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The Old Religion

How to Order by Richard Smoley
Home This issue's theme is a movement that has been called the fastest-growing religion in the U.S. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans identify themselves as Witches, Wiccans, and Neopagans -- the number has been estimated as anywhere from 200,000 to 500,000 -- but there are no statistics and few formal organizations. Besides, religious prejudice still makes it expedient for many of these people to keep quiet about their preferences.

The first question, of course, is just what Neopaganism is. Many of its adherents say it's an attempt to return to the polytheistic faith that prevailed in Europe before Christianity. And while the word "witchcraft" used to be applied to any form of attempted sorcery or enchantment, modern Witches see the matter differently. Many of them regard themselves as the heirs of a specific form of this ancient faith. They call it "the Old Religion."

They draw their inspiration from Margaret Murray, a scholar who investigated the history of the witch hunts that seized Europe sporadically between 1450 and 1750. Before Murray's time, historians assumed that the witch hunts were a form of mass psychosis projected onto some unfortunate individuals (chiefly women). But in books like The Witch-Cult in Northern Europeand The God of the Witches,1 Murray contended that there were witches, and that they were really adherents of the Old Religion who had been driven underground. They met in covens of thirteen members each, and they worshipped a deity known as the Horned God, whom the Christians equated with the Devil.

Murray's theories were endorsed by Gerald Gardner, a retired customs official who happened upon what he claimed was a practicing coven in England's New Forest in the late 1930s. In a number of books including Witchcraft Today,2 Gardner set out the theory and practice of this religion, which he called Wicca. (This word is used today as an abstract noun more or less equivalent to "Witchcraft," but actually it's an Old English word meaning "male witch"; the feminine equivalent is wicce). Gardnerian Wicca is still practiced today throughout the English-speaking world.

Both Murray and Gardner said the Old Religion worshipped the deity in a dual aspect -- the Horned God, or Cernunnos, and the Great Goddess, known as Diana, Herodias, or Aradia. Today many Witches and Neopagans focus their rites around the central mystery of this divine union of male and female. In recent years, however, for many Neopagans the Goddess has come to be seen as the more important figure.3

Again scholarship has played its role in this development. As early as 1861, a Swiss jurist named J.J. Bachofen was arguing that before the male-dominated social system that we know from written history, humanity had had a phase when it was matriarchal: women were socially dominant and descent was traced through female lines.4

Bachofen's theory was difficult to prove, since there were no written texts from this era, but it was highly influential. A version of it resurfaced in The White Goddess by the poet Robert Graves, published in 1948, in which Graves argued from his own rather idiosyncratic use of evidence that Europe had in prehistoric times worshipped the goddess of the moon -- the White Goddess of his title.

Graves admitted that he had written his book in a kind of Muse-inspired frenzy,5 but that didn't keep it from being taken as history. Archaeologist James Mellaart's excavations at a site called Çatal Hüyük in Asia Minor seemed to corroborate the existence of this matrifocal phase of civilization. The Lithuanian archaeologist Marija Gimbutas took up this theme and developed it further in books like The Language of the Goddess.6 Together with Murray's and Gardner's ideas, these theories were woven into a kind of foundation myth for today's Neopaganism.

According to this view, in the Neolithic era people throughout most of Europe lived in a peaceful, egalitarian society that was ruled (to the extent that it was ruled at all) by women. It was this phase of civilization that produced the enormous numbers of figurines that have been found of rotund, obese, often pregnant female figures. These were images of the Great Goddess.

This peaceful culture was destroyed by the coming of the Indo-Europeans, a warlike, patriarchal race that swept in from the steppes on horseback and crushed "Old Europe," setting up a belligerent, hierarchical, male-ruled society. We are the descendants of that culture.

The patriarchy reached its apex -- or nadir, depending on your point of view -- with Christianity, which, after it came to power, systematically attempted to extirpate the old Pagan religion. This upstart faith was very much focused on the transcendent. Unlike the Old Religion, it taught people to hate their bodies and to hate the earth, laying the ground for today's sexual hangups and the ecological crisis.

The process of conversion to Christianity took centuries; the witch hunts (which reached their peak between 1580 and 1630) were the last phase of warfare against the Old Religion. And it was a true holocaust: according to a frequently cited figure, nine million Witches were killed during these centuries, nearly all of them women.7 The Old Religion went into hiding for centuries, and resurfaced only in the mid-twentieth century when the Christian establishment had lost its power.

This is an extremely compelling myth: you will find it stated over and over again in countless Neopagan books and magazines. Many Wiccans and Neopagans seem to regard it as a matter of historical fact. Unfortunately, according to most scholars today, nearly every detail of this picture is wrong.

The concept of a Goddess civilization today is a minority view among scholars, most of whom regard Gimbutas's views as highly speculative and as taking excessive liberties with the evidence; Emory University historian Elizabeth Fox-Genovese dismissed them as little more than "absurdities."8

As you'll see from this issue's interview with Starhawk and Carol Christ, adherents of Gimbutas's theories regard such criticisms as evidence of an entrenched patriarchal mind-set. But at any rate the evidence is considerably more moot than many of today's Neopagans believe. Just to take one example: "Male figurines constitute only 2 or 3 percent of all Old European figurines," Gimbutas contended. But Lotte Motz, in her book The Faces of the Goddess, argues that "images of men and animals are just as numerous as those of women."9 Moreover, as more than one scholar as pointed out, there is nothing in the female figures themselves that indicate that they are necessarily images of a deity.10

Until recently Çatal Hüyük was considered to be the one incontrovertible site of a matrifocal society. But now scholars aren't sure even of that. Ronald Hutton, a British historian not unsympathetic to Paganism, writes, "We cannot tell . . . whether the women of Çatal Hüyük were powerful, feared, and honored, or suspected, feared, constrained, and subordinated."11 As for the Indo-European invaders, our picture of them has been complicated by the fact that, to judge from the archaeological evidence, women were warriors and leaders in this supposedly patriarchal culture.12 Were the warlike Indo-Europeans more egalitarian and feminist than the peaceful people of Old Europe? We don't know.

We don't even know if the people of Old Europe were peaceful. Carol Christ says that mainstream academe refuses to admit that there was unquestionably a phase of history when war was unknown. But one archaeologist found exactly the opposite. Lawrence H. Keeley, a professor at the University of Chicago, wanted to get a grant to investigate an Early Neolithic fortification site in Belgium dating to c.5000 B.C. He couldn't get the grant because the prevailing academic opinion was that Neolithic society was peaceful, therefore they couldn't have fortifications. Keeley had to rewrite his grant leaving out the term "fortification" before he could get any money. Once he did, he investigated the sites and found they were in fact fortified. The experience led him to write a book about prehistoric warfare and why scholars have so much trouble accepting it.13

The witch hunts provide a similar situation. Most Wiccans and Neopagans admit gingerly that there was no such thing as an organized Old Religion in the sense that Murray defined it, but many still believe the witch hunts were an organized effort to suppress Pagan survivals such as the "cunning men" and women, the folk healers and wizards of the villages of Western Europe. (The commonly cited figure of nine million victims, by the way, is generally thought to be ridiculously inflated; more sober estimates say that the witch hunts claimed 40,000-50,000 lives over three centuries, about 75% women.)14

Even this picture is more complicated than one might think. The "wise women" and "cunning men" often bore the brunt of witch accusations, it is true, but they also created a lot of them. A contemporary account described the process thus: "A man is taken lame; he suspecteth that he is bewitched; he sendeth to the cunning man; he demandeth whom they suspect, and then sheweth the image of the party in a glass."15

Today the standard academic view has reverted to the idea that the witch hunts were not the persecution of the "Old Religion" but were a delusion chiefly generated by fears and suspicions rampant in the era, which were themselves fueled by a social and economic crisis. The British historian Robin Briggs observes, "Virtually everywhere it was the half-century between 1580 and 1630 which included the great majority of all [witch] trials; . . . it is hard to avoid the . . . inference that a simultaneous sharp decline in living standards and individual security played a large part in this."16

By this view, witch persecutions were a matter more of neighbor pitted against neighbor than of the schemings of the Inquisition. Certainly the Catholic Church fueled the witch-hunt craze at its outset, with a 1484 bull by Pope Innocent VIII declaring witchcraft a heresy (the Church had previously taught that it did not exist) and with the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum ("The Hammer of Witches"), a lurid antiwitch text, in 1486.

On the other hand, over the next two centuries the officials of the Inquisition became increasingly skeptical of witchcraft claims. Strange as it may sound, the Inquisition often exercised a moderating influence on rabid witch hunters in local courts. The countries where the Inquisition was the strongest -- Spain and Italy -- had very few witch trials.17

The history of Gardner's own influences is equally vexed. The most ardent Gardnerians seem to believe that his coven's rites and doctrines can be traced in a virtually pure form back to the pre-Christian era. But again, most credible researchers don't buy this. They have found many twentieth-century influences on Gardner: Aleister Crowley; Charles Godfrey Leland, an American who wrote a book called Aradia about his encounters with the Witches of Tuscany; even, as the article "The Red God" in this issue intriguingly suggests, Woodcraft, a movement started by the Canadian writer Ernest Thompson Seton. For myself, I think it likely that Gardner's coven may have had ancient roots but felt free to create and adapt new rituals and prayers, much as Neopagans do today.

This is far too short a space in which to try to argue these points in detail; I can only refer the reader to the works I've cited. My central point, though, is this: Paganism is a legitimate religious impulse. To connect with the divine as it expresses itself through nature and through the multiplicity of the world, visible and invisible, is honorable and necessary; so is reconnecting with the feminine aspects of the spirit. But if Neopaganism is to take its place among the great religions, it has to come to terms with its own history.

Here Neopaganism is in a sense in an opposite position from much of mainstream Christianity, which, obsessed with an elusive chimera known as the "historical Jesus," has come more and more to cut itself off from spiritual experience. Neopaganism, by contrast, with its abundance of rituals and invocations, has plenty of room for experience but needs to face its own history. If it does, it will probably find that it is the "Old Religion" not in a literalistic sense but in recapturing some of the deepest and most ancient aspects of the spiritual impulse. This issue of GNOSIS is an attempt to help advance that process.


1. Margaret A. Murray, The God of the Witches (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1931); The Witch Cult in Western Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1921).

2. Gerald Gardner, Witchcraft Today (New York: Citadel Press, 1955).

3. Starhawk, The Spiral Dance, second ed. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989), pp. 22-23.

4. J.J. Bachofen, Myth, Religion, and Mother Right: Selected Writings of J.J. Bachofen, trans. Ralph Manheim (Princeton: Princeton/Bollingen, 1967).

5. Robert Graves, The White Goddess (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1966 [1948]), pp. 488-89.

6. Marija Gimbutas, The Language of the Goddess (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989).

7. See, for example, Gardner, p. 35 et passim; Starhawk, p. 20.

8. Lawrence Osborne, "The Women Warriors," in Lingua Franca, Jan. 1998, p. 52.

9. Ibid., p. 53.

10. Ronald Hutton, The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), p. 4.

11. Ibid., p. 42.

12. Osborne, pp. 51-53.

13. Lawrence H. Keeley, War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. vii-viii.

14. Robin Briggs, Witches and Neighbors: The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft (New York: Viking, 1996), p. 8.

15. Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1971), p. 549.

16. Briggs, p. 292.

17. Ibid., p. 327, 335-36.

Pagan History: An Alternate Reading List

These books are all intelligent, well-researched, and often dense. But if you're interested in contemporary scholarship about the Goddess, the witch hunts, or ancient Paganism, they're well worth the effort.

Briggs, Robin. Witches and Neighbors: The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft. New York: Viking, 1996.

Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion. Translated by John Raffan. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985.

Hutton, Ronald. The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.

Keeley, Lawrence H. War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Lane Fox. Robin. Pagans and Christians. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987.

MacMullen, Ramsay. Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997.

Thomas, Keith. Religion and the Decline of Magic. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1971.

© copyright 1998 by Richard Smoley and GNOSIS Magazine
All rights reserved. Reproduction in any form requires permission from copyright holders.

GNOSIS #48 is available for $10 U.S. postpaid from: GNOSIS Magazine, P.O. Box 14217, San Francisco, CA 94114-0217.

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