The historical background of any religious movement is a valid study as part of increasing one’s understanding of the religion; however, truth about any religion does not lie in either its history nor its documents. Furthermore, ALL religions known to humankind have been used for exploitation by some crowd-pleaser who has selected it as the medium for his message (and whose purpose is more usually the too familiar constellation of power, money and hedonistic enjoyment which has fueled so much human activity.)
Christianity, Islam, Mormonism, Spiritualism, Confucianism, Tao, and, to a lesser extent, Wicca, were founded by prophets a single, historical (or probably historical) individual who originated the sect. Other religions just grew from what people felt was right to do.
Any religion may be called a cult. At the end of this paper, you will find a Cult Evaluation tool invented by Isaac Bonewits, which provides a yardstick by which to measure the possible (social) toxicity of a religious group or organization. Please be aware of the prejudicial use of many of the words describing religious beliefs fall into the error typified by the statement; “My religious faith, your myth and HIS superstitions”. In the last analysis, the truth about any religion lies only within the heart, mind, spirit, etc. of it’s adherents.
A last note: be aware that I have a sense of humor. If you don’t, I recommend that you read this material very carefully in order to avoid getting everything bass-ackwards.
A Few Words of Background
I was tempted to add some types of Christian groups to this list as there are a number of sects which are surely considered non-conventional by long established Christian denominations. However, since their basic religious matter is clearly derived from the Christian Bible, and because it strikes me as impossible to point to a clear beginning of this branch of Christianity, I had pity on me and shall not attempt this task.
I have chosen to exclude some non-conventional religions because they are not new. Technically, Mormonism could be said to belong in this category. Certainly Christian Science, Spiritualism, B’hai, Sufism, Yoga, etc. qualify as non-conventional. However, these are either long established and have therefore achieved somewhat of conventionality; others are so clearly outgrowths of conventional religions on another continent that I felt they didn’t exactly qualify. Besides, this document is running nearly 30 pages right now and I know you don’t want to read that much!
Discussions of the historical backgrounds of many of the religions I mention can turn into a matter of some disagreement among the various followers. Any discussion of them would run to a great many pages and provide me with the opportunity to display vast amounts of brilliant scholarship–so I’m just not going to get into the question at all. Nothing arises out of a vacuum so be aware that there is both a general preparation of the minds of people before a new religious expression can find fertile ground, and that it’s probable that no religion ever owed nothing to the past.
There have always been new religions and in general the response from the old religions has not been particularly welcoming. Usually any new religion has had a very difficult time getting started. However, the ideas and philosophies which became part of our society in the 60’s have engendered a population far more open to a different kind of spirituality. With the additional pressure from the Woman’s Movement and the Desegregation of our country, many, many people have found that their expectations from a personal religion have changed.
Falling most clearly under the New Age category are a number of philosophically driven groups from The Farm in Tennessee to upscale teaching/living foundations such as Esalin, to Scientology. The majority of these groups are based on the literary output of a single individual. They have quite varied beliefs, but outside of Scientology, they appear to have very small memberships and little in common with any other groups.
A great deal of information is available on the web. The material on the web sounds more like self-help psychology than a religion to this reader but I admit I didn’t devote very much time to it.
Unfortunately, a few teens may gather a slight knowledge of some sort of Satanism from movies, comics, books and gossip. Occasionally a small group of such bubble gum Satanists carry their explorations way, way too far. More frequently, a teen who has become interested in one or another form of Neopaganism will be accused by parents and teachers of Satanism on the theory, I suppose, that is it isn’t Christian, it has to be Satanist.
There is a very wide spectrum of Satanism with some groups essentially harmless, although their devotion to selfishness can make them a group with whom it is rather difficult to interact. Extreme political conservatism seems to go hand in hand with Satanic beliefs. Groups (realistically, these tend to be extremely temporary) can be devoted to aggressive evil-working. The leaders of Satanic groups are unanimously controlling and dictatorial which could easily be predicted from their beliefs.
Satanism is frequently classified with Neopaganism. However, since Satanist groups are based on a dualism completely foreign to the multiple pantheon embraced by most Neopagan groups, this categorization is incorrect. Because Neo-pagans are, by definition, non-Christian, they in no way practice classical Satanism and indeed, have no belief whatsoever in such an entity. Most Neo-pagans are much more interested in following a more positive path and avoid any magical work which will cause harm to others. While Satanists frequently call themselves Neopagans or Witches or Wiccan, they are not accepted by those people.
Only a few years ago, the talk shows were full of people claiming to be battling a “great Satanic conspiracy”. They made absurd claims of Satanic activity. I remember one which if you worked out the numbers, said that some 300 babies in New England were murdered on each of the major celebrations of Satanic groups. Somehow I feel certain that the authorities would have noticed and a great deal of media attention would have been directed towards that area if this had been true. Most of the claims of those seeking publicity on TV or in lecturing to church groups or police cannot bear any actual investigation of their exaggerated and inflammatory claims. It’s just their way of making a dishonest living.
There is a great deal of anti-Satanist propaganda issued by some of the extremely conservative sects within Christianity. For the most part their writings consider all forms of occultism to be Satanic and, indeed, apply that term to all forms of religion, even other Christian sects, except their own. Their books and other communications are marked by very poor research, lack of specific documentation and extreme statements. See the writings of Kerr Cuhulain on WitchVox for an extensive examination of this trend.
Ethnic Based Religions
Some small enclaves exist in the Americas which practice a more direct and less Christianized form of African religion. One such group may still be found living on the outer islands of the Carolina coast.
Please remember that each tribe in Africa practiced it’s own religion. Here in North America, what religions arrived depended on just what tribes the slavers had visited and how much chance individuals transported were able to retain either as memory or practice. In general US culture, the Uncle Rhemus stories are the only noticeable inheritance from them. While many younger people may not be familiar with these stories, most have heard of the hare and the tortoise race which contains much of the mythology of those tales.
On the surface, Santeria appears to be very strongly based in Catholicism, particularly with regard to the Saints. However, the African and native South and Central American elements are very strong. Animal sacrifice is a part of Santeria practice and their rights to maintain it has been confirmed by the US Courts. Santeria’s practices clearly conform to the basic “laws of magic” and are in general focused on obtaining healing or benefits for the practitioner or the person they agree to aid. Like most religions with an element of magic, Santeria includes methods of seeking harm to specified individuals; however, ethical practitioners prefer to maintain “clean hands” and avoid all harmful work.
Santeria is both a participatory religion with priests and congregation and a magical service available to anyone who pays. A Santerian congregation participates more actively in their rituals than is true of many practicing a more conventional religion. It’s appropriate to consider Santeria to be paleo-pagan (see below), that is, the religious practice of an indigenous culture. Although, particularly in the case of the African elements, these paleo-pagan practices were impacted by the Catholicism of the conquerors and slavers, many ancient practices were retained and incorporated into the web of Santeria.
The practice of Santeria is most often found among our population which we call “Latin America” and whose peoples are generally a mixture of Indian, African and Spanish bloodlines, A few people whose background is Northern European and/or Northern American Indian have followed that path and even studied for its priesthood. Santerian Botanica are visited by many other varieties of Pagans as they stock a very wide variety of herbs and herbal preparations and the very widest variety of candles imaginable. SEE
Neopagans believe that children are born holy and without original sin. They believe that divinity is likely to manifest in a female form and in a multiplicity of gods and goddesses, as well as lesser beings, many of whom are worthy of respect, love and worship. They do not, however, believe in any divine or semi-divine figure of ultimate Evil, leaving such concepts to the dualistic monotheists. Most Neopagans believe it is necessary to respect and love Nature as divine in Her own right, and to accept ourselves as part of Nature and not Her rulers.
Most Neopagans believe in accepting the positive aspects of Western science and technology — most of us love our computers! –but also in maintaining an attitude of wariness towards the supposed ethical neutrality of that science and technology. They believe that ethics and morality should be based upon joy, love, self-esteem, mutual respect, the avoidance of actual harm to ourselves and others — human or nonhuman — and the increase of public benefit. Most believe in some variant or another of the principles of “karma,” that the results of their actions will always return to them, sooner or later. They think that human beings were meant to lead lives filled with joy, love, pleasure, beauty and humor.
Neopagans believe that with proper training, art, discipline and intent, human minds and hearts are fully capable of performing most of the magic and miracles they are ever likely to need. Neopagans believe in the importance of celebrating the solar, lunar and other cycles of our lives. Most Neopagans believe in some sort of afterlife, usually involving rest and recovery in the Other world before reincarnating. Most Neopagans believe that people have the ability to solve their current problems, both personal and public, and to create a better world. [The preceding information on Neopagan belief comes from Isaac Bonewits.
Most Neopagan groups base their activities on research into the past. There are two approaches to this research; syncratic and traditionalist. The syncratic groups will study many differing non-monotheistic religions and magical and religious practices and will select what appeals to them from each. The traditionalist will select a single ethnic group or religion and will attempt to recreate their religious activities and, in some cases even the entire society. The syncratic or eclectic process is probably the older as information on religions of the past was scarce and quite difficult to get hold of unless you happened to live near the British Museum or the Library of Congress.
Like some of the conventional religions, Neopaganism does not have one written set of rules of behavior. For them, morality and ethics are completely self-imposed. Those who follow a path which includes working personal magic tend to teach a very strict honesty and self-knowledge as these form the foundation on which magic may be successful. While there is agreement that it would be really “nice” if everyone would tell the truth all the time, never hurt other people, and put energy into “good” causes; like the population at large, actual living ethics are in some confusion. Since imposition of morality by force of law is inappropriate in a country founded to maximize individual freedoms, we can expect periods of confusion from time to time.
The Neo-Pagan Spectrum
On the other hand, a certain amount of the myth of antiquity isn’t entirely incorrect. I am convinced that many families did preserve family secrets of what is best called folk magic or hedge witchery. In fact, the population deriving from many of those areas retain a good deal of folk magic currently labeled superstitions. Pure salt has been an item of magical practice throughout all the ages we have any information on at all. Therefore, the superstition of throwing a pinch of spilled salt over one’s (left) shoulder is probably a remainder of a general religious or cultural belief in treating this substance with respect. Similarly, few of us would accept the gift of a knife without finding at least a penny in our pocket to pay for it. Since most religions, dead or extant have some background of sacrifice, the knife being the most usual actual tool of even non-living sacrifice, it doesn’t take anthropological research to see a connection.
Relatively isolated villages in the British Isles and even in mainland Europe are known to have practiced without any real gap, “folk customs” which are identifiably descended from pre-Christian religious practices. Even in the Americas, in addition to the many Native American groups who have managed to preserve the activities of their pre-Colombian ancestors, such places as the Appalachians preserved folk tales and folk magic, particularly weather prediction and planting, to this day. Alex Halley, in his research in Africa for his masterpiece, Roots, showed that in actual fact oral tradition may be *more* accurate than written tradition. While the Wiccan religion itself was by no means passed down in *any* sort of entirety through the ages, *some* of it’s knowledge and practice seems to have been.
The Witchcraft Insanity
The Burning Times
How many people lost their lives in this persecution, which extended over several centuries and reached from Scotland to Poland to Spain,, is simply unknown but undoubtedly lies between the greatest and smallest numbers you find in print. It is also difficult if not impossible to sort those charged with Witchcraft from Heretics which came in dozens, perhaps hundreds of different varieties. In mainland Europe most Witches and Heretics were burned but in England, Scotland and what is now the US; there were *NO* burnings. Witches were hung, pressed, drowned and variously done to death, but none were burned.
Without going into detail, there’s a lot more to this period in European history than Witchcraft. It was a society under extreme pressure from many points and a religion (Christian) under conditions of schism and threats of destruction and it’s accurate to say that as a culture, insanity ruled at times. It’s important to remember that it’s possible that no one executed in any way practiced either Satanism or Witchcraft.
To most Wiccans, everything in Nature — and all Goddesses and Gods — are true aspects of Deity. The aspects most often celebrated in the Craft, however, are the Triple Goddess of the Moon ( Maiden, Mother, and Crone) and the Horned God of the wilds These have many names from various cultures.
“There are many branches or traditions of Wicca in the United States and elsewhere, such as the Gardnerian, Alexandrian, Welsh Traditional, Dianic, Faery, Seax-Wicca and others. All adhere to a code of ethics. None engage in the disreputable practices of some modern cults such as isolating and brainwashing impressionable, lonely young people. Genuine Wiccans welcome sisters and brothers, but not disciples, followers or victims.
“Wiccans tend to be strong supporters of environmental protection, equal rights, global peace and religious freedom, and sometimes magic is used toward such goals. Wiccan beliefs do not include such Judeo-Christian concepts such as original sin, vicarious atonement, divine judgement or bodily resurrection. Craft folk believe in a beneficent universe, the laws of karma and reincarnation, and divinity inherent in every human being and all of Nature. Yet laughter and pleasure are part of their spiritual tradition, and they enjoy singing, dancing, feasting, and love.
“Wiccans tend to be individualists, and have no central holy book, prophet, or church authority. They draw inspiration and insight from science, and personal experience. Each practitioner keeps a personal book or journal in which s/he records magical “recipes,” dreams, invocations, songs, poetry and so on.” [From WHAT I S WICCA ? ; An Introduction to “The Old Religion” of Europe and its Modern Revival; by Amber K*, High Priestess].
The centerpiece of Wiccan life, for most groups, are the rituals held on the eight great holidays (Sabbats) and the lesser rituals held at the full or dark of the moon (Esbats). A Wiccan Circle [church services] begins with the creation of sacred space, called Casting the Circle. At this time, the powers of the four elements are invoked at the points of the compass and deities invited. For most groups, the ritual will follow an accustomed form which is repeated for every ritual.
At this point the ritual will change according to the occasion and the work which the group has undertaken. If the group intends to Draw Down the Moon; i.e. evoke the presence of the Goddess (or sometimes the God) into one of the ritual leaders generally the High Priestess it is done now. After the work of the ritual has been done, power raised and directed into the group’s purpose, most groups will share the cakes and cup. Similar to Christian communion only on the surface, the deities are thanked for their bounty, the cake or cup is shared with deity by crumbling or pouring it onto the ground, a fire, or into a container to be taken outdoors and offered as soon as the ritual is over. The group passes the food and drink around to everyone, The participants ground neutralize any excess energies they have retained — and then the deities and powers are informed that the ritual is over and the circle is dismissed or taken completely down.
Within this framework of circle ritual, the group may chant, drum, sing, dance or all together or they may empower talismans, tools, or themselves for a special task. Healings are done as part of ritual or positive change may be encouraged by casting papers or objects symbolic of bad traits or habits into fire or water.
Other common practices of Wiccans include lighting and burning candles for a particular object or other types of spell casting. There are countless different methods of magic and a number of books have been published recently giving instructions and suggestions for them. Wise Wiccans keep in mind that one must be extremely careful what you ask for as well as working in the mundane world towards their goals.
British Isles Wicca; also called British Traditional Wicca
Church and School of Wicca
Ravenwood opened a public Wiccan church in Atlanta, GA at a time when Wicca was almost unanimously hidden. Through confrontations with police, zoning officials and upset neighbors, this group has held firm to the great benefit to everyone now in the Craft. The basis of this tradition came from Syble Leek, a British Witch who spent a good deal of time in the US and Lady Sheba who is the mother of the American Celtic Tradition.