The Rise of Wicca and Neo–Paganism in the United States
Author: Govannon Thunderwolf
Wicca is becoming the fastest growing religion in the United States. This statement was something I was hearing and reading more and more. Being a member of the Pagan community, I didn’t really notice any of this growth happening. The more books and articles on the Internet that I read, the more I kept seeing this statement. The research into this declaration became my focus of interest. What fascinated me the most about this account was the fact that Wiccans and neo – Pagans do not go around with the specific intent of finding converts. In the teachings and ideas of Wicca and Paganism, the idea of looking for converts is not encouraged and is looked down upon. Anyone seeking converts into Wicca or Paganism is breaking a cardinal rule.
Even though Wicca is generally a female dominated religion, there are men involved as well. Wicca is a religion that recognizes women and men as equals, but it does put a slight emphasis on women and the Goddess. Female witches out number males two to one in the United States, according to the Covenant of the Goddess’s estimates. Covenant of the Goddess is one of the oldest and largest Wiccan groups in the United States. They also state that much of the recent growth in Wicca and neo – Paganism has been among women. (Sanders xiv)
Where would someone look to find followers of Wicca and Pagans? They can be found anywhere and everywhere. The actual number of Wiccan and Pagan followers in the United States changes constantly, but in 1999 Helen Berger, a sociologist who spent ten years as a member of the neo – Pagan community, estimated that there are between 150, 000 and 200, 000 Pagans in the United States. It is suspected that there are many more among the ranks of Pagans today. Berger’s census also found that California has the highest amount of Pagans living within its boundaries at 15.7 percent, followed by Massachusetts at 7.6 percent, and New York at 7.3 percent. (Sanders xiv)
While there were many contributors to the construct of Wicca since the 1890’s, there was one man, who in 1954 wrote and published Witchcraft Today, and that man was Gerald Gardner (1884 – 1964) . Even though Druidism, Witchcraft, and other forms of Paganism were originally oral traditions, their revival is attributed to written text. (Clifton 14 – 15)
Very little is known about Gerald Gardner except for what is public record. He was a civil servant for the United Kingdom, and spent most of his career in Britain’s Asian colonies before he retired and settled in southern England. Gardner was one of the many who thought it more prestigious to have learned the “craft”, a term used for Witchcraft, an elder of one’s own family. Gardner didn’t claim to have learned Wicca from an elder of his own family, but did claim to have learned it from elders with family ties that went way back many generations. For most people in the Pagan community, it was well know that Gardner was considered a bit of a pervert due to his tendency toward bondage and ritualized punishment. It came through in his writings and ideas of practice, but the resurgence of “the craft” is mainly attributed to him. The people of Britain have always made changes to religions to try and make them their own, but Wicca is the only religion that originated in the United Kingdom. (Clifton 14 – 15)
Wicca is generally a solitary religion and seventy percent of its followers are solitary, taking personal responsibility for their own religious practice, rather than following an authority figure. Without a strict set of beliefs, “each practitioner can add or subtract beliefs at will, ” this is a part of what makes Wicca so popular. (Sanders 5)
Now I will continue this paper on three main reasons that I found the most compelling reasons for people of all walks of life to be drawn to Wicca and Paganism, beginning with a concern for the Earth.
The fear of Global Warming and preserving what we now have for future generations is a major common concern among contemporary Pagans. Most of modern society has lost an important connection with nature. In some cases there is even a fear of nature. To be fearful of the natural world, in which we as human beings came from, just as all life has, is quite a cause for alarm. When the system of Wicca was originally developed, its focus was on fertility, just as the ancients were focused on fertility. As history has shown, fertility was a main concern for all people in ancient times.
Life was hard for our ancient ancestors and fertility of the land, animals, people, etc. was the only way for them to continue life and surviving. With human fertility becoming less of a concern in modern times because of improvements in science, the focus has now shifted to nature. This change is another way in which Wicca and Paganism can remain a positive religion. It is a religion that recognizes change and changes with it. If something can’t change with the times, it will get left behind and become history.
The American mainstream religions have done very little to foster concern for nature. Never, have I heard of any sermons given on how people should be encouraged to care for the environment, be good caretakers of nature, and preservation of natural resources. This again, leads many to view Paganism and Wicca more approvingly. (Sanders 22)
Paganism also acknowledges nature by following the cycles of the seasons and life. Pagans and Wiccans are encouraged to live their lives by looking to nature as their guide. They live in the here and now as opposed to living and planning for the end of life. Through this view of nature, Wiccans and Pagans acknowledge their connection to all life and the greater cosmos. Many mainstream religious writers believe that honoring nature is not enough for religion or life because it contains violence and brutality. (Harvey 187) This worldview on life and nature is the basis for Wiccans and Pagans to believe in no absolute good or evil. All things in nature are good and evil at the same time and therefore it applies to life as well.
The second reason for the attraction to Paganism and Wicca is empowerment for women. The Christian church has treated women like “second – class citizens” for much of its history. This treatment of women is also prevalent in much of the Western world as well. (Sanders 22) Many women have become quite discontent with the Christian church. When women have expressed an interest in becoming more involved in the church, they are usually directed to make coffee and teach Sunday school. With the concerns of equal rights coming more and more to the forefront in our society, how do the patriarchal religions expect women to remain subservient? (Sanders 22)
For the last several thousand years of patriarchal religions domination of the Western world, large numbers of women have been searching for a spiritual existence free from the patriarchal dogma. With Wicca’s emphasis on Goddess worship, it attracts those women who want to find a spiritual side to their feminism. (Adler 207 – 24)
The feminist views of women have been the main driving force pushing Wicca to be accepted as a religion. Not all Wiccan groups are feminist though. Most Pagans and Wiccans have a more moderate view of the feministic ideas. Feminist Wiccan groups have dropped a lot of common beliefs in the Pagan community in favor of an all female belief system. By doing such things as only recognizing the female deities and eliminating the male deities, they are alienating themselves from the rest of the Pagan and Wiccan community. (Adler 180 – 81)
Many women have become quite discontent with the Christian church. When women have expressed an interest in becoming more involved in the church, they are usually directed to make coffee and teach Sunday school. With the concerns of equal rights coming more and more to the forefront in our society, how do the patriarchal religions expect women to remain subservient? (Sanders 22)
One doesn’t need to look very hard to see the atrocities that have been committed against women in history by patriarchal societies. One common saying in modern Pagan communities that can be found imprinted on t – shirts and bumper stickers is, “Don’t forget the burning times.” This refers to the days of the infamous witch-hunts. Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Evildoers) published in 1486/87 by Jacob Spenger and Heinrich Krämer was the authoritative witch hunter’s manual. One key phrase from this manual that modern Pagan writers like to quote is: “All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which in women is insatiable.” (Clifton 100) This “authoritative” work also stated that women were created from the bent rib of Adam, therefore women are “imperfect animals” if they are even animals at all. (Pearson 302)
In the Malleus Maleficarum, inquisitors, the ones who were authorized to verify involvement in witchcraft, were informed that guilty women would make sexual pacts with Satan. Therefore, after this pact was made, any event in the local community that disrupted the well being of the people was most certainly caused by a witch in their ranks. (Pearson 302 – 3)
When the inquisitors were in search of a “witch”, one could be found quite readily. More often than not, the accused was just a woman that someone had a grudge against. Many also speculated that these “witches” might have been highly learned women, such as early scientists. Because of the ridiculous information contained in the Malleus Maleficarum on how to proceed with the “trials” of the accused, there generally was “no mistake” of finding them guilty. Guilty women and a few men as well, were relatively few in the colonies of America. On the other hand, in Europe the numbers of the accused were astronomical. Imagine the amount of people that lost their lives due to the feelings of resentment of some sort or other, such as the amount of land they owned or a person’s general success. Many Wiccans and Pagans feel that the amount of people who were actually true witches during these “trials” was closer to none. (Gibson 112 – 18)
The final main reason that I would like to point out for the attraction of Wicca and Paganism is the attraction of the supernatural. While Pagans and Wiccans accept the belief in an unseen world, forces, and entities, many, if not all, Christian churches, in these modern times, ignore this belief. In many cases, a person could stir up quite a bit of trouble for themselves by stating a belief in an unseen world in the Christian church. (Sanders 23 – 26)
Reading ones future by using tarot cards and runes are very popular forms of divination among Pagans and Wiccans. There are many other popular forms of divination and occult sciences such as the use of crystals. Even though many of these beliefs forms were allowed by Christianity in their early years of development, now these systems have no place in Christianity. Many people have speculated when and why this shift occurred. Modern science has been trying to validate these occult sciences for quite some time now, but with limited success. The simple fact that the occult sciences are being tested gives valid support in their existence. (Handbook of Contemporary 425)
There are still many things in the world that can’t be explained by modern science. In the acknowledgement of this fact is where modern Pagans revel. It still gives room for belief in the ideas of fairies, mythical beings, and other such beliefs.
Discussions of the supernatural will quickly conjure up visions and ideas in relation to recent popular movies such as Harry Potter, The Seeker, Lord of the Rings, and many, many other movies. While these movies and books quickly catch the imagination, their similarities to actual supernatural occurrences are very, very limited. For the most part, these movies and books are purely fantasy. Even so, there have been some Christian based groups that are in opposition of these forms of entertainment. They believe that it sways people, especially children, to take an interest in Wicca and Paganism. (Handbook of New 459 – 60)
As Catherine Edwards Sanders, a Christian journalist, points out, “most Wiccans [and Pagans] have thought more seriously about spirituality and some of life’s big questions than many in the secular and even Christian cultures. They have not been content to skate through life seeking the gods of fashion, peer pressure, or materialism, reserving religion for weekends and special holidays.” (30)
Most Pagans and Wiccans actually view their lives as being interconnected with the rest of the world as a whole. They realize that there are, in fact, fewer events in their lives through this interconnection with the rest of the world.
With the impending end of the Mayan calendar in 2012, there have been many theories in reference to the end of the world. In fact, recently the “dooms day” movies have been coming out more and more frequently. One can only speculate that as 2012 draws nearer, the apocalyptic world movies and theories will by coming out at a frantic pace.
In the Wiccan and Pagan groups though, ideas of the world coming to an end are not so prevalent. Many think that the date of 12 December 2012 will be a beginning of a ‘New World Age.’ Many experts believe that this will be an age of peace and interconnection with the rest of the world and beyond for the next 5, 200 years. The experts are also saying that the ‘veil’ that separates our world from the spirit world will be lifted. The descendents of the Ancient Mayan’s say that we are already in the twenty – five year timeline of this change. (Rennison np.)
This information of the coming change according to the Mayan calendar is something that modern Pagans and Wiccans are looking forward to.
In conclusion, is there a rise in the Wicca and Pagan belief system? Given the research, the answer would definitely be a resounding yes. The movement is very broad and difficult to pin down, but it has been noticed. Many authors and professionals are calling on others to try and do research on the subject. With others taking an interest in the movement, maybe someone or maybe a group of individuals will come forward with some new views or theories on this movement. With these new views and theories we can only hope to find a definite reason for this shift.
Until then, there will be many I’m sure who will take on this daunting task. There are hundreds of theories already studied or in the process of being studied. I’m sure that there are many other ideas out there that have not yet been discussed or found in the public forum. With the case of the ancient Mayans, their descendants have said that there is plenty more information that they are in possession of, but have yet to let the rest of the world know about it. Whether there is more information yet to come remains to be seen.
I’m sure that there other ancient civilizations out there that have possessed knowledge or information, now lost. Unfortunately, just as these civilizations have disappeared, so has their immediate knowledge of this information. They did leave behind recordings of information that are in the processes of being deciphered and theories investigated. The only problem is that many individuals in the modern world have a very difficult time believing what the ancients were saying. This in turn leads to very different ideas in what is being told, many times the information is right there, but many misinterpret the information only because the obvious is just too difficult to comprehend.
Adler, Margot. Drawing Down the Moon Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America. New York: Penguin (Non-Classics) , 2006. Print.
Berger, Helen A., Evan A. Leach, and Leigh S. Shaffer. Voices from the Pagan Census A National Survey of Witches and Neo-Pagans in the United States (Studies in Comparative Religion) . New York: University of South Carolina, 2003. Print.
Clifton, Chas S. Her Hidden Children: the Rise of Wicca and Paganism in America. Lanham: AltaMira, 2006. Print.
Gibson, Marion H. Witchcraft Myths in American Culture. New York: Routledge, 2007. Print.
Handbook of New Age (Brill Handbooks on Contemporary Religion) . New York: Brill Academic, 2007. Print.
Handbook of Contemporary Paganism (Brill Handbooks on Contemporary Religion) . New York: Brill Academic, 2009. Print.
Harvey, Graham. Contemporary Paganism Listening People, Speaking Earth. New York: NYU, 2000. Print.
Pearson, Joanne. Belief Beyond Boundaries Wicca, Celtic Spirituality and the New Age (Religion Today-Tradition, Modernity and Change) . Grand Rapids: Ashgate, 2002. Print.
Sanders, Catherine. Wicca’s Charm Understanding the Spiritual Hunger Behind the Rise of Modern Witchcraft and Pagan Spirituality. Wheaton: Shaw, 2005. Print.
“Susan Rennison’s Website.” Susan Joy Rennison’s Website. Web. 18 Dec. 2009. .
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