Article ID: 12083
Age Group: Adult
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Author: Janice Van Cleve
Posted: February 11th. 2008
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Dianic Wicca is a religion that belongs to that wonderful, wacky, creative, life-embracing movement called Neo-Paganism. This movement sprouted from its first seeds back in the late 19th Century with the writings of James Frazer, Charles Leland, J.J. Bachofen, and Friedrich Engels among others. (Yes, the same Friedrich Engels that created communist theory with Karl Marx!) Aleister Crowley and Margaret Murray built upon these foundations in the 1920’s and 30’s, but it was the work of Gerald Gardner and Robert Graves in the 1950’s that really expanded the movement.
Neo-Paganism promotes no dogma, offers no sacred scriptures, and possesses no pope. Neo-Paganism is not a faith-based religion. It is an experience based religion.
Practitioners often note that they are not really trying to be secretive when they decline to describe their rites, because mere description would fall far short of the mark. The many ritual recipes out on the market today from Llewellyn Press and others are correctly called “Books of Shadows” because the outlines they offer are mere shadows of the substance.
Understanding can only come from personal experience. It follows, therefore, that there cannot be any dogma because everyone’s experience is going to be individual.
By the same token, neo-Pagans don’t really “believe” in this or that, if by “belief” we mean accepting on faith something that is outside of Nature. Supernatural stuff is unnatural by definition. Neo-Paganism is a Nature religion. Immaculate conceptions, miracles, creationism, devils, sins and all the rest, are concepts contained in the creeds of some religions but neo-Pagans don’t have these laundry lists of things they must believe. Instead, the closest thing we can call a neo-Pagan “creed” are certain laws arrived at from experience. “Love is the law. Love under will.” “An ye harm none, do what ye will.” This is why Witches call their practice The Craft. It is an assemblage of skills learned and exercised. They don’t “believe” that they work; they “know” that they work. Like Yoda tells young Skywalker, “Try not – do or do not.”
The words “Witches” and “Witchcraft” come from the Old English word wicca. The Craft itself is often referred to as Wicca. The Indo-European root of this word is wic which means to bend or turn, as in bending or turning reality. This is very close to the meaning of magic, which itself comes from the ancient Persian tribe of Magi who, like Witches, were the wise ones of their tribe. The wisdom of the Witches or wise women to foresee, to heal, and to help people with their problems was considered magical.
This is not to be confused with “magic” as portrayed by Hollywood or by Joanne Rowling. The laws of physics for this physical plane cannot be bent or turned. Tables don’t float and Witches don’t fly – on this physical plane. What happens in magic is that the Witch transforms herself to another plane where different laws of physics apply. There she is able to see or understand or apply energy effectively. Anyone else open to alternate planes of reality can perceive and respond to the forces a witch bends there and take action accordingly. Those whose minds are closed to alternate realities, of course, are simply Muggles.
Thus the neo-Pagan movement advanced until the 1960’s. Then came the revolution. Hippies powered by flowers (and other substances), Blacks tired of segregation, Women fed up with being property, and Gays and Lesbians fighting harassment, all came out of the closet. Black Panthers and war protesters swarmed into the streets. Individuals were claiming their own reality and overturning the status quo. In this cauldron of transformation, the Feminist Movement was born. Soon thereafter, Merlin Stone published When God Was A Woman – the same year that Z. Budapest wrote The Feminist Book of Lights and Shadows, which eventually became The Holy Book of Women’s Mysteries. These books became the foundations for a new branch of neo-Paganism called the Dianic tradition of Wicca.
Dianic Wiccans celebrate the same Sabbats as other Wiccans – the solstices, equinoxes and cross quarters – and many Dianic circles gather on full and new moons as well. Most Dianics acknowledge the Goddess alone and include only women in their circles. Dianics shun hierarchies for the most part, are very creative and spontaneous in their rituals rather than performing to a strictly rigid liturgy, and they have strong ties to their feminist roots.
The relationship of the Feminist Movement to Dianic Wicca has been a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it liberated Wiccan women from patriarchal notions of paganism, which claimed that all energy comes from the male/female polarity. The early neo-Pagan leaders were all men and sex between sexes occupied a large part of their attention and sometimes even their rituals. This was rejected by feminists who sought a spirituality they could call exclusively their own. However, as feminism was a reaction to oppression, it carried with it a mindset colored by it. Feminists rebelled against the oppression of men but very soon began to oppress lesbians in their own ranks. The early years of the National Organization of Women, for example, were rife with bitter struggles between straight and lesbian feminists.
Oppression inevitably breeds oppression. The oppressed inevitably become the oppressors. It’s the old story of man beats wife, wife yells at child, and child kicks dog. The same thing happened in Dianic Wiccan circles between straight and lesbian Witches. Lesbians, in turn, oppressed Bisexual women, and today some feminists and lesbians are opposed to transgendered women in circle. These are normal growing pains of any movement and as straight and lesbian women have by now largely overcome their orientation differences, they will no doubt soon overcome their fears of their transgendered sisters as well. Z. Budapest unknowingly settled this whole fuss right at the beginning when she stated that there were only two kinds of people: mothers and their children. That worldview is the real foundation of feminism.
In contrast to a male/female polarity, feminists discovered that female saints of the Middle Ages focused more on a polarity between the human and the divine. One Dianic leader dismisses the entire polarity issue completely, holding that psychic ritual energy comes entirely from within. Deborah Bender, writing in The Witch’s Trine about her Dianic coven says: “Our rituals are the expressions of the energies of seven very different personalities, energies which are different every time we begin a ritual and continue to change during it as we respond to the ritual and to each other. If a polarity exists, it is not twofold, but sevenfold.” (Adler, Drawing Down The Moon p. 218.)
Yet in spite of squabbles, the thealogy (thea = Goddess) of Dianic Wicca has advanced. The Goddess has emerged as more than a personality or even an archetype. She is not an entity at all, but rather the web of life itself. As Ruth Barrett says in Women’s Rites, Women’s Mysteries, “We do not pray in the usual sense; rather we focus our conscious awareness on the web. We use female imagery as a metaphor.” So there is not a deity with a separate personality or intelligence out there, or up there, or anywhere. There is no transcendent deity at all. She is really the life force that is in all living things and inside ourselves. This is what Doreen Valiente meant in her famous poem The Charge Of The Goddess: “If that which you seek you find not within yourself, you shall never find it without.”
So with no dogma, no commandments, and not even a deity, how do Dianic Wiccans figure out right action? With no such thing as sin and all women – lesbian or straight, generic or designer models – able to connect to the web of all life, do we have an ethical chaos? Not at all. The Wiccan Law says “And ye harm none, do what ye will.” Causing harm to no one is a tough code of ethics! The Law goes on “Lest in thy self defense it be, ever mind the rule of three.” This is like the Buddhist concept of karma – choices and actions we carry out have inevitable consequences, sometimes bigger than our initial intent. That makes sense, if all life is interconnected.
It’s that interconnectedness in a Dianic circle that manifests the Goddess. Every living thing is a partial representation of the Goddess to the degree that each partakes in life. When Dianics gather in circle, they don’t offer sacrifices to some external being or attempt by frenzied prayers to call for favors. Rather, Dianics strive for harmony among themselves when they raise energy. They seek to be in tune with each other, often quite literally in song or music. They focus on calling forth their personal representation of the Goddess from within themselves so that in unity with their sisters, they can manifest an image larger and more complex than the one they carry alone.
In my own Women Of The Goddess Circle, we don’t have clergy. Usually one woman facilitates the sequence of activities in ritual to bridge from one part to the next, but we all take responsibility for holding the rim and focusing the energy. This is very much in keeping with Christina Baldwin’s teaching in her book, Calling The Circle. She uses these techniques even when she is consulting corporate executives. Can you vision management and labor holding hands around a candle? Everyone takes part in planning our rituals and deciding our intention.
Women coming together to call forth their divine natures in circle are a much older phenomenon than Dianic Wicca. It is older than Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. It predates Buddha and the Hindu Vedas. It goes all the way back to the first societies when the mystery of women bringing forth new life from their bodies was a sacred act. Canaanite and Phoenician women worshipping Astarte and Asherah. Minoan women worshipping the Great Mother. Sappho and her daughters, the women of Sparta, and the Vestal virgins of Rome were all goddess-focused circles of women.
There were Witches and healers in northern Europe during the Middle Ages and the Strega in Italy. The Inquisition and the horrific wars that followed wiped out almost all active Pagan practice in Europe. Force and violence so firmly established the dominance of the patriarchy that popes even questioned if women were human!
Those evil times are over and women have returned to retake their rightful place in religions of all kinds. The various currents within feminism which today informs the modern Dianic movement are the eddies on the surface of a deep tradition. It adds its energy but does not freeze it in dogma. As Z. Budapest said in her Holy Book of Women’s Mysteries. “Women relate in creativity to religion, in a changing, ever-growing, blooming stream of consciousness. Our Book is always living, not a fossilized unyielding concept from the dark past.”
Dianic Wicca continues to grow and develop and as it does, it contributes a powerful creative energy to all the other traditions within the neo-Pagan movement.
Janice Van Cleve is a priestess of the Women Of The Goddess Circle, a Pagan community of women in the Dianic tradition of Wicca. Copyright 2007.
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