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Paganism White Witches : Historic Fact and Romantic Fantasy

Discussion in 'Interfaith Dialogues' started by Neutral Singh, Jul 26, 2004.

  1. Neutral Singh

    Neutral Singh
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    Jun 1, 2004
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    White Witches: Historic Fact and Romantic Fantasy
    (Excerpts by James Baker)When I became interested in Wicca or modern witchcraft in the early1960s, it was Gerald Gardner's Witchcraft Today and Margaret Murray's The Witch-Cult in Western Europe that formed my impression of the subject. The idea of the continuous survival of England of an ancient, universal cult until the time of the witch persecutions -- or even to the present -- seemed well demonstrated. By the time I was able to visit Gardner's witch museum at Castleton and meet Alex Sanders (Alexandrian) in 1979, I was fully convinced of the historical veracity of these claims.

    It was at this time, while characteristically buying up every book that might shed some light on the subject that I found Power through Witchcraft (1969) by Louise Hebner, "The Official Witch of Los Angeles." It was a disappointment. A quick reading caused me to dismiss her as an ignorant practitioner of some sort of folk magic, who was not part of or even aware of the real witch tradition that I was so fascinated with. (Later, I was to realize that I was wrong and I apologized to Louise Heubner.) It was writers such as Gardner, Doreen Waliente, Justine Glass, Sybil Leek, June Johns and Paul Hudson (after a fashion) who had the real dope! Together, their books constructed what I came to call "The Witch Party Line," the foundational myth and orthodoxy of Wiccan origins.

    As a historian by temperament and profession, it was my ambition to discover all of the links between contemporary Wicca (or "Wica," as Gardner invariably spelled it) and its roots in the past. This was not a search for the proof of Wiccan claims but rather a desire to know more of what had been so coyly hinted at by Gardner and other authors. Having a university library at my disposal, I diligently searched through every likely monograph and serial to find more about the early days of Witchcraft. I tracked down the majority of references cited in Witchcraft Today, those listed in the bibliography in The Meaning of Witchcraft, and any other source that might shed some light on Wicca before Gardner. Anthropology and archaeology, theological history and classical studies, everything was grist to the mill.

    But the result was most chaff! It became clear after two years or so that there wasn't much out there to be found, if one was strictly interested in Wiccan history. All of the material quoted by Garnder and the others, was neither new nor directly relevant to British Wicca. There was a wealth of suggestive material from other times and other cultures, but there was no demonstrable pattern of white religious Witchcraft, as exemplified by contemporary Witchcraft.

    The ritual material in the Book of Shadows itself was skeletal in nature and quite inadequate as theology or exegesis. I searched for evidence and examples of a unified Horned God and Goddess cult, for the religious use of pentagrams, athames, cords, and the sigils in the Book of Shadows for casting Wiccan as opposed to Solomonic circles, for the application of Wiccan values, but to no avail.

    Alex Sanders was of no help. He just suggested various books I already knew about or occult ones which, while tangentially related, represented quite different mind-sets from Wicca as a religion. Robert Graves' White Goddess for example was evocative and inspirational, but its symbols did not really accord with Gardner at all. In addition, the "poetical truth" that Graves invoked was obviously quite a different matter from historical veracity. I had become a bit impatient with "poetical truth," by this point. I had (and have) no quarrel with Wicca as a valid faith and religious practice, but the dawning realization that I had been deceived by its historical claims was galling.

    The final revelation came from Francis King's pioneering Ritual Magic in England (1970). As a schoolboy in 1953 he had interviewed novelist Louis Wilkinson (Louis Marlow) about Aleister Crowley. Wilkinson had offhandedly mentioned that Crowley had known of a coven of witches "in his youth" but had declined to join. Questions about this, Wilkinson asserted that he himself had met such a coven, possibly the same one that Gardner knew, in the late 1930s or early 1940s. He described their use of protective ointments and, taken orally, the hallucinogenic fly agaric mushroom. It was his impression that " . . . there had been a fusion of an authentic surviving folk-tradition with a more middle-class occultism". Here at last was independent testimony that there had actually been a quite different witch cult before Gardner.

    Wilkinson's evidence indicated that something was there before, but what? As King said, Gardner apparently got bored with the simple ceremonies, and " . . . he consequently decided to found a more elaborate and romanticized with-cult of his own". After talking with King at the Warlock Shop in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1973, I decided to both fulfill my curiosity and assuage my annoyance at being bamboozled by tracing not only Witchcraft's past but the entire history of Western occultism. It seemed reasonable that this would make it possible to separate the occult introductions and inventions from the actual folk practices in Wicca.

    Now there is a wealth of material on the practice of folk magic in English history. Even the earliest books on Witchcraft, such as Gardner's works or Doreen Valiente's Where Witchcraft Lives, (1961) contain much historical folk magic unrelated to the rituals, practices, and beliefs of Wicca. From the sources liberally referred to by Sir Keith Thomas in Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971), George Lyman Kittredge in Witchcraft in Old and New England (1929), and the many English folklore studies, it is not difficult to observe a pattern of traditional magical belief and practice. What it demonstrates, however, is that almost all of the characteristic elements of modern Witchcraft have an "occult" bookish rather than traditional origin. I came to the conclusion that there are in fact two separate "White Witchcraft" traditions in English history: one very old and fairly moribund (coming to an end) and another which is very active yet no older than the twentieth century. The latter is modern Witchcraft. The former is the tradition of the cunning men and wise women, the more or less beneficent practitioners of traditional folk magic and popular sorcery. Ironically, this was just what Louise Heubner was talking about, to whom I apologize.

    I eventually found that many of my observations and conclusions had been paralleled by Aidan Kelly when Crafting the Art of Magic was published in 1991. Another invaluable source which separates the "religion" element from the magical one with consideration of modern Paganism is Ronald Hutton, The Pagan Religions for the Ancient British Isles (1991). I trust that this short chapter can serve as a useful adjunct to these books by casting some additional light on the sources of the Book of Shadows and by providing an outline of the actual white witches of English history.
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