On September 17th, 2010 “Real Time” host, Bill Maher played an unaired clip of Christine O’Donnell from his old show, “Politically Incorrect.” On October 29, 1999, the 2010 Senatorial candidate for Delaware said,
I dabbled into witchcraft — I never joined a coven. But I did, I did. I dabbled into witchcraft. I hung around people who were doing these things. I’m not making this stuff up. I know what they told me they do […] One of my first dates with a witch was on a satanic altar, and I didn’t know it. I mean, there’s little blood there and stuff like that … We went to a movie and then had a midnight picnic on a satanic altar.
Before I deconstruct this towards the end, let me quote the infamous tweet from Sarah Palin this summer,
Peaceful New Yorkers, pls refudiate the Ground Zero mosque plan if you believe catastrophic pain caused @ Twin Towers site is too raw, too real
First of all, ‘refudiate’ was hilarious. But, for more than a week, I was the only one whom seemed to have seen past that to the more substantive – and offensive – absurdity of everything else in that tweet.
And so it is with the O’Donnell comment. It is humorous on one level, but, it is also incredibly offensive and absurd in ways most are not aware of.
So, with Halloween here and the Christine O’Donnell witchcraft jokes continuing on “Saturday Night Live,” and elsewhere I feel this is a good time to set a few things straight on Witchcraft. In the end, I hope you will understand how these dug-up comments are partially grating to me, not merely fun and games and youthful indiscretions to poke fun at.
In this article, I will offer a primer on the religion of Witchcraft, most commonly known as Wicca, or simply the Craft, or the Old Religion. This itself is a difficult task, given its highly individualistic, noncomformist nature. It is a deliberately unorganized religion, where beliefs and traditions can differ by tradition, coven, and even from Witch to Witch. There is no central dogma and there also exists some crossover with the occult and New Age movement. In addition, the distinction between Wicca and Neopaganism can blur sometimes, for Wicca is part of Neopaganism, though the difference between it and Reconstructed pagan religions should hopefully be grasped by the end of this, and if not, I can answer any questions.
Confronting a Dark History
Isaac Bonewits, a practicing Druid and Neopagan expert (whom passed this August) wrote,
Is a “witch” anyone who does magic or who reads fortunes? Is a “witch” someone who worships the Christian Devil? Is a Witch a member of a specific faith called “Wicca”? Is a “witch” someone who practices Voodoo, or Macumba, or Candomblé? Are the anthropologists correct when they define a “witch” as anyone doing magic (usually evil) outside an approved social structure?
And here is part of the problem. There are many definitions of ‘witch’. The one to which we are most familiar with survives from the Inquisition, through propaganda like the Malleus Maleficarum and King James the First’s Dæmonologie. In other words, the ‘witch’ most commonly identifiable in pop culture is the result of Christian propaganda. By the end of the 15th century, 500 years after the Canon Episcopi first appeared, the Catholic Church had declared it heresy in a papal bull to not believe such Devil-consorting witches existed and were a direct threat in conflict with the Christian faith under the pontificate of Innocent VIII. The height of the witch hunts would occur from 1500-1700. Circa 1600, a witch trial judge recounted,
Germany is almost entirely occupied with building fires for the witches … Switzerland has been compelled to wipe out many of her villages on their account. Travelers to Lorraine may see thousands and thousands of stakes to which witches are bound.
These texts, along with some downright pornographic woodcuts and drawings during the witch hunt period, give us a glimpse more into the political agenda, misogyny and sexually repressed persecutors than the persecuted. But, the damage was done, and so we see such characterizations of witches as the malevolent ugly hag appear in Shakespeare’s MacBeth, Goethe’s Faust, the Brothers Grimm Hansel and Gretel, and down to the present day in Halloween costumes and even Disney movies. This is not to suggest, of course, that this is an entirely Christian construct. Ancient beliefs around the world themselves have shared a common fear of the “evil eye” and of those on the fringes of society whose magic they believed to be capriciously malefic. But that is mostly besides the point to the subject at hand.
The Origins of Modern Witchcraft
In 1954, three years after the last Witchcraft Act of Britain was repealed, an eccentric man by the name of Gerald Gardner, “The Father of Wicca,” published a book entitled Witchcraft Today that based itself partly on the theories of Egyptologist and anthropologist, Dr. Margaret Murray. Murray had gone over the documents from the witch trials to deduce that there were, in her belief, indeed actual witches whom fell victim in the campaign to root out heresy.
Murray published her thesis in The Witch-Cult in Western Europe in 1921, wherein she asserted that there was an organized pre-Christian witch-cult throughout Europe, which had survived in an unbroken chain for 25,000 years since the Paleolithic religion typified by figures such as the Venus of Willendorf, the horned gods of the hunt of Trois-Frères, and the later fertility cults throughout Europe such as those accounted in Sir James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890), or The Golden Ass of Apuleius.
In the period when Gardner was reviving and saving the Old Religion (as he saw it), another book from the turn of the century was rediscovered which seemed to echo his own experience of being initiated into an English coven by an underground tradition in 1939. It was American folklorist Charles Leland’s Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches, purporting to be the beliefs and rituals of Tuscan witches transmitted to Leland by an Italian woman named Maddalena.
Another book influential to the early germinative period of Wicca was Robert Graves’ 1948 book, The White Goddess. While widely regarded as beautiful poetry and metaphor in its regard to the Goddess and idealization of women, it is rebuked by University of Bristol’s Ronald Hutton and Isaac Bonewits, among others, as sloppy scholarship. Its focus on the Celts is romanticized and canned by Celtic scholars, but has left its mark in common Celtic overtones and elements in Wicca. Of Wicca, Graves himself remarked in 1964 that he was bemused by it, feeling it needed more seriousness. Ironically, it was Graves whom recognized a certain naïve idealism and sometimes charlatan aspect to the new movement.
In her book, Drawing Down the Moon, Margot Adler refers to the theory of the unbroken family/initiatory tradition of an underground organized religion surviving through the ages as the “Wiccan Myth.” While of great impetus and influence in the development of Modern Witchcraft, these theories are no longer widely supported literally in the Wiccan and Neopagan community, according to her.
The Wiccan Myth goes that a unified witch cult survived into the Burning Times (as the witch hunts are known to the Neopagan and Wiccan community); that though kings may have adopted the new faith of Christianity (sometimes cynically), the Old Religion survived in the villages of the countryside. This is seen as attested to by the Latin word paganus and Gothic haithi; pagan and heathen, both meaning “rustic” or “of the country.” Old gods either became demons or saints, churches were built on pagan sacred sites, festivals were rededicated while keeping their date, and the Old Ways were kept alive as folk tradition and custom, or subsumed and coöpted by the conquering religion.
Now, much of this is, in fact, true. So, the point of contention comes with just how long unadulterated pagan communities survived, whether Murray’s witch-cult or not. The Norse were particularly stubborn, and the official Christianization of them was declared in the 11th century CE. Though an imperfect analogy on many levels, I can point to Iran, where Islamization took over 400 years after the Islamic conquest, and whose pre-Islamic religion, Zoroastrianism, still exists at around 1% of the population. However; there was no central written scripture for pagans, and what was transmitted directly via oral tradition, as with the Druids, is lost to us in the mists of time.
But, to say that the Burning Times were a holocaust of pagans or witches would be inaccurate, and offensive perhaps to Jews, Armenians and Native Americans, to name a few. Despite this, it may not be entirely factitious to assert some nuanced shreds of truth to the myth. In her book, The Dark Side of Christian History, Helen Ellerbe repeats this myth a bit credulously, but does have some interesting quotes to put to some consideration.
Sorcerers are too common; cunning men, wizards and white witches, as they call them, in every village, which, if they be sought unto, will help almost all infirmities of body and mind. – Robert Burton, 1621.
At this day, it is indifferent to say in the English tongue, ‘she is a witch’ or ‘she is a wise woman.’ – Reginald Scot, 1584.
Though Reginald Scot was a skeptic of witchcraft whom set out to expose the abuse of the witch hunts in his Discoverie of Witchcraft, he does lead us to a lesson of etymology.
The word ‘witchcraft’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon wiccecræft, wicce being an Old English word, meaning, roughly, a “female magician or sorceress” of one sort or another. Wicca, with an –a was the masculine form, and wiccian, the verb. In modern Wicca it is widespread to say it means ‘wise’, but this is etymologically problematic, and probably arose from confusion with the Old English witan, to know (related to both ‘wizard’ and ‘wit’). Witch is also proposed to be connected with Old English wig and wigle; ‘idol’ and ‘divination’, and to Gothic weihs, or ‘holy’ making a case that it was rooted in an older usage that had been inverted and demonized. In addition to general use mostly directed towards women, the Anglo-Saxon word was also used in a positive sense as a translation for Magi and the Egyptian midwives in Exodus.
The modern use of the word Wicca didn’t take hold until the 1970s, and in fact, the “Father of Wicca,” Gerald Gardner, never used the word except as Wica, with one c. He preferred Witch and Witchcraft. The woman known as the “Mother of Wicca,” Doreen Valiente, wrote in The Rebirth of Witchcraft,
One neologism which has become very widespread is the use of the word ‘Wicca’ to mean witchcraft. In fact, it means nothing of the kind. It is the Old English word for a male witch, as any good dictionary will show. The value of any claim to practise ‘Traditional Wicca’ may be judged accordingly. The feminine form of the word was wicce and the verb ‘to bewitch’ was wiccian.
Nevertheless, the founders lost out, and in truth, ‘Wicca’ has as an advantage less of the negative connotations or misunderstandings connected to the word ‘witch’. In addition; as we’ve seen with the myth of the witch-cult, it more accurately represents a religion based on the old, but also the new. Nowadays, the original pronunciation with a ch sound is just a k sound. And, contrary to popular opinion, ‘warlock’ is very seldom used. In Stewart Farrar’s book, Eight Sabbats for Witches, he writes,
But ‘warlock’, in the sense of ‘a male witch’, is Scottish Late Middle English and entirely derogatory; its root means ‘traitor, enemy, devil’; and if the very few modern male witches who call themselves warlocks realized its origin, they would join the majority and share the title ‘witch’ with their sisters.
Some contest this etymology of warlock, but 99% of the time, if a man says they are a “warlock” or a “wizard” rather than a Witch or Wiccan, they are probably full of shit and received their information from a Dungeons & Dragons book, rather than being a studious and contrarian linguist.
With a caveat that I am not a scholar of the witch hunts or Early Modern European history, my personal conclusions thus far are that, in agreement with Isaac Bonewits, that there was no continuance of an underground surviving witch-cult. Wiccan High Priestess and author Vivianne Crowley (no relation, though I wonder about Monica) posits that even while in Ancient Greece there was a dichotomy between the Apollonian, or organized pagan religion and that of circles of Dionysian rites, she is emphatic that Wiccans are not descended from any such religion and have in large matured beyond this myth. Aiden Kelly, founder of the New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn (a somewhat tongue-in-cheek reference to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn) caused quite a stir for calling into question the authenticity of Gardener and the claimed origins of Wicca in Inventing Witchcraft: A Case Study in the Creation of a new Religion, and got into a feud with Gardener initiate, High Priestess, and arch-defender Doreen Valiente. Of one thing they could both agree was that there was no direct line to the Paleolithic. Raymond Buckland, another initiate of Gardener, whom introduced the Craft to America, has reversed his original position and now brags that his interpretation is the newest.
I believe that the original suppression of “Witchcraft” as in the Ecclesiastical Canon of King Edgar of 959 CE, which forbade consorting with trees and stone, was likely aimed at extirpating the pre-Christian beliefs of the “heathens.” But this, in time, became a tool of the Vatican to acquire wealth and land. Rich and affluent women were frequently targeted on the pretext of practicing witchcraft, in addition to the usual suspects of the odd spinster, or perceived unchaste women (i.e., gave the guilt-ridden and pious man a boner). To add to this was the targeting of women with knowledge of herbal medicine, such as village healers and midwives. This threat was twofold. One, it was women with knowledge and independence who competed with the church’s monopoly over health (and thus alms); and two, women with control over their bodies were a threat to male sovereignty. These women knew the secrets of birth control, and, as even Martin Luther said, “If [women] become tired or even die, that does not matter. Let them die in childbirth—that is why they are there.”
One thing the Catholic and Protestant leaders agreed upon besides not suffering a witch to live, was the inherent evil of women — from Tertullian and Aquinas to Calvin and Knox. In a sort of Blood Libel, the Original Sin of Eve is blamed for the reason we (men) have to die. The Lutherans at Wittenberg even debated whether or not women were human – never mind the precarious state of her soul and supposed lascivious predilection to tempt “Godly” men astray into wickedness. One of the most recurring accusations against witches was that they harvested men’s penises. No need to call Dr. Freud on this one.
So, whether or not the healers were aware of it consciously, they were likely carrying on an old folk wisdom, upon which the Church frowned – as it frowned on science in general. These wise women were even known to invoke Christ and the Trinity when collecting herbs, but this was not enough. They were not submitting to God’s Will and entreating Him alone for remedy to illness. The use of herbs could only be known through a pact with the Devil, whether implicitly or explicitly, as Jean Vincent said in about 1475. To put it bluntly, aside from the initial Christian conversions of Europe, I would call the witch hunts not a pagan genocide, but more accurately, a gynocide.
One could argue over minutiæ of the many layers, shadings and complex adaptations, interweavings, absorptions and dilutions of older traditions into the New over time. For example, whether or not Sheela-na-Gigs can be traced directly back to a Yoni-like fertility symbol or apotropaic fetish, I find the suggestion that they just sprung from nowhere onto the edifices of churches a little hard to swallow. Or, whether or not foxglove ever had any religious significance or connection to fairies, its medicinal use was transmitted until it was affirmed as therapeutic for modern use as a treatment for congestive heart failure, known by its Latin, digitalis (Lanoxin).
If you’ve ever brewed a cup of St. John’s wort tea, in one way or another, one might say you’ve drunken a potion. If you’ve ever gone Easter egg hunting, or hung Mistletoe, you are partaking in a pagan-inspired custom. The examples of the influence of the Classical Mystery religions and indigenous seasonal festivals transposed and infused into their Christian forms (with dates intact) are too extensive to go into at length here, but I trust most reading this will be acquainted with many of them. There is already a little Pagan or Witch in many of us – though we would not recognize it as such.
I also do not rule out that such ancient beliefs and practices could have survived in pockets, even the influential historian of religion, Mircea Eliade, considered it possible. But their heirs would be working with fragments, not call themselves Pagans or Witches, and their numbers would be negligible. I would caution anyone without common sense to be suspicious of anyone claiming they come from a long line of Witches. Nevertheless, Witches do exist now, and whatever the legitimacy of a witch-cult, it has become a valid religion in its own right (or rite!).
Wicca Today and its Beliefs
High Priestess Starhawk puts it simply,
The Old Religion, as we call it, is closer in spirit to Native American traditions or to the shamanism of the Arctic. It is not based on dogma or a set of beliefs, nor on scriptures or a sacred book revealed by a great man. Witchcraft takes its teachings from nature, and reads inspiration in the movements of the sun, moon, and stars, the flight of birds, the slow growth of trees, and the cycles of the seasons.
If there is a central tenet in Wicca, it is the Wiccan Rede:
Eight words the Wiccan Rede fulfill,
An it harm none do what ye will.
Many Wiccans also believe in reincarnation, but only from human to human, unlike in Hinduism. Among more Traditional Gardnerian types, they may even believe to be a reincarnated Witch. Also, like Hinduism, the Rule of Three is a sort of Wiccan conception of Karma. Whatever one does (typically in spellcraft) will come back to you threefold.
The central deities of Wicca are the Goddess and the God, coequal, the eternal Feminine and Masculine which manifest themselves throughout nature. Primarily though, the Goddess is lunar and the God is solar. In this sense it is duotheistic and pantheistic. The Goddess and God are seen as archetypal and being found in the pantheons of many cultures, manifesting themselves in different forms. Often, Hinduism finds its way into “filling the gaps” as a guide in Wicca. Some Wiccans even believe that there is a Source beyond the Goddess/God, which approaches Hindu panentheism. Vivianne Crowley, a Jungian psychologist, interprets deities as powerful manifestations of the mind, but no less real or powerful. Still others are almost Buddhist in their approach, paying more attention to the ritual than bothering whether or not the Two exist or not. Dianic Wicca, founded by Zsuzsanna Budapest, worships only the Goddess.
But throughout the Wiccan community, the Goddess is often given more precedence and focus in worship than the God, Her consort, the lord of animals, death and beyond. She is understood in triad form: The Maiden, The Mother, and The Crone. The reasoning is to symbolize the stages of a woman’s life, corresponding to the phases of the moon (waxing, full, waning). This idea of the Triple Goddess comes from Robert Graves and is dubious historically as true to Celtic religion, yet nevertheless it was true of the Hellenic Hecate, and it resonates in its symbolism regardless its origins. One of the symbols of Wicca is of the Triple Goddess.
Wicca in Practice
Doreen Valiente wrote,
I have danced at the Witches’ Sabbat on many occasions, and found carefree enjoyment in it. I have stood under the stars at midnight and invoked the Old Gods; and I have found in such invocations of the most primeval powers, those of Life, Love and Death, an uplifting of consciousness that no orthodox religious service has ever given me.
Since there is no dogma in Wicca, ritual forms a core of the religion. This may be done in covens, or by oneself. Typically, a ritual will take place on an Esbat (a full moon, and sometimes new moons), and the big ones will take place on Sabbats, of which four are greater, and four are lesser. The greater are old Celtic fire festivals, and the lesser are the two solstices and two equinoxes a year.
The Festivals, or The Wheel of the Year
Samhain (sowayn), October 31. Greater Sabbat.
Samhain was the end of the Celtic year, and also its New Year. It was a time when the harvest was over and the Earth slipping into the dreary somnolence of winter. This is when the God goes to the Underworld. It was and is also, like Día de los Muertos, a time of remembrance for those passed on, when the veil between the living and the dead is believed to be the thinnest. One is to tie up loose ends and look to the future.
Yule, December 21. Lesser Sabbat.
Is the shortest day of the year, but also marks the beginning of the waxing sun, when the days will grow longer again. The God is reborn and looks forward to spring. The evergreen is also revered at this time for being a symbol of eternity. Yule is the victory of light over darkness.
Imbolc or Bride, February 2. Greater Sabbat.
It is still winter, but the first flowers may be seen. The earth is represented by the Goddess in Her Flower Maiden form. A time of initiation, inspiration, preparation and growth for the spring. In Christianity, February 1st is St. Brigid’s day which comes from the original dedication to the Celtic goddess Brigit. February 2nd just so also happens to be Candlemas.
Ostara, March 21. Lesser Sabbat.
The spring equinox. The original goddess, known to the Anglo-Saxons as Eostre, was the goddess of fertility and was associated with hares and eggs. In the Hellenic world, Persephone returned from the underworld. Spring flowers, fertility, the frosts melted. The darkness and light are equal, but the darkness is in egress and sunnier longer days follow.
Beltane, April 30. Greater Sabbat.
The great fire festival of the Celts, when they would set alight giant bonfires and drive cattle through between them. So too would singles young men and women leap over fires hoping for a mate, women hope for fertility and couples strengthen their bond. This is when the God and Goddess join and celebrants dance around the May Pole.
Midsummer, or Litha – June 21. Lesser Sabbat.
Everything is in bloom and the God is fully triumphant. Yet, inherent in bloom and triumph is the following descent back into darkening days, but before that time, the harvest is still to come. This is when the dalliances of Beltane mature, and is the perfect occasion to get married.
Lammas, or Lughnasadh – August 1. Greater Sabbat.
This is the first harvest, and a time of bounty and thanksgiving to the Goddess and the God for their fecundity. This is the fullness of summer, and an occasion for hopes to be expressed.
Mabon – September 21. Lesser Sabbat.
This is the autumnal equinox and second harvest, that of fruits. Here is where the God makes his last dance before receding into His winter repose and men and women make wine to rejoice the year and the end of summer.
(Of course, Witches in Australia and New Zealand have had to be creative in creating a system which works for them)
The main Traditions or ‘sects’ of Wicca
Gardnerian – the first modern British Traditional coven. Initiatory and bound by oath, believes only a Witch can make another Witch.
Alexandrian – a break off of Gardnerian Wicca with more openness to the adaptation of ceremonial magick and Kabbalah. Founded by Alex and Maxine Sanders. Initiates include the third most influential formulators of Modern Wicca, Stewart Farrar, with his wife, Janet Farrar.
Algard – founded by Mary Nesnick, is a fusion of Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wicca.
Georgian – an American tradition founded by George Patterson, based upon British Traditional Wicca and the works of the Farrars’, but not in the “apostolic” line of Gardener. Much more eclectic and open.
Dianic – founded by Zsuzsanna (Z) Budapest, is mostly a woman-only tradition that is monotheistic in its sole reverence for the Goddess. It is the most staunchly Feminist tradition in a religion which is already profoundly Feminist. Sometimes it is criticized by male Witches as reactionary for demonstrating the same fault that the Abrahamic, patriarchal religions exhibited in their subordination of women over the centuries. The Dianic Tradition should not be seen as an expression of misandry, though. The impulse is natural for women to want a faith of their own which celebrates womanhood, and in which women feel more free with each other.
New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn – founded by Aiden Kelly, was described by Isaac Bonewits as being on the most liberal and heterodox spectrum of Wicca. It is eclectic in nature, and like Georgian Wicca, American and not from the initiatory line of Gardener. They are based around the San Francisco Bay area.
Seax-Wica – founded by the Gardenerian initiate and Father of American Witchcraft, it is a breakaway from Traditional British Wicca based on Anglo-Saxon and Germanic paganism.
Traditionalist – covens which base themselves on a purported ethnic tradition, and as with all Wicca can be blurred with reconstructed Neopagan revival religions. Examples include Celtic (or even Scots, Welsh, Irish), Kemetic (Egyptian), Hellenic, etc. May also include so-called Fam-Trads
Solitary – probably the fastest growing though most difficult to measure form of Wicca. One may, or may not get together with a coven. It stresses personal experience and creativity above initiation. In the past couple decades this has grown in popularity, though for the right person, the old initiatory system of an oath-bound coven still has its place.
Covenant of the Goddess – a sort of ecumenical group of Wiccan affiliated covens that participations in interfaith gatherings, advocates issues affecting the Wiccan community such as Wiccan civil rights and fighting defamation of Witches.
Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans – an organization officially affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association. Pagans (including Wiccans) make up a significant minority in Unitarian Universalism.
Ritual, whatever the particular Wiccan theology (or thealogy in Dianic Wicca) is, is the unifying center of all strains of Wicca. It involves magic, which simply put, is “the Art and Science of causing changes to occur in conformity to the Will” according to ceremonial magician Alastair Crowley (he was not, as is popularly conceived, a Satanist – though he was a staunch Tory). Magic is not ‘supernatural’, but rather seen as harnessing forces not yet understood in nature. Or, to look at it from a psychological perspective, to clear the impediments we put in our own way. This is not silly at all. Sports psychologists can help a struggling free throw shooter in basketball with visualization exercises, for example. Of course, spellcraft often takes it beyond that, but the underlying principle isn’t so strange.
Much of Wiccan ritual is derived from Renaissance grimoires and ceremonial magic (sometimes spelled magick, to differentiate from stage illusionists). Doreen Valiente disputes that Gardener’s rituals were written with Alastair Crowley, an acquaintance, and they likely weren’t; yet Gardener and Valiente still knew these systems and if there is difference, it is the philosophical framework and theology. Claims that they could have arisen independently from surviving underground Witch traditions has already been covered. Anyone familiar with Hermeticism (as in Rosicrucianism, Thelema, Golden Dawn), will readily see the mark of these influences in rough format and tools of the ritual. However, when used, they have been adapted, and bear little resembles to their functions in the original system.
As to the function of ritual, Adler writes in Drawing Down the Moon,
Chants, spells, dancing around a fire, burning candles, the smoke and smell of incense, are all means to awaken the “deep mind” – to arouse high emotions, enforce concentration, and facilitate entry into an altered state.
But she continues from dry definition into personal experience,
Accepting the idea of the “psychic sea,” and of human beings as isolated islands within that sea, we can say that, although we are always connected, our most common experience is one of estrangement. Ritual seems to be one method of reintegrating individuals and groups into the cosmos, and to tie in the activities of daily life with their ever present, often forgotten, significance. It allows us to feel biological connectedness with ancestors who regulated their lives and activities according to seasonal observances. Just as ecological theory explains how we are interrelated with all other forms of life, rituals allow us to re-create that unity in an explosive, nonabstract, gut-level way. Rituals have the power to reset the terms of our universe until we find ourselves suddenly and truly “at home.”
There is much more I could add on the theory of ritual from others, but for brevity’s sake, she summed it up quite nicely there, I think.
Though a ritual will typically take place within a consecrated circle (inside or outside), with an altar and tools, it can be as simple as a sunrise, paying reverence to the sun and a mental prayer to the corresponding gods of your choice. Or, simply a quiet moment of meditation, even. Here is a picture of a typical ritual scene. Getting lost in the flicker of a flame, the pulse of ocean waves, the caress of a cool summer breeze, or the smell of newly dampened earth — this is, in a way, its own magic as well.
It is remarked upon that a vast majority of Wiccans are urban. I think Wicca owes some of its growth and resonance due to the disconnect we as humans feel to nature in the modern cities and suburbs these days. The Industrial Revolution first started the disconnect with our agrarian pasts, and now, the Technological Revolution has further disconnected us not only from the earth, but from each other.
The main tools, with correspondences are:
Wand – Air – gods
Athame (a black-handled knife) or sometimes Sword – Fire – God
Chalice and/or sometimes Cauldron (or even the well in the preview picture) – Water – Goddess
Pentacle – Earth – elemental spirits, the four directions.
Anyone familiar with the Tarot will recognize the tool/element correspondence.
The symbol of the pentacle itself is often interpreted in neo-Pythagorean terms where each point symbolizes one of the four elements, the fifth at the pinnacle being that of spirit (or ether). It serves as a symbol to Wicca as the Star of David is to Judaism. It is not – I repeat not – inverted. Satanism inverts it with “two horns up” in the same way it inverts the Christian cross.
Other common tools and altar pieces include:
Book of Shadows – a book of rituals, spells, poetry, chants and songs particular to a coven or person. Many follow widespread and published basic formulas which are then often individualized based on the tastes and efficacy for the group/person.
Figures of the Goddess and God or any other “mandala” which aids visualization and focus.
Censer and/or incense.
Candles – depending on color may symbolize God, or Goddess, and different colors are used in color magic (roughly corresponds to values of color psychology).
Bell – wards of negativity, marks part of ritual, is used to summon Goddess.
Boline – a white-handled knife used to collect herbs. The athame is a blunt blade, strictly for ritual.
Besom – broom, sometimes used in the circle, other times in “kitchen magic” – symbolically used to cleanse the space.
Salt, water, bread and seasonal flowers or plants are also frequent parts of ritual.
As we see, some things are what you would expect to see from pop-culture stereotypes. In an ironic twist, some of these things, as with the idea of covens, probably come more from Christian propaganda. But if it works, what does it matter?
Another one of these likely adopted traits is the issue of ritual nudity.
This may be regarded as one of the more sensitive features that put Wicca outside of mainstream religion, and as far as public relations is concerned, there is an understandable impulse to shy away from the topic. But, it is necessary for me to address it (or should I say undress it?). Nudity in religion is not unheard of. Ancient shamans and Indian sadhus bear most, if not all. In the Indian tradition it is known in Sanskrit as digambar, which, curiously enough translates to skyclad – the Wiccan term for ritual nudity. Few believe this to be an accident. As I said before, Hinduism is often looked to, and even the concept of chakras have even entered into some more eclectic Wiccan practice.
Now, if this whole issue of mixed sex nudity raises alarms of ‘CULT!’, this would be fair, until one looks more into it. It is not sexual in nature, though fertility is a frequent component of worship regarding the relation of the Goddess and the God. It is also optional. Some covens do it, some don’t. Some wear robes throughout with nothing underneath. You would also not participate in a skyclad ritual in an initiatory coven until at least a year after you knew everybody well.
Covens are like a second family, an intimate support group. Being skyclad is said to increase intimacy and to be more connected to each other, and the earth. One anecdote is of a High Priestess and High Priest leading a new coven in belly laughter. Just chuckling. Pretty soon, it is infectious, and everybody stops thinking about being so body conscious and just sees normal naked people in all their imperfections around them, just like oneself. Mystery gone.
Or is it?! …
I was in my experimenting phase, learning as much as I could about different religions. I was about sixteen at the time. I remember clearly before even that in the eighth grade when I started flipping through a women’s catalog of my mom’s. Normal stuff like you see in Wireless, and then, on one page, a pentacle pendant. “What?! but, this is just one of my mom’s lame magazines, I thought this thing belonged more on a heavy metal album?” I can’t remember the name of the magazine, but the two page spread featured verdant earth centered themes with Celtic overtones along with the pendant and other Wicca-related jewelry. My interest was piqued, but it was not until a couple years later, when going through the religion section in my High School’s library, I checked out Scott Cunningham’s book Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner. “Oh wow, it’s a nature religion, there’s nothing sinister about this.” I must admit on a certain level I was disappointed!
But, my curiosity getting the best of me I found a bookshop downtown. It made its money more on Tarot readings than sales. Often Wiccan and pagan bookstores will conceal themselves as New Age bookstores, but when browsing wares and books, it is fairly easy to tell them apart, though not if you’re unacquainted with the differences. It was all second-hand, and as I learned later, the man who co-owned it with his Priestess wife was a committed Communist (I also later learned they made much of their income selling weed from their home nearby). By the time I was driving, I started spending time in the back, where there was a room with a couch and a few cozy chairs. I would usually be quiet just reading. After a day of an uptight upper class High School in the burbs, it was a sort of refuge.
It was also often interesting. On one day a black guy calling himself Evil might walk in with his well-worn book falling apart at the seems on Northern Magic and a Thor’s Hammer around his neck (I still own this very book, after he replaced it, I assume). On another day a guy would walk in with his walking stick, homemade kilt (nicely made) and a sort of ghillie shirt, which I saw him walking around town in nonchalantly. Then there was a girl regularly there (whom was one of the reasons I first came back the first few times), a little younger than I, who knew a lot about the Craft. We would all typically talk about quantum physics, how much Republicans sucked, and the like. Once in a while there would be a speaker, like one on Ásatrú (Norse Neopaganism) whom would joke he had to replace mead with sparkling cider in ritual as a recovering alcoholic, or there would be classes on beginner’s magic, which I took a course of.
We were all misfits in one way or another. Many times, we came from Christian upbringings, and complained of common themes of trauma or just that we found Christianity unfulfilling and inhibiting. Wiccans and Neopagans aren’t anti-Christian mostly, and most can agree that Jesus was a good man. It just doesn’t do it for them. I remember driving the girl, raised Mormon, home one time out in the boonies to this practical compound of a giant house. She had visible trepidation on her face, as she said she was late. Once later when high and a little drunk, she told me why she really hated to go home to her father. She moved out as fast as she could to an apartment of another Witch, who was gay and a straight-laced member of Mensa whom said his ritual room was haunted and he had to politely ask the spirits to leave before casting the circle.
Once at the bookstore we had a sort of Esbat, but more like a drum circle. With everyone there assembled among candles and incense wafting through the air, I was told I was to be smudged – no ifs ands or buts about it. I was a reluctant participant to this, but I decided not to question the burly American Indian coming up to me with a smudge stick and saying, “stand up.” I must admit, the sage was very calming and I felt purified. While not an actual ritual as such, it was reinvigorating, and grounding, much as the Adler quote above describes. I never was part of a coven, I don’t think I knew anyone who was – although they might not tell you. I never dabbled all that seriously. Besides reading my own Tarot, and a minimalist, small altar in my room, the skeptic in me always hindered any advancement. I still have my old athame, though, and when I dug it out of the shoebox and held it again to take a picture for this article, I could still ‘feel’ a little bit of the charge I’d put into it all those years ago.
Back to the Present
Christine O’Donnell added to her tale of the “Satanic altar,” saying,
There’s been no witchcraft since. … How many of you didn’t hang out with questionable folks in high school?
That pissed me off yet more, and I wasn’t alone – High Priestess Selena Fox voiced the objections every Wiccan, Neopagan and those sympathetic to the community were already thinking and feeling. Questionable people? You know who else had a Wiccan altar? My first girlfriend. It surprised me when she showed me it. Though we’d drifted into uncomfortable, distant acquaintances since that time, she became my High School’s valedictorian a few years later (and not because of magic, but because she was the overachiever to my slack). Is that the sort of questionable person you mean, Christine?
But that’s not all. October 29th, Bill Maher released his final round of footage, including this nugget,
O’Donnell: I don’t celebrate Halloween because of what it means, because it is a Satanic holiday, it’s a pagan holiday and while people are going around getting free candy other people are falling victim to sacrifices and things like that. […] That’s the reality of what’s going on on Halloween.
And thus I am vindicated. She never did even “dabble” with a Dungeons & Dragons (not to dig too much on RPGs, just making a stark delineation) variety of wannabe “witch” boyfriend. This is, as I first suspected, classic Fundie propaganda lifted straight out of the 16th century. This comment was made during the tail end of that whole Satanic Ritual Abuse hysteria, which was all bullshit. Here’s a 1992 FBI report, which I recommend reading. And, not only does she conflate Paganism with Satanism (there’s no Satan in Paganism you stupid bitch – sorry for the strong language), she talks about blood and having a picnic on a sacrificial altar? What the fuck? She thinks she’s making a joke, perhaps? –I’m so not laughing.
This is complicated somewhat in that there are witches (not gender neutral as in Wicca) in LaVeyan Satanism. In his book, The Satanic Witch (a how-to guide of manipulation and seduction for women), regarding what he views as shallow hypocrisy on their part, Anton LaVey writes,
As there is always a relative outlook as to what is good and what is evil, once witchcraft emerged from its “all evil” state into neutral territory, a differentiation was bound to occur. The righteous, of course, will always wear the mantle of “good,” “white light,” “spiritual” and varying shades of holiness.
This kind of unapologetic owning of the word ‘witch’ is of great annoyance to Wiccans who have been fighting this conflation for decades. Still, in defense of Satanism, there is no blood sacrifice, no harming children, no Satanic Ritual Abuse. Christine O’Donnell is just plain wrong however you look at it. Satanists and Wiccans certainly would not confuse each other, but neither deserve that kind of talk from someone who has dabbled into fundamentalist Hinduism and fundamentalist Christianity. How would she feel if I spread the rumor that Christians are cannibals? Oh, wait, you mean that was once the case when Christianity was a small, new and misunderstood religion? I can’t imagine there might be some lesson there…
There are still laws on the books in many municipalities against witchcraft, even on the West Coast, far from Salem and New England. Wiccans still “stay in the broom closet” out of fear of harassment and discrimination, or from being disowned by family and pestered (or worse) by neighbors. Three teens who were not Witches may have even been wrongly convicted of murder due to the toxic hysteria that Christine O’Donnell gleefully regurgitates. It’s because of this prejudice and ignorance that Wiccans feel a sense of solidarity with the hapless victims during the Burning Times, regardless of the historical validity of any “Wiccan Myth.” They are keenly aware that at any time mankind can descend back into the darkness and scapegoats may be found to explain any societal ill in times of distress.
In her now-infamous ad, Christine O’Donnell says she’s not a witch, that “she’s you.”
Well. Let’s do a little review, shall we?
Witches respect the ecology of the earth, respect different lifestyles and sexual orientations, are most often überliberal politically, pro-choice, pro-masturbation, anti-authoritarian, definitely believe in the separation of Church and State, and come from all walks of life–from outwardly alternative artistic type hippies and goths, to office dwellers deceptively boring in their everyday routine and business attire. But, they all would agree that Wicca is not the “only way”; nor are they out to turn you into a Witch anymore than they’re out to turn you into a newt.
She’s definitely not a Witch.
There are many things cool about the stereotypes. Sexy witch costumes during Halloween, or toying with people’s superstitions; but prejudice and deliberate misinformation isn’t cool. When you’re in on the joke or mean no harm, it’s okay, but I see that Wicca still needs more advocacy, because I observed many go for the easy joke, and yet seemed not to recognize references to Wicca. This is hardly anyone’s fault if they haven’t been exposed to a religion that only makes up a little over 1% of the American population. And, I’m never out to make innocently unaware people feel stupid. Rather, it was a test. That is why I wrote this. We as progressives are allies of Witches! I don’t expect any politician out there to openly defend Witchcraft. Awareness just isn’t at that point yet. What I do ask, is that you, my friends, take whatever you’ve learned here, and use it in your life at some point – subtly work it into a conversation when appropriate, or correct someone gently. While a tongue-in-cheek joke about witches is fine (they have stupendous wit and generous senses of humor), take a look at the following photos and wonder if they might deserve a little more than that. That maybe they are people like you and I, who just want to live their lives openly and with respect. Someone once said, “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” If only His supposed followers like Christine O’Donnell heeded such counsel for compassion and tolerance.
(this photo taken at Arlington National Cemetery)
In 2007 Wiccan groups such as Covenant of the Goddess along with Americans United for the Separation of Church and State won a lawsuit against the Department of Veterans Affairs. Though Wicca has been a part of the US Army Chaplain’s Handbook for much longer, President George W Bush said this,
I don’t think witchcraft is a religion … I would hope the military officials would take a second look at the decision they made.
I know whose side I’m on. How about you?
The 112th Congress will be rough. But, what small consolation there is, is that there won’t be a mendacious, ditzy-bigot representing Delaware in the Senate.
As for our country, you may want to consider some Spells for Democracy.
The Witches’ Rune, by Doreen Valiente
Darksome night and shining moon
Hearken to the Witches’ Rune.
East and South, West and North
Hear me now, I call thee forth.
By all the powers of land and sea
Be obedient unto me.
Wand and pentacle, cup and sword
Hearken ye unto my word.
Cord and censor, totem and knife
Waken ye all into life.
By all the powers of the Witches’ blade
Come ye now as the charge is made.
Queen of Heaven, Queen of Hell
Send your aid unto my spell.
Horned Hunter of the Night
Work my will by magick rite.
By all the powers of Land and Sea
As I will, so mote it be.
By all the might of moon and sun
As I say, it shall be done.
Inkubus Sukkubus – Wytches