Reviewing Wicca’s Charm: The Inevitable Salem Stop

During this past Halloween season, I ran across an article by a woman named Catherine Edwards Sanders. In this article, she wrote a few comments on the growing interest in “Wicca” (she uses the term in a broader context than I do) and Paganism, as well as explaining how this growing interest represents a failure on the part of “the Church” as a whole. As part of her by-line on the article, she mentions that she also wrote a book on the same subject, whose title is Wicca’s Charm: Understanding the Spiritual Hunger Behind the Rise of Modern Witchcraft and Pagan Spirituality. Being the curious sort, I decided to order a copy. It came today, and so far I have torn through the preface and first chapter.

So far, I think the book deserves a fair amount of praise. This is not to say that I agree with everything the author says, mind you. Indeed, I think there are some points that need to be criticized. But so far, I think that the woman deserves a great deal of credit for setting her personal and religious views aside as much as possible and trying to understand the practices of those she observed and interviewed. As such, I feel it only appropriate to take a close look at her book and investigate both those areas where she made some excellent observations and those areas where her information, presentation of that information, or both are weak or faulty. It is my intention to do this in this blog — both this entry an future ones — as I read through the book.

The first thing I notice in chapter one is that it seems to me that the majority of her “sources” are from the “eclectic Wiccan” camp. (Even the one interviewee in this chapter that identifies as having become a Gardnerian says some thign I’d consider uncharcteristic of most Garderians, and I’ve met more than a few) I’m not sure if this is just the nature of this chapter — after all, it focuses mostly on her encounter with and investigation of the “Pagan” side of Salem around Halloween — or will continue through the book, but it does raise a bit of concern to me. After all, it raises a strong risk of painting all Pagans with the same broad brush. And even among the “Wiccans,” the image she’s portraying will not remain accurate for long.

Sanders actually opens chapter one by describing a “spell performed for spectators” that she witnessed. I must say that I admire Sanders for her even tone in the description of this rite. She neither tries to make it sound more sensationalistic than it is nor tries to deride it as a bunch of “nonsense.” Instead, she gives a matter-of-fact, clearly descriptive account. This account immediately demonstrates her sincerity in wanting to represent the subject of her books fairly and kindly. Truth be told, I felt she gave a much kinder description of the rite than i would have been inclined to offer, myself. After all, I’m inclined to call into question the very idea of doing a spell “so that spectators can watch” (and charging them for the privelege, no less!), whereas Sanders is willing to let such a dubious activity pass without challenge.

She then gives a brief “history” of Wicca, repeating the commonly held — if not entirely accurate in my opinion — view that Gardner and his colleagues cobbled the religion out of a number of sources. While she doesn’t come right out and say that she disbelieves the stories of Gardner’s involvement with New Forest Coven (or NFC’s very existence), she does seem to hint that she’s of that mindset. Of course, given her sources, that’s mostly understandable.

Sanders then offers four basic points that she considers to be common threads in the various practices of “Wicca.” I think that these four points deserve special consideration and examination, as they again demonstrate the kinds of “Wiccans” she was observing and interviewing. As such I shall take each point as she writes them. The first point, she summarizes as follows:

All is one — Wiccans hold the monistic and pantheistic beliefs that all living things are of equal value. Humans have no special place, nor are they made in God’s image. They have, for example, the same value as flowers, trees, or grass. The cosmos is undifferentiated universal engergy, and everything is one vast, interconnected process.

Based on the Wicca I know, I find it difficult to comment on how accurately it reflects their practice. It is neither entirely accurate, nor entirely inaccurate. Furthermore, it is rather difficult to point out to specific points within this statement and say “this is true, but that isn’t.” While it is true that the Wicca tend to believe that many people in our society tend to over-emphasize the value of human beings in comparison to the value of non-human life (or even those things that we don’t generally view as alive), I would not say go so far as to say that they see everything as being “the same” or “undifferentiated.” In fact, I’d argue that it’s quite the opposite. They see the individual and unique beauty of both humans and all other parts of the world around us, and they appreciate each one for its own greatness. In this sense, there is this idea of thigns being “valued differently,” which must be honored in it’s own right. Contrast this with the idea of being “less valued” or “more valued,” and you get a more clear idea.

Point two reads as follows:

You are divine — Wiccans believe they possess divine power within themselves and that they are gods or goddesses.

To be honest, I wonder how much of this point comes from Sanders’ communications with “public witches” like Laurie Cabot and those who follow them. Most of the Wicca I know — as well as most other witches and Pagans — hold no such belief. While it is true that the Wicca believe that each individual is a reflection and representative of the gods and that the gods can be seen within each individual, this is a far cry from actually believing one is a fully fledged god. It seems to me that Sanders has either met some rather unusual witches in her studies or she is misunderstanding what is actually believed by most.

The third point is as follows:

Personal power is unlimited — Wiccans believe that their power is not limited by a deity, as in Christianity.

This is the first point I think the Wicca I know might actually agree with her on. But to be honest, I’m surprised most of the “Wiccans” she spoke with also believe this. In my experience many people still have this idea that magic is still “asking” or “getting” the gods to do something for them, much as Christians see prayers of petition.

The fourth and final point reads as follows:

Consciousness can and should be altered through the pracice of rite and ritual — Wiccans believe in the supernatural realm and the practice of altered consciousness through rite, ritual, and spell-casting in which they tap into the power and energy of the unseens spirit world.

This is fairly accurate, though I might personally eschew the use of the word “supernatural.” Personally, I’m inclined to view the “spirit world” as natural as the “physical world,” just of a nature we can’t quite understand in the same way at this time. Indeed, I think that this constant tendency to separate the “physical” and “spiritual” or “supernatural” into two neat packages that have nothing to do with one another to be an area of concern. And unfortunately, it’s a tendency found in various forms of both Christianity and Paganism.

I think that Sanders next hits upon a goldmine, but then glosses over it too quickly. She mentions that “Wicca” seems to delight in having no orthodoxy (quoting what is probably one of the few actually useful things Aidan Kelly has ever said on the topic of Wicca in his entire life). She points out that rather than focusing on doctrine, direct experience seems to be important. This is something I personally do not believe that can be emphasized enough, as the proper performance of certain rites and the internalization of the resulting experiences is the heart and soul of Wicca. Unfortunately, this heart and soul is too often lacking in eclectic circles. In her own way, Sanders points this out as she goes on to say that “Wicca” is instead defined “in opposition to issues such as environmental degradation, the perceived patriarchy within Christianity, or monotheism in general.” If this is truly how the “Wiccans” Sanders interviewed see Wicca, then I am inclined to suggest that they “missed the boat” in that regards. Unfortunately, Sanders seems to be equally unaware of that state of affairs.

Sanders next tackles the question of Satan. In this area, Sanders deserves more praise. She again states clearly and almost emphatically that “Wiccans” do not believe they worship Satan. Moreover, she presses the issue by stating that she considers it inappropriate for Christians to accuse them of being Satan worshippers. In this, she does draw the fine line that there is a difference between believing that Pagans are “unwittingly” worshipping Satan in disguise (a position she implies that she holds herself) and believing they knowingly and explicitly worship him. It is the latter she is decrying in this part, and she makes a strong case for her views.

One thing that I do note about this part of her discussion is that she brings up that “Wiccans” don’t believe in Satan and the fact that they don’t believe in “absolute evil” in the same paragraph, suggesting the two are somehow linked. I find this curious, as it again suggests a belief on her part that Satan is the absolute source of evil (for more thoughts on this topic, I refer the curious reader back to an earlier entry I posted that touched on that line of thinking.

This chapter review has grown long. I think I will leave my remaining thoughts for another entry on another day. In the meantime, I hope my readers will find this review informative.

One thought on “Reviewing Wicca’s Charm: The Inevitable Salem Stop”

  1. Ya know, I have to confess…I never have fully understood why you don’t go in for the Gardner idea (as far as Wicca’s history goes). But naturally I have to ask myself “why do I go in for it myself” and the answer I come up with is “because in all my studies of world religion over the past 15 years, I just have never, ever, ever seen any mention of anything even remotely resembling it even in the most traditional societies.” In other words, the word just doesn’t come up anywhere in religious history until Gardner. “Witchcraft” does in various contexts, but that begs the question of defining words like “Wicca” and “Witchcraft” of course.

    And I never wanted to ask because I thought it would piss you off.

    But tae hell wi’ it. I’m asking anyway. And I’ll take it one step further. Is it at all possible there’s something in your mind that *wants* it to have existed before Gardner? Or are you thinking that the form we know it now is not the form it may have been?

    But then, how to account for the clearly different magical and religious elements of it, like Celtic holidays mixed with Germanic ones mixed with ceremonial magical techniques, etc?

    I mean, it truly doesn’t make sense to me any more, to think that Wicca existed before Gardner. Seriously; I just can’t wrap my mind around the idea. (I’m not even sure I want to; it goes against that whole academic integrity thing I have.)

    But I can at least better understand the way YOU see it. Because you’re my friend and it’s just right for me to understand how my friend sees things.

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