The Old Religion and those Ancient Ways

This morning I was poking around my Facebook account where I ran into a rant about Modern Pagans using terms like “The Old Religion” and “ancient ways” and every permutation in between. In some ways it’s a very valid thing to be upset about. Modern Paganism is just that, modern. There is no unbroken chain linking my personal practice (British Traditional Witchcraft) with antiquity or even the “witches” who were persecuted, tortured, and killed during the Middle Ages/Renaissance. I can’t think of one modern Pagan tradition that hasn’t been influenced by where we are currently at in history. You can try to recreate things as authentically as possible, but you are still going to have make concessions for modernity.

Despite that, I still can’t get upset about terms like “The Old Religion,” because there’s some validity there. Modern Paganism (especially Wicca and its spin-offs) is a recent flowering of the Western Magical Tradition, a tradition that goes back to pagan antiquity. Religion may not always survive across the centuries, but magic(k) certainly does. The term “Abracadabra” was first used in 212 CE (1) and has been in use ever since. One magical practice lead to another and so on, through the grimoire tradition of the Middle Ages/Renaissance to English Cunning-craft which was practiced into the early 20th Century. As Owen Davies writes in Grimoires: A History of Magical Books:

“While the Church was ultimately successful in defeating pagan worship it never managed to demarcate clearly and maintain a line of practice between religious devotion and magic. The medical manuals known as leechbooks, which were produced by clergy or monastic communities of late Anglo-Saxon England, are a good example. They were based principally on classical medicine but also contained spells for healing and protection. How else was one to deal with malicious elves for instance? Some of the charms were Christianized versions of pagan healing verses.”

(If you’ve seen that quote before, it’s because I’ve used it before, more specifically back in March of this year.)

I can draw a mostly straight line from Gerald Gardner back to ancient pagan times if I do it through the Western Magical Tradition. Magic survives, it’s as simple as that.

Gardner also made use of the Key of Solomon, an occult text from the Fourteenth or Fifteenth Century. That’s not particularly old in the whole scheme of things, but it’s still pretty damn old, even ancient depending on your perspective. Not all Modern Pagans use the Key of Solomon, and Gardner certainly didn’t use it exclusively (or perhaps even extensively) but it shows up in his fiction book High Magic’s Aid. An early version of his Book of Shadows known as Ye Book of Art Magical has all kinds of ceremonial magic in it, ranging from the Key of Solomon to Kabbalah. Sure some of that was material from more contemporary sources, but where do you think they got it from? Most things aren’t usually made up completely out of whole cloth, there are precedents and influences.

Phillip Heselton in his book Wiccan Roots makes a pretty good argument that the coven that first initiated Gardner possibly contained some Cunning-folk within it. Cunning-folk were practical magic users, and often times their traditions were passed down from one practitioner to another. Often times the spells they used in their work were hundreds of years old, with many having even older pedigrees (like Abracadabra referenced above). If that legacy was a part of Gardner’s initiation no wonder “The Old Religion” held a particular resonance both then and now.

An even easier case can be made for using the term “The Old Religion,” one that requires even less hoops than the ones I’ve presently been jumping through. To put it simply, I worship ancient gods. Pan, Dionysus, Aphrodite, and Ariadne are legitimately older than Jesus or the institution of the Catholic Church. I’ll readily admit to not worshipping them exactly as my ancestors did, but I feel comfortable saying I know enough about them (and how they were worshipped in antiquity) to make the argument that I’m worshipping the same gods as many Ancient Greeks once did. With only a few exceptions the majority of deities worshipped by Modern Pagans are older than the god(s) of the monotheists.

Like many Modern Pagans I practice “ancient ways” on a daily basis too, especially around this time of year. While not everything associated with Halloween is ancient pagan in origin (much of it is actually Catholic), many of Halloween’s traditions are legitimately old. Jack-o-lanterns date back to the Middle Ages (when they were originally made out of turnips), and just wait until we get to Christmas! All kinds of things there are legitimately old and even pre-date Christianity. Superstitions I practice on a daily basis, like knocking on wood, could come from as far back as pagan antiquity. I haven’t even remarked on the broom above my front door yet or the the jar of piss and razorblades buried in my backyard.

I also celebrate old holidays. Our Modern Yule is a descendant of the Saturnalia revelries of yester-centuries. The Ancient Celts celebrated Samhain as the final harvest, as do I. Solstices, equinoxes, cross-quarter days . . . ancient pagans did all sorts of things on those days, just like many of us do. The Modern Pagan religious calendar is certainly more “old school” than the calendar of most Christians (the majority of which didn’t celebrate Christmas until fairly recently). There’s nothing more primal than a harvest festival.

I’d never answer answer the question “what do you practice?” with “the Old Ways” but I certainly feel comfortable chanting tunes like Give Me That Old Time Religion with my fellow Pagans. The things I do as a Modern Pagan (and more specifically a British Traditional Witch) have old roots, with many of them reaching deep into the past. It may not always be a continuous chain, but as the song goes “that’s good enough for me!”

Gimme That Ol Time Religion

Lots and lots of versions (and verses) to this song, I stole many of these choruses from The Blessed Bee Page and then found even more verses at the Internet Book of Shadows. I think Oberon Zell told me that you can sing this song for about 24 hours straight if you know all of the different verses.

Oh gimme that ol’ time religion,
Gimme that Ol’ time religion,
Gimme that Ol’ time religion,
It’s good enough for me.

Oh, we’ll worship like the Druids, Drinking strange fermented fluids,
And run naked through the woods; It’s good enough for me.

There’ll be lots of pagan lovin when we’re meeting in our coven.
Quit your pushin and your shovin and leave room enough for me!

When ol’ Gerald got it going, When ol’ Gerald got it going,
All that hiding turned to showing And that’s good enough for me.

Those of us that worship Isis, Know she’s real good in a crisis.
Leave us to our own devices And that’s good enough for me.

There are those who when they’ve got e-Normous problems that are knotty,
Just refer them to Hecaté And that’s good enough for me.

Let us not forget dear Pan; Come on Pagans give a hand;
Have a party and a jam And that’s good enough for me.

We will sing a verse for Hermes, Yes, we’ll drink a toast to Hermes,
He will cure us of our germies And that’s good enough for me.

It was good enough for Thor; I can hear his Thunder roar…
Or maybe it’s his snore…But it’s good enough for me.

Meeting at the witching hour, By the bud and branch and flower,
Folks are raising up the power And that’s where I wanna be!

All praise be to Athena; May her rituals get keena
Though she does sometimes get meana Still she’s good enough for me.

Let us worship Aphrodite. Even though she’s kinda flighty.
(But we love that see-thru nightie) And it’s good enough for me!

It was good enough for Aradia. She said “Keep the suits afraid of ya,
And I’ll see you in Arcadia. And that’s good enough for me!

Let us worship Dionysus, Perun, Shiva, Frey, and Isis
(We’ll forgive their little vices) They’re good enough for me!

Jerry Falwell says he’s sav-ed. In the lamb’s blood he is bath-ed;
And he thinks that I’m deprav-ed, But that doesn’t bother me.

Then there is the Horned One, Of all the Gods, he’s most fun,
He likes to hunt in woods and run, And that’s good enough for me.

It was good enough for Isis. She will help us in a crisis.
And she’s never raised her prices, So she’s good enough for me!

Here is one thing I do know, Jove’s favorite is Juno;
‘Cause She’s awfully good at you-know; And that’s good enough for me.

It was good enough for Kali, Though embracing her is folly
She’s quite an armful by golly! And she’s good enough for me!

Let us all go worship Loki. He’s the Nordic God of Chaos,
Which is why this verse does not rhyme or sync or scan or nuthin’

It was good enough for Odin, Though those omens were forbodin’
‘Til at last the giants rode in, And it’s good enough for me!

It was good enough for Pan. He’s half goat and he’s half man.
But he does the best he can, That’s good enough for me

Let us honor Ra Hoor Khuit, And his lovely mother Nuit.
If it’s not your will, then screw it, But it’s good enough for me.

We went out to worship Venus, By gosh you should have seen us!
Now the clinic has to screen us, But it’s good enough for me.

1. Taken from a footnote in Daniel Harms new edition of The Long Lost Friend (Llewellyn 2012) page 248.

About Jason Mankey

Jason Mankey has been involved with Paganism for the last twenty years, and has spent the last ten of those years as a speaker, writer, and High Priest. Jason can often be found lecturing on the Pagan Festival circuit, so you might just bump into him. When not reading and researching Pagan history he likes to crank up the Led Zeppelin, do rituals in honor of Jim Morrison (of The Doors), and sing numerous praises to Pan, Dionysus, and Aphrodite. He lives in Sunnyvale CA with his wife Ari and two hyper-kinetic cats.

  • TR Ravenwood

    Probably the best verse I’ve ever heard was “Hera’s kinda b*tchy, cause her husband made ‘er itchy, from all those maids who were fishy, but its alright with me” lol thanks for reminding me of this :D

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    I think a distinction can easily be made between old gods and old ways. A lot of Pagans, Heathens, etc. would likely be pretty appalled by the historic forms of ritualised worship (and sacrifice), but have no issue in creating new ways to connect with ancient spirits.

  • Jason Hatter

    Then there is Tom Smith’s On Line Religion filk…

  • Race Joseph Meredith Capet

    Tracing lineage back through the magickal tradition instead of an explicitly religious line is a very fine point; I withdraw my objections to the term “the Old Religion” if we are thinking of it that way! I will point out, however, that the God of Abraham dates to at least 2000 BC (the putative date of Abraham), which is older than our attestation for any Indo-European deity. Even if we only go back as far as Moses (the first to use the name YHWH for said god), that’s still 1500 BC–older than any recorded European deity. If we decide “the Old Religion” by antiquity of gods, only Semitic and Kemeticist practitioners will have a shot at trumping Abrahamicists for the title.

    • Kauko

      Aside from the fact that there is no reason to believe there was ever an historical Abraham or Moses, there is no attestation of any ‘Abrahamic’ religion before the first millennium BCE, and even then there was probably no truly monotheistic Judaism until Persian era. In any case, as the phrase ‘The Old Religion’ generally seems to be used to refer to indigenous European religions, which were supplanted by Christianity and Islam- both of which are indisputably newer religions- ‘The Old Religion’ is a fair descriptor.
      Also, you seem to be privileging written attestations of deities as being proof that they, or the worship of them, is older, which is not necessarily the case. Just because some religions existed in places where people had written language does not make their religions older.

      • JasonMankey

        Complete agreement and thanks for the comment. Abraham and Moses are mythological figures not historical ones. Besides, I’m sure the gods of the Egyptians, Sumerians, and the Minoans have Yahweh beat.

        Not to mention the painting of “The Sorcerer” in the Cave of the Three Brothers in France, that dates back to over 15,000 years ago.

        • Grotoff

          Moses may well have been based a real figure. It’s a conspicuously Egyptian name and Exodus records that married a non-Jews, this despite explicit rules against it in later tradition.

          The Exodus may be equally as exaggerated as The Iliad, but that doesn’t render the stories 100% invented.

          • JasonMankey

            Even if he was based on a real figure, there’s no evidence for the Exodous or that the Hebrews were “slaves” in Egypt. (The pyramid builders were paid.) There is evidence to suggest that many Hebrews might have worked in Egypt at some point.

            I try not dismiss mythologies out of hand, many of them often do have a kernel of truth, but far too many people believe in the literalness of many Old Testament stories, stories that don’t stand up to academic scrutiny.

    • Agni Ashwin

      Some scholars have proposed that the Akkadian deity Ea’s name was pronounced “yah”, and that Yahweh was a form of Ea.

      The Akkadians equated their Ea with the Sumerian Enki.

  • Joe Cook

    the way i see it all the so called old gods r is the fallen angels that fell with saten they to had names ya there was alot to go on before the bible times but the bible was not told to be wrote till after jesus u have the right to beleave what u want but it gets old hearing about the old gods ya magic is real but it was not ment for us how do i know i have seen the real magic got got to see and fill real evil and it is something that can change anyone and what they beleave there is a reason that the times before the bible was called the dark ages open ur eyes and look saten was cast for wanting to be god and all the other angels that followed him so sense they could not be gods in heaven they thought they could be here where we humans have weak minds that is y one of the fallen angles showed us magic so they could be called gods at the time who was we to think other wise and it is y the real god father to jesus and ua all took away almost all the real magic in the world some of it still lyes around protected by the real first church of god ya i have studied other realigons but it is what i saw and what i felt that changed me.