Another Pagan History... What's Really Old, and What Likely Ain't PART 3
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Article ID: 11289
Age Group: Adult
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Author: A.C. Fisher Aldag
Posted: December 3rd. 2006
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This is part three in a series of essays about the likely age and origins of common neo-Pagan rituals, magical tools, beliefs, spells, and liturgy. This article is the second segment of "Gardner's Sources... and Inventions". Last time, we talked about the Circle, initiations, the Great Rite, the directions and elements, and the ritual implements commonly used by Wiccans in their ceremonies. Some of these things have their origin in magical fraternities, such as the Golden Dawn. Others can be traced to various cultures, including Malaysian, East Indian and Native American Indian societies. However, many of the common neo-Pagan and Wiccan rites, tools, chants and beliefs really do come from British Traditional Witchcraft and the folkloric religions of individuals who lived right up to the 20th century. Which leads us to...
More of Gardner's Sources... and Inventions:
High Priest and High Priestess – Likely an invention. Most pre-Christian rituals were performed by one leader, or a group of theatrical performers acting out sacred legends. Shamanic rites are usually performed solo. (Yes, I know that they weren’t called “shaman” in Britain. This term originally came from a language called Tungus, now extinct, and refers to indigenous peoples’ spirit journeys. But for expediency’s sake, I’m going to use the words people are most familiar with.) Gerald Gardner’s original term for the role of leader was “magus”, referring to a male, borrowed from ceremonial magic. Nevertheless, in many non-Abrahamic cultures the ritual leaders may be either female or male. There were Priestesses and Priests dedicated to individual gods in Sumeria, Greece, Rome and other ancient civilizations. According to Julius Caesar’s documentation, the Druids were both male and female. Shamanic practitioners of intact Pagan cultures are both genders. Gardner’s idea of Priest and Priestess, duality and polarity may have been derived from the older rituals relating to sacred sexuality and fertility, including the rite of Heiros Gamos or Tantra. Aleister Crowley’s "Gnostic Mass" required a male priest and female priestess, and Gardner may have borrowed from this source.
Grimoire or Book of Shadows – A few fragmentary “recipes” for spells or amulets exist from Egypt and Greece dated to the 4th century C.E., hand-printed on papyrus, but no real grimoires appeared until the late middle ages. The oldest magical texts were found in the Middle East from around the 1400s, painted on parchment or animal skin. There are also some sacred texts of India from this time period, inscribed in Sanskrit on palm leaves. There were few magical books published in the British Isles, although numerous grimoires were printed in Italy and France during Medieval days. _The Key of Solomon_ was first published in the late 1400s, but this manual contained heavy doses of Judaism and Christianity. Henry (Henri, Heinrich) Cornelius Agrippa’s _Three Books of Occult Philosophy_ were published in 1531, and may have influenced later magic-users. Other written works of poetry and legend from Medieval times exist in Europe, not mass-produced but handmade.
Not that most people would have been able to read them. English law in the middle ages forbade “villeins” or commoners to educate their children. Until the late 1700s, most of the working-class people of Britain were functionally illiterate. The invention of the printing press initiated the reproduction of some of the old tales and herbal manuals, but even after the advent of public schools, paper was a scarce commodity, and books were beyond the financial means of most laborers and tradesmen. Books including the _Bible_ and the works of Shakespeare were owned by few families until the nineteenth century.
The word grimoire probably came from “grammar”, but may also be connected to Grim, a colloquial name for the gods Arawn or Odin. It has also been spelled “gramarye”. Gardner may have gotten the name “Book of Shadows” out of a magazine about Eastern mysticism published in the 1940s. The oldest grimoire or “black book” probably dates from the late 1700s. One such mystery journal still exists in the Cornish Witchcraft Museum. Magical tomes for the scholar became popular in the mid-1800s, but many did not contain authentic information. Current Craft grimoires may have come from individual families’ oral traditions. If one excludes the initiation ceremonies, much of the magical information can be found in older sources, including spells and magical recipes. Gardner himself stated that his “Ye Bok of Ye Arts Magickal” wasn’t to be equated with the _Bible_ or _Koran_, but rather a personal recipe book of spells that worked for him, with the purpose “to get you started”.
The Rede and the Law – Most of the poetic laws, from the Rede to the Ardanes, I believe are Gardner’s own writing. However, their subject matter was inspired by actual lore and pre-Christian tradition. Some of the language is arcane, and may have been cribbed from older documents, or the words may have been still used by hereditary Pagans of that era. The threefold aspect of the Law of Return may have come from Celtic Triads, poetic ideals containing three lines or three specific concepts.
“Do as Thou Wilt” was borrowed from Aleister Crowley, who wrote “Do as thou wilt is the whole of the law; love is the law, love under will” in 1904. Crowley very likely stole this line from Francois Rabelais, who wrote it in 1534, or St. Augustine, who gave a similar edict. Gardner first made reference to this command as “Do as you like, so long as you harm no one”, in his book _The Meaning of Witchcraft_, which he attributed to “Good King Paulsol”. The quote actually came from a character called _King Pausole_ in a book by the French novelist Pierre Louys. “Harm None” was also found as a law in Gardner’s Book of Shadows.
The famous eight-word Rede “An it harm none, do as you will” can be attributed to Doreen Valiente in a speech she made in 1964. The entire Rede in poetic verse was published by _Green Egg Magazine_ in 1975 and is attributed to Lady Gwynn (Gwen, Phyllis) Thompson. This was also the first time it was called the “Rede”, meaning a creed or tenet. Thompson, a Wiccan priestess who claimed a family lineage of Celtic witchcraft, either authored the Rede or received it from her ancestor, Adriana Porter. While some of the wording is archaic, the poem may be a more recent invention, since the word “Wiccan” is used. It is possible that Valiente, Thompson and others wrote down the Rede from memory, then added their own embellishments. Thompson’s poem also contained the philosophy of “Perfect Love and Perfect Trust” and the popular “Merry Meet and Merry Part”.
Blessed Be – Very likely came from the _Bible_.
Oak, Ash and Thorn – Was borrowed from Rudyard Kipling’s A Tree Poem in the novelette _Puck of Pook’s Hill_. Although Kipling was a Christian, he wrote several odes to the Goddess, a poem about a working-class man drafted as a soldier called “Chant-Pagan”, and stories featuring Pagan characters and legends from India, Africa and Europe. However, the three trees are used together in a charm for protection which predates Kipling’s birth.
Herbalism – Many of the herbal unguents or potions listed in Gardner’s _Book of Shadows_ seem to be authentic, as are his suggestions for psychic healing. Some of his descriptions are similar to modern-day herbalism, hypnosis, neural-linguistic programming, and the power of suggestion. Gardner likely got these ideas from herbalists, “granny” healers or “old wives”, who may have still been practicing their Craft amongst the working classes in Britain.
Coven – Margaret Murray claimed to have found several references in the witch trial transcripts to covens of thirteen witches, but in an actual count, there were only a couple, most notably the trial of Isabel Gowdie in 1662. Nonetheless, the name seems to have some prior use. The word came from the Latin “convenire”, which means to agree or assemble. The French terms “covenant” and “convent” arose from this root word. Coven could have fallen into general usage as a dialect pronunciation of “convene”. Several Irish folktales include six pairs of fairies or magical beings dancing and copulating in the presence of one “man in black” or fairy king, which may have set a precedent for the witch coven of thirteen. Witches in Venice met to talk shop, including the exchange of recipes and spells, according to one witch trial transcript.
Mother Goddess – Gardner wrote that his belief in the gods was a “personification of cosmic power”, rather than an absolute belief in a Great Mother or God of the Hunt. It is probable that Gardner borrowed the idea of Goddess from Dr. Murray’s anthropology books, from Dion Fortune’s _The Sea Priestess_, or from the writings of James Frazer, Charles Leland, Aleister Crowley or Robert Graves, but he may also have encountered goddess worship by speaking to hereditary Pagans. Many pre-Christian legends, poems and songs about goddesses were common among the British working class. There are dozens of goddess images, place-names and legends surviving in the U.K. to the current era, some of which are unique to one locality, others widespread throughout the Islands. Gardner pointed out that the British pantheons were often local or tribe-specific. He tended to combine Diana, Aradia, Brighid, Cerridwen, Arianrhod and the Matronae as one goddess figure, identifying them as British, although many were actually Romano-British, including Diana. The Church wrote about women who worshipped “Diana, a goddess of the pagans” in 906 C.E. In the text of a witch trial from the sixteenth century, an English woman is accused of worshipping “Diana, goddess of the pagans”.
Most of the feminist content of Gardnerian Wicca, including the “Charge of the Goddess”, was added by Ms. Valiente. A similar, but not identical invocation is found in Leland’s _Aradia_. The “Descent of the Goddess into the Underworld” was borrowed from Crowley’s “Gnostic Mass”, which likely came from the legends of Inanna, Persephone, Kore or Rhiannon. This idea may have been lifted from the Egyptian Isis and Osirus legend. However not all traditional witches believed in a Goddess or a God, instead personifying Nature as divine. (Please see ‘Mother Goddess”, which will appear in a subsequent essay.)
Drawing Down the Moon – This may have been an ancient belief. The Hindu concept of the Avatar means that an individual ritualistically “becomes” another entity, or takes on the aspect of a deity. Different versions of this ceremony are performed by the spiritual leaders of many cultures. Allowing oneself to be possessed by a god, spirit or animal totem during a ceremony is a very old shamanic practice. Anthropologists and sociologists who study ritual, sacred masks, dances and spiritual theatrics of various societies have extensively documented the avatar phenomenon. The Roman writer Horace wrote that witches had the ability to call the moon down from the sky. A Bronze Age vase found in Greece depicts two women performing the Moon ritual. Doreen Valiente likely wrote the Wiccan ceremony, borrowed from Crowley and other sources, which may in turn be based on an older custom.
Deosil and Widdershins: Deosil, sometimes spelled “deasol”, may have come from the Latin “deo” as a name for a god and “sol” for the sun. In an Irish dialect, it meant to dance sunwise and was pronounced jesh-ill. In Scotland it was called “southways”. Widdershins is from a late Germanic dialect and means to unwind, probably related to spinning bobbins. It has also been used as a term in folk dancing. The practice of moving clockwise or sunwise to invoke, and anticlockwise or anti-sunwise to banish, probably came from ceremonial magic.
Chants: In Gardner’s Book of Shadows, he discusses using sound to invoke magical energies. He was one of the first modern writers to make the connection between chanting and mental transformation. Several of his chants come from various folkloric sources and languages, including the Scots chant for fairies to return to their own realm, a Basque invocation, and rhymes documented in British witch trials.
Although we can look up most of these sources for ourselves, we still have no way to determine how each one actually contributed to the Wiccan religion. We have no concrete proof about which magical or religious practices Gerald Gardener read about in books, or discovered through study of artifacts, or what ceremonies he really witnessed firsthand. He may have found several diverse references to one particular item, such as the use of a ritual knife by Malaysians, East Indians, and Anglo Saxons. Or he might have just possessed a truly amazing imagination, and made everything up by himself.
No matter his sources, Gardner brought witchcraft and Paganism into the consciousness of the general public. Whether he revived or created these practices, he can be thanked for several philosophies unique to modern day earth religions: Gardner united the material and spiritual worlds, combining natural and ceremonial magic systems. He also instituted the concepts of ethics and law into magical practice.
In the next essay on "Another Pagan History... What's Really Old, and What Likely Ain't" PART 4, we will begin to explore the history of the Pagan holidays and / or Wiccan Sabbats. While some of the celebrations we enjoy today were recently invented; others are genuinely old, and were practiced for centuries in the British Islands. Other holiday traditions were brought to Britain, and thus to Wicca, from other lands. Some died out and were revived. Others survived into the present day, with little or no change.
What's really old, and what likely ain't? You decide! Please Google everything I've written, in various forms, such as "Pentacle", "Pentagram", "Pentangle". Read Gerald Gardner's work, read authors who've studied Pagan history, look at images online. Read Gardner's detractors and supporters. Read other authors who disagree with the "experts". Look up some museum sites. Read the books mentioned in these articles. Have fun!
Copyright: Copyleft by A.C. Aldag, 2006. You can reprint anything I've written in the "Another Pagan History" series, but please give credit where credit is due.
A.C. Fisher Aldag
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