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Don't Put Wands in the Hands of Cavemen

Author: BellaDonna Saberhagen
Posted: January 1st. 2012
Times Viewed: 2,917

Disclaimer: This article in no way sets out to insinuate that only actual ancient practices/religions are valid. All religions are valid to their adherents whether they were formed in a desert five thousand years ago... or three years ago in your own backyard. However, I also believe that it is important to be honest with yourself and others about your religion’s age. And now back to our regularly scheduled program:

I overheard a coven member telling a new Seeker at his first open circle, “Wicca is the oldest religion.” I cringed, swallowed and reminded myself that I, too, am a guest at this open circle and that I also did once believe Wicca was an ancient religion. That was many years ago, before I became as scholarly as I try to be now, and because most of the Pagan authors of that era stated it was such, I believed them. After all, they knew enough to write a book, right?

Gerald Gardner formed Wicca. He claims that Dorothy Clutterbuck taught him, but unless the woman led an astounding secret life, she was no Witch herself. I suppose it is possible that he used someone else’s name so as not to “out” his teacher, but if that were the case, why would he have used the name of a real local person at all? Then there is the fusion of Crowley-style Ceremonial magick with folk tradition (historically, Cunning Folk and Witches were common people, usually quite illiterate; while Ceremonial magick was something for the learned nobility or court-sponsored alchemists such as John Dee) , which points to formulation rather than having it passed down through the ages.

The worst case of “Wicca is ancient” I came across was a forum site some “High Priestess” had set up to teach about “Real Wicca” over the internet. She came upon me in another forum and invited me to hers. I was dumb-founded. She claimed that Wicca had been practiced for MILLIONS of years. She was none-too-happy when I pointed out that the human race as we exist now is only around 200, 000 years old and that I doubted homo erectus had wands or athames in their repertoire of tools.

The second worst case is actually from a published Pagan author. She claims that her practice stems from the beliefs of the people of Europe from before the Indo-European invasions. The problem there is that before the Indo-European invasions, there was no writing system in Europe. No writing means there are no historical records, no historical records means it’s pre-history; pre-history means that aside from archaeology and anthropological comparisons with other regions: we don’t know.

I’m not knocking anthropology and archaeology, they’re awesome sciences. We could all use more of their findings in our knowledge base; however, when it comes down to it: it is a lot of guesswork. For example, the Venus of Willendorf has been embraced by many in the modern Pagan sector as an ancient Mother Goddess (and sometimes as proof of an ancient Goddess cult, which leads us back to Wicca being the most ancient of religions and here we go again…) ; however, it is unclear as to whether it was a depiction of an entity of worship or just a fertility charm. The thing is: we will NEVER know. We can’t go back in time and ask the people who carved her what her intended use was. Even if we do manage to create a time machine, we would have to interact with the ancient people so much just to learn their language and communicate with them that we would likely alter the time-line and change history (and therefore the future we return to, don’t you just love time travel paradox?) . Even if the Venus of Willendorf is a goddess figurine and there was an ancient Mother Goddess cult, it does not mean that it somehow survived unbroken through several millennia and that Wicca “is” that cult.

Per the writings of Joseph Campbell, the most likely “first religion” would be what we now call shamanism. I say most likely because “we will never really know.” He postulates that many of the hero and god myths are tales of shamanic journeys changed through time as they were told and retold through the ages. Shamanism makes a likely candidate as the “first religion” because of this and because it focuses a great deal of energy in gaining the help of the land spirits to sustain the tribe.

“Well, certain forms of Wicca and/or levels of learning within it are shamanic; so it’s still ancient, right?” Wrong. Michael Harner created “core shamanism” through anthropological comparison of several groups; he found that the one who intercedes for the tribe on spiritual matters often shared patterns no matter if they were from Siberia, North America, South America or Australia (this, also lends credence to shamanism being the first religion as all of humanity came out of one area and spread; having such similarities over such varied cultures indicates a shared belief system before the dispersal of humanity) . However, the cultures are still different. Lenapi elders do no use the term “shaman” to describe their medicine people because “it is not their word.” Being similar is not the same. Some aspects of Wicca may be based in shamanic practices. Wicca may be based on older (but also not necessarily ancient) forms of Witchcraft, but that does not mean it is these things. If a house designed by Wright burnt down to the foundations (the blueprints were gone, so you could not rebuild his creation) and you used his foundations to build another house would you still call it a house designed by Wright? Wouldn’t that be a bit presumptuous?

Most of the misinformation regarding the age of Wicca stems from two people, Gardner himself (whom we’ve already discussed) and Margaret Murray. She was an anthropologist, and not a bad one, originally, but she really wanted to discover something of her own. Rather than letting evidence found create a conclusion, she set out to prove the conclusion she had already come to: that there was a pan-European Witch Cult. She ignored any evidence to the contrary that came by her and misinterpreted a lot of information. She may not have done this intentionally, the human mind is an interesting thing after-all, but that does not compensate for her poor research in this case. When she gathered enough “evidence” she wrote a book that became very popular with average citizens. Several colleagues debunked her findings, but only bothered to get published in scientific journals, so the average citizen was unaware for a very long time that Murray’s research was very flawed (and out-right wrong) . The myth of the pan-European Witch Cult stayed with the public for many years (and the damage is still being done) .

Why is it so important to some adherents that Wicca be ancient? Do they think the age makes a religion more valid? Do they want to be able to thumb their noses at scriptural religions and say that, despite not having any written records, their religion is older? Until datable documentation is uncovered, it should be fine to date Wicca to Gardner. Just remember, even the oldest written languages are only so old –we would never be able to date it any earlier than that.

Honestly, the lack of scholarship regarding this makes me take Wicca (or at least its adherents who proclaim its ancientness) less seriously than if they said it was a sixty-year-old religion founded by Gerald Gardner. Even saying, “Wicca was founded by Gardner but has its roots in older concepts” would be preferred to saying it is “ancient” and/or the “first” religion.

There is nothing wrong with belonging to a young religion. There is nothing inherently better about belonging to an “old” religion (despite what some might say) . Acknowledge the proven age of your religion and don’t try to claim it is older.

Fire in the Head by Tom Cowan
The Way of the Shaman by Michael Harner
The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell
Triumph of the Moon by Ronald Hutton
Special Thanks to the words of a Lenapi elder I met in the summer of 2003.


BellaDonna Saberhagen

Location: Sunbury, Pennsylvania


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