American Feminist Witchcraft

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There is no doubt that the USA had its own indigenous pagan revival; indeed, it produced the first self-conscious modern pagan religion, the Church of Aphrodite, established in Long Island m 1938 (Adler, 1986: 233-6). From the 1930s at latest, also, it contained groups of witches working initiatory traditions, although their beliefs and rites are now very hard to reconstruct because they were later heavily overlaid by those of Wicca, coming m from England (Adler, 1986: 67-9; Kelly, 1991: 23-6). All the English branches of the religion arrived there in the 1960s and 1970s, but more important still were the books of Murray and Gardner, which were read by people trained m folk magic imported into America by the vast range of peasant cultures represented by its immigrante. These then imposed a pagan and ceremonial structure upon it to develop a very nch variety of'family traditions' of witch religion (Alder, 1986: 70-8).

A different sort of current in American witchcraft arose in the late 1960s, and derived from the simple fact that the figure of the witch is one of the very few images of independent female power which Western civilization has offered to modernity. As such it had to be exploited by feminism, and was from 1968, when an organization called WITCH (Women's International Conspiracy From Hell) was formed in New York, with a manifesto which stated that witchcraft had been the religion of all Europe before Christianity and of European peasants for centuries after. Its persecution m the early modern period had therefore been the suppression of an alternative culture by the ruling elite, but also a war against femimsm, for the religion had been served by the most courageous, aggressive, independent and sexually liberated women m the populace. Nine million of these had been put to death. To gain freedom, modern women needed, therefore, to become witches again, and could be so simply 'by being female, untamed, angry, joyous and immortal' (Adler, 1986:179).

This was a full-blooded restatement of the nineteenth-century liberal myth of the médiéval witch religion, and during the 1970s it became embedded m American radical feminism. A Hungarian refugee who had setded in California, Zsuzsanna Budapest, enunciated the pnncipie that witchcraft was closed to men, and founded a tradition of covens which became called 'Diarnc', after the man-shunning classical goddess (Adler, 1986: 178), More generally, the increasing American feminist concern with domestic and sexual violence compounded the preoccupation with historical witch persecution as the torture and murder of women. Gardner's dramatic expression for the early modern trials, 'The Burning Times', was widely used by radicals m the USA by the end of the 1970s, as part of an image of witchcraft as a religion conceived in rebellion, with the greatest toll of martyrs in the history of any faith, and which could only be true to its nature when fighting oppression (Adler, 1986: 178; Purkiss, 1996: 8—26). This theme combined with another which had also appeared m the late 1960s, m the writings of Tim ('Otter) Zell, then based in Missoun. He portrayed the planet as a single living being, whom he identified with the Earth Mother believed to have been a deity venerated throughout ancient Europe. He suggested that only a revived paganism, imbued with a mission to transform Western attitudes, could save that planet, and deity, from destruction by modem technology (Adler, 1986: 293-308). In America during the 1970s Mother Earth became conflated with the goddess of the witches and with a general feminist yearning for a recognition of female divinity, to produce an entity called The Goddess, whose devotees were pitted against patriarchy, militarism and ecological destruction.

There was a natural tension between a concept of witchcraft as something inherent m women and released in them by consciousness-raising, and one of it as a closed, hierarchical and initiatory mystery religion, which balanced the genders in creative polarity. This was brilliandy resolved in 1979: with the publication of The Spiral Dance by Starhawk, a Califorman feminist writer who had been trained by Gardner-lans and initiated into one of the home-grown American witch traditions influenced by Wicca, the Faene. She showed how the coven could be turned into a training group m which women could be liberated, men reeducated, and alternative human relationships explored. She reinterpreted magic in terms of psychology, as a set of techmques for self-fulfillment and the realization of human potential, linking witchcraft to poetry and creative play. And she suggested that, once developed, a network of covens could be a potent mechanism for campaigning for radical reform. In the 1980s, as Reagamsm further polarized and embittered American attitudes, her writing became more obviously devoted to the specific ends of left-wing politics, but still soaked in the language, and the historical mythology, of feminist witchcraft (Starhawk, 1979, 1982, 1987).

Amenca in the 1970s and 1980s was the nursery of feminist thought m general, and radical feminist thought in particular, for the whole Western world, and the impact of its new view of pagan witchcraft upon European counter-cultures was proportionately profound. The Spiral Dance became the best-selling fcjook on modern witchcraft yet written, and all over Europe and Amenca in the 1980s feminists began thinking of themselves as witches, and starting covens, simply because of reading it; it had replaced Witchcraft Today as the model text. As well as equipping them with books, Amenca also gave these new-style pagan witches songs and chants, the product of another development of the 1970s: the growth in numbers of Amencan pagans to the point at which large conventions of them became possible. Cost and convenience meant that these took the form of summer camps, a phenomenon with which Amencans of the tame were commonly familianzed in youth. A feature of such camps had always been fireside singing and chanting, and pagan musicians swiftly responded to the need for these. It was at the Pan-Pagan Festival held in Indiana in 1980 that the chant 'We All Come From The Goddess' first became widely iqiown (Adler, 1986: 346-7, 424). In that year, also, Charlie Murphy wrote a folk song, 'The Burning Times5, which both summed up and augmented the radical feminist notion of the early modern tnals. These and several others spread across North Amenca and then to Bntain, giving witches and the growing pagan community m which they were now embedded an enhanced sense of solidanty as an international resist ance movement. This was further increased when another Caiifornian, a Wiccan high pnestess called Manon Zimmer Bradley, published a historical novel in 1982 which interwove the feminist myth of the Old Religion with the traditional Arthurian cycle. It was called The Mists of Avaton and became an international bestseller.

Even m its English homeland, Wicca had to adapt m response to these developments. It was indeed already changing during the 1970s as a result of internal dynamics. Doreen Valiente at last went public as a witch, and being now outside the established system of coven leaders, attempted to circumvent it. She wrote three books during the decade which taught readers how to initiate themselves, work their own rituals and magic, and start their own groups (Valiente, 1973, 1975, 1978). Reinforced by The Spiral Dance, they produced a crop of 'Do It Yourself covens in the 1980s, most loosely employing the label of Wiccan. Towards the end of this next decade a further phenomenon became prominent in both America and Britain, of pagan witches who preferred to work alone, and a set of books were published as manuals to assist them in doing so (Beth, 1990; Cuningham, 1990; Green, 1991), These in turn naturally encouraged the appearance of such people, to whom the author of the most famous, Rae Beth, gave the engaging term of'hedge witches', inculcating a sense of them as examplars of a rural and traditional England.

Bntish Wicca had been altering in other ways as well. It had always been linked to other strands of thought in the esoteric fringe, and its most influential figures had always been autodidacts; some (including Gardner and Valiente) openly contemptuous of formal education. Now they often swallowed whole the new 'alternative' beliefs in energy-bearing lines running across the earth's surface ('leys') and the feminist interpretation of British prehistory made by Michael Dames; notable subscribers to these included Valiente, again, and Alex Sanders (Valiente, 1978: 56; and 1989: 214—15; 'The Sussex Workings5, The Cauldron, Hallowe en 1979).

The American ideas none the less still made a dramatic impact. Valiente was fully converted to an indignant feminism after reading them (Valiente, 1989: 180-90). Alex Sanders, who in the 1960s had talked mosdy about the god of the witches, brought out in the 1980s a tape dedicated to celebrating The Goddess, with 'The Burning Times1 sung behind his words near the end. In a series of books produced during that latter decade, Janet and Stewart Farrar accepted the American radical feminist belief in the literal existence of prehistoric matriarchy, and stressed the identity of Wicca as a goddess-centred faith. More generally, whereas Wiccans had tended until the mid-1970s to represent their tradition primarily as a means of expressing psychic powers, in the 1980s they emphasized it instead as the feminist religion par excellence. In so doing they were certainly meeting a challenge, from the number of essentially feminist covens springing up on the Starhawk model. In the middle of the decade a Dianic witch inspired hy Z. Budapest, Shan Jayran, established The House of the Goddess m i London, a temple dedicated primarily to feminist witchcraft and very firmly outside the Wiccan networks. She went on to develop a national contact service ('Paganlink') and held Britain's first national Pagan festival at Hallowe'en 1987, a tremendous success which attracted about 1350 participants (Valiente, 1989: 193—4; Jayran, 1987).

The whole process had brought considerable gains to modern pagan witchcraft. The latter had been given a much larger and well-defined constituency of support, had been brought out of the occult fringe into the mainstream of international cultural politics, and had been greatly enhanced in its obvious relevance to contemporary issues and needs. Its identification with the cause of female liberation had made it respectable among radical intellectuals, and scholars involved in religious studies were starting during the 1980s to recognize it as a valid contribution to the quest for a feminist spirituality — at least in North America (Spretnak, 1982). By the end of the decade the American mass media, also, was starting to distinguish between witchcraft and Satanism and to regard the feminist credentials of the former as giving it the status of a genuine, if eccentric, religion (Rowe and Cavender, 1991).

There were also, however, some disadvantages to the new situation, at least m the eyes of many Wiccans. There was a real danger that by being identified so firmly with a particular counter-culture, their faith would be boxed into a corner, and left there as society moved on. In particular it troubled some that the composite American myth of the Old Religion and the Burning Times was so seriously at variance with recent developments m professional history and archaeology, including the final abandonment of the Mumy thesis. The incorporation of that myth into a radical creed made a questioning of it among its devotees very difficult without attracting charges of defending patnarchy or betraying the great struggle to save the planet. Starhawk's glorification of the imagination as the finest human faculty had led m many of her readers to a disparagement of reason and the intellect which cut them off from dialogue with the wider society.

By the late 1980s, therefore, it seemed possible that Wicca and its relations would be marginalized m a new way, as a cluster of fundamentalist sects. It was also especially disturbing to some British Wiccans that they had apparendy lost the initiative to a rhetonc sprung from a foreign culture, which although it had some relevance to humanity in general, and a lot more to Western civilization m particular, was also fashioned according to the circumstances of a very different society, undergoing a different process of change. Ironically, although there was indeed to be a way out of the trap into which pagan witchcraft appeared to be failing, it was itself to be pioneered in the USA.

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  • bercilac
    What are feminist covens in America?
    7 months ago

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