NeoPaganism - a Brief History of our Modern Pagan Religion - Lora O'Brien - Irish Author & Guide

NeoPaganism – a Brief History of our Modern Pagan Religion

NeoPaganism

Just like the question of how we do our Paganism – the other question of how it all began is a little… contentious. In some camps.

We know of course, that what we’re doing now in our various spiritual traditions is derived from, and continually inspired by (even in some cases closely related to), ancient sources.

There is an unfortunate history of ‘fakelore’ within the early movement however, that has caused considerable damage, and I’d hope we have, as communities, moved on from all that. I’m talking about those made up stories that involve initiation or training by a Grandmother, Grandfather, or other relative who is said to have instructed some of our community elders in the secret, millennia-old traditions of their ancestors.

Maybe there’s the odd one of these that’s true, but even at that, we’ve no way of knowing how far back these ‘secret traditions’ go. I mean, how do you really KNOW that your Granny wasn’t a scammer, if she told you a story like this?

My own Nana has told me stories about older relatives who were doing what I’d class as magic spells and seasonal observances, and my Granny on the other side told me that my tales of the Good Neighbours here in Ireland (the fairies, but we generally don’t like to call them that out loud) were exactly what her granny was doing on the daily, when she’d visit with them on their farm.

None of that means we have a family tradition of ancient witchcraft, or fairy doctoring, through either of my bloodlines.

It’s sad that folk feel so insecure in their own communities or beliefs that they invest so much energy in upholding such stories. Just get on with things as they are, will you?

Decolonising our NeoPaganism

We have a contemporary religious movement right now that can support or even revive traditional, indigenous, or native religions; if we make sure the work we do to decolonise our NeoPagan spiritual practice is in line with modern standards of it not being cool to just take things that don’t belong to you, and do what you fancy with them.

The early roots of NeoPaganism lie in the romanticist and national liberation movements that developed in Europe from the 1700s CE to the early 1900s.

The work of scholars and scoundrels such as Johann G Herder, George MacGregor-Reid, Douglas Hyde, WB Yeats, Alexander Carmichael, JG Frazer, Jacob Grimm, Aleister Crowley and Charles G Leland (listed here in no particular order of preference or endorsement!) led to an interest in folklore, folk customs, occultism, and mythology, and to a growth in cultural self-consciousness and pride.

How many of those dudes were a part of the native cultures from which they drew so heavily, and ultimately profited off (whether in money or credibility)?

Leland, mentioned above, was perhaps the earliest to write specifically on a modern witchcraft tradition, when in 1899 he published ‘Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches’, which is supposed to contain the traditional beliefs of Italian witchcraft as gifted to him by his ‘witch informant’, a woman named Maddalena. This one has definitely been disputed as ‘fakelore’, but some still believe it to be true… either way, it had a specific and measurable influence on the development of Traditional Wicca in Britain.

Anthropologist Margaret Murray – an early feminist – added fuel to the slow burning fires when in the 1920s when her books theorised that the witch trials of Early Modern Christendom were an attempt to extinguish a surviving pre-Christian, pagan religion devoted to a Horned God. Again, this is still much disputed, but again, we can see that her work had a huge influence over the development of Wicca.

Gardner – the Grandaddy of NeoPaganism

And that is where we can definitively pinpoint the beginning of contemporary NeoPaganism – with a guy called Gerald Brousseau Gardner. He was a retired British civil servant, who lived from 1884 to 1964, and had spent much of his adult life in Malaysia (with a three year stint in Borneo), becoming fascinated with a variety of occult beliefs and magical practices.

He returned to England in 1936, at the age of 52, with his first book, ‘Keris and Other Malay Weapons’, published that year. He wrote his second book, the fiction work ‘A Goddess Arrives’, inspired by the long holidays to Cypress he had to take to endure the English winters, and it was published in 1939.

We really get to the start of all this though with his move to the New Forest region in 1938, and came into contact with the Rosicrucian Order Crotona Fellowship, and the Rosicrucian Theatre near Christchurch.

The Wiccan Roots of NeoPaganism

The story goes that he met a coven of ‘the Old Religion’ there, and was initiated into the tradition of “Wica”, which he claimed (in his book ‘The Meaning of Witchcraft’, published 1959) came from the Anglo Saxon words ‘wig’ (an idol), and ‘laer’ (learning); giving us ‘wiglaer’ – which was shortened into ‘Wicca’, or in Saxon ‘Wica’. Doreen Valiente later claimed it came from the Indo-European root ‘Weik’, which relates to things connected with magic and religion.

There’s a couple of theories now as to who might have initiated Gardner into this Old Religion.

Originally, it was told as Old Dorothy Clutturbuck, who Valiente later proved had actually existed at least, whether she was a witch or not remains unclear. Or it might have been a woman known as Dafo, whose real name was Edith Woodford-Grimes. The latest research though, by the excellent scholar Philip Heselton, makes a strong case for a woman called Rosamund Sabine, known as ‘Mother Sabine’.

You can see, perhaps, why there’s some suspicion regarding the veracity of Gardner’s claim? He went on to publish more books:

  • 1949: High Magic’s Aid (fiction, but perhaps only published as such because witchcraft was technically illegal in England until the law was repealed in 1951)
  • 1954: Witchcraft Today
  • 1959: The Meaning of Witchcraft

Other notable names around at the inception of Wicca were Eleanor Bone (1911-2001), and Sybil Leek (1923-1983), who each have their own origin stories and subsequent books published, which are worth a look at.

With a priestess, Doreen Valiente – and heavily influenced by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (started in 1888), and in particular the work of the occultist and magician Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) – Gardner started his specific practice of witchcraft, which became (Gardnerian) traditional Wicca.

Besides Doreen Valiente, those involved in Gardnerian Wicca at the start there were Jack Bracelin, Pat and Arnold Crowther, Lois Bourne (Hemmings), Monique Wilson and Campbell “Scotty” Wilson.

Traditional Wicca as we Know it

Gardner was followed by Alex Sanders (1926-1988), who founded the Alexandrian tradition of Wicca in the 1960s. Alex claimed to have been initiated by his Grandmother as a child, and indeed he did have a family background in the esoteric, but we do know that he was probably initiated into Gardnerian Wicca in 1963 through the Crowthers’ line, but not by them personally, and he sort of ran with things in his own way from there.

From his line came the author Stewart Farrar (1916-200, initiated in 1970 at the age of 54), and his wife Janet (1950- ), who have perhaps had the most influence through all of this in the development and promotion of the practice of traditional Wicca to the wider world, through their many books as well as a stable media presence.

Indeed Janet and her husband Gavin Bone continue to write and teach on Pagan topics worldwide, at the point of writing, from their base in Kells, County Meath, Ireland.

English occultist Roy Bowers, known most commonly as Robert Cochrane (1931-1966), is another who claimed to have been born to a hereditary family of witches, with practices stretching back to at least the 1600s CE and a grandfather who was the last Grand Master of the Staffordshire witches… all of this has been dismissed by his own family, and his wife Jane.

He started a coven, the Clan of Tubal Cain, in the early 1960s with a newspaper advert. Him and the Gardnerian lads and lasses were not friends, and there was a lot of to and fro between them through the years, but sure we don’t need to go into all that here.

And that’s basically where it all began.

Of course there have been many others involved, for good or ill, and apologies to anyone who I’ve left out in this brief recap.

My own initiation, for what it’s worth, was in 1996 (aged 18) by Barbara Lee and her ex-husband Peter Doyle, both of whom trained and worked with Janet and Stewart Farrar directly, and I went on to gain my Third Degree before leaving that tradition, in my early 20s, and eventually finding my way to formalising my own native Irish NeoPaganism.


 

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Lora O'Brien

Irish Author and Guide to Ireland

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