Superstition and religion have a symbiotic and complementary relationship within the context of modern American Witchcraft. There are many practices that can be upheld as similar between religion and superstition. The act of lighting a candle which one has dedicated for a specific intent is a fine example. How this act is viewed within the social setting determines if it is stated to be a superstitious or a religious one. Prior to the rise of modern American Witchcraft, the only setting where it would be viewed as a religious action is within a Christian church (and this would vary according to the denomination of Christianity espoused). The lighting and blowing out of the birthday cake candle(s) would be categorically a superstitious act, perhaps some vestige of an ancient rite within the cultural memory of the people.
The birthday cake’s wishing candle, and other superstitions within the United States (primarily) were frequently decried as things that the irrational mani would believe in. Following the rise of the Industrial Revolution and the development of a more urban cultural identity within the United States, many of the folk practices and beliefs began to be held in contempt. As such, they were referred to as superstitions for the sake of denigrating their prominence in the culture and to make room for a new set of beliefs. As such, things such as the belief in ghosts and the minor vulgar rituals, such as turning the statue of St. Anthony to face the wall until a lost item is found, went underground and disappeared from the surface of the cultural identity of the United States. The main reason for this happening was that people did not want to appear out dated or foolish in the eyes of their peers.
Even now, one will find that an openly professed belief in ghosts (for example) is generally scorned and mocked by the majority. Rephrase this belief into the context of the colloquialii version of Christianity that’s ubiquitous and you find it is a belief in angels rather then ghosts, which is now more of a religious then superstitious belief. In the early 1960s, modern Witchcraft was introduced to the United States by Raymond Buckland. Initially, he disseminated information via word of mouth. At roughly the same time, Zusanna Budapest (more commonly known as Z. Budapest) began to disseminate information via word of mouth.
In roughly ten years, both of these individuals burst onto the cultural scene. Buckland’s Complete Book of Witchcraft quickly became the cornerstone of the voluminous body of work surrounding modern American Witchcraft. Z. Budapest and her coven rocketed to something akin to stardom with their involvement in the Feminism movement. It was within the context of Witchcraft that the folk practices that had been decried as superstition began to take on a more legitimate appearance. (Russell, p.172) As the glamour and celebrity status of these and other Witch authors grew, the concept of Witchcraft as a religion grew.
Witchcraft as a religion, rather then a set of superstitions, provided a place where one could openly express the suppressed elements of the cultural identity of the United States. For this reason, it flourished and multiple elements from various sub-cultures began to become present as well. As a result, many different Traditionsiii were established and other occult practices and belief systems began to become apparent. Public works discussing practices such as Louisiana Voodoo and folk practices began to be produced targeted for the common man rather then academia. This broad spectrum of information quickly set the stage for Witchcraft to receive a minor degree of approval in the United States as a religion. Aside from the readily available information, individuals who had been engaged in covert practice of these marginalized belief systems and practices found it a safer environment to publicly express themselves on these topics.
If one looks at the seminal works of the entire modern Witchcraft movement, one finds that these early texts were of an academic tone. Many of the early modern Witchcraft authors worked to retain the apparent authenticity that came with academia. Using Buckland’s Complete Book of Witchcraft as a representative of these early texts, one finds the book is organized much like a work book. The chapters are organized into a combination of lessons and exercises. In Buckland’s work, it is apparent that he drew a great deal of material from folk practices that he found about him, just as Gerald Gardner and others before him in England had.
These folk practices, such as not walking under a ladder, were part of the common knowledge of earlier generations and the efforts of authors such as Buckland to place them into a religious context served to legitimize the remaining inclinations towards ‘superstition’ present for many people. Within academia, much of this work was met with great excitement. These modern Witchcraft authors were drawing from anthropological studies and similar academic endeavors to recreate ancient beliefs upon the basis of vestigial elements of practices that linger in the superstitions and folk lore of the region. When these authors presented apparent evidence supporting the theories they referenced in their works, this strengthened the legitimacy of their claims in the eye of the common man.
As legitimacy was acquired from the academic connection, the number of adherents to the modern Witchcraft movement began to rise significantly. From this rise came a development of communication between many of the different groups. As a result, the community of modern Witchcraft began to diversify. With a boost in the number of people looking at the issues and bringing their unique perspectives to the discussion, the distinguishing line between superstition and religion within modern Witchcraft began to blur to some extent.
Given the highly individualistic nature and cellular organization of modern Witchcraft, as well as the lack of any formal hierarchy structure, a great deal of the question determining the difference between superstition and religion became quite difficult to ascertain. It quickly became apparent in the period of time between the 1970s and the 1980s that the practices of a single Witch were of equal validity as those of an entire Tradition. From this point, there was found not only a great deal of diversification but also the resurgence of superstition within the context of modern Witchcraft in the United States.
Among the ways that superstition and religion can be distinguished is the way the rituals and associated behaviors are explained. Superstition often gives little, if any, explanation for why the action is carried out. Generally, a superstitious action is reactionary to a situation and has little connection to the event it is used as a reaction to or the intended result. With a religious act, the explanation may seem insubstantial but there is an explanation which can be placed into the context of the cosmology and theology of the given religion. Sometimes a superstitious act can be confused with a religious one due to ritualism. Ritualism is an over emphasis upon a series of actions and the elements that form a ritual rather then the objective of the ritual. Ritualism can be described as a subset of superstition or an intermediate point between these two concepts which are often upheld as opposites.
Ritualism and superstition within modern Witchcraft became increasingly prevalent due to a sudden influx of Seekers and Neophytes into the subculture. These individuals, eager to discuss and explore their newfound belief system reached out to each other thru the different means of communication available to them. Volumes of information were made available during the publishing boom that occurred at the same time the Internet started to become a cultural force. The sudden proliferation of information about Witchcraft resulted in an increased awareness of this movement by the culture at large, as seen by the rise of more mainstream references to Witchcraft, generally in a negative sense as proscribed by the old cultural stereotypes which continued to echo in the more urbane modern society that Witchcraft was reemerging into.
This created a degree of tension between the established practitioners and individuals who were seeking to learn about modern Witchcraft. As a result, many of the Witches who had sufficient information to adequately teach others in the more ‘traditional’ method of taking a Seeker into the coven and educating them personally refused to do so. Fears of legal reprisal and persecution forced these Witches to become extremely selective of whom they taught. Unfortunately, the volume of people seeking information greatly outstripped the number of teachers who were made available.
As a direct result of this, the Seekers were looking at the various published and publicly shared information available and attempting to educate themselves. At this point in time, ritualism became increasingly apparent. Ritualism was an influence upon the introductory phase of the development of modern Witchcraft in America but it was largely confined to the Neophyte Witches of the covens. With the population boom of Seekers and Neophytes, many failed to understand the language of modern Witchcraft and how elements of Witchcraft such as magic worked in the worldview of the belief system.
With the increased ability for Witches to network and communicate with each other, there came a rapid dissemination of poorly understood ideas and poorly communicated concepts. This ushered in a new development within the relationship between the religion of modern Witchcraft and the superstitions surrounding it. Superstition had additionally come to incorporate the flawed understandings of the basic concepts of modern Witchcraft. A fine example of this is the supposed animated aspects of a Tarot deck. A Tarot deck is a pack of 72 illustrated cards used for the card game Triumphs and also as a divination tool. Within the community of modern Witches and occultists, Tarot decks are primarily used as divination tools. Many of the second generation Witches explain the Tarot deck’s effectiveness as a divination tool in terms of the deck’s personality and moods, ascribing to the cards a semi-sentient quality. In concurrence with this have arisen many minor rituals to appease the semi-sentient pack of cards and assure a favorable result in working with them. Unfavorable or confusing readings are ascribed to a displeased Tarot deck rather then potential difficulties upon the part of the diviner.
The idea that inanimate objects can have human personality qualities is one that perpetuates fairly widely across the pagan community online. It is the conflating of animism with superstition that results in the premise that a pack of cards is angry with a person for not using them more frequently and this is why they are giving an unfavorable result. Animism, the premise that all things that exist are endowed with a spirit of some sort, is an ancient belief system that has seen some resurgence in the West. It is confused with superstition that says that the Tarot deck that is stored on a low shelf is acquiring unfavorable aspects versus the one stored on a higher shelf. As a result, the person with the Tarot deck will say that the deck’s spirit is angered with them for its placement on the shelf when in actuality the reader is coming to the session with their internal compass for reading set to anticipate unfavorable results due to where it is sitting when they come to collect it for use.
Disentangling superstition and animism is part of the process of freeing modern pagan practitioners from the paradigm of fear that tends to plague them. While many religions are build upon a basis of fear, which feeds into superstition, growth within faith comes from resolving the fears and acquiring knowledge of the deeper truths of the religion in question. An enormous mystic tradition can be found in faiths all around the world that seeks to divorce superstition from belief. When superstition is carefully excised from faith practices and the associated thought forms of a given religion, the practitioner moves into a deeper, more intimate and more deliberate relationship with their faith.
In part two, I will cover additional material regarding the interplay between superstition and modern pagan belief systems.
i I am using the term ‘man’ in the sense of referring to all of humanity in this sentence. I will be using this convention for the sake of clarity and convenience.
ii‘Colloquial Christianity’ is the vulgar form of Christianity as found in the mainstream culture of the United States. This secular form of Christianity is divorced of any theological teachings and holds only a few rudimentary vestiges of the religion it has bastardized. Among them being the celebration of the nativity of Jesus, the inclination against working on Sunday, and the pink and plastic amalgamation of the solemnity and celebratory aspects of Easter. Colloquial Christianity lacks any but the barest remote resemblance to the faith system it has grievously abused and repackaged into a commercial product. In light of this, however, one must recognize that colloquial Christianity is pervasive and often argued by many to be the state religion of the United States. It does have a dramatic impact upon the culture and deserves to be recognized as the culture shaping force it is.
iii The term ‘Tradition’ is used within the Witchcraft community and the Neo-pagan community as an alternative for the word ‘sect.’
Originally Published 2012 on Helium under the pen name Deb M.