The Goddess in the New Age: Earth-based Traditions
According to its own tradition, Witchcraft reaches back to the Paleolithic Age and the dawn of the Goddess more than 30,000 years ago. One theory suggests that after the nomadic invasions upset the Neolithic Goddess cultures, some refugees fled the fertile valleys for the hills and mountains, where they became known as fairies, pixies, or the “little people.” Covens, or small groups, were formed to preserve the mystical knowledge and rituals of the Goddess culture; and these came to be known generically as Wicca or Wicce (Anglo-Saxon for “witch”). Their members became the healers, herbalists, midwives, and mystics of many European communities.
During the witch hunts and persecutions of the Middle Ages, ruefully referred to now as the “burning times,” these healers were rooted out, accused of non-Christian worship and practices, and executed in the hundreds of thousands, although some put that figure in the millions. Most of the victims were women, as the Church’s fear of rampant Goddess-worship turned to focus on women themselves, often identifying female sexuality with evil. According to the infamous Malleus Maleficarum (“Hammer of the Witches,” c. 1487), a Dominican book that stressed the importance of eradicating witches, “All witchcraft stems from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable” — a statement that may have represented wishful thinking on the part of its author.
Following the revival of interest in the Goddess in the 20th century, a broad array of groups have come into being to allow open access to the wisdom that was passed down secretly from before the burning times. These groups, known collectively as Neopaganism, may represent both some of the newest and some of the oldest religions in existence. The term Neopagan is a modern catchall to describe revived and reconstructed pre-Christian religious traditions that draw upon Egyptian, Greek, Norse, and Celtic mythologies and practices. These traditions generally took a more balanced and appreciative view of the role of women in both the spiritual and material realms. Neopagans today may focus on either nature or magic or both, incorporating often arcane rituals and terminologies from several different traditions into what is often a modern ecological, feminist perspective. Druidism, for example, is based on the faith and practices of ancient Celtic polytheistic nature worshippers, whose modern proponents take a nondogmatic and pluralistic approach to worship. Asatru is a revival of an ancient, pre-Christian Norse religion.
Probably the most popular Neopagan religion is Wicca, which, as currently practiced, can be traced back to the Gardnerian Witchcraft founded in Great Britain during the late 1940s. Wicca draws many of its symbols, seasonal celebrations, beliefs, and deities from those of ancient Celtic culture of the first millennium BCE, enriching them with elements of Freemasonry and ceremonial magic from more recent centuries. Some modern female-only Wiccans call themselves Dianic and worship the goddess Diana exclusively. These and other Wiccans often emphasize the sacrality of nature and the coexistence of the sexes in partnership rather than exclusivity or dominance.
Many of the Neopagan religions, including Wicca, are sometimes called Earth-based, partly because of their connection to the Goddess, who is generally seen as embodying the earth Herself, as opposed to the heavenly orientation of many traditional patriarchal religions. Earth-based spirituality, which often combines elements of various traditions without necessarily following one specific set of beliefs and practices, often begins by seeing Spirit embodied in the world, nature, and the earth. Because all life is viewed as interconnected, these religions revere the cycles of birth and death, growth and regeneration, that are part of the most ancient spiritual traditions of earth. This focus on the cycles of nature still survives in major traditions such as Taoism and Ayurveda, and even in the connection between major religious holidays of Western monotheism and cyclical events such as spring, harvest, and the winter solstice. Earth-based traditions also place an emphasis on community, conserving communal resources, and health, and so members are often strongly involved in ecological, conservationist, and animal rights groups.
As a rule, Earth-based traditions do not aggressively proselytize or negate other religions, perhaps because they have themselves been attacked and proselytized in the past. They choose instead to emphasize the sacredness of nature and living in harmony with nature as well as within themselves, at home, and in the community.