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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.

 

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Jones, Prudence, and Nigel Pennick.  A History of Pagan Europe.  New York: Barnes & Noble,

1995.

 

A side of history that has remained silent for many years is finally revealed in Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick’s work A History of Pagan Europe.  Through exploring the tomes of history, lore, and archaeology, the authors have put together an impeccable overview of the various ancient people of Europe.  In doing so, they exhibit not only how Europe became Europe, but how modern Paganism came to be.  A History of Pagan Europe is an excellent source for Pagan students.  What I found most fascinating were the similarities shared by the various cultures discussed.

Many people of European descent know very little about their ancestors.  The authors begin their work by stating that most people “are more familiar with native traditions from outside Europe than with their own spiritual heritage” (1).  This is sad, particularly so because many European descendants vehemently distance themselves from Paganism even though it has always been there and continues to exist, as Jones and Pennick argue, within our modern society, intertwined in some of our most seemingly secular institutions (1) such as democracy the celebration of Christmas.  The authors set out to debunk the misconceptions about Paganism held by society and show that we really aren’t so different from our ancestors.

The authors attempt to define what Paganism actually is.  I’ve found that it’s difficult to do so in this modern age because so many people, in particular Pagans themselves, refuse to be defined.  I feel that Jones and Pennick come to a satisfying conclusion.  If Paganism is ever to become unified (even though, again, some modern Pagans would argue against this notion), we have to unite under a name and group definition.  The authors first describe how people have defined Pagans in the past.  From country bumpkins to “non-combatants” (as opposed to the “soldiers of Christ”), the word “Pagan” has had a more or less pejorative meaning for the past few hundred years (1).  Jones and Pennick then look at the modern, spiritual definition and conclude that Pagan religions, past and present, share some common traits: polytheism (or some form of worshiping more than one deity), the view of nature as a theophany, and the recognition of Goddesses as well as Gods.  While some Pagans will argue with this, I feel that it covers many of our past and present traditions.  In my opinion, the authors do Paganism at large a service by providing a positive and academic definition.

We then delve into the history of the Greeks and the Eastern Mediterranean, the Romans and the Western Mediterranean, the Celts, the Germanic people, the Baltic people, and the Slavic people.  I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between these different cultures.  For instance, sacred trees kept revealing themselves in each culture.  The authors explain that in Greece “[m]any sanctuaries in later Greek culture centered on a sacred tree…”(6).  Later they explain that “[n]o temple was dedicated unless there was a holy tree associated with it” (20).  The Celts were said to worship in groves of trees (81) and some Germanic tribes also met in such places (116).  The Baltic people had celebrations revolving around ritualized trees that Pennick and Jones argue represented the “axis of the Earth’s rotation” (174).  In Lithuania, there were also sacred groves that were not to be cut  (176).  Everyone seems to have had a sense of the importance of the forest.  I was surprised, however, that the authors did not discuss the world tree of Norse tradition.

Nature was repeatedly venerated in some way from culture to culture. Sacred springs or wells played central roles to many of the old religions.  Slavic Pagans had rituals in which ceremonial dancers “undertook a nine-day ceremony [in which they] visited nine boundary-points, filled a ceremonial vessel with water from nine springs, and prayed to their patron goddess Irondeasa” (190).  The Celtic tribes felt that springs were sacred places as well.  There were springs at Bath associated with the Goddess Sul and “[s]sometimes these springs were thought to cure eye diseases, bringing the light of the Sun to the eye of the sufferer” (88).  In Ireland, “well-worship continues in a modern form, sometimes as a local folk-observance but more often by adoption into Christianity in the form of ‘well-dressing’” in which the well is decorated by the community and then blessed by a local priest (83-84).  The Greeks also recognized sacred springs (10).  The various cultures covered also had strong beliefs associated with fire and/or solar powers, nature spirits, agricultural festivals, and honoring the Earth.  It was interesting to see that, although the cultures venerated nature, they also exploited it. Unlike our modern world, however, our ancestors were very aware of the balance and the need to give back to nature and the Gods.

The dead and the Otherworld were also a common theme.  In Rome, “the remains of the dead were elaborately honored and they were housed in elaborate necropolises…” (26).  Obviously, there existed a concern with the afterlife. We know from Celtic lore that there were times of the year when the dead and other beings of the Otherworld could commune with the world of the living (90).  We know of some Germanic funeral traditions, some from direct observation.  While we may not know the meaning behind the traditions, it is, again, obvious that the dead were being taken care of and that they seem to have been sent into the Otherworld fully prepared for renewed life (138).  In addition, Pennick and Jones point out that the Germans were a bit different from other European Pagans in that they actually felt that their tribal ancestors were Gods (116).  In my opinion, this adds a whole new layer of sacredness to ancestor worship.

There were so many common themes that it would take pages and pages to discuss them all.  Reading about the various similarities helped to reinforce the customs of Ár nDraíocht Féin.   The creation of our altars and what goes on them makes more sense when viewed as a continuation of our ancestral religious traditions.  The tree represents the sacred tree that reveals itself again and again throughout the pages of the book.  The well represents the many sacred springs.  The cauldron represents the sacred fire.  We give offerings to the nature spirits because, like our ancestors, we believe that we need to give back to nature in thanks for what it gives us.  We honor our ancestors like our forefathers and mothers did.  We set up temples and worship in or around sacred trees.  Having read A History of Pagan Europe, I’m filled with a more academic understanding for all that we do in our tradition and it fills me with pride. It almost seems that through practicing as my ancestors did I am honoring them.

Reading the book hasn’t really changed how I practice my religion.  I’ve been recognizing the importance of the sacred tree, well, and fire for awhile now, and have been observing the other customs of ADF because they felt right. Reading about the historical background of everything only reinforces my spiritual practices and gives me a better understanding for other cultures that I may otherwise have never read about.  As someone who has clergy aspirations, it is useful to know that many of our practices are universal throughout Europe.  If I was required to do a Norse ritual, for instance, I wouldn’t feel too out of place after doing the appropriate amount of research on the pantheon.

The book ends by discussing how Paganism has been reestablishing itself, first through the Renaissance, and finally through the various modern movements.  The authors briefly touch on Druidry and Ásatrú, however I felt that they were more favorable of Wicca.  While Ásatrú has more of an honorable mention, Druidry is made to look like a fantasy-based fraternity (211).  Some of the first modern Druids do have Masonic roots, but the authors have failed to take note of other viable Celtic-inspired traditions that do more research and rely less on romantic fancy.  Perhaps it’s because the book was written before Ár nDraíocht Féin and Celtic Reconstructionism were as known as they are now. Meanwhile, Wicca is praised as the “kind of Paganism [that] looks ahead, offering a new philosophy, more strongly than it looks to its roots in the past” (220).  While I’ll never condemn Wicca, I do think that the authors have ignored the fact that many groups, including Ásatrú groups, take on the Reconstructionist principal that religions should be updated for our modern world while holding onto those traditions that are still applicable.  Meanwhile, many branches of Wicca have become just as fantasy-driven as the old Druidic orders.  I believe that having an understanding of history is very important, especially where religion is concerned.

A History of Pagan Europe should be read by every Pagan and history student alike.  Modern Pagans should have a firm understanding of where their traditions have evolved from.  Even Pagans who do not have European ancestry should give the book a try, especially if they live in a Euro-centric country like America or Canada. It can give a lot of perspective on our culture, especially where holidays and our calendar are concerned. Meanwhile, history students should appreciate the other side of the story and see the many examples of how Paganism was not necessarily stamped out, but rather absorbed into our modern world.

 

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Gus diZerega, Pagan blogger on Beliefnet, posted a list* of what his readers believe to be the worst cinematic (or television) portrayals of Pagans – specifically the much maligned witch.  It was an interesting read.  “Hocus Pocus” was one of the top worst offenders.  Although I completely agree with the argument, it’s still a favorite movie of mine.  I love the singing and the over-the-top witches.  It’s just a fun story.

I’m ashamed to say that I have yet to see the original (or the remake) of “The Wicker Man.”  I’m saving that for Muin Mound.  Apparently it’s a tradition to watch it after initiation into the grove!  I’ve also yet to see “The Craft.”  My hubby owns it, so one of these days…  I never really got into “Buffy”, mostly because I didn’t have cable.  Someone commented about the character Willow and how she was “dismissive of Wiccans as: ‘Bunch of wanna blessed be’s. Nowadays every girl with a henna tattoo and a spice rack thinks she’s a sister to the dark ones.'”  Yes it’s a fictitious story, and real magic as we know it is not so spectacular on the movie screen, but it’s annoying all the same.  And really, ‘the dark ones’?  Give me a break!  I tend to write off anyone who uses that sort of ignorant, goth-tinted language.    I’ve never seen “Charmed,” however I must say I’m always extremely annoyed when someone sees my triquetra tattoo or necklace and thinks I’m a fan, as if the symbol came from the show!  




At the same time, one has to have a sense of humor.  Like I said, “Hocus Pocus” remains a favorite of mine, in part because it is so over the top and makes no references to Wiccans or people who actually practice Paganism.  There’s also a wicked little part of me that thinks, if I was going to be some sort of supernatural bad girl, I’d want to be like that. **  And how many Christians find various church-bashing Monty Python skits hilarious?  Most can’t help but crack a grin because there is a grain of truth there.  Perhaps it’s the same with negative Pagan portrayals.  The characters represent what some in our community have deluded themselves into thinking is real or possible because they have no concept of reality in this plane/dimension/world/existence.  Some Pagans are, for lack of a better term, bat shit crazy.  Some really do see the world through purely dark or purely sparkly white lenses.


So what do you think are some of the best portrayals of Paganism in modern entertainment?  For my readers who are not Pagan, what are the best and worst portrayals of your religion?

*For my lj friends: http://blog.beliefnet.com/apagansblog/2010/03/the-worst-movie-depicting-witches-and-other-pagans.html

** For the record, I don’t really want to be that way.  I’m just saying.  It would be cool to (temporarily) change people into cats though.

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