|Looking Into the Pagan Phenomenon
AMSTERDAM, Netherlands, 26 NOV. 2005
Witchcraft is moving into the mainstream in the Netherlands. A Dutch
court has ruled that the costs of witchcraft lessons can be
tax-deductible, the Associated Press reported Oct. 31.
The previous month, the Leeuwarden District Court confirmed the legal
right to write off the costs of schooling
including in witchcraft
against tax bills. The costs can be substantial, according to one witch
interviewed for the article.
Margarita Rongen runs the "Witches Homestead" in a northern province.
Her workshops cost more than $200 a weekend, or more than $2,600 for a
full course. Rongen claims she has trained more than 160 disciples over
the past four decades.
In England, meanwhile, Portsmouth's Kingston Prison has hired a pagan
priest to give spiritual advice to three inmates serving life sentences,
the Telegraph reported Nov. 1. The prisoners have converted to paganism
and, according to prison rules, are allowed a chaplain in the same way
as those with Christian or other religious faiths. Denying them a pagan
chaplain would infringe their human rights, said John Robinson, the
Earlier, on Oct. 17, the London-based Times newspaper reported that
pagan priests in all prisons will now be allowed to use wine and wands
in ceremonies held in jails. The Times noted that under instructions
sent to prison governors by Michael Spurr, the director of operations of
the Prison Service, inmates practicing paganism will be allowed a
hoodless robe, incense and a piece of religious jewelry among their
The governors were given a complete guide to paganism, based on
information supplied by the Pagan Federation. Prisoners will also be
allowed to practice paganism in their cells, including prayer, chanting
and the reading of religious texts and rituals. It is not known how many
pagan prisoners are in jails in England and Wales, the Times added.
On the rise
The practice of witchcraft is attracting ever-growing numbers,
particularly among young women. A recent attempt to understand its
appeal is the book "Wicca's Charm," published in September by Shaw
Authored by journalist Catherine Edwards Sanders, the book stemmed from
a magazine article she was commissioned to do. Initially dismissive of
Wicca, during her subsequent research Sanders came to appreciate that a
genuine spiritual hunger was leading people into neo-pagan practices.
Sanders, a self-professed Christian, defines Wicca as a "polytheistic
neo-pagan nature religion inspired by various pre-Christian Western
European beliefs, which has as its central deity the Mother Goddess and
which includes the use of herbal magic."
The book, which is limited to examining the situation in the United
States, admits it is difficult to estimate the number of Wicca
adherents. Sanders cites an estimate from one group, the Covenant of the
Goddess, which claims around 800,000 Wiccans and pagans in America. A
sociologist, Helen Berger, in 1999 put the estimate at 150,000 to
Wicca is made up of many diverse elements, yet Sanders identifies some
common beliefs among its followers. They are: All living things are of
equal value and humans have no special place, and are not made in God's
image; Wiccans believe that they possess divine power within themselves
and that they are gods or goddesses; their own personal power is
unlimited by any deity; and consciousness can and should be altered
through the practice of rite and ritual.
What is important to Wiccans, Sanders explains, is the experience of a
spiritual reality, and not truth or a body of knowledge. There is no
orthodoxy, defined text, or core beliefs. And, while it has ancient
roots, Sanders notes it is attractive to modernity since it can be
freely molded to fit the spiritual consumer's desires.
Spell-making is another key element of Wicca. But Sanders notes that of
all the Wiccans she spoke to, none entered it in order to use spells to
harm people. Most choose Wicca because they are dissatisfied with
churches and organized religion and are looking for a spiritual
experience they are unable to find elsewhere.
Another common trait in Wicca is environmentalism. Modern life has lost
its connection to the land, Sanders argues, and Wicca, with its emphasis
on nature, seasonal calendars, and the celebrations linked to the
changing of the seasons, is both a way to recover this connection and
also to spiritualize the relationship with the earth. Many Wiccans also
reject the materialistic (but not spiritual) consumer culture.
Pagan and Wiccan groups, in fact, have been present at some of the
anti-globalization protests in recent years. Sanders describes some the
ceremonies she witnessed in 2002 during the World Economic Forum meeting
in New York. They drew attention to such matters as environmental
damage, animal welfare and preserving the purity of the water supply.
The ecological aspect of Wicca draws inspiration in part from the
so-called Gaia spirituality. Gaia was the earth goddess of the ancient
Greeks and in neo-pagan circles she is now transformed into the idea of
the earth being one living organism, also called Gaia.
Feminism is another important element attracting people to Wicca.
Sanders observes that Wiccan women feel as if Christian churches treat
them like second-class citizens, limited to teaching Sunday school.
Sanders estimates that around two-thirds of neo-pagans in the United
States are female. Many of them practice a form of goddess worship,
commonly in the form of a mother goddess who is a metaphor for the
earth. The Wiccan rituals also emphasize the concept of empowerment, and
the female biological functions are accorded a respected role.
Added to this is the belief that what today's goddess worshippers are
doing is reclaiming the heritage of a primitive world in which a
peaceful matriarchal society dominated. This "matriarchal myth" is short
on any historical evidence, notes Sanders, but is nonetheless an
affirmation that is commonly repeated.
In fact, Sanders devotes a section of the book explaining how the Wiccan
rituals and spells have no roots prior to 1900, and are the result of
inventions and adaptations by a group of men, notably Aleister Crowley
and Gerald Gardner. Far from being a revival of some ancient paganism or
matriarchal society, Wicca is a modern, male invention.
The desire to experience spirituality in a more direct and intense way
is another factor attracting people to Wicca. Some teen-age girls,
Sanders notes, are unsatisfied with the superficial teen culture and are
looking for something to give a deeper meaning to their lives.
But, instead of turning to traditional religion to satisfy this need, an
increasing number experiment with Wicca. Sanders argues that in part
this is the fault of some churches, which have lost sight of the unseen
world and the reality of a relationship with Christ and the indwelling
of the Holy Spirit, reducing their activities to just a social exercise.
Other churches provide little in the way of serious nourishment for
inquiring teen-age minds, particularly females ones. Another factor
leading adolescents to Wicca instead of Christianity is a desire for
rituals and ceremonies. Modern church culture, observes Sanders, has
reduced the importance of religious rituals and solemn celebrations,
leading people to look for alternatives that offer more tangible
In concluding Sanders affirms that her investigations made her more
appreciative of the spiritual hunger leading people to experiment with
Wicca. At the same time she argues that Christianity offers all of what
neo-pagans seek: a message true 2,000 years ago and still valid today.