The Religious Journey of the Wiccans

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by Rev. Annie Holmes

 

Paganism, the Goddess religion, Witchcraft and Wicca are all part of the basic animistic religions, the oldest form of worship in the world. Animistic religions were the first religions of the world. The Goddess religion coming from animistic religion saw the earth as having a soul, being alive in a special way. They worshipped her and all women in the stages of their lives; maiden, mother, crone. The three phases of a woman’s life were also thought to be parallel to the season of the earth; spring, summer and fall, and winter and the three phases of the moon.

 

The word “pagan” refers simply to the people of the fields. Those country folks who followed the old ways, the old religion of reverence to the earth, the Goddess. They were the first people to ritualize their worship of the earth. Two equinox, and two solstice periods were the marking of the changes of the moon and the earth. They used herbs and potions for healing. Magic was seen as the power anyone had between their own two ears. Their motto was: “Do what you will, harm no one.”

 

Catal Huyuk in Anatolia (now Turkey) was the most important Neolithic site in the Near East to the study the last environment where the Goddess was loved and worshipped. At 7,000 BCE in this place, we have evidence of the Triple Goddess being worshipped; as a young maiden, a birth giving matron and an older woman, a crone, representing the life cycle of women. Also associated with the ideas of the heaven, earth and the underworld. As found in Paleolithic caves and shelters, so too in Catal Huyuk the symbols for male and female appear in complementary relationship. The female principle is represented by the Goddess, the male by the bull or the other horned beast. This horned beast is believed to be the origination of the idea of Satan/devil as a horned creature.

 

At Catal Huyuk, the earliest known culture documenting the Goddess religion displays the full range of this religion. The mood is joyful, the dominant themes are celebrating the renewal of life. The art expressed a spontaneity and free spirit, a healthy respect for the life force in both men and women, along with an acknowledgment of the dread power of death and mystery of the unknown. Religious practices were intimate, personal, integrated in the rhythms of ordinary life. Basic to these rituals and religious practices was the idea that all life must succumb and celebrate the life/death/life cycle of matter.

 

The Goddess was continuously worshipped for thousands of years (30,000 to 1,500 BCE) in ancient Near East during the ascendance and decline of civilizations that flourished and were conquered. Her names among many were: Istar, Astarte, Anahita, Ma, Asherah, but she was first known as Inanna, the beloved and revered deity of Sumer, Crete. Despite hostile invasions into her domain by people who from the North worshipped the patriarchal sky gods, Inanna continued to be revered as the awesome Queen of heaven and earth. Inanna played a greater role in Sumerian myth than any other deity. Hymns to her are dated 2,000 years before the Hebrew Bible. Could Mary the mother of Jesus be the modern day equivalent of Inanna?

 

The sacred house of Inanna, called the House of Heaven is the oldest preserved temple of Uruk. Temple statues from Sumer show a startling emotional spiritual intensity. This temple was the court of law and a healing sanctuary as well. But by the third millennium BCE, the unified world view of the great Goddess had already been shattered in the Near East and her powers divided.

The Goddess was destroyed in many ways:

1. She was slain, (The Babylonian story of Tiamat and Marduk)

2. She was subdued and humiliated by being raped (Mary, Persephone and Hades)

3. She was reduced in her status to wife or consort of some male God,

4. She was transformed into a martial deity,

5. Her functions formerly of the Goddess were reassigned to the Gods.

 

In these periods of unrest, Inanna’s status changed, reflecting the wide sweeping cultural changes in the world. Sometime in the third millennium the supremacy of the Great Goddess was taken over by a male God, An, who ruled like an absolute monarch. In the supernatural power of the sky he lived in the highest heaven and never came down to earth. Could An’s way of being a God be the beginning of the Hebrew and later Christian understanding of God in heaven?

So the Old Religion became secret, passed down only from one generation to another within a family. By the time the persecutions of the Northern tribes and the Inquisitions ended, with hundreds of thousands of people murdered, only hideous stereotypes remained. Witches seen now as evil, ugly hags, laughable to modern people. The story of the religion of Wicca and witch craze of the 14th -18th centuries is a sad story indeed.

 

My personal association with the Pagans or Wiccans was with Margot Adler in Horicon Marsh, in Ripon, Wisconsin and Starhawk in Madison, Wisconsin, and with our own Covenant of UU Pagans at each of our national churches General Assembly. These associations have done more to heal me and enrich my life and renew my connection with the earth, than most of the formal religious education I received for most of my life.

 

At the circle dance I was a part of in Madison, Wisconsin when Starhawk was there leading a workshop, I had just completed my seminary training. I had my degree, I had seen the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, which was a very stressful experience and I had gone through my ordination. I had successfully completed an eight year project and a lifelong dream. I attended this workshop with a bit of apprehensive at what being with a bunch of Pagans was going to be like. Now, you would think I would have been on cloud nine having completed a lifelong goal. But as we were invited at one point in the workshop to lay down on the grass and close our eyes and feel the strength of the earth beneath us, I was surprised to find that I felt, as I was laying with my arms spread out as if I was nailed on a cross. The tears started to flow running down my cheeks, into my ears. I started crying very hard, seemingly uncontrollable sobs. I was afraid I wasn’t going to be able to stop crying. But I couldn’t help myself, all the struggle, all the fighting, the energy I had put out in those 8 years had come to a head.

 

I laid there a long time, afraid I would not be able to get up. And a strange thing happened to me, the first time I had ever felt anything like that, but I felt the earth was absorbing my tears and in return I was being given back strength. An energy, so to speak, was entering my body and soul wherever my body was touching the earth. I realized, physically for the first time the earth had the capacity to heal my tired, sore psyche because of the love and reverence and worship the Pagans had shown me during that week of my being with them. It was the first time I truly believed the earth was like a mother. Those Pagans taught me to love and respect myself as a woman. They taught me that our earth is like a mother who loves and protects us and will, given a chance, heal us.

 

I walked among the witches that week and learned some startling facts. Facts that Lillene and Sara shared with us in the reader’s theatre. My pagan brothers and sisters helped me reclaim my past religious history. Because of my Roman Catholic background I love incense, altars, flowers, and statues. All these have been given back to me in a new way because of my associations with the Wiccans. I have an altar in my home, a sacred space. I continually have this urge to bring home pieces of nature and place them lovingly on my altar. I chanted 7 times a day in the Convent. Chanting, like we are doing today, with the added gift of drumming have been given to me as gifts for me to pursue as to their power in my life.

 

Wiccans have given me a new sense of the other holidays. I no longer see Halloween as all souls or even all saints day or a time for ghosts and goblins. Rather, now it is a time for healing and renewal. Chilled by the first breath of winter, I focus within myself to look as though through a glass darkly. What a special healing time this can be. I take a leaf each Fall and put into a fire as it burns I burn away the anger, pain and frustrations of the situations in my life I have no control over.

 

So too has my celebration of Christmas changed. I view this time, with my Pagan friend’s help, as a festival of the lights. They have given me such a new, deep and abiding symbolism in the celebration of the winter solstice. When night becomes longer and longer, I light my lights earlier and earlier. I light candles and light my furnace and hibernate as the bears of the north and rest and dream of the spring days soon to come. I’ve been educated, that people long ago, long before the birth of Jesus, burned huge fires in the winter to lure the sun back, hence the symbolism of the Yule log. Unique spirits were believed to live in the pine trees, that’s why they didn’t turn colors or lose their needles in the Fall, so in order to have those good spirits in your house and bless your family, you invited the spirits in by bringing in branches of pines. How differently my celebrations are now than before, when I only worried about decorating, frantic shopping and a legacy of too much without enough thought.

 

In the spring I now celebrate the Vernal Equinox. At Easter, the name from the Roman goddess name Estre, also the root for the word estrogen, the goddess of fertility, has taught me to rejoice with the earth and new growth and the birth of animals. I celebrate my own capacity to be reborn after the long darkness of the womb of winter. Eggs remind me of the new life and the fertile rabbit reminds me of the abundance of the summer season soon to come. All of these are old, ancient pagan symbols.

 

The earth is everywhere in this the oldest of all the religions. The Pagans have taught me that the earth is crying out. She says she has waited long enough for her children to grow up. It is time, time to get smart or die. The Pagans remind us to know that every step we take upon the ground is upon sacred ground. Look around the yard where you live. When was the last time you hugged a tree, or breathed a thank you for all the blessings you have received from the trees that hold the ground water and shade your house and the flowers that beautify, the vegetables and fruit from your gardens. The pagans remind us, it is not a sterile, barren, dead earth we walk upon, no it is like a mother.

 

Pagans in our UU churches have helped us as UUs to loosen up, learn to let the spirit move within us and around us. They have given us permission to dance and drum. They have helped us see the value in magic or creative visualization. They have reminded us that each of the practices that we associate with every holiday we have, is from a deeper, more ancient source than we were ever allowed to believe.

 

Persecution has been part of a Pagan’s world since the first invasions of Crete by the Northern peoples in and around 1500 BCE. And persecution still continues today. I have learned from my Pagan brothers and sisters that persecution cannot, should not and will not stop them from believing in what they feel is right for them. They have taught me to expect persecution when I first started this journey of being a Unitarian Universalist. So far, I must say persecution has been minimal. But the fervor of the last couple of yearsof linking patriotism and Christianity has been alarming. I am realizing that persecution may be a very real thing in all of our lives when people begin to understand that we are a church who embraces Christians and Pagans, gays and straights, Buddhists and atheists. But, I refuse to panic.

 

I listen to a liberal Christian who shares that she is afraid that what she believes will not be honored or respected with the rise in fundamentalism in the religious world. She is not so different from many Christians I know. I listen to an atheist who is afraid to share who he is at work or to his extended family because he believes they will not understand the choices he has. He is not so different from many people I know searching for truth and meaning in their life. I listen to radical fundamentalist Christians who are afraid that if they don’t coerce people into believing as they do surely God’s wrath and judgment will come upon them, their children and our world. They are not so different from many people I know who are afraid and have let panic take over their life. And yet as I listen to each of them I am filled with awe and respect as each are struggling to find normalcy in the midst of war and terrorism bombings and shootings. And I am reminded, my voice of reason and sanity can make a difference, because we are not so different.

 

I am beginning to get smart. I am beginning to construct a series of healthy responses that I hope will be of optimum value in helping people to remember that this country was founded by people who were Deists, and that there still is a constitutional mandate calling a separation between church and state. I remind people that being loyal to one’s country can still be done in context of one’s own conscience and free choice of religious worship. I’m going to look more carefully at candidates for school boards. I’m going to support Public radio who has been a fierce defendant not only of UU churches but also the freedoms we seek. And lastly, I am going to openly support religious minority groups like the Pagans who are already a part of this UU church and who may be persecuted for their faith.

 

At the next Halloween, a very holy night indeed, let us be reminded that there are mysteries available to us far beyond the perversity we may have associated with this night. Know that the mystery of life/death/life is yours to explore if you will but open you. So mote it be. Blessed be.

 

 

 

 

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