The cultural shift that we are undergoing (aka the culture “war”) means that Christians will be called upon to explain and exemplify the gospel in new situations, to a new kind of audience, using new communication tools and skills. It also means that an active new “mission field” is not only here among us, it will shortly come looking for you. The day is coming, and probably sooner than you think, when you or someone you know will meet a Witch or some other variety of Neopagan in a social or professional situation. When that day comes, you will want to be prepared ahead of time with enough information to respond knowledgably and to navigate the encounter with confidence and skill.
The books and articles annotated below are not intended to provide a comprehensive reading list or to convey the substance of scholarship on ancient paganism, historical witchcraft, or modern Witchcraft and Neopaganism. They are intended to provide a summary of basic information on those subjects through sources that are (at least for those with Internet access) easy to find, easy to read and easy to understand. They will introduce readers to essential facts and main ideas on their topic in a form that is both accessible and digestible.
Allen, Charlotte, 2001; January 2001; “The Scholars and the Goddess” The Atlantic Monthly – 01.01; Volume 287, No. 1; page 18-22
This article is an extended debunking of Neopaganism’s “Charter Myth” (see Chapter Six). And “debunking ” is the right word — literally. The tag line beneath the title reads: “Historically speaking, the ‘ancient’ rituals of the Goddess movement are almost certainly bunk.”
Allen lays out the basic story-line of the myth, as it is described by the popular Wiccan writer Starhawk. Starhawk’s version contains all of the standard elements — the idyllic, pre-historical, matriarchal, Mother-Goddess-worshiping society, which was overthrown by violent, warlike, patriarchal, Father-God-worshipping barbarians; the coming of Christianity as a hostile force and the exterminating fury of the Inquisition, which allegedly killed some nine million people in Europe over a span of three centuries. Allen also notes the wider influence this mythology has had in “a broad swath of the intellectual and literary fabric of the past hundred years.” The ideas in the myth show up in a number of literary and intellectual sources, including Robert Graves, D. H. Lawrence, T. S. Eliot and William Butler Yeats, as well as James Frazier’s Golden Bough and Jungian Psychology.
But, Allen says, “In all probability, not a single element of the Wiccan story is true.” The remainder of her article is a summary discussion of the actual evidence pertaining to each aspect of the Myth. She cites Philip Davis and Ronald Hutton as scholars who have shown Wicca to be a modern creation. She also traces the origins of the frequently cited figure of “9 million victims” of the witch-hunts and throws cold water on the overheated claims of savage persecution and institutional victimhood. But she devotes the most substantial part of her article to one aspect of the myth that is important to “feminist Witches” in particular — the concept of ancient Goddess-worship.
The idea that ancient societies were matriarchal and Goddess-oriented has a long, if not particularly distinguished, history, and Allen surveys it expertly. Today, however, the idea has been given mainstream credibility by the work of Marija Gimbutas, the Lithuanian-born archeologist at UCLA whose excavations in Turkey led her to claim that the theory was supported by the evidence she uncovered. Allen discusses those discoveries — and the sometimes scornful criticism of other scholars in the field, who generally regard Gimbutas’s theory as fanciful, misguided and ideologically driven.
Gibbons, Jennifer, 1998; “Recent Developments in the Study of the Great European Witch-Hunt” The Pomegranate: Journal of Pagan Studies, Issue #5; Lammas, 1998
In her essay A Time For Truth, Margo Adler calls upon Wiccans and Neopagans “to look honestly at their history.” Jennifer Gibbons is a Wiccan who has answered that call. An academically trained historian (with an M.A. in medieval history) who also happens to be a practicing Witch, Gibbons was acutely aware of the misinformation and outright historical falsehood that Neopagans accept (and promote) as part of their own self-definition. She was also aware, as an academic, that modern Witches would never be taken seriously in that world as long as they believed and taught the literal truth of their historically false mythology.
“Recent Developments in the Study of the Great European Witch-Hunt” is Gibbons’s appeal for the Neopagan community to quit clinging to its increasingly untenable mythology and to shed its outdated ideas about medieval witchcraft. One of the points that Gibbons makes in her article is that Neopagan stereotypes of Christians and Christianity are not supported by the evidence and need to be jettisoned as well. Gibbons skillfully deconstructs the stereotype of the fanatical Inquisitor who obssessively pursues some lurid fantasy of demons, perverted sex and witchcraft — pointing out, for example, that the witch-hysteria was actually much milder where the Inquisition’s rule was strong, but raged where it was weak. Gibbons forcefully makes the point that the Neopagan habit of blaming the Church as the driving force behind the “burning times” goes hand in hand with the equally false image of medieval witchcraft that prevails in the Neopagan community — and equally needs to be corrected.
Russell, Jeffrey Burton, 1980; A History of Witchcraft (London: Thames and Hudson).
Jeffrey Burton Russell is a historian known for his ability to explain complex subjects in clear and simple language; his book on witchcraft shows how he got that reputation. Russell’s research into witchcraft is just one part of his larger interests in a) the Middle Ages and b) the history of human thinking about Evil, the Devil and the Demonic. He has written a series of highly praised books on both subjects, but his fields of knowledge overlap uniquely in his study of Witchcraft. His book Witchcraft in the Middle Ages (1972) is highly recommended for readers who have an appetite for the meat of real historical scholarship, presented in an eminently readable form, but his History of Witchcraft is a gem of historical writing that makes the full scope of his expertise on the subject accessible to almost anyone. The book is a one-stop resource for reliable information on, and insightful analysis of, magic and sorcery worldwide, the roots and growth of historical witchcraft, the rise and decline of the witch-hysteria, the end of general belief in witchcraft after 1700, and the rise and development of modern Witchcraft and the Neopagan movement in the 20th Century. If I had to name one work that covers as many aspects of the subject, as compehensively and accurately as possible, this would be the one. A History of Witchcraft is simply the best single source of reliable information on its subject, bar none.
Modern Witchcraft and Neopaganism
Adler, Margot, 1986; Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers and Other Pagans in America Today, 2nd ed. (Boston, MA: Beacon Press).
Drawing Down the Moon is a truly indispensible resource for anyone who expects (or wants) to be in contact or dialogue with Neopagans. Adler provides a detailed history of the origins and development of the modern Neopagan movement, with an emphasis on its Witchcraft component. In addition to that historical survey, the book also offers a necessary guide to the various branches and varieties of Neopaganism. The old cliché that “you can’t tell the players without a program” applies in spades to the modern Witchcraft movement. Adler provides that program, explaining, for example, the difference between “Hereditary,” “Traditional,” “Gardnerian,” “Alexandrian,” “Georgian” and “Dianic” Witchcraft, and describing various forms of “Pagan Reconstructionism” (i.e., attempts to re-create the ancient pre-Christian religions of Europe and eslewhere). Those distinctions are as subtle and obscure to most non-pagans as the differences between Christian denominations are to the average non-Christian, but when a family of Wiccans moves into your neighborhood and becomes your literal neighbor, it is information you are going to want to have.
Adler is a self-declared follower of “the Craft,” so her book is in large degree a promotional piece on behalf of the movement, and it should be read with that in mind. At the same time, she is honest enough to criticize (some of) the movement’s failings and excesses, and she is able to offer an insider’s commentary on aspects of Neopaganism that outsiders are unlikely to understand on their own such as the place of magic and ritual, the influence of feminism, the place of environmentalism and, most importantly, the general angle on life that constitutes the Pagan world-view. If you dialogue – in your own mind — with the ideas that Adler puts forth, you will begin to understand how Neopagans think, and how that thinking shows up in what they say and do. Reading this book will not make you an “expert” on Neopaganism, but it will enable you to converse intelligently with those who are — and with Neopagans themselves.
Pike, Sarah M., 2001; Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves: Contemporary Pagans and the Search for Community (Berkeley, CA: University of Californis Press)
What is it like to be a Witch, or Neopagan? What is it like to belong to that “community?” What do Witches actually do in the practice of their religion? This book gives readers as good a look inside the Neopagan subculture as outsiders are likely to get. Sarah Pike is an academic researcher who became a “participant-observer” of Neopaganism for a period of five years. This gave her remarkable access to the Neopagan community, and to the state of mind (and spirit) within it. That level of involvement also presupposes that she is actively sympathetic to the movement and presents a positive view of it. Indeed, Pike herself says “I do not claim to be a Neopagan or to represent this religion as an insider might, but I have been transformed by my experiences in Neopagan communities, and this transformation is surely reflected in the way I tell their stories.”(p. xvi) Such transparent biases are easy to identify and filter out.
To Pike, the most dynamic expression of Neopaganism, and the core of the religion, is to be found in its “festivals” organized community gatherings that are part ritual, part camp meeting, part carnival and part party. This is a central feature of the movement that most outsiders miss entirely, since the average non-Neopagan is unlikely to even hear of such events, much less actually attend them. Pike believes the festivals are where Neopaganism strengthens and refreshes itself, and where it grows and changes. That is because the festivals and other large gatherings are the focus of the “self-transformation” process that Pike believes to be at the core of Neopagan religion a process that uses both magic and sexuality as tools to achieve its objective.
Pike also devotes a chapter to discussing how Witches and Neopagans react to the often hostile attitudes of the “mundane” world (Chapter Three: “The Great Evil That Is in Your Backyard — Festival Neighbors and Satanism Rumors”). For Christians, this may the most interesting part of the book, as it gives a clear depiction of how we are seen through Wiccan eyes an unflattering portrait, to be sure, based partly on ignorance, partly on distortion and partly on Christian misbehavior. It is important to distinguish between those components of Neopagan hostility to Christianity if we are to overcome the considerable barriers to communicating with this community.
Vale, V. and Sulak, John, 2001; Modern Paganism: An Investigation of Contemporary Pagan Practices (San Francisco, RE/Search Publications [www.researchpubs.com]).
This is a resource for Christians who are serious about communicating with Neopagans, whether in dialogue, evangelism or ordinary social interaction. This unusual and fascinating book is one of a series published by RE/Search Publications in San Francisco. RE/Search is a small independent publishing house that specializes in documenting a variety of fringe cultural phenomena (such as Punk Rock, Sado-Masochism, bodily modification, Neopaganism, etc.). The distinctive feature of RE/Search books is that they concentrate on primary source material, featuring interviews with the actual participants, with very little interpretive work written by outsiders. Indeed, this is what makes Modern Paganism such a valuable resource to outsiders. This 212 page book contains 41 interviews with 48 Witches and Neopagans, plus a highly useful “Pagan Glossary.” The interviewees represent a range of different Neopagan “traditions” and “types” (Druids, Gardnerians Norse Pagans, Queer Pagans, eco-pagans, techno-pagans, etc., etc.), talking at length about a variety of subjects that concern them. Taken together, they give the reader a unique look at typical Neopagan attitudes, taken straight from the source. If you want to understand how Neopagans think — and what they think about — this is the book you want to read. [Note: some of the interviews in this book discuss socially and sexually deviant behavior, and some of the photo illustrations contain some nudity. Read with discretion and discernment.]
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© Copyright 2004 by Brooks Alexander. Posted at Apologetics Index by permission. [Details]