This is the English translation of the account Marije Verkerk wrote after the Symposium “Hekserij in Holland” at the University of Leiden on April 12, 2012
Last April, the Leiden Institute for Religious Studies organized a symposium about ‘Hekserij in Holland’ (Witchcraft in Holland). Originally, the idea was that two guest speakers would answer questions from students who attended the course about New Religious Movements and New Age. However, more people showed interest in the subject of modern witchcraft and it was decided to organize a public symposium. A good decision; the turn up was impressive and the two speakers were entertaining, interesting and complemented each other very well.
The two speakers who would enlighten us about modern witchcraft were Morgana and Miranda. Those of you who are familiar with Wicca might recognize the first name; Morgana is a high-priestess and prominent figure in Gardnerian Wicca, the organization Pagan Federation International (PFI), and magazine Wiccan Rede. The main theme of her presentation was the development of modern witchcraft from the 1970′s onwards, on a personal level as well as on a global scale.
Miranda graduated in 2005 as one of the first students in World Religions at Leiden University. She is currently working on a PhD on the Neo-Germanic movement Asatrú. Her connection with witchcraft started when she was a teenager, and at 16 she ‘officially’ (more on this later) became a witch. Her talk at the symposium focused on this period of personal transition, the journey from evangelical Christianity to Wicca, the early years of being a witch, and the search for the divine and kindred spirits. She also touched on questions about building your own altar and the pros and cons of having a pentagram tattooed on your arm.
The main subject of Morgana’s speech was to give an overview of the history of modern witchcraft. In 1951, Britain’s law was updated and witchcraft was no longer illegal. Gerald Gardner assembled what he called old knowledge and initiated the birth of modern witchcraft (or, as he saw it, reconstructed centuries-old traditional witchcraft). Opinions differ as to the origin of the ideas and rituals that Gardner presented. The theory that they can be traced back to pre-christened European paganism is popular, although scientifically speaking there is little evidence for this underground continuity.
What we do know is that occult groups – which started to pop up from the Renaissance onwards and which flourished during the nineteenth century – have contributed considerably to modern witchcraft. Morgana sees witchcraft as a ‘scavenger religion’: it absorbs wisdom and rituals from various movements, such as shamanism, animism, anthroposophy and occult groups as The Golden Dawn and the enigmatic Aleister Crowley. She also pointed out that there are many similarities between Wiccan rituals and Catholic liturgy; many pagan rituals and gods were assimilated into Christianity when it ‘replaced’ Europe’s folk religions. One example is the name day of Saint John (24 June), originally the celebration of Mid-Summer (pupils from Waldorf schools will probably recognize this).
It was 1979 when Morgana was first introduced to witchcraft, when she was on holiday in England and noticed an appeal from a coven looking for new members. This is, by the way, quite unusual; covens are normally more reserved when it comes to new witches joining the group. Nonetheless, Morgana received her initiation into priesthood that same year. It would take another five years before she and her partner (who joined her through the whole process) felt adequately prepared to initiate others. They were both convinced of the importance of Wicca and they made an effort to help the movement grow. Morgana emphasized that initiation is not necessary to honour and worship the gods. ‘As a witch, you are constantly travelling, searching for messages from gods and nature spirits’. Initiation is no prerequisite for this, but dedication and diligence are a must.
The ’80′s: Growth and misunderstanding
During the 1980′s and 1990′s, witchcraft slowly became part of the public conscience. Popular culture did a lot to make witchcraft known by and attractive for (especially) teenagers. Some modern witches eyed this process with suspicion (wouldn’t it cheapen the tradition as just another hype?), but Morgana thinks it was a wonderful thing to happen to modern witchcraft. Yes, it caused misunderstandings and superficial interest, but it also made itself known to people who were serious about it and who felt they belonged to this new movement.
In the 21st century, Internet claimed a prominent role. The upside: a bigger audience. The downside: little control on the information that is spread and consequently a lot of half-truths and mistakes on the plethora of websites that sprung up. One example of this is the consistent but false overestimation of the number of people who were burned as witches during this black time in European history. Exact figures are unknown, but it certainly isn’t millions. An educated guess is approximately 40.000 people were killed (and not all by the churches and mostly by hanging, not the stake).
On this point, Morgana was firmer than I had expected. It stressed her love for truth-finding, which she earlier had claimed to be one of the pillars of being a witch. Exaggerating the numbers and playing the victim does nothing for the credibility of modern witchcraft. Of course, I completely agree.
Men and Women
In the final part of her talk, Morgana spoke about men and women in witchcraft. People often think that women, the Goddess, and female energy are dominant in Wicca. This is partly correct, but Morgana rejects this hierarchy; she thinks men and women complement each other and they can work in harmony. ‘I’m not a feminist, I believe in specific roles for men and women,’ but one is not better than the other, and both types of energy are present in every person. Probing from the audience could not change her position on this.
However, there are some movements in modern witchcraft that aim to reverse the patriarchal model and that only admit women. Mostly these groups belong to ‘Dianic Wicca’, a Wiccan movement originated in the USA that emphasizes the Goddess en proclaims to be feminist Wicca.
After a short break, the microphone was passed to Miranda.
She grew up in a small evangelical community, which fell apart when the minister died. At first, she did not mind this, but after some years passed she felt something was missing in her life, a connection with the divine she had experienced in her childhood. With a self-conscious and apologetic smile, Miranda told us that the movie The Craft first sparked her interest in witchcraft. The audience did not mind this at all and greeted the mention of the movie with affectionate nostalgia (I myself have very fond memories of Charmed). After this fleeting first impression of witchcraft, what followed was a time of searching, especially for information and like-minded people.
Becoming a Witch: read, read, talk, and read
Miranda found her confessional home in Vivian Crowley’s Witchcraft. To get in touch with people who knew more about it, she contacted people she found in an obscure magazine and met them in the park. She wrote to the Pagan Federation, only to hear that with sixteen years she was too young to join. So she kept reading.
Young people on their first steps to becoming a witch are still told to read, a lot, before they make any decisions or join a coven. This is a vision that Morgana voiced earlier that evening: being a witch is not something you choose lightly; it requires dedication and hard work. This stimulates serious witches-to-be to inform themselves, but it also leaves them to themselves, which can be hard when you are young and trying to figure out where you belong.
After reading and learning about witchcraft, Miranda’s next step was to tell the world and her parents that she was a witch. She told how much this prospect frightened her, how she nervously approached her parents in the garden and dropped the news on them. She did not expect her mother, who is an evangelical Christian, to take it well and neither did the audience. But it turned out her worries were ungrounded.
After her coming out, Miranda decided to initiate herself. From then on, she called herself a witch. She built an altar in her room, which she guarded with maternal ferocity (‘don’t touch that! My energy is around that, I don’t want to have to cleanse it again!’). I found the way she portrayed her younger self with equal measures of spirit and reflectivity very entertaining.
Casually, she told us about her tattoo, a pentagram. It elicits all kinds of responses: witches wondering if that’s really necessary, Satanists telling her that she, unfortunately, has it upside down, and in Egypt people confuse it with the star of David and she has to explain that no, she is not walking around with the symbol of Judaism on her arm.
Miranda had her first contact with fellow witches at a meeting organized by the Pagan Federation at Oudewater. She felt nervous and excited; finally she would meet people who were the same as she was! Later, she visited a ‘Witch café’ at The Hague and met people who practiced and thought about witchcraft as she did. This friendship developed and together with three or four others she practiced her witchcraft for some years. The group was not always the same, sometimes someone left or joined, but it was a constant factor that enabled her to incorporate Wiccan practices into her life.
Currently Miranda practices her witchcraft alone, a statement she immediately follows up with an invitation: if anyone is interested in forming a new group they should e-mail.
No, it’s not like in Charmed
With witchcraft comes magic. It was interesting that both Morgana and Miranda did not associate themselves with magic of the flashing and smoking kind. Popular culture of course loves this stereotype and the notion that people do practice magic raises some extraordinary expectations. But being a witch is, according to Morgana, all about ethics and responsibility. Magic is mostly just hard work, self-reflection, and taking responsibility for the consequences of your actions on the world around you. For her, Wicca is the way to act on these convictions, but the same could be true for Buddhists, Christians or Atheists. This may be a bit disappointing for those of you who were expecting smouldering cauldron, but it is in fact closer to the core of what it means to be a modern witch.
Miranda’s witchcraft has not much to do with sparkly magic either. For her, it is about the connection with the divine. Seasonal festivals, rituals and magical objects are the manifestations of this, but the form of her religion is detrimental to the core: contact with and honouring of the divine energy.
I asked how it was for her to study her own religion scientifically. Maybe, she said, this experience had given her a less romantic and more realistic view of Wicca. She also felt she did not care as much as others did about getting the rituals and rules exactly right, because the different traditions and ideas seem more a question of preference than of wrong or right. What matters is her relationship with the divine and this did not suffer from the scientific approach.
Modern witchcraft is individualistic. Not always is the literal sense, because although many witches practice their religion in solitude, covens are tight and intimate communities. However, personal responsibility and the freedom to shape the religion to your preferences are important aspects of witchcraft. When asked how she sees the Divine, Miranda gave her own vision but added that this might be different for other witches.
Of course, this personal touch has a place in most religions; because religiosity is by definition a personal business. Individual stories, like those of Morgana and Miranda, give depth to what otherwise may be just theory and impersonal facts.