I conjure thee, O circle of i power.…”

As the priestess spoke the words, the 12 green-robed figures stood in respectful silence facing the round table in the center of the room that served as an altar. Athame (ritual knife) in hand, she proceeded around the room inscribing an imaginary circle on the floor as she continued to chant:

“… that thou become a boundary between the world of men and the realms of the Mighty Ones.”

With the circle completed and the sacred space thereby defined, she moved to each point of the compass to summon the four Guardians, symbolic of the four elements (earth, air, fire, and water). Tonight is Samhain (Halloween to the uninitiated), the Witch’s New Year, a time to reflect upon the past 12 months and work high magic (personal change) for the coming year. Samhain is also that point in the year when the veil between this life and the beyond is very thin, and the spirits of the departed gather close.

The ritual begins. The priestess raises her athame and invokes the prime deity, the Great Mother, Diana, and then the priest, who has played only a superficial role to this point, intones the invocation to the horned god, Pan. For the remainder of the ritual, those inside the circle view the priest and priestess as representative embodiments of the deities.

The opening is complete. The group readies itself to work its magic. A young woman begins a song, “We all come from the Goddess, and to her we shall return, like a drop of rain.…” One song leads to another. Soon the whole coven is singing and dancing within the circle. The dance is simple but brisk, and raises the cone of power, the magical intensity experienced as a sense of oneness and a high level of emotional energy.

With the power raised, the mood changes, and the priestess leads the group in a period of guided meditation. They review any elements of imbalance in their lives during the past year. To close the meditation, each person writes a resolution for change that he or she will accomplish during the coming year on a piece of paper that is placed in a small bowl on the altar. Now the magic happens: each witch takes her athame and places its point on the small pile of resolutions. As the priestess chants an ancient prayer, the coven members visualize the magical power focused in the athame and command its flow into the intentions they have written. With the flame of the altar candle, the priestess lights the papers. As the flame consumes each piece, the Witches send their goals for the coming year into the astral to be their constant companion until the magic is worked and the results are visible.

Article continues below

As a final event in the circle, one by one each member steps before the magic mirror, a piece of dark glass mounted in a picture frame. Each receives a message in the form of images that appear in the mirror from the astral (subconscious?) world. For some it is a time to finish grieving over a lost one who may be bidden a final goodbye in a blessing. After all have finished, the priestess quickly banishes the circle and dismisses the Guardians. The coven, standing with athames in the air, inscribes a pentagram and repeats in unison as the last Guardian departs, “Hail and farewell.”

The mood quickly changes. The somberness disappears as each person embraces the other with words of greetings, “Blessed be!” It is time to celebrate the new year. The feasting and singing and dancing will last for hours.

A Christian Ventures Among The Witches

The events described above occurred in a basement apartment on the north side of Chicago on October 31, 1982. They could, however, have happened in any one of several thousand locations in which similar rituals were held across the United States and Canada. From Miami to Vancouver, from Houston to Toronto, from Bakersfield, California, to Farmington, Maine, over 30,000 children of the Goddess gathered to celebrate and call upon her by one of her many names—Hecate, Isis, Cybele, or Diana. On each Halloween, after the little ones have finished their trick or treating, hung up their pointed hats and ghostly costumes, and drifted off to dream of candy mountains, real witches congregate in their urban apartments, suburban homes, and secluded rural groves to work real magic.

But you may ask the same question I asked myself that Halloween of 1982: “What is a United Methodist minister doing at this Samhain rite with a group of people about whom the Bible seems to give only the most horrendous invectives?”

The trail that led me there goes back to the summer of 1971. Several books and magazine articles had alerted me to the existence of a new generation of witches, and somewhat by accident I met my first witch in an occult bookstore she ran in Pasadena. Through her I was introduced to other people who called themselves Witches and/or Pagans. They shared the same basic characteristics—they acknowledged the supremacy of the feminine deity, the Goddess, and practiced something called magic. I also learned that in Chicago, just a few blocks from my home, Pagans had opened a temple.

Article continues below

I soon recognized that none of my colleagues otherwise so concerned with the so-called New Religions that blossomed in the 1970s were studying Witchcraft or Paganism. Few were even aware of its existence. The scholar in me responded to the discovery of virgin research territory, the opportunity to study American witchcraft firsthand and get beyond the books written by people who had themselves only read other books about witches. On a more personal level, I must admit, I was more than a little fascinated by that aura of secrecy and mystery that still surrounded the idea of “witchcraft.”

I located the Chicago Pagan Temple and attended a few of its open meetings. I read books, subscribed to Pagan periodicals, and finally attended my first Wiccan ritual, in Cincinnati (the Chicago people were not yet ready to trust a Christian minister into their inner world). I took opportunities to visit with Witches whenever they appeared. I crashed a “Witchmeet” in Minnesota in 1974. My presence at a “Pagan Fest” in Georgia led to a heated exchange among participants. Finally, in 1979, in spite of lingering doubts and fears about my Christianity, the Midwest Pagan Council assisted me in a survey of the national Pan-Pagan Festival they sponsored.

A decade of fieldwork and study of modern Witchcraft proved mindwrenching. I began with a host of images and beliefs about Witches, and one by one the images were ripped away and tossed into the garbage can. The first to go concerned devil worship and ritually dissected dogs and cats. The Witches quickly (and at times vehemently) informed me that they followed their own faith in the Goddess, and that Witchcraft was neither ex-Christian nor anti-Christian. Witches do not believe the Christian Devil, Satan, even exists, much less worship him. They follow the Goddess who takes her most complete embodiment in nature and leads Witches and Pagans to environmental activism, a love of animals, advocacy of health foods, and a healthy respect for the generative powers of nature.

But what of sinister rituals, black masses, young female victims, and the littered remains of ritually sacrificed animals left in graveyards? Along the way I discovered there were a few Satanists, but they, worshipers of the Christian Devil, are not part of nor welcome within the Pagan/Witchcraft community. This fact was brought home to me dramatically when I personally witnessed the ostracism of several people who attended a recent Pagan Festival. Dressed in black leather, they showed all the signs of occult evil. They also left after the first day.

Article continues below

The Witches’ atunement to nature also finds expression in their worship, focussed upon the sun, moon, and agricultural cycle. Pagan (a term meaning literally “of the land”) worship finds its focus in eight festival days called “sabbats.” Four of the sabbats mark the extreme movements of the sun—the summer and winter solstices and the spring and fall equinoxes. Four others mark the agricultural season from Oimelc (February 2) to Beltane (May Eve) to Lammas (August 1) to Samhain (October 31). Witches also gather bi-weekly at the new and full moon for esbats, at which the Goddess is invoked and magic performed.

The Gardnerian Impulse

The study of modern Witchcraft can be very confusing to the beginner. At least four distinct phenomena are called by the single label “witchcraft” in the many books on the subject. First, for anthropologists and Christian missionaries, witchcraft usually means the art of the tribal shaman and workers of magic and healing. Second, to the student of the Bible and the ancient historian, witchcraft is the practice of the ob, such as the famous ob of Endor (1 Samuel 28). While we are not altogether sure exactly what an ob was, we do know obs specialized in herbs, poisons, and mediumship. Third, to the medieval and church historian, witchcraft denotes the worship of His Infernal Majesty, with the associated practice of malevolent sorcery and desecration of Christianity in the black mass, from the elements of which lurid novels are made.

Commonly, Christians, even well-read Christians who should know better, confuse Witches with Satan worshipers.

Most recently we have been subjected to the fantasies of a “Witchmobile” and the unsubstantiated claims of “ex-Satanists” to large Satanic conspiracies. In fact, even at its peak in the 1970s, Satanism never attracted more than a few thousand adherents.

Modern Wicca derives from the fertile mind of Gerald Gardner (1884–1964), a British civil servant who spent much of his life in Southern Asia. Out of his amateur but serious anthropological and archeological interests, he wrote the definitive work on the kris, the magical knife of the Malasians, and also authored a novel on the Mother Goddess. Back in England during World War II, he began to assemble all of the occult teachings he had encountered and to create the new synthesis, a Pagan Goddess faith. He adapted the kris, which became the athame. From Asia he selected several magical practices that were blended with Freemasonry and Western ritual magic. He added a belief in reincarnation and organized the whole system under the Goddess.

Article continues below

In 1952 the British finally rescinded their Witchcraft Law, a symbolic culmination of the process by which Western culture divested itself of the superstitious fear of malevolent magic and death-dealing sorcery. Westerners relegated each to the museum where it belongs.

Gardner chose the occasion to introduce his new form of Goddess worship in a book, Witchcraft Today (1954). Modern Wicca, as the Witches term their faith, grew from people who read Gardner’s book and requested initiation. In the mid-1960s, Raymond and Rosemary Buckland traveled to England, and Gardner initiated them. They in turn have spread Gardnerian Wicca across the continent. Other Witches took Gardner’s rituals and created numerous variations upon them. Donna Cole, a Gardnerian from Chicago, wrote an entirely new set of rituals for Goddess worshipers who wished to be called Pagans instead of Witches. These rituals, mailed out by the dozens in the early 1970s, spread the Pagan faith through a second channel.

As it spread, the Goddess Movement organized into small autonomous units, usually called covens or groves. A few affiliated loosely, but the Witches rebuffed all attempts to build supracoven institutions.

A Witch Cult?

The Goddess Movement defies all of the stereotypes of the so-called New Religions (i.e., cults). It has grown quietly without any high pressure recruitment. To the contrary, a potential member must make some effort to seek out local Pagans and initiate a first contact. Pagans see little need for a centralized leadership and are bound by only a few points of theological concensus. With few exceptions, covens and groves have not incorporated and operate without significant cash flow. Since the basic organizational unit consists of less than 20 people, they have no use for their own separate buildings.

An Evaluation Of Paganism

While Paganism presents a clear alternative to Christianity, it is difficult to assess it as an alternative belief system. Built around experience more than ideas, it has no creed or doctrinal statement, and has only begun to think about theology. One could catalog a lengthy list of beliefs held by most Pagans that are quite inimical to Christian faith. In place of the Trinity are the Mother Goddess and her consort. Most Witches believe in reincarnation (and karma), and have generally adopted the Eastern ethic of harmlessness as summarized in the Wiccan Rede: “That ye harm none, do what ye will,” instead of the Christian approach of active love.

Article continues below

With Paganism, however, we are not dealing with heresy. As evangelicals we can analyze the numerous points at which, for example, Jehovah’s Witnesses deviate from a common Christian base. With Pagans we share no such base. They do not deviate at a few points from orthodox Christianity; they differ at every point, since they are operating out of an entirely distinct religious gestalt. Thus, in the end, the key issues do not boil down to doctrines but to overall perspectives on life, death, and the divine.

Paganism represents a return to the “Old Religion” that found the divine in nature and drew its self-image from the endless cycles of the seasons. Pagans, with a self-conscious naïveté, have reentered the enchanted forest in which trees and animals are their brothers and sisters. This perspective, while offering a critique of environmental abuses, does little more.

The return to the enchanted forest includes a return to magic. The magical world consists of mighty cosmological forces that magicians must control and subdue, or to which they fall victim. Thus magic is a religion for the strong who wish to grow stronger, but it fails to create a community of concern that can support individuals in crisis or reach out to people in need. I saw this clearly in a Pagan leader I met recently. He had returned to the Christianity in which he had been raised. In answer to my probing, he spoke of alcoholism. He had turned to the Pagan community for help, only to discover it lacked the resources and finally the desire to give the needed assistance.

Like Jews, Witches claim a special relationship to Christianity. They call Paganism “the Old Religion,” and claim descent from the pre-Christian religion of Europe. Long before the Holocaust, they claim, Christianity conducted its bloody conquest of the Goddess worshippers. Misidentifying Pan with the Christian Devil, the church turned the Inquisition upon innocent Pagans. Protestants carried on the tradition by misidentifying witches with the ob, as in “a man or woman who is an ob … must be put to death” (Lev. 20:27).

Article continues below

Whatever the truth behind their reading of history, their perspective correlates with their experience of the church. Many have come from nominally religious homes. Church attendance left them bored, and spiritually dry. Others report a negative encounter with an insensitive pastor. Many females (and Pagans are 60 percent female) left to find a nonsexist spiritual path. The single Pagan I know best would still be a Roman Catholic today, but she feels called to the priesthood.

Pagans who have let their new faith be known report a continued bad history with Christians. They have received insults (most frequently related to talk of Satan), slander, and abusive language. Others have lost their jobs, been involved in child custody suits, and had rocks thrown through the windows of their businesses—all by people claiming to be Christians.

Pagans therefore simply do not respond to traditional methods of evangelism. They see the more familiar methods of preaching and literature distribution as further hostile actions, a confirmation of the events that drove them from the church in the first place.

We need a different approach. First, we should not confuse the building of an anticult polemic against Witchcraft with effective communication of the gospel to Pagans. To date, evangelicals have limited their activity toward Pagans to the production of numerous bits of literature focused upon the obvious fact that Witchcraft diverges from Christian practice and biblical teachings. For Pagans, who do not profess to be Christian or follow the Bible, such literature is irrelevant and certainly no substitute for the sharing of one’s own experience of life with Christ.

Second, we should attempt to grasp the depth of Paganism’s appeal and the spiritual life it provides.

A helpful approach might be that provided by the apostle Paul, and by Justin Martyr, the first Christian theologian of the postapostolic era. While the New Testament frequently spoke in harsh terms of Jews, with whom Christians were in some conflict, Paul’s inspired reflection speaks of the Jewish Law as a “schoolmaster” that leads to Christ. The philosopher Justin built upon Paul by suggesting that pagan philosophy also prepared one for the reception of the gospel. The alternative religions give many young adults their first religious experience. They provide the context within which the gospel can be received.

Finally, the Pagans I have met differ in no wise from the rest of humanity. They also possess that God-shaped hole that leaves them empty and restless until filled by the one true God. Having seen the worst side of Christian polemics, they have little use of a merely verbal faith. But they are influenced by Christians whose lives have been changed by Jesus Christ and who manifest that change through the fruit of the Spirit. Having heard our words, they need to see our Christian love in practice.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.