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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Charge of the Goddess

For an academic side-project--'cause graduate school just doesn't give enough homework!--I've been researching Goddess religion in historical and contemporary contexts. This means scouring the university and public libraries for all the classic texts on neo-Pagan and Wiccan revivals, including Starhawk's The Spiral Dance, and Drawing Down the Moon by Margot Adler. Drawing Down the Moon in particular is an excellent text, which has survived the test of time far better than Starhawk's book (it helps that it was updated and re-released last year), and is more interested in the sociology, anthropology, and psychology of Paganism, rather than providing a witches' handbook or how-to guide. Adler is sympathetic to the Pagan movements, as she considers herself a Wiccan, and though this is clear to the reader, scholarly research and varied viewpoints balance the text.

Thus far, it seems that Goddess religions in general and Wicca in particular are not exactly what I thought. I confess, I'm a fan of The Craft, Charmed, Practical Magic, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and while all are good in their ways, none come terribly close to depicting the point of Wicca or the traditions as they stand today. It is easy to be drawn in by candles and incense, ceremonial garments and daggers, lovely chalices, hand-crafted wands, moonlight rituals, and altars or shrines to ancient goddesses--and while what Adler calls the "trappings" of Wicca are significant, she emphasizes, as do many of the Craft interviews throughout the book, that the items used in ritual are symbols. Isaac Bonewits in particular has noted that physical symbols such as pentacles, incense, and lighted candles are useful for instigating and maintaining altered states of consciousness, which is one of the intents of Wicca: to open and broaden the mind in order to perceive truths which a person might not otherwise be attuned to. Much of what is termed "magic" is done by the mind; methods for honing, conducting, and releasing this magic include forms of yoga and Reiki, meditation, hypnosis and trance, and dancing (and some Wicca do advocate the responsible use of hallucinogens, though I'm not certain how widespread this is).

What really stood out to me, though, is not the physical, rational explanations for magic or for the pursuit and practice of magic. The point Adler makes that struck me is that a Wicca practitioner can worship the Goddess without belief--the "religion" (though as I read more, the more I tend to view Wicca as a group of "traditions"; covens and circles are autonomous, following no set liturgy and having very loose group structures, depending on which path they follow, and the bulk of Wiccans in North America are solitary) leapfrogs out of any sort of conflict with "faith" as it is used by most mainstream religions today. Wicca allows for atheism, polytheism, monotheism, pantheism, agnosticism, and secular humanism; it does not grate on intellectuals, people who are hard scientists, or people who consider themselves Christians or Jews. The worship of goddesses is flexible enough to allow nearly any mode of thought or belief, or none at all. I find that this goes back to the significance of symbols within Wicca--the Goddess may be viewed literally, as an Earth Mother figure, or she may be seen as an archetype of and for powerful women throughout history, and a practitioner may worship the idea of her, rather than using prayer and supplication in more mainstream ways. The ideal of the Goddess is appealing to men and women who desire strong, intelligent, sensitive, self-possessed and self-controlling female models; the thorny question of historical goddess worship and matriarchal societies is not really a question for debate at all once you take the view that the concept of a goddess religion is what many Wiccans are interested in. To be sure, there are many reconstructionist paths and some traditions which hold to be gospel-truth that at some point in human history there was indeed a Golden Age of Goddess religion, but the thing about Wicca is that a practitioner is not required to subscribe to ANY of these ideas. If a person is drawn to the archetypal Goddess as an icon or avatar of themselves, or what they could become, and looks upon worship of the Goddess as a way to a more enlightened mind, a more open soul, a more responsible, responsive, thoughtful, and fulfilled life, then that is what Wicca will provide.

I guess my point is that there is no need and no call to look on the Goddess as the literal creator of the Earth, as there is in Christianity. For many, the Goddess is an ethereal concept of higher thought, not an actual being, and so rather than restricting practitioners to worrying about what she is up to and whether or not their actions please her, and if she supports the Republicans or the Democrats in the upcoming election, followers of Wicca are free to form her as they will and utilize what she represents to achieve spiritual experiences.

Wicca and other neo-Pagan traditions are by far the most sympathetic religious paths I have encountered thus far.

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