Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The Wiccan Witch of the West

I'm afraid that I'm going to have to start doing a series of "I read so you don't have to" posts similar to my "I read so you don't have to" posts, for today I have read the most craptastic thing on Slate, so craptastic that I almost was reduced to awe. Today, Mark Oppenheimer writes about Wiccans. I'm not a Wiccan, but I'm mistaken for one often enough that I feel qualified to discuss the problems with this article at some length. Before we get started, let's make sure we're all on the same page vocabulary-wise. There are witches--the quasi-mythical women who worship the devil and make your cow's milk curdle. There are witches--modern day folks who practice some form of magic. And there are witches--people who follow Wicca, a young religion based on the idea of either one divinity worshipped in both its male and female aspects or two divine beings, one male and one female. So, one might say that while all Wiccans are witches, not all witches are Wiccans. You can have monotheistic witches, polytheistic witches, atheistic witches*, as well as Wiccan witches. Wicca has the same problem that every other religion has, which is that there's a large contingency of idiots. Wiccans even have a word for these idiots--fluff-bunnies or fluffy-bunnies**. And, in fact, many Wiccans are open about the fact that the fluff-bunny stage is kind of a typical way of coming into Wicca. You see one too many episodes of Charmed or you watch The Craft and the next thing you know you have yourself a nice "Never Again the Burning Times" bumpersticker and you're walking around with a huge pentagram sneering at Christians. After a while, hopefully, you grow up some, you read up some, and you come to the happy conclusion that your religion is personally meaningful and so you don't give a shit if it was made up 50 years ago instead of 5,000. Anyone who reads even a little about Wicca is very familiar with this whole controversy. And yet, here comes our idiot friend Oppenheimer reporting like he's blown the lid off of a big secret scandal. That's his first mistake. Here's his second:
Now 50 years old, the earth-centered faith (also known as paganism or witchcraft) has thousands of adherents and many more occasional dabblers in the United States and Europe.
Wicca is not earth-centered. One might say that Wicca is nature-based, as its sacred calendar is based on natural phenomena, like the solstices and equinoxes. But Wiccans worship the Lady and the Lord, not the earth. Wicca is not the default grouping for any non-Christian white folks. Paganism is. Wicca is a smaller group inside the larger umbrella term of paganism. Pagans, as they've reclaimed the word, are mostly white folks who worship gods other than the Christian one. Wiccans worship two specific gods. Witchcraft, as we've covered, is just a magical practice, not necessarily associated with any one pagan religion. Oppenheimer continues to shoot off his mouth:
But Wiccan teachings are for the most part a stew of demonstrably false historical claims. There's no better time to examine this penchant for dissembling than at winter solstice on Dec. 21, which Wiccans say has been their holiday for thousands of years. For it's just such unfounded claims to old age and continuous tradition that may keep Wicca from growing to be truly old.
Within Wicca, there are many subsets of Wiccan belief. While it's true that one can look at Gardner's teachings (the ones available to non-Gardnerians) and show how he fudged some facts, this is no secret. And most Wiccans, once they're past the fluff-bunny stage--don't cling to the veracity of those claims even in the face of historical fact. But Oppenheimer is doing something patently unfair to Wiccans throughout this article. Since he's conflated pagans with Wiccans, he can take a demonstrably truthful claim--like that the solstices have been pagan (in the sense of non-Christian European religious) holidays for thousands of years--and use it to impugn Wiccans. Of course, since Wicca itself is only 50 years old, the solstices have not been Wiccan holidays for thousands of years. But most Wiccans wouldn't claim that in the first place; they'd only claim the truthful statement, that pagans have been celebrating the shortest and the longest days of the year for a long, long time. I think it's telling that when Oppenheimer makes such broad claims that he doesn't actually point to any Wiccans who actually say such things. But let's move on:
Wicca is not a unified movement; it comprises "good" witches who use spells and charms, feminist worshippers of a monotheistic Goddess, and earth-cultists who propound nature worship. But the many strands overlap. They're gynocentric; they're all concerned with nature; they all celebrate eight holidays, or "sabbats," that include the equinoxes and the solstices. Adherents typically say that those eight holidays were celebrated by ancient Wiccans or pagans, primarily Celtics or Romans, whose traditions the contemporary Wiccans are carrying on. These seasonal festivals, they add, have been co-opted by Christians, who turned Samhain into Halloween and Yule into Christmas.
Again with the conflating of Wiccans and pagans and the sloppy use of Wicca to mean all kinds of paganism, which is clearly not the case. It's true that Wiccans do align themselves with what they believe are old Celtic beliefs. I don't know what he's talking about with the Roman holidays. I'm not sure what he means by "earth-cultists" as someone who worships the earth would pretty much, by definition, not be Wiccan. And on the nonsense goes, with Oppenheimer declaring what he believes Wiccans to be and to believe and then tearing them to shreds for being so foolish as to believe the things he's made up about them believing in the first place. Really, Slate is pretending to be an online magazine, which means that Oppenheimer is posing as a journalist. As such, shouldn't he be required to, oh, I don't know, talk to a few actual Wiccans, maybe hang out in their Beliefnet threads for a little bit, do some actual research rather than just creating his strawman so that he can burn it down? *And, depending how one feels about Pow-wow, even Christian witches. **Can I just say how awesome I think it'd be if all religions referred to their idiots as "fluff-bunnies"? Would we have the same problems with people taking radical right Christians seriously if other Christians called them "fluff-bunnies"? I don't think so.


Blogger theogeo said...

I won't try to argue that Oppenheimer knows anything about anything (but I will say he has a bad-ass last name), but I want to throw this out there to see if it's just me or if anyone else has noticed this too:

Slate is kicking Salon's ass lately. Like, all year long. It seems like Salon's original daily content has shrunk to the point where I can get away with checking it once or twice a week and not miss anything.

Slate, however, seems to be churning out fairly interesting stuff at a much more rapid pace. And it's free.

Tell me it's not just me.

12/22/2005 01:39:00 AM  
Blogger Exador said...

As far as the Romans, I read somewhere that their yule was called the celebration of Sol Invictus, the invincible sun, as this is the day when they days start getting longer, leading to spring.

Yeah, those pagan holidays sure are silly. That'd be like worshipping an executed criminal with symbolic cannibalism.

12/22/2005 06:28:00 AM  
Blogger Aunt B said...

Theogeo, You're absolutely right that Slate has been kicking Salon's ass. And can I just say that as much as I like Broadsheet (Broad-something... their woman blog), it annoys me to no end that every other entry is "Feministings is reporting..." "Shakespeare's Sister says..."

Well, fucking-a, we all already read the big feminist blogs the folks from Salon are reading. How about they dig a little deeper and link to some blogs that otherwise wouldn't get the traffic?

I mean, you do some kick-ass feminist cultural analysis. Wouldn't you appreciate a couple hundred curious visitors sent your way from Salon? I'm sure you would. Wouldn't Salon benefit? Yes they would.

And, fuck me, if Salon linked to me... well, you think I lord my tits over Nashville now, I'd be driving up and down West End honking my horn and making sure everyone got to see the awesome new bra.

I'm just saying that some of us (and in fairness, you more than me, because I get distracted with the cooter talk) are doing some consistantly good, thoughtful work out here and it'd be nice to see some of us get the nod from Salon instead of just the same old folks we already know.

Boy Scout, don't be knocking the hanged gods. That's a motif dear to my heart.

12/22/2005 07:18:00 AM  
Blogger RightWingPagan said...

Exador, the festival you mentioned was (according to my limited knowledge) the final feast of a nearly week long winter solstice extravaganza. This was typically celebrated on December 25 and became Christmas when the Roman Empire became Christian.

As a neo-pagan, specifically a Druid, most of what you hear, see, or read about the connection between modern and ancient pagan practices or connections is going to be pure Barbra Striesand. Most existing historical documents about ancient paganism were written by early Christians.

Current neo-pagans have a 'spiritual' connection to our ancient brethren and some of us try to learn as much about their practices as we can. It is all but impossible for modern pagans to claim any true lineage to the pagan cultures that once dominated Europe prior to the rise of the Holy Roman Empire.

12/22/2005 08:17:00 AM  
Blogger Aunt B said...

RightWingPagan, I don't know where you come from or how you got here and I'm sorry to say that for as long as you're here, you'll be exposed to my hippy liberal ways (don't listen to the libertarians; they aren't converting me, despite what they might think), but I'm glad and tickled to see you here and to have your input on the discussion.

And you get at the heart of my biggest problem with Oppenheimer's article, which is that he's making claims about how "Wiccans" work that are demonstrably false if one spent thirty seconds with any smart Wiccan or any smart pagan.

In fairness, I think it's understandable why neo-pagans have wanted to see some kind of hidden, unbroken lineage back to pre-Christian Europe. But just because it's understandable doesn't make it right.

On the other hand, there are those interesting tid-bits that make you wonder if we haven't oversimplified our understanding of what being "Christian" meant in Europe throughout the centuries.

Do you know of Maria Romero? She was tried by the Spanish Inquisition in 1702. They accused her of witchcraft--specifically casting spells and telling the future with cards. And they put up a bunch of witnesses who said they'd gone to her for specifically these reasons. But the best part is that, when she got on the stand, she said that of course she did those things (I don't know if she admitted to being a witch--which clearly would have had Satanic implications in her culture--but she admitted to practicing magic). And her trial was basically derailed. The Inquisition wasn't set up to have someone freely confess; it was set up to "prove" things people were denying. So, she wasn't killed.

Anyway, my point is that, while clearly the Burning Times stuff is utter nonsense, I'm not sure what to do with the knowledge that people who understood what they were doing to be magic were swept up in these witch hunts. It just makes me think that both sides--the "we pagans were so persecuted" and "that was just something Christians did to other Christians"--are oversimplifying things.

12/22/2005 08:45:00 AM  
Blogger RightWingPagan said...

Aunt B, I can deal with your 'hippy liberal ways' if you can deal with me pointing out how you are wrong. :) BTW, I found you when I saw advertised on tv last night (before I headed out to work).

I do agree with the acertation of over-simplification, but will find that just about everything in today's busy society. Most people don't or won't take the time to learn anything more than a few talking points about any subject.

12/22/2005 08:56:00 AM  
Blogger Aunt B said...

Shoot, around here, there's always a line to point out the ways my hippy liberal ideals are wrong. You'll be right at home.

We try to operate under a general feeling of frith, but since most folks don't know what that means, I've reduced it down to "fighting is fine. Personal attacks on each other with be taken by the host as a grave insult against her and dealt with as such."

12/22/2005 09:03:00 AM  
Blogger Exador said...

there's always a line to point out the ways my hippy liberal ideals are wrong.

It's just that it's so easy.

Having a connection to the past is a trait of many religions. Judaism is best example I can think of, but there's also ancestor-worship in the asian traditions.


You are correct about history being written by the victors. That's why you never hear about all the Pagans that were fed to the lions once christianity became the official religion of Rome.

12/22/2005 09:39:00 AM  
Blogger theogeo said...

How about they dig a little deeper and link to some blogs that otherwise wouldn't get the traffic?

Ugh, word. Once again, contemporary feminism (well, its online incarnation, at least) can rest easy knowing that it exists in a vacuum shared by four or five well-known blogs and Broadsheet, which relentlessly pimps them out.

It's boring to make the blog rounds every day and see the exact same item and the exact same take on that item on all the big feminist blogs.

I wonder if the Broadsheet contributors have ever tried using Technorati to suss out relevant posts not written by the big five?

Also, I think Salon could use some smart, funny cooter talk from Tiny Cat Pants.

12/22/2005 12:27:00 PM  
Blogger Aunt B said...

Well, you know, what the fuck? I'm going to ask, if I can figure out who to ask.

12/22/2005 12:30:00 PM  
Anonymous Indifferent Children said...

The lack of a direct historical connection also plagues Christianity (esp. Fundamentalists). Not only did Paul assert a large influence over the message, but the books of the bible were decided by committee in 325AD (Council of Nicea). I'm not sure that Jesus would recognize modern Christianity.

Also, paganism (and to a lesser extent, Wicca), has an eclecticism that makes borrowing the spirit of old traditions more important than the details. Combine this with the ability to view all Animist religions as a single group (only the details differ), and paganism has a lineage as respectable as most.

12/23/2005 07:10:00 AM  

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