Art begins with craft, and there is no art until craft has been mastered. You can’t create until you’re willing to subordinate the creative impulses to the constriction of a form.Anthony Burgess

Nature Religions & Fertility Religions

Earth comprises distances, great and small; danger and security; open ground and narrow passes; the chances of life and death. Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Almost all Innovative Witches describe their religion as a nature religion, or with such terms as, Earth-based spirituality. Many Neopagans, including Innovative Witches, consider this to be a core feature of all Neopaganism, or indeed all Paganism, as in this definition offered by Edain McCoy:

When one defines oneself as Pagan, it means she or he follows an earth or nature religion, one that sees the divine manifest in all creation. The cycles of nature are our holy days, the earth is our temple, its plants and creatures our partners and teachers.… We respect life, cherish the free will of sentient beings, and accept the sacredness of all creation.1

Is this something that Innovative Witchcraft has in common with Traditional Wicca, or somewhere where it differs? To answer that requires that we first examine just what a nature religion is.

The earliest studies of comparative religion by scholars in the West tended to divide all religion between, Christianity, Judaism, Islam and paganism, with paganism therefore, acting as a catch-all term for any religion not worshipping the god of Abraham. When 19th and early 20th Century scholars began to study the science of religion—to study religions, not in terms of how they relate to their own, but with an attempt at objective evaluation—differing taxonomies were produced to classify these religions. Most such taxonomies were based on theories of the historical development of religions, and most such theories seem to hold to a particular view of evolution; that changes must generally move from a less to a more, “advanced,” state, rather than move to a state more suitable to particular circumstances, and hence those that share characteristics with the primitive, are indeed truly primitive.

In the taxonomy used by C P Tiele, in his article for the ninth edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica,2 based on his own, Outlines of the History of Religion to the spread of the Universal Religions, the biggest distinction is between, Nature Religion, and, Ethical Religions. The nature religions start with such religions as hypothetically arose simultaneously with man’s consciousness blossoming into sentience and self-awareness,3 and continue until the development of ethical religions, which maintain some form of a doctrine salvation, and absolute measure of morality.

Each of these taxonomical branches are further divided, with the hypothetical religions of the earliest humans referred to as, “the so-called nature religions (in the narrower sense).”

This hence gives us two different definitions of nature religion. The narrower being a hypothetical condition that, according to the same hypothesis that proposes it, no longer exists, and the wider covering much that would still now be labelled pagan, though applying it to Mesopagan and Neopagan religions requires a degree of revisionism, as these were obviously not considered at the time.

Meanwhile, a variety of spiritual attitudes towards nature were emerging. Hutton argues that some such trends in Britain would set the ground for Wicca to emerge into public view;4 of particular note being attitudes to Pan, that most nature-oriented of the Classical gods. In the Americas, the Transcendentalist Movement, with such figures as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, was to reässess attitudes to nature in a particularly American fashion.

That the Transcendentalists had an influence upon the counterculture of the 1960s and 70s, is reflected by the characters in Doonesbury naming a commune “Walden Puddle,” and Walden being referenced heavily in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.5 This emphasis upon nature was to create a fertile ground for both ecological politics, and an interest in the Gaia Hypothesis, which would often extend into a more literal consideration of the goddess from which it takes its name. It would also combine with racial concerns, to create a highly euphemised view of the environmental virtues of the Americas’ indigenous peoples, along with indigenous peoples of other regions, creating a new ecological twist on the noble savage. Much Innovative Witchcraft belongs to this countercultural tradition, and many Traditional Wiccans may be sympathetic to some or all of it. While Transcendentalism itself remained a generally Christian form of spirituality, many Transcendentalists had an interest in non-Christian religion,6 and this in itself, no doubt, went some way in making such intellectual pursuit of non-Christian religious wisdom acceptable, though does not quite go so far as to accept the Old Gods.

From all of this there are a variety of very different considerations of “nature” in a religious aspect.

Traditional Wicca identifies itself quite firmly with those religious defined as nature religions under the morphological distinctions of the 19th and early 20th Centuries. It differs, of course, with the original morphological concepts, in not holding itself to be inferior, or less advanced, than Christianity or Buddhism; sometimes rejecting the value judgements assigned to the different categories of such ontologies, and sometimes turning them on their head, so that each state is seen as a fall from the previous. In this manner, it shares a self-image with other Mesopagan movements such as Ásatrú, along with many Neopagans.

There is also a naturalistic aspect in the Wiccan practice of working outdoors when possible, and a respect for nature can be found in the vast majority of Traditional Wiccan writers, starting with Gardner’s writing of his character Olaf, in High Magic’s Aid, being enraptured while journeying through woods.7

Finally, many of the other attitudes that might be variously labelled nature religion, mentioned above, have indeed influenced the thinking of many Traditional Wiccans.

This last, does not necessarily make Traditional Wicca itself a nature religion, in any of these senses. To describe Traditional Wicca as such requires us to either, define nature religion with greater precision, to show that it matches all such senses, or to at the very least show that it matches those of current significance to the present age.

To assess whether it may match with more modern interest in the spiritual value of nature, requires us to not just define, nature religion, but to define, nature. This is probably harder still than defining nature religion, and indeed in this very difficulty lies much of the problem. When we speak of nature, do we here mean the entirety of the universe, the entirety of the globe, that which is rural, that which is untouched? Do we mean nature as it is, or an Arcadian vision of nature as some may feel it should be? Does nature include us, exclude us, or are do we stand with one foot in it and one elsewhere? Do the supernatural practices of witches place them quite literally at odds with nature, or should we dismiss the very term supernatural, and allow for those phenomena so-labelled, but argue that they are themselves natural? Does a religious appreciation of nature put one at odds with scientific understanding, or agree with such understanding but assign a value to nature that goes beyond, rather than against, materialist understanding?

Amongst witches that quite definitely identity their religion as a, “religion of Nature,” these questions remain open, as indeed does that of what this should then mean in terms of doctrine and/or practice.8

Leaving such questions to one side, and approaching from an examination of Traditional Wicca itself, the most obvious point of contact between Traditional Wicca and nature, however defined, is that Traditional Wicca is a fertility cult, and fertility has an obvious place in nature.

That Traditional Wicca is a fertility cult may seem so obvious to its practitioners, and to those Innovative Witches that have maintained this aspect, as to not need justifying. However, the distance of some other streams of Innovative Witchcraft from fertility religion, as will be examined below, may make this necessary.

There are two types of practice that we might label fertility religion, which may or may not coëxist. One is that of operation; a religion may have rites which, in whole or in part, serve to assist the cycles of fertility, of people, crops, livestock and game. And the other of veneration; those cycles being honoured in religious expression.

The first, is generally a part of both Traditional and Innovative rites, though in neither is it often held to be of as much immediate importance as it would have been, when a single failed harvest could have decimated a tribe. Robert Cochrane argued against the fertility aspect of Wicca on this basis: “there has been no cause for a fertility religion in Europe since the advent of the coultershare plough in the thirteenth century, the discovery of haymaking, selective breeding of animals, etc.”9 Yet concerns about fertility are far from absent today, as is quite readily reflected in the measures couples will go to to overcome personal infertility, with, e.g., an estimated 415million CAD being spent on infertility management in Canada in 199510. It is also just as well-reflected by the contraceptive efforts of those who do not currently want to conceive. Modern concerns about fertility do not just operate at the level of individuals and couples, as increasing concerning about food supply, both Internationally, and even in affluent countries, shows.11

The other side of fertility religion, the veneration of fertility, is firmly part of Traditional practices. That sexual imagery is used along with the ritual use of food in all Traditional rites, implies a connection being made between sexual coupling and natural bounty, which entails a veneration of fertility. This is also the case for much of Innovative Witchcraft, but only if the two are linked.

That some Innovative rites do not make explicit this connection, as will be examined below, leaves at most a celebration of sexuality, though perhaps merely a nodding acknowledgement of its importance, along with what is possibly a celebration of bounty, though perhaps merely a communal meal, comparable with Communion amongst those Christians that do not believe in Transubstantiation, or with a Jewish Seder. All three of these—celebration of sexuality, celebration of bounty, and a communal meal—are undoubtedly part of Traditional Wiccan worship, but it is the connection between them that makes it a fertility cult, and hence not only must these three be present in an Innovative adaption, but also the connection, for us to consider it as having retained the fertility aspect.

In most writings on Innovative Witchcraft, I have been unable to find all but the vaguest references to Wicca as a fertility cult. Maypoles, for example, or the sexual symbolism of the besom,12 may be mentioned, but there is no indication of these being of any greater concern to Wiccans, than any other aspect of folk culture held to reflect Palæopagan or witchcraft practice. Raven Grimassi refers to Gardner’s description of Wicca as a fertility cult, very much in the past tense.13

It would seem, that the fertility aspects of the Craft were once so blatant as to seem not worth stating, and in not being stated have become sometimes absent, or unacknowledged, amongst those influenced by it.

The question of how this fertility aspect fits into the more modern concepts of nature religion, can perhaps be reframed as, how well fertility fits into nature. By some definitions of nature—those that consider it to be the totality of life—it fits so well as to be near identical; the cycles of such nature being the cycles of fertility. So too does it fit well into considerations of agriculture as dealing with nature, for this is where humanity most directly concerns itself with matters of fertility most often; one always sees more harvests in one’s lifetime than one has children.

By others it does not. Taking nature to mean all that is in existence, makes fertility a concern only of a small fragment of the cosmos. Taking nature to mean that which is untouched, also doesn’t match well, for while fertility is of course the engine of all that happens in the wilderness, it is far from restricted to it, and indeed the fertility of humanity, and the fertility used in our agriculture, are engines of all that threatens it.

As such we may conclude that, there is a compatibility between the fertility religion of Traditional Wicca and the nature religion of Neopaganism, and that one may reasonably consider a practice as being both, but one does not necessarily entail the other. On this basis we can neither have confidence in describing Traditional Wicca as a nature religion, nor confidence in stating that it is not.

[McCoy 2003]
[Tiele 1902]
Earlier theories, being more influenced by the religious biases of those who put them forth, tended to assume that the earliest people were followers of them “true faith,” as God walked with Adam in the Garden of Eden, and so on. Such theories persist among those who hold to the literal truth of revealed scripture, and are reflected by converts to Islam being referred to as, reverts, since they are held not to have converted to a new religion, but to have reverted to the natural and original religious stance of humanity.
[Hutton 1999]
[Pirsig 1974]
Emerson was influenced by the Vedas, and Thoreau describes his killing a woodchuck with reference to metempsychosis; “…and once I went so far as to slaughter a wood-chuck which ravaged my bean-field—effect his transmigration, as a Tartar would say,—and devour him,…” [Thoreau 1854].
[Gardner 1949]
[Clifton 1998]
[Cochrane 1964]
[Collins 1997]
[Leahy 2006]
Conway goes so far as to refer to this symbolism as “notorious,” she acknowledges it but rather than examine this in light of the fertility aspects of Wicca, distances herself quite strongly from all such symbolism in her choice of wording.
[Grimassi 2008]