J A N U A R Y 2 0 0 1
|Historically speaking, the "ancient"
rituals of the Goddess movement are almost certainly bunk
by Charlotte Allen
WICCA, sometimes known as the Goddess movement,
Goddess spirituality, or the Craft, appears to be the fastest-growing
religion in America. Thirty years ago only a handful of Wiccans
existed. One scholar has estimated that there are now more than
200,000 adherents of Wicca and related "neopagan" faiths in the
United States, the country where neopaganism, like many formal religions,
is most flourishing. Wiccans -- who may also call themselves Witches
(the capital W is meant to distance them from the word's
negative connotations, because Wiccans neither worship Satan nor
practice the sort of malicious magic traditionally associated with
witches) or just plain pagans (often with a capital P) --
tend to be white, middle-class, highly educated, and politically
involved in liberal and environmental causes. About a third of them
are men. Wiccan services have been held on at least fifteen U.S.
military bases and ships.
Many come to Wicca after reading The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth
of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess (1979), a best-selling
introduction to Wiccan teachings and rituals written by Starhawk
(née Miriam Simos), a Witch (the term she prefers) from California.
Starhawk offers a vivid summary of the history of the faith, explaining
that witchcraft is "perhaps the oldest religion extant in the West"
and that it began "more than thirty-five thousand years ago," during
the last Ice Age. The religion's earliest adherents worshipped two
deities, one of each sex: "the Mother Goddess, the birthgiver, who
brings into existence all life," and the "Horned God," a male hunter
who died and was resurrected each year. Male shamans "dressed in
skins and horns in identification with the God and the herds," but
priestesses "presided naked, embodying the fertility of the Goddess."
All over prehistoric Europe people made images of the Goddess, sometimes
showing her giving birth to the "Divine Child -- her consort, son,
and seed." They knew her as a "triple Goddess" -- practitioners
today usually refer to her as maiden, mother, crone -- but fundamentally
they saw her as one deity. Each year these prehistoric worshippers
celebrated the seasonal cycles, which led to the "eight feasts of
the Wheel": the solstices, the equinoxes, and four festivals --
Imbolc (February 2, now coinciding with the Christian feast of Candlemas),
Beltane (May Day), Lammas or Lughnasad (in early August), and Samhain
This nature-attuned, woman-respecting, peaceful, and egalitarian
culture prevailed in what is now Western Europe for thousands of
years, Starhawk wrote, until Indo-European invaders swept across
the region, introducing warrior gods, weapons designed for killing
human beings, and patriarchal civilization. Then came Christianity,
which eventually insinuated itself among Europe's ruling elite.
Still, the "Old Religion" lived, often in the guise of Christian
Starting in the fourteenth century, Starhawk argued, religious
and secular authorities began a 400-year campaign to eradicate the
Old Religion by exterminating suspected adherents, whom they accused
of being in league with the devil. Most of the persecuted were women,
generally those outside the social norm -- not only the elderly
and mentally ill but also midwives, herbal healers, and natural
leaders, those women whose independent ways were seen as a threat.
During "the Burning Times," Starhawk wrote, some nine million were
executed. The Old Religion went more deeply underground, its traditions
passed down secretly in families and among trusted friends, until
it resurfaced in the twentieth century. Like their ancient forebears,
Wiccans revere the Goddess, practice shamanistic magic of a harmless
variety, and celebrate the eight feasts, or sabbats, sometimes in
Subject to slight variations, this story is the basis of many hugely
popular Goddess handbooks. It also informs the writings of numerous
secular feminists -- Gloria
Ehrenreich, Deirdre English -- to whom the ascendancy of "the
patriarchy" or the systematic terrorization of strong, independent
women by means of witchcraft trials are historical givens. Moreover,
elements of the story suffuse a broad swath of the intellectual
and literary fabric of the past hundred years, from James Frazer's
The Golden Bough and Robert Graves's The White Goddess
to the novels of D. H. Lawrence, from the writings of William Butler
Yeats and T. S. Eliot to Jungian psychology and the widely viewed
1988 public-television series The Power of Myth.
In all probability, not a single element of the Wiccan story is
true. The evidence is overwhelming that Wicca is a distinctly new
religion, a 1950s concoction influenced by such things as Masonic
ritual and a late-nineteenth-century fascination with the esoteric
and the occult, and that various assumptions informing the Wiccan
view of history are deeply flawed. Furthermore, scholars generally
agree that there is no indication, either archaeological or in the
written record, that any ancient people ever worshipped a single,
archetypal goddess -- a conclusion that strikes at the heart of
IN the past few years two well-respected scholars
have independently advanced essentially the same theory about Wicca's
founding. In 1998 Philip G. Davis, a professor of religion at the
University of Prince Edward Island, published Goddess Unmasked:
The Rise of Neopagan Feminist Spirituality, which argued that
Wicca was the creation of an English civil servant and amateur anthropologist
B. Gardner (1884-1964). Davis wrote that the origins of the
Goddess movement lay in an interest among the German and French
Romantics -- mostly men -- in natural forces, especially those linked
with women. Gardner admired the Romantics and belonged to a Rosicrucian
society called the Fellowship of Crotona -- a group that was influenced
by several late-nineteenth-century occultist groups, which in turn
were influenced by Freemasonry. In the 1950s Gardner introduced
a religion he called (and spelled) Wica. Although Gardner claimed
to have learned Wiccan lore from a centuries-old coven of witches
who also belonged to the Fellowship of Crotona, Davis wrote that
no one had been able to locate the coven and that Gardner had invented
the rites he trumpeted, borrowing from rituals created early in
the twentieth century by the notorious British occultist Aleister
Crowley, among others. Wiccans today, by their own admission,
have freely adapted and embellished Gardner's rites.
In 1999 Ronald
Hutton, a well-known historian of pagan British religion who
teaches at the University of Bristol, published The Triumph of
the Moon. Hutton had conducted detailed research into the known
pagan practices of prehistory, had read Gardner's unpublished manuscripts,
and had interviewed many of Gardner's surviving contemporaries.
Hutton, like Davis, could find no conclusive evidence of the coven
from which Gardner said he had learned the Craft, and argued that
the "ancient" religion Gardner claimed to have discovered was a
mélange of material from relatively modern sources. Gardner
seems to have drawn on the work of two people: Charles
Godfrey Leland, a nineteenth-century amateur American folklorist
who professed to have found a surviving cult of the goddess Diana
in Tuscany, and Margaret
Alice Murray, a British Egyptologist who herself drew on Leland's
ideas and, beginning in the 1920s, created a detailed framework
of ritual and belief. From his own experience Gardner included such
Masonic staples as blindfolding, initiation, secrecy, and "degrees"
of priesthood. He incorporated various Tarot-like paraphernalia,
including wands, chalices, and the five-pointed star, which, enclosed
in a circle, is the Wiccan equivalent of the cross.
Gardner also wove in some personal idiosyncrasies. One was a fondness
for linguistic archaisms: "thee," "thy," "'tis," "Ye Bok of ye Art
Magical." Another was a taste for nudism: Gardner had belonged to
a nudist colony in the 1930s, and he prescribed that many Wiccan
rituals be carried out "skyclad." This was a rarity even among occultists:
no ancient pagan religion is known, or was thought in Gardner's
time, to have regularly called for its rites to be conducted in
the nude. Some Gardnerian innovations have sexual and even bondage-and-discipline
overtones. Ritual sex, which Gardner called "The Great Rite," and
which was also largely unknown in antiquity, was part of the liturgy
for Beltane and other feasts (although most participants simulated
the act with a dagger -- another of Gardner's penchants -- and a
chalice). Other rituals called for the binding and scourging of
initiates and for administering "the fivefold kiss" to the feet,
knees, "womb" (according to one Wiccan I spoke with, a relatively
modest spot above the pubic bone), breasts, and lips.
Hutton effectively demolished the notion, held by Wiccans and others,
that fundamentally pagan ancient customs existed beneath medieval
Christian practices. His research reveals that outside of a handful
of traditions, such as decorating with greenery at Yuletide and
celebrating May Day with flowers, no pagan practices -- much less
the veneration of pagan gods -- have survived from antiquity. Hutton
found that nearly all the rural seasonal pastimes that folklorists
once viewed as "timeless" fertility rituals, including the Maypole
dance, actually date from the Middle Ages or even the eighteenth
century. There is now widespread consensus among historians that
Catholicism thoroughly permeated the mental world of medieval Europe,
introducing a robust popular culture of saints' shrines, devotions,
and even charms and spells. The idea that medieval revels were pagan
in origin is a legacy of the Protestant Reformation.
Hutton has also pointed out a lack of evidence that either the
ancient Celts or any other pagan culture celebrated all the "eight
feasts of the Wheel" that are central to Wiccan liturgy. "The equinoxes
seem to have no native pagan festivals behind them and became significant
only to occultists in the nineteenth century," Hutton told me. "There
is still no proven pagan feast that stood as ancestor to Easter"
-- a festival that modern pagans celebrate as Ostara, the vernal
Historians have overturned another basic Wiccan assumption: that
the group has a history of persecution exceeding even that of the
Jews. The figure Starhawk cited -- nine million executed over four
centuries -- derives from a late-eighteenth-century German historian;
it was picked up and disseminated a hundred years later by a British
feminist named Matilda
Gage and quickly became Wiccan gospel (Gardner himself coined
the phrase "the Burning Times"). Most scholars today believe that
the actual number of executions is in the neighborhood of 40,000.
The most thorough recent study of historical witchcraft is Witches
and Neighbors (1996), by Robin Briggs, a historian at Oxford
University. Briggs pored over the documents of European witch trials
and concluded that most of them took place during a relatively short
period, 1550 to 1630, and were largely confined to parts of present-day
France, Switzerland, and Germany that were already racked by the
religious and political turmoil of the Reformation. The accused
witches, far from including a large number of independent-minded
women, were mostly poor and unpopular. Their accusers were typically
ordinary citizens (often other women), not clerical or secular authorities.
In fact, the authorities generally disliked trying witchcraft cases
and acquitted more than half of all defendants. Briggs also discovered
that none of the accused witches who were found guilty and put to
death had been charged specifically with practicing a pagan religion.
If Internet chat rooms are any indication, some Wiccans cling tenaciously
to the idea of themselves as institutional victims on a large scale.
Generally speaking, though, Wiccans appear to be accommodating themselves
to much of the emerging evidence concerning their antecedents: for
example, they are coming to view their ancient provenance as inspiring
legend rather than hard-and-fast history. By the end of the 1990s,
with the appearance of Davis's book and then of Hutton's, many Wiccans
had begun referring to their story as a myth of origin, not a history
of survival. "We don't do what Witches did a hundred years ago,
or five hundred years ago, or five thousand years ago," Starhawk
told me. "We're not an unbroken tradition like the Native Americans."
In fact, many Wiccans now describe those who take certain elements
of the movement's narrative literally as "Wiccan fundamentalists."
AN even more controversial strand of the challenge
to the Wiccan narrative concerns the very existence of ancient Goddess
worship. One problem with the theory of Goddess worship, scholars
say, is that the ancients were genuine polytheists. They did not
believe that the many gods and goddesses they worshipped merely
represented different aspects of single deities. In that respect
they were like animistic peoples of today, whose cosmologies are
crowded with discrete spirits. "Polytheism was an accepted reality,"
says Mary Lefkowitz, a professor of classics at Wellesley College.
"Everywhere you went, there were shrines to different gods." The
gods and goddesses had specific domains of power over human activity:
Aphrodite/Venus presided over love, Artemis/Diana over hunting and
childbirth, Ares/Mars over war, and so forth. Not until the second
century, with the work of the Roman writer Apuleius, was one goddess,
Isis, identified with all the various goddesses and forces of nature.
As Christianity spread, the classical deities ceased to be the
objects of religious cults, but they continued their reign in Western
literature and art. Starting about 1800 they began to be associated
with semi-mystical natural forces, rather than with specific human
activities. In the writings of the Romantics, for example (John
Keats's "Endymion" comes to mind), Diana presided generally over
the woodlands and the moon. "Mother Earth" became a popular literary
deity. In 1849 the German classicist Eduard Gerhard made the assertion,
for the first time in modern Western history, that all the ancient
goddesses derived from a single prehistoric mother goddess. In 1861
the Swiss jurist and writer Johann
Jakob Bachofen postulated that the earliest human civilizations
were matriarchies. Bachofen's theory influenced a wide range of
thinkers, including Friedrich Engels, a generation of British intellectuals,
and probably Carl Jung.
By the early 1900s scholars generally agreed that the great goddess
and earth mother had reigned supreme in ancient Mediterranean religions,
and was toppled only when ethnic groups devoted to father gods conquered
her devotees. In 1901 the British archaeologist Sir
Arthur Evans excavated the Minoan palace at Knossos, on Crete,
uncovering colorful frescoes of bull dancers and figurines of bare-breasted
women carrying snakes. From this scant evidence Evans concluded
that the Minoans, who preceded the Zeus-venerating Greeks by several
centuries, had worshipped the great goddess in her virgin and mother
aspects, along with a subordinate male god who was her son and consort.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s archaeologists excavating Paleolithic
and Neolithic sites in Europe and even Pueblo Indian settlements
in Arizona almost reflexively proclaimed the female figurines they
found to be images of the great goddess.
The archaeologists drew on the work of late-nineteenth-century
anthropologists. A belief that Stone Age peoples (and their "primitive"
modern counterparts) did not realize that men played a role in human
procreation was popular among many early British and American anthropologists.
Female fertility was an awesome mystery, and women, as the sole
sources of procreation, were highly honored. This notion -- that
hunter-gatherer societies couldn't figure out the birds and the
bees -- has since been discredited, but "it was very intriguing
to people mired in Victorianism," according to Cynthia Eller, a
professor of religious studies at Montclair State University, in
New Jersey, who is writing a book on the subject. "They wanted to
find a blissful sexual communism, a society in which chastity and
monogamy were not important," Eller says. It was the same general
impulse that led Margaret Mead to conclude in the 1920s that Samoan
adolescents indulged in guilt-free promiscuity before marriage.
Archaeological expeditions even in the latter half of the century
bolstered the notion of a single goddess figure from antiquity.
In 1958 a British archaeologist named James
Mellaart made a major find: a 9,000-year-old agricultural settlement
that once housed up to 10,000 people at Çatalhöyük,
one of the largest of several mounds near the modern-day town of
Konya, in southern Turkey. Mellaart unearthed a number of female
figurines that he deemed to be representations of the mother goddess.
One was a headless female nude sitting on what appears to be a throne
and flanked by leopards, with a protuberant belly that could be
interpreted as a sign of pregnancy. The Çatalhöyük
settlement contained no fortifications, and its houses were nearly
all the same size, seemingly implying just the sort of nonviolent,
egalitarian social system that Goddess-worshippers believe prevailed.
Çatalhöyük became the Santiago de Compostela of
the Goddess movement, with hundreds of pilgrims visiting the settlement
annually. The enthroned nude is a revered Goddess-movement object.
Mellaart's conclusions were bolstered by the work of the late Marija
Gimbutas, a Lithuanian-born archaeologist who taught at the
University of California at Los Angeles until 1989. Gimbutas specialized
in the Neolithic Balkans. Like Mellaart, she tended to attach religious
meaning to the objects she uncovered; the results of her Balkan
digs were published in 1974 under the title The Gods and Goddesses
of Old Europe. In 1982 Gimbutas reissued her book as The
Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, and she began seeing representations
of the Goddess, and of female reproductive apparatus (wombs, Fallopian
tubes, amniotic fluid), in a huge array of Stone Age artifacts,
even in abstractions such as spirals and dots.
In 1993 Ian Hodder, a Stanford University archaeologist, began
re-excavating Çatalhöyük, using up-to-date techniques
including isotopic analysis of the skeletons found in the graves.
"Your bones reflect what you eat, even if you died nine thousand
years ago," Hodder says. "And we found that men and women had different
diets. The men ate more meat, and the women ate more plant food.
You can interpret that in many ways. A rich protein diet is helpful
for physical activity, so you could say that the men ate better
-- but you could also argue that the women preferred plant food.
What it does suggest is that there was a division of labor and activity"
-- not necessarily the egalitarian utopia that Goddess worshippers
Hodder's team also discovered numerous human figurines of the male
or an indeterminate sex, and found that the favorite Çatalhöyük
representation was not women but animals. None of the art the team
uncovered conclusively depicts copulation or childbirth. Hodder,
along with most archaeologists of his generation, endeavors to assess
objects in the context of where they were unearthed -- a dramatic
change from the school of archaeology that was in vogue at the time
of Mellaart's and Gimbutas's excavations. He points out that almost
all the female figurines at Çatalhöyük came from
rubbish heaps; the enthroned nude woman was found in a grain bin.
"Very little in the context of the find suggests that they were
religious objects," Hodder says. "They were maybe more like talismans,
something to do with daily life." Furthermore, excavations of sites
in Turkey, Greece, and Southeastern Europe that were roughly contemporaneous
with the Çatalhöyük settlement have yielded evidence
-- fortifications, maces, bones bearing dagger marks -- that Stone
Age Europe, contrary to the Goddess narrative, probably saw plenty
Lynn Meskell, an archaeologist at Columbia University who has published
detailed critiques of Gimbutas's work, complains that Gimbutas and
her devotees have promoted a romanticized "essentialist" view of
women, defining them primarily in terms of fecundity and maternal
gentleness. "You have people saying that Çatalhöyük
was this peaceful, vegetarian society," says Meskell. "It's ludicrous.
Neolithic settlements were not utopias in any sense at all."
The research of archaeologists like Hodder and Meskell has sparked
heated rebuttals from Goddess theorists. "We know that even in the
West most of art is religious art," says Riane
Eisler, the author of the best seller The Chalice and the
Blade (1987). "Don't tell me that suddenly these are dolls.
Give me a break! You have a woman at Çatalhöyük
sitting on a throne giving birth, and you want to call it a doll?"
In her introduction to a new edition of The Spiral Dance,
Starhawk -- who is working on a
film about Gimbutas -- complains about "biased and inaccurate"
academic scholarship aimed at discrediting her movement. Perhaps
the most painful attack, as far as many Wiccans are concerned, came
last June, with the publication of Cynthia Eller's The Myth of
Matriarchal Prehistory. In 1993 Eller had published a sympathetic
sociological study of feminist spirituality, Living in the Lap
of the Goddess, which many in the movement put on their required-reading
lists. Her recent work thus carries a tinge of betrayal, inasmuch
as it puts her firmly in Hodder and Meskell's camp. Eller points
out that almost no serious archaeologist working today believes
that these ancient cultures were necessarily matriarchal or even
woman-focused, and most do not interpret any of the things unearthed
by Mellaart and Gimbutas as necessarily depicting goddesses or genitalia.
Despite their ire, both Starhawk and Eisler, along with many of
their adherents, seem to be moving toward a position that accommodates,
without exactly accepting, the new Goddess scholarship, much as
they have done with respect to the new research about their movement's
beginnings. If the ancients did not literally worship a mother goddess,
perhaps they worshipped her in a metaphoric way, by recognizing
the special female capacity for bearing and nourishing new life
-- a capacity to which we might attach the word "goddess" even if
prehistoric peoples did not. "Most of us look at the archaeological
artifacts and images as a source of art, or beauty, or something
to speculate about, because the images fit with our theory that
the earth is sacred, and that there is a cycle of birth and growth
and regeneration," Starhawk told me. "I believe that there was
an Old Religion that focused on the female, and that the culture
was roughly egalitarian."
SUCH faith may explain why Wicca is thriving
despite all the things about it that look like hokum: it gives its
practitioners a sense of connection to the natural world and of
access to the sacred and beautiful within their own bodies. I am
hardly the first to notice that Wicca bears a striking resemblance
to another religion -- one that also tells of a dying and rising
god, that venerates a figure who is both virgin and mother, that
keeps, in its own way, the seasonal "feasts of the Wheel," that
uses chalices and candles and sacred poetry in its rituals. Practicing
Wicca is a way to have Christianity without, well, the burdens of
Christianity. "It has the advantages of both Catholicism and Unitarianism,"
observes Allen Stairs, a philosophy professor at the University
of Maryland who specializes in religion and magic. "Wicca allows
one to wear one's beliefs lightly but also to have a rich and imaginative
"Diotima Mantineia," age forty-eight, is the associate editor of
the Web site The Witches' Voice, found at witchvox.com (she would
not divulge her real name, partly because she lives in a southern
town that she believes is unfriendly to neopagans). She summed up
her feelings on the debunking of the official Wiccan narrative this
way: "It doesn't matter to me how old Wicca is, because when I connect
with Deity as Lady and Lord, I know that I am connecting with something
much larger and vaster than I can fully comprehend. The Creator
of this universe has been manifesting to us for all time, in the
forms of gods and goddesses that we can relate to. This personal
connection with Deity is what is meaningful. For me, Wicca works
to facilitate that connection, and that is what really matters."
Charlotte Allen is the senior editor of Crisis magazine
and is a contributing writer for Lingua Franca. She is the
author of The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus
by Robert Zimmerman.
article was originally at http://www.theatlantic.com/cgi-bin/o/issues/2001/01/allen.htm.
Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights
Atlantic Monthly; January 2001; The Scholars and the Goddess
- 01.01; Volume 287, No. 1; page 18-22.