Despite centuries of persecution, witchcraft never died. It just went underground. Witches continued to hand down teachings, concepts, and practices from mother to daughter, father to son, in secret. Through oral tradition, rituals, codes, and symbols, magickal information passed from generation to generation, at every level of society.
Some parts of the world, of course, never experienced the witch hysteria that infested Europe and Salem, Massachusetts. But even in those places where persecution once raged, witchcraft and magick reawakened during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Magick in the Victorian Era
Interest in magick, mysticism, spiritualism, and the occult in general blossomed toward the end of the nineteenth century, perhaps as a reaction to the Age of Reason's emphasis on logic and empiricism. The magicians of this era had a strong impact on the evolution of contemporary witchcraft and magick.
One noted figure of the time was Charles Godfrey Leland, a Pennsylvania scholar and writer who traveled widely studying the folklore of numerous cultures. His most famous book, Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches became an important text that influenced the development of Neo-Paganism and modern-day witchcraft. Another was Madame Helena Blavatsky, a Russian-born medium who moved to New York and founded the Theosophical Society with Henry Steel Olcott. Theosophy, which means “divine wisdom,” combines ideas from the Greek mystery schools, the Essenes, Gnostics, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Neoplatonists, and others, as discussed in her best-known books The Secret Doctrine and Isis Unveiled.
The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, begun by Englishmen William Wescott, S. L. MacGregor Mathers, and William Woodman, was the most important magickal order to arise in the West during the Victorian period. All three men were Freemasons and members of the Rosicrucian Society, which influenced their beliefs and practices. The order's complex teachings drew upon the ideas and traditions of numerous ancient cultures and melded them into an intricate system of ceremonial magick.
The most significant symbol in the Golden Dawn's magickal repertoire was the Tree of Life from the Hebrew kabbalah. This geometric figure depicts the stages of personal transformation that a magician must go through to achieve illumination. The order also incorporated elements from Hindu mythology, yoga, astrology, alchemy, the tarot, ancient languages, and many other subjects into its ideology and rituals.
The Golden Dawn's magick rituals were written by the noted British poet and mystic, William Butler Yeats, who was one of the order's most prominent members, in collaboration with founding father S. L. MacGregor Mathers.
The most notorious member of the Golden Dawn was Aleister Crowley, a controversial and charismatic figure who many say was the greatest magician of the twentieth century. After breaking with the Golden Dawn, he formed his own secret society, called Argenteum Astrum, or Silver Star, and later became the head of the Ordo Templi Orientis (Order of the Templars of the Orient or OTO). Much of his magick centered upon the use of sexual energy. The author of numerous books on magick and the occult, Crowley also created one of the most popular tarot decks with Lady Frieda Harris, known as the Thoth Deck.
was originally a derogatory term used by the Church to refer to people, often rural folk, who had not converted to Christianity. Generally speaking, today's Neo-Pagans can be described as individuals who uphold an earth-honoring philosophy and attempt to live in harmony with all life on the planet as well as with the cosmos. Pagans tend to be polytheistic rather than worshiping only a single god or goddess, although some pagans may not revere any particular deity. Like Wiccans, they celebrate nature's cycles and the eight holidays discussed in Chapter 4.
The pagan and Wiccan communities overlap a great deal and share many beliefs, interests, and practices. Not all pagans are witches or Wiccans, although Wiccans and witches are pagans. Because of the similarities between them, pagans and Wiccans often combine their resources for political, humanitarian, environmental, and educational objectives.
Wicca and Feminism
It's no surprise that Wicca gained popularity during the 1960s and '70s as feminism emerged. For women who were raised in patriarchal religions, Wicca offers balance and equality. It is one of the few faiths that honors a feminine deity. In fact, many women probably became interested in Wicca during those decades because of its feminist appeal rather than its spiritual tenets.
“In Wicca, the Goddess is seen as the creator of all that is,” explains Debbie Michaud in The Healing Traditions & Spiritual Practices of Wicca. “She represents the power of the feminine, and a way to connect to all life on this planet.”
Hungarian hereditary witch Zsuzsanna Budapest was one of the early influences in feminism's link with Wicca. Other pioneers, including California writer Starhawk, author of the bestseller The Spiral Dance, and Margot Adler, journalist for National Public Radio and author of several books including Drawing Down the Moon, also guided Wicca's growth through the '70s and '80s. In the early days of the women's movement, some witches found it difficult to separate the political from the spiritual nature of Wicca. Over time, however, many of Wicca's followers — and many feminists — have broadened and deepened their understanding of women's power as well as their relationship with the Goddess.
Dianic covens, named for the independent Roman goddess Diana, are feminist in orientation and place more importance on the female principle than the male. If you consider feminism beyond its limited, political sense, however, and see it as a worldview that equally values both women and men, feminine and masculine energies, then Wicca is inherently a feminist religion.
It's important to note, as Starhawk points out in The Spiral Dance, that Wiccans don't see the Goddess as ruler of the world — she is the world. She is the divine energy and power manifest in all things and in each of us.
In Wiccan terms, the Goddess is often depicted in three aspects — maiden, mother, and crone — that signify the three phases of womanhood. Wiccans also see Mother Earth as a manifestation of the Goddess. God, the masculine principle, is considered to be the Goddess's equal and is often viewed as her consort. The Goddess is linked with the moon, the God with the sun. Many Wiccan rituals and sabbats are based on the changing relationships between the earth, the sun, and other heavenly bodies.