Witches' brew at winter solstice.

Previously published Slate articles made new.
Dec. 18 2009 12:42 PM

Witches' Brew at Winter Solstice

How Wiccans do themselves in.

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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.

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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.

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