October 1998: Star Wars and Wicca

Just when you thought I was gone for good, I'm back! It's true that the schedule for Force This! is going to be a bit erratic for awhile. Think of it as a surprise, and don't forget to check back at least once a month!

This month we're taking a look at Star Wars and Wicca. Last time I wrote a bit about Star Wars and the New Age, and how while their similarities point to mutual influences and answering mutual needs, the two did not necessarily influence each other to any great extent. And while you'll find science fiction fans among Wiccans (in Rosemary Edghill's recent novel, The Bowl of Night, a Wiccan coven shows up at a seasonal festival dressed in complete Klingon costume and speaking the language), it's more a case of similar viewpoints than cause-and-effect. (In other words, rest easy, parents. Your kid's not going to become a Wiccan just because he/she watches Star Wars.)

Let's start by examining, very generally, just what Wicca is. (The book list at the end of this article will also contain some basic reading materials; I'm not going to attempt to explain an entire religion in a single paragraph.) Wicca is a neo-Pagan religion founded in the 20th century, though its roots and influences are far older. The earliest reliable evidence dates to the early 1950s, when the witchcraft laws were repealed in England and Gerald B. Gardner published the first widely available book on the subject. Since that time the religion has spread from the British Isles all over the world, taking strongest root, unsurprisingly, in the U.S. It draws on influences as varied as pre-Christian paganism in all its forms (with strongest leanings on Celtic, Anglo- Saxon, Norse, Greek, Roman, and Egyptian mythologies), magical systems such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, fantastic literature (take a poll: how many Wiccans of around my age were first drawn to the religion by reading Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon?), and a great deal of creativity. Wiccans, in general, believe in a dual deity (female and male), represented by the various pantheons around the world--you'll even find Wiccans who pray to Jesus and Mary, on occasion. As far as Wicca is concerned, deity is immanent: it's present in everything around us, including ourselves (is this starting to sound familiar to anyone?). This is why you'll find so many environmentalists and ecologists among Wiccans and, more generally, among neo-Pagans (Wicca is not the only neo-Pagan religion; it's just the only one I have enough familiarity with to even attempt to write about). And many, maybe even most, Wiccans practice magic.

Some studies indicate that neo-Paganism is the fastest-growing religious branch in the United States today. Its average practitioner may not be what you expect: white, lower-middle to middle class, urban, possibly upwardly mobile, generally somewhere between the ages of 18 and 40. And since Wicca was deemed a recognized religion under the law by the federal government in 1985, its popularity has surged faster than ever--and almost all by word of mouth, as Wiccans do not proselytize. Why? What need does this faith answer that more mainstream, Judeo- Christian faiths do not?

Some of the reasons are similar to those that the Star Wars trilogy, the New Age, and Robert Jordan's never-ending Wheel of Time fantasy series have proven so popular, and it's those reasons we'll examine here. Let's look at the basic and obvious one first: magic.

There's no mention of magic in the Star Wars trilogy, true, except for a throwaway line in Return of the Jedi during the Rebels' dealings with the Ewoks. (Which is interesting in itself; in the more technologically advanced galactic civilization, magic is the Force. It's only in reference to the relatively primitive Ewoks that we hear about magic. Who wrote that script anyway?) However, the use of the Force, the ancient-mystery associations of the Jedi, and the mystical trappings involved all have the earmarks of magic. Especially if we use Aleister Crowley's definition: "Magic is the art of effecting change in accordance with will." And really, who wouldn't like to be able to fetch their own beer without getting up from in front of the TV, or perhaps become a hero by levitating a child out from in front of a speeding truck? The things that the Jedi do in Star Wars--sense one another's presence, move and levitate objects, block blaster bolts with their lightsabers or even with their hands, and execute acrobatic feats that would give Mary Lou Retton a run for her money--are things that, in short, it would be really, really neat to be able to do.

Magic in this 20th century is rather less visibly impressive. Most Wiccans do it to achieve a specific end, which is usually something like getting that job you really want or finding that object you lost last week but know is in your apartment somewhere. Like the uses of the Force in Star Wars, the uses of magic by Wiccans vary considerably in purpose and execution. However, the reason is almost always to effect some kind of change, and the actual work generally requires enormous concentration. And, like the use of the Force, the use of magic is governed by rules. Jedi must be sure not to fall to the dark side of the Force in their endeavors; Wiccans are required to obey the Rede, a brief phrase that is very similar to the Golden Rule: "An it harm none, do as you will." As in Star Wars, knowing what is a good and proper act and what has the potential to do harm can be difficult given such a broad guideline; as Luke asks, "But how will I know the good side from the bad?" Yoda's answer could easily come from any Wiccan book or teacher: "You will know, when you are calm, at peace." Wiccans do meditate, just as it appears that Jedi do (though I don't know any Wiccans who stand on their hands to do so).

Whether magic has any result depends on your definition and what you're trying to do. Few Wiccans claim that they can turn one thing into something else, or cause a thunderstorm on a clear day, or do any of those neat illusions you saw in The Craft, "Charmed," or "Sabrina the Teenaged Witch." Few claim that they can do the kinds of things Jedi can do in Star Wars. Thus, some say that Wicca is as much a fantasy as Star Wars is. Addressing that opinion is beyond the scope of this article; however, we can say that real or not, Wicca answers a need that is not found elsewhere. Many Wiccans are former Christians, and the emphasis on willpower, personal responsibility, and effecting change entirely through one's own efforts is attractive. Star Wars, while not quite a religion (though some of its fans might say otherwise), shows a universe where one person's actions make all the difference. Wicca uses old archetypes, including the mythical hero-tale so often discussed in this column, for inspiration. Star Wars brings this particular archetype to life, and helps highlight Luke's specialness with powers beyond what most people are capable of--in other words, magic.

The archetypal elements wound through both Star Wars and Wicca are another point of similarity, another example of how the popularity of one and the rising number of adherents of the other show a particular social need being met. Wicca relies on myth to get at that area of the unconscious mind that most western religions, at least in daily or weekly practice, don't much bother with. As a result, you'll find Wiccans invoking the Welsh goddess Rhiannon, who provided plenty for the people she married into, or the Egyptian Isis, who became one of the most important deities of the Hellenistic period, or the Roman Mercury, sponsor of travelers and communication (and therefore an especial favorite of computer programmers). For Wiccans, myth is more than something to read in a book; it's something to inspire and to offer guidance. If you think this is odd, consider the much more recent myths involving Elvis Presley.

Star Wars, likewise, centers on myth--a particular myth that, as Joseph Campbell showed in his The Hero With a Thousand Faces appears in many cultures all over the world, in a multitude of forms. As I've mentioned before, George Lucas set out to create a myth for a generation that had none of its own. That all three Star Wars movies are among the most successful films of all time is testimony to his success in that regard; in fact, he's managed to reach not just one generation, but several. Myth is not just the inspiration for Lucas' tale; it's wound all through the story, and has spawned a new myth in turn.

Perhaps one of the most important similarities, because it points mostly clearly to the perceived needs of modern life, is the idea of immanence. The concept of immanence with reference to the Divine is that the Divine is not separate; it's within the world we inhabit, part of us and the world around us. This is very different from the monotheism of the Judeo-Christian religions, and points most clearly to Wicca's sources of inspiration--the pre-Christian religions that made no distinction between the physical and the spiritual.

Wiccans believe that, for all intents and purposes, the Earth is the Goddess, or at least one aspect thereof. This is why you find so many environmentalists among Wiccans; polluting a lake isn't just polluting a natural resource, it's committing an act against a sacred thing. Thus immanence creates certain problems, especially in a world that depends on things like oil, gas, and electricity. But the fact that Wicca--and thus the concept of immanence--is growing indicates some of the problems many individuals have with that modern life: a sense of disconnection, of loneliness in the middle of our biggest cities, of dissatisfaction with everyday life. While these problems are not new, it is true that a hike in the mountains or a walk down a tree-lined avenue can be most refreshing; hugging a tree, figuratively speaking.

Star Wars likewise capitalizes on the idea that the Divine is not somewhere far distant, but right here, all around us, ready to be accessed and spoken to. The Divine, represented by the genderless, apparently consciousless Force, is most definitely immanent in the Star Wars universe: "Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us, and binds us." Those are the words of Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back, and they indicate a sense of a divinity where living things are as responsible for the creation of the Divine as the Divine is responsible for them; a sense of a divinity that, while it may not particularly care about the outcome, has power that can be tapped by an ordinary individual.

In a sense, both Star Wars and Wicca are reactions to the fairly modern discovery that humans are not, in fact, at the center of the universe. We are, as Sheri S. Tepper put it in her science fiction novel Grass, very small beings, tiny and unimportant when we consider the vastness of the universe--and the possibility that there are other universes besides our own. Both Star Wars and Wicca portray humanity as an integral part of the universe, not separate from it as so many of us often feel to be the case. Whether it's by tapping into an energy field to which everything from microbes to space slugs belong, or by sitting under a tree and listening to the wind in the leaves, both the movie and the faith attempt to answer a social need to feel a part of not just humanity, but of everything. In an increasingly crowded and suburbanized society where the average individual tends to feel unimportant, this is a great comfort. And, in the United States of America at least, where we tend to look at history as a series of events effected by important individuals, a mythology where the individual is important, whether it comes from George Lucas or from the pre-Christian era, is a very modern one indeed.

Next time, we interrupt our series on Star Wars and religion to discuss a brand new issue: the title of the long-awaited Episode I! The Phantom Menace: Good idea, bad idea, splendid idea? If you want to weigh in on this hot topic, send e-mail to rimrun@shavenwookie.com!

For further reading:
Adler, Margot. Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess Worshipers, and Other Pagans in America Today. Penguin USA, 1986.
Farrar, Janet and Stewart. The Pagan Path. Phoenix, 1995. (The Farrars are also the authors of A Witches Bible, one of the major works of modern neo-Paganism. However, it's a bit heavy going for the casual reader.)
Jones, Prudence and Nigel Pennick. A History of Pagan Europe. Routledge, 1995.