Excerpted with permission from The Atlantic Online.

Wicca, sometimes known as the Goddess movement, Goddess spirituality, or the Craft, appears to be the fastest-growing religion in America. Thirty years ago only a handful of Wiccans existed. One scholar has estimated that there are now more than 200,000 adherents of Wicca and related "neopagan" faiths in the United States, the country where neopaganism, like many formal religions, is most flourishing. Wiccans--who may also call themselves Witches (the capital W is meant to distance them from the word's negative connotations, because Wiccans neither worship Satan nor practice the sort of malicious magic traditionally associated with witches) or just plain pagans (often with a capital P)--tend to be white, middle-class, highly educated, and politically involved in liberal and environmental causes. About a third of them are men. Wiccan services have been held on at least fifteen U.S. military bases and ships.

Many come to Wicca after reading "The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess" (1979), a best-selling introduction to Wiccan teachings and rituals written by Starhawk (née Miriam Simos), a Witch (the term she prefers) from California. Starhawk offers a vivid summary of the history of the faith, explaining that witchcraft is "perhaps the oldest religion extant in the West" and that it began "more than thirty-five thousand years ago," during the last Ice Age. The religion's earliest adherents worshipped two deities, one of each sex: "the Mother Goddess, the birthgiver, who brings into existence all life," and the "Horned God," a male hunter who died and was resurrected each year. Male shamans "dressed in skins and horns in identification with the God and the herds," but priestesses "presided naked, embodying the fertility of the Goddess." All over prehistoric Europe people made images of the Goddess, sometimes showing her giving birth to the "Divine Child--her consort, son, and seed." They knew her as a "triple Goddess"--practitioners today usually refer to her as maiden, mother, crone--but fundamentally they saw her as one deity. Each year these prehistoric worshippers celebrated the seasonal cycles, which led to the "eight feasts of the Wheel": the solstices, the equinoxes, and four festivals--Imbolc (February 2, now coinciding with the Christian feast of Candlemas), Beltane (May Day), Lammas or Lughnasad (in early August), and Samhain (our Halloween).
This nature-attuned, woman-respecting, peaceful, and egalitarian culture prevailed in what is now Western Europe for thousands of years, Starhawk wrote, until Indo-European invaders swept across the region, introducing warrior gods, weapons designed for killing human beings, and patriarchal civilization. Then came Christianity, which eventually insinuated itself among Europe's ruling elite. Still, the "Old Religion" lived, often in the guise of Christian practices.

Starting in the fourteenth century, Starhawk argued, religious and secular authorities began a 400-year campaign to eradicate the Old Religion by exterminating suspected adherents, whom they accused of being in league with the devil. Most of the persecuted were women, generally those outside the social norm--not only the elderly and mentally ill but also midwives, herbal healers, and natural leaders, those women whose independent ways were seen as a threat. During "the Burning Times," Starhawk wrote, some nine million were executed. The Old Religion went more deeply underground, its traditions passed down secretly in families and among trusted friends, until it resurfaced in the twentieth century. Like their ancient forebears, Wiccans revere the Goddess, practice shamanistic magic of a harmless variety, and celebrate the eight feasts, or sabbats, sometimes in the nude.

Subject to slight variations, this story is the basis of many hugely popular Goddess handbooks. It also informs the writings of numerous secular feminists--Gloria Steinem, Marilyn French, Barbara Ehrenreich, Deirdre English--to whom the ascendancy of "the patriarchy" or the systematic terrorization of strong, independent women by means of witchcraft trials are historical givens. Moreover, elements of the story suffuse a broad swath of the intellectual and literary fabric of the past hundred years, from James Frazer's "The Golden Bough" and Robert Graves's "The White Goddess" to the novels of D.H. Lawrence, from the writings of William Butler Yeats and T.S. Eliot to Jungian psychology and the widely viewed 1988 public-television series "The Power of Myth."

In all probability, not a single element of the Wiccan story is true. The evidence is overwhelming that Wicca is a distinctly new religion, a 1950s concoction influenced by such things as Masonic ritual and a late-nineteenth-century fascination with the esoteric and the occult, and that various assumptions informing the Wiccan view of history are deeply flawed. Furthermore, scholars generally agree that there is no indication, either archaeological or in the written record, that any ancient people ever worshipped a single, archetypal goddess--a conclusion that strikes at the heart of Wiccan belief.