Wicca in the Cultural Spotlight

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Four suburban mothers are standing at the corner bus stop awaiting the afternoon return of their elementary-school children. One of the women says, “Did you meet the new family that moved into the Smiths’ old house?” The others shake their heads. They had not. The first woman continues, “They’re a young family from England with two children. The dad travels a lot and the mother is Wiccan. They seem nice.” When the bus arrives, the conversation ends without any further discussion.

Photo Courtesy of  Infrogmation via Wikimedia commons

Photo Courtesy of Infrogmation via Wikimedia commons

Would the Wiccan practitioners of the 1960s ever have imagined that such a conversation would unfold on the street corners of conservative Middle America? Well it did. In the immortal words of Bob Dylan, “The times, they are a changin’.”

On Jan. 11 Jason posted an article exploring Paganism as counterculture versus Paganism as mainstream. Or better yet, it explored the dynamics between the two realities. His post set-off quite a debate after he asked, “What do ‘we’ want?” No matter the opinion of this collective ‘we,’ if it exists, or the opinion of any single individual, the choice may have already been made. How can we exist as a counterculture within a culture that accepts our presence?

In the fall of 2013 in Roanoke Virginia, English teacher Bruce Ingram included Wicca in a world religions unit. During the study each student had to complete a research project on a single religion. As reported by the Roanoke Times, student Nikki Jani described Wicca as a “spirit and nature form of religion.” She added, “I am agnostic. Anything is possible and Wiccan is based on god and goddess being equal.” Roanoke’s Lord Botetourt High School is the second high school now that reportedly includes Wicca in the exploration of world faiths.

More telling of this cultural shift is the appearance of the term Wicca in non-religious, non-occult related media stories. In these cases Wicca is mentioned with no consequence. For example, Emory Naylor, a fifth-grade student, won the Charleston county’s spelling bee by correctly spelling two words: dreidel and Wiccan. The Charleston Media offered no commentary on Scripps’ inclusion of this word or the child’s ability to spell it. They didn’t even comment on the most delicious of all ironies. By correctly spelling “Wiccan,” Emory progressed to the March 11 regional event called “Spellbound.”

School Spelling Bee. Photo Courtesy of Flickr's Lizzy Gilligan

School Spelling Bee. Photo Courtesy of Flickr’s Lizzy Gilligan

Does being included on the 2014 Scripps Spelling Bee word list or in a class discussion qualify a religion as having “arrived?” Not necessarily but it’s an indicator. Mainstream culture is often treated like a single controllable entity. While it is malleable, culture, with its many variables, has a life of its own – one that is constantly bringing things to itself and spinning things out. As such it is an effective measure of social change and the direction a society appears to be going or not going.

Looking back in time, there was a huge upswing in newspaper articles mentioning Wicca in the 1970s. Their focus was predominantly on the Craft as an “ancient practice.” There is no distinction made between Wicca and Witchcraft. One 1971 article about Stewart Farrar begins with “After all these centuries, witches it seems finally have achieved social acceptance.”(Des Moines Register, Dec. 24, 1971, pg 9) Common terms found in these articles are white magic, black magic, warlocks and “voodoo.”

In the 1980s the Media’s interest in Wicca waned. However over that decade the discourse changed. In a 1989 The Associated Press article, Wicca is called “a modern religious witchcraft cult that emphasizes Nature worship.” (Salina Journal, Oct. 30, 1989, pg 1.) Moving forward into the 1990s, journalists increasingly incorporate terms such as faith, spirituality, God, Goddess and worship. The focus on witchcraft gave way to a focus on religion. A cultural negotiation was underway.

Photo Courtesy of Flickr's  @Doug88888

Photo Courtesy of Flickr’s @Doug88888

As the millennium turned, there was another surge in the media’s interest in Wicca. From 2001-2010, the discourse changed again. “Pagan” enters the conversation and articles focus more on religious freedom, interfaith communication and comparative religious studies. In an article written for the Tacoma News Tribune titled “Pagans Seek Credibility,” the author writes “Paganism takes in a variety of teachings including Wicca…” (Salina Journal, March 10, 2001.)  The article goes on to compare Christian, Jewish and Pagan traditions.

Today we have almost reached a place of media complacency in which Wicca doesn’t need five paragraphs of explanation or any legal justification. The media “mentions” come and go at a more rapid rate – some positive, some irrelevant and some problematic. In December an NBC commentator made an off-handed remark saying, “Barring a driving blizzard of hens, toads and other tools of Wiccan cooking, all it will be Sunday is cold.” No, it is not a flattering comment. However the article was about football and its writer assumed that readers would understand that term. They probably did.

This week Carlton Gebbia made news again in her role on the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills (RHBH). When a fellow cast member says, “She thought you were going to cast a spell on her,” Carlton says, “I f-ing will.” Bravo titled this show “Carlton puts hex on Joyce” and the following one is “Pentagram or Star of David?” Regardless of the merits of the Bravo show, RHBH has planted the word “Wicca” into the households of 1000s of Americans. It contributes to a subliminal social consciousness through the insidious feeding tube known as pop culture.

Carlton Gebbia

Carlton Gebbia

As shown by the changes in media language, Wicca has increasingly been promoted as a legitimate belief structure. This change is an example of the slow evolutionary process of acceptance. Has the religion changed allowing this to happen? Or has American society found a way to swallow what was once deemed counter to its culture?  If the recent changes in Army accommodations are any indicator, society is changing – not Wicca. As reported by Reuters:

The policy was mainly expected to affect Sikhs, Muslims, Jews and members of other groups that wear beards or articles of clothing as part of their religion. It also could affect Wiccans and others who may obtain tattoos or piercings for religious reasons.

I’ve focused predominantly on Wicca because it’s the most populated and well-known Pagan faith. It does get the most media attention. However this trend does not necessarily omit other faiths. If examined, Druidry is probably on an identical trajectory. The process can and may happen to any of the Pagan and Heathen religions – on their own merit or as a function of association. One day we may see an Asatru or Roman Reconstructionist real house wife.

With all of this said, we have not come anywhere near a state of utopia. Religious discrimination continues. In fact The New York Times just published an article describing Jewish anti-semitism in a public school system. This demonstrates clearly that social acceptance does not eliminate bigotry.

All these media “hits”  are simply cultural indicators – the temperature of a nation, a sign of evolution within public discourse. Does this mean that the Gap will consider selling ritual robes? Will UGG make a comfortable pair of shoes for outdoor worship? Will department stores carry “Obsession” designer incense for $75.00 a stick?  Probably not. Just because the mainstream is “catching on” to Paganism, doesn’t mean that all aspects of the lifestyle will be assimilated. Many aspects will always remain sacred and mystical.

Since we can’t stem the tide of cultural change, the question can no longer be whether or not we want to be counterculture. The question is whether or not we will allow social acceptance and legitimacy to change who we are – at the personal, group or organizational level. How will our practices adapt to coming of legitimacy? How will it affect our lifestyles?