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Looking Into the Pagan Phenomenon

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands, NOV. 26, 2005 (Zenit) - Witchcraft is moving into the mainstream in the Netherlands. A Dutch court has ruled that the costs of witchcraft lessons can be tax-deductible, the Associated Press reported Oct. 31.

The previous month, the Leeuwarden District Court confirmed the legal right to write off the costs of schooling -- including in witchcraft -- against tax bills. The costs can be substantial, according to one witch interviewed for the article.

Margarita Rongen runs the "Witches Homestead" in a northern province. Her workshops cost more than $200 a weekend, or more than $2,600 for a full course. Rongen claims she has trained more than 160 disciples over the past four decades.

In England, meanwhile, Portsmouth's Kingston Prison has hired a pagan priest to give spiritual advice to three inmates serving life sentences, the Telegraph reported Nov. 1. The prisoners have converted to paganism and, according to prison rules, are allowed a chaplain in the same way as those with Christian or other religious faiths. Denying them a pagan chaplain would infringe their human rights, said John Robinson, the prison governor.

Earlier, on Oct. 17, the London-based Times newspaper reported that pagan priests in all prisons will now be allowed to use wine and wands in ceremonies held in jails. The Times noted that under instructions sent to prison governors by Michael Spurr, the director of operations of the Prison Service, inmates practicing paganism will be allowed a hoodless robe, incense and a piece of religious jewelry among their personal possessions.

The governors were given a complete guide to paganism, based on information supplied by the Pagan Federation. Prisoners will also be allowed to practice paganism in their cells, including prayer, chanting and the reading of religious texts and rituals. It is not known how many pagan prisoners are in jails in England and Wales, the Times added.

On the rise

The practice of witchcraft is attracting ever-growing numbers, particularly among young women. A recent attempt to understand its appeal is the book "Wicca's Charm," published in September by Shaw Books.

Authored by journalist Catherine Edwards Sanders, the book stemmed from a magazine article she was commissioned to do. Initially dismissive of Wicca, during her subsequent research Sanders came to appreciate that a genuine spiritual hunger was leading people into neo-pagan practices.

Sanders, a self-professed Christian, defines Wicca as a "polytheistic neo-pagan nature religion inspired by various pre-Christian Western European beliefs, which has as its central deity the Mother Goddess and which includes the use of herbal magic."

The book, which is limited to examining the situation in the United States, admits it is difficult to estimate the number of Wicca adherents. Sanders cites an estimate from one group, the Covenant of the Goddess, which claims around 800,000 Wiccans and pagans in America. A sociologist, Helen Berger, in 1999 put the estimate at 150,000 to 200,000 pagans.

Wicca is made up of many diverse elements, yet Sanders identifies some common beliefs among its followers. They are: All living things are of equal value and humans have no special place, and are not made in God's image; Wiccans believe that they possess divine power within themselves and that they are gods or goddesses; their own personal power is unlimited by any deity; and consciousness can and should be altered through the practice of rite and ritual.

What is important to Wiccans, Sanders explains, is the experience of a spiritual reality, and not truth or a body of knowledge. There is no orthodoxy, defined text, or core beliefs. And, while it has ancient roots, Sanders notes it is attractive to modernity since it can be freely molded to fit the spiritual consumer's desires.

Spell-making is another key element of Wicca. But Sanders notes that of all the Wiccans she spoke to, none entered it in order to use spells to harm people. Most choose Wicca because they are dissatisfied with churches and organized religion and are looking for a spiritual experience they are unable to find elsewhere.

Earthy

Another common trait in Wicca is environmentalism. Modern life has lost its connection to the land, Sanders argues, and Wicca, with its emphasis on nature, seasonal calendars, and the celebrations linked to the changing of the seasons, is both a way to recover this connection and also to spiritualize the relationship with the earth. Many Wiccans also reject the materialistic (but not spiritual) consumer culture.

Pagan and Wiccan groups, in fact, have been present at some of the anti-globalization protests in recent years. Sanders describes some the ceremonies she witnessed in 2002 during the World Economic Forum meeting in New York. They drew attention to such matters as environmental damage, animal welfare and preserving the purity of the water supply.

The ecological aspect of Wicca draws inspiration in part from the so-called Gaia spirituality. Gaia was the earth goddess of the ancient Greeks and in neo-pagan circles she is now transformed into the idea of the earth being one living organism, also called Gaia.

Feminism is another important element attracting people to Wicca. Sanders observes that Wiccan women feel as if Christian churches treat them like second-class citizens, limited to teaching Sunday school.

Sanders estimates that around two-thirds of neo-pagans in the United States are female. Many of them practice a form of goddess worship, commonly in the form of a mother goddess who is a metaphor for the earth. The Wiccan rituals also emphasize the concept of empowerment, and the female biological functions are accorded a respected role.

Added to this is the belief that what today's goddess worshippers are doing is reclaiming the heritage of a primitive world in which a peaceful matriarchal society dominated. This "matriarchal myth" is short on any historical evidence, notes Sanders, but is nonetheless an affirmation that is commonly repeated.

In fact, Sanders devotes a section of the book explaining how the Wiccan rituals and spells have no roots prior to 1900, and are the result of inventions and adaptations by a group of men, notably Aleister Crowley and Gerald Gardner. Far from being a revival of some ancient paganism or matriarchal society, Wicca is a modern, male invention.

Spiritual hunger

The desire to experience spirituality in a more direct and intense way is another factor attracting people to Wicca. Some teen-age girls, Sanders notes, are unsatisfied with the superficial teen culture and are looking for something to give a deeper meaning to their lives.

But, instead of turning to traditional religion to satisfy this need, an increasing number experiment with Wicca. Sanders argues that in part this is the fault of some churches, which have lost sight of the unseen world and the reality of a relationship with Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, reducing their activities to just a social exercise.

Other churches provide little in the way of serious nourishment for inquiring teen-age minds, particularly females ones. Another factor leading adolescents to Wicca instead of Christianity is a desire for rituals and ceremonies. Modern church culture, observes Sanders, has reduced the importance of religious rituals and solemn celebrations, leading people to look for alternatives that offer more tangible supernatural experiences.

In concluding Sanders affirms that her investigations made her more appreciative of the spiritual hunger leading people to experiment with Wicca. At the same time she argues that Christianity offers all of what neo-pagans seek: a message true 2,000 years ago and still valid today.

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Keywords

Wicca, Witchcraft, Netherlands, Catholic, Witches

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