Modern Witchcraft in America
Wicca is a recognized religion based on Witchcraft traditions, whereas Witchcraft, although utilizing many similar beliefs and rituals is not thought of as a religion. Researchers have found that those who participate in Wicca are mostly women who are from the educated middles class and they live in cities. There are over 500,000 practicing Wicca in the United States today.
Although Wicca was imported from the United Kingdom to the United States during the 1960’s, 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.
Why Women Are Drawn to Wicca
Those disillusioned with traditional modes of worship have embraced Wicca, one type of neo-Pagan religion. Researchers studying several covens of the northeastern United States have concluded. Since its creation in the 1960s and 70s, this new religious movement is now entering its second generation. The aging of a new religious community and the ways in which it will be passed to a future generation as Wiccans grow into old age.
Wicca is an earth-centered, pagan faith that worships the fertility goddess and the homed god (male). Membership figures are difficult to estimate but a conservative figure counts at least 200,000 adepts; about 90% of these are white and between 65% and 75% of all members are women. Witches (practicing Wiccans) celebrate holidays such as solstices, equinoxes and harvest, according to the agricultural calendar. In addition, personal rituals such as baptism, coming of age ceremonies, cronings and handfastings are also celebrated. Witches' prayers take the form of magic, which is a learned occult tradition.
Similar to New Thought, Witches believe "all events are interconnected and do not result solely from chance. The mind or individual will, when properly directed is posited to affect the workings of the world". In addition to magical practices, Witches also share a common worldview. Neo-Pagans and Witches in the United States have continued the renewal of the worship of the goddess is part of a process of re-creating a community of caring, in which nature and all people are treated with dignity. They have also returned to folk medicine, using herbs and magic and celebrate the seasons.
Neo-paganism, as a way of legitimizing itself is very interested in establishing historical connections to the past. Although Witches claim their beliefs date to pre-Christian times most recognize this as a myth used to cement a sense of community. In fact, neo-paganism is most correctly linked to 19th century magical groups, in particular, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, founded by Freemasons. Witches also establish their historical presence as well as a sense of community through references to "the burning times" or the Witch trials, considered the Wiccan holocaust.
The goddess is the principal object of veneration, although men may also be involved with the religion. It is a non-patriachically constructed belief system that may be attracted to both men and women.
For men goddess veneration affords a chance to explore their female "energy." Witches tend to believe that each gender harbors essential characteristics of the other and that both must be explored. They are developing their feminine side and separating themselves from the traditional patriarchal aspects of beliefs. Wicca is a religion that does possess expert systems of magic and spirituality and therefore overarching systems of truth.
How Wiccans View Their Belief System
Wiccans frequently describe their practice as a modern-day revival or re-creation of Western polytheistic nature religions whose roots extend into the indigenous shamanic and religious practices of pre-Christian Europe. Wicca is not a "religion of the book," but rather one that draws from a variety of oral and written materials and especially from ritual practices.
In general, Witches worship both Gods and Goddesses, with the emphasis on the plural, although there are groups that primarily worship the Goddess. The Craft may be practiced by single individuals or in small groups called covens, which have enormous autonomy and vary widely in composition, size, and structure. While there are nationally recognized spokespersons, no central group of Wiccan leaders or elders is responsible for establishing dogma or standardizing ritual practices.
Witch groups generally believe in reincarnation which is also one of the central teachings of the Wicca religion, reflecting an awareness of cycles of change and transformation in the human life as well as in the natural world. In fact, Witches draw many of their theological insights from the ongoing cycles of nature, which are typically celebrated in an annual solar calendar of eight sabbats, or seasonal holidays, as well as in a monthly lunar cycle that marks the phases of the moon. These solar and lunar cycles form the basis for ritual practices that celebrate and enact the change and transformation of both person and natural world.
Witch Ritual and the Circle
Rituals performed by Witches are centered around themes of change and transformation, such as the transformation one season to another, the transitions that take place in nature and the ritual process of transforming a lay person into a Witch. When healing is invoked during a ritual it is done as a transformation from illness to health. Rituals are held at night and usually outside in an open, rural area or forested area.
Witches gather in the kitchen to prepare for the ritual. They decide who will play the various roles and prepare the ritual tools such as flowers for the altar and the incense.
The individual who is the center of the ritual must spend the day in silent meditation. As sunset nears the person puts on robes and is taken to a forested or pond area away from where the ritual will be performed so that she cannot see the Circle until the ritual begins. Holding a candle, she must sit and meditate on the belief system she is embracing.
At the Circle area, which is set back in a far field and surrounded by a grove of thick-standing trees for privacy, the Witches set up the altar in the north with appropriate ritual equipment, a vase of flowers, and the wine and the cakes. They plot the four directions, north, east, south, and west using a compass and marked by blessed candles.
All the Witches gather in the Circle which may have a fire pit at its center. They silently meditate to ground themselves before the ritual begins. This helps them change into their magic persona, complete with special names. The cicle casting begins with the following:
Construct the Circle
Cut the Circle (Fire)
Invoke Earth and Water
Invoke the Watchtowers
State the purpose of the rite
Invoke the Gods
Conduct work of specific ritual
Share cakes and wine
Complete any other ritual work
Deconstruct the Circle
Bid the Gods farewell
Bid the Watchtowers farewell
Break the Circle
Casting the Circle involves the Witch to cut the space out of the ordinary, everyday world. Using the athame or ritual sword, she marks the boundaries of the Circle with the sword, which represents fire which separates everyday life with the sacred space. Incense is wafted into the air along the circumference of the Circle. The Witches invoke water and Earth with the water containing salt to symbolize earth, which has been blessed.
The four directions of the Guardian of Watchtowers are invoked through gestures and prayer. They are the guardians of the south, which is associated with fire, north which is the element earth, east is the element of air and west is associated with the element of air. They are called upon to witness the ritual and to guard the Circle participants from harm.
Next, the rite’s purpose is stated which completes the Circle. The Gods are invoked and the new Witch must symbolically face the challenge of death.
A warning is voiced that insists that two passwords must be used to enter. They are “perfect love” and “perfect trust.” The sword swipes a symbolic slash to signify her death.
The new Witch is blindfolded and led counterclockwise around the outside of the Circle. She is purified by each element of the Guardians of Watch Towers as she is asked where she is going, where she comes from and what her intentions are and she is threatened with destruction if she is found unworthy.
Because the new Witch is not swallowed up by the earth, she is purified by each element. This allows her to hear the third password, “reborn,” which allows her to enter the Circle. She has passed initiation and selects a new name. She is led clockwise to each of the Guardians of the Watchtowers and is confirmed to be a priestess and Witch. She is given a gift by each member of the Circle and the Circle is deconstructed, as the Gods are thanked. Celebration ensues in the kitchen with wine, bread, cheese, vegetables and fruit.