Encountering Group Nudity in Witchcraft By Caroline Tully.
The practice of contemporary witchcraft often involves having to confront the idea of nudity – either conceptually or in reality. While it is relatively easy to work alone naked, sooner or later you will come across a situation where nudity is expected within a group. This does not mean that you have to comply however, but you might feel the odd one out as the only clothed participant in that situation. There are good reasons for the practice of nudity in Witchcraft. This brief article explains what they are.
Probably the most familiar images of naked Witches to people today would be the twentieth century images of British Wiccans, Maxine and Alex Sanders and Janet and Stewart Farrar, however nudity in Witchcraft has a centuries-long pedigree. Ancient Greek Witch par excellence, Circe, from Homer’s Odyssey, is depicted naked on vases dating from the Archaic Period (800 - 500 BCE): an ancient example of ritual nudity, or we should probably say magical nudity because it is in a specifically magical, rather than in a religious context that we find this sort of nudity in Western culture.
The idea of ritual nudity is an old one being found in other ancient cultures such as Italy, India, Persia, and Britain. In the East, Kali, the Mother Goddess of Calcutta in India, is usually represented as nude and she is said to be ‘Digamba’, a Sanskrit term meaning ‘clothed in Space’. This is interesting because authors such as John Mumford suggest that Western Witchcraft rituals have many parallels with Hindu Tantra: the circular ritual format, alternating male and female participants, sexually active deities, a sacred feast representing the Elements, a high priestess and high priest and others factors too numerous to list here.
Relics of the belief in the magical power of nudity can often be found in folklore, for example, there is an old English idea that a woman can be cured of infertility by walking about nude in her vegetable garden on Midsummer’s Eve. Roman author, Pliny, in his Natural History, recorded that the women of ancient Britain performed their religious rites in the nude – whether he meant ‘religion’ or ‘magic’ is not clear. Britsh historian, Ronald Hutton, in his article “A Modest Look at Ritual Nudity” records the use of nudity in love magic, but not religion per se.
Being so Nature-oriented, it is not surprising that Witches often perform their rites nude, or as we call it ‘Skyclad’ - clad only by the sky. Nudity within ritual is believed to enhance psychic power as well as convey a sense of equality between the participants. Clothing can create obvious ‘class’ or ‘social scene’ differences which Witches seek to avoid: everyone being seen as equal before the Gods.
In Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches, one of the important Witchcraft texts, the worshippers are specifically instructed to conduct their rites naked ‘as a sign that ye shall be truly free.’ Usually, all one wears in a Wiccan ritual is some sort of symbolic jewelry such as a necklace, bracelets and rings.
The above engraving by Albrecht Durer (1497) shows four women undressing for a Witchcraft ritual. By their headdresses, which they've not yet removed, we can see that the women all represent different classes of society. There is the noble woman with an elaborate coif of delicate material on her head, a courtesan with long, flowing hair bound in a garland of leaves, a respectable business woman with a rather plain headdress, and a peasant woman with a scarf or shawl over her head. This image suggests that these four women from different classes are sisters within the sacred space of Witchcraft ritual: that Witches come from all classes of society.
When we are naked, we meet as equals and social distinctions are forgotten. Theoretically a Circle can consist of such apparently incompatible people as a judge, a punk, a hillbilly grandmother, an airline pilot, an ice skating champion, a wildlife officer and an Indian prince. Once Skyclad it is difficult to tell who has what career out in the mundane world. Of course it is not practical to be Skyclad in the middle of Winter unless you are performing the rituals inside but in Summer, in a relatively private place, there is no problem stripping off the persona or mask represented by your clothing.
Witchcraft’s emphasis upon nudity can sometimes mistakenly encourage sight-seers; those who are more interested in ‘getting a gawk’ rather than experiencing Mother Nature in a mystical sense. Witchcraft is pro-sex, but not at the cost of spirituality. We believe that Spirit and Matter are entwined and we do not emphasize one over the other. Anyone hoping merely for a bit of ‘slap ‘n tickle’ is advised to look elsewhere. Wicca is a participatory religion, no one just stands by and watches, they join in, otherwise there is no point being present.
Witchcraft ritual is a mysterious, magickal technique for uniting mankind with the oldest Gods - the Gods of Nature. The freedom and exhilaration of dancing nude under a Full Moon is one of the ways of drawing close to those Gods.