Repudiating Bad Wiccan History
Author: Zan Fraser
The problem is that we Wiccans have inherited two sets of history. One is the history shared by the persons of the world around us, recognized as an academic and intellectual discipline, and based upon consensus agreement as to demonstrable facts. The other is what I call the “Wicca Fantasy-Land” version of European history.
Wicca Fantasy-Land is without question a colorful and dramatic place, dominated as it is by a malignant and pervasive Institution of Villainy (the medieval Church) , countered by a bold and oppressed culture of Paganism, and by Pagans who band into defiant pockets reminiscent of the organizers of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising or the French Resistance during World War II.
There are English kings who secretly keep to the Old Pagan Ways and who sympathetically guard and preserve Pagans; there are even English kings who bravely end their own lives as a Magical Sacrifice to the Old Gods to preserve the Ancient Ways. There are gallant women like Aradia and Joan of Arc who lead armed forays against the evil forces of the Inquisition to liberate captured Pagans. And there are countless devout Witches who meet in covens of thirteen, under threat of mortal danger, to worship the Horned God of Witches and to count out the seasons of the year.
It makes a really good story, with the disadvantage of not being true- or at least not really true in the manner in which it is invariably presented.
Wicca Fantasy-Land made its way into our collective history at a time well before there was even Wicca.
Margaret Murray was a respected British Egyptologist at the turn of the twentieth century, whose notes and observations upon archeological digs in Egypt are apparently still thought worthwhile. In the 19-teens, she turned her attentions to European history, producing The Witch-Cult in Western Europe in the early 1920s. Here she offered the startling (for its time) opinion that those called “Witches” during the medieval period were actually continuing the old Pagan Faith of Europe, meeting in covens of thirteen under a Master or High Priest who impersonated the God of Witches- the Horned Forest-God called Pan or Cernunnos.
The Church demonized this Deity into the Christian Devil and (according to Murray’s thinking) the rest of the Middle Ages (including the 300 years Burning Times) represented an on-going series of efforts on the part of the Church to destroy this stubborn Paganism. Murrray went on to elaborate upon her theories in two subsequent books- The God of the Witches and The Divine King in England.
Discussing Murray can be tricky, because she produced some penetrating insight into medieval history as it pertains to Witches (and therefore to the spiritual, if not actual genealogical, descendents of medieval Witches- modern Wiccans) . Her basic observation- that Paganism did not die out suddenly and completely at the Conversion of Europe, but actually continued for some time after, sometimes under threat of violence (Charlemagne proscribed death for any Saxons who continued to worship the sun, trees, and rocks) – was revelatory for its time, but is now understood as a given to researchers of the Middle Ages (especially researchers of the Pagan variety) .
Her insight that the European Devil represents a demonized version of the Horned Forest-God (known by many names, in endless local variations) was likewise a thunderbolt of perception, now also part of the bedrock of Pagan and Wiccan medieval understanding. For reasons such as these, the eminent and formidable historian Anne Llewellyn Barstow (in Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts Pandora Publishing, 1994, p. 83) credits Murray for her detection of “ancient ‘folk religious’ practices throughout the Western witchcraft material.”
Barstow also finds in comparative studies with Russian sources support for Murray’s basic theory that Satan represents in perverse form the “lost God (s) ” of Western Europe. Likewise, in his Introduction to Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath (Pantheon Books, 1991, p. 9) the brilliant researcher Carlo Ginzburg discerns a “core of truth” and a “correct intuition” to Murray’s work.
Be this as it may- Murray is now considered discredited in the academic and scholastic world. Every serious historian on the subject throughout the twentieth century has concluded that she pushed her theories far too far- well beyond what evidence supports. Beginning with Harvard professor Kittredge in the latter 1920s, and continuing through Robbins, Briggs, Cohn, Russell, Kors and Peters, and including Barstow and Ginzburg- all have found that Murray finally reached to absurd and unsustainable lengths.
The decisive nail was struck in the early 1960s, with Elliot Rose’s A Razor for a Goat: A Discussion of Certain Problems in the History of Witchcraft and Diabolism (University of Toronto Press, 1962) , wherein he systemically blew apart Murray’s thesis bit by bit.
For the better part of the twentieth century, however, Murray was widely held almost as a sibyl breathing discernment into the murky cauldron of medieval history- so much so that it was her article on “witchcraft” that appeared in the Encyclopedia Britannica in the 1950s, when Gerald Gardner was writing Witchcraft Today.
Desiring to include an account of what many at the time thought “true” Witchcraft history in his volume, Gardner turned to Murray’s works. Therefore (at a time when they were already called into question) , Murray’s theories and highly unique recounting of European Witchcraft made their way into the founding book of the current Wiccan and Neo-Pagan movement.
Through Gardner, tales of the Divine Sacrifice of William Rufus and the Witcheries of the Countess of Salisbury (mistress to the secretly Pagan Edward III) circulated into the publishing of Doreen Valiente and Patricia Crowther, thence outside the Gardnerian line to Sybil Leek and Alex Sanders, thence to the Farrars- thence to Wicca at large.
Despite the fact that Rose devoted a special chapter in A Razor for a Goat (in the 1960s, one notes) to Gerald Gardner’s assertions of medieval “Wiccan history” as regards Murray’s interpretations, Margaret Murray’s “Wicca Fantasy-Land” version of European history continues to circulate throughout American Paganism. How else to explain the presentation offered at a well-known gathering this summer, wherein one who advertised himself by his Third-Degree Initiatory Tradition status, as well as by (it must be admitted) his forth-coming Llewellyn publication, produced a talk chock-full not only of outright mistakes (he incorrectly placed Edward III and the Burning Times in the 1200s; Edward lived in the 1300s and the Burnings do not start until the 1400s) , but of pure, unreconstructed Murrayism- the same Murrayism discredited decisively since the 1960s.
Despite treating his audience to a opening establishing the unique and special quality of Third-Degree Initiates- indeed ho-ho-ho-ing the very idea that a non-Initiated Wiccan bereft of Initiatory Training even counted as a “Wiccan” (thereby specifically invalidating self-directed, self-Initiated Wiccans such as myself) and referring at one point to himself and his “peers” with a smug self-regard that frankly rankled me- and despite much reference to his forth-coming Llewellyn volume (apparently on a subject different from that of this particular talk, giving me every confidence that it will be a far-better researched project) – I found the gentleman’s presentation to be an alarming mish-mash of outright error and wild “Wiccan Faerey-tales, ” offered without substantiation as genuine history.
The Countess of Salisbury was a Witch! Edward III founded the Order of the Garter as a secret Witches’ Coven! He charged its knights with the protection of Witches against the Inquisition! – (Despite that fact that Murray’s fanciful re-interpretation of the Order of the Garter is one of the areas specifically disproved by Rose, with no one presenting persuasive evidence to the contrary since- and despite the fact that the Inquisition was never really that powerful in England- and despite the fact that few people actually cared about punishing Witches in the 1300s, in many ways the last truly Magical era of the Middle Ages.)
The gentleman continued- the Knights Templars were closet Ceremonial Magicians, preserving the Secrets of Magic from the Inquisition! – (Never mind that the Knights broadcast themselves as a Christian order akin to monks, and were perceived as such throughout Europe) . The Masons delivered the Templars from destruction, saving the ancient wisdom of Ceremonial Magic! (This last contains all sorts of mistakes.
It ignores the historical reality that the Templars were deliberately taken unawares, leaving very few to be “saved”; that the majority of the Templars were without question killed; that the reason for their assault was without question the seizure of their properties, rather than an effort to destroy Ceremonial Magic; that the Masons as such do not come into existence until the early 1700s; and finally that there is no need for the Templars to preserve Ceremonial Magic, as Ceremonial Magic is preserved very nicely in the medieval grimoires of Bacon and Agrippa and Paracelsus.)
The part of the man’s presentation that bothered me the most was his projection of modern (Initiatory) Wicca into the medieval past. Wiccan Witch-Queens wear garters- therefore one can tell that the Countess of Salisbury was a Wiccan Witch-Queen, as she wore a garter! (Never mind that many people of the fourteenth century probably wore garters as a means of keeping their leggings straight.) Initiatory Wiccans maintain Books of Shadow- therefore medieval Witches kept Books of Shadow! – Despite the fact that few medieval Witches could probably read or write.
These Books of Shadow were in constant danger of being destroyed by the Inquisition, erasing forever the secrets of Witchery- never mind that many, many grimoires are plainly in circulation and that the “secrets of the Witches’ Craft” (far from being so closely guarded as to be in danger of vanishing) are in fact well-known enough in Elizabethan England (I assume through the avenue of oral folk-culture) that playwrights such as Shakespeare and Jonson compose plays around them.
My point finally is not to diss a bad historical presentation, but to decry the situation whereby such outmoded stuff can be peddled as a “Wiccan History-lesson.” We Wiccans are in the kind of odd position that knowledgeable observers have actually discredited much of what we assert and allege as our “Historical past”. If our movement is to receive respect in the world, we need a history that can withstand scrutiny, as well as movement-participants educated enough to separate fact from plausible supposition from outright nonsense.
Regrettably this means we must abandon a lot of what our founding elders declared to us was our past; we must locate ourselves in the genuine records of medieval Europe established by scholars such as Kittredge and Robbins and Russell (et al) .
We must insist upon elders who can deliver a reasonable review of European Witch-History and we must foreswear the colorful (but unsupportable) Murayite/ Gardnerian “Wicca Faerey-tales” that have hitherto been our history tomes.