have discovered themselves in this rather eclectic religion. I
sent them a list of seven questions, asking for their input and thoughts. Let's see what
DB: Define what you are... Eclectic Witch, Druid, Shaman,
Gardnerian, Dianic, etc.
Xavienne: I define myself as a Celtic Eclectic Shamanic Kitchen
Witch. Celtic by birth and because I relate more to the Celtic pantheon than to any
other. Eclectic because I am very fussy about what I do with my karma and if something
doesn't feel right, for example working in a coven, I don't do it. I have heard an
"eclectic rede" that goes along the lines of "steal what works, fix what's
broke and improvise the rest." That pretty much sums up my views. Shamanic
comes in because I am very much a person who works well with nature and without the
structures of city life, even though the city I live in is more of a glorified small town
by most standards. Kitchen witch applies because most of my "spell work" as such
involves items that can be found in my kitchen and works that can be done "on the
fly" so to speak.
Tom: I would say that I'm eclectic, although I'm looking into Druidry
now. I didn't pass the physical for Dianic and the Gardnerians didn't approve of my
body paints, so that's out.
DB: What is the difference between the religions
grouped under WICCA (Witches, Druidism, Shamanism)
Xavienne: In my view? The main differences are semantics and
dogma. Witches tend to be the people who fall under the Gardnerian format: followers of
the wiccan Rede, casters of circles, following the God and Goddess religions, seekers of
balance and wisdom. Druids take a more tradition based and still quite secretive
stance, but more can be found about them at the website for the Order of Bards, Ovates and
Druids. They are more concerned with knowledge from the earth itself than from the Powers
That Be, at least so far as can be found from what I have read. Shamanism is a far more
practical variant. You use what nature provides and find spirituality from earth and
stones and animals. No athame required. I catch flak for saying this, but in my view all
religions come down to one basic concept. Love each other and be good to each other.
Anything else is window dressing.
Tom: Actually, I think Wicca is a subset of the pagan belief system,
beginning in the 1950's and attempting to follow an older belief system, that of
witchcraft. I can only speak for myself but I feel that the difference between say,
witches and Wiccans, is the Wiccan Rede, which says "An Harm To None, Do What You
Will". Wiccans profess to follow this 'golden rule' while some of the older witches
I've talked to do not feel bound by this. A small point but fundamental; it changes
the whole outlook, as well as the purpose of the magick done. The other belief
systems I don't feel qualified to discuss, except they're probably as weird as me.
DB: What led you down this path? i.e. family
practice or self-discovery?
Xavienne: This is an interesting question to me. I have always
felt that I was a witch, from the earliest point that I can remember. I have been able to
see auras my entire life and was quite surprised to find out others could not see them. My
grandmother was apparently a good Baptist woman, yet I remember her teaching me about
herbs and flowers and weaving, and that at Christmas time her tree was decorated with
birds and pinecones of glass, and her house was full of candles that she had
"dressed" to look like pine trees. I can't recall ever seeing an angel or
crèche in the house. There was always a small black cauldron at the hearth, and a twig
broom and a candle mould. There was a three foot deep cast iron cauldron in the basement
as well. So, as much as I feel sure that she was "of the craft" I have no
real confirmation, just a strong suspicion. I guess overall you could say it was a bit of
both. Back in 1989 I met someone who introduced me to the world of Wicca, and it was a
homecoming of sorts to realize that there were other people who felt the things I feel,
and saw the things I see. I have since found a great deal of information about Wicca
popping up, and a small percentage of it is actually worth reading.
Tom: I would say self discovery, although I say that it's merely
putting a name on what I have been practicing all my life. Raised Roman Catholic,
I've always followed the pagan pathway, even though I didn't have a name for it.
When I looked into Wicca (finally overcoming the emotional "Witchcraft" label
imprinted on me since childhood), I found that it was what I've really been practicing all
DB: How are you different from the portrayal of Witches that we see
Xavienne: Let's see.... I'm not 98 lbs with perfect teeth and
manicured nails? Oh, and I cannot stop time, fly, travel to other dimensions through my
linen closet or turn people into rats. The best portrayal of a witch on TV that I can
think of is Willow on Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Admittedly they go over the top with her
spells for effect, but overall sometimes things work for her, sometimes they don't. When
they do, it isn't necessarily the way she planned them to. You need to really focus, and
strong emotions make strong spells. It's as realistic as you can expect from television;
people would get pretty bored with Wiccan life as it actually is. I also loved her
statement about the wiccan group she joined on her campus; it says what I feel about many
of the people I meet in the so called Pagan Community - "They're just a bunch of
wanna blessed be's." The most impressive spell I have ever done was more of a
Karma backlash against someone who was attacking me; I did a fire based protection spell
and they had an accident with a fire the same night. I give full credit to the PTB's for
that one. I asked that whoever was trying to harm me take their own back, and the PTB's
sent it where it needed to go.
Tom: I'm better looking but they've got bigger boobs.
DB: What is the most popular misconception people have
with your way of life?
Xavienne: That we are all lesbian Satanists. Personally I am
content in my relationship with my big bald guy, although I am bisexual. As for the
Satanic thing, Satanism is a perversion of Christianity. I do not believe Satan
exists, although Anton LaVey is pretty darn close to the embodiment of that Christian
myth, so I can't possibly worship Satan. I was quite offended to find LaVey's book in the
New Age section of the local bookstore, so I placed it in the Christian section where I
felt it belonged.
Tom: I guess that they either feel my immortal soul is in danger of
eternal hellfire and they alone can save me, or fear that I may put a spell on them.
Interesting question, though; I've never really asked anyone.
DB: Do you feel Wiccans are feared and if so, why?
Xavienne: In some places, yes. The Eischer case in Scotland County
[edit... North Carolina] is an example of that. People fear what they don't understand,
and they don't take the time to learn so they will understand. I am lucky enough to live
in a place where for the most part people go "Whatcha doin'?" and when you tell
them that you are practicing an earth based religion they either go "Oh." and
walk away having decided you are boring, or they ask questions and learn. Very few
people have had a negative reaction to finding out I am a Wiccan, although one girl I
worked with did try to get me to come to church with her. I agreed to go to hers, she
refused to come to mine. We finally came the understanding that we have the same basic
ideas, we just express them differently. My mother reacted quite well to finding out I am
a witch; she even had me do tarot readings for her. I think people here take most things
in stride, which has allowed for quite a thriving local pagan community.
Tom: I don't think feared as much as misunderstood, which comes down
to the same thing in the end. What you don't know, you fear. Couple that with the
Christian admonition against any religion other than theirs and you have the basis for
killing, all in the name of "God".
DB: Is there anything else that you would like to add?
Xavienne: I'd like to ask people to take the time to learn before
they condemn, and to be open to new ideas. If you look into it you find that all the major
world religions have many many common factors, and there is no reason why we can't all
agree to worship as suits each individual. Jesus talked to people, learned about them and
approached with love and faith. Let's see more of his followers do the same.
Tom: I still believe that Christians and Pagans can peacefully
co-exist but it requires understanding and tolerance on the part of both. That is
the hard part.
Wicca is a new religion that has been created from ancient Celtic beliefs, practices, holy
days and symbols. The term "witchcraft" has many mutually exclusive and variant
meanings. However, in North America and in its religious sense, it most often refers to
The Bible is quite intolerant. It condemns all other religions. The Christian Scriptures
(New Testament) states that followers of other religions worship Satan or a demon. This
would include Buddhism, Hinduism, Wicca and many other religions. This is a general
condemnation and it does not criticize Wicca specifically.
The Bible, in its original Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew condemns individuals who use spoken
curses to harm others. Wiccans do not engage in these activities, as they are prohibited
by the Wiccan Rede from doing harm. Various biblical passages condemn methods of
foretelling the future and communicating with the dead. Although these practices are
occasionally used by some Wiccans, it does not form an integral part of their religion.
Many Wiccans follow their religion without using these techniques.
On the other hand, many English translations of the Bible condemn witches and witchcraft.
A careful analysis of the original passages shows that the use of witch or witchcraft is
either a poor translation or a mistranslation. The Bible appears to be silent on the topic
of Wicca and Wiccans.
I would like to thank the following web sites from which I borrowed a great deal of text
to complete this article. The extensive research by these individuals and the passion in
which they pursue tolerance and understanding of all religions has been invaluable.
Covenant of the Goddess, P.O. Box 1226, Berkeley, CA 94704
Witches' Voice has an enormous amount of information: links to Neopagan
websites, lists of pagans and covens by location; teen pagans, etc.