Clifton, Chas S. Her Hidden Children The Rise of Wicca and Paganism in America. Lanham:
AltaMira Press, 2006.
Many of us come to Paganism with an interest in ancient history. We wonder who and how our ancestors worshiped and we attempt to follow in their footsteps. I can speak for myself when I say that when I began studying Wicca in high school I was not interested in Paganism’s modern history until I reached a point in my spiritual journey where I started to wonder why certain things were done. Her Hidden Children the Rise of Wicca and Paganism in America by Chas S. Clifton attempts to explain the evolution of modern Paganism in ways that are both respectful and honest.
The important thing to remember when studying Paganism is that it is a spiritual path made up of many different religious outlooks. Not everyone can agree on what Paganism is as a whole and so the movement must be looked at as an organism made up of many smaller cells. Clifton successfully compares modern Paganism to an island teeming with diversity. Just as everything is connected and dependent on one another in an ecological biosphere, so too are the modern Pagan movements connected. Each Pagan path shares certain commonalities, whether it is a group of founders, cultural inspiration, similar ritual patterns, or the similarity of existing outside of the major five world religions. Clifton’s goal is to examine Pagan literature as he believes that a study of the writing is the only way we have to map the evolution and growth of the movement. It is in this way that he is able to piece together the history of modern American Paganism.
Clifton’s main focus is Wicca. It cannot be denied that Wicca has played a significant role in popularizing Paganism in general. Like many forms of Paganism, its history starts outside of America – in Europe – with a man named Gerald Gardner who, by publishing Witchcraft Today, allowed for society to start thinking about Paganism (14). Since then, numerous authors have written on “the craft” including Raymond Buckland, Doreen Valiente, and Cunningham. Clifton argues that literature has been paramount to the spread of Wiccan thought and practice (13). Since so many Wiccans are solitary practitioners, they rely on the written word to teach and learn more often than not. Clifton’s discussion on Wicca’s history is worth reading due to Wicca’s influence on Paganism as a whole. The elders of the movement, dead and living, possess such interesting characters that one cannot help but admire them for their eccentricity. Just as interesting is the transformation that Wicca has undertaken from a coven-centered religion to a diverse buffet of traditions with many eclectic solitaries. The availability of literature has played a significant role in this growth and change, but the increasingly sexy portrayal of witches in the media, as discussed in the chapter “The Playboy and the Witch: Wicca and Popular Culture”, has helped as well.
One of the most interesting chapters in the book takes an in-depth look at Paganism’s relationship with nature. I read this chapter shortly after taking part in a heated forum discussion on just that topic. My experience on the Pagan forum was a revelation – not all Pagans identify with the title “nature religion.” Many felt that their religion did not focus on nature but rather on magic or cultural heritage. Others, like myself, argued that all of those things were part of nature. Clifton explores this situation and suggests that there are three categories of “nature religion.” He calls these “Cosmic Nature,” “Gaian Nature,” and “Erotic” or “Embodied Nature.” Simply put, Cosmic Nature is concerned with magic and energy, Gaian Nature explores the philosophy of the Earth as a deity, and Erotic Nature involves sexual pleasure. It is interesting to explore the different approaches to nature taken by other spiritual paths within Paganism, but the inherent message from Clifton is that concept of Paganism being a Nature Religion is largely an American phenomenon with connections to the growing environmentalist movement (41). However it must be understood that not all Pagan faiths are concerned with nature in the same way that some Wiccans and Druids are.
The book includes a chapter dedicated to other modern Pagan movements, but the discussion is very limited. Clifton summarizes such movements as The Church of Aphrodite, Feraferia, The Church of All Worlds, The Council of Themis, and, finally, modern Druidism. I was surprised that there was not a larger discussion on Reconstructionists (although they received brief mentions scattered throughout the book), Asatru, Modern Shamanism, or Chaos Magic. Some of these movements, especially Asatru, have become incredibly influential in the Neo-Pagan world. Clifton’s discussion on Druidism, while very interesting and helpful in understanding the development and inspiration for Ár nDraíocht Féin, seemed to fall short of other Druidic traditions. The Henge of Keltria is only mentioned, and the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids seems nowhere to be found despite its having American members and an obvious influence on the modern Druidic movement. If Clifton were to release a later edition, my suggestion to him would be to include a chapter on Druidism as well as a chapter on Astaru and Heathenism. His chapter on other Pagan paths should be dedicated to the less understood, less discussed paths such as chaos magic and Christian Witches.
Despite the minor quips I’ve expressed, Her Hidden Children was an immensely enjoyable book with a lot of important information. The writing style was very straightforward and easy to understand. At times, the book was a page turner simply because of Clifton’s narrative style and the interesting facts he presented.
Her Hidden Children has been helpful in understanding the development of Wicca, Druidism, and Paganism as a whole within the United States. It does not change my spirituality in any way, but it does make me a wiser, more informed, more tolerant person. I think that, if Paganism is to remain a strong, growing religion, the diverse paths will have to celebrate their differences while embracing their similarities in order to unite for the common good. This book serves as an excellent starting point for just that.