Wicca And Paganism Are So Much More Than A Pop-Culture Trend

By Hanna Brooks Olsen

Trendy Paganism focuses on crushed velvet, Oujia boards, and five-pointed stars — without considering the actual faith.

Everyone has something about their upbringing that embarrassed them as a child. Maybe it was your dad’s minivan. Maybe it was something darker, like his drinking problem. Maybe it was mom’s taste in classic rock. Maybe it was her long-term unemployment. Maybe it was all of these things and more — for most of us, there’s more than one element of our childhood that filled us with that special, hot shame that kids feel.

For me, it was my mom. Or more specifically, my mom’s belief system — she’s Wiccan, and while that can be difficult to explain now that I’m an adult, it was downright mortifying as a child.

Mom’s crystals. Mom’s pentacle bumper-sticker on the back of the Volkswagen when she came to pick me up from practice. Mom’s explicit barring of any imagery that included a green witch with a wart on her hooked nose. Mom’s disbelief in the efficacy of Western medicine.

I spent years desperately trying not to be associated with my mother’s faith — which is strange, because it’s since popped up everywhere. In the last five-ish years, Wicca has become kind of chic. It’s in an essay on Elle about teenage flirtation with religion. It’s in a Grazia piece about “cool girls.” It’s all over Tumblr. Recently, two women on one of my favorite podcasts described themselves as “amateur witches.”

I spent years desperately trying not to be associated with my mother’s faith.

It’s never not weird to see mentions of Wicca — honest, interested, engaged mentions — in pop culture, precisely because it always felt like something that only we were into, that only we took part in. The thing that represented arguably one of the biggest sore spots in my life — the thing that shaped our views, our holidays, our home’s decor, and even our attire — is now strangely a thing that other people are not only aware of, but active participants in. Which, to be fair, was always the case; plenty of people have been practicing Wicca for decades. But not in the mainstream. Growing up, not a single one of my peers could relate to the language, the iconography, the practices.

It felt like we were the only ones we knew who did and believed the things we did and believed.

Wicca is, particularly in light of its pop-culture popularity, most often thought of by its trappings — spells, tarot cards, interactions with spirits — all of which were staples in my childhood home. But it is, of course, more than that; Wicca is a diverse faith held by countless (in the literal sense of the word — there are essentially no reliable statistics on practitioners) individuals, both in the U.S. and abroad.

As On Faith contributor Eric O. Scott says:

“Wicca has no central authority to dictate the shape of the religion. We have traditions, certainly, but those traditions vary widely between groups and individual practitioners. As a result, generalizations about the religion — ‘this is what Wiccans believe’ — are hard, if not impossible, to make.”

Wicca is what I grew up with, but it’s decidedly not the only neo-Pagan religion; Scott goes on to mention Heathenry and Druidy, which are similar but not the same (though they’re often “lumped together by people within and without the Pagan community,” he explains). The religions, while sharing common themes, have different rituations, traditions, holidays, and even calendars — which many practitioners may borrow from.

This dynamic quality — those different rituals and events — is part of what makes Pagan religions like Wicca appealing, at least according to my mother, who found it in a time of need and summarily adopted it for herself and our family. It’s unconventionality, too, seemed to be a draw; my mother has, for most of her life, prided herself on being different. It was exactly what made me feel shame — the fact that so few people even knew about it — that drew her to it.

“Outlier sorts of belief systems have always drawn, well, outliers,” my mother tells me in an email after I ask her to comment for a piece I’m writing about how Wicca has become kind of hot. “I’ve never been a very good rule-follower . . . even as a Witch, I’m eclectic.”

This doesn’t mean that she’s not a true believer — she is, and has been. She has practiced Wicca in some form for close to three decades; in her early 20s, she found herself seeking something like the Catholicism she was raised with, but . . . not Catholicism. I think what she wanted was community, clarity, and someone or something to help her catalog her feelings of spirituality in a way that made the most sense to her.

It wasn’t too difficult to find a small enclave of fellow seekers in Eugene, Oregon, where we lived, and soon, she was collecting books on practical paganism. We attended workshops, events, gatherings, and book readings; my mother in her Levi’s, and my siblings and me in tow. Our days were spent sitting on the porch of a local herbal shop, picking leaves of lamb’s ear and, at least in my case, wishing we could be at the mall or somewhere I might run into someone I knew.

Though my mother tried very hard to ensure that her faith didn’t disrupt our lives much, it was hard not to notice in daily life. I remember her eschewing modern medicine and, instead, treating our various ailments with tinctures of distilled herbs kept in the refrigerator in a row of neat glass bottles with eyedropper caps. I remember her performing spells in the moonlight when money went from “tight” to “officially a problem.” I remember her meditation cassettes, and when we stopped referring to it as “Christmas” and instead dubbed it our “Yule tree.”

Her pentacles, her sage smudges, her tarot card readings in the garage — these were the things that were important to her, but to me, they were markers of how different we were. And they didn’t go unnoticed. Like the time when a little girl at our (fairly conservative, small-ish town) elementary school wasn’t allowed to come over to play with my older brother because her mother believed that my mother “stole babies and ate children” — a fear that is still actually fairly commonly held and warned against. Or when my friends came back from a local Christian summer camp with the very pressing news that we were all going to Hell, and then proceeded to tell everyone in my class that we were sinners. Or when I tried to get December 21 off of work at my grocery-store job in high school for the winter solstice, only to be told by a furious manager, “You can’t just take any vacation days you want just because you have a weird religion.”

pentacle
Pentacle (Credit: flickr/Kali Bardi)

Because my mother was so forward about her faith, it became a prerequisite that anyone I was social with either didn’t meet her, or was at least tangentially accepting of the perceived strangeness of it all. For some, it was simply too much — more than a few friendships were strained by a kind of transitive judgement.

Moreover, because my mom was an active practitioner in a small community, she was the de facto Witch for commentary and questions. She was featured on the local news one Halloween, decrying the holiday’s presentation of Witches and elaborating on the historical roots of Samhain, a Gaelic festival that many Wiccans view as the beginning of the spiritual new year and from which many of our October iconography is borrowed. She was also interviewed more than once for the local paper and invited to give talks around town. She took delight in embodying an alternative to the general public.

“I saw your mom on the news!” a classmate would say, though rarely in a way that made me feel like that was a good thing. Most often, the exclamation was followed with a sentiment like “she’s kind of weird” or questions about my own beliefs (“Are you a Witch? Are you gonna cast a spell on me? Where’s your hat?”), which were nonexistent.

“Yeah, I’m not really into all that stuff,” I’d mutter, red-faced, before changing the subject.

‘Are you a Witch? Are you gonna cast a spell on me?’

The mortification I felt was incredibly real — but then, so was her faith. She, herself, didn’t feel any shame or embarrassment, because she truly believed that Wicca is the truest religious ideology. And so we, too, were expected to be unashamed. And even if we were embarrassed by her beliefs, she thought it was a fair tradeoff; the shame of being different was worth it in the long run, if it meant we would be saved from the tyranny of being “normal,” a word she used as a pejorative.

It all felt hard then. Why couldn’t we just be normal — and that be a good thing? As a child and later a teenager desperate to fit in, I wanted to go to garden parties and elegant events, not Beltane potlucks where all of the adults wore crystals and we thanked the Goddess for the fecundity of the earth. I wanted Clinique Happy and Abercrombie, not patchouli oil.

It didn’t help, either, that I was personally non-religious. I didn’t believe in reincarnation, in spirit animals, or in the power of spells to bring about change. Without the conviction behind the trappings, it all felt like an inconvenience and a sore subject.

And then, seemingly from out of nowhere, this religion I felt so distant from became all anyone could talk about. But this time, it wasn’t my mom doing the talking — it was, for the first time, my peers.

Some time around the end of college, what my siblings and friends in the know (the friends who’d call my mom to have her interpret their dreams) used to refer to as the purview of “hippies” was suddenly referred to, endearingly, as “woo-woo.” In light conversation, a coworker or acquaintance might make mention of echinacea for a cold or note, somewhat sheepishly, that she’d consider going to a psychic, and I would share some of what I’d learned from my mother. My wealth of knowledge about things like past-life regressions, the reason some people spell “magick” with a “k,” and the greetings used in Wiccan circles (“merry meet”) became something people would willingly tap into. Soon, the people I knew began to seek my advice about everything from alternative remedies to spirituality, and, especially, tarot — a divination tool my mother used to charge money for, but which I knew mostly as a party trick. I was a keeper of information that wasn’t embarrassing — it was intriguing and valuable.

tarot pendants
Tarot pendants (Credit: flickr/Capes Treasures)

People talked about what their dreams meant, and soon, spoke openly about having their palms read for guidance. My generation was starting to try on a new faith system — and it was one that I knew well.

Of course, I told my mother.

“Kinda great that this sort of unconventional (and yet ancient-based) spirituality is on the upswing,” she replied. “Let’s just say we were ahead of the trend?”

But while the trendiness of Wicca and, more broadly, Paganism may have made me (and others like me) feel less like oddballs, it may also have an alienating effect; because of course, Wicca is not just a combination of objects or a series of icons. It’s not even a handful of practices. It is a religion, held and loved with every bit as much depth as any other. There is history and there is story and there is sacredness. There is shared language and internal critique and arguments about texts. There’s also persecution, both historically and at present, something practitioners of “alternative” faiths often face in the workplace, in educational settings, and in the eyes of the law.

Not much of this, though, seems to have made it into the new Wicca practiced by my peers. This trendy Paganism focuses mostly on crushed velvet, Oujia boards (which, to be clear, my mom does consider a divination tool), and five-pointed stars worn any which (no pun intended) way.

Like so many things that happen later in life in regards to our parents, this wave of new Wicca and Neopaganism has made me more empathetic to my mother’s experience and to the appropriation of the religion she holds dear. For some Wiccans and members of the Pagan community, the new, trendy Wicca feels like a cheap approximation of something they hold to be truly sacred.

“The way that the ‘ironic’ wear of these symbols works plays on the idea that they’re not really threatening because they’re symbols of stuff that is bunk, and I don’t like that,” writes a blogger known as the Domesticated Goth, who admits to liking some parts of the Wicca/Pagan trend. However, she adds:

“To me, it’s making a mockery of my religion and turning it into a cheap commercial trend, and that feels really awful; it is taking someone’s religion and reducing it to a statement of irony . . . and that, as a Neo-Pagan, makes me very sad and a bit angry.”

Cultural appropriation has, for decades, been permitted and in fact encouraged without question — whether it’s a headdress worn at a festival or the assumption and perpetuation of the myth that Miley Cyrus invented twerking — and it’s only recently that the mainstream has taken note of marginalized groups who say, “These are ours, and you cannot simply lift them without at least acknowledging the struggle.” And in some ways, followers of Pagan beliefs may find themselves doing the same thing, now.

Cultural appropriation has, for decades, been permitted and in fact encouraged without question.

Then again, at a time when the United States is becoming less religious as a country, but more interested in stories and history and the experiences of others, perhaps the perceived trend of Wicca is actually just exploration into the lives and beliefs of people we haven’t heard much from. It’s nice to know now that, as isolated as I felt, my experience was and is not unique.

As for my mother, she mostly still finds the trendiness mildly amusing. And if you’d like to ask her any questions, she’d be glad to answer them, just as she always has been — even before it was cool to do so.

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