Yesterday I finished reading Modern Wicca: A History from Gerald Gardner to the Present by Michael Howard. I found it a bit rambly and non-linear, especially in the earlier chapters when Howard is reporting information given to him by people he knew personally in the 1960s, when he was a newcomer to the Wiccan scene. However, it was engrossing enough that I dropped a couple of other things I was reading and finished it in two days.
One thing I learned from Howard’s book is that News of the World did not wait for the digital age to engage in skeevy, privacy-violating investigative tactics. No, they were tapping phones, hiring private eyes, and generally smearing people involved in the witchcraft movement long before cell phones were commonly available. Good to know.
Unfortunately, another thing I learned from Howard’s book is that many of the most prominent figures in the history of modern witchcraft were… how can I put this delicately? Oh well–they were lying liars who lie. I have never seen in one place so many examples of deliberate falsification: Half-truths or outright lies about the origins of Wiccan practice, underhanded plots to get someone else’s Book of Shadows and then pass it off as a hand-me-down from dear old Granny, memoirs full of colorful incidents that never actually happened, and enough conflicting stories given to different people on different occasions to fill the holds of the Titanic.
Now, before you start yelling at me for disrespecting the Craft, let me remind you that I am a member of a Revival Druid group that makes absolutely no bones about tracing its origins to some eccentric English and Welsh guys in the 1700s. Plus, I grew up an Episcopalian, but I learned long before Bart Ehrman started publishing that no, most of the books of the Bible were not actually written by the people whose names are on the title pages, and isn’t it funny that four supposedly eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus are so very different? That is to say, I am not invested in the idea that authenticity equals validity. My practice as a Druid has very little to do with what the ancient druids did: The sole connecting link is that the gentlemen who created the Revival were interested in the ancients (if mostly mistaken about them).
So whether or not Gardner lied about his sources, or falsified them in the interests of creating a better myth, or made it all up out of the Key of Solomon and his own sexual kinks, or as you please, it doesn’t matter: Wicca works, or else people wouldn’t be practicing, studying, writing, and talking about it sixty years later. Still, it’s kind of disturbing that there’s so much self-inflation and backstabbing in this early history, and that the involvement of many of the first witches of the twentieth century ends with them burning their ritual gear and walking away from the Craft more or less permanently.
Then again, it’s also disturbing that so many people who were close to Aleister Crowley for any length of time wound up committing suicide. It’s disturbing that Macgregor Mathers, who claimed to have given the world the most pure Rosicrucian doctrine in the teachings of the Golden Dawn, also seems to have been an egotistical shit. And reading a couple of Bart Ehrman’s books on the early Church will show that it was not Wiccans who invented the flame war, but possibly the followers of the crucified and risen Christ who taught, “Turn the other cheek”. He didn’t add, “Except if the other dude is the wrong kind of Christian”, but you’d think he did.
Is it perhaps inevitable that new religious movements spring up out of lying and infighting and go on to transcend those origins? As the Buddhists say, the pure lotus has its roots in the mud and the dung, but without them, it cannot flower and spread toward the sun.