“From the outset, Gardner’s witches faced the dilemma that if they were to multiply (or, as Gardner put it, to save the Old Religion from extinction), then they needed publicity; but that negative publicity might destroy them.”[Ronald Hutton, History of Pagan Witchcraft, in
Witchcraft and magic in Europe: The twentieth century
ed. Bengt Ankarloo and Stuart Clark, p. 54]
1.“Witchcraft doesn’t pay for broken windows.”
Indeed, Gardner’s witches did multiply, and soon Doreen Valiente had formed a new, sister Coven, in 1957. A number of factors contributed to this growth, among them being the publication in 1954 of Gardner’s book Witchcraft Today, combined with Gardner’s eagerness and talent for courting of public attention.
However, a great deal of the resulting attention paid to Gardner and his Witches was decidedly negative. According to Hutton (continuing on in his essay on The History of Pagan Witchcraft already quoted above), starting in 1955 the popular press began to “run features attacking witchcraft as Satanism …. In 1957 and 1959 the original London coven was denounced sensationally and unscrupulously, putting a considerable strain on its members and fracturing relations between Valiente’s group and Gerald Gardner.” In response, Gardner came out with (in 1959) The Meaning of Witchcraft: “answering the press attacks and attempting to establish the historical credentials of his religion more firmly by relating it to a string of ancient religious texts and images, and later magical groups.” [p. 55]
(It should be noted, at least parenthetically, that, Hutton’s crude misdirection notwithstanding, the connections drawn by Gardner, in The Meaning of Witchcraft, between 20th century Wicca and “ancient religious texts and images, and later magical groups,” constitutes a seamless continuation of the way Gardner had presented the history and roots of Wicca previously in Witchcraft Today. In fact, Gardner had included in the Foward of that earlier book a prominent reference to the Mystery cult of Isis and the writings of Platonic philosopher Apuleius, who was an initiate in the cults of Isis, Asclepius, and Hermes, and possibly that of other deities as well. Gardner also devoted an entire chapter of Witchcraft Today to “The Witches and the Mysteries”, as well as another chapter titled “Out of the Land of Egypt”, which is also primarily focused on the Mystery Religions of the ancient world. And there are in addition significant references to the Mysteries in the chapters on “Witch Beliefs” and “Witch Practices”.)
The following two passages from the first chapter of The Meaning of Witchcraft give some indication of the kind of hostility that Gardner and “his Witches” were up against:
“I am a member of the Society for Psychical Research, and on the Committee of the Folklore Society; so I wanted to tell of my discovery. But I was met with a determined refusal. ‘The Age of Persecution is not over,’ they told me; ‘give anyone half a chance and the fires will blaze up again.’ When I said to one of them, ‘Why do you keep all these things so secret still? There’s no persecution nowadays!’ I was told, ‘Oh, isn’t there? If people knew what I was, every time a child in the village was ill, or somebody’s chickens died, I should get the blame for it. Witchcraft doesn’t pay for broken windows.’
“I can remember as a boy reading in the papers of a woman being burned alive in Southern Ireland as a witch; but I could not believe that there could be any persecution nowadays in England. So, against their better judgment, they agreed to let me write a little about the cult in the form of fictions, an historical novel where a witch says a little of what they believe and of how they were persecuted. This was published in 1949 under the title of High Magic’s Aid.
“In 1951 a very important event occurred. The Government of the day passed the Fraudulent Mediums Act, which repealed and replaced the last remaining Witchcraft Act, under which spiritualists used to be prosecuted in modern times. This Act is, I believe, unique in legally recognising the existence of genuine mediumship and psychic powers.
“I thought that at last common sense and religious freedom had prevailed; but even so, the passage of this Act was highly obnoxious to certain religious bodies which had been preaching against Spiritualism for years and trying to outlaw it as ‘the work of Satan,’ together with any other societies to which they objected, including Freemasonry and, of course, witchcraft.
“About a year previously, this Museum had been opened, and I had flattered myself that showing what witchcraft really is, an ancient religion, would arouse no hostility in any quarter. I was to find out in due course how wrong I was!
“Any attempt to show witchcraft in anything even remotely resembling a favourable light, or to challenge the old representation of it as something uniformly evil and devilish, or even to present it as a legitimate object of study, can still arouse the most surprising reactions. The virtues of humanism, which Charles Saltman defined as ‘sensitivity, intelligence and erudition, together with integrity, curiosity and tolerance,’ have still quite a long way to go in their struggle against the mentality which produced the Malleus Maleficarum.”
[The Meaning of Witchcraft, pp. 11-12]
“The Old Horned God of the witches is not the Satan of Christianity, and no amount of theological argument will make him so. He is, in fact, the oldest deity known to man, and is depicted in the oldest representation of a divinity which has yet been found, namely the Stone Age painting in the innermost recess of the Caverne des Trois Freres at Ariege. He is the old phallic god of fertility who has come forth from the morning of the world, and who was already of immeasurable antiquity before Egypt and Babylon, let alone before the Christian era. Nor did he perish at the cry that Great Pan was dead. Secretly through the centuries, hidden deeper and deeper as time went on, his worship and that of the naked Moon Goddess, his bride, the Lady of Mystery and Magic and the forbidden joys, continued sometimes among the great ones of the land, sometimes in humble cottages, or on lonely heaths and in the depths of darkling woods, on summer nights when the moon rode high. It does so still.
“From time to time the public have been treated to various highly-coloured and highly unconvincing ‘revelations’ in the popular Press and elsewhere upon the subject of ‘Black Magic’, ‘Satanism’, and similar matters, and occasionally these have been linked with witchcraft. Let me state right away that I personally maintain an attitude of thorough-going scepticism towards these things, and that even if they do exist I do not consider them to have any relation to the survival of the witch cult. Alleged ‘confessions’, especially where witchcraft is mentioned, bear ample internal evidence of their own meretriciousness, in that they are obviously modelled upon sensational thrillers and reveal no knowledge whatever of genuine witch practices.”
[The Meaning of Witchcraft, pp. 21-22]
“That there is no positive evil.”
Rachel Beauvoir-Dominique is an Oxford educated anthropologist who is chair of the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at l’Université d’Etat d’Haïti. She is also a highly respected Priestess (Mambo) in the Haitian Vodou religion. In September of 2009 (fully 55 years after Gerald Gardner wrote Witchcraft Today), Beauvoir-Dominique was interviewed in conjunction with an exhibit on Vodou at the Museum of World Culture in Gothenburg, Sweden (too see the interview, go here).
The first question asked of Professor Beauvoir-Dominique was “what is Vodou?” A perfectly reasonable question, to which the Mambo gives a very informative answer. However, it does not take long for the other shoe to drop. The second question was “Are there any evil forces in Vodou?” To which Professor Beauvoir-Dominique again gives a very educational answer, part of which is:
“Vodou … is part of Haitian culture, and in this culture we don’t see that there is Evil. We think that the word Evil is constructed, it comes from other places, and is really not ours. The “good” and the “bad” are very Christian notions, very Manichean. We think more in terms of grays, of black becoming white, of white becoming black. Of Yin and Yang. As in the figure of Yin and Yang — there is a perpetual movement of things. And for us there is no Evil. Things become evil when they are seen through evil eyes.”
When Gerald Gardner chose to answer accusations against Wicca in his second exposition on the religion, The Meaning of Witchcraft, he took a very similar approach to the one we see in Mambo Beauvoir-Dominique’s patient and thoughtful answer to the question about Vodou and “evil”. In particular, when Gardner responded directly to the most infamous accusation, namely that Wicca amounts to “worship of the Evil Principle”, in his chapter entitled “The Black Mass“, Gardner, like Beauvoir-Dominique, explains that Wicca “positively denies the existence of a Power of Evil.” [p. 171]
This chapter on “The Black Mass” is, in fact, the section of The Meaning of Witchcraft in which Gardner introduces Sallustius’ Peri Theon kai Kosmou and pronounces it to be “a general statement” of the beliefs of Wiccans (as discussed in Part One of this series). The first portion of Sallustius’ Pagan Manifesto that Gardner quotes is the entirety of Section XII: “The origin of evil things; and that there is no positive evil.”
“The Gods being good and making all things, how do evils exist in the world? Or perhaps it is better first to state the fact that, the Gods being good and making all things, there is no positive evil, it only comes by absence of good; just as darkness itself does not exist, but only comes about by absence of light.
“If evil exists it must exist either in Gods or minds or souls or bodies. It does not exist in any God, for all god is good. If anyone speaks of a ‘bad mind’ he means a mind without mind. If of a bad soul, he will make the soul inferior to body, for no body in itself is evil. If he says that evil is made up of soul and body together, it is absurd that separately they should not be evil, but joined should create evil.
“Suppose it is said that there are evil spirits: – if they have their power from the Gods, they cannot be evil; if from elsewhere, the Gods do not make all things. If they do not make all things, then either they wish to or cannot, or they can and do not wish; neither of which is consistent with the idea of god. We may see, therefore, from these arguments, that there is no positive evil in the world.
“It is in the activities of men that the evils appear, and that not of all men nor always. And as to these, if men sinned for the sake of evil, nature itself would be evil. But if the adulterer thinks his adultery bad but his pleasure good, and the murderer thinks the murder bad but the money he gets by it good, and the man who does evil to an enemy thinks that to do evil is bad but to punish his enemy good, and if the soul commits all its sins in that way, then the evils are done for the sake of goodness. (In the same way, because in a given place light does not exist, there comes darkness, which has no positive existence.) The soul sins therefore because, while aiming at good, it makes mistakes about the good, because it is not primary essence. And we see many things done by the Gods to prevent it from making mistakes and to heal it when it has made them. Arts and sciences, curses and prayers, sacrifices and initiations, laws and constitutions, judgments and punishments, all came into existence for the sake of preventing souls from sinning; and when they are gone forth from the body, Gods and spirits of purification cleanse them of their sins.”
[On the Gods and the Cosmsos, Sallustius, Section XII: “The origin of evil things; and that there is no positive evil.”]
“The inner meaning of religious rituals.”
The section of Sallustius that Gardner turned to first requires little or no explanation. It is, in fact, one of the clearest explications of a Pagan answer to the so-called “Problem of Evil“. Less clear, perhaps, are Gardner’s reasons for his next selection from Sallustius, which deals with, as Gardner styles it, “the inner meaning of religious rituals.”
“It is impious to suppose that the divine is affected for good or ill by human things. The Gods are always good and always do good and never harm, being always in the same state and like themselves. The truth simply is that, when we are good, we are joined to the Gods by our likeness; when bad, we are separated from them by our unlikeness. And when we live according to virture we cling to the Gods, and when we become evil we make the Gods our enemies — not because they are angered against us, but because our sins prevent the light of the Gods from shining upon us, and put us in communion with spirits of punishment. And if by prayers and sacrifices we find forgiveness of sins, we do not appease or change the Gods, but by what we do and by our turning toward the Divine we heal our own badness and so enjoy again the goodness of the Gods. To say that the Gods turn away from evil is like saying that the sun hides himself from the blind.
“This solves the question about sacrifices and other rites performed to the Gods. The divine itself is without needs, and the worship is paid for our own benefit. The providence of the Gods reaches everywhere and needs only some congruity for its reception. All congruity comes about by representation and likeness; for which reason the temples are made in representation of heaven, the altar of earth, the images of life (that is why they are made like living things), the prayers of the element of though, the mystic letters of the unspeakable celestial forces, the herbs and stones of matter, and the sacrificial animals of the irrational life in us.
“From all these things the Gods gain nothing; what gain could there be to God? It is we who gain some communion with them.”
[On the Gods and the Cosmsos, Sallustius, Section XIV (partial): “In what sense, though the Gods never change, they are said to be made angry and appeased.” And also Section XV: “Why we give worship to the Gods when they need nothing.”]
But what bearing does the subject of “the inner meaning of religious rituals” have on responding to accusations that Pagan religion is somehow involved with Evil?
The issue here is not merely the accusation that Pagans do evil things, but rather that we worship Evil Things. This accusation goes back to the earliest days of Christianity. Among its clearest expressions is that found in the writings of Augustine, and his City of God, Against the Pagans in particular. Somewhat ironically, Augustine wrote that work largely as a defense of Christianity against the accusation, from Pagans, that the Christian prohibitions against the worship of the old Gods had led to the downfall of Rome (some of the historical background to this is discussed in Reflections on Vergil and Augustine.)
In Book VIII of his Against the Pagans, Augustine asserts that the traditional Gods worshipped at Pagan festivals and in the urban Pagan temples are “rather malign demons than gods.” Furthermore, Augustine employs a favorite Christian trope that is still popular today with Ronald Hutton and his fanbase, in which it is claimed that the religion of ancient philosophers is somehow different from and unrelated to that of the Pagan masses generally. (By this logic the “philosophy” of Augustine is equally unrelated the lowbrow Christianity of the ignorant, unwashed masses who make up the vast bulk of the Army of Christ, thus making Augustine no Christian at all. But any such appeal to consistency is lost on the likes of Hutton.)
And so Augustine now focuses not on “the fabulous, that is, the theatrical” theology of the plebs, nor on the more staid “civil, that is, the urban” theology of the aristocratic priests and priestesses serving the deities of the polis. Instead, Augustine explains that he wishes to address himself “not to ordinary men, but to philosophers … concerning the theology which they call natural.” In particular, Augustine, and here he shows that he knows what he is about, directly attacks the magical and erotic theology set forth by Socrates in Plato’s dialogues.
In his famous speech in the Symposium, Socrates had revealed what the Witch (for surely she fits Gardner’s profile for ancient Witches) Diotima had revealed to him as a young man concerning the nature of Eros. She had instructed Socrates that Eros is not really a God, per se, but rather a Daemon: “A great Daemon, Socrates; for the whole realm of the Daemons is intermediary between the Gods and mortals.” At this point Socrates had inquired about the “powers” possessed by these Daemons. And here is Diotima’s answer:
“Interpreting and conveying things from men to Gods, and things from Gods to men, prayers and sacrifices from one, commands and requitals in exchange for sacrifices from the other, since, being in between both, the Daemons fill the region between both so that the All is bound together with itself.
“Through this Daemonic realm moves all prophetic art and the art of priests having to do with sacrifices and rituals and spells, and all powers of prophecy and enchantment. The Gods do not mingle with mortals, but all intercourse and conversation of the Gods with humans, waking and sleeping, are through this intermediary realm. Those who are wise about such things are truly divine, but those who are wise about any other arts or crafts are mere technicians and mechanics. The Daemons, then, are many and manifold, and one of them is Eros.”
[202d-203a, taken from R.E. Allen’s translation, with some liberties]
The above is only one small part of Diotima’s teachings on Eros and the Daemons, according to Socrates, according to Plato. Just a little later on, Diotima states that Eros is πόριμος (clever, contriving), a φιλόσοφος (a lover of wisdom, philosopher), a γόης (witch), a φαρμακεύς (one skilled in potions), and a σοφιστής (sophist).
Almost two thousand years later, Marsilio Ficino wondered why Diotima, in addition to describing the great Daemon Eros as clever, philosophical and a sophist, had also imputed magical powers to Eros:
“But why do we think that Eros is a magician? Because the whole power of magic consists in Eros. The work of magic is the attraction of one thing by another because of a certain affinity of nature. But the parts of this world, like the parts of a single animal, all deriving from a single author, are joined to each other by the communion of a single nature. Therefore just as the brain, lungs, heart, liver and the rest of the parts draw something from each other, and help each other, and sympathize with any one of them when it suffers, so the parts of this great animal [the cosmos as a single living being], that is, the bodies of the world, similarly joined together, borrow and lend natures to and from each other. From this common relationship is born a common love; from love, a common attraction. And this is true magic …. [T]he works of magic are works of nature, but art is its handmaiden …. The ancients attributed this art to Daemons, because the Daemons understand what is the inter-relation of natural things, what is appropriate to each, and how the harmony of things, if lacking anywhere, can be restored …. They [the ancients, such as Socrates, Zoroaster, Apollonius of Tyana, and Porphyry] seem to have become magicians through friendship of the Daemons, just as the Daemons are magicians through understanding the friendship of things themselves. And all nature, because of mutual love, is called a magician.”
[De Amore, Marsilio Ficino. This is specificaly from Speech VI, using the translation by Sears Jane, p. 127 of the 1985 Spring Publications edition]
But let us return now to Augustine, and to Book VIII of his Against the Pagans in particular. We have already seen how Augustine equated the traditional Gods with “malign demons”. Later (Chapter 5 of Book VIII) he calls them “impure demons, under the name of gods.” Most of the latter half of this Book (Chapters 14-26) is devoted to attacks on the Platonic conception of the role of Daemons in magic and religion. In addition to Plato himself, Augustine pays special attention to the Platonic philosopher Apuleius and to the figure of Hermes Trismegistus.
The take home message from Augustine’s polemics against Plato, Apuleius, and Hermes is that the whole Daemonic realm is, in reality, Demonic in the sense of being purely Evil. In other words, what Plato portrayed as the liminal realm of the Cosmos, situated above the human realm, whose purpose is to connect us with the Gods, and which is responsible for the efficacy of both religious practices and magic arts; that this is in fact an infernal realm populated with demons that are “arrogant” and “deceiving” who prey on those who seek “divine refuge” by “feigning divinity”. These demons are everywhere “lying in wait for the deception of man!”
The Christian view, then, is that (1) Pagan religiosity is generally evil, (2) more specifically, the spiritual Powers upon which Pagans call are evil beings, and (3) the whole spiritual realm (outside of the Holy Ghost and “angels”) is filled with and characterized by malignant Evil. It is in order to counter these dark (and as perversely self-serving as they are self-revealing) Christian fantasies, which they sometimes try to hide behind the philosophical niceties of the so-called “Problem of Evil”, that Gardner invokes the words of Sallustius on the subject of the “the inner meaning of religious ritual.” In essence, Gardner wishes to categorically disprove any idea that the magical/religious practices of Wiccans amount to calling upon evil forces. However, Gardner chooses not to explicitly defend the liminal/Daemonic aspects of Platonic theology but to explicate Pagan rituals in such terms as (1) being “joined to the Gods”, (2) having “the light of the Gods … shining upon us”, and (3) “by turning toward the Gods we heal our own badness and so enjoy again the goodness of the Gods.” All this and more comes about because “The providence of the Gods reaches everywhere and needs only some congruity for its reception.”
The fact is that Sallustius provides no opportunity to more directly defend the intermediary spiritual realm, for, true to the title of the work, he sticks to “the Gods” and “the Cosmos”. And it is unlikely, anyway, that Gardner would have thought there could be anything to be gained by trying to convince the general public that Wicca relies on daemons, but not on demons. And then there was also Gardner’s choice to (dishonestly, as is now generally accepted) deny the very real connections between his Wicca and Ceremonial Magic (where explicit references to Daemons are easy to find).
But (even though he avoids direct references to Daemons) it is quite clear that Gerald Gardner in 1959, just like practitioners of Vodou today, had to defend himself against the mindset that all spiritual powers outside Christianity are by definition infernal, evil and Satanic. And Gardner turns to the Platonic Paganism of Sallustius to assert both that (1) in terms of belief, “Wicca positively denies the existence of a Power of Evil” (using Gardner’s words), and (2) in terms of practice, the Gods of Wicca “are always good and always do good and never harm” and “worship [of the Gods] is paid for our own benefit,” with the end in mind that by such worship we might “live according to virture” and be “joined to the Gods by our likeness to them” (using Sallustius’ words as cited by Gardner).
Modern Paganism and the Ancient Mysteries:
- Part One: Sallustius, Gardner & Wicca: “A general statement of their creed.”
- Part Two: Gerald Gardner, Sallustius, and the Problem of Evil
- Part Three: Gerald Gardner, Sallustius, and Reincarnation
- Part Four: “Divested of their garments”