Friday, December 31, 2010

her hidden children: a book review

I have often joked that "Wicca is to neo-paganism what beer is to drug use, it's the entry drug of paganism". her hidden children: The Rise of Wicca and Paganism in America only confirmed that idea in my head. First off I want to say that this book is excellent. It is well written and easy to read, yet it is well documented and noted through out. Never was I left with the feeling of "where did she get that from?" as I have with other authors. Hidden children really lined things up clearly for me that were foggy and nebulous before. Specifically the way that Wicca and paganism came to America from England. Though I have long heard the name of Raymond Buckland in the neo-pagan world, never did I realize that he was the direct priestly link between America and Gardner. The author Chas S. Clifton also made me come to understand how only having one official Gardnarian witch in the U.S. led to the problem of not being able to initiate enough people fast enough. One thing that the Clifton didn't mention, that occurred to me as well that fed into this problem is the geography. The British isles are not nearly as big as the U.S. in land mass, and it is conceivable for people in the British isles to drive reasonable distance for initiation. However, it is far more difficult for some one on the west coast to get to the east coast of the U.S.
Clifton goes on to describe how this in ability for people to get access to a coven and specifically the Bucklands, led to many people to strike out on there own, particularly on the west coast. At first this was met with resistance from people who had been "initiated" in Gardnarian Wicca. It would seem however that Mr. Buckland eventually saw the inevitability of it and published a self-initiation ritual. People on the west coast did much more then just self-initiate but they made some pretty radical changes, or just flat out created their own systems of paganism or witchcraft.

The nature of nature religion
Clifton does an excellent job of explaining how Wicca and by extension neo-paganism came to be conceived of as a nature religion. Clifton points back to the the first Earthday in 1970 as being the key point in time when Wicca began to be described as a "nature religion" by various authors. I really liked the authors point that Wicca could be described as a true indigenous religion of the British isles (though I think even this is a bit of stretch), however that was not true for neo-pagans in the U.S. So it was that with America's historical and often romanticised, love of nature, combined with the awakening environmental movement that a good way to describe Wicca was as a "nature religion" or "earth religion".

Another thing I would add here is that describing Wicca as a "nature religion" helps to do away with the connotations of the word "witch" or "witchcraft" and puts it more into the same realm as the beliefs of the first nations (Native Americans) thus making it much more palatable for the main stream. Clifton points out that none of the British Wiccan authors of the early 1970's described Wicca as an earth religion, but American authors were, thus the idea of Wicca being a nature religion is an American adaptation.

The war of words
Clifton does a really good job exploring how Gardner and the authors to follow had to face the up hill battle of redefining terms such as "witch", "witchcraft", and introduce the word Wicca. A battle that is still going on. Clifton also talks about the rhetoric that Gardner created to help push his agenda and find acceptance in the main stream. Ellis, in his book "A brief history of the Druids" talks about how druids thought of themselves as seekers of truth. Though they meant the great truth of the universe, it also applies to the little truths. As a druid I think it very important that the rhetoric created by Gardner be exposed, and gently washed away to find the real truths it covers up. Wicca does not need an artificial history to make it worthwhile. I found the part in "her hidden children" where Clifton discusses the origin and meaning of the word Wicca to be very interesting. The author concludes that Wicca does not mean "wise one", as Gardner had proposed, nor "one who bends" at all, but in fact is simply old English for "witch" and carries with it all the old negative connotations it always has had. I suspect that this etymology is going to "bend some wise ones" all out of shape.

Wicca and pop culture
This was an interesting chapter, though over all I felt the author could have taken it up to more modern times discussing such films as the "witches of eastwick", "Practical magic", and "the craft". Not to mention "Buffy", "charmed" and lets not forget "harry potter". I know of at least one witch personally who came to Wicca through reading Harry Potter. The point that was made on me however was that Wicca and the redefining of the "witch" has had an affect on pop culture all over the world.

Everything else
Clifton lumps all the other non-wicca neo-pagans into one chapter at the end of the book. Druidry's bit was well done if perhaps a bit shallow at times. Still I got a good sense of where ADF roots were, and the circumstances in which they grew. It wasn't made up. It wasn't glamorous, or particularly inspired. There was no lightning bolt, or the decent of a shining god or goddess. There were no prophets or much of anything rally. It was an organic grass roots movement of sorts. Just the way a druid organization should start.


  1. I also read that book as part of my DP studies. I really enjoyed it and learned a lot, but I also wish there had been more on Druidism.