The Nature Of Modern Pagan Witchcraft

The pleasing rhythms and rhetorical flourishes of narrative history, even narrative in which sections of analysis are embedded, can always neglect a great deal; it should be obvious that the one above is limited by being, at least until the very end, a view from the outside looking in, and from the top looking down. Other perspectives would produce very different emphases, though perhaps not a different story. What the treatment most obviously fails to convey, however, is more than a hint of the qualitative nature of modern pagan witchcraft, and this is an important enough aspect to deserve consideration now, in conclusion. I have to date worked with 20 British covens, almost three times the number observed by Tanya Luhrmann, the only other academic to publish m the field hitherto. They represent between them Gardnenan, Alexandrian and Traditional varieties (the tradition in some of the latter certainly being the old and honourable one of DIY). To most of these I was an occasional, often a one-time, visitor, but I have observed five of them simultaneously, over a period of half a decade (effectively the early 1990s). My analysis below may well neglect some kinds of backwoods Traditional or Hereditary coven, and it does not treat of the large number of solitary pagan witches; but my acquaintance with a score of the latter suggests that their beliefs and practices are substantially the same, within the bounds of individual operation.

The Pagan Federation has issued, since 1989, a set of three principles which define a Pagan: love of, reverence for, and kinship with, the natural world; a positive morality based upon the discovery and development of each person's true ¡nature, providing that this is done without harming others; and an active acceptance of both female and male divinity. These principles were drafted by Wiccans and so are certainly true of them; but at a glance it must be obvious that they can easily characterize not only every other variety of modern Western Paganism, but Hinduism, Shinto and many tribal ammist beliefs as well. Furthermore, there is nothing here that could not be endorsed by liberal Christians, even the last being no obstacle to a theology which views 'God' as a being beyond gender, incorporating both female and male. Conversely, the same pnnciples leave room for a very wide range of inclusive beliefs, let alone practices. An unspoken definition is therefore crucial; that in practice modern Pagans are people who hold those tenets and turn for symbolism, kinship and inspiration to the pre-Christian religions of Europe and the Near East.

Furthermore, other characteristics of modern pagan witchcraft seem to be as important and definitive as those above, if left implicit. One is that the aim of religious ntual is not to honour or supplicate the divme alone, but to bring out the divinity in human beings; this is a large part of the point of the modern Craft. A literal faith m its deities is not necessary. Some witches view them as archetypes, representing fundamental truths of the cosmos; others as entities which have been given life by projection from human beliefs' and desires; others as symbols of perceived aspects of the world; and yet others as genuine bemgs, with their own personalities, consciousness and wills. As Luhrmann has shown, modern witchcraft can be par excellence the religion of the romannc atheist.

The central purpose of it is not to pay reverence to divinities but to cultivate personal powers of self-control and self-knowledge, and perhaps of clairvoyance, prophecy, psychokinesis and psychic healing. Whether or not the witches whom I have met have ever obtained power over anything or anybody else, the elders among them have certainly acquired it over themselves; which is quite an achievement in itself. It is not, however, merely a secular system of technical training, but a mystical one which is interwoven with notions of an active supernatural and divine world, whether or not the existence of this is taken literally. Some witches identify the'acquisitaon of magical ability as being the discovery of a 'true self , and with it to release, develop and utilize normally latent mental abilities. Others view it more as a discovery of the inner workings of the cosmos, providing a greater opportunity to operate m harmony with it oneself, and thus far more effectively. Both notions, of course, are rooted deep in the Western tradtion of learned magic. They mean that modern pagan witchcraft is a religion which can have no passive participants; it is a system which must be 'worked'.

This involves an abolition of the normal distinction between religion and magic. In saying this I am aware that I appear Co be opening a large can of semanac worms, in that professional sociologists and anthropologists have failed to amve at any universally agreed definition of either, or means of distinguishing them, after 100 years of debate (cf. Hamilton, 1995: 1-120). My task here is simplified in that I use the definitions employed by witches themselves, taken m turn from those established long ago by Sir Edward Tylor and Sir James Frazer. Whether or not they apply to the thoughts and activities of any other peoples, they do fit those of historic Europeans: both religion and magic are means by which humans negotiate with supernatural beings, but m the former, humans are dealing with forces which are outside their control, m the latter they are seeking to control and compel them.

One aspect of this collapsing of categories is eclecticism; that modern witches, like ritual magicians, will often address classical goddesses and gods, and Hebrew angels and demons, m the same sequence of operation. Another is that all of them have the notion that human abilities can be magnified by causing a supernatural being to combine with the spirit of the person concerned. A third is that modem witchcraft has wholly lost the concept of sacrifice, as divinities do not require propitiation; rather, they are to be attracted to the witch by ritual and then enticed into cooperation. They are certainly reverenced, but are expected to find pleasure and reward enough in participation in a magical or religious act performed with sufficient shill. The combination of religion and magic is embodied in the Wiccan initiate's designation as 'priestess {or priest) and witch', A pnestess can be a passive agent, merely serving and praising the divine; not so a witch.

Pagan witchcraft is also distinguished by being a mystery religion, without public places and acts of worship. It is almost always the preserve of closed groups or solitary individuals, operating a process of training and initiation which usually takes some considerable time. Much of the joy, and effectiveness, of it lies in its identity as a tradition of secrets, associated with the night and with wild or hidden places. It is usually recognized as requiring considerable dedication and hard work, and as being unsuitable for the faint-hearted, lazy or flippant. It is accordingly highly selective and exclusive, and is mandated to care only for those who seek its aid. It Jacks any sense of a missionary duty, or of a redemptive purpose, and depends instinctively upon the existence of other religions alongside it, which cater for other needs and would suit other sorts of people.

It is a highly eclectic and protean system of operation, in which the basic format of the consecrated circle with potent cardinal points, in which deities are invoked and magic worked, is filled with images and systems taken from a huge span of sources. These include the cultures of ancient Greece, Egypt, Rome, Mesopotamia, Ireland and Wales, and of the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings, the folklores of the British Isles, the structure of prehistoric monuments, Hinduism, Buddhism, eighteenth and nineteenth-century Celtic romanticism, native America, and the modern earth mysteries and radical feminism. Nonetheless, the existence of the Book of Shadows does result m a stronger common structure to activity than obtains in other varieties of present-day Paganism. This structure includes the duotheism of the divine couple (the god sometimes being eliminated in Diamc witchcraft), the careful consecration of the sacred space for each rite, the blessing and sharing of food and drink, the personification of divine beings by celebrants, 'magical' work of healing and consecration, a system of training and initiation (usually through three degrees) and the observation of ceremonies at the frill moons and the eight major seasonal festivals.

Both of the two most famous Wiccan traditions have m some respects evolved away from the tastes of their founders; few Alexandrian covens work Alex Sanders's full panoply of Cabbalistic and other ntuai magic, while Gerald Gardner's technique for entrancement by binding and scourging has virtually died out. Most covens retain the scourge as symbol, and for (token) use at initiation; it provides the traditional component of the ordeal for the initiate, but also forces the latter to confront the problem that life contains an almost inevitable element of suffering, and the need to come to terms with this.

A final major characteristic of modern pagan witchcraft, which it shares with other contemporary Paganisms, is the absolute centrality of creative ritual. It is a religion with a minimal theoretical structure, and its only holy writings are a book of ceremonies, which are not regarded as canonical but as a starting-point for the development of further rites. Its sacred words are not employed to hand down law but to invoke or evoke divinity. The most important function of modem witchcraft is to provide a means by which humans can experience the divme direcdy and powerfully; the meamng of that experience is to be rationalized later, if at all. A single coven can contain as many different interpretations of divinity as there are members. Established religions have commonly been there to tell people how they should feel about the divine; pagan witchcraft is there to tell people how they can feel the divine, using one particular system to do so. If ancient paganisms were characterized primarily by propitiation, modern pagan witchcraft is characterized primarily by consecration, of people, places and objects. Its most powerful effect is to enhance the sanctity, mystery and enchantment of modern living.

There are other aspects of Wicca, in particular, which are unusual among religions of any period. One is the tradition, firmly observed by most covens, of alternating reverence and mirth m the circle, m such a way as to balance the solemnity of some ntes with others which are designed to provoke joy and merriment. A second is the celebrated practice of ntual nudity, which is maintained by most Gardnenans and Alexandrians, although not by Traditionais. Wiccan authors have provided a range of mystical justifications for this, but observation would lead me to suggest two practical reasons for its persistence. One is that it demands a high degree of trust between members of the group, and so is an excellent test for the existence of harmony and unity, without which the rituals cannot be effectively worked. The second is that, in combination with other components normally present, such as candlelight, incense and music, it conveys a very powerful sense that something abnormal is going on; that the participants in the circle have cast off their everyday selves and limitations and have entered into a space in which the extraordinary can be achieved. This is why, of course, although nudity is a great rarity in the histqry of religion, it is an important theme m that of magic, worldwide.

It is time to turn to more straightforward sociological aspects of the subject, the first one being the number of adherents to modem pagan witchcraft. In this respect its stronghold is certainly now the USA; Aidan Kelly suggested in 1991 that America contained about 200,000 Pagans, and the majority of those would be witches (Kelly, 1991: ix). In Canada and Australia they can be counted, at the least, in thousands, while most European countries have populations ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand; these estimates are suggested by the representatives at recent Pan-European Wiccan Conventions. My own calculation for Britain is based upon the Pagan Druid orders, who keep track of their membership in a way that other varieties of Pagan do not. Their combined totals yielded a figure of about 6,000 Pagan Druids in the nation in 1996. In the local Pagan festivals, gatherings, moots and networks, Druids are generally outnumbered by witches, with a ratio which causes me to believe that about 6,000 Druids indicates the present existence of about 10,000 witches, in initiatory traditions.

This figure, however, conceals the existence of an important and growing phenomenon, of non-imaated Pagans who are starting to treat initiates as clergy. This is illustrated by the case of a Wiccan coven in a Midland city, which I have been observing consistendy for some years. In early 1995 it had five members, and took to holding rituals at the big seasonal festivals for members of the local Pagan community who wished to celebrate them but did not themselves belong to working groups. It immediately attracted an average of 30 of these on each occasion, joined after the ceremonies by an average 20 more, who participated m the

..¿«.«¿m.»/«juwuyc. me j wenuem century feasting and merry-making; these were still wary of being involved m ntual, but wanted nonetheless to be present in a sacred space on a sacred night, and have fellowship with those who were involved. A year later, the coven had swelled to a dozen members, and the average number of guests at its ceremonies had grown to 80, and would have been still larger had a ceiling not been imposed; I had ceased to count the numbers of those who came after the rites.

This is part of a general development in present-day Pagamsm, so that at those varieties of local assembly mentioned above, initiates are always now considerably outnumbered by non-initiates who look to the former as the foci of traditions. If, therefore, I add to about 10,000 initiated witches and about 6,000 Pagan Druids the approximate number of members of other kinds of initiatory Paganism (those in groups inspired by ancient Germany and Scandinavia, or by shamanism, or working explicidy pagan magic, like the Ordo Templi Onenris), the resulting figure comes to a probable maximum of 20,000 initiated Bntish Pagans. The ratios of the local gatherings mean that it is necessary to add to that about 100,000 people who follow Pagan beliefs and pracnces without initiation into traditions. That, in turn, ignores the leakage of Pagan images and customs into subcultures such as New Age Travellers and rave music devotees. Interestingly, David Burnett, an evangelical Christian scholar who has made an objective if unsympathetic study of modern British Paganism, has reached identical conclusions by quite independent means (aired in a discussion with the present writer on Radio Four, 18 December 1994).

Modern Bntish witches are, as Tanya Luhrmann found in the 1980s, drawn from a wide range of backgrounds and occupations (Luhrmann, 1989: 99—111). There are, however, some patterns to that range. My close acquaintance with 20 covens has yielded biographical information for a total of 192 individuals (the average number of the covens was eight, but some have had a turnover of membership over the time in which I have known them). They proved to belong overwhelmingly to the upper levels of the working class and the lower levels of the middle class. None had considerable wealth or political importance, or held inhented tides of honour. None directed large companies, and they included only two doctors (both in general practice), two lawyers (both solicitors) and no tenured academics. On the other hand, only 13 were seeking employment at the time when we met, and only 10 were unskilled labourers. None were factory workers, miners or farmhands. Instead they were artisans (carpenters, blacksmiths, painters and decorators, skilled gardeners, builders, and plumbers), shopkeepers, artists, service engineers (notably concerned with computers or sound systems), owners of small businesses, employees of local government (especially in the library service) and financial advisers. The professional element was provided by the eight psychologists. The common theme to most of these occupations was a higher than usual amount of independence and self-organization. AH these people showed an unusual enthusiasm for reading and self-education. Thirty-four were taking courses m colleges or universities when I met them, but fully 30 of these were mature students who had gone back into the educational system. All the covens concerned held firmly to the Wiccan rule of initiating nobody under the age of 18, but otherwise the span of age was fairly even overall although varying between groups; 46 members were senior citizens.

One striking fact which became apparent was the very marked sociological similarity between British Wicca and the fastest-growing sector of British Christianity, the house church movement. The basic unit of both is a small gathered group of enthusiasts, meeting m private homes. Both show a remarkable diversity of practice within a common framework, and a tendency for groups to dissolve or to splinter easily, and then to reform. Both draw inspiration from ancient literature, m the house church case, the Bible. Both place heavy emphasis upon irrational qualities m religion, and upon magic, the house churches describing this in terms of faith-healing, speaking-m tongues, or possession by demons or the Holy Spint. Both are suspicious of public or formal authority and instinctually feel that the future is likely to be especially favourable to them. Both draw upon similar social groups; both, overall, are aspects of the important contemporary phenomenon of the privatization of religion. In terms of belief, of course, they could hardly be more different, and it is important in this context that witches tend to be pluralist, tolerant and quietist, whereas members of house churches are frequendy very intolerant of other faiths and hold evangelical attitudes. It is therefore also important, and ironic, that house church members generally benefit from the generally positive public value still placed upon the word 'Chnstian', while witches still suffer from the traditionally negative connotations of their name

A couple of final semantic points need to be made before wrapping up. Academics specializing in Religious Studies have increasingly followed American usage in talking of pagan witchcraft, along with most new or revived religions, as a 'cult'. This is not the precise meaning of the term, as still employed by many historians and archaeologists. According to this, a cult is the veneration of a specific deity, fictional work, person or object (e.g., Bacchus, Star Trek, brown nee or Sir Cliff Richard). Pagan witchcraft is now a more complex system of belief than that.

Likewise, it no longer resembles a New Religious Movement, defined and portrayed by Eileen Barker and her colleagues (e.g. Barker, 1994). It does not depend heavily upon one or a few charismatic leaders. It does not appeal overwhelmingly to a particular age group or cultural group. It does not offer a radical break with existing family and social relationships; and it does not challenge the wider culture as a whole, if it ever fulfilled some of these cntena (and Wicca once fitted the first, at least), then it has long outgrown them.

In the last analysis, pagan witchcraft can only be judged by the same standards as any other religion in a predommantiy secular modern society; by the benefits which it seems to give to its members, and by its achievements m literature, art and philanthropy, and its general enhancement of the quality of life. I shall end by drawing aside for a moment the veil which lies over its activities, choosing an illustration which is representative rather than extraordinary, and which I have seen paralleled on numerous other occasions when I have worked with witches. The setting was a sloping meadow upon the side of an escarpment, close to the time of the autumn equinox. It commanded a panorama of a broad nver valley below, bounded by a range of other hills which made a blue wall against the further horizon. "Woods of beech and oak closed it in upon three sides, and clothed the slope below, affording privacy. The grass of the meadow was refreshed by September rains, the leaves of the woods just starting to yellow in places. The sun was melting into the trees further along the escarpment, in shades of honey and tangerine; the sky opposite was the hue of cornflowers, and it would not be long before the Harvest Moon rose there, reaching its fiiUness that mght. This place was to be the setting, between sunset and moonnse, of the handfasting (nuptial rites) of an Alexandrian Wiccan high pnestess.

She and her partner, and their guests (who would include many non-Wiccans), were still on their way, and the business of that moment was for the coven which was hosting the ceremony to consecrate the space m which it was to take place. The careful and elaborate rituals by which this is customarily done had been carried out, and now the high priest was about to call the power of the divine feminine into the high pnestess, his wife. He knelt before her in the grass, the last rays of the sun tinting his fair hair copper and splashing his white robe with buttery hues. As he spoke the words of invocation, she flung her arms wide, a sword held in one hand, a wand in the other, and her face became radiant with joy. She seemed to gam a couple of inches in height, her own snowy robe and golden ornaments shining against the deep green of the meadow, while that gilded western sky made an iconic setting for her head, lighting the edges of htfr own streaming blonde locks. Then she spoke the Charge of the Goddess, and her coven came forth one by one, to address her and to receive responses from her in return. These are part of the mystenes of the tradition, and so I drop the veil upon the picture again. I shall only say, with pure personal subjectivity, that at that moment I thought the scene to be in its way as magnificent a manifestation of religion as a sung mass in a Gothic cathedral, the call to prayer m a blue-died mosque, or the conclusion to a seven-fold puja m a Buddhist temple.

With that closing reflection, perhaps, I' have kept faith with two very different groups of people. First, with readers who may have been wondenng, throughout the many pages of analysis and commentary above, about the actual quality of the religion which is being described. Second, with the witches who have taken me into their confidence and have been of such consistent help to me in my researches as a historian, believing that however inconvenient my conclusions might be m some respects, I would still come to understand something of the essence of their faith.

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