"Mommy, how old are we?" Does our faith come down to us in Apostolic succession from "that time whereof the memory of man runneth not to the contrary", or was our religion dreamed up in the nineteen forties by a retired British civil servant with the collaboration of a dying heroin addict and poet? Does it really matter?
To what extent the modern practitioners of paganism may lay a just claim to the mantle of their predecessors from the twelfth century has been a matter of great debate both within and without the Craft community almost from the moment Gerald Gardner published Witchcraft Today in 1954. Though the debate is continued with somewhat less fervor today than it was in the 1960s, it has never wholly ceased and it continues to be a Crisis of Faith which besets many practitioners of paganism every year.
It can be a troubling question to face, especially if one's early teachers tried to justify their credentials by claiming that what they taught had great antiquity. The question isn't any easier to answer with truth or objectivity when there is a bunch of radical fundamentalists running around seeking to claim that we aren't really a religion and so of course we aren't entitled to protection under the First Amendment.
It is a sign of progress, I think, that there seems to be less of that sort of teaching today than there was when I began my studies. Today most of the teachers that I know are secure enough in their religion that they can face the staggering thought that the ethical and philosophical system that guides their lives may indeed be younger than some of them are. The plain fact is that we simply don't know.
Gerald Gardner and Charles Leland may have tried to palm fiction off on the world as fact. It's certainly been tried before-and since. On the other hand, they may each have been reporting the truth as they found it. It certainly is a fact that no one I know has ever come across any Book of Shadows that dates before the beginning of this century. Presumably, if one exists, say in the British Museum, it would have become known to scholars looking into the subject over the last half century. Granted that there was less burning in England than elsewhere in Europe, but there was enough that surely some physical evidence would have survived in the hands of the government if nowhere else.
The Vatican Library, of course may yet turn up such a relic. Their failure to do so at this time can be explained as easily by the lack of such a document as by a possible desire to suppress it. We may never know that one, but when push comes to shove, does it really matter?
Thomas Jefferson, speaking on the question of whether black colonial slaves were Americans or not is said to have remarked "They're people and they're here. If there's any other requirement, I haven't heard of it." Perhaps we might paraphrase Jefferson a bit and remark that the modern practitioners of Witchcraft are undeniably here and a large number of them are sincere in their beliefs. That in itself should qualify us as a religion.
Perhaps as important as the legal question is our own self image. Would a "real witch" from the middle ages recognize or disown one of her sisters of today? Would she want to go with a "New Age" circle, a Dianic grove, a Gardnerian coven, or would she laugh hysterically at the bunch of us and walk off into the sunset?
While the antiquity of our current practice of witchcraft shouldn't be a matter of serious concern, to us or to our detractors, its authenticity should be. The search for our roots must continue to be pursued by serious scholars and magicians alike in order that we may come as close as possible to the ideals and purposes of our ancient predecessors. There is a very practical reason why this is so. That reason is tied up in something called an egregore. On the subject of an egregore, I would like to quote extensively from a recent article in Gnosis by Gaetan Delaforge:
"An egregore is a kind of group mind which is created when people consciously come together for a common purpose. Whenever people gather together to do something and egregore is formed, but unless an attempt is made to maintain it deliberately it will dissipate rather quickly. However if the people wish to maintain it and know the techniques of how to do so, the egregore will continue to grow in strength and can last for centuries.
An egregore has the characteristic of having an effectiveness greater than the mere sum of its individual members. It continuously interacts with its members, influencing them and being influenced by them. The interaction works positively by stimulating and assisting its members but only as long as they behave and act in line with its original aim. It will stimulate both individually and collectively all those faculties in the group which will permit the realization of the objectives of its original program. If this process is continued a long time the egregore will take on a kind of life of its own, and can become so strong that even if all its members should die, it would continue to exist on the inner dimensions and can be contacted even centuries later by a group of people prepared to live the lives of the original founders, particularly if they are willing to provide the initial input of energy to get it going again.
If the egregore is concerned with spiritual or esoteric activities its influence will be even greater. People who discover the keys can tap in on a powerful egregore representing, for example, a spiritual or esoteric tradition, will, if they follow the line described above by activating and maintaining such an egregore, obtain access to the abilities, knowledge, and drive of all that has been accumulated in that egregore since its beginnings. A group or order which manages to do this can, with a clear conscience, claim to be an authentic order of the tradition represented by that egregore. In my view this is the only yardstick by which a genuine Templar order should be measured."
Mr. Delaforge was writing about the Knights Templar and the various groups claiming to represent it in modern times, but the parallel with ancient witchcraft and the many diverse groups claiming to represent it today is obvious. I hope the benefit to be gained by reconstructing as faithfully as possible the attitudes and goals of our ancient brethren is equally obvious.
In her books "The Sea Priestess" and "Moon Magic", Dion Fortune was demonstrating this technique. Vivien LeFay Morgan was attempting nothing less than the reactivation of the egregore of the Atlantean priesthood.
When Gerald Gardner published "Witchcraft Today", he embarked upon the outward steps of his part of the reactivation of the egregore of the old witch cult in western Europe. The inward steps were probably begun by one or more of the magical lodges of the early twentieth century, most likely Dion Fortune's Society of the Inner Light during its "pagan phase" in the late twenties and thirties. Gardner's public works served to bring the reactivated egregore into contact with an increasingly receptive populace where it could gather unto itself the additional psychic energy it needed to become once again a viable force in the world. How well it has achieved this end is to be observed by anyone with the eyes to see.
I personally think that our job in this generation is to deepen and strengthen our ties with this newly reawakened force in the world; to learn from it and to draw inspiration from it, and to bring the Craft back from the status of a "cult" to that of a genuine religion. To do this we must learn more of the goals, ideals, and ambitions of our brothers and sisters who have gone before-as they really were, not as we would like them to have been.
Please note that the idea is not necessarily to recreate the practices of our predecessors, particularly if we are talking about things like blood sacrifice. One should note that this practice was followed by the jews in biblical times, but that in modern times they don't do it. This does not keep the modern jew from interacting with the egregore of his ancient faith. Judaism has surely progressed since the time of the Ceasars, so has the Craft. The idea, when activating and interacting with an egregore is to re-create the goals and attitudes of the founders. That doesn't freeze the practitioner into practices which have long since been outgrown.
What I think we need now is more real scholarship. What did Samhain really mean to our predecessors; or Beltane; or Imbolc? Not only how did they celebrate it, but how did they feel about it? Platitudes about "fruitfulness and fertility" are simply too superficial. This is not made any easier by the fact that these observances were pastoral and agricultural while most of us are city dwellers who do well to keep a potted plant alive through one summer.
An attempt in this direction was made by the Holy Order of Saint Brigit near Fort Morgan, Colorado about ten years ago. The farm is gone now and its residents are scattered, yet it cannot be said to have entirely failed of its purpose. Many of the former participants in the experiments can be found today, quietly practicing the Craft.
This is not to say that we all should sell our goods, quit our jobs, and move out into communes somewhere, but we must at the least establish close enough contact with the harsh realities of this world that we can appreciate how frightening the onset of winter must have been to those who had no central heating, food stores or welfare to fall back upon. When we have done this, we will, perhaps, be able to recapture the mindset of the Priestess at Samhain.
These truths are not to be found in the Fantasy fiction section of B. Dalton's, but in the history and anthropology libr- aries of our local universities. The reading is much dryer and less fun, but it talks about the people as they really were. It isn't a fantasy world to hide from reality in, but neither is it a dead end. It can take us back in time and forward in our understanding so that we may really contact the ancient religion of witchcraft as it was, learn from it, and pass it on, rejuvenated and strengthened to our children.
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