Book Review: Her Hidden Children

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  July 30, 2006 — 4 Comments

Since the release of Ronald Hutton’s “Triumph of The Moon” back in 2000, I have yearned for a book that would take an in-depth look at the history of modern Paganism in America. So I was more than a little excited and hopeful when I heard that Pagan academic Chas Clifton was rising to the task in his new book “Her Hidden Children: The Rise of Wicca and Paganism in America”. Finally a book that would take a look at how modern Paganism and Wicca took root in American soil and became one of the fastest growing faiths in the country.

Clifton – knowing that he could in no way cover everything that has happened from the 1930s to the present – has chosen with this book to lay down some basic parameters for talking about modern Pagan history in America. First he concentrates on Wicca: it being the largest and most influential modern Pagan religion in America. Secondly, when moving out from Wicca he generally stays with groups that claim to follow “nature” or “earth” religions. Not getting much attention in this history are the “reconstructionist” Pagan faiths and feminist Wicca.

“…the story of contemporary Paganism in America has too many strands to enumerate. Because of my wish to focus on many Pagans’ claim to follow “nature religion,” I have for the most part set aside those groups that pay more attention to ethnic roots, such as reconstructed Greek, Roman, ot Norse religions. Their history remains to be written. Even these, however, may yet welcome the label of nature religion or earth religion as it becomes more widely accepted in the larger society. Likewise, I have give the origins of feminist Wicca a fairly brief treatment; since the appearance of Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance in 1979, it has received much attention, perhaps to the point of obscuring its context in the larger Pagan story.”

These limitations allow Clifton to focus on some little known figures and give credit to some unlikely heroes. One of those unlikely figures responsible for the rapid growth of Wicca and Paganism in America is journalist and parapsychologist Hans Holzer. Holzer, who has written over 138 books in his lifetime was one of the first people to introduce the idea of religious Witchcraft to a mass audience. At a time when finding books written by Pagans was difficult at best, just about anyone could find a cheap paperback copy of “The Truth About Witchcraft” during the 1970s.

“Ever since I wrote “The Truth about Witchcraft,” hundreds of people have approached me to show them the way to the nearest coven.” – Hans Holzer

Another major theme that emerges in the book is the author’s discussion of Wicca (and other related faiths) evolving into “earth” or “nature” faiths. The book plots the course of American culture’s heightened awareness of environmental issues and how – post Earth Day in 1970 – modern Pagans were uniquely situated to advance themselves as theologically in tune with the needs of the environment. Clifton also lays out three different kinds of “nature religion” that in one way or another encompass most of modern Pagan religions active today. The first is “Cosmic Nature” (dealing with abstract notions of nature), the second “Gaian Nature” (dealing directly with the natural world), and the third is “Erotic Theology” (dealing with the human body).

These three natures blend and intersect with Wicca and other related faiths (and most modern Pagan theologies incorporate at least two of these concepts) to create a unique “earth religion”: a religion grounded in our sacral relationship with the cosmos, our ecosystems, and our bodies.

There is so much more I wish I could cover in this review, the “Gardnerian Magnet”, the evolution of non-traditional Wicca, how British Wicca spread in America, and how the notorious Satanist Anton LaVey ended up interviewed or mentioned in most of the books about Witchcraft during the late sixties and early seventies. My only quibble with this book is that I wished it three times as large. This is really only what I hope will be the first in a series of books about how modern Paganism emerged and grew in American soil. Chas Clifton has done yeoman’s work here and should be highly praised. An essential book for anyone interested in our history, and how that history is shaping the future of modern Paganism. The bar has just been raised.

Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • Inanna

    Thanks for the review, Jason. I’m really looking forward to reading the book. Clifton’s reasons for not spending a lot of space on feminist Wicca make sense. At the same time, my own impression is that feminist Wicca is largely segregated from other kinds of Wicca in the U.S., and I puzzle over that. I attribute the segregation in part to some separatist tendencies in feminist Wicca (Dianic witchcraft, in particular, defines itself as inclusive of only women, although the much larger Reclaiming community certainly hasn’t). But I think sexism – failure to recognize or appreciate the work of feminist Witches and thealogians – in the larger Pagan community is also to blame.I should be clear that I don’t think Clifton is being sexist for choosing to place his focus where he has – not at all. But it may be that his book perpetuates the idea that there is a huge gap between feminist Wicca and other kinds of Wicca. That’s not Clifton’s problem, necessarily – and, good heavens, I haven’t even read the book yet! I’m just curious about whether other Pagans, including Clifton, see the same segregation or split I do.

  • branruadh

    Clifton’s argument for why reconstructionist faiths may not like the term “nature religion” makes no sense at all to me as such a pagan. I don’t adopt it because I don’t see a cultural religion as nature-oriented per se. It has nothing to do with how accepted it is, and I’m getting tired of feeling like I’m being told, “You’ll come around to our view some day.” Makes me dig in my heels.

  • Jason

    I’m getting tired of feeling like I’m being told, “You’ll come around to our view some day.” Makes me dig in my heels.I don’t think that is what he meant from that passage. I think his words should be taken a face value, that some reconstructionist faiths “may yet” willingly adopt the term “nature religion” as it grows in popularity. Not that recon faiths “should” or “will” do so. Clifton in his history as an academic (and in this book) has always been very respectful of the recon Pagan faiths.

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