testimony at the infamous witch trials by asserting that “the judges ignored the Goddess, being preoccupied with the Satan-image of the God….”4 But it is the evidence of that reign of terror which lasted from roughly 1484 to 1692 which brings the whole idea of a surviving religious cult into question. Authorities such as Dr. Margaret Murray to the contrary, the conventional wisdom on the witch burning mania which swept like a plague over much of Europe during the transition from medieval world to modern is that it was just that; a mania, a delusion in the minds of Christian clergymen and state authorities; that is, there were no witches, only the innocent victims of the witch hunt. Further, this humanist argument goes, the “witchcraft” of Satanic worship, broomstick riding, of Sabats and Devil-marks, was a rather late invention, borrowing but little from remaining memories of actual pre- Christian paganism. We have seen that the infamous inquisitors Kramer and Springer knew full well the early account mentioned above, and classical paganism as a literary knowledge has never been forgotten. We have seen a resurrection of this mania in the 1980s flurry over “Satanic”’ cults, with as little evidence. The story still gets retold on occasion, in fresh form.
“The concept of the heresy of witchcraft was frankly regarded as a new invention, both by the theologians and by the public,” writes Dr. Rossell Hope Robbins in The Encyclopedia Of Witchcraft & Demonology, (Crown, 1959, p 9) “Having to hurdle an early church law, the Canon Episcopi, which said in effect that belief in witchcraft was superstitious and heretical, the inquisitors caviled by arguing that the witchcraft of the Canon Episcopi and the witchcraft of the Inquisition were different ”
The evidence extracted under the most gruesome and repeated tortures resemble the Wiccan religion of today in only the most cursory fashion. Though Wicca may have been framed with the “confessions” extracted by victims of the inquisitors in mind, those “confessions”—which are more than suspect to begin with, bespeak a cult of devil worshipers dedicated to evil.
One need only read a few of the accounts of the time to realize that, had there been at the time a religion of the Goddess and God, of seasonal circles and The Book of Shadows, such would likely have been blurted out by the victims, and more than once. The agonies of the accused were, almost literally, beyond the imagination of those of us who have been fortunate enough to escape them.
The witch mania went perhaps unequaled in the annals of crimes against humanity en masse until the Hitlerian brutality of our own century. But, no such confessions were forthcoming, though the wretches accused, before the torture was done, would also be compelled to condemn their own parents, spouses, loved ones, even children. They confessed, and to anything the inquisitors wished, anything to stop or reduce the pain.
A priest, probably at risk to his own life, recorded testimony in the 1600s that reflected the reality underlying the forced “confessions” of “witches.” Rev. Michael Stapirius records, for example, this comment from one “confessed witch”: “I never dreamed that by means of the torture a person could be brought to the point of telling such lies as I have told. I am not a witch, and I have never seen the devil, and still I had to plead guilty myself and denounce others….” All but one copy of Father Stapirius’ book were destroyed, and little wonder.
A letter smuggled from a German burgomaster, Johannes Junius, to his daughter in 1628, is as telling as it is painful even to read. His hands had been virtually destroyed in the torture, and he wrote only with great agony and no hope. “When at last the executioner led me back to the cell, he said to me, ‘Sir, I beg you, for God’s sake, confess something, whether it be true or not. Invent something, for you cannot endure the torture which you will be put to; and, even if you bear it all, yet you will not escape, not even if you were an earl, but one torture will follow another until you say you are a witch. Not before that,’ he said, ‘will they let you go, as you may see by all their trials, for one is just like another ”’5
For the graspers at straws, we may find an occasional line in a “confession” which is intriguing, as in the notations on the “confession” of one woman from Germany dated in late 1637. After days of unspeakable torment, wherein the woman confesses under pain, recants when the pain is removed, only to be moved by more pain to confess again, she is asked: “How did she influence the weather? She does not know what to say and can only whisper, Oh, Heavenly Queen, protect me!”
Was the victim calling upon “the Goddess”? Or, as seems more likely, upon that aforementioned ransfiguration of all ancient goddesses in Christian mythology, the Virgin Mary? One more quote from Dr. Robbins, and I will cease to parade late medieval history before you.
The brutality is not that of “witches” or even of “Satanists” but rather that of the Christian Church, and the government.
It comes from yet another priest, Father Cornelius Loos, who observed, in 1592, that “Wretched creatures are compelled by the severity of the torture to confess things they have never done, and so by cruel butchery innocent lives are taken…..”6 The “evidence” of the witch trials indicates, on the whole, neither the Satanism the church and state would have us believe, nor the pagan survivals now claimed by modern Wicca; rather, they suggest only fear, greed, human brutality carried out to bizarre extremes that have few parallels in all of history. But, the brutality is not that of “witches” or even of “Satanists” but rather that of the Christian Church, and the government.
What, then, are we to make of modern Wicca? It must, of course, be observed as an aside that in a sense witchcraft or “wisecraft” has, indeed, been with us from the dawn of time, not as a coherent religion or set of practices and beliefs, but as the folk magic and medicine that stretches back to early, possibly Paleolithic, tribal shamans on to modern China’s so-called “barefoot doctors.”
In another sense, we can also say that ceremonial magick, as I have previously noted, has had a place in history for a very long time, and both these ancient systems of belief and practice have intermingled in the lore of modern Wiccan, as apologists are quick to claim.
But, to an extent, this misses the point and skirts an essential question anyone has the right to ask about modern Wicca—namely, did Wicca exist as a coherent creed, a distinct form of spiritual expression, prior to the 1940s; that is, prior to the meeting of minds between the old magus and venerable prophet of the occult world Aleister Crowley, and the first popularizer, if not outright inventor of modern Wiccan, Gerald Brosseau Gardner?
“Witches are consummate leg-pullers; they are taught it as part of their stock-in-trade.”
There is certainly no doubt that bits and pieces of ancient paganism survived into modern times in folklore and, for that matter, in the very practices and beliefs of Christianity.
Further, there appears to be some evidence that “Old George” Pickingill and others were practicing some form of Satanic folk magick as early as the latter
part of the last century, though even this has recently been brought into question. Wiccan writers have made much of this in the past, but just what “Old George” was into is subject to much debate.
Doreen Valiente, an astute Wiccan writer and one-time intimate of the late Dr. Gardner (and, in fact, the author of some rituals now thought by others to be of “ancient origin”), says of Pickingill that so “fierce was Old George’s dislike of Christianity that he would even collaborate with avowed Satanists…”7 What George Pickingill was doing is simply not clear.
He is said to have had some interaction with a host of figures in the occult revival of the late 19th century, including perhaps even Crowley and his teacher Bennett. It seems possible that Gardner, about the time of meeting Crowley, had some involvement with groups stemming from Pickingill’s earlier activities, but it is only after Crowley and Gardner meet that we begin to see anything resembling the modern spiritual communion that has become known as Wicca.
“Witches,” wrote Gardner in 1954, “are consummate leg-pullers; they are taught it as part of their stock-in-trade.”8 Modern apologists both of Aleister Crowley and Gerald Gardner have taken on such serious tones as well as pretensions that they may be missing places where tongues are firmly jutting against cheeks.
Both men were believers in fleshly fulfillment, not only as an end in itself but, as in the Tantric Yoga of the East, as a means of spiritual attainment. A certain prudishness has crept into the practices of post-Gardnerian Wiccans, especially in America since the 1960s, along with a certain feminist revisionism. This has succeeded to a considerable extent in converting a libertine sex cult into a rather staid Neopuritanism.
The original Gardnerian current is still well enough known and widely enough in vogue (in Britain and Ireland especially) that one can venture to assert that what Gardnerian Wicca is all about is the same thing Crowley was attempting with a more narrow, more intellectual constituency with the magical orders under his direct influence.
These Orders had flourished for some time, but by the time Crowley “officially” met Gardner in the 1940s, much of the former’s lifelong efforts had, if not totally disintegrated, at least were then operating at a diminished
and diminishing level.
Through his long and fascinating career as Magus and organizer, there is some reason to believe that Crowley periodically may have wished for, or even attempted to create a more populist expression of magical religion. The Gnostic Mass, which Crowley wrote fairly early-on, had come since his death to somewhat fill this function through the O.T.O.-connected but (for a time) semi-autonomous Gnostic Catholic Church (E.G.C.).
As we shall see momentarily, one of Crowley’s key followers was publishing manifestos forecasting the revival of witchcraft at the same time Gardner was being chartered by Crowley to organize an O.T.O. encampment. The O.T.O. itself, since Crowley’s time, has taken on a more popular image, and is somewhat less elitist and more oriented towards international organizational efforts, thanks largely to the work under the Caliphate of the late Grady McMurtry. This contrasts sharply with the very internalized O.T.O. that barely survived during the McCarthy Era, when the late Karl Germer was in charge, and turned inward for two decades. (On the other hand, Germer when seen less as an active Grand Master and more as a Conservator of ideas and rites in a “dark age” comes off a good deal better.) The famous Ancient and Mystic Order of the Rose Cross (AMORC), the highly successful mail-order spiritual fellowship, was an O.T.O. offspring in Crowley’s time. It has been claimed that Kenneth Grant and Aleister Crowley were discussing relatively radical changes in the Ordo Templi Orientis at approximately the same time that Gardner and Crowley were interactive. Indeed, Crowley’s correspondence and conversations with his eventual successor Grady McMurtry suggest that in his last years the old Magus envisioned the need for a new generation of leaders with new ideas.
Though Wiccan writers give some lip service (and, no doubt, some sincere credence) to the notion that the validity of Wiccan ideas doesn’t depend upon its lineage, the suggestion that Wicca is—or, at least, started out to be, essentially a late attempt at popularizing the secrets of ritual and sexual magick Crowley promulgated through the O.T.O. and his writings, seems to evoke nervousness, if not hostility.
One notes gross animosity or a certain culpable nervousness. We hear from Wiccan writer and leader Raymond Buckland that one “of the suggestions made is that Aleister Crowley wrote the rituals… but no convincing evidence
has been presented to back this assertion and, to my mind, it seems extremely unlikely….”9 The Wiccan rituals I have seen DO have much of Crowley in them. Yet, as we shall see presently, the explanation that “Crowley wrote the rituals for Gardner” turns out to be somewhat in error. But it is on the right track.
“The only man I can think of who could have invented the rites,” he offers, “was the late Aleister Crowley… possibly he borrowed things from the cult writings, or more likely someone may have borrowed expressions from him…”
Doreen Valiente attempts to invoke Crowley’s alleged infirmity at the time of his acquaintance with Gardner:
“It has been stated by Francis King in his Ritual Magic In England that Aleister Crowley was paid by Gerald Gardner to write the rituals of Gardner’s new witch cult… Now, Gerald Gardner never met Aleister Crowley until the very last years of the latter’s life, when he was a feeble old man living at a private hotel in Hastings, being kept alive by injections of drugs… If, therefore, Crowley really invented these rituals in their entirety, they must be about the last thing he ever wrote. Was this enfeebled and practically dying man really capable of such a tour de force?”
In his last years the old Magus envisioned the need for a new generation of leaders with new ideas.
The obvious answer, as the late Dr. Israel Regardie’s introduction to the posthumous collection of Crowley’s letters, Magick Without Tears, implies, would seem to be yes. Crowley continued to produce extraordinary material almost to the end of his life, and much of what I have seen of the “Wiccan Crowley” is, in any case, of earlier origin.
Gerald Gardner is himself not altogether silent on the subject. In Witchcraft Today (p 47), Gardner asks himself, with what degree of irony one can only guess at, who, in modern times, could have invented the Wiccan rituals. “The only man I can think of who could have invented the rites,” he offers, “was the late Aleister Crowley… possibly he borrowed things from the cult writings, or more likely someone may have borrowed expressions from him ” A few legs may be being pulled here, and perhaps more than a few.
As a prophet ahead of his time, as a poet and dreamer, Crowley is one of the
outstanding figures of the 20th (or any) century. As an organizer, he was almost as much of a calamity as he was at managing his own finances… and personal life. As I understand the liberatory nature of the magical path, one would do well to see the difference between Crowley the prophet of Thelema and Crowley the insolvent and awkward administrator.
Crowley very much lacked the common touch; Gardner was above all things a popularizer. Both men have been reviled as lecherous “dirty old men”— Crowley, as a seducer of women and a homosexual, a drug addict and “Satanist” rolled together.
Practices that work are of value, whether they are two years old or two thousand. Practices, myths, institutions and obligations which, on the other hand, may be infinitely ancient are of no value at all unless they work.
Gardner was, they would have it, a voyeur, exhibitionist and bondage freak with a “penchant for ritual” to borrow a line from The Story Of O. Both were, in reality, spiritual libertines, ceremonial magicians who did not shy away from the awesome force of human sexuality and its potential for spiritual transformation as well as physical gratification.