All your life an unattainable ecstasy has hovered just beyond the grasp of your consciousness. The day is coming when you will wake to find, beyond all hope, that you have attained it, or else, that it was within your reach and you have lost it forever. C.S. Lewis
The Problem of Pain
Wicca: Searching For Identity, Meaning and Community In The Lonely Shadows of Witchcraft
"My place in society has become so altered. I work, I contribute, but I have become invisible." The woman, a nurse and mother whose children are grown, had just experienced a hysterectomy. Using ritual, she attempts to deal with loss and seeks direction. In a wilderness area she removes her clothes. She and a friend cover themselves with red clay rune symbols. They bury the remains of the operation in a part of her wedding dress. They perform a ritual using chants and hand motions. After the burial they both play a flute while placing a feather and crystals on the burial spot.1
Other women tell of performing rituals to deal with depression and anger because of rape. They write of rituals performed for peace or simply used as celebration. These women, as well as some men, are part of a movement referred to as the Neo-Pagan Movement. Wicca is a distinct part of the Neo-Pagan Movement. Wicca adherents call themselves witches and generally belong to a local Wicca Coven. They worship a great Mother Goddess, and in some cases, her consort, the Horned God. Some Wicca Covens focus on feminine spirituality and admit only women; other groups admit both genders.
In many ways adherents of Wicca are a protest movement against religions which allow only male leadership.2 The movement is also attractive to women searching for a spirituality that honors the female desire to nurture, celebrate and be in community. These groups attract the romantic in all persons, that is, human awe in the presence of nature. They also attract those who consider ritual an important part of worship. Wicca is a religion whose adherents usually start the journey with a strong desire to affirm individuals and the natural world. They desire to embrace community and creativity. Their Pagan system, however, strangely ends in a world divorced of any kind of understanding that would bind those needs together and validate them.
Wiccans base their belief structure on a theory that the first deity worshiped was female and intrinsically connected with earth and fertility. Denise Lardner Carmody in her book Women and World Religions, writes of this theory, and connects it to "ancient peoples" and their sense of the sacred which she believes they equated with "the womb of a cosmic mother."3 Likewise, many Neo-Pagan believers refer to the work of Marija Gimbutas and expound her views of a matriarchal civilization in old Europe centered around a goddess religion. This view entails a belief in a golden age without warfare. While mainstream scholarship disputes this theory, most Wiccan groups insist on its authenticity and hold it as a basis for their religious viewpoint.4
Although Wicca devotees often sound polytheistic, believing in many gods, they are generally pantheistic or panentheistic. That is, they equate creation with deity. (Panentheism is the belief that creation is a part of God although not all of God.) The great Mother Goddess, as well as her male consort, are usually symbols of the "one" reality. Often, many different goddesses (ancient and new), are used as symbols for the Great Mother Goddess. Within this scheme some Wiccans can claim to be both polytheist and pantheist.5 Since the Goddess is the main symbol for reality or deity in the Wicca religion, understanding that symbol is perhaps the best way of understanding Wicca's belief structures. Starhawk, a Wicca devotee, in her book, the Spiral Dance:a Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of The Great Goddess, writes:
The Goddess has infinite aspects and thousands of names--She is the reality behind many metaphors. She is reality, the manifest deity, omnipresent in all of life, in each of us. The Goddess is not separate from the world--she is the world, and all things in it: moon, earth, star, stone, seed, flowing river, wind, wave, leaf and branch, bud and blossom, fang and claw, woman and man.6
Diane Stein, a priestess in a women's spirituality group, in her book, The Women's Spirituality Book, writes of the Goddess, "Since the goddess is everyone within and all around us, the powers of divinity and creation are both individual and shared by all."7 Carol Christ, author of Diving Deep and Surfacing and Rebirth of the Goddess, evaluated the symbolism of the Goddess from other women's perspectives. She placed them in three categories and saw them all as related to women's experience. She writes:
(1) the Goddess is divine female, a personification who can be invoked in prayer and ritual; (2) the goddess is symbol of the life, death, and rebirth energy in nature and culture, in personal and communal life; and (3) the Goddess is symbol of the affirmation of the legitimacy and beauty of female power . . . .8
Wiccan and other Neo-Pagan groups, in contrast to the world view of Eastern Pantheism, attempt to give meaning to the material world. The Goddess acts and the acts are all the cycles and actions of nature, including the acts of humanity. Within this Neo-Pagan attempt to give meaning to creation, a defining motif emerges and under girds the rituals of Wicca; that is, viewing creation as divine. Creation is the reality and focus of worship for many Wicca devotees. Honor and devotion are given to creation in the same way that Christians give worship to Jesus Christ. In the bookThe Coming of The Cosmic Christ, author Matthew Fox writes:
The universe is, after all, the proper setting for and the source of all energy for rendering ritual, cults, and sacraments effective. . . . In this fuller context of a mysticism grounded in the ultimate mystery of the universe itself, liturgy receives its primary power, its primary source for its symbols and its work of healing and empowerment.9
Fox also suggests that the Church's understanding of Jesus as dying and resurrected lamb be replaced with "Mother Earth" as dying and resurrected.10 Indeed, others have proposed the same transfer in an attempt to wed Paganism to Christianity. The point is, however, that Neo-Pagans, including Wiccans, understand creation itself to be the reality they worship. This is, in fact, a closed system. Without a God separate from creation the magical aspects of Witchcraft are simply connected to the material world. Nature worship becomes naturalism. Magic for the Pagan is neither heaven nor hell breaking into our world.
All wicca worship is connected to this understanding of creation as divine. The Wicca worshiper borrows deities and rituals from ancient practice and combines them with their own cultural understanding. They also, as individuals and individual covens, create their own new rituals. For instance, their creation centered worship involves tantra which is an Eastern concept. For the Eastern Pantheist tantra is a way of using the material universe to eliminate the material universe which is considered unreal. The goal of the Eastern Pantheist is to go beyond dualities of creation, losing the distinction of self, becoming like a drop of water in the ocean. However, for the Wiccan, tantra is a means of bringing harmony to the individual self and experiencing the force of the universe. Wicca adherents use tantra as a tool in an attempt to enhance and affirm creation.
The tools of tantra are used in combination with the senses. Words (Mantra), visual implements (Yantras such as a mandala), and ritual sexual union (Maithuna), are the basic tools of tantra. There are tantrics who practice symbolic sexual union and those who practice actual sexual union. There are many other tools and rituals of Wicca. For instance, most Wicca ritual involves a circle considered a sacred space. Other tools include chants, songs and a cauldren ( a cooking pot used for ritual ).11 Much of the ritual action in the coven is used as a way of experiencing union with the Goddess, empowerment, a means of focusing power on individual or group needs and desires, and as a way of healing.
Likewise, morality for the Wiccan is based in creation and the individual. This view, for some, is based on seeing nature as divine, personal and good. Carol Christ argues that "nature is itself intelligent and loving," and that we should look for "principles of morality within nature." She suggests that such principles or "touchstones" "are relative to the situations in which we live." She further states, "New touchstones can be added as they are discovered. Those that have outlived their usefulness can be discarded."12
On the other hand, Vivianne Crowley, author of Wicca: The Old Religion in The New Age, writes that "Paganism tends to see darkness and light as being in harmony and necessary counterparts to one another."13 Likewise, remember Starhawks's comment about what defines the Goddess: not only is the bud and blossom Goddess, but also the fang and claw. Unlike the righteous Creator, creation possesses both good and evil. Contrary to Wicca's expectations, creation offers no mercy and no restraint against evil. In fact, in a recent edition of Gnosis, Carol leMasters suggests that more emphasis on the "darker aspects of the Goddess" would help to extend acceptance to "promiscuity or anonymous encounters or kinky sex."14
This version of a creation-centered morality bleeds into the Wiccan view of death and the afterlife. If the Goddess is seen as creation, then death must have an inherent and eternal usefulness which can be perceived as good. In contrast to the biblical view of death as that which carries the deadly sting, the Wiccan adherent sees death as necessary for life on earth to continue. In The Pagan Book of Living And Dying some statements about the need for death are: "The existence of death allows for infinitely more variety and diversity among living things" and "Because we die, leaving room for new beings to be born, species can adapt to new conditions. . . . Death preserves life."15
The Wiccan view of existence after death is a rather pallid view in contrast to the eternal longings of humanity. As one Wiccan writer puts it, "death is not an extinction, a final end. It is transformation, dissolution of one form so that new forms can be created." It is, however, according to the writer, "The loss of that consciousness which makes us who we are."16 One view is that humanity's soul is made up of three parts and only that part called "deep-Self" exists after death. In a very Eastern way of understanding this "Deep-Self" is seen as "the personal God or Goddess" or as a "Guardian Angel."17 Many Wiccans connect these concepts and believe in reincarnation. They embrace the wheel of life, and unlike the East, envision no going beyond the eternal cycles of life after death since they see the wheel as "the living being of the Goddess."18
All of the important facets of faith: meaning, redemption, adoration and morality, fail when connected to creation. Creation offers no mercy and no restraint against evil. No redemption is possible. One may not complain of the loss of personal identity in death. Goddess worship rends asunder the Wiccan desire for community, nurture, celebration and even affirmation of the individual. If Wiccans worship gods and goddesses as real deities they sink to the level of worshiping demons ( 1 Cor. 10:20 ). If they view their deities as symbols of the "one" reality, they continue walking in a lonely, closed world. They are broken people accepting evil and death as good.
Human need, failure and death demand a solution. We have a right to grieve about, fight against, and hope for an end to evil and death ( Rom. 8:18-25 ). We rightly long for true community, for love and mercy. We long for God. Jesus Christ is the God-man who appeared in history ( Jn.1:1, 14 ). Only His death preserves life. His bodily resurrection gives real meaning and hope to humanity. The person redeemed by Christ experiences true joy and celebrates because their faith is grounded in historical events brought about by a loving God who, although separate from creation, is deeply concerned with creation (Heb. 12:22-24; 13:15-16 ). The love of an infinite, Holy God who loves and redeems finite and sinful humanity gives the individual great value. Those who belong to Christ are not "invisible" but known intimately by the very personal creator of the universe ( Jn. 14:23 ).
Picture by Brad Larson
1. Barbara Sciacca, "Honoring Our bodies, Honoring Our lives," Woman Of Power, 19 Winter 1991, 63.
2.It should be noted at this point that both sociologically and theologically many radical Feminists in the mainline churches share similar world views as those involved in witchcraft. For instance, see Aida Besancon Spencer et. al., The Goddess Revival, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995); Viola Larson, "Contemporary Feminist Ethics And Theology: Sharon D. Welch, Rosemary Radford Ruether, and Mary Daly" in " An Exploration: Feminist Ethics And The Principles of Orthodox Christianity" ( MA Thesis, California State University, Sacramento, 1994, 40-66.
3.Denise Lardner Carmody, Women & World Religions, second ed. 9 New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1989 ), 18.
4.Vicki Noble, "Marija Gimbutas: Reclaiming the Great Goddess," Snake Power, vol. 1 (October 31 ), 1989. For interesting arguments and references refuting Gimbutas' theories see Richard Smoley, "The Old Religion," Gnois: A Journel of the Western Inner Traditions, no. 48 ( summer, 1998 ) 12.
5.Judy Harrow, "Explaining Wicca," Gnosis: A Journal of the Western Inner Traditions, no.48 ( Summer, 1998), 22.
6. Starhawk, The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of The Ancient Religion of The Great Goddess, tenth anniversary ed. 9 San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989 ), 22.
7. Diane Stein, The Women's Spirituality Book, ( St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 1987 ), 2.
8.Carol P. Christ, "Why Women Need the Goddess: Phenomenological, Psychological, and Political Reflections," Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion, Carol P, Christ and Judith Plaskow, eds. ( San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988 ), 278.
9. Matthew Fox, The Coming of The Cosmic Christ, ( New York: Harper and Row, 1988 ), 40.
11.Starhawk et al., The Pagan Book of Living and Dying: Prayers, Blessings, and meditations on Crossing Over, (San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers, 1997 ), 339-45.
12.Carol P. Christ, "The Serpentine Path: Theology for a New Way of Being," Sage Woman: Celebrating the Goddess in Every Woman, 42 (Summer, 1998 ), 58.
13.Vivianne Crowley, Wicca: The Old Religion in the New Age, ( Wellingborough, Northhamptonshire, UK: Aquarian Press, 1989 ), 21.
14. Carol LeMasters, " The Goddess Movement : Past and Present," Gnosis, 48.
15. Starhawk, The Pagan Book Of Living And Dying, 68, 71.
18. Ibid., 73.
This article was taken with permission from TruthQuest Journal ( Autumn, 1998 ) Vol. 2, Issue 3.