Stepping out of the shadows and into the light: Evolution and tensions in the future of contemporary Pagan Witchcraft
One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. (Jung, 1945)
Unlike the dominant religions in Western society, much of the symbolism of contemporary Paganism, and of Pagan Witchcraft in particular, draws on images of the dark. The twentieth century Witchcraft revival cast itself as a hidden and secret tradition, a religion of the night. Pagan Witchcraft’s deities are the Goddess of Earth and Moon and the Dark Lord of Death. Indeed, its sacred text is the Book of Shadows. The very term ‘Witch’ is a challenge to notions of propriety, religion and ‘goodness’, and some practitioners actively embrace a ‘witchy’ persona of black velvet robes and large pentagrams.
In embracing dark imagery, contemporary Pagans reject stereotypical notions that equate spiritual growth with light and evil with darkness. The inner connection with the Divine is conceived of not as a ‘higher self’, but as a deeper and more authentic self that embraces the shadow of repressed negativity as well as unrealized potential (Crowley & Crowley, 2001). In its willingness to embrace the depths of the psyche, Pagan Witchcraft can be therapeutic and healing (Crowley, 2000), and shares some of the spiritual growth aims of the psychologies of Carl Gustav Jung, James Hillman, and others.
The dark imagery can also act as a barrier. Contemporary Paganism seeks to combat societal prejudice and to obtain a position of equality with world religions. To achieve this, many Pagan witches have adopted less-threatening nomenclature and have discarded practices such as skyclad rituals that contravene social norms. Others reject the goal of social integration, preferring to remain closer to the occult roots of Witchcraft and retaining elements of practice that are counter-cultural and challenging.
Can contemporary Paganism, and in particular Pagan Witchcraft, straddle the ‘dark and light’, preserving its mystery and the powerful impact of its rituals and symbolism, but at the same time broadening its appeal and seeking to be part of mainstream religion?
Crowley, V. (2000). Healing in Wicca. In W. Griffin (Ed.), Daughters of the Goddess: Studies of identity, healing and empowerment (pp. 151-165). Walnut Creek, Ca: AltaMira Press.
Crowley, V., & Crowley, C. (2001). Your Dark Side: How to turn your inner negativity into positive energy. London: Thorsons/HarperCollins.
Jung, C. G. (1945). The philosophical tree. II. On the history and interpretation of the tree symbol. 18. The relation of suffering to the coniunctio. In C. G. Jung, Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Volume 13 (pp. 334-337). 1967 ed. Princeton, NJ: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Vivianne Crowley PhD is a psychologist and formerly a professor of psychology of religion at the University of London. She is currently in the Faculty of Pastoral Counseling and Chaplaincy at Cherry Hill Seminary. Her research interests are in the development of contemporary Paganism in Europe, ritual experience, and religion and psychological well-being. She is a Wiccan High Priestess and is the author of many books on Wicca, Paganism, and spiritual psychology, including the best-selling Wicca: A comprehensive guide to the Old Religion in the modern world. The focus of her spiritual work is supporting and fostering the development of those who lead groups and teach others.