This website/thesis seeks to examine the potential similarities and divergences of the religious experiences of the Australian Witchcraft community when compared to the characteristics, or ‘varieties’, of religious experience explored by William James in his 1902 lectures which led to the creation of The Varieties of Religious Experience (James, 1928). Many of the interviewees have noted that while all Witches are pagan, not all pagans are Witches – but even from the commencement of the initial interviews I have found that this is not an immutable maxim. Two examples of this would be INSERT NAME/REFERENCE who identifies as a ‘humanist Witch’ who does not believe in deity (pagan or other), while there is an entire movement which calls itself ‘Atheo-paganism’ which is essentially atheistic paganism with no belief in spirits, deity, or the efficacy of magic. Ideas on the Witch’s belief in the existence of deity – or not as the case may be – will be explored in greater detail in elsewhere on this site. While many of the Witches in this study identify as Wiccan (the history and ideology of which will also be examined later), I was quickly disavowed of the idea that all Witches are Wiccan. However, many of the forms of Witchcraft that are examined in this study can be equally summed up by Michael York’s definition of paganism which is paraphrased by Pizza and Lewis that:
“It includes sacred relationships and experiences that reach beyond monotheism and steps outside conventional institutionalized religious practices. Reliance on revelation or scriptures is de-emphasized in favour of relationships, and an immanent spirituality is also acknowledged that includes reverence for land and place, as well as reverence for the tangible living things and unseen participating spirits that inhabit it.” (Pizza & Lewis, 2009, p. 1).
This research analyses the qualitive data provided by 40 Australians who identify as Witches, regardless of the denomination of ‘The Craft’ to which they adhere. While Harrington is referring to the specific denomination of ‘Wicca’, her observation that Witchcraft can be seen, in sociological terms, as a New Religious Movement (NRM) because “…it became visible during the latter half of the 20th century, and is steadily gaining membership and recognition in Europe, the United States, Canada and Australia,” (Harrington, 2006, p. 10) could be considered as equally valid to Witchcraft as a whole. The idea of whether Witchcraft can be considered a NRM is explored in greater detail later. However, irrespective of the age of any Craft denominations, we should bear in mind Jeffrey Kripal’s eloquent preface to Religion: Secret Religion which summarises the importance of religious studies (both old and new) where he observes:
“The range of concerns and crises the study of religion speaks to are impressive indeed: social justice, poverty, economic inequity, the moral failures of capitalism, and the new global colonialism of global corporations; gender equity, sexual diversity, and racism; medical ethics and health care; climate change and environmental sustainability; secularism, religious freedom, religious violence, and religious freedom, religious violence, and religious intolerance…the list goes on and on.” (Kripal in De Conick, 2016, p. xii)
He goes on to note that “…religious traditions encode humanity’s consistent attempts to answer the most fundamental questions that human beings ask. Who are we? What are we? Why are we here?” (Kripal in De Conick, 2016, p. xii). These questions (and indeed, many others also posed by Kripal) are at the core of the human experience. Kripal summarises the entire discipline of religious studies with “To put the matter in a single word, religion is about meaning [author’s indentation].” (Kripal in De Conick, 2016, p. xii). This research is concerned with the experiences that Australian Witches see as meaningful, and these experiences are integral to how these Witches view the wider world and their place within it.
The research examines the qualitative accounts of the Witch’s experience both ‘in the circle’ – a term often used by Witches to define sacred work undertaken within a consecrated circle, which forms a part of the religious/spiritual practices undertaken – and outside of the circle. However, many of the Witches interviewed also mentioned how their spiritual experiences constantly intersected with their ordinary, everyday lives; they see the divinity in mundane phenomena such as the wind in the trees or the smile on a dog. The majority of the Witches interviewed for this research employ widely differing practices and methods to invoke their chosen deity (or their chosen deity’s corresponding energy, characteristics, and/or influence) into the magic circle, and therefore, into their wider lives outside of the ritual used to invoke that particular god/goddess etc. The research discusses how the interaction with deities is interpreted by the Witch experiencing the communion with both transcendental and immanent facets of deity, and how these interactions impact on their daily lives. The research explores, among other topics, with which denomination of Witchcraft the Witch identifies, how the Witch came to their particular path, perceptions of ‘unseen realities’, and the traits and characteristics of the individual’s religious experience. These experiences are all framed within the context of James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience.
Witches can be Wiccans or eclectics, humanist, hereditary or traditional – there are innumerable denominations of ‘the Old Religion’ – and the majority of the research participants take great pride in identifying as a ‘Witch’ who practices ‘Witchcraft’ irrespective of their preferred denomination. It should be noted that I have followed Harrington’s example, capitalising Witch and Witchcraft when referring to the religion and its adherents, and using lowercase (eg – witchcraft) when referring to it in a historical or anthropological context. I have also adhered to upper or lower case as it appears in quotations (Harrington, 2006, p. 10).
Drury observes that contemporary witchcraft, which is “…often referred to as Wicca – and its more eclectic variant, Goddess worship, both focus on the veneration of the sacred Feminine – the Universal Goddess – in her myriad manifestations.” (Drury in Pizza & Lewis, 2009, p. 50). Drury also goes on to note that etymologically
“The term Wicca itself derives from the Old English words wicca (masculine) and wicce (feminine) meaning ‘a practitioner of witchcraft’ The word wiccan, meaning ‘witches’ occurs in the Laws of King Alfred (circa 890 CE) and the verb wiccian, ‘to bewitch’, was also used in this context [author’s indentation]. Some witches believe the words connote a wise person; Wicca is often referred to by its practitioners as the ‘Craft of the Wise’.” (Drury in Pizza & Lewis, 2009, p. 51).
Readers seeking further information on the history and development of the term ‘Wicca’ are directed to the website The Wica (Seims, 2016) as a starting point for further discussion. SEE ALSO GARDNER (WHICH BOOK WAS IT IN?) ALSO HUTTON ‘THE WITCH’
Witchcraft, at least in its Wiccan form, is concerned with the interconnectedness of all things. Witches see the human experience as being influenced by the motion of the planets and stars, the ebb and flow of the tides, by rocks, plants, minerals, and animals, and generally by energies produced by both animate and inanimate phenomena in the world. In this respect they align with many of the ideas associated with Gnostic, Hermetic, and Alchemical Practices, and the idea that all phenomena possess ‘correspondences’. An example of this would be that the metal silver is associated with the moon, gold with the sun, etc. When invoking a solar god such as Apollo, the ritualist would use gold and sunflowers (both sacred to the sun) and a raft of other objects which possess solar associations. Within ceremonial magical systems these correspondences have also been charted symbolically onto the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, an important symbol from Jewish mysticism, utilised by many Witches and magicians alike (Drury in De Conick, 2016, p. 42) ALSO INSERT CROWLEY 777.
The ideas of ‘secret religions’ are distilled into three main categories, and explored in depth in Religion: Secret Religion (De Conick, 2016). These are Gnosticism, Esotericism, and Mysticism, and all three of these influence and overlap in the belief system/s of the Witch. These three categories will be examined in greater depth below.
As noted above, while the more traditional strains of Wicca focus on the Goddess and her male counterpart, the Horned God, many other branches of witchcraft such as the eclectic practitioners are more polytheistic in their approach to the divine. They invoke the gods and goddesses of Ancient Greece, Rome or Egypt, as well as the Celtic, Germanic, and Scandinavian pantheon, and they will draw on the powers of which ever deity seems most appropriate to their work at any given time. However, many Wiccans see all goddesses as aspects of the Goddess and all gods as aspects of the Horned God so they too will invoke as they see fit. As Harrington notes “…each Witch chooses the deities they work with, and moreover, each Witch is free to interpret how that deity fits into their esoteric map of the universe.” (Harrington, 2006, p. 13).
One of the challenges of the study has been the attempt to establish consensus with interviewees around even the simplest of definitions; for instance, what is a Wiccan? For some it means the practitioner is an initiate of a lineage such as Gardnerian or Alexandrian (named after two of ‘The Craft’s leading proponents; Gerald Gardner and Alex Sanders respectively), while for others it is simply any person who identifies as a Witch. To complicate matters further, sub-divisions such as eclectic, hereditary, or British Traditional Witchcraft are further defined according to the individual’s view of these terms. One can look at the definitions provided by Harrington (Harrington, 2006, p. 12) for her UK study of Wiccan conversion yet these definitions may not reflect the attitudes of Australian Witches. However, irrespective of individual definition, it is important to remember De Conick’s observation that
“When we hold off judging religious differences, what we have left is this definition of a religion: a community of people who together express their perceptions of ultimate reality [author’s indentation] and commemorate this relationship through symbol, language, and behaviour.” (De Conick, 2016, p. xvi) but also reflect that, given the individual path of the Witch, the symbols, languages, and behaviours vary a great deal between each practitioner. One thing to consider with De Conick’s definition in relation to Witches is that they don’t all subscribe to the same definition of an ‘ultimate reality’. Some practitioners (hard polytheists) view the gods and goddesses as beings existing in their own right while others take a more anthropomorphic attitude to their deities, seeing them as personified forces of nature, human emotions and other phenomena.
*INSERT INTERVIEW QUOTE WITH FOUNDER OF ATHEO-PAGANISM FOR COUNTERPOINT TO THIS^
While many Wiccan practitioners are members of a coven, there are also those known as ‘solitary Witches’; those who do not belong to a coven and, either by choice or by circumstance, practice their beliefs alone. While James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience is concerned primarily with the individual’s mystical experience, the experiences of the individual in a group/coven setting are also examined in this research. De Conick observes that “James’s understanding of mysticism as a spirituality separate from religion is one of the main inspirations for the demographic “spiritual but not religious” that has arisen in contemporary culture.” (De Conick, 2016, p. xix). SEE BLACK WELL’S SOCIOLOGY OF RELIGION (SPIRITUAL BUT NOT RELIGIOUS). The idea of ‘spiritual but not religious’ can be exceptionally relevant to the Witch, and many Witches would refute that Wicca is a religion but rather a spiritual path. However, there are also those that believe that Wicca is the religious aspect of being a Witch whereas witchcraft is the ‘doing’ – the ‘craft’ – of the Witch. QUOTE ‘The Lioness’. Therefore, according to this proposition, it is possible to be a Witch without necessarily being a Wiccan. It seems impossible to deal in absolutes when it comes to examining Witchcraft, and ideas of a reductionist or essentialist nature are very difficult to apply. Another issue is the difficulty in attempting to quantify the religious experience of the practitioner; as Hume notes “The experiences defy rational explanation [author’s indentation].” (Hume, 1997, p. 10). Hume quotes, and agrees with, Otto (Otto, 1958), noting that he saw some religious experiences as being beyond explanation (Hume, 1997, p. 10), with Hume observing that “Otto saw orthodoxy as the rational, head of religion, which has been valued over the non-rational, which he saw as the heart of religion,” (Hume, 1997, p. 10). She quotes Otto extensively:
“It is not simply that orthodoxy was pre-occupied with doctrine and the framing of dogma…it is rather that orthodoxy found in the construction of dogma and doctrine no way to do justice to the non-rational aspect of its subject. So far from keeping the non-rational element in religion alive in the heart of the religious experience, orthodox Christianity manifestly failed to recognise its value, and by this failure gave to the idea of God a one-sidedly intellectualistic and rationalistic interpretation.” (Otto in Hume, 1997, p. 10)
This can be compared to the academy’s stance on the study of religion; it has great difficulty in acknowledging the value of the non-rational because it attempts to view the non-rational experience from a wholly rational and intellectual position. However, it is proposed in this study that a purely intellectual position is incapable of truly comprehending or appreciating the experience of godhead. The intellect simply does not have the capacity to grasp the ineffable; this idea can be framed in the maxim ‘you can’t fit a pint in a half pint pot’ – one cannot know god, one can only be/experience god directly. This is a radical proposal – that there is an experience that is unquantifiable, that cannot be known or grasped with any intellectual surety but rather can only experienced by the practitioner. While there have been, and always will be, innumerable attempts to empirically and definitively prove the existence of such altered states of being, for example Greenwood’s The Nature of Magic (Greenwood, 2005) or Harner’s The Way of the Shaman (Harner, 1986), it is proposed in this study that such attempts will always fall short due to the intellect’s rationalising processes. As Hume notes “It is this aspect of the non-rational which holds such appeal to Pagans.” (Hume, 1997, p. 10) – and, as noted above, given that a large proportion of Witches can be considered to be Pagan, this is equally applicable to them.
There are debates on the validity of such experiences; Luhrmann (Luhrmann, 1991) uses a framework that she calls ‘interpretive drift’ – that the practitioner’s perception gradually moves away from a purely rational stance to one more based in an acceptance of the irrational. Harrington (Harrington, 2006) argues against this, preferring a model that she calls the ‘Schematic Integration Model’ (SIM) which suggests that people ‘come home’ (a more palatable term for convert) to Wicca – or in the case of this study, Witchcraft. It became exceedingly apparent while collecting the qualitative data for this study that many interviewees found the idea of converting highly unpalatable (See Lecture 9) and certainly preferred Harrington’s term of ‘coming home’ because it is the best ‘fit’ for their pre-existing beliefs (Harrington, 2006, pp. 144-156).
Irrespective of whether a Witch is a Wiccan or not, there is a tendency to engage in ritual practice and festivities which are primarily centered around the cycles of the moon and seasonal changes. For instance, Drury gives the example of esbats (also known as sabbats) being held on each of the thirteen full moons throughout the year, and provides the Northern hemisphere dates for major festival dates known as Greater Feasts; Candlemas/Imbolc (Feb 2), May Eve/Beltane (30 April), Lammas/Lughnassadh (1 Aug), and Halloween/Samhain (31 Oct), and four minor Sabbats; two solstices at midsummer and midwinter, and two equinoxes in spring and autumn (Drury in Pizza & Lewis, 2009, p. 52). Important dates in the northern hemisphere’s Witch’s calendar are also examined by Harrington (Harrington, 2006, pp. 14-16). There is debate in the Australian Witchcraft communities about whether southern hemisphere practitioners should adhere to northern hemisphere dates, or whether these dates need to be inverted to reflect a greater synchronicity with the Australian seasons. The majority of interviewees for this study held with inverting the dates, as they believed that as Witchcraft is a seasonally-based religion, the energies associated with particular seasons is better accessed at the appropriate local time. An example of this would be Samhain, a time for reflecting on the dead and engaging in ancestor worship, which in the northern hemisphere is held on the 31st of October, and corresponds with the dead winter. It would seem incongruous to hold this particular ritual in the Australian spring when plants and animals are beginning to burst into new life. Hence, the southern hemisphere Samhain ritual is often held on the 30th of April (Bodsworth, 1999) and (Hume, 1997, p. 121) SEE EZZY WITCH’S CRAFT?
While Witches generally work magic on the full moon at one of the thirteen esbats, they will “…sometimes work at the dark moon, the opposite point in the lunar-cycle to the full moon.” (Harrington, 2006, p. 16). The waning moon’s power is seen as diminishing so for Witches, this is a good time for working magic that focuses on the reduction, and inevitable removal, of negative influences and illnesses. It is also seen as an opportune time for cursing and binding; “Personally motivated malefica is better performed at the dark moon.” (Grey, 2013, p.104). However, it should also be noted that some Witches see the energies of the lunar cycle as being accessible three days prior and three days after the full moon. This means that the energy of the full moon can be utilised a full three days before and after the actual date/time of the full moon. This also applies to other aspects of the moon’s cycle including the new moon, the dark moon, and other lunar phenomena such as eclipses.
It is difficult to ascertain the number of Witches who live and practise in Australia, though the Australian Bureau of Statistics 2016 census puts the figure at *INSERT DATA FROM ABS and Margaret’s email* – however, this can only ever be an estimate as many Witches will not publicly announce their faith due to fears of condemnation from the wider public. Harrington provides some global statistics (Harrington, 2006, p. 21), as does THAT BOOK ON TEENAGE WITCHCRAFT!
Harrington highlights Carpenter’s admission from the 1998 academic internet forum Natrel that
“My sense about the number of Pagans is that is impossible to determine. I think that the number of people who actively practise Pagan rituals or take part in some other activities is probably smaller than some of the boastful numbers thrown about. If one were to consider how many people share the Pagan world view regarding immanence of the divine, the notion of Nature as divine, and so forth, the numbers could be far greater than those circulated. I wholly disagree with Paganism is the fastest growing religious movement in America. My hope would be that the ‘ecological world view’ might be one of the fastest growing world views in America.” (Carpenter in Harrington, 2006, p. 21).
Harrington then goes on to note the increased inclusion of Wicca in literature on New Religious Movements (NRMs) (Harrington, 2006, p. 22) however Hutton is doubtful that Witchcraft can be labelled as such because it lacks many of the defining characteristics of a NRM (Hutton, 1999, p. 413). Using Eileen Barker’s defining characteristics of a NRM (Barker in Wilson, 1992, pp. 237-255) and (Barker in Gill, D’Costa, & King, 1994, pp. 120-140). Hutton highlights, among other things, that paganism (and therefore, quite often, Witchcraft) does not rely on the presence of a charismatic leader, it does not appeal to a specific demographic or cultural group, and it does not necessarily challenge the dominant social group. Indeed “Pagan witchcraft does not claim to be new at all; on the contrary, its self-image was first that of a survival of ancient native religion and later that of a selective revival of one, with some elements of continuity.” (Hutton, 1999, p. 413).
Whether Witchcraft is defined as a NRM or not depends largely on the criteria that is used to define it; for instance, if the age of the religion is used as a criteria then the history of the movement needs to be considered. In the case of Wicca, Gardner took the view of early 20th century anthropologist Margaret Murray that Witchcraft was the product of a paleolithic fertility cult which pre-existed Christianity. This idea has long been discredited QUOTE HUTTON PERSONAL CORRESPONDENCE – AIDEN KELLY. Hume states that “The urge to legitimize a new religious movement through maintaining the premise that its links are with an ancient past compels some modern Pagans to create an unnecessary fabrication of their own ancestral links.” (Hume, 1997, p. 17). While some interviewees spoke of their ability to trace their coven’s lineage back to Gerald Gardner or Alex Sanders, most did not appear too concerned with the historical aspect of their path. For most interviewees, the fact that Witchcraft ‘worked’ for them was enough. One of Hume’s interviewees, identified as ‘PD’ summarises this attitude well when he observed that
“…those involved in the Neo-Pagan revival in its many forms have developed eclectic, integrative spiritual systems which honour the lost feminine (goddess) in ways which are so satisfying to those of enquiring, open minds, that they have developed a validity quite separate from any need for historical accuracy.” (PD in Hume, 1997, p. 17).
Conversely, if Barker’s criteria for new religious movements is applied; namely that the movement that has become visible since the Second World War and offers answers to “…at least some of the other kinds of ultimate questions that have traditionally been addressed by mainstream religions,” (Barker in Wilson & Cresswell, 1999, p. 16) then Wicca and Witchcraft can certainly be classified as a NRM. As this demonstrates, how one classifies is wholly dependent on what one believes as the starting point for classification. Understanding Cults and New Age Religions was written to “…to help Christian laymen, pastors, youth workers, and theological students understand cults from an interdisciplinary perspective.” (Hexham & Poewe, 1986, p. xi). Written from a Christian perspective, it does not appear to consider Christianity as a cult, which fits with De Conick’s observation that
“We generally associate religion with world religions such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism. These are ancestral religions that have been passed down from one generation to the next for centuries. They feel old and established. Because of their ancestry and longevity, they feel right to us in ways we might characterize as natural and normal.” (De Conick, 2016, p. xv)
De Conick goes on to note that because these religions have survived for hundreds of years, they are generally conservative and seek to maintain the status quo:
“They preserve and maintain what is important to traditional societies and cultures, justifying everything from a society’s customary political systems to its economies and financial structures, from its gender dynamics and race relationships to its understanding of civil law and justice. The world religions aren’t just religious for us, they are religion [author’s indentation]. In other words, religion is defined by them.” (De Conick, 2016, p. xv).
These world religions are so deeply ingrained into the fabric of society that it would seem an almost impossible task to imagine a world without them, and it is little wonder that newer religions are perceived as ‘cults’ and ‘sects’ when compared to these behemoths of ‘world religion’. De Conick notes that using ‘pejorative constructs’ such as ‘cult’ or ‘sect’ when examining the histories of religion are ‘highly problematic’ “…because they continue to reinscribe the value judgement of differences that a religion’s power brokers use to define the orthodox or right way of their religion,” (De Conick, 2016, p. xvi). De Conick notes that the general definition of a sect as ‘…a religious movement that has broken away from a conventional religion because the members have become disillusioned with the mother religion,” (De Conick, 2016, p. xvi) while “Cult is employed to suggest a religious group that is even more deviant than a sect, deriving its genesis from a culture outside the orthodoxy of conventional religions [author’s indentation].” (De Conick, 2016, p. xvi). She highlights the fact that the original use of the term ‘cult’ stemmed from the discipline of sociology “…to handle all the idiosyncratic mystical experiences that didn’t fit our understanding of conventional religion because they were highly personal,” (De Conick, 2016, p. xvi). Cowan also observes that “…social scientists have tried in a variety of ways to rehabilitate the term ‘cult’ for analytic purposes, though these attempts have met with only limited success and in common usage the word still carries unrelentingly negative connotations.” (Cowan & Bromley, 2007, p. 6). The use of such labels, consciously or unconsciously reinforces the power of established religions over newer, emerging religions, because
“They privilege the opinions of traditional religious authorities and the canonized scriptural texts, so that the truth of orthodox faith traditions goes unchallenged and convention is maintained.” (De Conick, 2016, p. xvi).
As mentioned above, De Conick proposes that when value judgements on religious differences are put aside, “…what we have left is this definition of religion: a community of people who together express their perceptions of ultimate reality and commemorate this relationship through symbol, language, and behaviour [author’s indentation].” (De Conick, 2016, p. xvi). This definition is supposed to apply, irrespective of whether the group is a ‘world religion’ or not,. It has been proposed that rather than using the terms ‘cult’, ‘sect’, or ‘new religion’, it would be more appropriate to use the term of ‘religion in the margins’; the point of difference being that to study religion in the margins is to study difference whereas the term ‘marginal religion’ has negative connotations of being unworthy of study,. After all, as De Conick observes, Christianity “…began in the margins of Judaism,” (De Conick, 2016, p. xvii).
Having established the reasoning why this study will refer to all forms of Witchcraft as religion in the margins, as opposed to a cult, sect or new religion, the issue of an ‘ultimate reality’ must be tackled. To examine religion is to examine the participant’s belief in an ‘ultimate reality’ and religion in the margins is concerned with three primarily classes, or ways, of approaching this reality; namely Gnosticism, esotericism, and mysticism. De Conick summarises each of these classes as follows
“For the gnostics, the divine secret they tendered is personal acquaintance with the supreme God of transcendence…Esotericists maintain that they alone are privy to divine secrets, which they feel chosen to reveal, Esoteric currents emphasize a correspondence between all levels of reality in the universe,” and that “all of nature is interrelated in essence, like a great chain of being linked to God. Mysticism is about an immediate encounter with a sacred reality that is hidden from mundane view. In more precise terms, it is the solicitation and participation in a direct immediate experience of ultimate reality.” (De Conick, 2016, pp. xviii-xix).
The Witch experiences Goddess and God directly (Gnosticism), for instance in the ceremony known as Drawing Down the Moon, where the coven invites the Goddess into the Priestess to give direction, advice, and speak prophecy. The Witch also uses magick (esotericism), employing correspondences in animals, herbs, and minerals to manifest their Will in the material and non-material universes. Finally, there is the belief that s/he participates in, what is for the practitioner, an ‘ultimate reality’ (mysticism). As De Conick notes of all three, “…we are dealing with religious currents that challenge reality as we know it.” (De Conick, 2016, p. xxii). It could be argued that this is why religion in the margins is persecuted as there are great material gains to be had from being the sole possessor of ‘ultimate reality’ – and any business that (allegedly) has a monopoly on truth would not willingly give this up.
Given that this research is primarily concerned with the similarities and divergences of the Witch’s religious experience with those highlighted by James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience, it is mysticism that will be the main class explored in this thesis. De Conick notes that “Since James, mysticism as the direct experience of God has come to define a primary spirituality when the holy is met personally, apart from the secondary trappings of the conventional religions.” (De Conick, 2016, pp. xxi-xxii).