Helen A. Berger. A Community of Witches: Contemporary Neo-Paganism and Witchcraft in the United States. University of South Carolina Press, 1999. (Repr. 2013)

Berger, an associate professor of sociology at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, started this study almost by chance. She gave a series of lectures at Boston Public Library on Witchcraft in New England, mainly the notorious trials at Salem, Massachusetts, in the 1690s. She discovered that she had several Witches in her audience.

In due course she was invited to attend various Witchcraft and Neo-Pagan ceremonies in New England, ten groups in all, notably the Circle of Light Coven and the MoonTide Coven. For these she was not required to have been initiated, which would have meant swearing an oath of secrecy, and might have inhibited her from writing about them. On the other hand, there were certain events to which she was not admitted.

Berger argues that Wicca – as modern Witchcraft is often termed – should be regarded as a religion, and not, as some scholars have considered, a cultural phenomenon, though in view of the lack of any accepted definition of ‘religion’, I do not see how one could lay down rules about this.

She concentrates on the social aspects of the movement, rather than the actual practice, which is perhaps welcome in view of the glut of ‘how-to-do-it’ books on Witchcraft. Another problem arises, though, since there are “ninety-four different definitions of community in the sociological literature.” Also, some of the jargon is confusing to the non-sociologist, such as: “Normative isomorphism is the result of growing professionalism.” There is one account of a result of such practices: one high priest “did a ritual during a drought to ensure rain. He knew it had worked when a water pipe broke in his basement, where he had done the ritual.”

She helped compile a Neo-Pagan Census, of more than a thousand Neo-Pagans, which revealed that they exist in every state of the union except South Dakota. The numbers varied tremendously, however, with 382 in California, but only one in Washington D. C. In any case, the count is likely to have been skewed by the places where people were aware that any such census was being held. In many places, Neo-Pagans have allied themselves with Unitarians. This has given rise to such organizations as the Unitarian Universalist Association Neo-Pagan Group, and the Covenant of the Unitarian Universalist Pagans. Since Unitarians are a recognized religion, it has given them a certain amount of respectability.
A whole chapter is devoted to how Pagan parents should bring up their children, and one can see a problem here. Usually, Pagans have consciously rejected their parents’ religion. For all they know, their own children may do the same, and perhaps become Mormons or Buddhists. One other point about Pagan children: there are frequent outdoor festivals to which all are welcome, nudity and dancing around a fire at night are acceptable, and there is awareness of AIDS: “At one festival, multicolored condoms were made available throughout the campsite for anyone who might want one. Many of the children availed themselves of the condoms, blowing them up to use as balloons or filling them with water to throw at one another.”

There are a couple of points that I would query. There are two examples of curious orthography: she writes of the esabat, full moon gathering, and Ostava, spring equinox. These are more normally esbat and Ostara; maybe these are American spellings, but I have not come across them elsewhere. In an account of a Wiccaning (equivalent to Christening) in New England, she says that the high priestess of a local coven remarked: “To the tribe let there be children born that it might be mighty,” saying that this was “from the Bible that she read as a youth in a traditional Christian church.” This seems an odd time to quote the Bible, but in any case, so far as I can discover from Cruden’s Concordance, this line is not in the Bible anyway. But there is a similar line in the Wiccan Book of Shadows: “. . . give us fruit and grain, flocks and herds, and children to the tribe, that we may be mighty.” Probably it was this that the high priestess was paraphrasing. - Gareth J. Medway

1 comment:

  1. I would think that every Priestess runs her coven as she thinks best, I think it would depend on one approach to the craft, as it is sometimes called . It would also depend much on which branch of Wicca ? this can go as far back as Crowley to that of Gardner and after him many others that wrote about the subject matter, as for them living that way that's a maybe, as we don't really know much about their personal lives , Bios. don't always give a full report, and sometimes don't really tell us a lot about who these people really were ? I do know, that over the years the craft its self has evolved to include the Male principle, or here in the U.S. Very interesting your take on England. I have never meet the woman or have I ever read any of her books , but then again we all have our own theo. of what something, is or is not.. Spring-like fertility goddess" associated with dawn, and is connected to numerous traditions and deities indigenous to Northern Europe. Ēostre or Ostara .It is equal to that of the now day Easter in the Christian tradition , all thought, its meaning is very different, no man on the cross here . But they have woven the easter egg and the many colors of the pagan belief in with the now day system. BB