What is the historical basis of the Wicca religion (modern witchcraft)?

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Dear Cecil: What is the origin of the Wiccan religion? Most Wiccans you talk to say the religion is an extension of ancient, matriarchal earth worship and will attempt to turn you into a frog if you disagree. Others point to a descendancy from medieval healers and claim close kinship with all those who were burnt at the stake for allegedly conjuring up spirits, riding on brooms (there’s that again), and otherwise hobnobbing with demons. However, some say Wicca as currently practiced is a modern invention and point to the works of a follower of Aleister Crowley, one Gerald Gardner, as the actual starting point of this religion. At least these people don’t attempt to magically mess with your personal space. To my mind, linking modern Wicca with ancient paganism is like trying to assert that modern Freemasonry got its start with the building of Solomon’s temple, but that’s just me. Maybe you can shed some light. Patrick Malone, via AOL


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

The nice thing about writing for the alternative press is that you don’t have to cover a lot of boring village board meetings. However, you do occasionally get affronted letters from witches. Not that riling the Wiccans was originally my plan. It’s just that every time I discuss witches in less than effusive terms, as I did a few weeks ago, I hear from folks who act like I just insulted their relatives. The assumption is that modern pagans (neopagans, Wiccans, witches — take your pick) are linear descendants of medieval witches. Some take it farther and say Wicca directly descends — in the sense of being handed down continuously from one generation to the next — from the pre-Christian, pan- or polytheistic “old religion” that was driven underground but never completely destroyed by the papist upstarts.

To put it as kindly as I can, this be wack, Jack. There is no evidence for historical continuity between the pagan religious practices of antiquity (or even the Middle Ages) and modern Wicca. On the contrary, there’s lots of evidence that Wicca is a modern invention. What’s more, this is cheerfully conceded by many leading Wiccans, who point to the roll-your-own character of much Wiccan ritual as one of its great strengths.

Since my credibility on this score has been called into question, let me turn to the work of the respected Wiccan writer Margot Adler. In Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today (1979), Adler writes, “The Wiccan revival starts with a myth, [that] Witchcraft is a religion that dates back to paleolithic times, to the worship of the god of the hunt and the goddess of fertility. … Today most revivalist Witches in North America accept the universal Old Religion more as metaphor than as literal reality — a spiritual truth more than a geographic one.”

So how did 20th-century Wicca get started? Power of the pen, babe. According to Adler, several writers helped stir public interest in witchcraft. One was Margaret Murray, who published The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921) and several more books. Murray argued that medieval witches practiced an ancient fertility religion she called the Dianic cult. While this was obviously a seminal idea, as it were, Adler says that “most scholars today view her work as filled with errors.” An even more controversial figure is Gerald Gardner, an amateur anthropologist and folklorist who claimed he’d been initiated into a coven in 1939 and who wrote two influential books, Witchcraft Today (1954) and The Meaning of Witchcraft (1959). Among other things, he popularized the idea that witchcraft rituals ought to be conducted in the nude, a notion that titillated the masses for years. Gardner’s work contained a lot of archaic-sounding ritual, some of which supposedly originated in a 16th-century “Book of Shadows.” But it’s been pretty well established that Gardner, who was influenced by occultists like Aleister Crowley, wrote or commissioned most of this stuff himself.

So, is Wicca a fraud? That’s such a negative way of putting it. Quite a few world religions are built on shaky stories — you think God really gave Moses the Ten Commandments on tablets of stone? Many credit Gardner with giving Wicca its contemporary feminist slant, with its emphasis on the Goddess. (In Murray’s account, female witches were subordinate to a male sometimes known as the Black Man.) Personally I find the “an ye harm none” stuff a bit rich, but I’m a live-and-let-live kinda guy. Just don’t go putting on airs.

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.