After more than 30 years as a practicing Wiccan, Patti Wigington has fielded thousands of questions about her faith.
Do you worship the devil? Do you cast spells on people? Do you ride around on brooms?
No, no, and it’s really more of a sweeping motion. You know, when she’s sweeping the floor.
“I’ve heard it all at this point,” Wigington says. “If somebody can ask the question, they’ve asked me.”
When she was younger, she used to feel a fierce devotion to pushing back against misconceptions about her beliefs. Now, she mostly takes them in stride.
A 2014 Pew Research Center study estimated that around a million people identified as Pagan or Wiccan in the United States. Wicca is far from a niche market, but its followers still find themselves having to explain that they’re about polytheism, the beauty of nature, and harnessing the energy of the universe for good, rather than godlessness, bubbling cauldrons, and moonlight sacrifices to Satan.
“We still have to deal with some of the fallout from 1,600 years of bad PR,” says Rev. Selena Fox, senior minister and high priestess of the Circle Sanctuary in Wisconsin, one of the largest and oldest Wicca churches in the U.S. “If people realized that there are people of many different paths and that we’re coming from a loving, positive space, then we can start getting rid of misconceptions.”
What Wiccans Are
The first thing to know about Wicca is the United States considers it a religion. While the matter has never gone before the Supreme Court, lower court decisions such as Dettmer v. Landon (1986) have upheld Wicca’s status as a religion, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs started recognizing the pentacle—a symbol of the Wiccan faith—as an acceptable religious emblem to be included on the memorial markers for soldiers.
Wicca is a very peaceful Pagan religion, based on the agricultural year as a metaphor for birth, life, death, and rebirth. It was started in England by Gerald Gardner in the 1950’s. Deity can be male, female, both, or neither.
— Starteller (@Starteller) July 2, 2018
Much as Christianity has many different forms, Wicca is also not a monolithic entity.
“It’s not a fringe, cult-like group,” Wigington says. “I’m sure there are a lot of people who are like, ‘Wiccans? They’re weird.’ Some of us may be, but it is an actual religion.”
Most branches of Wicca—called traditions—adhere to some basic tenets, though. There’s a reverence for nature, the belief that humans are meant to commune with and draw strength from the natural world. There’s a polytheistic worldview, worship for an all-powerful god and goddess. Some traditions may worship individual deities—the goddess Brigid and the god Cernunnos in the Celtic tradition, for example—while others may worship the all-encompassing god and goddess.
Or just the goddess.
“Some Wiccan groups don’t give a lot of faith … to a male deity,” Wigington says. “That’s one of the things that draws people to Wicca. There is this sort of polarity of the divine: the male and female are equal. I think that draws a lot of people in who maybe come from monotheistic religions that are more patriarchal.”
There is a sense that the spirit world is all around us, and our ancestors are eager to communicate with us at times if we’re open to listening.
Oh, and magic is real.
“It’s not like Harry Potter magic. If it was, I would totally be playing Quidditch on a Saturday afternoon, because how cool would that be?” Wigington says. “Magic is kind of universal. There’s nothing really supernatural about it. It’s the harnessing and redirecting of natural energy to change things. We kind of see it as just another skill set.”
“If I was good with a hammer, I’d be a carpenter. I’m not good with a hammer, but I’m really good at magic.”
The major holidays of Wicca, called sabbats, occur eight times a year, at the beginning and midpoint of each season. Those are considered days of power, in which practitioners’ magic is most potent. Esbats, Wiccan convenings on days other than sabbats (usually coinciding with a full moon), are also especially powerful occasions.
“Part of the interest in Wicca has to do with harnessing the powers of the mind, but it’s not the only belief system that works with that,” Fox says. “If more people understood us as kind of a green religion rather than something dramatically magical, I think there would be more understanding and less concern.”
Fox says the core tenets of Wicca—celebrating the harvests and the cycles of life—reach all the way back to the religions of indigenous people, even if its modern form was first brought to widespread public attention in the 1950s by a retired English civil servant named Gerald Gardner.
Wiccans who do practice magic—and not all do—are expected to adhere to the Wiccan Rede: “An Ye Harm None, Do What Ye Will.”
“We want people to realize that witches are people, too. Not all witches are evil,” says Janine Nelson, the public information officer at Covenant of the Goddess, a California-based Wiccan advocacy organization. “As in any society, there can be those that do not respect the laws of society or tenets of their religion. Those are few and far between.”
What Wiccans Are Not
Fox always has a follow-up question when people ask if she’s a witch. And she gets that question a lot.
“Which witch is which?” Fox says. “What do you mean by the word ‘witch?’”
It’s a bit of a loaded term. If you mean someone who follows the tenets of Wicca and practices natural magic or witchcraft, then yes. If you mean someone who flies around on a broom and casts spells on people who have done them wrong…then no.
Fox says that the word “witch” often conjures up images of the one who was chasing down Dorothy and Toto in The Wizard of Oz, not the one who helps them. Or the specter of the Salem Witch Trials, the bout of mass hysteria in 17th-century Massachusetts in which 20 people were executed on suspicion of harming their fellow colonists with witchcraft—even though the ill effects the accusers felt may have been the result of some rotten rye bread (according to a hotly contested theory posited in the mid-1970s).
The point is, most people get their main exposure to witches and witchcraft through pop culture depictions, which are not that accurate and often based in fantastical elements.
Nelson doesn’t wear all black. She prefers hot pink. She doesn’t own a black cat. She has a Labrador retriever.
“For many years, I was still in the closet: the broom closet. We use that term,” Nelson says. “It wasn’t until I retired that I officially came out. Being Wicca is not really the first thing that comes up in conversation when I meet people. It comes out after, when they’ve had a chance to get to know me. I think some of those misconceptions are blown away when they realize that I am a witch.”
Still, many Wiccans practice in secret for fear of personal or professional repercussions if they live out in the open. This is a result of the misconceptions about their religion and lifestyles.
One of the main questions Wigington gets from the uninitiated, for example, is whether Wiccans worship the devil. They don’t. They don’t even believe in the devil. It’s a Christian construct.
And there are still stories circulating like the one from Perris, California this summer. Louise Turpin, the sister of the woman who famously helped keep her 13 children imprisoned in her home, claims in a new book that her sister may have done so because she practiced witchcraft.
The Circle Sanctuary and other groups had to work through nearly a decade of lobbying and court battles to get the pentacle included on veterans’ gravestones. In 2007, widow Roberta Stewart secured that right for her husband, Sgt. Patrick Stewart, who lost his life during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in 2005.
Fox says more than 200 pentacle-clad grave markers have been issued in the 11 years since.
“We had people within the federal government who were misinformed and that were bigoted against the Wiccan religion,” Fox says. “We had many opportunities to not only talk about the Wiccan religion and do some public education with people who hadn’t heard of us before, but really point to core American values of freedom of religion and how it’s really important that we uphold those values.”
Your Friends and Neighbors
Wiccans who are public with their faith are usually pretty willing to talk about it, Wigington says, because they want to educate people. That way, they might not see her as “Patti the witch,” but rather “Patti the woman who organized the school’s PTO bake sale … and who also happens to be Wiccan.”
Wigington frequently writes about Wicca and says she gets emails all the time from parents who are concerned that their teenagers are getting into it. She encourages them to talk to their teens and find out what’s really going on rather than letting their minds wander to dark places.
“You know what I’d love to see? A cop movie, or a buddy movie, where one of the characters just happens to be Wiccan, and it’s no big deal,” Wigington says. “One’s a detective, one’s a witch, sometimes they have adventures. I would love to see it be normalized.”
Nelson says that most people don’t realize how connected members of Covenant of the Goddess are with their local communities. The group has been around since 1975, and its members provide community support through initiatives such as Habitat for Humanity and community food banks. They participate in events such as the Women’s March or rallies to support Planned Parenthood.
“We’re part of the solution,” Fox says, “not the spiritual pollution.”