Well darn it all, I went and missed it and I was so looking forward to it. Yesterday the Globe and Mail was featuring an online interview with someone claiming to be a Wicca priestess and I was dying to hear what kind of stuff they’re saying this year about October 31st and how they explain what they believe in.
Judging by the fact that she’s a self proclaimed priestess, I’d have to believe she is an adherent of one of the late 19th century-early 20th century occultists who called themselves Wicca and laid claim to the usual run of mystical talents. You know, communing with the dead via séances, foretelling the future via palm reading, other arcane methods, and of course the ability to cast spells.
In the 1950’s Gerald Gardner published Witchcraft Today which was followed by his 1960 release The Meaning Of Witchcraft, upon which most of modern Wicca practice and worship is based. He claimed that Wicca was an old religion that predated Christianity and had been eradicated over the years.
He claimed to have learned everything from one solitary source that had initiated him into a coven in the 1920’s, but many people have pointed out the similarities between the rituals described by Gardner and those that followers of Victorian occultists like Alistair Crowley. In the late Victoria era, as part of the Romantic movement, there was a great upsurge in belief in all things occult including a neo-druidic movement, an interest in spiritualism, and an upsurge in sightings of fairies and other wee creatures of myth.
The majority of today’s followers of Wicca proscribe to these teachings and adhere to a mixture of beliefs and rituals co-opted from a variety of pre-Christian sources, but especially from the British Isles. In the United States and Britain, the Wiccan Church has achieved official recognition as a religion and all the rights and freedoms that this entails.
I suppose the newspaper felt that with Halloween upon us they should make a genuine witch available to its readership so they could ask her about the relationship of witchcraft and the holiday. According to their system of holidays, Wiccans have co-opted four of the old Celtic festivals of part of their eight major celebrations of the year. One of those is Samhain (sow-en or sow-ain), which coincides with our October 31st.
The word Samhain is actually the old Celtic word for the month of November and in particular the first three days of the month. These three days were to mark the end of the summer days and the harvest and the beginning of the days of winter. In fact October 31st is still considered the traditional first day of winter in Ireland.
In the old Celtic belief this three-day festival is also the time when the worlds of humans and the dead are closest and the spirits of our ancestors move among us. With the rise of Christianity, quite a few of the old holiday dates were utilized to maintain familiarity for the people so they could be easily swayed over to the new way of doing things.
Thus November 1st became All Hallows’ Day, November 2nd All Saints Day, and eventually October 31st All Hallows’ Eve. Many Catholic countries still celebrate all three days with the final being the Day of the Dead, a day in which to venerate those that came before.
In the past few years there has been an upsurge in popularity in things associated with witchcraft. Television shows like Buffy The Vampire Slayer and movies like Practical Magic and The Craft have served to sensationalize the arcane side of these practices without exploring any of the history behind the beliefs.
Most of the blame for that should be laid on the shoulders of these so-called witches and their mysteries. Somehow it was decided the beliefs should be kept from the general public and that their holy book, The Book Of Shadows, be forbidden to all but those initiated in the craft. This has ensured that no one knows anything about them or their practices.
Oh sure, it makes them all important and mysterious sounding: you have to be initiated into the belief if you want to learn their secrets because they’re obviously too potent for just anybody to mess around with. I wonder if they have a secret handshake as well so they can differentiate between those who claim to be Wiccan and those who have had the mysteries revealed to them.
Almost everybody in the world knows something about one of the major religions in the world aside from the one they practice, and it doesn’t seem to have harmed them terribly much. What is it they are so worried about? It wouldn’t have anything to do with the fact that it’s a bunch of made up rubbish that has nothing to do with the realities of the things they claim to believe in, would it?
There are even people who call themselves Wiccans who have nothing to do with this larger body of people who follow these practices. They operate under the belief that anybody who wants to can worship the things they do without any special knowledge or approval. They don’t have a hierarchy of priests and priestesses trying to impose their will on others or telling them the correct way in which to worship their deity.
The irony of all this is that the practice was intended for people in rural communities who were closely connected to the earth. These were people who didn’t have calendars telling them when holidays were or anything like that. They lived according to the rhythms of the earth and the changing of the seasons. They knew when to plant and when to harvest (could they keep it in the ground an extra day or two to make it that much plumper or should they harvest it today because the first frost is fast approaching?) and had respect for the world they lived in.
If they ever thought to set themselves above this reality, they knew they would be tempting fate and risking disaster. Even when things didn’t go that well (an early frost destroyed part of the crop or there were drought conditions for part of the season), they would still be grateful for what they did receive, knowing full well it could have been worse.
Like other religions that worship the natural world and preach working with nature rather than against her, it was born out of perceived necessity and an attempt to understand and explain the capriciousness of the natural world. If I want to have success in hunting food for my family, I will ask permission to kill something and will give an offering to the animal’s spirit in gratitude for providing its body to feed me.
That form of worship makes sense if you are dependant on those results for survival. But we live in a world where the majority of us depend on being able to make it the super market and having sufficient money to buy groceries for survival. Performing fertility rites in the spring and giving thanks for a good harvest in the fall makes little or no sense and at worst is woefully insincere and self-serving.
Instead of doing something in the hope of obtaining a desired result, the purpose of a ritual in the first place, you are going through empty motions that only serve to make you look important. If you truly desire to honour the natural world, then you need to create a means of doing so that doesn’t involve putting yourself ahead of what you worship.
Humility and being humble are two very important parts of worship that Wicca and other New Age faiths seem to disregard. It’s all about what I can get from doing this instead of being grateful for what I have received.
Seeing someone call herself a high priestess of something called Wicca, and realizing that she is going to be nattering on about how special they are and what Hallows’ Eve means to them, only serves to remind me how far humans have drifted from the real belief that we have things to be grateful for. When did we become so selfish?