The term ‘Old Religion’ is one that gets thrown around endlessly and often erroneously and to be honest every time I see it I wince, if not have the screaming meemees. As someone with a background in the archaeology of the Prehistoric British Isles and historical research I get twitchy every time I see someone claim that modern Paganism can be traced back to ancient prehistory.
There is a lot of misinformation out in Paganland fulling the misunderstanding that somehow modern day Paganism is somehow more legitimate that other religions by sheer dint of it’s age so with this post I am going to briefly (or at least try to be brief) outline my rebuttal of this.
The History of Prehistory
What makes prehistory… well, prehistoric? It is the very long period of time which predates the written record. The date of this will vary from country to country, continent to continent, depending on the development of writing and the desire to record events and happenings in their own time but in Britain this pretty much means that everything prior to the invasion of the Roman Empire is classed as prehistory.
Whilst there are texts discussing the islands we now call Britain, written by Romans and Greeks, they do not tell us what the contemporary inhabitants of the Isles thought of themselves or even held in their religion. Further still, they are likely heavily influenced by the Mediterranean belief that, as the outer edge of the world the British Isles were barbarous and savage lands, and the desire to make the various Roman invasions more impressive through propaganda.
Archaeology can tell us something about the various prehistoric peoples that have inhabited Britain, but only so much and the phrase ‘ritual context’ covers a multitude of sins and often boils down to ‘we haven’t got a clue’.
I don’t want to do archaeology a disservice. We have been able to infer a lot and archaeological reconstruction is very informative but that doesn’t replace contemporary written accounts. Most of what we have is either through the eyes of others in the contemporary or through the lens of time. We have many texts, compiled by early monastic communities from the 7th century CE onwards, which codify what we presume was previously an oral tradition of myths and legends. Again, whilst these sources tell us much they are filtered through the Christian monks and are some what influenced by their inherent prejudices.
For these reasons, and many more, it is not possible to claim an unbroken line of religion into the prehistoric period. Too much time has elapsed and there is far too few unambiguous records available to us to make such a claim. It is unlikely that anyone from these times would be able to look at modern practices and recognises their own beliefs in them though what a conversation that would be.
Skipping forward at a fair old pace I want to quickly talk about the Cunning Folk.
The Cunning Folk
The Cunning Folk have appeared in our towns and villages for many hundreds, if not thousands, of years. These are men and women set apart from their general community because of the knowledge and abilities they hold. In the early Christian periods, particularly the so-called Dark Ages and Medieval period, access to medical care often passed through expensive independent apothecaries or monasteries which may be far remote for most peasant farmers. For this reason people in local communities who had experience and knowledge beyond the norm were prized by their local communities.
Whether it is to do with herbs, midwifery or the laying out of the dead the community would benifit from it in some way however this could be a double edged sword. Strange events, sudden illnesses and deaths were often attributed to people who were perceived as somehow “other”.
I’ve been very prosaic up till now, concentrating on practical nuts and bolts of the services which such folk may have offered but of course there is something more mystical to all of this. Folk traditions play their part, be they evidence of a lingering pre-Christian oral tradition or the organic development of stories and tales into myths and legends, and the Cunning Folk get swept up into this. Similarly people who are perceived as holding knowledge which can heal and prevent death are only one step removed from being able to cause harm and causing death; indeed the idea that the ability to harm and heal were two sides of the same coin was more developed, though no more accepted, than it is today. No doubt the same moral dilemmas troubled these Cunning Folk as it does modern practitioners today, possibly more so given the relative strength and presence of the Church in those days.
That is not to say the Church inhibited the development of the Cunning Craft. There is plenty of evidence that aspects of church doctrine, at least those which could be understood by the general population, were incorporated into the Cunning Craft. Things like the Paternoster and the use of Saints names and holy day (many of whom may have had pre-Christian origins so blending folk memory with the new ways) were often incorporated in to the Cunning Craft. This is still the case in many living traditions and practices today.
Whether or not the practice made Witchcraft more acceptable or not to the practitioner and their community then it is something that can be very hard to swallow nowadays. So many come to Paganism as an escape from mainstream religion that the idea that it has a place within the Craft can be abhorrent and it is often the case that it is whitewashed out to emphasis other aspects such as folk tradition and persecution.
The truth is that the medieval, Tudor and Elizabethan practitioners of the Cunning Craft would have considered themselves to be Christian and would no more recognise modern Paganism than our prehistoric ancestors. It is also true that the Cunning Craft is actively practiced and ‘historical’ Cunning Folk can be identified as recently as the 1900’s. There are still people today who are recognised as being slightly fey by and in comparison to their neighbours who don’t identify themselves with modern paganism in any way.
We’re going to skip right over the Renaissance and it’s many sorcerers and wizards, give a nod to the various witch trials and crazes that we all know and love and gloss over right over the revival of occultism during, and after, the Victoria period and move straight into the advent of Wicca.
Phew, talk about a big leap! The history and development of the occult and modern paganism covers so many areas which are interesting in their own right I wish I could cover them all here.
A Very Brief History of Wicca
It isn’t until the appearance of Wicca in the late 1930’s that the concept of the “Old Religion” began to surface. The phrase reflects the fact that Wicca, which is itself a variation of an old English word meaning Witch, was intended to echo what was perceived as having passed before.
Whatever the impetuous and his intentions Gerald Gardner used his vast knowledge of various cultures, closed orders and history (as it was then understood) to create a basis for the mystery cult which would come to be known as Wicca. Gardner was a widely travelled and connected man, and his sources were many but they were a product of their time. There was a strong belief that prehistoric spirituality and mythology was fully understood and could be explained and replicated in modern society. As discoveries have been made and research has lead to theories being refined and even discarded we have discovered that this isn’t the case however the gnosis is integral to initiatory Wicca.
Initially Wicca was known to very few. Membership was by invitation only and introductions carefully managed and convoluted but as with such things word soon got around about this new movement. Initiates of Wicca communicated ideas and concepts through independent publications and engaged in letter writing with like minded people and shared what outer court information that could be. Some of these people would join the ranks of Wicca, on occasion going on to establish their own streams of Wicca which could be traced ultimately back to Gardner, whilst others will have taken the information shared with them and carried it forward for their own purposes. This is true in the case of the concept of the “Old Religion”.
You can learn more on Gerald Gardner and the development of Wicca by reading the various essays at this website but for now we’re going to step over the detail at look at the advent of the New Age.
Llewellyn and the New Age
It isn’t until the 1960’s and 70’s that what is now recognisable as modern paganism began to grow out of the various social and spiritual movements of the era. The New Age movement had many of the same influences as Wicca did in the decades before however what changed was the number of people who were able and willing to experiment with these influences themselves. This was partly as a result of the world becoming a much smaller place as well as the desire amongst the younger generations to step outside of the same old same old in search of answers. People began to look eastward and backwards through time searching for something more authentic fron their indigenous and prehistoric past to find something that felt more genuine to them.
Just because information and experience became more available doesn’t mean that it remained entirely authentic. Then as today there were more than a few willing to take the money of the New Age tourists/seekers and take them for a ride. Equally historical and archaeological theory has evolved and developed along with technological advances and various discoveries and the various spiritual movements haven’t always kept pace.
The biggest thing to emerge during the 60’s and 70’s was Llewellyn Publishing. Although they had been publishing since 1901 it was that they became the go to publisher if you wanted to pick up something edgy and about the new Old Religion. Some of the biggest names in neo-Paganism have been part of their family, people such as Raymond Buckland, Dion Fortune, Lady Sheba, Scott Cunningham and Silver Ravenwolf and even today their name is recognised as thr big Pagan/New Age publishing house.
Speaking now in 2016 I am of the mind that although Llewellyn was instrumental in making so much information about Witchcraft available they have not only diminished in quality in the last few decades but have caused and perpetuated the greatest misunderstanding that exists in neo-paganism to date. That is the confusion between Witchcraft and Wicca.
My regular readers will have gleaned that my definition of “What is Wicca” is very narrow. Wicca is the closed and initiatory tradition as founded by Gerald Gardner and perpetrated through its various descending streams. Put another way, if there is no lineage tracing it’s way back to Gerald it is not Wicca.
Unfortunately, in the 70’s, it was decided that “Witchcraft” would not sell. Too much baggage and connection with Disney, but Wicca? Here is a word new and unknown. It basically means the same thing but has none of that icky baggage. Okay its attached to this closed tradition, but that’s no peoblem. We’ll attach it to generic information on occult/spiritual practices involving duotheistic or polytheistic worship which matches the outer court information we’ve seen and fill in the gaps with our own UPG. Present it in such a way that makes it look genuine, ancient and authoritative and Cha-ching!
Okay, I may be allowing my imagination to run wild but every time I run across the Big Wicca vs small wicca debate this is what comes to mind. The fact is that very little of what is packaged and sold as being Wiccan has been written by people who have lived the various Wiccan traditions (or at least have proven themselves to be lineaged in such a way that would be recognised by any other genuine Wiccan stream). Certain outer court information and phrases, including “the Old Religion”, were picked up and captured the mind, especially in an age where people were looking backwards to find authenticity.
The face is that there is information within Wicca which is Sub Rosa, information which is secret and and cannot be shared with those outside of the tradition. As such you will not find it written in a mass market book!
The information published is often quite valid and useful but only as sharing a form of modern witchcraft, one which is a product of its time and draws on its many previous incarnations and influences. Pick up a book entitled wicca 101, mentally erase Wicca and replace it with Witchcraft and you’ll not go too far wrong in these early days.
Right. Now that’s out of my system let’s continue.
So How Old is the “Old Religion”
The term the “Old Religion” is a bit of a misleading one. Gardner used to describe the origins of his mystery cult to outsiders but realistically it only emerged in the late 1930’s and was not in itself ‘old’ or connecting to previous indigenous spiritual directly. Whilst the development of Wicca was undoubtedly influenced by very ancient civilisations and living Eastern cultures there is no possibility of it accurately reflecting actual practice. The phrase therefore is only 70 or so years old and therefore not all that old.
It’s a sad truth that the British Isles has little in the way direct links to it prehistoric past. We have a wealth of folk lore and mythology but it is seen through a lense of Christianity.
Sad but no bad thing. The “Old Religion” as many portray it may not exist but we have an exquisite tapestry of Witchcraft; practice, mythology and legend, on which to drawn on that there really isn’t a need to embroider in any way. Witchcraft in form or another, in one name or another, has existed at least one thousand years, initially growing out of indigenous belief and practice and evolving and changing in order to survive.
If you got to this point well done for sticking with me through this perfunctory skip through the history of western magical tradition. I realise that I have passed over whole periods of time and aspects of development but it proved impractical to go into even the briefest of detail on every relevant subject here.
Next week comes the question “what is magic” which is very relevant as my daughter asked a similarly worded question this week. As ever you can check out the rest of this blog series by visiting the Defining My Craft page.