I think to most people Wicca is a “nature religion” or an “Earth based tradition.” That’s not an assumption I would ever argue. Certainly in 2014 Wicca is very much an environmentally conscious faith, but I’m not sure that’s always been the case. When I was asked to write something on “Has Pagan environmentalism failed?” I began sketching this article out in my head instead. For many people Wicca is a harmonious walk with Mother Earth and the Horned God, but to some extent for me Wicca remains a far more occult-type path. As a Pagan I’m a tree-hugging dirt worshipper and feel very connected to the Earth, as a Witch I’m often far more in tune with ritual, ceremony, and communing with specific gods. The things I do as a Witch might certainly be connected to “nature religion” but I think many of them come from very different origin points.
All of that leads me to the question that maybe Wicca isn’t the earth religion we all imagine it to be? I know that’s a bit hard to believe but in some ways I think it’s true. Wicca was the first long-lasting Modern Pagan movement but as much as Wicca has influenced the Pagan movement, the broader general Pagan movement has also influenced Modern Witchcraft. I believe that Wicca didn’t became truly environmentally aware until the late 1960’s and early 1970’s and that awareness was the direct result of then societal trends and some of the more organic Paganisms that developed in that era. (I’m looking at you and your Church of All Worlds Oberon Zell!) I’m not sure Wicca began as an earth religion, but in more recent years it’s certainly put on the mantle.
I know, I know, how can a spirituality built around the Wheel of the Year not be an earth religion from its very start? Pretty easily. Most solar calendars are full of holidays related to the change of the seasons. Sure Easter is nominally about the return of Jesus from the dead but it’s also about the return of the Earth from the dead. The Jesus stuff in the holiday is just as important as the Spring stuff. On Beltane my wife’s family annually puts a wreath of flowers on statue of the Virgin Mary. It’s not quite what we do, but it’s still seasonal. Look at the holiday calendar of just about any Western nation and you’ll see some sort of Wheel of the Year. It may not be as balanced as ours but it still exists.
Much of Wicca’s backbone and structure can be traced back not to ancient paganisms but to fraternal orders like Freemasonry. It’s easy to overlook Wicca’s roots as a mystery tradition in a world where everyone has access to Wiccan rituals in books and online, but Wicca was very much an initiatory-tradition-only at its outset. Nearly every initiatory group used the same model too: Freemasonry. Much of Wicca’s language also comes directly from the Masons, even the term “the Craft” is simply shorthand for Freemasonry. (“I practice the Craft, that is I practice Freemasonry.”) Other words and phrases can be traced directly back to Witchcraft’s fraternal grandfather too. Cowan and charge are both Masonic terms so is the phrase “Merry Meet.” Much of the archaic sounding language and phrasing used in Witchcraft comes from Nineteenth Century Freemasonry.
A quick look at pictures of Witches from the late 60’s and early 70’s (like the ones of Maxine and Alex Sanders on this page) helps to illustrate my point. There’s a lot in those photographs that says “occult” or “witch,” very little that seems to scream “Earth.” I think many of us have a hard time imagining an exclusively indoor ritual calendar, but such was the case in a lot of early Witchcraft. Some of those reasons had to due with nudity, others simply with privacy, but such concerns most certainly have an effect on ritual practice. In photographs of Alex and Maxine the ritual’s focus seems to be magic and mystery, not the wonders of the natural world.
Some of Wicca’s other building blocks have nothing to do with the Earth either. Ceremonial Magic and the Grimoire Tradition were often past-times of the learned and upper classes. It’s hard to imagine someone conjuring up a demon while wondering how to be a good environmental steward. Traditions such as cunning-craft were heavily influenced by magical books. It’s always easy to imagine the village Wise Woman as a knowledgeable healer in touch with the Earth but from the Renaissance onwards those folks were using books as reference as much as any oral tradition.
There were of course “nature based” practices that had an influence on early Modern Wicca. Gerald Gardner was a nudist, and while I know that sounds pervy to some, he was a nudist on the advice of his physician. In the early Twentieth Century there was a sincere belief held by many folks that being naked was simply good for people, and might help combat allergies and other ailments. Some of this belief came from the desire to return to a more natural sort of existence, and that sounds pretty “earth centered” to me. There are numerous ways to look at the symbolism of the Great Rite, is it a union of two cosmic occult forces (female and male) or two natural ones? While expressions of sexual union certainly feel at home in a nature-based religion it’s important to remember that everyone has sex, and even some prudish monotheistic traditions celebrate that act. Never as a poetically and explicitly as Modern Witches, but it’s still sometimes there.
This speculation is all kind of moot anyway. Certainly Wicca has evolved into a nature religion over the past five decades. Most of the pieces were already in place and as the public face of Wicca became more accessible and less like a mystery tradition that process accelerated. Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance added an explicitly earthy, nature-loving vibe to Modern Witchcraft and while The Spiral Dance isn’t a text designed for the British Traditional Witch it still had an effect on many of that tradition’s adherents. Had Modern Wicca remained an initiation-only-oath-bound-secret known only to a few thousand people it’s likely that it would still be more mystery tradition than an earth based spirituality, but few Paganisms exist completely in a bubble. Many Wiccan Traditions remain essentially as they were in the 60’s and 70’s, but the people entering those traditions are coming from different backgrounds and levels of experience today, and to many of those individuals Wicca has always been (and will ever be) a nature religion.
Do you like Raise the Horns? Even if you don’t would you be interested in humoring me? Like us on Facebook, and also like Patheos Pagan for more great articles just like this one. Are you a Pagan living in the UK? Jason will be in London and Edinburgh this September and October, send him a message if you’d like to get a cup of tea or a pint of cider. He will also be speaking and teaching in North Carolina this August, click here for more information about that.