>On the one hand, it is, at the very least, rather unnerving that Gerald Gardner’s most direct and substantive reference to the beliefs and practices of ancient Pagans, as these pertain directly to Wicca, is to be found in the chapter of Witchcraft Today that is titled “The Black Mass.”
On the other hand, by invoking Sallustius’ On the Gods and the Cosmos, Gardner is calling in his big guns, so to speak, in order to decisively confront and defeat what was arguably the greatest danger facing Wicca at the time. Accusations that the followers of Wicca were in league with Satan posed a genuinely existential threat to Wicca in the 1950’s. At the same time, these sensationalistic allegations also directly challenged Gardner’s strategy, such as it was, of actively seeking out publicity.
By linking arms with Sallustius, Gardner was able to counter the “Satanic” accusations with something far more convincing than his own claims and characterizations about Pagan beliefs. Sallustius’ “authoritative Pagan creed” (as classicist Gilbert Murray had called it) had been written 16 centuries previously by a highly educated, articulate, aristocratic, and obviously pious representative of a religious tradition which he proudly shared with many of the greatest and most admired figures of the ancient world, including Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, Ovid, Vergil and Cicero.
Moreover, Gardner could make use of a readily available English translation of Sallustius that had been published by the widely respected classicist Gilbert Murray in 1912, in his Four Stages of Greek Religion (later revised as Five Stages of Greek Religion). Gardner could count on his readers having access to this book in any decent public library, and the wisdom of this choice of this text is further supported by the fact that Murray’s little book is still in print nearly 100 years after it’s first publication, making it one of the most successful popular expositions of its kind in modern publishing history. And, moreover, Murray’s translation of Sallustius is now freely available in multiple places on the Internet, making it a better and more useful choice than ever as an illustration of the connection between modern and ancient Paganism.
Previously, in Part Two of this series on Modern Paganism and the Ancient Mysteries we looked at how Gardner uses Sallustius to demonstrate (1) that “Wicca positively denies the existence of a Power of Evil”, and (2) that the Gods of Wicca “are always good and always do good and never harm”. But while Gardner has Sallustius on the stand he wishes to elucidate the 4th century Platonic initiate’s expert testimony on one further topic: “the doctrines of Reincarnation and Karma”:
XVIII. Why there are rejections of the Gods, and that the Gods are not injured
Nor need the fact that rejections of the Gods have taken place in certain parts of the earth and will often take place hereafter, disturb the mind of the wise: both because these things do not affect the Gods, just as we saw that worship did not benefit them; and because the soul, being of middle essence, cannot be always right; and because the whole world cannot enjoy the providence of the Gods equally, but some parts may partake of it eternally, some at certain times, some in the primal manner, some in the secondary. Just as the head enjoys all the senses, but the rest of the body only one.
For this reason, it seems, those who ordained festivals ordained also forbidden days, in which some temples lay idle, some were shut, some had their adornments removed, in expiation of the weakness of our nature.
It is not unlikely, too, that the rejection of the Gods is a kind of punishment: we may well believe that those who knew the Gods and neglected them in one life may in another life be deprived of the knowledge of them altogether. Also those who have worshipped their own kings as Gods have deserved as their punishment to lose all knowledge of the Gods.
XIX. Why sinners are not punished at once
There is no need to be surprised if neither these sins nor yet others bring immediate punishment upon sinners. For it is not only spirits who punish the evil, the soul brings itself to judgment: and also it is not right for those who endure for ever to attain everything in a short time: and also, there is need of human virtue. If punishment followed instantly upon sin, men would act justly from fear and have no virtue.
Souls are punished when they have gone forth from the body, some wandering among us, some going to hot or cold places of the earth, some harassed by spirits. Under all circumstances they suffer with the irrational part of their nature, with which they also sinned. For its sake there subsists that shadowy body which is seen about graves, especially the graves of those who have lived evil lives.
XX. On Metempsychosis, and how Souls are said to migrate into brute beasts
If the transmigration of a soul takes place into a rational being, it simply becomes the soul of that body. But if the soul migrates into a brute beast, it follows the body outside, as a guardian spirit follows a man. For there could never be a rational soul in an irrational being.
The transmigration of souls can be proved from the congenital afflictions of persons. For why are some born blind, others paralytic, others with some sickness in the soul itself? Again, it is the natural duty of souls to do their work in the body; are we to suppose that when once they leave the body they spend all eternity in idleness? Again, if the souls did not again enter into bodies, they must either be infinite in number or the Gods must constantly be making new ones. But there is nothing infinite in the world; for in a finite whole there cannot be an infinite part. Neither can others be made; for everything in which something new goes on being created, must be imperfect. And the world, being made by a perfect author, ought naturally to be perfect.
XXI. That the Good are happy, both living and dead
Souls that have lived in virtue are in general happy, and when separated from the irrational part of their nature, and made clean from all matter, have communion with the Gods and join them in the governing of the whole world. Yet even if none of this happiness fell to their lot, virtue itself, and the joy and glory of virtue, and the life that is subject to no grief and no master are enough to make happy those who have set themselves to live according to virtue and have achieved it.
But how does transmigration of souls fit into Gardner’s overall apologetic strategy in The Meaning of Witchcraft? Having broadly addressed some of the hostility to Wicca, especially coming from the press, in Chapter I, Gardner spends Chapters II-XI accentuating the positive. However, a change in tone is clearly signaled with the opening sentence of Chapter XII (despite its rather innocuous title, “Signs and Symbols”): “A frequent allegation is made against witches by the sillier type of writer that they seek to desecrate Christian churches, and to wreck Christian graveyards.”
The next five chapters (XII-XVI), comprising about 1/3 of the book, are much more overtly framed in terms of responding to accusations and allegations against Wicca. First, in the just mentioned Chapter XII, Gardner addresses the allegation that Witches carry out acts of vandalism and desecration against Christian churches and graveyards. But Gardner mostly uses this as a way of introducing what he claims is evidence of the continued existence of Paganism among professedly Christianized “British craftsmen of old days” who, among other things, “preserved the signs and symbols of the Old Religion … by their so-called ‘Masons’ Marks’ with which they used to mark the stones they worked.” Gardner’s argument being that Wiccans would be the last people in the world to wish to vandalize Britain’s ancient churches, since these are repositories of the “signs and symbols” of the Old Religion! Nicely done, Gerald.
The very title of the following chapter, “The Black Mass”, leaves no doubt as to the defensive nature of the argument to be found therein. And yet Gardner is also (almost certainly) hoping to catch the eye of casual bookshop browsers glancing through the Table of Contents. Nevertheless, Gardner is not merely appealing to the prurient interests of the book-buying public. As he did in the previous chapter, he first introduces a scurrilous accusation: “many writers about witchcraft accuse witches of performing perverted Christian ceremonies, notably a mockery of the Mass, which they call ‘the Black Mass’.” Then Gardner uses this accusation as a jumping off point for a serious, positive presentation or some aspect of the Old Religion. This time Gardner is focusing on connections between modern Wicca and the Mystery Religions of the ancient world, and he uses Sallustius’ Peri Theon kai Kosmou as his primary source for ascertaining “what the Mysteries taught.”
From the beginning of his discussion of Sallustius (before introducing several long quotations), Gardner emphasizes “Sallustius’ strong belief not only in the survival of bodily death, but in the continued activity and interest of those souls who have passed beyond earth in benefiting humanity.” But he then moves away from the issue of the soul’s continued existence after death, to first address the Wiccan view of “evil”, and then to present a defense of the Gods of Wicca as beneficent beings. Having done that, Gardner returns to the issue of reincarnation.
The introduction of reincarnation, at this point, is necessary to complete the picture of the moral order of the Sallustian/Wiccan cosmology, and to help explain how, within this moral order, the immortal human soul is given complete freedom to determine its own destiny.
Pico della Mirandola had similarly felt compelled, though he also felt the need to be circumspect, to inject metempsychosis into his own “Manifesto”, The Oration on the Dignity of Man, in a way that also illuminates not just the compatibility, but the inextricable interconnectedness of (1) human freedom, (2) “metamorphoses” and “transformations” (he avoids saying metempsychosis explicitly), and (3) the cosmic order:
Hear then, oh Fathers, precisely what this condition of man is; and in the name of your humanity, grant me your benign audition as I pursue this theme.
God the Father, the Mightiest Architect, had already raised, according to the precepts of His hidden wisdom, this world we see, the cosmic dwelling of divinity, a temple most august. He had already adorned the supercelestial region with Intelligences, infused the heavenly globes with the life of immortal souls and set the fermenting dung-heap of the inferior world teeming with every form of animal life. But when this work was done, the Divine Artificer still longed for some creature which might comprehend the meaning of so vast an achievement, which might be moved with love at its beauty and smitten with awe at its grandeur. When, consequently, all else had been completed (as both Moses and Timaeus testify), in the very last place, He bethought Himself of bringing forth man. Truth was, however, that there remained no archetype according to which He might fashion a new offspring, nor in His treasure-houses the wherewithal to endow a new son with a fitting inheritance, nor any place, among the seats of the universe, where this new creature might dispose himself to contemplate the world. All space was already filled; all things had been distributed in the highest, the middle and the lowest orders. Still, it was not in the nature of the power of the Father to fail in this last creative élan; nor was it in the nature of that supreme Wisdom to hesitate through lack of counsel in so crucial a matter; nor, finally, in the nature of His beneficent love to compel the creature destined to praise the divine generosity in all other things to find it wanting in himself.
At last, the Supreme Maker decreed that this creature, to whom He could give nothing wholly his own, should have a share in the particular endowment of every other creature. Taking man, therefore, this creature of indeterminate image, He set him in the middle of the world and thus spoke to him:
“We have given you, O Adam, no visage proper to yourself, nor endowment properly your own, in order that whatever place, whatever form, whatever gifts you may, with premeditation, select, these same you may have and possess through your own judgement and decision. The nature of all other creatures is defined and restricted within laws which We have laid down; you, by contrast, impeded by no such restrictions, may, by your own free will, to whose custody We have assigned you, trace for yourself the lineaments of your own nature. I have placed you at the very center of the world, so that from that vantage point you may with greater ease glance round about you on all that the world contains. We have made you a creature neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, in order that you may, as the free and proud shaper of your own being, fashion yourself in the form you may prefer. It will be in your power to descend to the lower, brutish forms of life; you will be able, through your own decision, to rise again to the superior orders whose life is divine.”
Oh unsurpassed generosity of God the Father, Oh wondrous and unsurpassable felicity of man, to whom it is granted to have what he chooses, to be what he wills to be! The brutes, from the moment of their birth, bring with them, as Lucilius says, “from their mother’s womb'” all that they will ever possess. The highest spiritual beings were, from the very moment of creation, or soon thereafter, fixed in the mode of being which would be theirs through measureless eternities. But upon man, at the moment of his creation, God bestowed seeds pregnant with all possibilities, the germs of every form of life. Whichever of these a man shall cultivate, the same will mature and bear fruit in him. If vegetative, he will become a plant; if sensual, he will become brutish; if rational, he will reveal himself a heavenly being; if intellectual, he will be an angel and the son of God. And if, dissatisfied with the lot of all creatures, he should recollect himself into the center of his own unity, he will there become one spirit with God, in the solitary darkness of the Father, Who is set above all things, himself transcend all creatures.
Who then will not look with awe upon this our chameleon, or who, at least, will look with greater admiration on any other being? This creature, man, whom Asclepius the Athenian [see note 9. below], by reason of this very mutability, this nature capable of transforming itself, quite rightly said was symbolized in the mysteries by the figure of Proteus [see note 10. below]. This is the source of those metamorphoses, or transformations, so celebrated among the Hebrews and among the Pythagoreans; for even the esoteric theology of the Hebrews at times transforms the holy Enoch into that angel of divinity which is sometimes called malakh-ha-shekhinah and at other times transforms other personages into divinities of other names; while the Pythagoreans transform men guilty of crimes into brutes or even, if we are to believe Empedocles, into plants.
[A link to the complete text of this public domain English translation can be found at Theodore Gracyk’s website at MSU-Morehead University as part of the materials for his class on Human Spirit in Art.]
Pico’s references to Asclepius and Proteus are especially worthy of closer consideration. Masimo Riva, professor of Italian Studies at Brown University, provides the following very helpful footnotes (numbered 9 & 10, as below, in the online text at this link. This is from the Pico Project/Progetto Pico, a joint undertaking of scholars at Brown University and Bologna University.):
9. Asclepius. Lat. Aesculapius. Legendary Greek physician, son of Apollo and Coronis and god of healing (also related to the Egyptian Imothep). His first teacher was the wise centaur Chiron (on the cult of Asclepius in ancient Greece, see the work of the late S. B. Aleshire, The Athenian Asklepieion, Amsterdam 1989 and Asklepios at Athens, Amsterdam 1991 ). Pico, however, seems to refer again to that composite collection of texts known as the Corpus Hermeticum (already quoted in the opening paragraph of the Oratio) that Marsilio Ficino started to translate from Greek into Latin in 1463; namely, to the so-called Latin Asclepius (Ficino’s edition of the Asclepius was printed in 1469). Pico’s text clearly echoes the Hermetic Asclepius (the interlocutor and disciple of Hermes Trismegistus, also understood to be a descendant of the great Asclepius, just as Hermes is a grandson of of the great Egyptian god Toth). At page 69 of a recent English translation (Hermetica, ed. by Brian Copenhaver, Cambridge Un. Press, 1992) we read the following passage (paragraphs 5-6): “ [5…] The form of humankind is multiform and various…Human are they who remain content with the middle status of their kind, and the remaining forms of people will be like those kinds to whose forms they adjoin themselves.  Because of this, Asclepius, a human being is a great wonder…”
10. Proteus: In Pico’s Conclusions on the ways of interpreting Orpheus’s Hymns according to Magic, we find the following aphorism (n. 28): “Frustra adit naturam et Protheum, qui Pana non attraxerit” (“He who cannot attract Pan, in vain approaches Proteus” – see TL, gl. 37). Edgar Wind explains this obscure passage as follows (Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance, New York, W.W. Norton, 1968, p. 241): “Mutability, according to Pico, is the secret door through which the universal invades the particular. Hence Proteus transforms himself continuously because Pan [All] is within him.” This enigma seems to describe the unique situation of the human being in relation to the divine. According to Pico, the human being is like a Chameleon and a Proteus, capable of changing shape (effingere, see below) as well as contemplating all forms and “names.” The human being is thus effectively an agent of God but its “demiurgic” abilities also reflect a degree of free will and free choice. Commenting on this passage, Wind seems to qualify Pico’s radical mysticism (267): “This doctrine provides a convincing mystical justification for an eminently rational mental state.”
In conclusion, Gardner uses Sallustius as an authoritative source of Pagan beliefs and practices in order to take the intellectual high road while deflecting and deflating the low-brow hysterical misrepresentations of Wicca in popular opinion and the popular press of the 1950’s. Gardner is eager, also, to point to Sallustius’ embrace of “the doctrines of reincarnation and karma” because (1) this is an essential ingredient in the Pagan vision of a moral cosmic order, (2) it is an equally essential ingredient in the Pagan vision of the individual’s responsibility for spiritual progress (or the lack thereof), and (3) it provides yet another clear and undeniable parallel between modern and ancient Paganisms.
[The painting “Reincarnation” by artist Sara Avery is for sale at her online store at fineartamerica.com/profiles/sara-avery.html.]
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”