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Another Pagan History... What's Really Old, and What Likely Ain't (Part I)

Author: A.C. Fisher Aldag
Posted: November 19th. 2006
Times Viewed: 9,860

The origin of Wicca is:
The worship rites of ancient people.
Gerald Gardner made it up.
Both of the above.

The eight “Wheel of the Year” holidays were:
Celebrated by pre-Christian people in the British Isles.
Relatively modern creations.
Both of the above.

Modern Paganism came from:
Celtic and Saxon folk magic.
Original material which was recently invented.
Both of the above.

Differing Viewpoints:

In the fifty-something years since Paganism went public, scholars have been debating the age and authenticity of the various magical religious traditions. Did Gerald Gardner and Dr. Margaret Murray invent the “Old Religion”? Or did witchcraft, magical practice and nature spirituality really exist, surviving until modern times? In any online Pagan forum, e-list or chat group, you can find pantheistic reconstructivists debating eco-feminist Wiccans or family traditionalists arguing with armchair historians about the true meaning of the sabbat holidays and the origins of Wicca. Each individual may have some genuine knowledge… and each may have some serious misconceptions.

There’s even a debate about the origin of the word “Pagan”. It is usually attributed to the Latin words “paganus” (singular) or “pagani” (plural) , meaning people who lived in a rural area or who did not accept the Roman pantheon of gods. This term later came to designate people who were not Christian. Another possible source is the word “pagus”, for a boundary marker, indicating people who lived outside the bounds of a certain district. “Pagan” was a word used in the 1970s and 80s by British traditional Wiccans to describe others who practiced a magic-using religion, without being initiated into a Wiccan tradition. Neo-Pagans, or new Pagans, a term attributed to Oberon (Otter, Timothy) Zell Ravenheart, are individuals without a family history of nature spirituality or polytheism, and who have adopted one or more Pagan paths, including Wicca, Shamanism or Druidry. Today it has come to mean those who practice an earth-centered form of spirituality, those who worship a pantheon of gods, and / or those who practice magic as an expression of religion.

Many neo-Pagans, especially people new to the religious path, might believe anything written in the popular occult press. They may insist that a matriarchal society ruled stone age Europe and that nine million Wiccans were killed during the Burning Times. They might believe that the Druids celebrated Oestara to honor the goddess of spring, or that witches danced naked under a full moon while summoning Cernunnos… during the winter in Scotland. A few Pagan writers maintain that there were no class distinctions or tribal wars before those bad old patriarchal Christians came along and ruined everything.

Some scholars may insist that Paganism is an entirely new religion, because they believe that no folk-magic traditions or earth-centered faiths could possibly have survived in Europe for 1, 500 years after the Christian incursions. If a religious legend isn’t extensively documented and verified by someone with a post-graduate degree, the historian may declare that it is simply not true. These individuals tend to discount any and all family traditions of witchcraft, magical folkways or an ethnic heritage featuring earth-based spirituality. They might believe that folkloric surveys and comparative anthropology have little merit in the study of pre-Christian worship, preferring to use “solid” sources such as court documents to authenticate religious practices.

Unfortunately, both of these viewpoints have their fallacies.

During my own research, I learned that many common neo-Pagan practices really do date back to ancient times – sort of. Much of our modern earth-based religions are derived from the folk traditions of Celtic Britain, but they were affected by historic events, such as the Roman occupation, the Anglo-Saxon invasions, the Norman Conquest and the rise of Christianity. Many customs died out, others were incorporated into new ceremonies, and some rites continued without change. During the Renaissance, people were fascinated by all things mystical, just as they are today, and so Pagan practice enjoyed a revival. The Protestant Reformation forced many of the ceremonies underground, or ended their observation all together. The Victorian era saw an interest in “secret” societies, the Druids, spiritualism, and Egyptian and Persian magic. Gerald Gardner brought witchcraft to the attention of the masses with his books in the 1950s. During the 1960s many folk customs were preserved or renewed as a matter of cultural identity. And finally, the eco-feminist movement of the 1980s had a positive influence on Paganism. But what is genuinely historic and what is an invention? What is ancient and what is modern? We can’t always tell.

One problem with determining the age of Pagan traditions is the lack of concrete information, such as legal papers, dated journals, or other verifiable historic documentation. Many academics limit their research sources to written works, including the testimonials of Roman conquerors and Christian monks. Much of this information may be quite biased, or details may have been deliberately omitted. Scholars may accept some folklore as legitimate, but scoff at anything not found in the Welsh Mabinogion, the Irish Red Branch tales, or the writing of Pliny the Elder or Geoffrey of Monmouth. However, this written material is woefully incomplete.

Print media wasn’t widely available to working-class people until the Renaissance, and most families couldn’t afford to own books until the nineteenth century. Pagan practices were not only repressed by the Church, they were ignored by the nobility and denigrated by the intellectuals who were responsible for writing social histories. Another factor to take into consideration is that legal documents might only represent festivals that got out of hand, or rites that were outlawed by the authorities. The gathering or custom may actually have proceeded unnoticed for centuries, until the participants got into trouble. Modern scholars who rely exclusively on written documentation may be missing older sources available through archeology (looking at artifacts) , comparative anthropology (looking at cultural practices) and linguistics or studying the etymology of language (how words change over time) .

Here’s an example: Historians relying solely on written references may assume that the May pole is a fairly recent custom, which was “paganized” or made to seem Pagan during the Renaissance. The first legal reference to an English maypole was in 1644, when it was outlawed by the Puritan-controlled Parliament. The earliest woodcut picture of a maypole dance is dated circa 1680. Yet other sources, including poems, songs and art, indicate that the maypole custom is much older. Purchases for maypole-related equipment, such as shoes for the dancers, were recorded in the mid-1500s. A maypole is depicted in a stained-glass window thought to have been created in 1509.

One story about a maypole ritual on a village green was written down in 1477. There is a mention of the custom in a poem circa the 1300s. And there is a reference in 1282 of a Scots vicar leading a dance “around a phallic pole” which got him in trouble with Church authorities. It’s quite probable that the maypole tradition was established long before these sources. Maypoles may have been introduced to Britain during the Saxon invasions, around 600 to 900 C.E. There are several town May totems still standing in Germany, France and Denmark that date to the year 300 C.E. Maypoles may have been simultaneously devised during the Romano-British era, or they might have come from trade with Celts or Basques from the European continent. The history of the maypole in Britain may not have been documented prior to the Reformation because it was too common to be remarkable to the average citizen.

Folklorists often take a different approach to chronicling Pagan traditions, using a wider range of sources than historians might accept. Sociologists may draw conclusions about the origin of a particular ritual by observing similar practices in an intact non-Christian culture. They may compare the symbols or icons of various people. Anthropologists might attempt to trace the history of a rite by comparing it to documented customs. This technique is called “parallelism”, and some historians just hate it. Scholars often blast Sir James George Frazer and other folklorists for using parallels to describe pre-Christian ceremonies. Frazer, who was educated at Cambridge, compared English folk customs to similar practices in other societies, as well as in classical Greek and Roman literature. This comparative anthropology technique is still used by academics today.

If there is no verifiable documentation for a tradition, we may have to compare it to similar artifacts or practices, and then use our own common sense about its age and origin. Parallel customs to the maypole dance include circling three times around standing-stone monuments to invoke a deity or spirit, decorating a green branch with cloth flowers and streamers on the first day of May, and carrying a wand made of hawthorn, festooned with ribbons and tipped with a garlic bulb, called a “maypole”. These rituals are similar to the maypole dance rite, and therefore may have significant meaning. Maypoles might have derived from an older British tradition of venerating certain trees, dancing around them and decorating them with ribbons and trinkets. These were called “clootie” or cloutie (cloth) or raggy trees, and the reason for tying items to their branches may have been for sympathetic magic or granting a wish.

In some areas, people tied strips of clothing to a clootie tree in hopes of curing illness – possibly leaving the ailment behind with the rag. When one such tree was cut down, Roman coins were found attached to its inner bark. This indicates that the custom existed in the British Isles since the Roman occupation, which ended around 300 - 400 C.E. One sacred tree still exists in a Stokes Gabriel churchyard in England. This yew tree is believed to be more than eight hundred years old. Local lore has it that circling the tree three times grants a person’s wish. One account states that an older tree was venerated at Stokes Gabriel before the church was built, probably the site of an older Pagan shrine. These sacred tree traditions may well have pre-dated Christianity.

We must also take into consideration the abundance of a source, which means how often an iconic image or folk legend appears, and in how many locations. If representations of a horned man are found on a cave wall in France, on a cauldron in Denmark, in a Welsh hero-tale, on a Romano-British coin and a Gaulish sculpture, then we can surmise that this legend was quite well established throughout western Europe. Of course, the meaning is open to interpretation. Is the figure actually the deity called Cernunnos, or a shamanic priest, or a hunter, or did Uncle Fred put on antlers and clown around to amuse the kids? We can only guess. And no matter what they claim, historians can’t really know that an image is a Pagan religious symbol, a Christian caricature, or ancient graffiti… he or she is guessing, just the same as me.

Here are some of the educated guesses I’ve made from my own investigation into Pagan history. Disclaimer: I’m not a professional scholar or researcher, and I don’t have any letters behind my name. I’m a wife, mother, church secretary, smalltime farmer, a clergyperson and a Pagan author. Any research I’ve done is for fun and my own enlightenment, to find out more about my heritage, ethnic lore, and the development of my religious beliefs.

Wicca is not Ancient – or is it?

The modern practice of Wicca was established by Gerald B. Gardner in the 1940s and 50s with the publication of two works of fiction and two “factual” manuals containing theories, laws, rituals and legends of pre-Christian deities. It was not commonly called Wicca until the late 1950s to the early 60s, when it developed into a full-blown religion. Gardner’s protégés, including Doreen Valiente and Raymond Buckland, broadened and spread this initiatory witchcraft tradition. Others took up the banner, adding their own inventions and discoveries to the practice, until it became the religion that we know today. There is thought to be between 250, 000 and a million people practicing some form of Wicca or neo-Paganism in America alone.

Some Wiccans, and many adherents of the current nature spirituality movement, might insist that their religion was actually founded in the Paleolithic (stone age) Era. They may tell you that patriarchal warriors obliterated matrifocal societies, or that Christians persecuted and killed most of the Wiccans during the Burning Times, except for a few loyal individuals who wrote their lore and rituals down in magical journals called “grimoires”. These Priests and Priestesses of the Goddess supposedly met in covens of thirteen and worshipped naked under the full moon, despite the threat of torture and death. They were believed to have carried all the sacred rites, herbal recipes, and holiday celebrations intact from pre-historic times, until Gardner finally revealed the tradition to the masses.

In his writings and interviews, Mr. Gardner stated that he was initiated into an ancient magical tradition which had survived into modern times in the New Forest district of Hampshire, England. Against the wishes of his coveners, Gardner published the secrets of Wicca first in his fiction books, then in his non-fiction work. Several of Gardner’s letters suggest that he removed the information about hereditary Paganism from his books, replacing it with Jewish mystical rituals. This was purportedly at the request of the British Witches who’d taught him their ceremonies. Gardner wrote that his coven-mates requested that their names not be published, as the practice of witchcraft was not only illegal, it carried an enormous social stigma. (The last English law prohibiting witchcraft was not repealed until 1951 by Winston Churchill, after his own personal medium was tried and convicted to nine months in prison as a witch.) Gardner also kept a “Book of Shadows” filled with rituals, spells and information on magical tools that was not widely available to the public until recently.

In recent years it has become quite fashionable to dump on Grandpa Gerald. Scholars such as Aidan Kelly and Ronald Hutton proposed doubt that Gardner’s Wicca has any historic basis. These writers and other historians imply that Gardner wholly invented “the Old Religion” by borrowing material from modern occult societies and the works of Dr. Margaret Murray. Scholars further claimed to debunk Murray’s theory about an underground “Witch Cult”, and also questioned the idea that witchcraft or hereditary Pagan practice survived in any form after the middle ages. Some historians believe that only tiny vestiges of folk tradition endured until the present day, in the form of superstition, outmoded customs, or scraps of lore. Authors including Robert Trubshaw have proposed that the common people practiced limited folkways without any knowledge of pre-Christian origins, and without cohesive religious ceremony.

The reality of Wicca lies somewhere in between these viewpoints. It was not wholly invented by Mr. Gardner, nor is it an intact ancient tradition. Wicca is an example of an eclectic religion. This means that it was derived from a variety of sources and time periods. Gardner drew upon the writings of various metaphysical societies, Masonic rituals, archeology, chaos theory, ceremonies of the Knights Templar, books written by Frazer, Murray, Aleister Crowley and Charles Leland, and the poems of Blake, Browning, Yeats and Kipling. It is also believed that Gardner observed religious rituals in Cyprus, Malaysia and East India during his travels. While on a trip to North America in the 1940s, it is possible that Gardner attended Native American Pow-Wow ceremonies. Gardner further claimed a family tradition of witchcraft, which is impossible to prove or disprove, although one of his ancestors really was indicted as a witch in the early 1600s.

I propose that it is quite possible Mr. Gardner actually did observe some authentic Pagan rites, which had survived in Britain well into modern days. Gardner and his friends belonged to various folklore societies dedicated to preserving the culture of native people, including the ethnic Celts and Anglo-Saxons of the British Islands. These amateur folklorists spent a great deal of time researching the traditions of the English working class, including the practice of magic. The rituals and customs of house servants, farmers and blue-collar workers existed as late as the 1950s, not in any hidden secret society, but as practices common enough to be ignored by the media.

These traditions included herbalism, ritual music and dance, shamanic trance aided by psychotropics, spellwork, lore related to fairies, spirits and deities, agricultural rites, ritual theatre, house-to-house dramatic presentations, use of protection symbols, and many other ceremonies believed to have pre-Christian origins. Since Gardner and his contemporaries had extensively studied Pagan traditions, and authored articles and books about magic, herbal remedies, lore and artifacts, they most likely knew what to look for.

It is also possible that Mr. Gardner and his coven-mates interviewed local witches, or cunning folk, pellars, hedge-riders, spae-wives, fairy doctors, conjurers, or wise men and women, as individual magical craft practitioners were called in those days. Other authors, such as Owen Davies, also researched cunning folk and wrote about their practice. These individuals had preserved a treasure-trove of information on folktales, midwifery traditions, herbal healing, “old wives’ tales”, divination techniques, psychic skills, farming customs, folk cures, love charms, and “hedge magic”, which was looked down on by the English educated class. Some of these customs were Christianized, such as the use of Bible verses for divination purposes. Others were Pagan traditions, quite probably unchanged from long-ago days.

Gardner’s and Crowley’s bookshelves were lined with volumes of folklore and comparative religions, as well as books about secret societies and ceremonial magic. These educated men may have presumed that the cultural traditions of the British underclass weren’t sophisticated enough for a modern audience, and so they added cabalistic magic and elaborate fraternity rituals to make these “peasant” folkways more interesting to new converts. The result was the religious tradition known today as Gardnerian Wicca.

Quite a bit of evidence supports the theory that Mr. Gardner had ties to authentic hereditary Pagans. Dr. Kelly himself quoted a Gardnerian Witch named Robert in a description of a meeting in the 1930s which included Gardner, Crowley, “Old” Dorothy Clutterbuck, who was Gardner’s purported initiator, and Cecil Williamson, who was the curator of the British Museum of Folklore and Superstition. The purpose of the meeting was to form a new witchcraft society. This is an excerpt, emphasis is mine: “When discussion turned to who would be chosen to lead the order as High Priestess, it was decided that it should be someone who had ***good relations with the commoners in her acquaintance and who could convince them to share their powerful, albeit vulgar, secret magic***. Clutterbuck was chosen to lead one of many New Forest covens formed that night.” It is possible that Old Dorothy learned about witchcraft and Paganism from the working-class people in her community, and then taught those traditions to Gardner. (Other accounts state that Gardner did not meet Crowley until 1947; it is possible that Arnold Crowther, another friend of Gardner’s, was mistaken for Crowley.)

In her popular book _Witchcraft for Tomorrow_, Gardner’s protégé Doreen Valiente worked to authenticate many of Gardner’s sources for Wicca, including the origin of his teacher. Previous to Valiente’s research, some scholars doubted that Old Dorothy really existed at all. Valiente found several documents verifying that Dorothy Clutterbuck was a real person, who actually lived in the New Forest district of England. (More on this topic later.)

In the book _Ritual Magic in England_, published in 1970, author Francis King states that he’d encountered a British coven also known to Aleister Crowley and novelist Louis Marlow. King described the witches’ use of hallucinogenic herbs and protective rituals, and concluded that “There had been a fusion of an authentic surviving folk-tradition with a more middle-class occultism”. Prolific writer Sybil Leek also wrote about an existing British witchcraft society in which her family claimed membership. Although she didn’t know Gardner well, Leek had a childhood friendship with Crowley.

Philip Heselton, an amateur historian, professional geologist, and Gardnerian Wicca initiate, thoroughly examined Gardner’s own papers, many of which are currently owned by Mrs. Tamara James of Canada. These documents include letters, scholarly essays, rituals, and an early copy of Gardner’s _Book of Shadows_. In one private letter, Gardner wrote to Cecil Williamson about purchasing land for his own “Witchcraft Museum”, where he could allow people to “try the old Witch dances”, or folk dances with a ritual significance. Heselton also found diaries written by Gardner’s associates linking them to Pagan affiliations. This evidence led him to the conclusion that Gardner really was involved with British hereditary Pagans, and that part of Wicca was based on their rituals. Because these rites and lore were not entirely complete, Heselton concurs that Gardner added additional material to supplement the ceremonies.

Gardner also authored several essays on “witchcraft relics” or artifacts, which he presented to the various folklore societies in which he was involved. Many such magically significant artifacts can be found throughout the British Isles. Some of these items were created in the early twentieth century, including ritual tools and protective talismans, confirming that witchcraft practice existed well into modern times. For example, pentagram sigils are inscribed in the fireplace plaster of a croft (cottage) built in 1910 near the New Forest where Gardener’s coven-mates lived. A local museum curator stated that the pentagrams were etched above the mantle to protect the home from “evil” coming down the chimney. “Witch bottles” in containers dating from the early 1700s to the 1940s have been discovered in the attics, chimneys and walls of remodeled buildings throughout Britain. Other twentieth-century “witchcraft relics” have been found, including hex signs, poppets, magic mirrors, amulets, “witches’ pegs” and written spells. Anthropologists speculate that these items were believed to prevent harmful magic and create good health and other desirable conditions.

In the Witchcraft Museum currently located in Cornwall, there are displays of ritual items belonging to people who were purported to have taught Gardner and Crowley about magic and witchcraft. Other ritual implements found in the museum are much older, dating from the Renaissance to the late 19th century. Some of these artifacts were donated prior to the publication of Gardner’s books, and may have been an inspiration for his writings. Other items used for the practice of witchcraft were contributed to the museum during the late 40s until the 1950s, as witchcraft became popularized. Some of Gardner’s own ritual objects were purchased after his death by the Ripley’s “Believe it or Not” Museum. A few of these items are currently available for sale on e-Bay.

There is also considerable sociological evidence for the existence of hereditary Pagan practice in Gardner’s era. Working-class customs such as “hoodening”, performing traditional dances while wearing animal skins or skulls, survived throughout Great Britain until the late 1930s and were extensively photographed, especially in Wales, Cornwall, and in rural Derbyshire and Kent in England. Scores of holiday customs, legends, music, folklore, recipes and tales pertaining to magical beliefs or Pagan practices continued well into Gardner’s day. Some of these customs are familiar to us as components of the Wiccan rituals made popular by Gardner, Valiente, Buckland and Alexander Saunders. (More on this topic later, too.)

Though some scholars consider him fraudulent, Gerald Gardner’s greatest accomplishment was melding fragments of pre-Christian rituals, customs and legends into a cohesive whole, with poetic “laws” used as cement. He was one of the first popular writers to link the practice of magic, the worship of elder gods, and the celebration of the seasons, which many people find spiritually rewarding today. He also brought Paganism into the consciousness of the general public in Great Britain, Australia and North America.

The next essay in this series will be PART 2: Gardner's Sources... and Inventions

Google anything and everything I've written here. You may find differing or conflicting information. Look it up in the library. Check local museums. Don't take anyone's word for it... draw your own conclusions.

Copyright: Copyleft 2006 by A.C. Aldag. Reproduce as you will, just please give me credit.


A.C. Fisher Aldag

Location: Bangor, Michigan


Author's Profile: To learn more about A.C. Fisher Aldag - Click HERE

Bio: Some of the ceremonies mentioned in this article were performed by A.C. and her family long before they became popular with modern Wiccans. Ace has appeared as the Crone (Besom Betty) in local folkplays and ceremonies since 1989, at least fifteen years before photos of this archetype appeared on the Internet. These photographs are believed to have been taken in England around 1910. Caer na Donia y Llew, a legal Pagan church in southwestern Michigan, is one organization working to preserve and revive the artform of ritual theatre. We sincerely hope that modern Wiccans and other neo-Pagans enjoy the revival of hereditary Pagan practice!

Other Articles: A.C. Fisher Aldag has posted 16 additional articles- View them?

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