Like many others, I embraced Neopagan Wicca after becoming dissatisfied with Christianity in my early teens. After Catholic school and years of Baptist church services, I found that I did not have faith and rejected the Christian moral universe. From that time onward my understanding of witchcraft and the occult changed, but I have always maintained some connection to those subjects. While Neopagan religion occupies the core of my spirituality, I have had my struggles with it as well.

For these purposes Neopaganism can be defined broadly as spiritual paths that embrace polytheism, the divinity of nature, and the practice of ritual magic. Neopagan paths tend to adopt features that inspired by pre-Christian religious traditions. Translating folklore into magical practices or religious symbols provides the basic framework for most Neopagan traditions.

According to most introductory books, the Pagan revival began when Gerald Gardner received permission to publicize the beliefs of a coven purported to practice a witchcraft religion that had survived in secret since pre-Christian England. Gardner initiated a number of people into what came to be called Wicca. As the religion spread, Wiccans diverged from the Gardnerian tradition and formed new lineages to reconstruct or revive different versions of the Old Religion.

Historians and folklorists find Gardner’s claims implausible and unsubstantiated by evidence. In form the rituals Gardner published resemble the style of ceremonial magic practiced by the Order of the Golden Dawn. Golden Dawn ceremonial magic copies forms inherited from Masonic orders which in turn copy ritual magic procedures outlined in the Keys of Solomon, a medieval forgery of King Solomon’s grimoire. None of these sources predate Christianity, and in the case of Golden Dawn forms, embrace Christian monotheism and the celestial world of heaven, hell, angels, and demons.

Much of Gardner’s assertions about the witchcraft religion rely on Margaret Murray’s theory that pre-Christian practices survive in the folkways of rural people. While Murray’s Witch-Cult in Western Europe enjoyed wide popularity, historians and folklorists rejected her interpretation of the witch trials and superstitions. While evidence of syncretized pagan and Christian practices abounds in Europe, no evidence suggests a surviving “Old Religion” existing in secret alongside Christianity until its revelation in the modern day.

On the other hand, Gardner had been a member of various chapters of the Order of the Golden Dawn, and he claimed to have met the New Forest Coven through such a group. Documented contact between Gardner and other contemporary occultists such as Aleister Crowley show that Gardner sought initiation with several ceremonial magic orders. The available evidence suggests that Gardner and a group of ceremonial magicians fused Golden Dawn rites with Murray’s account of the witch-cult. They shrouded their new tradition in a myth of pre-Christian continuity in much the same way that Helena Blavatsky claimed to proclaim the teaching of Tibetan masters. Both stories provide an air of mystery to the beliefs and practices; they suggest that the authors have received a special revelation, a hidden truth.

Many contemporary Pagans know the facts outlined here. Just as not all Christians believe in the literal truth of the Bible, Pagans may view Gardner’s story as a creation myth, a philosophical guide post that frames the intended attitude. Modern Pagan traditions embrace folk wisdom, organize as mystery religions that require initiation, and practice ritual magic. Those features provide a framework capable of including diverse traditions that can nevertheless share a language and perspective among themselves. In that way modern Paganism can stand independent of the Gardner story or the mythos of any particular tradition.

The practice of magic introduces a complication with questionable foundation myths. Ritual magic employs symbolic action to influence the participant’s mental state and perspective. At the climax of a ritual, the participant stands fully immersed in a living metaphor established by the opening of the ritual and dissolved in its closing. Maintaining focus on the metaphor requires partitioning the internal view from external assessment of the actions. For instance, breaking the mood by sneezing in the incense smoke can disrupt the immersion unless a baseline reverential mood has been established. Ritual practices framed as ancient secrets borrows gravitas from tradition, supplying a sense of authenticity to buttress the ritual space against external intrusion.

If the magician’s perspective on their practice changes from tradition to forgery, the borrowed gravitas evaporates. As the magician studies sources more deeply, the falsehoods and frauds emerge. The transition from youthful enthusiasm to critical study shreds naive faith, especially when witchcraft provided an escape from hypocrisy and manipulation in one’s birth religion. Tracing occult lineages reveals a history of exaggerated claims, questionable authenticity, and unattributed borrowing.

My particular path threaded from Fundamentalist Evangelical Christianity to Wicca and then into academic history, anthropology, and philosophy. When I tried to place my Wicca-informed beliefs on firmer ground, the false creation myth and the close association between magic and charlatanry yielded more mud than stone. Historians and archaeologists can confirm very little about Celtic or Germanic religious practices before their conversion to Christianity. Reconstructions using the methods of Margaret Murry prove flawed as experts have largely rejected her theories.

Nevertheless, Paganism and occult studies satiated a need to place my life into a larger context from which to draw guidance and strength. As I studied ethics, I found that my core moral commitments flowed from modern Pagan beliefs and my interactions with Pagan teachers. My studies continued because I wanted a way to build a foundation firm enough for ritual magic but consistent with a scholarly understanding of history, religion, and philosophy.

To replace a false lineage, the magician may ground authenticity in an investigation into the true lineage. In the absence of diving revelation, practiced belief creates traditions. A living tradition changes over time, influenced by the needs of the devotees. Likewise, modern Paganism has creators, influences, and devotees. Understanding a ritual practice would then include investigation into the origin of the practice to identify its source inspiration. Further investigation can show how the ritual changed over time as different traditions adapted it. In the end the magician may then decide how to incorporate or alter practices within their chosen tradition. A tradition presented as an honest reconstruction grounded in inspiration, fallibility, and adaptation acknowledges its founding truth rather than cloaking it in illusory gravitas.