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.

HISTORY

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.

FACTS

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 nature.

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 Father Sky.

Most Wiccan groups also practice magic, by which, they mean the direction and use of "psychic energy".

Many, but not all, Wiccans believe in reincarnation.

Most groups have a handwritten collection of rituals and lore, known as a "Book of Shadows."

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.

MYTHS

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 that had
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 other horrors.

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.

ORGANIZATIONAL STRUCTURE

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.

WICCAN ETHICS

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.

WICCAN HOLIDAYS

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 (xavienne@sorceress.co.uk) 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 happened.

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 my life.

DB:  How are you different from the portrayal of Witches that we see on TV?

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.

Overview

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 Wicca.

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.

Epilogue

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.

www.religiousintolerance.org

http://cti.itc.virginia.edu/~jkh8x/soc257/nrms/wicca.html

http://160.149.101.23/chap/relpractice/other/wicca.htm

www.adherents.com

http://160.149.101.23/chap/relpractice/other/wicca.htm

http://www.witchvox.com/wvoxhome.html

http://www.uoguelph.ca/~bmyers/oldways.html

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.

Return to DaBelly

© 2000   DaBelly Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.