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Chapter 1: “Witchcraft,” “Neopaganism”: What Are We Talking About, Exactly?



Pages In This Entry:

  1. Witchcraft Goes Mainstream, by Brooks Alexander
  2. About the Author, Brooks Alexander
  3. The Contemporary Relevance of 'Witchcraft Goes Mainstream'
  4. Witchcraft Goes Mainstream: Copyright and Additional Information
  5. Witchcraft Goes Mainstream -- Table of Contents
  6. A Note on Terms and Capitalization
  7. Introduction: My Encounters With Modern Witchcraft
  8. Chapter 1: "Witchcraft," "Neopaganism": What Are We Talking About, Exactly?
  9. Chapter 2: The Halloween Witch is Dead: The Changing Face of Modern Witchcraft
  10. Chapter 3: Teens and the Media: Witchcraft in Popular Entertainment
  11. Chapter 4: Witchcraft in Popular Entertainment: The Craft, Buffy and Beyond
  12. Chapter 5: Three Myths about Modern Witchcraft
  13. Chapter 6: Witchcraft for Real -- Was There or Wasn't There?
  14. Chapter 7: From Witchcraft to Wicca: 1700 -- 2000
  15. Conclusion: Witchcraft, Christianity and Cultural Change
  16. A Final Word From the Author: What Now?
  17. Appendix A: Witchcraft in the Military
  18. Appendix B: A Brief Annotated Bibliography for Further Reading
  19. Witchcraft Goes Mainstrain -- Bibliography

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Previous page:

If you walk onto an average college campus and ask four different people what "witchcraft" is, you will probably get four different answers. I know, because I tried the experiment.

In the spring of 2002, I went to the University of California's Berkeley campus to sample the state of public opinion on the subject of modern-day witchcraft for a video documentary. The idea was to do a series of "man-in-the-street" interviews, accosting people at random and asking them what they thought the words "witch" and "witchcraft" refer to. I spoke with students, professors, tourists and passers-by. Here is some of what they told me:

"A witch is somebody who was supposed to eat babies and get magical powers from the Devil, but it wasn't real. It was all paranoid fantasy and social hysteria."

"'Witch' was a word they used to condemn people who rebelled against the powers that be. Anybody who stood up to the Church and the establishment was likely to be called a 'witch' -- especially women. And that's still true. That's where the term 'witch-hunt' comes from."

"'Witches' are make-believe Halloween characters, like ghosts and skeletons and jack-o-lanterns. They're ugly looking and fly around on broomsticks scaring people."

"A 'witch' is somebody who uses supernatural power in a bad way -- using hexes and spells and stuff to hurt people -- what they call 'black magic.'"

While none of those responses are "true," none are entirely "false," either. The real history of witchcraft is complex enough to provide at least some basis for all of those answers. Today however, confusion is multiplied because the word "witchcraft" can refer to several different things, depending on how it is used.

"Witchcraft" has at least four different meanings -- four distinct ways the word is employed -- and those different meanings get mixed up in the ways that people use and understand the term. We should therefore identify the four main categories of "witchcraft" before we go any further, so we can know what we are -- and are not -- talking about in this book. The four categories are:

  1. biblical witchcraft
  2. anthropological witchcraft
  3. historical witchcraft, and
  4. modern, religious Witchcraft

1) Biblical Witchcraft

In English versions of the Bible, several different Greek and Hebrew words are translated as "witch" or "witchcraft." All of those different words refer to different occult practices of the ancient Middle East. In some cases, all we have is a Hebrew word -- the particular occult practice involved can't even be identified today. Therefore, it is difficult to give a single, specific meaning to the term "witchcraft" as it is used in scripture. We can, however, give it a general meaning, since each of the Greek and Hebrew words in question have a similar reference, and all have a nearly identical connotation.

To begin with, biblical witchcraft (whatever it was) is essentially an Old Testament phenomenon. There are eight references to witchcraft in the Bible and seven of them are in the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, the term most often translated as "witch" is mekashef (which is also sometimes rendered as "sorcerer"). The exact root of the word is uncertain. It is believed to come from a word which means "to cut," or "cut up," possibly referring to drugs or medicinal plants sliced and shredded into a magical brew.

"In the numerous instances in which mekashef occurs in the Old Testament, the idea seems to be of one who deals in medicines, charms or poisons . . . one who performs magical arts with drugs -- in the modern sense, one who performs sorcery, witchcraft, or black magic." (Nigosian, 1978; p. 17)

But several other words are also translated as "witch." The so-called "witch of Endor" (1 Sam. 28:3-19) was clearly not a sorcerer in the usual sense, but a necromancer or spirit medium. And in the famous statement from First Samuel, that "rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft" (1 Sam. 15:23), the word rendered as "witchcraft" is qesem, which refers to some (unknown) form of divination.

In the New Testament, the Greek word pharmakeia is translated once (in Galatians 5:20) as "witchcraft" and four times (in the Book of Revelation) as "sorcery." The same Greek word is also the root of our English word "pharmacy." Again, the central notion seems to be one of drugs, potions and poisons -- of either doing occult rituals while taking drugs, or possibly of "spellbinding" others by giving them drugs.

In any case, the biblical references to "witchcraft" are hard to apply with precision today because the biblical translators were naming ancient occult practices with terms taken from the theological controversies of their own day -- and they weren't always consistent in the way they did it. In the original languages, the biblical words translated as "witch" and "witchcraft" appear to refer to various forms of sorcery and black magic. Sorcery in that sense is a part of some, but not all, modern Witchcraft. Thus, while Scripture's pronouncements on witchcraft have an indirect, or "background," relevance to Neopaganism, the way the term was translated doesn't lend itself to scholarly precision, or shed much light on the Witchcraft movement that we see today..

2) Anthropological witchcraft

Scholars of anthropology frequently refer to "witches" and "witchcraft," especially in studies of African tribal society. Some anthropologists use the word to mean any form of malevolent, "black" magic (i.e., sorcery), particularly when it involves spirit-helpers or familiars. Another group of scholars, however, reserve the term "witchcraft" for a special kind of evil psychic power -- a power to harm that is inherited, instead of being obtained through learning and initiation, as is the case with ordinary sorcery. Interestingly, this rather technical, scholarly distinction seems to have made its way into the popular lore of witchcraft via the entertainment media, as we shall see in Chapter Five But generally speaking, anthropological studies of tribal "witchcraft" are only indirectly relevant to modern Witchcraft. As Jeffrey Burton Russell points out, such studies serve mainly as a reminder that sorcery and black magic are indeed universal phenomena which appear in all times, in all societies and among all classes of people.

3) Historical witchcraft

"Historical" witchcraft had a limited lifespan, with a beginning, a middle and an end. It began in Europe at the beginning of the Middle Ages and ended in America at the end of the Renaissance. It is also called "European" witchcraft, "classical" witchcraft, "gothic" witchcraft and "diabolical" or "dualistic" witchcraft. In its fully developed form, it was alleged to involve worship of the Devil, infant sacrifice, cannibalism of the sacrificed infant and sexual relations with Satan and/or his seducing demons.

Early versions of what later became witchcraft can be found as far back as 1022 in France, but witchcraft wasn't identified as a heresy by the Inquisition until the 1200s, and the infamous "witch craze," with its sensational trials and widespread public executions, didn't begin until the time of the Renaissance (1400-1700). The notorious Salem witch trials of 1692 were literally the last spasm of the Renaissance witch hysteria, which had largely died out in Europe half a century earlier. After 1700, witchcraft disappears from history altogether.

Modern-day Witches often claim that their religion is descended from the witchcraft of the Middle Ages, but that is not true. What is true concerning historical witchcraft is as follows:

Witchcraft came into existence at a particular point in time when its components were woven together by circumstance to create something new. It passed out of existence at a later point in time, when that process was reversed, and circumstance unraveled those components to take them apart once again. Historical witchcraft wasn't transmitted to later generations for the simple reason that after its dis-integration, there was nothing left to transmit. [The origin, development and eventual disappearance of historical witchcraft are discussed in Chapters Six and Seven]

It is important for us to understand what historical witchcraft was, and how it relates (and doesn't relate) to modern Witchcraft and the Neopagan Movement. In recent years, a lot of Neopagans have backed away from the claim that modern Witchcraft is directly connected with the witchcraft of European history. But even the Neopagans who no longer claim to be descended from historical witchcraft, still claim to be inspired by it. A lot of their self-understanding as modern Witches is based on their understanding of what historical witchcraft was. A lot of their (mis)understanding of Christians and Christianity is likewise based on their perception of who historical witches were in relation to their accusers. As they see the witches of history, so they tend to see themselves in relation to the world of today.

The real nature of historical witchcraft (and its relationship with Christianity) is a subject of ongoing controversy, not only among scholars, but also within the Neopagan community. In fact, it is one of the subjects on which it is most important for Christians to engage Neopagans in dialogue and debate -- both directly and indirectly, both individually and collectively, both face to face and in the media. This is one of the places where the battle is currently being fought over how we will understand Christianity's place in our history -- and its place in our future. Christians need to be part of that discussion at a grassroots level.

4) Modern Religious Witchcraft

Almost 250 years after historical witchcraft ceased to exist, modern Witchcraft appeared. It was essentially the creation of one man, in England, in the 1940s. But as it grew, and especially when it came to the United States in the 1950s and 1960s, modern Witchcraft mushroomed into a populist magical mystery cult that has become one of the most dynamic and rapidly growing movements in America.

Religious Witchcraft was originally conceived as a goddess-centered nature religion (and given the name of "Wicca"), but in the decades since it came to America, the movement has not only increased in numbers and influence, it has also diversified far beyond its original concept. What began as an effort to re-invent a simple vision of witchcraft (and claim it as a "survival") has expanded into a collection of "revivals" and "re-creations" that includes the ancient Celtic, Greek, Roman and Egyptian religions. Increasingly, it also draws in enthusiasts of various superceded, forgotten and discarded traditions from around the world (e.g., "Shamanic Healing Circles," and "Toltec Wisdom").

But the movement is more than just a revival of bygone ways; it also includes a number of purely modern elements. This larger movement incorporates a number of political causes and enthusiasms (chiefly of the left-wing variety) such as feminism, environmentalism, "gay" activism and anti-war activism. Clearly, this is more than the dabbling of those with a taste for the quaint and ancient.

This expanded version of the movement is what is meant by the term "Neopaganism." In that context, it should be pointed out that while all modern Witches are Neopagans, not all Neopagans are Witches. It is an imperfect parallel to say that if Neopaganism is a "religion," then Witchcraft is one of its "denominations." but it does make the point that Witchcraft is only one "flavor" of Neopaganism. It also serves to illustrate how different the movement has become from what it started out to be.

And the movement is poised to become more different yet, as Neopagans are discovering that they have interests in common with a wide variety of other religions and spiritual movements. In fact, in the minds of some people, "Neo-paganism" itself has become a divisive term and a limiting concept. They believe that the movement has evolved beyond its roots, that it should drop the "Neo" part of its name and become simply the "Pagan Movement" -- a motley alliance of minority beliefs and alternative religions of which the main unifying thread is that all of them are not Christian. And they have taken this belief with them into interfaith activism. In Interfaith circles, the term "Pagan" is used to refer to a wide variety of religious groups, including indigenous, tribal, Shinto, Hindu (and Neo-Hindu), Taoist and Neopagan groups among others.

Nevertheless, even as Neopaganism defines itself in increasingly inclusive terms, the fact remains that it began as a witchcraft "revival" and is still heavily weighted toward its Witchcraft component. Modern Witchcraft continues to be Neopaganism"s most active public presence and its most compelling public image.

Describing Modern Witchcraft

Although Witchcraft has attained a higher public profile, it still has not come sharply into focus in the public mind. Although more people have a generally positive impression of Witchcraft today, not many have a clear idea of what Witchcraft really consists of. In fact, as a religion, modern Witchcraft is remarkably difficult to pin down.

Witchcraft is individualistic to the point of being anarchic, with no centralized authority or even any agreed-upon definition of what a "Witch" is. In effect, a Witch is whoever says they are a Witch, and Witch beliefs and practices amount to whatever individual Witches actually believe and do. The problem with this approach is that the people who say they are Witches actually believe and do so many different things that no single description fits them all. In fact, the Witches themselves have been stymied in several attempts to come up with a definition.

One early (and failed) attempt was promoted by the occult publisher Llewellyn in 1973. Under Llewellyn's sponsorship, a "Council of American Witches" was organized, but soon fell apart -- precisely because of conflicts over questions of definition. Problems were immediatedy evident in the responses submitted to the basic question: "What is a Witch?" Below are some of the answers Llewellyn received:

"A Witch above all worships the Triple Goddess and her Consort, the Horned God, in one form or another. A Witch works Magick within a definite code of ethics. A Witch acknowledges and uses the male-female polarity in his/her rites. A Witch takes total responsibility for her actions, herself and her future."

"Witchcraft is an initiatory mystery religion whose adherents seek, through self-discipline, to live a life dedicated to the pursuit and practice of knoledge, wisdom and compassion under the guidance of the Gods."

"A Witch is a member of a religion which by its own internal definition is monotheistic."

"Wicca can be defined as a pagan mystery religion with a polarized deity and no personification of evil."
- (quoted in Adler, 1986, p. 100)

On the West coast, Witches did manage in 1975 to create the "Covenant of the Goddess" (COG) -- an alliance of Witchcraft groups that has not only survived but gone on to become one of the prominent voices of Neopaganism in the United States. But COG only survived because it avoided definitions. After struggling with the issue, COG decided that defining a Witch is an impossibility, and declared that Witchcraft's unstructured individualism is in fact a virtue. In their statement, COG's organizers said:

We could not define what a Witch is in words. Because there are too many differences. Our reality is intuitive. We know when we encounter someone who we feel is worshipping in the same way, who follows the same religion we do, and that's our reality, and that has to be understood, somehow, in anything we do.
- (quoted in Adler, 1986, p. 104)

Neopagans pride themselves on their religious creativity and believe that their ability to "make it up as they go along" is one of the strengths of their community. Margot Adler says in effect that the creation of new traditions is itself becoming a tradition in Neopaganism:

New traditions are springing up in the Craft almost every day. In my travels across the country, I found that easily half the people I interviewed in the Craft were either forming their own traditions or changing the ones they were involved with. - (Adler, 1986, p. 129)

Under those circumstances, it is obviously difficult to speak in general terms and say that "Witches" believe this or that, or that "they" behave in such and such a way. Any declaration along those lines should come with a disclaimer attached, warning that the statement is riddled with exceptions.

Nevertheless, if we keep that disclaimer in mind, it is possible to discern a kind of religious attitude -- if not a fully developed religious ideology -- behind the differences of detail in modern Witchcraft.

Witchcraft's religious attitude begins with rejection, distinction and opposition. Witchcraft asserts its existence, as the sociologists say, "against the rejected background" of the main culture. Its identity is proclaimed in terms of its difference from, and its opposition to, the Christian-based culture and religion(s) of the West. Witchcraft is not only anti-authoritarian within its own ranks, it also actively opposes the authority of the prevailing culture generally. Margot Adler makes that stance of active opposition clear, saying of her own book, Drawing Down the Moon , that it "stands against all of the totalistic religious and political views that dominate our society." (Adler, 1986, p. viii) Much of the motive force behind the growth of Neopaganism lies in this vital sense of "standing against" the powers that be in contemporary culture. The contagious excitement of cultural insurrection is modern Witchcraft's functional substitute for missionary zeal.

Adler goes on to describe the Neopagan religious attitude in four additional points (one of which, again, explicily repudiates a cardinal Christian teaching). The four points can be summarized as

  1. animism/polytheism/ pantheism
  2. feminism
  3. there's no such thing as sin, and
  4. spiritual reciprocity.

1) Animism/Polytheism/Pantheism

Adler says that animism, polytheism and pantheism are overlapping terms to describe the basic pagan attitude toward the divine. (Adler, 1986; p. 25)

"Animism" sees a spiritual vitality in all things, thus blurring the distinction between animate and inanimate in our universe. To Neopagans, "polytheism" means that "deity" is plural rather than singular, many rather than one. First and foremost, this puts the Neopagan approach in opposition to the biblical concept of monotheism-- and all of its implications. However, even though "the gods" are numerous, there is still a basic "divinity" that underlies them all -- indeed, that underlies all things. This is where "polytheism" overlaps "pantheism" in the Neopagan scheme of things.

"Pantheism" is a loaded term in any religious discussion, and many Witches would deny that their beliefs are "pantheistic." But it is hard to use any other term when Adler asserts that Witchcraft is "a . . . religion of immanence" and says that it leads to "the understanding of one's own divine nature. Thou art Goddess. Thou art God. Divinity is immanent in all of Nature. It is as much within you as without." (Adler, 1986, p.ix; emphasis added) Certainly "pantheism" is the right word to describe belief in a divinity that pervades all of Nature and which shows up in the individual as "the divine within."

To Neopagans, the universe is alive with the energy of consciousness, and that conscious energy is the divine -- the invisible ground and substance of everything that exists. Pantheism in that sense also includes several related ideas. If the divine pervades all of nature, then all of nature is sacred. From that connection follows the ecological emphasis of modern Witchcraft, and Witchcraft itself is frequently referred to as an "earth-based" religion. The spiritual practice of Witches is often organized around the yearly cycle of Nature's four seasons, as seen in the so-called "wheel of the year" -- the repetitive round of seasonal high points such as as soltices and equinoxes and the ancient agricultural festivals of sowing, growing and mowing.

Also related to Witchcraft's pantheism are the ideas of "enlightenment" and occult "empowerment." If the divine is hidden within Nature, the objective of the religion becomes to "uncover" that divinity, to "realize" one's divinity or to "tap into" the divine in order to manipulate its energies by means of magic. In that connection, the use of magic or some other form of occult working (such as divination, or spirit-invocation) is virtually universal among Neopagans, though again, there are exceptions, and the details of the actual occult practices vary widely.

2) Feminism

From its very earliest days, modern Witchcraft has been female-centered and goddess-oriented. Gerald Gardner's original "Wicca" was an attempt to recreate an imagined goddess-cult of pre-Christian Europe. His ideas were later enlisted as support for the political goals and social critique of activist feminism. Today, Adler describes the feminine focus of Witchcraft this way:

In our culture which for so long has denied and denigrated the feminine as negative, evil or, at best, small and unimportant, women (and men too) will never understand their own creative strength and divine nature until they embrace the creative feminine, the source of inspiration, the Goddess within.
- (Adler, 1986, p. ix)

3) "There is no such thing as sin"

That is exactly the way that Adler states her third point. If it seems odd that two of the five main elements in Neopaganism's "religious attitude" are devoted to invalidating Christianity, it is worth remembering that the single most defining thing about Neopaganism is its detachment from the main (i.e., Christian-based) culture. Neopaganism begins -- both in its history and, for the individual, psychologically -- by breaking with the prevailing religious environment. Neopaganism must assert itself against the dominating influence of Christianity simply to create a breathing space for itself to exist in this society. The specific Christian beliefs most often targeted for denial and repudiation by Neopagans are the concept of "sin" and the uniqueness of Christ. This almost visceral rejection seems to be one of the few genuine universals of the modern Witchcraft movement, and it appears to hold true across the Neopagan spectrum. In our 1986 "Christian-Wiccan Dialogue" for example, opposition to the concept of sin was one attitude that united all of the Wiccan participants, regardless of their (sometimes acrimonious) differences of opinion on other subjects.

4) Spiritual Reciprocity/Wiccan Ethics

Adler expresses the notion of spiritual reciprocity concisely, saying: "The energy you put into the world comes back." (Adler, 1986; p. ix) In colloquial terms, we would say "what goes around comes around." Many Witches (but not all) would subscribe to some version of what is called "the three-fold law," or "law of three" -- the idea that whatever you do will eventually come back to you with triple force. Many Witches (but again, not all) believe in some form of reincarnation, which gives the concept of spiritual reciprocity greater scope to do its work (i.e., what you do in this lifetime may not come back to deliver its effect -- and your due reward -- until several lifetimes later). In any case, the idea of spiritual reciprocity, often in the form of "the three-fold law" is frequently put forward as a basis for "Wiccan ethics." The assumption is that people who believe that their actions will come back to haunt them, both for good and for ill, will take care to act more responsibly and considerately -- that is, to pursue empathy and eschew selfishness.

With this moral confidence in hand, modern Witchcraft sets forth its basic ethical guideline, sometimes known as the "Wiccan Rede." "Rede" is Old English for "advice" or "counsel," but this piece of advice is not as ancient as its name. Like much else in Neopaganism, it is given an appearance of antiquity by couching it in obsolete forms of expression. The precise origin of the Wiccan Rede is subject to speculation, but it is unquestionably modern. Its usual formulation is: "An it harm none, do as ye will." In contemporary idiom, that translates to "as long as it doesn't hurt anybody, do whatever you want to."

The Rede resembles a passive version of the "Golden Rule," undercut by its bow to the primacy of self-will. The admonition not to hurt others is a classic piece of moral advice as far as it goes, but as stated, it is the equivalent of saying "let your conscience be your guide." Christians will understand the inherent weakness of that approach. In Romans Chapter 2, Paul shows how the conscience strives toward God's righteousness, yet is distorted by original sin. This makes it variable in its judgments and subject to rationalizations -- "sometimes accusing, sometimes excusing" (Rom. 2:15). When the desire of the will (or the will of desire) is pitted against the call for empathy in appraising the needs of others, only the naive expect empathy to prevail.

But you don't have to be a Christian to wonder if the Wiccan Rede is a stong enough basis for moral guidance. There is controversy on the subject even among Neopagans. In Witchcraft Today: An Encyclopedia of Wiccan and Neopagan Traditions, author James R. Lewis notes:

Some feel that this is too slender a "rede" on which to base an ethic adequate for a religious movement as large as Neopaganism. There are others who feel that the kind of libertarian ethic implied by the Wiccan Rede is precisely what is needed not only by the craft, but by modern society in general.
- (Lewis, 1999; p. 303)

Once again, the diversity of Neopagan opinion renders generalizations difficult. For almost anything you can say about modern Witchcraft, there will be Witches somewhere to stand up and say "Not true of us!"

Nevertheless, there are some unmistakable commonalities that unite the movement and bond together those who make it up. Keep in mind the statement issued by the Covenant of the Goddess in 1975: "Our reality is intuitive. We know when we encounter someone who we feel is worshipping in the same way, who follows the same religion we do."

In that context, the common threads of Neopaganism are less in the details of beliefs and practices than they are in a sense of agreement on outlook, attitude, mood and perspective.

The Neopagan religious attitude begins by breaking with the prevailing (Christian) religious attitude, and in particular with its monotheism and its transcendence. Neopaganism's outlook sees the divine not only as many, but also as pantheistic, and therefore as available -- both for enlightenment and for occult empowerment.

Neopaganism's viewpoint is female centered and goddess oriented, earth based and environmentally focused.

Neopaganism strongly repudiates the concept of sin -- and, needless to say, the concept of salvation based upon it.

The Neopagan attitude fundamentally rejects the idea that we are accountable for our behavior to a higher moral authority and a revealed moral standard. Instead, consistent with its pantheism, Neopaganism believes that ethical behavior arises naturally out of the workings of "spiritual reciprocity." In effect, Neopaganism asserts an ethic of self-will, tempered by mysticism (i.e., belief in the "law of three").

At every point, and in every respect, Neopaganism stands in contrast and outright antagonism, to the Christian understanding of reality. Neopaganism's aversion to Christianity is more than just a sociological device for carving out its religious identity. It also reflects a deep spiritual antipathy with the moral basis of Christianity, i.e., Christianity's (to them) suffocating sense of sin and judgment - the "bad news" that makes the "good news" good. Ultimately, Neopagans reject the good news that God has given us a savior because they reject the bad news that we need one to begin with. Ironically, it is this part of its religious mood and attitude that puts Neopaganism increasingly in harmony with the mood and attitude of the secular society around us.


Copyright

Witchcraft Goes Mainstream

© Copyright 2004 by Brooks Alexander. Posted at Apologetics Index by permission. [Details]

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This post was last updated: Oct. 26, 2011