A Very Wiccan Holiday Season
If you read the news, that’s likely the context in which you have been exposed to Wicca as a modern religion. It perennially pops up as third-page news every Hallowe’en (based on the Celtic fire festival Samhain and regularly reclaimed and rejected by above-referenced Evangelicals) and Christmas (all the Christmas Trees, mistletoe, crackling fires and gift-giving around the Winter Solstice have a distinctly Pagan feel and Pagan history about them) because of the Pagan connotations.
But what was once fairly safe historical-interest filler for the Religion section of the paper is now a hotbed of religious contention over symbols, beliefs, and public displays during the holiday season. Yes, those holidays were derived from Pagan roots, but until recently Paganism was a historical footnote, not taken seriously in the Western world of Religion as anything but fodder for quaint tradition.
No more. Wicca is a Pagan religion. It does not accept any scripture from the Ancient Middle East as a valid spiritual authority. It is a pantheistic/polytheistic Nature-oriented religion. It is protected by the First Amendment, recognized by the US Military (“an equal-opportunity employer”) and the legally savvy Wiccans are going to do everything they can to ensure that their beliefs are respected by the courts, if not the present Administration and the public-at-large.
Pretty heady stuff for a “made up” religion with less than 1 million practitioners in North America.
Wicca has been practiced in the Western world for over 50 years, now. Yet some claim that Wicca (an Old English-derived term for Witch, as in Witchcraft, as in magic, spells, wands and brooms) is some kind of kooky “made up” religion that was invented by an aging British civil servant, Gerald Gardner, in the 1950s. Still others claim that Wicca is the continuation of an ancient goddess-centric spirituality that dates back to Paleolithic times – when the evidence breaks down, blame the “monotheistic patriarchy” for trying to hide the truth. The facts and the truth lie somewhere between those extremes.
One of the common arguments against Wicca as a “real” religion is the fact that some early practitioners (way back in the mists of time, say the late 1960s, early 1970s), in an attempt to borrow legitimacy for their beliefs, made claims about the historical roots of the religion, often citing Margaret Murray’s now-discredited The Witch Cult in Western Europe as source material. With the rise of Wiccan practitioners in the 1990s, a whole new wave of historical re-interpretation was launched, asserting the overtly feminist history (or herstory, if you will) of Wicca, mainly basing their position on popular books such as Merlin Stone’s When God Was A Woman and Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance. Both books asserted a prehistoric matriarchal culture that universally worshipped a Mother Goddess, and the latter work claimed that Wicca was a descendent, spiritual or direct, of that cult. The scholarship was uneven, speculative, and in some places just fantastic; and while the books brought up an interesting – even inspiring –proposition, using them as a credible source for a historical base of the religion is difficult at best and intellectually dishonest at worst.
Wicca, as it is currently practiced, was largely formed by a small group of British mystics in the 1950s, themselves spiritual descendents of the previous age of British mystics who had used the British Empire as their spiritual smorgasbord. By borrowing mystical concepts from such diverse sources as Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sufism, and the Western European Occult tradition in the form of Freemasonry, Astrology and Alchemy, Gerald Gardner, Doreen Valiente and Alex Saunders, among others, “created” the bare bones of the religion now known as Wicca.
Most Wiccans are aware of that. Most Wiccans are cool with that.
Because the need to legitimize a spiritual belief by rooting it in the soil of ancient tradition or teaching is one of the legacies our culture bears from the Abrahamic Faiths: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. As Wicca has grown and matured over the last 50 years, however, a large number of Wiccans have recognized that theirs is a syncretic faith. Upon further study, so were Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. This apparently occurs every couple of hundred years or so: as the society and technology and the economy change, so to does Religion change to conform to the spiritual needs of the people. It is no accident that Wicca’s recent popularity has coincided with the rise of the Internet, or the post-industrial economy.
The fact of the matter is that absent of any historically legitimizing text or practice, Wicca is a vibrant, potent spiritual movement in today’s society – much to the chagrin of many Christians, who take the very presence of this tiny religion as a sign of the Apocalypse. Wicca’s numbers have grown exponentially in the last few decades. And unlike previous nascent faiths, it has done so while actively shunning proselytizing of any sort. It has no central organization – and damn little local organization of any sort – and very few widely acknowledged leaders. Websites about Wicca abound, and are filled with as much rumor, urban myth and bad history as they are useful and practical information on the religion. With no central . . . anything, it’s easy to see how confusing things might get. As any three Wiccans of their opinion of any conceivable theological topic, it is said, and you will get five answers and a fight.
All of that being said, Wicca continues to expand, grow, and mature. Especially mature. No longer a “kooky cult”, it has been around long enough now to attract serious academic study as well as develop a very generalized theology, body of ritual, custom and lore. And virtually none of it came from ancient sources.
Are Wiccans “making it up as they go along”, as so many critics have insisted? Not quite. In the very best of religious traditions, Wicca is borrowing many diverse elements and creating a faith out of it. While this rankles the nostrils of those academicians who have spent their entire career viewing religion through a text-based filter, the fact remains that Wicca has co-opted perfectly sound religious principals from other religions . . . and other philosophical sources.
Feminist philosophy is one. One of the hallmarks of Wicca is the return of the Goddess – not the return of any specific pre-Christian Goddess, necessarily, but a return to the acknowledgement that Divinity has a female face as well as a long white beard. One common complaint among Wiccans about the current dominant faiths is that they are nearly totally lacking in divine feminine archetypes, and they place much of the burden of Christianity’s past sins squarely on its patriarchal shoulders. Bring back the Goddess, the Wiccans say, invite Her into your life and you invite Compassion, Love, and Caritas into your life. They aren’t pushy about it, and this isn’t the central focus for a lot of Wiccans, but Goddess Spirituality is a cornerstone of the religion.
Environmental Spirituality is another. As the effect of man’s presence on this globe is finally being felt in ways that cannot be ignored, a rise in the veneration of Nature and Ecology is to be expected. For some Wiccans it is a matter of picking up litter at public parks; for others it is the restoration or protection of environmentally sensitive areas. Combining social activism with religion is nothing new – Christianity and Islam have done it over and over – even if the realm of the Environment is relatively new spiritual territory. It helps that in absence of an Armageddon-like end-game, Wiccans are looking towards continued habitation on this planet for at least a few more hundred years. Elevating the Environment to the status of divine gives it more gravitas as an issue for them.
Science Fiction and Fantasy have also contributed to the syncretic nature of Wicca. While rarely used as “canonical” texts, Wiccans as a rule are as much well-educated bookworms as they are radical feminists or Green activists. Wicca in practice has co-opted much from the Society for Creative Anachronism, Sci-Fi Conventions, Star Trek, Star Wars, Renaissance Faires, and similar institutions, and the bookshelf of the average Wiccan has as much classic Sci-Fi and Fantasy as it does spellbooks. This gives Wicca a spiritual link to both the Past (Medieval Fantasy) and the Future (Science Fiction). It allows the religion to be open to new experiences and influences, such as the Internet and technology, as well as glean spiritually important insights from the past. The whole Goth aspect of Wicca stems from this wellspring. If the Geeks really will inherit the Earth, it will be a bunch of Dungeon-and-Dragons playing Wiccan Trekkies in charge.
The influence of “Eastern” religions is also present. While the belief in reincarnation shared by most practitioners was, indeed, a central tenant of the ancient Druids, it is more commonly understood by Wiccans today through a Hindu/Buddhist filter. Other Eastern spiritual practices inform the religious observances of Wiccans, without being a core component of the religion as a whole: martial arts, yoga, Chinese herbalism, acupuncture, and other exotic elements with very practical applications have seeped into Wicca. There’s also been a bit of Native American tradition picked up, which frequently annoys Native Americans. Most of the Wiccans don’t seem to mind.
Wicca is a syncretic faith, like all of the others. It has a dubious origin and questionable mythology, like all of the others. It has its zealots, its apostates, its martyrs, and its saints, just like all the others.
What it has that the Big Three lack is a deep spiritual commitment to Diversity and a focus on Wisdom (The Art and Science of Doing The Right Thing At The Right Time) instead of Faith (Absolute Belief Without Proof). It glorifies the sanctity of the individual spiritual experience instead of exalting the interpretation of the written word. It seeks religious truth through personal introspection instead of through conversion and confession. It is a religion of Orthopraxy (“Right Action”) as opposed to Orthodoxy (“Right Belief”). And it is an emergent faith, one that is still growing, still changing, still evolving.
And that’s cool with the Wiccans, too.