Know and Be Silent:
The Rhetoric of Wicca
According to Catherine Beyer, the four major tenets of Wicca include “to know, to dare, to will, and to be silent” (1). Beyer describes the silence aspect in the following way:
There are several meanings attributed to this phrase. The one I find most appropriate in this day and age is that one should not brag or threaten others concerning their talents with magic . . . Others attribute the phrase to the Burning Times, and that it was a command of self-preservation--advertising otherworldly powers won one a quick trip to the stake. (1)
If one of the major tenets of Wicca advises its practitioners to be silent, what kind of rhetoric is used to describe, and in the case of Wicca, to defend, this religion? How does Wicca educate others about the religion when the practitioners are fundamentally opposed to talking openly about the religion? In an article by Selena Fox, noted Wiccan High Priestess, she writes:
Proselytizing is central to many religions, but not to Paganism. In fact, those interested in being part of a Pagan group may actually have to go through a long search process in order to connect, since most groups are private rather than public due to the climate of intolerance toward alternative spiritualities that persists in dominant society. (1)
If Wicca is a religion that is not meant to be discussed in the public sphere, how do its practitioners convey its meaning? Here we will examine how the rhetoric of Wicca, a private religion, is used on the public stage to both define and defend the religion. In our examination we will see that the rhetoric used to define Wicca emerges in two ways: first, through educational and persuasive rhetoric about the religion’s major tenets and second, through defensive rhetoric which proclaims what the religion is not. As Wicca seeks to separate itself in popular consciousness from Satanism, the Wiccan struggle becomes two-fold: Wicca must use rhetoric to clarify its fundamental beliefs while also differentiating itself from Satanic worship.
Wicca is a private religion, but it is also a quickly growing one. According to the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey, in 1990 there were 8000 Wiccans in the
United States. By 2001, this number had grown to 134,000
(Kosman et. al. 13). Some set the marker
even higher. According to Allen, “there
are more than 200,000 adherents of Wicca and related ‘neopagan’ faiths in the United States”
(18). It is difficult to determine the
exact number of those practicing the religion due, in part, to its private
nature and the shroud of “silence” that surrounds the religion. For fear of discrimination or retribution,
many Wiccans do not disclose their religion.
Research has also shown that the religion is more popular amongst women than men. Allen notes that in the
Wiccans “tend to be white, middle-class, highly educated, and politically
involved in liberal and environmental causes.
About a third of them are men” (18).
This number is consistent with other research in this area. A study by Stuart Rose found that “70% of
those claiming to be active in the [New Age] movement are women” (330). He also notes that the number of female
leaders in the field is growing. In
1977, only 5% of the top 37 leaders in the movement were women whereas almost
twenty years later, “thirteen women (35%) were among the top 37 names recorded”
(330). For Starhawk, a well known author
and spokeswoman for Wicca, these statistics are not surprising. She describes Wicca as a religion that speaks
to “female needs and experience” (144).
In this private religion where silence is an underlying code, access is often a difficulty for those who seek membership. As Selena Fox suggests, the average person hoping to learn about Wicca does not have the luxury of pulling up the neighborhood church on Sunday. According to a study by Courtenay, Merriam, and Baumgartner, most Wiccans must come to the religion through a process of searching: both internal and external. In their pursuit of understanding “why adults engage in learning to become a member of a marginalized group” (111) the researchers found that those who convert to Wicca generally have similar characteristics: “strong, internal forces that were often manifest in childhood . . . intense curiosity—brought on by the recognition that they are different or that they have questions about life that are not being answered by traditional religious beliefs-- . . . unique abilities and frustration with existing beliefs” (125). In their study the participants expressed a “predisposition to Wiccanism” (116) but often had to go through a long search.
Courtenay et. al. also note that “in every instance the participants engaged in informal self-study about alternative religions. This component was exploratory in nature, the participants searching for answers to their questions about life. . In addition to reading, one-third of the participants reached out to other people for assistance” (118-119). Some participants found other Wiccans who were willing to offer guidance to start them on the path. But membership is not automatic. As noted in Titus Helm’s study, often times those interested in the religion have to take their education beyond what the local bookstore’s New Age shelf offers. The element of “tourism” by what Helm’s participants, veteran Wiccans, call “wannabees” or “wiclettes” indicates that an interest does not necessarily mean access to this private world. Extra effort is needed. In Courtney et al.’s study, their research seems to show that only after a period of self-directed search a Wiccan finds entrance to a coven or group; one-half of their participants were in a coven.
This same exploratory path into this private world is reflected in Rose’s study which found that those interested in New Age developed their interests “according to the progression of each person’s spiritual path” (338). Lozano and Foltz found a similar exploratory process in their ethnographic study of death rites in the Dianic tradition. In this tradition, “most Dianics celebrate an autonomous female principle as divine, excluding the male principle and men” (219). They noted that “a common thread was that all but one [participant] can be classified as a ‘spiritual seeker’ who had actively sought out and explored other religions and spiritual traditions before settling on Wicca” (214).
Thus, having substantiated that the religion is not only quickly growing, but is also private, one has to wonder how new members learn about the religion? In this air of silence, what message is delivered so that “spiritual seekers” can learn about the religion? Examining the rhetoric used by Wiccan groups, authors, and devotees seems to suggest that Wiccan rhetoric defines the religion, not only by what it does stand for, but by what it does not. Even a surface perusal of Wiccan literature shows desperation by those practicing the faith to differentiate, loudly and clearly, what Wicca is not Satanism and Wiccans are not evil. Here we will explore how both messages, the “we are” verses the “we are not” are used to form the rhetoric of Wiccan self-identity.
What is Wicca? Examining the rhetoric used to describe the basic dogma of the religion, three major messages seem to emerge: Wicca is an earth-based religion, a religion that worships both a God and a Goddess, and an ancient religion. There are elements of both education and persuasion in the rhetoric surrounding the answer to what is Wicca. As Wicca seeks to educate people on the “good” nature of the religion, its rhetoric focuses on the natural, peace-loving, inclusive, and ancient elements of the religion. Therefore, in answering what is Wicca we see rhetoric used to illuminate but also, on a subtle level, to defend.
According to the Covenant of the Goddess, “an international organization of cooperating, autonomous Wiccan congregations and solitary practitioners” (“CoG”), Wicca is described as “a magical religion with many diverse traditions derived from various cultural sources around which covens and individual practitioners base their practices” (“CoG”). They go on further to describe the peace-loving, earth-based element of the religion, stating: “Wicca, or Witchcraft, is an earth religion -- a re-linking (re-ligio) with the life-force of nature, both on this planet and in the stars and space beyond. In city apartments, in suburban backyards, in country glades, groups of women and men meet . . . and put themselves in tune with these natural forces” (“CoG”). This same definition is seen, in various forms, over and over again. Circle Sanctuary’s Selena Fox defines the Wiccan’s view of the earth-based element in the following way:
They love and respect Nature and seek to live in harmony with the rest of the ecosphere. Many have personal communication and friendships with various animals, plants and other lifeforms. They honor the cycles of Nature . . . The Wiccan religion and other forms of Paganism are pantheistic in that the Divine is seen as everywhere and in everything. They also are animistic in that every human, tree, animal, stream, rock, and other forms of Nature is seen to have a Divine Spirit within . . . Wiccans and other Pagans also honor the Elements of Nature -- Earth, Air, Fire, Water, Spirit. (1)
The rhetoric surrounding the earth-centered nature of the religion focuses on its peaceful aspects. And for the Wiccan, the association with the earth is paramount. It is part of the core set of beliefs and is a message that is omnipresent in Wiccan rhetoric. After all, most Wiccans believe in some form of the Gaia Hypothesis. As Starhawk notes, for Wiccans, “the symbolism of the Goddess is not a parallel structure to the symbolism of God the Father. The Goddess does not rule the world; She is the world” (144). She goes on further, stating that that “the model of the Goddess, which is immanent in nature, fosters respect for the sacredness of all living things. Witchcraft can be seen as a religion of ecology. Its goal is harmony with nature” (145). This same message is given in Scott Cunningham’s A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner, an introductory book on Wicca. Cunningham writes, “the Goddess is the universal mother . . . she is at once the unploughed field, the full harvest, and the dormant, frost-covered earth . . . the Goddess is nature, all nature” (11). In fact, importance of nature runs so deep in Wicca those who practice Green Craft, a form of witchcraft that focuses on nature, see with Craft as “a natural practice, in which the Witch is not a steward of the Earth, the Witch is the Earth” (Moura xviii). Thus we see than when Wiccans talk about their relationship with the Earth, they are quick to point out the religion’s peaceful and worshipful relationship with nature. The subtle message here being, of course, that there is nothing inherently evil about Wicca, a peace-loving nature religion.
In addition to Wicca’s deep connection to the Earth as Mother, Wiccan rhetoric also emphasizes that the religion is polytheistic or having, at least, both a Goddess and a God. In their study, Lanzo and Foltz note that “all Wiccan covens consider the primary divinity to be female and refer to ‘the Goddess.’ Almost all covens also believe in and incorporate into their rituals the male principle represented as the ‘Horned God,’ her son and consort” (219). An exception to this rule, as we have already noted, is the Dianic tradition. Most Wiccans, however, view divinity with this dual notion. As Starhawk clarifies, “the Goddess does not exclude the male; she contains him, as a pregnant woman contains a male child” (145).
The view of deity as a God and Goddess, as noted by Lanzo and Foltz, is a notion that belongs to almost all Wiccans. Often times, however, the view of the God and Goddess is polytheistic, honoring the God and Goddess in a variety of guises. “SageWoman” magazine, a major publication in the Pagan world, devoted, in 2007 and 2008, its focus to looking at the Goddess under her many guises. The magazine focused on the Goddess as Warrior, Queen, and Mother. Each issue examined the divine female by her many names: Aphrodite, Rhiannon, Morrigan, etc. For Wiccans, the Goddess is paramount. She, and her male consort, have many faces. The Covenant of the Goddess explains the core belief in this way: “They honor the old Goddesses and Gods, including the Triple Goddess of the waxing, full, and waning moon, and the Horned God of the sun and animal life, as visualizations of immanent nature” (“CoG”). Scott Cunningham further notes, “Wicca, in common with many other religions, recognizes deity as dual. It reveres both the Goddess and the God” (5). The language used to describe this central belief is clearly part of the rhetoric of Wicca. Like the language used to describe Wicca’s association with nature, the message that comes across is one that informs. There is also an underlying message here. If the religion worships a God and Goddess then it does not worship Satan. The language used to describe the God and Goddess also seems to seek legitimacy through ancient ties. It is to that subject that we now turn.
A third component of the rhetoric of Wicca relates to its self-definition through ancient ties. Wiccans strive for legitimacy by discussing, time and again, how their religion predates Christianity. Starhawk explains that “Goddess religion is unimaginably old . . . The Craft today is undergoing more than a revival, it is experiencing a renaissance, a re-creation. Women are spurring this renewal and actively reawakening the Goddess” (143-144). In her article “The Scholars and the Goddess”, Charlotte Allen quotes Starhawk as saying that witchcraft “is ‘perhaps the oldest religion in the west’ and that is began ‘more than thirty-five thousand years ago’” (18). Allen, however, later blasts Starhawk’s notion on the antiquity of the religion. The view held by Wiccans that the religion is ancient, however, is unshakable.
In Ann Moura’s The Origins of Modern Witchcraft, she begins her search for the source of Wiccan belief in ancient
culture, which she states “predates the Sumerian, Egyptian, and Babylonian
cultures” (12). In her search for the
earliest known Goddess worship, Moura predates Starhawk, noting that the “
has been inhabited since at least 470,000 B.C.E.” (16). The view that the
religion is ancient is one way Wiccan’s seek to justify their religion. In Margot Adler’s widely read book on
witchcraft, Drawing Down the Moon, she notes that “most Neo-Pagans look
to the old Pre-Christian religions of Indus Valley Europe .
. . they gravitate to ancient symbols and ancient myths, to the old
polytheistic beliefs of the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Celts, and the
Sumerians” (4). Here, the Wiccan harkens
back to antiquity to gain legitimacy for the religion. The message regarding this antiquity is
repeatedly made in the rhetoric used to define Wicca.
Herein we have looked at the three major defining messages Wicca uses to define its religion: its relationship to the earth, the worship of a God and Goddess, and the antiquity of the religion. Wiccans repeatedly put forward these messages as a rhetorical means to help others understand the basic beliefs of the religion. Embedded within these messages is the sense of an inherent goodness in the religion. The rhetoric enlightens about the religion without seeking to convert; Wicca is not about conversion. The rhetoric, however, also seeks to be persuasive. In a culture that is skeptical of a religion associated with witchcraft, a message seems to emerge from Wicca which says: This is what we are. We are peaceful. We live in harmony with Earth and harm no one. O
ur religion is legitimate
because it is old.
The sense of the harmlessness of the religion is reflected in one of the major Wiccan redes noted in almost every “how-to” book and Wiccan webpage: “Harm none and do as you will.” Wicca finds itself, however, in a precarious situation. Witches, in western culture, are often shadowed by negative stereotypes. Wicca, therefore, struggles to differentiate itself from this stereotype and its association with Satanic elements. Much of the rhetoric that comes out of the Wiccan community, therefore, is persuasive in that it seeks to convince that the religion has no connection to evil or Satanism. As often as Wicca tells what its religion stands for, it just as often defines itself by rhetoric about what it is not. It is to that subject that we now turn our attention.
We began our study by asking, what is Wicca? To fully understand the religion, however, one can easily ask the question, what isn’t Wicca? By addressing this question, Wiccan’s seek to educate and persuade others about the differences between their earth-loving nature religion and Satanism. The rhetorical conversations on this topic generally address deity as Satan, magic and spells, and sex.
One message that emerges loud and clear from the Wiccan camp is that Wicca, with its focus on a Mother Goddess and Father God, does not worship Satan. This sentiment is echoed on the WebPages of both the Covenant of the Goddess and Circle Sanctuary, both groups representing much of the pagan community. Regarding this topic, the Covenant of the Goddess states:
To be a Satanist, one must believe in Satan. Witches do not believe in Satan, as such. The popular image of the goat-hooved, pointy-horned devil is a deliberate corruption by the early missionary church of the European Pagan Horned God, who has been depicted in
as Pan, and in ancient Gaul as Cernunnos (who
is pictured having a stag's antlers). Making indigenous gods into evil beings
was the early church's most reliable method of gaining converts. Our Horned God is neither evil nor a source
of evil; He is the energy of nature, of plant and animal life, which energy
manifests for people in music and dance, intoxication and ecstasy, and all
joyous activities, including lovemaking. (“CoG”)
Here Wicca takes an educational and persuasive stance. The rhetoric is used to illuminate readers, not only on the fact that Wicca is not Satanic, but that the church has actually played a negative role in the bastardization of pagan deities. This same theme is echoed by Circle Sanctuary. Selena Fox, High Priestess of Circle Sanctuary, notes: “Wiccans do not perform evil magic and do not worship the devil or Satan, which is the anti-God of the Christians. The Wiccan religion is pre-Christian and post-Christian, not anti-Christian” (1).
In addition to clarifying the point that Wiccans do not worship Satan, both groups are quick to note that Wiccans do not even believe in the notion of an evil incarnate like the devil. This message is also readily see on a YouTube clip titled “What is Wicca” wherein contributor DahKoDaeVonos clearly notes “!!!Witches Do Not Worship Satan!!!” and goes on further to clarify that “to believe in Satan one must subscribe to the Christian mythos. Wicca does not have any belief in nor do we worship an evil incarnate” (DahKoDaeVonos). Clearly the message that comes forth is defensive and persuasive. And, it appears from the posts that follow the YouTube clip, the need clarify is there.
One contributor, calling himself redman443, repeatedly flamed the site. In his profile, he notes one of his hobbies is “making sure no wiccans get close to me leading people away from witchcraft and wicca” (redman443). In his posts, redman443 makes such comments such as “my God is a God of love and harmony now i know a violent and blood hungry god and the pentacle is his symbol so don't tell me that wiccan lies - satan worshippers”: “the fact thar you worship false gods and goddesses disgustes me my God is WAY above ALL gods”: “WICCANS YOU WILL BURN IN HELL FOREVER!” (redman443). Clearly misconceptions about the religion lead to hateful, discriminatory, if not xenophobic, reactions. From Wiccans there is a desperate use of rhetoric to defend the religion from such attacks, as noted by the hundreds of replies to redman443, which clarify and defend the religion. In clearly drawing a line in the sand between itself and Satanic worship, Wicca uses rhetoric to define what the religion is not. Wicca seeks to educate and persuade, not only about its difference from Satanism, but also about spells and magic.
Spellwork and magic is an element of Wicca that often raises eyebrows. It is also a part of the religion that Wicca seeks, repeatedly, to explain and defend. Scott Cunningham explains that “Wicca is a religion that embraces magic. If you seek only to practice magic, Wicca probably isn’t the answer for you . . . magic isn’t a means of forcing nature to do your will” (6). Traditional views of spells seem to misconstrue the nature of magic’s role in Wicca. In Titus Helm’s article, “Between Satan and Harry Potter: Legitimating Wicca in
discusses how “Wiccans use different strategies to legitimate their religion in
a situation where the media and authorities have labeled the movement in
negative terms” (33). Helm goes on to
discuss how some Finns have come to view Wicca as a gateway between Harry Potter and Satanism. The Covenant of the Goddess, however, address
the concern about magic in this way, noting that casting spells is:
part of being a Witch . . . For us, spells and rituals are a matter of arranging elements to encourage a frame of mind conducive to working Magic. This may involve burning candles and/or incense, making talismans of stone or wood . . . or whatever the imagination of the Witch can devise . . . We can't turn people into frogs or levitate tables by mind-power; we can work healing, change our lives for the better, and discover the workings and balance of the whole system. Our Wills are our tools . . . . we are active in our communities and for the environment, but we back up our actions with magical intent. It is a potent combination. (1)
This same message is reflected on the YouTube clip previously noted. Therein the contributor notes: “!!Witches Do Not Cast Evil Spells!!” (DahKoDaeVonos). The clip goes on further to elaborate what prevents Wiccans from doing so: “modern witches have a very strict belief in the Law of Return. Whatever we send out into the world shall return to us” (DahKoDaeVonos). This same message is reiterated across the board. On a Google Group about Wicca, a contributor called Invalid Input notes that “using magick in this context [to hex] would only produce dire results especially for the Witch who would attempt to abuse it in such a way. We have a belief called The Threefold Law. It means that any act you do positive or negative (including thoughts) comes back to you threefold in this lifetime or will follow you into the next.” Clearly, the rhetoric that comes out of Wicca is defensive. Wiccans are quick to note that it is against their belief system to cast evil spells. The rhetoric is educational but reactionary. Wiccans must reply to the preconceived notion that all magic is evil. By using rhetoric to clarify the intent of magic in Wicca, and to discuss how Wiccans are fundamentally opposed to negative magic, Wicca seeks to define what it is not.
The last element we will discuss in regard to the rhetoric of Wicca is how Wiccans explain their beliefs on the issue of ritual sex. This is an issue that is widely misunderstood. Questions about sexual activity, orgies, and other taboo subjects abound. As we shall see, when Wicca does address this issue, Wiccans make very clearly that there is nothing perverse happening. Common stereotypes associate Wiccan ritual sex, or the Great Rite, with Satanic black mass. In clarifying the role of sex in Wicca, again we see an emphasis on what Wicca is not.
In a 2005 study by Jo Pearson entitled “Inappropriate Sexuality? Sex Magic, S/M and Wicca”, Pearson sought to examine the sexual aspect of the Wiccan faith. While Pearson’s study is biased and factually flawed, a few relevant issues in regard to sex and Wicca emerge. Pearson notes that in modern Wicca, sexual concepts, like S/M or bondage, “have been largely abstracted into symbolic forms which deny the ‘inappropriate’ sexuality” (40). Pearson suggests that while orgies once played a larger role in Wicca, that the religion has now been white-washed. Unfortunately for Pearson, the background research that provided evidence for his hypothesis examined occultism, not Wicca. Pearson generalized the beliefs of occultist Alistair Crowley onto Wicca. In fact, embedded in Pearson’s study is an example of how far off the mark Pearson was. He notes: “It was very interesting that when I was at a Wiccan gathering where this [sex] did happen . . . the reactions of those not involved would have suited an extreme caricature of Puritan ladies” (39). Thus, in examining the issue of sex in Wicca, Pearson himself was side-tracked by faulty research and, perhaps, preconceived notions on the sexual nature of the religion. He even goes so far to note that “ritual nudity is pretty much the norm” (32) when, in fact, it is not.
When the even researchers get it wrong, where can Wicca turn to set the record straight and how do they do so? On a webpage entitled “What Wicca is Not FAQ”, the hostess, Aldwyn, makes several key points regarding the relationship between sex and Wicca, addressing what she feels to be common misconceptions. In regard to whether one has to have sex to follow Wicca she says, “while Wicca is a fertility (nature) religion in its basic form, having sexual intercourse with another person is not a requirement of the religion” (1). In regard to ritual nudity she notes, “you will occasionally find a coven that does all its rituals skyclad (Naked: Clad only with the sky), and some that practice skyclad only occasionally. The majority of covens in recent days practice wearing robes, with nothing under them. This is usually done for practicality as well as modesty” (1). In regard to the orgies that Pearson suggests are teeming under the surface, Aldwyn writes: “Sexual activities are based on the individual, and not based on the religion. While the Wiccan view of sex may be more relaxed and open-minded than the average American, orgies are not a standard part of Wicca, and typically do not enter into a Wiccan ritual” (1). Here Aldwyn takes a firm stance to define what is not considered part of the religion. She uses rhetoric to substantiate that there is nothing deviant in the sexual relations of Wiccans.
Aldwyn’s message is echoed by Selena Fox who writes:
Paganism differs from some religions and cultures on a number of gender and sexuality issues. Sex between consenting adults is considered a personal and private matter by Pagans . . . Marriage is not a prerequisite for sex, although safety and responsibility in sexual activity is emphasized. Neither celibacy nor marriage is mandated for Pagan group leaders. Many lesbians, gays, and bisexuals are Pagan because there is widespread acceptance of diversity in sexual orientation within Paganism today, just as was the case in some ancient Pagan cultures. (1)
Fox’s message is that while Wiccans take a more relaxed and inclusive attitude toward sex and sexuality, there is nothing deviant about Wiccan’s relationship to sex.
What does seem to be missing, however, from Wiccan rhetoric is an open discussion by leading groups like Circle Sanctuary or The Covenant of the Goddess on the sexual activities associated with the Great Rite. The Great Rite is a sexual union of man and woman, priest and priestess, taking on the roles of the God and Goddess as an expression of love in order to reach the divine through sexual union. Recent films like The DaVinci Code have garnered a lot of attention to this subject. While an internet search yields many hits on this subject, and even a Wikipedia citation, the voices of leading Wiccans and Pagan writers is notably absent. Has Wicca silenced itself on this subject? Why has Wicca chosen to stifle rhetoric in this area? One can imagine the kinds of misconceptions that might arise from any discourse on this issue. One has to wonder if Wicca has retreated back to its tenets and on the subject of the Great Rite, a Wiccan mystery, has chosen to know, dare, will, and be silent.
Overall, however, we can see that the rhetoric coming out of the Wiccan community on the issue of sexuality is one that seeks to normalize how it is depicted. Wiccans express a relaxed attitude toward sex, but not a deviant one. Again, Wicca rebels against preconceived notions and educates about those things that are not part of the religion.
Thus we can see that while Wicca seeks to define itself by what its major beliefs are, it also struggles to clarify what is not part of Wiccan religious practice. Associations with Satan, questions about spell-work, and notions of deviant sexual practice plague Wicca. Wicca, in turn, finds itself self-defining by retorting against these misconceptions. Much of the way Wicca defines itself is in reaction to biases against it. Wiccans find a need to clearly state what they are not. This balancing act, we are this verses we are not this, leaves Wicca in a rhetorical situation where they are self-defined by, not just what they represent, but what they are not. Wicca cannot simply put forward their major beliefs. Wiccans must combat stereotypes and preconceived notions. The rhetoric to discuss this religion, therefore, becomes one of education, illumination, persuasion, and defense.
Why is Wiccan misunderstood? In a 1999 interview with George W. Bush, during his first campaign for president, Bush told ABC's Good Morning America “I don't think witchcraft is a religion” (“Bush”). In an atmosphere where even the leaders of a country do not understand a religion, how can there be anything other than misconceptions. Until Wicca manages to gain legitimacy in general public opinion, their rhetoric will continue to be a balancing act.
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