by Wendy G. Lozano   and Tanice G. Foltz. Qualitative Sociology, Vol 13, No. 3, 1990, pp. 211-234 

Introduction

This paper is part of a larger study of a  coven of radical feminist witches, a group whose religious or spiritual base derives from what is known as the Old Religion, the Craft, or Wicca and is informed by the second wave of feminism. Contemporary witches believe that the roots of their religion predate Judeo-Christian tradition, drawing from the Goddess-centered cultures believed to have been located in and around Europe, the Mediterranean, and Aegean. They freely admit, however, that they practice the Old Religion in new ways (Starhawk, 1988). They believe these new ways fit societal changes and their own perceived needs. Wicca, in both its radical feminist and more traditional forms, is an example of what Ellwood (1979) calls an “emergent religion” or “alternative spirituality” existing alongside mainline religions, although often suppressed. It possesses a rich system of symbols and a growing community of believers, who are brought together by participating in ritual and magic.(1)

Religion and Death

All viable religions allocate an important position in their constitutive symbolism to the experience and event of death, according to functional sociologists Parsons and Lidz. Death has such disorienting effects that a religion

. . . must provide  a framework for interpreting death that is meaningful and appropriate, in relation to other elements of the culture, for defining attitudes regarding both the deaths of others and the prospect of one’s own death (Parsons and Lidz, 1967:135).

Yinger (1957) also emphasizes that one of the fundamental effects of religion is to rescue individuals and communities from the destructiveness of death.

Integration theories show how religion helps to maintain a state of homeostasis in a community when certain events threaten its stability. Through death and funeral rites, religion provides a potent means of reintegration of the group’s “shaken solidarity” and reestablishes its morale (Geertz, 1973; Malinowski, 1948; Vernon, 1970). Funeral behavior thus serves an important social function.

Nevertheless, Lofland (1978) suggests that old ways of dealing with death do not effectively address current experience. Dying is increasingly being prolonged, while the experience of dying occurs in a context that is more and more bureaucratized and secularized. The unique capacity of humans to create and use complex symbols allows us to conceive of our own mortality, and the possibility of immortality. Lofland argues that contemporary culture and social organization of death offer few clues as to teleological meaning.In the face of meaninglessness,  we construct for ourselves a new set of beliefs, new orientations, new ways of looking or feeling that will fill the void (Lolland, 1978:33).     In stressing the importance of religion to social solidarity, Durkheim observed that religion is ultimately collective, expressing shared meanings and social ideals that unite participants into one moral community (Durkheim, 1915). Collective representations and social rituals are essential to religion precisely because language and symbols depend upon shared meanings. To examine shared meanings reveals a shared reality. By examining the worldview of radical witches, their rituals and their symbols, we can better understand their shared subjective reality.

This paper presents an historical overview of radical feminist Wicca, known as the Dianic tradition. It then focuses on the major religious symbols of Wicca that relate to death and describes a funeral in which one of the authors was able to participate.(2)Through use of a case study, we will demonstrate how that religion gives meaning to death for both the living and the dying.

Methodology

Data were collected through what Denzin (1970) calls a “triangulation” of qualitative methods. Primary sources of data were fieldnotes written independently by both researchers. Observations covered all ritual activities, planning sessions, and mountain retreats we attended, as well as a wedding and a funeral. After several months in the setting, when we had gained some understanding of appropriate questions, we conducted indepth interviews with all coven members. Our interviews were semistructured, making use of a topical guide (see Gorden, 1969). We employed team research in order to increase perspectives on the setting (see Douglas, 1976). One of us was less experienced in ethnographic methods, but more familiar with feminist theory and some of the group’s beliefs about mythology and goddesses. The other was an ethnographer with previous research and publication on a para-religious healing group. We each interviewed witches with whom we felt some affinity. We interviewed the core coven members more than once to cross validate our data and ask newly formulated questions. Our team fieldwork extended from March 1988 through Summer 1989, when Foltz moved out of the area for job reasons. Lozano continued to attend rituals occasionally and maintain relations with the coven. In addition to fieldwork and interviewing, we sought out literature, artifacts, workshops, and festivals on feminist spirituality, neo paganism, and goddess worship. We then employed a modified form of “indefinite triangulation” as a validity check (see Cicourel, 1964).

Coven Members

The coven we call the Circle of the Redwood Moon (3) was composed of seven core members during the period of our research. The seven included three women defined as Priestesses, one Initiate, and three Apprentices.(4)  The women ranged in age from 28 to 48 and came from working class and lower middle class backgrounds. They came to witchcraft at widely different ages – one in her early teens and the latest in her 40s. They came from a variety of Western religions. Yet a common thread was that all but one can be classified as a spiritual “seeker” (see Lofland and Skonovd, 1981) who had actively sought out and explored other religions and spiritual traditions before settling on Wicca. The exception is a core coven member who, at age 11, reported hearing a voice inform her that “she belonged to the Lady.” She says she had no idea what that meant at the time, but became a self-avowed pagan by the age of 17 and now has been one for 22 years. Out of respect for her long history and experience with the Craft, she was given the title of Elder Priestess by the coven.

By the time of this study, most of the women had taken some college courses. Two had completed four year degrees, with one then taking some post graduate study and the other working on a Master’s Degree. Three women held clerical jobs, one was a salesclerk, one a “psych tech” on a mental ward, and two were unemployed. Five of the seven women were Caucasian, the oldest woman was an African American, and one woman was a Latina. Only the Elder Priestess, who had been with the coven almost since its start in 1971, was involved in a heterosexual relationship at the time of our research. She and her husband were married by Spiderwoman, Priestess of Ritual and Magic, during the Spring of 1989. All other members were self-identified lesbians, most of whom had held romantic relationships with men in the past. Two of them were previously married, and one has adult children.(5)

The Setting

Most of the ritual activities took place in the home of two of the witches, Aletheia and Spiderwoman. They had been partners for three years by the time we entered the setting. Their condominium was located in a working class neighborhood on the outskirts of Los Angeles. The decor consisted of soft lighting, a variety of goddess figurines, and numerous “witchy” artifacts, including a pentacle door harp, a frosted glass light in the shape of a crescent moon, and a crystal ball. During rituals, the glass-topped coffee table in the living room was often moved to the side and a small round table was used as an altar in the center of the room. The dining area held bookcases filled with books on philosophy, feminism, lesbianism, witchcraft, and goddess worship. The large heavy table in the dining area served as a place for the women to gather and plan future rituals and other coven activities. Sometimes this area was used for the ritual, and the large table would be moved outside to a small patio for sharing potluck  items afterward. The patio was rimmed by a foot of dirt in which a few abundant rose bushes grew. In the corner was a Jacuzzi where the witches sometimes bathed after ceremonies.

Rituals that were open to other women took place at a campsite in a nearby mountain range. The death rituals took place at a funeral home and cemetery described later in this paper.

Gaining Entree

We gained entree to the Circle of the Redwood Moon when an opportunity presented itself near the end of Spring Semester, 1988. One of Lozano’s students invited her class to attend a Spring Equinox ritual sponsored by her coven. (We later found that “open ritual” is one way the coven recruits new members, if not to the coven itself, to the religion.) We gained access to the coven by making use of what Reimer (1977) calls an “opportunistic” research strategy. Lozano was informed that everyone attending the ritual was expected to participate actively; no one would be allowed simply to observe. Given the stereotypes of witchcraft and its practitioners, we entered the setting with some trepidation about what we might encounter and what might be expected of us during the ritual. We  quickly discovered we had nothing to fear.

The ritual was a spring celebration in which every person was to make a personal commitment to the earth and to the women’s community. Members of the coven “raised energy and cast a circle,” which is done at the beginning of every ritual as a means of “creating  sacred space” (see Starhawk, 1979:55), and various priestesses led visualizations, meditations, dancing and chanting for the next hour or so. The ritual closed with a potluck “feast,” women’s music, and informal socializing. We left earlier than the others, saturated and exhausted by what we had seen, heard, and felt. Our first experience with Wiccan ritual and our debriefing session on the way home left one of the authors feeling hesitant about pursuing the research, while the other felt the group provided a fascinating setting to explore sociologically. Within a few days, we had both decided to pursue this unique research opportunity.

Lozano contacted the coven to discuss the possibility of our conducting team research. Her student served as “gatekeeper” and lobbied for the project. The other coven members were extremely protective. In a long interview, however, Lozano apparently answered their questions satisfactorily and gained permission on a tentative basis. A bargain was made that the witches would not have editorial control over what we wrote, but could control our access to the ritual settings. We agreed that, while we would not do anything to violate our personal ethics, we would actively participate at some level during the rituals.

Research Roles

In keeping with our epistemological ideal of gaining understanding from a “member’s perspective” (Jules Rosette, 1975), we engaged in participant observation using a phenomenological approach. Similar to Damrell (1977, 1978), Rochford (1985), and Forrest (1986), we felt it important to experience the subjective meanings that are integral to witchcraft, rather than simply to document what we saw from an “objective” point of view. Since experiencing an altered state of consciousness was deemed critical in grasping the meaning of the coven’s worldview, we found it important to immerse ourselves in the ritual experience over time, thereby “becoming the phenomenon” (Mehan and Wood, 1975). This process was limited, however, by the fact that we did not undergo apprenticeship training with the coven.(6)

A central issue in ethnographic research is the role the participant-observer adopts. For example, Cold (1958) located four roles that field researchers adopt on a continuum between the “complete observer” and the “complete participant.” Adler and Adler (1987) discussed three “membership roles” that sociologists “carve out” for themselves in fieldwork settings: peripheral , active , and complete member researcher roles. Using the Adlers’ terminology, we began our research on the coven in a “peripheral membership researcher role.” Upon gaining permission to conduct the study, we agreed to participate in rituals to the extent that we were relatively comfortable with them. We were comfortable with being required to express personal commitments to the planet or environment, to the women’s community, and to ourselves as part of each ritual, and were not required to take on central roles. Although our agreement to participate was made in order to attend and do research, we did not feel that we had to adopt the witches’ worldview, beliefs, and practices as our own in order to conduct the study. We did not “hang out” with the women outside of ritual settings, we debated their beliefs with them, and we asked many questions.

As we attended more rituals, we were greeted more warmly and we felt more comfortable. It became clear to us that, even though we attended coven activities as sociologists, we were viewed as potential converts and friends. Similar to other researchers’ experiences in religiously oriented groups (see Damrell, 1977; Rochford, 1~X5; Snow, 1980), the witches welcomed us in part because of the possibility of recruiting us to their belief system if not their group.(7) Almost without our recognition, our researcher roles shifted. While attending the Mountain Retreat at the end of the summer of 1988, we were asked to play functional roles in the coven’s activities. We had planned to retreat to our tent on occasion to record our fieldnotes and to interview people in our spare time, but it turned out that we had no “spare time.” As often happens, informants find roles for researchers to take. We were asked to help lead groups, help make food, and be present for and give input into planning and preparation for rituals. Being thrust into these new roles came as a surprise. They were time-consuming and required energy and active participation, limiting our time for observation and fieldnote writing. At the funeral in mid Fall, the author present was introduced as the “coven auxiliary,” a term subsequently applied to both authors and used during the rest of our fieldwork, indicating our status as a part of the coven, but not quite real members.

As many scholars have documented, participant observers’ roles are likely to change over time in the setting. Similar to Jules-Rosette’s change of role with the African Apostles, we too experienced a gradual transition from the perspective of  the  participant observer  to that of an observing participant (Jules Rosette, 1975:22). Eventually we were moved by the philosophy and worldview of the radical witches as well as touched by the experiential aspects of ritual in the group. Although Gold (1958) has cautioned fieldworkers not to become too involved subjectively and then lose objectivity, other fieldworkers, such as Johnson (1975), Douglas (1976) and Adler and Adler (1987), dispute the notion that the researcher is unable to observe effectively as the participant role increases. Jorgensen (1989:56) submits: “Accurate (objective and truthful) findings are more rather than less likely as the researcher becomes involved directly, personally, and existentially with people in daily life.” The positivist paradigm of “real” objectivity has been seriously challenged by feminist theorists as well. They argue that the concept tends to ignore not only the researcher’s own life history but the large socio-historical forces which have shaped science and academic thought as we know them today (see Benjamin, 1980; Jaggar, 1983; Hartsock, 1985; and Keller, 1985).

As a result of our change in perspective to that of observing participants, we began to understand phenomena in ways that we had not before. We eventually carved out membership roles that were something more than novitiates and yet less than full apprentices. We thus acquired the subjective meanings essential to coven activities and yet maintained what Douglas (1970:199) calls the “theoretic stance.” Although we adopted active membership researcher roles, we did not become complete members. We achieved a “member’s perspective” by participating in and experiencing the effects of the rituals as fully as possible, but remained different from members. We made no attempt formally to apprentice ourselves, and our sexual orientation was clearly different from that of most others. Even though we were welcome to do so, we did not regularly attend planning sessions, volunteer to take on central roles during ritual, nor socialize regularly with the witches.

We were, however, enticed by the coven’s philosophy and felt a tie with the women who innovated with ritual and brought its meaning to life through their dramatic activities. By the end of our fieldwork, we were participating in rituals far more than we had anticipated. We found them powerfully influencing our outlooks on life, and we both became more reverent in our attitudes and actions toward the earth and environment. Foltz reported feeling similar growth in her feelings of “Sisterhood.” Lozano, with a background in feminist theory and politics, was surprised to find herself attracted to the witches’ spiritual worldview concerning immanence.

History and Worldview    

Margot Adler (1986), a radio journalist and Wiccan Priestess who has researched witches and neo pagans, estimates there are 500 to 1000 Wiccan covens across the country and over ten thousand witches practicing the Craft. It is impossible to know exactly how many exist, due to the decentralization of covens, the variety of neo-pagan traditions, and the fact that many witches practice alone without being members of a coven. Adler traces the revival of witchcraft to several early writers, in particular Charles Leland in 1899, Margaret Murray in 1921, and Gerald Gardner, who published several books in the 1950s.(8) Besides the tremendous growth in numbers, there has been a proliferation of newsletters, books, glossy magazines, “how to” classes, conferences, festivals, international tours, jewelry, art and paraphernalia associated with the practice of magic and ritual. Covens from many states joined together in 1975 to form the Covenant of the Goddess (COG) to get recognition for witchcraft as a legitimate and legally recognized religion. Witchcraft is also an international religion, with practitioners in Canada, England, Scotland, Wales, France, West Germany, Holland, Finland, and Australia (Adler, 1986). The Witches’ International Craft Association is headquartered in New York.

All Wiccan covens consider the primary divinity to be female, and refer to “the Goddess.” Almost all of the covens also believe in and incorporate into their rituals the male principle, represented as the “Horned God,” her son and consort. Because of the emphasis on female creativity, divinity, and authority, as well as the leadership of female witches within the group, all covens support feminist ideology to some degree. Nevertheless, as Adler informs us, “The Traditional Craft is solidly based on the idea of male female polarity, which is basic to most Craft magical working and ritual symbology”(Adler, 1986:217).     Radical feminist witches are known within the Wiccan community as Dianics, after the goddess Diana. Unlike traditional witches, most Dianics celebrate an autonomous female principle as divine, excluding both the male principle and men. They have incorporated feminist concepts of sex, gender, and power relationships into their understanding of the divine. Thus, their religion has become political and their politics religious. This has created controversy in the larger pagan community, where Dianics have been accused of being “too Dianic,” a phrase they take to mean too feminist, too separatist, and far too political.(9)  The beginning of the Dianic tradition is credited to Z. Budapest, who, with a few other women, started the first Dianic coven in Los Angeles in 1971 .(10) Over the years, this coven split or “hived” into several covens, one of which is now known as Circle of the Redwood Moon.

For Dianic witches, the spiritual and the personal are viewed as political. The “work” accomplished through magic and ritual is perceived as leading toward an elimination of the patriarchal mindframe (Collins, 1974; Spretnak, 1982). The Dianic tradition deconstructs patriarchal ideas about religions, society, and human nature, replacing them with a belief system that values women, their creativity, nurturing qualities, and love for and connection with nature. All of this is subsumed in the concept of the Goddess. Newcomers are cautioned that the symbolism of the Goddess should not be seen as “Yaweh with a skirt,” . . . since the patriarchal God is viewed as “. . . a distant, judgmental, manipulative figure of power who holds us all in a state of terror” (Spretnak, 1982:vii). The Dianic notion of the Goddess stands in sharp contrast, as described by Starhawk, a well-known politically active witch and licensed psychotherapist:

The Goddess does not rule the world, she is the world The importance of the Goddess inspires women to see ourselves as divine, our bodies as sacred, the changing phases of our lives as holy, our aggression as healthy, our anger as purifying and our power to nurture and create, but also to limit and destroy when necessary, as the very force that sustains all life. Through the Goddess, we can discover our  strength,  enlighten our minds, own our own bodies, and celebrate our emotions.  We can move beyond narrow, constricting roles and become whole (Starhawk, 1979:9).  

The emphasis on personal growth and experience is similar to that found in feminist consciousness-raising (CR)  groups in the late 60s and early 70s, a period which coincided with the growth of neo-paganism. In CR, women met to share experiential truths in an environment which excluded men. For some, this led to a recognition of widespread and systematic oppression of women. Self-identified “radical feminists” originally used this label to signify their commitment to uncovering and destroying the causes of this oppression, which they believed to be at the root of all other systems of oppression. Radical feminists have since explored feminist alternatives in fields such as music, literature, health, sexuality, and spirituality. Thus, it is not surprising that the Wiccan movement should have attracted radical feminists among others looking for community and meaning during a period of rapid social change. According to Spiderwoman, the “dethroning of the Goddess” and the development of patriarchal religions are at the root of women’s oppression. As Adler (1986) argues, feminism has had an enormous impact on the Craft.    

In an attempt to differentiate their religious traditions from mainstream religions, Wiccans claim to have no dogma, doctrine, or sacred book. This idea was reiterated frequently in the Circle of the Redwood Moon. Yet it represents a claim that, in sociological terms, cannot be taken at face value, but must be interpreted.(11) It is more accurate to state that the key emphasis in Wicca, especially in the Dianic tradition, is on experience. The stress falls on engaging in practices that witches believe change consciousness and awaken what Starhawk (1988) calls the “power within.” Margot Adler speaks to this issue, “Wicca, at its best, is the most flexible and adaptable of religions, since it is perfectly willing to throw out dogmas and rely on these types of experience alone” (Adler, 1986:135).     The power within is achieved through ritual, meditation, and other techniques. It is also considered to be the Goddess, regarded as immanent in nature, human beings, and personal relationships. As such, the Goddess represents “the normative image of immanence” (Starhawk, 1988:9), the interconnectedness of all things. Magic is believed to be possible because the forces of energy are connected, even if they appear to be separate. Magic is the art of changing consciousness at will magic is the psychology/technology of immanence…the applied science is based on an understanding of how energy makes patterns and patterns direct energy (Slarhawk, 1988:13)During our discussions, the witches of Redwood Moon also described magic as, first, “perceiving” that the energy from one thing flows into another and, then, using that understanding as the basis for a visualization in which that energy flow is altered.

Thus Wicca stresses linking or relinking the divine within us and the divine around us in the natural world. Besides this concept of immanence as manifested by the Goddess, Budapest (1980:16) claims that an “important cornerstone philosophy” of Dianic Wicca is the concept of trinity, rather than duality. Redwood Moon’s Priestess of Philosophy, Aletheia, explained to us:

The very concept of dualities, of the polarity of male vs. female, black vs. white or good vs. evil, is a construct of the patriarchal mindframe which must be destroyed. 

The concept of the trinity is syncretic rather than oppositional. It refers to the dynamic and continuous cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth represented by the Goddess’ three aspects of Maiden, Mother, and Crone.

Symbols of the Darkness: Death and Regeneration

The Crone

The third aspect of the Goddess, the Crone, is the Dianic symbol that best represents how the religion gives meaning to death and dying. The Crone is often portrayed as the third Fury who cuts the thread of life. She is seen by Dianics as a natural and necessary part of the life cycle. Her season is late fall and winter, when the earth moves toward darkness with the shortening of the days. As Spiderwoman says “This is the time of turning crops under into the soil, the dying time of year.” She stresses that the Crone is the only aspect of the goddess that has been passed down through the ages:

unsanitized by Christian tradition The Maiden and the Mother were adopted, sterilized, and rendered impotent The Crone was diabolized and survived with her powers intact.

Her special ritual or sabbat is Hallowmas on October 31.(12) This is the night that the Crone, as the Sacred Hag, Destroyer of Life, is believed to return to offer protection and vengeance. Hallowmas is a rite of passage wherein witches symbolically “pass through the veil between the worlds,” enter the darkness, and meet the Crone. Her sabbat is the last one of the year and is referred to as “Women’s New Year” (Budapest, 1986). It is a reminder that endings are always followed by beginnings.

There is a more gentle aspect to the Crone as well. Sometimes death is a welcomed friend. As the bringer of death, the Crone also ends pain. Some Dianics believe that, at some unspecified time in the past, terminally ill people went to “dying houses” and were gently guided in dying by women who served the Crone. She is often seen as the loving, protective grandmother. Having passed menopause, the Crone is believed to “withhold her wise blood” and so be immensely knowing. She watches out for her grandchildren, especially the female ones. In this aspect, she is not the Death Bringer, but a figure so ancient that her very visage is a reminder that death is near.

 As Dianics reject the form of polarities, they do not conceive of death and darkness as separate and apart from life and light. One cannot exist without the other. The female principle is not only the Death Bringer but also the Life Giver (Walker, 1985). The Crone, as death, is integral to the life cycle. The same dialectics also apply to the first aspect of the Goddess, that of the Maiden.

The Kore/Persephone Myth

A central symbol of Dianic Wicca is the maiden Kore, daughter of Demeter, goddess of fertility and vegetation. In the classical myth, Kore was kidnapped and carried off by Hades, Lord of the Dead. In her grief, Demeter refused to let the earth produce. Zeus ordered Hades to return the maiden, but the Lord of the Dead secretly tricked Kore into eating part of a pomegranate, so that she would be forced to return to him several months each year. Out of this conception grew the Eleusinian mysteries and the doctrine of immortality.

In Dianic tradition, Kore descends, not because she is carried off, but because she hears the lost and confused cries of the dead. Nete, Elder Priestess of Song and Ritual, informed us that Kore walked of her own free will into the darkness. She passed beyond the veil and came to the Land of the Dead, where she comforted the dead, explained the reason for death to them, and helped ready them for rebirth. When at last she returned to the world of the living, she was forever marked by her experience. Having eaten seven pomegranate seeds, she “. . . can never again be wholly severed from the dark, the earth, the flesh” (Starhawk, 1988:91). Kore then took the name Persephone, and her story became a continual one of life, death, and rebirth, a reminder that Spring must be preceded by Winter. In her acceptance and understanding of death, Kore/Persephone affirms the cycle of life.

The Serpent

An important Wiccan symbol of rebirth and regeneration is the serpent. Snake jewelry is popular and live pet boas can be seen at almost any large pagan gathering. Although all witches use the snake to symbolize rebirth, it is a particularly powerful symbol for Dianics. The association of woman and snake goes back far beyond the book of Genesis: at 3500 b.c.e., the serpent and the Mother Goddess could be seen on Sumerian seals (Campbell, 1987). According to Joseph Campbell, the serpent represents the power of life. It sheds its skin, its past, and is reborn.

It represents immortal energy and consciousness engaged in the field of time, constantly throwing off death and being born again ((it)) carries in itself the sense of both the fascination and the terror of life (Campbell, 1987 45)

The symbol of the serpent eating its own tail is a powerful image of life, according to Campbell. One Dianic coven in Southern California uses this symbol for its name and for the sacred cord that members wear in Ritual.

The Cauldron

A last important symbol of the cycle of life and death is the small iron cauldron that is often placed on the alter during Dianic Rituals. It represents the womb, the site of transformation, of birth and rebirth. According to Barbara Walker, it is a symbol of vast antiquity:

Always the cauldron was understood to signify the cosmic womb, source of regeneration and rebirth. All life, mind, and energy arose in various forms from the ever boiling vessel, only to return thereto, when each form came to its destined end (Walker, 1985:103)

The cauldron is used, among other things, to burn incense. It also represents the West, which is water. Thus, in burning incense and turning matter into energy, it is water turning earth into fire and then air, thus combining the four elements and four directions. Personal conversations with members of COG in California reveal that some covens use their spas during ritual to represent “the bubbling cauldron of regeneration.”

Music

Much of the music sung by witches also reflects their worldview concerning death as an integral part of the life cycle. The feeling of the naturalness of death can be seen in one of their chants.

Darkness is the place of birth
Darkness is the womb
Darkness is the place of death
Darkness is the tomb.
Death belongs to life
Half of day is night

Their songs also contain frequent references to the rebirth of light and to fresh growth sprouting from decay, or “black December’s sadness.” The songs emphasize the necessity of darkness, winter, and death.

Now the green blade riseth from the buried grain,
Wheat that in the dark Earth many days has lain.
Love comes again, that with the dead has been.
Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.

In the Earth they laid them in a barren place
Witches from the burning nameless and erased.
Rising again, their ashes feed the grain.
We are come again like wheat that springeth green.

Personal Beliefs

As can be seen in the Iyrics of the second song, a literal belief in reincarnation or survival of the soul is not necessary to accept the idea that death is an important part of life. When asked if they believe whether that which is unique in the individual survives death, most members of Redwood Moon answered no. One who disagreed stressed that it is an option that the essence of self may exercise, not a given nor a necessity assigned to the individual. Author Robin Morgan explores an alternate concept:

. . . reincarnation is seen by some as a metaphor for mystically cellular transition in which the dancers DNA and RNA immortally twine themselves. (Morgan, 1977:306)Starhawk (1979) reminds us that in a worldview that views everything as cyclical, death will not be seen as the final ending. The title of her first book, The Spiral Dance, is the name of a winding dance of celebration sometimes performed during Wiccan rituals. Its symbolism evokes both snakes and DNA and thus death, rebirth, and life.

The Funeral Rites    

The importance of symbols as metaphors for a worldview and hence a shared subjective reality becomes even clearer when one examines how the symbols are used in times of crisis. During crises, issues concerning the nature of life and death become especially important and religion is called upon to interpret the personal experiences. The sense of community created by shared meanings also becomes particularly valuable.

In the summer of 1988, the father of a member of Redwood Moon was diagnosed as having lung cancer. His daughter Aletheia at first tried solitary magic to effect a cure. The coven, however, decided that the disease had progressed to a point where too much damage had been done. The members believe that dying, like living, can be prolonged. But they decided that the most effective magic would be to send the man energy to help deal with pain. Spiderwoman put it succinctly when she told us, “You can’t stop death. You can postpone and prolong it, but you can’t stop it.”

The death occurred in November. Aletheia’s father Sep had remarried years after the death of her mother. He left behind Aletheia and her brother, who rejected his sister because of her sexual orientation. Sep was also survived by his Catholic widow and her adult children from her first marriage. There had been considerable strain between the two families during his lifetime.

Although nominally a Unitarian, Sep had developed considerable interest in Celtic lore and had written a long poem to the Goddess during his illness. Aletheia was the only family member aware of this aspect of his life. Sep had apparently attended Sunday Mass with his wife on a regular basis, told his son, Aletheia’s brother, that he was an atheist, and allowed his daughter to believe he was a pagan with Druidic leanings. Not surprisingly, the deeply divided family was confused over the form the death rites should take. Sep’s son, who flew in alone from across the country, was vehemently opposed to any kind of religious ceremony at all. He was also furious with his sister for making even minor arrangements without his approval. After a great deal of argument and difficult negotiation, the family decided that Sep’s wife and her children would arrange one service and his adult children by his first marriage another. The outcome was a Catholic mass for the deceased on Friday night, followed by a Wiccan ceremony that the Circle of the Redwood Moon performed in the funeral home on Saturday morning. The coven, family members, and guests then accompanied the body to the Catholic Cemetery, where the coven performed another Dianic ritual over the open grave. Incidentally, this was not the first funeral conducted by the witches, three of whom are empowered by COG and the State of California to “marry and bury.”    

As the initial arrangements were being made with the undertaker, Aletheia reported experiencing a lack of connection, a lack of meaning. The Christian symbols in the funeral home alienated her. She accordingly asked that a large stained glass window of Jesus in the memorial chapel be covered for the ceremony. She and Spiderwoman were shown row after row of coffins that, according to the latter, were designed to preserve the deceased’s remains intact “even in event of nuclear holocaust.” At last they came upon a fairly plain oak coffin. Oak is a sacred wood in Wicca, a Celtic symbol of rebirth and regeneration. Aletheia’s reaction upon seeing the oak coffin was that, “. . . all of a sudden something had meaning. Dad had to be oak.” As a symbol of both mortality and immortality, the oak coffin revitalized for her the framework through which Wicca interprets death and gives it meaning.

The funeral director had serious misgivings about the religious service, especially when informed that the witches were going to “priestess” the ceremony themselves. Aletheia laughed as she remembered:He was really worried that we were going to cause some kind of big scene some kind of heretical thing in front of God and everyone at the Holy Cross CemeteryWhen he asked what religion the ceremony represented he was told “neopagan.” When he balked at that, Spiderwoman told him that it was “nondenominational.” Although he finally agreed, he appeared uncomfortable about the ceremony. He frequently peeked in at the service and later complained about the smell of incense. The arrangements for the interment were made through him, so it is unclear what the officials of the Catholic cemetery were told would occur.
    

The rites in the funeral home began before any of the guests arrived. One of the coven’s apprentices performed a ritual cleansing of the room with a cauldron of burning sage, which is believed to purify everything it touches, and by sprinkling oil, dedicated to Diana, to help create “sacred space.” The closed coffin had been aligned with the body’s head in the East, the direction which, for Dianics, represents new beginnings and therefore endings, the closing of the circle. The coffin was placed in the front of the memorial chapel under an arch painted with a quote from John that promises eternal life through belief in Jesus. The stained glass window had not been covered. The flower arrangements chosen by the coven were seasonal, deep rusts, oranges, and yellows. Each display included oak leaves and shafts of wheat, symbolizing rebirth and regeneration. Wicker baskets filled with evergreen needles and pine cones were on the floor under the casket, repeating the same theme. Later it was disclosed that the needles and cones had been picked that morning from a tree where Sep liked to go when considering issues of life and death. All of the witches, except for Aletheia, wore conservative dark dresses, highlighting the pentacles, moons, and snake jewelry they wore. Aletheia, a large woman who always wears pants, had chosen an expensive man’s suit, shirt, and necktie, all black. Around her waist, she had knotted her witch’s cord, a red braid. She wore snake and pentacle rings, a pentacle medallion the size of her fist over her necktie, and a silver crescent moon on a copper band around her forehead.

Dianic rituals tends to vary from coven to coven and even within the same coven over time. Rituals of the Circle of the Redwood Moon are usually improvisational, but there was a written agenda for the funeral. Nevertheless, at the last moment, Aletheia decided that she wanted the coven, and its auxiliary, to perform a self-blessing before beginning the service. We stood in a circle in front of the coffin and each of us, in turn, using the same oil that had been sprinkled around the room, anointed the forehead, eyes, nostrils, mouth, breasts, abdomen, genitals, and feet of the woman to our left. Each woman using whatever words came to her while doing this, said in essence as follows:Blessed be thy mind that thou mayst partake of Her wisdom, thy eyes that share her vision, thy nostrils that smell her essence, thy mouth to speak her truth, thy breasts to nurture her children, thy womb the source of her creativity, thy yoni the source of her pleasure and energy, and thy feet that they may walk her path (See Budapest, 1980:96-100)The blessing was sealed with a light kiss on the mouth. Several members and friends of Sep’s Catholic family walked in during this part of the ceremony. Seeing the anointing and the kiss, they demanded loudly to know just what was going on. An apprentice was sent to reassure them as well as accompany the widow to her pew.

Another apprentice tended a tape recorder playing Sep’s favorite music, sea chanties, as the rest of the guests filed in. Spiderwoman took the podium and welcomed everyone. She lit a white tapered candle. One of the apprentices began to burn copal, a resin based incense she had chosen because it intuitively “felt right.” The apprentice discreetly tended the burning incense during the entire ceremony, sprinkling fresh resin on the charcoal block in the small iron cauldron near the coffin and gently fanning the smoke. Nete sounded a small gong and performed a dramatic reading about beginning a new day. She referred to the Goddess as “the Lady” and specifically mentioned “the Lord,” her consort. She said later that she had done this with the intention of accommodating “those who believe in a patriarchal religion.” Spiderwoman sang “Morning Has Broken” and the coven joined in. She then read the poem that Sep had written to the Goddess, a long ballad like piece that spoke about Diana’s bow and her sacred woods. Individuals were invited to get up and share personal memories about Sep. None of the guests seemed prepared to do this.

The initiate became concerned at the lack of audience participation, which was clearly not what Aletheia had planned. Taking the podium, the initiate said she had met Sep only once, but through Aletheia’s talking about him and loving him so much she felt that he had influenced her life through his influence on his daughter. It was a generous, loving thing for Aletheia’s “coven sister” to do at a critical point. It pulled the service out of the embarrassed silence it had fallen into. When the initiate finished, she rang the gong and Aletheia took the podium. She shared memories of her father, things he had said, things they had done together. It was difficult for her; sometimes she laughed and sometimes she cried as she spoke. When she was done, she rang the gong and lit a green candle to represent rebirth.

Aletheia then called the coven up to stand in a semi circle around the coffin. She raised a ceramic chalice that she had used in doing solitary magic for her father and announced that she had placed her wishes for Sep’s freedom from pain within the chalice. Then she handed the chalice to the woman on her right. (The insistence on improvisational abilities in the Redwood Moon was important here, since the author present had no idea she was going to be called on to perform in this manner.) The chalice was passed around the circle counterclock wise or “widdershins” to represent dispersal. As each woman accepted the chalice, she announced her wish for the deceased. The wishes ranged from eternal peace to being remembered with joy. The audience was invited to participate in this ritual magic, either silently or out loud. Only Sep’s son chose to join the ceremony verbally, announcing tearfully a wish that his father could see and hear the beautiful things that had been said about him.

Then Sep was “cut free of his earthly ties.” Spiderwoman, in the West, pulled Aletheia’s long broadsword from under the flowers on the coffin and waved it over the lid. As she did so, she called on the powers or goddesses of the West to free Sep. The sword was passed to the priestesses at the South and East, then finally to Aletheia in the North, the direction which represents the body, earth, and darkness. At each point of the compass, the priestesses called in free verse upon Water, Fire, Air, and Earth respectively to set the deceased free. Spiderwoman then began a chant. She sang one line and the coven members repeated it. Phrases involving “deep peace” were chanted over and over, as initiated witches at the four corners placed their hands on the coffin and visualized peace flowing through their bodies and into the body in the coffin.

Aletheia asked us to take our seats and listen to a brief tape of a Celtic autoharp. After a few minutes, Spiderwoman requested that the audience regroup at the cemetery and announced that maps were available in the outer lobby.

Aletheia asked the coven to remain after the rest of the mourners had departed. She raised the coffin lid and tucked the ceramic chalice in the crook of her father’s arm. She placed some personal items in his inside coat pocket, including a “charm,” a braid made of the hair of some witches who had performed magic for him. She took a small branch from his evergreen tree and laid it on his breast. With Diana oil, she began to bless him. When she came to his genitals, she paused. Dianics are familiar with the word “yoni,” but the word “lingham,” the male counterpart, was unknown to the separatists in Redwood Moon. After a little shared laughter Aletheia shrugged and blessed her father’s yoni. The funeral director came in and asked us to get a couple of “strong men” for the coffin. Several of the women immediately volunteered to carry it. The rest of us joined the procession to the cemetery.

Near the open grave, everyone lined up behind the coven. We followed the coffin singing a hymn Dianics claim was sung by Italian women who linked arms and walked into the sea to welcome death, rather than be tortured and burned for witchcraft during the witch purges several centuries ago. Nete stood at one end of the coffin and Aletheia at the other, as Nete read from her Book of Shadows about the meaning of the evergreen. She stressed that death precedes life, which always follows death. An apprentice passed through the crowd of family and friends of the deceased, handing out the sprigs of evergreen from the baskets that had been under the coffin during the memorial service. Many people accepted the springs, others refused to touch them. Spiderwoman spoke briefly about the debt that was owed to the widow, who had been so loving and caring toward Sep during his illness. Aletheia and her brother laid large pine branches on the coffin and those of us who had taken sprigs followed suit. Spiderwoman blessed the coffin and the grave, then announced that Sep was at rest.

A woman’s voice rang out loudly, “And may Jesus Christ have mercy on your soul.” One of the widow’s daughters had created immediate tension in the small gathering with what appeared to be both a declaration of faith and a challenge to the witches.

An entirely unexpected thing then happened. Aletheia’s brother, who had initially been the most angry and argumentative, refusing to attend any religious ceremony, stepped forward to heal the breach. He said that his father had taught him that the true meaning of Jesus Christ was that good lives were led by good people, regardless of their religions. The crowd seemed mollified and slowly dispersed for the reception.(13)

It is important to note that Sep’s funeral was not typical. Dianics do not have a typical funeral rite. What is meaningful to individual witches and their families is worked into the service. Symbols of rebirth and regeneration, however, are used consistently, even though reincarnation in a literal sense was not mentioned that day.

Discussion    

Attempts at achieving reintegration of the surviving family occurred in the rituals at both the chapel and graveside. The invitations to the mourners to share memories of the deceased and to join in the ritual magic of placing wishes (or spells) in the chalice were obvious attempts to establish a sense of community, as was the passing out of the evergreen sprigs. The attention paid to the widow by the coven, especially the praise and thanks offered to her at the graveside, helped somewhat to reestablish family solidarity. That these efforts were not more successful is only partially due to the deep divisions in the family and its lack of solidarity during Sep’s lifetime. Geertz (1973:167) has demonstrated that conflict can occur when a particular funeral rite becomes both “a paean to God” and an affirmation of political belief. In spite of their attempt to be inclusive, when they called on the goddess, the radical feminist witches of Redwood Moon were symbolically challenging all social institutions based on patriarchal relationships.

It is significant that Sep’s homophobic and sexist son, the most alienated individual present, and the only one without the immediate support of a community, was the one who attempted to heal the breach caused by conflicting religions. Although he professed to be an atheist, the Wiccan funeral and the symbolism it contained held meaning for him. Aletheia reported that the two of them were closer that weekend than they had been in their entire adult lives. She and Sep’s widow, who had been estranged from each other during Sep’s life, also appeared to renegotiate their relationship, at least on a temporary basis. We were later told that this relationship became strained again over the deceased’s financial affairs.

It is also obvious that witchcraft provides a framework for interpreting and giving meaning to death, even in today’s society where pain and dying are often prolonged. In so doing, Dianic Wicca also gives greater meaning to life. As Joseph Campbell has written, death and life are two aspects of the same thing, which is being, becoming:One can experience an unconditional affirmation of life only when one has accepted death, not as contrary to life but as an aspect of life. (Campbell, 1987:152)     Although she claimed not to have a personal belief in literal reincarnation, Aletheia found comfort in using the Dianic symbols of rebirth in dealing with her father’s death. This, then, was an affirmation of belief in the life cycle.

Contemporary witchcraft, with its acceptance of death and emphasis on immanence, the interconnectedness of all things, and natural cycles rather than polarities, is a joyous, life affirming religion, even in death. Spiderwoman epitomized this outlook in a powerful image when she and Aletheia were at the funeral home, wandering among the lead lined steel coffins with rubber gaskets and special locking devices. As the mortician reminded them that they had to bring underwear to dress the corpse, Spiderwoman turned to him and announced, “When I die, I want to be buried naked, standing up, with a tree planted on my head.” Aletheia told us later that she thought this was wonderful.

Summary    

Although there are many reference books on feminist Wicca and “women’s spirituality,” the scholarly literature tends to focus on how the discovery of the Goddess within each woman holds potential for women’s psychological and political health. With rare exception, Dianic Wicca is not examined from a sociological perspective as a religion that provides shared meanings and unites people into a moral community.

The Dianic community argues that belief in an autonomous male divinity as “Creator of All Life” is a patriarchal mindform and a denial of motherhood. Death conceived of as a return to a Heavenly Father, therefore, fails to provide meaning in the lives of radical feminists. In response to meaninglessness, people create meaning, and the shared meanings they create reveal a shared reality.

This paper has attempted to show how the religion of radical feminist witches gives meaning to death, and so to life. Symbols of darkness and death are woven throughout Dianic tradition. Some are ancient like the serpent, some newly created or deconstructed, like the witch’s cauldron. The symbols are present in the cornerstone philosophy of the Sacred Trinity of the Dianics, in their myths, their rituals, their tools, their songs, the ways in which they adorn themselves, and in their spiral dance. The funeral in this case study presented a unique opportunity to examine how darkness, decay, and death are seen as integral parts of light, birth, and life.

Other important questions need to be addressed. If this religion is growing as rapidly as reported, who are the new witches and where do they come from? Is this a lasting phenomenon or a fad? What impact has it had or will it have on the Women’s Movement? How is finding the Goddess Within different from other forms of therapy? How do Dianics compare with other emergent religious/healing groups?

Since finishing our “year and a day” in the field with the witches of Redwood Moon, the authors have come in contact with many more women who practice the feminist Craft. One reason for this is that we have learned the symbolic language and know what to look for: the pentacle, the snake, shared greetings, etc. We have personally discovered practitioners on both coasts and in the Midwest, on college campuses, located within mainstream religions, defending family planning clinics, in upper middle class resort towns, and behind cement fences in working class neighborhoods. The growing popularity of the subject and the movement’s dramatic proliferation demand further study.

Endnotes(1) Durkheim’s assertion that “There is no Church or Magic” (Durkheim, t915:60) was based on an idea of magicians as lone, instrumental practitioners who shunned the openness of shared ritual and direct involvement in a community bound together by common beliefs. This does not apply to Wiccan covens, where both are profoundly important.
(2) The word “participate” is stressed because Wicca, especially for radical witches, is an experiential religion with strong performative aspects. Only on rare occasions is one allowed passively to observe a religious ceremony or ritual.
(3)  Although the coven originally requested that its true name and real names of its members be used, pseudonyms were agreed upon and appear in this paper. Legislation was proposed in both the House and Senate in 1985 to mandate specific discrimination against witches and practitioners of the Craft. Although this failed to pass, it is not impossible that witches will be persecuted again in the future. The authors thus felt that pseudonyms were necessary lo protect the individuals who made this research possible.
(4)  According to tradition, any woman may call herself a witch if she “knows” herself to be one. Apprentices are considered witches who have not been initiated. An initiate is a coven member who has studied for a year and a day, demonstrated to the satisfaction of all initiated coven members her understanding of Dianic traditions, and been initiated herself, usually during the ritual known as Candlemas in February. Initiates may then choose to engage in further study in a particular area of expertise, such as ritual, chants, or herbology. The study must again last at least a year and a day, and the consensus of all initiated witches in Redwood Moon delermines whether or not one will be advanced to Priestess of Ritual, Chants, or Herbs.
(5)  In her chapter on feminist witchcraft, Adler (1986) argues that lesbianism is as much or more of a political and cultural phenomenon as it is a sexual orientation. She refers to asexual and/or celibate women who call themselves lesbians. In Redwood Moon one self identified lesbian was celibate, another said she believed most people were really bisexual, and another said she made “a political choice to become a lesbian.” Regardless of sexual orientation, all Dianics learn a radical feminist analysis of religion and the roots of women’s oppression.
(6)  Lozano opted not to request apprenticeship training for professional reasons. Follz was not aware that as a researcher she might have been permitted to become an apprentice until late into the research, when she was planning to relocate.
(7)  The distinction between the two is made because one must request to become an apprentice. As Redwood Moon is governed by consensus. we may only surmise that our petition would have been granted unanimously. On at least two occasions during our research, consensus was lacking on the advancement of members within the coven, so candidates were held back. As several witches later informed us, joining a coven has much of the intensity of a group marriage. The commitment between members is a profound one and must be made  “in perfect love and perfect trust.”
(8)  See Adler, 1986, for a description of these works and the traditions the authors represent.
(9)  Upon hearing this accusation for the first time, the witches of Redwood Moon immediately went out and had T shirts printed that read, “Too Dianic!”
(10)  In 1968, WITCH (Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell) was formed in New York with the intention of using guerrilla theater to be the “striking arm of the Women’s Liberation Movement.” Within a few weeks, covens had sprung up in major cities across the United States united by common style –  humor, irreverence and feminist activism (Morgan, 1970). Although they performed public rituals and hexings and wrote of spell casting, their focus was political action rather than religious practice. Budapest lived in New York atthis time and appears to have been influenced by WlTCH’s theatricality and feminist politics.
(11)  We spent over a year learning the doctrine of this particular group of witches. To claim to have neither dogma nor doctrine is a misstatement; rather each group creates its own, taking what it likes from certain reference and “how to” books, and passing these teachings on to new recruits. The basic Craft Law is “As and ye harm none, do what thou will.” Other than this, Wiccan traditions and the individual covens lend to make their own, often highly creative, decisions in these areas. As one priestess told us, “You want to know the answers, but we haven’t finished making them up yet.” Even then, the results are often highly idiosyncratic. Each witch in Redwood Moon is expected to keep a “Book of Shadows,” where she details the magic and rituals she engages in, what seems to work for her, and her thoughts about her personal growth. One witch shared her beautifully bound antique leather book filled with copious notes, another told us she wrote things down on scraps of paper and threw them into a dresser drawer.
(12)  There are eight “sabbats” or holy days in the Dianic calendar, celebrated at the  solstices, equinoxes, and the “cross points” between them. Sabbats celebrate the wheel of the year and are used to reaffirm the connections among the individual, the community, and nature. Dianic sabbats share things with, but are not the  same as, the sabbats in other Wiccan traditions. See Budapest, 1986, for a detailed description.
(13)  The reception, basically a family gathering, had not been mentioned to the author present until that very moment. Thus, a prior commitment prevented attendance. This was unfortunate, as rich data on the interaction of family members and verbal impressions of he Wiccan ceremonies were obviously missed.

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