Archive for Feminism

Witchcraft on the Edge

Posted in Musings with tags , , , , , , , on February 20, 2012 by manxwytch

How Wicca follows Max Weber’s theory and maintains a marginal religious status.

I will briefly discuss how the New Religious Movement (NRM) of Wicca or Witchcraft[1] follows Max Weber’s sociological theory of religious distinction from its popularized founder Gerald Gardner to the present day.  This is not to make any claim that Gerald Gardner is the ‘creator’ of Witchcraft but is instead, a gentle examination into its social development.  I will demonstrate its evolution from virtuoso to mass religiosity, its integration and transformation within the feminist and Neo-Pagan movements and discuss possible reasons why it remains a marginalized religion in the modern day.

The Father of Wicca – Gerald Gardner

Gerald Gardner

It was 1954 when Gerald Gardner, an elderly charismatic character, with tattoos, wild hair, and a twinkle in his eye first published Witchcraft Today claiming discovery of a witch’s coven that boasted a long and hidden historical lineage.  Later Gardner admitted to being a member of the secretive witch-cult[2] and he actively promoted its practice and beliefs through his books and interviews from ‘The Witches Mill’[3] on the Isle of Mann.  He initiated women[4] into the cult and they in turn initiated men.  The women established their own autonomous covens to varying degrees of success.  Regarded as the “Father of Wicca” Gerald Gardner is easily identifiable as Max Weber’s virtuoso who founded what is now known as Wicca or Witchcraft.

The Early Witch-Cult

The early initiates of Wicca, the innovators[5] were attracted to a ‘natural’ mystery religion requiring strong spiritual intensity.  Initiation was via opposite gender into the cult and involved nudity, intense vows of secrecy, and the practice of methods which achieved altered states of consciousness to facilitate union with deities or spirits.  They involved themselves in the study of sacred texts, folklore and grimoires, copied by hand a Book of Shadows[6], engaged in an oral transmission of knowledge, and specialized in a magical art such as divination, or psychic mediumship.  Having no central authority, early Witches had to be self-motivated.  Wicca was not for the layperson who awaited a Sunday service but for the uninhibited, who possessed an intense desire for personal gnosis and transcendence.  The early Wicca worshipped a Goddess and a God, with the feminine deity primary and lead by a High Priestess and High Priest acting as the deities living embodiments.  The love and subsequent sexual union between the deities and initiates was viewed as a healthy and creative aspect of the lifeforce and is celebrated symbolically or actually in the rites.  Wicca was extremely socially limited as it broke social norms and taboos by its beliefs and practices.  Secondly, the stereotyping of witchcraft with Christian devil worship, black magic, and moral evil, acted as a deterrent for converts.

Alex Sanders

Even before the death of Gardner, a new witch named Alex Sanders, began to rise from the shadows to greet the public media with his fantastic stories.  In the mid 1960s and early 1970s he set out to promote witchcraft and revealed Wicca’s ‘secrets’ to the press in fantastic articles, a vinyl record of the Book of Shadows, and starred in two documentary films[7].  The tabloids revelled in sensational stories of black magic, nude orgies, cult control, Satan worship, psychic powers, and dramas that supported the existing discriminatory stereotypes of witchcraft with immorality an evil.  Witchcraft-styled publicity stunts by various actors impelled other notable priests and priestesses of Wicca to publish ‘truth-telling’ novels and articles[8] in defence of Witchcraft, to set the public record straight and to denounce others.  This publicity battle between covens and their struggle to ‘clean up’ Wicca’s image, created the foundation for Wicca’s availability to the public and by the mid 1970s self-proclaimed Witches and covens began appearing in both Europe and the Americas.  Arguments over lineage and authenticity between Witches assisted in the routinization of Witchcraft.  The Book of Shadows which was formally written down by hand from one initiate to another became a method of verifying authenticity.  Formalized laws were established that derived from Gardner or Saunders covens.  These laws established the hierarchy within coven systems with the Goddess of the Wicca as the primary deity and the High Priestess holding the highest position of authority.  The laws also instituted methods of punishment and control, and threatened to curse initiates who broke them to contain rebels within Wicca.

Cult to Sect – Feminist Early Adaptors of Wicca


The 1960s had set fire to the Women’s Liberation Movement, including social justice, equality and rights.  Many women were searching for a newer, stronger feminine identity.  Groundbreaking feminist researchers, sociologists, archaeologists and academics of various backgrounds such as Gerda Lerner, Mary Daly, Merlin Stone and Marija Gimbutas, were discovering and publishing evidence of goddess worship and challenging textbook his-tory of the world with her-story.  Many feminists outright rejected the submissive role imposed on them by patriarchal religions throughout history and began to confront religious dogma and discrimination.  With Wicca’s prominent worship of a goddess in its structure and a High Priestess as not only her representative but as the spiritual guide and ruler of a coven, it was ripe for new blood in the feminist movement.   In the early 1970s Zsuzsanna Budapest founded the first feminist witches coven called the Susan B. Anthony Coven Number l[9]  and by 1975, she had inspired feminists around the world to rekindle goddess worship with her first book The Feminist Book of Lights and ShadowsWitchcraft and the goddess went full force into feminist her-story and women began creating their own Witchcraft rituals, reforming the existing tradition as an alternative to the dogmatic and feminine-suppressive religions of the globe and identifying the Goddess with the ‘Earth Mother’ of all planetary life. Notable in the feminist movement was Starhawk[10] and her 1979 book The Spiral Dance.  In 1982 Starhawk, along with Diane Baker, created a Witchcraft fusion of goddess worship with environmental and political activism named the Reclaiming Collective[11].  This second reformation placed Wicca as a ‘green’ religious practice and attracted early environmentally focused men and women.  By now, Wicca appealed to various groups outside of mainstream society and became intimately linked with earth based spiritualities, lesbian and gay rights, the women’s movement, and social marginals of many walks of life (Howard, 232-237).

Wicca for the Masses – Communication and Transformation

By the late 1970s and early 1980s Wicca had evolved to become a notable minority religion with a leading role in the evolving NRM Neo-Paganism[12] which existed within the even larger New Age Movement[13].  By the mid 1980s and onward, Wicca not only opened its doors, it opened occult shops, Churches (sometimes renamed Temples), pagan-moots, on-line message boards, open rituals for the public, ‘how to’ type books, on-line training, and spread to multiple variations as unique as the practitioners themselves.  Wicca came to the masses and was now designed for the masses by the authors and lead actors in the movement.  The extent of personal intensity of spiritual experience in Wicca is now a matter of choice and is dependent on the social networks or absence of networks, the individual practitioner is attracted to.  One could be a witch by simply reading Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner, written in 1988 by Scott Cunningham or alternatively by finding a coven who’s members support similar ideals and beliefs of the seeker essentially forming a peer group structure.  I suggest that globalization, equal rights movements, democracy, and legal protection under the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights[14] gave Wicca’s religious actors the courage to come out of the broom closet on an even wider scale to the general public and now is on the verge of moving towards Richard Bulliet’s  early adapters stage of growth.

Satanic Stereotypes

1922 Documentary - Witchcraft Through the Ages

Old habits die hard and witchcraft’s iconic negative stereotype is still fanned by mass media’s capitalization[15] on sensationalizing people’s fears.  As well, the archetype of the witch as a worshipper of Satan and evil incarnate, is promoted by fundamentalist Christian groups that instil hatred toward non-believers.  Scriptural texts of the monotheistic faiths react negatively to witches and their orthodox followers continue to hold animosity and outright hostility toward even the term ‘witchcraft’.  Witchcraft is often mistaken for the antagonistic Christian movement of modern Satanism[16] that is also a part of the Neo-Pagan movement and rose to popularity in the 1960s.  Though feminists have ‘reclaimed’ the title ‘Witch’ to empower them against the perceived misogyny of monotheistic religions, it has not yet had an effect on deep seated discriminatory beliefs within the patriarchal religious systems.

Existing Diversity

Presently Wicca includes Traditional Witchcraft which is the founding initiatory traditions descended from Gerald Gardner and eclectic groups such as Dianic, Solitary, Celtic, Faery, and LGBT Wiccan groups, just to name a few.  As Wicca struggles to reach mass religiosity, it has transformed for public appeal.  Initiations are no longer necessary; few worship skyclad or perform anything resembling what Gerald Gardner and others promoted in the 1950s.  Some new brands of Wicca appear to be similar to fantasy role-playing, LARPing, and historical reconstructional styles of spirituality that embrace anyone who wants to dress like a witch or call themselves one.  The complexity of Wicca now includes those who enjoy the malefic witch stereotype to practitioners offering healing and promoting a ‘harm none’ ethic.  The lack of a central authority and Wicca’s autonomy has promoted Wicca’s creativity and diversity.

The Great Divide – Traditionalism vs. Eclecticism

Some Traditional practitioners have felt threatened by the liberal developments of Wicca as they struggle to retain their intensive practice.  Eclectic Wiccans are reaching out to new members, creating new rituals and claiming they harm no one by defining their own brand of Wicca.  Various message boards illustrate the debates between the two fractions of Wiccan believers.  Arguments of lineage, politics of authority and authenticity, ethics, practice and historical accuracy continue to be engaged.  These debates reflect Weber’s Sect vs. Church dynamic where the original members of the movement resist change and the pragmatics want to open the doors even wider to the masses.  I suggest that the in-fighting within the tradition also contributes to its marginal status because it contradicts Wicca’s spiritual messages and deters potential membership.  (Coco & Woodward, 479-504)

The early cult of founder Gerald Gardner and his disciples who attempted to routinize the tradition demonstrates Weber’s early sect.  The transformers of Wicca, the early adapters, feminists, environmentalists and others who redefined Wicca to suit the individual and communicated its philosophies on a wide scale demonstrate the evolution of Wicca to Weber’s Church or mass status.  Wicca remains a marginal religion inclined to small groups of people.   Social stereotypes associated with the term ‘witch’, in-fighting, and its eclecticism continue to keep Wicca on the edge of world religions.

Example of the early Witch Cult:  Sect

Above, a photo of the early innovators of Wicca.  Here, a coven and a young Alex & Maxine Saunders celebrate a full moon ceremony.  Photo credit of Jack Smith, January 1966.

Example of modern Wicca:  Public church

To the left, a photo of a modern Wicca circle now modified for the public.  Here a coven celebrates a ‘Handfasting’ which is a Wiccan wedding ceremony.  Photo credit of Religion and Spiritual Resource Beliefs Resources.


Adler, Margot.  Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today.  Boston, Beacon Press, 1992.

Crowther, Patricia.  One Witch’s World.  London, Robert Hale, 1998.

Farrar, Stewart.  What Witches Do: The Modern Coven Revealed.  New York, Coward, McCann & Geoghegan Inc. 1971.

Gardner, Gerald.  Witchcraft Today.  London, Rider, 1954.

Heselton, Philip.  Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspriation:  An Investigation into the Sources of Gardnerian Witchcraft. Berks, Capall Bann Publishing, 2003.

Heselton, Philip.  Wiccan Roots: Gerald Gardner and the Modern Witchcraft Revival. Berks, Capall Bann Publishing, 2000.

Howard, Michael.  Modern Wicca: A History from Gerald Gardner to the Present.  Minnesota, Llewellyn Worldwide Publications, 2009.

Hutton, Ronald.  The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft.  New York, Oxford University Press, 1999.

Kurtz, Lester R.  Gods in the Global Village: The World’s Religions in Sociological Perspective, 2nd Edition.  London, Pine Forge Press, 2010.

Molloy, Michael.  Experiencing the World’s Religions:  Tradition, Challenge, and Change – Fourth EditionNew York: McGraw-Hill, 2008.

Starhawk.  The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess.  New York, Harper & Row, 1982.

Valiente, Doreen. The Rebirth of Witchcraft.  London, Robert Hale, 1989


Coco, Angela and Woodward, Ian.  Discourses of Authenticity Within a Pagan Community:  The Emergence of the “Fluffy Bunny” Sanction.  Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, volume 36, Number 5, October 2007, pp 479-504.

Fine, Gary Alan.  Witching Culture: Folklore and Neo-Paganism in America.  Journal of American folklore, volume 122, Number 483, Winter 2009, pp 103-104.

Pearson, Jo.  Resisting Rehtorics of Violence:  Women, Witches and Wicca.  Feminist Theology Journal, Volume 18(2), 2010, pp. 141-159.

[1] When witch or witchcraft is capitalized, it is in reference to the religion of Wicca, when lower case, it is the generalized noun or a descriptive.

[2] Witch-cult was the original term used by Gerald Gardner in his writings.  As well, Wicca was originally spelt with only one ‘c’  by Gardner however, I use two as it is presently spelled in this format.

[3] The Witches Mill was first owned by Cecil Williamson a practicing witch and Cunning Man.  Gerald Gardner purchased the Mill from him.  It was alreadys a witch focused museum, restaurant and meeting place prior to Gardner.

[4] Notably, the well known Priestesses of the Witch-cult initiated by Gerald Gardner are Patricia Crowther, Doreen Valiente, Eleanor Bone and Monique Wilson.  All four were inheritors of Gardner’s estate.

[5] The term ‘innovators’ is in reference to Richard Bulliet’s early ‘convert pool’ definition of the early minority who joins a budding religion.

[6] A book that every witch initiate must copy.  It contains how to practice, lore, rites and observances, spells, and magical correspondences.  Each witch tends to personalize it.

[7] The two documentaries are ‘Legend of the Witches’ (1970) and ‘Secret Rites’ (1971)

[8] The early Innovators such as Patricia Crowther, Doreen Valiente, Robert Cochrane, Cecil Williamson, Eleanor Bone, to name a few.

[9] Z. Budapest created what she called the Dianic witchcraft tradition after the Greek classical virgin goddess of the moon.  Men were not allowed membership.

[10] Miriam Simos

[11] Presently titled ‘Reclaiming’ it has grown throughout North America and Europe and includes both men and women.

[12] A diverse and eclectic collection of new religious beliefs usually, though not always involving polytheism and often promoted as a revival of the existing old religions prior to the conquest of Christianity.

[13] The New Age Movement is a spiritual eclectic hodgepodge of Eastern and Western religions, science, environmentalism, philosophy, holistic health and a fusion of multiple individualistic beliefs.

[14] Specifically, I would like to cite Article 18 of the UDHR which states “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

[15] In the 1960s and 1970s, stories about witchcraft always provided a sales boost for the tabloid papers and increased their circulation when they were published” Howard, Michael.  Modern Wicca

[16] Created by Anton LeVey