American Witch: Beliefs and Rituals
Who Are the Witches?
Witches are difficult to study because many keep their religious beliefs and practices secret. Fear of misunderstanding, ridicule, and overt discrimination are common. As a result, most research on Neo-Paganism has been ethnographic and focused on participants in festivals or organized covens.
They are predominantly female, overwhelmingly Caucasian, generally middle-class, and educationally accomplished and there are some differences among them. Some belong to organized groups that meet for ritual celebrations, others "work" magic with a single spiritual partner, and about half of them are solitaries who practice witchcraft alone. They also describe six different "spiritual paths" within the three largest groups, the Wiccans, Pagans and Goddess Worshippers.
Although Wicca was imported from the United Kingdom to the United States during the 1960ís, its main themes have remained constant, they include: feminism, environmentalism, self-development, alternative spirituality, and general mistrust of authority. They have a holistic view of the universe, a focus on the self and a blending of personal and political objectives and concerns.
What Do They Believe and Why?
With the memory of the Salem Witch trials in mind, witches believe the main challenge to their rights to freedom of religion is the periodic false rumors, misperceptions and a lack of knowledge by the lay public as to their religious beliefs. There is no mutilation of infants or children and they do not believe in the Devil or evil behavior, nor do they practice it. Although some have believed that witches believe in Satan, he does not even exist in their belief system. They are feminists with women being of the highest order of things.
Their beliefs are rooted in a positive, life-affirming group of ideas with rituals that reinforce these. Magic is utilized as a tool to protect themselves and others. Natural foods and the love of animals and nature guide their daily lives. They are followers of nature, use herbs medicinally and worship the great Mother Goddess. They value freedom and harmlessness.
Rituals and Circles
During the initiation rite, the transformation of person from student or dedicant to Witch or priest/ess is intimately and dramatically keyed to the creation of the magic Circle and its powers as transformed space. Spatial and personal transformation are thus dynamically interrelated and interdependent. It is therefore particularly appropriate that we examine the contours of Wiccan religious space within the context of initiation, one of the most fundamentally transformative experiences for a practitioner of the Craft.
Witches may cast the magic circle indoors or--more ideally for a "nature religion"--outdoors, in any space large enough to accommodate all attendees and one that affords a certain degree of privacy, transforming that particular and bounded space into "sacred territory. When the ritual is over, Witches "unmake" the Circle.
When a Witch crosses the boundary and steps into the Circle, she leaves behind her worries, anxieties, the everyday cares of life, and the hassles of that day. Turning her attention instead to the work that must be done in the Circle, the Witch transforms herself into her Craft personality, a persona that reflects her sacred identity and is indicated by the usage of her Craft name within the Circle.
In some respects, the process of donning a Craft personality is similar to an actor "getting into character" before a performance. But unlike actors, who often wear roles that are not attractive or desirable to them, the magical personality reflected in the Craft name articulates what the Witch feels to be the most sacred, authentic, and desirable parts of her being. The Witch's personal transformation--from the mundane self to the sacred self and back again--is performed every time the Circle is cast.
A degree of secrecy or confidentiality about the Craft, particular rituals, and ritual participants is expected and even demanded by oath. When the Witch unmakes the sacred space or leaves the Circle, she also leaves behind the details of the rite and keeps confidential the identities of her fellow practitioners. "What happens in the Circle stays in the Circle" is a common saying among those Witches who view their practice as a private and esoteric path. This expectation of confidentiality naturally constrains scholars who, like myself, are also practitioners to the Craft.
When Are Rituals Performed?
Rituals are usually performed within a circle, which includes an altar. It is usually done outdoors during a full moon and follows certain seasons. Many are organized into covens which meet during the full and new moons. The eight solar festivals begin with Halloween or Samhain on October 31st. Yule is celebrated December 21st with Candlemas celebrated February 2nd. Next is the Spring Equinox on March 21st followed by Beltane, April 30th. The Summer Solstice is June 21st and Lammas on August 1st. Finally, the Fall Equinox falls on September 21st.