In The Meaning of Witchcraft Gerald Gardner offers a historical narrative constructed from select facts arranged in a web of interpretation woven by Margaret Murray. Despite being initiated by a coven whose lineage stretched back to pre-Christian Britain, Gardner does not relate a history handed down through that tradition. His claims largely rest of the fact of the coven’s existence as demonstrations that his narrative enjoys support from both Murray’s folklore scholarship and direct evidence.

Gardner begins the witchcraft story in prehistoric Old Stone Age spirituality as interpreted from cave drawings in Europe. Hunting tactics accompanied by superstitions connected to success eventually yield formalized ritual and an individual specializing in the ritual performance. As needs transitioned from hunting to herding to farming, the ritual specialists transitions from shaman to priest to witch. Witchcraft is then humanity’s oldest religion and magical practice, stemming from a time in without that distinction.

While Gardner then frames adherents to Old Religion as holdouts against Christian conversion and eventual victims of “the Burning Times,” his account of what a witch does and why they do it remains rooted in this primitivist framework. As such Gardnerian Wicca anchors itself in times much older than Celtic or Germanic pagan cultures that give form to some traditions of modern witchcraft. The gods of Angles, the Saxons, and the Britons feature only as expressions of the primordial god and goddess. Gardner gives witchcraft an anthropological narrative rather than a strictly historical one.

An anthropological turn places witchcraft closer to an area of expertise in which Gardner can boast authentic credentials. During his colonial service, Gardner had extensive contact with tribal peoples in Southeast Asia and wrote some of the first reports on their traditions and legends about weaponry. Although he had no formal training, Gardner’s work was well received by the scholarly community. His interest in both weapons and superstitions about weapons likely brought Gardner a number of stories about magic, hunting, and ritual. Wicca’s embrace of animism, karma, and reincarnation all reflect a distillation of the cultures where Gardner spent his time abroad.

Once the primitivist framework becomes clear, Gardner’s claims about historical witchcraft need only explain how the thread from the Old Stone Age comes to the present day. Where Margaret Murry’s witch cult hypothesis begins in Pagan Europe, Gardner moves the Old Religion to an even earlier time, rendering it the Oldest Religion instead. As such, the Gardnerian framework rests on two principle claims.

1. Witchcraft originates in primitive spiritual and magical practices.
2. These practices have been handed down in unbroken lineages since prehistoric times.

The second claim strains credulity unless one admits that the practices change over time, potentially so much that the members of a later generation do not recognize an older generation as the same tradition despite shared lineage. On a weak interpretation of that thesis, all human traditions stem from the practices of our primitive ancestors, continually changing, differentiating, and converging as humanity itself does. Witchcraft would then have nothing remarkable about it as all religious traditions could claim the same lineage.

A stronger interpretation of the first claim recalls the Witch Cult Hypothesis as framed by Margaret Murray, a source explicitly acknowledged by Gardner as support for his claims. Murray does not locate her Old Religion in a strictly primitive context, claiming only that witches practiced an ancient fertility cult. The Dianic rites that Murray imagined could have belonged to a Hellenistic or Celtic pagan cult centered on a goddess rendered nameless by secrecy but belonging to historical times rather than prehistory. Gardner then reaches further backward in time, possibly to bring his religion closer to something he understood more clearly, the beliefs of tribal peoples he studied and documented. In other words Gardner may have understood the first thesis as identical to a more specific claim.

1a. Witchcraft originates in spiritual and magical practices of indigenous peoples of Southeast Asia.

The conflation of indigenous peoples with prehistorical humanity generally reflects an interpretive lens generally accepted in Gardner’s time but no longer. Scholars now largely reject the framework of a single path of development from primitive conditions to modern civilization as an imperialist bias not supported by evidence. This mistaken belief does require some framework for identifying beliefs succinctly ancient to be part of the primitive witchcraft lineage. Both Murray and Gardner rely on the same additional thesis to account for knowledge about surviving and original witches.

3. The Old/Oldest Religion beliefs and rituals can be known by analysis of rural folk stories, superstitions, and rituals.

The third thesis turns out to be the most important since the epistemic status of all other conclusions rest on it. Without a reliable method to trace the secret tradition and recognize its continued presence, there is no evidence for the other claims. To the detriment of both Gardner and Murray, scholars have failed to find such support. As noted by other scholars, Murray cites customs as evidence of ancient rites without sufficient research to uncover the recency of the practice. Murray interprets her evidence based on her own understanding of rural folk traditions rather than documented evidence or self-report from the people who lived those traditions.

Contemporary folklorists generally agree that theories regarding ancient customs preserved among uneducated rural peoples align better with prejudices of the academic community than available evidence. Many of Murray’s specific claims regarding folk customs contradict available evidence. While the Witch Cult hypothesis remains well known among popular audiences, scholars have rejected it and the methods that brought it into being as unreliable. Gardner offers only one piece of evidence beyond Murray insofar as he claimed to be have been initiated by a surviving witch coven. Historians have likewise rejected Gardner’s claims about the coven as fabrications, a story to frame the founding myth of his new “old religion.” In the absence of any reliable support, Gardner’s second thesis may be safely rejected.

Only the first thesis remains plausible, but it only allows us to conclude that Wicca is connected to an authentic experience of the divine that spans the human condition. Such a thesis would be true of all modern religions, so Wicca is not distinct in that way. While one should then see Wicca as equivalent in authenticity to religious traditions with a longer historical legacy.

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