In his book Green Man: the Archetype of Our Oneness with the Earth (1990), William Anderson makes a point to say that neo-pagans want “every tradition to be as ancient as possible”. Contrary to what some may believe, however, we do not see a lineage of witch religion historically or archaeologically that can be traced to the modern practices. Note that this post is specifically discussing Western traditions that are practised commonly in the United States and Europe.
Many modern covens attempt to connect their practice of witchcraft or neopaganism to an ancient and forgotten cult surrounding a particular deity – examples of this include the goddesses Aradia (popularised by Charles Godfrey Leland) and Diana (popularised by Margaret Alice Murray and continued through feminist-driven “Dianic” covens and cults).
Another point of origin that many British and European covens claim is during the “Great Witch Hunt” that took place in Europe between the 16th and 18th centuries, which is believed to be a period of mass executions (Silvia Federici places the number of women killed in the hundreds of thousands) of so-called “witches”. Among historians, this is a topic of great debate. For starters, it is not known exactly how many executions of witches there were in Europe at this time, nor if the 300 years of executions was the result of organised, focused campaigning, periodic executions in various places over time, or a combination of the two. The actual reasons behind the executions are also not fully understood: some suggested catalysts include the increasing power of organised religion, social hierarchies that left women, the elderly, and the poor in danger of being accused of witchcraft, and similarly, the rise of rural capitalist systems that would ultimately cause those of low status to be punished through accusations of witchcraft. Many feminist historians have pointed out that other historians may downplay the role of gender in the witch hunts, as well – although men were occasionally accused of witchcraft, it appears that the majority of victims were women. Unfortunately, a lack of written evidence – especially from the viewpoint of the accused – makes discerning the reasons and politics behind these “witch hunts”, as well as the actual statistics, very difficult and perhaps even impossible to fully comprehend.
Whether or not there was indeed a continent-wide campaign against witches that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, it should also be noted that there is no textual evidence to support the claim of organised covens that have survived to this day and age. Most records of modern covens appear to go as far back as the 1940’s, but any history prior to that is based only on unsubstantiated claims.
So why turn to pseudoarchaeology? Within neo-paganism and witchcraft, there is an emphasis on lineage – that having a coven that can trace its roots back to ancient times adds to one’s prestige and legitimacy. Gerald Gardner, arguably the forefather of modern Wiccan tradition, claimed to have been part of a secret coven that had existed since the historical pagan times in Britain.
There is also a political angle to many claims of lineage by various traditions and covens. Many Dianic covens that grew out of feminist theory from the 60’s and 70’s have adapted modern radical feminism that specifically excludes transwomen. Groups that practice Heathenry or other Norse-based traditions that have also become part of alt-right and white supremacist movements will often exclude people of colour or those without Scandinavian heritage from their groups.
Although many neo-pagans and witches still maintain their ancient lineages, despite evidence to the contrary, there is a growing number of modern day practitioners who instead embrace the fact that while their beliefs and practices are certainly inspired by elements from the past, they do not have to have an ancient lineage to be “legitimate”. On a personal note, I agree with this sentiment – I think modern day practitioners seek legitimacy, even through pseudo archaeological research, as their beliefs and practises are often derided by others, and I certainly can sympathise with the feeling. However, pseudoarchaeology is a harmful practise that most often affects the histories of marginalised folx for the gain of the privileged and I think there is a duty for archaeologists to investigate instances of “fake news” so to speak, not just for the reputation of the field, but also as a means of removing white supremacist and colonial ideologies from the discipline as well.
For those looking for more information on pseudoarchaeology, there is a great primer written by Stephanie Halmhofer at her blog.
Anderson, W. (1990) Green Man: the Archetype of Our Oneness with the Earth. Harper San Francisco.
Federici, S. (2004) Caliban and the Witch. Autonomedia.
Hutton, R. (1995) The Roots of Modern Paganism. Paganism Today. Thorsons. (p. 3-15)
Hutton, R. (2017) The Witch: A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the Present. Yale University Press.
Rella, A. (2018) Circling the Star. Gods & Radicals Press.
Valiente, D. (1989) The Rebirth of Witchcraft. The Crowood Press.