Friday, January 27, 2006
Wicca and Comparative Religion
Rev. Baudouin Heuninckx, ULC
LL.M. in European Union Law, Northumbria University, Newcastle, UK M.S. in Engineering, Royal Military Academy, Brussels, Belgium M.A. in International Politics, University of Brussels, Belgium B.S. in United States Law, Saratoga University, California, USA
Myth of Creation of a Religion
The religion of witchcraft, or Wicca, was firs revealed by Gerald Gardner in the middle of the twentieth century. In line with the academic work of some noted scholars, he introduced his reader to an age-old nature religion that had been kept alive by witches despite the persecutions of the Catholic Church. The tenets of this religion seemed also to follow and confirm a number of the conclusions reached by anthropology and the literary study of ancient myths.
However, further studies have shown that Wicca was probably a creation of Gardner himself, with the subsequent help and support of others such as Doreen Valiente5. To his credit, it is likely that he actually did intend to recreate and reenact what he and most academics of the time thought to have been the original religion of humanity. Unfortunately, most of the hypotheses on which he based his work have now been proven wrong with at least some degree of certainty, leaving Wicca without an actual basis as a religion in the distant past.
In fact, most recent studies show that we actually know close to nothing about the original religion of humankind.
Wiccan and Comparative Religion – Initial Unveiling This does not, and should not be used to attempt to, undermine the religious value of Wicca and neo-paganism in general. All current religions were brought to the fore at a certain point in time, and the age of a denomination is not a satisfactory measure of its validity – assuming one can even question the validity of religious beliefs.
However, this provides us with an opportunity for an applied study in comparative religion. Gerald Gardner was a learned man who lived in South and South East Asia and had an extensive knowledge of Britain’s history and folklore. He had been exposed to a number of different religious traditions and cultures, and their influence on Wicca through Gardner should be further investigated.
Moreover, Wicca and neo-paganism in general are not organized religions, and their beliefs and practices have evolved and been adapted by a number of people over time8. This allowed even more traditions and philosophical concepts to enter Wiccan theology. Their influence should also be investigated in a comparative setting.
As this essay is submitted to the ULC Seminary to complete the course ‘Comparative Religion’, it will investigate and be limited to a comparative analysis of Wicca for the various aspects discussed in this course. Because of size limitations, it will cover only the aspects of the course dealing with theological principles, and not the more practical ones such as ceremony, sacred space, or religious titles.
It is hoped that further courses will allow expanding this analysis further.
Wicca as a Religion and a Philosophy
Interestingly, some have argued that Wicca did not actually qualify as a religion, and should be considered as a philosophy instead. This misunderstanding is probably due to the prominence given by Wiccans to principles such as the Law of Return and the Wiccan Rede. However, following the definition of religion (‘a strong belief in a supernatural power or powers that control human destiny’), Wicca is clearly a religion. Most Wiccans believe in the immanence of Deity and revere it under various forms, often considered as archetypes for its multiple aspects, such as the polarity between male and female.
In addition, Wicca, like most religions, is also a philosophy (defined as ‘any personal belief about how to live or how to deal with a situation’, or ‘the activity of thinking critically and rationally about life's most important questions’). The nature of Deity, of the world, of the soul, and of life and death are frequently discussed within the Wiccan religion, and the budding philosophical aspect of Wicca is alive indeed.
As stated above, most Wiccans believe in the immanence of Deity in the world, a concept often referred to as pantheism. This concept of immanence of Deity implies a strong holistic view of the world and a belief in the interconnection of all things, requiring Wiccan to attempt to put themselves in tune with nature and show respect the physical world, including their own body. This principle would encourage the performance of healthy activities such as sports and the shunning of additions that could have a negative impact on health.
Some Wiccans – maybe a majority – also believe in the actual existence of transcendent divinity. This combined belief, far from being contradictory with the immanence of the Divine, has sometimes been described as panentheism, the belief that the divine is both transcendent and immanent.
Additionally, many Wiccans consider themselves polytheists, believing either that there are many definite and separate divine beings, or that these are different facets (archetypes) of one or more divine principle.
It has been argued that the original Wicca as described by Gardner, with its emphasis on the Goddess of nature and her consort the God of the wild, was a form of duotheism.
Whatever the point of view of the individual Wiccan, the depth of these discussions sometimes reminds the reader of what is known about similar discussion among the first Christian churches.
Wiccans have generally a monist view of the world. For them, no difference should be made between the spiritual and the material, the sacred and the secular, life and death, dream and reality, and most importantly between good and evil. There is only one reality, but a multitude of choices. This is close to the philosophical principles exposed by Hegel, and also to what is thought of as the philosophical view of the Celtic druids.
The philosophical debate between Wiccans on the nature of the divine is certainly not closed. Discussing these issues in Internet forums reveal that sources as varied as Greek philosophy, Hindu philosophy and the Jewish Cabbala are used (and sometimes, unfortunately, misused) in a remarkable feat of syncretism. It has been argued that Wicca in the U.S. has also been influenced by the pantheist and nature philosophy of Emerson and Thoreau.
It is worth noting that a number of courts in the United States have recognized that Wiccan churches were performing religious activities and that their brand of Wicca was indeed a religion.
Some Wiccans harbor a measure of animosity towards the Christian Churches, some of it due to resentment for their upbringing in what they feel was the yoke of Christianity, and some of it due to anger at the so-called ‘burning times’. However, Wicca is generally a tolerant religion. Since it became more and more accepted in the mainstream religious circles in the United States, Wiccan religious figures have been part of interfaith dialogues and groups.
Any other position would be contradictory to the Wiccan principle of free will: If it is the will of the divine that all people should be free to do what they want as long as none is harmed, then this must include also the freedom to worship differently. This has been referred to as henotheism, a belief in the Divine that does not reject the validity of other such beliefs. Holding theological discussions with Wiccans show their wide interest and acceptance for other religious views, often up to the point of incorporating some of them in their own set of beliefs.
The Golden Rule that is usually followed by each religion is very nicely embedded in the Wiccan Rede: An it harms none, do what thou wilt.
It has sometimes been called simplistic, or hedonistic, but a more thorough analysis shown a much deeper meaning, similar to that of the Gold Rule of many other religions. Some have seen its last part as a license to act on whims, but it actually implies an obligation to will, and this will must be yours. People have therefore the obligation to decide for themselves what they want and to will it actually to happen. Their second obligation is then to act to make their will take shape.
The first part of the Rede qualifies its second part, but has sometimes been mocked by people arguing that it obligates Wiccans to do nothing, as any action would actually harm something or someone. However, ‘none’ also includes us. By doing nothing at all, one would wither, and therefore suffer harm. Some measure of harm will always happen in any case. Therefore, in acting to realize their wishes, Wiccan have the obligation to balance the harms carefully such as to minimize any damage done. This obviously ties-up with the principle of Peace preached by so many religions and highlights the importance of responsibility and choice.
Many religious traditions ask their followers to seek within themselves. As some other religions, the Wiccan belief in the immanence of Deity implies this principle. In religious and magical ceremonies, Wiccans often attempt to draw the divine energy out of them to attain some form of enlightenment. An interesting Wiccan ceremony is called ‘drawing down the moon’, where the celebrant would actually attempt to draw the Divine inside and then out of him- or herself in order to become temporarily an incarnation of the God or Goddess (theophany).
Wiccan Religious Stories
As Wicca does not have sacred scripture, as we will discuss below, Wiccan religious stories are a somewhat fluctuating concept. However, a few of them recur in various traditions. This is especially the case of Descent of the Goddess, which aims to teach Wiccans about the circle of death and rebirth.
There is no flood story in Wicca that the author knows of. Considering that Wicca considers the Divine to be immanent in the world, and that It gave free will to the creation, there would be no reason to create a flood. Moreover, as Wicca is a new religion, its lore cannot really incorporate early reminiscences of an actual flood.
No Wiccan story actually tell of social change that happened in the past. However, most of the Wiccan theology embodies the rebirth of the divine feminine. Therefore, most Wiccan stories are actually about social change. Especially the strands of Wicca based in the U.S. have long advocated feminism as a religious duty.
There are no heroes per se in Wiccan lore. However, it can be argued that the role of the hero is held by the Divine itself. The many creation myths of Wicca present the Goddess in a more human way as for instance Christianity. The so-called Wheel of the Year described the life of the God and the Goddess over the course of the seasons. This supports, the whole concept of immanence of the Divine and of drawing divine essence down in and out of each human actually encourages men and women to emulate God, or at least to become closer to Her/Him.
Esoteric v Exoteric
Wicca, as a non-organized religion, does not have an overt (or covert, as far as the author is aware) ambition to regulate society, despite the fact that Wiccan followers are expected to abide by the Wiccan principles of life, adapted by themselves as required. Wicca was originally presented as a religion limited to initiates, and revealed to the world only to ensure its memory was kept alive. Therefore, the exoteric dimension of Wicca is quite limited.
However, Wicca considers itself a descendent of the ancient mystery religions, where esoteric practices were the key to religious knowledge. Therefore, its esoteric dimension is important, despite the fact that this dimension is dulled by the wide availability of books and testimonies on the subject in this modern world. One characteristic of Wicca being the absence of dogma, there is not much technical esoteric traditions. However, mystical esoteric teachings are an important part of Wicca.
Wiccan esoteric teachings are inspired by the little that is known about ancient mystery religions. Such religions were anchored in the living an actual experience of closer contact with the divine during specific ceremonies that would give enlightenment to the initiate and bring him or her to understand the ‘mysteries’ providing a deeper understanding of the nature of life. These mysteries, even described and explained, cannot be fully grasped without the actual experience of the initiation (subjective wisdom).
The Wiccan Mysteries can be summarize as experiencing the immanence of the Divine within oneself and the universe, the acceptance of death and the understanding of the circle of rebirth, and the interconnection of all things through the divine union of male and female polarity. However, it has often be argued that one can only become truly aware of these mysteries through the initiation process, either within a coven or not.
As in theosophy, some form of direct experience of spiritual illumination is required, but this illumination has to be sought from within, sometimes through a theophany, a divine manifestation in or through the initiate. However, as the Divine is immanent in the creation, theophany can also be seen, and should be sought, in nature. These precepts are in line with some of the principles presented over time by philosophers such as Giordano Bruno, Hegel and von Schelling.
There is therefore a strong esoteric tradition in Wicca, and it could even be argued that Wicca was originally supposed to be an esoteric religion, secret and limited to the initiates. Much of this esoteric tradition came from Gerald Gardner, who was partly drawing on the ceremonial magic of Aleister Crowley, the rites of the Freemasons and, indirectly, the Jewish Cabbala, Hermeticism and alchemy. Therefore, it is correct to say that Wicca was formed around the experiences and teachings of an Esotericist.
Esoteric practices are at the heart of Wicca, even if the wide availability of simplistic books on the subject, and the focus of too many teachers and practitioners on practical magic, sometimes cloud the deeper meaning of what it means to be Wiccan. If mystical Wiccan traditions are not eradicated by oppressio (which is unlikely), they could very well be by publicity.
Wicca uses a number of religious symbols, most of them coming from older traditions such as the Cabbala. Gardner and some other leading Wiccan figures have been strongly influences by the work of Jung, and they therefore were clearly aware of the importance of symbolism.
The circle is an important symbol in Wicca. It embodies the principle of circularity of time, and represents the circle of death and rebirth, which reflects the belief in transmigration of the soul to another human body after death. Most Wiccans believe – contrary to Hinduism or Buddhism – that this cycle of transmigration does not aim to end and is generally infinite. We will come back later to that point.
Used to delineate ritual space or drawn around the pentagram to form a pentacle, the circle also represents the Divine, which embraces and unites creation. As in the Wiccan view, the Divine has a strong feminine aspect, the circle is usually held to represent the Goddess. As in many religions, circumambulation is often used in Wiccan rituals, even more easily because the sacred space is defined by the magic circle.
Although the combination of two triangles to form a six-branch star is sometimes used in Wicca as a symbol of duality, this is relatively rare, probably because of its close association to Judaism. Likewise, the cross is rarely used in Wicca.
A more common symbol is the pentacle, a pentagram inscribed in a circle, that represents the five elements of Aristotle (Air, Earth, Fire, Water and Spirit) united by the Divine. This symbol therefore represents the universe and/or perfection. Because of the shape of the star, some have also held it to represent humanity embraced by the Divine.
Prayer, Invocation and Evocation
Prayer, meditation and contemplation are very often used in Wicca, and are considered by some as a most important duty of Wiccans. Many different prayers and techniques are used, some of them based on those of other religions (principally Eastern ones), and some using techniques developed within the New Age sphere.
The use of invocation and evocation in Wicca has been mentioned before. As Wiccans believe in the immanence of the Divine, drawing it out of oneself (evocation) is seen as a way to bring the best out of people. In addition, as most Wiccans also believe in the transcendence of the Divine, calling on divine power to enter a celebrant or to grant a favor (invocation) is also a usual practice. An interesting combination of both is the ritual of ‘drawing down the moon’ mentioned above. The regular use of practical magic by Wiccans is also a good illustration of these practices.
Suffering and Death
Suffering and death are at the heart of the theodicy paradox: how can we reconcile a benevolent and omnipotent Deity with the suffering that happens every day in the world? Many religions have solved this contradiction by the concept of sin, or human transgression from divine law, complemented with some form of post-mortem judgment and possible salvation. Humans suffer because they breached divine law, but those who lead a just life will be saved after death and reunited with the Divine.
Contrary to most of these religions, Wicca does not condone the concept of sin. As the Divine granted freedom to the creation (as shown in the Wiccan Rede), it would be very difficult to breach any divine laws up to the point of being punished. If one wants to be coherent with the immanent concept of Deity, divine laws would simply be the laws of nature. To quote a famous television show ‘Nothing happens in contradiction to nature, only to what we know of it.’ The concept of sin, or even more, original sin, implies that humans separated from the Divine, which is inconsistent with the concept of an immanent Deity. If one believes in an immanent god, belief in salvation is a contradiction, because each of us is already ‘with god’.
According to Wiccans, retribution for bad actions and reward for good deeds will not come in the other world after some form of judgment. In this case, Wicca differs from most religions, even the ancient ones, such as that of Egypt. Because of the Wiccans’ monist vision of the universe, there is not really ‘another’ world. Reward or retribution will come in this world, either in this life or in a following one. This belief is embodied in the Law of Return, or Threefold Law, which some have mocked because it sounds simplistic.
Additionally, most Wiccans also do not see the concept of evil opposed to good in a dualistic way. For Wiccans, evil does not have as its source a tempter or opponent of the Divine: it is simply one of the consequences of nature47. What we call ‘evil’ is in any case a very relative term. The reason why bad things – as well as good things – happen in this world is that the Divine gave the world the freedom to do these things in order to grow.
Growth obviously does not happen during one lifetime only, and requires further transmigration of the soul to ensure its growth over the long term. This view is close to pre-Christian Celtic religion, which held among other things that surpassing oneself brought men closed to the Divine, and that the only possible fault was to remain passive49. Failure to succeed in one’s endeavor was not a sin. This cycle of transmigration does not need to end, because there will always be something to learn (although this view is not shared by all Wiccans). In this sense, any judgment is a self-imposed decision to come back as a human being in order to grow.
If the benevolent and all-powerful Deity would intervene to stop some evil deeds from being done, it would also prevent some souls from learning a potentially important lesson. As in ancient mystery religions, enlightenment comes through experience.
It is submitted that the different views of the final aim of transmigration/reincarnation between Hinduism, Buddhism and Wicca comes from the fact that the world into which these religions were created was much different. A few millennia ago, life in South Asia must have seemed like a punishment to most people. The only way to make sense of it was to hope that one day it would be possible to reach enlightenment and to be liberated from the cycle of reincarnations. On the contrary, the life of most current inhabitants of Western Europe and North America is generally enjoyable (and in any case, much more so than a similar life in India at the time of the Buddha). Therefore, there would not be a reason for Westerners actually to want the cycle of their rebirth to end.
As stated above, Wicca does not actually have sacred literature. The works of prominent Wiccans such as Gardner or Starhawk are used by many, some of their texts more than others, but one of the main characteristics of Wiccan literature is that beliefs and rituals should be modified to fit the need of the individual and of the group. Doctrine is therefore flexible and evolving, and dogma is generally non-existent.
Wiccans also often uses religious mythology from various ancient cultures when it fits the purpose of their rituals, in addition to recently created mythology. This is in line with the idea that the gods are archetypes of various aspects of the Divine, and allows for a wide syncretism.
The Wiccan tradition is written (through so-called Books of Shadows, which are personal) as well as oral and, in accordance with mystery traditions, supposedly reserved to the initiates. However, we have seen that the publication of many books on the subject has put much of these teachings in the public domain.
There is no belief in the end of the world in Wicca. This seems coherent with the belief that the cycle of transmigration would never end, and also with the lack of belief in the need for salvation. It could be argued that an immanent deity destroying the creation would also be destroying itself, or at least part of itself if it is also transcendent.
As sacred literature is absent from Wicca, and most of the authors of current texts are well known and still alive, exegesis and hermeneutics are close to non-existent in Wicca. However, this could develop in the long-term, as the link with the authors of some books dissolves.
Evolution of Wicca
We have seen above the origins of Wicca. It shows an extreme syncretism, openness to gender and race, and adaptability, and is not an organized religion.
Wicca is not the consequence of a schism, as it did not come out of a break from another religion. Neither is it an heresy, as Wicca does not seek affiliation withy any of the current organized religions. In that sense, if the hypothesis of Margaret Murray that the burning of the witches by the Catholic Church was the repression of an ancient religion had been accurate (and we saw earlier that it was not), the Church would have been as incorrect to qualifying witchcraft as heresy as it was to label the Cathars as heretics. Both would have been wholly different religions from Christianity.
As Wicca is composed of many solitary practitioners and small groups without any charismatic leader overseeing the whole movement (Gardner never actually saw Wicca develop as a worldwide religion), it could not be classified as a sect or cult, either.
The ‘Comparative Religions I’ course has provided a deeper insight into the world’s religions in a comparative setting. Analyzing Wicca in that context shows many similarities with some tenets of other existing religions, as well as with some ancient religions, which highlight its strong syncretism.
On the other hand, Wicca also brought some fundamental innovations, such as the importance of gender polarity, the restoration of the feminine, considering the human body as sacred, drawing the Divine into and from the body, and the absence of sin and salvation. These are inexistent or uncommon in other religions, and some other beliefs of Wiccans, such as the immanence of the Divine and a monist view of the world, are far from what is considered as valid theology by most current religions.
These characteristic make it an original religion and philosophy that is fit for the twenty-first century. Wicca certainly has a place in a comparative analysis of religions and religious movements, and it is probably bound to expand further in the years to come.
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