Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Dave V. Barrett's "A Brief Guide to Secret Religions" and why I am now world famous...

Waking from my slumber on the living room sofa this morning (well, early afternoon), I let the dog out into the garden before realising that Jimmy the Postman had already been and gone, having delivered at least one parcel along with the usual plethora of junk mail. Eagerly opening the package I discovered that it was a copy of Dr. David V. Barrett's latest book, A Brief Guide to Secret Religions: A Complete Guide to Hermetic, Pagan and Esoteric Beliefs, which I had ordered some time ago. Published in 2011 by Robinson, the book offers a rather objective overview of a wide variety of different esoteric magico-religious and mystical movements, from those which are Pagan in basis such as Wicca and Druidry to New Age movements, Satanism and even the Church of Scientology.

The cover of Barrett's new book, featuring
that quintessentially Pagan monument,
Stonehenge.

Dr. Barrett is perhaps best publicly known for his work as a journalist, publishing articles and book reviews in the likes of The Independent and The Guardian, as well as the somewhat more specialist Fortean Times. Having attained his sociology doctorate from that loyal bastion of Gaddafiism, the London School of Economics (LSE), he has published several similar titles in the past, including The New Believers: A Survey of Sects, 'Cults', and Alternative Religions (2001) and A Brief History of Secret Societies: An Unbiased History of Our Desire for Secret Knowledge (2007), both of which are recommended for anyone with a general interest in either new religious movements or secret societies, respectively. I first met Dr. Barrett at "The Moot with No Name", an esoteric gathering organised by the Atlantis Bookshop which met in the Devereux Pub just off of the Strand (it has since been renamed "The Atlantis Bookshop Presents..." and now takes place in the neighbouring Milfords pub). For several months I used to frequent the weekly event back in 2010, before I realised that the entry fee coupled with travel costs and the price of several alcoholic beverages was eating away far too much of my student budget. Nonetheless, prior to ceasing to be a regular, in September 2010 I actually gave a lecture at the Moot one night on "The Origins of Wicca and Traditional Witchcraft", which is of course related to my ongoing independent research. Barrett attended said lecture, and took notes on what I was saying, leading to a brief correspondence between us.

The exciting thing here.... (well, for myself anyway).... is that Barrett included a quote from my lecture regarding the origins of Wicca and the wider contemporary British Witchcraft movement in his new book, and my name even appears in the Index! Perhaps it is a little premature of me to proclaim myself as being world famous just yet, but I'm sorely tempted to, I must admit. He has me listed as "Doyle-White", a hyphenated form of my surname that I've since rejected for "Doyle White"; the hyphen just had far too many elitist and Upper Class pretensions for my liking, but other than that it's a real honour for me. My congratulations go out to David, and I hope that his book sells well !

My name in the Index;
global superstardom is mine!!!

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Reviewing Ben Whitmore's "Trials of the Moon"

Few Pagans active on the blogosphere over the past year would have been unable to ignore the controversy that has erupted over the release of a small book written and self-published by an Alexandrian Wiccan High Priest named Ben Whitmore. The amusingly titled Trials of the Moon offered a criticism of Professor Ronald Hutton's own seminal text The Triumph of the Moon, which has remained the standard study of Wiccan history in Britain since its publication in 1999. I myself wrote a review of Whitmore's work when it first came out, but ultimately it was never published in either an academic or popular context, The Pomegranate having already commissioned a review from Peg Aloi, which has in turn come under attack on the blogosphere. Nonetheless, I'd hope that it may be of interest to many within the Pagan community, and so present it here, for free! This is my (somewhat belated) contribution to the debate surrounding Whitmore, Hutton and the relationship between practicing Pagans and Pagan Studies scholars.

Ben Whitmore, the New Zealander responsible for
authoring the book I am reviewing here.
Copyright Wikipedia User Fuzzypeg.

Ben Whitmore, Trials of the Moon: Reopening the Case for Historical Witchcraft: A Critique of Ronald Hutton’s “The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft” (Auckland, New Zealand: Briar Books, 2010), 100 pp, $ 11.00, soft cover

In the field of Pagan Studies, Ronald Hutton’s The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft (Oxford University Press, 1999) stands out as perhaps the most seminal tome yet published. No one before Hutton had published anything like a major examination into the history and development of the Pagan Witchcraft religion, and nor had any academic publisher consented to releasing a book on this peculiar subject. Hutton literally laid the groundwork from which all scholars since - both academic and independent - have been able to build upon. In recognition of this magnificent feat of scholarship, the British academics Dave Evans and Dave Green produced an edited anthology entitled Ten Years of Triumph of the Moon (Hidden Publishing, 2009) to mark its tenth anniversary, which brought together papers by a wide array of different scholars working in a variety of academic disciplines.

Hutton’s work challenged many of the old dogmas fervently held by members of the Pagan community, pointing as it did to the idea that the Pagan Craft was a twentieth-century creation rather than the continuation of an archaic Murrayite Witch-Cult.  As news of the book and its conclusions spread, many Pagans came to accept the Huttonite view of Wiccan history, accepting that theirs was a new religious movement and not the continuation of an ancient pagan religion, as the Murrayite theories maintained. Others however were not so convinced. Certain voices within the Pagan community, operating in magazines, on internet forums and even on Wikipedia, disputed Hutton’s interpretation of history, and downright criticized some of his positions. They clung to the idea that contemporary Pagan Witchcraft was solidly connected to earlier forms of witchcraft, in particular that found in Early Modern Europe, and that through this a pedigree could be traced all the way back to pre-Christian Europe.

Whitmore's Trials of the Moon,
self-published under his imprint of
Briar Books. Copyright of Whitmore.

Ben Whitmore’s Trials of the Moon is the first book to appear from the ranks of the Pagan community to openly challenge Hutton’s theories regarding Wiccan history directly. Its author is a practicing Alexandrian Witch and Co-Mason living in Auckland, New Zealand, who for a number of years has been putting forward his viewpoints on the internet to a rather mixed reception. This self-published book, which is his first publication, is an attempt to provide a wider outlet for such criticisms of Hutton’s Triumph, although at only 100 pages, it could be described as being little more than an extended pamphlet.

Entertainingly titled, Whitmore’s book quite literally tries to put Hutton ‘on trial’, scrutinizing some of his more minor claims in an attempt to expose holes in Hutton’s arguments. Whitmore starts by offering some praise for the eminent historian, commending him for his pioneering work, but within a few pages he has changed his tone, and instead argues that whole chapters of Hutton’s Triumph are either simply misleading or downright wrong. He examines the work of historians who have specialized in the witch trials such as Bengt Ankarloo and Alan Macfarlane and argues that Hutton has misrepresented them, thereby intentionally dismissing the notion that the witch trials may have been influenced by a substratum of shamanic belief in Europe (as has been put forward by the likes of Carlo Ginzburg, of whom Whitmore is clearly a big fan). He then proceeds to challenge Hutton’s very definition of the word ‘witch’ before moving on to condemn Hutton’s assertion that there was no singular great goddess in pre-Christian Europe and that the figure of Pan was only a minor deity in the ancient world. He chastises Hutton for his (pioneering) understanding of the British cunning-folk, primarily armed with the criticism that the distinction between cunning-folk and witches was not always as clear cut as Hutton makes out. Following on from this, he argues that Hutton has wilfully demonized such figures as Margaret Murray and Charles Leland in order to better criticize their work, a rather serious charge that I do not believe lives up to scrutiny.

Whitmore’s general method throughout the book is to read a variety of academic texts upon the subjects that Hutton discusses in the first half of his Triumph, find arguments or information that differs from that supplied by Hutton, and then highlighting such disagreements, each time presenting it as a flaw in Hutton’s reasoning. This nitpicking characterizes the entire work, and although Whitmore certainly does make some good points, highlighting where Hutton may have made some minor errors, it certainly comes across as more than a little pedantic. What Whitmore apparently fails to take into account is that Hutton is not an expert in ancient Greek religion, British folk magic, or the Early Modern witch trials, and that therefore such mistakes or differences in opinion with other academics working in these fields are only to be expected. Hutton’s Triumph was primarily a study of Wiccan history, with the professor only delving into these other areas outside of his speciality in order to provide a backdrop to the esoteric scene in which Wicca developed.

Turning to the penultimate chapter of Whitmore’s book however is somewhat more unsettling. Rather than making specific criticisms of Triumph as the rest of the book does, it comprises entirely of Whitmore delving into any and all criticisms of Hutton as a person, bringing up attacks on his earlier work The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles (1991) by Goddess Worshippers and then proceeding to list a number of published disagreements that he has had with both practicing Pagans and academics over the years. A case could certainly be made that this leaves the realm of scholarly criticism and enters that of character assassination. It seems clear from this that Whitmore is not content with simply disputing some of Hutton’s points; he is intent on discrediting the man and his academic credentials, at least in the eyes of the Pagan community.

One of the most telling things about the argument in this work is that at the end of it, Hutton’s basic narrative of Wiccan history that he puts forward in Triumph of the Moon remains intact in its entirety. Whitmore has highlighted some minor errors in Hutton’s work (and missed others that have come to my attention) yet these are to be expected in any such work of scholarship that covers and synthesizes information from such a wide variety of topics. I would not claim that Whitmore’s work is without merit, but its polemical nature, and the way in which it goes about attempting to discredit Hutton, are neither scholarly nor gentlemanly.

It is of note that Hutton has publicly responded to Whitmore’s criticisms in an article entitled ‘Writing the History of Witchcraft: A Personal View’, published in Volume 12.2 of The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies (2010). In this strongly worded response, Hutton clearly voices his view that the book is little more than a personal attack upon himself, designed to make him out to be an “unscrupulous and deceitful individual motivated by a concealed hostility to Paganism” (p. 253), a charge Hutton emphatically denies. A famously mild mannered and level headed individual, Hutton is not known for such strong and defensive responses, and it is clear that Whitmore’s work has hit a nerve. This is understandable, although in this reviewer’s opinion his criticism of Whitmore comes across as stronger than is perhaps necessary.



"Wicca", "Wica" and the war of words...


Christianity. Buddhism. Islam. Each of these three words conjures up a mental image of a distinct set of different religious beliefs and practices to anyone with even the most basic understanding of Religious Studies. The word "Christianity" evokes imagery of Christ, the crucifixion, the Eucharist, while that of "Islam" brings to mind images of the Ka'bah, Arabic calligraphy, and - in our unfortunate world of rampant western Islamophobia - events such as 9/11.

Words are powerful things.

What, therefore, do people imagine when the word "Wicca" is mentioned ? Pentagrams? Naked women? Devil-worship? I suspect that such imagery would be prominent in the public imagination throughout the western world, where contemporary Paganism remains a small and much misunderstood religious minority. Nevertheless, today's musing is not about the views of cowans, as non-Wiccans have become known. Instead, I wish to talk about how practicing Pagan Witches, those who might call themselves Wiccans, Witches, Crafters, Old Religionists, or whatever else, understand and interpret the term "Wicca".

As both an archaeologist with a particular interest in the world of Anglo-Saxon England and an amateur Pagan Studies scholar, I became particularly interested in the actual term "Wicca" back in 2009, the same year that I commenced upon my studies at University College London. I proceeded to delve into its origins, resulting in the publication of my very first academic paper; "The Meaning of 'Wicca': A Study in Etymology, History and Pagan Politics", in The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies 12(2), after a pretty grueling peer-review. For those interested, that paper can be found online here, at  http://www.equinoxpub.com/POM/article/view/10024. Unfortunately, I cannot afford to pay for it to become an open access article, and so it shall remain hidden behind a paywall until you, the reader, hands over the rather lofty sum of £12.00. It's a shame, but that's just the way it is.

Being of a distinctly leftist bent, I disliked the idea of knowledge being withheld from those who could not or would not pay for it, and so rewrote my 8000-word academic paper in a 2000-word popular format. I wanted to share my findings with the world. What's more, I thought that my findings were actually really important for the Wiccan and wider Pagan community in understanding their own history. I'd uncovered information that was, at that time, available nowhere else, not even in Professor Ronald Hutton's seminal work The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft (1999). I offered up my popular article to Marion Pearce, the editor of British-based Pagan magazine Pentacle, in whose pages I had published a couple of articles dating back well into my teenage years, dealing with small-p 'pagan' art and the wondrous occult author Alan Moore respectively. Unfortunately, this seemed to be at the same time as Pentacle hit a snag, and for the moment at least it appears to have ceased publication, meaning that my article probably won't see the light of day for quite some time. Impatient as I may be, I did feel that this was a sad state of affairs, as I'd really love to see the Pagan community discuss and debate my findings and interpretations, so that they could point out any flaws or queries regarding my work. For this reason, I have decided that my first post upon this new blog of mine should be used to lay out what I have unearthed, in the hope that it reaches the wider Pagan community, for whom I really hope it shall be of some interest, and indeed benefit.

What do we mean by "Wicca" ?

It seems very clear from even a cursory examination of the published books and magazines within the Pagan genre that within contemporary Pagandom, and more specifically within the community of modern Pagan Witches, there are two distinct views on what the term "Wicca" constitutes:


  1. The first uses "Wicca" to refer specifically to Gardnerianism, the initiatory lineage of Pagan Witchcraft stemming from Gerald Gardner back in the late 1940s/early 1950s, as well as to its direct offspring, such as Alexandrianism (founded by Gardnerian initiate Alex Sanders in the 1960s) and Algard (founded by fellow Gardnerian initiate Mary Nesnick in the 1970s).
  2. The second uses "Wicca" in a much wider sense to describe the entirety of the Pagan Witchcraft religion, i.e. all those groups and solitaries who venerate a Great Goddess and/or a Horned God, commemorate seasonal-based festivals known as Sabbats, and practice magical rites in a circle based in part on earlier Ceremonial Magic. Under this definition, Gardnerianism, Alexandrianism and Algard are still considered to be "Wiccan", but so is Dianicism, Reclaiming, Feri, and a multitude of other traditions, including those DIY Crafts purported by Scott Cunningham and Silver RavenWolf.


From what I gathered from my discussions with other occultists and Pagans and also by perusing various blogs and forums online, there was an almost universal belief that the former of these definitions was older and in many respects more "authentic", while the latter definition only emerged following the explosion in the number of solitary practitioners in the 1970s and 80s. To put it bluntly, the research that went into that paper turned this widely held viewpoint on its head! What I discovered was that in fact "Wicca" had originally been used to cover the entire magico-religious Pagan Witchcraft movement, and that only later had it been re-appropriated by certain Gardnerians wishing to forge for themselves a distinct - one could perhaps argue 'special' - place within that wider movement. How did this happen, and how have so many contemporary esotericists become so misinformed ?

But Gerald Gardner first used the term "Wicca"...

It may well come as a surprise to many that dear old Gerald Gardner (1884-1964), homophobic Tory, liberated nudist, and Wiccan pioneer, never, ever used the term "Wicca" (or so contemporary scholarship can ascertain!). Such a fact is in direct opposition to a claim which is all-too-often repeated in Pagan and wider esoteric circles. Indeed, in all of his published writings Gardner only ever referred to the Pagan Witchcraft religion, which was then only in its infancy, as "witchcraft", the "cult of witchcraft" and the "witch-cult"; in the latter he was clearly influenced by the writings of Egyptologist Margaret Murray, whose seminal proto-Wiccan text The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921) was a clear influence on his thought and on the history which he crafted for his Craft.



Gerald Gardner in the Magicians Room of his Museum of
Magic and Witchcraft,  located in Castletown, Isle of Man.
This image was published in the Museum's
guidebook, (C) Gardner .


On the other hand, Gardner did refer to the practitioners of that Pagan Witchcraft religion as "the Wica" - note the single c! Under this category he included both members of his own 'Gardnerian' tradition (a term that was apparently only coined in 1964, the year of his death, by his rival Robert Cochrane) as well as the practitioners of the various other Pagan Witchcraft traditions that popped up in the 1950s and 60s, run by the likes of Charles Cardell, Sybil Leek and Bob Clay-Egerton. In his own words:


  • ""the Wica" referred to "the 'wise people',  who practice the age-old rites and who have, along with much superstition and herbal knowledge, preserved an occult teaching and working processes which they themselves think to be magic or witchcraft." 


He claimed to have learned this word, "Wica", from the New Forest Coven of practicing Pagan Witches whom initiated him in 1939, and while there is still a debate as to whether they were a real group or a little white lie of his, there can be no doubt that he was still using "Wica" as a word when he propagated his Gardnerian Craft through the Bricket Wood Coven and other groups during the 1950s.

This term, "the Wica", spelled with only one c, therefore referred to the community of Pagan Witches. It is completely separate from the word "Wicca", spelled with two c's, that is now typically used to denote the religion itself.  The belief that Gardner used the term "Wicca" to refer to his Gardnerian tradition really is one of the biggest misconceptions regarding Wiccan history still floating around. Only last week I was chatting to Philip Heselton ~ author of the excellently researched Wiccan Roots (2000), Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration (2003) and the new two-part biography of Gardner, Witchfather (2012) ~ in a London pub on one of his few trips down to the capital, and he told me of how often he had had to correct people about Gardner's use of "Wica" rather than "Wicca" ! Clearly, its a misconception that requires clearing up.


So if not Gardner, then where did "Wicca" come from....

As much as I hate to admit it, the short answer is that I'm really not sure. Worse still, I fear that in fact we will never know where and when the term "Wicca", spelled with two c's and referring to the contemporary Pagan religion, actually first emerged. The earliest trace of it that I am aware of was highlighted by the British Gardnerian Melissa Seims in a pioneering 2008 article of hers published in Michael Howard's influential Craft magazine The Cauldron; delightfully, the article in question is actually available for free on her personal website at  http://www.thewica.co.uk/wica_or_wicca.htm. Within this article, Seims noted that the term "Wicca" can be found in an advert placed in the paranormal-orientated Fate magazine and dated to 1962. Within the context of this ad, it was used to advertise a tradition a tradition of Pagan Witchcraft centred in Cardiff, Wales. Seims thought that the advert was connected to the tradition propagated by Charles Cardell and his 'sister' Mary, but in my paper I have expressed scepticism regarding such a claim.

What I can say with much more certainty is that by the mid-1960s, more and more Pagan Witches were referring to the Craft as "Wicca" both publicly and privately. Within Alex Sanders' Alexandrian tradition, which was centred first in Manchester and then in London, the term was also in common usage by both Alex and others; it was for instance used in the famous Alexandrian initiate Stewart Farrar's book What Witches Do: A Modern Coven Revealed (1971). It was also around this time that Gavin and Yvonne Frost founded their "Church of Wicca" after moving from Britain to the United States, but unfortunately I was unable to contact them to find out more regarding how they first learned of the term. In all of these usages, it is clear that these occultists are referring to the Pagan Witchcraft movement itself as "Wicca" rather than using this term to specify a select group of lineaged traditions within that larger movement.

The concept that only some practicing Pagan Witches could refer to themselves as "Wiccans" appears to have emerged in the midst of the revolutionary changes that rocked the Craft during the 1970s, particularly in the United States. The rise of the Dianic Wiccan movement that merged elements of the traditional Wiccan religious structure with the political message of Second Wave Feminism, accompanied by the increasing number of self-dedicated practitioners who learned their practices from published texts by the likes of Paul Huson, Lady Sheba, Doreen Valiente and Raymond Buckland, led many Gardnerians to reassert themselves as the true inheritors of Gardner's legacy, and as maintainers of his lineage, which they traced back to the New Forest Coven, and from that back to the Murrayite Witch-Cult. The re-appropriation of the term "Wicca" in specific reference to their tradition can be seen as a part of this process. In turn, many members of the non-Gardnerian Craft traditions such as Dianicism, Feri and 1734 simply didn't use the term "Wicca" widely, instead preferring the more emotive, and more controversial, banner of "witchcraft". Ironically, it was they who were using terminology that would have been more familiar to Gerald Gardner than the Gardnerians themselves!

Concluding thoughts: Where now for the Pagan community ?

If, as I hope, my findings reach a wider Pagan audience, then it will undoubtedly have ramifications - however small - for how the term "Wicca" is more widely used. The claim that Gardner invented the term or adopted it from the New Forest Coven has been shown to be poppycock, and can no longer be legitimately used to support the argument that "Wicca" should only truly be used in reference to Gardnerianism and its initiatory offspring. Similarly, I have been able to highlight the fact that the more inclusive definition of "Wicca", one which welcomed all the Pagan Craft traditions into its midst, was the older of the two by at least a decade. Does this ultimately invalidate the argument that only Gardnerianism-Alexandrianism can be considered to be "Wiccan" ? What too, of the impact on the Pagan Studies discipline; will scholars working in this area recognise the wider context in which they use the term "Wicca" ?

So, with this (rather lengthy) post over, I warmly welcome a discussion on such issues and how they may affect the Pagan community in future. What are your views? I'd love to hear them, in particular from Pagan Studies scholars as well as practicing Pagans and others active in the esoteric scene. However, please note that I am not interested in any direct criticisms of my argument on a scholarly level unless you have previously studied my paper in The Pomegranate; I will deem such attacks to be simply internet trolling and deal with them thus (I regretfully include this proviso as a result of some of the more purile attacks that have been launched at Pagan Studies scholars like Ronald Hutton and Caroline Tully in recent months, particularly following the publication of Ben Whitmore's Trials of the Moon). Of course, if you have read my paper and take issue with something in it, then again, I'd be interested to hear from you. Constructive criticism is always appreciated. :)