I have a new friend who is a Wicca. A witch, so to speak. On Saturday I accompanied her to a Wicca (or if you’re from Boston, “wicked”) yuletide celebration up in the wilds of Southern New Hampshire.
But let’s begin at the beginning. What is Wicca as a belief system? So it turns out that Wicca is a neo-pagan belief system, which is to say, a revival of medieval paganism. And medieval paganism, for those of you who don’t remember, is essentially what people in Europe believed before they were converted to Christianity.
Neo-paganism, then, is the revival of ancient paganism. It has mostly been revived in specific formats by specific people. So, for example, Gerald Brosseau Gardner founded a revival witchcraft in 1954, and Oberon Zell-Ravenheart founded the Church of All Worlds in 1962 (and his wife, Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart allegedly coined the term “polyamory,” which is the “practice, desire, or acceptance of having more than one intimate relationship at a time” with people of varying genders and “with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved”). Wicca seems to the be primary vehicle for neo-paganism these days, having spawned any number of schools and traditions that, like the multiplicity of protestant sects that emerged from Martin Luther’s movement, each have their own specific theology.
Wicca appears to be a belief system that is fundamentally interested in the cycle of the seasons. The primary festivals are the four solstices corresponding with the beginning of winter, spring, summer and fall. There are also the equinoxes — the days when daytime and nighttime are of essentially equal duration — and the other days that fall between the solstices. The tradition is also “duotheistic” in that the male and female aspects of the Almighty are the primary Gods — sometimes referred to as the “Lord” and “Lady” — and these have a particular cycle of death and rebirth. The Lady is represented in her three stages by the maiden, mother and crone; the Lord is alternately her consort or her offspring. Which is, you know, frankly, a little weird.
Is this a real religion? Honestly, I’m still trying to figure that out. To me, it feels sometimes like it’s more of a hobby than an actual belief system. This perception was reinforced when I grabbed “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Wicca Craft” off of my friend’s bookshelf and discovered that it was mostly a collection of “arts and crafts” type of ideas for how to make some of of the accoutrements that accompanied various Wicca events and practices. I’m still trying to determine whether this is a real belief system or mostly an indulgence masquerading as a belief system.
The particular school that my friend follows is the “Temple Tradition” led by Christopher Penczak (or what is sometimes jokingly referred to as the “Christopherian” school). Penczak is a boyish 40 year old living in one of those polyamorous relationships, and the prolific author of over 27 books; my friend is very enamored of him. In order to educate myself a little bit, I did do a quick read through of his book The Mystic Foundation: Understanding and Exploring the Magical Universe. Very interesting and well written, although it left the impression that in many ways the Wicca tradition was mostly a Smörgåsbord of new age practices. There’s a little sacred space, a little divination, a little astrology, a few chakras, some gem stones and flower essences, and so forth. It appears to be a very inclusive belief system, this I must say.
In any case, on Saturday we went up to a town hall somewhere in Southern New Hampshire. This hall gets rented for the larger celebrations, but it’s a hall without much charm. Bad acoustics and dim lighting completed the picture. Because circles are very popular and often sacred in Wicca mythology, we were arranged in a very large circle, which left a lot of space between the “Clergy” and the rest of us. The ceremony itself was a breezy two hour affair, with some pointing in the four directions, some call and response, some “meditation,” and some stuff I couldn’t really hear. The tone was informal, and the ceremony ended up with thank yous and awards for the volunteers who had gone over and above in the previous year in terms of contributing their time and energy. Because some people had on cloaks and other “witchy” garb the whole affair had a little bit of the aroma of a Halloween event of some kind.
Witches and witchcraft are, of course, faintly sinister in popular culture. They’re mysterious; they cast spells; they can cause trouble. This group, not so much, I think. Apparently there is some rule with spell casting that you have to be very careful, because whatever you do may come back to you in triplicate. Cast and evil spell, and the evil descends on you multiplied, or so I gather. But more significantly, I don’t think spell casting in this context would be any more effective than prayer is in other contexts. Where the spell, or the prayer, happens to coincide with the intended result, the consequence is believed to be proof of its efficacy. Where the two don’t match, the disconnect is conveniently explained away. Certainly there is nothing in the Wicca literature that guarantees any particular results, just as none of the Abrahamic faiths guarantee any particular result from prayer.
My sense in the end is that this was a pretty harmless lot. At least a lot more harmless that the Bible-thumping zealots who think they actually understand the will of God, and want to impose it on the rest of us through very practical policies.