A Brief History of Wicca

 A Brief History of "The Old Religion" of Europe and it's Modern Revival.

Copyright © 2000 Gray Seal

The history of Wicca documents the rise of the Neopagan religion of Wicca and related witchcraft-based Neopagan religions. Wicca originated in the early twentieth century, when it first developed amongst several secretive covens in England who were basing their religious beliefs and practices upon what they read of the historical Witch-Cult in the works of such writers as Margaret Murray. It was subsequently popularised in the 1950s by a number of figures, namely Gerald Gardner, who had been initiated into the Craft - as Wicca is often known - by the New Forest coven in 1939. Gardner's form of Wicca, the Gardnerian tradition, was spread by both him and his followers like the High Priestesses' Doreen Valiente, Patricia Crowther and Eleanor Bone into other parts of the British Isles, and also into several other, predominantly English-speaking, countries across the world. In the 1960s, various new figures arose in Britain who popularised their own forms of the religion, including Robert Cochrane, Sybil Leek and Alex Sanders, and organisations began to be formed to propagate it, such as the Witchcraft Research Association. It was also during this decade that the faith was transported to the United States, where it was further adapted into new traditions such as Feri, 1734 and Dianic Wicca in the ensuing decades, and where organisations such as the Covenant of the Goddess were formed.

From the 1970s onward, books began to be published by such figures as Paul Huson, Scott Cunningham, and Stewart and Janet Farrar which encouraged self-initiation into the Craft, leading to a significant boost in the number of adherents and the development of new traditions. With the rising popularity of Wicca, it was used as a partial basis to various witchcraft-based American films and television shows, further increasing its profile, particularly amongst younger people, in the 1990s.

Since the early 1990s, various historians have published studies and research into the history of Wicca, including the American Aidan Kelly and the Britons Ronald Hutton and Philip Heselton.

A Witch being taken by authorities


In the 16th and 17th centuries, something known as the witch hunt took place across Europe and the American colonies, during which somewhere between 40,000 and 100,000 people were killed. These people had been accused of being witches, who, according to their persecutors, worshipped the Devil, and committed acts of diabolism that included the cannibalism of children and desecration of the Eucharist. Most scholars since have agreed that these were the victims of isolated incidents of hysteria in remote, peasant communities, and that there was no religion being practiced by these witches.

However this was not the only view; one, which originated with Karl Ernst Jarcke in 1828, and which was expanded upon (most notably) by Jules Michelet in the 1860s and Margaret Murray in the early 20th century, known as the Witch-cult hypothesis, claimed that the witches had been members of a pan-European pagan religion which had pre-dated Christianity and had been persecuted by the Christian Church as a rival religion.

Many Wiccans, particularly those of the early decades, believed that their religion was a continuation of this pagan Witch-Cult. It was only in the 1980s and 1990s that some Wiccans began to see the idea of the Witch-Cult as a creation myth rather than as historical fact. For instance, the Wiccan Jenny Gibbons stated that:
“ We Neopagans now face a crisis. As new data appeared, historians altered their theories to account for it. We have not. Therefore an enormous gap has opened between the academic and the "average" Pagan view of witchcraft. We continue to use of out-dated and poor writers, like Margaret Murray, Montague Summers, Gerald Gardner, and Jules Michelet. We avoid the somewhat dull academic texts that present solid research, preferring sensational writers who play to our emotions. For example, I have never seen a copy of Brian Levack's The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe in a Pagan bookstore. Yet half the stores I visit carry Anne Llewellyn Barstow's Witchcraze, a deeply flawed book which has been ignored or reviled by most scholarly historians. ”

The New Forest Coven

In 1954, Gerald Gardner, a retired English civil servant who had spent most of his life in the far east, published Witchcraft Today in which he made the claim to have encountered several members of the Witch-Cult. At the same time he propagated his religion to new adherents, largely through the Bricket Wood coven (which is described further below). Gardner claimed that he had been initiated into a practising coven of the cult in September 1939, a group that has become known as the New Forest coven.

Gardner claimed that this group had met in the New Forest in southern England, and that he had met some of their members initially through the occultic Rosicrucian Order Crotona Fellowship. He mentioned two of their members, a local worthy called "Old Dorothy", in whose house he claimed to have been initiated, and "Dafo", who became a friend of his and would remain so for many years.

An Ancient Witch-Cult?

The idea of primitive matriarchal religions, which derived from the work of the Swiss lawyer Johann Jakob Bachofen, was popular in Gardner's day, both among academics (e.g., Erich Neumann, Margaret Murray) and amateurs (e.g. Robert Graves). Later scholars (e.g. Carl Jung and Marija Gimbutas) continued research in this area, and later still Joseph Campbell, Ashley Montagu and others became admirers of Gimbutas' theories of matriarchies in ancient Europe. Matriarchal interpretations of the archaeological record and the criticism of such work continue to be matters of academic debate. Some academics carry on research in this area (such as the 2003 World Congress on Matriarchal Studies). Critics argue that such matriarchal societies never actually existed and are an invention of researchers such as Margaret Murray. This is disputed by documentaries such as Blossoms of Fire (about contemporary Zapotec society).

The idea of a supreme Mother Goddess was common in Victorian and Edwardian literature: the concept of a Horned God — especially related to the gods Pan or Faunus — was less common, but still significant.[8]Both of these ideas were widely accepted in academic literature and the popular press at the time.

Doreen Valiente

Doreen Valiente

In search of the New Forest Coven

Doreen Valiente undertook important research into the identity of "Old Dorothy", whose surname was Clutterbuck. She refuted the claims of those who had suggested that Dorothy had been the product of Gardner's imagination. More recently, it has been doubted (notably by Ronald Hutton) whether the historical Dorothy Clutterbuck, who was outwardly an observant Christian and a pillar of the local community, really was involved in occultic activities. In this view, Gardner used her name as a joke and/or as a subterfuge in order to conceal the identity of Dafo or some other individual. Such doubts have been vigorously contested by other researchers (notably Philip Heselton).

Valiente assumed that Clutterbuck was the same individual as Dafo. More recently, it has become clear that they were different people. Dafo seems to have been a teacher of music and elocution named Edith Woodford-Grimes, and there have been persistent suggestions that she and Gardner were lovers.

The work of Philip Heselton has gone a considerable way towards illuminating the composition and activities of the New Forest Coven, and several plausible candidates for its membership aside from Dorothy and Dafo emerge from his work.

Sources for Wicca

The ritual format of Wicca shows the undeniable influence of late Victorian era occultism (even co-founder Doreen Valiente admitted seeing influence from Aleister Crowley), and there is very little in the ritual that cannot be shown to have come from earlier extant sources. The religion's spiritual content, however, is inspired by older Pagan faiths (for example, in the veneration of historical pagan deities), with Buddhist and Hindu influences (e.g. in the Wiccan doctrine of reincarnation).

It has been posited by authors such as Aidan Kelly and Francis X. King that Gardner himself created the religion that he claimed to have discovered, rewriting the rituals of an older witchcraft tradition according to his own whim, and incorporating elements from the thesis of Dr. Margaret Murray, sources such as Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches by Charles Godfrey Leland and the practices of ceremonial magic.

The original material in the rituals brought to light by Gardner is not cohesive, and mostly takes the form of substitutions or expansions within unoriginal material. Roger Dearnaley, in An Annotated Chronology and Bibliography of the Early Gardnerian Craft, describes it as a "patchwork". One element that is apparently distinctive is the use of ritual scourging and binding as a method of attaining an ecstatic trance for magical working. Hutton argues strongly that this practice in Wicca does not reflect sado-masochistic sexuality (he refers in this connection to Gardner's own collection of very mild, quasi-pornographic material, which showed no traces of such interests), but is simply a practical method of work alternative to drugs or other more strenuous methods.

Isaac Bonewits

Isaac Bonewits

Heselton, writing in Wiccan Roots and later in Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration,[ argues that Gardner was not the author of the Wiccan rituals but received them in good faith from an unknown source. (Doreen Valiente makes this claim regarding the "basic skeleton of the rituals," as Margot Adler puts it in Drawing Down the Moon.) He notes that all the Crowley material that is found in the Wiccan rituals can be found in a single book, The Equinox vol 3 no. 1 or Blue Equinox (1919). Gardner is not known to have owned or had access to a copy of this book, although he met with Crowley towards the end of the latter’s life. Gardner admitted that "the rituals he received from Old Dorothy's coven were very fragmentary, and in order to make them workable, he had to supplement them with other material."

Early 20th Century Revival

Some, such as Isaac Bonewits, have argued that Valiente and Heselton's evidence points to an early 20th century revival predating Gardner (by the New Forest Coven, perhaps), rather than an intact old Pagan religion. The argument points to historical claims of Gardner's that agree with scholarship of a certain time period and contradict later scholarship. Bonewits writes, "Somewhere between 1920 and 1925 in England some folklorists appear to have gotten together with some Golden Dawn Rosicrucians and a few supposed Fam-Trads to produce the first modern covens in England; grabbing eclectically from any source they could find in order to try and reconstruct the shards of their Pagan past."

Order of Woodcraft Chivalry

It has been proposed, originally in the Druidic journal Aisling that Gardner's New Forest coven was the pagan section of the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry; this order performed rituals in the New Forest in the early 1920s and its pagan section honoured a moon goddess and a horned god, and believed in ritual nakedness. One of Ronald Hutton's informants reports that Gardner was familiar with this order at least by the 1950s. A major difficulty with identifying this group with the New Forest coven is that it does not appear to have met in the New Forest between 1934 and 1945. Gardner records a working by the coven in the New Forest in 1940 against the projected Nazi invasion.

George Pickingill's Coven

George Pickingill (c. 1816 – 10 April 1909) was an English farm labourer who lived and worked in the village of Canewdon in the eastern English county of Essex. Widely considered to be a cunning man, or vocational folk magician, he reportedly employed magical means to offer cures for ailments and to locate lost property, although was also alleged to have threatened to place curses on people.

Born into a rural working-class family, Pickingill grew up in Hockley, Essex and was baptised into the Church of England. Working as a farm labourer, in 1856 he married Sarah Ann Bateman in Gravesend, Kent. The couple moved back to Essex, settled in Canewdon and had four children. Pickingill's wife died in 1887, and in later life he attracted limited press attention for his claim to be one of the oldest men in England. These claims also appeared in his obituaries, although were later shown to be incorrect.

Pickingill was brought to wider public attention in the early 1960s by the folklorist Eric Maple. As part of his research into beliefs regarding folk magic and witchcraft in nineteenth-century Essex, Maple had interviewed a number of Canewdon residents and collected their stories about Pickingill and his reputation as a cunning man. According to their accounts, Pickingill attracted visitors from around Essex seeking his magical help, for which he did not charge. They attributed to him the power to control animals, to command imps to do his bidding, and to wield power over either six or nine malevolent witches who lived in Canewdon. It was also claimed that he was able to coerce assistance and beer from local residents by threatening to place a curse upon them or their belongings. Although it has been suggested that local people were inventing claims to please Maple, many of which were based on older tales regarding the Essex cunning man James Murrell, subsequent research by historian Ronald Hutton has confirmed aspects of the folklorist's original accounts.

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