Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Roots of Modern Paganism and Witchcraft

Yesterday I argued that a lot of bad scholarship has occurred in an attempt to provide a historical and philosophical background for modern Witchcraft and Wicca. I can’t prove it, but it is my belief that this stems from a desire to give Wicca and Paganism a legitimacy that these belief systems would otherwise lack.

This brings up the simple question: why do we feel a need to legitimize Wicca/Witchcraft/Paganism by showing that it has a long history of practice and is rooted in ancient practices of the past?

This has gone on since the earliest days of the “new” Wicca/Witchcraft/Paganism. Gerald Gardener made claims about the person who taught him being a hereditary Witch. Robert Graves insisted that he too learned from a hereditary Witch who has a long familial history of Witchcraft. Even more recently, Silver Ravenwolf makes the claim that her family is one that has practiced Witchcraft for generations. Obviously they felt these claims to be important.

The idea that there exists or existed a historical cult of Witchcraft that somehow survived the Burning Times has a great deal of romantic appeal. It adds an aura of authenticity and history to the new faith. It also acts as a reassurance that in practicing Witchcraft we are doing things correctly because this is how they were done in the past. All of these ideas are actually largely irrelevant to the practice of modern Witchcraft, in my opinion.

Witchcraft, Wicca and Paganism as they are practiced today are all modern attempts to create a shamanic faith through which the practitioner can have a personal experience of gnosis, or an experience of the Divine. Native Americans, Asians, Africans and Aborigines in Australia all have access to religions, philosophies and practices to achieve this result of communion with the Sacred. The Abrahamic religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam do not allow for this. All three of these faiths require that the believer must go through an intermediary (priest, imam, minister, rabbi) to access Divinity (quite honestly, I may be talking out my ass about Islam here, my knowledge of that faith is very limited).

The shamanistic religions that flourished before these faiths came to the Middle East and Europe were all but annihilated by these religions. Christianity and Islam have been particularly devastating because they call upon their adherents to convert others.

In the western world there has been a desire for shamanistic faiths, religions that would allow for a personal relationship to the Divine. This desire can be seen in the Gnostic movements (both in early Christianity, later with the Cathars and others), the Quakers and the modern Charismatic and Pentecostal Christians. Wicca and Paganism are also manifestations of this desire. Everyone has a desire for the Divine in their lives it seems.

In reality, as far as I can tell, modern Pagans and Wiccans are attempting to reconstruct what they can of the pre-Christian faiths that existed in Europe. As people without a heritage that allows for shamanistic practice we are trying to create such a practice and reconstruct what heritage we can. Often we have to borrow from the Eastern religions or from Native American practice. The Christianization of Europe was savage, violent, thorough and long lasting and there simply is not much left to build upon. It doesn’t help that the Celts did not keep written records.

I think we should attempt to reclaim, reconstruct and research what we can of the European Celtic faiths. For those of us of European descent, such a practice will give us an authentic heritage. For others it will simply add to the knowledge of the world of faith. But even without any historical backing, I believe Wicca and Paganism to be valid, vibrant and positive spiritual paths.