A Time for Truth

Wiccans struggle with information that revisions their history.

BY: Margot Adler


While most people are familiar with the struggle between literal and metaphoric versions of Christianity and Judaism, generally they are unaware that there have long been similar struggles within Wicca.

Some Wiccan traditions go back to 19th-century writings or to descriptions of original covens that may or may not go back to the 1930s. Other groups emerged from modern feminist spirituality; still others came out of the visions of specific teachers. Reclaiming, for example, the tradition that Starhawk hails from, was influenced by the Fairy Tradition as taught by the poet and Wiccan priest Victor Anderson.

All these traditions have different viewpoints, deities, and rituals, and within each, there are often struggles between those who take the traditions as they are and those who seek changes. This is certainly the case today as Wiccan scholarship undergoes a sea change. New facts are shaping a new reality, one that some of us--particularly those who are of a more literal mind--are actively resisting.

"Nothing prevents us from embracing our syncretistic origins while still preserving the unique worldview of modern Wicca, except for our own self-consciousness."

During the past 10 years, there has been what Ronald Hutton, in his recent book "The Triumph of the Moon," calls a "tidal wave of accumulating research" that has essentially swept away many of the assumptions upon which the "Old Religion," Wicca, was based. Two of the most basic that have been revised are the notion of an unbroken tradition and the belief that our religion had a history of persecution that rivaled or even exceeded the Jewish Holocaust.

Let's look at the witch burnings. Last spring, Beliefnet featured a portion of Jenny Gibbons' groundbreaking article on "The Great European Witch Hunt." To summarize this article in a sentence: We now know that most persecutions of witches occurred during a 100-year period, between 1550 and 1650, and the total number hanged or burned probably did not exceed 40,000. For years, many Wiccans understood that the figure of 9 million, so casually bandied about by many of us, was hyperbole, yet this number continued to find its way into countless books, films, and news articles. I confess that only last year, I told a reporter that the figure was close to 1 million.

Recently, a German historian, Wolfgang Behringer, discovered the source of the 9 million figure. It was first used by a German historian in the late 18th century. He took the number of people killed in a witch hunt in his own German state and multiplied it by the number of years various penal statutes existed, and then reconfigured the number to correspond to the population of Europe. "Nine million" still gets repeated every time "The Burning Times," a searingly powerful film, is screened or shown on public television. The film's heartrending and appalling descriptions of some of the trials, tortures, and deaths that did occur is not nullified by this new and more accurate research. But it serves no end to perpetuate the miscalculation; it's time to put away the exaggerated numbers forever.

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