Subversion and Hegemony in Wiccan Historical, Cultural Origins

Subversion and Hegemony in Wiccan Historical, Cultural Origins
© Photograph by Izabela Nowakowska

The most significant tradition within Paganism is Wicca. Most scholars attribute Wicca to Gerald Gardner, a British civil servant who claimed to have been initiated into a coven of witches practising an ancient form of witchcraft.

Scholars who have examined these claims agree that Gardner invented the story to make Wicca seem more legitimate. Instead, scholars concur that Gardner assembled the system of beliefs and rituals that came to form Wicca from many different of sources including fin de siècle ceremonial magic and the Romantic poets.

By tradition, Wicca is duotheistic, meaning that Wiccans see divinity as manifested in a god and a goddess. Wiccans work together in autonomous groups, so-­called covens, which traditionally consists of thirteen people.

The main branches in Britain are Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wicca. Gardnerian, and Alexandrian covens worship the Goddess and her consort, the Horned God. They emphasise polarity between male and female as well as other opposites such as light and dark and life and death, etcetera.

The belief that energy is raised when a man and woman work together is expressed in the fact that a High Priestess and/or a High Priest lead the covens, covens divide into male‐female couples for ritual work, and initiations pass from male to female or vice versa.

Wiccans also celebrate eight seasonal festivals, referred to as sabbats. Gardnerian and Alexandrian covens have three initiatory grades, the grade indicating a person’s skill and experience.

Originally, the terms Paganism and Wicca were used almost interchangeably in England. All Pagan Federation presidents were Wiccan until very recently and the organization’s magazine, now called Pagan Dawn, was known as The Wiccan up until 1994.

Today, Paganism is autonomous from Wicca. Wicca traditionally refers to an initiatory mystery tradition, but the term is increasingly used to describe very different phenomena. Today, many self-­style themselves Wiccans without actually being initiated witches.

Pearson argues that Wicca took on a different form when it reached North America and was integrated with the women’s spirituality movement, resulting in the birth of feminist witchcraft, becoming less hierarchical and more political.

Feminist witchcraft, also referred to as Goddess spirituality, has an ambivalent position in relation to Paganism. Groups are often open to women only, and practitioners of feminist witchcraft generally ignore the male aspect of divinity, wherefore many Wiccans are adverse to its inclusion under the term “Paganism”. Davy and Pearson are of a similar mind, claiming that feminist witchcraft is separate from both Paganism and Wicca for the same reason.

I concur that Goddess spirituality is a separate tradition as I would agree that the acknowledgement of both male and female divinities as an integral part of Paganism. This is a crucial distinction in this, as my claims regarding the hegemonic tendencies of priestess femininity do not apply in the same way to Goddess spirituality, although femininity is clearly central to it.

The subversive potential of gender constructions within Wicca and Goddess spirituality, respectively, will be addressed in the final chapter.

Hutton traces the ideological origins of Wicca to the Romantic poets. As a response to urbanisation, industrialisation and general disillusionment, the Romantics began to idealise ancient Greek culture and religion, and projected onto it everything they felt was lacking in modern society: sensibility, enchantment and closeness to nature.

Ancient paganism was depicted as the embodiment of ancient wisdom and free spirituality, ideals that later came to permeate the self‐image of modern Paganism and Wicca. Ancient deities such as Diana and Pan were seen as symbols of a society where people lived in harmony with the land.

The Romantic Movement also shaped the Wiccan view of the deities. The Wiccan ideal of the Great Goddess of nature and the moon, comprising all other goddesses is a distinctly modern construction. In ancient times, goddesses represented such diverse concepts as justice, love, wisdom and war, and most were connected to civilisation rather than nature. However, ancient Greeks viewed the earth as feminine and the sky as masculine, and it is this dichotomy that has come to shape Wiccan images of the divine.

The Romantic Movement’s idealisation of nature, intuition and irrationality — qualities that have traditionally been associated with women — led to an increased interest in nature goddesses. As a result, many of the civilisation-­related goddesses were pushed into the background, creating the view of the Great Goddess connected to earth, fertility and the moon and shaping gender constructions in early Wicca.

As I will argue later, the notions that femininity is associated with have diversified considerably over time, now including many concepts unrelated to either of these early Goddess characteristics.

Wicca is also a product of the occult revival of the fin de siècle. Both Hutton and Pearson stress the influence of occult societies on Wicca, arguing that much of Wiccan ritual structure and symbolism can be traced to the influential English ceremonial magician Aleister Crowley.

A potent example of Crowley’s influence on Wicca can be found in the ‘Wiccan Rede’, the most important moral guideline in Wicca: “An it harm none, do what ye will.” This statement is derived from Crowley’s ‘Law of Thelema’, which reads: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”

Pearson states that the growing interest in Western Esoteric currents at the beginning of the twentieth-century laid the groundwork for the popularisation of Paganism and Wicca. She partly attributes this trend to the first wave of feminism inspiring women to search for alternative gender roles, also in their spiritual practice.

During this time, many women were attracted to spiritualism and mixed Masonic orders such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, where they could be leaders alongside men.

History of religions’ scholar Henrik Bogdan also claims that these traditions were appealing to women who wanted to liberate themselves from repressive gender roles emphasised by the monotheistic religions.

Despite having women in leading positions, I am doubtful that the occult societies offered quite so radical gender roles as is implied by these authors, and will briefly return to the issue of gender in fin de siècle occultism later on. However, the desire for gender-equal spirituality seems to have been an important motivation for women to join these traditions in the early and mid-­twentieth-century, and still is for many women today.

This link between Wicca and a search for female empowerment could partly explain why later influences from American feminism and women’s spirituality were so readily accepted into British Wicca, subsequently influencing the construction of the priestess.

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