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The Paradox of Evil
in Wiccan Theology
Copyright 1997 by Lynna
Landstreet. Previously unpublished. Presented at a "Write Your
Own Ticket Party" hosted by Richard James, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada,
on November 15, 1997.
"The Problem of Evil" is a challenging question for any religion,
but perhaps especially so for Wicca. And for Wicca, perhaps uniquely,
"The Problem of Good" could be said to be equally challenging.
Unlike the monotheistic religions that predominate in our society,
Wicca does not have, on a theological level, a polarized concept of
good and evil. Christianity and the other major monotheistic religions
tend to envision their God as the epitome of good. This necessitates
a counterbalance in the form of Satan, as the epitome of evil, if the
presence of phenomena which go against the prevailing definition of
good is to be explained. Thus, evil, for these religions, is a conscious,
directed force in opposition to the force of good personified by God.
Even those adherents of mainstream churches who do not believe in Satan
as a literal entity still view evil as that which is opposed to God.
For Wiccans and other neo-pagans, this paradigm does not work. The
ancient polytheistic religions from which we draw our inspiration did
not, in most cases, have a polarized concept of good and evil. They
had a multiplicity of deities, representing many different facets of
nature and human nature. Certainly there were deities in virtually every
culture which dealt with what could be termed the "darker"
side of existence -- war, death, disease, chaos, vengeance and other
unpleasant things -- but these were not generally regarded as "evil"
in the sense that the Christian devil is. They were -- and are -- gods
and goddesses, divinities in their own right, not anti-gods or counterbalances
to an all-good divinity.
This point is further brought out by the tendency of modern Wiccan
theology to consider the many gods and goddesses of mythology as aspects
of one God and one Goddess, who are in turn seen as the male and female
aspects of the one formless all-divine which we in this tradition refer
to as the Source. If the dark gods and goddesses are aspects of the
same Lord and Lady as the bright ones, then surely they are equally
divine. I have heard this belief expressed by some Wiccans as "Our
gods are not good or evil, they simply are."
However, this leaves Wiccans and other polytheists in a problematic
position, theologically, morally and personally, when it comes to dealing
with the harsher side of life represented by those deities. We may not
consider their domains to be evil as such, but neither do we consider
them to be exactly desirable. We may pay homage to Hades, Arawn or Erishkegal
at Samhain, but we are not in a hurry to visit their realms ourselves,
and we tend to take as dim a view of sending others there prematurely
in the form of murder, as do other religions. But what theological grounds
do we have for making that judgement? If death is as sacred as life,
how can it be wrong to kill?
We can, of course, invoke our belief in karma. If we do not wish to
be killed ourselves, then we should not kill others. But again, if death
and the deities that embody it are as holy as any others, on what basis
can we say that dying is undesirable? Does a desire to stay alive, and
corresponding obligation to respect others' desires to do so, mean that
we are disrespecting or neglecting the deities of death? We can also
point to the Wiccan Rede: An it harm none, do as ye will. But where
is the theological basis for the Rede? If the deities presiding over
various forms of harm are legitimate aspects of divinity, how can harm
be wrong? If Hades is a valid a deity as Hephaestus, then why is being
a serial killer any morally different than being a blacksmith?
On an intuitive level, these questions will, of course, seem absurd.
The vast majority of Wiccans do not, in practice, profess anywhere near
the degree of moral neutrality that our theology would appear to imply.
We are quite confident that we know the difference between a serial
killer and a blacksmith, and would probably consider anyone who did
not to be a clinical psychopath. But while it may be reassuring to know
that our fellow Wiccans do in fact have a standard of ethics that would
disallow their taking up careers as serial killers, it is nonetheless
unsettling to realize that there appears to be no basis in our theology
for that ethical standard.
Perhaps, then, we need to look at our theology at a deeper level --
not just the nature and domain of the various deities, but the question
of what divinity in itself is to us, and how we perceive it as manifesting
in our lives. One aspect of this that has been cited by some neo-pagan
writers (notably Starhawk) as being a basis for a uniquely pagan standard
of ethics is the concept of immanent divinity. While not all pagans
view divinity in precisely the same way as does Starhawk, some notion
of divinity as immanent within the natural world, whether or not combined
with a belief in transcendent divinity as well, is common to most branches
of Wicca and many other forms of neo-paganism as well. And this, at
first glance, would appear to offer a solution to the problem of evil:
if every living thing is a unique manifestation of divinity, then surely
it is wrong, evil even, to harm or kill living things. Any harm done
to any living being is a harm done to the gods themselves.
However, this line of thought poses its own problems.
The biological nature of animal life, including human life, is such
that each animal must feed on other living things, be those plants or
other animals. As Starhawk herself notes, life feeds on life. 
Everywhere in nature, living things are destroyed by other living things,
and often in singularly painful and unpleasant ways. The psychologist
Ernest Becker wrote in 1973:
What are we to make
of a creation in which the routine activity is for organisms to be tearing
others apart with teeth of all types -- biting, grinding flesh, plant
stalks, bones between molars, pushing the pulp greedily down the gullet
with delight, incorporating its essence into one's own organization,
and then excreting with foul stench and gasses the residue...
Creation is a nightmare spectacular taking
place on a planet that has been soaked for hundreds of millions of
years in the blood of all its creatures.
Freud gradually came to see that the evil in the
world is not only in the insides of people but on the outside, in
nature -- which is why he became more realistic and pessimistic
in his later work.
Whatever man does on this planet has to be done
in the lived truth of the terror of creation, of the grotesque, of
the rumble of panic underneath everything. 
While Becker's description of the world could perhaps be called overly
melodramatic, it nonetheless underlines why the view of divinity as
immanent within nature is no less morally problematic than any other.
To state that all life is divine, and yet that is natural for some parts
of the divine to destroy others, leaves us in the same moral void as
How then, are we as pagans to find a moral compass to guide us through
this "nightmare spectacular" that is firmly rooted in our
theology, unfailingly backed up by the authority of the divine? While
other neo-pagan traditions will need to find their own answers to this
question, for us as Wiccans I think the answer may lie in the key theological
concept and ritual symbol that lies at the heart of our specific religion:
the model of polarity expressed by the union of the God and Goddess.
While this polarity can be viewed in many different ways, at the deepest
level it is the union of life and death, creation and destruction, eros
and thanatos. We see it expressed in each ritual in the form
of the wine blessing, in which a knife, which in other circumstances
could be an instrument of death, is conjoined with a cup representing
the womb of the goddess, the primal sea from which life first arose.
It is this union of the life-force and death-force that provides the
key to the paradox: that the path of morality, of right action, for
Wiccans, lies in balance. Rather than conceiving of morality as a simple
linear scale from good at one end to evil at the other, we might choose
to imagine a circle, wherein the two ends of the scale meet, since unbounded
creation ultimately results in destruction, whether that be in the form
of cancer, or the endless growth ethic of industrial society.
If the terms good and evil are relevant to Wiccans at all, then good
lies in the balance of life and death, and evil is that which
neglects or breaks that balance. Wanton destruction is evil, but so
is the obsessive focus on growth and gain and increase that we see so
much of in today's society. Morality, and sanity, lie in the acceptance
of both the limiting influence of the death-force and the burgeoning
fertility of the life-force, both the binding and controlling force
of order and the freeing, transgressive force of chaos.
Does this leave us with an absolute, incontrovertible, moral standard,
an easy set of rules by which to judge the morality of any given action?
No, it doesn't. But perhaps those seeking absolutes and easy answers
should not be practicing witchcraft in the first place. For our path
does not lie in the harsh light of day or the impenetrable blackness
of night, but in the shadowy twilight between. We live between the worlds,
walking a winding path through an ever-changing landscape, and it there
that we must find our answers, not in a set of artificial absolutes
or false certainties that ultimately have no relationship to our lives,
or our Gods.
- Starhawk, The Spiral Dance. San Francisco:
Harper & Row, 1979, p. 162.
- Becker, Ernest. The Denial of Death. New
York: Free Press, 1973, pp. 282-283. Quoted in Roszak, Theodore. The
Voice of the Earth: An Exploration of Ecopsychology. New York:
Touchstone, 1992, p. 59.
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