“Wicca has become incredibly popular in the past ten years,” one witch in Salem, Massachusetts, told Catherine Edwards Sanders, author of Wicca’s Charm : Understanding the Spiritual Hunger Behind the Rise of Modern Witchcraft and Pagan Spirituality. In her book, Sanders tries to find out just how big Wicca is (you’ll find them in Salem but also in Topeka), what the attraction is, and what others can learn from them.
Sanders spoke to National Review Online editor Kathryn Lopez about Wicca for Halloween.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Outside of watching repeats of Charmed, why would you want to give a moment’s thought to Wicca, never mind write a book about it?
Catherine Edwards Sanders: When I asked five suburban Washington D.C.-area teenagers if any of them had Wiccan friends and they all raised their hands. This peaked my curiosity and I realized there was something more going on here. I actually received a journalism fellowship to write a series of articles about Wicca but was approached by a publisher right away to write a book. There was certainly enough subject material there and I realized that this was a growing trend, that had been reported on in books by Wiccans, but not by someone outside of Wicca…so I set out on a journey to learn why it was growing and to report on that.
Lopez: Isn’t Wicca relatively harmless? Some pretty charms that can make decent jewelry, some nice scents, and easy Halloween costumes?
Sanders: It depends what kind of Wiccan you are. Some kids will pick up a love-spell book, say a spell or two and carry on with life. Others will meet in their coven to be part of a community, and then others will practice in a very ritualized way. I was surprised that almost every Wiccan I met, volunteered that there were darker elements to the practice.
Lopez: Who is your target audience with the book?
Sanders: The main target audience was…those of traditional religious backgrounds who are wondering what Wicca is; they might have a neighbor, daughter, or friend who is Wiccan and have no idea what to say to them and wonder what about Wicca interests them. I didn’t want to only report that Wicca was growing, I wanted to report why.
Lopez: Are you one of those Harry Potter bashers?
Sanders: Since Harry Potter has nothing to do with Wicca, I didn’t write much about the Potter books in my book. I do not bash the Potter books in my book, but I did find that they have led to corporate America wanting to get in on the witchcraft action–i.e. other publishers jealous of Scholastic’s good fortune rushed to publish teen witch novels, teen witch how-to books, spell kits, etc.
Lopez: What would you like everyone–especially more traditional religious types–to know about Wicca?
Sanders: Everyone thinks they are Satan worshippers–not true. Also, that some of them have chosen Wicca because of failings of Christianity–as it has been practiced, not necessarily the gospel message. Most don’t recruit or proselytize. Their beliefs are very postmodern–what they believe can be tweaked for each practitioner. They do not believe in absolute good or evil and don’t really seem to care about the history of their religion–only the experiences they gain from it.
Lopez: Who is Gerald Gardner and why should I care?
Sanders: Gerald Gardner is the founder of Wicca. His life makes for a bizarre read. He was a British civil servant who lived overseas for much of the beginning of the 20th century. He lived in south Asia and became fascinated with local tribal culture, ritual knives, and nudity, among other things. He retired to the U.K. in the late 1930s and stumbled one day on what he called an “authentic coven of witches” practicing in the New Forest. He claimed that pagan witchcraft was the indigenous religious practice to those in the British Isles and that he, Gardner, was “re-discovering” this and called it Wicca. He coined the term “Wicca,” which is an Anglo-Saxon word that he said meant “wise one.” Wiccans sometimes say they practice the “Craft of the Wise.” Gardner invented some rituals that included some of his own personal proclivities. He also added some rituals from the flamboyant Aleister Crowley who called himself the Beast 666 and said some atrocious things about women. Adding in a reverence for nature and the old Celtic calendar and you have the roots of Wicca. I was surprised that many young people who practice Wicca didn’t know about either of these men.
Lopez: Have you gotten any Wiccan reaction to your book? Any curses put on you?
Sanders: No curses that I know of! Several Wiccans have said that I did a good job describing Wicca, but that because I was not a Wiccan, I could never fully understand it, which is fair. One recommended my book be required reading for clergies and seminaries! Several Wiccans and pagans simply attacked me on various blogs when it was evident to me as the author they had not read the book, which was irritating and somewhat mean-spirited, I thought. One blogger made several snide comments without having read it either so I asked him to read the book before commenting on it. He reviewed it and disagrees with my beliefs as a Christian, but I was glad he and other Wiccans have read it.
Lopez: What is the “cone of power” and can I get a piece of it without going Wiccan?
Sanders: The cone of power is the name for a “cone” of psychic energy that witches claim to conjure up from the earth into themselves. The goal is to visualize energy in the form of a spiral rising from the earth into the body and direct it toward a specific goal or task. I am sure they would let you join in their spiral dance to raise a cone of power–whether you would want to, is a different matter!
Lopez: Since we’re online here: There are Wiccan emoticons? Can’t they just smile and frown like the rest of us?
Sanders: This was wild, and part of my chapter on the commercialization of Wicca. Several books I read gave tips on how to communicate with other Wiccans online and use emoticons to communicate typical Wiccan phrases.
Lopez: Still, teens being tempted to go Wiccan over the net: Isn’t that just adult paranoia?
Sanders: Actually adults don’t usually know much about this. Most teens are very net-savvy and some might attend church with mom and dad but have an entire virtual community of Wiccan friends and contacts they have met online. Plus most teens have learned most of what they know about Wicca on the Internet.
Lopez: There’s “sex magic”? If they read your book, frat guys might start inviting more witches to their keggers. Can it put Viagra out of business?
Sanders: Aleister Crowley was fond of “sex magic.” Wiccans have very relaxed sexual standards; some believe in polyamory and don’t necessarily encourage monogamy, although some are monogamous. I have never tapped into the magic myself, but they seem to like it.
Lopez: You talk a bit about strong Christian women in the Bible. Why don’t feminists focus more on them?
Sanders: Good question. We could learn a lot from them. They might be inconvenient though with the more radical feminist views that Christianity is oppressive and patriarchal. I think that their stories are inspiring. The early church and Jesus treated women with dignity unheard of in the ancient, pagan world.
Lopez: How much Wicca is about feminism?
Sanders: Because Wicca is a pagan spirituality, emphasis is placed on Mother Earth, the Mother Goddess. Wicca found an agreeable companion in feminism as the feminist movement grew in the 1960s and 1970s. As women were looking to change things in the culture at large, they also looked to religion and liked the idea of a goddess.
Lopez: Is contemporary feminism inherently pagan?
Sanders: There are so many types of feminists in this country, that I couldn’t honestly paint them with such a broad brush. Sure, some are literally pagan in their beliefs. And others have experienced legitimate discrimination as women. But I think that we wouldn’t have ever needed feminism at all if professing Christians throughout history had lived according to the tenets of their faith (which we often don’t) -i.e. to respect all regardless of sex or ethnic background.
Lopez: Reporting on Wicca has made you a better Christian?
Sanders: This was a surprise to me. I realized, as I stated above, that so much of what Wiccans seek can be found in Christianity as taught in scripture: Dignity for women, respect for all, stewardship of natural resources, supernatural reality, ritual, etc. As French mathematician Blaise Pascal said, we have a God-shaped void in our hearts. Theologian R .C. Sproul says we are created to long for the Holy. C. S. Lewis called this sehnsucht–a German word meaning “the longing for the mysterious and the wonderful.” In other words, I believe we are created by a holy God to be in relationship with a holy God. Wicca is a way to fill that void with another form of the supernatural. Because of the Trinitarian nature of God, Christians don’t need to look outside of their faith for this. I sympathize with the spiritual hunger Wiccans have for something more, but I don’t agree that the answer is to be found in Wicca. Because of the doctrines of grace and redemption, Christianity offers extraordinary hope that I don’t think Wicca can match.
Lopez: If you were ever tempted by Wicca, what aspect of it would draw you in?
Sanders: The focus on the supernatural–it would seem exotic.
Lopez: Anything -non-Wiccans can learn from them?
Sanders: I was struck by how much they care for the environment, women, and one another. While I don’t think that Wicca provides an adequate basis for human dignity and the need to steward our resources, the fact that they raise these issues regularly made me think a little more seriously about living in community, how I treat my neighbors, and my attitude towards the environment. You can always learn something from someone else. Everyone has a story.
Lopez: At heart, though, aren’t Wiccans something of just another left-wing group? Embracing generic peace and anti-globalization slogans, and no real substance?
Sanders: Many Wiccans are of the left-wing type you describe above, but they are an eclectic bunch. I met a right-wing, pro-life witch in North Carolina and another who serves patriotically in the military.
Lopez: Will any daughter of yours ever be allowed to wear a witch costume?
Sanders: Ha! If she were acting the part in play like Macbeth, I wouldn’t mind. If it was for Halloween, I guess I’d want to know why she wants to dress up as a witch, or as anything for that matter. A decision to do door to door in a halter top and hot pants dressed as Daisy Duke, for example, would provoke some questions from me.
Lopez: Here’s the real question that is on people’s minds: Will a Wiccan ever become president? Could that be the last acceptable prejudice?
Sanders: Actually, I did quite a few of my interviews with Wiccans right after 9/11 and was surprised when several told me we had no right to condemn Osama Bin Laden for his and Al Qaeda’s beliefs and actions. When I asked them what they would have done after 9/11 if they had been president, they shrugged and said that well they weren’t, so it wasn’t their problem. So, I didn’t meet many aspiring to the job. If they did run for president, I don’t think most Americans would go for it. But since Wicca was indeed declared a religion [by a U.S. court] in 1986, you never know!