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Paganism Today: An Introduction to Wicca
The Halloween season is a time to celebrate our favorite spooky things: ghosts, black cats, haunted houses, jack-o-lanterns. And the all-time favorite? Witches! Girls and women alike love to dress in black dresses, and whether portraying a beautiful young witch or a warty old hag, no outfit is complete without the iconic pointy hat.
What many people don't realize is that Halloween has ancient roots - it is a holiday older than Christianity, hitting further back to the Celtic pagans. The druids and their adherents believed Halloween, called Samhain, was a sacred day when the veil between the human world and the spirit world was at its thinnest. Though the days of the druids waned about fifteen hundred years ago when Christian forces converted people, many pagan traditions were channeled into Christianity: gods became saints (or devils) and holidays were transformed - Samhain became All Hallow's Eve, which became the secular holiday known as Halloween today.
But paganism is gradually making a comeback. Groups have taken some concepts - including various traditions, deities, and animistic or earth-centric philosophies - and combined them with modern thought to create Neopaganism.
What is Neopaganism?
Neopaganism is not easy to define. Like "paganism", there is no exact definition, and many religions could fit under this umbrella term. Neopaganism, however, is usually categorized as animistic, pantheistic and polytheistic. Neopagans generally believe that gods are a part of the universe, not separate, and probably don't physically exist - they are spiritual beings, and therefore, any god from any pantheon is acceptable. Many neopagans choose either the pantheon they are most interested in, or the gods that their ancestors might have worshiped long ago.
Wicca and Modern Day Magic
One of the most famous groups of Neopagans are the Wiccans. Wicca, like most neopagan traditions, is controversial in its roots - some Wiccans believe that their religion is very old, even coming from an unbreaking family line of believers since the time of the pagans. However, most historians would place it at less than a hundred years old, introduced by a British man named Gerald Gardner. Wicca itself is therefore difficult to define, as Gardner's immediate group might believe that they are the only "real" Wiccans, but because the term became so popular, especially in America, there are thousands and thousands of people who consider themselves to be Wiccans, some self-practicing and some participating in groups. Because Wicca doesn't have a complete religious text or longstanding tradition, many adherents have different ideas of what Wicca is.
However, there are basic tenants that do define Wiccans worldwide. One is the association with "witchcraft". Adherents have revived the word "witch" to define themselves, men and women alike. Wiccans also practice magic and perform spells - however, this is usually seen as a spiritual practice akin to praying or meditating rather than physically manipulating reality. For example, a Wiccan might perform a "spell" to ensure safety during travel or a speedy recovery from sickness. The spells can also be ceremonial, such as a ritual performed on a holiday to connect with a favorite deity. Like meditation, a focus is often on attaining a higher state of consciousness, as well as connecting one's self with the universe or gods. Wiccans might practice with singing, dancing, drums, meditation (either personal or guided), fasting, or even praying.
Paths of Wicca
Defining Wicca can be as complex as the number of groups that use the name. It is a loose term that is applied to many people whose exact beliefs might differ. What is sure is that Wicca is a new age religion traced back to the 1950s, publicly professed by a man named Gerald Gardner. Paths that trace directly back to him are often called "British Traditional Wicca" and these groups tend to be more tight-knit and strict. On the other hand, the majority of Wiccans are "eclectic" - or more free and liberal against "traditions", using whatever gods they feel closest to. There are also countless groups, in the US, the UK or elsewhere, that identify as Wicca with additional guidelines.
Gods and Philosophy
Wicca is dualistic, recognizing a Mother Goddess and a Father God. However, these two are often seen as two faces to a whole universe. Additionally, the Goddess and the God can be broken down into specific deities, these of course taking the appearance of many gods and goddesses, being easier concepts to comprehend and "spiritual forces" to access. Many new-age pagan traditions, especially Wicca, have been rooted in Celtic paganism, but today, Wiccans generally choose the gods they feel speak to them the most. For example, a Wiccan might pray to Bast, the Egyptian goddess of love, or Thor, the Norse thunder god. In theory, a Wiccan could even pray to the Christian God, Jesus, or Mary, or even create a god of their own to represent them.
The central philosophy to Wicca is animism, meaning there is spiritual life in everything in the universe. Pantheism refers to earth-worshiping, or at least finding spirituality in earth ideas rather than supernatural beings "separate" from the earth. The Mother Goddess, of course, is often interpreted as Mother Earth, and this is a key element to Wiccan beliefs.
Wicca has no holy text or guidebook. The only written "code" is the Wiccan Rede, which is a poem illustrating the atmosphere and some traditions of the religion, with morality summed up in one line: "An it harm none, do what you will." This means act freely, unless it harms others. In addition to this, there is also a concept known as the "Threefold Law" - a karmic philosophy where actions will come back to people at three times the strength, therefore, good actions will be returned with more goodness, and bad actions will be punished accordingly.
Another central element to Wicca is the five elements: fire, water, earth, air and spirit. These elements are generally the pillars of rituals and spellcasting, represented by the five-pointed star (called a pentagram). Again, these are seen as spiritual elements that make up the earth and its life, with each element being associated with certain concepts.
In addition, there has been a revival of ancient holidays. Of course, Halloween - now called Samhain again - is usually interpreted as the most sacred day. Other popular holidays include Yule (the holiday that became the Christmas in Christianity). The holidays are centered around solstices and equinoxes, or in between these days. The way these are celebrated depends on the Wiccan. Those who practice in groups, called covens, might perform rituals and celebrate together, whereas solitary Wiccans might simply perform spells or meditate.
Because many Wiccans are "in the broom closet", it is difficult to gain an accurate count of how many there are today. In 2001, the American Religious Identification Survey estimated that 134,000 individuals identifying as Wiccan in the US - and that was over ten years ago. Recent estimates are closer to 400,000 or more, with recognition that not all neopagans even identify as Wiccan. Wicca has become more common, from military service people (it's one of the most popular non-Christian religious identifications) and students, from the elderly to the young.
The path of Wicca isn't always easy, and it is often met with scrutiny or disbelief. Many misconceptions about Wicca exist, which aren't much similar from two thousand years ago - pagans worship the devil and demons, for example. Ex-president George W. Bush once said that he did not consider Wicca to be a real religion.
Even so, Wicca is increasingly recognized as a valid religious path. Laws have slowly begun to to lend their support, and Wicca - and other neo-pagan religions - will undoubtedly continue to grow as more people put their faith in the earth and find inspiration through the gods of the past.