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The Wicca That Never Was

The Wicca That Never Was

The real story of the world's newest "ancient" religion

by Andy Steiner, associate editor, Utne Reader

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Like any good family reunion, this year's Pagan Pride Day celebrations across the country featured picnics, games, and plenty of frolicking children. But there was serious business to attend to, as well. Between the rituals at sunrise and sunset, there were video presentations and discussions of religious tolerance. In some cities, revelers brought canned goods to donate to local food shelves, and sponsors set up information booths, offering the uninitiated an easy way to learn more about the earth-centered religions known (sometimes interchangably) as Wicca or neopaganism.

If it sounds normal - boring, even - it's supposed to: Witchcraft is poised to enter mainstream America. In fact, proponents claim it is the fastest-growing religion in the United States, with an estimated 400,000 adherents. While that number may be high and - given Wicca's long-standing tradition of secrecy - impossible to confirm, it still represents an important step into the sunlight for a religion that's long been shrouded in darkness.

"There seem to be two widely held perceptions of Pagans today," says Dave Rust, founding member of the Witches Informational Network, a national organization established to spread the word about Wicca and Neopaganism. "Either we're fluff-for-brains, New Age tree huggers, or we're devil-worshipping baby killers. Both extremes are frustrating, so we're working to let the public know that, in reality, we're just the normal people next door."

While American Wiccans are busy peeling the warts off their public image, a controversy over the origins of the religion threatens to undermine that image and divide adherents. In Gnosis Magazine (Summer 1998), John Michael Greer and Gordon Cooper discount the long-held belief that Wicca is a religious tradition surviving from pre-Christian times. Rather, they argue that modern witchcraft has its roots not in ancient Europe but in turn-of-the-century Connecticut.

For many years, Wiccans have turned to scholars like anthropologist-historian Margaret Murray for proof that their religion's roots are planted deeply in history. Murray's three books, the first published in 1921, claim that witchcraft persecutions were not simply episodes of mass hysteria but a calculated campaign to destroy a popular religion that competed with Christianity.

A series of books published in the '50s by Gerald Gardner, a retired customs official and a member of the British Folklore Society, built on Murray's theories. Gardner set out the tenets and practice of a religion he claimed to have adopted after stumbling upon a practicing coven of witches in England's New Forest in 1930.

Murray's research now has been largely disproved, Greer and Cooper contend. In the '60s and '70s, for instance, studies "demolished the entire basis of her theory point by point and showed beyond reasonable doubt that what she called the 'Old Religion' was a figment of her own imagination." More recently, the work of historian Carlo Ginzburg has shown that although scattered remnants of pagan religions exist in Europe, the traditions described by Murray do not match existing archaeological remains or credible historical research. With these revelations, Gardner, whose books rely heavily on Murray's research, was also discredited.

Modern Wicca's true origins, Greer and Cooper theorize, are in the Woodcraft Tribe, a nature organization established in 1902 by naturalist and writer Ernest Thompson Seton that in 1915 became known as the Woodcraft League of America. In an effort to placate the rowdy local boys who lived near his wooded estate in Cos Cob, Connecticut, Seton created a lodge called Woodcraft Indians, a nature club that by 1910 boasted some 200,000 American boys and girls as members.

For adults interested in taking part in the rituals of the Woodcraft Indians, Seton established Red Lodges: spiritual, initiatory groups whose practices and principles, according to Greer and Cooper, closely resemble those of modern Wicca. From the Red Lodge - and from other offshoot organizations such as the British-based Kindred of the Kibbo Kift - eventually grew the religion we now call Wicca. These nature-focused groups employed similar ritual meeting styles, secrecy rules, initiation rites, and even practiced mysticism and "magick" - hallmarks of modern-day Wicca.

Questions about the true origins of Wicca have raged in the neopagan community for years, with a large number of traditionalists steadfastly clinging to their belief in the religion's ancient roots. In addition to Murray's and Gardner's writings, Neopagans point to the research of maverick archaeologists Marija Gimbutas and James Mellaart about the existence of ancient matriarchal religions, from which many believe the feminist-oriented Wicca faith springs. Reports to the contrary are dismissed as a patriarchal attempt to diminish Wicca's power.

And though clinging to the traditionalist view is understandable, Gnosis editor Richard Smoley argues that accepting Wicca's 20th-century origins is essential for the religion's continued health in the 21st century. "Paganism is a legitimate religious impulse," he writes. "To connect with the divine through nature, through the feminine, and through the multiplicity of the world is honorable and necessary. But if neopaganism is to take its place among the great religions, it has to come to terms with its own history."

But Starhawk, perhaps Wicca's most prominent spokesperson, argues that it's unimportant whether modern-day paganism is based on truth or myth. She calls the research on ancient matriarchal religions "tremendously interesting and stimulating" but adds it makes little difference to the growing numbers of people who claim it as their religion. "It's nice if all of this is academically provable," she tells Smoley. "But it doesn't really make all that much difference in terms of our relationship with the Goddess today."

© Copyright 1998, Utne Reader.    This article was first published in Utne Reader. It is posted here by permission.

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