High Times: October
The persecution of paganism may have resulted
in the murder of millions of women over the course of four centuries.
Branded as "devil worshippers, " the vast majority of these
women were undoubtedly harmless midwives and nurses who relied on natural
herbs and ritual magic to heal their patients. Today, a new generation
seeks to honor the memory of these victims, while rediscovering the ancient
art of witchcraft.
Having survived the 1980s, when the
so-called religious right indirectly ruled the United States through Ronald
Reagan and George Bush, I tend to consider mainstream religion as self-serving
propaganda for the status quo. Im probably not alone, as thousands
of people who attend gatherings of the Rainbow Family each year looking
for spiritual renewal can testify. Although Im a confirmed atheist,
I wanted to learn more about todays paganism, a movement I am told
is on the rise. I began my education by attending a ritual celebrating
the full moon.
It was in the cavelike darkness of the
lower East Side performance space Gargoyle Mechanique that local priestess
Aletheya prepared for the ritual. A cloudy haze prevented the moon from
illuminating the rain slicked streets, but that didnt stop Aletheya
from paying homage to earths orbiting companion. To modern witches,
the full moon is the symbol of Goddess and fertility, the source of life
Blue and orange spotlights illuminated
a large room. A diverse group mingled, drawn by the promise of a happening.
The curious were joined by veterans of many other witchcraft rituals.
Aletheya floated among the group preparing
the tools of the ritual wearing a black dress under a wine red smock adorned
with a silver pentacle, the five-pointed, star-shaped symbol of witchcraft.
Around her waist was a belt made from a brown cloth cord from which hung
a small silver charm cast from the body of a snake. Stuffed between the
belt and her waist was a large white bone. She spread a large square black
cloth on the floor in the center of the circle and placed in the center
of that a large iron pot.
As I later learned, the pot serves as the
cauldron sitting at the cent of the sacred circle. The center of the circle
corresponds to the power to change and transform. within the cauldron
is a fire. it can also be a candle Or smoldering herbs. In this case Aletheya
placed about 20 small white candles in a circle against the inside of
the cauldron. They burned with an eerie light.
ORIGINS OF WITCHCRAFT
Witchcraft is the modern name for the ancient
traditions reaching back at least to pre-Roman times in northern Europe
based on the intimate relations people had with the natural world. A plethora
of Gods and Goddesses were worshipped to insure good planting and harvesting,
and to mark winter and spring and many other important events. The phases
of the moon were linked to female menstrual periods and the worship of
Goddesses honored fertility and sisterhood. The observation of community
festivals followed the cycles of planting and harvesting. These festivals
were the guideposts of life.
But over a thousand years ago, the Middle
Ages brought the consolidation of Christian power in Europe. Women who
had kept the old traditions of herbal healing and magical practices alive
throughout the early Christian era were repressed during the Burning Times
when church officials and secular rulers used these "wise women"
scapegoats. The ruling powers needed to distract peasants from their desperate
lives filled with suffering caused by epidemics of disease, famines and
the demands of nobles who lived in luxury subsidized by taxes on peasant
The result of this scapegoating was the
public execution by burning of millions of women accused of practicing
the heresy of witchcraft in the small towns of central and western Europe.
These witch burnings occurred with the advice and consent of church authorities,
who, during the height of the four centuries long terror against
women, managed to destroy and drive underground thousands of years of
In the mid 1400s, the inquisition began
in Spain with the express purpose of destroying any threats to the same
brutal and reactionary regime that sent Columbus to the western hemisphere.
In 1484, the Hammer of Witches was written in England. The text laid out
the rules for conducting witch-hunts, trials and executions. Every magistrate
had a copy on his bench.
Mirroring the anti-choice fundamentalist
Christians of today, the medieval church condemned any healing power controlled
by women and not the University, including midwifery. The scale of the
devastation is hard, even today, to comprehend. In Toulouse, France 400
witches were burned at the stake in one day and in 1585 two villages in
England were left with only two female inhabitants. Feminist authors Barbara
Ehrenreich and Deidre English in their groundbreaking pamphlet, Witches,
midwives and Nurses estimate that nine million women were murdered as
witches over these four centuries.
THE GODDESS-RENDING AND
The modern word "witch" is generally
believed to come from the Anglo-Saxon word "Wicca, " which means
to bend or shape. Bending or shaping is among the earliest definitions
of the word "magic" as well. Witches were seen as bending and
shaping energy and consciousness beyond ordinary perception. Witchcraft,
like shamanism and most Native American religions, regarded all nature
as sacred and connected. One of the hallmarks of this period of polytheism,
the belief in a plurality of sacred beings, was the worship of the Goddess.
Some of the earliest prehistoric artifacts
are the pear-shaped feminine forms that early humans seemed to hold in
great reverence. With breast drooping over pregnant bellies these statuettes
are found in cave sites throughout the world. They probably represent
the belief in the fertility of nature as sacred. These Goddess figures
remained unnamed for thousands of years, signifying the force of nature
rather than any deity, but on the eve of the rise of patriarchy, the political
rule of men, these anonymous forces had become personified in religions
throughout the world.
By 1700 BC the Goddess was represented
in Egypt by Isis, daughter of the moon. In Babylon, about 1500 BC, the
Goddess was known as "Ishtar" and in ancient Greece Diana was
Goddess of the moon and Aphrodite was worshipped as the Goddess of sexual
love. The Great mother Goddess was worshipped throughout western Asia
under a myriad of names; Astarte, worshipped by the Canaanites, Hebrews
an Phoenicians; Cybele, Goddess of Earth and moon was worshipped in Phrygia;
Anahita, was worshipped in Persia and the Celtic Goddess An was worshipped
in western Europe, as far west as Ireland.
Psychologist Esther Harding writes in her
book Womans Mysteries (Rider) that the moon and the cycles of the
moon are the most ancient evidence of feminine power. In numerous civilizations
the monthly lunar cycle and the period of womens menstruation were
seen to coincide and the moon was forever linked to fertility. Harding
writes that in the earliest human societies women were forbidden to sleep
outside in moonlight because it was believed that moonbeams were the cause
of pregnancy. Often, crops were planted in moonlight to insure their growth.
The cyclic nature of the moon is seen in
the three forms of the Goddess that many pagan traditions recognize as
representing the cycle of life. As the moon waxes, the Goddess is called
"Maiden," who is the virgin and Goddess of birth, nymph, sexual
temptress, lover and seductress; full, the moon represents Mother; as
the full moon wanes, she transforms into the Crone, demander of sacrifice
and dark face of death.
The power of women in society diminished
over the centuries with the rise of great military empires as cities were
built and great surpluses of food began to attract raiders, making the
formation of standing armies to defend the stored grain a necessary part
of life. But in many areas women held onto their ancient roles. Among
Native American nations, women often played a major role in making decisions
for the nation as a whole. In Mexico, matriarchy still prevails in the
largely Indian south outside of the major cities. But for the most part
men systematically crushed women and relegated them to second class status.
Yet, despite hundreds of years of persecution there are still people who
insist that European witchcraft didnt die with the women burned
in medieval town squares.
WITCHES, COVENS AND RITUALS
National Public Radio correspondent Margot
Adler is author of Drawing Down the Moon (Beacon), a study of neo-paganism
in America. Adler says neo-paganism and modern witchcraft are "very
anarchistic religions." She adds that these religions, "are
an attempt by Westerners in the heart of our industrial society to create
nonauthOTitarian and non dogmatic religions."
According to Adler, what sets pagans apart
from liberal traditions in mainstream religions are the rituals they follow.
Adler says, "Ritual is a way of ending alienation from ourselves,
each other and the planet." Drumming, candies, and chanting cause
"the world to disappear for a few moments and allow you to enter
the dreamlike, artistic world. "
Margot Adler uses her own discovery of
witchcraft as a parable. Her grandfather was Alfred Adler, the psychologist
whom she says invented the inferiority complex, "and saddled all
his relatives with it from then on." And despite what Adler describes
as her Adlerian psychologist fathers view that any belief in religion
is "schizophrenic," Adler says her father accepts that witchcraft
has ties to feminism, making it more palatable than mainstream religion.
She says, with a wry smile, "I guess that from witch to witch doctor
is not that far afield."
In the 196os Adler went to school at Berkeley
and became involved in the free speech and civil rights movements. After
the first Earth Day in 1971, she says, "I became obsessed with the
environmental crisis." After reading an essay arguing that the notion
in the Biblical book of Genesis that man should "subdue the earth
and multiply and have dominion over it" gave license for exploitation,
Adler says she began a search for something new. She adds that the "older,
ancient animistic and polytheistic religions had a very different notion
of the sacred, where everything was vital and alive."
Adler gets serious when she talks about
what makes paganism special. "We are living in a period of time that
we think is forever," she says despite that belief this time, "is
actually the last 2,000 years. Most of the religions of this period are
religions of books. But most of the religions during humanitys bulk
of time on the planet were based not on what people believed, but on what
people do. "
The anarchistic nature of witchcraft is
represented in the coven, the basic unit of witchcraft that exists as
what Adler calls a "witchs support group." There is no
system of hierarchy or authority in witchcraft and there is nothing like
a Dalai Lama, Pope or large Christian congregation. A coven is less than
13 people who know each other well and each individual member is an important
part of the whole, contributing to the overall personality of the group.
Although witches who seek initiation into
a cover arent usually joiners Adler says, "Even the most committed
individualists find a sense of community in such a small number."
A prospective witch is initiated into a coven only after a long period
of training and trust building. The ritual of initiation is itself is
designed as a rite of passage into a new level of personal growth.
Starhawk is a Wicca priestess in the San
Francisco Bay Area and an author of numerous books on witchcraft, including
Truth or Dare (Harper Collins) and The Spiral Dance (Harper & Row).
Starhawk says she feels witchcraft means to be "someone who identifies
with the old religion of the Goddess, which is focused on the idea that
the earth is a living being, and the universe is alive and were
all connected." Starhawk says, "for me that means being very
much involved in doing things to try to heal the mess weve made
of the earth. "
Starhawks political view of witchcraft
places the world in a Struggle between what she calls "power from
within and power over." Power over, she explains, is power that comes
from people with weapons and
Paganism and Wicca are not anti-Christianity.
Theyre prior to Christianity.
the ability to force their will on others;
power from within is personal power akin to our "ability to change
and become what we are meant to become." Power with, what Starhawk
calls "a social power," is the informal influence that certain
people wield in social groups. In Truth or Dare, Starhawk describes the
scene in a jail where antinuclear protesters were held after a civil disobedience
action at Livermore Weapons Lab near San Francisco. In jail the power
of domination by the authorities met the solidarity of the demonstrators.
Unity is a power, writes Starhawk, that lies outside comprehension, a
power rooted in magic.
During the Persian Gulf War Starhawk says
her group wanted to give people a chance to be heard above the din of
They planned a demonstration to tap into
what witches believe is the magical Power to bend and shape reality. Starting
with a circle in a San Francisco park the group marched onto Haight Street,
stopping traffic and proceeding to a street corner. Using colored sand,
they intended to counter "Desert Shield" with a peace shield.
Drawing an outline of a triangle, the symbol of the Goddess, they invited
people to come into the center and speak their minds. One woman who entered
the circle to speak announced that after careful study she had come to
the certain conclusion that "the government sucks." After people
spoke, mostly opposing the war, they stood in a circle and then performed
the spiral dance.
PERSECUTION OF WITCHCRAFT
In the town of Salem, MA, a monument for
the 20 women and men killed during the infamous witch trials of 1692 is
under construction. It consists of a small park with benches. A quote
from one of the victims of the trials is on each bench. "I am not
a witch. I am not guilty of such a sin," reads one. Recently a memorial
for the 20 who died was held by a group called The Witches of Salem and
a symposium was held on religious tolerance in America organized by the
Earth Spirit Community and the Coven of the Goddess, an organization of
witches in Massachusetts
The significance of the Salem witch trials
is little understood. The hysteria that led to the trials began in an
isolated Puritan settlement when several young girls began to suffer what
they reported as terrifying hallucinations. Among the explanations for
the Strange behavior of the young girls, which caused people to believe
they were possessed by demons, is recent evidence pointing to bread contaminated
by ergot, a fungus which contains LSD-like chemicals and causes a reaction
called "convulsive ergotism" common in 17th century European
Deirdre Pulgram Arthen is public information
person for the Covenant of the Goddess in Boston. She says that the Salem
witch trials rather than involving real witchcraft were "much more
political and Christian-based hysteria" because she says, "the
witchcraft they were talking about was not what we call witchcraft. It
was more like what people call Satanism. " Arthen says those tried
and hung in Salem were not witches; they were victims."
Margot Adlers view is similar to
Arthens. Adler says that in Salem most of the victims considered
themselves good Christians. They were often widows who had some property
and werent liked by the community. " She adds that the charge
of witchcraft had a political component because it "was used as a
way of getting rid of almost any nonconforming type of person."
Modern critics like the Evangelist Pat
Robertson, who slammed witchcraft at the Republican convention last year,
"Confuse witchcraft with Satanism, a Christian heresy," says
Alder. "She adds that Satanism has nothing to do with a pre-Christian
belief like witchcraft. "Anybody who would do a satanic ritual, like
a Black Mass or saying the Lords Prayer backward, would have to
first believe in Christianity. Paganism and Wicca are not anti-Christianity.
Theyre prior to Christianity. All these satanic symbols just dont
relate to us. "
INNER CHALLENGE, TIME OF
Back in New York at the Gargoyle, Aletheya
had all the ritual participants stand outside what she called the "sacred
circle," symbolized by a ring of burning candies. Holding up a mirror
to the eyes of each participant Aletheya asked each the same question,
"What is your inner challenge in this time of change?" As the
question was answered an assistant sprinkled salt water representing earth
and water to cleanse people as they entered the circle as a helper wafted
the purifying smoke of burning sage. Sage comes from Native American traditions
and is a sign of the openness of modern witchcraft to incorporating practices
from various spiritual sources, especially those practices that honor
After entering the sacred space the group
stood together in a circle around the cauldron. Then it was time for grounding.
She instructed the participants to stand Comfortably and relaxed with
spines erect, breathing deeply and rhythmically. Aletheya told the group,
some who can barely stifle a giggle, "to imagine your spine is like
the trunk of a tree with roots sinking deep into the center of the earth
herself." With each breath she continued to speak, "Draw power
from the earth, energy rising up the spine like sap flowing through a
tree trunk. Its as if the energy of the earth was exploding through
the top of your heads, bursting as branches up and then gracefully back
down to its source, the earth, creating a circuit of flowing power."
The group breathed together, each breath
drawing air deep into the belly, or as Starhawk says, into the womb. By
breathing like one living organism, with eyes closed and hands clasped
loosely together, the disparate members of the group were supposed to
find oneness. Then came the power chant, as breath became sound, a moan,
a sigh, giggling, howling or melodious humming. After a while the group
grew silent and sunk to the ground to "earth the power. "
Returning to their feet the group was ready
for the next stage of the ritual. Aletheya, raising her athame, her consecrated
knife, unsheathed, and chanted: