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Encyclopedia of Witches, Witchcraft, and Wicca

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October 2008
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I was going through my Science Fiction Book Club bulletin this morning and as I put the reply slip in the envelope I noticed that on the back of the reply envelope the club was featuring The Encyclopedia of Witches, Witchcraft and Wicca, 3rd Edition.  I do not have a copy of this book nor have I perused it, so I do not mean this to be a book review.  Rather, it is a reflection on what it means to have the religion of Wicca advertised in this way by a major book club, and one devoted to science fiction and fantasy.

Apart from some books on SF art and film production, the books sold by the SFBC are fiction.  On the front side of the same reply envelope another books was advertised in the same way: Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Panel to Panel about the “Slayer” comic books and their art.  Here then we have what is arguably the predominant earth-based spirituality and modern pagan religion advertised alongside vampire fantasies and the wide world of fictional visions of a world of magic and adventure. I cannot help having the feeling that the pitch here is to a teen-age audience of avid fantasy fans.

Can one imagine the Catholic Encyclopedia or an Encyclopedia of Buddhisim or Judaism or Islam appearing in such a context, pitched to the same audience?  I cannot quite imagine it.  Of course, I can imagine a book on Druidry pitched the same way.  Because unlike rabbis, imams, and Lutheran ministers, druids and witches do appear as fantasy characters in World of Warcraft and all sorts of other fantasy role-playing games.  Just as an aside, I think that a rabbi Warcraft character battling demons and orcs might be interesting.  A master of Kabbalah with a handy golem bodyguard perhaps…

In the older Dungeons and Dragons, priests were a character class (still are, I suppose) and they could do some handy things with holy water or a miracle.  The curious thing about Wicca is that it is a religion that has been built up on the legends of witches.  Some witches today love to don a black pointed hat and play up the Halloween stereotypes. The old hag has been ironically turned into a “sexy teen witch.”  I presume Gerald Gardner was quite aware of the titilating potential of groups of naked young women dancing in the forest.  Certainly, the monks of the Inquisition who invented these ideas were aware of the fantasy value, whether they believe their own fantasies or not.

Historians have found no evidence of a witch cult. Margaret Murray’s conjectures which fueled Gardner and others in the 1950s  have been entirely rejected by professional historians, although there are still a few exceptions.  There can hardly be any doubt that “goddess worship” of some sort did characterize ancient religions.  There is even evidence for it in early Judaic religion when YHVH had a consort.  That consort persists in the later traditions as Sophia, Divine Wisdom.  But the specific form of worship suggested by Murray and Gardner and their followers – the coven of witches meeting in the forest for naked rituals.  That seems to be the stuff of imagination rather than history.

Now, I do not wish to condemn it.  A religion structured in this way may be just the thing for some people.  Western puritanism and social mores have long been a bit too squeemish about human nudity.  I can not argue against the point that shame about one’s naked body seems rather strange and almost certainly must be a matter of culture rather than nature.  Nevertheless, it is the fantasy element and the was that it plays off of the dominant cultural mores that intersts me.  Much of the genre of fantasy that is aimed at teen age boys (especially the artwork) is specifically calculated to make them stare and arouse their libido.  I am not sure if there is much wrong with doing so, except that it is a form of manipulation. The “sex sells” rule of advertising seems to be heavily at work in the fantasy genre.  And maybe that is part of the allure of the genre and indeed of much literature.  Sexual fantasy is probably the pre-eminent kind of fantasy we humans have, followed at some distance by fantasies of power.

What troubles me, I suppose, is that Wicca is being presented by the marketing copywriters as “a religion exploding in popularity in recent years” (from the advertisement for the book) and placing it in a context of teenage sexual fantasy and longing for personal power.  Whatever virtues the real practice of Wicca or witchcraft as a religion may have, it has take on a public form that offers such fantasies and promises of realizing them. The emphasis of books on spellcraft and especially the ever-popular love spell is a marketing tool that is no doubt even more effective that the promises of other religions to deliver eternal paradise or prevent eternal damnation.

I am aware, from what reading I have done, that many of the spell books out there purporting to teach witchcraft advise against curses and binding spells, or even love spells aimed at manipulating the feelings of others.  They advise against them on moral grounds, but they nevertheless still hold out the tantalizing possibilities of power over other people — a wish that is very strong in most adolescents.  If indeed the claims of Wiccan authors and publishers that Wicca is “the fastest growing religion today” are valid, it is hardly any wonder, considering the sales techniques being used.  I question these claims however, because I have not seen what they are based upon.  One would need to have reliable statistical data — such as census data in which people indicated their religious preference — to substantiate such claims.  Still, there is no doubt that modern paganism is popular, and there seems to be no mystery why that should be the case.  To declare oneself to be a “pagan” one needs to do nothing.  One does not need to discipline oneself to conform to a moral code.  One needs only occasionally celebrate seasonal festivals, and this typically involves drinking, dancing, drumming, ecstatic experiences, and even nudity, drugs, and sex.  Some covens and pagan gatherings might be more straight-laced and subdued, but there is nothing in the religion to condemn these things (unless they are perceived to cause harm) and much to encourage them as “natural.”

I believe that some self-stiled druids also approach their spiritual path in this way.  But if they do, I wonder where the spirituality come in.  I myself think that spiritual experience is about more than ecstatic experience, and earth-based spirituality is not about “letting it all hang out.”  Some of the leaders of ADF, perhaps the pre-eminent American organization using the term “druid,” have advocated for polyamory, a fancy word for what we used to call free love.  In the context of the 1960s free love really meant that women didn’t resist men’s advances.  The free availabilty of women and acceptance of promiscuous sex and short term sexual liaisons was the primary desire.   Sexual liberation was a powerfully attractive cultural movement in the era before AIDS.  It was made possible by the Pill and other contraceptive technologies.  But sexual restraint has not historically been motivated by prudery or hatered of the body as taught by some religions, nor even by misogyny.  It is motivated also by practical realities of human biology and a desire on the part of at least some women to be responsible mothers of their children.  Giving men absolutely free access to your body in sex is bound to lead to too many children.

Historically, there is considerable evidence that cunning women (who were called “witches”) performed essential services to women in the form of abortafascents and contraceptives, and midwifery.  Having children has, for most of human history, been desirable to a point, because a large family meant lots of workers and connections to other members of a tribe or community.  But too many births can kill a mother, and poor families with too many children become tragic, driving themseles and their children further into poverty.  Slaves would have to be very doubtful about bringing children into a world that would consider them someone else’s property.  Even working class families in a later era might worry about bringing children into a world of child labor in unhealthy factories.  On the other hand, women having trouble conceiving might turn to cunning women for aids to fertility.

So, the witch has in fact been always involved with sexuality, and particularly female sexuality.  They have been at the center of struggles over female power in Western culture too.  But I wonder if today, the marketers of Wicca are not straying from the ethical purposes of earlier generations of cunning women when they offer up the fantasy of girls with super-powers with “charms” to defeat male aggressors, or monsters (especially vampires and demons, who seem usually to be male power symbols).  Is fantasy of this sort productive?  Is it religion?  If all religion offers fantasies, then what are we to think of the truth-value of modern paganism if it engages in the same trade?

Druidry, I would like to think, offers an alternative to this situation.  The bardic tradition honors the genre of fantasy.  Myth and legend and wild stories are a staple of Celtic culture, but I believe that the Bardic tradition can cultivate in people an understanding of the difference between fantasies and real life.  The ancient Irish and Welsh legends are almost all tragedies.  The unbridled sexuality of men and women is shown to lead to pain, suffering, sadness, and loss.  They are stories of magic, but they are more fundamentally stories about the misuse of power and bad judgment.

I like to view witches and wizards as non-denominational.  Those terms can refer to people who are seekers of wisdom through nature and spirit, who acknowledge magic and enchantment as among the forces at work in the human and non-human world.  But many people do not desire wisdom or the hard work it takes to cultivate it; they desire religion.  Which is to say that they desire a structure of worship, celebration, and rituals that make them feel hope for their future, instead of the vague dread of a world that seems unfair and uninterested in the fate of individuals.  They seek a cosmology that fits them into a place in a universe that includes some form of life after death and some sort of reason for living and hoping.  This is the essence of what we call Faith.

The wizard and witch seek knowledge and the wisdom to make use of it for the good.  Some might seek to use it for evil, of course, or for selfish desires.  But on the whole the pursuit of wisdom (rather than the pursuit of personal power) leads one towards a desire for goodness.  Or at least, so I choose to believe.

Thankfully, I do not require the assistance of a vampire slayer.  The monsters I worry about are those planted like seeds in the minds of young readers and viewers and game players. Those fantasy figures that seem to fill their imaginations up.  I worry that by consuming so much material provided by our commercial imagination market, that young people are not cultivating their own imaginal powers.  That is, their ability to speak with and see the Elves and orcs and spirit guides that might help them as adults.  I don’t know the answer.  I’m not sure I have even articulated the question.

Idle thoughts perhaps and needless worries.


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