The basic structure of modern pagan witchcraft includes the acknowledgement of a balanced duo-theistic concept of divinity, incorporating both God and Goddess, the ceremonial sacred space of a circle and the four compass directions of east, south, north and west (Hutton, 1999:399). Rites of passage within Wicca include the ritualised enactment of mystery tradition rites and training and initiations are usually conducted through a three degree system of elevation. The times of the sacred celebrations are generally held at eight sabbats or seasonal celebrations that occur throughout the year and at the time of the full moon which is often referred to as an esbat (Farrar and Farrar, 1986).
Historically in Anthropological studies, the exotic far away cultures were originally espoused as the most valid or worthy of subjects for ethnography and investigation. This romanticized approach being no longer the case, it is still sometimes easy to forget that seemingly ordinary groups of people in contemporary Western societies such as New Zealand, Australia, England and America, have their own esoteric beliefs and symbolism, magic circles and rites of initiation. The role of anthropological study and interpretation is not however to romanticise such practices, but to make what initially seems unusual become familiar and also to make what is familiar seem unusual by reflecting back on our own society and acknowledging aspects of it that are often taken for granted.
The members of Wiccan covens and magical societies are more than likely unnoticeable to the average inquisitive person and in most cases such persons carry out working, family and social lives that would be seen as normal and by no means questionable. These social concepts of normality are challenged by anthropology, an occurrence which can be an uncomfortable experience, however by studying people who have different understandings we come to understand our own experiences as arbitrary and not innate. It has been found through ethnographic and historical research that the majority of Wiccans hail from a wide range of backgrounds. There is however a notable tendency for these modern pagan witches to come from middle to upper-middleclass backgrounds and many seem to have a particularly high level of academic education (Hutton, 1999:401; Luhrmann, 1989:4-10).
These findings are verified by a recent survey in America which states that of the Wiccans surveyed over 65% had at least one college degree and at least 25% had masters degrees or higher (Orion, 1995:66, cited in Nanda & Warms, 1998:289). While the ability for Wiccans to operate in the real world and lead relatively fulfilling and socially acceptable lives is therefore obvious, Adler states that they are able to detach themselves from the trends of the day, maintaining a sense of humour, a gentle anarchism and a remarkable tolerance of diversity (1979:5). This living between the worlds of a magical reality and the modernity of present-day society has on occasion posed certain questions as to the so-called magic, science and religion trichotomy (Wax and Wax, 1992:184; Luhrmann, 1989) and certain problematic conceptions with regards to scientific notions of authority and legitimacy in magic.
Anthropologist Margaret Mead emphasises that there is currently a great resurgence of interest in the occult, with great inquisitiveness in subjects ranging from astrology and alchemy to witchcraft, from medieval cabalism to modern Theosophy. (Mead, 1977:348). Mead proposes that in part this esoteric interest is heightened through peoples disillusionment with impersonal modern science, which is detached from the humanistic experiences and emotions of individuals. This lack of fulfilment through reductionist impersonality is in her mind seen as one reason why people turn to occult practices and beliefs. She states that such occult practices may promise both a greater sense of ones own self and some sense of unity between ones private, personal self and the infinite, impersonal universe (Mead, 1977:350).
Adler (1979:21) on the other hand disputes these assumptions and although initially adhering to such views herself, subsequently came to the understanding that neo-paganism and Wicca was not a reaction against science, technology and progress. Through fieldwork in America it was found that Wiccans and neo-pagans generally held an optimistic view with regards to technology and modern science, but emphasised that it should be utilised in a socially responsible and environmentally aware manner (1979:364). She mentions that terms such as occult, pagan and witch used out of context from their etymological definitions conjure a sense of abhorrent detachment and erroneous understandings in the eyes of the general public and even to many academics it is seen as a dangerous trend towards the irrational (1979:5-6). The definition of magic as superstition and supernaturalism that is often promulgated by the general public and mass media is, in the case of modern Western magical practice a misnomer. Adler notes that definitions of magic from insider sources rarely mention supernatural and for the practitioners the reality is quite the opposite as such a magical existence and world view is seen as natural and an essential part of life and nature (1979:8).
Until recent times it has been common for magico-religious systems, especially tribal customs and beliefs to be labelled as superstition, while the official discourse has venerated Judeo-Christian monotheist beliefs as the definitive apex of religious perfection (Adler, 1979:26). Paul Radin was one of the anthropologists who, more than fifty years ago, began to dispute evolutionary concepts of religious advancement. He stated that the possibility of interpretating monotheism as part of a general intellectual and ethical progress must be abandoned (Radin, 1954:30, cited in Adler, 1979:26). Radin further emphasised that no true progress could be made in the understanding and interpretation of cultures until scholars rid themselves once and for all of the curious notion that everything possesses an evolutionary history (Radin, 1954:30, cited in Adler, 1979:26).
It has been proposed by Roszak (cited in Adler, 1979:27) that by putting aside such ethnocentric notions it can be seen that human beings from many cultures, at many times, have tapped into the well-spring of human spiritual consciousness from which various religious and philosophical traditions have arisen. He states that within these diverse beliefs there abides a common esoteric essence and an essentially magical worldview. He concludes that practitioners of such gnosis or ways of knowing have often delighted in finding the sacred in the profane (Roszak, 1973:4, cited in Adler, 1979:27).
Many of the magical concepts used in Wiccan magic today, reflect the categories of magic espoused by Sir James Frazer in his famous work on magic and religion entitled The Golden Bough, which includes a famous conceptual classification of homeopathic or imitative magic and that of contagious magic (Frazer, 1929). Homeopathic or imitative magic is based on the idea that like produces like while contagious magic is based on the belief that substances that have once been in contact with each other continue to influence each other after the physical contact has been broken (Frazer, 1922:258-260). Although these interpretations are useful as tools for thinking, it must be noted that Frazer did promulgate a rather defective view of magic as immature science, which reflects his evolutionary ideas of progression from magic, to religion to science.
Although Frazers ideas must be taken into account with regards to the time that he was writing, assumptions that so called primitive magicians were practicing a false and misplaced science and that they only knew the practical side and did not think, reflect abstractly or hold philosophical views is a rather Eurocentric and egotistical view. Greenwood explains such a standpoint by mentioning how European notions of rationality and the discourse of an often positivistic science have been used as a universal bench-mark against which other cultures are judged (2000:39).
Since the enlightenment, Western cultures have been associated with reason and rationality and scientific notions of measurable phenomenon and principles. An advocate of such a stance was Lucien Levy-Bruhl (1857-1939), a French philosopher whose early anthropological theories were highly influential in contributing to erroneous views of Western superiority. These views also were formative in influencing notions that primitive peoples (sic) thought was pre-logical and qualitatively different to European scientific cognition (Bennett, 1996:66, 78). Contemporary Western witches and magicians however tend to perceive that the rational Western scientific model is only one way of looking at the world and that the otherworld and different levels of reality are seen to be in coexistence with the everyday reality (Greenwood, 2000:1). The debate contrasting Levy-Bruhls influential ideas of so-called primitive peoples pre-logical and unscientific mentality and Evans-Pritchards studies of the Azande in Africa has been of great influence in perceptions of rationality.
Mercea Eliade, a prominent phenomenologist has stated that in order to study religions the student must accept the reality of religious feelings (Bennet, 1996:99). In anthropology one doesnt need to believe in the magic that is being studied, for whether or not gods or goddesses or elemental forces are real or whether magic works is neither here nor there, the concern of anthropology is how people think about these concepts and how these worldviews affect people. It should be understood that science is a cultural concept in itself, a value as well as a mode of thinking. Thomas Kuhn suggests that scientific revolutions were the end result of the limitations of previous theoretical frameworks and that new theoretical frameworks or paradigms replace ones that can no longer explain the world (1970: cited in Greenwood, 2000:44).
By looking at the in-depth symbolism and understandings of people who use magic such as the Azande people in Evans-Pritchards writings and the Ndembu people in Victor Turners investigations it is clear that such people were in fact doing things that Levy-Bruhl and others thought were only part of (and restricted to) Western thought. These various cultural beliefs in magic were found to be not ridiculous but different, and it was shown that the Azande for instance, had a system of thought that when looked at within its own cultural context and worldview showed an in-depth form of metaphysical philosophy and thinking (Evans-Pritchard, 1937:64-83). With reference to Levy-Bruhls proposed cognitive differences Victor Turner states that it is not a matter of different cognitive structures, but of an identical cognitive structure articulating wide diversities of cultural experience (Turner, 1969:3).
Such I believe is the case with Western witchcraft and magical practice, it cannot be truly understood from a perspective in which an outsider constructs meaning in their own methodological way without doing so within the cultural context and world-view of the people who are being studied. Part of the problem with defining worldviews is inherent in the definition of science itself, for what was seen as occult heresy (the world being round, healing properties of plants, astronomy and so forth) in one age is often seen as science in this day and age. Levy-Bruhl type theoretical models confuse idealised models of scientific thought with the way that normal people actually think in daily life. The world of the occult and the world of science may not however be that unrecognisable and as Margaret Mead has noted, science is not static and is constantly redefining and changing its perspectives and understandings (Mead, 1977).
In The Elementary Forms of Religion Durkheim defined religion as acting to unite the participants into a single moral community however the supposed dichotomy between religion and magic was particularly emphasised (Morris, 1987:111-122; Wax & Wax, 1992:183). Magic, according to Durkheim is manipulative and individualistic and opposed to religion, which is worshipful and supplicative. Such dialectically opposed definitions of religion and magic do not however work and as can be seen in Wicca the two are often interwoven and inseparable and such dialectically opposed concepts such as natural and supernatural are likewise incredibly problematic. Wax and Wax (1992:184) stress that it is important to define and comprehend magic, neither as inferior species of religion, nor as indiscriminately compounded with it, but for what it is. In her comprehensive research in the United States, Margot Adler came to the understanding that many of the Wiccans that she studied viewed magic as a kind of shamanism, a knowledge of how emotion and concentration can be directed naturally to effect changes in consciousness (1979:8).
Wax and Wax (1992:183) continue to explain that western academia often perceive themselves to be the believers in causal law while portraying people who hold a magical view of the world as reliant on concepts of luck, chance or superstition. Investigations by Wax and Wax and even early reports by Evans-Pritchard have shown that the reverse to this scenario is often the case and that the individual who holds a magical world view sees no event as a mere accident or bad luck. In contrast each event is seen to have its chain of causation in which Power, or its lack, was the decisive agency. Such beliefs reflect the magical notion of cause and effect adhered to in Wicca, or in Eastern parlance the principle of karma. (Wax and Wax, 1992:187; Evans-Pritchard, 1937:64-83).
In Persuasions of the Witches Craft Tanya Luhrmann conducts an ethnographic portrayal and analysis of modern western witchcraft and ritual magic practices in England. This is done by conducting fieldwork over a period of time and actually becoming involved in a number of groups. One of the basic questions that she poses is why do people practice magic, when according to observers the magic doesnt work. She is also interested in the process that allows people to accept outlandish, apparently irrational beliefs (1989:7). Luhrmann seems to ignore the advancements in theoretical approaches that have occurred over the years and reflects a very Frazerian outlook by adopting a rationalistic stance in her approach of Western magic and witchcraft. She seems to come from an initial viewpoint that such magical practices are seemingly irrational, which in itself a priori invalidates her theoretical approach. She also views that these beliefs are to be explained by social and psychological means. Greenwood critiques this approach and mentions that because of her view that magic is a pseudo-science, Luhrmann is preoccupied with the issue of scepticism and seeing how magicians can come to find magic sensible and realistic (2000:82).
In some ways Luhrmanns approach mirrors Keith Thomass study entitled Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971), which tends to focus on the psychological, sociological and intellectual aspects of sixteenth and seventeenth century witchcraft. Ginzburg (1992:5) states that by doing so the book lacks any examination of what the belief in witchcraft meant, not for the accusers and the judges, but for the accused. Clifford Geertz (1975:71-89) in An Anthropology of Ritual and Magic further critiques Thomass work and the way that it takes a viewpoint that is based on psychological reductionism and sociological functionalism (Ginzburg, 1972:5).
Ritual and ceremonial rites are an important part of Wicca and studies on the symbolism of rites of passage and the liminal stage can lend great insight into Wiccan ideology by means of symbolic interpretation and comparative analysis. Arnold Van Gennep defined the liminal phase phase of rites de passage as being betwixt and between and neither one thing nor another (Turner, 1967:97). It was also proposed that all rites of passage or transition were marked by the phases of separation, marginality/liminality and aggregation (Turner, 1969:166), a concept that was expanded and utilised in the fieldwork of Victor Turner amongst the Ndembu people of Africa (Turner 1967; 1969). In ancient British and European folklore and mythology from which much of modern witchcraft draws its symbolism and inspiration there seems to be an important, symbolic association to liminality. This emphasis on being betwixt and between can be seen in the current initiation rites of Wicca and esoteric orders, both in the modes of preparation and the initiatory formula of separation, marginality and aggregation (Farrar and Farrar, 1986: 9-20; Turner, 1965).
Turner (1969:95) explains that liminality is often representative of death or to being in the womb; both symbolic attributions that are shown forth in the Wiccan initiation rites, for according to Farrar and Farrar, Wiccan initiation rites are a symbolic death and rebirth. The Wiccan initiation rite includes an initial emphasis on separation from the group, and the act of binding and blindfolding the neophyte who is outside the circle. By neophytes being bound in such a way they are symbolically (and structurally) dead, as the late Gerald Gardner explains, they are bound as all are who enter the realms of death which as he mentions alludes to a supposed Celtic custom of binding corpses (Gardner, 1999:265). The separation that occurs in the Wiccan rite is reflected in the Ndembu rites in which the neophyte is often secluded, partially or completely, from the realm of culturally defined and ordered states and statuses (Turner, 1967:98). Further associations between Turners theories and the ritual reality within Wicca are indicated when it is stated that:
Logically antithetical processes of death and growth may be represented byhuts and tunnels that are at once tombs and wombs, by lunar symbolism (for the same womb waxes and wanes) by snake symbolism, by bear symbolism and by nakedness (which is at once the mark of a newborn infant and a corpse prepared for burial) (Turner, 1967:99).
Next in Wiccan initiation comes the challenge, in which the neophyte is told that they are standing on the threshold of two worlds and that at that point they are in neither. Turner attributes certain commonalities to the liminal personae (threshold people) and to the stage itself including nakedness, deprivation of clothing, rank and valuables. He notes that people in such a stage are neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions arrayed by law, custom, convention and ceremonial (Turner, 1967:95). The next phase consists of the accepted ordeal and the taking of oaths and finally there is a reintegration and acceptance, which is symbolised by being welcomed to the group and the final removal of the bonds and blindfold and the anointing for a new life (Farrar and Farrar, 1986:10).
This liminal stage of inbetweenness is according to Turner seen by many people to act in a way as to bring the new initiate into close connection with deity or with superhuman power, with what is in fact, often regarded as the unbounded, the infinite, the limitless (Turner, 1967:98). Such liminal symbolism in Wicca is evident in European pagan and folk tradition and is epitomised by the studies and investigations conducted by the late Robert Graves (1977). Graves mentions that in many early English woodcarvings and churches there are depictions of a longhaired woman wrapped in a net, riding sideways on a goat and preceded by a hare (1977:403). This unusual depiction is made clear though symbolic analysis and through research into folklore. Graves notes that in stories from the Jewish Targum, collected from all over Europe as well as in late twelfth-century History of Denmark by Saxo Grammaticus, there are numerous references to such liminal symbolism (1977:403). Numerous tales are told of a lady who to pass a test of love is required to come to her would be husband neither clothed nor unclothed, neither on foot, nor on horseback, neither on water nor on dry land, neither with or without a gift. It is explained that she subsequently arrived dressed in a net, mounted on a goat with one foot trailing in the ditch and releasing a hare (Graves, 1977:403). In western European myths there is a common theme in which the Goddess promises the initiate that if he performed a sacred marriage with her he would not die either on foot or horseback, on water or on land or on the ground or in the air, outside nor inside, shod or unshod, clothed or unclothed a notion that is in some ways reflected in modern Western initiation rites (Graves, 1977:404).
As well as specifying a single moral community as has been mentioned previously, Durkheim also came to define religion in relation to the sacred and he explained it as a unified set of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden(Cited in Morris, 1987:115). Van Gennep, Leach and Turner expanded and utilised Durkheims sacred/profane contrast in a way that it can be a useful methodical tool to conceptualise how witches cast a circle, which acts as a specific sacred space of inbetweeness where magic and communication with the otherworld is possible (Greenwood, 2000:34). Mercia Eliade has however challenged this notion and perceives the sacred to be a universal category of human thought (1959:11, cited in Bennet, 1996:118) Eliade did not perceive a rigid division between the sacred and the profane and believed that the sacred may manifest itself in something profane (1958:29, cited in Bennett, 1996:119).
The circle in which Wiccans and magicians perform rites is a universally used concept of great symbolic value in which many paradigmatic layers of meaning can be contained. Mercia Eliade (1959) deduced that ritual was inseparable from the delineation of a sacred place and the regeneration of time and likewise Victor Turner (1975) has emphasises the role of creating ritualised space in magico-religious practice (Bell, 1992:99). The circle is such a declaration of sacred space in Wicca and is defined as a place between the worlds and a timeless space through which contact with the archetypal reality and the divine can be established (Adler, 1979:107).
This notion is reflected in the theories of Eliade who further explains that religious traditions have an archetypal sacred place or a universal centre where heaven and earth meet. By duplicating the symbolism of their archetypal sacred place, traditions create other sacred places elsewhere (Bennett, 1996:119). This archetypal duplication can be seen in the nature of Wiccan ritual in that that there are many levels of symbolism for all that occurs within the sacred circle. By casting a ceremonial circle witches are, as Greenwood (2000:36) states, demarcating the ordinary world from the magical otherworld.
Hutton explains that to witches, sacred action is crucially necessary to produce a sacred place, and functions as the channel or vehicle by which humans can achieve a direct and personal experience of the divine (1999:397). The circle is seen as the microcosm of the macrocosm that is the witchs symbolic universe and system of meaning and is marked by four candles at the north, east, south and west quarters. These in turn relate to the elements of earth, air, fire and water, the seasons, times of the day and stages of life (Farrar & Farrar, 1986; Luhrmann, 1989). In this way modern witchcraft can be seen as a system of symbolism and a metaphysical system of philosophy depicting a certain world-view and way of living and interacting with the environment (Adler, 1979:335-386).
Turner draws on Jane Harrisons explanations of the Greek Eleusinian and Orphic mysteries and how the threefold nature of the sacra is communicated in initiation rites throughout the world (Harrison, 1903:144-160, cited in Turner, 1967:102). The first stage is said to be exhibitions, which includes that which is shown to the new initiate, including presentations of sacred articles, relics of deities and so forth. This is seen in Wiccan rites when the working tools are presented during the reintegration stage of initiation (Farrar and Farrar, 1979:19-20). In the second stage of actions there is a teaching of what is done, while the third stage includes what is said or instructions. The instructions according to Turner can include explanations of the secret names of the deities as well as instruction as to the nature, use and meanings of the sacra or tools, according to Turner, practices that are a common occurrence (Turner, 1967:102-103).
The magical tools or sacra that are utilised within rituals in witchcraft and magic are not innately sacred of their own accord and they only become so through being set apart from the normal and everyday world or the profane once they are consecrated as magical. The tools such as ceremonial swords, the witches black-handled knife (athame) and wands do not themselves contain the power but are extensions of the witch/magicians own will, an extension of him/herself. The magical tools also relate to certain elements (and therefore quarters of the sacred circle), which in turn relate to different aspects of the practitioner. Air deals with the mind, intellect and wisdom, fire, the will and passion, water to the emotions and earth to the physical plane and a persons body (Farrar and Farrar, 1986: 251-267). By balancing the elements within a magic circle it can therefore be seen that a witch is balancing the different characteristics of the self by the use of ritual and meditation. It is evident that this is also a very powerful system of spiritual or alchemical psychology, a process of psycho-spiritual transformation (Greenwood, 2000:117, 125-128).
Although there are ancient elements (albeit fragmentary and from different sources) in modern Wicca, a quasi-historical background has also been used to promulgate a notion of an unbroken continuity from an ancient tradition within modern witchcraft. Much of these views derive from the work of anthropologist Margaret Murray, whose hypotheses proposed an almost universally organised, goddess worshipping and magic practicing witch-cult that was an unbroken remnant from times of antiquity (Murray, 1921; 1952; Oates & Wood, 1998). Although many scholarly critics have found her methodological approach and subsequent conclusions flawed (Kelly, 1991; Hutton, 1999:194-201), some prominent academics still maintain that although defective there is a core of truth (Ginzburg, 1989:9) in at least some of Murrays ideas.
Ginzburg refers in his own studies to magical cults who utilised trance and competed for crop fertility in Sixteenth and Seventeenth century Italy and Romania and draws many parallels with modern witchcraft conceptual ideas and goddess worship (Ginzburg, 1989). Mercia Eliade (1976:71) reiterates this somewhat cautious support for the Murrayite theory and while acknowledging the erroneous assumptions that were made states that more recent studies will convince the unprejudiced reader that European witchcraft cannot be the creation of religious or political persecution, or be a demonic sect devoted to Satan and the promotion of evil (Cited in Adler, 1979:54).
The extremity of growth and the increase in adherents to Wicca and neo-paganism has shown the emergence of various new traditions over the last thirty to forty years. Some of these traditions are natural hive-offs and evolutions from existing witchcraft practices emphasising a different view or aspect, however other groups with no formal connection to existing traditions have begun to emerge bringing in a whole new element (Adler, 1979:111-122). Bell sees this as a natural occurrence and articulates that tradition is not something that is created once and left to its own momentum, but she affirms that it is constantly produced and reproduced (Bell, 1992:123).
Nothing is ever static in this world, although connections back to ancient influences are evident in esoteric orders and within the rituals and inner symbolism of Wiccan and Magical rites everything changes and evolves and builds on what has gone before. The very notion of tradition is in itself a paradoxical concept, for the conflicting dialectic of continuity and change in contrast to the ideal continuation of the accepted and unchanging form causes a somewhat contradictory juxtaposition. This is certainly the case in modern Wicca and the expansion of the general neo-pagan movement throughout the world (Adler, 1979:111-122).
Methodological approaches are not unchangeable and neither it can be seen is science. Both are cultural constructs and are established from the world-view and understandings of adherents of a particular time and place. When looking at cultures as well as magical and religious beliefs it is important to understand that such approaches and theories are tools (somewhat like those used by a magician), an extension of the anthropologists own will. Such tools of though provide a framework and a system of meaning that can to be utilised in order to gain a deeper understanding of peoples similarities and differences and ultimately it is hoped to gain a deeper understanding of ones self.
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(© Cian "MacFhiarais", 2001)
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