What is Old is New Again: Pseudoarchaeology

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.

References

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.

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What is Old is New Again: Neo-paganism, Witchcraft, and Wicca 101

Before we get too deep into this writing series, it would probably be helpful to breakdown the terminology I’ll be commonly using. It should be noted that, from my understanding, there is no real consensus on what the absolute definitions of some of these terms are – some practitioners may disagree with the definitions listed below, but for the purposes of consistency they will be the ones I’ll be using for this series.

Probably the greatest fire hazard of an altar

Neo-Paganism

Most modern day practitioners of religions such as Wicca, Druidry, and Heathenry would refer to themselves as “Pagan” rather than “neo-pagan”. However, for the sake of this writing series and to differentiate historical paganism from modern pagan traditions, I will be using the term “neo-paganism” instead.

Again, it is difficult to settle on a universally agreed upon definition for these terms, but most neo-pagans will agree that their religions follow most of these concepts to be considered “pagan”:

  • Respect/Worship for Nature – this is often expressed through celebrations associated with the changing seasons (for example, Wiccans have sabbats based on the Wheel of the Year)
  • Belief in Magic and Witchcraft – this is left purposely vague as many neo-pagan religions will define “magic” and “witchcraft” differently, but this is usually expressed through various rituals and not necessarily spell work
  • Belief in a Higher Power – this point is rather contentious – although most neo-pagan religions believe in deities or some form of higher power, there has been a relatively recent movement in “Atheopaganism“.

The major religions of neo-paganism today are often characterised based on the pantheons and cultural traditions that they are based on – for example, Heathenry is a neo-pagan religion based on the Old Norse pantheon and lore.

Witchcraft

Witchcraft refers to a practice in which ritualistic activity is used for specific purposes and outcomes. This is often performed through the use of physical action (lighting a candle, creating a mixture, etc.) and heightened through sensory features (incense, meditative states, etc.). Correspondences are also used to create correlations between the actions and the intended outcomes – for example, a yellow candle anointed with a cinnamon oil may be used to invoke confidence and energy into one’s life.

Witchcraft has often been seen as a radical form of self-care and expression, given the stigma that surrounds the practice. Neo-paganism, witchcraft, and Wicca have been a haven for women and LGBTQ+ – for example, Dianic witchcraft was developed as a means of celebrating womanhood through devotion to only the Goddess. The Minoan Brotherhood is a similar tradition made for gay practitioners. Many feminist groups have taken to witchcraft as a means of communing with each other, as well.

Modern witchcraft and Wicca is mostly based in Western traditions of folklore and magic, especially from Britain. Two major figures in the re-popularisation of the occult and witchcraft were Aleister Crowley and Gerald Gardner.

Wicca

Although Wiccan practice will vary, most practitioners follow several concepts that echo most other neo-pagan traditions:

  • Belief in a higher power – This can either be a more abstract concept of a God and Goddess or could specifically refer to a God and Goddess from a particular pantheon (Zeus, Odin, Ra…etc.)
  • Emphasis on duality – The concept of duality is heavily emphasised through Wiccan beliefs and practices. Concepts surrounding the masculine and the feminine are equally celebrated and worshipped, with the “sacred union” (sexuality) often symbolically represented in ritual.
  • Worship of Nature – As previously mentioned, Wiccans celebrate nature through the sabbats, which follow the Wheel of the Year – this includes celebrations for Samhain, Yule, and Ostara, for example. Esbats are also celebrated, which focus on the phases of the moon. Each sabbat and esbat have certain rituals and traditions that many follow – for example, Samhain is associated with ancestor worship and divination, so many Wiccans will perform rituals that specifically honour the dead and read tarot cards.
  • Ritual and Magic Work –  Many Wiccans follow set rituals that have been practised in many covens over the years – this includes invocations to the God and Goddess, the calling of the corners (earth, wind, fire, and water), and ritualistic feasting that occurs after the main ritual is finished. Usually, Wiccans practise witchcraft, although there are some that do not, at least in the commonly referred to sense of the word. This may instead be replaced with more devotional work to the God and Goddess.

Like other neo-pagan traditions, Wicca has many variations in practice – for example, Wicca is traditionally practised in covens, with a High Priestess to carry out initiations and lead rituals, such as “creating the circle”, or in other words, creating the ritual space. However, there are also many solitary practitioners and arguably this has become more common today.

Neo-paganism, Wicca, and witchcraft have many similarities, but the most important concept they share is a strong emphasis on cultural history. They all draw from certain historical and cultural elements, such as ancient folklore and ritual. Many draw their strength and power from this sense of heritage and a feeling of belonging to a lineage that has its roots in the ancient past. As this series will later investigate, however, sometimes these histories get a bit more muddled in the translation…

References

Aburrow, Y. (2015) All Acts of Love and Pleasure: Inclusive Wicca. Avalonia.

Hardman, C. (1995) Introduction. Paganism Today. Thorsons. (p. ix-xix)

Perry, T. (2013) Staying on the Old Track. The Wolfenhowle Press.

Thompson, C.S. (2016) Pagan Anarchism. Gods & Radicals Press.

Valiente, D. (1989) The Rebirth of Witchcraft. The Crowood Press.

What is Old is New Again: A New Series

Ever since I finish my BA degree in anthropology, I’ve been really interested in doing research into Wicca and neo-pagan religions and modern day witchcraft, and how they connect to their past roots. As an archaeologist, I’m especially interested in focusing on the material culture – how do they recreate objects and tools from the past to evoke the same experiences in the present?

In this new series, I’ll be looking at popular modern rituals and beliefs in a variety of neo-Pagan and Wiccan-adjacent religions and witchcraft (more on disentangling the definitions in the first post of the project) and examine how they reflect or recreate elements from the past, using archaeological and anthropological examples as comparison. I also want to look at how these elements are changed over time and how that reflects today’s culture, as well as problematic elements of cultural appropriation that has been the focus of intra-community discourse.

I hope you all will enjoy this series starting in early 2018! It’s truly a labour of love and something I’ve wanted to do as research for ages.

This year’s Winter Solstice (Yule) altar