The Witches Next Door

Ecstatic dancers whirl around a woodland bonfire. Spells are cast in suburban living rooms. A pentagram-wearing priestess wanders through an interfaith festival.

Today, witches can be as near as next door—and in the public square as well. Wicca is a conspicuous part of a burgeoning pagan revival in the Western world. Although hard numbers are impossible to find, there are about 200,000 pagans in the United States, 120,000 in Great Britain, and many fewer in other developed countries.

More and more, witches are coming out of the broom closet and gaining acceptance as just another religion in a multicultural mosaic. Pagan groups are incorporating as churches, led by divinity-schooled clergy legally empowered to perform marriages. The U.S. military allows pagan services on base, and the state of Wisconsin just appointed a Wiccan, the Rev. Jamyi Witch, as chaplain in a state prison. And pagans have their own antidefamation organizations to protect their civil rights.

Authentic pagan themes—as opposed to conventional fantasy motifs—continue to infiltrate the media. Bookstores devote yards of shelf space to pagan titles, including Wiccan cookbooks and needlework patterns. Tourism targets pagans looking for ancient spiritual sites. Some cars even sport “Born Again Pagan” bumper stickers.

The new pagans practice “Earth religions” of pre-Christian inspiration. They may be Wiccans, Druids, Shamans, Goddess Celebrants, Polytheists, Sacred Ecologists, or Magicians. Their pantheons may be influenced by those of the ancient Near East, Egypt, the Celts, the Norse, or contemporary indigenous religions of Africa and the Americas, with much eclectic mixing. But contrary to popular belief, pagans don’t consider themselves New Agers because they aren’t monists, don’t believe that they create their own realities, and firmly distrust gurus.

Common to all these groups are three principles, outlined by the Pagan Federation of the United Kingdom: (1) reverence for nature, (2) adherence to an ethic of “do what thou wilt, but harm none,” and (3) conception of deity as both goddess and god. Unstated is their rejection of the Christian God and their denial of the need for a Redeemer. Although a few esoteric Christians try to have it both ways and a few pagans revere Christ, paganism simply can’t be reconciled with normative Christianity.

Wiccan Theology
Wicca—the most popular form of the new paganism—is an initiatory mystery religion that attempts to re-create the ancient religions of western Europe. Its usual deities are the Horned God and the Triple Goddess—Maid, Mother, and Crone. (A few Wiccans see a non-gendered Oneness behind the pair.) Other characteristics include three degrees of initiation, use of ceremonial magic, rituals begun with a circle drawn by a female and subsequently divided into symbolic quarters, and leadership by a high priestess who can “draw down the moon,” temporarily incarnating her goddess. The high priest may incarnate the god. Practices vary so widely, however, that only general remarks can be offered here—any of which some Wiccans might dispute.

Because “all acts of love and pleasure” are thought to please the goddess, Wiccans tend to be sexually permissive. Most support the feminist and gay-rights agendas. Fearing no eternal punishment, they commonly expect to be reincarnated after a pleasant rest in the Summerland of the goddess.

Wiccans have no dogma, hierarchy, or uniform rituals. They do typically celebrate four great festivals called “sabats”—Samhain (October 31), Oimelc (February 1), Beltane (May 1), and Lughnasadh (August 1)—and smaller celebrations on the solstices and equinoxes. Other gatherings may be held for special needs, such as healing, or simply to raise psychic energy.

A practitioner of Wicca is a witch. Indeed, “Wicca” means “male witch” in Anglo-Saxon. (A female witch is a wicce.) The word also has a false etymology from “wise,” so that Wicca is sometimes called “Wisecraft.” Some Wiccans are beginning to prefer the designation “pagan,” believing the word “witch” has outlived its useful shock value.

A witch can practice alone (as a “hedge witch”), surfacing only occasionally for collective rituals. More than 90 percent of British witches and many American ones stay independent. Others join covens, ideally composed of 13 members, though most are smaller. The coven is paganism’s equivalent of Christianity’s small faith-sharing group.

“Cocooning into the coven” ideally creates a supportive religious family; however, closeness may also breed friction, so members come and go, covens form and fold. Witches and other kinds of pagans do sometimes collaborate, as in the Covenant of the Goddess, an association founded in California and now international.

Wiccans aren’t Satanists. (Please say this three times before reading further.) They don’t acknowledge—much less worship—a personalized principle of evil. The charge of Satanism is perhaps the sorest point between witches and Christians: Fear of malevolent Satan-worshipers kindled the early modern witch-hunt, whose victims contemporary witches like to claim as kin in an effort to secure victim status (see “Who Burned the Witches?” October 2001).

Paradoxically, Wiccans don’t necessarily consider the deities they invoke to be real. Noted British witch Vivianne Crowley called them “human images of reality, not reality itself.” Goddess-celebrant Starhawk paradoxically claims they are both real and created. (Consistency isn’t a virtue in paganism.) The goddesses and gods may be only archetypes or symbols of natural forces or psychological projections. In theory at least, atheists could be witches. But current trends within paganism are moving toward a more literal polytheism of personalized goddesses and gods. Under no version of Wicca do these beings command or punish.

Even odder, although Wiccans speak of worshiping their deities, they’re really attracting, honoring, and invoking their aid for some human purpose. As historian Ronald Hutton observes in his book The Triumph of the Moon (1999), paganism “abolishes the traditional Western distinc­tion between religion and magic.”

The craft of pagan witchcraft is magic, the alteration of reality through mental power. Infamous ceremonial magician Aleister Crowley defined it as “the art or science of causing change in conformity with will.” Pagan theoretician Issac Bonewitz called it “folk parapsychology.” It’s held to be a trainable natural talent.

Wicca borrows techniques from both “high” and “low” magic. Learned “high magic,” whose pioneers included unorthodox Christians, promises the magician a taste of divinity. The traditional “low magic” of village charmers, cunning men, or wise women (Christians at least in name) worked only small spells for curing, recovering lost goods, and gaining love.

Pagan ethics forbid working magic on anyone’s behalf without the subject’s permission. Their law of threefold return is a bar to black magic because evil would rebound on the evildoer. No academic observer of modern Wicca has seen evidence of black magic. “Left-hand workers” aren’t wanted in the Craft.

Nevertheless, it must be emphasized that Catholics are strictly forbidden to practice magic or divination, even for good purposes, because it shows presumption, involves powers not of heaven, and offends against “the honor, respect, and loving fear that we owe to God alone” (Catechism of the Catholic Church).

Pagan Revival
Wiccans used to have a heroic foundation myth. The Triple Goddess and the Horned God were supposed to have been worshiped in Paleolithic times and continued to be venerated by peaceful, primitive matriarchies. Patriarchal conquerors subordinated the goddess, who was driven underground by the triumph of Christianity. Rural people kept a fertility cult of goddess and god alive in secret until the medieval Inquisition misinterpreted their rites as diabolism, taking the Horned God to be Satan himself. Nine million witches are alleged to have been executed during the “Burning Times.”

But a retired British civil servant named Gerald Gardner claimed to have been initiated by one of the last surviving communities (covens) of witches just before World War II. After the repeal of British laws against witchcraft in 1951, he reintroduced the Craft (which he initially called “Wica”) through his books Witchcraft Today (1954) and The Meaning of Witchcraft (1959), as well as by founding new covens, which he provided with rituals. His “Gardnerian tradition” influenced subsequent forms of Wicca.

This version of history, still tracable in feminist writers like Starhawk, held sway in the Craft until the 1980s, when advances in archaeology, folklore, and history thoroughly demolished it. Scholars have become very cautious about interpreting prehistoric religions, and they say they have no hard evidence for peaceful matriarchies worshiping the “Great Mother.” There was no underground witch cult in the Middle Ages, and not a single one of the 50,000 or so people executed for witchcraft worshiped a pagan god.

Gardner did not just found his coven; he invented its practices. He and some like-minded friends composed rituals for Wicca, drawing from various works including magical textbooks—amateur folklorist Charles Leland’s Aradia (itself an apparent hoax about Italian witchcraft), the works of Aleister Crowley and Rudyard Kipling, and even the Book of Common Prayer. Gardner has been exposed in damning detail by the former Wiccan (and sometime Catholic) Aidan Kelly in Crafting the Art of Magic (1991).

Yet if Gardner hadn’t revived witchcraft, others might have. Historic currents dating from the Renaissance and surging in the Romantic era were united in 20th-century England. Hutton’s Triumph of the Moon is a subtle analysis of these elements, which fall into four general categories, each filled with its own distortions and fabrications: high magic (Freemasonry and the occult societies inspired by its practices), low magic (romanticized village witchcraft within “timeless” rural England), love of antiquity (preference for carefree nature worship), and folk rites (rural customs supposedly concealing pagan rituals).

Freemasonry really was a model for Wicca. Gardner, a Freemason, borrowed terminology and his initiation template from the older secret “Craft.” On the other hand, it was two early 19th-century Catholic apologists, Karl Jarcke and Franz Josef Mone, who first identified historic witches as secret pagans. Their error, backed with deliberately falsified data, was propagated by Margaret Murray’s enormously influential book, The Witchcult in Western Europe (1921), which Gardner himself admired.

At first, Wiccans clung stubbornly to their foundation myth. But over the past two decades, they’ve come to admit that the revisionists and debunkers are right. Nevertheless, they still regard the old myth as “useful,” and it continues to shape the mental universe of witches.

Meanwhile, after its launch by Gardner, Wicca spread and fragmented into many other traditions. Imported into America in 1970, it fused with the counterculture, feminism, and radical politics to become a form of women’s spirituality: Witchcraft was claimed as the “Wimmin’s Religion.” Donna Steichen’s Ungodly Rage (1991) chronicles the eager absorption of these ideas by radical Catholic feminists, including nuns.

The new Goddess Celebrants downplay the Horned God in order to concentrate on their immanent goddess. (The god is excluded by the goddess-monotheists of Dianic Wicca, which appeals to lesbian separatists and women who wish to be independent of men.) Feminist practice of Wicca is unstructured, spontaneous, and highly politicized. Emotively expounded by such writers as Starhawk, witchcraft has become an instrument of personal development and societal change.

The Pagan Profile
To whom does revived paganism appeal? Lumping Wiccans together with other kinds of pagans, here are some demographics taken from Margot Adler’s survey in Drawing Down the Moon and various academic studies. Most American pagans are of northern and western European ancestry, middle-class, well-educated, often employed in a scientific or technical field. (Education and employment status are lower in Britain.) Baby boomers are well-represented, as are young adults. As many as two-thirds of all pagans are women.

Most people who become pagans left the religions of their childhood while they were still in their teens. Ex-Catholics are pagans in proportion to our share of the general population. (In Britain, where most pagans come from families of nonbelievers, the exceptions are often former Catholics or Non-Conformists.) Jews and Episcopalians are overrepresented. Heterosexuals are underrepresented—only two-thirds of the whole. (Older Wiccan rituals have been rewritten to accomodate gays, lesbians, and bisexuals.)

Pagans like to take charge of their own educations. They are avid readers, with a liking for mythology, folklore, archaeology, science fiction, and fantasy. They enjoy historical reenactments and role-playing games. (Prominent pagan Diana Paxson, cofounder of the medieval reenactors’ Society for Creative Anachronism, scoffs at the charge that playing Dungeons and DragonsTM trains Wicca priestesses.)

Pagans keep in touch through a hundred or so magazines and newsletters, some of them slickly professional. Internet Web sites and chat rooms abound for all the strains of paganism. Festivals are playing a larger part in developing group consciousness and circulating ideas. Part tribal gathering, part family reunion, these weekend campouts and hotel conventions have been growing in popularity for the past 30 years. They are spurring eclecticism and cross-cultural borrowings among the various traditions.

Sixty festivals, some drawing as many as a thousand people, are held annually in the United States. Some organizers own their own woodland. (The Elf Lore Family of Indiana, which organizes ELFest, calls its tract Lothlorien.) Festival activities include large group rituals, workshops, music, dancing, sales of goods, as well as a lot of partying.

Participants may even spoof themselves—for example, by working a ritual in praise of chocolate. Pagans like to say that their religion includes “the goat and the gazelle,” mirth and reverence.

Pagans don’t proselytize, and Wiccans don’t initiate anyone under 18. (Pagans worry about keeping their “witchling” children in the fold because they must allow their children to choose freely.) So where do new members come from? Conversion to Wicca is seldom a road-to-Damascus experience, although a few Wiccans report a direct “call” from their goddess. Pagan conversion is usually a slow, gradual process that ends in a feeling of “coming home.” The appeal of feminine spirituality and harmony with nature has proved definitive for many who have become pagans.

Predisposing factors seem to include an overly rigid Christian household where religion was “shoved down the throat” or, conversely, an overly permissive home which encouraged “spiritual seeking.” There may have been a family tradition of folk magic or uncanny powers.

A deep love of nature is crucial, as is a keen interest in myths, fairy tales, and speculative fiction. Many pagans say that their favorite book in childhood was J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Other popular titles include: Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea series, the mystic novels of Dion Fortune, and The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, who admired Fortune and, like her, combined esoteric Christian­ity and paganism in her own life. Pagans also read the Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis, the Prydain series by Lloyd Alexander, Alan Garner’s fantasies, and the historical novels of Rosemary Sutcliff. The imaginary ethnology of The White Goddess by Robert Graves used to be influential among Wiccans who interpreted it literally.

As Diana Paxson—herself a fantasy writer and critic—bears witness, there’s not a whiff of Wicca in the generic magic of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, nor is there even any hint of pagan religiosity. Lacking the sense of wonder so abundant in some of the books mentioned above, the Rowling series is unlikely to have the same impact on the future of its readers.

Many of those who become pagans had active inner fantasy lives and longed to make these dreams come true. One pagan group with a droll name, The New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn, sprang from a ritual written for a college class assignment in 1967. After performing the ritual twice, participants “felt something”; after performing it a third time, they got goddess-religion, as it were.

Paganism is centered on personal psychic experience, which is considered to be direct contact with the divine. It’s about doing and feeling, not believing and thinking. Pagans try to reshape reality nearer to the heart’s desire, recapturing the playfulness and wonder of childhood. Observer Tanya Luhrman calls the reprogramming of their minds “interpretative drift.” By working magic, pagans create stronger, finer fantasy selves, which are reflected in the romantic pagan names they choose for themselves—names like Rushing Water, Nybor, Morning Glory, and Wardstar.

Freedom and fluidity are essential to paganism. It promises one a chance to fashion one’s own spiritual path—and rituals—without reference to any outside authority. Some pagans think their religion’s decentralization will help it succeed as the religion of the future. Others are moving toward more formal structures, including collaboration with the Unitarian Universalist Church. In either case, paganism will probably diffuse into the common culture and gain wider acceptance.

The Pagans Next Door
Why should Catholics care about a religious system so alien to ours? The simple answer is: It’s there, it’s growing, and some ex-Catholics find it attractive. (A more flippant answer: Look at what we have in common; after all, we’ve both had problems with Protestant Fundamentalists and been maligned in Jack Chick comics.)

Writer Charlotte Allen has pointed out that paganism, with its colorful “smells and bells,” is like Catholicism without Christ. Pagans specialize in evocative ceremonies, rich symbols, and a sense of mystery that have been bleached out of much post-Vatican II Catholicism. Pagans kept their liturgical language lush and formal while ours became boring and banal. Ritual is their highest art form.

There’s plenty of scope for better mutual understanding. Pagans, however, resist and resent evangelization. The currently popular conservative approach, with its tidy chains of logic and Bible texts, is useless here because Wiccans regard truth as essentially fluid. Liberal tactics don’t work either. When Catholic feminist Rosemary Reuther tried preaching liberation theology to pagans, she was sharply rebuffed.

When pagans speak of the Bible—which they seldom do—it’s usually to protest Old Testament denunciations of idolatry. They seem to have read only the harsh parts and never the New Testament. They accuse Christianity of degrading women and ravaging the Earth.

But paganism has serious philosophical weaknesses. Its basic ethic—”as long as no one gets hurt”—is relativistic and fails to offer firm guidance in complex situations. It avoids the problem of Evil by declaring that natural evils are simply part of the cycle and must be accepted. That’s easy to say in the prime of one’s life, but will it comfort those too old or infirm to dance about the sacred fire? Moreover, without the sanctions of an afterlife, the threefold law has nothing credible to say about deliberately evil acts: The wicked manifestly do prosper at times.

Also, paganism’s claim to be a “life-affirming” religion collides with its support for abortion—a by-product of its commitment to feminism. (An abortion ritual has even been reported.) The pagan theory of reincarnation makes it easy to gloss over the aborted child’s fate.

Christianity’s unique response to Wicca is our Lord Jesus Christ Himself. Unlike the pagan Horned God, our dying and rising Savior lived as an actual historical person in a real time and place. His Incarnation sanctified human nature and the whole material universe. He remains among us sacramentally, scripturally, and mystically, regardless of our subjective reac­tions.

The dynamic inner life of the Holy Trinity makes the One God—imaged in both male and female humans—infinitely more than the solitary tyrant whom many pagans imagine we worship. Our ancient tradition of mystical prayer, in which every soul is relationally feminine, yields union with the Triune God. Although Mary isn’t the “feminine face of God,” she is femininity conformed to God and every bit as nurturing as their Triple Goddess.

Catholic responses to paganism would be stronger if we could recover that sense of incarnational “bodiliness” the Middle Ages knew. The common perception that Catholicism itself is somehow puritanical—to say nothing of the sad fact that some Catholics are puritanical—needs to be addressed. On the positive side, Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body offers a bold new understanding of human sexuality that would startle pagans, especially in its popular exposition by Christopher West.

But countering pagan permissiveness, which even endorses same-sex unions, will be a challenge.

However difficult, overtures to paganism must be made, because God wills that all men be saved. Can we convey to them the promise of ultimate human perfection made possible through Christ? Can we persuade them to turn from created goddesses and gods to worshiping the Creator in spirit and in truth? Woe to us if we decide that any group of people is too far gone to hear the gospel.


  • Sandra Miesel

    Sandra Miesel is a medievalist and author. She has written hundreds of articles for the Catholic press, chiefly on history, art, and hagiography, and has spoken at religious and academic conferences, appeared on EWTN, and given numerous radio interviews. She is co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code with Carl E. Olson and The Pied Piper of Atheism: Philip Pullman and Children's Fantasy with Catholic journalist and canon lawyer Pete Vere. She holds master's degrees in biochemistry and medieval history from the University of Illinois.

tagged as:

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...