Neopaganism and Wicca

Thousands of witches, Druids, Heathens, Radical Faeries, and other neopagans have met in July for Starwood, a multiday festival of drumming, singing, bonfires, seminars, conferences, ceremonial performances, and sorcery that has been held for over forty years. Now the largest neopagan festival in North America, Starwood started in Pennsylvania in 1981 and has since been hosted at different locations in New York and Ohio, usually drawing between 1,400 and 1,600 participants. Starwood, like other neopagan festivals around the country, features a wide range of seminars on philosophical subjects, diverse types of political action, pagan rites, and a variety of vendors selling food, drink, clothes, jewelry, and ritual implements—all in a vibrant, welcoming, partylike environment. Attendees wear everything from Druid robes and witches' caps to wildly imaginative dresses, exotic belly-dancer dresses, and everyday jeans and T-shirts. Starwood also has a “clothing-optional” clause, and it is not unusual for people to show up “sky clad,” or completely nude.

“Starwood is a seven-day exploration of mind, body, and soul, of imagination and possibilities, including over 20 performances of music, drumming, dance, and theatre,” according to the festival's promoters, who organized the gathering in the hilly woodlands of southeast Ohio in July 2014. It's a multiversity of over 150 lectures, seminars, and rituals taught by well-known professors from a variety of areas, disciplines, customs, and cultures. Tenting and cycling, food stalls, co-op childcare, fishing, hot showers, a Kid Village, and interactive displays are all part of this family-friendly camping festival. Costume parades, jam sessions, merchants, dances, giant puppets, all-night drumming, and much more abound at Starwood, including our massive and notorious Bonfire!”

While Starwood is the largest of its kind, it is only one of dozens of pagan festivals held around the country—often in unexpected places, such as Hawkfest Drum and Dance in Georgia, Prometheus Rising in Pennsylvania, Women's Gathering in Indiana, Moondance in Alabama, Summerland Spirit Festival in Wisconsin, the Midwest Witches' Ball in Michigan, and the Pagan Unity Festival in Tennessee. The energy, scope, and diversity of neopaganism as a religious movement in contemporary America are reflected in this vibrant and diverse festival community. Hundreds of neopagan organizations exist in the United States today, including not only well-known organizations like Wicca, but also numerous Druid societies that trace their roots back to ancient European Druidic practices. Dianic sects are those whose primary emphasis is on the goddess. Heathen groups that are influenced by Germanic practices. Gaia, or the Earth Goddess, is the subject of the Church of All Worlds. The Radical Faeries, for example, are a gay and lesbian collective. Despite their vast differences, these different neopagan movements share at least a few characteristics.

To begin with, unlike New Age spirituality and many new faith movements, neopagan sects generally look backward to an old, usually pre-Christian history from which they wish to either restore or derive inspiration in the modern world. Second, unlike most modern faith sects, neopagan communities are more loosely structured. They are united in more fluid, flexible societies such as covens, rather than drawing strict lines between insiders and outsiders, and individuals can be active in several groups or simply practice on their own. Third, neopaganism is a rather practice-oriented movement, with a focus on ceremonial execution and sorcery rather than dogmatic belief structures. It is a "religion without the middleman," allowing people to partake in magical ritual without relying on priests or other religious authority. Finally, most types of neopaganism place a strong emphasis on female roles or gender equity. Many have a strong environmental ethic, seeing the natural world as holy or infused with spiritual energy. And the fact that many of these organizations have roots in far older sources, they are all "neo-" or "modern" movements in the sense that they have just recently originated or, as some might say, "reemerged" in America and Europe, roughly after the 1950s and 1960s. The eccentric British author Gerald Gardner, who claimed to have been born into an ancient coven of witches that had secretly survived centuries of Christian rule and was now resurfacing in the twentieth century, was the most influential figure in the resurgence of modern paganism.

Gardner's nascent Wicca revival, however, soon spawned a vast number of modern paganisms, first in England, then in Europe and the United States, beginning in the 1950s. The strong relationship of neopaganism with two other social and political movements, feminism, and environmentalism, has been one of the most important—though certainly not the only—reasons for its popularity in the United States. In the 1960s, at the height of the American counterculture movement, with the emergence of emerging manifestations of feminism and a new environmental consciousness, neopaganism exploded in popularity in the United States. At the same time as modern witchcraft expanded through San Francisco, New York, and other major American cities, progressive theologians like Mary Daly published popular feminist works like The Church and the Second Sex (1969). At the same time as American neopagans started to evoke the Earth Goddess, environmentalists such as Rachel Carson were writing groundbreaking books like Silent Spring (1962) and others that helped ignite the new environmentalist movement.

In other words, much as the Spiritualist movement partnered with influential modern social movements like abolition and women's liberation, so has modern neopaganism partnered with new social movements like post-1960s feminism and environmentalism. We must concentrate on early Wicca as it originated in England and then started to inspire female witches in the United States, such as Starhawk and Z Budapest, due to the enormous diversity of contemporary neopaganism. Starhawk has created an earth-based spirituality that works for both environmental protection and social justice by combining paganism and goddess worship with women's rights, political advocacy, and environmentalism. Starhawk, perhaps North America's most popular neopagan poet, has also begun to be taken seriously in the scholarly study of faith, giving a lecture at Harvard Divinity School in 2013.

The role of feminism and environmentalism in modern neopaganism, on the other hand, poses several difficult questions and debates. Are neopagans like Starhawk questioning gender roles and patriarchal norms by associating women with "the Goddess" and "the earth"? Or are they ironically reinforcing common gender roles about women's relationship to nature, the earth, the body, and reproduction? At the same time, they raise the question of whether mystical phenomena like neopaganism are necessary for addressing today's many environmental problems, or whether such appeals to the divine are a diversion from and impediment to meaningful action on serious environmental problems.