I was looking at religion as a theme for this column when, by coincidence, Barry Freeman took almost the same idea for his article in the March edition of H&E Naturist. To boil Barry’s argument down to a sentence or two, he suggested that for those of us it is not important, in the 2011 census form we should put our religion down as naturist rather than leave that question blank. (This question is the only one that is optional.) His reasoning being was that this would provide some form of legitimisation for naturism as a whole. After all, by his own admission, for the 2001 census some 390,000 people (0.8% of those that answered) in the UK put their religion down as ‘Jedi’, a phenomenon that was seen in a number of English speaking countries. At the time, it was considered to bit of fun poked at the Government or a means to raise an objection at having to answer a question about one’s faith, but it has led to a few organisations trying to create Jedism as a religion, although there seems to be no, or very little, new philosophy behind it.
Naturism, of course, has long denied it is a religion although that doesn’t mean that public, or social nudity has no place in religious rituals.
Perhaps the first one that would come to most peoples’ minds is Witchcraft – or Wicca – where, depending on the tradition followed the rituals are performed ‘skyclad’ throughout the entire year or robed for a part of it.
Witchcraft is an ancient religion, concerning the spirits of the natural world around us. In his book, Witchcraft (1952) Pennethorne Hughes surmised that the concept of Witchcraft evolved from the early centres of civilisation, the rivers, Nile, Tigress and Euphrates, and spread north and around the Mediterranean. He often drew an analogy with the animist beliefs that still prevail in Africa today, or Voodoo in Haiti, and while it cannot be said with certainty that the two are completely disconnected, the passage of time and influences from elsewhere would have removed any link with these supposed origins.
In The Witches Way (re-published as part of A Witches’ Bible: The Complete Witches’ Handbook in 1996), Janet and Stewart Farrar wrote that there are good reasons why witches work skyclad: first, it is an antidote to ‘a false dualism of good-versus-evil’ that dominates the Christian church and being ashamed of one’s nakedness is an expression of this duality. In Witchcraft, we humans operate in a multi-layered world of mind, body and spirit, and in order to express all these levels fully within us then it should be done with confidence and respect, for ourselves and for others. A Witch, by being naked at their Sabbat, she or he are re-affirming their belief in this philosophy, while striving to make it a part of their everyday awareness.
Another reason for working skyclad is that Witches believe that the senses can pick up impressions about their surroundings and to draw on psychic power more easily when the body is naked than clothed. It is this, the authors suggested, is the origin of shamanistic nudity, and Farrar and Farrar explained that ‘sensory impressions’ could be explained by the pheromones released into the air. A clothed body releases fewer pheromones into the air than a naked one, therefore a Witch working skyclad will obtain a deeper impression of their surrounds from the other Sabbat members, leading to the group, as a whole, being more sensitive to “the psychic Gestalt which they are trying to build up” (p197).
The final two reasons are perhaps, more familiar to naturists and are inter-related. According to Janet and Stewart Farrar, another reason for Witches to work skyclad, is psychological and to do with self-image. They wrote in The Witches Way (p197) “Consciously or unconsciously, how we dress is how we say to the world, ‘This is myself as I want you to see me’ before we even open our mouths. Taking off our clothes is a psychologically powerful gesture of image-shedding, a symbolic milestone on the road to a self-realisation.” All that means; we project our real selves to those around us when naked, there is no pretence. This leads us to the last reason, which is that by being naked it is difficult to make assumptions about the other members of the group. The person next you in the circle (or the beach or club lawn) could be wealthy or a pauper, it makes no difference.
By their own admission, however, Janet and Stewart Farrar have stated that they have ‘created’ some of the rituals they are performing, or have added to the scant information contained in the Book of Shadows, which is the foundation of much of what is known about the neo-pagan sect. Written by Gerald Gardner sometime in the 1940s or 1950s it was used by him with his coven in Bricket Wood. Stewart Farrar stated that one of the reasons why he wrote his first book on the subject (Eight Sabbats for Witches) was because Gardners’ book lacked detail about the rituals to be performed, with Gardner claiming to have compiled it from information gathered from folk-memory.
Another possible explanation why witches go ‘skyclad’ as much as they do today is, perhaps, more cynical. Ritual nudity is quoted in the Old Testament: “And he stripped off his clothes also, and prophesied before Samuel in a like manner, and lay down naked all that day and all that night. Wherefore they say, Is Saul also among the prophets.” (1 Samuel 19:21) So the idea of other incidences of ritual nudity is not beyond the bounds of possibility, such as the collection of herbs using a bronze sickle at full moon, naked existed and these incidences were embellished and made “evil” by Christianity as it moved north and west, seeking converts from the old religion as it went. In an age when few people could read, the easiest way to get your message across is to draw them. Therefore images of witches naked at a Sabbat have been part of the art world for centuries. Despite claims to the contrary, there is little evidence that modern Wicca is anything to do with a pre-Christian belief, but is an early 20th Century, neo-pagan re-imagination possibly influenced by the earlier artwork.
The Christian Church has not, however, been devoid of ‘Holy Nudists’ as one article I’ve read put it. An early Christian sect that flourished between the 2nd and 4th Centuries AD, were the Adamites, which were eventually deemed heretical by the mainstream church. The origins and practices of these Adamites, as described by Augustine of Hippo, were that they called their church “Paradise” and that its members claimed to have returned to the innocent state of Adam and Eve. It is, no doubt, these practices that led others in the church to consider them as heretic, as it denied that we were perpetual sinners. We should remember, however, who Augustine of Hippo was and when he lived. He is considered a cornerstone of Western Christian thinking, with his writing influencing both the Catholic and Anglican traditions, and he lived between 354 and 430 AD, towards the end the sect’s influence but when it was coming under increasing pressure from the mainstream church.
Augustine of Hippo was in turn inspired by the writings of St Anthony of the Desert, who is believed to have lived in the 2nd Century AD and, following the example of Jesus, lived in the Egyptian desert as an ascetic – one who lived a life of abstinence – in pursuit of a religious life. Such individuals existed today, such as the Naga Sadhu (a Hindu sect) or Jain monks, both of India. It is through these early desert-dwelling Christians – both male and female, and known as Desert Fathers or Desert Mothers – that led to the monastic system being developed as those considered particularly holy gathered followers. For some ascetics, it is believed, their abstinence also included the absence of clothes, perhaps following a similar ritual described in the First Book of Samuel. There is no evidence to suggest that St Anthony of the Desert, or any other Desert Father or Mother was one of these ‘holy nudists’, but the absence of evidence does not mean any one of them couldn’t have been. It has been suggested, therefore, that the Adamites of the early Christian church were “misguided ascetics”. Again, we should remember, the winners get to write the history books.
Later reincarnations of the Adamites appeared during various historical upheavals. During the 13th Century, a Christian sect, the Brethren of the Free Spirit were accused of practicing group sex, of conducting the Christian Mass naked and claiming that they ‘were’ God. While the Begherds lived in semi-monastic communities during the 13th and 14th Centuries and later transformed themselves into the Picards. They are said to have taken over an island in the river Nezarka and set up a commune there and despite being suppressed by the official church grew to number 80,000 people! Claims that they would strip naked ‘during worship’ are said to have been either untrue or exaggerated. Some Picards may have joined with the Bohemian Brethren, to whom they were closely allied, and better known today as the Morivian Church.
England has not been without its own Adamite sect. During the Civil war, the doctrine is known to have thrived between 1641 and 1650. According to ExLibris.org contemporary information about the sect is scarce, especially after 1650 and what is known about them comes from their critics. Interestingly, it is said that women of the sect, dominated the English Adamites! They are said to have held their services in private homes in various states of undress, and although contemporary images show Adamites in public naked, there is no evidence that this in fact ever happened. On the other hand, the Adamites had become associated with other dissenter sects, the Ranters among them, who had exhibited some public nakedness; images showing the Ranters in the streets naked were based on early Adamite iconography and it is understood that early Quakers also appeared in public, naked.
There are, of course, Christian Naturists today, with support groups in America and the UK. Whether you consider them to be a modern version of the Adamite tradition, I shall leave up to you.