A Time for Truth

Wiccans struggle with information that revisions their history.

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.

Thousands of women entered Wicca because it provided an honored place for women. For many of them, the religions they were born into did not give them a way to enter the ministry. The archetype of the witch resonated with independent women who related to nature and the world on their own terms, outside of society's patriarchal definitions.

It's not surprising that the metaphor of the 9 million witches killed, which began to be used by feminists in 1968, became a way to express rage at the misogyny of contemporary culture while assuring women that their current struggles against rape, violence, domestic abuse, and inequality were valid. While these struggles are, in fact, valid on their own terms, perhaps it was our own insecurity that created a need for a holocaust to prove the righteousness of our battles.

If scholarship is redrawing the picture of the Burning Times, it is also reconfiguring the origins of Wicca. Scholars have never accepted the myth of an unbroken Wiccan tradition, and now most Wiccans are being asked to look honestly at their history. In a recent essay in the scholarly neopagan journal Pomegranate, Cat Chapin-Bishop and Peter Bishop observe that modern-day witches often disavow their roots, including connections to Masonic ritual, Aleister Crowley, Yeats and Kipling, the Golden Dawn, Theosophy, spiritualism, and much more. These authors write:

"The fanciful origin myths of Wicca told to us by Margaret Murray, the vastly inflated figure of 9 million dead in the burning times--these have long been discredited, and there is general acceptance now that Wicca is primarily a modern reconstruction of what we think might once have been. What hasn't been generally acknowledged yet is the richness of the heritage we do have. We are like the children of immigrants embarrassed by our Mother Tongue. But...nothing prevents us from embracing our syncretistic origins while still preserving the unique worldview of modern Wicca, except for our own self-consciousness."

This new breeze that is blowing through Wicca is not being celebrated by the more literal among us. In some groups, there is open hostility to this revisionist history. While reading on Amazon.com some of the citizen reviews of Ronald Hutton's new book, I noticed that several discounted Hutton's scholarship by arguing that he was clearly an outsider not "privy to the inner mysteries." From the little I know, Hutton has a long history with at least two British Wiccan traditions. But no matter how brilliant, "The Triumph of the Moon" is going to be difficult for any Wiccan who is uncomfortable with the change that's brewing.

My own book, "Drawing Down the Moon," continually stressed that the great strength of Wicca was its pagan, pluralistic, polytheistic viewpoint. I celebrated the notion that Wicca is supple, co-existing with modern notions of science and freedom, and that this flexibility exists because Wicca is not wedded to one truth. But to be honest, there have always been many versions of Wicca, and not all of them have celebrated or felt comfortable with diversity and freedom.

The wind of liberty that is blowing through Wiccan scholarship is stirring up excitement as well as fear. As members of a growing and thriving religion, it's time for us to leave those insecurities behind.

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