Another Pagan History -- What's Really Old, and What Likely Ain't (PART 2)
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Article ID: 11288
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Author: A.C. Fisher Aldag
Posted: November 26th. 2006
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Gardner's Sources... and Inventions
In the first essay of this series, we explored the possibility that Gerald Gardner, Aleister Crowley, and other modern occultists might have actually known some authentic hereditary Pagans practicing witchcraft in the British Isles. We also took a look at the study of folklore, and its impact on British Traditional Witchcraft and Wicca. It is very likely that some of the material used in modern Wicca really is old, and really did survive into the 1930s in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Much of modern neo-Paganism was derived from the common folk magic practice of individuals living in the last two centuries.
This time, we'll discuss the possible origins of many Wiccan rituals, symbols, and magickal tools. Some of these popular neo-Pagan implements were brought into modern use by way of secret societies or occult lodges, such as the Freemasons, the Golden Dawn, or the Theosophists. Other ceremonies, tools and beliefs came from different cultures. However, many of the rituals, spells and magickal items associated with Gardnerian Wicca really did come from the traditional witchcraft of the British Isles which survived well into the 20th century. Here are a few of...
Gardner’s Sources – and Inventions:
Initiation – Much of the Gardnerian _Book of Shadows_ is devoted to initiation rituals. There is some disagreement about Gardner’s purported teacher and initiator, who was called “Dafo” within the New Forest Coven. Some believe that Dorothy Clutterbuck Fordham was responsible, others state that she was a priestess or merely owned the home where Gardner’s coven was said to have met. Some historians doubted Old Dorothy’s actual existence, but other scholars have proved that she was a real person. Doreen Valiente found Old Dorothy’s birth certificate, death certificate, and records of her marriage and address. Dorothy was a wealthy English woman, raised in India, who owned property in the New Forest district. Her house really is located where Gardner said it was. Philip Heselton discovered Clutterbuck’s journals, and pointed out several entries implying a connection to Paganism. He also interviewed members of secret societies who met at Dorothy’s home, including the Rosicrucian Fellowship of Croatona, a magical lodge which Gardner belonged to. However, there is no solid proof that Old Dorothy actually was Gardner’s witchcraft teacher, or a member of the New Forest Coven, let alone that she initiated Gardner into Wicca in 1939. There is some evidence that Gardner’s initiator may have been Edith Woodford-Grimes, a young music teacher who would have endured terrible social stigma and possibly forced unemployment if she had been publicly associated with witchcraft in the 1940s.
Old Dorothy died in 1951, three years before Gardner published _Witchcraft Today_, the first public non-fiction book about Wicca. Dorothy willed her ritual tools to the Witchcraft Museum, which was then Cecil Williams’s Museum of Folklore and Superstition. Some scholars have claimed that Dorothy’s heirs said that she was never a Witch. This is untrue, as several of the recipients of Clutterbuck’s estate were members of the Craft. It’s possible that Dorothy really did initiate Gardner into an existing witchcraft tradition, or that she was present when Dafo performed the initiation ceremony.
It must be noted that much of Gardner’s initiatory material came from the Freemasons, Crowley’s Ordo Templi Orientis, the Knights Templar, and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. However, the Gardnerian tradition of male-to-female initiation seems to be unique to magical systems. Several of the purported pre-Gardnerian covens had initiation rituals which included sacred sexuality. Many older Pagan religions have initiation ceremonies, including rites of passage and apprenticeship rituals for certain professions such as carpentry and masonry. The Freemasons pattern their society after these building trades. My suggestion is that the Wiccan initiation is fashioned from Masonic tradition, which is in turn based on the practice of working-class pre-Christian craft guilds.
Scourging – The Wiccan initiatory ceremony includes being “scourged” or lightly switched with a leather whip somewhat like a cat o’ nine tails. This custom may have come from “rough music” or “skimmity riding”, the working-class punishment for wife beaters, adulterers and general nuisances. It also may have an origin in the autumn tradition of spanking a farmer with a sheaf of grain, a good-natured prank for being the last man to bring in the harvest. Scourging was a part of the Twelfth Night festivities, performed by the “Lord of Misrule”. During the Roman festival of Lupercalia, men dressed in animal skins ran through town, striking women with whips to increase fertility. In his original Book of Shadows, Gardner makes reference to the Knights Templar practicing the scourging rite. Wiccans tell me the scourge represents the symbolic ritual tool of Osirus. It may have come from the threshing flail, a farming tool used to knock the grain from the chaff. Or it might just be related to plain ol’ BDSM.
Circle – The Wiccan ritual of “casting circle” very possibly came from the rites of the Golden Dawn. Creating boundaries to contain magical energy or restrict outside influence is a Hermetic practice borrowed from such sources as The Key of Solomon. There are several references to the practice in other old magical books. The Knights Templar supposedly used a sword to outline their ritual circles, but it’s impossible to know the source of this rite, as most of their records were burned.
Meeting in a circle is common among earth religions worldwide, including Native American and Native African spirituality. Older mystic ceremonies advocate shielding and protection, as well as creating a safe space for the practice of magic. The book _Anglo-Saxon Magic_, published in 1948 by Gotfried (Godfrid) Stroms, includes using a metal knife to inscribe a circle before performing folk magic. Woodcut printings depict Medieval European witches gathering in a circle, or invoking entities within a clearly outlined circular ritual space. There are hundreds of stone circles found throughout Europe, thought to be sacred sites. Many folk dances are performed in a circle, and some of these are believed by anthropologists to have religious significance. A stone-age rock engraving in the cave of Adduaura in Pallermo, Italy shows what appears to be a circle of ritual dancers. The British folk dances “The Witches’ Reel” and “Thread the Needle” are quite similar to ritual dances described in Gerald Gardner’s or Alexander Saunders’s _Book of Shadows_.
The word Wicca – It really does come from the Old English word for sorcery and divination. Its root is the Indo-European word “wiek” for bender or shaper, which also had the connotation of soothsayer. This is the same root word for wicker, as in bent willow furniture. One of the offshoots of the word is “villein”, which doesn’t mean a movie bad-guy character, but a working-class serf of the late Middle Ages.
Gardner may have borrowed the word Wicca from Charles Leland, the folklorist best known for his study of the Italian Stregheria tradition. In 1891, Leland wrote _Gypsy Sorcery and Fortune Telling_, which contained the first modern reference to Wicca as a word for a male witch, and Wicce as a female witch. Since Gardner originally wrote the word as “Wica”, he may have heard it spoken aloud, rather than read it in a book, and thus spelled it phonetically as he wrote it down.
Wicca may also have a root in the Anglo-Saxon words wite, meaning wise, or witega, meaning sorcerer, magician or seer. It may have derived from the Saxon word witten, or council of law and commerce. But there is no way that Wicca was originally pronounced “wick-a”, as none of the Germanic languages have or had a “W” sound. The double-c was pronounced as “ch”, so it may have been “vitch-ah”. The word wice, in an old Scots dialect, means wise, which may have a Pictish origin. In the Welsh language, the term for a magic-user is gwyddon (pronounced goo-with-on) , and a witch is a hag or gwrach, which has the same root as wife. There are similar words in other languages that may reflect the origin of the word Witch. Most of them fell out of use until modern times, although the term “witchcraft” was widely used in Britain for both the stereotype and the actual practice of folk magic throughout written history. It’s possible that Gardner used the term Witch purely for sensationalism.
Ritual Nudity – This may be an older custom, as nudity was no big deal to pre-Christian people. The Celts and Picts went naked into battle, according to letters written to Julius Caesar. Many prehistoric statues and other artifacts represent the nude human figure. Leland made references to ritual nudity in _Aradia, Gospel of the Witches_. Using a naked woman as an altar was an accusation of many a witch trial. This rite was actually practiced by Madame de Mountespan, one of the mistresses of King Louis XIV, who kept a practicing witch called Catherine la Voisin at court. Folklorists tell me that the custom of running naked through fields to promote crop fertility was practiced in Britain and North America until the 1930s. Gardner belonged to a “Naturist” or nudist club in the mid-1940s, and may have incorporated the practice of nudity into the Wiccan religion.
The symbolic Great Rite – may be an older earth religious tradition, or Gardner may have gotten it from the Holy Grail legends, the Gnostic Mass or Hermeticism. The actual great rite – ritual sexuality – may have come from Hindu practice of Tantra, or the Greek “Heiros Gamus” rite of fertility. There were several documented Priappic cults in existence in ancient Europe, so Gardner’s sacred sexuality has a valid basis. The ritual has connections with Mayday rites. Making love in a plowed field or woodland was a common folk custom into the modern day… King James I and IV of Scotland and England forbid it as a Pagan act; and one bawdy song from 1930s dust-bowl depression America insists that the “Oakies” didn’t practice it correctly!
Masonic Influences – The words “So Mote It Be” come from Masonic ceremonies, as do several Wiccan sigils. The Challenge, the Oath, and some of the ritual tools have roots in Freemasonry. Much of the initiatory ceremonies, as well as the three-degree system, are lifted verbatim. Even the term “The Craft” can be attributed to this source, as the Masons borrowed the term from the stonemasonry craft. The Masonic fraternity was originally derived from the trade-guild of stonecutters, builders and carvers, who were all working-class individuals. Perhaps some of their rituals were originally intended to maintain the folk magic related to the building trades.
Ritual Tools – Were influenced by the Masons, but may also be related to the swords, spears, and cauldrons of Celtic legend.
The Athame may have come from the Malaysian ritual knife or “keris”, or the Sikh ritual dagger or “kirpan”, which is used to fight spiritual demons, or it might have been patterned after the Scottish dirk. Gardner wrote a scholarly pamphlet about the former. The athame may also be related to the “boleen” or “boline” c, a white-handled knife used as a tool. This also was a name for the sickle used by Druids to cut sacred herbs. It is mentioned as an “arthame” in the Key of Solomon. The name may have come from the Middle English word “arthame” or blade, which perhaps relates to the before-mentioned Saxon practice of inscribing a circle with an iron knife. Author C.J.S. Thompson wrote in _The Mysteries and Secrets of Magic_ about the use of an athame in 1927. Our family is in possession of a ritual knife dating from the Bronze Age, similar to those found in British Island sacred sites.
The cup, or chalice, may have derived from the Holy Grail legend, the Knights Templar rituals, or the Christian Mass. It is possible that chalices refer to the cauldrons of Celtic mythology. The cauldron itself was a common kitchen tool in rural households. It may have represented a womb.
The magic wand is Hermetic. The wand or staff may also have come from the forked “stang”, or cattle goad. Stang simply means stick in Latin by way of Northern England and Scotland. The wand or staff may also have come from the shepherd’s crook, or the Cornish “gwelen” and Saxon “ermula”, a staff with an antler affixed to the top. In fairy tales this was sometimes referred to as a “moon rake”. An older staff which belonged to Gardner can be found in Ripley’s "Believe It or Not" museum. Possibly the besom or broomstick was once used in the same manner as a staff or stang, for channeling power, or it may have been used as a separate tool for banishing harmful influences. Gardner referred to a broom used as a hobby horse in a ritual dance for crop fertility. Several folkplays allude to a besom used to chase away “evil spirits”. In African American culture, “jumping the broom” is a rite of marriage. A similar custom existed among the English peasantry. The besom was called “the fairy steed” in Ireland. A wooden pitchfork with four tines was used for “tossing away evil” in the West Country of England. In some Wiccan traditions, the magic wand is described as shaped like a phallus, and several older wands have been discovered with this significance.
The red garter as a sign of recognition probably is old; it was a symbol for an herbalist or abortionist during the middle ages.
The pentacle may be an older traditional object, based on sacred stones of the Celts or discs of the Greeks and Romans. It is sometimes referred to as a shield or platter. Pentacles, Wands, Swords, and Cups are the four suits of the Tarot deck, as well as Hermetic “weapons” and alchemical symbols. (See ‘pentagram” below.)
The Pentagram – or five-pointed star, is a Hermetic sigil, found in the Key of Solomon. It is also a stonemason’s mark. Gardner may have borrowed it from either source. However, the symbol is much older. There are pentagrams inscribed on 5, 500-year-old pottery shards from Mesopotamia, and on numerous Greek and Roman artifacts. A five-pointed star was inscribed on the gates of Jerusalem as a ritual seal. Pythagoras wrote about its mathematical significance. A second-century C.E. Romano-British coin depicts a horse with a pentagram. Pliny the Elder called it “the Druid’s egg”. The Benedictines believed the pentagram to represent the human physical body. Leonardo DaVinci used it in his anatomical drawings. (Read Dan Brown’s enjoyable book _The DaVinci Code_ for his extensive pentagram references.) In Medieval days it was called “the endless knot” and used as an amulet or a protective talisman above doorways and windows. Various grimoires refer to the pentagram as a magical symbol. It wasn’t until the time of the Inquisition that the pentagram became a symbol representing the Christian devil, or more accurately, Baphomet. Interestingly, the pentagram was also a sigil of the Virgin Mary or the five wounds of Christ. In the 1380 British poem _Sir Gawain and the Green Knight_, the Arthurian hero is said to have painted a five-pointed star on his shield. While the Gawain of literature is portrayed as a Christian, he appears in several older Celtic legends as a Pagan. In Austria and Germany, the five-pointed star was used by the peasantry as a protection symbol. A painting by Anton Lutz from the early twentieth century depicts a pentagram painted on a baby cradle in an Austrian farmer’s croft. Rudolf Koch called it “the witch’s foot” in _The Book of Signs_, published in 1930. And let’s not forget those pentagrams inscribed on the chimney wall of the New Forest cottage, mentioned previously.
Cakes and Wine – There are many pre-Christian food blessings, prayers, and oaths sworn over a glass of ale or a platter of bread. The Wiccan “eucharist” is believed to have been borrowed from the Catholics, who actually modeled the rite on the Celtic ritual blessings of food and grain during agrarian festivals. Celtic Christianity borrowed a great deal from Pagan custom. Gardner borrowed it back.
Directions / Elements – The concept of sacred directions and magical elements is an older one, and believed by people of many cultures. The elemental creatures of gnomes, sylphs, salamanders, and undines are from the Greek myths by way of Hermeticism, and also have alchemical connections. The four winds, Boreas, Zephyrus, Eurus and Notarus come from Roman legends. The Archangels representing the directions are from the Jewish Kabalistic mystical system. The Watchtowers were featured in Golden Dawn ceremonies, which borrowed them from the Medieval idea of angelic Watchers, who may have originally been Greek. Native Americans honor the compass points and four winds during ceremonial Pow-Wow dances, which may have inspired Gardner during his visit to North America. Or he may have gotten the idea from the Rosicrucians, whose holy symbols include the “compass rose” of thirty-two directions featuring four “cardinal” points. Other religious traditions have three, five or more sacred elements. The Chinese elements are water, earth, fire, wood and metal. Pre-Roman Celtic lore noted only three directions: Earth, Sea and Sky, which were related to spirits and holy objects. However there are many depictions of four compass points in older artwork, including the equal-armed Celtic cross. Several of the stone monuments, including the ring of Avebury, have features corresponding to the cardinal directions. Astrology and Numerology, both of which were revived in the 1800s, also figure into Gardner’s elemental structure.
Spiritualism – An old practice of many cultures, revived in the Victorian era by mediums and spiritualists, many of whom were frauds. Gardner believed in spiritualism and contacting ghosts and other unseen beings.
In the next installment of "Another History of Modern Paganism, PART 3", I will present many other symbols, beliefs, ritual implements and spells associated with modern neo-Pagan religions such as Wicca. What's really old, and what likely ain't? Topics will include the Priest and Priestess, Grimoires, the Rede and the Law, Covens, Chants, Drawing Down the Moon, and more. What's really old? You might be surprised!
For more sources, please Google everything I've written, and read various books including Gardner's _Book of Shadows_ and _Witchcraft Today_. Read his detractors, including Aidan Kelly's _Crafting the Art of Magic_ and works by Ronald Hutton. Then read THEIR critics, including Jani Farrell-Roberts, Max Dashu, and Donald Hudson Frew. Read _Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration_ by Philip Hesselton. Look up stuff online... try different combinations, such as "British" + "Folklore" and "English" + "Folklore". Happy Hunting.
Copyright: Copyleft 2006 by A.C. Aldag. Please reprint as you will, but please give me credit.
A.C. Fisher Aldag
Location: Bangor, Michigan
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Bio: A.C. Aldag is one of the founders of Caer na Donia y Llew, a legal Pagan church in Southwestern Michigan. Caer is currently re-creating some of the older Pagan rites of the British Isles for practitioners' and onlookers' enjoyment.
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