Why the Craft Is an “In Your Face” Religion

Earlier today, on Charles Arnold’s e-group on Linkedin, someone expressed surprise that the fundamentalist Christians are attacking Pagans more and more viciously. I think such surprise can arise only from not understanding what Paganism is now all about.

Most people, including Pagans, are not well-informed about their religion or about religion in general. However, the percentage of well-informed people in current Pagan religions, and especially in the Craft, is significantly higher than in many other faith communities. One cannot do much about people who are too lazy to become well-informed, but at least Pagans are not heavily invested in trying to keep people stagnated in childish beliefs and in attacking anyone who questions the accuracy or adequacy of those beliefs.

Let me be blunt. If you are surprised at how vicious the attack on Pagans by fundamentalists of all sorts has become, that’s because you have not done the work needed to become well-informed. (For accuracy, let me note that the Craft movement is not a subset of the Pagan Movement. They are two separate movements that overlap a good deal, but not entirely. There are Witches who are not Pagans, just as there are Pagans who are not Witches.)

There was almost no opposition to the Craft or Paganism back in the 1970s, because the movements were so small and so low key that they were invisible to the general public. In 1975, there were just about 100 covens that had announced their existence in Green Egg or other Pagan journals; hence there might have been about 200 covens in America at most, but certainly nothing like 1000. At that time, I was trying to persuade scholarly presses to publish my research on Gardnerian history. That got nowhere, because those editors did not believe that a Witchcraft movement existed, or that the topic of Witchcraft would ever be of any importance at all. They thought I might as well have been trying to prove the existence of Leprechauns. The secrecy of the Craft at that time allowed the Craft to grow large enough to hold its own once its existence became obvious. As it has become more visible, the opposition to it has steadily increased. That could have been and was predicted.

Such opposition is neither accidental nor groundless. The Craft was designed to oppose the pathological versions of Christianity; that’s why “Witchcraft” was chosen as the name for the movement. That choice was a political decision. Calling oneself a Witch does say, “In your face, you Nazis!” (or whatever other term you’d like to insert). The choice was made collectively by the founders, perhaps not entirely consciously (though I’m pretty sure it was conscious on GBG’s part). The intent to confront and the hope to disempower the travesty of religion that the institutional churches had degenerated into was inherent in the movement from the first glimmerings of thought that led to the reinvention of an idealized Paganism. And that’s looking back to the literary inspirers of Paganism such as Pico della Mirandola, Swinburne, and most of the geniuses in the HOGD.

It was, I believe, Jules Michelet who first proposed in the nineteenth century that the people martyred by the witch hunts were actually leftover Pagans. When Margaret Murray took that concept and built on it, it was inevitable that British occultists would attempt to recreate the religion she described; James Webb has given many examples of that pattern. I suspect that is how the New Forest group now identified by Philip Heselton originated in the 1920s. However, the first attempt that succeeded was that by Gerald Gardner and Edith Woodford-Grimes in the late 1940s.

To call oneself a Witch is to identify with those who were destroyed and to confront the heirs of the destroyers. The name itself says to the establishment, “Your religion is no longer fit for human consumption.” To call oneself a Wiccan rather than a Witch is a wrong move. People do that in order to avoid the negative reactions to the word “Witch.” Of course, not everyone in the Pagan movement wants to be confrontive. It’s much nicer and easier to pretend that the Craft is just another okay religion among all the choices in the world today. But such pretense amounts to hoping that the problem will go away if one ignores it. It won’t.

I notice on one discussion group a topic labeled, “All religion is a mental illness.” No, it’s not that simple. That’s not true of all religion—but it is of at least 90% of the religions in the world right now. The Craft has been created because people need a religion that will meet their needs, not one that sets their neuroses and addictions in concrete. I’ve been rereading Scott Peck’s magnificent The Road Less Traveled. I’ll be talking a lot more about it.

I don’t want here to go into autobiographical detail about my political life in the 1950s and early 1960s. However, it was no accident that Joe and Glenn and I got involved with reinventing the Craft just when our involvement with the Peace and Freedom Party wound down in the fall of 1967. At that time I was contemplating the fact that, if one wants to create a fundamental change in the nature of society, acting only on the political level is futile. Such a change requires a change in values, and values are in the province of religion, not politics. It is religion that can be genuinely subversive—and I’m being ironic—because I mean that the extant power structure, no matter how corrupt, or perhaps especially when corrupt, will always regard any serious attempt to cause it to change as being subversive.

I’m writing this on the Fourth of July, celebrating the freedom created by our permanently subversive government, which is based on the concept that we have an unalienable right to overthrow and recreate our own government if it is not meeting out needs. Of course, we don’t actually need to overthrow it; we just pass an amendment to the Constitution; but our concept of that right is why every dictatorship, every government based on “Might makes right,” hates us. The Craft, as I conceive of it, is based on the concept that we also have the right to overthrow all established religions and create new ones that meet our needs. And you know what? That is what the First Amendment guarantees. I am now going to help my kids light the SAFE fireworks we bought from the Puyallup Tribe today.

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    So, you must be in western Washington, then?  I had no idea…!

    (I live in Anacortes, and the Swinomish would be the local supplier of fireworks to this area…I won’t be lighting any today, but will watch the town’s display later.)

    • Nicole Youngman

      Wow–my father- and grandmother-in-law and a whole chunk of my husband’s family are in Anacortes. (And he was born in Puyallup!) I am SO taking you out for lunch if we can get up there at some point while you’re still there.

      • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

        Oh, very cool!  Indeed, I’ll be here for at least another year relatively continuously–a few week’s notice usually suffices for almost anything.

        Amazing!  I knew our little corner of Cascadia had more Pagans than meets the eye, but it’s always nice to know there are others with connections to this area!  ;)

    • Aidan Kelly

      Why, ye,s PSVL, I’m in Tacoma, and getting together to talk shop and commiserate about academia would be a pleasur.

      • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

        Wonderful!  We shall have to see what the options are, then.  (I’m driving-impaired, but perhaps we can meet in Seattle or something at some stage…!)

        • Aidan Kelly

          Yes, I’m sort of driving-restricted myself, or more precisely, driving-very-relectantly-except=at=low=speed=around town. But I can easily take the express bus into downtown Seattle, which, of course, has plenty of possible, pleasant meeting places. The logistical difficulty is just finding a free day when dealing with several time-consuming lines of parttime work. I am, of course, hoping this blogging will begin to generate some cash flow, as Star said it could, IF I get popular enough. Otherwisr it will get a little difficult justifying to my wife why I spend so much time on it, aside from it possibly sparking more interest in my books. I do know from Star that you face the wonderful openmindedness of the liberal academic environment. (My son says we need a punctuation mark that indicates sarcasm.) At least at ITT they know exactly who I am and what I do, and seem to like it. I guess I somehow add to their academic status.

  • C. T. Weber

    I beleive that three candidates ran as Peace and Freedom Party in 1966 but the movement did not get started until June 23, 1967 in California and did not get on the ballot there until January 1968.  It is amazing that it has lasted this long.  I have been a union organizer for over 20 years and a community for even longer and I can tell you there is nothing harder to organize in this country than to build an alternative party that is opposed to the capitalist economic system.  The rules and laws are against you, the money is against you, and the corporate media is against you.

  • wiztwas

    If people want to be antagonistic about religion and cause offence, then that would define them in my book as extremists, regardless of what path they were on.

    • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

       Better get busy driving them out then.

    • Aidan Kelly

      If people are offended by the truth, then that’s their problem. Not that I know all the truth all time, or even come close, but I try my best. Idenifying pernicious nonsense is a much easier task. Seriously, do you think Witches need to be polite about the continued existence of the Holy Office of the Inquisition? It has only been renamed, and Beneict XVI was the previous occupant.

      • wiztwas

         Actions, not words or job titles are what speak in my book. 

        The vast majority of people I meet of all faiths are very nice people.  Many of them would also be offended if someone was antagonistic towards them and the spiritual path they had chosen to follow.

        If it harm none…

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000451145781 MrsBs Confessions

    How do you respond to the numerous historians who have disproved the idea that there was any real proof that the New Forest coven was a continuation of a “witch-cult”?

    • Aidan Kelly

      That would be hard for me, since I’m one of them. The inherent political message does not depend on the historicity of the myth. Philip Heselton’s new biography of Gardner clarifies the actual situation. 

    • kenneth

      My own take is that the “either/or” binary approach to the issue of continuation is not a useful one. I personally don’t believe the evidence supports the continuation of an unbroken, unchanged operative ancient pagan religion. At the same time, I have no doubt that there was an unbroken continuation in a deeper sense. That yearning for connection with the natural world and the old deities that we celebrate today never went away. It’s hardwired into the human spirit and not the product of some set piece immutable historic pagan religion.

       The real essence of paganism, all we ever needed to re-start it authentically, never went away. There was no plausible way it could be preserved unchanged over 15 centuries, but it didn’t need to do so. It lived within the folklore of the people and even within the religion and culture which smugly thought it had vanquished it! It spliced its entire genome into the Christian culture, and used its cellular machinery to keep it alive, if sometimes well disguised. 

      Paganism never vanished at all, and it only ever really dimmed for a period in the late middle ages, and exploded back to the surface in the renaissance with its tremendous yearning for classical pre-Christian knowledge and in subsequent periods with the Romantic movement etc.  I think our modern re-connection is actually more authentic than if some formulaic canon and apostolic lineage had been handed down unbroken since ancient times. 

      • Evilchick93

        Sunday=named for the goddess Sunna/Sol
        Monday=Moons day
        Tuesday=(Old English) Tiw’s Day (one-handed god associated with                         single combat)
        Wednesday= meaning the day of the Germanic god Wodan (later known as Óðinn among the North Germanic peoples)
        Thursday=meaning the Þunor’s day. Þunor is commonly known in Modern English as Thor, the god of thunder in Germanic Paganism.
        Friday=meaning the day of the Norse goddess Fríge.
        Saturday= the only day of the week to retain its Roman origin in English, named after the Roman god Saturn associated with the Titan Cronus,
          Quoted from wikipedia
        My point is that there are so many pagan referances in everyday life and no one notices.

        • Tara

          The list goes on and on. Our language is choc full of pagan references.

      • Tara

        I like the way you think, Kenneth. You should write a book.

  • Dave Burwasser

    Yes, the term “Witch” is confrontational but it does not imho translate as specifically as “Your religion is no longer fit for human consumption.” The name is more like a splinter under the fingernail; the person whom it affects that way makes their own verbal translation of the sensation (which might be the human-consumption line).

    In that sense “Pagan” has the same effect. It’s recovering the word Christianity has always used to denote irreligion and degeneracy, and claiming it.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1678081929 Bill Wheaton

      Kind of like “We are the little fold we”?

  • Michelle

    At this moment I don’t have the time to fully read or analyze this article, but as a note to the author, I’d like to point out that “confrontive” is not a word. The word is “confrontational”.

    • Aidan Kelly

      Of course it’s a word! I must have just invented it.

  • http://www.paganawareness.net.au Gavin Andrew

    ‘Paganism & Christianity – A Resource for Wiccans, Witches and Pagans’, published by the Pagan Awareness Network late last year,  is my modest contribution to this topic.

    I think there are two main reasons why many modern Christians vilify witches and pagans: one involves fundamentally incompatible ideas concerning the ‘supernatural’ (Michael York among others has introduced me to the useful term ‘co-natural’ as one possible way of delineating the difference), the other is that the very existence of paganism constitutes an awkward reminder that the entire narrative of what Christianity is, and how it came to be, is to a very great extent a false one. We act as a mirror, and an unflattering one.

    See http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/114560 (Proceeds from sales go to funding the education and advocacy work of the Pagan Awareness Network in Australia.)

    • Aidan Kelly

       Yes, an unflattering reminder, exactly my point. Thank you.

  • kenneth

    I don’t know that the term “witch” has any particular liberating power in and of itself. The term Wiccan doesn’t exactly sanitize the concept or make it any more palatable for the fundamentalists who lash out at ANY movement which encourages free thought and spirituality. Stake out your rights to be who you are as an American, first and foremost. Owning the term “witch” I guess is as good as anything in claiming the right to one’s identity. Ironically, the only time the term “witch” has ruffled any feathers moreso than any other pagan term has been among old-line Wiccan elders. My own original initiators thought “witch” was kind of a dirty word with connotations of nihilistic practical magick vs the spiritual system they figured they had. They also didn’t consider themselves “pagan” for the same reason. Go figure. 

    • Ken Ra

       Witch as an” in your face religion” is a reaction not a religion in its own right. In the occult subcultures Wicca is considered the Religion and witchcraft is a magical practice ie magic user. We may have been a reaction in the beginnings but we have greater spiritual needs than that. Wicca as a religion is evolving, hopefully to suit our real human needs.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_IWTTFFD2WQJRJI5VRQ53VV5J5U Dawa

    Quite a bit of food for thought.  For my own part, I’ve always been torn between “witchcraft doesn’t pay for broken windows” idea and the joyful subversiveness of the Craft. :)  It’s been a strange dichotomy in my life.

    I honestly didn’t encounter the word “Wicca” until the mid-90′s, and then it was, as my father told me, a word one could use that was more palatable than “Witchcraft” – a sometimes necessary obfuscation.  I didn’t like it at first, but it became so useful and I got in such a habit of using it that I forgot what it had originally meant to me.   

    These days, I’ve gone back to calling myself what I am, a Witch, especially now that I’ve moved away and my choice of words and habits doesn’t jeopardize the livelihoods of my family.  It is remarkably sad that I ever felt the need to make excuses for my own existence.  

  • Ken Ra

    If t6here was no opposition in the ’70 how do you explain the “Witchmoble”? fielded by Morris Aquillio world evangelism inc.? Jerry Faldwells number two man?

  • Ken Ra

    Witch is something of a catch all phrase, including the African varieties, Strega /   Italian witches and several others. Wicca is making progress toward being a developed religion.  If we are defined by what we are not,  it says that we have no idea of what we ARE.  For myself I see Wicca as the balance and cooperation of male and female from the divine on down.  Still we are fighting it out as to just what Wicca is.

    • Aidan Kelly

       Hey, Ken, my old friend, good to chat with you here. I agree, we are at a crossroads in understanding the religion. Too broad a definition includes all kinds of stuff that simply is not the Craft. But too narrow and rigid a definition would piss odd all us anti-authoritarian types. The conversation is far from over.

  • Kate Gladstone

    “There are Witches who are not Pagans” —
    More about that, please?

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=674870487 Leslie Fish

      Those would be what Bonewitz called the “gothic” witches, or the Satanists, or other specifically anti-Christian, or other Christian-derived, “witches”. It’s a small and narrow field.

      –Leslie < Fish

  • http://twitter.com/SableAradia Sable Aradia

    Good article. Nicely explains why we are a counter-cultural movement by definition. Sorry I didn’t see it before, but glad I happened upon it now! Thanks.