Reclaiming Our History
Our Magical and Activist Ancestors
by Luke Hauser
Our latest - an illustrated 40-page survey from ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt through Gardner, Valiente, and the rebirth of Wicca.
“Erudite, good-humoured, generous, with that open-minded readiness to recognise merit in many different sources of inspiration that is one of the best features of the Reclaiming tradition.”
- Ronald Hutton, Professor of History, University of Bristol
“Presents an enormous amount of material in a very attractive and readable way.”
- Michael D. Bailey, Department of History, Iowa State University / Associate Editor: Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft
Who are these people who call themselves Pagans, Witches, and workers of magic? Where did they come from?
Are we the heirs of ancient witchy feminist Pagans who survived underground until their 1954 rediscovery by Gerald Gardner? Descendants of Goddess-worshiping, Stonehenge-building Druidic Celts? Disciples of Renaissance Hermetical Cabalistic alchemists whose transmutational formulae have eluded interpretation until our very day?
Or is the truth a bit more humble? Maybe we’re more like magpies looking for shiny objects to decorate our spiritual nests?
Does It Really Matter?
Regardless of how we got here, our connection to the Goddess and the Earth is a present-day, living relation. It isn’t based in rediscovering or accurately re-creating parts of the past. We are grounded in the here and now. And yet – how did we get here? What’s the reality behind our myths?
Prefatory Postmodern Reflections There are countless ways of telling our historical backstory, from the fanciful to the footnoted. Every version of our history is both personal and political in its choices and emphases. Perhaps every version is mythical.
My hope is that this version has some connection to the lived experiences of our ancestors.
In the best postmodern tradition, here are a few things this essay is not:
• It is not a history of Reclaiming – it’s the backstory that leads up to the founding of our tradition around 1980.
• It is not a comprehensive history of magic – it’s Western magic from the perspective of today’s practicing Pagans.
• It is not a footnoted paper – a bibliography follows, but otherwise it’s one person’s sense of how we got here.
Writing a narrative tends to imply a linear development of history. The many subsections and overlapping dates of this essay highlight the non-linear, multi-threaded nature of our backstory.
Think of this as a pleasant excursion, not a treadmill.
Read what calls to you. Skip around as you wish. Feel free to ignore entire sections.
A Final Warning!
Just know that if Reclaiming should turn out to be the culmination of the entire 5000-year history of Western Paganism, you may be tested on this material when you arrive at the Isle of Apples.
Don’t say you weren’t warned.
– Luke Hauser, Parahistorian
Coming Soon - Our Cultural & Activist Ancestors
A major part of Reclaiming’s backstory is found not in ritual circles or magic classes but in the streets. Reclaiming and our generations are heirs to a long tradition of nonviolent resistance.
For a survey of movements that have inspired Reclaiming’s style of magical activism, see the Activism chapter (forthcoming).
Part I: ANCIENT LEGACIES
APPROX 2.4 million to 10,000 BCE
Before we get to history proper, let’s pause to remember our prehistoric forebears – those early sapient types who figured out which berries to eat, things you can do with rocks, and what happens when you rub two sticks together.
Along the way they found time to populate the furthest reaches of the planet, create language, paint cave walls, and domesticate animals. At some point they started noticing the patterns of the stars, the changing of the seasons, and how rivers rose and fell. Some people think that the earliest myths were ways of keeping track and passing along this sort of knowledge.
All in all, it’s not a bad track record.
What We Inherit: Language. Art. Astronomy. Fire!
Approx 10,000 to 3000 BCE
While we’re musing on early times – what about those little goddess figures like the Venus of Willendorf or the woman holding up a snake in each hand?
They’re officially “prehistory” as well – ie, before written sources. No accounts tell us what the figurines might have meant or been used for, or what their creators thought about magic, religion, or life in general.
Still, we have two sources – well, three, counting our intuition. But let’s look at the two that academia acknowledges:
(1) surviving artifacts, from megalithic (“giant stone”) structures such as Stonehenge to more human-scaled human and animal figurines, stone tools, weapons, etc.
(2) archaeological remains such as the excavated foundations of ancient villages or ritual sites.
Consider the “goddess” figurines such as the Venus of Willendorf or the snake-handling woman from Crete. Whether or not they were intended as deities, these female sculptures suggest societies with strong, positive images of women.
Did they embody “feminist” values? Some archaeological finds support this theory. For instance, the excavations at Catal Huyuk (modern Turkey) reveal a small city on an open plain with no defensive walls, no fortifications, and burials revealing no weapons and little distinction of wealth. Riane Eisler and others have suggested that this indicates a peaceful, relatively egalitarian society.
Large-scale temples or religious sites are unknown in the pre-historic Mediterranean, and perhaps none existed. This was an era of sparse agricultural populations which may neither have waged routine war on their neighbors, nor created regional religious shrines. If there were larger gatherings, they seem not to have left archaeological traces. (Of course, neither do the tens of thousands who gather in the desert for Burning Man.)
At the Westernmost end of Europe, on the other hand, pre-Celtic groups built huge stone circles. We have no written accounts of the purpose of these structures or how they were built. The orientation of Stonehenge toward the Summer Solstice Sunrise has long been noted. Recent archaeology suggests alternately that Stonehenge may have been a burial and ritual site oriented toward the setting Sun at Winter Solstice.
What We Inherit: The notion that once, prior to 5000 years of bloody patriarchal history, there existed peaceful, cooperative, woman-honoring societies which endured for centuries or millennia. This inspiration overthrows older ideas of incessantly violent, all-against-all prehistory, and guides much of our “reclamation” work. (If this vision turns out to be historically inaccurate, we’ll still work to create it.)
c. 3500 - 400 BCE
With Egypt and the pyramids we enter the written history of the West. Many pyramids were built as royal tombs which, if they didn’t endow their occupants with eternal, slave-attended life, at least had the merit of preserving hoards of artifacts and writings. (For our society an analogous site might be our storage units, where we preserve old things we don’t want to lose track of.)
Despite its economy and culture being based around the annual flooding of the Nile, most of Egypt has a dry climate favorable to the survival of papyrus. This preserves a written record spanning several millennia and makes the region a key source for the study of ancient spirituality.
Hieroglyphics – today understood as an ornate phonetic script with some special characters – were long believed to be a secret language whose meanings, originally revealed only to initiates, had been lost amid the shifting sands of time. Seen as arcane symbols (no doubt hiding deep spiritual secrets), hieroglyphics became the archetype of the “secret magical language” that inspired generations of magicians and alchemists.
Most of all, Egypt has always been known for its mysterious and elaborate rites around death, burial, and the afterlife. The famous Book of the Dead is a collection of ceremonies for sending souls to a prosperous and happy afterlife. Intended only for the Egyptian elite, the book and its traditions have gone on to inspire elaborate funeral rites in many societies and social strata.
What We Inherit: Egypt’s gift to all subsequent Western cultures is an obsessive concern for the well-being of the dead. In ancient Egypt the concern was primarily with the pharaoh and his family. Eventually, Christianity, Gnosticism, and the mystery cults democratized the afterlife.
Modern Pagan groups orient our Wheel of the Year around Halloween/Samhain – the time when the veil is thin between the worlds of the living and the dead. Reclaiming’s “founding ritual,” the ancestor-focused Spiral Dance, was held at Samhain 1979 (and every year since).
Egyptian deities and narratives (eg, Isis and Osiris) occasionally find a place in our camps and rituals, but Egypt is not (yet) a major source of our mythical workings.
c. 3500 - 400 BCE
Mesopotamia – the land watered by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers – saw a succession of regional empires such as Sumeria, Assyria, and Babylonia. We acknowledge our Mesopotamian forebears for creating or advancing irrigation, metal working, city states, the West’s earliest astronomical data, and written language, in which they recorded the oldest-known Western literature and myths.
Thanks to scribes using clay tablets, a huge treasury of documents survive. Ranging from accounting records to magical spells, from royal chronicles to rambling mythic narratives, they give us a rich picture of some of the oldest known literate societies.
What sorts of magic did these ancestors do? Spells survive for purification of temples, appeasing the anger of gods and goddesses, protection from disease or injury, and charging a stone or talisman.
One spell seeking help from Ishtar required the person to gather “dust from a quay, dust from a ferry, dust from a bridge, dust from a crossing of four roads, dust from a city gate, dust from a dais, dust from the door of the Ishtar temple...” – and that was just the first step!
What We Inherit: Ancient Mesopotamia left a legacy of religio-magical narratives, including creation myths, pantheons of deities and demigods, heroic combat with monsters, journeys to the land of the dead – all in all, the earliest magical “fiction.” Much of Western mythology traces roots back to this region and period.
Mesopotamia is the source of some classic WitchCamp myths, led by Inanna’s journey to the underworld. If there are copyrights in the afterlife, we are going to owe 4000 years of royalties.
CRETE & MINOAN CIVILIZATION
c. 2000-1500 BCE
The island of Crete, relatively isolated in an age of small ships and safe from predatory Mesopotamian and Egyptian empires, was the first Mediterranean civilization to develop enduring architecture and written language.
Around 1500 BCE a small-scale urban society flourished, with stone buildings and a highly-evolved artistic culture. Famous frescoes show young men and women leaping over bulls – as sport, ritual, or both?
Crete is famous for the myth of King Minos, the Minotaur, and the labyrinth in which the beast was imprisoned. Although today we think of labyrinths as circular, some people have suggested that the origin of the myth was later visitors seeing the ruins of the maze of stone buildings that made up the capitol at Knossos (Crete was probably destroyed by an earthquake, although possibly by an invasion).
What We Inherit: Labyrinths! The prominence of women in sacred and social contexts (such as bull-leaping).
c. 800-300 BCE
A century ago, Greece was hailed as the progenitor of all that is good and true and Western. Besides inventing classical art and architecture, they worshiped a neatly-organized pantheon and wrote unrivaled epic poems about journeys to strange lands. In their spare time, they saved Europe from the evil Persian hoards.
Today Greece is studied in a Mediterranean context, with its classical art seen as a late-flowering continuation of Egyptian and Mesopotamian styles. The Homeric poems (written down around 800 BCE) can be seen as developing a genre of tall tales dating back to Gilgamesh (written down perhaps 1500-1200 BCE).
Pythagorus and his school, flourishing in the 500s BCE, emphasized numerical and musical proportion, including the idea that movements of the planets and stars create the “harmony of the spheres.”
Pythagorus is said to have believed in reincarnation and the transmigration of souls, and claimed to recall several past lives. Some ancient sources say he was a vegetarian except for ritual sacrifices.
Greek science, building on older Mesopotamian (and possibly Indian/Vedic) traditions, worked out theories about the nature of physical reality. Empedocles (c. 450 BCE, about a century before Plato and Aristotle) is credited as the first to identify four basic physical elements: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water.
Aristotle later added a fifth element, sometimes called Aether or Quintessence, which he saw as constituting the unchanging heavenly bodies.
Greek philosophy explored the world as science and observation (Aristotle), and also as to its ultimate nature and purpose (Plato). Plato saw the world of spirit/intellect as the true reality – the physical world is just a pale shadow. This idea will recur repeatedly over the centuries, notably via Gnosticism.
Greek magic continued trends from earlier ages, with spells for things like healing, success, and love. Greek writings suggest a marked distinction between the divinatory practices of the official priests and the more disreputable “goetia,” or low magic, of commoners.
Greece’s prejudice against non-Greeks gave us the word “magic,” from magos, their term for a Persian (hence foreign) priest, and eventually even for unofficial Greek practitioners of common goetia – as opposed to the “religious” practices of the official Greek priesthood.
What We Inherit: Greek goddesses, gods, heroes, anti-heroes, and their all-too-human stories are a favorite repository of past wisdom, insight, and bemusement.
Theories of Pythagorus, Plato, and Aristotle simmer beneath later trends in philosophy, religion, and magic.
The four basic elements held sway for two millennia, although much adapted over the centuries. Only in the 1800s were they definitively supplanted by the modern panoply of elements.
The Golden Dawn and British Wicca, adapting older traditions, correlated the four classical elements with the four directions to symbolically anchor our magical circles.
We also inherit from our Greek ancestors a collection of biases such as a strong emphasis on male domination of all forms of public culture, as well as a tendency toward dualistic, either/or thinking – particularly in ethics, where good/bad dichotomies continue to plague our thinking.
c. 600 BCE to 800 CE
According to one intuitive poll, 89.7% of Reclaiming people claim at least one recent matrilineal Celtic ancestor.
Who were these reproductively prolific forebears?
The term “Celts” refers to a not to a homogeneous ethnic group, but to a cultural network that shared pottery and metal-working styles and probably a family of languages. Dating from around 600-800 BCE, these iron-age peoples expanded from (areas today known as) the Hungarian plains to cover much of Central Europe as far as Britain, coastal Spain, and Northern Italy.
Celtic groups traded extensively with Greek city-states, and are among the “barbarian” peoples recorded by Greek writers. Around 387 BCE, Celtic tribes living in northern Italy attacked and sacked Rome, then a strong but relatively isolated city-state.
Later, as Rome began to expand northward after 200 BCE, the loosely organized Celts were either absorbed into the Roman empire (modern France and western Germany) or driven north and west – some to Britain and eventually Ireland, where Celtic culture blended with older traditions.
By the time of the German/Roman civil wars around 300 CE onward, the Celts were not a major factor on the continent.
Roman writers around 100 CE mention Celtic deities, syncretizing (combining) them with their Roman counterparts so that honoring Lugh was still acceptable, so long as you paid homage (and taxes) to Mercury at the same time.
In Ireland, the traditions continued to evolve. Irish and/or Celtic goddesses were syncretized with Christian saints – the best-known being Brigid. Ancient wells were “re-christened” – only to be rediscovered as Pagan shrines in modern times.
Around 800 CE, Irish monks wrote down Celtic legends as they were being told at that time. These narratives, closely interwoven with other strands of Irish lore, are much loved by modern Wiccans, and have formed our conception of Ireland as the Celtic homeland.
What We Inherit. Brigid and her sacred wells. The names of our cross-quarter sabbats (Samhain, Beltane, etc). A pantheon of deities and stories. Decorative motifs for pagan jewelry.
We also inherit a certain amount of misinformation about Celtic culture and deities, based on Christian overlays from the Middle Ages and over-hasty folkloric interpretations from the 1800s.
c. 400 BCE to 400 CE
Rome is a hodge-podge. Rome’s own founding myths suggest the earliest Romans were runaways, fugitives, and freebooters. I’ve always felt an affinity.
Organized as an aristocratic republic around 500 BCE, Rome was transformed into an empire around 25 BCE (following civil wars involving Julius and Augustus Caesar). At its peak around 250 CE, the Roman Empire spanned the entire Mediterranean region, most of North Africa, north to Britain, the Rhine, and the Danube, and east to encompass the Balkans, Turkey, and modern Iraq. The Empire traded with India via the Arabian Sea, and had secondary contacts as far as China and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Although the Empire was never a homogeneous whole, many people (soldiers, officials and their families, scholars, craft specialists, etc) traveled far and wide. Cities (common throughout the Mediterranean, rare in the North) hosted a variety of cultures, classes, and religions.
Many religions were tolerated. Roman policy was to repress or punish only actual harm, disruption, or law-breaking – conformity of opinion or belief was not expected (although paying honor and taxes to the official deities was demanded of most people – the Jews being a notable exception).
The result was a vast mixing of cultures and sharing of ideas, stories, and techniques – including magic. Many foreign religions gained a toehold in the capitol – cults of Dionysus, Cybele, and the Great Mother among them.
Roman literature, known for classics of history and politics, also left satirical portraits of different sorts of people. Poets such as Virgil and Lucan crafted vivid descriptions of elderly, hag-like women who worked maliciously inhuman spells – an image that will haunt the European imagination for centuries until it helps animate the witch hunts.
What We Inherit: Our affinity for Greek myths and deities stems from the fact that Rome, which lacked a developed mythology of its own, merged its deities with Greek gods and goddesses and preserved their stories in Latin poetry. The Middle Ages were the Latin Age, and passed this Roman heritage on to Modern times.
Rome bequeaths the idea of broad religious tolerance – an ideal the West has struggled to regain ever since.
It also gave Europe its abiding image of the evil witch.
Roman Era to Middle Ages
Judaism produced a written scriptural sourcebook going back centuries, and some of the texts figure repeatedly in the history of magic and religion. Christians, Gnostics, and Moslems adopted parts of Jewish scripture as their own, each giving the older material a new spin.
During the Roman era, Jews were an important religious group. One writer estimates that one-sixth of the people in the eastern Mediterranean region were Jewish. Besides the often-volatile Middle East, there were large Jewish populations in Alexandria, Antioch, and other cities.
The written scriptures, developed and refined over centuries, preserve countless tales and narratives. The Genesis creation story, including the Garden of Eden, is a founding myth for virtually half of the planet. Tales of giants, floods, epic combats, exiles and wanderings, perseverance and hope – these are a legacy to all of the West.
Ancient Judaism had its own esoteric traditions, including tales of magical combat by Moses and Aaron during the Egyptian sojourn. Rods turn into serpents, frogs rain down from the skies, seas are parted, and commandments are carved into stone (twice) by a jealous and rather moody deity.
Jewish scriptures contain several injunctions against magic and witchcraft. These have been subjected to a wide range of interpretations over the centuries, particularly after Christianity put imperial power behind them.
In later ages, the intricacies of Hebrew script itself were subjected to painstaking religio-magical analysis, with everything from divine knowledge to power over demons promised to those who persevered. The Kabbalah developed as a tool for explicating the creation and meaning of the universe – and wound up influencing Tarot divination as well – see below.
What We Inherit: Our faith in a better tomorrow stems from Hebrew ideas that history is not simply circular and repetitive, nor a simple decline from a past Age of Gold, but has a direction and purpose – that the “golden age” might be in the future, not just the past.
A related idea is that of Tikkun Olam: working to heal, repair, and restore the world.
Hebrew scriptures are deeply rooted in our cultural psyche, and help create our sense of what religious myth is all about. The arcane numerosophy (number-wisdom) of Kabbalah has shaped the West’s subconscious sense of what numbers mean – see below regarding interpretations of the Tarot Minor Arcana.
From these scriptures and others sources comes the notion that people can talk back to power – the Hebrew prophets provide stirring examples of common people speaking truth to kings.
On the flip side, we don’t treat our writings as sacred scripture – not yet, anyway.
Approx 500 BCE to 500 CE
The term “mystery cults” is a modern category that includes various initiatory and often ecstatic devotional groups and practices. Some were regular congregations, others annual gatherings which endured for centuries.
The name is misleading. Most were not “cults” in the modern sense, but more like ever-evolving congregations and gatherings. Annual Pagan events carry on this tradition.
The term “mysteries” doesn’t mean that they were secret, or that they gathered to read the latest fantasy fiction thriller. It suggests that the meaning of the rituals could not be expressed in language, but had to be experienced by each person.
One of the most famous of these “mysteries” is that of Persephone at Eleusis near Athens. The Eleusinian Mysteries, part of a longer festival, seem to have been a personal journey of discovery and self-awareness, culminating with insights into the meaning of life and death.
Many devotees took part in this ritual twice (lists of participants have been discovered). One writer (Bowden) suggests that people attended once as a novitiate, spent a year in devotional practice, then returned to re-experience the ceremonies and complete their initiation.
For most, Bowden suggests, this was sufficient. A small number returned and became the guides and organizers for the next sets of initiates.
Other cults included Mithras (popular among soldiers but closed to women – a fatal flaw), Bacchus, Cybele, and the Great Mother. Some had sacred sites such as Eleusis. Others were urban or wandering groups.
Some of these cults engaged in ecstatic, possibly drug-or-alcohol-fueled processions and rites involving loud and jarring music, wild dancing, and self-flagellation. The Romans, generally tolerant of various religions, didn’t take kindly to civic disturbances, leading to violent repressions such as the reported persecution of Bacchian celebrants around 186 BCE.
This sort of attack on a religious group seems to have been relatively rare in the Roman world, where magic and religion were suppressed only when some perceived harm or disruption occurred.
Early Christianity may have been seen by some contemporaries as similar to these mystery movements. Not surprisingly, when it gained political power, Christianity moved to close down the competing cults.
What We Inherit: WitchCamp, where we gather to connect with the divine and with our own deepest selves, is a distant offshoot of the Eleusinian Mysteries – and Persephone has graced more than a few camps!
The notion of a “year and a day” for initiations stems from these annual religious gatherings. If you attended twice – once as a novitiate, and again in order to become initiated – a year-and-a-day is the shortest period possible.
And the ecstatic aspects of some of these movements, if not a direct influence, have a familiar ring to those who love dancing around a ritual bonfire.
ALEXANDRIA, NEO-PLATONISM, & THE GREEK MAGICAL PAPYRI
c. 100-400 CE
From the time of Alexander (c.300 BCE), the Graeco-Egyptian port of Alexandria was a cosmopolitan cultural melting pot, bringing together the disparate threads of the Eastern Mediterranean.
During the Roman era, many spiritual and magical traditions built strong roots in Alexandria, including Gnosticism, Christianity, Neo-Platonism, Stoicism, Judaism (Jews may have been a quarter of the population), and others.
Neo-Platonism – philosophical tendency which, building on Plato’s ideas, took spirit to be the ultimate nature of reality. The origin of all being is pure Spirit – the material world is a distant emanation, with all of the planetary spheres and lesser spiritual realms arrayed between us and the divine Source. This idea of the material world as a devolution from the purity of the Source took a more visceral form in Gnostic myths of creation as a harsh fall from divine grace – see below.
The Greek Magical Papyri are a loosely-connected group of manuscripts from Roman-era Egypt. Written mostly in Greek, they reflect ideas current in Alexandria and the Graeco-Egyptian cultural orbit. They rank among the most complicated magical workings ever committed to writing.
Lost for centuries before modern rediscovery, the papyri mix elements from Greek, Egyptian, Jewish, and mystical traditions into elaborate spells, formulae, recipes, chants, workings, and rituals. They contain instructions for commanding demons, making amulets, and preparing magical ointments.
The texts, probably a tiny fraction of what once existed, come from an era when older Egyptian, Greek, and Roman practices were declining in the face of the mystery cults and Christianity. The papyri may have been an attempt to memorialize complicated rituals that were fading from common usage.
One papyrus features an invocation of the divinity Mithras, who is implored to bestow upon worshipers a vision of immortality. The manuscript also uses “voces magicae,” or magical nonsense sounds, to call on the powers of the four classical elements.
What We Inherit: The complicated rituals and workings of the Greek Magical Papyri set the gold standard for ceremonial magic. Though the original texts were lost for centuries, the memory of complex Egyptian magic served as inspiration for Arabic, Medieval, and Modern ceremonial formulations.
Even non-ceremonial traditions such as Reclaiming inherit basic ritual structures within which we improvise, including elemental and deity invocations.
We also have been known to talk nonsense, carrying on the tradition of the voces magicae.
Flourished 100-400 CE
Gnosticism, 2000 years after it first flourished, continues to exert a strong influence on alternative spirituality. Once believed to be mainly a dissident Christian movement, the discovery of a library of original texts at Nag Hammadi (Egypt) in 1945 has shown it to be a separate religion in the diverse and polyglot Roman Empire.
While Gnosticism was itself diverse and can’t be reduced to a single set of beliefs, many texts exhibit strong anti-material tendencies. The Divine Source of all reality is far beyond the material realm, beyond planets and stars, beyond any conception of deity that we mere mortals can imagine. The Source is the font of all light, truth, understanding, being, etc. (Gnosticism adapts ideas from Neo-Platonism – see above).
The Earth, on the other hand, is a fallen realm, about as far from the Divine Source as one can get. Some Gnostic texts spin wild stories about the origins of Earth, often involving the sexual escapades of a demi-goddess named Sophia, or Wisdom. In these accounts, she actually isn’t all that wise, and the creation of the cursed Earthly realm is pretty much laid at her doorstep.
Humans, created at the tail end of this sordid process, are lost in a miasma of material confusion. But deep inside each of us – or some of us, anyway – there is buried a spark of the original Source. Our goal is to escape material, worldly temptations and follow that spark back to an awareness of our Divine Source. If we achieve this knowledge (“gnosis”), and learn the proper passwords to say to various celestial guardians, we can re-ascend to heaven upon our Earthly death.
Given the shape of things, it’s tempting to agree with the part about the Earth being a “fallen and cursed realm.” I often feel that way when I first wake up.
On the other hand, some of us are given to saying that the Earth is the Goddess, that the Earth is a living, divine being, itself the source of our life. So what gives?
During the period when Gnosticism flourished, the spiritual seeker (and later Christian saint) Augustine of Hippo, a city in North Africa, saw it this way: “God created the Earth, and saw it was good. What screwed things up was humans eating the apple and falling from grace. Our fall dragged down the entire planet, which is why it appears to be a cursed place of pain and suffering. The fault lies entirely with erring humans – Earth itself is good.”
What We Inherit: Reclaiming, with no official thealogy, tends to muddle together both ends of this spectrum. Gnostic-style denunciations of the material world are mingled with veneration of the Earth as the Goddess’s body.
Leaving aside the bit about the apple, I think Augustine’s solution is close to the mark – the Earth itself is divine, but humans are seriously screwing it up.
Ancient times To c. 1000
Okay, now for some serious magic! Alchemy calls to us as a material praxis, a psychological-spiritual tool, and as inspiration to pursue our wildest dreams – transmuting the “prima materia” (first material) of this world into the gold of our visions.
Through Western history – encompassing ancient Egypt, Roman-era Gnosticism, Medieval Islam, and Renaissance Europe – the term “alchemy” has comprised a loosely-connected group of beliefs and practices. Unlike, say, Tarot (with its well-documented beginnings and fairly compact 500-year history), alchemy is not a single historical thread.
In ancient Egypt and its successors in Mesopotamia and around the Mediterranean, alchemy may have originated in metallurgical workshops, which due to the value of metals were generally connected to royal palaces or temples. The practices of purifying, mixing, and tempering metals were closely-guarded guild secrets.
Similarly, specialists working with dyes and pigments were able – through a series of “alchemical” purifications and concentrations – to transmute ordinary plants and minerals into long-lasting coloring agents. Such skills must have seemed to outsiders like magic.
These basic physical and chemical processes laid foundations for the experimental developments of later centuries, and can be traced in the early histories of chemistry and physics. The technical skills remained part of Western culture even at its lowest points.
During the later Roman era, the Hermetic writings and Gnosticism used alchemical imagery to weave bits and pieces from Judaism, Neo-Platonic philosophy, and the mystery cults, recasting metallurgical processes as stages in a spiritual journey (see above and below). We’ll resume this thread during the Renaissance.
What We Inherit: The hope that we can transmute our world before it’s too late.
DIVINATION & ASTROLOGY
Pre-History to about 1400 CE
Divination is recorded far back in human history. Astrology, casting lots, studying the flights (or entrails) of birds, and many other ways of predicting coming events have been used in different societies – each considering its own methods sacred, and others to be magical or superstitious.
Times change. Today we have highly-refined weather prognostication at our fingertips, but entrail reading is nearly a lost art.
Astrology, on the other hand, has had its devotees since ancient Babylonian times – and Babylonian sophistication suggests a long pre-historical backdrop of observation and study of the night sky.
Early observers recognized that the stars and planets, as seen from Earth, trace recurring patterns through the heavens. The discovery of the ring of “zodiacal” constellations through which the sun and planets appear to move is quite ancient. However, different cultures have counted different numbers of constellations, with the number 12 settling in only around Roman times.
The applications of astrology have also changed over the centuries. Various texts from different cultures survive, suggesting that in ancient times the stars were seen as predicting the fate of kingdoms and royalty, but not particularly you or me.
When the methods came to be applied to ordinary people, they were used more to discover a person’s character or the overall arc of their life than to predict day-to-day happenings.
Another common use was finding the most propitious time for a certain event – eg, the beginning of a journey, a marriage, or a project. People still speak of the power of the waxing or waning moon or Mercury retrograde – ancient astrology made intricate calculations involving multiple heavenly bodies.
Given these changes, there seems to be no continuous tradition of interpretation, or even longterm agreement about which astral phenomena are to be interpreted. Astrology as practiced today – interpretation of personal charts on a day-to-day basis – is a relatively recent development.
What We Inherit: Astrology is practiced in many magical circles today, but it doesn’t often inform our calendars – that is, rituals, classes, and camps are not typically scheduled according to astrological factors (although these may be noted during planning).
Part II: Medieval Magic
TWO MAGICAL THREADS
Richard Kieckhefer, in his short book on Medieval magic, suggests two intertwining threads:
• common traditions – ordinary, day-to-day practices
• learned traditions – consisting of two broad tendencies:
• literate magic – elaborately structured ceremonies and spells performed by educated elites
• natural magic – unlocking the hidden secrets of nature
COMMON TRADITIONS: PRACTICAL MAGIC
Common traditions comprise the ordinary practices of non-professionals – charms, amulets, incantations, curses, herbology, etc – the sorts of things that people of those times probably did not consider to be “magic” at all, but simply, “how you do such and such.”
Common traditions include healing, divination, love potions, spells to increase confidence or performance, and more. Techniques included, at various times and places, concocting potions, casting of lots or horoscopes, tea-leaf reading, water or flame scrying, creating of amulets and written charms, and so on.
These practices embodied a great deal of folk wisdom (along with miscellaneous superstitions and prejudices). Every aspect of life might have its special spells, charms, and incantations.
Some might be simple herbal salves or poultices. Others might be as complex as those of a woman in Todi (Italy) charged in 1428 with working spells to cure illness using a bone from an unbaptized baby, creating a contraceptive by burning a mule’s hoof, and transferring an injury to another person by means of a potion involving thirty different herbs.
What We Inherit: The view that magic is a practical tool to be used and shared in day-to-day life. An informal quality to spells and invocations, and a collective and co-creative approach to discovering “what works.”
LEARNED TRADITIONS: LITERATE MAGIC & NECROMANCY
Welcome to the realm of necromancy. Literally the term refers to invoking and working with the spirits of the dead. But the term has come to encompass formal ritual magic in general, and especially summoning spirits, angels, demons, and the like.
In an age when only the educated few were literate, and given the shady nature of such rituals (which sometimes copied or parodied the Catholic mass), it is unlikely that ordinary people had much knowledge or involvement in these rites. Investigations and prosecutions for demonic magic focused on clerics, not ordinary people. (This will radically change with the witch hunts after about 1500.)
From earliest history until the Enlightenment of the 1700s, few people doubted that our world included not only humans and other living beings, but a host of spirits. In polytheistic times these might be seen as deities, demigods, or the spirit of a place or a natural feature such as a waterfall.
In the Christian era, when official theology denied the existence of any spirits outside of God’s control, these beings came to be seen as angels and demons ultimately subordinate to the monarchical deity – a neat binary division of all supernatural energy into good and evil that is still with us today.
Building on older practices, Moslems, Jews, and Christians developed rituals and spells for summoning and commanding such spirits, often in hopes of obtaining assistance in love, treasure-finding, or professional endeavors.
Some of these rituals survive in manuscripts (often ironically thanks to church and monastic libraries), revealing an obsession with lists of divine and spirit names that if recited perfectly will compel a given spirit to appear and do the ritualist’s bidding. Goethe’s Faust illustrates this sort of ritual – as does the 17th century Book of Abramelin.
Enough manuscripts survive to show that Medieval clerics (a general term for anyone educated in the church-controlled universities, not necessarily a priest or monk) certainly considered their activities to be “magical,” and were willing to run the risks of discovery and punishment in return for the hope of power and wealth.
This sort of fussily arcane magic gave way to the alchemical revival around 1500, and both faded in the face of the scientific revolution from about 1650 forward.
What We Inherit: Well, for starts, we write a lot of books about spirituality and magic.
We see the world as populated with myriad spirits, although we tend to agree with the ancients that they are spirits of places and other beings, not God-controlled subordinates.
Our rituals invoke and work with these spirits and deities, but we avoid commanding or restraining them. We see it more as a “power-with” relation.
LEARNED TRADITIONS: NATURAL MAGIC
A second bookish trend was so-called natural magic – the search for the occult (hidden) properties of nature.
That plants and stones have particular properties which can be discovered and utilized is nothing new – once humans discovered honey and berries, the search was on. Imagine the amazement of people first seeing wheat transmuted into bread, or soft clay being shaped and fired into a hard, reusable vessel. Talk about magic!
However bookish the Middles Ages could be, some people were always alert for new substances and new ways of doing things – some fanciful, such as a given stone’s ability to tame dragons, and others quite real, such as the development of new dye pigments.
The Christian theologian Albertus Magnus (Albert the Great, d. 1280) wrote extensively on natural science, and later generations foisted endless books about plant magic and alchemy on him.
Natural magic has strong connections to the “common traditions” discussed above. Ordinary people throughout history have been just as likely to discover a new truth or natural fact as experts, although in retrospect we rely mainly on literate (and usually male) sources such as Albertus to learn about them.
A common method of searching for hidden properties was to study the resemblances of different objects. For instance, beets were understood to be good for the blood because their juice is bright red.
As we will see below, when Christian authorities began to charge that literate magic involved demonic invocations, practitioners of natural magic claimed that they were actually unlocking secrets that God had hidden in the natural world.
This defense worked up to a point – namely, the point at which the new discoveries (for instance, in physiology and astronomy) were themselves undermining established authorities. But that’s another story.
What We Inherit: Nature is magical, and it behooves us to learn its secrets. Nuff said!
ARABIC ASTRAL MAGIC
700 to 1100 CE
Islam arose in the early 600s. By 700 CE, the religion had spread from Morocco and Spain to the North of India. Constantinople (modern Istanbul) and Italy were besieged.
While seldom politically united, Islam fostered a common cultural climate. Heir to the Greek and Egyptian legacies, the Islamic regions flourished while most of Europe was mired in the post-Roman “dark ages.”
Not surprisingly, at a time when its literature, architecture, and medicine were the most advanced in the West, Islamic regions also produced cutting-edge magic. Over the subsequent centuries, hundreds of Arabic manuscripts on a wide range of topics were translated into Latin, forming the basis for later Western philosophy, science, and magical theory.
Foremost among the techniques that eventually made their way into broader circulation were astral and talismanic magic.
Astral magic is built on the Neo-Platonic notion of a magical/spiritual “fluid” that flows through and unites the cosmos. Stars and planets especially focus this energy, and trained magicians can tap into astral emanations and draw them into objects to create talismans.
Talismans are magically-charged objects which can range from pieces of parchment to precious gems. The material of which the talisman is made affects its power – for instance, copper is especially effective in drawing energy from Venus.
The object might be inscribed with names, words, and/or images to attract and focus the particular energy. The talisman might then be charged by placing it under the rays of the desired astral body – for instance, leaving a love-talisman in the starlight when Venus is especially bright.
What We Inherit: Talismans! Neo-Pagans do their part to preserve this heritage by including craft fairs at nearly every gathering. Modern Pagans and Wiccans carry on older practices of magically charging objects such as necklaces, rings, and amulets.
Arabic astral magic bequeaths to us a sense that the universe is pervaded with magical/spiritual energy. Our challenge is to learn to tap into and direct this energy.
PRE-INDUSTRIAL EUROPE: A CULTURE OF MISFORTUNE
As our survey moves toward the era of the European witch trials, let’s pause to remember the conditions of life for people prior to about 1800. Some have referred to this pre-industrial society as a “culture of misfortune,” in which death and catastrophe were routine occurrences.
In a time when half of all children died by age 10 (and half of those by age 1), when inexplicable illness could strike at any moment, when a freak hailstorm could destroy a year of agricultural work and everyone was one bad harvest away from hunger – any of these might set off a search for scapegoats.
Among Europe’s favored scapegoats were Jews, heretics, witches, and foreigners. Why witches were specially targeted after about 1500 will be discussed below.
Extra-legal killings in times of crisis may have been more common than the scant records show, and the accusations might often have included witchcraft or magic used against one’s neighbors.
However, until the era of the witch hunts (discussed below), this did not lead to serial trials where each suspect was forced to accuse the next.
THE DEMONIZATION OF MAGIC
c. 500 BCE to 300 CE
Now let’s survey a longterm development that will become horrifyingly relevant around 1500 – the demonization of magic. This very brief overview will try to show how negative attitudes toward magic and alternative spiritual trends changed and hardened over two millennia, culminating in the era of the European witch hunts around 1500-1700.
Broadly speaking, in ancient polytheistic societies, people were accustomed to encountering and even participating in a variety of spiritual practices. The practices of other people, especially foreigners, might be seen as alien, disturbing, or perhaps magical. The Greek term “magi” initially referred to Persian priests, eventually broadened to include foreign religious workers in general.
The diverse Mediterranean societies of the Hellenistic era (around 300-100 BCE) needed to practice religious tolerance in order to function. The common traditions of magic (see above) were shared and tolerated, and would have been feared only when specific harmful effects were perceived.
During the Roman Imperial era (c. 100 BCE to 400 CE), when the entire Mediterranean world was politically and economically united, urban people regularly witnessed other rites and practices.
Roman authorities tolerated other religions – so long as the adherents didn’t cause disturbances and also made sacrifices to the official Roman pantheon (Jews, a sizeable minority in many parts of the Eastern Roman world, were granted an exemption).
When magic or alternative spirituality was persecuted, it was mainly because of a perceived threat to social order. The first persecutions of Christians seem to have been a combination of their refusing to honor Roman deities, coupled with Nero’s search for a scapegoat for the burning of Rome around 64 CE.
Laws against fraud or failed attempts at healing may have snared magical practitioners – but people were arrested for the harm they allegedly caused, not for their beliefs or general practices.
THE DEMONIZATION OF MAGIC
c. 300 CE to about 1500 CE
With the advent of Christianity, and especially after about 350 CE when it became the dominant religion in the late Roman Empire, views toward magic and alternative spirituality shifted. Let’s survey that change.
Up till about 300 CE, Roman, Greek, and other ancient Pagan religions were polytheistic. Foreign religions and deities could be regarded as equally powerful for their own devotees, as less powerful but still quite real, or as various names and aspects of one’s own deities.
Thus Greeks recognized Persian magi as powerful priests for their own society.
Assyrians seem to have seen other deities as real but less powerful (after all, which gods won the war?).
And the Romans said, “Your gods are really just different names for our gods!” With Greece this was carried so far that later generations see Greek and Roman deities as interchangeable – Rome simply took over Greek myths and legends and applied them to their own deities.
Judaism is an exceptional case, probably passing from monolatry (recognition of multiple deities but worship of only one) to full monotheism – ours is the only God, and yours either don’t exist or are demons.
Christianity took on this aspect of Jewish thought and added to it an essential element – organized state power. From about 380 CE forward, Christianity engaged in official campaigns to eradicate all vestiges of older “Pagan” practices. Persecutions were turned on adherents of older beliefs, sacred sites were closed and often destroyed, shrines were rebranded as temples, and spirits repurposed as angels or saints (or as demons – stay tuned!).
Historians debate the causes of this change, some noting that the far-flung Roman Empire seemed to demand more unity of belief than the diffuse Pagan systems could provide. Given the Empire’s tendency to break apart into civil wars and secessionist movements, what would unify people from Britain to Palestine, from the Danube to North Africa? Maybe if everyone were compelled to believe in One True God...
Okay – but how does this connect to demonizing magic?
Suppose you are a Christian authority living in a diverse world with many surviving religions, cults, and practices. There’s no way you are going to convince all those other people that their practices are empty and meaningless – they know better.
Christianity’s answer – yes, your practices work – but only because you have invoked demons to assist you! Christian authorities such as Augustine didn’t deny the power of spirits – rather, they condemned appeals to any spirit other than the Christian God as demonic magic.
Natural magicians (see above) argued: “We are simply unlocking hidden powers of nature that God created – what’s demonic about that?”
Christian authorities led by Thomas Aquinas shot back: “You use verbal incantations – this proves you are actually appealing to a demonic spirit, whether you recognize this or not. All magic, all spells, all invocation of any power other than God implies an appeal to demonic power.”
That’s hard to answer – and will become very problematic when ordinary people start getting accused of invoking demons because they chant over medicinal herbs.
c. 100 to 1200 CE
As with Celts, Romans, and other ancient peoples, the Norse and Germanic groups were probably not homogeneous ethnic tribes, but ad hoc networks of peoples living north and west of the Rhine.
Roman-era writers such as Tacitus (around 100 CE) describe the Germans (aka “barbarians,”) as nomadic warrior and trading peoples with no settled (ie, urban or village) culture. Archaeologists have found few permanent settlements from the Roman period. Small artworks similar to Celtic metalwork have been found in graves, along with luxury goods and artifacts from southern cultures.
Spared the civil wars and invasions of the late Roman and early Medieval era, northern trader/marauders (sometimes called Vikings) moved south into old Roman areas and conquered Normandy, Sicily, Britain, and also the North of Russia by about 1100 CE. A network of Northern trading cities, the Hanseatic League, was among the strongest economic regions of the West by 1200.
Beginning around 800 CE, Norse explorers began to settle Iceland. This tiny island, insulated from outside influences for long periods, gave birth around 1100 CE to a series of poems and prose writings known as the Eddas. These epics describe the dysfunctional familial relations of Norse deities and heroes, along with a striking vision of the end of the world.
Runes are simple symbols which may have been part of alphabets used to write Germanic languages before the adoption of Latin script. Some Medieval texts attribute magical power to the runes – in the poem Havamal, Odin recounts a runic spell that can cause a corpse to speak. While the runes are sometimes used today for divination, there is little older evidence for this practice, and no written transmission of meanings.
Political overtones – white supremacists have for the past century adopted certain (usually male) members of Norse pantheons as their semi-official deities. This malleability is not unique to Norse deities, but in today’s rapidly evolving cultural mix it presents a special challenge to social justice and anti-racist organizers.
What We Inherit: Written down in relatively recent times, the tales of the Norse pantheon offer a coherent mythological framework with psychologically complex narratives. While some WitchCamps and local groups have avoided Norse myths due to political complexities, goddesses such as Freya have found a place in Reclaiming, and Winter WitchCamp especially engages with these deities and traditions.
Runes are popular today as divination tools and meditation sigils. Explanations of rune meanings in accompanying books are modern, intuitive interpretations.
c. 1200 to the present
The word “grimoire” is a catch-all term covering everything from personal spell books to obsessively-detailed instructions for invoking angels and demons, and everything in between.
The Book of Abramelin, The Key of Solomon, and the Sworn Book of Honorius are a few grimoires from the Medieval or Early Modern era. Each purports to offer step-by-indecipherable-step instructions on how to invoke spirits and compel them to do your bidding, find buried treasure, and/or grant your heart’s desires.
Alchemical texts are grimoires of a sort – and like the elaborate invocatory manuals, you have to wonder if anyone ever seriously performed these rites, or if they were concocted to dupe gullible aristocrats.
Around 1950, Wiccan pioneer Gerald Gardner applied the term “Book of Shadows” to his personal magical notebook (later edited and published by Doreen Valiente). From Gardner the term spread, eventually popping up on television, in movies, and especially in books for teen witches.
Today the terms grimoire and Book of Shadows are used interchangeably by many people for a personal collection of magical spells, workings, instructions, jokes, and miscellaneous wisdom of varying practical value – a combination magical journal and compendium.
What We Inherit: The book you are reading is a descendent of grimoires. Like them, we’re sharing intricate details of how we actually do magic.
As we feel about older grimoires, people in the future will probably consider our whole project a bit wacky. Ah, well – at least they’ll know we existed. And what is remembered lives.
From Pre-History to the Industrial Era
From time before history people have gathered herbs and other plants for cooking, medicine, dyes, rituals, and other uses.
One old source for popular herbalism, a 16th century “Book of Secrets” attributed to the long-dead Albertus Magnus, promises to reveal the hidden virtues of herbs, stones, and various marvels of the world.
In Homer’s Odyssey, the wise woman Circe (often described as a sorceress) mixed unspecified plants with cheese and honey and used them to turn Odysseus’s crew into pigs. Helen of Troy is described as putting a drug into cups of wine that quieted all pain and strife for the rest of the day – with a suggestion that she knew a thing or two about using “cunning drugs” to manipulate people.
As these examples illustrate, knowledge about and gathering of herbs has been women’s work since ancient times. This was unquestioned in Europe and around the Mediterranean up to about 1500.
Around that time, university-trained physicians began campaigning to limit and eventually outlaw herbalists, midwives, and other natural healers. In law and elite society, herbalism and popular remedies were seen as backward and superstitious.
Despite official pronouncements, most people would have continued to rely on popular healers and techniques they had long known. Through the early modern period (c. 1500ff), women offering such services were increasingly harassed by authorities.
That 1500-1750 is also the period of the European witch hunts is noteworthy, and has led some to posit a strong connection – that the hunts were at least partly aimed at eliminating independent women’s voices and practices.
It is undeniable that some strands of witch hunting, exemplified by the Malleus Malificarum (a popular and luridly misogynist inquisitors’ manual), were obsessed with the power of women.
However, scholarly opinion today is skeptical about “repressing powerful women” as a major motivating factor in the witch hunts.
We’ll settle for noting that the hunts targeted older women – keepers of much of society’s oral wisdom – precisely at a time when male-dominated academia was driving these women out of medical practices.
What We Inherit: Herbalism is stronger today than in a couple of centuries. Skills are openly taught and herbs can (mostly) be legally obtained, although conflicts still arise with mainstream medicine and regulations.
The idea that the witch hunts aimed at suppressing independent women was very popular in the feminist circles that gave birth to Reclaiming and other Pagan groups of the 1970s and 80s. People proudly claimed the label “witch,” taking the word to mean powerful, nonconformist women (and eventually people of all genders).
The Modern era opens with two broad cultural trends – the Renaissance and the Reformation. Neither was a single chain of events, and neither can be easily summarized. We’ll focus on how they’ve influenced us.
The Renaissance, narrowly defined, spans Northern Italy from about 1400 to 1520. Artists and literary types fancied themselves as midwifing a “rebirth” of ancient art and letters. Architecture and sculpture adopted styles and motifs from ancient Rome. Painting (of which little survived from the ancient world) developed in a more visually realistic direction.
Interesting from our perspective is the revival of ancient Pagan stories and characters. Particularly in Florence, Pagan-inspired subjects appeared prominently in art for the first time in centuries – a trend that would grow to encompass all of Europe by the 1600s.
Expanding a Medieval trend, ancient texts continued to be discovered in libraries, translated, and published using the new moveable-type presses. Latin authors such as Ovid and Virgil achieved new fame, and with them the old Mediterranean myths, never totally lost, rose again to prominence.
Renaissance “humanism” emphasized human experience (as opposed to focusing on the divine), with special attention to human forms in art and humane values for society.
These trends radiated out from Italy over the following centuries and dominated European art and culture through the late 1800s.
What We Inherit: Our familiarity with many Graeco-Roman myths and deities stems from this re-invigoration. Our culture’s general sense of “refined” art – whether to be pursued or revolted against – stems from the Renaissance.
Ecological thought has expanded humanism to encompass all life on our planet.
THE HERMETIC TEXTS
Let’s back up and weave another thread from the Mediterranean world of the late Roman era.
Around 300 CE, Constantine – the same emperor who legalized Christianity – decided that the capital at Rome was too distant from the most economically valuable areas of the Empire – particularly Egypt, a trade entrepot and a major source of grain for the empire’s cities. He built a new capital known as Constantinople (today Istanbul), and moved most of the government there.
The Roman Empire soon dissolved into two relatively independent areas – the East based in Constantinople, and the West still ruled from Italy (Rome and later Milan and Ravenna).
By 600, the West had crumbled into smaller states and dependencies. The East remained controlled by Constantinople, and came to be called Byzantium.
As we have seen, in the mid-600s, Islam rapidly conquered the Middle East, Egypt, and North Africa. Most of Spain became Islamic by 800. Byzantium, although still powerful, was reduced mainly to the Balkans and Greece. For the next half millennium this was the political situation.
During this period, Western Europe was the least developed of these regions. Byzantium continued the Latin and Greek traditions of ancient times. Islam inherited the Greek traditions of the East and especially Alexandria, and far outstripped Western Europe in literature, philosophy, science – and magic.
Some of this wisdom filtered through to the West, particularly via Spain, a meeting ground for Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.
When Turkish armies captured Constantinople around 1453, Greek scholars fled to the West, bringing with them many ancient texts long lost to the Latin world. Among these were numerous dialogs of Plato.
But even more incredible were the Hermetic texts from Alexandria – so called because some of the dialogs include the Graeco-Egyptian god Hermes Trismegistus.
Today dated to around 200 CE, the writings were long believed to be from ancient Egypt – older than Homer, older than Moses. They were called “priscia theologia” – first or pristine theology, a direct revelation from God.
The short pieces – most of them unknown in Latin-speaking Europe from the fall of Rome until the Renaissance – contain ruminations on the origins of the universe, the meaning of human existence, and communion with divinity.
For the next century and beyond, the Hermetic texts influenced Western philosophical and spiritual circles with a vision of ancient truth that might unify the West’s many bickering religions.
What We Inherit: Although today we are more likely to look to nature and community than ancient texts for inspiration, we share a desire to find the “original truth,” to get back to the core of connection to spirit.
We also share with most humans the deep-seated fantasy that somewhere out there, someone knows the “real” truth about life!
MEDIEVAL & RENAISSANCE ALCHEMY
c. 1000 to 1700
Let’s pick up the thread of alchemy that we introduced in ancient times. During the Medieval period, alchemical and chemical studies flourished in Islamic areas. Manuscripts were occasionally translated from Arabic into Latin, intriguing scholars such as Gerbert of Aurillac, who became Pope Sylvester II in 999.
The interest in ancient texts that characterized the later Middle Ages and Renaissance, coupled with the advent of moveable-type printing around 1450, led to a profusion of “scientific” books, not least alchemical treatises. Many survive, illustrated with obscure and fascinating drawings and diagrams (Carl Jung discusses these graphics from a psycho-spiritual point of view in his book on alchemy). Some of these texts are so obtuse and convoluted that one suspects their main function was to defraud gullible aristocrats.
Around 1600 the notion of personal and collective transmutation flowered in the mysterious Rosicrucian writings (as obscure as any alchemical treatise), which seem to have been connected to an anti-authoritarian political movement aimed at abolishing the Holy Roman Empire and promoting local religious and political autonomy.
The Rosicrucian vision of a world of tolerance and peace was crushed during the Thirty Years War.
Yet the dream of chemical transmutation and the synthesis of the philosopher’s stone persisted, attracting such notables as famed scientific innovator Isaac Newton, who devoted major efforts to alchemy.
The skepticism of the Enlightenment, coupled with the rise of modern experimental science, finally laid to rest the arcane formulae of alchemy. Practical skills such as distillation, metallurgy, and manufacture of dyes paved the way to modern chemistry and other sciences.
What We Inherit: Few present-day witches and magi maintain fully-equipped alchemical laboratories, and today’s aristocrats are notably parsimonious when it comes to patronizing esoteric researches.
Yet the alchemical vision remains, and continues to inspire people working to change the world – real change begins with the “prima materia” of today’s world, and seeks to transmute it through a series of purifying steps.
Good luck to us!
PROFESSIONALS AND WRITINGS
Many practices discussed in this article are considered “magic” only in retrospect – people at the time probably thought of herbs, incantations, and spells not as magic but as “what you do for this problem.” When a parent kisses a child’s bruise to “make it well,” we carry on this practice.
Renaissance magicians, on the other hand, claimed the title, and had little hesitation about monetizing their practices. Some, such as John Dee and Giordano Bruno, had intermittent success in finding employment at royal courts.
The development of moveable-type printing around 1450 greatly increased the dissemination of books and ideas around Europe. This period saw a flowering of alchemical writings, and various alchemists found patrons for their researches and profusely-illustrated books.
Astrological books and tables abounded, with William Lilly gaining fame by predicting the victory of the Parliamentary forces in the English Civil War of the 1640s.
Translations and editions of long-lost classical authors such as the transcendent spiritualist Plato and the materialist Lucretius challenged narrow aspects of Medieval European thought.
Learned magicians achieved great respect in some circles – but this trend came to an abrupt end around 1600, killed by a combination of religious war, the repressive Catholic Counter-Reformation, and the growing scientific outlook of European intelligentsia after about 1650.
What We Inherit: Many modern traditions inherit the idea that magic can be openly taught and shared (and published in books!), and that it takes study and practice to get good at it.
RENAISSANCE MAGIC: FOUR PERSONALITIES
Joan of Arc – Born in 1412, Joan is usually seen as a vestige of the Middle Ages. Of interest here are her claims to direct communications and visions from God. The channeled messages seemed to aid the French in defeating the occupying English forces, and Joan was seen as a miracle-worker. She was eventually captured by the English and executed as a heretic (and according to popular report, a “witch”), but an aura of sanctity and even magic has surrounded her ever since.
Paracelsus – Born 1493 in Switzerland, Paracelsus was educated as a medical doctor and also steeped in the Hermetic philosophy described above. He sought folk remedies and disdained the classical medical texts. Building on alchemical ideas, Paracelsus developed chemistry-based healing theories that were a forerunner of modern pharmaceuticals. In 1525 he was ejected from a teaching position at Salzburg for supporting the losing side in the German Peasants’ War.
Giordano Bruno – Born in Italy in 1548 and educated as a Dominican, Bruno developed elaborate theories about astral energy and magical methods for invoking it. He adopted the heliocentric model proposed by Copernicus, and carried it further by seeing each star as a sun, surrounded by planets with their own life. Bruno traveled Europe writing, lecturing, and generally alienating everyone he met. Toward 1590 he returned to Italy, supposedly to convert the Pope to his new magical ideas. This didn’t go well, and in 1600 Bruno was executed as a heretic.
John Dee – Born in Britain in 1527, Dee straddled the transition from magic to science, and probably did not draw a distinction between his mathematical career and his metaphysical and Hermetic researches. Dee attempted angelic communications and created the “Enochian” script with medium (and likely fraudster) Edward Kelley as part of a plan to revivify the wisdom of the ancients and heal the Protestant/Catholic breach. Around 1585 Dee traveled to Prague and had an audience with Emperor Rudolf II. The visit came to nothing, but may have inspired the Rosicrucian pamphlets that appeared in the next generation – pamphlets that called for a new spiritual era that transcended old divisions.
c. 1500 to 1650
Why are we delving into Christian history? It turns out that our Pagan traditions have roots in the Protestant movements.
The Protestant Reformation of the 1500s, associated with names such as Luther and Calvin, followed several centuries of unsuccessful localist movements including Waldensians, Hussites, and Wycliffites. Each of these was labeled heretical and violently repressed in the name of a unified Catholicism.
Around 1520, a faction of German states (Germany being divided into several hundred autonomous states only loosely federated as the Holy Roman Empire) backed the Lutheran movement, and soon several other state-backed Protestant groups had taken root in North-Central Europe. After a generation of ideological sparring, Central Europe collapsed into religious and civil wars.
The religious wars, particularly in the German states, provide the context for the witch hunts of the century from about 1550-1650. While the wars did not focus on witchcraft, the decades of devastation left people desperate and looking for scapegoats.
The Reformation highlighted the relation of the individual soul to God. Broadly speaking, the Catholic Church placed the relation in the hands of professional clergy who were authorized to perform sacramental-magical acts such as changing wine into the blood of Christ. These priests “mediated” people’s relationship to God.
Protestants emphasized the individual’s direct, “unmediated” relationship with God, primarily through prayer. The purpose of clergy was to teach and exhort.
Although these fundamental differences impacted European thought for the following several centuries, they made little difference as far as witch hunting. Luther and other reformers placed at least as much emphasis on demonic and satanic dangers as did Catholicism, and hunts happened under both Protestants and Catholics.
What We Inherit: The Protestant emphasis on a direct, personal relationship with deity has colored less-structured Pagan and Wiccan movements since about 1960. Reclaiming and kindred groups explicitly state: “Each person is their own spiritual authority.” Priestesses function as facilitators and organizers, not mediators of the divine.
We also inherit the general Protestant disdain for centralized, hierarchical structures. Reclaiming grows out of a Protestant tradition of decentralized, autonomously-controlled local congregations and groups (see the Activist essay).
PART IV: THE ERA OF THE WITCH HUNTS
Now we come to a disturbingly fascinating period of our history. For people who today proudly claim the title “witch” or describe their work as “magic,” as well as communists, anarchists, and activists of various stripes, the hunts and trials stand as a stark reminder of the vulnerability of people on the margins of respectability.
What led various regions and localities of Europe to engage in prolonged searches for and trials of suspected Satan-worshipping witches?
Why did the hunts happen in this period, and not earlier or later? How does it connect to a broader pattern of scapegoating that pervades Western (and perhaps much of human) history?
Who were the victims? What did they have in common? How did they try to explain themselves?
In the bibliography at the end of this article I’ll recommend a short article and several longer studies which convey enough detail to illustrate the complicated and shifting patterns of the witch hunts.
Here we’ll survey some of the broad outlines.
First, some numbers. The total number killed is impossible to determine, partly because the number of alleged witches murdered by non-judicial “lynchings” can never be known. It is possible that some of the judicial witch hunts and trials began in response to lynchings, with authorities trying to re-establish control of violent situations.
However, 50 years of archival research allows at least a general sense of the scale. Numbers in the millions, once commonly cited, are badly mistaken – in fact, impossible, given the small population of Europe at the time.
Present-day scholars, after studying trial records across the continent, put the likely total of officially executed witches at between 40 and 60 thousand over the course of about three centuries.
Of these, over half were executed in German-speaking areas between about 1550 and 1650 – the period of the worst Protestant-Catholic wars, culminating in the Thirty Years War that raged across Germany for a generation. Central authority collapsed, and nothing reined in local scapegoating rampages.
Some of the largest documented waves of executions occurred in the western German bishoprics of Trier, Mainz, and Cologne, where several thousand people were killed over the course of just a few decades around 1600.
These mini-states lacked strong central governments, and none was subject to an appellate court. When popular opinion and local officials ran amuck, there were no higher institutions to stop the momentum.
What about the Inquisition? Ironically, this disreputable body had a fairly good record during the witch hunts. The Roman Inquisition, controlled by the papacy, very early put an end to hearsay evidence, and demanded that all cases follow strict legal procedures. Although some witches (and the famed magician Giordano Bruno) were subsequently executed, no major hunts ensued in the Roman jurisdiction.
Similarly, the northern half of staunchly Catholic France, with the Paris Parlement acting as a sort of supreme court, demanded around 1500 that all capital cases be sent to Paris for judicial review. No major hunts happened in their jurisdiction after this point.
Hunts seem to have happened mainly in areas where central authority was weak or compromised by war. England’s worst period of witch-hunting was during the civil war of the 1640s. France’s worst incidents were in outlying areas (Normandy, Lorraine) with no accountability to Paris.
A SATANIC CONSPIRACY?
In the 1300s, several high-profile legal cases charged aristocrats with using magic to murder royalty. The Order of the Knights Templar was broken up after 1307, its leaders charged with obscene magical acts.
In the Middle Ages, clerics and other educated people (mostly men) were occasionally prosecuted for magic, demonic rituals, and the like (see “learned traditions,” above).
These upper-class cases remained isolated. When the great hunts emerged in the 1400s, the victims were overwhelmingly ordinary people – often elderly women from the fringes of society.
Did the victims actually call themselves witches? Unless they were insane, probably not. As Ronald Hutton has established, the term “witch” has in the past mainly been used on other people, not one’s self. To be identified as a witch was dangerous, possibly lethal.
Initial accusations often came from neighbors and other common folk – but took on the nature of “hunts” and mass executions when church and state got involved.
Witchcraft had long been persecuted and punished as heresy. The final step in justifying the witch hunts was the growth of the idea of a satanic conspiracy to destroy Christendom.
Unlike earlier eras where a single person or small group was accused of using evil magic, cases after about 1450 often included charges of participating in the (sexually-charged) rituals of devil-worshiping cults, and suspects were tortured until they admitted to being part of a satanic conspiracy and named other participants.
This obsession with groups or sects of witches parallels the success of breakaway Protestant sects during the Reformation – heresy was seen as a group vice, not an individual deviance. (Protestants themselves were no different, demonizing one another and the Roman church.)
How did the everyday magical acts of common people get caught in this dragnet? We saw above the gradual “demonization” of magic. Where older cultures saw magic as problematic only when harm was done or perceived, the later Middle Ages developed the idea that all magical acts were demonic, in that they must invoke a conscious spiritual being in order to accomplish their effects.
Combined with the belief that witches (and all heretics) must belong to secret cults and sects, this seems to have led authorities to launch “hunts” to eradicate heresy, deviance, and witchcraft. Official Christianity seemed under attack, and authorities looked for scapegoats.
In some ages, these scapegoats might be Jews, or Gypsies, or foreigners in general. Jews and Moslems were driven from Spain in 1492.
Around 1500, tensions focused on witches, and often on older women. Why this happened at this time remains a complex question.
WHY WERE OLDER WOMEN TARGETED?
Archival research confirms that a large majority of witches and magicians executed during the period of the great hunts were woman. In some places they made up 90 percent of victims. T
o account for the high percentage of women persecuted and killed during this era, it has been popular since historian Jules Michelet in the mid-1800s to cite the deep-grained misogyny of Christian churches (Protestant and Catholic) as the driving force behind the hunts.
Although Christian attitudes couldn’t have helped matters, we’re left wondering why the witch hunts happened around 1500 instead of, say, 500 or 1000 CE, when attitudes were just as misogynist?
And why did the Roman Inquisition lead most jurisdictions in curbing the hunts? Something further must have been involved.
Social factors probably played a role. Earlier we discussed herbalism – a gendered field occupied mainly by women. In Western societies prior to about 1500, the day-to-day healthcare and healing of most people was in the hands of older women. The rare university-educated male physicians treated royalty and aristocrats (often to their detriment).
We know from other sources that educated doctors campaigned during this period to ban women from practicing medicine and even midwifery.
Women were also displaced from positions of economic importance as early capitalist production began to move out of home workshops.
These and other factors may have rendered older women less essential to town and village societies, and heightened gender tensions right at a moment when other conflicts and disasters were leading people across Central Europe to look for scapegoats.
For more on this complex topic, see the bibliography at the end of this article.
WHY IN THESE TIMES AND PLACES?
Why were witches particularly persecuted – and accused of a satanic conspiracy, no less – at these particular times and places? Let’s focus on the century around 1550-1650 and ask – why did the worst excesses happen then, and why mainly in north-central Europe?
Factors to examine include:
• the Protestant Reformation (1517ff), which challenged centuries-old patterns of authority and spawned two centuries of religious wars.
• Christianity’s centuries of demonizing magic and developing a conception of a vast anti-Christian conspiracy.
• the early stages of the capitalist upheaval, which unsettled social relations and economic patterns.
• misogynistic trends aggravated by incipient capitalism, including displacement of the home as a production site and devaluation of the role of women in production and reproduction.
• climatic trends including a “little ice age” around 1550, which led to diminished harvests.
• wider scientific and technological trends, including the development of moveable-type printing around 1450, European discovery of the Western hemisphere around 1500, and the Copernican revolution beginning around 1530.
These trends contributed to an atmosphere of displacement and unpredictable change. Place this in a “culture of misfortune” as described above, add the religious wars in northern Europe and especially Germany beginning around 1550, and we have some possible explanations for why the trials happened when they did.
This may account for the timing – but why witches, and not, say, Jews? This was demographics. Where Jews were found in sizeable numbers, as in the city-state of Trier, they were also targeted.
Witches, on the other hand, could be found anywhere, in whatever quantities were desired.
HOW THE WITCH HUNTS ENDED
As noted above, the large-scale witch hunts seem to have happened mostly in areas where government authority was weak or compromised. As the worst of the religious wars wound down around 1650, central governments reasserted power.
Hunts were avoided or ended earliest in areas with strong central authority – the papal jurisdictions covered by the Roman Inquisition, the North of France covered by the Paris Parlement.
Broadly speaking, the hunts moved West to East, beginning and ending earlier in Western Europe. This parallels the earlier evolution of strong governments in the West.
Developments described below such as the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment led to growth of a general skepticism about the possibility of magic or witchcraft. By 1700, most educated Europeans considered even self-confessed witches to be deluded people incapable of doing real harm. Church authorities promoting witch hunts were considered ignorant and backward, a trope that Voltaire built his career on.
By 1750 the hunts and most official executions had ended. A new era had arrived in which magic was not persecuted, but ridiculed.
What We Inherit: A somewhat morbid fascination with witches as counter-cultural icons par excellence, coupled with a realistic concern that political and religious “witch hunts” continue – not least the U.S., where a “satanic abuse” hysteria spread as recently as the 1980s (investigations turned up no actual cases.)
The anti-communist crusade around 1950 (“McCarthyism”) derailed many lives and featured one of the worst aspects of witch hunts – suspects being coerced into giving the names of others.
Part V: An Age of Science
MAGIC GOES UNDERGROUND
After several centuries of witch hunts, followed by growing skepticism and anti-spiritual thought, magic was in sad shape.
Isaac Newton (d. 1727) was one of the last European intellectuals who pursued magic as a serious vocation. His manuscripts reveal deep interest in alchemy and biblical numerology – deciphering the secrets of the Hebrew scriptures by assigning numerical values to words and letters.
French writer and social activist Voltaire, two generations younger (and himself a major propagator of Newton’s scientific ideas), laid into spirituality and dogma with such witty venom that by mid-century most forms of magic had gone underground.
Alchemical researches continued, and we’ll see below how Tarot was “rediscovered” around 1780. But many prominent writers of the period tended to be skeptical, even materialist (Diderot, D’Holbach).
During the early 1800s, in the wake of the apparent defeat of the French Revolution and Napoleon, Europe saw a spiritual revival. The milieu was reactionary and often royalist – a political bent that typified some later magical writers and did nothing to engage advanced thinkers.
What We Inherit: Many of us came to magic and Paganism as adults, having grown up in a society and educational system that ridicules such beliefs and practices. Among political radicals, all forms of spiritual interest can be suspect as “opiates of the masses.”
This gives rise to the expression, “in the broom closet” – borrowing metaphor and practice from our GLBTQ allies, we find ourselves revealing our magical inclinations to people one at a time, and keeping it veiled from others – often including our families.
THE SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTION
We won’t trace the development of modern science here, but simply note a few aspects that pertain to our tradition.
A huge shift between about 1200 and 1700 saw the development of an experimental approach to knowledge. Earlier exemplars such as Roger Bacon (d. 1292, Oxford) can be found, but the dominant approach around 1200 was a close study and critique of past authorities. A new manuscript or a fresh interpretation meant more than observation of the world.
By 1700, this had largely changed. Galileo, Harvey, and Newton redefined knowledge to answer to the demand that theory be validated by observation and experiment.
The results have been spectacular – an end to famine, cures for diseases, and a standard of living (in much of the West, at least) that our ancestors never dreamed possible.
Till about 1930 this approach passed virtually unchallenged. Subsequent developments including world war, holocaust, atomic weapons, and environmental degradation have raised questions about the unbridled (and profit-driven) development of experimental science, divorced from a humane vision or ethical concerns.
What We Inherit: Reclaiming folks (and many Neo-Pagans) tend to be science-based, sharing a broad skepticism about old-style magic such as levitation or shape-shifting. This has led some people to redefine “magic” to mean social and personal transformation.
Our approach to magic and ritual tend to be “experimental,” in that we try to intuitively read the energy of the moment and improvise, more than consulting authorities or past scripts.
TAROT: DIVINATION FOR THE PEOPLE!
Let’s pick up the divinatory thread again. Around 1350, playing cards were introduced into Europe, probably from the Islamic Middle East. Their ultimate source may have been India or China. Old legends of Gypsy or Egyptian origins have been discredited. (No one has yet debunked the theory that aliens created them.)
The earliest European cards seem already to have included four suits of ten numbered cards as well as three or four court cards per suit.
Around 1440, Italian game-players and artists added a series of additional cards which today we call the Major Arcana, and created the game of Tarocchi (google for more information and rules).
The additional cards functioned as trumps – later replaced by designating one of the four suits as trump, as we do today.
Unlike professional practices such as entrail reading which require years of arduous study, anyone can intuitively read Tarot images – a magical tool for the people!
Tarot cards were used for divination and other purposes quite early. In one account from the later 1400s, the cards were used not to predict the future, but to describe people at a party. A card was assigned to each person, and others would say why they thought it applied or not.
The earliest modern divinatory use of Tarot cards seems to be in the 1700s, probably by popular fortune tellers (hence the Gypsy legends). A common deck at that time (still available today) was the Tarot de Marseilles. Historian Ronald Decker conjectures that popular interpretations of the Minor Arcana (ie, the cards 1 to 10 in each suit) may be indirectly derived from Kaballistic discussions of the hidden meanings of the ten sephora of the Tree of Life.
Around 1780, a minor French aristocrat named Court de Gebelin came across the cards and concluded that they were a pictorial form of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, passed secretly through the ages. The idea that the cards conceal ancient wisdom has been with us ever since.
Several writers expounded magical theories about Tarot during the 1800s, notably Eliphas Levi, who integrated Tarot and the numerology of the 22 Hebrew letters to “discover” interpretations of the 22 Major Arcana (an approach rejected by scholars like Decker, who see other sources for the Majors).
This ethereal theorizing culminated with the Golden Dawn (see below). Around 1900, amateur scholar Arthur Waite and graphic artist Pamela Colman Smith created an intricate yet accessible deck that has become “the” iconic Tarot. Originally called the Rider-Waite deck (Rider was the first publisher), today it is often called the Smith-Waite deck.
Tarot continued to bubble underground through the early 1900s, with eccentric writer Aleister Crowley and painter Frieda Harris creating the well-known Thoth deck around 1938.
With the advent of the new age movement in the 1960s and 1970s, Tarot exploded. Decks and books multiplied, readers emerged from the shadows, and scholars began to study the 500-year trajectory of this colorful magical tool.
What We Inherit: Tarot is widely used among Reclaiming folks for discernment and insight – we do a reading to help with a decision, or to show us various perspectives on an issue. Some rituals are built around a Tarot reading.
Much of our reading is intuitive – we read the images directly, not book-meanings. We look to Tarot not so much for answers as to help clarify possibilities.
We also do a working known as the Journey of the Fool, where we use Tarot cards to map out a spiritual quest.
See Workings: Tarot (forthcoming).
THE ENLIGHTENMENT: THE RISE OF SKEPTICISM
The 1700s in Western Europe are known as the Enlightenment – a period that built on the scientific revolution to develop a secular, critical approach to many facets of society.
Writers such as Voltaire and Montesquieu turned harsh eyes on traditional political institutions, a trend that culminated in the French Revolution of 1789. Diderot and others developed early evolutionary theories, debunking older (and official Christian) theories of God-created, unchanging species.
Many aspects of traditional spirituality and magic came under fire as well – in Keith Thomas’s phrase, the world was disenchanted.
As mentioned above, the harshest weapon was ridicule. Aside from a vague deism in which God created the world and disappeared, belief in spirituality and metaphysics became tokens of ignorance, backwardness, and lack of critical thinking.
What We Inherit: Contemporary Paganism exists in a skeptical, a-spiritual society. Tell a non-Pagan that you are a witch, and you get “that smile.” Tell an educated person that you do magic, and watch them awkwardly change the topic.
Actually, you’ll get the same reaction if you tell someone that you are a revolutionary. Awkward smiles aside, is there a deeper level at which we don’t take ourselves seriously? Do we secretly discount the idea that magic (and a good deal of hard work) can actually create a peaceful, beneficent, sustainable world?
What do we believe we can accomplish with all this ritual and magic stuff? Enquiring minds would like to know!
FREEMASONRY: CEREMONY & INITIATION
Amidst an era of science and skepticism, Freemasonry, tracing its mythical roots to Medieval craft guilds, was re-founded as a network of fraternal lodges. From probable roots in Scotland around 1600, the movement of secret initiatory societies spread to England and then across Europe and its colonies, reaching Pennsylvania as early as 1715.
Independent of central authority, the local lodge forms the basis of masonry. Each lodge elects its own officers and follows its own schedule. Lodges also function as social, mutual support, and charitable organizations. Traditionally, lodges have accepted only free (non-slave or servant) white males.
Egyptian and Graeco-Roman motifs are common in lodges and rituals, along with ceremonial trappings such as processions, altars, and robes.
Candidates for admission are initiated through a series of grades or degrees. Varying from place to place, the initiations often involve knowledge of craft tools, practices, or history, as well as specific ceremonies for each degree. During initiations, members are often required to swear fidelity to the lodge and its covenants, as well as never to reveal Masonic secrets to outsiders.
The founders of many later traditions including the Golden Dawn were first trained in Freemasonry.
What We Inherit: Freemasonry provides a ceremonial and initiatory framework followed by many later traditions, most prominently the Golden Dawn, which passed them on to early Wiccan groups.
Masonic lodges also modeled the creation of a network of voluntary societies outside the control of either church or state.
Anarchist-type groups such as Reclaiming (with no formal membership or graded series of initiations) have deliberately avoided many of the formal structures and hierarchies inherited from Freemasonry.
ROMANTICISM: AN INTUITIVE RESPONSE
The so-called Romantic era blossomed following the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. Partly a conservative reaction to the upheaval of the past decades, Romanticism elevated intuition and feeling to an equal position with reason.
Foreshadowed by Goethe and Rousseau, writers such as Jane Austen and Walter Scott took the “romantic” novel to heights never surpassed.
Goddess-infused topics colored the works of poets like Keats and Shelley.
Folklore – this era saw the development of folklore movements which recorded stories and legends that literate society had long ignored. These were presented as the timeless heritage of an unchanging rural past. The Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale collections date from this time, as do writers such as Bullfinch who systematized the chaotic jumble of ancient Greek and Roman sources into coherent, linear narratives.
What We Inherit: Our access to folk and fairy tales stems from the research of this era. Many of us first encountered Greek myths via Bullfinch and his progeny. We tend to take Romantic-era versions of tales and myths as “traditional.”
HEGEL & HISTORICAL RELATIVISM
This profound and obtuse thinker paved the way for what is sometimes called “historicism” or “historical relativism” – the idea that historical movements can best be understood in the context of their own times, and philosophies and customs that seem irrational or convoluted to us may have made perfect sense in their day.
Hegel also propounded a developmental view of history, in which humankind is spiritually evolving toward perfection and God-awareness – in other words, evolving into complete agreement with Hegel’s system!
The rest of the 1800s see one long reaction to Hegel – Marx’s materialist interpretation, Nietzsche’s individualist rebellion, Kierkegaard’s angsty existentialism...
What We Inherit: Both cultural relativism and a developmental view of history are deep influences on our views of human spirituality – as is angsty existentialism!
The Rebirth of Magic
Almost forgotten today, Eliphas Levi (born 1810 as Alphonse Louis Constant) was the foremost French occult writer of the later 1800s, and deeply influenced Theosophy and the Golden Dawn.
A former Roman Catholic seminarian, he Hebraicized his first and middle names after leaving school and undertaking study of the Cabbalah, Hermeticism, and Renaissance magic. His highly intellectual blend was the most sophisticated exposition of this tradition since the time of Isaac Newton (c. 1700).
From Marsilio Ficino and Arabic magicians he adapted the idea of an “astral light” or fluid that permeates all being. It is by controlling and manipulating this fluid that the magician operates.
In his book High Magic: Its Doctrine & Ritual (also called Transcendental Magic), Levi correlates Cabbalah, the Hermetic writings, alchemy, and smatterings of ancient Egyptian and Greek traditions in a structure based on the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet – which conveniently correlate with the 22 Major Arcana of the Tarot deck.
Read as a Tarot manual, the book still offers provocative insights on the various Majors, and illustrates Levi’s syncretic ideal – the various types of Western esoterica are so many paths to a unified higher truth.
Levi also drew a famous image of a goat-devil that he identified with Baphomet, allegedly worshiped by heretical Knights Templar in the Middle Ages. This fascination with the devil betrays Levi’s Christian background.
What We Inherit: As Levi taught, the various strands of Western magic are taken today as all tending toward one goal – spiritual enlightenment. Writers such as Jung and Gardner have been influenced by this unified approach to the various threads and traditions.
Levi’s Hebrew-numerological interpretations of the Tarot Majors influenced Waite and Smith, and through them many subsequent decks. Ironically, modern Tarot scholars see this association of Hebrew letters and Tarot Majors as stemming not from an older tradition, but from Eliphas Levi himself.
HELENA BLAVATSKY & THEOSOPHY
Helena Blavatsky (1831-1891) was a Russian-born metaphysical savant, author, and co-founder of the Theosophical Society.
According to her own accounts, she traveled to India around 1850, where she encountered a group of spiritual masters who guided her development and teachings. These masters (she claimed) taught that beneath all human religions runs a single current of ancient wisdom, recoverable via esoteric traditions both Western and Eastern.
Active as a medium in the Spiritualist movement, Blavatsky asserted that the spirits contacted in séances and other ceremonies were not those of dead humans, but of other spiritual beings. Something of a pantheist (“all being is divine”), Blavatsky referred to God as the root of all, from which all proceeds and into which all shall be absorbed at the end of the great cycle of being.
Her early thought was influenced by the Hermetic and Caballistic mix of Eliphas Levi, and she aimed to form a universal “brotherhood” of humanity as well as investigating the unexplained laws of nature.
In 1875 Blavatsky and others formed the Theosophical Society, which especially after she relocated to India in 1879 became a vehicle for introducing Eastern thought to the West. She was an early European convert to Buddhism.
Politically, she advocated for women’s rights and leadership, but also propagated racist and anti-Semitic stereotypes of her day.
Annie Besant – Blavatsky’s successor as head of the Theosophical Society was Annie Besant (1847-1933), an ardent suffragette and an important voice for Indian independence. She was also involved in the early 20th century movement known as Co-Masonry, which unlike Freemasonry admitted women to its ranks.
Besant claimed clairvoyant abilities, which she and others used to explore the secrets of the universe and the history of humankind. She co-authored a book called Occult Chemistry which traces her psychic explorations of natural phenomena.
What We Inherit: Blavatsky and Besant were early feminist influences on magical thought. Their notion that underlying the multitude of spiritual traditions runs a single core of divinity is sometimes expressed as, “One Goddess, many names.” Theosophy’s blending of science and spiritual studies influences modern Wiccan beliefs. Most of all, Theosophy helped introduce Eastern currents into Western spirituality.
HERMETIC ORDER OF THE GOLDEN DAWN
No magical group or tendency ever got better press than the Golden Dawn. In existence barely a decade and consisting of about 200 members at its peak, the group left a radiant legacy of magical organizing that persists to this day.
The story of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn is replete with forged documents, cryptic messages from secret masters, and enough betrayals to populate a whole series of pulp novels.
When they weren’t busy forging founding documents or bitterly denouncing one another, the self-chosen leaders of the Golden Dawn drew up a whole panoply of rituals in which initiates advanced by stages similar to Freemasonry toward ever-higher revelations. Several temples were formed around England and in Paris.
At first the Golden Dawn was conceived as a study group, where initiates learned about past magical systems such as Kabbalah and Hermeticism as they worked through the series of graded ceremonies. Although the leadership was male, women were initiated on equal terms.
Soon, a second “inner” order was established with the intent of actually practicing magic. While their amalgam is influenced by the multi-layered magical theories of Eliphas Levi, the Golden Dawn was one of the first modern organizations to attempt to revive and practice older systems of magic on an initiatory basis.
As the group fractured around 1900, a young Aleister Crowley attempted to force his way into the inner order, resulting in desultory legal proceedings and publicity that led most members to abandon the group. Despite various recriminations and accusations of fraud, most of the Golden Dawn rituals remained closely guarded secrets until they were published by former initiate Israel Regardie in the 1930s.
What We Inherit: The Golden Dawn serves more as a general inspiration to create a practicing magical society than in its details. Reclaiming and kindred groups do not have graded levels of initiation, and our rituals and teachings are neither scripted nor secret.
Our modern quilt of Western esoteric practices owes more to Eliphas Levi than to the Golden Dawn, although the latter group continued this trend.
Perhaps we inherit a touch of the Golden Dawn’s self-importance.
James Frazer (Scottish, 1854-1941), was an anthropologist and folklorist who wrote the hugely influential The Golden Bough (1890), a study of comparative mythology and religion.
Frazer was among the first to connect magic, myth, and ritual to broader cultural development. Following Hegel, Frazer saw cultures progressing through several stages: from magic to religion to science. Magic and myth, in Frazer’s schema, constituted early (failed) attempts to understand nature and reality.
Frazer saw older religions as fertility cults that revolved around the worship and periodic sacrifice of a sacred king. The king was the incarnation of a solar deity who underwent a mystic marriage to a goddess of the Earth. He died at the harvest and was reincarnated in the Spring. Frazer saw this legend of rebirth as central to most world mythologies.
This theory was not borne out by closer readings of specific myths, and over the long run, scholars rejected most of Frazer’s theories. However, he had a major influence on Western poetry and literature via writers such as T. S. Eliot, H. P. Lovecraft, Carl Jung, and Joseph Campbell.
What We Inherit: Frazer is a major source of the interpretation of seasonal rituals in terms of the death-and-rebirth of a solar god, a view that was still quite popular in Reclaiming’s early days (although we interpreted the key dates as the Solstices, not the Equinoxes).
We inherit the idea of magic as primitive science (still a common definition), and Frazer probably influenced the view of Samhain (Halloween) as the “new year of the witches.”
Poet and author (British, 1895-1985) of The White Goddess (1948). Building on Frazer’s ideas, Graves proposed the pre-historical worship of a Europe-wide deity, the White Goddess of Birth, Love, and Death, who lies behind the diverse goddesses of various Western mythologies.
Building on Romantic-era ideas, Graves saw Goddess worship as the original Western religion, analyzing it largely from literary evidence. In his eyes, myth and poetry spring from the ancient rituals of the White Goddess.
Graves (following Frazer) proposed a theory of myth and seasonal change, claiming that the mythological figure of the Holly King represents half of the year, while the other half is personified by the Oak King. The two battle ceaselessly as the seasons turn, and annual rituals commemorate this fight.
Later scholars have questioned Graves’ grasp of European and Celtic history and culture. Hutton calls him “a major source of confusion about the ancient Celts.”
What We Inherit: The idea of a prehistoric cult of a Mother Goddess known under many names, as well as a ritual cycle that emphasizes the drama of the changing seasons.
Let’s pause to meet some ancestors that we won’t have time to cover in depth:
Sociology & Anthropology: These new fields, developing around 1900, focused on the functional roles of religion and magic in social formation and maintenance. Writers such as Durkheim, Malinowski, and Weber explored ways that religion has provided social cohesion, while magic has traditionally served to bolster individual initiative. Anthropological studies attempted to place Western practices in a global perspective. Good survey: Stolen Lightning: The Social Theory of Magic, by Daniel O’Keefe.
Jane Ellen Harrison (British, 1850-1928): One of the founders of the academic study of Ancient Greek religion and mythology. Emphasized the experiential nature of religious and magical rites – ritual is a way we encounter things that cannot be put into language. Myths arise to explain or preserve rituals. Popularized the idea that all goddesses are aspects of a “triple goddess” – maiden, mother, and crone. She emphasized the value of Greek vase-painting for studying mythology, and wrote about ancient religious festivals and women’s roles. Advocated for women’s suffrage. One of the first British women to hold a career academic post. Book: Prologomena to the Study of Greek Religion.
Sigmund Freud (Austrian, 1856-1939): Psychologist and social theorist. Emphasized notion of unconscious/subconscious actions and motivation. Emphasized dream interpretation and symbolic thinking, but used the term “magical thinking” mainly to describe childish delusions that our thoughts are affecting the outside world. Freud’s analysis of religion and magic is naturalistic – beliefs and practices evolved because they filled social and psychological functions. A skeptic, he titled one book on religion, The Future of an Illusion. Interestingly, he used names from Greek mythology for psychological phenomena such as the Oedipus and Electra complexes and Narcissism. Books: Civilization & Its Discontents, Interpretation of Dreams.
Carl Jung (Swiss, 1875-1961): Psychologist and spiritual explorer. Initially a student of Freud, Jung spun off in his own metaphysically-inflected direction. Jung emphasized the social nature of consciousness, seeing it structured around collective, unconscious “archetypes” – fundamental relations that humans encounter both internally and externally. Like Freud he focused on ways that magic helps people function in society. Jung delved into then-arcane topics such as Eastern mysticism and Western alchemy – his book Psychology & Alchemy is provocative (and has lots of pictures!).
Aleister Crowley (British, 1875-1947): Ceremonial magician and all-round unpleasant character. Educated at Cambridge, he joined the Golden Dawn near its demise, which he helped hasten by demanding advanced initiations. Channeled multiple books that might have benefited from a bit of developmental editing. Stated: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.” Renowned for drug-sex-magic rites with various men and women, which Crowley claimed were exercises of will power. Variously fingered both as a British intelligence agent and as a German sympathizer during the WWII era. Best work: The Book of Thoth and related Tarot deck.
AND THEN THE COLLAPSE
By 1910, the Golden Dawn had blossomed and wilted, dissolving into bickering and sordid accusations. Pamela Colman Smith and Arthur Waite had created their epoch-defining Tarot deck – but its main influence would not be felt for decades. Eliphas Levi was dead, his work sinking into neglect. And then it all came crashing down. World War I, 1914-1918, cleared many cultural decks. The waltz, immensely popular during the preceding decades, died abruptly, replaced by jazz and show tunes. Amid communist revolution, aristocracy lost its hold on the European imagination. And magic took a hard fall.
A new era of literary and cultural criticism, deconstruction, and existentialism rendered elaborate theories such as that of Eliphas Levi obsolete. After all, if you are skeptical about all texts and any possible “truth” behind them, what do you gain by correlating Hebrew letters and Tarot cards?
As groups like the Golden Dawn failed to train a cadre of serious students, inspired cranks like Aleister Crowley gobbled up attention, spewing forth one largely unintelligible volume after another. Ill-informed writers like Montague Summers flourished.
MARGARET MURRAY & THE MYTH OF PAGAN WITCHES
Worse for our case, in 1921 respected British Egyptologist Margaret Murray (1863-1963) famously claimed to have discovered substantial evidence that English witches were in fact underground feminist Pagans who celebrated a ritual wheel of the year and venerated the goddess Diana with joyous feasting and dancing (sound familiar?).
Much of Murray’s “evidence” involved old interrogation records obtained from victims who were asked leading questions while under coercion. By the 1970s her ideas were widely questioned by other students of the witch trials. Historian Keith Thomas called her theories “almost totally groundless.”
Yet before its demise, her theory that witches were secret Pagans inspired strangely varied offspring, including both Nazi ideologues and feminist Pagans.
What We Inherit: Following Murray, Neo-Paganism has propagated via teachings, songs, and writings the mistaken idea that witch-trial victims were secret Pagans. Writers have also repeated inflated numbers of European witch-hunt victims, claiming millions – as if 50,000 was not horrible enough.
NAZIS & WITCHCRAFT
Disturbingly, ideas similar to Murray’s can be found among certain elements of the German Nazi movement.
Germany had a checkered relation to the occult, magic, and witchcraft. Beginning in the late 1700s, German researchers built a romanticized image of the “deutschen Volke,” whose essence is preserved in folk tales, rural practices – and in the underground survival of a pre-Christian Pagan past.
Some high-ranking members of the Nazi Party, including Hess and Himmler, promoted what they saw as Pagan folk customs, helping foster a revival of supposedly authentic Germanic traditions. “German witches” were openly celebrated. This was part of a broader program of promoting “Aryan values.”
The Nazis created a special “Hexen-sonderkommando” unit – not a military squad, but a research team that gathered evidence concerning the witch trials. The goal was to prove that the witch hunts aimed to exterminate the last vestiges of Germanic Paganism, persecuted for centuries by non-German (ie, Jewish-based) Christianity – thus giving a racialist tinge to theories propounded earlier by Margaret Murray and others.
On the flip side, the Nazis outlawed and actively persecuted most occultist groups, just as they did most non-Nazi formations. Some high-ranking Nazis such as Goebbels ridiculed belief in the occult. Nazi interest in magic seems mostly concerned with promoting racialist theories.
Footnote – after 1945, the witch-trial research lay dormant for several decades until the 1970s, when a German scholar discovered and analyzed the files – ultimately debunking Nazi theories while helping inspire the vast archival research of recent decades.
What We Inherit: No one suggests that Western feminists learned their Pagan history from Nazis. But the shared theory cautions us about the malleability of our magical and mythical ideas and how they can be twisted around to serve selfish ends.
When we recognize Nazi interest in Paganism (and right-wing Paganolatry today), we are reminded that our traditions have complex roots, and that part of our magical and political work is to see clearly and begin to deconstruct these often-ignored aspects of our past.
The Unquiet Dead are those cultural ancestors who left behind a bitter and hurtful legacy – a legacy we are called to confront and heal in our magic and our activism.
BENEATH THE SURFACE
In the Sputnik Era that worshiped science and debunked “superstition,” some magical trends continued beneath the surface. Writers such as Frazer and Jung inspired a new generation including Joseph Campbell and Hermann Hesse.
Israel Regardie, a former Golden Dawn initiate, published (1937-1940) the hitherto secret Golden Dawn rituals, giving outsiders (eg, all of us alive today) the first look inside this pivotal community.
The Smith-Waite Tarot deck, hardly a commercial sensation on its release, swam beneath the surface for decades before exploding in the 1960s.
Eastern practices and mystical teachers made some inroads in the West, both via writings and personal appearances and speaking tours. New age psychological trends blossomed, notably in California.
And Aleister Crowley’s increasingly crackpot take on magic (exploiting a reputation as “the wickedest man in the world”) at least had the effect of breaking through the barrier of silence surrounding mystical practices.
Wicca and Paganism Today
GERALD GARDNER, DOREEN VALIENTE & BRITISH TRADITIONAL WICCA
And now, after countless generations and numerous by-ways, we come to the direct grandparents of our contemporary tradition.
Gerald Gardner (1884–1964) was an English author whose 1954 book Witchcraft Today is often credited with bringing the Wiccan strand of Paganism to public attention.
Retiring at age 50 after a career in the foreign service, Gardner settled near the New Forest in the south of England and joined a local Rosicrucian Fellowship. According to his own colorful account, he soon met and was initiated into a secret coven of witches which carried an unbroken lineage back to ancient times.
Citing the coven as a pre-Christian survival that proved Margaret Murray’s thesis about the unity of witchcraft and Paganism, Gardner proceeded to “revive” and propagate this tradition, mixing in ideas from Freemasonry, ceremonial magic, folklore, and Aleister Crowley (whom he met around 1947). Gardner’s claims regarding the details of this historical descent have been questioned by later scholars.
When British laws against espousing witchcraft (ie, laws against fraud and deceit) were loosened in the early 1950s, Gardner went public with the hugely influential book, Witchcraft Today. He founded a coven, entry into which was (and still is in this tradition) attained by initiation by a high priest or priestess who can claim lineage going back to Gardner and/or the New Forest.
Gardner’s brand of Wicca honors both God and Goddess (often the Mother Goddess and the Horned God, identified by Doreen Valiente as Cernunnos). Gardner recruited a string of high priestesses including Valiente, emphasizing the need for binary male and female energies.
Although built on a ceremonial base, the tradition emphasizes that each person must find their own truth and meaning in the rituals, an idea going back at least to the Eleusinian Mysteries.
The tradition teaches an ethical guideline, referred to as “The Wiccan Rede.” In archaic language, it states, “An it harm none, do as thou wilt.” The Gardnerian tradition is also credited with the Law of Return (aka the Rule of Three), which states that whatever energy a person puts into the world – especially if it is magically charged – is likely to return on the sender threefold.
Gardner popularized the term “Wicca,” Old English for “male witch,” to describe his type of coven. He also used the term “Book of Shadows” to describe his personal magical journal.
Politically, Gardner worked within the imperial bureaucracy and supported the British Conservative Party.
Gradually, Gardner’s students began to form independent covens along the same lines, and a loose-knit “Gardnerian” tradition of Wicca spread throughout Britain and subsequently into Australia and North America in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Doreen Valiente (1922-1999) was a Wiccan writer and priestess who was responsible for many of the early rituals and liturgy of the Gardnerian Tradition. Initiated into Gardner’s coven in 1953, she helped edit Witchcraft Today (Hutton credits her with removing much of the influence of Aleister Crowley).
Valiente brought to Wicca a strong Goddess orientation, and is credited with writing the most familiar version of The Charge of the Goddess, a poetic incantation that has served as one of modern Paganism’s guiding documents.
During the 1970s, Valiente joined a far-right political group, the National Front, and may have seen her Pagan practices as connected. Given her other support for progressive causes, her motives are unclear, with some claiming she was an undercover spy for the British government.
British Traditional Wicca is a term used mainly outside Britain for the various Wiccan traditions that trace their lineage to the New Forest area. The most prominent of these traditions are Gardnerian Wicca and Alexandrian Wicca, but other traditions also claim a shared history.
What We Inherit: Reclaiming and other Neo-Pagan and Wiccan-oriented groups owe an immeasurable debt to Gardner and Valiente. From the broad identification of witchcraft and Paganism, to details such as The Rede and the Charge of the Goddess, our tradition and magical culture are infused with their influences.
Most important is the emphasis on each person finding their own truth, which sits well with new age and anarchist tendencies.
Even where we markedly differ, such as our evolution away from gender binaries, such changes are often discussed in light of Gardnerian practices.
Archaeologist Marija Gimbutas (Lithuania 1921 to U.S. 1994) began her career in mid-century, gradually unearthing and studying hundreds of artifacts which she interpreted as evidence of stone-age, goddess-centric cultures that predated the warrior cultures of early written history.
The Civilization of the Goddess (1991) presented an overview of her conclusions about Neolithic (Late Stone Age, c. 5000 BCE) cultures across Europe, studying housing patterns, social structure, art, and religion. Gimbutas explicated what she saw as the differences between the Old European system, which she considered goddess- and woman-centered, and the Bronze Age Indo-European patriarchal culture which supplanted it.
Throughout the area of Neolithic Europe that she studied, Gimbutas found carved images of females that she interpreted as goddesses of birth, death, and regeneration. She concluded that women were particularly honored by Neolithic European people and that the primary deities were female.
According to her views, the Old European matristic societies were peaceful, honored women, and espoused economic equality. Building on her extensive art-historical research, Gimbutas stressed her conclusion that the art of Old Europe reflected a mythopoetic perception of the sacredness and mystery of the natural world, and that behind the various artistic and mythic manifestations of the ancient Goddess lies an essential unity: all cultures honored the Earth and divinity as feminine.
Other archaeologists have challenged Gimbutas’s broad theories. One called her “immensely knowledgeable but not very good in critical analysis.” Others questioned her interpretation of figurines as “goddesses,” and her projection of religious beliefs onto pre-literate cultures.
What We Inherit: Gimbutas has exercised a huge if mostly unacknowledged impact on feminist Paganism, providing us with a plausible historical narrative of a time before patriarchy.
Her interpretation of even quite abstract ancient carved figures as female is convincing, providing a basis for her more daring leaps of imagination. While her ideas about a pre-historic Goddess cult remain controversial, authors such as Riane Eisler have built on her work, and their views of a peaceful, goddess-oriented culture inspire our own visions today.
In our minds, we are “reclaiming” this ancient Goddess heritage. If it turns out never to have existed, still we remain inspired by the vision – the myth – that such a society is possible.
CULTURALLY APPROPRIATED PRACTICES
Before we wrap up with a look at our most recent influences, let’s take a look at a tangled topic – traditions from which modern wiccan movements have deliberately or unknowingly appropriated beliefs and practices.
At the end of the essay, I’ll take a look at our general tendency to appropriate. Here, we’ll focus on two examples:
• Native American
AFRO-CARIBBEAN (The Orisha)
In areas of North America where numbers of people have immigrated from the Caribbean (eg, New York, LA, Bay Area, Florida), there are local communities practicing Santeria, Condomblé, and other traditions that work with the Orisha, a group of West African deities (also known as Yoruban deities).
In these areas, we are blessed to be able to participate (by invitation or sincere request) in ceremonies involving the Orisha. These practices are incredibly complex compared to Reclaiming, with specific rituals and songs for each deity as well as ways of approaching any of the group. Since the ceremonies often involve honoring and communing with ancestors, they appeal to those of us grounded in Halloween/Samhain-based magic.
Some people trained in working with the Orisha have helped lead and teach at Reclaiming camps and rituals. The results have been alternately beautiful and jarring, leading some organizers to feel that we are not yet ready to weave Afro-Caribbean and Euro-based traditions in open settings.
In particular, two issues have arisen:
• well-meaning people with limited training invoke one of the Orisha in an otherwise Euro-based ritual. This does not respect traditional practices.
• even if the invokers are well-trained, most people at the ritual are not. We do not know the songs and chants, we don’t know how to gracefully flow with the energy. Is this really a way of honoring a deity?
The place to learn about and work with the Orisha is with initiated teachers.
Migene González-Wippler has written a good short introduction to the Orisha and the complexities of their traditions.
NATIVE AMERICAN PRACTICES
Modern Pagans have also borrowed various ways of doing ritual from our perception of Native American practices.
Actually, there is no such thing as “Native American practices.” Rather, there are hundreds of tribes and bands, each with their own ways and beliefs.
Every locality and bioregion had, and many continue to have, their own tribes and networks. Names can be learned and respectfully spoken in our rituals. Support can be given to organizing by present-day members of local tribes and bands.
Most of us in anglo-settled North America hold our events, rituals, and generally live on land appropriated from Indigenous Peoples. Although decimated by colonialism, descendents of many of these Peoples and tribes are still alive. Some still practice traditional ceremonies. This is especially true in Canada, but also many areas of the U.S.
An example of appropriation – Folks involved in direct action organizing have for several decades made connections with local Native American groups. At Nevada Test Site in the later 1980s, members of the Western Shoshone nation (whose land north of Las Vegas was appropriated for the nuclear test area) took part in huge protests, offering ceremonies throughout week-long encampments as well as leading processions to the gates of the site, where activists did civil disobedience (with over 4000 arrests around 1988-89).
Hundreds of mainly white protesters thus got to be part of Shoshone ceremonies. These (sometimes quite long) ceremonies were not especially participatory – we were guests, not students.
Nevertheless, from this and other similar engagements, non-Indigenous folks have learned practices such as sage-smudging, using animal bones as magical tools, or consumption of ceremonial substances. Smudging (we often call it “aura-cleansing”) by wafting sage-smoke with a feather became almost ubiquitous in Wiccan rituals and Paganish gatherings around 1990.
Some might say, “Similar practices were probably found among our more distant ancestors, too. Native practices are awakening us to our own past.” If that resonates for you in your personal practice, fine.
For public Reclaiming rituals, we seem to be moving away from this. There are so many potential practices – why choose ones that seem tinged with appropriation?
What about the elements, honored in many Native American traditions? Euro-heritage and other Western folks can point to our own somewhat continuous traditions from ancient Greece and Rome through Medieval Christianity and on to the (British-based) Pagan revival.
Still, if you live in North America, consider – when you first heard that each direction was connected to a natural element, what was your cultural association? I think mine was Native practices.
We’re probably not going to quit invoking the directional elements. But we can be aware, and not “cherry-pick” other pieces of Indigenous practices to ornament our rituals. As with the Orisha, the place to practice these ways is at Native ceremonies. Open gatherings (sometimes called pow-wows) are held in many parts of the country.
A note on terminology: Times and language change. The simple word “Indian” was mostly out-dated by 1970, replaced by “American Indian” and “Native American.” In more recent times, the terms “Indigenous” and “First People” have been used.
For more on cultural appropriation, see our Teen Earth Magic Workbook – teenearthmagic.org/workbook
CULTURAL AND POLITICAL INFLUENCES
In tracing the antecedents of Reclaiming, the magical history is only half of the story.
Many of our most beloved ancestors are political and cultural activists – folks who have inspired our vision that ordinary people can join together and change the world! Weaving all of these influences into the present essay proved impossible in the two-dimensional space of print media.
So we refer you to the Activism chapter for a short survey of broader cultural and political threads such as feminism, the civil rights movement, and peace/anti-nuke organizing that helped midwife our tradition.
There’s even a section on the Hippies!
FROM 1970 TO TODAY
Here’s a quick look at a few trends and names that carried magic, wicca, and Paganism from Gardner to the present.
Other Traditions – the Alexandrian tradition, NROOGD (The New Reformed Order of the Golden Dawn), Modern Druids, and many others developed language and practices through the 1960s and 70s. Networks such as Covenant of the Goddess helped create links and common cultures among varied traditions.
Metaphysical Shops & Festivals – metaphysical shops as well as festivals such as the Michigan Women’s Music Festival, Merry Meet, Rites of Spring, and PantheaCon have provided a hub for people to meet and network.
Alternative Spirituality – the 1970s saw a wave of non-traditional spiritual movements, some adapting Eastern practices such as meditation, some advocating for sexual and emotional liberation, and some just thinly-disguised ego-tripping. Reclaiming inherits from this milieu both practices and self-critiques.
Luisah Teish – Teish, born in New Orleans, was involved in early multi-cultural rituals involving Reclaiming, and infused myth, story, and movement into Bay Area traditions.
Z Budapest – Z Budapest’s feminist-inspired rituals helped create a context for Reclaiming’s brand of activist eco-feminism. Her women-only tradition has (at least as of 2019) excluded trans women, leading to controversies at Pagan events. Her song “We All Come from the Goddess” is a Pagan classic.
Feri – the Feri tradition of Victor and Cora Anderson, a blend of Celtic and Indigenous Hawaiian (Huna) practices, served as a training ground for some of Reclaiming’s early teachers. The Feri tools of the Iron and Pearl Pentacles are still widely used in Reclaiming, as well as their later offspring such as the Pentacle of the Great Turning, a magical working built on Joanna Macy’s teachings. Feri teachings about Three Selves – Talking, Younger, and Deep Self – illuminate different facets of our being.
Postmodern Influences – Reclaiming inherits from the broader cultural milieu a range of “postmodern” critiques including feminism, queer studies, decolonization projects, and a general post-binary, de-centering outlook on mainstream culture.
We’ll need a separate book to trace in detail the various paths and influences that Reclaiming’s founders and fellow travelers followed en route to 1980. These books will be foundational:
• Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance (1979, updated 1999) is the founding text for Reclaiming and many other circles.
• Starhawk’s Dreaming the Dark (1982) places early Reclaiming magic in its activist milieu.
• Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon. Journalist and NPR commentator Adler’s book (1979, revised 2006) was the first comprehensive survey of wiccan and neo-pagan movements. A clear, balanced look at our traditions.
• Ronald Hutton’s The Triumph of the Moon (2001) traces Wicca and Paganism from about 1800 to the present. Extensive coverage of 1950-80 traditions and their founders offers a rich and complex picture of our backstory.
• Jone Salomonsen’s Enchanted Feminism (2001), based on interviews and personal experience, is a PhD study of the early philosophies and practices of San Francisco Reclaiming.
• John Sulak and V. Vale’s Re/Search anthology Modern Pagans (2001) features interviews with some of Reclaiming’s founding generation as well as folks from other traditions.
• Luke Hauser’s Direct Action (2003) is a novelized account of the activist milieu in which Reclaiming was born. The final scene portrays the 1984 Spiral Dance.
• Reclaiming Newsletter (1980-1996) and Reclaiming Quarterly (1997-2011), featuring hundreds of articles by Reclaiming folks, can be found on our websites – visit WeaveAndSpin.org/back-issues
An ever-evolving tradition, Reclaiming continues to absorb new influences. While remaining at core a feminist-inspired, ecstatic/celebratory tradition where each person is their own spiritual authority, change is part of our essence.
In the lyrics of one of our oldest chants: “She changes everything She touches, and everything She touches, changes!”
Youth-oriented camps such as Teen Earth Magic, Witchlets, and Redwood Magic as well as all-ages witchcamps such as Vermont and Tejas Web aren’t just “passing along” our tradition – they are cauldrons in which the insights and visions of new generations begin to reshape what Reclaiming is and will be.
Gender relations have always been front-and-center around Reclaiming, and recent developments have included statements of support for trans folks in our communities. (See interviews about gender in the Teen Earth Magic Workbook – see front of this file.)
Free Cascadia WitchCamp (held for about a decade till 2015) explored relations to the land and a communal economic model (“pay what you can”). FCWC and other WitchCamps have worked with gender and racial diversity and inclusivity issues.
Camps and communities have taken root in Europe and Australia, and recently a new community has been forming in Brazil. Via spotify and youtube, our chants are being heard around much of the planet. Each region brings its own practices and cultural challenges to the mix and inspires others to learn and adapt.
And so the journey continues. Today’s spells create tomorrow’s magic.
Will our network always to be known as “Reclaiming?” Perhaps.
Will our experiences color what comes after us? Certainly.
So mote it become!
Afterword: What Does It Mean to Appropriate Influences?
As our traditions grow more complex and weave people from diverse backgrounds, issues of lineages and appropriation arise. Discussions around our communities led to inclusion here of sections on culturally-appropriated traditions such as Native American or Orisha-based practices.
Among the feedback I received on this essay was a thoughtful meta-note from Rashunda, who said that although she appreciated that I included these sections, I said nothing about our inheritance of the general propensity to appropriate.
For better and worse, cultures borrow from one another. That part isn’t new.
What seems unique in our era of Euro-American dominance is the tendency to “capitalize” culture, including non-European traditions. Music, art, and spiritual practices are not simply adopted – they are commodified and exchanged (for cash, for prestige, for cultural advantage, etc) with little regard for their original creators or contexts.
Further, they are exchanged with the goal of gaining more resources so that we can commodify more culture. It’s a never-ending, always-expanding cycle of appropriation of other people’s creations. In short – capitalism.
We are heirs to that tradition. We absorb influences with the aim of expanding our horizons so we can absorb more influences. We aren’t always careful about the origins of those influences, their previous contexts, or the impact on other cultures.
Neo-Paganism, and Reclaiming in particular, has crafted an eclectic grab-bag of spiritual influences. Through the years, many beautiful dances have occurred. And along the way, many toes have been stepped on.
May this essay contribute toward increased awareness of our inheritances, and a bit less toe-stomping.
– Luke Hauser, parahistorian
Many Thanks for Feedback!
Although the present author is finally responsible for all errors, omissions, etc, the following gave valuable feedback on early drafts – many thanks!
You can hold each of these people personally accountable for any misplaced serial commas.
• Michael Bailey / Iowa State University
• Ronald Hutton / University of Bristol
• Rashunda Trumble
• Jacin Glitterdirt
• Ingrid Pollyak
• Gary Jaron
• Janell Mort
• George Franklin
• M. Macha NightMare
Three Basic Texts
Bailey, Michael – Magic and Superstitiion in Europe – short one-volume survey
Hutton, Ronald – The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft – 1800 to present
Ankarloo, Bengt & Clark, Stuart – Witchcraft and Magic in Europe – six volumes of essays (see online review below)
Ankarloo & Clark – Volume I & II
Tripolitis, Antonia – Religions of Hellenistic-Roman Age
Bowden, Hugh – Mystery Cults of the Ancient World
Tester, Jim – A History of Western Astrology
Rudolph, Kurt – Gnosis: Nature & History of Gnosticism
Copenhaver, Brian – Hermetica (Introduction & Texts)
Kieckhefer, Richard – Magic in the Middle Ages
Flint, Valerie – Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe
Ankarloo & Clark – Volume III
Davies, Owen – Grimoires: A History of Magic Books
The Witch Hunts
Hutton, Ronald – The Witch: A History of Fear
Ankarloo & Clark – Volume IV
Goodare, Julian – The European Witch Hunt
Levack, Brian – The Witch-Hunt in Modern Europe
Early Modern Era
Ankarloo & Clark – Volume V
Yates, Frances – Giordano Bruno & the Hermetic Tradition
French, Peter – John Dee: World of an Elizabethan Magus
Marshall, Peter – The Magic Circle of Rudolf II
Thomas, Keith – Religion & the Decline of Magic
Decker, Ronald et al – A Wicked Pack of Cards: Occult Tarot
Decker, Ronald et al – A History of the Occult Tarot
Adler, Margot – Drawing Down the Moon
Hutton, Ronald – The Triumph of the Moon
Ankarloo & Clark – Volume VI
O’Keefe, Daniel – Stolen Lightning: Social Theory of Magic
Berger, Helen – Witchcraft & Magic: North America
González-Wippler, Migene – Santeria: African Magic in Latin America
Anderson, Cora – Fifty Years in the Feri Tradition
See the list toward the end of the article.
Online Articles from RQ
Short essays from the back issues of our old magazine – visit WeaveAndSpin.org/history/
• Witchcraft & Magic in Europe (review and suggested reading list for Ankarloo & Clark essay series)
• When the Drummers Were Women
• Ritual Art of the Ancient Celts
• Mithras & the End of Time
• Life in the Year 1000
• Medieval Background of the Healing Arts
• The Diggers & the English Revolution
• Nicolas Culpepper’s Revolutionary Predictions
• New View of the Burning Times (Witch Trials)
• Newton: Alchemy, Science, & the Death of Nature
• May Day & International Workers Day
• Gardnerian Witchcraft
• Marija Gimbutas: Signs Out of Time
• The Great Goddess Barbie
Illustration: The Conjuror, by Hieronymus Bosch.