- Witchcraft Goes Mainstream, by Brooks Alexander
- About the Author, Brooks Alexander
- The Contemporary Relevance of 'Witchcraft Goes Mainstream'
- Witchcraft Goes Mainstream: Copyright and Additional Information
- Witchcraft Goes Mainstream -- Table of Contents
- A Note on Terms and Capitalization
- Introduction: My Encounters With Modern Witchcraft
- Chapter 1: "Witchcraft," "Neopaganism": What Are We Talking About, Exactly?
- Chapter 2: The Halloween Witch is Dead: The Changing Face of Modern Witchcraft
- Chapter 3: Teens and the Media: Witchcraft in Popular Entertainment
- Chapter 4: Witchcraft in Popular Entertainment: The Craft, Buffy and Beyond
- Chapter 5: Three Myths about Modern Witchcraft
- Chapter 6: Witchcraft for Real -- Was There or Wasn't There?
- Chapter 7: From Witchcraft to Wicca: 1700 -- 2000
- Conclusion: Witchcraft, Christianity and Cultural Change
- A Final Word From the Author: What Now?
- Appendix A: Witchcraft in the Military
- Appendix B: A Brief Annotated Bibliography for Further Reading
- Witchcraft Goes Mainstrain -- Bibliography
Things That Go Bump in the Light: From The Enlightenment To Romanticism
Historical witchcraft had unravelled almost completely by the early 1700’s. It is basically not heard from again, “save in legend, literature, and jest,” as Jeffrey Burton Russell put it. (Russell, 1980; p. 122) By end of the Renaissance, an intellectual and religious revolution had made scholasticism passe, and turned its cherished assumptions into superstitions. The philosopher Descartes (1596 – 1650) thoroughly rejected the traditions of medieval philosophy, asserting that the world was run according to universal, scientific, mechanical laws of nature that rendered the work of angels and demons irrelevant. The religious revolution followed closely behind the intellectual one, and led to similar conclusions. The God who presided over the scientific, mechanical cosmos ruled it by his universal laws of nature, which He would not readily allow demons to evade or suspend. Unexplained events that scholasticism would have classified as divine or demonic, were now assumed to have a natural explanation — or to simply be a false report. The new mood and outlook in religion basically saw witchcraft as being beside the point.
The 1700’s were the century of “the Enlightenment” — the triumph of rationalism, skepticism, and scientism. Those three vogues conspired to demystify the universe, but they could not eradicate irrationality. By rejecting the supernatural, skepticism became a veil of denial. Beneath it, spiritual aberration grew in the dark, without hinderance or attention. Thus the century of light was also a century of shadows. The Enlightenment was the century of Descartes, Newton, and Voltaire, but it was also the century of Mesmer, Cagliostro and Casanova. The widespread enthusiasm for alchemy, astrology, and kabballah showed that a current of mystical irrationalism ran under the surface of skeptical self-assurance.
The humanism of the Enlightenment cast spiritual shadows in other ways as well.
By and large the opinion of the Age of Reason was that the universe revolved around man. At any rate man was the perciptible center of things, and an extremely important part of creation. Therefore all his acts, his passions, his minutest doings must be invested with an awesome significance, as the dramatic activities of the lord of the world. This reasoning was all very well, but it placed on the individual an enormous burden in exchange for his privileged position at the center of things. Man was left to himself. He had only his own kind to turn to. (Webb, 1974; p. 10)
The Enlightenment’s overweening spiritual pride and desire for self-sufficiency eventually produced its opposite, and our culture experienced an attack of existential anxiety that we know today as the “Romantic Movement.” The Romantics correctly perceived that rationalism is hostile to human significance and human concerns. In reaction, they exalted the non-rational and the anti-rational, the primal, the intuitive and the ecstatic. As Colin Wilson points out, “(t)he romantics were driven by the spirit of magic . . . . (and) the romantic revival brought a magical revival with it.” (Wilson, 1971; pp. 233, 235)
From Romanticism to the Occult Revival
The romantic and the occultic are natural allies. Both are reactions against, and rejections of, “normal” reality, but for different reasons. The occultist reaches for the ecstasy of godhood out of spiritual ambition; the romantic reaches for ecstatic intensity out of spiritual desperation.
Goethe’s Faust turns to magic because he is sick of his human limitations, and he wants to explore those moments of godlike intensity that Saint-Martin wrote about. Nineteenth -century man found himself high and dry in a materialistic and boring world. In the Middle Ages, devils were a reality that eveybody accepted without question. Now the shadows were gone; the common daylight made everything hard and clear. And the romantics looked back nostalgically to the age of demons and incubi, altogether more stimulating to the imagination than railways and paddle steamers. The universal complaint was boredom. (Wilson, 1971, p. 329)
Romanticism defined the mood of a whole generation, and helped to set the stage for the occult revival of the late 1800’s. Mary Shelley, wife of poet Percy, wove Romanticism and scientism together in Frankenstein (subtitled the Modern Prometheus). In her famous story, rationalistic science blends with mystical occultism (alchemy) to produce the monster, who represents Nature manipulated without moral (or other) guidelines.
Romanticism also created new ways of expressing our fallen tendency to rebellion and opposition. The figure of the intellectual and the artiste — the “inspired outsider” — manning the barricades of revolution out of his passionate love for Truth (or Justice, or The People, etc.) has become a permanent cultural cliche. That same kind of romantic imagery also permeates the Neopagan movement. Neopagans not only romanticize nature, they romanticize Neopaganism as well.
In fact, the connection between Romanticism and Neopaganism is even more direct. The romantic/occultic mood among nineteenth century scholars and intellectuals led some of them to introduce ideas that have become an integral part of Neopagan myth and ideology.
In 1828, University of Berlin Professor Karl Jarcke proposed the idea that the witchcraft of European history was actually a degenerated form of pre-Christian paganism. Jarcke wasn’t trying to validate witchcraft, he was trying to discredit it. Jarcke was a Catholic, and his theory was an argumentative strategy to counter critics of the Church
who saw the witch craze as an outburst of Catholic prejudice and perversity. In Jarcke’s scenario, the ancient pagan religion
had lingered among the common people, had been condemned by Christians as Satanism, and in the course of the Middle Ages had responded by adapting to the Christian stereotype and becoming devil-worshippers in earnest. As a result, proposed Jarcke, even ordinary people began to turn away from it in disgust, and denounce it to the authorities, who proceeded to extirpate it. In this manner, the young academic brilliantly out flanked the liberals; his explanation of the witch-trials equally accepted the non-existence of witchcraft itself, while exonerating the authorities who had persecuted witches as members of an evil and anti-social cult. (Hutton, 1999; p. 136)
But as ingenious as Jarcke’s strategy was, there was one problem – it was a pure flight of fancy, with nothing whatever to back it up. His theory was not intended to explain any actual evidence (of which he had none), but to explain away somebody else’s theory. Nevertheless, his ideas achieved some currency, in part because competing theories were equally unsupported by facts.
The Work of Jules Michelet
In time, the anti-clerical party responded with its own rhetorical strategy, put forth by “one of the nineteenth century’s most famous liberal historians, the Frenchman, Jules Michelet.” (Hutton, 1999; p. 137) Michelet was an academic maverick whose works varied widely in quality. On the one hand, he could be a patient and thorough archivist, producing a multi-volume history of France that is still a valued historical resource. On the other hand, he was also in the habit of churning out lurid and sensational “potboilers” to make the most amount of money in the shortest amount of time with the least amount of work, so as to support his more systematic labors (his book on witchcraft definitely fell into the “potboiler” category, having been dashed off in a mere two months). Furthermore, his academic collegues had already censured him for his lack of objectivity, as he invariably colored his historical arguments with his own political attitudes. He brought a tone of passionate advocacy to every subject he dealt with, and what fueled his passion was his hatred of the medieval Church and all of the miseries he felt that Christianity had inflicted on Europe (epecially on France) in the form of the absolute monarchy and the parasitic aristocracy that went with it.
Michelet believed that “Christianity itself now had to give way to a new faith suited to a new age” (Hutton, 1999; p.138) and toyed with the idea that the replacement religion should have a feminine focus, centered on the function of motherhood. It is no surprise, then, that Michelet turned his 1862 treatment of witchcraft (La Sorciere) into a sustained attack on his favorite targets the Catholic Church and the aristocracy. That much was familiar from his other work. The novelty in Michelet’s treatment was that he accepted the picture of witchcraft drawn by Jarcke and other Catholic apologists, but reversed the values attached to it. Yes, said Michelet, witchcraft was a surviving pagan religion of fertility and nature-worship, but far from being an anti-social cult, it alone “had kept the spirit of liberty alive all though the ‘thousand long, dreary, terrible years’ of the Middle Ages.” Michelet also went “further than any writer before or since, to proclaim that the Renaissance had been produced when the wisdom preserved by the witches broke surface again to infuse members of the culural elite.” (Hutton, 1999; p. 139) Basically, Michelet argued that witchcraft was a widespread religious, social and political protest movement, created by medieval peasants who used surviving folk-fertility beliefs to mock and defy their oppressors — i.e., the Church and the feudal aristocracy.
Michelet’s approach to his subject was the very essence of Romanticism. The romantic temperament regarded passion itself as a badge of truth and a foundation for wisdom and insight. To Romanticism, the purest vision springs from the purest passion, and the purest passion of all is the fire of promethean rebellion. Michelet projected his personal sense of rebellious, romantic virtue onto the witches with a blissful indifference to facts. His research for the portion of his book that dealt with medieval history was
more or less non-existent, and it represents an extended poetic reverie, being at times actually composed in blank verse. The seventeenth-century chapters were based on a small number of pamphlets, which Michelet reinterpreted to suit his own hatred of Catholicism. As the book went on sale, he noted in his journal: “I have assumed a new position which my best friends have not as yet clearly adopted, that of proclaiming the provisional death of Christianity.” (Hutton, 1999; p. 138)
La Sorciere became a best-seller right away (thereby fulfilling Michelet’s immediate purpose for the book) and has continued to stimulate the interest of readers right up to the present day. It was first published almost a century and a half ago and has never been out of print since that time. Michelet’s own academic peers, however, virtually ignored the book — “apparently,” as Ronald Hutton says, “because they recognized that it was not really history.” (Hutton, 1999, p. 140)
For obvious reasons, Michelet’s work on witchcraft has no credibility among professional historians today, but it has exercised an extraordinary influence in other ways.
(His) argument that witchcraft was a form of protest was adapted later by the Marxists; his argument that it was based on a fertility cult was adopted by anthropologists at the turn of the century, influencing Sir James Frazer’s Golden Bough . . . Margaret Murray’s Witch-Cult in Western Europe, and T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. (Russell, 1980, p.133.)
Bcause of its continuing popular influence, along with its (indirect) intellectual influence, Michelet’s book has been part of the preparation for the twentieth century rise of Neopaganism. Furthermore, his idea that medieval witchcraft was a pagan survival fighting for liberty by resisting the oppressive influence of Christianity has been central to modern Witchcraft’s view of its own identity, as we have already noted.
From Romanticism to the Occult Revival and the Sources of Modern Witchcraft
Michelet was the perfect product of Romanticism, and appeared just as Romanticism reached its height and began its steep decline. After Michelet, as the nineteeth century’s middle decades faded into its final ones, so faded the hopes and passions of the romantic dream. The revolutions that had wracked Europe at the height of the romantic period did indeed transform both its politics and its society, but they did not end injustice, oppression and exploitation, as had been hoped and (implicitly) promised. Indeed, in some respects things seemed to get even worse The Crimean War in Western Asia, the Civil War in the U.S.A. and the Franco-Prussian war in Europe were shocking in their ugly brutality, especially to a public that was being informed in newly graphic ways by a newly emerging popular media. A more cynical and calculating mood settled into the collective mentality.
Yet, even as Romanticism was dying, it was also setting up conditions for the dramatic spiritual and literary outburst that we know as the Occult Revival of the late nineteenth century. Many of those who were active in the Occult Revival were heavily influenced by the outlook and attitudes of Romanticism in their younger days.
The vogue of occultism was created by a French seminarian, Alphonse-Louis Constant, born 1n 1810 and known by his nom de plume, Eliphas Levi. As a matter of fact, the term “occultism” was coined by this would-be priest and was used for the first time in English by the Theosophist A.D. Sinnet in 1881. (Eliade, 1976; p. 49)
“Levi” was in his youth during the pivotal decades of romanticism — the 1830’s and 1840’s. He died in 1875, having brought the spirit of romanticism up to date by translating it into magic. He wrote several books between 1856 and 1861, of which Mircea Eliade remarks that they “met with a success difficult to understand today, for they are a mass of pretentious jumble.” (Eliade, 1976; p. 49)
The real reason that occultism became an avant garde vogue in Europe and America at the end of the century is that it was seen as an alternative to, and a challenger of the mainstream culture in general and Christianity in particular. The Occult Revival simply took the animus against Christianity that Romanticism held (and Michelet showed) and expressed it in a more contemporary form.
From Baudelaire . . . to Andre Breton and his disciples, these artists utilized the occult as a powerful weapon in their rebellion against the bourgeois establishment and its ideology. They reject the official contemporary religion, ethics, social mores, and aesthetics. Some of them are not only anti-clerical, like most of the French intelligentsia, but anti-Christian; they refuse, in fact, all the Judeo-Christian values as well as the Greco-Roman and Renaissance ideals. The have become interested in the Gnostic and other secret groups, not only for their precious occult lore, but also because such groups have been persecuted by the Church. (Eliade, 1976; pp. 52-3)
That is the same emotional/spiritual dynamic that helped bring the components of medieval witchcraft together to begin with. By the end of the nineteenth century, the explicitly anti-Christian part of that dynamic had begun to get a sense of its own identity, and to see itself in the context of spiritual history. It began to understand that its conflict with Christianity had a past and a future as well as a present.
In the meantime, the closing decades of the nineteenth century saw a wave of occult enthusiasm that spanned the globe. Theosophy, rooted in Asian occultism, became the rage in Europe and America. The Order of the Golden Dawn was founded in England, claiming descent from the Rosicrucians. Spiritism experienced a revival that originated in America and rapidly spread to Europe, even generating periodicals devoted to the subject. The interest in mediums and spirit contact also inspired efforts to investigate them “scientifically.” The Dialectical Society was formed in London in 1869, and the Society for Psychical Research at Cambridge in 1882.
As the twentieth century dawned, Oriental versions of magic and religion preoccupied public attention. In 1893, Swami Vivekananda had opened the door for that trend with his eloquent espousal of Hinduism to a worldwide audience at Chicago’s “Parliament of Religions.” In India, Sir John Woodruff (writing as “Arthur Avalon”) impressed the scholarly world and tittilated British intellectuals by translating secret Tantric scriptures into English, thereby exposing the esoteric, pre-Hindu religion to Western eyes for the first time.
But the clearest example of orientalized occultism was Helena Blavatsky’s “Theosophical Society,” a complex mixture of Hinduism, Buddhism, Spiritism and a bizarre master-race mythology. Blavatsky’s invented cult enjoyed a considerable vogue among sophisticated westerners during the early 1900s, and Theosophy’s sensational claims and exotic beliefs dominated the occult scene during the years prior to World War I.
Nevertheless, unheralded, occult spirituality was branching out in other directions as well. In a process that took half a century or so to unfold, one of those branches eventually produced modern Witchcraft and the Neopagan revival. Many colorful characters took part in that process, but four of them stand out: Charles Godfrey Leland, Margaret Murray, Robert Graves and Gerald Gardner.
Charles Godfrey Leland: Herald of Diana
Charles Godfrey Leland (1824 – 1903) was an American folklorist, occultist, adventurer and all-around soldier of fortune. He grew to maturity during the high tide of Romanticism, and took an active part in the French Revolution of 1848 while he was a student at the Sorbonne in Paris. Leland later travelled widely throughout Europe and wrote fifty-five books on a variety of subjects. When he was sixty-four years old and living in Italy, he met a peasant woman called “Maddalena,” who supposedly initiated him into the “witch-lore of the Romagna.” The information he thus obtained became the basis for his best-known and most influential work: Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches (1899).
Aradia presents the picture of an organized cult of goddess-worship centered around the figure of Diana, the ancient Roman goddess of the moon, forests and child-birth. According to Leland, this “old religion” was still strong enough among the peasants of the Romagna district to dominate whole villages. The “witch” belief-system as Leland described it was both ancient and elaborate:
The basic belief of this religion was that the first and most powerful deity was feminine — the goddess Diana. “Diana was the first created before all creation; in her were all things; out of herself, the first darkness, she divided herslf; into darkness and light she was divided. Lucifer, her brother and son, herself and her other half, was the light” . . . The legend goes on to say that Diana had by her brother Lucifer, “who had fallen,” a daughter whom she named Aradia. Pitying the poor and oppressed at the hands of their masters, she sent Aradia upon earth to be the first witch and to teach witchcraft to those who would learn, thus setting up a secret cult in opposition to Christianity. (Valiente, 1989; p. 22)
Aradia created no great stir when it was first published. Occultists of the day were preoccupied with the exoticisms of Theosophy, and the academic world paid little attention to Leland’s alleged discovery. Today, scholars regard the book as a hybrid creation at best — a blending of Leland’s own beliefs with some genuine folk/occult survivals that he had managed to uncover. Historian Eliot Rose says that
The whole work reads . . . as if one of its authors was consciously seeking to establish that the witch-cult was a cult of this particular nature, and grafted material calculated to prove it onto an existing straightforward book of incantations. (Rose, 1962; p. 218)
Leland himself was honest enough to acknowledge that he had taken ideas from Jules Michelet and used them to interpret what Maddalena was telling him. Maddalena quickly discerned what Leland was looking for and began to shape her information to his liking. In the preface to his book, Leland went so far as to admit that Maddalena had “perfectly learned . . . just what I want and how to extract it from those of her kind.” (Russell, 1980, p. 149)
The accuracy of Leland’s tale has been challenged since he first told it. That is not surprising, since he never offered proof of it, or even evidence — which should have been plentiful if his story was true. Leland never presented Maddalena for scholarly examination or produced the hand-written portions of the “oral tradition” that she was supposed to have passed on to him. Leland’s “research” methods were woefully deficient by modern standards (though normal enough for his own times) and he let himself willingly be led by his informant. She was, after all, not an altruistic archivist, seeking to preserve her ancient lore for the benefit of future generations — she was a professional fortune-teller, skilled at “reading” her clients. And she didn’t open up to Leland because of her passion for historical truth. She wanted something in return for the information she was giving him, namely his help in emigrating to America (an ambition she fulfilled a few years later). Maddalena almost certainly re-interpreted the genuine folklore she knew in order to make it more appealing to her client, who had clear and specific ideas about what he was looking for.
Even Doreen Valiente’s brief and sympathetic description of Leland’s work (above) suggests a scholarly invention. Aradia draws on a knowledge of gnosticism, paganism and mythology for much of its content. To that mixture it adds an awkward parody of the biblical creation story and a literate attack on Christianity. That combination is quite likely to occur in the mind of a nineteenth century man of letters, but it is not at all likely to occur as a historical artifact.
Nevertheless, Leland’s work has been appropriated — some of it word for word — by the Neopagan movement. Leland was the first to use the term “the Old Religion.” Some of the spells and rituals used by contemporary Witches are simply passages lifted from Aradia virtually unchanged. (Adler, 1986; p. 57) Aradia also appeals to Neopagans for another reason: while the “feminist” focus of Leland’s fantasy was an oddity in his own time, it made to order for ours, which seeks a politically correct religion to complement its cultural attitudes and support its poliical enthusiasms.
Margaret Murray: Zeal and Faulty Scholarship
Margaret Murry (1863-1963) was an anthropologist and an Egyptologist, not a historian of the Middle Ages. But she developed an interest in witchcraft as an academic hobby, and as a sideline to her personal interest in British folklore. By her acount she was staying at Glastonbury, the legendary site of King Arthur’s burial, when someone (whom she never identified) suggested to her that what the Church called “witchcraft” was really a leftover, pre-Christian fertility religion that had once pervaded Europe. Murray was apparently unaware that the suggestion was directly descended from Jules Michelet and other dubious sources. To her, it was a revelation that sent her into an intensive study of the Inquisition’s trial records.
After much investigation, Murray argued that “witchcraft” was the Inquisition’s term for an older religion that worshipped nature’s fertility and abundance, and had nothing to do with opposing Christianity. As Murray described the cult, it was based on ancient notions of sexual polarity as the driving force behind all of nature. The male/female, “yang/yin,” positive/negative interaction at all levels provides the energetic tension that keeps nature going. Natural religion acts out that relationship in its seasonal rituals. The “witch-cult” therefore acted out the endless sexual cycle of birth, growth, death and rebirth that is the rhythm of Life and Nature.
Murray believed that the original deity behind natural religion was a bi-polar, “bi-sexual” figure that showed up as either male or female, depending on the demands of the situation.
After reexamining the trial documents of the Inquisition, she argued that Witchcraft could be traced to “pre-Christian times and appears to be the ancient religion of Western Europe” centered on a deity which was incarnate in a man, a woman or an animal. One of its forms was the two-faced, horned god known to the Romans as Janus or Dianus. Murray wrote that the feminine form of the name — Diana — was found throughout Western Europe as the leader of witches. Because of this, Murray called the religion the Dianic Cult, although she wrote that the god rarely appeared in female form and a male deity had apparently superseded a female one. (Adler, 1979; p. 47)
Murray accepted the factual findings of the medieval and renaissance witch-trials, but reinterpreted their meaning. The inquisitors recorded that the Devil would appear at the witch-rituals in the form of goat or other animal. Murray wrote that this “Devil” was really just a human high-priest in ritual costume. His adornment included the horns and shaggy animal skins that represent carnal potency. That was “one of the pointers given to Dr. Murray by her unknown informant at Glastonbury. It proved to be the key that unlocked the door of the whole mystery. The Christians called him the Devil and the witches seem eventually to have accepted this term also.” (Valiente, 1989; p. 25)
Margaret Murray believed that she had discovered the secret spiritual meaning behind European religious history. And so did others — her theories crated an enormous stir when they first appeared, chiefly because of her credentials and her reputation. In fact, she wrote the article on “Witchcraft” that the Encyclopedia Brittanica used from 1929 through1968.
Today, scholars are agreed that Margaret Murray was more than just wrong — she was completely and embarassingly wrong on nearly all of her basic premises. In two later books (The God of the Witches and The Divine King in England) she extended her thesis even further, claiming that the witch-religion of the god who dies and is reborn not only survived, but actually dominated British royalty to the point that many English Kings were ritually murdered according to the rites of the cult.
Murray’s increasingly extreme opinions were matched by her increasingly sloppy scholarship. Eliot Rose, an unsympathetic Anglican scholar, characterized Murray’s work as “vapid balderdash.” Mircea Eliade, a kinder, gentler critic, said that ‘neither the documents with which she chose to illustrate her hypothesis nor the method of her interpretation are convincing.” (Eliade, 1976; p. 58)
Jeffrey Burton Russell sums up Murray’s sins in a litany of scholarly blunders:
Murray read back into the entire history of witchcraft, wholly without justification from the sources, witch practices that were peculiar to certain times and places, such as the coven, a late development peculiar to Scotland, and the sabbat, which she makes the center of her fertility cult but which is not mentioned in any of the sources before the fifteenth century.
Indeed, Murray’s use of sources in general is appalling. Not only did she force evidence to fit her theory, but she ignored vast bodies of materials, particularly for the Middle Ages, that were readily available to her and that, ironically, in some instances even would have fortified her position . . . . The worst result of Murray’s work has been the strength it lent to charlatans and occultists . . . Murray’s theories support their contentions, they think, and they have consequently added a superstructure to her nonsense. (Russell, 1972; pp. 36-37)
Yet Murray’s theories did have enormous influence, and continued to do so long after the theories themselves had been rejected by scholars. Ronald Hutton comments that for many years “it had the curious status of an orthodoxy which was believed by everybody except for those who happened to be experts on the subject.” (Hutton, 1991; p. 304)
Despite its shortcomings, Murray’s work captured the public’s imagination because it seized on one historical truth that was being ignored by both sides in the ongoing debate between the rationalists and anti-rationalists — namely that paganism had been suppressed but not eradicated by Christianity; that “pagan folk beliefs . . . did not die out with the introduction of Christianity but rather remained and constituted the fundamental substratum of witchcraft.” (Russell, 1972; p. 37)
Murray’s work, despite its grotesque distortions of fact, was an important preparation for the later rise of Neopaganism. Her theories set off a wave of enthusiasm for things ancient, native and pagan that is still with us and still gathering strength. Murray’s fantasies, like Michelet’s and Leland’s, have been blended into Neopagan mythology in generous measure. She has contributed ideas and terminology, as well as actual practices, to the modern Witchcraft movement. Her scholarship may have been bogus, but its results have been very real. Margaret Murray did not single-handedly start the Neopagan revival, but she almost single-handedly set the stage for its arrival.
Robert Graves: Servant of the Mistress Muse
Robert Graves (1895-1985 ) was an English poet, essayist and novelist. He is the author of Good-bye to All That; I, Claudius; and King Jesus; as well as a large number of lesser-known works. Graves’ influence on the formation of modern Witchcraft comes from his 1948 publication, The White Goddess, subtitled a historical grammar of poetic myth.
The White Goddess is a strange book — rambling and diffuse, both erudite and naive, both brilliant and muddleheaded. But if the book itself is strange, the way it was written is even stranger. In 1944, Graves was living in Devonshire when he was seized by
“a sudden overwhelming obsession” which compelled him to suspend work on the historical novel he had set out to write, in favor of discovering the inner meaning of a mysterious old Welsh poem called The Battle of the Trees. In three weeks, he tells us, he had written a 70,000 word book, called at first The Roebuck in the Thicket, but which eventually became The White Goddess. His mind worked so furiously, he says, under the influence of this inspiration, that his pen could scarcely keep pace with it. (Valiente, 1989; pp. 28-29)
As Graves’s subtitle indicates, his book is basically about the sources of myth and poetic inspiration. It is not a work of history or of anthropology, but a self-conscious literary tour de force. Nevertheless, Graves did rely on his considerable (if eccentric) learning to piece together a picture of an ancient, pre-Christian goddess-religion that gave birth to the original language of poetic myth. Thus, for Graves, the quest for the muse of poetic inspiration led directly to the primal fertility goddesses of pagan Europe and the often orgiastic religion of fertility worship centered around them.
As Graves describes that religion, it resembles a variation on the themes put forth by Margaret Murray. Graves believed that poetry was originally created to depict the cycles of Nature by casting them in the form of a dramatic story of the god/king who is born and flourishes with the waxing Summer sun, who struggles with Fall’s waning sun, then dies in Winter’s dark and chill, finally to be reborn with the renewal of Springtime
The Goddess was both worshipped and desired by the god/king. She was Nature, she was Abundance and Fertility, she was the Earth. She was the mother, the wife, and the one who received him in death, all at the same time. Thus Graves portrayed her in “triple form” — a sequence of three developmental phases that paralleled the three phases of the waxing, full, and waning moon (which was also her symbol). “She was the young maiden of the new moon, the glorious lady of the full moon, and the wise old crone of the waning moon.” (Valiente, 1989; p. 28)
Graves’ emphasis on the lunar connection led him to speculate that the number thirteen was special to witches because there are thirteen lunar months in a solar year, with one day left over. Thus there are normally thirteen full moons per year, and thirteen full moon “Esbats,” or ritual celebrations.
According to Graves, the original, universal, goddess religion was overthrown and suppressed by an emerging patriarchal culture that was violent, warlike and hostile to Nature. The last 4,000 years of human history, therefore, represent a steady spiritual decline from that original, pre-patriarchal golden age.
In his concluding chapter, titled The Return of the Goddess, Graves pronounced the failure and irrelevance of what he called “Father-god worship” — in which he included Christianity. (Graves, 1948; p.484) He earnestly believed that the time was coming when humanity would be ripe for the Goddess’s return. But until then, the outlook is grim. Graves is not an optimist in the short term:
I see no change for the better until everything gets far worse. Only after a period of complete political and religious disorganization can the suppressed desire of the Western races, which is for some practical form of Goddess-worship, with her love not limited to maternal benevolence . . . find satisfaction at last.
But the longer her hour is postponed, and therefore the more exhausted by man’s irreligious improvidence the natural resources of the soil and sea become, the less merciful will her fivefold mask be, and the narrower the scope of action that she grants to whichever demi-god she chooses to take as her temporary consort in godhood. Let us placate her in advance . . . (Graves, 1948; pp.484-486)
Graves’s version of history and anthropology is not taken seriously by historians or anthropologists. His theories are a fanciful rearrangement of his own eccentric erudition, and they express his own spiritual yearnings more than they describe any historical realities.
And yet . . . those theories have had remarkable impact. Like Leland and Murray before him, Graves combined literary invention, occult enthusiasm, defective (even appalling) scholarship, and explicit antagonism to Christianity to produce a work that has made major and detailed contributions to modern Witchcraft. The three of them together have created a school of historical revisionism that has taken hold at a grass-roots level, despite repeated official refutation. Together, the three are a primary source for the ideas that define Neopaganism.
Leland built on the romantics, and on Jules Michelet, in portraying witchcraft as a surviving form of goddess-worship that was preserved and transmitted in detail. He contributed the “Old Religion” terminology, a feminist emphasis, and a protest against Christianity, as well as specific ritual content in the spells that he described.
Murray emphasized the idea that the “Old Religion” was really an ancient fertility religion. She denied that witchcraft arose in opposition to Christianity, saying instead that it was a pagan survival that Christianity had picked a fight with. But she plainly expressed her own rejection and dislike of Christianity in saying so. Murray also established the terminology of the “Sabbat,” and the “Esbat.” She contributed the concept that the witch-cult was organized into “covens” of thirteen people, consisting of twelve witches and their leader, or priest.
Graves added a powerful feminine focus (or “gyno-centrism”) to those other ideas of the ‘Old Religion.” In addition to a generalized anti-patriarchal bias, Graves contributed the specific concept of a “pre-patriarchal golden age,” a time of of peace, harmony, and goddess-worship. He also provided modern Witchcraft’s lunar emphasis, and the “triple form” imagery of the goddess. Graves stressed the spiritual power of the feminine, and proposed that the medieval witch-covens were led by women.
Gerald Gardner: Father of Modern Witchcraft
But the man who pulled all the pieces together and invented modern “Witchcraft” was Gerald. B. Gardner, an Englishman of unconventional outlook and notably odd behavior. Drawing from both literary sources and personal experiences, Gardner assembled a concept of witchcraft that has dominated the Neopagan revival.
Gardner was widely travelled and spent much of his adult life in the Far East. He was a rubber planter in Ceylon and a tea planter in Malaysia. Later he became a British customs officer and lived for a time in India, where he studied, among other things, tantric Hinduism. Gardner remained a British civil servant until he retired and returned to England in 1936.
Gardner’s lengthy sojourn in Asia gave him ample opportunity to indulge his fascination with the eccentric, the exotic and the esoteric. He apparently became a nudist early in life (Adler, 1979; p. 61), and plunged with relish into the bizarre and off-beat aspects of whatever culture he found himself living in.
Prior to his involvement with Wicca, he had become a member of the Sufi order as well as a Co-Mason. He was also familiar with Hinduism (particularly Kali worship) as result of his residence in India and Malaysia with the British civil service [Note: Kali is the Hindu goddess of death and destruction — B.A.]. In addition, he corresponded with Charles Godfrey Leland, author of Aradia: Gospel of the Witches. (Alba, 1989; p. 29)
Gardner also knew Margaret Murray — in fact she wrote an introduction to his first book. He was an initiate of the Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.) and an acquaintance of the notorious English black magician Aleister Crowley, who called himself “the Great Beast 666.” In general, it is evident that Gardner had a deep familiarity with many systems of occultism and religion. It is hardly surprising under the circumstances that his story of how he “rediscovered” witchcraft should have come under suspicion.
By Gardner’s account, he ran across a surviving coven of the “Old Religion” almost by accident. After returning to England, Gardner naturally continued his occult interests and associations. He became involved with the Fellowship of Crotona, founded by the daughter of Theosophist Annie Besant. Among the circle of occultists and eccentrics that revolved around the Fellowship, Gardner encountered some people that he found to be different from the others, but more interesting. Among them was “old Dorothy” Clutterbuck, a wealthy woman of the neighborhood.
According to Gardner, “old Dorothy” turned out to be the leader of a secretive, surviving coven of the “Old Religion,” and in 1939, she initiated him into what she called “Wicca.” Gardner could not write openly about the craft because the “witchcraft laws” then in effect would have subjected him to legal penalties. Consequently, he disguised his work as fiction, and published a “novel” in 1949, titled “High Magic’s Aid,” under the pen-name “Scire.” It was presented as “a historical novel about the Craft and contained two initiation rituals, but there was no reference to the Goddess.” (Adler, 1979; p.62)
The witchcraft laws were finally repealed in 1951, primarily due to the political efforts of the Spiritualist societies. Free at last to acknowledge his real affiliations, Gardner published two books under his own name: Witchcraft Today (1954) and The Meaning of Witchcraft (1959).
Gardner’s version of the Craft was very different from that described by Murray. To him, Witchcraft was a peaceful, happy nature religion. Witches met in covens, led by a priestess. They worshipped two principle deities, the god of forests and what lies beyond, and the great Triple Goddess of fertility and rerbirth. They met in the nude in a nine-foot circle and raised power from their bodies through dancing and chanting and meditative techniques. They focused primarily on the Goddess; they celebrated the eight ancient Pagan festivals of Europe and sought to attune themselves to nature. (Adler, 1979; p.62)
Gardner’s style of Witchcraft has dominated the subsequent growth of the movement. The spread and evolution of “Gardnerian Wicca” is a long and complicated tale. I will not attempt to tell it here, especially as it is well-told elsewhere (see, for example, Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon, Jeffrey Burton Russell’s A History of Witchcraft, and sources cited by them). Suffice it to say in brief that Gardner was charismatically effective in recruiting converts to his point of view, and that some of them helped to spread his version of the the craft beyond the British Isles, both to Europe and America.
One of Gardner’s early initiates was Raymond Buckland. Buckland imported Gardner’s Wicca to the United States in the early 1960s by establishing a coven in New York state. Buckland’s coven initiated others, who in turn began their own covens, and initiated still others, etc., etc.
The “counterculture” of the middle and late 1960s converged perfectly with these developments to stimulate the slowly growing Wiccan movement. The counterculture’s heady cocktail of psychedelic drugs, sexual liberty, mysticism, enlightenment, self-divinization, occultism and anti-Christianity was tailor-made (and exquisitely timed) to encourage the explosive growth of Neopaganism in general and modern Witchcraft in particular. The rest is history.
The Gardnerian Controversy
But is the beginning history? Is Gardner’s story of his own initiation credible? Or is it a work of imagination, based on his own exotic experiences? And a second issue is inseparable from the first: was there, in 1939 England, an existing coven of “witches” that was actually a survival of an older teaching? Or did Gardner encounter something else, which he then embroidered? Or did he encounter nothing at all, and invent the whole thing from scratch?
Among scholars, the consensus is strong that Gardner’s “Wicca” is a construction and an assemblege. Some have spent considerable effort in documentary research, and are able to trace a development in Gardner’s ideas over a period of time. Russell describes a handwritten spell-book (grimoire) that Gardner began putting together during the Second World War. He concludes from the content of the manuscript that
if Gardner had been initiated into a coven in 1939, they had given him almost no information at all. His ideas of the Craft were still very inchoate. The material gradually changed as Gardner’s own views shifted from the elite ceremonial magic of the Golden Dawn to a more populist magic, transforming the semi-serious intellectual rituals of the Order into simpler rituals that could be performed by ordinary people. Gradually he reduced or eliminated the Judeo-Christian-gnostic flavor of the Golden Dawn materials and added neopagan ideas derived from Murray and Leland. Later still, he absorbed ideas from Graves, James, and other writers . . . at first Gardner’s revision followed Murray closely and emphasized the importance of the horned god. But gradually the Goddess became more and more important, until she emerged as the chief deity. As the power of the Goddess rose, so did that assigned to the High Priestess, who replaced the High Priest as leader of the coven. (Russell, 1980; pp. 153-4)
Among occultists and pagans, not surprisingly, opinions are more varied. The occult writer Francis King thought that Gardner was initiated into a group that represented some sort of pagan survival, but that he found their simple rituals and low-magic spells unsatisfying. He responded by trying to “found a more elaborate and romanticised witch-cult of his own.” To that end, says King, Gardner hired Aleister Crowley “at a generous fee, to write elaborate rituals for the new ‘Gardnerian’ witch-cult and, at about the same time, either forged, or procured to be forged , the so-called ‘Book of Shadows, allegedly a sixteenth-century witches rule-book, but betraying its modern origins in every line of its unsatisfactory pastiche of Elizabethan English.” (King, 1970; pp. 179-80)
Doreen Valiente, an early associate of Gardner and a long-time member of his coven, traces the sources of Gardner’s Wicca to “the works of Margaret Murray, Charles Godfrey Leland, Rudyard Kipling, Aleister Crowley, the Key of Solomon and the rituals of Freemasonry . . .” Nevertheless, she continues to believe there was a real coven for Gardner to build on, primarily because she discerns (or thinks she discerns) a basic, underlying structure “which was not from Crowley or Margaret Murray or any of the other sources mentioned.” (Valiente, 1989; p. 63) Valiente does not consider the possibility that Gardner himself was the source of that “structure.”
It is worth noting that this dispute is different from the controversy over Neopaganism’s “Charter Myth,” which has to do with Modern Witchcraft’s alleged connection to medieval Witchcraft and ancient goddess-religions. That controversy has largely been settled academically, even though it continues to generate heat within the Neopagan community. The “Gardnerian” debate, on the other hand, concerns more recent history — specifically whether Gardner was telling the truth about what happened to him in England during the late 1930s.
Aidan Kelly: Cutting History Loose
Another development in that discussion has been the work of Aidan Kelly. Kelly’s own religious pilgrimage overlaps much of Neopaganism’s history on the West coast. Kelly developed a keen but untutored interest in witchcraft and paganism as a youth beginning in 1954. As a college student in 1967, he helped a friend write a “witches sabbath” for a class in “Creating Ritual” at San Fransisco State University. By 1971, Kelly and his friends were calling themselves “witches.” They named their “coven” (half in jest and self-satire) the “New Reformed Order of the Golden Dawn” (NROOGD).
From 1974 to 1980, Kelly studied “Christian Origins” in graduate school in Berkeley. In 1977, he returned to practicing Catholicism, the religion of his youth. In 1987, he quit practicing Catholicism for the second time and became active in the Craft again. (Kelly, 1991; pp. xi-xxi)
Using the tools of textual criticism that he acquired in graduate school, Kelly made an attempt to unravel Gerald Gardner’s version of Wicca. His study, entitled Crafting the Art of Magic (1991) compares several versions of Gardner’s Book of Shadows, and correlates them with possible sources for their content.
In Kelly’s view, 1939 was the year that Gardner “and some other English occultists (possibly connected with the Golden Dawn through Dion Fortune’s Fraternity of the Inner Light) started Wicca from scratch, based on the theories of anthropologist Margaret Murray, American folklorist Charles Leland, and various writers on magic.” (Clifton, 1991; p, 64) Kelly’s primary conclusion is that no “traditional Wicca” had survived, and no pre-1939 coven existed.
But Kelly goes beyond his conclusions about Gerald Gardner, to make a point about the significance of history itself. He says that the recent origin of “Wicca,” and its status as an invention, are irrelevant and beside the point. In Kelley’s view, many of the world’s great religions were essentially “invented” by their founders, who were typically reluctant to admit that fact. Instead, they tried to portray their religious innovations as developments within established traditions. In that context, Kelly depicts Gardner as a creative genius who succeeded in framing the world-view for a religion of the future.
Concerning modern Witchcraft, Historian Jeffrey Burton Russell has said that “lack of historicity does not necessarily deprive a religion of its insight” (Russell, 1980; p. 154) — a point that Kelly’s argument depends on. Nevertheless, a genuine tradition (even a brief one) gives a religion more than “insight;” it gives evidence of a body of teaching that is stable enough to be passed down from one generation to the next — which conveys a kind of authority and validity in religion that cannot be obtained in any other way.
Therefore Neopaganism’s “tradition” depends on the truth of Gardner’s tale, and the truthfulness of his claims is a subject that stirs some fervor in the Neopagan community. For that reason Kelly’s book sparked a heated debate. “Traditional” Gardnerians came to Gardner’s defense, saying that his story is not only historically plausible, but supported by the evidence at key points. They also questioned Kelly’s research, and the thesis based upon it. An extensive critique of Kelly’s sources, methods, and conclusions by D. Hudson Frew appeared in Gnosis magazine. (Frew and Korn, 1991) Frew enthusiastically endorsed Kelly’s idea that historicity doesn’t matter, but he defended the historicity of Gardner’s claims anyway, because he believes the evidence is there to back them up.
In a 2000 interview, Frew summarized the attitude of the Neopagan community as a whole toward the historical issue:
(A) lot of people used to believe that Craft ritual practices descended in an unbroken chain from prehistoric days. Then the pendulum swung and Witches took the attitude of “Okay, we made it all up twenty years ago, and we’re still making it up. But it doesn’t matter — everything’s fine. Now the pendulum is swinging back to the center and we’re trying to find the middle ground. A popular concept of the antiquity of the Craft involves the romantic idea of an ancient Celtic group, often women, being persecuted by the Inquisition. But that’s basically a fantasy, and lacks documentation. (Vale and Sulak, 2001; p. 95)
Traditional Witches and the Interfaith Interface
As we saw in Chapter Five, the 1996 release of the movie The Craft triggered the explosive growth of pop-culture Witchcraft ouside of the organized Witchcraft movement. A great deal of what the public sees as the increased public presence of modern Witchcraft is really the increased media visibility of pop-culture Witchcraft. A great deal of Witchcraft’s recent image-makeover is the direct result of this mid-1990s pop-culture explosion.
But traditional Witches worked for over three decades in this country to lay the groundwork for that groundswell of enthusiasm, and the Witchcraft movement they created has also benefitted from the interest and attention stirred up by the media. The organized Witchcraft groups (such as Covenant of the Goddess) became much more active in public relations, and much better prepared to respond to the public’s growing curiosity about Witchcraft.
Despite reinforcing one another, the two kinds of Witchcraft represent two different routes into the mainstream. Pop-culture Witchcraft spreads a broad, shallow form of itself with sensational media presentations. Traditional Witches on the other hand, are working to establish their religious credibility through involvement with the Interfaith Movement.
The Witchcraft community’s ongoing involvement with interfaith work goes back to 1975, when the Covenant of the Goddess (CoG) was formed in Berkeley as “a networking group for Witches of all traditions.” One of the first things CoG did as an organization was to join the local Interfaith Council, but their involvement was sporadic for the next ten years or so. CoG’s interfaith work began in earnest in 1985, when Wiccan Elder Don Frew was appointed as CoG’s interfaith representative. Frew walked into his first meeting of the Berkeley Area Interfaith Council to find a room uneasily divided between traditional believers on one side (Christians, Jews, Buddhists) and “alternative” believers on the other (Scientologists, Hare Krishnas, “New Age” groups). Because he represented an alternative faith, but had friends among the traditionalists, Frew was able to act as a bridge between the two sides; Neopagans have been an integral part of the Berkeley Council and its work ever since.
Perhaps only in Berkeley could a Witch spontaneously act as a bridge between traditional and “fringe” religions at an interfaith meeting, but the eventual effects of that interfaith connection were not local at all. In fact, they went literally around the world. Witches got involved in interfaith work for a reason, and what had begun on a small scale and a local level, eventually became organized policy — first for CoG on the West coast, and later for other Wiccan and Neopagan groups around the country.
The purpose of interfaith work from the Witches’ point of view was to establish Witchcraft as a religion among religions, thus increasing the acceptance and acceptability of Witchcraft in society, and thereby serving the ultimate purpose of increasing the physical safety and enlarging the social comfort-zone of Witches in general. Judged by those standards, the Witches’ “interfaith interface” has been remarkably successful. Today the Witchcraft movement has already achieved legal status as one religion among many, and is on the verge of achieving it socially — which is exactly what the interfaith approach was designed to accomplish.
Nevertheless, for several years after Frew became an interfaith activist, his work was still pursued on a local and largely personal basis. It was was one thing to get spiritual respect and religious recognition in the context of Berkeley’s spiritual zoo, where traditional Witches sometimes seemed like the “safe and sane” part of the religious fringe. However, it was quite another thing to get respect and recognition in the larger religious community, where Witches were regarded with skepticism at best, suspicion at worst, and disdain in any case. But all of that changed in 1993.
“The Parliament of the World’s Religions”
1993 was a critical year, partly out of coincidence and partly out of convergence.
By coincidence, that year was the 100th anniversary of the “Parliament of the World’s Religions,” which had been part of the Century-ending Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. One of the most charismatic figures at that earlier event was a dynamic young advocate of Hinduism named Swami Vivekananda. As a travelling speaker, the Swami mesmerized Western audiences; he and the Parliament have been credited with opening the Western world to Eastern religious teachings for the first time. The Parliament is also widely acknowledged as the beginning of formal inter-religious dialogue worldwide. A hundred years later, an elaborate celebration was planned that included holding a second “Parliament of the World’s Religions,” in honor of the first one.
As 1993 approached, word of the second Parliament spread throughout the North American Interfaith Network. CoG representatives learned of the event through their interfaith connections and made plans to attend. As it turns out, they were not alone; nationwide, three other Neopagan groups also signed up to become sponsors of the event (Circle Sanctuary in the Midwest, EarthSpirit in Boston and the Fellowship of Isis in Chicago).
CoG originally hoped to send three representatives to the Parliament, but their members responded so warmly to the project that they ended up with a volunteer group of more than forty, many of whom travelled to Chicago at their own expense. A few of them were there to make a public presentation of their religion — to give talks, hold seminars, etc. The rest were there for logistical support — to make copies, run errands, staff the hospitality suite, etc. As the group headed off to Chicago, they were uncertain what they would encounter, or what their reception would be. This would be their first major engagement with the world of inter-religious dialogue beyond the rather exotic spiritual environment of Berkeley.
What they encountered in Chicago was a startling convergence of worries and hopes that placed Witches squarely in the international spotlight and placed Witchcraft squarely within the mainstream of modern religious thought — literally overnight. CoG officer Don Frew tells how overlapping themes propelled Neopaganism to center stage in the international arena.
In the first plenary session of the 1993 Parliament, Dr. Gerald Barney, the scientist who had prepared the Global 2000 report on the environment for President Jimmy Carter, told the crowd about the imminent environmental collapse of the planet: There are this many people, he said. Each person requires this much land to produce food. There is this much arable land left. It’s being used up at this rate while the population is increasing at this rate. Do the math and you see that the Earth begins to die in 2025.
Dr. Barney, a Christian, went on to lay much of the blame for this with the major, “world” religions, especially Christianity. “What we need,” he said, “are new spiritualities and new ways to re-sacralize nature, if the Earth is to survive.”
And there we were.
From its very first session, the 1993 Parliament was focused on re-sacralizing Nature. Everyone’s attention was immediately focused on two religious groups: the Native Americans and the Neopagans.
But the Native Americans tended to keep to themselves and were seemingly reticent to share many of their traditions. In contrast, the Covenant of the Goddess had a person attending the morning press briefings every day, handing out press packets, and had a hospitality suite staffed with folks ready and willing to answer questions.
Suddenly, we Witches found ourselves the media darlings of the conference! Our “What is Wicca?” workshops had to be moved to larger rooms to accommodate the huge numbers wanting to attend. Our Full Moon ceremony in a nearby park, planned for a circle of 50, drew 500! . . . By the end of the nine days, the academics attending the Parliament were saying “In 1893, America was introduced to the Buddhists and Hindus; in 1993, we met the Neopagans.” One media person described the Parliament as “the coming out party for the Neopagans.”
From that point on, Neopagans would be included in almost every national or global interfaith event. At the 1993 Parliament, we ceased being a bunch of weirdos and became a religious minority. As Michael Thorn said after returning from Chicago, “This was the most important event in the history of the Craft since the publication of Witchcraft Today in 1954!” (Frew, 2003)
Convergence: Witchcraft, Interfaith and Messianic Globalism
After the startling public relations success of the 1993 Parliament, Frew made interfaith work a priority for CoG — so much so that it is now the second largest item in CoG’s budget, right after the organizational newsletter. (Frew, 2002) Moreover, just as an unplanned convergence of ideas and concerns was the key to their 1993 breakthrough, the same kind of convergence has continued to drive CoG toward global activism, and to increase CoG’s role in the world-wide interfaith community.
Within two years of the Chicago Parliament, CoG was active in another inter-religious project with global aspirations — Episcopal Bishop William Swing’s United Religions Initiative (URI). The URI was concieved in 1995 as a religious counterpart to the UN after Bishop Swing was commissioned to write an ecumenical liturgy for the United Nations”s 50th Anniversary. Feeling shamed by the religious world’s failure to match the UN’s “successful” half-century, Swing decided it was time to bring the world’s religions together on a permanent basis in some kind of oganization.
The result was the URI. CoG members were involved in the earliest stages of creating the URI, and even helped to write the URI Charter, which reflects the influence of Neopaganism in its opening words:
We, people of diverse religions, spiritual expressions and indigenous traditions throughout the world, hereby establish the United Religions Initiative to promote enduring, daily interfaith cooperation, to end religiously motivated violence and to create cultures of peace, justice and healing for the Earth and all living beings.
In the years since its founding, the URI has speeded up the convergence of religious concerns and political causes that has always typified the ecumenical movement. The URI has become an international forum to bring together religious and secular activists over issues that concern them both. As the Neopagans aligned themselves with that activist mentality, they moved into prominence within the URI organization. In the process, they also discovered their own convergence with “other paths,” thereby creating a new kind of religious identity. At one of the URI’s Charter-writing conferences in 1998,
(t)he representatives of the many Earth-based religions . . . got together for lunch, sitting in a very visible circle on the ground in the central courtyard of the conference. There were practitioners of Wicca, Shinto, North/Central/South American indigenous traditions, Candomble, Taoism, and Hinduism. To our surprise, the environmental scientists joined our group, saying they felt more at home with us than in the other traditions. Looking around our circle, we, and the other folks having their lunches and watching us, suddenly realized that the Earth-religions were 13% of the delegates at the conference!
No longer were we seen as disparate groups. The Earth-religions had established an identity in common as a “way” of being religious — a Pagan identity, broader than the concept of Neopagan. (Frew, 2003)
There are numerous opportunities for interfaith work, and CoG has moved into as many of them as their resources permit. The 1993 Parliament generated several follow-up conferences; another Parliament was held in Cape Town in 1999 and yet another is scheduled for Barcelona in 2004. Increasingly, the focus of CoG’s interfaith work is on “good works” programs, mostly overseas, that advance various political and social agendas, mostly of a “progressive” and “internationalist” nature. Through its involvement with interfaith groups, CoG actively supports
* AIDS education in East Africa
* Jewish-Muslim dialogue for peace in Israel and Palestine
* a vegetarian restaurant in Vietnam that serves affordable, fresh food through volunteers to about 200-300 people every day
* a blood drive in Bali in response to the October 12th, 2002 bombing
* energy audits in homes and churches in Tennessee & the Carolinas
* the elimination of handguns in Rio through the “Rio: Put That Gun Down!” program, destroying over 10,000 handguns in 2002 and getting the sale of handguns banned in Rio
* a youth camp in Sri Lanka where 4000 young people worked together in environmental cleanup programs
* a program in Malawi to buy school uniforms for orphans
* another program in Malawi to assist AIDS orphans in their area
* on-the-ground facilitators for the World Health Organization’s “Roll Back Malaria” campaign, aimed at eradicating Malaria in Mozambique in 5 years
* a program in India that rescued 75 cattle from ritual slaughter and gave them to the poor
* a program raising money in Northern California for the Humanity Club of Vietnam to provide housing and medical assistance for the poor in Vietnam
* an orphanage in Uganda caring for over 400 children orphaned due to civil war and AIDS
* a micro-credit bank for women in Kenya (Frew, 2003)
There are several reasons for Witches to become involved in such far-flung social activism. The obvious ones have to do with cultivating political connections and expressing open solidarity with the “progressive” or “politically correct” line of thinking. What is not so obvious is the coming together of the spiritual motives for doing such work with the secular ones, and the coming together of both with an ambitious agenda of social engineering. That combination creates a collective enterprise with aims and aspirations that can only be called “messianic,” i.e., it sees itself as the only force that can save the world from self-destruction. Frew makes the blending evident, as he explains why he has committed CoG to interfaith work and why he has made it a priority in his own life.
A movement to bring the religions of the world together in peace to work for the betterment of all is, potentially, the most powerful force for positive change in existence. As a person of faith, called by my Gods to care for and protect the Earth, how can I not be involved?
Interfaith work is, in my opinion, the best hope for the future of the Earth. Neopagans . . . are active at the heart of the global interfaith movement. This is our opportunity to be part of the change we wish to see. (Frew, 2003)
In the meantime, regardless of what happens to the Neopagans’ utopian hopes, there can be no doubt that their interfaith strategy has been an unqualified success. Because of their interfaith activities, modern Witchcraft has moved far toward mainstream acceptance — not only in the United States, but around the world. Frew explains how he came to understand the effectiveness of CoG’s interfaith work:
Neopagans are now welcome in interfaith events all over the world. And it is paying off in increased understanding. In both Cape Town and half way ‘round the world in Rio de Janeiro, I didn’t meet a single person who didn’t know what Wicca is! “Oh, yeah, the Goddess. Earth-religion. I’ve heard of that!” was the usual response we got. We didn’t teach them this, the interfaith groups did. (Frew, 2003)
© Copyright 2004 by Brooks Alexander. Posted at Apologetics Index by permission. [Details]