HER HIDDEN CHILDREN: The Rise of Wicca and Paganism in America by Chas S. Clifton

Her Hidden Children: The Rise of Wicca and Paganism in America by Chas S. Clifton (2006, Altamira)

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Her Hidden Children is an excellent book, which attempts to document the early history of pagan religions in America. It’s primarily interested in the “nature” religions that rose to such prominence in the occult era of American spirituality (1966 to 1980). As such, the book features on the major sources of influence as they worked their way from Britain to America. The book follows in the wake of Margot Adler’s famous Drawing Down the Moon and Aiden Kelly’s Crafting the Art of Magic. Since most of the rise of Wicca religion was covered in Triumph of the Moon by Ronald Hutton, Clifton doesn’t bother to study the roots of the subject in England.

There is still a lot of uncertainty as to how the Wiccan and other polytheistic faiths arrived in the United States in the 1960’s… Clifton was able to interview many of the original players in the scene, although many have passed on since he did his interviews. The author had already written the definitive study of science fantasy writer Margret St. Clair and how she worked neo-pagan themes in her stories, but he includes much of it in this study. There’s no conclusive date, but Clifton feels most of the lineage originated with Raymond Buckland, who moved to Long Island in 1963.  Buckland brought Gerald Gardener’s form of Goddess worship to the United States when he moved around for work. From Buckland and his subsequent priestess, there emerged a growing religious movement, which came to be called witchcraft or Wicca, as they prefer to call it.

There is a section called “1734 and Tubal Caine” which delves into the possibility that another strand of Wicca was in formation at the same time. This one was created by Robert Cochrane. He claimed it was a survival of an ancient pre-Christian faith. As with Gardener, no independent verification of an older organized religion was ever confirmed, in spite of what renegade archaeologist Margret Murray might think. Clifton feels that Gardner was a magnet under a table in the goddess movement and anything, which emerged at the same time, was quickly aligned to his approach.

One entire chapter is devoted to how Wicca came to be known as a ‘nature religion’ in the USA, whereas in the UK it was presented as the original native religion of the British Isles. Clifton finds the connection in the growing ecology movement of the late 60’s and early 70’s. Many people desired to get back in touch with nature and Wicca was the perfect vehicle for them. Combine this with the rise of outdoor Wiccan and pagan festivals and you have a potent mix.

One significant chapter is called “The Playboy and the Witch: Wicca in Popular Culture”. A Clifton point out it is impossible to separate the rise of goddess worship without the study of the zeitgeist as it took place. There was plenty of what he terms ‘I go among Witches’ books which helped popularize the movement. The best of these was Drawing Down the Moon, where the new movement was taken seriously. John Michael Greer considers this book and Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance to be two books, which ushered in the modern neo-pagan movement, as we know it today. The worst of these were the writings of paranormal researcher Hans Holzer who went around and searched for the most extreme personalities he could find. He managed to include a storefront Satanist in his The New Pagans. In any event, these books, often found in paperback form at the supermarket, were many people’s first introduction to goddess spirituality.

As an aside, it was the Adler book, which opened my own eyes to the Western occult tradition, which I’d never taken seriously before. Here was a thick, important book, written by an important person with academic credentials. Heck, she was on National Public Radio! From there I discovered Crowley and all the other actors. In 1983, prior to the rise of computer networks, there wasn’t much else out there. The only downside was that the vast movement she wrote about was almost impossible to locate. That would all change with the rise of the Internet.

The final chapter even quotes the sociologist Marcello Truzzi who felt that Wicca, in 1980, was in decline and should be studied as a movement that peaked. Clifton contrasted this statement with the many pagan organizations that existed in the USA when he surveyed them in 2006. I’m no statistician, but I agree that the movement is strong and has no indication of vanishing. I still feel that the Internet was the reason it survived and grew. He points out that most pagans and Wiccan are solitary practitioners and only communicate over the Internet. It should be pointed out that the runaway pagan bestseller was Scott Cunningham’s book on solitary initiation.

Can the goddess movement be considered a religion or a practice? The debate never ends. Clifton quotes Isaac Bonewits who felt the IRS would be the one who makes that determination. In some ways, a religion as people gather to celebrate their own personal gods and goddesses. In some ways, a practice as members of ‘The Craft’ try to promote change in accordance with their will (okay, ripped that one from Uncle Al, but you get the idea). As with all beliefs, the story continues to be written.

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Rummah Kasai has written 24 post in this blog.

Rummah is a member of a secret order so clandestine that he can't even remember what it is.

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