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).
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.
In 1999 Ronald Hutton, a well-known historian of pagan British religion who teaches at the University of Bristol, published "The Triumph of the Moon." Hutton had conducted detailed research into the known pagan practices of prehistory, had read Gardner's unpublished manuscripts, and had interviewed many of Gardner's surviving contemporaries. Hutton, like Davis, could find no conclusive evidence of the coven from which Gardner said he had learned the Craft, and argued that the "ancient" religion Gardner claimed to have discovered was a mélange of material from relatively modern sources.
Gardner seems to have drawn on the work of two people: Charles Godfrey Leland, a nineteenth-century amateur American folklorist who professed to have found a surviving cult of the goddess Diana in Tuscany, and Margaret Alice Murray, a British Egyptologist who herself drew on Leland's ideas and, beginning in the 1920s, created a detailed framework of ritual and belief. From his own experience Gardner included such Masonic staples as blindfolding, initiation, secrecy, and "degrees" of priesthood. He incorporated various Tarot-like paraphernalia, including wands, chalices, and the five-pointed star, which, enclosed in a circle, is the Wiccan equivalent of the cross.
Hutton effectively demolished the notion, held by Wiccans and others, that fundamentally pagan ancient customs existed beneath medieval Christian practices. His research reveals that outside of a handful of traditions, such as decorating with greenery at Yuletide and celebrating May Day with flowers, no pagan practices--much less the veneration of pagan gods--have survived from antiquity. Hutton found that nearly all the rural seasonal pastimes that folklorists once viewed as "timeless" fertility rituals, including the Maypole dance, actually date from the Middle Ages or even the eighteenth century. There is now widespread consensus among historians that Catholicism thoroughly permeated the mental world of medieval Europe, introducing a robust popular culture of saints' shrines, devotions, and even charms and spells. The idea that medieval revels were pagan in origin is a legacy of the Protestant Reformation.
Hutton has also pointed out a lack of evidence that either the ancient Celts or any other pagan culture celebrated all the "eight feasts of the Wheel" that are central to Wiccan liturgy. "The equinoxes seem to have no native pagan festivals behind them and became significant only to occultists in the nineteenth century," Hutton told me. "There is still no proven pagan feast that stood as ancestor to Easter"--a festival that modern pagans celebrate as Ostara, the vernal equinox.
Historians have overturned another basic Wiccan assumption: that the group has a history of persecution exceeding even that of the Jews. The figure Starhawk cited--nine million executed over four centuries--derives from a late-eighteenth-century German historian; it was picked up and disseminated a hundred years later by a British feminist named Matilda Gage and quickly became Wiccan gospel (Gardner himself coined the phrase "the Burning Times").
If Internet chat rooms are any indication, some Wiccans cling tenaciously to the idea of themselves as institutional victims on a large scale. Generally speaking, though, Wiccans appear to be accommodating themselves to much of the emerging evidence concerning their antecedents: for example, they are coming to view their ancient provenance as inspiring legend rather than hard-and-fast history. By the end of the 1990s, with the appearance of Davis's book and then of Hutton's, many Wiccans had begun referring to their story as a myth of origin, not a history of survival. "We don't do what Witches did a hundred years ago, or five hundred years ago, or five thousand years ago," Starhawk told me. "We're not an unbroken tradition like the Native Americans." In fact, many Wiccans now describe those who take certain elements of the movement's narrative literally as "Wiccan fundamentalists."
"Diotima Mantineia," age forty-eight, is the associate editor of the Web site The Witches' Voice (she would not divulge her real name, partly because she lives in a southern town that she believes is unfriendly to neopagans). She summed up her feelings on the debunking of the official Wiccan narrative this way: "It doesn't matter to me how old Wicca is, because when I connect with Deity as Lady and Lord, I know that I am connecting with something much larger and vaster than I can fully comprehend. The Creator of this universe has been manifesting to us for all time, in the forms of gods and goddesses that we can relate to. This personal connection with Deity is what is meaningful. For me, Wicca works to facilitate that connection, and that is what really matters."