Paganism and Polemic: The Debate over the Origins of Modern Pagan Witchcraft

Article excerpt

The Opening of the Debate

In 1998, the first issue of the newly renamed journal of the Canadian Folklore Association, Ethnologies, included an article by Donald H. Frew, a Californian terming himself an "independent scholar writer." It represented a historiographical landmark, being only the second contribution to one of the key scholarly debates in the history of contemporary religions, that concerning the origin of Wicca, the first of the various traditions of modern pagan witchcraft to emerge into the public eye (Frew 1998). During the 1980s, British writers working within that tradition, such as Janet and Stewart Farrar and Doreen Valiente, had done valuable work in providing anecdotal material for its history and commencing the textual analysis of its liturgy (Farrar and Farrar 1981; 1984; Valiente 1989). Systematic discussion of the issue, however, only began in 1991, with the publication of a book by another Californian, Aidan Kelly. This made an analysis of certain key texts to suggest that Wicca had essentially been created by one man, a retired colonial official called Gerald Gardner, who had in turn been heavily influenced by the thesis propounded by the Egyptologist Margaret Murray. Murray had argued that the people persecuted for the alleged crime of witchcraft in early modern Europe had been practitioners of a persisting pagan religion, then being finally exposed and rooted out by Christian authorities. Gardner declared that the religion concerned had survived in secret until the twentieth century, and that he was drawing the attention of the public to its continued existence, and to its rites and beliefs. Aidan Kelly argued that Gardner had himself founded the religion to which he was giving this publicity (Kelly 1991).

Donald Frew's essay is essentially a defence of Murray and Gardner against Dr Kelly and two other writers who have questioned their claims, Jacqueline Simpson and myself. He produces no decisive piece of evidence in support of this enterprise. Instead, his principal tactic is to attempt to catch out the three of us in mistakes of detail, and so to convey the impression that our work as a whole is unsound--at least in this area--and can therefore be disregarded. By this negative process, he suggests that Murray and Gardner have been unfairly treated, and so should be given credence. At no point does he grant any of his victims credit for virtues in other writings, or leave them any dignity as scholars; the destructive effect is apparently intended to be total.

This being so, the temptation to reply to his attack is pretty well irresistible, but a rejoinder based on mere rebarbative pedantry would be tedious to many readers. Instead, I regard the opportunity as one to review the main points in contention over the origins of modern pagan witchcraft, and make them clearer for those not directly concerned in the debate. In the process, perhaps, some insights can be provided of the way in which history is written in this field, or even in general. The issues cover three very different areas of research--ancient paganism, the early modern witch trials, and modern witchcraft--and each will be treated here in turn. That they can be surveyed in the journal of the society of which Margaret Murray was once president, and Gerald Gardner once a council member, provides a very neat sense of historical continuity.

Ancient Paganism and Wicca: General Considerations

In 1991, I drew a stark contrast between Wicca and what is known of the pagan religions of ancient Europe, when concluding a survey of the evidence for those in the British Isles (Hutton 1991, 335-71). This had the effect of emphasising the essential modernity of Wicca and its distance and difference from the paganism of antiquity. As such, it was inevitably opposed to Donald Frew's purpose, which is to stress instead the similarity of Wicca to ancient paganism, and therefore both to advance the claims of the former to be a representation of the latter and to present the possibility of a direct process of transmission between them. …