The Scholars and the Goddess

Historically speaking, the "ancient" rituals of the Goddess movement are almost certainly bunk
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Wicca, sometimes known as the Goddess movement, Goddess spirituality, or the Craft, appears to be the fastest-growing religion in America. Thirty years ago only a handful of Wiccans existed. One scholar has estimated that there are now more than 200,000 adherents of Wicca and related "neopagan" faiths in the United States, the country where neopaganism, like many formal religions, is most flourishing. Wiccans—who may also call themselves Witches (the capital W is meant to distance them from the word's negative connotations, because Wiccans neither worship Satan nor practice the sort of malicious magic traditionally associated with witches) or just plain pagans (often with a capital P)—tend to be white, middle-class, highly educated, and politically involved in liberal and environmental causes. About a third of them are men. Wiccan services have been held on at least fifteen U.S. military bases and ships.

Many come to Wicca after reading The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess (1979), a best-selling introduction to Wiccan teachings and rituals written by Starhawk (né Miriam Simos), a Witch (the term she prefers) from California. Starhawk offers a vivid summary of the history of the faith, explaining that witchcraft is "perhaps the oldest religion extant in the West" and that it began "more than thirty-five thousand years ago," during the last Ice Age. The religion's earliest adherents worshipped two deities, one of each sex: "the Mother Goddess, the birthgiver, who brings into existence all life," and the "Horned God," a male hunter who died and was resurrected each year. Male shamans "dressed in skins and horns in identification with the God and the herds," but priestesses "presided naked, embodying the fertility of the Goddess." All over prehistoric Europe people made images of the Goddess, sometimes showing her giving birth to the "Divine Child—her consort, son, and seed." They knew her as a "triple Goddess"—practitioners today usually refer to her as maiden, mother, crone—but fundamentally they saw her as one deity. Each year these prehistoric worshippers celebrated the seasonal cycles, which led to the "eight feasts of the Wheel": the solstices, the equinoxes, and four festivals—Imbolc (February 2, now coinciding with the Christian feast of Candlemas), Beltane (May Day), Lammas or Lughnasad (in early August), and Samhain (our Halloween).

This nature-attuned, woman-respecting, peaceful, and egalitarian culture prevailed in what is now Western Europe for thousands of years, Starhawk wrote, until Indo-European invaders swept across the region, introducing warrior gods, weapons designed for killing human beings, and patriarchal civilization. Then came Christianity, which eventually insinuated itself among Europe's ruling elite. Still, the "Old Religion" lived, often in the guise of Christian practices.

Starting in the fourteenth century, Starhawk argued, religious and secular authorities began a 400-year campaign to eradicate the Old Religion by exterminating suspected adherents, whom they accused of being in league with the devil. Most of the persecuted were women, generally those outside the social norm—not only the elderly and mentally ill but also midwives, herbal healers, and natural leaders, those women whose independent ways were seen as a threat. During "the Burning Times," Starhawk wrote, some nine million were executed. The Old Religion went more deeply underground, its traditions passed down secretly in families and among trusted friends, until it resurfaced in the twentieth century. Like their ancient forebears, Wiccans revere the Goddess, practice shamanistic magic of a harmless variety, and celebrate the eight feasts, or sabbats, sometimes in the nude.

Subject to slight variations, this story is the basis of many hugely popular Goddess handbooks. It also informs the writings of numerous secular feminists—Gloria Steinem, Marilyn French, Barbara Ehrenreich, Deirdre English—to whom the ascendancy of "the patriarchy" or the systematic terrorization of strong, independent women by means of witchcraft trials are historical givens. Moreover, elements of the story suffuse a broad swath of the intellectual and literary fabric of the past hundred years, from James Frazer's The Golden Bough and Robert Graves's The White Goddess to the novels of D. H. Lawrence, from the writings of William Butler Yeats and T. S. Eliot to Jungian psychology and the widely viewed 1988 public-television series The Power of Myth.

In all probability, not a single element of the Wiccan story is true. The evidence is overwhelming that Wicca is a distinctly new religion, a 1950s concoction influenced by such things as Masonic ritual and a late-nineteenth-century fascination with the esoteric and the occult, and that various assumptions informing the Wiccan view of history are deeply flawed. Furthermore, scholars generally agree that there is no indication, either archaeological or in the written record, that any ancient people ever worshipped a single, archetypal goddess—a conclusion that strikes at the heart of Wiccan belief.

IN the past few years two well-respected scholars have independently advanced essentially the same theory about Wicca's founding. In 1998 Philip G. Davis, a professor of religion at the University of Prince Edward Island, published Goddess Unmasked: The Rise of Neopagan Feminist Spirituality, which argued that Wicca was the creation of an English civil servant and amateur anthropologist named Gerald B. Gardner (1884-1964). Davis wrote that the origins of the Goddess movement lay in an interest among the German and French Romantics—mostly men—in natural forces, especially those linked with women. Gardner admired the Romantics and belonged to a Rosicrucian society called the Fellowship of Crotona—a group that was influenced by several late-nineteenth-century occultist groups, which in turn were influenced by Freemasonry. In the 1950s Gardner introduced a religion he called (and spelled) Wica. Although Gardner claimed to have learned Wiccan lore from a centuries-old coven of witches who also belonged to the Fellowship of Crotona, Davis wrote that no one had been able to locate the coven and that Gardner had invented the rites he trumpeted, borrowing from rituals created early in the twentieth century by the notorious British occultist Aleister Crowley, among others. Wiccans today, by their own admission, have freely adapted and embellished Gardner's rites.

In 1999, Ronald Hutton, a well-known historian of pagan British religion who teaches at the University of Bristol, published The Triumph of the Moon. Hutton had conducted detailed research into the known pagan practices of prehistory, had read Gardner's unpublished manuscripts, and had interviewed many of Gardner's surviving contemporaries. Hutton, like Davis, could find no conclusive evidence of the coven from which Gardner said he had learned the Craft, and argued that the "ancient" religion Gardner claimed to have discovered was a mélange of material from relatively modern sources. Gardner seems to have drawn on the work of two people: Charles Godfrey Leland, a nineteenth-century amateur American folklorist who professed to have found a surviving cult of the goddess Diana in Tuscany, and Margaret Alice Murray, a British Egyptologist who herself drew on Leland's ideas and, beginning in the 1920s, created a detailed framework of ritual and belief. From his own experience Gardner included such Masonic staples as blindfolding, initiation, secrecy, and "degrees" of priesthood. He incorporated various Tarot-like paraphernalia, including wands, chalices, and the five-pointed star, which, enclosed in a circle, is the Wiccan equivalent of the cross.

Gardner also wove in some personal idiosyncrasies. One was a fondness for linguistic archaisms: "thee," "thy," "'tis," "Ye Bok of ye Art Magical." Another was a taste for nudism: Gardner had belonged to a nudist colony in the 1930s, and he prescribed that many Wiccan rituals be carried out "skyclad." This was a rarity even among occultists: no ancient pagan religion is known, or was thought in Gardner's time, to have regularly called for its rites to be conducted in the nude. Some Gardnerian innovations have sexual and even bondage-and-discipline overtones. Ritual sex, which Gardner called "The Great Rite," and which was also largely unknown in antiquity, was part of the liturgy for Beltane and other feasts (although most participants simulated the act with a dagger—another of Gardner's penchants—and a chalice). Other rituals called for the binding and scourging of initiates and for administering "the fivefold kiss" to the feet, knees, "womb" (according to one Wiccan I spoke with, a relatively modest spot above the pubic bone), breasts, and lips.

Hutton effectively demolished the notion, held by Wiccans and others, that fundamentally pagan ancient customs existed beneath medieval Christian practices. His research reveals that outside of a handful of traditions, such as decorating with greenery at Yuletide and celebrating May Day with flowers, no pagan practices—much less the veneration of pagan gods—have survived from antiquity. Hutton found that nearly all the rural seasonal pastimes that folklorists once viewed as "timeless" fertility rituals, including the Maypole dance, actually date from the Middle Ages or even the eighteenth century. There is now widespread consensus among historians that Catholicism thoroughly permeated the mental world of medieval Europe, introducing a robust popular culture of saints' shrines, devotions, and even charms and spells. The idea that medieval revels were pagan in origin is a legacy of the Protestant Reformation.

Hutton has also pointed out a lack of evidence that either the ancient Celts or any other pagan culture celebrated all the "eight feasts of the Wheel" that are central to Wiccan liturgy. "The equinoxes seem to have no native pagan festivals behind them and became significant only to occultists in the nineteenth century," Hutton told me. "There is still no proven pagan feast that stood as ancestor to Easter"—a festival that modern pagans celebrate as Ostara, the vernal equinox.

Historians have overturned another basic Wiccan assumption: that the group has a history of persecution exceeding even that of the Jews. The figure Starhawk cited—nine million executed over four centuries—derives from a late-eighteenth-century German historian; it was picked up and disseminated a hundred years later by a British feminist named Matilda Gage and quickly became Wiccan gospel (Gardner himself coined the phrase "the Burning Times"). Most scholars today believe that the actual number of executions is in the neighborhood of 40,000. The most thorough recent study of historical witchcraft is Witches and Neighbors (1996), by Robin Briggs, a historian at Oxford University. Briggs pored over the documents of European witch trials and concluded that most of them took place during a relatively short period, 1550 to 1630, and were largely confined to parts of present-day France, Switzerland, and Germany that were already racked by the religious and political turmoil of the Reformation. The accused witches, far from including a large number of independent-minded women, were mostly poor and unpopular. Their accusers were typically ordinary citizens (often other women), not clerical or secular authorities. In fact, the authorities generally disliked trying witchcraft cases and acquitted more than half of all defendants. Briggs also discovered that none of the accused witches who were found guilty and put to death had been charged specifically with practicing a pagan religion.

If Internet chat rooms are any indication, some Wiccans cling tenaciously to the idea of themselves as institutional victims on a large scale. Generally speaking, though, Wiccans appear to be accommodating themselves to much of the emerging evidence concerning their antecedents: for example, they are coming to view their ancient provenance as inspiring legend rather than hard-and-fast history. By the end of the 1990s, with the appearance of Davis's book and then of Hutton's, many Wiccans had begun referring to their story as a myth of origin, not a history of survival. "We don't do what Witches did a hundred years ago, or five hundred years ago, or five thousand years ago," Starhawk told me. "We're not an unbroken tradition like the Native Americans." In fact, many Wiccans now describe those who take certain elements of the movement's narrative literally as "Wiccan fundamentalists."

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