Survival or New Creation?

A Pagan Almanac for July 29-31, 2012

Lunar cycle:
July 29, First day of the full Moon. (The Greeks counted the middle 10 days of the month as being full Moon. That makes it easier to understand how people could meet at full Moon, right?)
July 30, Second day of the full Moon
July 31, Third day of the full Moon

Rome: July 30, dedicated to Fortune

Athens: Hekatombaion 11. The Nemean games begin (in years 2 & 4 of the Olympic cycle)

Democritus wrote: Nothing occurs at random, but everything for a reason and by necessity.

Martyred on this day in:
1566 – Agnes Waterhouse of Chelmsford, Essex
1661 – Jan Vindevogel of Oyche
They died in our name. Let us remember theirs.

William Blake wrote:
If you account it Wisdom when you are angry to be silent and not to show it, I do not account that Wisdom but Folly. Every man’s Wisdom is peculiar to his own individuality.
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Most Witches believe that their religion, if not actually a survival of ancient Pagan religions, is at least a revival of the best aspects of those religions, aspects that were discarded or forbidden during the exclusive hegemony of Christianity in the Western world. Others regard current Paganism to be an idealized reconstruction of those ancient religions, that is, a revival not of the historical religions themselves, but of what such religions could have been at their best.
Of course, the desire to revive ancient Pagan religions has a long history. One could reasonably see it as beginning during the Italian Renaissance, when the revival of classical learning inspired some scholars, such as Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, to hope for revival of classical religions as well. Interest in that possibility ebbed and flooded during the succeeding centuries. It rose high during the Enlightenment, even higher during the Romanticism of the nineteenth century, and higher yet when fueled by the archaeological discoveries about Goddesses and ancient religions in the late nineteenth century. Ronald Hutton has already provided a masterful analysis of the Romantic roots of modern Paganism.

A watershed event, indeed, a probable date for the beginning of modern Paganism was the publication of Margaret Murray’s The Witchcult in Western Europe in 1922. Criticism of that book as being bad history fails to grasp that the book makes much more sense as theology, not history. As soon as it was published, the book became a new focus for the ongoing interest in reviving ancient religions. Specifically, people began to wonder if it would be possible to revive or recreate the Witchcraft religion that Murray described. Many people may have attempted to do so during the next quarter-century, including the circle of occultists whom Gerald Gardner knew in the New Forest area in the late 1930s, and whose identities Philip Heselton has now established.

However,the first attempt at recreating the religion described by Murray that succeeded was embodied in the coven that Gardner and Edith Woodford-Grimes established soon after World War II. I am fairly sure of that, because I could see while analyzing the BOS documents that Charles Clark had sent to Carl Weschcke that the bottommost layer of the foundation of the Gardnerian “reform” was based totally on Murray’s concepts. Gardner did incorporate raw materials from previous eras, some reaching back into antiquity, but the religion he founded is new. The stones used to build a house may be millions of years old, but the house is only as old as when it was built. The only answer to “survival or new creation?” is “some of both.” It is amusing that some Witches use “eclectic” as a pejorative in describing other, usually newer, Witches, because Gardner was about as eclecric as one can get.

In his three major books (High Magic’s Aid, Witchcraft Today, and The Meaning of Witchcraft), Gardner paints a seductive picture (based on Murray’s theories) of Witchcraft as a secretive Pagan religion that had somehow managed to survive into the twentieth century. Many followers of the Wiccan religion believe that it should still be a tiny, secretive cult that one can learn about only by word of mouth (in the era of the Internet!?!). However, it should be obvious that Gardner intended Wicca to be a world-class religion, not that sort of tiny cult. If he had intended the latter, he would never have written his books, which are obviously intended to promote the growth of the new religion that he, Edith, Doreen Valiente, and others created between the 1940s and the 1960s.

Gardnerian Wicca was the catalyst that set off the growth of the Pagan movement, as Chas Clifton has argued in Her Hidden Children. Although there were some pre-Gardnerian Witches who followed a Pagan religion somewhat similar to Gardnerian Wicca, and although there were and are a fair number of Pagan revivalist groups whose origin was independent of Gardnerian Wicca, all such Witches and Pagans quickly adopted Gardner’s innovations, which provided a praxis, a theology, or both that these groups had been lacking. The now familiar ritual format for a Gardnerian circle working is always evidence that a group has been heavily influenced by Gardnerian practice.

Until about 1963, there were only a handful (maybe two handsful) of Pagans and Witch covens who believed they were practicing a distinct religion. It was the “Gardnerian magnet” (as Clifton has described it) that catalyzed the proliferation of Paganism in America. This modern Paganism is a thoroughly urban religion. Its initial growth in the late 1960s and the early 1970s was concentrated around the major metropolises. It began to spread from the Buckland’s Gardnerian coven on Long Island in 1963; from 1967 on in San Francisco and Los Angeles; from 1969 on in Boston and Chicago, from where the movement spread around the Great Lakes; and from 1971 in the region around Washington D.C. In fact, roughly half of the major developments in the Pagan movement in the New World took place in California between 1957 and 1977. The movement did not begin to grow rapidly in the rest of the US until the late 1970s.

Until about 1980 the only meaningful way to participate in any sort of Witchcraft or Paganism was to find and join a local coven, grove, or equivalent group—and there were always more seekers than local groups could accommodate. An alternative was to create one’s own coven or Pagan group. Since the late 1960s, enough information on the theory and praxis of Gardnerian-style Witchcraft has been available in books that any small group who wanted to could train themselves as a coven. Those who did so could be, and were, recognized as members of the same religion when they later met other Witches; and more and more covens began this way as more and more books became available in the 1970s and 1980s. Such books as Buckland’s The Tree and The Complete Art of Witchcraft provided rituals by which one could dedicate oneself to the Craft as a spiritual path. It was soon widely accepted in the Craft movement (although not by the minority of groups that insist on specific details) that such a self-dedication was just as meaningful as one worked by a coven.

About 1980, when festivals began to flourish and Pagan Temples were being founded, the nature of the Wiccan/Pagan movement was radically changed. Now one could pursue Wicca without having to join a coven! Festivals proliferated after the very first ones in 1977; Adler listed more than fifty in 1985. To these gatherings, which may last up to a week, come Pagans and Witches of all varieties and Traditions from all over the USA, Canada, and elsewhere, although the majority of attendees at most festivals are local. This phenomenon decentralized the Craft, making it more accessible to people in general. There are now many Pagans whose primary activity consists of attendance at national and local festivals, is not focused on a coven, and is not subject to the authority of a High Priestess. “Festivals have completely changed the face of the Pagan movement . . . have created a national Pagan community, a body of nationally shared chants, dances, stories, and ritual techniques. They have even led to the creation of a different type of ritual process—one that permits a large group to experience ecstatic states and a powerful sense of religious communion” (Adler, 2d ed., p. 422).

Pagan Temples are actually what most Americans would call a church: a building dedicated for use as a place of worship, where there is a weekly liturgy (usually on Friday or Saturday night, rather than Sunday morning) to which anyone can come simply by walking in. This was considered a radical innovation, and not necessarily a welcome one, by many in the Craft in the 1980s, for the following reasons.

The esbat of a coven is utterly private; in order even to hear that one is going to occur, you need to know members of a coven well enough that you could be considered for membership yourself. You could be invited to an esbat only with the permission of the coven’s reigning elders. The rules for a coven’s own Sabbat celebration are not much different.

Some Sabbats are more public. Such a Sabbat might be held in a rented hall or out in a park, many more friends would be invited to it, it would be mainly a gathering of the local covens, and it would typically (these days) be sponsored by a local association to which the various covens belong; often one member coven will take responsibility for creating and carrying out the liturgy at a Sabbat, and this task may rotate through the local covens each year. But these “open” Sabbats are usually not advertised. To be invited to one, you must already be in contact with the sponsoring network (although now such websites as Witchvox make that contacting much easier). Similarly, the national festivals were not advertised except through the network of Pagan publications, which were normally available only by subscription, though a few were sold through bookstores.

Hence being able to look up a Pagan Temple in the Yellow Pages, to simply walk in and participate in the weekly liturgy, was a vastly different experience from that of most Pagans before then—so much so that a lively theological debate took place about whether such Temple liturgies could be considered a kind of Craft liturgy or not.

Finally, with all the information available in books on the Craft that started becoming easily available in the 1980s, one could circle with one’s family or a few close friends to honor the full and new moons. The attitude displayed by many orthodox Gardnerians, that one could be a Real Witch only by joining a Gardnerian or Gardnerianish coven, has become more and more anachronistic. Roughly 90 percent of those who consider Wicca to be their religion in America practice this sort of eclectic, family-centered Wicca, observing the Moons at home and attending one of more local festivals or outdoor Sabbats during the year to connect with the larger community. I sincerely believe that this situation is far closer to what Gerald Gardner hoped for than the orthodoxy of the officially Gardnerian covens is.

  • Dave Burwasser

    It’s really a slippery question, since religions with long, recorded traditions often mutate drastically with the passage of time. One of the favorite tropes of conservative Christians is that the Primitive Church was so spiritually superior (though they seldom succeed in reconstructing it).

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_OLX5VONFZJAZLIHTOFGYPAENME james c

     When Wicca became available to everyone and books started to be published their numbers grew exponentially.

    • Dave Burwasser

      Books and festivals. With the festival movement, seekers could engage in ritual by picking one, rather than chase down urban rumors of covens. So saieth Margot Adler in the revised-edition Drawing Down the Moon. Now a sizeable fraction of our population only goes to festivals (and reads books). Adler quoted one traditional Witch as saying that festivals would save the religion but destroy its traditions. Looks like she wasn’t all wrong.

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