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Future of Witchcraft


by Estelle Daniels

As we near the Millennium society is becoming more diverse. With this thought in mind: What is the future of witchcraft?

To explore this, a couple of things are needed. First witchcraft will be defined for this article as Wicca and other neo-Pagan religious paths which have adopted the word "Witch" to describe their adherents. This somewhat narrows the field (we are not discussing African Witch Doctors), but hopefully not too much.

Secondly, there should be some history to determine what has come before, so an extrapolation can be made with more information.

Modern Witchcraft cannot be reliably traced back any farther than 1954 and Gerald Gardner's book, What Witches Do. He wrote a novel in 1949, under the pseudonym Scire, High Magick's Aid, and though it contained much information about what was to become Gardnerian Wicca, it is still only a novel and could be dismissed as imagination. I'm ignoring Aradia, Gospel of the Witches by Leland written around 1900, Margaret Murray, all the stuff written during the Inquisition and archaeological records. We are looking for solid historical proof of the modern practice of Witchcraft and those works are amalgams, conjecture, propaganda or informed speculation. 1954 it is.

Even in the early days (up to the mid-1960's) most who called themselves witches were extremely secretive. Until 1951 in England, there were laws that mandated any witch be prosecuted. (The capital portion of that law was repealed in the 1700’s) And because of the Inquisition and other religious persecutions, being a witch was more than merely unpopular, it was detrimental to livelihood and life itself. Gardner himself was not quiet about being a Witch, he seemed to court publicity and notoriety, and became the Official Witch of England as described by the press. Accounts of others explain how this was unpopular, and his group split up over the publicity issue, among other things. Except for Gardner and a few notable others, early witches were very much in the broom closet.

In the mid 1960's came the explosion of occult material, some of it on witchcraft. The books by Sybil Leek, an admitted witch, though not of Gerald Gardner's line, were factual and brought the message that witches were alive and well in the modern world. With the occult explosion and a little publicity (Sybil Leek was very famous in her time), more people came to witchcraft and the religion grew. Still, though people might have been open about their occult practices, they were still mostly silent about their witchcraft.

Then in 1979, everything changed. On October 31, 1979, two books were published; Drawing Down the Moon, by Margot Adler and Spiral Dance by Starhawk. These two books together detailed the art and practice of modern witchcraft and Goddess worship and gave examples of those who were actually practicing these religions and what they did in their daily lives. There had been books published earlier about witchcraft and Wicca (The Grimoire of Lady Sheba, 1972 among others) but these two books were so popular that they became the cornerstones for a great revival of witchcraft. After them, and partially in response to their popularity, many other books were published about witchcraft, Wicca, and many other neo-Pagan religious paths. The number of people practicing witchcraft after 1979 exploded. And suddenly where before witchcraft was a curiosity and oddity practiced by an eccentric few, witchcraft became a bona-fide religious movement, even achieving cult-status in the eyes of some detractors. The witches who joined after 1979 were for the most part more open and vocal about their religious beliefs and practices. Some critical mass-point had been reached and suddenly it became possible to actually have a witch living near you or working in the same workplace as you. The cultural consciousness had been raised and Witchcraft and Wicca were a part of the cultural possibilities of life in the 1980's and beyond.

After a few years the general population became more-or-less used to the idea that witches were alive and well and living in their neighborhood. The cult-panic mostly subsided and became the domain of extreme fundamentalists. For the most part witchcraft, Wicca and other neo-Pagan religions became a part of the lunatic fringe, part of what went on in the everyday culture, but not necessarily mainstream.

This "part of the lunatic fringe" (strange but mainly benign and harmless) is where witchcraft seems to be today. Most witches today are just plain folks, and are not as vocal or flamboyant in their assertion of their beliefs as the witches of the '80's. Their witchcraft is just another part of their lives, not something that overrides all other ties and affiliations. These people are no less faithful or devoted in their practices, they just don't feel the need to make an issue of it in non-witchcraft contexts unless it is relevant or necessary. After all, how many people, on first meeting, loudly proclaim their religious affiliation for all to know and possibly challenge?

Hopefully in future witchcraft Wicca and other neo-Pagan religions will become "just another minority religious group". It will be no more remarkable to be a witch than it is to be a Quaker or Seventh Day Adventist or Mormon. Because of the nature of witchcraft, there will probably never be a strong majority of adherents. The religion is too individualistic and self-determined and self-motivated for it to be universally appealing in the form it is practiced nowadays. To be a fully practicing witch takes more time and energy than most of the populace devotes to their religious life at present.

There are predictions that Wicca is the fastest growing religion in the U.S. and there are more adherents to Wicca than to some mainstream Protestant sects. And given the fierce individuality and lack of coherence or large "congregations" of Wiccans, I question how anybody, in Wicca or outside it could ever come up with anything approaching an accurate count of adherents. Add to that the fact that it is estimated that half of the Wiccans today are solitaires, that is practicing alone without any group support, and you have something which becomes impossible to count.

Witchcraft has changed and evolved over the decades since 1954. Gardnerian Wicca in 1954 was different from Gardnerian Wicca in 1967 and is different from Wicca today. For one thing, there are so many more types or traditions of Wicca. Even Sybil Leek in the 1960's said her Wicca was different from Gardner's. And new traditions have started since. Eclectic Wicca, probably the branch with the most adherents, is an amalgam of Gardnerian Wicca, Feminist witchcraft, and whatever else people can mix and match into their practices.

One thing the future will probably hold is a re-defining of witchcraft, what it is, what people do, how it manifests in a person's everyday life. At present most people who are Witches have undergone some sort of initiation and are considered to be a Priestess or Priest in their own right. This may change as Wicca evolves, perhaps to adapt to the modern style of clergy/congregation worship which is practiced by most Judeo-Christian adherents. Not everyone is cut out to be a Priestess or Priest. Wicca may become more accessible as a spectator religion; people can come and take part in a circle yet not be obligated to undergo training or do the circle themself. Maybe someday the persecution and prejudice will be gone, but that's probably long in the future as humans tend to fear anything that is different or unfamiliar.

Certainly Witchcraft will continue to evolve and change and adapt and grow to fit the needs and interests of the people who choose to practice it. Whether there will be a Wiccan church on any corner remains to be seen. Many faiths thrive in rented space or people's homes, so having buildings will probably not be a necessity for Witches in the future. Witchcraft does not operate in the same way at Mainstream religions, so how much Witchcraft will adapt to fit that mainstream model is yet to be seen. It certainly has had an impact on mainstream religious groups, Some Protestants explore the female aspect of Divinity (read Goddess) and worship in circles or outside. Wicca seems to have had more of an impact than its’ numbers might predict.

© 2002 Estelle Daniels, all rights reserved.