Also note that I wrote this post about two weeks before its publish date, and it is not intended to tie into this week's Narnia dust-up, although the juxtaposition is ironic in retrospect. Since I consider my beliefs no more sacrosanct than anyone else's, feel free to speak up in the comments and I'll answer anything I can.
|Note that many Wiccans don't give a |
toss about which "way" the star is pointed.
(It's always upside-down to
someone in the circle.)
One of the interesting things about being a Wiccan is that the internet will sometimes cause your brain to explode. This occurs because people write articles like this TV Tropes entry saying what Wicca is and what Wiccans believe and shoving Wicca into a very narrow box... when comparable articles on Christianity correctly note that religious identification is Very Complicated.
Why is it easy to say, as the article above does, that "The simplest definition of 'Christian' is a person who call themselves a Christian", but it's not acceptable at all to say "The simplest definition of 'Wiccan' is a person who call themselves a Wiccan"? I think it's because the majority of people writing the articles have been or known someone who is a Christian and recognizes that the religion is complex -- but their underexposure to Wiccans in real life means that they think they can rely on a few Wikipedia articles to be an expert. The problem is, religion and self-identification has always been so much more complex than a few Wiki articles.
So here are a few of my thoughts -- for what little they are worth -- on why whatever you may think you know about Wicca is probably More Complicated Than That.
Wicca was founded in the 1950s by Gerald Gardner.
It's more complicated than that.
It is true that many Wiccans believe that Wicca as a religion was founded in the 1950s by Gerald Gardner. But it is also true that many other Wiccans do not believe that Gardner was the first Wiccan. The key to this difference in beliefs is found when we look at why these different groups believe different things.
Many people who self-identify as "Wiccan" do not see Garden as a "founding" figure but rather instead see modern Wicca as having evolved over time from earlier nature religions, goddess traditions, and magic practices. In this paradigm, Gardner is an important figure in the evolution of the religion, but not the founder. He simply brought public attention to an existing religion while adding his own structures and beliefs onto the pile. According to this paradigm, Gardner was ultimately a "reformer" figure -- not unlike Martin Luther for the Christian faith.
Of course, there are Gardenarian Wiccans, just like there are Lutheran Christians, but outside of Protestant/Catholic interfaith wrangling, one isn't likely to bump into the notion that believing or not believing in the tenants of Martin Luther is the key to self-identifying as a Christian. In the same vein, there are many self-identifying Wiccans who do not view Gardner's teachings as relevant to their own lives or practices.
Many Wiccans believe that all religions evolve and change over time -- in some cases very slightly and in other cases very drastically. The breadth of these changes depend heavily on how unified the religion was when it began, how well-documented the religion was, and how strongly the religion resisted modification. A religion with a single founder who wrote down every word and prescribed damnation on anyone who changed a single precept would presumably change less over time than a religion that was defined by a few over-arching themes but which had little documentation and no internalized resistance to modifications over time.
Is modern Wicca very different from early nature religions, goddess traditions, and magic practices? Absolutely! Yet modern Christianity is very different from the early messianic traditions that shaped it as a religion. As a general rule, we recognize that Christianity has evolved over time and we do not argue that the early messianic authors whose writings have been preserved were not "Christians". Modern Christians are allowed to deviate without fuss from those early beliefs: they may believe women can teach in church and that men may have long hair without their self-identification being challenged. They may even fail to keep the Sabbath holy (and which day is the Sabbath again? Saturday or Sunday?) and may not tithe to the church and still claim the title of "Christian".
We do not, in short, argue that because modern Christianity is different from ancient messianic traditions, that therefore two names and two founders are needed: "ancient messianic traditions" for everything prior to 1940 and "Christianity" with Billy Graham as the 'founder' in the 1940s. I think we should not therefore argue that modern Wicca is so fundamentally different from early goddess traditions that therefore the entire religion was founded by Gerald Gardner in the 1950s, nor that one must be a follower of Gardner to self-identify as "Wiccan".
Invoking "The Burning Times" is ignorant because witch-hunts didn't target Wiccans.
It's more complicated than that.
"The Burning Times" is a euphemism for the period in history when an accusation of practicing a non-approved religion could result in the legal execution of the accused. In general, the term refers to the Catholic and Protestant witch- and heretic-hunts in Europe and the Americas, but from a world-wide perspective, "The Burning Times" have never ended: there are plenty of places on earth still where an accusation of having the 'wrong' religion can end in a person's death. As such, the term is generally used not as a specific time period but as an invocation of something to avoid.
Did the witch-hunts in Europe and the Americas have Wiccan casualties? It's hard to say. Certainly the witch-hunting manuals lay out a stated intent to find and destroy magic users and anyone who claimed to have or work with "natural" (i.e., non-divine) power, but how many of the European/American populations actually practiced magic use or were subsequently caught up in witch-hunts? An analysis of the victims leads most historians to believe that the bulk of victims self-identified as Christians, not witches. So how does this effect the conceptualization of the Burning Times within Wicca?
It's important to remember that every political or religiously motivated "witch-hunt" catches up victims who were not part of the persecuted group in question. Indeed, catching up a huge haul of innocent victims is the very nature of a witch-hunt, because full-scale witch-hunts are driven by suspicion, paranoia, and hysteria. Sometimes witch-hunts grab up their "unintended" victims on purpose: the witch-hunt is a convenient excuse to remove a rival or grab a fortune. Most of the times, however, the "unintended" victims seem to be caught up because the witch-hunt machine needs a constant influx of new victims in order to sustain public outrage and support: a witch-hunt without victims dies out very quickly, so new victims must be found.
We do not know how many "heretical Jews" murdered in the Spanish Inquisition and similar European purges were actually of Jewish descent and practicing Judaism, but it seems very likely that quite a few "converted" (i.e., Christian) Jews and non-Jews were killed in the purges. In the same vein, the McCarthy-era hunts for communists in America identified only a handful of people who actually identified as political communists; the majority of people harmed in the hunts had never identified themselves as communists but were caught up in the net anyway.
Understanding that, it should not be surprising to note that the majority of people killed during "The Burning Times" were most likely not followers of nature religions or goddess traditions or magical practitioners. However, that does not mean that none of them were. Historical research on witch-hunts is spotty because quite a bit of the research boils down to which documents to believe and which to discard, but some scholars believe that the groups most heavily targeted by witch-hunters were poor disenfranchised women, wealthy widowed women, and country medical practitioners. This last group is particularly interesting because some scholars believe that country medical practitioners were specifically targeted as witches since several hunting manuals take special note of medical remedies (often dispensed with superstitious chants and rituals). Some social historians speculate that the motivation behind these hunts was that the medical practitioner represented a potential threat to the priestly authority: Why would parishioners come to church to pray and tithe for good health when they could go to their local healer for a salve? The magical incantation that came along with the salve (because it seemed to help the last patient) was the excuse that the witch-hunters hung the conviction on.
If these medical practitioners were dispensing "magical" remedies, it's possible that they did not self-identify as Christian, given the church's official stance on natural power at that time. It's also possible that they ascribed to a nature religion or a goddess tradition -- there are theories that the popularity of Mary in the Catholic faith was a means for women to connect with a socially acceptable female divine figure, and it would not be strange to learn that some disenfranchised and persecuted women preferred a nature goddess to a sky god. On the other hand, it is just as possible -- if not more so -- that these practitioners considered the chants they dispensed as prayers to God and were faithful Christians from birth until death. These questions boil down to individuals long dead with very little surviving documentation in some cases, and so it becomes as much a matter of faith as of history.
So while almost certainly no one killed in Europe/America self-identified as a "Wiccan" (because there's no evidence to my knowledge that the word was circulated and used then as we use it today), I do not think that it is ignorant to believe that some of the people who were killed may have followed a belief system similar to what some Wiccans practice today: a belief system that worships the female divine and believes that healing can be a magical as well as a scientific process. In the same way, not every "Christian" thrown to the lions in Rome self-identified as a Christian. However, when most Christians speak of lions and persecution, we understand they are referencing a complex notion instead of a historical statement. In the same vein, when most Wiccans speak of the burning times, we should understand that they are referencing a similar complex notion rather than making a historical claim.
Having said all that, there are there Wiccans who claim that 9 million were killed in the burning times and that the vast majority of those victims were practicing witches. Historical study does not support this statement. However, not everyone who references "the Burning Times" in the abstract should be identified with this extreme fringe theory anymore than all Christians should be identified with Jack Chick tracts because religious ideals are complicated like that.
Pentagrams have a right-side-up and a wrong-side-down.
It's more complicated than that.
Pentagrams are five-pointed stars, often contained in a circle, that many Wiccans associate with the five magical elements: earth, air, fire, water, and spirit. Some Wiccans assign specific points to each element; others do not. At some point in the past, someone who may-or-may-not-have-been a self-identified Wiccan decided that since the upper-most point was Spirit, then an "upside-down" pentagram indicated the subjection of the Spirit, and therefore the "upside-down" pentagram was a symbol for evil.
You may have noticed, however, by this point in the article that not all Wiccans believe the same things. Several Wiccans, myself included, believe there to be no "right-side-up" or "upside-down" view of the pentagram -- the star is in a circle that can roll freely and all the elemental points are always in the same relationship to the other. Indeed, this view is almost necessary if you're practicing in a circle, since the pentagram at the center of the circle is always going to be "upside-down" to someone in the circle.
So when you see an upside-down pentagram, you can't take it as read that the author/drawer/owner of the pentagram believes it to be representing anything bad or evil.
You're not a Wiccan if you don't believe X or worship Y.
It's more complicated than that.
Remember that article above? Let's expand that quote:
The simplest definition of "Christian" is a person who call themselves a Christian, unhelpfully enough, this doesn't actually cover all Christians (looking at you, Messianic Jews), and it most certainly doesn't do anything to inform us of who is actually practicing the religion and who simply says they are. A slightly more complicated definition would be one who believes in the divinity of Jesus Christ and strives to live their life in accordance with His teachings. Of course, depending on who you ask, this means different things.I actually think that quote is a little optimistic -- I believe Robert Price self-identifies as a Christian and while he may believe in "the divinity of Christ", he makes a very compelling case for Christ not ever actually existing as a historical person, so he may not believe in "the divinity of Christ" in the same way as this article means.
Can you make a list of anything that all Christians believe in? Maybe "God" would be on that list, but I'm not completely sure. Probably some portion of the Bible could be nailed down and everyone could agree that particular book-chapter-verse was divinely inspired and completely True (with a capital T), but if the condition is that we need buy-in from every Christian ever, it's going to be a very short passage. ("Jesus wept" is right out -- Robert Price strikes again!)
The fact of the matter is that despite being a thoroughly documented religion with a rich past and enjoying status as a government-favored religion for periods of hundreds of years, there are intense and very meaningful differences between large groups of Christians over the nature of the divine, the validity of various historical texts, and the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. So why should Wicca -- a religion that some practitioners believe to have evolved from equally rich and varied sources but also almost completely undocumented and without a centralized authority figure and persecuted and outlawed for several generations be somehow less varied than the flavors of Christianity?
Some Wiccans believe in a single goddess. Some believe in a god and a goddess. Some believe in a god and goddess with a trinity nature. Some believe in a pantheon of deities. Some believe in all of these things at once. (Again, in keeping with the theme of this article: this belief is not foolish, but rather, simply Complicated.) There are atheist Wiccans. (There are even Christian Wiccans, and while I do not personally understand how that works, I believe that the majority of those so self-identified have put a great deal of thought into their chosen self-identification.) Some Wiccans believe in magic, but many do not, or at least do not practice magic themselves. Some find the writings of certain modern Wiccans to be instructive and helpful in their daily lives; others do not.
Do all Christians believe in the Trinity? Do all recognize the humanity of Jesus? Do all Christians pray every day -- or even at all? Do all Christians agree with the writings of Billy Graham or Rick Warren?
I cannot think of a single key issue around which a person must believe or summarily be stripped of their Christian self-identification, and neither can I think of a single issue on which a Wiccan self-identification irrevocably revolves. Religions, as a general rule, are more complicated than a single issue -- they tend to revolve around certain beliefs, certain memes, and certain behavioral patterns. There is often a great deal of overlap between groups within a religion, and I would argue that it's in those various overlaps that we see a religion emerge, but in terms of a single key issue that the entire religion revolves around, I can't think of a single issue that all Wiccans agree upon except maybe "Harm none." (And even that has a rather contentious debate about self-defense attached to it, not unlike the Christian controversies about injunctions against ending life and how they affect self-defense, war time situations, and capital punishments.)
Is all this so much sophistry on my part, designed to make labels seem meaningless? On the contrary, I think self-applied labels are incredibly important, which is one of the reasons why I'm arguing so strongly. It is my firmly held belief that no one can or should attempt to strip a self-identified religious label from another person.
My father is a Christian, but he doesn't believe in the inerrancy of the Bible. My mother is a Christian, and does believe in Biblical inerrancy -- except for the part about divorced people being adulterers. (Mother had a really shitty first marriage and it's funny how first-hand experience with something can leave you with a more complicated view than just The Bible Says So.) They love each other deeply and I can't imagine that they would accuse each other of not being real Christians for believing differently from one another.
And yet... the Internet is full of people -- otherwise good, thinking, intelligent people -- trying to strip the name of "Wicca" from people who self-identify as such but who fail to fit into narrow definitions of what those people think Wicca should be. And accompanying all this de-identification is so much negativity and divisiveness: I cringe every time I see someone complain about "fluffy bunny Wiccans" and "goth angst Wiccans" and a hundred other put downs and complaints about people who live differently from what the complainer would like.
And that brings me to:
It's not easy being a Wiccan.
This one is true, although like everything else, it's more complicated than that. It's not easy to be a lot of things in this country: we're not likely to elect an openly self-identifying atheist anytime and my pentagram necklace has never got me stopped by the police or patted down at the airport in the way that certain other religious identifying symbols might do. So please don't feel like you should feel sorry for me because of my OH SO PERSECUTED religion, because that's not what I mean.
What I do mean is that Wicca is a religion that is almost entirely composed of converts from other religions. Very few Wiccans are raised Wiccan. The conversion process is frequently painful and difficult -- moving from a religion you were raised in to a religion that probably no one in your family holds or is familiar with can be very difficult. It's not surprising that many Wiccans gravitate in the early stages of their conversion process to aspects that are especially positive or negative -- and there is no need, in my opinion, to put down those who do, thereby making their religious inquiries more difficult than they already are.
So how can you help? Here's an easy guide that I recommend:
- Religions are defined internally by its members rather than externally by non-members. Remember not to value your own definitions over an individual's self-identification. (i.e., No one person owns the definition on Christianity or Wicca or pretty much anything else.)
- Religions are composed of a wide variety of views on a number of subjects. Remember that apparent inconsistencies of belief do not automatically equal deficient reasoning. (i.e., If you want to learn more, ask respectfully "How can you be a Christian and not believe in a historical Jesus?" rather than just dismissing the person as Not-A-Christian.)
- Religions are composed of people who self-identify with that religion for a variety of personal reasons. Remember to be sensitive to the fact that people's religious inquiries are complicated. Avoid personal attacks or attempts to de-identify people who believe differently than you would like or expect. (i.e., Avoid "You're not an X if you don't believe Y" statements.)
- Religions should not be codified with blanket statements of faith that do not apply to everyone within that faith. Don't repeat blanket statements of religious definitions online and do edit them to when possible. (i.e., Utilize subjective terms: some Christians believe; many Muslims believe; some Wicca traditions maintain; etc.)
- Religions are composed by complicated people with very different individual outlooks and personalities. Remember that self-identifying with a religion does not lead to a dearth of individual opinions. (i.e., Catholics don't worship the pope, not all Wiccans follow Gardner's writings, etc.)
It's more complicated than that.
I strongly believe that religious statements that are published in a public forum can and should be subjected to historical analysis. It would be hypocritical for me to suggest that the existence of Jesus is fair game for historical critique or that the gospels should be subjected to literary criticism, but then turn around and say that my beliefs are sacrosanct and above critique.
As someone who respects history very strongly, I will freely admit that it's very possible that nature-traditions and goddess-worship didn't exist prior to the 1950s and I will freely admit that it's very possible that not a single person executed for witchcraft in Europe and the Americans considered themselves anything other than good god-fearing Christians.
A good religious outlook, in my opinion, is one that is shaped by belief and tempered by evidence. One of my beliefs is that goddess-worship and natural-traditions of some form existed prior to 1950 and that those traditions trickled down to us through a variety of oral sources. Another of my beliefs is that some small percentage -- maybe one percent, maybe less -- of people executed for witchcraft and heresy may have practiced some form of these natural-traditions. These two beliefs are so vague as to be almost unfalsifiable, but just because I cannot think of any evidence that could be presented to falsify either of these beliefs, doesn't mean that I'm not open to evidence.
However, this is not a post about historical facts -- although people are welcome to talk history in the comments if they want -- but rather it is a post about the variety of belief. This is also not a proselytization post: my intention with this post couldn't be further from wanting to convince anyone. Everyone needs to walk their own path and make their own decisions. It will be your experiences that lead you to self-identify as a Christian, or a Muslim, or a Buddhist, or an atheist.
This post is merely an attempt to provide insight into a different worldview. My hope is that this post will open a few eyes to the realization that inasmuch as not everyone who claims the same self-identification as you also believes the exact same things as you all the time on every subject, well, that phenomena is true for every member of every group ever. I hope that everyone will remember that religious self-identification is more complicated than a Wikipedia article, and that forceful de-identification is something to be avoided.
Thank you for listening, and have a wonderful day. Blessed be, ya'll.