Is Wicca a Religion?
In an Interview with Professor Ronald Hutton of the University of Bristol, United Kingdom by Caroline Tully the argument is put forward that Wicca should be recognized as a worthy religion, of some importance, not least because it is the only one which England has ever given to the world; and one of which it can be proud. However, in view of the bad publicity the more commonly termed witchcraft receives in the press and the misconceptions about what it consists of, the way it is seen by most people in no way indicates that this is in fact the way it is regarded by the general public.
If it is agreed that Wicca is a religion, then what sort of religion is it? It is customary for religions to involve some sort of ritual observance, such as the sacraments of Christianity, the five daily prayers facing Mecca of Islam, or the elaborate rituals of Tibetan Buddhism. Indeed, as Gray (2004) points out, a strong case can be made for the fact that the heart of spiritual life is not to be found in doctrine but lies in practice–in ritual, observance and, sometimes, even mystical experience. If we consider some of the major religions, for example, nothing as simple as a creed can be extracted from the complex practices of Hinduism, Buddhism has never attached importance to doctrine, and in Judaism priority is given to practice rather than belief and this applies to some Sufi traditions too.
The phrase “a religion of ritual observance” has been used in particular to describe Shinto–“a religion not of theology but of ritual observance” (Driver, 1991, p.38). The main texts connected with the Shinto tradition are the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters) and the Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan). They were both written in Chinese in the early eighth century to help legitimate the position and the prestige of the Imperial Court so neither can be considered to represent a theology as such. The former is basically a quasi-historical account of the early Japanese Emperors, and the latter is a Creation Myth recounting the formation of Japan and its people, and their descent from the Kami. It is in the textual reproduction of rituals and of the prayers (norito) that any unifying foundation approaching canonical status may be found in Shinto sacred writings, and many of these can be found in the Engi Shiki, a tenth-century collection of government ordinances.
The Australian Aborigines can be said to practice a religion of ritual observance too, as James Cowan expressively conveys: “[T]he Aborigines have made the “face of the earth” their Bhagavad Gita, their Torah, their Bible or Koran. Indeed the Dreaming is the Aboriginal Ark of the Covenant which they have been carrying about the Australian continent since the beginning of time” (Cowan, 1992, pp.2-3).
Other religions could also be listed under the same heading, Wicca for example. As in the case of Shinto, there is no one bible or prayer book in Wicca and the primary concern is not ethics, dogma, or theology. Rather, it is a religion of ritual practice. These practices include marking eight holiday “sabbats” in the “wheel of the year”, falling on the solstices, equinoxes and the four “crossquarter days” on or about the first of February, May, August and November. Many Wiccans also mark “esbats,” rituals for worship in accordance with a given moon phase (such as the night of the full moon).
According to William James, personal religious experience has its basis in mystical states of consciousness, and these can be recognized by the four qualities they share. First of all, such states are ineffable–in other words, they have to be directly experienced as they cannot be imparted to others in any other way. Secondly, they have a noetic quality in that they appear to those who experience them to be states of knowledge. Thirdly, they are transient and do not last, and fourthly their passivity. For although the oncoming of mystical states may be facilitated by preliminary voluntary operations, once the state has set in, the mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance and held by a superior power (see James, 1982, pp.379-381).
Moreover, as Joseph Dan points out, “A unique characteristic of mysticism that is opposed, in most cases, to ordinary religious experience is the denial of the language’s ability to express religious truth … [with mystics claiming] that truth lies beyond any possibility of expression by terms derived from sensual experience or logical deduction” (Dan, 2006, p.9). No doubt the majority of practitioners of Wicca would share this view, based on the difficulty encountered in conveying to others in words what they experience during their rituals, another reason for incorporating the word “mystical” into the definition. And as practitioners of Wicca are separated from the rest of the community by the intensity of their own religious experience, it might in fact be more accurate to qualify the definition and refer to Wicca as a mystical form of religion of ritual observance.
Cowan, J. (1992) Mysteries of the Dream-time: The Spiritual Life of Australian Aborigines, Bridport, Dorset: Prism Press.
Dan, J. (2006) Kabbalah: A very short Introduction, New York: Oxford University Press.
Driver, T.F. (1991) The Magic of Ritual, New York: Harper Collins Publishers.
Gray, J. “SRM-Atheism – Fanatical Unbelief” Prospect Magazine – November 2004. [accessed 25th December 2004].
James, W. (1982) The Varieties of Religious Experience, Harmondsworth Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd. (first published in the United States of America by Longmans, Green, and Co., 1902).
Michael Berman works as a teacher and a writer. Publications include The Power of Metaphor for Crown House, The Nature of Shamanism and the Shamanic Story for Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Shamanic Journeys through the Caucasus for O-Books, Journeys Outside Time for Pendraig Publishing, and Tales of Power for Lear Books. ELT titles include A Multiple Intelligences Road to an ELT Classroom, In a Faraway Land (a resource book for teachers on storytelling), On Business and for Pleasure (a self-study workbook). and ELT Matters. For more information please visit www.Thestoryteller.org.uk
Shamanic Journeys, Shamanic Stories
[Shaman Portal Book of the Month April 2011] A shamanic journey is one that generally takes place in a trance state to the sound of a drumbeat, through dancing, or by ingesting psychoactive drugs, in which aid is sought from beings in other realities, generally for healing purposes or for divination. A shamanic story has either been based on or inspired by a shamanic journey, or one that contains a number of the elements typical of such a journey. In this collection of fascinating journeys and stories, Michael Berman reveals the healing nature of shamanic practice.
Within this collection of shamanic stories there is a wealth of information on the traditional, folkloric, magic and very real culture that is Shamanism in today’s world. Over the past 20 years or slightly more there has been a distinct revival in the arts of and benefits to the modern world – both from a healthy and holist perspective as well as a focus on care of the mother earth. Berman draws our attention to this in the selected stories by using them as discussion points and debatable issues, as well as helping to illustrate that Shamanism is alive and well and is using the benefits of traditional methods of healing to all who choose to seek it out. More of a treatise than a light read Berman puts his point across in many ways and leaves one pondering on the many and varied things which make up the elements of a life journey! [taken from www.bluewolf-reviews.com]
Paperback: 174 pages
Publisher: O Books (1 Mar 2011) ISBN-10: 1846944023
Price: £10.99 Available for pre-order from www.amazon.co.uk
Tales of Power
Like the shaman, the storyteller is a walker between the worlds, a mediator between our known world and that of the unknown – someone who is able to commune with dragons and elves, with faeries and angels, with magical and mythical beasts, with Gods and Goddesses, heroes and demons, someone who is able to pass freely from this world into those above and those below and to help us to experience those other realms for ourselves. He or she is an intensely powerful invoker of elemental powers, of the powers of absolute transformation, who can show us how to confront our most deeply-engrained fears, or teach us how to experience ecstasy or bring us face to face with death or terror of the spirit – with the infinite and incomprehensible. He is not only the archetypal magician but also the archetypal guide. In Tales of Power, Michael Berman examines the role of the storyteller in shamanic tradition, and presents a collection of traditional stories.
Available online from www.merciangathering.com/learbooks/index.htm or from www.amazon.co.uk
Guided Visualisations through the Caucasus
“In a strange region he scales steep slopes
Far from his friends he cuts a lonely figure…
So momentous are his travels among the mountains
To tell just a tenth would be a tall order”
These lines from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight could also be used to describe the way of the shaman, because he/she lives a life apart from other too, and has difficulty in conveying in words just what it is that he/she experiences when journeying into other realities. Perhaps this is why the accounts of such journeys were often turned into folktales, as it was the only way to make them both understandable and acceptable to people not familiar with the landscapes to be found and experiences to be had in such worlds. It is the folktales/legends from the Caucasus, and the inner journeys these can take us on, that form the basis of this book.