- Her Hidden Children: The Rise of Wicca and Paganism in America
“This book tries to tell a story that has never been told: the first decades of the contemporary Pagan movement—particularly Wicca, its largest component—in America” (p. ix). So begins Chas Clifton’s Her Hidden Children: The Rise of Wicca and Paganism in America. As Clifton notes in his preface, this book is indeed the first of its kind: a history of the Wiccan and modern Pagan (or Neopagan) movement in the United States from the 1950s to the present. Clifton’s history is a sign that the study of Wicca and Paganism has come of age. Clifton and Graham Harvey recently edited The Paganism Reader (Routledge, 2004), another “first” in this area of scholarship. Their Reader brings together in one volume excerpts from key texts in the history of modern Wicca and Paganism. Clifton himself is an example of the sociological makeup of Wiccan and Pagan scholars. He became interested in Wicca and Paganism while an undergraduate in 1972 and has maintained a strong interest ever since. Like many other Wiccan and Pagan scholars, he is both an insider to the tradition and a scholarly observer of it.
Writing the history of Wicca and Paganism is difficult because most participants were (and are) “solitaries” who did not practice their religion with others. Therefore, many sources of information that historians of other religions have found useful—membership roles, periodicals, official statements, and other documentary evidence of collective religious activity—simply do not exist for Wiccans and Pagans. Clifton therefore concentrates on two key elements in Wiccan and Pagan history: books most often cited by Wiccans and Pagans as being influential, and personal transmission of teachings from one Wiccan or Pagan to another. Most religions that rely on oral transmission have a teacher/student structure, but Wicca and Paganism are egalitarian. Indeed, their organizational structure is incredibly horizontal. Metaphors like “matrix” or “network” probably work best in describing Wiccans’ and Pagans’ relationships.
Clifton begins his history with a survey of the earliest modern Wiccan and Pagan activities. American Wicca and Paganism began in Great Britain. The key figure here was Gerald Gardner (1884–1964), who claimed that he was initiated into a coven of traditional witches. Gardner published his account of this group in Witchcraft Today (1954). It became the most important foundational text in the movement, although early practitioners were also influenced by Robert Graves’s The White Goddess (1948) and Gardner’s novel High Magic’s Aid (1949). Gardner said that witchcraft from medieval times continued to exist as a secret, subterranean movement, lifting this argument [End Page 82] from Margaret Murray’s famous The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921), long regarded as a legitimate scholarly study of historical witchcraft before it was discredited. The British married couple Raymond and Rosemary Buckland came to the United States in 1963, bringing Gardnerian witchcraft with them. They had a profound influence on American Wiccan and Pagan practitioners on the East Coast. Gardnerian ideas and practices also affected Wicca and Paganism on the West Coast, but two practitioners there decided to establish a new set of ritual practices in texts called the Pagan Way, a less formal approach than Gardnerian witchcraft, which was coven-centered and based on initiation. Ultimately, argues Clifton, the style of Wicca and Paganism represented by the Pagan Way became more popular in the United States than Gardnerian practice, although Gardner remains an influential author for many Wiccans and Pagans.
Next Clifton describes the uniquely American slant on Wicca and Paganism: nature religion. American Wiccans’ and Pagans’ nature religion emphasized the interconnectedness of all things, an idea derived from Western esotericism, but also from American understandings of nature. The natural world is woven into American cultural and social perspectives, from Henry Thoreau to the modern environmental movement. Wiccans and Pagans articulated their sense of nature religion by advocating the earth as goddess. The individual Wiccan’s and Pagan’s response to this realization was to cherish natural things...