Witches' brew at winter solstice.

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
Dec. 21 2005 7:15 AM

Witches' Brew at Winter Solstice

How Wiccans do themselves in.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

If, as linguists say, a language is just a dialect with an army, then a religion is just a madman's fantasy that has failed to die out. Religions gain legitimacy by lasting, and by that measure Wicca is well on its way to being mainstream. Now 50 years old, the earth-centered faith (also known as paganism or witchcraft) has thousands of adherents and many more occasional dabblers in the United States and Europe. Dozens of new Wicca books are published every year. There are dozens of Wicca conferences and retreats. And solstice celebrations are now seen as normal in the United States—and in freethinking Unitarian churches, practically required.

But Wiccan teachings are for the most part a stew of demonstrably false historical claims. There's no better time to examine this penchant for dissembling than at winter solstice on Dec. 21, which Wiccans say has been their holiday for thousands of years. For it's just such unfounded claims to old age and continuous tradition that may keep Wicca from growing to be truly old.

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Wicca is not a unified movement; it comprises "good" witches who use spells and charms, feminist worshippers of a monotheistic Goddess, and earth-cultists who propound nature worship. But the many strands overlap. They're gynocentric; they're all concerned with nature; they all celebrate eight holidays, or "sabbats," that include the equinoxes and the solstices. Adherents typically say that those eight holidays were celebrated by ancient Wiccans or pagans, primarily Celtics or Romans, whose traditions the contemporary Wiccans are carrying on. These seasonal festivals, they add, have been co-opted by Christians, who turned Samhain into Halloween and Yule into Christmas.

The rare Wiccan belief that pans out is that Christmas is an adaptation of a solstice celebration. We have no way of knowing when Jesus was born. Scholars generally agree that by the late fourth century his birthday was figured for Dec. 25, because that was already the day of the Roman feast of Sol Invictus (the "undefeatable sun"), a solstice holiday, as well as the time of Saturnalia, the festival for Saturn.

But in reaching for a usable past, Wiccans trumpet numerous other historical claims that are entirely without merit. The central claim that Wicca is descended from pre-Christian cultures and that it was driven underground by violent Christians was popularized by the writer Starhawk, whose 1979 book The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess is a foundational text for contemporary Wiccans. Starhawk based her teachings on the work of, among others, Marija Gimbutas, a UCLA anthropologist who in the 1970s and 1980s argued that in pre-Christian times there existed a unified, female-centered, Indo-European society that worshipped a Goddess.

Recent scholars, however, have shown that there was no prehistoric Goddess-centered matriarchy. They've also concluded that the Celts probably did not celebrate eight seasonal sabbats, and, alas, that contemporary Wicca was invented in the 1950s by Gerald Gardner, an English civil servant with a deep interest in the 19th-century occult. One can read the brutal truth about all of these debunked theories in a fine article by Charlotte Allen in the Atlantic Monthly (available to subscribers only) and in The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory,a superb book by Cynthia Eller.

Wiccans heaped scorn on Eller, attacking her book as an unforgivable act of anti-Wiccan bigotry, even female self-loathing. By marshalling evidence against so much of the Wiccans' claimed history, Eller was hitting a young religion where it hurts. Certain Wiccan claims had seemed plausible, not to mention appealing—my sister's high school uses a textbook that teaches this myth of a prehistoric woman-centered culture. So, adherents had based their faith on what they considered a verifiable back story. Wiccans had believed, and built their faith around, shoddy feminist scholarship that had itself become an article of absolute belief. Faced with Eller, Wiccans could have taken an honestly religious position—"We have faith, Cynthia, and your facts can't shake it." Instead, they attacked her.

And therein lies the problem for Wiccans: Religions tend to succeed to the extent that they are not subject to tests of proof. They are based on beliefs in invisible deities and on mystical experiences that can't be explained by one person to another but must be experienced for oneself. So, the more obscured by time or erosion a religion's possible proofs are, the more freely the religion can succeed as a matter of faith. Mormonism could never flourish so long as Joseph Smith could be interrogated, face to face, about his visions. He needed to become a mythic—that is to say, long dead—figure. Jews should pray that we never find the Ark of the Covenant; the truth of a religious system should not be subjected to carbon-dating the tablets.

So long as Wiccans are hung up on whether Christmas is derived from old solstice rites (it is) or whether Christendom murdered 9 million alleged witches from the 14th to the 18th centuries (not even close), the religion will seem a little absurd. It's one thing to have faith in things unseen; that's human. It's a whole other thing to have faith in an easily disproved historical conceit.

There's evidence that many Wiccans may be wising up. Starhawk has backed off her boldest assertions and now concedes that some part of her original historical matrix may not be true. The debatable notion that Hanukkah is also based on solstice celebrations has been floated but has not caught on, even among diehard Goddess worshippers. Both Starhawk and Carol Christ, another prominent Goddess evangelizer, told me they had no reason to believe the Hanukkah theory. Chastened by the attacks on their bad historiography, Wiccans are growing more likely to say that their faith is based on a love of Wiccan practices, rather than on particular historical claims. It's a heartening development when religious belief isn't dependent on the latest archaeological findings. Wiccans might no longer have to sacrifice intellectual rigor to get their spiritual sustenance.

Mark Oppenheimer writes the Beliefs column for the New York Times. He can be found at markoppenheimer.com and followed on Twitter @markopp1.