One of the downsides of blogging is the way I sometimes say things without thinking them through. In my last post I quoted Fr Efstathios Kollas’ description of Neo-Pagans, “a handful of miserable resuscitators of a degenerate dead religion who wish to return to the monstrous dark delusions of the past“. Naturally this statement has upset a fair few Neo-Pagans, some of whom seem to want to turn the concept of witch burning on its head and burn Fr Kollas!
Now my quoting was done without much qualification and next to an old image of Raymond Buckland, a chief Wiccan from the USA (this is a more recent Wiccan image – not of Buckland). However, Fr Kollas was specifically referring to Neo-pagans in Greece attempting to revive the ancient Greek religions. My points referred to the entire Neo-Pagan tradition, the dominant and mother tradition of which is Wicca, and therefore the quote is not entirely appropriate, as Wicca never existed before the 1940s. So it cannot be resuscitated. This is a fact that many people do not seem to, do not want to, and are positively adverse to understanding. So I’ll say it again with emphasis:
Wicca is a new religion. It has no religious antecedents.
It is not traditional. It is not part of the western esoteric tradition.
This is an important point, as Wiccans have a nasty habit of presenting themselves as part of the esoteric tradition, or even as the western tradition of greatest lineage and history. I have become weary of presenting esoteric and magical information, and having Wiccans pop up with, “but that’s witchcraft” when they recognize an element borrowed by Wicca. The Wiccan tradition is a chimera; it does not exist, has never existed. Wicca is a pastiche of elements from other traditions within a religious framework that embodies some important myths of western modernity, such as the Earth Goddess.
I’ve written a long article on these themes, but haven’t been game to submit it anywhere yet (I’m actually quite friendly with some Wiccans at present, which is a nice change). This is from the article.
Since its public exposure during the early 1950s, there has been only one comprehensive academic study of the history of modern Witchcraft, Professor Ronald Hutton’s ‘The Triumph of the Moon‘. If you have not read this book, please do so as it is not only very informative but engaging also. Much of what I first intuited when exposed to Wicca in the mid 80s has been proved beyond doubt by the good professor, so I am particularly grateful for his effort. Elements of his work have been updated by Professor Hutton himself, as well as critiqued and expanded by several amateur Wiccan or Pagan historians and authors. In addition there have been several anthropological studies of modern witches and witchcraft and some other germane works such as Aidan Kelly’s textual analysis of the Book of Shadows, ‘Crafting the Art of Magic‘. None of these studies give any historical credence to the Wiccan foundational myth which posits modern witchcraft as an intact survival of an ancient European Pagan religion focused on the Goddess. This awareness, at least in part, has become the norm in the leadership of European Wiccan traditions. Writes Dr Hutton on attending a conference on Goddess Spirituality:
“In the course of the day I heard the spokespeople for witchcraft declare, one by one, that its traditional historiography should be regarded as myth and metaphor rather than as literal history” (Witches, Druids and King Arthur, p 265).”
Some Australian witches however seem not to have caught on and still regard Wicca as a tradition existing prior to the 1940s. There is absolutely no evidence for this belief and even amateur historians who are witches themselves such as (Philip Heselton) cannot push the envelope back much earlier than the 1920s. Without evidence for an established tradition, and especially when we consider the actual sources of the post 1940s Wicca, it makes no sense to refer to witchcraft anything other than a new religious movement.
Many witches have responded to this ‘new’ awareness by conceding the lack of continual tradition but declaring modern witchcraft’s ongoing inspiration from ‘traditional’ witches, who may have been called by other names throughout history, such as wise-folk, village healers, cunning men and women. In short, this inspiration is supposed to come from people, beliefs and practices outside the ambit and approval of the church who focused on connection with the earth, pagan symbolism, natural healing and magic. Many modern witches assume that the common use of folk magical practices, such as amulets and spells by medieval and pre-modern people implies some form of pagan or non-Christian spirituality. However, all the available evidence suggests otherwise. A. Roger Ekrich in his ‘At Days Close ; a history of nighttime‘ sums up the general consensus of those who, unlike most witches, have studied the matter:
“Rather than rivalling God’s word, folk magic equipped ordinary men and women with an additional means of combating Satan’s wiles”. (p98).
Additionally it is clear that most practitioners of the magical arts prior to the 20th century, cunning men for example, saw themselves as enemies of witches and witchcraft in general and therefore any connection between them and modern Wicca would, if accurate, be a strange source of inspiration. There is however little connection – Professor Hutton summarizes his section on the influence of cunning craft on modern witchcraft as having the ‘least relevance’ out of all the areas of influence he surveyed. This is very clear when we look at the actual liturgy of Wicca. To quote Aidan Kelly:
“…none of the circle rituals in use in 1953 were based on a ‘pagan’ theology; instead they were all adapted from the Kabalistic procedures of The Greater Key of Solomon [a medieval ceremonial magic text], and contained great swatches of quotation from Crowley…” (Kelly, p. 101).
Even after Doreen Valiente’s removal of most of Crowley’s work and the shift towards the Goddess her presence seems to have brought about, the rituals and initiations that still bear a heavy mark of Western magical procedures. This is obvious to anyone who looks at the ceremonies with some knowledge of Western magic. The initiations and rituals use magical techniques derived from the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Freemasonry and Crowley’s sexual magic order, the OTO. Aidan Kelly, in his very forthright manner, declares that once you have removed the magical, published and Crowleyan influences from the Wiccan liturgy there is nothing left. Of course, this is not quite accurate, and Kelly has rightly been criticized for these sorts of assertions. But what does remain is very scant, much influenced by ceremonial magic and really nothing other than window dressing.
The Wiccan claims for inspiration or even influence from older European pagan traditions, cunning craft or some other secret tradition is simply not borne out in any of its original liturgies, rituals or theology, which are all based on western esoteric traditions. For witches to claim otherwise is flying in the face of all the evidence, which points to Gerald Gardner (and/or others) drawing upon what knowledge they could find to create a new pagan orientated tradition, which originally held no claim to be a transformational mystery tradition. Tellingly, Gardner wrote in Witchcraft Today that he thought the Witch was ‘doomed’ and that
“science has displaced her; good weather reports, good health services, outdoor games, bathing, nudism, the cinema and television have largely replaced what the witch had to give.” (Witchcraft Today, p.129).
This is hardly a description of the deep mysteries and spiritual fulfilment an esoteric or mystery tradition provides. The facts seem to be that Gardner, who had been involved on the periphery of a number of esoteric traditions, founded (or expanded) Wicca initially for very simple, personal reasons. Having connections with Masonry, Co-Masonry, Spiritualism, Druidry, fringe Christianity (as an ordained Priest) and trying but failing to become the leader of Crowley’s OTO after his death, in the late 1940s Gardner suddenly found his little witch cult expanding. He then channelled his energies into the development of Wicca, often making up stuff as he went along – such as the Craft laws. In doing so he could not provide Wicca with any lineage to the esoteric traditions, simply because he had no lineage to impart other than an incomplete and low version of Crowley’s debased adaptation of the OTO, which Gardner misunderstood anyway.
As Professor Hutton rightly pointed out back in 1991 if modern paganism and witchcraft is viewed as ritual magic it has a rich history and lineage stemming back to Hellenistic Egypt. However, witchcraft views itself as a religion and has only surface and not inner links to the authentic esoteric traditions (a judgement no historian can comment on). Wicca therefore can provide no substance for transformation. This can be easily seen when one compares the lack of wisdom and teaching found within the entire corpus of foundational Wicca – the Book of Shadows – with a single lecture series by a single magician, such as Dion Fortune. This lack shows itself still today with most covens, witch leaders and Wiccan books drawing on a wide eclectic mixture of techniques and ideas and placing (or claiming) them in a Wiccan context. A good example of this is Progressive Witchcraft by Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone which utilises Qabalah, Theosophy, sanitised Norse Mythology and the a pop rendition of the humanistic psychology of Abraham Maslow. In this sense, then modern witches are following a tradition; that of the ‘Father of Modern Witchcraft’, Gerald Gardner as he drew on the sources around him to create Wicca.