virus: The Old Religion

Date: Mon Jul 29 2002 - 00:26:40 MDT

{PRIVATE "TYPE=PICT;ALT=Return to issue contents"}

The Old Religion

by Richard Smoley

This issue's theme is a movement that has been called the fastest-
growing religion in the U.S. Nobody knows exactly how many
Americans identify themselves as Witches, Wiccans, and
Neopagans -- the number has been estimated as anywhere from
200,000 to 500,000 -- but there are no statistics and few formal
organizations. Besides, religious prejudice still makes it
expedient for many of these people to keep quiet about their

The first question, of course, is just what Neopaganism is. Many
of its adherents say it's an attempt to return to the polytheistic
faith that prevailed in Europe before Christianity. And while the
word "witchcraft" used to be applied to any form of attempted
sorcery or enchantment, modern Witches see the matter
differently. Many of them regard themselves as the heirs of a
specific form of this ancient faith. They call it "the Old Religion."

They draw their inspiration from Margaret Murray, a scholar who
investigated the history of the witch hunts that seized Europe
sporadically between 1450 and 1750. Before Murray's time,
historians assumed that the witch hunts were a form of mass
psychosis projected onto some unfortunate individuals (chiefly
women). But in books like The Witch-Cult in Northern
Europeand The God of the Witches,1 Murray contended that there
were witches, and that they were really adherents of the Old
Religion who had been driven underground. They met in covens
of thirteen members each, and they worshipped a deity known as
the Horned God, whom the Christians equated with the Devil.

Murray's theories were endorsed by Gerald Gardner, a retired
customs official who happened upon what he claimed was a
practicing coven in England's New Forest in the late 1930s. In a
number of books including Witchcraft Today,2 Gardner set out
the theory and practice of this religion, which he called Wicca.
(This word is used today as an abstract noun more or less
equivalent to "Witchcraft," but actually it's an Old English word
meaning "male witch"; the feminine equivalent is wicce).
Gardnerian Wicca is still practiced today throughout the English-
speaking world.

Both Murray and Gardner said the Old Religion worshipped the
deity in a dual aspect -- the Horned God, or Cernunnos, and the
Great Goddess, known as Diana, Herodias, or Aradia. Today
many Witches and Neopagans focus their rites around the central
mystery of this divine union of male and female. In recent years,
however, for many Neopagans the Goddess has come to be seen
as the more important figure.3

Again scholarship has played its role in this development. As
early as 1861, a Swiss jurist named J.J. Bachofen was arguing
that before the male-dominated social system that we know from
written history, humanity had had a phase when it was
matriarchal: women were socially dominant and descent was
traced through female lines.4

Bachofen's theory was difficult to prove, since there were no
written texts from this era, but it was highly influential. A version
of it resurfaced in The White Goddess by the poet Robert Graves,
published in 1948, in which Graves argued from his own rather
idiosyncratic use of evidence that Europe had in prehistoric times
worshipped the goddess of the moon -- the White Goddess of his

Graves admitted that he had written his book in a kind of Muse-
inspired frenzy,5 but that didn't keep it from being taken as
history. Archaeologist James Mellaart's excavations at a site
called Çatal Hüyük in Asia Minor seemed to corroborate the
existence of this matrifocal phase of civilization. The Lithuanian
archaeologist Marija Gimbutas took up this theme and developed
it further in books like The Language of the Goddess.6 Together
with Murray's and Gardner's ideas, these theories were woven
into a kind of foundation myth for today's Neopaganism.

According to this view, in the Neolithic era people throughout
most of Europe lived in a peaceful, egalitarian society that was
ruled (to the extent that it was ruled at all) by women. It was this
phase of civilization that produced the enormous numbers of
figurines that have been found of rotund, obese, often pregnant
female figures. These were images of the Great Goddess.

This peaceful culture was destroyed by the coming of the Indo-
Europeans, a warlike, patriarchal race that swept in from the
steppes on horseback and crushed "Old Europe," setting up a
belligerent, hierarchical, male-ruled society. We are the
descendants of that culture.

The patriarchy reached its apex -- or nadir, depending on your
point of view -- with Christianity, which, after it came to power,
systematically attempted to extirpate the old Pagan religion. This
upstart faith was very much focused on the transcendent. Unlike
the Old Religion, it taught people to hate their bodies and to hate
the earth, laying the ground for today's sexual hangups and the
ecological crisis.

The process of conversion to Christianity took centuries; the
witch hunts (which reached their peak between 1580 and 1630)
were the last phase of warfare against the Old Religion. And it
was a true holocaust: according to a frequently cited figure, nine
million Witches were killed during these centuries, nearly all of
them women.7 The Old Religion went into hiding for centuries,
and resurfaced only in the mid-twentieth century when the
Christian establishment had lost its power.

This is an extremely compelling myth: you will find it stated over
and over again in countless Neopagan books and magazines.
Many Wiccans and Neopagans seem to regard it as a matter of
historical fact. Unfortunately, according to most scholars today,
nearly every detail of this picture is wrong.

The concept of a Goddess civilization today is a minority view
among scholars, most of whom regard Gimbutas's views as highly
speculative and as taking excessive liberties with the evidence;
Emory University historian Elizabeth Fox-Genovese dismissed
them as little more than "absurdities."8

As you'll see from this issue's interview with Starhawk and Carol
Christ, adherents of Gimbutas's theories regard such criticisms as
evidence of an entrenched patriarchal mind-set. But at any rate
the evidence is considerably more moot than many of today's
Neopagans believe. Just to take one example: "Male figurines
constitute only 2 or 3 percent of all Old European figurines,"
Gimbutas contended. But Lotte Motz, in her book The Faces of
the Goddess, argues that "images of men and animals are just as
numerous as those of women."9 Moreover, as more than one
scholar as pointed out, there is nothing in the female figures
themselves that indicate that they are necessarily images of a

Until recently Çatal Hüyük was considered to be the one
incontrovertible site of a matrifocal society. But now scholars
aren't sure even of that. Ronald Hutton, a British historian not
unsympathetic to Paganism, writes, "We cannot tell . . . whether
the women of Çatal Hüyük were powerful, feared, and honored,
or suspected, feared, constrained, and subordinated."11 As for the
Indo-European invaders, our picture of them has been
complicated by the fact that, to judge from the archaeological
evidence, women were warriors and leaders in this supposedly
patriarchal culture.12 Were the warlike Indo-Europeans more
egalitarian and feminist than the peaceful people of Old Europe?
We don't know.

We don't even know if the people of Old Europe were peaceful.
Carol Christ says that mainstream academe refuses to admit that
there was unquestionably a phase of history when war was
unknown. But one archaeologist found exactly the opposite.
Lawrence H. Keeley, a professor at the University of Chicago,
wanted to get a grant to investigate an Early Neolithic
fortification site in Belgium dating to c.5000 B.C. He couldn't get
the grant because the prevailing academic opinion was that
Neolithic society was peaceful, therefore they couldn't have
fortifications. Keeley had to rewrite his grant leaving out the term
"fortification" before he could get any money. Once he did, he
investigated the sites and found they were in fact fortified. The
experience led him to write a book about prehistoric warfare and
why scholars have so much trouble accepting it.13

The witch hunts provide a similar situation. Most Wiccans and
Neopagans admit gingerly that there was no such thing as an
organized Old Religion in the sense that Murray defined it, but
many still believe the witch hunts were an organized effort to
suppress Pagan survivals such as the "cunning men" and women,
the folk healers and wizards of the villages of Western Europe.
(The commonly cited figure of nine million victims, by the way,
is generally thought to be ridiculously inflated; more sober
estimates say that the witch hunts claimed 40,000-50,000 lives
over three centuries, about 75% women.)14

Even this picture is more complicated than one might think. The
"wise women" and "cunning men" often bore the brunt of witch
accusations, it is true, but they also created a lot of them. A
contemporary account described the process thus: "A man is
taken lame; he suspecteth that he is bewitched; he sendeth to the
cunning man; he demandeth whom they suspect, and then
sheweth the image of the party in a glass."15

Today the standard academic view has reverted to the idea that
the witch hunts were not the persecution of the "Old Religion"
but were a delusion chiefly generated by fears and suspicions
rampant in the era, which were themselves fueled by a social and
economic crisis. The British historian Robin Briggs observes,
"Virtually everywhere it was the half-century between 1580 and
1630 which included the great majority of all [witch] trials; . . . it
is hard to avoid the . . . inference that a simultaneous sharp
decline in living standards and individual security played a large
part in this."16

By this view, witch persecutions were a matter more of neighbor
pitted against neighbor than of the schemings of the Inquisition.
Certainly the Catholic Church fueled the witch-hunt craze at its
outset, with a 1484 bull by Pope Innocent VIII declaring
witchcraft a heresy (the Church had previously taught that it did
not exist) and with the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum
("The Hammer of Witches"), a lurid antiwitch text, in 1486.

On the other hand, over the next two centuries the officials of the
Inquisition became increasingly skeptical of witchcraft claims.
Strange as it may sound, the Inquisition often exercised a
moderating influence on rabid witch hunters in local courts. The
countries where the Inquisition was the strongest -- Spain and
Italy -- had very few witch trials.17

The history of Gardner's own influences is equally vexed. The
most ardent Gardnerians seem to believe that his coven's rites and
doctrines can be traced in a virtually pure form back to the pre-
Christian era. But again, most credible researchers don't buy this.
They have found many twentieth-century influences on Gardner:
Aleister Crowley; Charles Godfrey Leland, an American who
wrote a book called Aradia about his encounters with the
Witches of Tuscany; even, as the article "The Red God" in this
issue intriguingly suggests, Woodcraft, a movement started by the
Canadian writer Ernest Thompson Seton. For myself, I think it
likely that Gardner's coven may have had ancient roots but felt
free to create and adapt new rituals and prayers, much as
Neopagans do today.

This is far too short a space in which to try to argue these points
in detail; I can only refer the reader to the works I've cited. My
central point, though, is this: Paganism is a legitimate religious
impulse. To connect with the divine as it expresses itself through
nature and through the multiplicity of the world, visible and
invisible, is honorable and necessary; so is reconnecting with the
feminine aspects of the spirit. But if Neopaganism is to take its
place among the great religions, it has to come to terms with its
own history.

Here Neopaganism is in a sense in an opposite position from
much of mainstream Christianity, which, obsessed with an
elusive chimera known as the "historical Jesus," has come more
and more to cut itself off from spiritual experience.
Neopaganism, by contrast, with its abundance of rituals and
invocations, has plenty of room for experience but needs to face
its own history. If it does, it will probably find that it is the "Old
Religion" not in a literalistic sense but in recapturing some of the
deepest and most ancient aspects of the spiritual impulse. This
issue of GNOSIS is an attempt to help advance that process.


1. Margaret A. Murray, The God of the Witches (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1931); The Witch Cult in Western Europe
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1921).

2. Gerald Gardner, Witchcraft Today (New York: Citadel Press,

3. Starhawk, The Spiral Dance, second ed. (San Francisco:
Harper & Row, 1989), pp. 22-23.

4. J.J. Bachofen, Myth, Religion, and Mother Right: Selected
Writings of J.J. Bachofen, trans. Ralph Manheim (Princeton:
Princeton/Bollingen, 1967).

5. Robert Graves, The White Goddess (New York: Farrar, Straus,
& Giroux, 1966 [1948]), pp. 488-89.

6. Marija Gimbutas, The Language of the Goddess (San
Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989).

7. See, for example, Gardner, p. 35 et passim; Starhawk, p. 20.

8. Lawrence Osborne, "The Women Warriors," in Lingua Franca,
Jan. 1998, p. 52.

9. Ibid., p. 53.

10. Ronald Hutton, The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British
Isles: Their Nature and Legacy (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), p. 4.

11. Ibid., p. 42.

12. Osborne, pp. 51-53.

13. Lawrence H. Keeley, War Before Civilization: The Myth of
the Peaceful Savage (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996),
pp. vii-viii.

14. Robin Briggs, Witches and Neighbors: The Social and
Cultural Context of European Witchcraft (New York: Viking,
1996), p. 8.

15. Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (New
York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1971), p. 549.

16. Briggs, p. 292.

17. Ibid., p. 327, 335-36.

Pagan History: An Alternate Reading
These books are all intelligent, well-researched, and often dense.
But if you're interested in contemporary scholarship about the
Goddess, the witch hunts, or ancient Paganism, they're well worth
the effort.

Briggs, Robin. Witches and Neighbors: The Social and Cultural
Context of European Witchcraft. New York: Viking, 1996.

Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion. Translated by John Raffan.
Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985.

Hutton, Ronald. The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles:
Their Nature and Legacy. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.

Keeley, Lawrence H. War Before Civilization: The Myth of the
Peaceful Savage. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Lane Fox. Robin. Pagans and Christians. New York: Alfred A.
Knopf, 1987.

MacMullen, Ramsay. Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to
Eighth Centuries. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press,

Thomas, Keith. Religion and the Decline of Magic. New York:
Charles Scribner's Sons, 1971.

© copyright 1998 by Richard Smoley and GNOSIS Magazine
All rights reserved. Reproduction in any form requires permission
from copyright holders.

GNOSIS #48 is available for $10 U.S. postpaid from: GNOSIS
Magazine, P.O. Box 14217, San Francisco, CA 94114-0217.


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