A Skeptic goes to Wiccan Festivals

We’re driving up to New Hampshire a few days before Christmas. In the car with me is “Arabella,” my new friend and partner. Arabella is Jewish and very Jewish-identified. But she’s also a “Witch,” and we’re heading up to the Yuletide1 festival for her community.

Neopaganism and Wicca

The term “pagan” is really an umbrella term, meaning anyone who is not Christian. It derives from the days of the Roman empire when the emperor had recently converted to Christianity, and the monotheistic “one God” religion was replacing a number of religions where more than one God is active.

Neopaganism, is a collective term for a set of new religious movements derived primarily from the historical pagan beliefs of pre-modern Europe. Adherents rely on pre-Christian, folkloric and ethnographic sources to a substantial degree; neopagansim has sometimes been associated with the “New Age” movement. Wicca is one of the prominent branches of the neopagan movement.

Neopaganism is also not a long-standing continuation of earlier paganism; in other words, it is not generally a movement that sustained itself over centuries and evolved into what it is now. Instead it really came back to life fairly abruptly, aided primarily by certain specific individuals who were looking to the ancient for something new to believe in.

The first noted person to revive Wicca was Gerald Gardner (June 13, 1884 – February 12, 1964), an English author and amateur anthropologist. Gardner became interested in Wicca after meeting members of the Rosicrucian Order Crotona Fellowship, a quasi-mystical group that Gardner encountered in the Christchurch area of England. He founded his own branch or Wicca in 1962.

Shortly on his heels was Oberon Zell-Ravenheart founded the Church of All Worlds, another branch of Wicca, in 1962 in the United States.2

Theological views within Wicca are diverse, and can embrace theists, atheists, and agnostics. However, most Wiccas are duotheists, which means that they believe in two Gods. These are a Horned male God of fertility and a female Mother Goddess, and it was this duotheistic Horned God/Mother Goddess structure that was embraced by Gardner (sometimes also known as the “Lord” and “Lady.” 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.

Most Wicca traditions also hold a belief in the five classical elements, which are air, fire, water, earth, and spirit. These elements factor prominently into Wicca ceremonies, which also closely follow 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.

Is This a Real Religion?

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 Aarabella’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. As a belief system it is not theistic, in the sense that the Horned God/Mother Goddess are not “supreme beings” of the variety that created the universe.

As previously noted, Arabella is Jewish, although not a believer in the God of Abraham. But Wicca seems to be a tradition that can co-exist with other religious traditions, and I suppose one could be a liberal sort of Christian and a Wicca at the same time.

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-something living in one of those “polyamorous” relationships popularized by Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart. He is also the prolific author of over 27 books.

In order to educate myself a little bit, I did do a quick read through of one of his books, in this case 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.

The Yuletide Celebration

On this particular Saturday we went driving 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 complete 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 an evil spell, and the evil descends on you multiplied. But more significantly, I don’t think spell casting in this context would be any more effective than prayer is in the Christian context.

  • 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.

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.

The Beltane Celebration

I did go up to a second celebration as well, also in the company of Arabella, this one being Beltane, the “Gaelic May Day” festival.3

This celebration was not led by Christopher Penczak but by one of his assistant ministers, who was kind of hard to hear, acoustically. We were in the same large hall as for the Yuletide celebration, and again everyone was in a large circle. In the middle was the famous Maypole, and there was lots of laughter and gaiety (in the old-fashioned sense of the word). People were wrapping the Maypole in red and white ribbons and dancing around it. The celebration seemed to bring out people’s eccentricities, especially when it comes to wardrobe.


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.

But is it a real religion? I’m not so sure about that. One might sensibly ask if Pastafariamism or Satanism are real religions. They are belief systems, one and all, but are they religions? It depends on what you think a religion is, I suppose.4

  1. Yuletide (or Yule) is a festival historically observed historically by various Germanic tribes between mid-November and early January. Many of the traditions that we now associate with Christmas were derived from Yuletide traditions, including the Christmas Tree, Yule logs, and the singing of holiday songs.
  2. Zell-Ravenheart’s wife, Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart allegedly coined the term “polyamory,” which, according to Wikipedia, 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.
  3. Most commonly it is held on 1 May, about halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice and historically celebrated in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man, it marked the the time when cattle were driven out to the summer pastures. Rituals were performed to protect the cattle, crops and people, and to encourage the growth of crops. These celebrations had largely died out in the Gaelic communities by the mid-20th century, and has been revived mostly through the Wiccans.
  4. According to Wikipedia, a religion is a social-cultural system of designated behaviors and practices, morals, worldviews, texts, sanctified places, prophecies, ethics, or organizations, that relates humanity to supernatural, transcendental, or spiritual elements. However, as the authors of this Wikipedia article wisely note, there is “no scholarly consensus over what precisely constitutes a religion.”