The Wicca That Never Was

The real story of the world's newest

Like any good family reunion, this year's Pagan Pride Day celebrations across the country featured picnics, games, and plenty of frolicking children. But there was serious business to attend to, as well. Between the rituals at sunrise and sunset, there were video presentations and discussions of religious tolerance. In some cities, revelers brought canned goods to donate to local food shelves, and sponsors set up information booths, offering the uninitiated an easy way to learn more about the earth-centered religions known (sometimes interchangably) as Wicca or neopaganism.

If it sounds normal -- boring, even -- it's supposed to: Witchcraft is poised to enter mainstream America. In fact, proponents claim it is the fastest-growing religion in the United States, with an estimated 400,000 adherents. While that number may be high and -- given Wicca's long-standing tradition of secrecy -- impossible to confirm, it still represents an important step into the sunlight for a religion that's long been shrouded in darkness.

"There seem to be two widely held perceptions of Pagans today," says Dave Rust, founding member of the Witches Informational Network, a national organization established to spread the word about Wicca and Neopaganism. "Either we're fluff-for-brains, New Age tree huggers, or we're devil-worshipping baby killers. Both extremes are frustrating, so we're working to let the public know that, in reality, we're just the normal people next door."

While American Wiccans are busy peeling the warts off their public image, a controversy over the origins of the religion threatens to undermine that image and divide adherents. In Gnosis Magazine (Summer 1998), John Michael Greer and Gordon Cooper discount the long-held belief that Wicca is a religious tradition surviving from pre-Christian times. Rather, they argue that modern witchcraft has its roots not in ancient Europe but in turn-of-the-century Connecticut.

For many years, Wiccans have turned to scholars like anthropologist-historian Margaret Murray for proof that their religion's roots are planted deeply in history. Murray's three books, the first published in 1921, claim that witchcraft persecutions were not simply episodes of mass hysteria but a calculated campaign to destroy a popular religion that competed with Christianity.

A series of books published in the '50s by Gerald Gardner, a retired customs official and a member of the British Folklore Society, built on Murray's theories. Gardner set out the tenets and practice of a religion he claimed to have adopted after stumbling upon a practicing coven of witches in England's New Forest in 1930.

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