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Religion Library: Paganism

Modern Age

Written by: Carl McColman

The Pagan Renaissance grew out of a variety of sources that coalesced between the 1930s and 1950s to produce the first generation of "public" witches and other Pagans. Following the interest in antiquarianism and ancient civilizations that became popular in the 17th through 19th centuries, including the popularity of the first druid revivals, freemasonry, and occultism, a variety of scholars in the early 20th century explored the ancient spirituality of the British Isles and Europe in a variety of ways.

Folklorists such as Alexander Carmichael and Lady Gregory began collecting and recording traditional folktales in Ireland and Scotland. W. Y. Evans-Wentz studied the surviving belief in fairies in the various Celtic lands. Sir James Frazer wrote The Golden Bough, ostensibly to attack Christianity by demonstrating its roots in Pagan practices, with the unintended consequence of stimulating further interest in Paganism. Anthropologist Margaret Murray published several books in which she detailed her theory that the witches who were persecuted in early modern Europe were in fact the members of a surviving Pagan cult. Even though some of the ideas from these theorists (notably the work of Frazer and Murray) would eventually lose credibility on a scholarly level, their work proved to be influential and inspirational to those who would not merely study ancient Paganism, but seek to make it a vital spiritual practice in their own lives.

A key figure in Paganism becoming not merely a topic of academic interest, but a revived (or, perhaps, recreated) religion was Gerald Gardner (1884-1964). An amateur anthropologist and avid occultist, Gardner became associated with a Rosicrucian group in Dorset, England, through which he was brought to the home of a woman he identified as Dorothy Clutterbuck.Gardner said Clutterbuck initiated him into the New Forest Coven, which he called one of the last surviving covens of ancient witches. Scholars question whether the New Forest Coven ever existed, or if it existed prior to the 1930s.

What is ultimately at issue here is Gardner's credibility, for not only did he claim the existence of the coven, but promoted himself as one of England's last "surviving" witches through three books: a novel about witchcraft (High Magick's Aid, 1949) and two books that claimed to reveal the secrets of witchcraft (Witchcraft Today, 1953 and The Meaning of Witchcraft, 1959). Whether or not Gardner (or Clutterbuck) made it all up is an unanswerable question.Either way, Gardner's books inspired a widespread interest in witchcraft as a valid religious path.

Gardner was not the sole founder of modern Pagan witchcraft, but his influence was significant. Others appeared who may or may not have been influenced by Gardner; indeed some, like Robert Cochrane, maintained that their type of witchcraft both predated Gardnerian Wicca and was more authentically traditional. Following Gardner, numerous other figures began to write on the subject of witchcraft, including Raymond Buckland, Patricia Crowther, Doreen Valiente, Sybil Leek, and others. By the 1960s Wicca and other forms of witchcraft were established within the youth counterculture.


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