With the Graduates Memorial Building (GMB) being transformed into Hogwarts for Trinity Literary Society’s (LitSoc) Harry-Potter-themed event on Friday night, one would be forgiven for thinking that last night’s talk by Wicca would be a pre-emptor. However, anyone who showed up expecting broomsticks, pointed hats and magic wands would have been sorely disappointed with the speakers who focused on the community and self-development aspects found in the Wicca practice. Three representatives spoke for nearly 90 minutes to a small crowd in the Phil Conversation Room in an event organised by DU Theological Society.
The representatives were Laura O’Brien, Barbara Lee and a man who merely introduced himself as “Kristian”. O’Brien is an author and has worked in professional tourism throughout Ireland, with a particular interest in Irish heritage. She met Lee when she was a teenager and joined a coven, graduated and became a high priestess. She no longer practices Wicca but instead focuses on other pagan rituals involving native spirituality.
Lee has been involved in Wicca since the 1980s, all of her adult life. She is a high priestess and has run two different covens with two different high priests, the first from 1983 to 2002 and her current Serpent Coven with her high priest and partner since 2005.
Kristian is a high priest who has known Laura and Barbara for over 20 years. The three of them are co-founders of Pagan Life Rites, an organisation that advocates and provides legal services for members of the Wicca community, including providing marriages throughout Ireland through their network of pagan clergy.
The misconceptions of Wicca obviously composed a major part of the discourse of the night. Lee stated that the first thing everyone should know about Wicca is that “it is a path of self-development”. The secrets and mystery surrounding the ceremony of initiation came up time after time, with the speakers noting the long process it takes to even reach initiation, and the following minimum of a year spent getting to know your coven and building relationships.
This fosters a sense of community that all of them cite as one of the main attractions of Wicca, but emphasise the gravity of the commitment: you can walk away from a coven but can never be uninitiated. “We work at a certain vibration of being, you develop bonds that mean you can’t pretend nothing ever happened. As a priestess, that’s something I take very seriously”, Lee stated. The work involved to become a priest or priestess requires further dedication, with a comparable amount of time and effort as that required to complete a college degree.
Wicca first came to Ireland in the 1960s, but was slow to spread as covens kept to themselves and did not outwardly communicate or actively seek new members. The first “publicly available” coven came in 1976 and moved around Ireland, from Swords to Mayo to Kells. Lee spoke of the challenges and difficulties in running a coven single-handedly, which is why most are run by a partnership of a high priest and priestess. In Lee’s case, the high priest of her coven is also her partner. “It’s not a requirement, but it helps”, she quipped.
The inclusivity of the Wiccan tradition was another point the speakers seemed keen to emphasise, with O’Brien stating that although the heads of the coven are traditionally a male-female dichotomy, Wicca embraces change and welcomes gender nonconforming people into their covens who can still become high priests. O’Brien states that “tradition has been able to change as we learned”, referencing the fact that Wiccans support people of all sexualities and are strongly behind the pro-choice movement. Lee also commented on the Wiccan’s commitment to inclusivity, saying that “making change within our tradition to accommodate, no, to other people’s being is very important to us”.
Kristian spoke at length about the history of Wicca, which originated as a contemporary, structured form of witchcraft, mentioning the nuances between the different types of covens, as well as groups that follow a less rigorous formalised approach in their practice of magic. O’Brien explained that Wicca in Ireland came from the UK and didn’t grow organically because Ireland was too busy: “I don’t know, like, recovering from the Famine and stuff.”
Lee emphasised the differences between Wicca and Christianity, saying that the practice promotes an active relationship with your deity. Lee said that Wicca is “defined principally as duo-theistic, which covers polytheism, monotheism, agnosticism and atheism – it’s an experiential tradition rather than one based on beliefs”. But the more stereotypical aspects of Wicca also made an appearance, with Lee confirming that Wiccans take part in chants, cast spells, make potions and practise magic, working with astrological influences and the elements. Wicca practitioners celebrate eight festivals with ritual drama throughout the year, four fire festivals and four solar festivals. The lunar cycle is the final aspect in this list that holds Wicca together. “The moon is quite important”, Lee states, and the others laugh, obviously some inside joke about a spell or a ritual. “It’s always good to check where the moon is when you’re doing stuff.”
Lee made reference to the fact that Neoliths celebrated the same eight festivals, as if to prove the truth of Wiccan beliefs, neglecting to mention that the Neoliths also didn’t have electricity.
The group were also keen not to make unfounded claims or promises about Wicca: “Broken people come seeking thinking it will fix them. Wicca doesn’t do that. That’s what therapists are for.”
Questions from the audience were not unlike questions from a political talk, with queries about Wiccan international relations and the challenges presented to them by a Catholic-dominated Ireland. All three spoke positively of how their beliefs have been accepted by their neighbours, with Lee stating that “I don’t have witch trees in my garden – well, I do, but no one else knows that they’re witch trees. They all think they’re normal trees”.
Kristian referenced his sole experience of animosity towards the Wiccan community as the recent anonymous pamphlets distributed by a pro-life campaigner, bashing Minister Katherine Zappone, with quotes from an interview she did years ago where she referenced books she had read about spirituality, and insinuated that she is a closet witch. The pamphlet also made claims that abortion is the initiation into witchcraft in Wicca, with all members stating that although Wicca was pro-choice, these “disgusting” claims were unfounded.
At one point, Lee condemned her elders for promoting self-initiation, a “thorny topic” that Lee says is something “you just can’t do”. As I began to type a line about the irony of these condemnations and strict boundaries coming from a group who have just preached so much about inclusion and the openness to the individual to interpret Wicca, O’Brien interrupted Lee and quashed my concerns. “I am aware that it sounds very elitist. But, if you studied to be a doctor and then someone gets a degree off the internet and says they’re a doctor too, it’s not the same thing. There’s a standard. The initiation, the mystery tradition, the heritage is such a fundamental part. But it is not a closed club – we are very open, very accessible.”
Was the perfect timing of this interjection an act of witchcraft? I’ll let the readers make up their own minds on this one.
Correction: 12:32, February 13th, 2018
An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to high priest Kristian as Christian. Is has now been corrected.