Guest post shared by Abigail.
Wicca is a religion which has heavily influenced my own spiritual path.
For many of my teenage years, I wondered whether I identified with the term ‘Wiccan’ and if I wanted to dedicate my spiritual practice to this religion. However, I constantly struggled to do so for several reasons.
The first one was purely personal: I went from being raised without religion as a child to trying to develop a faith of my own as a teenager. I needed to learn to accept religious doubt – to learn that it wasn’t a negative thing, despite how it made me feel confused and anxious; to learn that it could instead be positive, since it leads to analysis and reflection. I needed to learn to practice something which made me happy, even in moments of doubt, even though my friends and I were routinely skeptical about religious beliefs.
But throughout my personal journey to discover what religion could mean to me, I also encountered several frustrations with Wicca which led me to doubt it – not to doubt the spiritual paths it opens up, but rather the integrity of the Wiccan movement as a whole. It was with a heavy heart that I realised this religion was not the breath of fresh air it originally seemed to be, but rather one ripe with many of the same inconsistencies which had put me off religions such as Christianity when I was younger.
In the quest to establish religious representation and legitimacy, Wicca has on many occasions attempted to rewrite its own history, at the expense of erasing the history of other marginalised groups.
There are frequent claims, for example, that Wicca is ‘the old religion’ or ‘the ancient way’. The Salem or Pendle Witch Trials have been touted as examples of institutional anti-witchcraft and anti-Wiccan persecution. Although some of the individuals targeted may have had interests in what would today be called the ‘occult’, we have very little knowledge about what religion these individuals did or did not practice. They were women, children, people with debts, those with greedy and jealous neighbours, mentally ill, physically disabled, people of minority ethnicities and non-heteronormative gender roles and sexual orientations.
Claiming that all those persecuted people were practitioners of various earth-based religions or witchcraft is an incredibly entitled and damaging position to hold. What right do we have to rewrite the history of others and decide on their identity for our own self-promotion? Are we worried that our religious leanings will be considered less legitimate by those of more established faiths?
I’ve often felt frustrated with the downsides of belonging to a scarcely-recognised and un-centralised faith. I envied the wide support networks of friends who practiced Abrahamic religions, especially their established communities where they could turn to for support when they were struggling with their faith or others’ perception of it.
This was especially true when friends who were not religious grilled me on my decision to have a faith at all. It was easy to internalise their doubts and question the validity of my own beliefs. I highlight that I have written my decision to have faith, for faith can be an act of self-care: a decision to prioritise something which does good to our physical and mental wellbeing; a decision to believe in it even when we doubt it.
When people now ask me if I am religious, the truth is that I do not know.
Do I truly believe in it? Or rather, do I choose to believe in it because it makes me happy? To be honest, I think it is a combination of both. Admitting this often opens me up to criticism from those who are not religious: that I am weak, need a ‘crutch’, am less rational. But for me, it is an act of strength: the decision to push my fears and doubts aside in the pursuit of something which brings me happiness.
This means accepting that many people will deem my spirituality as illegitimate. And I have noticed that this is a fear commonly expressed amongst Wiccans and other earth-based and neo-pagan religions – that we are everything from child-corrupting worshippers of Satan to harmless but oddball hippies.
Although many of these religions have been strongly influenced by ancient pagan practices, they are for the most part modern reinterpretations of them. Most are less than three hundred years old, and many more are less than a hundred. Though this comes with its consequences – such as lack of external recognition, fragmentation, or no set core ideologies – it also allows us a unique springboard for religious innovation.
There is no shame in being a new religion.
Whilst we have historical roots, they are rarely tied to those who were labelled ‘witches’ in the past. To attempt to twist their own history to promote our own goes against one the key tenets of not only of Wicca but of many of the religions which we criticise: Harm None. Fabricating a history of deep religious persecution is disrespectful not only to those whose histories we are rewriting in the process, but also to those of faiths who have faced routine, institutional discrimination and life-threatening persecution – with two obvious examples from the last century being Judaism and Islam.
I now struggle to identify as Wiccan, even though it is a religion which has hugely shaped my own spiritual path.
It is loaded with pseudo-anachronisms and the over-idealisation of a falsified past. It is also permeated with a strong emphasis on heteronormative gender roles and Eurocentric ideals of beauty: red-haired women in corsets, buff men with Nordic features. Energy as masculine or feminine. Women as child-bearing, men as strong and intellectual. Cultural appropriation – especially of Native American, Celtic, Nordic, and Southeast Asian traditions – is ripe. Most of the literature is loaded with assumptions about the practitioner’s class or economic capital: the emphasis on having enough money to purchase equipment (pricey crystals, altars, robes, tarot decks, herbs, etc) and having the space to store them and the time to use them.
Although these may seem like minor frustrations, they discouraged me from wanting to practice. I began to fear that people who criticised me for my faith must have been right in saying that it was not legitimate, if after years of wanting to practice it I was still failing to do so. In trying so hard to draw me in by presenting itself as the most ancient religion (despite many claims that Wicca will never seek to convert people by any means), Wicca ended up pushing me away.
It was by taking about a year’s break from any kind of religious practice that I realised I missed being religious.
But I did not miss being Wiccan. The tendency of authors to tell lies about the religion’s history had not only made me doubt the faith itself, but also my own ability to have any kind of faith at all. Faith is one of the many paths on the quest for internal truth; it is one of many forms of self-care. And respect for others is paramount in the quest for self-care.
Many practitioners of Wicca have come to the faith after being disillusioned with the major Abrahamic religions. For a lot of us this has been because of their penchant for prescriptive dogma and unreliable narratives. Yet the fabrication of a direct historical line does little to challenge this behaviour.
Why, then, are we making the same mistakes?
About the author
Abigail is a French-born writer who lives in the north of England. When she isn’t writing, her passions include tarot and sociology.
Decks featured: Revelations Tarot, Shadowscapes Tarot, The Wild Unknown, Paulina Tarot