Something Wiccan this Way Comes

It may come as a surprise but, unawares to many people, a community of people in St. Louis has created a community wherein they are free to follow alternative religious paths. One of these local organizations is Yarrow Coven, a St. Louis Wicca coven with fifteen members and even more who participate in seasonal festivals and Sabbats, or holidays.

PHOTO ILLIUSTRATION (by Paul Lisker)
PHOTO ILLIUSTRATION (by Paul Lisker)

Yarrow Coven High Priest El Bee notes that the Coven is about 75 percent women, which is typical of a Wiccan coven, but very diverse in the ages of the members.

“The youngest is 21; the oldest is 63,” El Bee said. “And we have everyone in between, so it’s not an age-specific coven. It’s more of a common interest coven.”

El Bee believes that many of the prejudices people carry against Wiccans stem from a lack of knowledge or direct contact with people who they know to be Wiccans. Basically, El Bee thinks that Wiccans are a lot more normal and mainstream than people often think.

“We could be your banker, your attorney, your schoolteacher,” El Bee said. “We could be the mother next door who makes cookies for the Brownies or the Girl Scouts. We could be anybody. And we generally are. There’s a lot of medical people involved in Wicca, a lot of professionally people. Not that everybody is, of course. There’s all kinds of people involved.”

Struggles with public perceptions, stereotypes

El Bee considers himself to be resilient to many of the judgments people pass on Wiccans for their religious beliefs.

He attributes a lot of the ignorance he faces to a human tendency to distrust what we don’t understand.

“People want to ridicule things they don’t understand,” El Bee said.

El Bee believes that, if people were to just take time to learn about his religion on a basic level and develop an understanding of what Wicca actually is, that Wiccans would achieve a lot more respect.

“As far as being disrespected, I think that most of that has to do with… people don’t know who we are,” El Bee said. “They don’t know what the religion is. They don’t even want to look at it or they just aren’t aware. Or they belittle it thinking that it’s fat chicks with acne, which it’s not. That’s a general impression you get sometimes on the Internet.”

In spite of the difficulties that Wiccans can face in getting others to respect their religious beliefs, El Bee believes that most Wiccans are resilient enough to withstand the criticism as irrelevant.

“Most of us just let the ridicule wash across our back and we just try to forget it,” El Bee said. “It’s ignorance, for the most part.”

Essentially, El Bee believes that, just as the Wiccans in Yarrow Coven respect the beliefs of Christians and don’t mock them for practicing religion differently, people of religions that aren’t Wiccan should make an effort to return the favor and give Wiccans their due repect..

“We’re pretty tolerant,” El Bee said. “We are. So we let people do whatever they want to as far as their spirituality is concerned. We just ask that people respect us and our spirituality. It’s a give-and-take, pretty simple.”

Comparisons to other religions prove difficult

El Bee, who has been a Pagan all of his life, was initially raised as an Irish Ozark Pagan by his parents and grandparents. However, he became a Wiccan in 1989 and helped to found Yarrow Coven, which celebrates its 21st anniversary this month.

Despite his Pagan background, El Bee still has other traditional religious experiences to contrast with his religious experiences today.

“I was never a Christian,” El Bee said. “My parents were Pagans, my grandparents were Pagans… They’d go to Baptist Church every Sunday because, back then, that’s what you did. You went to Church. It didn’t make them Christian.”

When asked if he could conjure any comparisons between Yarrow Coven and the Baptist Church he attended as a child, El Bee met a blank.

“There’s no comparison,” El Bee said. “It’s entirely different. There isn’t any comparison. That would be like comparing an apple to an orange because they’re not the same thing.”

El Bee particularly enjoys feeling a hands-on connection to his religion when practicing Wicca. This participatory nature of Wicca is something that he sees as being absent from Christianity.

“It’s altogether different,” El Bee said. “We are primarily an experiential religion, where you actually experience what you’re doing. You’re not sitting on a pew listening to a preacher. You’re an integral part of what’s going on.”

In addition to the more organic, participatory nature of Wicca, El Bee appreciates that Wicca lacks a specific set of rules to follow everyday. El Bee sees such rules as undesirable limitations on life.

“We don’t have a lot of rules,” El Bee said. “Rules are real limiting; they hold you back. Probably the biggest thing we have is our guidelines. Some people like to think of them as rules, but I like to think of them as guidelines.”

El Bee also believes that Wiccans tend to be more careful not to intrude on others’ spirituality. Members of Yarrow Coven places a strong emphasis on respecting others’ spirituality.

“The Christians, they lay on hands, they do healing,” El Bee said. “The Pagans, they cast spells, they lay on hands, and they do healing. Now, the difference is that we try not to do that without the permission of the person that we’re healing. It’s against their free will.”

Wiccans choose to not incorporate concepts like “hell” into their religious beliefs.

This is indirect opposition to the tendency of many more traditional  religions to focus on the afterlife.

“There’s no salvation in Wicca; we don’t believe in that,” El Bee said. “There’s no Satan; we don’t believe in that. There’s no hell, fire, and brimstones in Wicca. We don’t try to put guilt trips on anybody.”

Typical practices and ceremonies of Wicca

Unlike most religions, Wicca does not have its ceremonies indoors because of the religion’s strong emphasis on human relationships with nature.

“Nature is a real important aspect of Wicca,” El Bee said. “We revere nature. We don’t worship nature, but we revere nature. We enjoy all aspects of nature because it’s the creation of the Goddess, and it’s a reflection of our gods and goddesses. I mean, they’re nature, so it’s important to us.”

Yarrow Coven likes to precede their ceremonies with opportunities for members of the coven to bond.

“We’ll meet, we’ll sit around, and we’ll have a social time,” El Bee said. “You know, with drinks and food and conversation. It depends on what time of year it is. We might swim; we might do all kinds of things. Then we have a call to ritual, we have our Sabbat ritual, and we go back and have more social time.”

To begin the Sabbat ritual, they partake in grounding, a method by which Wiccans release energy to prepare themselves for blessings.

“We do a bit of grounding, centering ourselves and getting our thought process into a more spiritual zone,” El Bee said. “Something that gets us way from the mundane, everyday life: thinking of bills, family, the jerk on the highway, and all that kind of stuff. It just gets us into a spiritual frame of mind.”

After they have reached a more spiritual state of mind, Wiccans will do a blessing. Because Wiccans don’t have standard text, the blessings will vary from coven to coven.

After the blessing, Wiccans cast a circle to create a sacred space. The circle can be cast in the ground with candles or other implements contributing to the ambiance. Once the sacred space has been created, Wiccans will bring down spirits by “calling the quarters.”

“We call the quarters in the circle,” El Bee said. “Some people call them quarters, some people call them watchtowers, some call them elements. Whatever you call them, we call down the spirits of each quarter: north, south, east, and west. And then we bring the gods and goddess down to the circle.”

The actual ceremony that follows varies depending upon the Sabbat or Esbat being celebrated.

There are eight Sabbats in a year, with the other covens rituals being called Esbats.

The actual ceremony will depend on the nature of the holiday. For example, on harvest holidays, Wiccans will bless the harvest of the grains.

“We bless the harvest of the kicks and the harvest of the grains and we pass them around to each person saying something similar to ‘may you never hunger’ or ‘may you never thirst.’”

Typical use of ‘magick’ in ceremonies, life

Of all of the elements of Wicca, El Bee has found the practice of using “magick” to be the most beneficial. El Bee defines magick as the ability to “change your environment, your world, and your conditions through your own will.

Wiccans incorporate magick, spelled in its Early Modern English from to differentiate the term from other presentations of magic.

“Magick is real,” El Bee said. “We have the capability to change our circumstances through our own will and most people can’t fathom that, they can’t understand it. They will say there’s no such thing as magick, [that I’m] deluding myself, it doesn’t exist, that kind of thing.”

Although El Bee believes strongly in the use of magick, he acknowledges that most people don’t believe in it until they believe that they’ve experienced it.

“There are even Wiccans who don’t practice magic because they don’t believe it,” El Bee said. “They’ve never had a magical experience.”

El Bee views developing abilities pertaining to magick to be a gradual process that takes years of experience and patience.

“It’s something that you just have to learn,” El Bee said. “It’s a craft. It takes a lot of years to make it work right for you. But, through a lot of work, visualization, and the power of wanting something, desiring it to such a degree that it you think about it all the time, it creates an energy where the thing that your desiring becomes real.”

However, El Bee believes strongly that Wiccans should only practice magick responsibly by following the Wiccan Read, which is defined by the central idea of: “Do as you will, but harm none.”

El Bee appreciates the freedom to interpret this guideline and says that it is primarily used to help Wiccans determine when it is appropriate to practice magic.

“It’s an edit to not harm anyone in the process of doing magic,” El Bee said. “This essentially says, ‘Hey, you’re free to do whatever you do, but don’t harm anyone in the process.’”

El Bee believes that it is important to practice magick ethically because he thinks that magick can have substantive effects.

“You understand, philosophically, every action you do has repercussions,” El Bee said. “Whether it be good repercussions or bad repercussions, it affects somebody somewhere in some fashion.”

The scholarly view of Wicca as a religion

Many religious studies scholars dispute the disregard that many people have for Wicca as a religion.

Frank Flinn, an adjunct professor of religious studies at Washington University in St. Louis, believes that Wicca and many other new religious movements are labeled as “deviant” and “cults” by society and, thus, the people who practice these religions are ostracized. From his observations, Flinn believes that Wiccan practices are misrepresented in mainstream society.

“Most Wiccans identify in some way with all religious movements, including the Amerindians, that maintain and promote nature spirituality,” Flinn said. “Contrary to much propaganda, the Wiccan comunities are not Satanists and do not engage in anti-Christian sentiments in any form or fashion. They see themselves as pre-Christian and post-Christian, not anti-Christian.”

Flinn has studied the Wiccan movement since the mid 1970s, has attended various Wiccan ceremonies, and interviewed dozens of Wiccan believers. From his studies, he has concluded that Wicca is, in fact, a religion. In a 1996 court affidavit regarding Wicca, his definition of a religion is that it must “possess a system of beliefs,” have a set of religious practices, and unite a “body of believers” into ”an identifiable community.”

Based on these criteria, Flinn believes that Wicca is, indeed, a religion.

Roshan Abraham, an assistant professor of classics and religious studies at Washington University in St. Louis, agrees with Flinn on the count that Wicca is a religion.

“I would say it is a religion,” Abraham said. “Wicca is a religion insofar as it self-identifies as a religion. They have a belief in higher spiritual beings; they have rituals and rites.”

Abraham, who specializes in the study of religion in ancient Greece and Rome, believes that the exclusion of Pagan practices dates back to the emergence of Christianity. Abraham cites instances in the New Testament wherein spell books are burned and states that one of the main criticisms of Jesus was that he was a magician and not a holy man.

“Christianity fought very hard to distinguish itself from Pagan practices,” Abraham said. “One of the ways they did this was by labeling Pagan practices as magic.”

Once Pagan practices were labeled as magic, Paganism was viewed as a separate entity from religion. Before Christianity began to distance itself from Paganism, magic existed in tandem with magic. Abraham defines religion as what is sanctioned by society and magic as practices done in secret, typically for personal benefit.

“What we call magic now was part of everyday life back in antiquity. Jews, Christians, and Pagans all performed what we would call magical rites,” Abraham said. “It’s just, when these texts were discovered, and they were discovered in the nineteenth century, the people who discovered them said, ‘Wow, these look a lot like what we think is religion, but there’s all these differences.’ Like, the way it was secretive, the way it was about personal benefit as opposed to greater spiritual benefit. So, all of these things got labeled as ‘magic.’”

Although modern Wicca did not exist as it is known today during the Greco-Roman period, many modern Wiccans take inspiration from Pagan practices of this time.

“A lot of modern Wiccans look to the ancient period as a source of information and rituals because we have a lot of information about what the Greeks and the Romans practiced and their religious rituals,” Abraham said. “Both the sanctioned religious rituals, like cults, festivals, sacrifices, and mystery religions, and also the unsanctioned rituals, which we would call magic.”

Abraham specifically cites the typical inclusion of Greek gods such as Demeter in modern Wiccan religion, the modern use of recovered Greek spells, as well as the commonality in their shared initiation programs.

“Those [modern Wiccan] initiations have the same structure as the initiations of the ancient world in that they’re secretive, they put you in a personal relationship with a deity, and promise you a better life,” Abraham said. “That’s exactly what we think initiations were like in the ancient world.”

Although these practices may seem foreign to most people, Abraham believes that people should try to view Wicca objectively and not judge it based on their individual religious convictions.

“When you ask if something’s a religion, you have to ask yourself, well, how do we define religion?” Abraham said. “If it is a religion to those people that practice it, then who are we to say it’s not? If you want to keep a very secular definition of religion, then you can’t base it upon the qualms of another religion.”