Although it may seem the right season for witches, the revival of serious witchcraft in the religion of Wicca is a much misunderstood and maligned phenomenon. One of the persistant myths that many religions continue to perpetuate is that they go back to the very beginning. If any religion might rightly make that claim, it would be something close to Wicca, or nature religion. The fact is, however, all religions have histories and beginnings, and radical reshaping is not at all unusual along the way. In the western hemisphere, many like to claim a privileged position for Christianity. Certianly in the political world, such a claim is justified. Christianity shaped Europe, and therefore, by extention, all previous colonies of the European powers. The Christianity that shaped Europe, however, was the political powerhouse of Roman Catholicism, and later, reformed versions of the faith. The Catholicism of the Middle Ages, as may be discerned at a mere glance, shares little in common with the ideals given in the mouth of Jesus by the Gospels.
I just finished reading the provocative Routledge title, Wicca and the Christian Heritage: Ritual, Sex and Magic, by Joanne Pearson (2007). I learned a considerable bit about the modern origins of what is recognized as a tax-free (the sign of any true religion) belief system of Wicca. As Pearson points out, this Wicca dates back to the 1950s. What really caught my attention, however, was the tortured religious history of the movement’s founders. Enamored of Anglo-Catholicism (a form of ceremonial I had been force-fed for over a decade at Nashotah House), the founders of the religion (both intentional and unintentional) craved the seal of antiquity. Many of the players invented denomination after denomination of Christianity, sometimes acquiring ordinations and consecrations by hapless Eastern Orthodox bishops who misunderstood where they were spewing their blessings, in the attempt to show it was real Christianity. You need a roadmap to keep all the blind alleys straight. In the end, Wicca derived from an unorthodox combination of orthodoxy, Masonry, and Spiritualism. It is a wonder that modern Wicca appears as sane as it does.
Pearson’s book is not a full-fledged history, but more of a background to such a history. Many Nashotah House affilates, I’m sure, would rage to see time-honored names from Anglo-Catholic history alongside those often considered charlatans and posers. But when it comes to religion, even the most orthodox are very creative. Perhaps each gesture, vestment and accessory has a pedigree. None of them go back to a dirt-poor peasant who told his followers to give all material goods away. We may be willing to accept many things in the name of religion, but let’s not go overboard here. Not even the literalists do that.