Richard Worth 20th November 2017
Witchcraft has always had a strong association with feminism. While most other religions work within a patriarchal structure and place women behind men, Wicca teaches a balance between male and female and even has Goddess sect with a specific focus on feminine divinity.
Rituals and spells concentrate on empowering individuals, both symbolically and literally, and giving them more control over the world around them, so it’s easy to see why in recent years more young people are turning to the “old religions” for their spiritual needs.
No doubt millennial witches are influenced by pop culture milestones like the cult movie The Craft and TV shows like Charmed and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. These films and shows presented the acceptable face of witchcraft and helped to combat the hysterical “Satanic Panic” of the 80’s and 90’s that was fuelled by Christian conservatism and a lack of understanding of these faiths. It’s an issue witches are still concerned about today.
While for the large part these shows display strong feminist ideas and introduced core elements of Wicca to a larger audience, it would be naive and even dangerous to imagine that all witchcraft is exactly how it’s presented in teen dramas. For some young women, their experiences were the opposite.
Gerald Gardner is arguably the founder of Wicca, though others have claimed the title over the years. In 1939, the 53-year-old British former civil servant became involved in the occult. In 1945, after the repeal of the Witch Act of 1736 – which forbade by law both the claim that any human had supernatural powers and the practice of witchcraft – Gardner began to promote witchcraft and paganism, publishing several books on the subject.
Many of Gardner’s rituals, later known as Gardnerian Tradition, include naked or “skyclad” practices, and sexual rites.
He created the roles of High Priest and High Priestess, representing the Horned God and the Great Goddess, who would perform a sexual ritual known as the Great Rite. Of course, Gardner played the role of High Priest. As he grew older Gardner insisted that his High Priestesses must be replaced by younger women, citing the God’s dominance over the Goddess rather than equality.
Wiccans have mixed views about Gardner – some revere him, some consider him a sexual predator. Of course, Gardnerian Wicca is one tradition and not all Wiccans undertake skyclad practice or sexual rites. Similarly, nudity and consensual sex as a spiritual activity aren’t necessarily predatory, but where these elements exist, younger practitioners could be in danger.
Miriam Cumming is a 30-year-old witch from Australia who has been a Wiccan for 17 years. She’d been practising Wicca for little over a year when she met a man at a party, a man whom her family now refers to as V, short for Voldemort – He Who Shall Not Be Named.
“I believed what all the books say: ‘when the student is ready, the teacher will appear’,” she says.
“V had been so warm and welcoming towards me I felt pretty safe seeking him out again after the party. I’d pop over and visit on my way home from school. He agreed readily to teach me everything he knew. He claimed to be a Druid, not a Wiccan.”
Miriam began to meet V, who was aged 40, at his home where he lived with his wife and daughter, to practice meditation and other simple techniques. Finding a teacher and progressing your spiritual learning is an important step. Miriam took this process seriously and this gave V influence over Miriam who was still vulnerable and trying to work out how she felt.
“Then he gave me my first, and only, ‘assignment’ – to find out what our bond was,” she says.
Miriam had a handful of Wiccan friends but she was the most dedicated. The others were caught up with drinking, dating, parties and being normal teens, while she says she wanted love and security, to read books and write rituals.
“To find an adult who had huge amounts of free time and who wanted to spend hours with me just holding hands and breathing, who saw my self-harm scars without judgement, and thought I was mature, beautiful and strong… I felt confused. I ‘admitted’ our bond was ‘love’, but I did not consider dating him.”
Miriam wasn’t interested in V romantically but that didn’t stop him from pursuing a relationship with her – he didn’t seem to want to know what she thought.
“The next time I visited him he gave me a card declaring his feelings, a fake rose sprayed with his aftershave and fancy chocolate. He just accepted that we were dating now, and I didn’t know what to say about that. I remember him coaxing me to kiss him, and it makes me angry.
He told me that he couldn’t help himself, we’d have to stop making out if I didn’t want to be groped
“His wife came in a bit later that afternoon to ask him a question. She lent over the back of the lounge, where he’d laid me down, and I must have looked horrified because after she left the room he reassured me she was ok with this. With us. He’d asked her permission before pursuing me.
“I remember his hand up my shirt. How I pushed him away. Said I wasn’t ready for that. He told me that he couldn’t help himself, we’d have to stop making out if I didn’t want to be groped. I didn’t want that, so I gave more ground.”
Miriam moved in with V, his wife and his daughter who was about the same age as Miriam, despite the wishes of her family. “He never hit me or called me names. I felt safe. So I stayed.”
Pretty soon they stopped practising witchcraft together and all that was left was an exploitative and controlling relationship.
There was a lot of weird sexual stuff
“Once he used the premise of teaching me to lure me in and I was effectively trapped he rarely brought up the subject at all.
“There was a lot of weird sexual stuff. He would do things to me in front of his kid, his ex, his mates and my mates – who stopped coming around. He’d do things to his wife in front of me, or encourage me to do things with her. When we left the house though I’d have to pretend we weren’t together. He didn’t want trouble with the law or the community.
“I was unhappy and tried to leave him a couple of times or advocate for improvements in our way of life. He would pretend to have visions from his Goddess Astartes always telling him/us to wait and change would come.”
Eventually, Miriam says she saw V for what he really was and left, though the break wasn’t clean. He refused to sign the necessary documents that would allow Miriam to receive financial support from the government that help her to go to back to school and find a place to live of her own.
Months before meeting V, Miriam had cast a love spell with a list of traits her potential beau should have, the list was the same as any other 15-year-old girl with criteria like “doesn’t have braces”. She says it’s only when she undid this spell that the relationship truly died and she was able to move on.
Stories like Miriam’s are upsetting and all too common in every circle of life, but it was V’s ability to manipulate Miriam’s faith, the thing that should have brought her strength, which is particularly upsetting. An older, influential man taking advantage of a young and naive girl is not exclusive to witchcraft, but there some aspects of the community that are uniquely dangerous.
In 1969, Gavin and Yvonne Frost started the School and Church of Wicca – thus, also claiming to be the founders – and helped to spread the religion to America. Until Gavin’s death in 2016 they gave lectures on Wicca, ran workshops and correspondence courses, and authored a number of books on the subject together. One such book is The Witch’s Bible published in 1972 and later republished as The Good Witch’s Bible in 1976.
In one chapter another Great Rite is described. In this case, it’s an initiation rite for new members of the coven with the vaguely defined and worrying requirement that “the physical attributes of reproduction are present” within the new candidates – in short, that they have hit puberty. Initiates are given a sponsor of the opposite sex, usually the newest member of the coven, though this can be altered if there are major weight differences between the sponsor and initiate (so as not to crush a small girl under a large man, for example). Prior to the rite, boys must be circumcised if not already and instructed in sexual technique by their sponsor.
Girls must have their hymen broken, either by their mothers or, as the Frosts later suggested, surgically. They are then given two wooden phalluses to practice with in order to prepare themselves for the experience of sex. The Good Witch’s Bible contains tables to help initiates learn how to use the phallus comfortably and suggest seeking help from your sponsor or father if you experience difficulty.
Three days before the rite the candidates fast, eating only bread and honey. When the rite begins the candidates are given alcoholic mead then participate in naked dancing and finally intercourse with their sponsor.
It’s important to note that the Frosts have never faced any legal accusations of paedophilia, and though they have attempted to address the claims that they promote such behaviour they have never removed that chapter from subsequent editions of their book. Likewise, most witches condemn such behaviour and practices but the fact remains that there are veins that run through witchcraft which, if exploited, can cause serious harm.
Miriam, a proud witch and feminist, is now married with three children uses her experience to help others, writing a blog on Wicca and working as Miss U, an advice columnist for the website Loving at A Distance. After her experience, she is acutely aware of dangers of the imbalance of power.
It’s important to note that most covens won’t initiate minors
“The only real harm in Wicca that I can see is the promise of ‘deeper mysteries’ that can only be uncovered through working with more experienced witches, specifically one-on-one work with a mentor who, in British traditional Wicca, is always a member of the opposite sex. It’s important to note that most covens won’t initiate minors – unless they are run by minors – and reputable mentors don’t take under-age students.”
Miriam still has faith in her craft and its ability to help empower women.
“Catholics aren’t all terrible just because some priests abuse their power to harm children, nor is Wicca all bad because some creepy old dudes can use it to gain other kinds of power over their victims. Wicca helped me heal and move on. I don’t blame Wicca for what happened to me, it’s a benevolent religion. I just realise now how anything can be twisted to foul purposes, particularly if one is uneducated, sheltered or otherwise vulnerable.”
Wiccans say the faith is not inherently dangerous and it provides strength to people. While, structurally, the religion hasn’t changed since Miriam was 17, many hope the resurgence of the feminist movement can help Wicca evolve; enabling it to address and combat these issues. But questions will always be asked of religions that have been accused of encouraging problematic behaviour as part of their heritage. How can you separate the divine and the democratic? Can you realistically remove practices and traditions and still claim to reveal truths? For witchcraft to continue to provide strength to people, Wiccans hope so.
But witchcraft doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it interacts with society and society’s problems. And one of the major problems, the problem that feminism is proving, is that where there is power there is almost always predation.
Richard Worth 20th November 2017