- Witchcraft Goes Mainstream, by Brooks Alexander
- About the Author, Brooks Alexander
- The Contemporary Relevance of 'Witchcraft Goes Mainstream'
- Witchcraft Goes Mainstream: Copyright and Additional Information
- Witchcraft Goes Mainstream -- Table of Contents
- A Note on Terms and Capitalization
- Introduction: My Encounters With Modern Witchcraft
- Chapter 1: "Witchcraft," "Neopaganism": What Are We Talking About, Exactly?
- Chapter 2: The Halloween Witch is Dead: The Changing Face of Modern Witchcraft
- Chapter 3: Teens and the Media: Witchcraft in Popular Entertainment
- Chapter 4: Witchcraft in Popular Entertainment: The Craft, Buffy and Beyond
- Chapter 5: Three Myths about Modern Witchcraft
- Chapter 6: Witchcraft for Real -- Was There or Wasn't There?
- Chapter 7: From Witchcraft to Wicca: 1700 -- 2000
- Conclusion: Witchcraft, Christianity and Cultural Change
- A Final Word From the Author: What Now?
- Appendix A: Witchcraft in the Military
- Appendix B: A Brief Annotated Bibliography for Further Reading
- Witchcraft Goes Mainstrain -- Bibliography
The Halloween witch is dead. The old crone on a broomstick with a black cat, a peaked hat and a wart on her nose is history. She has been replaced by a young, beautiful, sexually magnetic maiden who reveres nature, honors a goddess, practices magic and wields mysterious psychic powers. Such indeed is the image of the modern, Neopagan Witch today.
That is quite a transformation, from repulsion to allure, and it has happened very rapidly — essentially within the span of a single generation (about 30 years). Moreover, the process itself seems to be accelerating; examples of the change in Witchcraft’s public image have become more frequent and more dramatic near the end of that thirty-year phase.
It isn’t easy to assess the meaning of historical change from within the history that’s being changed. We can’t get enough distance on current events to tell the difference between a transient fad and an enduring trend. Nevertheless, the changes in Witchcraft’s public image have been happening fast enough, and are far-reaching enough, that they virtually draw attention to themselves as a significant development.
And of course those changes in the public’s attitude toward Witchcraft have not happened in a vacuum. Context is critical. What’s happening to Witchcraft is part and parcel of a much larger transformation that is happening to society as a whole. Unravelling the factors behind Witchcraft’s rising popularity can give us insight into into the larger process of cultural change. And the reverse is also true — if we see the larger patterns, we can better understand how those cultural changes speed up the mainstreaming of marginal movements and worldviews, such as Neopaganism.
Most people have probably already noticed at least some signs of Witchcraft’s increasing presence and status in society. If they watch daytime television, they have seen Witches promoting their viewpoint to a sympathetic hearing on the Oprah Winfrey Show and other afternoon “chat” programs. If they watch cable news, they have seen Witches interviewed on Fox, CNN and MSNBC. If they read newspapers, they have seen the articles that predictably appear every halloween, explaining that Witches really don’t deserve their infamous reputation. And if they pay attention to the entertainment world, they have certainly noticed the recent spate of movies and TV shows dealing with witchcraft as a theme. But unless they are closely attuned to the world of teenagers — its spin-offs and its subcultures — they are seeing just the tip of the iceberg. It is among the Internet-savvy younger generation that modern Witchcraft is seeing its most explosive growth — and its most thoroughgoing image-makeover.
It is hard to be specific about the numbers involved. There is considerable emphasis on secrecy in modern Witchcraft, and Neopagan organizations don’t make their membership rolls available for counting. Wild guesses have ranged as high as 5 million adherants of Wicca alone (Edwards, 1999, p. 23), but better informed estimates put the numbers at considerably less than that. One sociologist who spent ten years as a “participant-observer” of the Neopagan community concluded that the total number of Neopagans in the United States was between 150,000 and 200,000 in 1999 (Berger, 1999, p. 9). Five years later, those numbers may have as much as doubled. If her estimate is correct, that would put the projected number of Neopagans in the U.S. at approaching half a million by 2004. In another attempt to assess the numbers, the Covenant of the Goddess conducted a year-long poll of the Neopagan community beginning in 1999; They calculated the total number of both Witches and Pagans to be 768,400. If that estimate is correct, then by 2004, the figure could be near a million and a half. 
But of course the real numbers, whatever they are, are changing all the time, and in some ways are inherently unknowable. People can enter the Neopagan movement — or depart from it — without leaving any traces at all. People can and do become interested in Wicca without joining any group, or identifying themselves as “Witches” in any public way. They can also put that interest aside and move on to other fascinations without any outward signs of the transition. If we want to get a picture of how the modern Witchcraft movement is developing, we will have to rely on other kinds of information.
If you wanted to gauge the presence and influence of Christianity in this country, you would look to our churches, which are easy enough to see — in most cases, just by driving down the street. Generally speaking, Christian churches are publicly accessible and tend to be publicly active. In a word, Christianity is socially “visible.” Not so with Neopaganism. Although there are several organizations that represent Witchcraft to the general public, most of what modern Witches do together, as Witches, happens outside of public view.
To gauge the presence and influence of Witchcraft in our midst, we need (among other things) to know the movement’s history — its origins and development (see Chapter Eight). But to understand where, how and why the movement is growing today, we need to look at three areas of activity: first, at what’s happening among teenagers; second, at what’s happening on college campuses; and third, at what’s happening on the Internet.
Those three connected sub-cultures form a matrix within which Neopaganism flourishes. They are connected because the denizens of the teen culture soon move on to the college scene, and cyber-literacy is increasingly taken for granted in both of those overlapping worlds. And, as we shall see, all three are also dis-connected from the rest of us in important ways, fashioned into a world apart by a combination of unruly hormones, proliferating technology and turbulent social change.
The Changing Demographics of Neopaganism
The website witchvox.com claims that it is “the busiest religious site in the world,” registering over a million and a quarter “hits” by the end of its first full year of operation in 1998. (Nightmare, 2001; p. 118) In a Web survey conducted on the site in September 1999, it was determined that 60 percent of respondents were under thirty and 62 percent were female.” (Edwards, 1999, p. 23) The observation that Wiccan enthusiasts are predominantly young and female may seem like a cliche, but it appears to be borne out by the data.
That surge of enthusiasm for Witchcraft among the young, especially among young women, is a distinctly new development — one that began suddenly, in the late 1990s. It also stands in sharp contrast to the conditions that prevailed before the trend got started. In the early 1990s, one of the most dynamic segments of Neopaganism was the “women’s spirituality” branch of the feminist movement. But, while “women’s spirituality” was attracting plenty of women who were already politically active, very few of them were youthful. In 1993, journalist Cynthia Eller wrote a book praising and promoting feminist spirituality (Living in the Lap of the Goddess: The Feminist Spirituality Movement in America) in which she openly lamented the lack of younger women in the movement. Eller noted “how few women [in feminist spirituality] there are below thirty….There are women in their teens and twenties, but not many.” (Eller, 1993; p. 18)
Five years later, that situation had been turned completely on its head. In 1998, “Spin Magazine in its ‘Grrrl [sic] Power’ issue ranked witchcraft as the top interest among teenage girls.” (Nisbet, 1998) Not surprisingly, merchandisers were among the first to respond to the growing fascination. Teen-themed promotions for products such as Finesse Shampoo and Cover Girl Cosmetics (along with many others) featured witches in their ad campaigns. And the appeal to young women extended beyond the teenage culture per se. “Young and Modern magazine featured two pages on witchcraft with the banner headline ‘Witchy Ways!’. . . Jane magazine featured Phyllis Curott (a high-profile witch) as one of their ‘Gutsiest women of the year.'” (Edwards, 1999; p. 25) According to one commentator, “Sorcery and witchcraft have become the hottest themes in youth culture . . . for the first time in modern Western civilization.” (Harvey, 2002)
What accounts for such momentous change within such a moment of historical time? The easy, if oversimplified, answer is that the change is accounted for by the sudden “explosion” of Witchcraft characters, stories and themes in the media during the mid-1990s (see Chapter Five). Indeed, there can be no doubt about the connection between the two. When The Craft was released in 1996, it triggered a dramatic rise in the number of people contacting Neopagan groups and websites, such as the Covenant of the Goddess (www.cog.org) and the Witches’ Voice (www.witchvox.com). Neopagans have told me that the response was so strong, so sudden and so unexpected that they were literally overwhelmed by the surge of inquiries. That same high level of interest in Witchcraft was sustained over the next few years by a whole series of movies and TV programs featuring young, stylish, hip and glamorous women — who happened to be Witches. Almost overnight, Witchcraft became the “in” thing for any teenage girl who also aspired to be young, stylish, hip, and glamorous (i.e., almost all of them). Interestingly, even as Witches were being portrayed in positive roles, Witchcraft itself retained its aura as a form of “anti-establishment rebellion” — which naturally made it even more attractive to teenagers in general.
Yet it must also be said that the media explanation is oversimplified. There was more to Neopaganism’s late 1990s success story than a few Hollywood screenwriters and popular actresses making witchcraft look good to impressionable kids. Our culture in general (and the youth culture in particular) responded to witchcraft because they were ready for witchcraft.
Witches had been working for decades to change the popular image and legal status of Witchcraft, and by the 1990s, their work was starting to pay off. Several Witchcraft organizations had been created during the 1970s, and they quickly began to give modern Witchcraft a higher public profile and a better public image. A 1986 Federal Court of Appeals decision (Dettmer v. Landon) had effectively declared “The Church of Wicca” to be a constitutionally recognizable “religion,” with the same legal rights and standing as other religions.
Teenagers were untouched by any of those developments directly, of course, although they were affected indirectly by Neopaganism’s new-found public relations self-confidence. But teens were affected directly by other trends that prepared them to embrace Witchcraft with enthusiasm when it broke out of the occult ghetto and into mainstream entertainment. By the early 1990s, there was a broad awareness of something called “dark spirituality” among teenagers in America. Appealing to disaffected and alienated youth, dark spirituality incorporated fantasy and science fiction themes (especially as portrayed in comic books and television) and it permeated the fantasy-role-playing scene, as in the controversial game “Dungeons and Dragons.” More of a mood than a movement, dark spirituality emphasized the pursuit and use of power by occult means, including witchcraft, sorcery and spirit invocation. The occult theme was largely drawn from fantasy fiction and often acted out in fantasy role-playing games.
By the mid-1990s, dark spirituality was associated primarily with the “Goth” movement. The Goth movement (named for the medieval “Gothic” period) had come from Britain during the 1980s, and firmly taken root among American youth. Following the lead of such “pop-Goth” bands as “Depepche Mode” and “the Cure,” Goth teens were fascinated by gargoyles and vampires, and specialized in gloom, depression and nihilism (the music of “the Cure” has been called “British Mope-Rock”). Goths were self-described as “pale-faced, black-swathed, hair-sprayed nightdwellers, who worshiped imagery religious and sacrilegious, consumptive poets, and all things spooky.” (“Goth,” 1998).
In the 1990s, the “spiritual underbelly” of high school was dominated by Goth style and imagery, but it also included all manner of social exiles and outcasts (such as dopers, gays and satanists) who existed on the fringes of teenage society. In 1997, an informal study of local teenagers by the Lexington (Kentucky) Herald-Leader showed how thoroughly this counterculture had spread throughout area schools. “Most said there’s a subculture at nearly every school that includes Anne Rice-influenced gothic kids, faux vampires and outcast kids who dabble in the occult. After all, in the Bible Belt, what could be more shocking than experimenting with witchcraft, vampirism or Satanism?” (Isaacs, 1997).
The author reassuringly concluded that most signs of teenage involvement in the occult merely indicate a temporary rebellion against parental and social boundaries — though she did note that “a small percentage” of those who flirt with occultic interests move on to a heavier involvement with more serious practices. She did not assess the effect of “normalizing” occultism in the minds of the rest of the kids, those who were dabblers or even just observers. In fact this process — of making deviant spirituality into a normal part of the social environment — was a major preparation for the late-1990s eruption of Witchcraft (and more broadly Neopaganism) in the youth culture.
Teen Witch and Teen Witches
The evidence that we have available, mostly from advertising and journalism, indicates that there is a high level of awareness of Witchcraft among teenagers, especially girls, coupled with a generally positive attitude toward it. How often do the awareness and the attitude come together to create an active interest — or go on to create an actual involvement? It is difficult to know directly. In the absence of direct information, book sales may be our best indication.
If there is one book that is tied to the teen culture’s enthusiastic embrace of Witchcraft, it is 1998’s surprise hit Teen Witch: Wicca for a New Generation, by Silver Ravenwolf (a Wiccan pseudonym). Written for girls 11 and up (Radio U, 1999), Teen Witch has sold 150,000 copies, according to information on the author’s website (www.silverravenwolf.com). The book is a 250-page “how-to” manual of modern Witchcraft that promises to teach teens how to become “a pentacle-wearing, spell-casting, completely authentic witch!” Among the spells available for casting are “such uniquely teen rituals as the Bad Bus Driver spell, the Un-Ground Me spell, and the Just-Say-No spell.” (Mulrine, 1999)
According to the book’s Frontispiece,
Now, for the first time, [teens] can explore what it’s like to be a real Witch with a book written especially for you.
Find out how the Wiccan mysteries can enhance your life
Begin your journey with the Teen Seeker Ceremony
Combine common herbs from the supermarket to make your magickal formulas
Create your own sacred space
Read true stories of Wiccan teens
Work magick with real spells
Learn the Craft techniques for gaining love, money, health, protection, and wisdom
Discover how to talk to friends, parents, and other people about your involvement with WitchCraft.
The concept — and the success — of Teen Witch was directly related to the youth-market/Witchcraft explosion in the media during the late 1990s. The hit movie The Craft (1996) had created a ready-made audience among teens for learning more about Witchcraft, and almost certainly inspired Ravenwolf’s decision to make teenagers the focus of her book. Partly because of those pop-culture connections, Teen Witch was not well received among “traditionalist” Wiccans in the Neopagan movement. Those who saw Witchcraft as an esoteric religion, transmitted by teaching and initiation, thought that Ravenwolf had sensationalized their beliefs. The book was widely disdained in the Witchcraft community for being crass, superficial and exploitive.
But that didn’t seem to slow it down. Within its first year,Teen Witch was flying off the shelves at Borders, Barnes & Noble, and other mainstream bookstores. It quickly went to multiple reprintings and became the all-time bestselling title for its publisher, the occult-oriented Llewellyn Publications. That kind of success attracts attention — and imitators. Other publishers tried to jump aboard the already rolling bandwagon with books like The Teen Spell Book: Magick for Young Witches (2001), followed by Where to Park Your Broomstick: A Teen’s Guide to Witchcraft (2002) and Witchin: A Handbook for Teen Witches (2003) — among many others.
The surprising success of Teen Witch prompted Ravenwolf to start writing Wiccan popular fiction aimed at the same audience. One day, in a reverie, she imagined that the teens in the cover-art for Teen Witch were real people. She gave them names and identities and came up with the idea for the “Witches’ Chillers” series of supernatural/horror/mystery novels for Llewellyn Publishers. The central character in the series is Bethany Salem, a 16 year-old high school sophomore and Witch-in-training. Along with several of her teenage Wiccan friends from a local coven, Bethany uses witchy spells and psychic skills to solve crimes and fend off dangers in stories with titles like Witches Night of Fear, Witches Key to Terror and Witches Voodoo Moon. An advertisement for the series spells out its unsubtle appeal: “Do Teens Have Power? You Bet! Experience the Thrill of a Witches Chiller.”
Ravenwolf is very clear that the purpose of her books is to encourage teens to investigate the world of Witchcraft for themselves. On her website, she says “Although the story is entirely fictional, I set about to devise a world where the teens use real magick, not the fairy tale stuff.” And she not only makes the “magick” appealing, she also makes it accessible: “Woven into the Witches Chiller Series is a positive spell in each book that teenagers can do for themselves.”
Even the Disney entertainment machine is exploiting the teen/Witchcraft connection, with a book series for adolescent girls called “W.I.T.C.H.,” about five teenage girls who practice Witchcraft. According to a statement by Disney Publishing Worldwide, the book series was introduced in the U.S. in April, 2004, after several years of what a Disney executive called “an unprecedented global response to the characters and the concept” in other countries.
For many teens, high school merges into college as seamlessly as summer merges into fall. By 1999, what had begun among high schoolers had also moved with them onto the college campuses. There, the “teen wave” of Wiccan enthusiasm merged with the “goddess” contingent of feminism that had found a home in academia during the 1980s. The result is is that Neopaganism became securely ensconced as part of the social and academic scene at many colleges and universities. Today, according to college officials, increasing numbers of incoming students “identify Wicca and other pagan practices as their official religion.” (Wereszynski, 2002)
What has startled observers is not just the extent of that change, but the speed with which it is taking place. “On college campuses in the past several years, many pagan groups that were once underground have become official student organizations . . . (in 1998) the Pagan Educational Network received its first request from a college student wanting to start a pagan group on her campus.” (Reisberg, 2000). Five years later, in 2003, contact information was available on the Internet for Neopagan student groups at 99 colleges and universities in 35 states (Pagans on Campus). The schools on the list span the spectrum of educational institutions, from large State Universities (University of Texas, Penn State University) to advanced technical and research schools (MIT, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) to small, private liberal arts colleges (Reed College, St. Olaf’s College) to elite Ivy League schools (Yale) and traditional women’s colleges (Smith College, Wellesley College).
One result of the increasing pagan presence on campus has been an increasing recognition of Neopagan religion by university administrators. At Syracuse University, members of the student Pagan Society use the campus chapel to hold candlelight Pagan ceremonies. The Rev. Thomas Wolfe, Dean of the chapel was “worried some would object to having Wiccan rituals performed in the same spiritual center used by Christian, Jewish and Muslim students, (but) said he’s faced no objections.” (Wereszynski, 2002).
In addition, some schools now include Neopagan holidays on the approved list for student observation, along with those of Christianity, Judaism and other traditional faiths. At the University of Arizona and Lehigh University, for example, believers can be excused from class on Wiccan holidays. “‘We acknowledge an individual’s right to engage in their religious practices as they see fit,’ said Lehigh spokesman Andrew Stanten. ‘It is our firm belief that we embrace all kinds of thoughts.'” (Wereszynski, 2002)
In National Review Online, the Provost of Boston University calls campus Wicca “part of the florid undergrowth of the contemporary liberal university” and says “The widespread recognition of neo-pagans and similar groups shows how far the spiritual immune system of higher education has been compromised. Little inanities that once would have been brushed aside now settle in as opportunistic infections. ” (Wood, Peter; 2001) Others, however, see the movement as connected to larger social developments. In October, 2000, the Chronicle of Higher Education took note of the “growing pagan movement on campuses in the United States.” In an article titled “Campus Witches May Wear Black, but Don’t Look for Hats or Broomsticks” the author suggests that the rapid rise of campus Wicca is a result of converging cultural trends:
It’s no coincidence, scholars and followers say, that paganism is growing in an era when environmentalism and feminism are among the movements that have dominated campus discourse.
“Paganism reverberates with [those] two very powerful and culture-changing movements we’ve had now for several generations,” says John K. Simmons, a professor of religious studies at Western Illinois University. (Reisberg, 2000)
In this we can see some of Witchcraft’s appeal for college students and other young adults. It manages to appear both “ancient” and “modern” simultaneously. On the one hand, it claims to be part of a venerable tradition stretching all the way back to the dawn of human religion. On the other hand, it addresses modern concerns so explicitly that it often looks like political pandering. This odd combination of opposite qualities (achieved mainly by fabricating the “tradition”) enables collegians to satisfy their desire for continuity and connectedness at the same time they satisfy their desire to disconnect from society and take a countercultural stance against it. It enables them to hang on to something like cultural rootedness at the same time they stand at the cutting edge of cultural change. In that respect, Neopaganism seems almost tailor-made to capture the fancy of the college generation.
Like teen Witches, collegiate Witches also have their own age-appropriate literature. The college-level equivalent of Teen Witch is Rocking the Goddess: Campus Wicca for the Student Practitioner by Anthony Paige. Paige is a graduate of SUNY Purchase College, where he started a Wiccan student group. In a recent interview, he candidly expressed the attraction that modern Witchcraft has for contemporary students: “Wicca appeals to some college students because ‘there is no sense of sin . . . There is a karmic law, but there’s no scorn or condemnation,’ said Paige, who was raised a Roman Catholic . . .” (Wereszynski, 2002)
The content and purpose of the book are well-described by the publisher’s promotional copy:
Wicca is the fastest-growing religion in America, and it thrives on college campusesin underground covens, classrooms, on the Web, and through campus associations. Now, in this comprehensive, thoroughly modern handbook, journalist and practicing Pagan Anthony Paige gives you the lowdown on everything you need to know to Rock the Goddess and celebrate Pagan rituals on campus and off. Whether you’re a practicing Pagan or new to the tenets of Wicca, this practical handbookwritten by a student for studentsexplores today’s college Wicca scene.
Filled with invaluable resources, history, role models, spells, Web sites, and personal stories from college witches nationwide, Rocking The Goddess is an indispensable guide to an old religion for a new generation, one that will help you feel the mystery, experience the magick, and find the witch within. (Branwen’s Cauldron)
Today the link between teenagers, college kids and Witchcraft seems to be firmly established. It is not a fad or a passing fancy and it will almost certainly be a feature of our social landscape for some time to come. But another element turns that teen/collegiate linkage into an even more potent instrument for propagating Neopaganism — and that other element is the Internet.
Urban Primatives and Computer Mystics
One of the real surprises of the 1980s was the emergence of a strong connection between Neopaganism, high technology and the computer culture. The relationship came to light in 1986, in the revised edition of Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon. In surveying Neopagans to bring her research up to date, Adler discovered that “their job profiles are pretty unusual, with an amazingly high percentage in computer, scientific and technical fields.” (Adler, 1986; p. 446)
Why should there be an overlap between such seemingly disparate realms as the primal world of nature-religion and the high-tech world of computers and the Internet? At first impression, the connection seems unlikely and surprising. But in fact, it is one of several superficial ironies in Neopaganism that actually do make sense on a deeper level.
Another example appears in the fact that while Neopagans exalt Nature to the point of divinity and revere Nature to the point of worship, the movement itself is distinctly an urban phenomenon, concentrated in the cities rather than the countryside. That is not a new relationship. Rousseau’s philosophy of naturalistic innocence arose from the overly refined culture of European aristocracy and probably couldn’t have arisen anywhere else. Those who are most concerned with their connection to nature tend to be those who are most aware of their disconnection from nature. Such people are reacting to their real experience, even though they misinterpret their predicament which is predictable enough, from a biblical point of view.
The relationship between Neopagans and computers is more complicated. Margot Adler herself was taken aback by the results of her 1985 questionnaire:
The most unusual finding in this job survey is that so many people involved with Paganism were in technical fields. Out of 195 answers, 28 people or roughly 16 per cent were either programmers, technical writers or scientists — and I’m not even counting the lab technicians or the students who said they were studying computer programming. (Adler, 1986; p. 447)
When asked the reason for that connection, the Neopagans themselves offered a variety of answers, but came to no consensus. One said that computers are “elementals in disguise.” Another said that both activities attract the same kind of people — namely oddball, solitary, creative types. Others offered that it’s simply “where the jobs are.” (Adler, 1986; p. 449) But one Witch, a “techno-pagan” who uses actual, physical computers as components of his metaphysical rituals, suggested a more basic connection — within the human mind.
Magic is the science of the imagination, the art of engineering consciousness “Both cyberspace and magical space are purely manifest in the imagination,” (he) says “Both spaces are entirely constructed by your thoughts and beliefs.” (Davis, 1995)
He is suggesting, in an appropriate blending of occult and technical jargon, that the magical world-view is fundamentally compatible with the outlook that prevails in the computer culture. And that suggestion is borne out by the history of the computer culture itself. A great deal of the so-called computer revolution arose within a California subculture that was heavily influenced by “New Age” thinking and was therefore wide open to gnostic and occult spirituality. The hippie counterculture, especially in its ‘70s and ‘80s “New Age” version, has always affected the outlook of computer pioneers. From the beginning, a quasi-occult world-view was thoroughly woven into the way that many of the people in “Silicon Valley” thought about computers — and for that matter about life in general.
New Age elements are rife throughout the post-1960s Bay Area culture that laid the groundwork for much of what we call cyberculture. A psychedelic, do-it-yourself spirituality directly feeds the more utopian elements of this Northern California subculture of Virtual Reality designers, computer artists and computer programmers for many of these folks, computers are the latest and among the greatest tools available for the achievement of the Aquarian goal: the expansion of consciousness by whatever means necessary For the more futuristic New Agers, the self is an information-processing entity that changes its nature, depending on the information-flows it receives and the various media to which it connects. (Davis, 1993; pp. 610-11)
In the magical world-view, Reality is not a “thing,” but a “process” — constantly changing, constantly in flux, and subject to manipulation by the directed force of will. Indeed, to the magician, the very “self” that is our identity has no fixed form or boundaries, but is expandable to the limits of divinity. Computers seem to offer a down-to-earth version of that same dream, and a tangible fulfillment of its yearnings. Through computers, the prospect of practical omniscience beckons; so too, the promise of virtual omnipresence, as the mind extends its grasp at will across the reaches of the global network. Magic and technology are two versions of the same impulse — the impulse to self-will — and it is inevitable that they re-converge. It is no accident that our feats of computer technology are rising to the level of virtual magic at the same time that Witches are embracing computers as instruments of actual magic.
Witchcraft and the Internet
The early blending of the computer culture and the magical world-view had several important results. One result of that connection can be seen in the fact that the content of much computer entertainment is heavily oriented to occult and pagan themes. The “gaming” subculture itself is also suffused with Neopagan sympathies and enthusiasms — thus providing one more overlap between Neopaganism and the world of teens and collegians.
But another result has been even more important. The relationship between Neopaganism and the computer culture means that Neopagan enthusiasts were in attendance at the birth of the Internet, and Neopagans were therefore among the first to stumble upon the power of the Net to link scattered individuals together into an entity that is greater than the sum of its parts.
The Internet has been central to the development of the Neopagan movement for two reasons. First, it strengthens the hand of culturally marginal types in general by allowing people to connect together who would otherwise remain isolated from one another. Second, it does so while maintaining the individual’s privacy and anonymity.
M. Macha Nightmare, author of Witchcraft and the Web, discusses those functions of the Internet and describes the difference that the Net has made to Neopagans:
Prior to the advent of the Internet and the World Wide Web, Witches and Pagans were isolated from one another . . . several covens and traditions could exist in the same city, or even in the same neighborhood and never even know about one another . . . most Witches lived their lives in the figurative broom closet. Discretion was the safe and prudent approach when it came to our religion. We kept ourselves, and our groups, to ourselves.
The Net changed all that. On the Web, isolated individuals and groups found one another . . . The Web allowed community to be created where none had been. The anonymity of online communications liberated witchen folks to express their thoughts, feelings and experiences in relative safety. So, in a sense, the Web became our church. (Nightmare, 2001; pp. 23-4)
Other Neopagans writers have also emphasized the Net’s features of “networking” and “anonymity” as critical to the emergence of Neopaganism as a movement. Starhawk says “The Internet has allowed the Pagan movement to grow tremendously, because it has provided a very safe way for people to connect with it.” (Vale and Sulak, 2001; p.15) Rowan Fairgrove says “Millions of people are meeting in chat rooms, communicating, finding validation for what they do, making new friends — especially those with non-mainstream interests. It’s a very powerful experience when you discover you’re not really alone — that’s the biggest difference the Internet has made.” (Vale and Sulak, 2001; p.41)
While isolated individuals remain powerless to challenge the main culture — or to build a “countercultural” alternative to it — connected individuals can do both. And the privacy of the Internet means that cultural dissenters can make their connections without having to “come out” in a public way that would subject them to reproach or reprisal. The combination of those two factors means that cultural dissent in general becomes more feasible, less costly and easier to find and connect with. As an illustration, those same two characteristics of the Internet have also helped to create the homosexual movement — a different “cultural minority,” but one that overlaps Neopaganism significantly in its membership. In “Queer Witches and the World Wide Web: Breaking the Spell of Invisibility,” self-described “Faggot Witch Sparky Rabbit” writes:
One of the biggest obstacles faced by Queer men and women is the cloak of invisibility put on us by the dominant culture’s hetero-sexism. One of the worst experiences many Queer people share is the feeling, from childhood on, that “I am the only one of my kind in the world” So when the Web became available — bam!! — Queers were all over it from the git-go. When I was first learning about computers and the Internet, in the mid-nineties, a friend of mine said, “The Internet is made up of Pagans and Queers.” I don’t believe that statement was statistically correct, but it definitely was an accurate expression of what many Queer Pagans I know were experiencing on the web; there were a Hell of a lot more of us out there than any one of us had ever guessed. (Quoted in Nightmare, 2001; pp. 174-5)
“Breaking the spell of invisibility,” AKA “minority empowerment,” AKA “linking otherwise isolated individuals,” was the single most important contribution of the Internet to cultural dissent of every kind — Neopaganism included. It was a development that made everything else possible, as numerous “alternative cultures” arose, and many of them turned into outright cultural resistance movements. That has certainly been true of the so-called “erotic minorities,” (read “deviant sexual proclivities”) including not only homosexuality, but also pedophilia and Bondage/Dominance/Sado-Masochism (BDSM), both of which have established a “community” of like-minded enthusiasts on the Net. The same is also true of extremist zealotry of both left and right, e.g., eco-terrorism and militant racism. In fact, there is scarcely any form of deviance — whether cultural, social, spiritual or otherwise — that has not been empowered by the Internet. For that reason, the Net has been called “the clearinghouse of contemporary heresy,” where “magicians are just one more thread in the Net’s rainbow fringe of anarchists, Extropians, conspiracy theorists, X-Files fans, and right-wing kooks.” (Davis, 1995)
Moreover, the very existence of that “rainbow fringe” serves its own culture-changing function. Because the Internet gives marginal causes a power and presence in society that they wouldn’t otherwise have, it desentisizes people to cultural deviance in general, and eventually makes it seem routine. Sheer repeated exposure to cultural insubordination breeds at first awareness, then acceptance and finally, acceptability.
The Web as “Church”
In the case of modern Witchcraft and Neopaganism, the Internet has clearly been a critical factor in the mushrooming growth of the movement since the 1980s. When M. Macha Nightmare says “the Web became our church,” it is more than just a figure of speech. The Internet functions for Neopagans in several ways that are parallel to the way the Church functions for Christians.
Just as Christianity is most visible and most accessible through its churches, Neopaganism is undoubtedly most visible and accessible on the Internet. A serious involvement with Witchcraft in particular is more available to outsiders via the Internet than it is in any other way. In fact, without having access to the Internet, it is almost impossible to get a real impression of how vigorous and expansive the Neopagan movement has become.
The rapid rise and surprising success of the website Witchvox.com perhaps best illustrates the growing presence of Witchcraft and Neopaganism on the Web. Wren Walker and Fritz Jung founded “The Witches’ Voice” in 1996. They acquired the domain name “Witchvox.com” and inaugurated their website in 1997 with 56 pages of content and a section of Neopagan links and contacts. Its declared purpose was to create and disseminate educational materials for Pagans and non-Pagans alike, to fight discrimination against Pagans, and to act as a tool for networking Pagans by providing an index of “Pagans, Pagan groups and Pagan shops,” together with “their e-mail addresses, events and workshops.” (Nightmare, 2002; p. 117).
The website was an instant hit with Witches and Neopagans of every persuasion. The resources offered by “The Witches’ Voice” evidently addressed needs that were strongly and widely felt within the Neopagan community.
By the end of its first year, Witchvox was offering 385 pages which were viewed on personal computers the world over. Within that time, the site had received 1, 235, 237 hits. It listed several thousand Witches, Wiccans and Pagans on its state/ country pages, 385 circles and events, 250 witchen and metaphysical shops (most submitted by customers), 976 Pagan Web sites (with complete contact info), and a site map. . Truly, The Witches’ Voice is something for us Witches to crow about. (Nightmare, 2001; p. 118)
But even that auspicious beginning was just a trickle in advance of the torrent to come. In the five years since its inauguration, Witchvox.com has grown as explosively as the community it serves. By October, 2003, the website had received almost 96 million hits ((95,748,682, to be exact) since its inception, and over 2 million hits (2,005,473) for the month of October in that year alone. Its contact list (now entitled “Witches of the World”), contained 2,520 pages of text, with over 46,000 named contacts, including individuals, groups, publishers, shops, bookstores, etc., all around the globe. There were extensive listings for all 50 states of the USA, all provinces of Canada, all regions of the United Kingdom, and all states of Australia, as well as 40 other countries world wide. There is also a separate catalog of electronic contacts (“Witchvox Links”) that lists 6,917 Internet links, including some 5,000 Neopagan Websites (out of an estimated 9,000 Pagan Websites total).
By any measure, those statistics are impressive. But they indicate more than mere numerical inflation. Beneath the surface of those numbers runs a constant, invisible stream of activity that constitutes Neopagan “networking” — Neopagans communicating, setting up meetings, arranging to do rituals, actually doing rituals online, disseminating news about festivals, celebrations, lectures and workshops, sharing spells and rituals, swapping information and opinions, arguing, agreeing, organizing events, co-ordinating political activism, etc., etc. This is where Neopaganism lives on a day-to-day basis, and to find it you have to pass beyond the portals of the Neopagan Websites — to scan the online Neopagan bulletin boards, frequent the Neopagan chat rooms, and subscribe to the Neopagan listserves. To say that Witchvox.com lists 46,000 Neopagan contacts only hints at the teeming activity that goes on all the time at the grassroots of the Internet, but which never gets counted or catalogued.
Incidentally, that is another way that the Internet functions for Neopagans much as the Church does for Christians. It is where they find contact, interaction, edification, encouragement and teaching; indeed, for many Witches and Neopagans, the Internet becomes the primary, or even the sole means of “fellowship” with their co-religionists. It is also where the next stages of Neopaganism are being created. If, as Neopagans say, they are making up their religion as they go along, then the Internet is one place where that work of creation is being done. It has been said that the Witchcraft of tomorrow is taking shape today in the chat-rooms of the World Wide Web.
The modern Witchcraft movement has always put a high priority on changing the public’s perception of of Witches and their craft. During the 1970s and ‘80s, that public relations work went forward cautiously, as a few out-of-the-broom-closet Witches spoke out publically on behalf of their beliefs. Federal Court decisions during the 1980s validated the constitutional status of religious Witchcraft, giving the movement a claim to legitimacy that opened new doors of growth and positive publicity. But the real point of transition, both for the movement and for the image of Witchcraft, came during the 1990s. The mushrooming interest in the subject that followed hard on the heels of the mid-1990s media blitz, fundamentally altered the composition of the movement. It also put a newer, hipper, more youthful face on Witchcraft for the general public to see.
Those converging changes created a new center of gravity for the Neopagan movement. The early close connection between Neopaganism and the Internet had helped to create the movement by bringing its participants together. Then the late 1990s “youth revolution” transformed the emerging Teenage/College/Internet connection into a powerful tool for bringing the message of modern Witchcraft to outsiders. In the space of half a decade, Witches took the Internet from an inward-looking tool of movement-building, to an active tool of cultural outreach.
Apart from the Internet, the most important catalyst in the process of modern Witchcraft’s image-makeover has been the influence of the entertainment media. We will take a look at that part of the equation in Chapters Four and Five.
- The difference between these figures illustrates the difficulty of trying to measure Neopaganism’s “membership.” For a sensible discussion of the numbers question, see the essay “How Many Wiccans Are There in the U.S.?” at http://www.religioustolerance.org/wic_nbr.htm
© Copyright 2004 by Brooks Alexander. Posted at Apologetics Index by permission. [Details]