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Another Pagan History -- What's Really Old, and What Likely Ain't (FINALE)

Author: A.C. Fisher Aldag
Posted: March 11th. 2007
Times Viewed: 4,919

In the final segment of "Another Pagan History", (part 17) we'll look at some family traditions of magic, check out a couple of historic revivals of Paganism, explore some pre-Christian religions that survived in Europe, and take a stab at how Witchcraft made its way to America. I draw a few conclusions based on my research. Readers give me some changes, corrections, and additions to my material. I'll also offer some suggestions about how to reasearch earth-based spirituality and customs for yourself.

“It’s a Family Tradition” (with apologies to Hank Williams Jr.)

Dr. Margaret Murray may have been incorrect about the scope and structure of the underground folkloric and / or witchcraft traditions, but it’s obvious that many Pagan customs endured into the modern age. Rather than an organized religion practiced by covens of thirteen with one central leader, it is much more likely that small bodies of lore were handed down through families, apprenticeships or within remote villages. Holiday celebrations seemed to continue unbroken, mostly in rural locations such as Derbyshire farming communities, Cornish villages and small Welsh towns, where many of the citizens participated. Urban areas had their own witches, cunning folk or fairy doctors as well, mostly practicing in enclaves within ethnic neighborhoods. In his book _Witchcraft, Magic and Culture 1736 to 1951_, author Owen Davies presents extensive evidence that folk magic was practiced in England well into the modern era, especially in London. Herbalism, charms and spells were taught to individual students. Legends were told orally to children as fairy tales. These folkways were limited mostly to the working classes. Other people, especially the wealthy and educated, were just not that interested.

The “Age of Reason” did some damage to folk religious practice and the common people’s belief in witchcraft and magic. Such things were considered backward, superstitious nonsense by the more educated and wealthy classes. Nature was viewed as a force to be conquered, not as a holy power to be worshipped. With the advent of public schools, children were encouraged to abandon the outmoded ways of their ancestors. The Witchcraft Act further eroded the practice of magic, by declaring that fortune-telling, lifting curses, selling charms and other such pursuits were an attempt to dupe the gullible, and therefore witchcraft was declared illegal as an act of fraud. Folklore was on the decline by the 1840s, when academics began to study the older customs and legends in earnest. However, the real demise of folkloric religions in Britain did not occur until the early twentieth century. The culprits were the widespread broadcast of radio programs, the onset of television, and two devastating world wars which decimated the population of young working-class men. Secular pastimes supplanted earth-based religious gatherings, and the media replaced oral literature. Rather than being destroyed by Christian persecution, the mass practice of hereditary Paganism was quite probably the victim of attrition.

Some traditions were fortunately documented in the modern era by folklorists such as Frazer, Bonwick and Carmichael, and poets or prose authors such as Burns, Scott, Browning, Yeats, Kipling and Graves. Cecil Sharpe recorded many ritual dances, including the Morris, as well as folk songs and music. Other customs were preserved by town councils, folklore societies and individual families. A great deal of folk knowledge likely remained intact, more than some historians might suppose. Since the Celtic languages and culture have not died out, despite the efforts of the dominant government to supplant them with the English language and an anglicized cultural system, we can surmise that the pre-Christian religious traditions did not completely die out, either. Even though Irish jigs and Welsh ballads weren’t played on the radio, their tunes were preserved by individual family musicians. Most of the people interviewed by folklorists stated that they got the information about their cultural traditions from family members or neighbors, rather than books or the classroom. If the music endured within families, it is likely that the magic did too.

Robert Trubshaw’s article “Paganism in British Folk Traditions” attempts to determine what religious customs were new, which practices were revivals, and which ones were genuinely old. Although Mr. Trubshaw does not accept parallelism or any other source unless written proof is provided, he suggests that Christianity did not completely replace indigenous Pagan religion, but that the two co-existed side by side until fairly recent times. Trubshaw believes that many of the old practices were so common, they simply were not reported in public sources such as legal records. Up until the eighteenth century, Pagan traditions were so ingrained in society as to not be newsworthy. Mr. Trubshaw further suggests that Paganism persisted as folk beliefs within families, not as an “organized religion” but as legend, lore, and “common superstition”.


Recently there have been many significant efforts to preserve and recover the old Celtic and Saxon languages, literature, music, customs and the religious rites of pre-Christian people. This is not a new thing – preservationists and reconstructivists have been making an attempt to save the old ways for nearly a thousand years.

In Wales, some practices were revived with the national Eisteddfod, or poetry festival, which was established after the Norman Conquest in the hope of preserving the Welsh language, culture, and Celtic Christianity, as well as Celtic Pagan traditions. The festival included re-telling the King Arthur tales, which were originally pre-Christian legends. Some of the Welsh mythology was written down as The Mabinogion, a cycle of stories transcribed in Latinized Welsh. With the anglicization of Wales, the Eisteddfod petered out, until it was revived in 1792 by Edward Williams, whose Welsh Bardic name was Iolo Morganwg. (He was also called Myfyr.) A stonemason by profession, Mr. Morganwg had an interest in Welsh folklore, language and custom, as well as the Druids. He drew upon the folk traditions of working-class people, the romanticized Arthurian stories, the poetry of historic bards, local legend and customs, and original works. Myfyr appointed an “Arch-Druid” to oversee the Eisteddfod festivities, and speculated about ancient Druidic ceremonies, including the possibility that they used stone monuments for their rituals. He drew conclusions about astronomy and the architecture of sacred sites, based on folklore, fully one hundred years before the discovery of the Sequani Calendar by archeologists in 1897. Some of Mr. Morganwg’s material was fabricated, but much of it may be an authentic representation of Pagan tradition. There is a current study, conducted by the University of Wales, to determine what of Morganwg’s works are authentic. As for now, it’s impossible to determine what is ancient and what has been recently created. Scholars can only guess.

In England, folklore societies are actively working to preserve the folkplays, dances, legends, harvest rituals, songs and traditions such as hoodening and the Mari Llwyd. Many town festivals and customs have been resurrected or have continued from olden times. Straw bears, plough Jacks, Mollys, pace eggers, Jack-in-the-Greens, Furry dancers, skeklers, May queens and horn dancers perform each year on their particular holiday. Wells are dressed, thorns are baumed, and maypoles are beribboned by schoolchildren learning about their cultural heritage. Morris societies are reviving the art form as well as inventing new dances for the enjoyment of participants and onlookers. To find some of the more popular celebrations, surf tourist websites and individual villages’ holiday notices. Several of the town council websites openly brag about their Pagan heritage. Others dismiss any connection to pre-Christian religions.

Modern Wiccans, Druids and other neo-Pagan groups have also re-created some of the older rituals. Check them out; many of their websites have amazing pictures and text. Some of them can be referenced through "the Witches' Voice" in the traditions section.

American Immigrants:

From the 1790s to the 1930s, thousands of people moved to America from Ireland, Wales, Scotland and the European continent. These immigrants carried many of their old family traditions and ethnic religions to the “new world”. Their folklore was most likely to survive in isolated places where there was not much formal education available, such as Appalachia, the upper peninsula of Michigan, the French Quarter of New Orleans, and northern New England. Newfoundland also has a rich heritage of magic. Farming families often had twelve or more children, some of whom were certain to be interested in preserving the old ways. This body of tradition includes music, crafts, recipes, holiday rituals and the practice of magic. For instance, Grandma’s double wedding ring quilt pattern may have been a form of Celtic knotwork, designed to protect the sleeper from bad dreams. Broom lore or use of a besom for magical purposes was documented by folklorists in the American regions of the Cumberland Gap and the Ozark Mountains in the 1950s. Divination practices using well water, moonlight, ordinary playing cards and Bible verses were common in rural areas right up to the 1960s. And don’t forget that dumb supper, documented in Appalachia. These older customs coexisted alongside modern Christianity, sometimes without the individual’s knowledge of their Pagan origins, but often with full appreciation of their history. Some of the immigrants married Native Americans and adapted their customs, as well. Many of these folk traditions are still alive today.

Numerous folklore societies and ethnic foundations exist here in the United States to preserve these ancient traditions. Often the material is not presented as a religion, but as a cultural heritage. There are many folklore web sites and cultural centers, sponsored by universities, the government, and private organizations. A good place to start is the American website , which contains a treasure trove of lore, folk music and arts, some of which can be purchased as copies. Included are a few pre-Christian Celtic customs, such as the origin of Halloween. There are also online sources through university folklore departments, at various neo-Pagan organizations and even here at the Witches’ Voice. Another great resource is talking to elders at ethnic gatherings, town festivals and local “old time” commercial stores like the small-town feed and grain elevator. Find the eldest person present, and politely ask them if they remember any Mayday celebrations, granny magic, folk crafts or harvest customs. Visit nursing homes and talk to the elderly residents. You might be surprised how many oldline Pagans you find!

We are the Old People, We are the New People:

Celtic and Saxon Paganism were not the only indigenous European religions to survive into modern times. The native shamans of what is now Russia, the folk magicians of the Balkan states, the Stregheria of Italy, the Saami of Scandinavia, the Basques of the mountains in Spain and France who still retain their native religion, the Travelers of Ireland, and the Romani (Gypsies) who migrate throughout the European continent, all continue to practice some form of their indigenous magio-religion. Russian shamans were persecuted by Stalin during the Communist anti-religion campaigns, and shamanic practice was outlawed in 1938. Today the Buryati and Tuvinian tribespeople of Siberia are reclaiming their traditions, and shamanism is enjoying a revival. The Mari people of Finland and Russia continue to practice their Pagan folk rituals, despite resistance from government authorities.

Although thousands of Romani were victims of the Nazi Holocaust, there are thriving communities in Europe and America in the present day. Their religion and culture contain elements of Christianity, Hinduism, Asian tribal beliefs, Islam, and nature spirituality, including the practice of divination and healing rituals. The Irish Travelers are nominally Roman Catholic, but also have their own ethnic language, culture and earth-based religious beliefs. They number around 24, 000 in Ireland, 15, 000 in Britain, and 7, 000 in the United States. The Pennsylvania Dutch (actually Germanic) Pow-Wow tradition has roots in pre-Christian magic. Dr. Marija Gimbutas found several surviving Pagan religions in eastern Europe, and helped to revive the ancient proto-Russian spiritual tradition from the Baltic nations, now called Romuva. There are also several other surviving folklore traditions from the Baltic and Slavic geographical areas. Many of these indigenous religions do not self-identify as “Pagan” or as witches because of the negative connotations of these words, or because they use their own designation for themselves.

There are also several magio-religions surviving in America that do not trace their descent from just Europe. The practice of Voudoun / Voodoo / Hoodoo flourishes in the American South, as well as Condomble, Santeria and other magical earth-based religions. Mexican-Americans have their curenderas or healers who use herbalism as well as prayer and magic to assist their patients. These traditions have their foundation in the cultures of Africa and the native Indian tribes of the Americas. Additional material may have been borrowed from the Spanish or French versions of Catholicism. Customs such as placing glass bottles over the branches of a tree, used to trap evil spirits, or smudging a room with smoke for purification came from these rich cultural heritages. Many parallels can be drawn between the magical practices of European Pagans and the worship rites of people the world over.

Conclusion – Who knows?!

In short, no one can conclusively state what our pre-historic ancestors did or did not practice as their religion. No one can really determine which rituals survived intact to modern times, either. Anyone can speculate. And anyone can debunk these theories, replacing them with their own educated guesses. Here are a few of mine:

*Many older customs survived in Britain right up to Gerald Gardner’s day. Some of these traditions were hidden or practiced covertly, but many were openly celebrated and photographed. More of these rituals had pre-Christian roots than previously believed.
*As an armchair folklorist, Gardner discovered several older British customs related to the use of magic, the celebration of the seasons and the worship of elder gods.
*Since he and his contemporaries thought that “primitive” rites or common practices wouldn’t interest modern readers, Gardner spiced things up by calling it witchcraft, and adding rituals from other sources, before publicizing it.
*Dr. Margaret Murray was on track when she suggested that some of the people interrogated during the witch trials were practicing a folkloric or magical religion. Their descriptions are quite close to such rites as hoodening, trancework, divination, healing, spellcrafting, ritual dances, cursing and so forth. However, Murray made a few erroneous conclusions. She apparently couldn’t count, because there are only a couple of references to covens of thirteen – most gatherings had more or fewer members. And what was up with that Joan of Arc idea, anyway?
*Although James Frazer was mistaken about the universal “sacrificial king” theory, he documented many seasonal rituals and modern references to the old gods, some of which had been photographed or otherwise corroborated.
*Some historians suggest that Charles G. Leland invented the Strega tradition and authored Aradia, Gospel of the Witches by himself, using made-up material. Yet his books on Gypsies and Algonquian Indian cultures are pretty darn accurate. This leads me to believe that the work on Italian witchcraft has merit, too.
*While not based on historic fact, The White Goddess by Robert Graves is worthwhile in comparing universal themes in Goddess cosmology.
*Even though the “Kurgan Hypothesis” was a turkey, Dr. Marija Gimbutas proved that women were important in prehistoric times, and that ancient people in Old Europe used religious symbols and were “civilized”. She also proved that several Pagan religions survived in Europe to the present day.
*These authors were supposedly discredited, and all of their theories debunked. Yet Murray’s writing on Egyptian civilization is still respected, Frazer’s comparative analysis of folklore and customs have often been verified, and Gimbutas’s theory of Indo-European migration is still one of the leading ideas in archeology. Some historians seem to be tossing the baby out with the bathwater in saying that these authors’ study of witchcraft, Paganism and goddess traditions are completely invalid.
*Iconic images of gods and goddesses, such as the horned beast-man and the sacred well were the focus of religious veneration right up to modern times.
* (This is just my own idea, and hasn’t any method of scientific verification) People believed in magic and described using energy in the legends of the Bronze and Iron ages, and people used ritual implements related to the practice of magic long afterward. Since people are using magic and directing energy nowadays, or transforming themselves through shamanic rituals, then I conclude that magic, energy and the Gods didn’t just disappear for a thousand years. Magic was around then, it’s still around now, and it’ll continue to be around in the future.

Changes, Corrections, Kudos and Additional Material, provided by readers:

I received a load of mail about this series, most of which could not be answered individually. So – thank you to everyone who took time to write! Because of readers, “Another Pagan History” has been reprinted on many sites, and is being used for several courses teaching witchcraft. The kudos and corrections were greatly appreciated.

There were a few typos contained within my essays, noticed by diligent readers. The folklore movement didn’t happen in the mid-1900s, of course, but the mid-1800s. I transposed letters on Aleister and Gimbutas more than once. The probable root word for witch is spelled weik, (pronounced with a long I, probably) , not wiek. However Easter really was spelled Eostar, Eostur, Eastur, Oestar, and so forth by the Venerable Bede. At least, that’s what it looks like in the original manuscripts. Bede himself was listed as Beede, Beade, and Beada. Spelling was a bit chancy, back in the day. The word “wiccen” is intentional, denoting an all-female tradition. However, the weird grammatical stuff in the essay about sacred wells, and the failure to underline or italicize every publication, was due to my lack of skill with HTML.

Several people wanted to learn my sources, or gain additional material on the subject matter. Well, I’m sorry, but in the interest of not being sued for unintentional copyright infringement, I leave it up to the reader to discover my sources for him or herself. There are pointers about how to do this, listed below. Other readers requested that I rate the accuracy of some of the references I used. This also seems to be begging for trouble. Because I’m just one amateur historian, who is not backed by a university with deep pockets (financed by taxpayers’ money!) , then I can’t afford to cite a source who might feel that I used their material illegally. Or drag me into court for defamation of character, if I think their pet theory might not hold water.

Lots of folks added supplemental material, which was extremely cool. Blk Derby wrote: “The symbol ‘the Star of David’, a six-sided star, could easily be converted to a Pentagram. In fact, if one were to move the bottom point of the Star of David to the center of the Star of David, you now have a Pentagram. I’ve always wondered what came first, the Star of David or the Pentagram? Also, I’ve read that the Star of David and the Pentagram both represent the blade and the chalice of the sacred feminine principle.” Wayne McFadzen adds, “The planet Venus marks five fixed points in the sky every eight years.” (Its path forms a pentagram.)

Historian Francis Cameron wrote about Gardner possibly using the Basque language in his chants: “I am aware of the one passage in Gardnerian ritual where some commentators have stated that the words are in the Basque language. I have consulted experts who have lived in the Basque country and are at home with the Basque language. These experts are unanimous in informing me that the words in question are NOT Basque.” I am assuming that this is in reference to the “Lachar Bagaby” chant. The use of the word “Jaunicot” in another Gardnerian invocation really is Basque, as Jaunicot was the equivalent of Cernunnos, the forest god of in that pantheon. British sailors shortened his name to “Jingo”, which is where the expression “By jingo” comes from. However, nobody really knows where the “Bagaby” chant originates… and Francis is probably right, it likely isn’t Basque.

Kateryna Zorya pointed out that the Tungus language is not extinct at all. “What is now called Evenkian was originally the Tungus language, but as linguistics developed, the definition broadened to encompass a family of languages, creating the so-called Tungus-Manchu group. In any case, ‘saman’ or ‘shaman’ is still very much in use in those regions.” Eliza wrote to say that the Kachina are not of Navajo origin; instead they are Hopi. Jim Heffner tells us that “the passing of power in the initiatory process in some parts of Pennsylvania for the Pow-Wowers / Hexerei / Braucherei are by alternating gender. And a reader called Coredne recommends the book “The Myth of Matriarchial Prehistory” by Cynthia Eller.

Author Aidan Kelly wrote, “Back in 1973, I put together a ‘Pagan Craft Calendar’, one of the first, I think. I was bothered that there were no common names for the summer solstice or fall equinox parallel to Yule, etc., and went looking for possibilities. I could tell from the Saxon calendar discussed by Bede that their name for summer solstice was Litha, so I used that. (Tolkien figured out the same thing.) For the fall, since Fred Hoyle had figured out from a secondary circle of holes at Stonehenge that the fall equinox had been of special importance then, I thought that it might have been associated with a descent to and rescue from the underworld myth, as in the Elusinian in Greece. The Welsh equivalent to that may have been the story of Mabon, son of Modron, in the Mabinogion, so I used his name for that festival. I sent a copy of the calendar to the Green Egg. Tim (as he was then) liked my suggestions for the names and started using them in the mag, and from there they spread into common Pagan usage.

Patrick (Padraig) Lewis writes that “Mr. Bonwick’s sources were wrong” (about the name Lucaid Lamh Fada meaning ‘feast of love’ in Irish) “as modern Irish has been spoken since the 18th century and the meaning of lamh and fada was the same in both Old Irish and Middle Irish. ‘Lamh fada’ is a common nickname in Irish. It has been applied to mean different things idiomatically, such as strong, influential, sneaky, etc. though all relate in some way to someone having a long hand or long arm. Lucaid is a man’s name and lamh fada means a long hand.”

Another Irish speaker called Lunus corrected me about the possible translations of Samahin: “As an Irish speaker, I have never heard of this particular translation. To the best of my knowledge, the word Samhain comes from Sámh, meaning kind of peaceful or at ease, the implication being that nature was quieting down, and that winter was coming. The word is also used in modern Irish as the word for November, the Irish for Halloween being 'Oíche Shamhana’, or 'November Night’. Also, I am skeptical of your theory that the 'Ain' in Samhain is the origin of 'Ain't'. Unfortunately, I have no evidence to support either claim, though I will say that Irish words cannot be divided up as easily as English words, and attempting to divide up Samhain smacks of the right-wing Christian argument that witches were in league with Satan because 'Samhain' was actually a compound word made of 'Sam Hain', which
they thought was the witches' name for Satan.” In my defense, “hain” also means done or an ending, and “ain’t” means not… and it’s possible that the American colloquialism came from Irish immigrants who settled in Appalachia. Perhaps Samhain means “the peaceful time is over”?

As in the articles themselves, there was some discussion about the actual origins of various topics. The original name for the Síla / Sheela / Sheila na Gig was given as both Julia and Cecelia, possibly referencing the saint. There was varying information sent to me about Halloween, as well. Some tell me that trick-or-treating is a relatively new custom, less than fifty years old. Others attribute it to various other traditions, some hundreds of years old, including “beggar’s night”, held the evening before Halloween. Daighre Starr writes that the “traditional food given to the beggars (were) the ‘new harvest’, apples pears, nuts and fresh made popcorn balls.” Other readers suggested that the trick-or-treat custom actually came from the animated Charlie Brown holiday special.

Looking it up your ownself:

More information about Pagan religion is becoming available each year with the discovery of “new” artifacts and archeological sites and translations of ancient literature. Fortunately, we now have the Internet, with the folklore, photos, and the speculations of historians readily available. All of the information contained in the text of these essays was either found online, or in books attributed to the authors mentioned, or by viewing artwork or artifacts found in museums, or it was the result of interviewing both neo-Pagans and people with some traditional religious heritage. Several of both the former and latter don’t want their names mentioned because of the publicity – they remember what happened to Sybil Leek! Oh, and some of my information even came from news articles found in “The Wren’s Nest” here on “The Witches’ Voice”.

If you wish to explore a topic for yourself, I suggest that you start with Wikipedia and Google, read all the articles listed, read all the bibliographies of all the articles, then read all the sources found in all the bibliographies. Type in the word for each subject, such as “pellar” or “stagpole”. Then weed out the obvious, such as a Pellar Corporation or pole dancing at stag parties. Try a combination of subjects, for instance, Gardner + “Book of Shadows”, “Gwen Thompson” + Rede, England + “harvest rituals”, pentagram + “witches foot”. Try using different wording, such as England + folklore, or Britain + folklore. You’ll find some sources that insist that a custom is really old, especially on local history sites, in museums, and tourist excursion brochures. Others will be just as adamant that a custom is newer and without Pagan roots, such as the folkplay study.

Look up the Green Man, and decide for yourself if he is a punishment for avarice, an image of an agrarian god or a cheerful forest sprite. Study Gardner’s Book of Shadows, read the literature he borrowed from, read the writings of his critics, read the interviews with his coveners. Read Dr. Hutton, read Margaret Murray, and check out Jani Farrell-Roberts’s criticism of Murray’s detractors. Read Owen Davies’ documentation of “cunning” folk and urban magic, read Philip Heselton’s works about Gardner and his influences. Check out Aidan Kelly’s Crafting the Art of Magic, then read Donald Hudson Frew’s rebuttal. Read Max Dashu’s article criticizing Hutton’s errors, view her “Suppressed History” slides, read her essays on witchcraft. Read the works of scholars who believe there was no basis for a mother goddess. Read books about English folklore and fairy tales. Look at the images of the Beast Man on the bone carving in Devonshire, the Horned God standing with Mercury and Zeus in a Roman fresco, the ’Ooser mask of Dorset, and Native American buffalo dancers. Are they related? Decide for yourself. Draw your own conclusions. You don’t need any “experts” telling you what to think. Blessings and happy hunting!

If you’re interested in reconstructing the older traditions, there is plenty of material available to help you. Read books, go to museums, find a teacher. But keep in mind that historic authenticity is not the most important part of your spirituality. A newly created Pagan tradition may have just as much validity as a truly ancient path. What really matters is faith. Wicca is a genuine religion in that it offers a beautiful spiritual belief system, a moral compass, and a way to commune with your inner Deity. If a neo-Pagan says a prayer with devout, heartfelt feeling, that prayer is certain to be answered!

Copyright: Copyleft 2007 by A.C. Aldag. The nice folks here at Witchvox were kind enough to publish this, so please remember to give them credit. Thanks!


A.C. Fisher Aldag

Location: Bangor, Michigan


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Bio: A.C. Fisher Aldag lives near beautiful Lake Michigan with her family on a tiny little wanna-be farm. She practices a folkloric tradition of magio-religion which derived from Wales. A.C. hopes that folks have as much fun reading this series as she has had in writing it. Benedythion / Blessings!

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