Into the Darkness
This paper explores the
religion of radical feminist witches and how it provides both the dying
and the living with a meaningful framework for interpreting death. Analytical
description is used to focus on significant elements of the Dianic tradition
of Wicca or Witchcraft, which interprets death as an integral part of the
life cycle. An analysis of a Wiccan funeral demonstrates how the religion
gives meaning to life and death, links individuals to the community, helps
to reestablish group solidarity, and provides a shared subjective reality
for those who acknowledge only a divine female principle called "The Goddess."
The data for this paper were collected through participant observation
in the coven's rituals and selected social events over a period of one
year. In depth interviews were conducted with all coven members as well.
is part of a larger study of a coven of radical feminist witches,
a group whose religious or spiritual base derives from what is known as
the Old Religion, the Craft, or Wicca and is informed by the second wave
of feminism. Contemporary witches believe that the roots of their religion
predate Judeo-Christian tradition, drawing from the Goddess-centered cultures
believed to have been located in and around Europe, the Mediterranean,
and Aegean. They freely admit, however, that they practice the Old Religion
in new ways (Starhawk, 1988). They believe these new ways fit societal
changes and their own perceived needs. Wicca, in both its radical feminist
and more traditional forms, is an example of what Ellwood (1979) calls
an "emergent religion" or "alternative spirituality" existing alongside
mainline religions, although often suppressed. It possesses a rich system
of symbols and a growing community of believers, who are brought together
by participating in ritual and magic.(1)
An Ethnographic Study of Witchcraft
by Wendy G. Lozano
and Tanice G. Foltz
Vol 13, No. 3, 1990, pp. 211-234
religions allocate an important position in their constitutive symbolism
to the experience and event of death, according to functional sociologists
Parsons and Lidz. Death has such disorienting effects that a religion
. . . must provide
a framework for interpreting death that is meaningful and appropriate,
in relation to other elements of the culture, for defining attitudes regarding
both the deaths of others and the prospect of one's
own death (Parsons and Lidz, 1967:135).
Yinger (1957) also emphasizes that
one of the fundamental effects of religion is to rescue individuals and
communities from the destructiveness of death.
theories show how religion helps to maintain a state of homeostasis in
a community when certain events threaten its stability. Through death and
funeral rites, religion provides a potent means of reintegration of the
group's "shaken solidarity" and reestablishes its morale (Geertz, 1973;
Malinowski, 1948; Vernon, 1970). Funeral behavior thus serves an important
Lofland (1978) suggests that old ways of dealing with death do not effectively
address current experience. Dying is increasingly being prolonged, while
the experience of dying occurs in a context that is more and more bureaucratized
and secularized. The unique capacity of humans to create and use complex
symbols allows us to conceive of our own mortality, and the possibility
of immortality. Lofland argues that contemporary culture and social organization
of death offer few clues as to teleological meaning.
In the face of
meaninglessness, we construct for ourselves a new set of beliefs,
new orientations, new ways of looking or feeling that will fill the void
the importance of religion to social solidarity, Durkheim observed that
religion is ultimately collective, expressing shared meanings and social
ideals that unite participants into one moral community (Durkheim, 1915).
Collective representations and social rituals are essential to religion
precisely because language and symbols depend upon shared meanings. To
examine shared meanings reveals a shared reality. By examining the worldview
of radical witches, their rituals and their symbols, we can better understand
their shared subjective reality.
paper presents an historical overview of radical feminist Wicca, known
as the Dianic tradition. It then focuses on the major religious symbols
of Wicca that relate to death and describes a funeral in which one of the
authors was able to participate.(2)Through use of
a case study, we will demonstrate how that religion gives meaning to death
for both the living and the dying.
collected through what Denzin (1970) calls a "triangulation" of qualitative
methods. Primary sources of data were fieldnotes written independently
by both researchers. Observations covered all ritual activities, planning
sessions, and mountain retreats we attended, as well as a wedding and a
funeral. After several months in the setting, when we had gained some understanding
of appropriate questions, we conducted indepth interviews with all coven
members. Our interviews were semistructured, making use of a topical guide
(see Gorden, 1969). We employed team research in order to increase perspectives
on the setting (see Douglas, 1976). One of us was less experienced in ethnographic
methods, but more familiar with feminist theory and some of the group's
beliefs about mythology and goddesses. The other was an ethnographer with
previous research and publication on a para-religious healing group. We
each interviewed witches with whom we felt some affinity. We interviewed
the core coven members more than once to cross validate our data and ask
newly formulated questions. Our team fieldwork extended from March 1988
through Summer 1989, when Foltz moved out of the area for job reasons.
Lozano continued to attend rituals occasionally and maintain relations
with the coven. In addition to fieldwork and interviewing, we sought out
literature, artifacts, workshops, and festivals on feminist spirituality,
neo paganism, and goddess worship. We then employed a modified form of
"indefinite triangulation" as a validity check (see Cicourel, 1964).
coven we call the Circle of the Redwood Moon(3) was
composed of seven core members during the period of our research. The seven
included three women defined as Priestesses, one Initiate, and three Apprentices.(4)
The women ranged in age from 28 to 48 and came from working class and lower
middle class backgrounds. They came to witchcraft at widely different ages
- one in her early teens and the latest in her 40s. They came from a variety
of Western religions. Yet a common thread was that all but one can be classified
as a spiritual "seeker" (see Lofland and Skonovd, 1981) who had actively
sought out and explored other religions and spiritual traditions before
settling on Wicca. The exception is a core coven member who, at age 11,
reported hearing a voice inform her that "she belonged to the Lady." She
says she had no idea what that meant at the time, but became a self-avowed
pagan by the age of 17 and now has been one for 22 years. Out of respect
for her long history and experience with the Craft, she was given the title
of Elder Priestess by the coven.
By the time of this study,
most of the women had taken some college courses. Two had completed four
year degrees, with one then taking some post graduate study and the other
working on a Master's Degree. Three women held clerical jobs, one was a
salesclerk, one a "psych tech" on a mental ward, and two were unemployed.
Five of the seven women were Caucasian, the oldest woman was an African
American, and one woman was a Latina. Only the Elder Priestess, who had
been with the coven almost since its start in 1971, was involved in a heterosexual
relationship at the time of our research. She and her husband were married
by Spiderwoman, Priestess of Ritual and Magic, during the Spring of 1989.
All other members were self-identified lesbians, most of whom had held
romantic relationships with men in the past. Two of them were previously
married, and one has adult children.(5)
of the ritual activities took place in the home of two of the witches,
Aletheia and Spiderwoman. They had been partners for three years by the
time we entered the setting. Their condominium was located in a working
class neighborhood on the outskirts of Los Angeles. The decor consisted
of soft lighting, a variety of goddess figurines, and numerous "witchy"
artifacts, including a pentacle door harp, a frosted glass light in the
shape of a crescent moon, and a crystal ball. During rituals, the glass-topped
coffee table in the living room was often moved to the side and a small
round table was used as an altar in the center of the room. The dining
area held bookcases filled with books on philosophy, feminism, lesbianism,
witchcraft, and goddess worship. The large heavy table in the dining area
served as a place for the women to gather and plan future rituals and other
coven activities. Sometimes this area was used for the ritual, and the
large table would be moved outside to a small patio for sharing potluck
items afterward. The patio was rimmed by a foot of dirt in which a few
abundant rose bushes grew. In the corner was a Jacuzzi where the witches
bathed after ceremonies.
Rituals that were open to other
women took place at a campsite in a nearby mountain range. The death rituals
took place at a funeral home and cemetery described later in this paper.
gained entree to the Circle of the Redwood Moon when an opportunity presented
itself near the end of Spring Semester, 1988. One of Lozano's students
invited her class to attend a Spring Equinox ritual sponsored by her coven.
(We later found that "open ritual" is one way the coven recruits new members,
if not to the coven itself, to the religion.) We gained access to the coven
by making use of what Reimer (1977) calls an "opportunistic" research strategy.
Lozano was informed that everyone attending the ritual was expected to
participate actively; no one would be allowed simply to observe. Given
the stereotypes of witchcraft and its practitioners, we entered the setting
with some trepidation about what we might encounter and what might be expected
of us during the ritual. We quickly discovered we had nothing to
ritual was a spring celebration in which every person was to make a personal
commitment to the earth and to the women's community. Members of the coven
"raised energy and cast a circle," which is done at the beginning of every
ritual as a means of "creating sacred space" (see Starhawk, 1979:55),
and various priestesses led visualizations, meditations, dancing and chanting
for the next hour or so. The ritual closed with a potluck "feast," women's
music, and informal socializing. We left earlier than the others, saturated
and exhausted by what we had seen, heard, and felt. Our first experience
with Wiccan ritual and our debriefing session on the way home left one
of the authors feeling hesitant about pursuing the research, while the
other felt the group provided a fascinating setting to explore sociologically.
Within a few days, we had both decided to pursue this unique research opportunity.
contacted the coven to discuss the possibility of our conducting team research.
Her student served as "gatekeeper" and lobbied for the project. The other
coven members were extremely protective. In a long interview, however,
Lozano apparently answered their questions satisfactorily and gained permission
on a tentative basis. A bargain was made that
the witches would not have
editorial control over what we wrote, but could control our access to the
ritual settings. We agreed that, while we would not do anything to violate
our personal ethics, we would actively participate at some level during
keeping with our epistemological ideal of gaining understanding from a
"member's perspective" (Jules Rosette, 1975), we engaged in participant
observation using a phenomenological approach. Similar to Damrell (1977,
1978), Rochford (1985), and Forrest (1986), we felt it important to experience
the subjective meanings that are integral to witchcraft, rather than simply
to document what we saw from an "objective" point of view. Since experiencing
an altered state of consciousness was deemed critical in grasping the meaning
of the coven's worldview, we found it important to immerse ourselves in
the ritual experience over time, thereby "becoming the phenomenon" (Mehan
and Wood, 1975). This process was limited, however, by the fact that we
did not undergo apprenticeship training with the coven.(6)
central issue in ethnographic research is the role the participant-observer
adopts. For example, Cold (1958) located four roles that field researchers
adopt on a continuum between the "complete observer" and the "complete
participant." Adler and Adler (1987) discussed three "membership roles"
that sociologists "carve out" for themselves in fieldwork settings: peripheral
, active , and complete member researcher roles. Using the Adlers' terminology,
we began our research on the coven in a "peripheral membership researcher
role." Upon gaining permission to conduct the study, we agreed to participate
in rituals to the extent that we were relatively comfortable with them.
We were comfortable with being required to express personal commitments
to the planet or environment, to the women's community, and to ourselves
as part of each ritual, and were not required to take on central roles.
Although our agreement to participate was made in order to attend and do
research, we did not feel that we had to adopt the witches' worldview,
beliefs, and practices as our own in order to conduct the study. We did
not "hang out" with the women outside of ritual settings, we debated their
beliefs with them, and we asked many questions.
we attended more rituals, we were greeted more warmly and we felt more
comfortable. It became clear to us that, even though we attended coven
activities as sociologists, we were viewed as potential converts and friends.
Similar to other researchers' experiences in religiously oriented groups
(see Damrell, 1977; Rochford, 1~X5; Snow, 1980), the witches welcomed us
in part because of the possibility of recruiting us to their belief system
if not their group.(7) Almost without our recognition,
our researcher roles shifted. While attending the Mountain Retreat at the
end of the summer of 1988, we were asked to play functional roles in the
coven's activities. We had planned to retreat to our tent on occasion to
record our fieldnotes and to interview people in our spare time, but it
turned out that we had no "spare time." As often happens, informants find
roles for researchers to take. We were asked to help lead groups, help
make food, and be present for and give input into planning and preparation
for rituals. Being thrust into these new roles came as a surprise. They
were time-consuming and required energy and active participation, limiting
our time for observation and fieldnote writing. At the funeral in mid Fall,
the author present was introduced as the "coven auxiliary," a term subsequently
applied to both authors and used during the rest of our fieldwork, indicating
our status as a part of the coven, but not quite real members.
many scholars have documented, participant observers' roles are likely
to change over time in the setting. Similar to Jules-Rosette's change of
role with the African Apostles, we too experienced
a gradual transition
from the perspective of the participant observer to that
of an observing participant (Jules Rosette, 1975:22).
Eventually we were moved by the
philosophy and worldview of the radical witches as well as touched by the
experiential aspects of ritual in the group. Although Gold (1958) has cautioned
fieldworkers not to become too involved subjectively and then lose objectivity,
other fieldworkers, such as Johnson (1975), Douglas (1976) and Adler and
Adler (1987), dispute the notion that the researcher is unable to observe
effectively as the participant role increases. Jorgensen (1989:56) submits:
and truthful) findings are more rather than less likely as the researcher
becomes involved directly, personally, and existentially with people in
The positivist paradigm of "real"
objectivity has been seriously challenged by feminist theorists as well.
They argue that the concept tends to ignore not only the researcher's own
life history but the large socio-historical forces which have shaped science
and academic thought as we know them today (see Benjamin, 1980; Jaggar,
1983; Hartsock, 1985; and Keller, 1985).
a result of our change in perspective to that of observing participants,
we began to understand phenomena in ways that we had not before. We eventually
carved out membership roles that were something more than novitiates and
yet less than full apprentices. We thus acquired the subjective meanings
essential to coven activities and yet maintained what Douglas (1970:199)
calls the "theoretic stance." Although we adopted active membership researcher
roles, we did not become complete members. We achieved a "member's perspective"
by participating in and experiencing the effects of the rituals as fully
as possible, but remained different from members. We made no attempt formally
to apprentice ourselves, and our sexual orientation was clearly different
from that of most others. Even though we were welcome to do so, we did
not regularly attend planning sessions, volunteer to take on central roles
during ritual, nor socialize regularly with the witches.
were, however, enticed by the coven's philosophy and felt a tie with the
women who innovated with ritual and brought its meaning to life through
their dramatic activities. By the end of our fieldwork, we were participating
in rituals far more than we had anticipated. We found them powerfully influencing
our outlooks on life, and we both became more reverent in our attitudes
and actions toward the earth and environment. Foltz reported feeling similar
growth in her feelings of "Sisterhood." Lozano, with a background in feminist
theory and politics, was surprised to find herself attracted to the witches'
spiritual worldview concerning immanence.
Adler (1986), a radio journalist and Wiccan Priestess who has researched
witches and neo pagans, estimates there are 500 to 1000 Wiccan covens across
the country and over ten thousand witches practicing the Craft. It is impossible
to know exactly how many exist, due to the decentralization of covens,
the variety of neo-pagan traditions, and the fact that many witches practice
alone without being members of a coven. Adler traces the revival of witchcraft
to several early writers, in particular Charles Leland in 1899, Margaret
Murray in 1921, and Gerald Gardner, who published several books in the
1950s.(8) Besides the tremendous growth in numbers,
there has been a proliferation of newsletters, books, glossy magazines,
"how to" classes, conferences, festivals, international tours, jewelry,
art and paraphernalia associated with the practice of magic and ritual.
Covens from many states joined together in 1975 to form the Covenant of
the Goddess (COG) to get recognition for witchcraft as a legitimate and
legally recognized religion. Witchcraft is also an international religion,
with practitioners in Canada, England, Scotland, Wales, France, West Germany,
Holland, Finland, and Australia (Adler, 1986). The Witches' International
Craft Association is headquartered in New York.
Wiccan covens consider the primary divinity to be female, and refer to
"the Goddess." Almost all of the covens also believe in and incorporate
into their rituals the male principle, represented as the "Horned God,"
her son and consort. Because of the emphasis on female creativity, divinity,
and authority, as well as the leadership of female witches within the group,
all covens support feminist ideology to some degree. Nevertheless, as Adler
Craft is solidly based on the idea of male female polarity, which is basic
to most Craft magical working and ritual symbology (Adler, 1986:217).
feminist witches are known within the Wiccan community as Dianics, after
the goddess Diana. Unlike traditional witches, most Dianics celebrate an
autonomous female principle as divine, excluding both the male principle
and men. They have incorporated feminist concepts of sex, gender, and power
relationships into their understanding of the divine. Thus, their religion
has become political and their politics religious. This has created controversy
in the larger pagan community, where Dianics have been accused of being
"too Dianic," a phrase they take to mean too feminist, too separatist,
and far too political.(9) The beginning of the
Dianic tradition is credited to Z. Budapest, who, with a few other women,
started the first Dianic coven in Los Angeles in 1971 .(10)
the years, this coven split or "hived" into several covens, one of which
is now known as Circle of the Redwood Moon.
Dianic witches, the spiritual and the personal are viewed as political.
The "work" accomplished through magic and ritual is perceived as leading
toward an elimination of the patriarchal mindframe (Collins, 1974; Spretnak,
1982). The Dianic tradition deconstructs patriarchal ideas about religions,
society, and human nature, replacing them with a belief system that values
women, their creativity, nurturing qualities, and love for and connection
with nature. All of this is subsumed in the concept of the Goddess. Newcomers
are cautioned that the symbolism of the Goddess should not be seen as "Yaweh
with a skirt," . . . since the patriarchal God is viewed as ". . . a distant,
judgmental, manipulative figure of power who holds us all in a state of
terror" (Spretnak, 1982:vii). The Dianic notion of the Goddess stands in
sharp contrast, as described by Starhawk, a well-known politically active
witch and licensed psychotherapist:
The Goddess does
not rule the world, she is the world The importance of the Goddess
inspires women to see ourselves as divine, our bodies as sacred, the changing
phases of our lives as holy, our aggression as healthy, our anger as purifying
and our power to nurture and create, but also to limit and destroy when
necessary, as the very force that sustains all life. Through the Goddess,
we can discover our strength, enlighten our minds, own our
own bodies, and celebrate our emotions. We can move beyond narrow,
constricting roles and become whole (Starhawk, 1979:9).
on personal growth and experience is similar to that found in feminist
consciousness-raising (CR) groups in the late 60s and early 70s,
a period which coincided with the growth of neo-paganism. In CR, women
met to share experiential truths in an environment which excluded men.
For some, this led to a recognition of widespread and systematic oppression
of women. Self-identified "radical feminists" originally used this label
to signify their commitment to uncovering and destroying the causes of
this oppression, which they believed to be at the root of all other systems
of oppression. Radical feminists have since explored feminist alternatives
in fields such as music, literature, health, sexuality, and spirituality.
Thus, it is not surprising that the Wiccan movement should have attracted
radical feminists among others looking for community and meaning during
a period of rapid social change. According to Spiderwoman, the "dethroning
of the Goddess" and the development of patriarchal religions are at the
root of women's oppression. As Adler (1986) argues, feminism has had an
enormous impact on the Craft.
an attempt to differentiate their religious traditions from mainstream
religions, Wiccans claim to have no dogma, doctrine, or sacred book. This
idea was reiterated frequently in the Circle of the Redwood Moon. Yet it
represents a claim that, in sociological terms, cannot be taken at face
value, but must be interpreted.(11) It is more accurate
to state that the key emphasis in Wicca, especially in the Dianic tradition,
is on experience. The stress falls on engaging in practices that witches
believe change consciousness and awaken what Starhawk (1988) calls the
"power within." Margot Adler speaks to this issue:
Wicca, at itsbest,
is the most flexible and adaptable of religions, since it is perfectly
willing to throw out dogmas and rely on these types of experience alone
within is achieved through ritual, meditation, and other techniques. It
is also considered to be the Goddess, regarded as immanent in nature, human
beings, and personal relationships. As such, the Goddess represents "the
normative image of immanence" (Starhawk, 1988:9), the interconnectedness
of all things. Magic is believed to be possible because the forces of energy
are connected, even if they appear to be separate. Magic is
the art of changing
consciousness at will magic is the psychology/technology of immanence...the
applied science is based on an understanding of how energy makes patterns
and patterns direct energy (Slarhawk, 1988:13)
During our discussions, the witches
of Redwood Moon also described magic as, first, "perceiving" that the energy
from one thing flows into another and, then, using that understanding as
the basis for a visualization in which that energy flow is altered.
Thus Wicca stresses linking or relinking the divine within us and the divine
around us in the natural world. Besides this concept of immanence as manifested
by the Goddess, Budapest (1980:16) claims that an "important cornerstone
philosophy" of Dianic Wicca is the concept of trinity, rather than duality.
Redwood Moon's Priestess of Philosophy, Aletheia, explained to us:
The very concept
of dualities, of the polarity of male vs. female, black vs. white or good
vs. evil, is a construct of the patriarchal mindframe which must be destroyed.
of the trinity is syncretic rather than oppositional. It refers to the
dynamic and continuous cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth represented
by the Goddess' three aspects of Maiden, Mother, and Crone.
the Darkness: Death and Regeneration
aspect of the Goddess, the Crone, is the Dianic symbol that best represents
how the religion gives meaning to death and dying. The Crone is often portrayed
as the third Fury who cuts the thread of life. She is seen by Dianics as
a natural and necessary part of the life cycle. Her season is late fall
and winter, when the earth moves toward darkness with the shortening of
the days. As Spiderwoman says "This is the time of turning crops under
into the soil, the dying time of year." She stresses that the Crone is
the only aspect of the goddess that has been passed down through the ages:
Christian tradition The Maiden and the Mother were adopted, sterilized,
and rendered impotent The Crone was diabolized and survived with her powers
Her special ritual or sabbat is
Hallowmas on October 31.(12) This is the night that
the Crone, as the Sacred Hag, Destroyer of Life, is believed to return
to offer protection and vengeance. Hallowmas is a rite of passage wherein
witches symbolically "pass through the veil between the worlds," enter
the darkness, and meet the Crone. Her sabbat is the last one of the year
and is referred to as "Women's New Year" (Budapest, 1986). It is a reminder
that endings are always followed by beginnings.
is a more gentle aspect to the Crone as well. Sometimes death is a welcomed
friend. As the bringer of death, the Crone also ends pain. Some Dianics
believe that, at some unspecified time in the past, terminally ill people
went to "dying houses" and were gently guided in dying by women who served
the Crone. She is often seen as the loving, protective grandmother. Having
passed menopause, the Crone is believed to "withhold her wise blood" and
so be immensely knowing. She watches out for her grandchildren, especially
the female ones. In this aspect, she is not the Death Bringer, but a figure
so ancient that her very visage is a reminder that death is near.
Dianics reject the form of polarities, they do not conceive of death and
darkness as separate and apart from life and light. One cannot exist without
the other. The female principle is not only the Death Bringer but also
the Life Giver (Walker, 1985). The Crone, as death, is integral to the
life cycle. The same dialectics also apply to the first aspect of the Goddess,
that of the Maiden.
symbol of Dianic Wicca is the maiden Kore, daughter of Demeter, goddess
of fertility and vegetation. In the classical myth, Kore was kidnapped
and carried off by Hades, Lord of the Dead. In her grief, Demeter refused
to let the earth produce. Zeus ordered Hades to return the maiden, but
the Lord of the Dead secretly tricked Kore into eating part of a pomegranate,
so that she would be forced to return to him several months each year.
Out of this conception grew the Eleusinian mysteries and the doctrine of
Dianic tradition, Kore descends, not because she is carried off, but because
she hears the lost and confused cries of the dead. Nete, Elder Priestess
of Song and Ritual, informed us that Kore walked of her own free will into
the darkness. She passed beyond the veil and came to the Land of the Dead,
where she comforted the dead, explained the reason for death to them, and
helped ready them for rebirth. When at last she returned to the world of
the living, she was forever marked by her experience. Having eaten seven
pomegranate seeds, she ". . . can never again be wholly severed from the
dark, the earth, the flesh" (Starhawk, 1988:91). Kore then took the name
Persephone, and her story became a continual one of life, death, and rebirth,
a reminder that Spring must be preceded by Winter. In her acceptance and
understanding of death, Kore/Persephone affirms the cycle of life.
important Wiccan symbol of rebirth and regeneration is the serpent. Snake
jewelry is popular and live pet boas can be seen at almost any large pagan
gathering. Although all witches use the snake to symbolize rebirth, it
is a particularly powerful symbol for Dianics. The association of woman
and snake goes back far beyond the book of Genesis: at 3500 b.c.e., the
serpent and the Mother Goddess could be seen on Sumerian seals (Campbell,
1987). According to Joseph Campbell, the serpent represents the power of
life. It sheds its skin, its past, and is reborn.
immortal energy and consciousness engaged in the field of time, constantly
throwing off death and being born again ((it)) carries in itself the sense
of both the fascination and the terror of life (Campbell, 1987 45)
The symbol of the serpent eating
its own tail is a powerful image of life, according to Campbell. One Dianic
coven in Southern California uses this symbol for its name and for the
sacred cord that members wear in Ritual.
important symbol of the cycle of life and death is the small iron cauldron
that is often placed on the alter during Dianic Rituals. It represents
the womb, the site of transformation, of birth and rebirth. According to
Barbara Walker, it is a symbol of vast antiquity:
Always the cauldron
was understood to signify the cosmic womb, source of regeneration and rebirth.
All life, mind, and energy arose in various forms from the ever boiling
vessel, only to return thereto, when each form came to its destined end
The cauldron is used, among other
things, to burn incense. It also represents the West, which is water. Thus,
in burning incense and turning matter into energy, it is water turning
earth into fire and then air, thus combining the four elements and four
directions. Personal conversations with members of COG in California reveal
that some covens use their spas during ritual to represent "the bubbling
cauldron of regeneration."
Much of the music sung by witches
also reflects their worldview concerning death as an integral part of the
life cycle. The feeling of the naturalness of death can be seen in one
of their chants.
Darkness is the
place of birth
Their songs also contain frequent
references to the rebirth of light and to fresh growth sprouting from decay,
or "black December's sadness." The songs emphasize the necessity of darkness,
winter, and death.
Darkness is the
Darkness is the
place of death
Darkness is the
Half of day is
Now the green
blade riseth from the buried grain,
Wheat that in
the dark Earth many days has lain.
Love comes again,
that with the dead has been.
Love is come
again like wheat that springeth green.
In the Earth they
laid them in a barren place
the burning nameless and erased.
their ashes feed the grain.
We are come again
like wheat that springeth green.
can be seen in the Iyrics of the second song, a literal belief in reincarnation
or survival of the soul is not necessary to accept the idea that death
is an important part of life. When asked if they believe whether that which
is unique in the individual survives death, most members of Redwood Moon
answered no. One who disagreed stressed that it is an option that the essence
of self may exercise, not a given nor a necessity assigned to the individual.
Author Robin Morgan explores an alternate concept:
Starhawk (1979) reminds us that
in a worldview that views everything as cyclical, death will not be seen
as the final ending. The title of her first book, The Spiral Dance, is
the name of a winding dance of celebration sometimes performed during Wiccan
rituals. Its symbolism evokes both snakes and DNA and thus death, rebirth,
of symbols as metaphors for a worldview and hence a shared subjective reality
becomes even clearer when one examines how the symbols are used in times
of crisis. During crises, issues concerning the nature of life and death
become especially important and religion is called upon to interpret the
personal experiences. The sense of community created by shared meanings
also becomes particularly valuable.
. . . reincarnation
is seen by some as a metaphor for mystically cellular transition in which
the dancers DNA and RNA immortally twine themselves. (Morgan, 1977:306)
the summer of 1988, the father of a member of Redwood Moon was diagnosed
as having lung cancer. His daughter Aletheia at first tried solitary magic
to effect a cure. The coven, however, decided that the disease had progressed
to a point where too much damage had been done. The members believe that
dying, like living, can be prolonged. But they decided that the most effective
magic would be to send the man energy to help deal with pain. Spiderwoman
put it succinctly when she told us, "You can't stop death. You can postpone
and prolong it, but you can't stop it."
death occurred in November. Aletheia's father Sep had remarried years after
the death of her mother. He left behind Aletheia and her brother, who rejected
his sister because of her sexual orientation. Sep was also survived by
his Catholic widow and her adult children from her first marriage. There
had been considerable strain between the two families during his lifetime.
nominally a Unitarian, Sep had developed considerable interest in Celtic
lore and had written a long poem to the Goddess during his illness. Aletheia
was the only family member aware of this aspect of his life. Sep had apparently
attended Sunday Mass with his wife on a regular basis, told his son, Aletheia's
brother, that he was an atheist, and allowed his daughter to believe he
was a pagan with Druidic leanings. Not surprisingly, the deeply divided
family was confused over the form the death rites should take. Sep's son,
who flew in alone from across the country, was vehemently opposed to any
kind of religious ceremony at all. He was also furious with his sister
for making even minor arrangements without his approval. After a great
deal of argument and difficult negotiation, the family decided that Sep's
wife and her children would arrange one service and his adult children
by his first marriage another. The outcome was a Catholic mass for the
deceased on Friday night, followed by a Wiccan ceremony that the Circle
of the Redwood Moon performed in the funeral home on Saturday morning.
The coven, family members, and guests then accompanied the body to the
Catholic Cemetery, where the coven performed another Dianic ritual over
the open grave. Incidentally, this was not the first funeral conducted
by the witches, three of whom are empowered by COG and the State of California
to "marry and bury."
the initial arrangements were being made with the undertaker, Aletheia
reported experiencing a lack of connection, a lack of meaning. The Christian
symbols in the funeral home alienated her. She accordingly asked that a
large stained glass window of Jesus in the memorial chapel be covered for
the ceremony. She and Spiderwoman were shown row after row of coffins that,
according to the latter, were designed to preserve the deceased's remains
intact "even in event of nuclear holocaust." At last they came upon a fairly
plain oak coffin. Oak is a sacred wood in Wicca, a Celtic symbol of rebirth
and regeneration. Aletheia's reaction upon seeing the oak coffin was that,
". . . all of a sudden something had meaning. Dad had to be oak." As a
symbol of both mortality and immortality, the oak coffin revitalized for
her the framework through which Wicca interprets death and gives it meaning.
funeral director had serious misgivings about the religious service, especially
when informed that the witches were going to "priestess" the ceremony themselves.
Aletheia laughed as she remembered:
He was really
worried that we were going to cause some kind of big scene some kind of
heretical thing in front of God and everyone at the Holy Cross Cemetery
When he asked what religion the
ceremony represented he was told "neopagan." When he balked at that, Spiderwoman
told him that it was "nondenominational." Although he finally agreed, he
appeared uncomfortable about the ceremony. He frequently peeked in at the
service and later complained about the smell of incense. The arrangements
for the interment were made through him, so it is unclear what the officials
of the Catholic cemetery were told would occur.
rites in the funeral home began before any of the guests arrived. One of
the coven's apprentices performed a ritual cleansing of the room with a
cauldron of burning sage, which is believed to purify everything it touches,
and by sprinkling oil, dedicated to Diana, to help create "sacred space."
The closed coffin had been aligned with the body's head in the East, the
direction which, for Dianics, represents new beginnings and therefore endings,
the closing of the circle. The coffin was placed in the front of the memorial
chapel under an arch painted with a quote from John that promises eternal
life through belief in Jesus. The stained glass window had not been covered.
The flower arrangements chosen by the coven were seasonal, deep rusts,
oranges, and yellows. Each display included oak leaves and shafts of wheat,
symbolizing rebirth and regeneration. Wicker baskets filled with evergreen
needles and pine cones were on the floor under the casket, repeating the
same theme. Later it was disclosed that the needles and cones had been
picked that morning from a tree where Sep liked to go when considering
issues of life and death. All of the witches, except for Aletheia, wore
conservative dark dresses, highlighting the pentacles, moons, and snake
jewelry they wore. Aletheia, a large woman who always wears pants, had
chosen an expensive man's suit, shirt, and necktie, all black. Around her
waist, she had knotted her witch's cord, a red braid. She wore snake and
pentacle rings, a pentacle medallion the size of her fist over her necktie,
and a silver crescent moon on a copper band around her forehead.
rituals tends to vary from coven to coven and even within the same coven
over time. Rituals of the Circle of the Redwood Moon are usually improvisational,
but there was a written agenda for the funeral. Nevertheless, at the last
moment, Aletheia decided that she wanted the coven, and its auxiliary,
to perform a self-blessing before beginning the service. We stood in a
circle in front of the coffin and each of us, in turn, using the same oil
that had been sprinkled around the room, anointed the forehead, eyes, nostrils,
mouth, breasts, abdomen, genitals, and feet of the woman to our left. Each
woman using whatever words came to her while doing this, said in essence
Blessed be thy
mind that thou mayst partake of Her wisdom, thy eyes that share her vision,
thy nostrils that smell her essence, thy mouth to speak her truth, thy
breasts to nurture her children, thy womb the source of her creativity,
thy yoni the source of her pleasure and energy, and thy feet that they
may walk her path (See Budapest, 1980:96-100)
The blessing was sealed with a
light kiss on the mouth. Several members and friends of Sep's Catholic
family walked in during this part of the ceremony. Seeing the anointing
and the kiss, they demanded loudly to know just what was going on. An apprentice
was sent to reassure them as well as accompany the widow to her pew.
apprentice tended a tape recorder playing Sep's favorite music, sea chanties,
as the rest of the guests filed in. Spiderwoman took the podium and welcomed
everyone. She lit a white tapered candle. One of the apprentices began
to burn copal, a resin based incense she had chosen because it intuitively
"felt right." The apprentice discreetly tended the burning incense during
the entire ceremony, sprinkling fresh resin on the charcoal block in the
small iron cauldron near the coffin and gently fanning the smoke. Nete
sounded a small gong and performed a dramatic reading about beginning a
new day. She referred to the Goddess as "the Lady" and specifically mentioned
"the Lord," her consort. She said later that she had done this with the
intention of accommodating "those who believe in a patriarchal religion."
Spiderwoman sang "Morning Has Broken" and the coven joined in. She then
read the poem that Sep had written to the Goddess, a long ballad like piece
that spoke about Diana's bow and her sacred woods. Individuals were invited
to get up and share personal memories about Sep. None of the guests seemed
prepared to do this.
initiate became concerned at the lack of audience participation, which
was clearly not what Aletheia had planned. Taking the podium, the initiate
said she had met Sep only once, but through Aletheia's talking about him
and loving him so much she felt that he had influenced her life through
his influence on his daughter. It was a generous, loving thing for Aletheia’s
"coven sister" to do at a critical point. It pulled the service out of
the embarrassed silence it had fallen into. When the initiate finished,
she rang the gong and Aletheia took the podium. She shared memories of
her father, things he had said, things they had done together. It was difficult
for her; sometimes she laughed and sometimes she cried as she spoke. When
she was done, she rang the gong and lit a green candle to represent rebirth.
then called the coven up to stand in a semi circle around the coffin. She
raised a ceramic chalice that she had used in doing solitary magic for
her father and announced that she had placed her wishes for Sep's freedom
from pain within the chalice. Then she handed the chalice to the woman
on her right. (The insistence on improvisational abilities in the Redwood
Moon was important here, since the author present had no idea she was going
to be called on to perform in this manner.) The chalice was passed around
the circle counterclock wise or "widdershins" to represent dispersal. As
each woman accepted the chalice, she announced her wish for the deceased.
The wishes ranged from eternal peace to being remembered with joy. The
audience was invited to participate in this ritual magic, either silently
or out loud. Only Sep's son chose to join the ceremony verbally, announcing
tearfully a wish that his father could see and hear the beautiful things
that had been said about him.
Sep was "cut free of his earthly ties." Spiderwoman, in the West, pulled
Aletheia's long broadsword from under the flowers on the coffin and waved
it over the lid. As she did so, she called on the powers or goddesses of
the West to free Sep. The sword was passed to the priestesses at the South
and East, then finally to Aletheia in the North, the direction which represents
the body, earth, and darkness. At each point of the compass, the priestesses
called in free verse upon Water, Fire, Air, and Earth respectively to set
the deceased free. Spiderwoman then began a chant. She sang one line and
the coven members repeated it. Phrases involving "deep peace" were chanted
over and over, as initiated witches at the four corners placed their hands
on the coffin and visualized peace flowing through their bodies and into
the body in the coffin.
asked us to take our seats and listen to a brief tape of a Celtic autoharp.
After a few minutes, Spiderwoman requested that the audience regroup at
the cemetery and announced that maps were available in the outer lobby.
asked the coven to remain after the rest of the mourners had departed.
She raised the coffin lid and tucked the ceramic chalice in the crook of
her father's arm. She placed some personal items in his inside coat pocket,
including a "charm," a braid made of the hair of some witches who had performed
magic for him. She took a small branch from his evergreen tree and laid
it on his breast. With Diana oil, she began to bless him. When she came
to his genitals, she paused. Dianics are familiar with the word "yoni,"
but the word "lingham," the male counterpart, was unknown to the separatists
in Redwood Moon. After a little shared laughter Aletheia shrugged and blessed
her father's yoni. The funeral director came in and asked us to get a couple
of "strong men" for the coffin. Several of the women immediately volunteered
to carry it. The rest of us joined the procession to the cemetery.
the open grave, everyone lined up behind the coven. We followed the coffin
singing a hymn Dianics claim was sung by Italian women who linked arms
and walked into the sea to welcome death, rather than be tortured and burned
for witchcraft during the witch purges several centuries ago. Nete stood
at one end of the coffin and Aletheia at the other, as Nete read from her
Book of Shadows about the meaning of the evergreen. She stressed that death
precedes life, which always follows death. An apprentice passed through
the crowd of family and friends of the deceased, handing out the sprigs
of evergreen from the baskets that had been under the coffin during the
memorial service. Many people accepted the springs, others refused to touch
them. Spiderwoman spoke briefly about the debt that was owed to the widow,
who had been so loving and caring toward Sep during his illness. Aletheia
and her brother laid large pine branches on the coffin and those of us
who had taken sprigs followed suit. Spiderwoman blessed the coffin and
the grave, then announced that Sep was at rest.
woman's voice rang out loudly, "And may Jesus Christ have mercy on your
soul." One of the widow's daughters had created immediate tension in the
small gathering with what appeared to be both a declaration of faith and
a challenge to the witches.
entirely unexpected thing then happened. Aletheia's brother, who had initially
been the most angry and argumentative, refusing to attend any religious
ceremony, stepped forward to heal the breach. He said that his father had
taught him that the true meaning of Jesus Christ was that good lives were
led by good people, regardless of their religions. The crowd seemed mollified
and slowly dispersed for the reception.(13)
It is important to note that Sep's funeral was not typical. Dianics do
not have a typical funeral rite. What is meaningful to individual witches
and their families is worked into the service. Symbols of rebirth and regeneration,
however, are used consistently, even though reincarnation in a literal
sense was not mentioned that day.
at achieving reintegration of the surviving family occurred in the rituals
at both the chapel and graveside. The invitations to the mourners to share
memories of the deceased and to join in the ritual magic of placing wishes
(or spells) in the chalice were obvious attempts to establish a sense of
community, as was the passing out of the evergreen sprigs. The attention
paid to the widow by the coven, especially the praise and thanks offered
to her at the graveside, helped somewhat to reestablish family solidarity.
That these efforts were not more successful is only partially due to the
deep divisions in the family and its lack of solidarity during Sep's lifetime.
Geertz (1973:167) has demonstrated that conflict can occur when a particular
funeral rite becomes both "a paean to God" and an affirmation of political
belief. In spite of their attempt to be inclusive, when they called on
the goddess, the radical feminist witches of Redwood Moon were symbolically
challenging all social institutions based on patriarchal relationships.
is significant that Sep's homophobic and sexist son, the most alienated
individual present, and the only one without the immediate support of a
community, was the one who attempted to heal the breach caused by conflicting
religions. Although he professed to be an atheist, the Wiccan funeral and
the symbolism it contained held meaning for him. Aletheia reported that
the two of them were closer that weekend than they had been in their entire
adult lives. She and Sep's widow, who had been estranged from each other
during Sep's life, also appeared to renegotiate their relationship, at
least on a temporary basis. We were later told that this relationship became
strained again over the deceased's financial affairs.
is also obvious that witchcraft provides a framework for interpreting and
giving meaning to death, even in today's society where pain and dying are
often prolonged. In so doing, Dianic Wicca also gives greater meaning to
life. As Joseph Campbell has written, death and life are two aspects of
the same thing, which is being, becoming:
One can experience
an unconditional affirmation of life only when one has accepted death,
not as contrary to life but as an aspect of life. (Campbell, 1987:152)
she claimed not to have a personal belief in literal reincarnation, Aletheia
found comfort in using the Dianic symbols of rebirth in dealing with her
father's death. This, then, was an affirmation of belief in the life cycle.
witchcraft, with its acceptance of death and emphasis on immanence, the
interconnectedness of all things, and natural cycles rather than polarities,
is a joyous, life affirming religion, even in death. Spiderwoman epitomized
this outlook in a powerful image when she and Aletheia were at the funeral
home, wandering among the lead lined steel coffins with rubber gaskets
and special locking devices. As the mortician reminded them that they had
to bring underwear to dress the corpse, Spiderwoman turned to him and announced,
"When I die, I want to be buried naked, standing up, with a tree planted
on my head." Aletheia told us later that she thought this was wonderful.
there are many reference books on feminist Wicca and "women's spirituality,"
the scholarly literature tends to focus on how the discovery of the Goddess
within each woman holds potential for women's psychological and political
health. With rare exception, Dianic Wicca is not examined from a sociological
perspective as a religion that provides shared meanings and unites people
into a moral community.
Dianic community argues that belief in an autonomous male divinity as "Creator
of All Life" is a patriarchal mindform and a denial of motherhood. Death
conceived of as a return to a Heavenly Father, therefore, fails to provide
meaning in the lives of radical feminists. In response to meaninglessness,
people create meaning, and the shared meanings they create reveal a shared
paper has attempted to show how the religion of radical feminist witches
gives meaning to death, and so to life. Symbols of darkness and death are
woven throughout Dianic tradition. Some are ancient like the serpent, some
newly created or deconstructed, like the witch's cauldron. The symbols
are present in the cornerstone philosophy of the Sacred Trinity of the
Dianics, in their myths, their rituals, their tools, their songs, the ways
in which they adorn themselves, and in their spiral dance. The funeral
in this case study presented a unique opportunity to examine how darkness,
decay, and death are seen as integral parts of light, birth, and life.
important questions need to be addressed. If this religion is growing as
rapidly as reported, who are the new witches and where do they come from?
Is this a lasting phenomenon or a fad? What impact has it had or will it
have on the Women's Movement? How is finding the Goddess Within different
from other forms of therapy? How do Dianics compare with other emergent
finishing our "year and a day" in the field with the witches of Redwood
Moon, the authors have come in contact with many more women who practice
the feminist Craft. One reason for this is that we have learned the symbolic
language and know what to look for: the pentacle, the snake, shared greetings,
etc. We have personally discovered practitioners on both coasts and in
the Midwest, on college campuses, located within mainstream religions,
defending family planning clinics, in upper middle class resort towns,
and behind cement fences in working class neighborhoods. The growing popularity
of the subject and the movement's dramatic proliferation demand further
assertion that "There is no Church or Magic" (Durkheim, t915:60) was based
on an idea of magicians as lone, instrumental practitioners who shunned
the openness of shared ritual and direct involvement in a community bound
together by common beliefs. This does not apply to Wiccan covens, where
both are profoundly important.
word "participate" is stressed because Wicca, especially for radical witches,
is an experiential religion with strong performative aspects. Only on rare
occasions is one allowed passively to observe a religious ceremony or ritual.
Although the coven originally requested that its true name and real names
of its members be used, pseudonyms were agreed upon and appear in this
paper. Legislation was proposed in both the House and Senate in 1985 to
mandate specific discrimination against witches and practitioners of the
Craft. Although this failed to pass, it is not impossible that witches
will be persecuted again in the future. The authors thus felt that pseudonyms
were necessary lo protect the individuals who made this research possible.
According to tradition, any woman may call herself a witch if she "knows"
herself to be one. Apprentices are considered witches who have not been
initiated. An initiate is a coven member who has studied for a year and
a day, demonstrated to the satisfaction of all initiated coven members
her understanding of Dianic traditions, and been initiated herself, usually
during the ritual known as Candlemas in February. Initiates may then choose
to engage in further study in a particular area of expertise, such as ritual,
chants, or herbology. The study must again last at least a year and a day,
and the consensus of all initiated witches in Redwood Moon delermines whether
or not one will be advanced to Priestess of Ritual, Chants, or Herbs.
In her chapter on feminist witchcraft, Adler (1986) argues that lesbianism
is as much or more of a political and cultural phenomenon as it is a sexual
orientation. She refers to asexual and/or celibate women who call themselves
lesbians. In Redwood Moon one self identified lesbian was celibate, another
said she believed most people were really bisexual, and another said she
made "a political choice to become a lesbian." Regardless of sexual orientation,
all Dianics learn a radical feminist analysis of religion and the roots
of women's oppression.
Lozano opted not to request apprenticeship training for professional reasons.
Follz was not aware that as a researcher she mighl have been permitted
to become an apprentice until lale into the research, when she was planning
The distinction between the two is made because one must request to become
an apprentice. As Redwood Moon is governed by consensus. we may only surmise
that our petition
would have been granted unanimously.
On at least two occasions during our research, consensus was lacking on
the advancement of members within the coven, so candidates were held back.
As several witches later informed us, joining a coven has much of the intensity
of a group marriage. The commitment between members is a profound one and
must be made “in perfect love and perfect trust."
See Adler, 1986, for a description of these works and the traditions the
Upon hearing this accusation for the first time, the witches of Redwood
Moon immediately went out and had T shirts printed that read, "Too Dianic!"
In 1968, WITCH (Women's International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell) was
formed in New York with the intention of using guerrilla theater to be
the "striking arm of the Women's Liberation Movement." Within a few weeks,
covens had sprung up in major cities across the United States united by
common style - humor, irreverence and feminist activism (Morgan,
1970). Although they performed public rituals and hexings and wrote of
spell casting, their focus was political action rather than religious practice.
Budapest lived in New York al this time and appears to have been influenced
by WlTCH's theatricality and feminist politics.
We spent over a year learning the doctrine of this particular group of
witches. To claim to have neither dogma nor doctrine is a misstatement;
rather each group creates its own, taking what it likes from certain reference
and "how to" books, and passing these teachings on to new recruits. The
basic Craft Law is "As and ye harm none, do what thou will." Other than
this, Wiccan traditions and the individual covens lend to make their own,
often highly creative, decisions in these areas. As one priestess told
us, "You want to know the answers, but we haven’t finished making them
up yet." Even then, the results are often highly idiosyncratic. Each witch
in Redwood Moon is expected to keep a "Book of Shadows," where she details
the magic and rituals she engages in, what seems to work for her, and her
thoughts about her personal growth. One witch shared her beautifully bound
antique leather book filled with copious notes, another told us she wrote
things down on scraps of paper and threw them into a dresser drawer.
There are eight "sabbats" or holy days in the Dianic calendar, celebrated
at the solstices, equinoxes, and the "cross points" between them.
Sabbats celebrate the wheel of the year and are used to reaffirm the connections
among the individual, the community, and nature. Dianic sabbats share things
with, but are not the same as, the sabbats in other Wiccan traditions.
See Budapest, 1986, for a detailed description.
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the author present until that very moment. Thus, a prior commitment prevented
attendance. This was unfortunate, as rich data on the interaction of family
members and verbal impressions of he Wiccan ceremonies were obviously missed.
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it was first published.