In the October, 1993 issue of High Times, writer Paul DeRienzo, a committed atheist, went in search of his pagan roots and discovered an unexpected affinity for Goddess culture.
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. I’m probably not alone, as thousands of people who attend gatherings of the Rainbow Family each year looking for spiritual renewal can testify. Although I’m a confirmed atheist, I wanted to learn more about today’s 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 didn’t stop Aletheya from paying homage to earth’s orbiting companion. To modern witches, the full moon is the symbol of Goddess and fertility, the source of life on earth.
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 center 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” as 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 farmers.
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 traditions.
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 ground breaking pamphlet, Witches, Midwives and Nurses estimate that nine million women were murdered as witches over these four centuries.
The Goddess—Bending And Shaping
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 B.C. the Goddess was represented in Egypt by Isis, daughter of the moon. In Babylon, about 1500 B.C., 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 and Phoenicians; Cybele, Goddess of Earth and moon was worshipped in Phrygia; Anahita, was worshipped in Persia and the Celtic Goddess Anu was worshipped in western Europe, as far west as Ireland.
Psychologist Esther Harding writes in her book Woman’s 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 women’s 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 moon beams 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 didn’t 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 nonauthoritarian and nondogmatic religions.”
According to Adler, what sets pagans apart from liberal traditions in mainstream religions is the rituals they follow. Adler says, “Ritual is a way of ending alienation from ourselves, each other and the planet.” Drumming, candles, 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 father’s 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 1960s 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 humanity’s 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 “witch’s 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 coven aren’t 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 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 we’re all connected.” Starhawk says that “for me that means being very much involved in doing things to try to heal the mess we’ve made of the earth.”
Starhawk’s 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 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 pro-war propaganda. 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 Continues
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 societies.
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 Adler’s view is similar to Arthen’s. Adler says that in Salem “most of the victims considered themselves good Christians. They were often widows who had some property and weren’t 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 Lord’s Prayer backward, would have to first believe in Christianity. Paganism and Wicca are not anti-Christianity. They’re prior to Christianity. All these satanic symbols just don’t relate to us.”
Inner Challenge, Time Of Change
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 candles. 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 nature.
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. It’s 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:
Cauldron of changes,
Feather of the bone,
Ark of eternity
Hole in the stone;
We are the old people.
We are the new people.
We are the same people.
Wiser than before.
A flock of birds in migration.
A nation of women with wings.
Air moves us.
Fire transforms us.
Water shapes us.
Earth heals us.
And the balance of the wheel
Goes ’round and ’round.
And the balance of the wheel
After chanting to the four directions Aletheya weaved a length of hemp twine among the participants as candles burned together in the cast iron cauldron at the center of the circle. The twine became a web symbolizing connections with each other and the earth.
It’s late winter in New York City. Starhawk is conducting a ritual at a seminar sponsored by New York’s Learning Alliance. She tells the 50 participants that she will lead them on a trancelike journey to the inner world of memories. Standing in a circle, pagans from as far as 100 miles away have descended on a large room on the campus of Columbia University. The purpose of the Spiral Dance says Starhawk is to “raise power” and is used in groups of at least 35 people and as many as 400 participants.
The ritual begins as Starhawk drops the hand of the person to her left and then facing the left begins moving towards the center in a clockwise spiral. Continuing around and around the spiral tightens as the group comes closer together as the energy within the group builds to a high intensity. As the spiral closes the pagans sing:
We are the circle,
Never ending circle.
The air flies to the fire.
The fire burns to the water.
The water flows into the earth.
It’s the blood of the ancients
That runs through our veins.
The forms last
But the circle of life remains.
In ancient times, Starhawk explains, “The Spiral Dance was seen in the sky, in the moon who monthly dies and is reborn in the sun, whose waxing light brings summer’s warmth and whose waning brings the chill of winter. Records of the moon’s passing were scratched on bone, and the Goddess was shown holding the bison horn, which is also the crescent moon.”
This ritual ends my journey through the world of pagans and witches. I’ve learned about human history’s deep connection with the earth. I’ve been shocked to discover the horrors of the Burning Times when the Christian church blessed the murder of millions of innocent women. And I’ve seen the commitment to nature and peace by powerful women like Margot Adler and Starhawk. I find that although I’m not a believer I still can fit neatly into the world of paganism and witchcraft, because these traditions put their emphasis on practice rather than tired dogmas. While I’m not about to run out and acquire an Athame or Pentacle, I do have a plaque on my wall with an image of a Goddess, and I’ve come to feel that any religion upholding the contribution of women can’t be all bad.