The Folklore Filter
Article ID: 15281
Age Group: Adult
Days Up: 502
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Author: BellaDonna Saberhagen
Posted: December 2nd. 2012
Times Viewed: 2,284
An older Pagan once told me that he/she bowed out of trying to interact with the greater Pagan community because Wicca was the largest sect and it was too “Christian”. I didn’t understand. I considered myself Wiccan (at the time) and I believed myself to be Pagan. Yet, I didn’t even call upon Guardian Angels like many of my Wiccan friends still did even before I began to research more beyond the 101 books that sell like hot-cakes; and quite obviously before I became as jaded as I have become. It took me a long time to understand what this individual meant.
There’s been great attempt by the Wiccan community to prove Ronald Hutton’s theories on the origins of Wicca to be incorrect. I’ve gotten flak from supposed elders within the community for citing him in my essays (some of the responses have been slanderous and assumptive of my own age and experience and my motivations) . One of the main contentions is that a non-Wiccan cannot write the history of Wicca. That’s cow dung! If you want honest interpretation of evidence without bias, then the examination of the evidence has to come from a third party (one that is neither a member of Wicca, nor a member of a religious denomination that seeks to demonize the religion) . This is what you want from basic research and investigation. You cannot get that if your researcher is “looking for proof of true ancientness” while ignoring all proof to the contrary, or “looking for proof of demon-worshiping” and assuming it must be so because there is no reference to Christ.
So is Ronald Hutton correct? Yes and no. He is correct that the Romantic era poetry and mind-set directly impacted the formation of what we now call Wicca. What he fails to do is look at what inspired those Romantic poets. Wiccans point to the older lore that inspired the poets and scream that Hutton was wrong about the origins. What they fail to understand is just how much more accessible the lore became and how it evolved during the Romantic Era into what now they have as the religious base of Wicca. Just because the rural people put milk out to appease “the gentle folk” and made charms against dark intentions, does not mean that they were practicing Wiccans.
My family is very Christian, but still maintains some odd old things that are “just done because it was always done”; that doesn’t make them Wiccan, nor does it make their direct ancestors Wiccan. Wicca is a conglomeration of things. Much of it is based on things that are in fact much older, but those same things, separated from the conglomeration of the ideas, are not 'Wicca' by themselves. It was not until those things met (most likely in the mind of Gerald Gardner, considering his background in Ceremonial lodges and the amount of Ceremonialism that became part of the magical practice of Wicca) that Wicca truly existed.
So, how did the Romantic era inspire the spiritual basis of Wicca? Well, the Romantic era coincided with the Industrial Revolution. The air around cities became so smoggy that modern Los Angeles would seem like a breath of fresh air to the inhabitants of nineteenth century London. Rural peoples were moving to the cities for factory work and they longed for the fields of their youth. It also gave rise to the upper-middle class and, for the first time, non-nobility became trendsetters. The longing for clean air led to a Romanticized image of rural Britain. The quaintness felt “right” and “properly British”. Tolkien echoes this theme with the Hobbits' Shire (proof that this longing lasted long past the early 1800s and well into the mid-twentieth century) . So, much as Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm did in Germany, poets and scholars began making trips and collecting folklore from the rural people. English translations of old Welsh and Irish mythology became popular.
This trend also came to America, where surviving European folklore blended with Native lore creating a rich tapestry, which was also catalogued and collected by interested scholars and poets. To be clear, not everyone collecting lore had an interest in actually putting it into practice.
Also, just as the Renaissance brought classic Greco-Roman mythology back for the educated, the Romantic era made it accessible to the more average person. Poets of the age were inspired to write their own hymns and odes to the old gods; it was not literal praise to the gods but more of a call for natural conservation. Much as many people today look back at the 1950s in America through the filter of shows like “Leave it to Beaver” and “Donna Reed”, poets back then looked to the ancient past in a (this is how the era acquired its name) Romantic way.
This was also the age of British Imperialism and tales of Noble Savages were circulating. These were people that though they had not yet heard “the word of Christ” were still good and noble and now could be saved by the missionaries that came to “civilize them” (this was the mind-set of the era, not my own) . The image of the Noble Savage was so powerful that it began to be overlaid onto ancient Britain’s pagan past. Now we’re about ready to construct the Folklore Filter.
The writers of the age began their own interpretations of both ancient mythology and holdover folkloric practices. Because they believed that their Noble Savage ancestors were just waiting for the word of Christ, they had to interpret the mythology in a way to make it a sort of preparatory manual. The complex pantheons became a singular triple (while triple goddesses are common, they do not all hold to the modern interpretation of maiden, mother, crone) mother goddess (Maiden= Eve, Mother= Mary, Crone= the still little known Sophia) and a dying and resurrecting god. Since the poets longed for the “old, proper, rural Britain” they looked for male gods intimately connected with the land, some of which luckily already had the dying/resurrection properties they required to make their pretty painting of the past complete.
I am not saying that triplicate goddesses and dying/resurrecting gods did not exist before the Romantic Era, quite the opposite; what I am saying is that these images became popular because they were easier to understand by the Christian populace.
So now we get back to my opening paragraph and why I now understand where that woman was coming from. The filter built and put into place by the Romantic poets sifted the contents that came from the waters of the Well of Knowledge (mythology and folklore) , and that filter was their current ideals and (sadly) Christianity. Most of Wicca’s spiritual influence is post filter.
So, yes, Hutton ignored the older influences but mostly because that filter is so necessary in making Wicca what it is. However, you know what he DOESN’T say? He doesn’t say that because it’s not exactly what the ancients practiced that it’s somehow fake. He also doesn’t claim that Wiccans are baby-eating devil-worshipers. He’s only saying that perhaps Gardner took some liberties in his own attempt to make Wicca seem more legitimate in the public (Christian) eye, but that those liberties somehow became seen as absolute truth.
However, it seems that any attempt to take a scholarly look at the history of Wicca is seen as an attack on the religion itself. Like somehow denying Wicca’s ancientness makes the entire religion fall apart. How very…fundamentalist Christian of you all! Or do you somehow not see the correlation of Creationists ignoring all science regarding the age of our planet with Wiccans ignoring all scholarly interpretations of the age of their religion?
I hope this sheds some light on the influences of the Romantic era and how that might have impacted the interpretative process of the lore that became that basis of Wicca. I’m not saying that the lore of Wicca isn’t old, but that it is frankly not reflective of the wide religious practices of Pagan Europe. It reflects some of it, and one can certainly add to it based on other myths and lore…but then, wouldn’t it cease to be Wicca?
The Triumph of the Moon by Ronald Hutton
The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling
Gods and Fighting Men by Lady Augusta Gregory
The Celtic Twilight by William Butler Yeats
Location: Sunbury, Pennsylvania
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