Religion in Contemporary America

Review of Margot Adler, Drawing Down the Moon Boston : Beacon Press, 1986.
Reviewed by Amy Bittner.

Margot Adler presents the religious groups she discusses in Drawing Down the Moon fairly and respectfully. She investigated and researched many Pagans, Wiccans, and Goddess-Worshippers before making conclusions about their beliefs. Rituals, beliefs, and holidays are described for the Pagans who participate in these activities. These groups of people have been greatly misconceived which allowed prejudice to grow, but Adler takes an excellent position in order to represent the people holding these Pagan and Wiccan beliefs in their true form.

The book does not only give Adler's viewpoint of particular groups, but she includes firsthand explanations and interviews of people who participate in each religion or input from those who have studied the religion. The preface reads "This book could not have been written without the aid of hundreds of people. Many of their names appear within...The original draft...was read and criticized by a diverse group of friends, scholars, and Neo-Pagans...Their comments lead to many changes" (xii). This tactic in portraying a religion escapes the biased opinions of outsiders or of one particular person. Instead, a complete overview of a religion is given by the many aspects of which are included in the book.

I believe Adler chose a broad variety of people to include in her discussions because often times the scholar's opinions were not in complete accord. Among the worshippers, this difference of opinions is expected when studying Pagan and Neo-Pagan practices because a basic belief of these people is that one should arrive at their own individual belief based on the influence of personal experience. One Wiccan states "Our reality is intuitive" (104). Many Pagans and Neo-Pagans are proud of their absence of dogma and the emphasis on creativity and originality.

Personal spirituality seems to be more important than history. Some important characteristics of many Neo-Pagans are animism, meaning that all things have vitality and life force, pantheism, defined as divinity being inseparable from nature, and polytheism, meaning that reality is multiple and diverse. The polytheistic views give way to a high tolerance for diversity and other religious practices. Differences are accepted and celebrated, which allows for unity and diversity. Monotheism is contained in polytheism, but the reverse is not true. (30) Many Neo-Pagans and those who practice the Craft are goddess-worshippers and opposing the more mainstream image of one superior male god. Many Wiccans worship a Mother Goddess in her three aspects of Maiden, Mother, and Crone. This characteristic creates popularity of the religions in feminists that is unseen in patriarchal religions. Some also worship the ancient horned god-the God of the Hunt, the God of Death, and the Lord of the forests. Worshippers look to the pre-Christian or ancient religions of Europe. The beliefs seem similar to the Native American religion we studied in class because of their spiritual connection with nature and the worship of a feminine power.

The idea that the modern practices directly stem from these ancient religions is questionable because over the many passing years, the practice has been adapted to current times and through this, tradition cannot remain uncontaminated. Isaac Bonewits, a historian on the subject, believes that in order to dodge persecution, Pagans changed with the times and hid under names such as Rosicrucian, Theosophists, or Spiritualists. Contemporary witches do not know what traditions are from the true family or what has been influenced by the names they hid under. (72) Adler gave examples of people who may have claimed to practice beliefs that survived from their ancestors, but other proof does not exist apart from their statement. Many who practice Pagan beliefs have no familial history to drawl upon.

Adler writes that individuals are able to participate in different groups and found their own groups according to their needs. When these needs are fulfilled, many times the group splits in order to gain new purpose. This aspect is attractive to many Americans, like Protestantism in a way, because it focuses on the freedom of the individual to decide how to think and interpret different things. A principle of Wiccan belief according to the Council of American Witches states "We do not recognize any authoritarian hierarchy but do honor those who teach..." (102). People can create their own covens and initiate themselves because they came to their beliefs by a "homecoming" which can be realized through books. In forming covens, participants do not proselytize. While discovering that their previous innate beliefs have a name, they feel they finally found their place in the religious world. The origins of Paganism are obscure and there is not always proof that the initiator was initiated "properly." (94) This does not make their position invalid. Some beliefs remain the individual creators' and sometimes the beliefs become popular and "sect" is established to carry out worship. Adler gives examples of different groups with similar but varying ideas called the Gardnerians, Alexandrians, NROOGD, Georgian, and Dianic.

People do not actually convert to the Neo-Pagan forms of belief because they do not exactly accept new beliefs, they tend to re-affirm their own previous ideas. One scholar, in attempt to describe Neo-Pagan and Craft religions, states that it is a religion "of atmosphere instead of faith; a cosmos, in a word, constructed by the imagination..." (21). These groups are viewed as a religion because it is a connection between humans and the universe sometimes practiced by symbolic acts.

I knew little about Pagans, Neo-Pagans, and Wiccans before reading Margot Adler's book. I feel she did an excellent duty in fairly describing the diversity of the topic, the varied practices and origins thereof, but I feel that she spent more time on the Wiccan practices than was designated to other Neo-Pagans. Adler went in depth with details of the Wiccan Craft, which I appreciated and found interesting, but she remained more on the surface when examining various other groups and the division is unequal. Approximately one half of the book is committed to the topic of Wicca, while only a portion of the rest of the book is left for introducing and briefly explaining numerous other groups such as The Church of Aphrodite, Feraferia, The Church of Eternal Source, Norse Paganism, and more. Some of these groups are similar in ideas and rituals to that of the Wiccan practice, but I feel I gained a greater knowledge of Wiccans than I did of other Neo-Pagan groups because of the amount of space devoted to them. I saw the same results when I referred to our class web site and explored the sites that were recommended to the class, most of which were about Wiccans. Perhaps these groups or individuals are much less popular or more difficult to track than Wiccans.

The format Margot Adler used to structure her book was to the advantage of readers uninformed about the topic. Firstly, the title, Drawing Down the Moon:Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and other Pagans in America Today fits the content of the book perfectly. "The Drawing Down of the Moon" is a serious ritualistic practice among some witches who call their Goddess into their body from the moon which symbolizes the Goddess. The following names, Witches, Druids, etc. are the groups examined in the book.

The opening chapters explain the wide misunderstanding and prejudice of Pagans and Witches. The roots of key words and ideas of derivatives and etymology are discussed. Adler gives examples of attempted definitions to words that are difficult to define. An example is 'Pagan,' coming from the Latin word 'paganus,' which means country dweller. Adler believes this word has a negative association from ancient times because the last people to be converted to Christianity lived outside of cities, many of these people maintained their traditional religious practices. When the Christianity spread through the world, these people were left to be seen as godless unbelievers among Christians. Another confusing term is the word 'witch'. Some people may think of a frightening old woman with a green face and a long nose with a wart on the end, flying through the moonlit sky on a broom. Many Christians may associate the word with an evil, devil worshipping person. However, a Wiccan would probably use the word quite differently to describe a person who is skilled in the craft of shaping reality, or who has great wisdom.

If a Wiccan were to refer to herself as a Witch in the presence of a person ignorant to Wicca, the probability is great that a terrible misunderstanding would occur. Recent examples illustrated in Adler's book include people who have been fired from their job or custody of their children has been taken away because outsiders discovered they were a Witch.

After making clear these important misunderstandings, Adler gives examples of people finding their path toward Neo-Pagan religion. She uses the terms that have been better defined to describe the true religion or craft as it exists. Adler digs deeper into these beliefs by explaining different "sects" of the practice and exploring many aspects of their beliefs or rituals and displaying a collection of relevant photographs.

The appendix of Drawing Down the Moon has some interesting and noteworthy components. I enjoyed looking at the results from the questionnaire Adler created in 1985. The information contained in the answers was the raw voice of the people. Adler's statistics were not fictitious, and the proof was published in her book to share with readers. I think it is an excellent addition to Drawing Down the Moon. Adler includes a helpful list of rituals and definitions relating to the groups she discusses. Following the list of rituals is a large compilation of newsletters and journals, each with a summary, to which interested readers can contact and subscribe. Among these journals there is a Cult Danger Evaluation Frame (page 509) so people interested in contacting and possibly joining with new groups that are not recognized by the mainstream public can discover whether there is a high probability of danger. This list could be important to people who are just discovering religions different from what they are already informed.

I am impressed with Adler's objective position on the portrayal of Pagans, Neo-Pagans, Witches, and Goddess-Worshippers. The fact that she included the writings of various people involved with this religion proves that she tried to be as fair as possible in representing the beliefs of the groups and individuals. If someone in the religious group she talked about reads this book, I believe they would find it true to life and even possibly thank Adler for correcting the negative associations commonly attached to these religious groups or Crafts. Adler left little to question about these people and I feel that I have an accurate understanding of the material she covered.


Reviewed by Amy Bittner
April, 1998

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