BRITISH PAGANISM FROM EARLIEST TIMES TO THE ROMAN OCCUPATION: A LECTURE GIVEN TO THE CHESTERFIELD ALISTER HARDY SOCIETY ON 1ST SEPTEMBER 2006 by
JOE REVILL, M.A Most of our pagan ancestors didn’t know how to read or write; those of them who lived in the British Isles were also strangely disinclined to make representational art. This means that we are largely in ignorance of their sacred stories, their hymns and their prayers, and we have no images of the beings they worshipped – which obviously constitutes a major difficulty for anyone trying to understand their religious beliefs and practices. We have plenty of archeological evidence, but it needs interpretation. In the absence of written testimony, of course, no interpretation can ever be regarded as entirely certain, though some may be disproved by new evidence. The older school of archeologists speculated pretty freely about the meaning of the things they were digging up, and some of their interpretations have indeed been disproved by new evidence. Many of their other interpretations have not been disproved, but have nevertheless fallen from favour among modern scholars – for there are fashions in ideas as there are in other things. These days the fashion is to be very cautious indeed, so that often it seems that all modern archeologists are willing to say about prehistoric religion is, We don’t understand it, and we never shall. This is rather a depressing message for those of us who find ourselves deeply moved by the art left by our ancestors, and their beautiful monuments; who can’t visit a stone circle or a chambered tomb without yearning to know what people did there, and why. Fortunately for us, there is a small, cloudy window through which we can hear the voices of our pagan ancestors, and glimpse the faces of their deities. For a
period of about four centuries, Britain was part of the Roman world; for most of that period, a Province of the Empire – which (though a bit of a mixed blessing for the ancient Britons) does at least mean that we have some written evidence about their religious practices and lots of their holy images. There still isn’t as much information as we might like, but there’s enough to enable us to build up a rough picture of how people lived and worshipped in these islands about two thousand years ago. 2
Britain as the Romans found it was a land of many small kingdoms. There were few towns; and those few were little more than fortified enclosures, where people came to pay their taxes to the local chief and perhaps to trade with one another, under his protection. There were also sacred places, where people met for periodic festivals, and trading took place at these too. According to John Wacher, it is possible to point to many sites which appear to coincide with tribal boundaries and which, during the Roman period, developed as combined religious and trade centres, so probably continuing earlier usage. There took place fairs and markets – ‘...associated with ancient sanctuaries whose deity hallowed the transaction and gave to the market or fairground a sacred peace’. As we shall see, Celtic law was in the hands of the druids, so we may presume that lawsuits were settled at these religious assemblies rather than in the chief’s fortress. There was in Britain then a lot more woodland and wilderness than there is today; many isolated farmsteads and some small villages. People in the south mostly lived by raising crops; further north, animal husbandry was more important. The mass of the people, who grew the crops and kept the beasts, lived pretty much like medieval peasants – no better, but not much worse. Their life was uncomfortable, sometimes painful, and generally very short, by the standards of modern Europeans. But of course our lives are very much easier than those of all our ancestors, or those of most people in the world today. No doubt the peasants had a good time occasionally, enjoying the beauties of nature, the pleasures of love, and the joys of festival. But they worked very hard, and in fact much harder than they really needed to, because they were obliged to produce a large surplus, paid as taxes, to support
a parasitic warrior class. These were mostly young men who didn’t produce anything but ate very well, wore expensive jewellery, and got a lot of respect. The downside of being a warrior was that you had to fight in your lord’s battles whenever he asked you to, which meant there was a fair chance of dying a painful death before you grew old. Warriors were always employed by a local chief, in whose hall they feasted, 3
pledging him loyalty as they drank his mead, in a kind of secular eucharist. If you lived long enough to retire and get married, I expect the lord would grant you the ownership of a farmstead or two on whose surplus you could live. All very feudal. Without a lord to feed him, a warrior would be reduced to living by his sword, and pillaging on his own behalf; which would make him an outlaw, whom the local lord’s men would soon seek out and destroy. Analogies with modern gangsters and their protection rackets are obvious: people paid taxes to the chief so that he could maintain his private army and his flashy lifestyle, and in return he promised to protect them against aggressive outsiders, and might help in other ways – supporting them through bad times, for example. If they displeased him, his soldiers would deal out retribution. As in the Mafia, the chiefs were themselves vassals of a ‘lord of lords’, or capo di tutti capi: the local king. There were about a dozen kings in Britain then. Some of them ruled over people of more than one tribe. Apart from warriors and farmers, there was a third class of people in Britain: the druids. The clever Celts had found a social role for nerds as well as jocks. You could tell at a glance who was who: warriors wore big moustaches and no beards; druids wore big beards but no moustaches. Druids didn’t carry weapons, and were actually forbidden to do so, but they were still very powerful. To understand what the druids were like the best historical analogies are with the Indian brahmins, or – even better – the medieval Church. A man wasn’t born a druid: he became one by choice, through training. Could a girl become a druid? The evidence is unclear. If there were female druids they don’t seem to have been very numerous or important. Cæsar says that in Gaul the druids had an elected leader, the ‘arch-druid’, a kind of Pope; and that they met for an annual synod in the centre of the country. In a divided land the druids were the
only intertribal organization. Basically they were priests, which means they knew how to perform the rituals that people needed done on important occasions – stuff like marriages and coronations, one imagines. They could threaten a disobliging chief or king with excommunication from the communal ceremonies, and 4
consequent loss of legal status. I suppose people thought that if you didn’t take part in the communal ceremonies then you weren’t a member of the community. So the druids were arguably more powerful than the warrior aristocracy. We know that there were also priests and priestesses in Britain who were not druids, but we know very little about them. The druids seem to have been the official guardians of what passed for history, science and medicine in those days – again, just like the medieval Church. They didn’t write, and so their training involved learning a lot of stuff by heart: Cæsar tells us that it could take them 20 years to learn it all, though that sounds like an exaggeration, considering how short most people’s lives were back then. Druids learnt the laws of their society. I suspect that was a specialist subject. Other druids had other specialisms: for example, bards seem to have been a sub-class of druid, who specialised in music and courtly poetry. Another sort of druid was the vates, a word sometimes explained as ‘diviner’, and sometimes, intriguingly, as ‘philosopher’. The popular idea about the druids is that they were great magicians, so naturally one wonders if this had any foundation in fact. The classical sources aren’t much help here, telling us only of their skill in herbal medicine and, once, of their selling natural objects as good-luck charms. Their power of excommunication might, I suppose, be considered as a form of curse, certainly more effective than most. Later Irish legends about pagan times tell us that the druids’ magic consisted mainly of the ability to make people obey bizarre commands against their will, and to see things that weren’t really there. It sounds rather as if, like the Khlysti and the witches, these druids might have known a thing or two about hypnotism. Druids were exempt from fighting or from paying taxes. How did they make a living? Some were priests at local shrines and temples, presumably living mainly
off the donations of worshippers and pilgrims; some were attached to the courts of lords and kings. I suppose the leaders gave them a share of the taxes in return for their saying things that supported the status quo and doing their rituals and blessings on request – just like priesthoods in other parts of 5
the world. But the druids collectively opposed the secular lords at times, so (like the medieval Church) they must have had independent wealth as an organization, and to have been willing to support members in difficulties. It would be nice to know more about the druids’ beliefs and practices, but really we don’t. Classical authors preserve a few scraps of information, of dubious value. Cæsar says they taught the immortality of the soul (and perhaps reincarnation, though his language is ambiguous). He doesn’t say that they taught this doctrine because they believed it, but that they did it in order to take away the warriors’ fear of death, and make them fight more bravely. They might have done that, I suppose – it fits with the general pattern of priesthoods in patriarchal societies teaching stuff that’s pleasing or useful to the bellicose rulers. The information that classical authors give us about druidic rituals usually concerns ingeniously cruel methods of human sacrifice, like the famous wicker man. Apologists for the Celts have argued that these reports are imaginative propaganda. Forensic analysis of bodies of this period recently found in British and Irish bogs suggests that such horror stories could well have been based on fact. Of course the Romans had their gladiatorial games, where people were slaughtered for public entertainment, and the people who died in the arena were just the same kind of people who would have been sacrificed by the druids, such as convicted criminals and prisoners of war. The big difference was that among the Celts the law was in the hands of the priests, and in Rome it was a secular thing. The actual practices of the Celts and the Romans seem to have been very similar: in both societies a number of unloved and potentially dangerous people were killed in unpleasant ways as a public spectacle. Neither the Celts nor the Romans were on the moral high ground here. Indeed it’s not many generations since messy public executions were popular spectacles in London, as they still are in many parts of the world.
Far more frequent than human sacrifice, and amply attested by archeological evidence, was the sacrifice of animals. Because this was so central to ancient paganism, 6
and is so repugnant to modern sensibilities, I think I should say a few words on the subject. Most of the modern people who find the idea of animal sacrifice offensive eat meat, and that meat has come from an animal that was killed for the purpose. It had a real life and a real death, and the chances are in the modern world that its life and particularly its death were quite unpleasant. Most of us just see a sausage or a burger, and eat it without thinking where the meat came from. But back then people knew where meat came from. In the classical world the normal beginning to a formal dinner- party (like the one in Plato’s Symposium) was the sacrifice of an animal, part of which (usually the bones and the fat) was burnt as an offering to the gods, and the rest cooked for the guests. Both in homes and in temples, sacrifice was much like the Christian communion-feast, particularly as that was practiced in the early Church, binding the people and their gods together in table-fellowship. For the Romans, whose sacrificial practices are the ones that we know most about, it was very important that the sacrificial animal be happy right up to the end, which they tried to make quick and painless. If the victim showed any fear or reluctance, it was thought to be unacceptable to the gods, and would not be sacrificed. Now compare that with what goes on in a modern abattoir! If I had to chose between being an animal sacrificed in a Roman temple and one dying in a modern slaughterhouse, I’d go for the temple every time. Mention of the communion-feast makes one wonder about mysticism among the druids. In view of their many likenesses to the medieval clergy and the Indian brahmins, it would be surprising if there weren’t mystics among the druids – probably devoting themselves to the service of what the Indians call an ishtadevata, or chosen deity, at whose shrine they presided and worshipped. But they wrote nothing down, so we don’t know. Perhaps there was once British devotional poetry like that in which the Indian Ramprasad explored his relationship with and growing understanding of Kali; or as the Babylonian Enheduanna or the Jewish David did for their chosen deities, Ishtar and
The thing about deities is that just about any of them can become, for their true worshippers, a personalized interface with the Nature of Things, or Dao. When the author of the psalms sings about the way Jehovah’s treating him, he’s celebrating or bitching about the way the Universe is. Likewise for Ramprasad and Kali; for Enheduanna and Ishtar; and, one supposes, for numerous British priests and priestesses, druids or not, whose names, like the names of their chosen deities, are lost to us in the dark backward and abysm of time. The Romans weren’t interested in the druids’ religious life so much as in their political power and their anti-imperialist sentiments. When the Romans took over in Gaul and Britain the druids became a proscribed organization. There were still priests, of course, but they weren’t allowed to organize like they used to. This might have been a good thing for the priests and priestesses who weren’t druids. Foreigners came in too, bringing cults from other parts of the empire to fill the gap left by the druids. So the druid order died out and its secrets were forgotten. Many modern people are involved in an attempt to revive druidism, but they’ve had very little on which to base their reconstruction, and so have been forced to imagine a great deal according to their personal tastes. It’s rather like the story of the revival of witchcraft, though with even less evidence: like trying to reconstruct a jigsaw puzzle when most of the pieces are missing. In both cases it has resulted in the creation of many new practices and beliefs which may differ greatly from those of ancient times. Which is fine, of course, because paganism always was something that changed and adapted itself to the changing tastes of its worshippers: to state the obvious, it was whatever contemporary pagans wanted it to be. So a modern pagan practice doesn’t have to be genuinely old to be authentically pagan: if it works for modern pagans, that’s good enough. In addition to druids, warriors and farmers, there seems to have been a fourth class in Celtic Britain, consisting of outcasts, slaves, and other wretches who while human in form didn’t really count as people. Just the same fourfold division of classes is found in early India, where they were called brahmins, kshatriyas, vaishyas and sudras. 8
There is of course a linguistic and a racial connexion between Celtic Britain and ancient India: the ruling classes in both lands spoke an Indo-European (or Aryan) language, and were partly descended from common ancestors: a tribe who had lived somewhere in Europe or Western Asia some thousands of years earlier. For reasons unknown, these Aryans seem to have spread across much of Europe and Asia, imposing versions of their language and their patriarchal, warrior culture on the people they conquered. The best parallel I can think of is the way that Arabic culture and language spread across most of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond in the early centuries of Islam; and I can’t help wondering if there wasn’t some religious imperative behind the Aryan diaspora. If there was, it would have to be one deriving from the worship of that same aggressive sky-god who was to inspire the later conquests of the Arabs, the Huns and the Mongols. The wealth of written information on early Aryan religion from India, Greece, and elsewhere enables us to say with certainty that the Aryan religion centred on just such a deity, called Dyaus in India, Zeus in Greece. The Aryan word for god, in Sanskrit deva, in Celtic devos, means “heavenly one”. The sky was the chief deity of the Aryans, who thought of him, poetically, as a great war-chief writ large, a wise patriarch, and a friend to his people; other celestial phenomena, like the sun and the rainbow, were revered as the children of this sky-father. Some of these minor deities were female, but on the whole goddesses weren’t very important in Aryan religion. The Goddess of many names has such a large place in later Hinduism because pre-Aryan cults survived among people of native descent, and sometimes the upper classes joined in. Similarly in Greece the religion of the classical period is seen to combine Aryan elements like the cult of Zeus with others of native origin, such as the worship of Demeter and Persephone, Mother and Maiden, Goddesses of fertility and agriculture, whose skills they had imparted to humankind. In Greece as in India, the indigenous people seem to have experienced the divine as a presence in the earth and in the body rather than up in the sky, and more often in female form than male. 9
In India the lowest castes, the vaishyas and sudras, consisted mainly of descendants of the conquered people, and no doubt that was also true in Britain; but we may be sure that there were many in all classes of mixed
descent. The Nazi idea of a pure Aryan race has always been an impossibility in a world where people have been so prone to have sex with one other on the basis of irrational attraction. The consensus of scholarly opinion seems to be that the Aryans entered Greece about the beginning of the second millennium BCE; India a few centuries later. When they came here we don’t know. Sometime within 500 years of 2000 BCE sounds like a reasonable guess. It does seem that the Celts were not the first Aryans in Britain: experts say that some of our oldest place-names, such as Tweed, are survivals from a language which was Aryan but pre-Celtic. Many scholars have thought the Celts came very late indeed, about 500 years before the Romans, imposing their language on the people they conquered as the Romans would in France and Spain. That seems most likely to me, given the great similarity of the British and the Gaulish languages, and the surprising likeness of both to Latin. I don’t think the British could have been separated from the Gauls for more than a few centuries, or that their ancestors had been separated from those of the Romans for much more than a millennium. The Romans didn’t note the existence of any non-Celtic languages in Britain; but from early medieval sources we know that one such language, known as Pictish or Cruíthne, was still spoken in parts of what’s now Scotland, and perhaps also in parts of Ireland, little more than a thousand years ago. A few inscriptions in this language survive. According to MacAlister’s study of them, which I find completely convincing, it was an agglutinative language bearing remote affinities to both Finno-Ugrian and Aryan – which is pretty much what one might have predicted a non- Aryan, north-west European language to be. If MacAlister’s suggestion is correct, fragments of such a speech survive to this day in the argot of the outcast travelling people called tinkers. In circumstances like these one would expect to find in Celtic Britain a mixture of Aryan and pre-Aryan cults, the former reflecting the interests of the warriors and the 10
druids, and the latter having more to do with the concerns of the peasants. And in fact that’s pretty much what we find. Just as in Hinduism, one’s first impression is of a dazzling multiplicity of cults and deities, but on closer study one sees that most of the gods look like variations on a theme, or aspects of a
single entity, and so do the goddesses. Let’s look at the gods first. There are hundreds of names, many known from a single inscription. Back then, if you seriously wanted to worship a god, you’d make an altar to him where you’d offer sacrifices: pouring wine, burning incense, and so on. Roman practice was to write the god’s name on the altar. That’s how we know the name of Cocidius, to whom many altars are dedicated in northern Britain, with most of them near to the Irthing valley, where, says Professor Ross, it is probable that the fanum of Cocidius, mentioned in the Ravenna Cosmography, was situated. It seems likely that his name means “the red one”. Cocidius was rather like a local saint in medieval Britain, with most of his devotees living close to his shrine but some coming considerable distances to pray and sacrifice to him. Often the carver of an inscription, writing in the Roman alphabet, offers a translation of the god’s name into Latin, sometimes as Mars, god of war, or Silvanus, god of hunting. We have lost his myths, but we may suppose they contained accounts of his manly prowess in battle and in the chase. I think the kind of people who idolize John Wayne or Bruce Lee would have been really into a god like this ruddy heman super-warrior and super-hunter; and there’s nothing wrong with that, if you ask me. It’s not my bag, but a lot of people like that sort of thing, and good luck to them. It could have good results. A warrior in doubt of how to behave might ask himself “What would Cocidius do?”, and act more gracefully – though not, one suspects, more gently – as a consequence. Like most gods, Cocidius would have functioned mainly as an inspiration and an imaginary friend – someone to help you get through hard times. People who’ve seen the movie Play It Again, Sam may recall the relationship that Woody Allen’s character has with the imagined spirit of Humphrey Bogart. 11
No doubt, like most deities, Cocidius received prayers for healing, and no doubt some of those who prayed got well, and so people came to believe more and more in his power to heal; and as that belief strengthened so that power grew, until apparent miracles happened at his shrine, as they still do today at places like Lourdes or Fátima, and for just the same reasons. All of Cocidius’s worshippers were men, as one would have supposed; and
indeed in Britain very few women made dedications to any male gods. Men did dedicate altars to Goddesses, though: the sexes were roughly equal in their apparent devotion to the female divine. What were the other faces of male divinity in Celtic Britain like? More of the same, basically. They were powerful tough guys worshipped by those who aspired to be powerful tough guys themselves. The most common Roman godname given to Celtic gods was, naturally, Mars. But these gods weren’t just concerned with martial stuff; they were imagined as all-round protectors, suppliers of health and healing, wisdom, and anything else their supplicants might want. So the same native god might be Latinized by the names of many different Roman gods: called Mars when considered as a rolemodel of warriors, Silvanus as a patron of hunters, Apollo as a healer, or an inspirer of poetry and music, and so on. To state the obvious, he was whatever Ancient British men wanted him to be. There is barbaric poetry in his names, when we can understand them: Camulos, ‘the heavenly’; Toutatis, ‘he of the tribe’; Olloudios, ‘great wisdom’; Alator, ‘provider’; Rigisamos, ‘most kingly’. Carvings let us glimpse the appearance of the god in the imagination of his worshippers. He generally looks like a warrior, sometimes in armour, sometimes naked, as the toughest Celtic warriors used to go into battle. His weapon varies from a sword to a spear to a club. Sometimes he has no weapon; sometimes exaggerated genitalia. Often, especially in the north, there are horns on his head – to look really fierce and macho, one supposes. Professor Ross says the average British god was an all- purpose figure and, despite the differences in his name, he was basically the same throughout the Celtic lands. He was a 12
protector, a role-model, and for some an interface with the Dao. For his worshippers, in fact, pretty much what Jehovah was for the ancient Jews, or Chemosh, presumably, for the Moabites. Or indeed what Vishnu and Shiva are to their Indian devotees. Now in India you have people who think of their local god as being a distinct personality devoted to their particular group’s interests, and people who see him as just an aspect of the one divine essence. In ancient Greece there was the
same thing: some considered the gods as many, some as different aspects of the one. Even in Rasputin’s Russia there were many who thought of their local version of a saint as a different being to the same saint worshipped in another place; and, of course, there were many who knew better. I expect the druids at least would have realized that all these British gods were essentially one and the same. The druids have been supposed responsible for the widespread popularity of a cult which revered the godhead by the name of Lugos – perhaps meaning ‘bright one’, or possibly ‘raven’. Raven, of course, is the animal form of the Trickster in many northern mythologies. Lúg is known from later Irish legends in which he figures as a cunning and capable god, justly compared by Hutton to the Norse Odin, and like him apparently a personification of human intelligence. Dedications in this name are found widely dispersed across the Celtic world, suggesting that the druids carried it across tribal boundaries. How did people worship their gods? It doesn’t seem to have varied much from one shrine to another, being mostly a matter of occasionally bringing an animal to the temple for sacrifice. One supposes that the priests got a good share of the meat, and sometimes other offerings. As a musical people, the Celts probably also had the kind of bloodless sacrifice in which song and dance were the only things offered up; we know of such ceremonies elsewhere in the ancient world – in Greece and Mesopotamia, for example, where people wrote about them. They leave no trace in the earth, and so we have no certain evidence for them in Britain, but on the whole they seem likely. Bards were counted among the druids, after all. Perhaps Mozart’s Requiem and the Rite of Spring had their forerunners in pagan Britain, as entertainments for the gods. 13
Professor Ross describes the typical Celtic god as mate of the tribal goddess, which we know to be true of many of the gods of ancient Britain, who were worshipped as part of a divine couple. But it would have been more accurate to call the god’s wife a local Goddess than a tribal one, since Ross goes on to say that the god himself tended to move with the tribe when it set out for new conquests and territories. But the goddess, who was much concerned with the actual
geographical region over which she presided, remained behind to be overcome by the newcomers, and to be killed or used for their own purposes, or mated to their own tribal god. Just as all the gods are basically the same as one other, so are the Goddesses. As Professor Ross implies, the British Goddess stands for the earth and nature; her local forms represent the earth and nature as they are in particular places: this hill, this valley, this pool. Her gifts are first and foremost material prosperity and the satisfaction of bodily needs. Sometimes wisdom, one supposes from her occasional Latinization as Minerva. And no doubt healing too, like most deities. She appears very like the village Goddesses of modern India, all of whom are considered to be aspects of the Great Goddess, and in whose service are often to be found priests and priestesses who are not brahmins but members of the lower castes. Some of the images of her are very powerful. When I look at them I can’t doubt that they are representations of my Goddess, Dark Lady of the witches and the tantrics. Among the most striking are the images of her as a trinity: three almost-identical women sitting or standing holding symbols of fertility, and identified usually as ‘The Mothers’. The poet Robert Graves suggested in 1949 that these carvings represented the Goddess as ‘Mother’, ‘Maiden’, and ‘Crone’: an interpretation which many modern pagans accept as an article of faith. But the carvings don’t look like three women of different ages, and the inscriptions never refer to them as such. The idea of the Goddess being three- fold seems to be just a way of emphasizing her power. (The same thing happens sometimes with male gods.) 14
One class of image is something of a puzzle to archeologists: the so-called Venus figurines. These are ceramic representations of a beautiful, naked woman, small enough to be held in one hand. Lots of them survive from the Roman period, when they were apparently imported in bulk from Western France. Some think they were just Iron- Age pornography, but others interpret them as Goddess- images popular with the poor and female, worshipped primarily to bring good health. They seem to be found as often with women’s remains as with men’s. The written sources don’t mention these objects, and none of them is inscribed. Is this the Roman Venus or a native Goddess? Was she the object of desire or the focus of adoration? In Part Two I shall suggest
some answers. In general, the British Goddess-cults seem to have been concerned with fertility and material well-being: subjects more likely to have been on the minds of the peasants than those of their social superiors. It looks as though we’ve got two strata of religion here: an indigenous cult of the Goddess of the earth, worshipped by simple farming people, and an alien worship of an aggressive macho celestial god brought by aggressive macho incomers, who have imposed themselves as parasites on the natives. Time, ignorance and tribal rivalries have split both these deities into a myriad of local godlings, but their original identity is plain, and must have been plain to many of their worshippers back then. This is pretty much the conclusion that the old school of British archeologists came to, looking at the evidence and trying to imagine what went on in prehistory. In my opinion they weren’t far wrong, but new archeological evidence tells us that in reality things were a little more complicated – as I’ll tell you in Part Two of this talk. Next time we’ll go back to the dawn of humankind and come forward through the paleolithic, the neolithic, bronze 15
age, and Celtic times, until we return to the time of the Romans. Then Part Three will bring us back to the present, looking at the relatively well-documented practices and beliefs of the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings, the survival of paganism in the Middle Ages, and a brief account of the modern pagan revival. I hope you’ll come along – or if not buy a pamphlet or read it on the net: www.esoteric- experience.org.uk. Thanks for your time. II In Part One I told you about religious practices in Celtic Britain. Now, keeping that stuff in mind, let us look back further into the past, and see if we can make sense of the scant traces left in the archaeological record by people doing things that we might want to call religious. Human beings have lived here for at least 700,000 years, but traces of anything that looks like religion go back not much further than the last 25,000. That’s roughly 675,000 years in which our predecessors seem to have gone through life like the beasts of the field, not really thinking of much outside the here-andnow.
I call these primitive people our predecessors and not our ancestors, because we aren’t descended from them. Our ancestors came from outside – from the Middle East, to be precise, about 50,000 years ago, and slowly replaced the existing population. We’re probably not talking about genocide here: the new people were just cleverer and better at hunting, so slowly they spread and the native people died out, like the red squirrels in our own day. These ancestors 16
of ours had come to the Middle East from Africa, in whose southern regions they had evolved from more primitive stock more than 100,000 years ago. They spread all over the world, and everywhere the native people vanished. Was this a great loss? In one sense, yes, obviously; but from the point of view of a historian of religion, not very. Only the very last and smartest of these people, the large- brained Neanderthals, left us any trace of activities that anyone has wanted to call religious. One thing was that they used to bury their dead, in a fœtal position, sometimes with offerings of flowers or food. Another of their practices was to make a little circle of stones on the cave floor, set up a stake in the circle, and on the stake set the severed head of an animal or a human being. Anyone who’s read The Lord of the Flies will be able to imagine them having mystical conversations with these heads, like Simon did in the novel; students of Norse myth might be reminded of Odin taking counsel from Mimir’s severed, speaking head. But there is a more mundane interpretation which seems to me a good deal more likely: that these gruesome objects were just trophies of a successful hunt. And while the burials show that Neanderthal people loved their friends and found it hard to let them go without some last show of affection, they don’t prove anything about a belief in the afterlife. Did the Neanderthals really believe their dead friends were going to eat the meat they gave them, under the ground? Surely not. The grieving Neanderthals gave the meat because past experience had shown them that performing such an action would make them feel better, purging their hearts of emotions which they couldn’t express in words. Theories about what such actions meant would come much later, very slowly, as people
gradually invented philosophy. Back in the paleolithic, I expect that people just did things because they liked the way it made them feel. And what of our own ancestors? What did they like to do? Back in Southern Africa, about 70,000 years ago, one of them made the oldest work of art that has come down to us: a simple geometrical pattern incised upon a piece of red ochre. They were collecting large quantities of this 17
substance, presumably for use as paint; but no cave- paintings have been found, and archeologists generally believe they were painting their bodies, perhaps for ceremonies that we might want to call religious. The only clues we have about what went on in their ceremonies come much later, and they come from Europe. This is the Venus of Laussel: one of the oldest surviving pieces of representational art. She was carved in low relief, and painted with red ochre, on the wall of a rock-shelter near Bordeaux, around 25,000 BCE. Though his primitive tools and lack of experience have obviously constrained the artist, the work is quite powerful. One feels that the lady was meant to be attractive, and that the artist exaggerated the things he liked best. The horn is said to be that of a bison. Presumably it’s being used as a drinking-vessel. To me it has always irresistibly called to mind both the communion-cup and the cornucopia. This image as a whole evokes the name that medieval French witches gave their Goddess: Abundia. When I had my first big experience of the Goddess in 1978, this was one of the forms in which I recognized her. At Laussel there were actually three similar female shapes, standing side by side, holding different objects; also a male shape doing something unknown. But apparently the other figures are very much eroded. It’s hard not to be reminded of the Celtic triple Goddess images, as common in Roman France and Germany as in Britain. Presumably the male figure was worshipping her. I suggest that we have here a glimpse of a prehistoric rite similar to the Russian radéniye and the Indian chakrapuja. The female figure is a priestess, naked and painted red, the primeval colour of holiness, still in India said to be the favourite colour of the tantrics’ Goddess. Like her equivalent among the Khlysti and the tantrics, the priestess is being worshipped, and, in the perceptions of all concerned, becoming more than herself, a symbol of reality-as-a-whole – in a
word, a Goddess. May we guess that the other components of the radéniye and the chakrapuja – music, dancing, feasting, and free love – were practised in the paleolithic rituals? It seems a reasonable assumption. Dancing is apparently depicted in the posture of the recently-discovered Galgenberg Venus, 18
and in an engraving that looks rather like a chorus-line of naked women at Cresswell Crags. If these early people had dancing, they must have had music. The attraction of a party, a feast, naked dancing and love-making, is obvious and perennial. People then probably didn’t have much in the way of theology: they did certain things because they liked the buzz they got from doing them. These witchy practices seem like perfectly natural things for people to do, out of pure hedonism. As we know, intense pleasure can induce a temporary, blissful loss of the sense of self. Flooded with endorphins, some of our partying ancestors would have lost their ego- boundaries and known the oneness of everything, just as many ecstatic revellers did in the raves of a few years ago. Thus would the road of excess lead to the palace of wisdom, and the pursuit of pleasure give rise to experiences that can only be called religious. Religion had come into the world: and it looked remarkably like witchcraft. From about the same period as the Venus of Laussel come the world’s oldest free-standing sculptures. These are all of stone, apart from one of fired clay from Eastern Europe; but they must have come out of a long tradition of wood-carving. Some clearly show the influence of wooden prototypes. We must suppose that for every stone figurine which has survived there must have been many wooden ones which have perished. They are all quite small, just of a size to hold comfortably in one hand. In fact they don’t have bases, and seem to have been designed to be held and contemplated by a single person at a time rather than put on public display. They represent naked women, of quite a variety of body-types, often with their sexual characteristics exaggerated. Some, but not all, show traces of having been painted with red ochre. Many of the ones we have were very high-quality items, made with great skill and artistry. The suggestion has been seriously made that these objects were stone-age
pornography; and, knowing what young men are like, I think it quite possible that some of the figurines were used for this purpose. But their resemblance to the lady of Laussel suggests a nobler use, as mobile images of the holy presence that their users had seen conjured up in 19
primitive versions of the radéniye and the chakrapuja: divinity manifest in the body of a woman. Certainly the æsthetic qualities of the figurines suggest majesty and holiness. One can’t imagine that anyone would make such objects simply to masturbate over; though undoubtedly a degree of sexual excitement was one part of the response they were designed to elicit. Much later, in the neolithic age of eastern Europe, many similar figurines would be made in the rediscovered medium of fired clay; as metal tools came into use some figures would again be carved in stone. Presumably a continuing tradition of carving such objects in wood connects the paleolithic figurines with those of the neolithic. They were still produced in ancient literate societies, like those of Mesopotamia and Rome, but as far as I know there are no surviving writings that refer to them. Archeologists have called them “Ishtar figurines” in a Mesopotamian context, “Asherahs” in Palestine and Israel, and “Venuses” when they’re found in the Roman Empire. As we have seen, they were imported in mass from Gaul in Roman times. What do these figurines represent? It’s a question which might be in principle unanswerable, because I think that at first they were made not to represent anything, but to recreate an experience: that of religious awe, gazing at a naked priestess by firelight and seeing her as the Dao made manifest. In my terms they are images of the Goddess, personalized interfaces with the Dao; but we don’t know if their original users would have said that, because we don’t know if they had concepts like “Goddess” or “Dao”. They probably worshipped because they liked the way it made them feel; theorizing came later, and it came slowly. But I feel the religion they had back then was basically the same as Shákta Tantra or witchcraft; and that for the people who made and used these Venuses they were just what an image of the Goddess is for her modern devotees. I think people of both sexes made and used these things: that women, as well as men, found delight and inspiration in contemplating them, and recalling the epiphanic moment of the radéniye, when a woman’s body becomes radiant with divinity. For a woman it would be a reminder of the holiness of her own body, its
beauty, strength, and capacity to reproduce itself: a kind of self-blessing. 20
About 10,000 years after the first Venus figurines came the heyday of a betterknown paleolithic art form: cave paintings. About these I’m not going to say much, because I don’t think there was anything religious about them: they look to me like hunting-magic, pure and simple, with no doubt a kind of men’s club organized around them. One thinks inevitably of secret initiations, freemasonly hierarchies, and all the usual stuff that men invent to make themselves feel wiser and more important than they really are. The central mystery here was how to paint, and to perform the associated rituals which were said to make an image magically effective. Young men learnt how to paint an image of the creature they wanted to kill; and having painted it, found the hunt easier. If they failed, they would blame themselves and their lack of ritual expertise. Modern scholars who have doubted the hunting-magic theory of cave art have done so on the grounds that the proportions of species depicted in the caves don’t match those of the species people actually ate. It seems to me that this would only be a valid objection if one assumed that the magic worked – and indeed that it worked perfectly every time! In fact men seem to have made many more representations of animals that were difficult to hunt than of those that were easy; and, it’s a fair guess, more of those they liked the taste of than of those they didn’t. Of course, the magic didn’t work, and this was tragically proved at the end of the Ice Age, when climate change transformed the landscape, and led to the disappearance of many favourite species. In this changed world men stopped making cave- paintings, having seen that they were useless. Did the cult-practices associated with the Goddess figurines continue in the warmer, forested world of the mesolithic? In Eastern Europe we can be pretty sure they did, because the neolithic figurines there seem to descend from a paleolithic tradition. In Britain the honest answer is that we don’t know, because there doesn’t seem to be anything of religious significance in the archeological record of this period in the British Isles. Isles they were now, for the first time in human history, as rising sea-levels separated them from Europe about 7,000 BCE. Dense forest covered most of the land; small bands of people eked out a precarious living hunting and gathering.
Some settled on the coasts, eating lots of seafood and creating huge piles of shells that can still be seen today. The lack of anything that looks like art in the archeological record suggests that life was pretty hard for the native people, who lived in the kind of material poverty associated with the aborigines of Tasmania or the Veddas of Ceylon. Things were to change with the arrival of new people in about 5,000 BCE, and the centuries following. They came over from the continent, mainly from western France and northern Spain, in big rowing-boats presumably, with their cattle, sheep, pigs, dogs and seedcorn; for these were farming people, whose good stone axes allowed them to cut down large areas of forest and cultivate the land. Their way of life was very different from that of the native hunter- gatherers, and in some ways more demanding; but it gave a much greater degree of material security, and allowed many more people to live on the same area of land. In some places the native people kept themselves apart from the newcomers for centuries, but eventually the attractions of the new way of life proved irresistible, so that a hybrid population came into being. Exactly the same process seems to have occurred, a few centuries earlier, in the lands from which the farmers had come: immigrants had come with new ways from the east and peacefully assimilated the native people. The new ways themselves, along with one element in the farmersâ€™ ancestry, can be traced back to the Eastern Mediterranean, around 8,000 BCE. Some modern archeologists believe that these peaceful immigrants were speakers of an Aryan language, but that seems very unlikely to me. If it were so, one would expect to find a range of old Aryan languages spoken along the coasts of the Mediterranean, where the new ways of farming spread during the neolithic; whereas in fact ancient sources show us that the languages of the Mediterranean were predominately non-Aryan and agglutinative, while the few exceptions, like Greek and Latin, seem to have been recent introductions from the north. The likeness between Latin and Celtic has already been mentioned; scarcely less striking is that between Greek and Germanic. The language of the Aryans who invaded India shows affinities rather with the Slavic languages, such as Russian. There are words 22
common to the different branches of the Aryan languages for things like metals
and kings, which didn’t exist in the time of the first farmers. It looks as if the homeland of the Aryans must have been somewhere in Central Europe; and the date of their dispersion a good deal more recent than that of the first agriculturists. The religion of the early farmers was certainly very different from what we know about that of the Aryans. Rather than a sky-father, they seem to have revered an Earth-Mother. Inferred from archeological evidence, her cult is presumed to have survived in that of the diverse, yet basically very similar local Goddesses, like Demeter, Cybele, Astarte and Tanit, worshipped throughout the Mediterranean world in historical times. Neolithic figurines suggest a continuity with the paleolithic woman-worship, but agriculture must have given a new emphasis to their devotion. Now, one suspects, the old radéniye became a fertility-rite, performed in the belief that it helped to make the earth fruitful, as well as for all the old reasons. Along the coasts of the Mediterranean and through the interior of Europe, the farming people made potent female images, sometimes attractive and sometimes terrifying, which I recognize as ikons of my Goddess. The response of the Jungian anthropologist Erich Neumann to one of these, from the Eastern Mediterranean of 5,000 BCE, is true of many: She is the Earth Mother, the Mother of Life, ruling over everything that rises up and is born from her and over everything that sinks back into her... never a Goddess only of fertility, [she] is always at the same time a Goddess of death and the dead. Sadly, no images of the Goddess have survived from neolithic Britain – unless one counts as images of the Goddess the great chambered tombs whose shape is so suggestive of female anatomy. One feels that the people who made them had an immense reverence for the vulva, the vagina, and the womb – a reverence such as, among modern religious people, only a Shákta or a witch might share. In Western France and Northern Iberia, images of a majestic female form, very like that of the stylized Venus 23
figurines of the period, are to be found in many tombs similar in style and date to those in Britain. Perhaps the most striking is this from a tomb on the Marne.
(Compare it with this figurine from Sardinia.) In Britain there are only a couple of crudely carved faces. I suppose we were a bit poor and backward when it came to stuff like carving. But there seems no reason to doubt that the tombs here are dedicated to the same Goddess as those across the channel. The fashion for constructing these monuments reached here about 4,300 BCE, having started a little earlier on the continent, probably in Brittany, a place with which Britain’s cultural ties seem to have been particularly strong. Though we call them tombs they might just as well be called temples, because it seems that people regularly went inside them to perform rituals. Probably that’s why bodies weren’t just laid in the tomb-chambers to decay, but were instead de-fleshed and dried out before being put there. The tombs are in fact artificial hills, with stone chambers and passageways inside them. They must have taken the labour of many people to construct; and their distribution suggests that each stood at the centre of the territory settled by a single clan. So presumably they were a communal construction, and (among other things) the symbol of a communal identity. They don’t, however, seem to have been communal tombs, in the sense that everyone in the clan was interred there. In fact the proportion of people in the clan who were laid inside the tombs was very small indeed. West Kennet, in Wiltshire, is typical, with about fifty bodies laid there during the thousand years or so it was in use. The principle on which these people were selected from the rest of society is not immediately obvious: they included both sexes and a variety of ages, including some children, though no infants. A very few of the bodies show signs of a violent death, but most don’t. They don’t seem to have been particularly privileged people in life, as many show signs of having worked hard. Indeed the archeological evidence doesn’t suggest that there was anything in the way of an upper or a lower class back then: people all lived much alike. 24
But obviously the people in the tombs were thought to be special in some way, and probably representative of the clan as a whole. I suggest that what we have here is a bloodline: a lineage of clan-leaders, with perhaps some of their children who died young. It is easy to envisage the position of these clan-
leaders as similar to that described by Roscoe among the African Bagesu: The members of each clan lived on their own particular part... and had their own head-man who was responsible for all affairs concerning the clan and its relations with other clans. He claimed no rights as ruler over the clan, for he was its Father, not its king. His power was greatest in connection with the land, and it was to him that all disputes concerning the boundaries of cultivated plots or of clan land were brought. These, however, were not frequent, for unclaimed land was so plentiful that quarrels on this account were few.... The father of the clan demanded no payment of taxes or rents, but he expected to receive a pot of beer each year after the harvest was over. Well does Sagan call this system Flexible. Easy. Unstructured. Familylike. He adds that a headman might come only from a certain lineage in the clan. Many times he was simply the oldest living member of that lineage.... Society being one large family, he was simply the head of that family. These African clan-leaders were always men, but we donâ€™t know if that was the case in ancient Britain. Men and women were both laid in the tombs, and treated with equal respect, so probably they could both be leaders. The very shape of the tombs themselves suggests that the lineage was matrilineal, authority being passed down in the female line, as was still the case with the Pictish crown in historical times. It seems reasonable to assume that these early societies were also matrifocal, meaning that, after marriage, girls stayed in their native place, and their partners came from other groups to live with them. Some matrifocal societies, like the Mosuo of south-west China, do not practice marriage, but simply allow their young women to bring men 25
home to stay for as long as the young women want them to â€“ which could be years or even a lifetime, but often is for a much shorter period. The children of these unions are always raised by the motherâ€™s family. It sounds like a pretty good system for the women. Records tell us that in historical times the Picts had a similar custom, since some of their kings were fathered by men who were not Picts, and are known to have been married to someone else in their homeland: foreign princes visiting the Pictish court. Pictish women seem to have enjoyed a sexual freedom as great as that of women in the modern west, and one
supposes that things were much the same among our neolithic ancestors. How far had theology developed by this period? We don’t know. It seems likely to me that, if asked what they worshipped, they would have defined her as the Power which was manifest in Nature, and particularly evident to them in the bodies of women. Probably they had sacred stories in which the nature of the Goddess was symbolically expressed. These myths are lost to us, unless some have survived as folk-tales. But I don’t suppose these people had any metaphysical ideas. There was only one world for them, this real material universe that had produced them and given them so many pleasures. They desired no otherworldly paradise or nirvana, only to flourish and be happy on the earth. They had no professional priests, so it seems unlikely that theirs was a very intellectual sort of religion, nor that it was much concerned with morality. What about their practices? Archeologists tell us of bonfires and feasting outside the entrances to the tombs; many imagine dancing and singing, which sounds about right to me. Something like the radéniye, one supposes: basically a great, wild party, a celebration of the joy of being alive. One shouldn’t forget that in these societies there was a very high proportion of young people. It must have been like Ibiza in some ways. Inside the tomb there wasn’t room for many people; what happened there may have involved only a couple, or even a single individual. Archeologists tell us that the bodies were touched and moved about from time to time. They must have been a grisly sight, like something from a horror film. Why would people want to keep these gruesome objects 26
around? Our modern way is to spare ourselves the sight of the dead as much as possible, in just the same way that we try to avoid thinking about our own mortality. The sight of a corpse makes it very clear, on a visceral level, that a human being is basically just a highly-organized material object which will one day cease to function. A dead man says one thing very clearly: As I am, so shall you be. It looks as if these neolithic people were OK with that. Much later, the Celts would tell tales of elves feasting and dancing in the long-abandoned tombs, and
some have thought that was the way that neolithic people imagined their honoured dead. But really it must have been obvious to anyone going into the tomb and seeing the bodies there, that they weren’t doing any more feasting or dancing. If people had wanted to kid themselves and hide from the reality of death in fantasies of an afterlife, they would have put their ancestors out of sight, in a sealed tomb maybe. It looks as if part of the tomb-temple’s purpose was to do with facing the reality of death, and living in the light of that knowledge. The neolithic people worshipped the Goddess both as creator and destroyer, she who gives all and takes all, and couldn’t do one without the other. Perhaps there was a ceremony when young people were taken into the tomb for the first time as a rite of passage. If they imagined they would find the ancestors feasting and dancing it would have been quite a shock for them; but I suppose they had a notion of what to expect. Did clan-leaders in need of inspiration go into the tomb and hold imaginary dialogues with the wise dead? Did they look at a skull trying to imagine the person it had been, and the responses that person would have given? They wouldn’t have been human if they didn’t do such things, but naturally we have no records of them. The tomb itself would be an excellent place to meditate, and to engage in the intense daydreaming that C.G. Jung called ‘active imagination’, and modern witches call ‘pathworking’. A strong Goddess vibe pervades the neolithic tombs I’ve visited, scary to some people but irresistible to others. Indian tantrics would undoubtedly use such places for acts of sacramental sex, and it is tempting to imagine such practices in the neolithic. Perhaps they saw this as a 27
form of sacrifice to the Goddess, having noticed the likeness between death and the ego-death of orgasm. Apart from the rituals at the tombs the neolithic people had other festivals, which were celebrated at ‘causewayed camps’, that is to say places surrounded by roughly circular banks and ditches, where people of different clans could come together peacefully to celebrate and presumably to trade, flirt, and discuss things. These gatherings must have been very like those fairs that were still held in Celtic Britain.
What were the religious aspects of these festivals? Archeology doesn’t help us to answer this question, but it seems natural to suppose that the festivals might have been dedicated to a bright aspect of the Goddess, concerned with living and flourishing rather than with birth and death. It is a curious fact that the word for sun is grammatically feminine in all the languages of Northern Europe that have gender. Many of the cultures associated with these languages mythologically personified the sun as a beautiful maiden, the ‘Daughter of God’. Thus we find Saule in Lithuania, Sól or Sunna among the Germans. Primitive people elsewhere in the world made a similar perfonification of this heavenly body. For example in Aboriginal Australia it was said that she is a sexy young woman who goes down into the underworld every night to have fun with her lover; in the morning she returns, wearing the red kangaroo skin he’s given her, and that’s why the sun looks red at daybreak. Likewise in Celtic languages the word for sun is feminine. In Irish it’s Gráinne (pronounced ‘Gronya’) and a character of that name does indeed occur in Irish legend, where she is portrayed as a beautiful, unhappily married young queen whose pursuit of pleasure leads her to a tragic end. Now generally the Aryans tended to think of the sun as masculine, a ‘Son of God’; so perhaps in Northern Europe they picked up this idea of a female sun from the pre-Aryan people. It may be these mythological tales are like a dim recollection of the stories the early neolithic people told about their maiden SunGoddess; celebrating, in their summertime festivities, the season of her greatest strength. If so, the Goddess wouldn’t have the festivals to herself for long. A big new idea came into Britain, and it seems to have 28
spread through these camps. Big changes were coming, in society and in religious practice. The new order was expressed in a new form of sacred architecture, its form based on that of the camps: the stone circle. People started building stone circles about 3,000 BCE. People who started building them stopped building chambered tombs. Indeed they blocked their chambered tombs up and stopped putting bodies there, though in many cases some form of worship continued outside the entrances for centuries.
Instead the people of these societies began to build a new kind of tomb: a barrow, or artificial hillock, made to cover the grave of a single individual, generally a man, who was interred with a selection of high-status possessions, usually including weapons. Sometimes, horribly, people were killed to provide the dead man with company. It is common to find a murdered woman laid over the corpse of a high-status man in his tomb; the reverse does not occur. On the evidence of the burials, it has been been concluded that womenâ€™s status in these societies fell from one of equality to one of considerable inferiority as the new ways were adopted. Presumably there was a change in marriage- customs whereby wives became the property of their husbands. Women were killed for more spiritual reasons, too: Professor Hutton tells us that at Avebury the body of a young adolescent, probably female, was put beside one of the sockets intended for the megaliths. Her position strongly suggests a human sacrifice; this was certainly a foundation deposit. There are many parallels to this at other monuments, for example the young woman with bones warped by malnutrition who was put into the ditch of the Marden superhenge. Women and children seem to be the commonest victims: in one heartbreaking case, at a henge in Dorset, a young mother and her four children, presumably prisoners of war, perhaps the family of a defeated leader. One thinks of the first scene of Titus Andronicus. Such horrible practices are common in the early history of kingdoms elsewhere. So too are such extravagant and apparently pointless building projects as Silbury Hill, a mound of earth as big as the Great Pyramid; or the famous fetching of the 29
Stonehenge bluestones from Wales, when plenty of better stone lay close at hand. The first kings in the world seem to have been given quite unlimited power, so itâ€™s not surprising that they often did crazy things. As the areas served by the earliest circles were larger than those served by the chambered tombs, one supposes that the old clans had been assimilated into larger political structures, rather like the later kingdoms of the Celts. Presumably the high-status men laid in the barrows with their concubines and their treasures were the first British kings. These men were probably not from the old bloodlines of clan leaders. Indeed they may not even have formed new dynasties of their own, as their burials are of an individual, not a bloodline. Some prehistorians
have conjectured that in those days the new king wasn’t usually the old king’s son but the best man for the job, as chosen by a test or tests which included a footrace. Perhaps the long racetrack-like structures called cursuses, common in that period, were built for such races. Whether these early kings were regularly sacrificed after a given term of office, as Frazer, Graves and others, following them, suggest, is another matter. It seems very unlikely to me that anyone would seek royal office knowing that it entailed such a sticky end. In fact I think Frazer’s picture of paganism is distorted by his drive to find parallels to Christianity: his ideas about the supposed universality of the divine, sacrificed king do not naturally emerge from the evidence but are imposed on it by his preoccupation with the figure of Christ. In the late neolithic we seem to be in quite another world to that of the clans and the chambered tombs. We’ve got larger polities, with sexual subordination, social hierarchy, and autocratic male rulers. The religious monuments of this new order are the stone circles, which evince an interest in celestial phenomena such as the rising and setting of the sun and moon, solstices and eclipses. It seems very tempting to conclude that the old worship of the Earth- Goddess had been superseded by that of the sky-god, universally associated with male domination and social hierarchy. The old school of prehistorians concluded just that; but of course their modern successors are more cautious. Personally I do think something like that must 30
have happened, and that the worship of the sky-god was the big idea that drove the new order. The old prehistorians understandably thought that there must have been an Aryan invasion at this time, with newcomers bringing the new ways; but, interestingly, this does seem to have been wrong. The sky-god’s cult seems to have entered Britain rather as Protestantism did, much later: as an idea spread through the existing population by enthusiastic people who’d had contact with other societies. The Aryans do turn up in the archeological record, I think, but not for another five centuries. Here we have evidence that their enthusiasm for the sky-god wasn’t something unique to them but part of a wider cultural trend sweeping through Europe.
It seems kind of surprising that it happened so late. Almost everywhere among primitive peoples observed by scholars in the last few centuries, there’s been male domination and some local variant of the sky-god cult. Often varieties of Goddess cult exist alongside the sky-god stuff but nowhere is she the exclusive object of worship. So scholars have naturally assumed that the sky-god’s cult must be very old indeed – perhaps as old as the first dispersion of anatomicallymodern people out of Africa and into the rest of the world. The mute evidence of our European past suggests that it could be a much more recent innovation. The way I see it, when the first modern people came out of Africa they were simple hedonists, like the beasts of the fields or the earlier people in Europe. They did stuff because they felt like doing it, not because some abstract moral rule told them to. They weren’t deep thinkers. If they had any religion at all it was that of the firelit orgies and the Venus figurines, which gradually developed, in Europe and elsewhere, into Goddess-worship proper: the worship of Nature in the form of a woman. A long time after the first dispersion came another, not of people this time but of a new idea, whose adherents have felt inclined to spread it, often by force. This consisted basically of saying there’s a big powerful male spirit who lives in the sky or somehow is the sky: he wants people to behave in certain ways and will punish them horribly if they don’t, while giving both earthly and unearthly rewards to 31
those who please him. The ways of which he approves include hierarchy, conquest, and male domination. Where and when did this new idea begin? The problem needs much study, but my best guess is Central Asia, sometime in the last 8,000 years. One can imagine how such a new idea could have spread from tribe to tribe, in men’s conversations at inter-tribal festivals, just as Fascism spread in 20s Germany. Everywhere, some ambitious young men would have seen the sky-god’s new order as much more appealing than the gentle humdrum life of Goddessworshipping societies. Could it have spread through the world in only the last few millennia, as cultural fashions spread today? Even to such remote places as Australia and South America? It sounds unlikely, but after a careful consideration of the relevant
evidence I think it’s entirely possible. Most cultural fashions don’t leave clear traces in the archeological record, but some do, and from them we can see that there was some surprising cultural transmission across the Pacific in the first millennium CE, linking Indonesia and Australia, China and Central America. That the Aztecs played something uncannily like the Indian game that we know as Ludo, certainly gives one pause for thought. The forensic detection of American drugs like tobacco and cocaine in Ancient Egyptian mummies suggests that some of these long-distance links go back a very long way indeed. This wouldn’t be a question of the Egyptians going to America to buy tobacco, but of Egyptian merchants having foreign tradingpartners who had trading-partners of their own in a succession of partnerships stretching to the ocean, where a few brave souls risked the perilous crossing to America for the sake of the rewards a successful trading- voyage would bring them. Just the way the drugs trade works now, in fact. And where there’s trading contact ideas can pass. The similarity of folk-stories told in distant places is often astonishing. I collected one in 20th century Sudan that was virtually identical to another found in 19th century Norway. It seems explicable when one considers how useful a fund of good stories would be to a travelling merchant, such a man as Shakespeare’s Autolycus. In the days before movies, he 32
was the best show in town, sure of a welcome anywhere his stories would be understood. No doubt such men would often be eager to add to their repertoire and so swapped tales with other itinerant traders. In this way a story could spread very far indeed. Andrew Lang found what is unmistakeably the same story in New Zealand, Native America and right across the Old World. So I find it quite credible that the cult of the sky-god has spread in the same way, and is a lot more recent than most scholars have supposed. Both Australian Aborigines and the natives of South America preserve traditions of a time before people knew the right way to live, when women had the power and men had to take it from them. Some of the South Americans say that in those days all women were witches, and it was necessary to kill them all to stop them passing on their secrets to their daughters.
I think witchcraft is the old Goddess religion as perceived by hostile worshippers of the sky-god. In some places it was totally suppressed and demonized; in others it was more or less tolerated or even incorporated into the sky-god’s religion. And here and there it actually survived in a fairly pure form, as an underground cult worshipping the Goddess with her ancient rituals, like Shákta Tantra in India. In most places there was some amalgamation of old and new; for example in Greece, where Zeus and Persephone were worshipped by members of the same community, and often by the same people. We know from our examination of Rasputin’s Russia that the worship of the Earth-Goddess tends to persist among farming people, even when they are obliged to do honour to the sky-god as well. There are hints that the ancient Britons similarly mixed the worship of the Goddess with that of the new god. I am not the only modern pagan to have felt a very Goddessy vibe at some stone circles, such as the Nine Ladies. More tangibly, there is a carving inside the inner sarsen circle at Stonehenge which resembles the stylized figures of the Goddess found in older Breton tombs. Facing it across the circle is a carving showing two battle-axes and a dagger. Perhaps – like Thor’s hammer or the sword later worshipped by the Scythians – these were aniconic symbols of the 33
warlike sky-god. For what it’s worth, this does suggest that in the stone circles people worshipped a divine couple of the ancient Earth-Goddess and the new sky-god. If they worshipped the sun, the analogy of practice in other areas suggests that it would have been considered as the child of one or both of these deities; and in Britain, as we have seen, there is reason to believe that it was personified as a daughter rather than a son. What exactly did people do at the circles? We can’t know for sure, but it seems very likely that many of the things that went on there were similar to what medieval people did at their churches. Probably marriages, naming-ceremonies, and suchlike rites of passage were performed there. Of course there must have been sacrifices of both kinds, bloody and bloodless. Many of the circles would have been brilliant performance-spaces for sacred music and dancing, and one
might reasonably imagine a primitive form of drama, like that of the early Athenians in the days before Æschylus. It looks as if there must have been something like the druid order already in existence back then, to organize all this stuff. Like medieval churches too, the circles were probably the venue for many things that we’d think of as secular: hearing proclamations from the king, affirming loyalty to him, paying taxes, and being tried, for example. If, as in the Middle Ages, one’s legal options included trial by combat, the circles may have served as boxing-rings. The archeological evidence suggests that at different circles the festivals were held on different dates, so that one might imagine the king or his representatives moving from one to another, receiving homage and dispensing justice, like medieval monarchs on a progress, or circuit-judges in more recent times. No doubt, as in the earlier neolithic, people at these festivals also enjoyed much trading, gossiping, and making of friends. The new order must have had its attractions, or it wouldn’t have established itself and lasted so long – nearly two thousand years, in fact. One suspects that it was rather more fun for men than for women, however. One thing is certain: this was a much more violent age than that of the chambered tombs. There is much evidence 34
of small-scale warfare, especially after the arrival of newcomers whom archeologists have called the Beaker People, about 2,500 BCE. Because these people were physically and culturally different from the indigenous people, yet virtually identical in both respects to groups living on the continent, it seems reasonable to conclude they were immigrants, and that’s exactly what the older school of prehistorians concluded, though modern scholars are less certain. To be fair, there probably was a native element in the Beaker People, I suppose, because they might well have taken in recruits, local young men who wanted to adopt their culture, or spouses acquired in various ways. The best modern analogy to what they were like is the Hell’s Angels. They were riders on horseback, the first in these islands. They were expert in the use of the bow. They carried distinctive battle-axes, and daggers of bronze, another innovation here, where metals were largely unknown. To start with they
remained separate from the locals, dwelling in camps where one might assume that the equivalent of protection-money was paid to them. The Beaker people did a bit of farming on their own account, mainly to produce barley for making beer, which they drank in great quantities from their characteristic beakers. One suspects that, as in the Middle Ages, it was women who did the brewing. And probably grew the barley, too. As the centuries passed the Beaker People became more integrated into native societies – or at least the upper classes of such societies. They seem to have taken over in many places, including the large, rich kingdom of Wessex. They took up many of the native ways with enthusiasm, including the building of stone circles. Stonehenge was completed in an age when the kings of Wessex appear to have been men of the Beaker People. Where had these interesting people come from? The immediate answer seems to be the Rhineland, and adjoining areas, where their ancestors had come probably from Hungary. They spread vigorously over much of Western Europe, from northern Iberia to southern Scandinavia, everywhere mingling their own distinctive culture with that of the native population, and presumably taking over countries like they did here. 35
It seems very likely to me that these people were the first Aryans to enter Britain, five hundred years before their cousins entered Greece, and a thousand years before their entry to India. Though their numbers of the Beaker People were small, they may have been prestigious enough to impose their own language on much of the native population. I suspect that the Aryans were culturally disinclined to learn other people’s languages, so subject peoples had to learn theirs, no doubt changing it a bit, as the slaves in America changed English; and so many local varieties of the Aryan speech would arise. Probably much of Britain was Aryan in language by the early Bronze Age. This means that we can guess the name of the god who was chiefly honoured in stone circles then: the primitive version of Zeus or Ju-ppiter, which must have sounded something like /Djews/. No doubt they also called him by many epithets, like the Aryans did in India: ‘The Thunderer’, ‘The Mighty One’, ‘King of Kings’, and suchlike.
What name they gave the Goddess we shall never know. But she has plenty of beautiful names, so to lose one isn’t all that important. This state of things, with the circles, the sky-god and the kings, went on until around 1,200 BCE, at which point there seems to have been a series of natural disasters which dramatically reduced the population and pretty much wrecked the social order not only here but right across the northern hemisphere. Egypt, for example, fell into anarchy at this period. One cause that we know of was the eruption of a huge volcano in Iceland, raising clouds of dust which blotted out the sunlight for years on end, causing widespread famine. How the surviving worshippers of the sky-god must have trembled at this appearance of his anger! Did they try to win his favour with increasingly desperate sacrifices? Did some lose their faith in him eventually? We don’t know. For many centuries there is no trace of religious activity in the archeological record of these islands. People built no more stone circles, and abandoned the old ones. With the collapse of the old kingdoms society fragmented. So, presumably, did religion, each group worshipping its local form of deity and developing distinctive 36
religious practices and sacred stories. Some groups would cleave to the ancient Goddess, others to an aggressive male god, and yet others to a divine couple, as in the old religion of the stone circles. And for all we know, some groups might have had no religion. New people came, eventually, from the continent, to take over much of the under-populated land: the Celts of Gaul, who were still coming in Cæsar’s time. But prehistorians believe there was a lot of ethnic continuity in the population and presumably in religion too. As prosperity increased people left more evidence of religious practice, and at the end of the Celtic period we have the written evidence of the Romans, so for the first time we get a clear look at what our ancestors were doing; and I told you about that in Part One. It’s just what you’d expect: a range of oddly similar gods, similar Goddesses, and similar divine couples, with a wide variety of names, worshipped in different places. The Celts had rebuilt the kingdoms of Britain, but they hadn’t attempted to enforce uniformity in religion. The result is what people call polytheism.
Both the gods and the Goddesses of Celtic Britain are worth studying, but the Goddesses are particularly interesting when one sees them as faces of the one Great Goddess whose worship goes back to the dawn-time of Europe, and the caves of Africa before that. Next time I shall take you from the time of the Romans to the present, telling of the religions of the Saxons and the Vikings, and showing how paganism was vanquished by Christianity only to be restored in the modern age. If you liked this one, please come to that – or buy the pamphlet. Thank you. BIBLIOGRAPHY. Cæsar, Gaius Julius. The Conquest of Gaul. Trans. S.A. Handford. 1951. Enheduanna. Lady of the Largest Heart. Trans.Betty Shong Meador. 1999. Frazer, Sir James. The Golden Bough. 1890-1915. Graves, Robert. The White Goddess. 1949. Hadingham, Evan. Secrets of the Ice Age. 1980. 37
Hutton, Ronald. Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles. 1993. Keane, A.H. Asia, in Encyclopædia of Religion & Ethics. 1910. MacAlister, R.A.S. The Secret Languages of Ireland. 1936. .. .. The Inscriptions and Language of the Picts. 1941. Neumann, Erich. The Great Mother. 1972. Powell, T.G.E. Prehistoric Art. 1966. Rees, Alwyn and Brinley. Celtic Heritage. 1961. Roscoe, J. The Bagesu. 1924. Ross, Anne. Pagan Celtic Britain. 1967. • .. .. Cults of the Celtic Religions, in The History of the
English-Speaking Peoples, 1969. • .. .. Celts, in Man, Myth and Magic. 1970.
Sagan, Eli. At the Dawn of Tyranny. 1985. Schrader, O. Aryan Religion, in Encyclopædia of Religion & Ethics. !910. Sen, Ramprasad. Grace and Mercy in Her Wild Hair. Trans. L. Nathan & C. Seely, 1999. Smith, G. Elliot. The Diffusion of Culture, 1933.
Stover, Leon E. and Kraig, Bruce. Stonehenge and the Origins of Western Culture. 1979. Streep, Peg. Sanctuaries of the Goddess. 1994. Wacher, John. Roman Britain. 1978. Ward, Tim. Savage Breast: One Man’s Search for the Goddess. 2006. Wilde, Lyn Webster. On the Trail of the Women Warriors. 1999. 38
Last time I traced the story of British paganism from the Old Stone Age through to the Roman occupation. In the absence of written evidence, most of what can be said about prehistoric religion is necessarily speculative; the best one can hope for is well-informed and rational speculation. In my interpretation I did my best to stick as close as possible to the archæological evidence, interpreting the remains of our distant ancestors on the assumption that these were people much like us, and like the people we know about in history. Until someone invents a time machine, there are many things about ancient religion that we shall never know for sure; but I hope those who were here for that lecture would agree that the version of history it gave is a plausible story – and one that fits well with such evidence as we can glean from archæology and classical authors. If you missed it first time round I’ll have to ask you to read it on Mike’s website, as I haven’t got time to go through it all again now. But here’s the gist of it. The oldest type of religion practised here was a hedonistic cult of Goddess-worship, whose deity was a personification of Nature, sometimes hypostasized as Mother and Maiden, perhaps associated respectively with the earth and the sun; whose rites were characterized by feasting, dancing, and promiscuous carnality: a life-affirming, this-worldly religion with next to nothing in the way of beliefs or commandments. Around five thousand years ago a new kind of religion came from the east: the cult of an aggressive macho sky-god prone to judge the actions of his worshippers, and to give a pleasant afterlife to those who pleased him most. With the cult of the skygod came kingship, wars of conquest, and the subjection of women. In the time of the stone circles a marriage of these cults, and of their deities, took place. For
the peasants it is reasonable to suppose that the main object of their worship remained their ancient Goddess; for the warrior-aristocracy, the warlike god. But one feels he may have softened a little in her embrace. It also seems likely to me that the cult of the Goddess would have continued in private in its old unreconstructed form, and as such was the reality behind tales of witchcraft, both here and in other countries. Through the passage of time, ignorance, and tribal rivalries, both the ancient Goddess and the upstart god appeared to fragment into a host of local deities, so that by the time of the Roman Conquest of Britain almost every settlement here had its own god, its own Goddess, or its own divine couple – differing, however, in little more than name from the gods, Goddesses, and divine couples worshipped in other parts. A similar, and very natural process of religious development had occurred in other parts of Europe: the pantheistic monism of the early Goddess-worshippers being challenged by something very like Old Testament monotheism, with its idea of a transcendent god who judged the world; resulting in a compromise which one might call bitheism, but is better described as a combination of monotheism and pantheism, with a transcendent god and an immanent Goddess, such as one finds in Shaiva Tantra. This in turn often developed into apparent polytheism, as local forms of the god and the Goddess were treated as if they were different beings. I suppose that if you’re at odds with your neighbours you easily come to think that their god and yours can’t be the same. The civilizations of the ancient world took the process one stage further, into actual polytheism: they distinguished the local variants of the god and the Goddess by function, giving each a specific area of responsibility, as if in a celestial civil service. The next step was that reputedly taken by Homer among the Greeks, of fusing the separate characters and stories of the deities into a kind of divine soap-opera, and making up new stories about their interactions. The people of Celtic Britain hadn’t got that far: their deities were fairly unspecialized, and for their worshippers each local deity was considered the provider of all blessings. The myths of these deities were probably simple stories showing their characters and powers, like the medieval legends of the saints. RELIGION IN ROMAN BRITAIN.
During the period of the Roman occupation a number of new cults were introduced to this island. The most important historically are for us the least interesting: the ritual worship of the Emperor and of Jupiter as patron of Rome. These have more to do with patriotism than religion, 2
to a modern way of thinking; ancient people, of course, didn’t distinguish the two. Other more exciting cults like those of Cybele and Isis came to Britain too, but don’t seem to have made any impact outside the big cities. One suspects most of their worshippers were originally from other parts of the empire, with maybe a few local converts. In the case of the Isis cult, unusually, we have some account of what it felt like to be a worshipper. A Latin novel of the second century CE, The Golden Ass, has survived, and near its end is a beautiful account of the Goddess’s appearing to one of her followers, with so lovely a face that the gods themselves would have fallen down in adoration of it: Her long thick hair fell in tapering ringlets on her lovely neck, and was crowned with an intricate chaplet in which was woven every kind of flower. Just above her brow shone a round disc, like a mirror, or like the bright face of the moon – But what caught and held my eye most was the deep black lustre of her mantle – embroidered with glittering stars – “You see me here, Lucius, in answer to your prayer. I am Nature, the universal
Mother, mistress of all the elements, primordial child of time, sovereign of all things spiritual, queen of the dead, queen also of the immortals, the single manifestation of all gods and goddesses that are. My nod governs the shining heights of heaven, the wholesome sea- breezes, the lamentable silences of the world below. Though I am worshipped in many aspects, known by countless names, and propitiated with all manner of different rites, yet the whole round earth venerates me. The primeval Phrygians call me Pessinuntica, Mother of the gods; the indigenous Athenians, Cecropian Artemis; for the islanders of Cyprus I am Paphian Aphrodite; for the archers of Crete, I am Dictynna; for the trilingual Sicilians, Stygian Persephone; and for the Eleusinians their ancient Mother of the Corn.” What can one say? The guy who wrote that knew the same Goddess I know. No
doubt if he’d been living in Britain he’d have put some British Goddess-names in the list as well. Other imported religions were less reverential to the feminine. The cult of Mithras was a men-only thing, oddly 3
like freemasonry, with a hierarchy of grades and secret rituals of which we know almost nothing. Like the Masons, the Mithraites helped brother-members out in difficult times and did favours for one another. To get on in the army, it helped to be a member. Mithras was an old Aryan sun-god whose cult came from Persia. Another cult which came from the east was Christianity, in its early days a rather similar secret society, though an illegal one. With the passage of time Christianity won converts among the ruling class, and so became more socially acceptable: at first tolerated and then compulsory. The story of the new religion’s triumph over the old has been elegantly told by Gibbon, in Chapters 15 and 16 of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, to which I’d refer anyone who wants the big picture of this interesting historical episode. For our present purposes what’s significant is that for most of the fourth century, following the conversion of the Emperor Constantine, Christianity was the established religion of the empire, and pagans were subject to varying degrees of persecution; but there is good evidence that pagan practices continued in private if not always in public – and this not just in country places, but in Rome and Athens themselves. There seem, however, to have been few pagan martyrs. Generally followers of the old religion suffered lighter penalties, comparable to those borne by Catholics in Georgian England. In the early years of the fifth century Britain passed out of Roman control. We don’t know much about religious life in the former province after that. On the continent, as the Spanish historian Baroja tells us, there was a flourishing cult of Diana among European country people in the fifth and sixth centuries, and she was generally looked upon as the goddess of the woods and fields – except by those trying to root out the cult, who thought she was a devil. THE DIANIC CULT. This is something that we have largely forgotten: that back in the Dark Ages Christianity coexisted here in Europe with a rival religion; one especially popular among the peasantry, involving the worship of Nature as a Goddess, most often
called by the name of Diana – but also by many other 4
names or titles such as Erodia and Abundia. Records from that period are spotty at best, but there is quite a lot of good evidence in the surviving documents to show that this Dianic Cult really did exist, and was very similar right across the Empire. For example, the sixth-century scholar Gregory of Tours records the existence of such a cult in his own century in the countryside around Trier, where for a while the Goddess was more popular than Jesus. He tells us a little about the cultists’ ways of worship, mentioning the incantations which they chanted when they were drunk and in the midst of their debaucheries. In other words: they were chanting mantras, getting high, and inducing states of sexual excitement as a way of worshipping the Goddess and of merging themselves in her: a voluptuous mysticism based not on pain, like the mysticism of the sky-god, but on pleasure. In India they call this Tantra, or the Left-Handed Path. It is the reality behind tales of witchcraft; and according to my understanding it is our planet’s oldest religion, deep-rooted in the Palæolithic. At the time when Gregory was writing, the countryside around Trier had supposedly been converted to Christianity. How that happened was quite interesting. A Christian hermit had as a protest camped out in the most holy place of the Goddess and prevented worship there. This ascetic’s preaching eventually led to the local suppression of the Dianic Cult. I suppose he modelled himself on Elijah and John the Baptist. Anyway, Gregory actually met him, and heard from his lips the story of his campaign, which ended when the Dianic Cult was suppressed and their Goddess’s most holy statue was pulled down. Not only was it broken, like so many sad battered torsos which survive in our museums; the hermit ordered his followers to beat the pieces completely into powder. I suppose it was beautiful, and that bothered him. It reminds me of a story I shall tell you in my next lecture, about a naked statue referred to as unchaste Diana which was worshipped by peasants at a woodland shrine in fourteenth-century Devon, and which met its end in a similar act of pious vandalism. The worship of Diana is still noted as a rival to Christianity among the East Franks in the Life of the seventh-century St Kilian, so the ascetic’s victory can’t have been complete. Likewise the Life of Cæsarius of Arles refers
to the cult of a demon whom the peasants call Diana. Those who heard my Witchcraft lecture will recall the testimony of St Martin of Braga down in Portugal, who told us how the peasants in his part of the world were prone to worship a Goddess who was at once one and many, Diana and the Dianæ. He tells us also of the Goddess’s male partner, whom he calls Dianum, this being the Vulgar Latin form of a masculine nominative, corresponding to Dianus in Classical Latin. The modern form, Dianho, has survived as a name for the Devil in Spain and Portugal. As I mentioned in my Witchcraft lecture, folklore from across the old Roman Empire from Central Europe to Iberia preserves the memory of Diana as Goddess of the Witches and Queen of the Fairies. Even in Italy, the homeland of the Catholic Church, there is abundant evidence of such beliefs from quite recent times. We hear little about the survival of other pagan cults. It’s not surprising: people who were into Jupiter, or his local equivalents, and what they represented, would have found pretty much everything they wanted in the god of the Christians. He was the old sky-god of the Bronze Age, even more powerful than before; the story of his divine son would have appealed both to those accustomed to worship heroic young gods like Apollo and to worshippers of such dying and resurrected gods as Attis and Osiris. But before the cult of the Virgin Mary grew popular in Christianity, late in the first millennium, the new religion had little to offer the Goddess-worshipper. Nor was the perennial desire of the peasantry for fertility and material prosperity addressed by the new faith, which still expected an imminent Day of Judgment and so was more concerned with the soul’s prospects in the next world than with happiness in this. So it is reasonable to expect the worship of the Goddess to have survived in late Roman and post-Roman Britain, as it did on the continent, especially among those country people whose ancestors had been worshipping her since the Stone Age. Did her British worshippers call her by the Latin name Diana, as did their counterparts in other Roman lands? Or did they use some of the ancient and possibly Pre-Celtic local names that we know from inscriptions, such as Cuda and Harímella? I suspect they did both: in my experience the Goddess loves to be called by all her names. Diana was
probably her most widely understood and generally used name in Britain then, as it was across the Empire; but we know that for example in the Ardennes region of France she was known in this period interchangeably as Diana and Arduinna, by the Roman name and a native one, and no doubt it was the same elsewhere. This is the earliest period in which her interesting new name of Erodia or Aradia is likely to have been coming into use, as peasant Goddessworshippers heard the stories of the Christian gospel and recognized their Mistress there, in the form of the graceful, ruthless dancer who demanded a man’s head as the price for beholding her dance. What these cultists did in their assemblies must have been very similar to what Goddess-worshippers had been doing for millennia. Those of you who’ve heard my earlier talks will be familiar with the list of goat-sacrifice, the worship of a naked priestess, chanting, dancing, feasting and promiscuous orgies, such as we find in the Indian chakrapuja and the Russian radéniye: that’s the kind of thing I imagine these Diana-worshippers to have done at their nocturnal meetings in the countryside – with, no doubt, many variations in procedure from one group to the next. Probably, like the Khlysti, they’d have met in forest clearings during the summer; indoors, perhaps in barns, during the winter. Though it seems likely that the climate was a bit warmer then, I can’t imagine it was warm enough for anyone to be naked outdoors in the winter. THE COMING OF THE SAXONS. Meanwhile the wise men of the Church were more interested in persecuting one another for heresy than in doing anything about the superstitious practices of ignorant peasants. And the people of post-Roman Britain were facing problems that must have made their religious differences seem unimportant. They were being raided by the Picts and the Irish, who not only took the Britons’ stuff but often carried them off into slavery as well. The Britons were less able to resist because they had lost a lot of people to one of Europe’s forgotten great plagues, the Yellow Death of the early fifth century. A sixth-century writer called Gildas tells us what happened 7
next: how, in what must have seemed like a good idea at the time, the British King Vortigern invited a bunch of Saxon warriors from North Germany to come
and fight as mercenaries for his people. But the Saxons liked it here, and they could see that the British soldiers weren’t much of a threat. So a dispute about payment escalated into war, and a lot of other warriors, mainly from the homeland of the Saxons and that of their neighbours, the Angles, came over to grab a piece of the action. In little more than a hundred years Germanic warlords had taken over most of the island and set themselves up in little kingdoms. People talk about the early Saxon period as the Heptarchy, but really there were more than seven kingdoms to begin with, including some very small ones like Surrey and a few little places still ruled by Britons, like Elmet in what’s now West Yorkshire. Britons still ruled in Wales and Cornwall too; the Picts and Irish divided the Scottish Highlands between them. The rest of the island was in some sense Anglo-Saxon. The big question is, how Anglo-Saxon? When I was at school we were taught that the newcomers had completely replaced the native people, driving them out or massacring them. That’s pretty much how Gildas tells it, though you don’t have to read much of his book to realize that he liked to exaggerate things for rhetorical effect; but he was there, and we didn’t have much else to go on, so we tended to believe him. And there was the matter of the English language, which at least in its classical Anglo-Saxon form, the language of Beowulf, seems very close indeed to the Germanic languages of the continent, and shows no sign of any Celtic influence apart from a handful of loan-words. True, the Anglo-Saxon codes of law do testify to the continued existence of a relatively disadvantaged underclass of Britons in England, but they give no clue as how numerous they were. Nevertheless, recent archæologists have become increasingly convinced that there wasn’t a general replacement of population. They just don’t find evidence for the large-scale massacres and migrations that Gildas talks about. On the contrary, there is a good deal of evidence for continuity in things like craft-skills and land-use. Some archæologists have even suggested that the number of 8
Germanic people who came over was tiny, and that they acted not as conquerors but as peaceful language-teachers and style gurus! That seems ridiculous to me, and quite impossible to reconcile with the account of Gildas. His description of the Saxons as violent conquerors may very well be an
exaggeration, but I can’t believe it was a complete invention, so soon after the event. Of course there can be no doubt that an armed and determined minority can successfully impose a version of its language and culture on a conquered majority. One has only to think of the Romans in France and Spain, or the Arab conquests in North Africa. DNA testing ought to give us a definitive answer to the question, but the results are complicated and hard for a layman to get his head around. Even the experts disagree about how to interpret them. However, I didn’t want to shirk my duties to you, so I made an effort and studied Steven Oppenheimer’s large book The Origins of the British: A Genetic Detective Story, which summarizes recent discoveries. Oppenheimer is demonstrably wrong about some linguistic matters, particularly to do with the antiquity of Celtic and Germanic languages in these islands; but he seems to know his stuff when it comes to genes. His considered opinion is that the Anglo-Saxons numbered no more than ten per cent of the population. (Which is also the figure favoured, on other grounds, by David Starkey.) As one might expect, the genetic evidence shows that the Germanic invaders were more numerous in the east than in the west; in a few districts – parts of East Anglia, for example – they were probably a majority. But overall their numbers were quite small. We should remember a later set of invaders, the Normans, who subdued us militarily, transformed our culture and came within an ace of replacing our language with theirs. And yet the Normans are thought to have constituted only three per cent of the population. So the Anglo-Saxon conquest seems most likely to have been, like that of the Normans, mainly a change of the ruling class. In Early England the top men and their soldiers were mostly blond and spoke Germanic, which everyone else had to learn in order to communicate with them, just as slaves in the Americas were obliged to learn the language of the minority white population who 9
controlled their lives. But the mass of the population, the peasants, were mostly the same kind of people who’d been farming this land since the Stone Age. Probably the peasant version of the Germanic language was a bit different from the upper-class language of Beowulf: I bet they spoke a creolized form, with simpler inflexions, more like what we find in the English texts written after the Norman conquest, when the old Anglo-Saxon upper class had been removed,
and with it the idea of a normative good English. It is notable that Middle English, unlike classical Anglo-Saxon or continental Germanic, had a present continuous tense formed exactly as it is in the Celtic languages. The new warrior aristocracy brought not only a new language, but also a new set of religious beliefs and practices of their own, rather similar to those of the pagan Celts – and indeed of the modern Hindus. Much of what we know of it comes from Norse sources, but there seems to have been a great deal in common between the Norsemen and their English cousins in matters of religion. PRIESTS. There’s plenty of evidence for professional priests in pagan England; and in Scandinavia we hear of priestesses too, though only for the Vánir, or fertility deities, of whom you shall hear more in a little while. The Anglo-Saxon historian Bede tells us that his own people, the Northumbrians, had a High Priest – which presumably implies some sort of ecclesiastical hierarchy, like that of the Druids. Also reminiscent of the Druids is the fact that this High Priest was under a taboo that did not allow him to carry weapons. But Germanic priests were never as powerful as the Druids, because in Germanic societies, as in Tudor England, the King himself was the real head of the priesthood. As we shall see, this made Germanic paganism particularly vulnerable to Christian assault. FESTIVALS. The pagan Anglo-Saxons are said to have observed a number of religious festivals, more or less evenly spaced through the year. Around the Winter Solstice they 10
celebrated Modraniht, the Night of the Mothers. In February they made offerings of cakes, though we’re not told who they offered them to. The spring festival was called Eostre, which is the name of a Goddess. All the Germanic peoples on the continent celebrated a big outdoor festival at Midsummer with bonfires and revelry, so it would be surprising if the pagan English hadn’t done the same, although we have no records of them doing so in Anglo-Saxon times. In early August, we know that they had a first-fruits festival; around the Autumn Equinox came a harvest celebration. In November, like the Celts, they slaughtered many of their livestock, and seem to have made a religious festival around this necessary act. No doubt it made them think about their mortality in the face of
the oncoming winter. Apart from its lack of a Beltane festival, this pagan calendar is very like the ‘Wheel of the Year’ which modern witches celebrate, marking the turning-points of the natural year with rituals and parties, and so attuning themselves to the way things are. It is interesting to note that in the Anglo-Saxon calendar the month before the Summer Solstice and the month which followed it were both called Lítha (which seems to be cognate with the Russian word for summer, ljeto); and that likewise the months before and after Modraniht were both called Giúli (meaning unknown, but the origin of our yule). Perhaps this is a remnant of a primitive calendrical system in which each of the four seasons was divided into two roughly equal periods of about forty days; so that the time from the Winter Solstice to Imbolc would have been the Second Period of Winter, and the time from Imbolc to the Spring Equinox the First Period of Spring; and so on, round the year. Such a calendar might go back to the Bronze Age, or even the Neolithic. THE GERMANIC GODS. It’s an old joke that the Saxons worshipped a dreadful set of gods called Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. There is some truth in it. The days of our week were named originally by Babylonian astrologers after the seven planets, which in turn had been named after the most important deities of the Mesopotamian pantheon. Centuries 11
later the names of the days would be translated first into Greek, then Latin. As neither of these languages had native names for many of the planets, they used the names of native gods and Goddesses who seemed similar in character to those of the Babylonians. Thus, for example, the Day of Ishtar became for the Greeks the Day of Aphrodite, and for the Romans the Day of Venus. About 300 CE the Latin names were translated into Germanic, preserving for us the names and general character of the most important Germanic deities. The Germans can’t have had a god corresponding to the Roman Saturn, because Saturn’s Day kept its Latin name. The Day of the Sun and the Day of the Moon were straightforwardly translated. The Sun (Sunna in Germanic, Sól in Norse) was certainly considered a divine maiden, though sadly we know little
about her cult or her myths. The Moon was masculine, but we don’t know if it was personified or worshipped. TIW. Tuesday, the Roman Day of Mars, is named for a god called Tíw in England, Tíu on the continent and Tyr in Scandinavia. You may remember my telling you last time that the primitive Aryan name for the sky-god was /djews/, giving rise to forms like Zeus in Greek and Dyaus in Sanskrit. Well, in Germanic that same word became first Tíwaz and then Tíu. So this god is the old Aryan sky-father, whose cult was probably carried into Northern Europe by the Beaker Folk, in the third millennium B.C.E. It is notable that the Romans equated Tíu not with Jupiter but with Mars: this must signify that the German god was greatly concerned with warfare -- no doubt reflecting the preoccupations of his worshippers. But Tíu had not given up his interest in the enforcement of law and order. According to Tacitus, writing in the first century CE, no man might be flogged, imprisoned, or put to death among the Germans save by their priests, in obedience to the god which they believe to preside over battle. One sees that, like the druids, Tíu’s priests had the job of carrying out executions. 12
There are a few English place-names, like Tuesley, that preserve the memory of this god’s sanctuaries. One suspects that the holy places which the AngloSaxons called heargas, hilltop sanctuaries open to the sky, were primarily concerned with Tíu’s worship; the more so when one reads of a dump of over a thousand ox skulls being found at one such place, Harrow in Sussex. I have seen just such a pitful of cattle skulls at a holy place in Southern Sudan, where the Dinka tribesmen worship their own version of the sky- god, Nyaliç, by slaughtering bulls for him. But, as the history of Indian religion shows us, there are fashions in worship, and the popularity of an old god sometimes wanes in the face of new cults. This seems to have happened to Tíu, who by the time of the Saxon conquest was no longer the unchallenged best and greatest of the gods. The gods for whom Wednesday and Thursday are named were at least as popular, and appealed to rather different tastes. The second of these was much like a younger version of Tíu, so I’ll tell you about him first.
THUNOR. The Roman Day of Jupiter is named for the god called in England Thunor, on the continent Thunar, and in Scandinavia Thor: meaning simply Thunder. For the Romans their sky-god Jupiter was the Thunderer by definition, which is presumably why they equated him with Thunar. But other Aryan cultures hypostasized the thunder into a ‘Son of God’ like Indra in the Vedas, executing divine retribution against evil-doers. Indra was supposed to be a big tough guy with a tawny beard: just so is Thor described in Norse texts. So maybe the idea, if not the name of him, goes back a long way. Personally I find the myths of Thor really unpleasant reading: he comes across as stupid and peevish, and his life is one long killing spree, in which the victims are, more often than not, female. But lots of people liked Rambo, and one can see why men might find this action hero of a god more interesting than the relatively colourless Tíu. Certainly, according to place-name evidence, he had at least nine temples in England. We know that in Scandinavian temples of this god were kept great arm-rings of silver or gold, one in each temple, called the rings of Thor; 13
and on these binding oaths were sworn, no doubt inviting the vengeance of the irascible deity on those who broke their word. WODEN. Wednesday is named for the god called Woden in England, Wodan on the continent, and in Scandinavia Odin. Some scholars equate him with a character whom the Vedas call Vata, a minor god of the wind. If so we have here another ‘Son of God’ who has come to eclipse his parent. The idea of the wind is the root of that of spirit or intellect for many primitive peoples, and it seems as if Wodan may have developed along those lines, from a wind-god to a god of the intellect. Again, it’s mostly through the Old Norse sources that we get an idea of his character: and there he is depicted as a wizard who has made great sacrifices in pursuit of wisdom, even going so far as to pluck out one of his own eyes, and letting himself be hanged on a tree for nine days. One thinks of the self-mortifications practiced by Indian ascetics, and by shamans all the world over. This god is never said to have been the creator of the universe: when it was already in existence he came into it and slowly took control of it from the giants, learning its secrets so as to be able to shape it according to his will. But his control of it is not complete, because the race of giants still exists and will
one day bring about not only his death but the destruction of everything that he’s worked to build. It seems pretty obvious that this Odin or Wodan is basically a personification of the human intellect, and that his situation is an image of the human situation as an existentialist might see it. One suspects that Odin’s worshippers would have been, on average, somewhat more intelligent than the devotees of Thor; and indeed he was especially popular with kings and their poets, which is why we have so much information about him. Place-names show that sanctuaries to Woden existed in Kent, Essex, Hampshire, Somerset, Staffordshire, Bedfordshire and Wiltshire, where there was a whole bunch of them in the Vale of Pewsey. As to what went on there, we can suppose the usual thing of animal sacrifices, private prayers, and priestly blessing rituals for various occasions. 14
But some of it may have been more disturbing: Norse sources tell us that this god was particularly fond of human sacrifices, the method of sacrifice being hanging. There are grisly stories of men being hanged en masse during the great festival of Odin at Uppsala, every nine years. As in the case of druidic sacrifice, most of the victims were probably condemned criminals, but some must have been unfortunate slaves or prisoners of war, there to make the numbers up. Another form of human sacrifice practiced by the pagan Germans involved dedicating an enemy to Wodan. Sometimes this was done to an army or even an entire tribe. If you’d dedicated your enemies to Wodan, and you’d defeated them, you were obliged to kill them all and trash their stuff, surrendering the usual warriors’ rewards of slaves and booty as an offering to the god who’d given you victory. This is so like the Jewish practice in the Old Testament that I’m inclined to think it must be an ancient part of the sky-god’s cult. Wodan had certainly taken over other things from the ancient sky-god, such as his role as special patron of the king and of kingship. The early English kings were devotees of his cult. In most cases they even claimed that his blood ran in their veins. At least eight of the Anglo-Saxon royal houses had genealogies in which they traced their descent from him. The number of generations going back to Woden varies a bit from one list to another, but all of them would seem to place his floruit surprisingly recently, around 300 CE. In the longest of these lists we are given the names not only of Woden’s descendants but of his
ancestors, who all look like ordinary men, not gods. It’s hard to know what to make of this. I suspect we have here an instance of what the Hindus call an avatar: maybe some guy was so remarkable that after his death (or even in his lifetime) people came to think of him as a god manifest in human form. Perhaps a great wizard or prophet may be dimly remembered in these genealogies, and in some of the stories about this god. Back then a wizard was usually a priest, so perhaps this guy was a devoted priest of Wodan. Norse sources, particularly the mythological Edda of Snorri Sturluson, give Odin the sky-god’s title ‘Allfather’ and treat the other major gods as his children; but we don’t know if 15
the pagan English thought of him that way. In fact we don’t really know how the early English thought about the relationship between their deities, or whether they thought about it at all. FRIGE. Although there is one exception, and it concerns the Goddess for whom Friday is named. She was called Frig (pronounced free) or Frige (free-eh) in Old English; Frigga on the continent, and Frigg in Scandinavia; all from an ancient word meaning ‘beloved’. Almost all we know about her character can be deduced from that name, and from her identification with Venus, Aphrodite, and Ishtar; but really that’s enough for us to be sure of her identity. If Goddessworshippers survived among the conquered peasantry they would have been pleased to learn a new name for their ancient Goddess of sex and fertility. This lady was said, both on the continent and in Scandinavia, to be married to Wodan or Odin – no doubt one of his rewards for becoming supreme deity. It seems reasonable to suppose that at an earlier time she had been considered as the wife of Tíwaz, just as in my interpretation our native Goddess became in the bronze age the spouse of the Aryan sky-god Djews. Place-names preserve the memory of at least four holy places of Frige in this country, including a valley in Derbyshire; it seems likely that she also received worship in temples of the gods, perhaps in the pagan equivalent of a Lady Chapel. Norse writers tell us little about Frigg, save that she had a great love for gold, and for her children, whose deaths moved her to abundant tears; that she could,
like a witch, transform herself into a bird and fly though the world; and that she was particularly worshipped for good luck in marriage and childbirth. No doubt her cult was descended from that of the ancient Goddess, but she seems to be made of all the more positive, socially-acceptable aspects of that deity, without her orgiastic and destructive traits. 16
HEL. Early Germanic witches are often called Helrunes, a word most convincingly explained as ‘intimate friends’ or ‘lovers’ of Hel; Hel being a Goddess. What little we know about her comes mainly from Old Norse sources, which describe her as Queen of the Underworld, and tell us, significantly, that she was half black and half fair, symbolically combining the positive and the negative qualities of the ancient Goddess. So if Frige is a somewhat sanitized version of the Goddess, Hel is the real deal, worshipped by the underground cult of witchcraft. Of course witches would have known that Hel and Frige were the same, but respectable people might have thought of them as opposed to each other, as a ‘good goddess’ and a ‘bad goddess’, like the Virgin Mary and the Goddess of the Witches in the Middle Ages. FREYJA. Scandinavian languages translate Friday sometimes as the Day of Frigg and sometimes as the Day of Freyja. Freyja is strictly speaking not a name but a title: it means Lady or Mistress, like the German Frau. Those who remember my Witchcraft lecture will recall that the Goddess of the Witches is often so called: La Señora in Spain, La Signora in Italy, Domina in medieval Latin accounts; while in rural Greece, as late as the twentieth century, peasants revered a chthonic Goddess whom they called the Mistress, Despoina. What we hear of Freyja duplicates most of what we hear of Frigg: her love of gold; her loss of a lover and consequent copious tears; her shapeshifting and flying in bird-form, and her particular interest in matters of love and fertility. But whereas Frigg comes across in Norse tales as rather a respectable wife and mother, Freyja seems like a wild girl, bold, adventurous, and sexually promiscuous. Her many lovers are as notorious in the north as those of Ishtar in Babylon; her greatest treasure, the magic necklace which makes her irresistible to men, she bought from its dwarvish makers by giving each of them in turn a
night of love. She is even accused of having sex with animals. It is not surprising that she is explicitly said to be the patron of witchcraft and herself the greatest of the witches. Just like Hel, she is 17
described as receiving the dead who do not go to join Odin in Valhalla; a woman contemplating death is quoted as saying that she will not eat again until she sups with Freyja in the underworld. It seems to me that insofar as there was any difference between Frigg and Freyja, it was down to Freyja being the ancient, unreconstructed Goddess of the Witches, while Frigg was a slightly cleaned-up and edited version of the Goddess suitable to be the consort of the sky-god. One might suspect that Freyja’s cult came from a pre-Aryan stratum of the population, whereas Frigg was the Goddess the Aryans brought with them. But basically they were the same, and the different Norse translations of the Day of Venus suggest that people in pagan times thought so too. Norse sources tell us that when the Æsir (Odin’s family) entered Scandinavia, they came into conflict with some indigenous deities called the Vánir, who were mainly concerned with fertility. The conflict ended in a truce, when the Vánir Goddess Freyja and her brother Frey (‘the Lord’) came to dwell with the Æsir and to be considered part of the official pantheon. This sounds rather like a folkmemory of real religious conflict and compromise in prehistoric times. The Æsir would have been the gods of the invading warrior-aristocracy, and the Vánir those of the indigenous peasantry. FREY. Frey is an interesting god, who was certainly very popular in the Viking Age. In the great temple at Uppsala, we are told by many sources, his huge image stood beside those of Odin and Thor, forming a kind of pagan trinity. Scholars have suggested that the three gods represented the three classes of Germanic society: Odin being the god of the priests; Thor, of the warriors; and Frey, of the peasants. Frey was said to be particularly concerned with matters of peace, love and fertility, a fact that was symbolized by his wooden image having an immense phallus. Surely this idol [on the cover] from the dark ages, found in a Danish bog, is of Frey. I rather like this image: he looks a jolly, friendly, happy sort of god to me. I think of Rasputin.
One wonders if Frey and Freyja were originally supposed to have been husband and wife as well as brother and sister. Certainly Norse sources describe them as lovers, though they both are said to have plenty of other partners. And Frey’s name recalls that of the Phoenician Ba’al, ‘the Lord’, a dying and resurrected god who is both the son and the husband of the great Goddess sometimes called Ba’alat, ‘the Lady’, and sometimes Astarte. In Babylonia they called her Ishtar, and him Tammuz. But if the Scandinavian peasants knew a similar story about Frey’s death and resurrection, the bards did not preserve it for us. When the eleventh-century scholar Adam of Bremen describes the pagan temple at Uppsala, he turns some names from Norse into their German equivalents: so Odin he calls Wodan; and Frey, Fricco. In High German, Frigga would become Frikka, and this Fricco is the male version of that. One thinks of Diana and Dianho. Was Adam making up a god-name, suggesting a male version of the Goddess of love and fertility that his readers knew? Or did Frigga once have a male counterpart, a phallic fertility god? That name occurs nowhere else in the literature; but there is another name that seems to belong to a god of this kind. In Old Norse Frey is often referred to as Yngvi-Frey, Yngvi, or Ingunar, while the royal dynasty of Sweden was known as the Ynglings, or descendants of Yng. Some of the men who are said to have worshipped Frey in Iceland bore names like Ingjald and Ingimund. The Anglian kings of Bernicia in North-Eastern England remembered Ingui among their ancestors. The poem Beowulf uses the term Ingwine, meaning ‘friend of Ing’ in speaking of the Danish kings. And so the suggestion is often made that Ing or Ingwi was another name for the god the Norsemen called Frey. Or perhaps rather his title was Frey but his name was Ing. Only two deities have a letter of the runic alphabet named after them: Tíu is one, and Ing is the other. This suggests that he was quite important. A cryptic few verses in the Anglo-Saxon Runic Poem mention that Ing was first seen by men among the East Danes, then left them travelling eastward over the sea. A waggon is said to have followed his journey. Scholars generally take this as a memory of a documented practice in which an image of a fertility deity went on a periodic procession through the lands of its 19
worshippers, receiving gifts and bringing luck; in the case of Ing returning at the
end to his sanctuary on an island in the Baltic, where his image was washed in the lake. It is interesting that Tacitus, writing in the first century CE, tells of the identical ritual taking place in the same part of the world, and that among the tribes who subscribed to this cult were the Angles. But back then the deity in the waggon had been a great Goddess. It all seems to fit a general pattern of Germanic religion and culture becoming increasingly masculinized as time went on. Did the Goddess-cult generate the cult of a male god, like Yngvi-Frey, as a response to the masculine emphasis of the sky-god’s cult, to provide an alternative image of masculinity for men more interested in making love than war? Is the rise of his cult another example of the increasing importance of men as opposed to women in society? Or had the phallic god been there all along, in the deep ancient past of Goddess-worship? Had Ing been the Goddess’s lover before Wodan took his place? Did this phallic god have a common origin with his counterparts elsewhere, like Ba’al and Shiva; and if so how long ago? All good questions, to which I’m afraid I don’t know the answers: more research is necessary before any conclusions can be drawn. MINOR DEITIES. The gods and goddesses I’ve just told you about were those whose cults were most widespread amongst the Germanic- speaking peoples of Western Europe and Scandinavia in the last millennium of paganism. There were also cults of a number of other deities which had a more limited popularity; most of these are little more than names to us, but those we know more about generally seem to be local variants of the major deities. Certainly all the Goddesses look like aspects of the Great Goddess, though myths sometimes speak of them as her handmaidens. When I read about the intense relationship between the last pagan ruler of Norway, Earl Hákon, and his divine Mistress, Thorgerd Hølgabrud, I can’t doubt who she was. There were also other spirits, not exactly divine, but certainly venerated in Germanic paganism, such as land- wights, elves, dwarves, and ancestors, all of which had 20
rituals performed to appease them, and with which people might have relationships which were none the less significant for being imaginary. What
ancestors meant to their descendants is obvious enough; the other spirits probably had something to do with people’s responses to aspects of the natural world. SECRETS OF THE RUNES. Modern pagans generally show little interest in Germanic traditions; Germans just don’t seem to be considered as cool as Celts. There is however one notable exception: over the last twenty-five years or so people have become very interested in the runic alphabet and its supposed use as a system of divination. A great many books on the subject have been written, most of them by people with no first- hand knowledge of the old Germanic languages and literatures, relying on a few scraps of muddled information and a great deal of uncontrolled imagination. Unsurprisingly, many misconceptions about ‘the runes’ have entered modern popular culture. The name itself is wrong: what we call ‘the runes’ were actually called ‘runestaves’ in pagan times. ‘Staves’ means something like characters, and is also used, for example, of magical designs like Indian yantras. The ‘rune-’ part signifies anything secret or mysterious – something that only an initiate would know. It came also to mean a verbal spell or incantation. When the Germanic sources speak about rune magic what they usually mean is the magical use of verbal spells – which could, of course, include writing such incantations down in the secret script of wizards, thus fixing their power in a material object. This script itself is one of the most beautiful ever devised. Whoever created it drew on three existing alphabets, those of the Romans, the Etruscans, and the Greeks, but made enough changes to ensure that the new writing would not be easily intelligible to those who knew the old. The original runic script had twentyfour letters, which was enough to ensure a very accurate representation of the sounds in the Germanic language back then. The order of the letters appears to be quite arbitrary, though they are divided into three groups of eight, a division which comes in useful for 21
constructing codes and ciphers. Opinions differ as to the exact date of this alphabet’s invention, although the second century CE is generally considered most likely. The place may have been on the borderlands between Italy and the Germanic lands, although many scholars consider Northern Germany or
Denmark more probable, since most of the early inscriptions are found up there. The new alphabet was a work of genius. One is tempted to connect its invention with the mysterious wizard whom the Anglo-Saxon genealogies call Woden, especially since for many centuries wizards seem to have been the only people to have known the secret of reading and writing this script. No doubt it was passed on as a trade secret from each sorcerer to his apprentice. What they used it for was generally what I said, writing incantations and magic words on things to fix the power there. The big magic word in the early centuries was ALU, whose meaning is unknown, but which was used pretty much the way OM is in the East, both as a powerful spell in itself and a means of increasing the power of of other words. Sometimes the wizards wrote little spells in verse; sometimes incantations in an unknown tongue. For example, several rings from Anglo-Saxon England are inscribed with variations of this formula: ERI RIUF DOL YRI URI THOL GLESTE POTE NOL. Here not only the language but also the metre are quite unGermanic, so perhaps this is an example of a pre-Aryan sacred chant. It is certainly a nice mantra. Simply writing the complete alphabet on an object seems to have been considered a powerful spell, presumably because by writing the alphabet you were writing everything that could be said in any tongue. Sometimes incantations were coded or abbreviated. Occasionally individual letters of the alphabet were used talismanically, to represent the power associated with their names. The runic letter T is named after Tíu, for example, and when it occurs in isolation inscribed on weapons or armour the wizard’s purpose was presumably presumably to infuse these objects 22
with the god’s power. One would expect to find Ing’s character used in the same way, but in fact it doesn’t occur. Although Icelandic magicians did use the character named Thurs, meaning giant or demon, in cursing rituals. What Germanic wizards didn’t use their alphabet for was divination, as far as I can see. There are references in the sources to ‘divination-sticks’, apparently cast on the ground, but these are never said to be inscribed with rune- staves. The famous passage in Tacitus’s Germania usually cited as a description of
runic divination actually refers only to the manipulation of sticks with marks (Latin notæ), and is about a hundred years too early to have anything to do with the runic script. The real divination-technique probably involved the casting of flattish sticks marked on one side and plain on the other, like primitive dice; and the reading of omens from the combination of these binary outcomes. It was more like consulting the I Ching than reading the Tarot. Which is what one would expect, since the I Ching is a genuine ancient divination-system and the Tarot is a fairly recent invention, not used for fortunetelling before the eighteenth century. But the Tarot was undoubtedly the model for the nineteenth-century German occultists who started the modern use of runic characters in divination. To these unreliable scholars we owe the current belief that every letter of the runic alphabet has a rich intrinsic meaning, and that by shuffling and selecting them at random one can foretell the future. Maybe this practice does work for some people; we can be fairly sure, however, that it isn’t anything which our pagan ancestors would recognize. And I think the modern preoccupation with the runic alphabet as a divination tool tends to obscure the real wonder of the script, as a beautiful and well-constructed alphabet which has preserved some of our ancestors’ incantations and magic words for us. MAGIC & WITCHCRAFT. Other techniques of magic include the use of the abstract characters, or ‘galdrastaves’, which I mentioned before. As in the Indian use of magical yantras, certain patterns were supposed to bring about certain results when correctly inscribed and chanted over. Both here and in India I think 23
we’re looking at the perversion of meditation techniques to egotistic ends. Certainly some of the Icelandic galdra-staves make excellent objects for mystic contemplation. Anyway this stuff – the use of incantations, runic writing and magical characters – was all classed as galdr in Norse (Anglo-Saxon gealdor) which seems to denote a socially acceptable masculine type of sorcery as opposed to witchcraft, which they called seid or trolldóm. Seid is simply an old Aryan term for sorcery or magic, found in Welsh as hud and in Lithuanian as saitas. Trolldóm may seem a more surprising word, since we are now prone to think of trolls as Neanderthal-like Untermenschen living in caves and eating people. But
the word began as an insulting term for human beings of whom the speaker disapproved. Thus a Greek source tells us that the Vandals called the Goths troulous; while the modern German Trulle, like the archaic English trull, signifies a promiscuous woman. One might compare the semantic range of the modern English slag. In older Norse sources, a troll is usually a human being who practices witchcraft. The word was also used in folk-tales about people who dropped out of normal human society and went to live in the wilderness, associating only with other drop-outs. In the days of slavery, I expect that escaped slaves made up a high proportion of the ‘troll’ population in Norse lands; certainly many tales about trolls sound very like accounts of conflicts between colonists and maroons in the Americas. It is no doubt a consequence of the natural human tendency to exaggerate the ferocity of one’s defeated enemies that the trolls in folktales acquired their monstrous characteristics. Anyway, what little we are told of witches in Scandinavian sources sounds familiar enough: they had nocturnal meetings where magic was worked by chanting incantations and circle-dancing. There are persistent hints that something sexual and shameful went on there, but what it was is never made explicit. Like witches elsewhere, those of Scandinavia were often imagined to ride to their meetings on sticks, or on such inappropriate mounts as wolves and stags. Solitary witches also were supposed to be able to send their souls out of their bodies in the forms of various 24
animals and birds. The reality behind this must have been a meditative practice like the pathworking of modern witches. Some very interesting accounts in the sagas describe witches going from farm to farm and putting on a performance of soothsaying at every farm that was willing to receive them as its honoured guests. Such women generally travelled in groups: we are told, for example, of three witches or nine travelling together. Their performances were put on in the farm’s main hall, during the hours of darkness. The method seems to have been for one to sit on a special stool or chair and go into a trance while the others sang and danced around her. When she achieved an altered state of consciousness she would prophesy the future and answer the questions of the people present.
Modern writers often compare this to shamanism, but there is a clear difference, as we are not told of the witch’s spirit leaving her body and going on a fantastic journey. It seems a little more like mediumship, as sometimes we are told that she conversed with nature-spirits, but this doesn’t seem to have been an essential part of the proceedings. The essential thing was just that this woman got into a state where she could access information that wasn’t usually available to her. That seems to have been the theory, anyway; in fact I suppose that, as with modern psychic readings, various kinds of fakery were often involved. Folkmemories of these visits of the witches are perhaps the reality behind the imaginary visits of ‘good women’ or fairies to farmsteads in the Middle Ages, which I’ll tell you about in my next lecture. Finally, just to complicate things, it’s worth noting that witches seem to have used galdra-staves, incantations and indeed runic inscriptions much as the more respectable wizards did. Indeed I suspect the witches invented galdra- staves in the first place. Certainly the one which was most often used by Icelandic wizards goes back to Neolithic times in Germany. THE CONVERSION OF ENGLAND. The Anglo-Saxons were converted to Christianity by Catholic missionaries in the course of the late sixth and the seventh centuries. This was very much a topdown process: the 25
missionaries would target kings, and the kings would order their people to convert. As I said before, Christianity did most of the things that paganism did, and did many of them better. What the kings wanted was primarily a religion that would support them and legitimate their authority, and Christianity was good at that. Some people apparently were puzzled by the deep questions of life – where do we come from, where are we going, and what’s the point of it all? – to which of course Christianity had lots of answers; all perfectly baseless and entirely wrong, unfortunately, though no one in seventh- century England had the philosophical or scientific training that would have enabled them to spot this. At least the Christian monks brought the rudiments of scholarship that would one day allow philosophy and science to develop, and that has to be a plus. Pope Gregory famously instructed Augustine to convert pagan temples into
churches, and to let the old festivals be held so long as they were done in the name of the saints rather than the old gods. Christian priests of this period were as likely to go in for wonder-working and faith-healing as were their pagan counterparts; so as far as the ordinary man in the street could tell the new religion seemed pretty much the same as the old one. As elsewhere in Europe, the people who would have found that Christianity had least to offer them were the Goddess- worshippers. It seems likely that their ancient religion would have endured for a while after the rites of Woden and Thunor had fallen into oblivion, though there’s actually not much evidence that it did. Anglo-Saxon laws and sermons of the Christian period denounce those who love witchcraft, but they don’t mention the Goddess. Still, there are many things we don’t know about Anglo-Saxon England. THE VIKINGS. Christianity seems to have made the Anglo-Saxons a little less warlike; which was not altogether to their advantage when Viking raids began around 800. The Vikings who came here were mostly from Denmark and Norway, though the English called them all ‘Danes’. They settled mainly in 26
the north and east of Britain. According to Oppenheimer’s calculations the Vikings amounted to about five and a half per cent of the British population; though as with the Saxons, their settlement was much denser in some areas than in others, so that in a few places they may have formed a majority. In racial type, language and culture the Vikings were very similar to the pagan Anglo-Saxons, so that there isn’t much to say about their religion that I haven’t said already. One remarkable thing that one sometimes finds in Viking burials is evidence of a woman being killed to accompany a great man in death; and we have an eye-witness account by an Arab traveller of such things being done by Vikings in Eastern Europe. Their culture was perhaps a little more warlike and male-oriented than that of the pagan English. Anyway, the Vikings too were converted from the top down in the course of the tenth and eleventh centuries, and at that point the history of paganism in Britain might be thought to be over. But life is full of surprises, and in my next lecture I shall tell you the interesting story of pagan survivals in the Middle Ages and the pagan revival of the present day.
BIBLIOGRAPHY. Apuleius, Lucius. The Golden Ass. Penguin, 1950. Baroja, Julio Caro. The World of the Witches. 1964. Bede. History of the English Church and People, Penguin, 1955. Branston, Brian. The Lost Gods of England. 1957. Davidson, H.R.E. Gods & Myths of Northern Europe. 1964. • .. .. Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe. 1991. • .. .. Roles of the Northern Goddess. 1998. Flowers, Stephen (ed.). The
Galdrabók. 1989. Gardner, Gerald. The Meaning of Witchcraft. 1959. Gregory of Tours. History of the Franks, Penguin, 1974. Griffiths, B. Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Magic. 1996. Grimm, Jacob. Teutonic Mythology. English trans. 1883-8. Hodgkin, R.H. A History of the Anglo-Saxons. 1951.
Hutton, Ronald. Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles. 1993. Raudvere, Catharina. Trolldómr in Early Medieval Scandinavia, in Witchcraft and Magic in Europe, vol. 3. 2002. Revill, Joe. Witchcraft: Ancient & Modern. 2004. • .. .. Rasputin: A Witch’s View. 2006.
• .. .. British Paganism: from Earliest Times to the Roman Occupation. 2006. Russell, Jeffrey Burton. Witchcraft in the Middle Ages. 1972. Tacitus, P. Cornelius. The Agricola & the Germania. Penguin, 1970. Wilson, D.M. A Group of Anglo-Saxon Amulet Rings, in The AngloSaxons, ed. Peter Clemoes. 1959. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org – read my essays online at www.esotericexperience.org.uk . 28
In my previous lectures on the religious traditions of this land I took you from the Old Stone Age to the time of the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings, when Catholic Christianity became the only religion officially permitted here. In the first part of
tonight’s lecture I’m going to discuss the vexed question of pagan survivals in the Middle Ages. PAGAN OR CHRISTIAN? If anyone had asked the reformers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries whether any paganism had survived in the popular culture of the Middle Ages they would certainly have answered yes; and in one sense they were surely right. So many pre-Christian holy places and practices had been taken over by the mediæval Church that it might truly be said that the price paid for the Christianization of pagan Europe was the paganization of European Christianity! Yet, as far as one can tell from the scanty records of the time, the mediæval peasants who bathed in holy wells, danced round sacred trees, and even sacrificed oxen at certain rustic shrines, generally did so in the sincere belief that such actions were pleasing to the Christian God; and I suppose that makes them Christian practices. No doubt such things would have been surprising, and often abhorrent, to the Christians of the New Testament. If one of the early saints could have returned to earth a few centuries after his martyrdom to find his image worshipped with incense and candles, hung with ex-votos, and carried about the fields to bring fertility, he would have recoiled in horror, thinking that he was witnessing pagan rites. But the people who worshipped such saintly images all subscribed to the Christian world-picture of the Heavenly Father, the crucified Redeemer and the coming Day of Judgment, so one can hardly call them pagans. MAY DAY. There were, of course, some popular customs which were resistant to Christianization: one thinks particularly of the 1
British May Day celebrations. Even after a thousand years of Christianity, these preserved many features which look perfectly pagan. The exuberant carnality of the festival, with its phallic maypole and casual promiscuity, seems clearly designed to promote the summertime growth of the crops just sown, according to the neolithic equation of human sexuality and the life-force in Nature. As for the Lord and Lady of the May, two young people chosen for their strength and beauty, who for the duration of the festival were treated as sacred beings, with power to bless the homes and farmland of those they visited: It can hardly be
doubted that once, in pagan times, this golden couple were truly regarded as a god and Goddess of fertility, like Frey and Freyja, or Ba’al and Ba’alat, temporarily manifest in human form. Those who made offerings of food and drink in return for their blessing may once have felt that they were engaged in an act of ritual worship: perhaps an example of the worship of human beings condemned in Anglo-Saxon legislation against paganism and witchcraft. In view of what was said in my last lecture concerning the ethnicity of the English peasantry, it is interesting to note that this May Day festival was not part of the Anglo-Saxon ritual calendar, nor was it celebrated in Scandinavia; it was, however, a very popular festival among the Britons of Wales, who did all the same kind of stuff as the English, with maypoles and so on – surely another indication of ethnic continuity in the population of England. For the purposes of our current inquiry, the most important question is: Did the people of the Middle Ages and Early Modern times who took part in such paganlooking festivities think that they were doing something that was both religious and non-Christian? And here the answer has to be probably not, because if they had the Church would have denounced them, and we have no evidence that it did so. One gets the impression that clergy and peasants alike soon came to regard these ceremonies as a bit of harmless fun: a way for young people to let off steam once a year, rather like the modern American ‘Spring Break’. That doesn’t rule out the possibility that, especially in the earlier mediæval centuries, some people may have felt genuine religious awe in the presence of the Lord and the Lady, and have believed that their festival really helped the crops to 2
grow; but if they did, they kept quiet about it. So when we look at records of the mediæval May Day celebrations we see a lot of behaviour that looks very pagan being done by a lot of people who seem to be officially regarded as perfectly orthodox Christians having a purely secular good time. WITCH-BELIEFS IN WESTERN EUROPE. So perhaps a better question would be: Is there evidence of the real survival into the Middle Ages in Western Europe of any pagan cult, whose adherents rejected Christianity and gave their allegiance to a non-Christian deity? The answer to that, surprisingly, is yes. In my last lecture when treating of the coming of Christianity I told you that the
last manifestation of paganism to challenge the hegemony of the new faith actually came from what I believe to be the very oldest stratum of European religion: an ancient cult, popular among the peasantry, which worshipped a Goddess symbolic of Nature, who in the Roman Empire was generally known by her Latin name, Diana – but also by many other more local appellations, and often simply as The Mistress. We saw this religion in conflict with Christianity in the region of Trier, in the sixth century; we saw it flourishing in pagan Scandinavia, under the patronage of a Goddess called Freyja, whose name means Mistress. Even in pagan times, it was hardly a religion for respectable people; but when the respectable people had exchanged Jupiter and Odin for the Christian God, there were still peasants who clung to the ancient worship of the Goddess, with its incantations and debaucheries: chanting, circle-dancing, and firelit orgies. Writing in the late twelfth century, the Icelandic scholar Snorri Sturluson tells us that of all the pagan gods, Freyja alone survived – which implies that he knew of people who still worshipped her. One wishes he had gone into more detail; but there are a few Icelandic folktales which perhaps give us a glimpse of her worshippers in action. For example, one tale collected by Jón Árnasón in the nineteenth century, but clearly of mediæval origin, tells of a shepherd who hid in his master’s farmhouse on Christmas Eve, when all the other people of the farm had gone to keep vigil in the Church; and how he observed the coming of a 3
party of strangers who danced naked, feasted, and had a roaring good time until the shepherd attacked them, killing some, causing injury to others and driving the rest into the icy waters of a nearby lake. Returning home, he dragged out the dead, killed those who were still alive, and burned the corpses, before dividing his victims’ possessions with his master. The absence of any Satanic features in this account suggests that it is not derived from mediæval images of the Witches’ Sabbath; its chilling matter-of-factness gives it rather the ring of truth. Of course folklore is hardly first-rate evidence, but folklore is pretty much all we have when it comes to witch-meetings. The Frankish Salic Law envisages the real possibility that a man might carry a
cauldron to the place where witches meet, and takes it for granted that this would be considered shameful; it does not, however, set a penalty for attending such a meeting. In fact the only witchcraft-related penalty it does prescribe for is for a witch who eats a man: a fine of two hundred shillings, which suggests to me that the witch in question hadn’t killed the man, just consumed some of his flesh after he died, as is popularly believed of witches in Africa, and is the actual practice of Indian tantrics. This Frankish legislation seems to be saying: Yes, we know there are witches, who have meetings involving large cauldrons, but we’re not that bothered as long as they’re not actually eating people. The Salic Law is (as far as I know) the only legal text from the early Middle Ages to refer to witch-meetings. Other legal codes of the period mention popular beliefs in witches who ‘eat men’ and have unspecified but evidently fearsome powers, leading fearful or vengeful people sometimes to burn them – or, more surprisingly, to eat their flesh – thus nullifying their powers by destroying their bodies. Female slaves seem to have been common victims of these attacks, which the Christian lawgivers generally condemn, on the grounds that witchcraft is impossible. For accounts of witch-meetings we have to turn to folklore and literature, where there are plenty, from the trollathings of the sagas to the similar meetings remembered in the popular beliefs of Southern Europe (as collected by Leland and others) and indeed in the folklore of our own islands. 4
Across Europe, what the folklore evidence tends to show is this: people believed that there were witch-meetings, held by night in secluded places, characterized by nakedness, singing, dancing, feasting and lovemaking – and sometimes by cannibalism, a sacramental act which seems to have been thought to make a person a witch, imparting rather vaguely-conceived magical powers. What this evidence can’t tell us is whether such meetings were actually happening. Personally I’m inclined to think they were. Partly because in Russia the Khlysty were still doing the same kind of things (without the cannibalism) in their secret meetings until the last century. Russian scholars generally consider the Khlysty as a pagan cult surviving under a nominal veneer of Christianity; and certainly the similarity of the Russian radéniye to the Indian chakrapuja suggests a common origin way back in prehistory. Unlike the Khlysty, however, Indian tantrics still sometimes practice cannibalism.
THE HERESY OF THE FREE SPIRIT. In Russia the Christianization of the Khlysti had been completed by the midseventeenth century. A hundred years or more before that, the Italian scholar Pico della Mirandola tells us that the Goddess whom Italian witches worshipped was sometimes identified by them with the Mother of God. Indeed from the thirteenth century onward in Western Europe one comes across heretical Christian sects, venerating a divine couple of Christ and Mary, often thought to be temporarily incarnate in their male and female leaders; sects whose practices include dancing, feasting, and orgiastic sex; these very tantric practices being generally conjoined with a pantheistic philosophy also very tantric in its rejection of the notion of sin and positive attitude to the pleasures of the flesh. Some of them even used sex as a means of passing on a mystical experience from guru to disciple. The general name under which these sects are known is the Movement of the Free Spirit. I think they must have been in Western Europe what the Khlysti were in Russia: a Christianized form of witchcraft. 5
WITCHCRAFT & THE INQUISITION. The Inquisition started persecuting these Christianized pantheists long before it got seriously interested in witches. Indeed, while witches were still considered as the deluded followers of a non-existent pagan Goddess they did not come under the remit of the Inquisition, which was set up and authorized to persecute Christian heretics. Only when witchcraft was officially redefined as Satanism was the Inquisition set loose to use its instruments of torture on suspected witches. Then the victims said whatever they thought would please the man who was hurting them; and what he wanted to hear about was Satanic abominations. So the inquisitors’ accounts of the witches’ sabbath are useless as evidence for what really happened on a particular occasion. But they do have some value as evidence for the kind of thing people believed ought to have happened on such an occasion. Remove the Satanic abominations and supernatural grotesqueries, and what you have left is recognizable as something very similar to the radéniye and the chakrapuja. There is nakedness, singing, circle-dancing, feasting and love-making: that’s the kind of thing people thought witches did. Some of the victims may have had first-hand experience of witchcraft practices:
it’s hard to tell. Certainly a few maintained, in defiance of their captors’ expectations, that the object of their worship was a Goddess called Diana, Erodia, or various other names, rather than the Devil. But inevitably the torturers generally got the kind of confession they wanted, and that was full of Satanic abominations. HOW MANY WITCHES? I wish one could tell how many of the Inquisitors’ victims were real witches, because it might give one an idea how numerous such people were in the population as a whole. Certainly in some places, at some times, there seem to have been quite a lot of them. Around Trier, for a period in the mid-sixth century, for example, we know that Goddess- worshippers outnumbered Christians for a while. Ratherius, Bishop of Verona in the tenth century, tells us that the 6
worshippers of a Goddess whom he calls Herodias were so numerous as to constitute a third part of the earth. With this ‘third part of the earth’ thing I think he must mean a third of the population. I suspect he was thinking in terms of the mediæval model of the three-class society – warriors, priests, and peasants – and was identifying Goddess- worshippers with one of those classes: presumably the lowest. But if the peasantry was mostly pagan in his time, generations of Christian missionary work must have gradually eroded the Old Religion. Though a thirteenth- century French poet repeats the figure more or less, saying that every third child born is a follower of Herodias, one feels that at such a late period this traditional figure must have been a huge overestimate. DAYDREAM BELIEVERS. Were there any real witches in Western Europe in the High Middle Ages and the Renaissance? The answer seems to be a qualified yes. We have good evidence that there were people who didn’t consider themselves Christian but gave their devotion to a Goddess often called Diana. But what they mostly did was daydream. If people want to call this Astral Projection or Shamanic Journeying – well, we’re certainly talking about the same thing. People induced a kind of trance and went on a vividly-imagined inner journey, just as modern witches do in their pathworkings. Sometimes they used a narcotic salve to facilitate the trance. We have good
evidence for this sort of thing from France, Germany, Italy and Spain. Sometimes inquisitors and doctors examined these salves and made experiments with them, from which we can see that these drugs really did induce very vivid hallucinations. The fictional magic ointments in The Golden Ass, which transform people into animals and birds, must have been based on something of this sort, so perhaps some of these recipes go back a long way. The practice of making such ointments seems likely to be a very ancient one; as indeed must be the practice of intense daydreaming, with or without the aid of drugs. Probably witches had been going on flights of fancy since the Stone Age. 7
But from around the turn of the first millennium up until the time of the witchhunts, this is the main thing we hear about what witches do: they go into a trance and imagine themselves to be somewhere else, talking to fantastic and mythical beings, including their Goddess. We hear of witch- meetings that took place not in the real world but in this land of the imagination, where the Goddess was worshipped with feasting, dancing and sex, in the time-honoured way. The famous Canon Episcopi, dating from the ninth century, and instructing bishops to uproot thoroughly from their parishes the pernicious art of sorcery and witchcraft, goes into some detail about the practices of some faithless women who imagine that they leave their bodies at night and meet Diana, Goddess of the pagans, whom they regard as their Mistress. An innumerable multitude of people are said to believe in such things, being thus drawn back into the error of the pagans; priests are therefore instructed to preach insistently that these visionary experiences are no more than illusions caused by evil spirits. Early accounts of such practices donâ€™t mention the salve, but later ones are more informative. Writing in the 1430s, Johann Nider tells us what he says is a true story about a witch who was persuaded to strip naked and anoint herself in the presence of a couple of Dominican friars. She lay in a basket, muttered incantations while rubbing the narcotic paste into her body, and soon fell into a deep sleep. When she woke up she said that she had been with Diana and Lady Venus, though the Dominicans were sure that she hadnâ€™t left the room. This witch was still a Goddess- worshipper at a time when the Church had officially decided that witches worshipped Satan. That certainly gives the story the ring of truth. I bet these Dominicans were moved by genuine scientific curiosity about
whether witches could really fly, and had struck some sort of deal with the witch to be allowed to watch her. They certainly don’t seem to have had her burnt. Maybe that was the deal. But what an interesting thing she says: Diana and Lady Venus. Are these two Goddesses, or two aspects of one Goddess? One side dark, calm and motherly, the other bright, playful and voluptuous. In the seventeenth century, Giambattista della Porta observes that female witches of his time anoint themselves 8
with an ointment containing nightshade, and on some moonlit night are carried off to banquets, dances, music, and coupling with young men, which they desire most of all. He adds that they take hold of the images in such a way that the mind itself is changed, and thinks of nothing else day or night. This sounds a bit like modern drug addiction: a way for life’s losers to compensate for their disappointments in the real world. A RELIGION IN DECLINE. But then witches were losers: the overall picture of European witchcraft in the early second millennium looks to me like that of a religion in terminal decline. All that Christian preaching was doing its job, and the Old Religion of the Goddess was increasingly confined to a few marginal people, mostly poor, mostly female, who often didn’t have real meetings any more, but just got high and imagined them. Some still respected the witches for their healing powers, and might seek cures and blessings from them. Others feared their ability to harm, and blamed them for unexpected misfortunes. Most people had only vague ideas about witches and their practices: more and more they were becoming the stuff of hearsay and rustic legend rather than of first-hand knowledge. The ancient cult was just fading away, as many others have since, through young people not joining and old people dying. Then came the Inquisition, and no doubt killed most of the remaining witches along with many innocents. What one finds in Europe after the seventeenth century is a good deal of fake witchcraft: people pretending to be witches in order to dupe or intimidate the vulnerable, knowing enough to put on a show of witchcraft without understanding the essence of it. There are also mentally disturbed people for whom witchcraft fantasies are a way of articulating their perverse obsessions; and some people who think of themselves as Christians while continuing some
witchcraft practices, such as pathworking or herb-doctoring. But real pagan witches are hard to find in the later records. C.G. Leland thought he’d found one in nineteenth-century Italy, but he was probably deceived – though perhaps not completely, as you will hear in a little while. 9
WITCHCRAFT IN BRITAIN. I’ve taken you deep into Europe for this account of mediæval witchcraft because the British evidence is so scanty that one needs a context to make sense of it. Generally things here seem to have progressed along the same lines as on the continent. The few Anglo-Saxon references to witchcraft are all quite matter-of-fact, and often relate to individuals accused of specific acts of ill-wishing or destructive magic. One of the Old English names for magic is thought to be one of that language’s few borrowings from Celtic: drycræft – whence bedryden, meaning bewitched. One supposes that, like later slave-owners, the Germanic rulers were sometimes worried about the voodoo powers of the oppressed. In AngloSaxon times we hear the first English story of the use of a wax doll in cursing: a piece of evidence which would, of course, have been very easy to plant, if one were trying to frame someone. After the Norman Conquest the Life of Hereward tells us, with equal matter-offactness, that the Normans fighting the English resistance made use of a witch to curse the English from a high wooden tower. This lady seems to have been French, a ritual specialist imported from the mainland; yet she found a woman with whom she shared a language, beliefs and ritual practices in an English village. The French witch and the English witch stood side by side at a spring, under the moonlight, apparently taking counsel from the voice they heard in the babbling water. I can dig what they were doing because I’ve experienced something like it myself: when very stoned and far gone in devotion I heard the Goddess speaking in the sound of the water at St Nectan’s Kieve. Hereward’s witch seems to be considered by the writer basically as someone whose wishes are powerful. Apart from the vaguely-described ritual at the spring nothing is said about this lady’s religion. The Anglo-Norman scholar Gervase of Tilbury mentions witches who are believed to leave their bodies and fly by night in the company and at the service
of the pagan Goddess Diana. Writing about 1155, John of Salisbury tells us that a few poor women and ignorant men believe that the ‘Queen of the Night’ or Herodias summons them to nocturnal meetings, where there is feasting and celebration. 10
Remembering that for mediæval writers Herodias equals Salome, I can’t help wondering whether the Queen of the Night and Herodias might not be two more names for the familiar Goddess dyad of Mother and Maiden, like Demeter and Persephone, the ‘Diana and Lady Venus’ I referred to earlier, or indeed the Queen of the Night and Pamina in The Magic Flute. The trouble with these last two references, from John and Gervase, is that the context doesn’t make it clear whether they were talking about popular beliefs in Britain or in France. Or indeed both. But the Fasciculus Morum, a guide for Franciscan preachers, is certainly referring to conditions in England when it describes, early in the fourteenth century, people who combine religious skepticism – which is to say, disbelief in Christianity – with a vivid fantasy life, in which they party with the pagan Goddess Diana, her elvish handmaidens, and legendary heroes like Wade, in a dream-landscape called Elvelond. (Russell, 1972.) The book says it’s the Devil who is really creating these illusions, appearing as all the characters in the fantasy. I suspect the witches would have said it was the Goddess doing that. It reminds me very much of the Active Imagination techniques used and taught by C.G. Jung; and we know that such intense day-dreaming can be a source of deep insight and inspiration. If for some who found themselves among the losers of the world it also provided some consolation, I see no harm in that. But these techniques can be used for loftier ends such as self-knowledge and knowledge of the Goddess. It is a very easy method of tapping in to one’s inner wisdom to imagine the Goddess and hear her counsel to you; just about anyone can learn to do it in a short time. And that’s what witches of this type seem to have done, just like their contemporaries on the continent, taking advice from the Goddess in inner visions, perhaps chemically induced. What did they call her? In the twelfth and the fourteenth century, we hear of her being called Diana. I wonder if the name had survived here since Roman times, or if it had been re-introduced from France by the Normans? In Scotland we
sometimes find the name Nic-Neven, which resembles that of the Kali-like Irish Goddess Nemhain 11
(pronounced navan). Can the Nic part have anything to do with the use of Old Nick as a name for the Devil, I wonder? More generally north of the border she was known as the Queen of Elfhame, and in England as the Fairy Queen. In Early Modern England it was still remembered that the Fairy Queen was the Mistress of all Magic, whose aid an aspirant wonder-worker had to enlist. Faked evocations of this Queen seem to have been part of a standard con in Shakespeare’s day, as in The Merry Wives of Windsor, or Jonson’s play The Alchemist, where a real woman impersonates the Queen to dupe a gullible seeker after treasure. I don’t know if anyone in Britain then remembered the real method for getting an interview with the Fairy Queen. A woman who might have known was prosecuted in Somerset in 1438 for witchcraft: the specific charge being that she used to practice what I suppose we’d call alternative medicine. When people came to her with a problem she’d go into a trance and talk to her friends the fairies, who would tell her what treatment (usually a herbal potion) was required. This is very like the practice of the Sicilian witches. Irish ‘fairy-doctors’ did much the same thing down to the last century. No doubt some of them were fakes, but others – I guess – might have been into Active Imagination: contacting the wisdom of the Deep Self and passing on its gifts into the world. Hard to tell a fairy-doctor from a witch, were it not for one distinguishing mark: Christianity. What of those religiously-skeptical friends of Diana whose existence is so offhandedly noted by the Fasciculus Morum in the early fourteenth century? Were there any in Britain in the following centuries who followed their explicitly nonChristian path? It’s hard to say for sure; but try as I might I can’t find any compelling evidence for real pagan witches in Britain after the Black Death. Maybe it killed them all, or maybe they just lost the respect of the people for not being able to cure the disease; or maybe the cult was dying out anyway and the plague just finished it off. 12
OUR LADY OF WADDYCLEVE. 7An enigmatic incident in the history of North Devon perhaps makes better
sense when viewed against the background of this religious watershed in the middle of the fourteenth century. In 1351, the monks of Frithelstock were reprimanded by their bishop for constructing an unauthorized chapel in the wood at Waddycleve. The chapel was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, but the statue it contained was said by the bishop to look like proud and disobedient Eve or unchaste Diana – from which we can tell that it was a naked female form. Unorthodox religious rites, including divination by the casting of lots, were practiced in the chapel, which was a popular place of pilgrimage. Female nudes are very rare in mediæval sculpture: I can think of just a few images of sinful Eve and of damned women being judged and punished. So to find one as the object of worship is indeed remarkable. The most likely explanation seems to me that this was an old statue from Roman times, like the one that had been worshipped near Trier in the sixth century. In that case the bishop’s reference to unchaste Diana would have been right on the money. On the whole it looks to me as if the monks had not invented this local cult, but were trying to put a Christian gloss on something that had been going on for a long while among the peasantry. My guess is that the people who used to lead the worship had died of the plague, leaving the monks a free hand to take over the site and attempt to Christianize proceedings there. Sadly the statue was destroyed on the bishop’s command, though the chapel remained a popular place of pilgrimage until the Reformation and still stands today, converted into a house. It may mark the site of the last place in Britain where a pagan image of the Goddess was worshipped – until the twentieth century, that is. MISAPPREHENSIONS. There are a few common misapprehensions about supposed survivals of paganism in the later Middle Ages. These days you hear a lot about a guy called the Green Man, a spirit personifying vegetation or the life-force or 13
something of the sort. He is not a figure derived from the records of ancient paganism, but from mediæval carvings, often found in churches, which depict a male human head entwined in foliage which is either growing from or entering his nose and mouth. They mostly look angry or afraid. No written sources refer
to these things, so what they mean is anyone’s guess. In 1939 Lady Raglan gave the problem some thought and decided that they must represent the vegetation-spirit that looms so large in Frazer’s Golden Bough, the dying-and- resurrected fertility god whom people far to the south and east had called Tammuz and Osiris. She thought that the same figure was represented by the foliage-swathed man who plays a role in certain local May Day celebrations, and from whom she took the name of the Green Man. There are some problems with this. One is that the dying- and-resurrected gods of the ancient world are never represented as swathed in leaves. Also, the image that we call the Green Man is a popular mediæval decorative motif that spread through Europe in the Romanesque period. Its more distant roots seem to lie in India. There are no surviving records from the Middle Ages that would suggest that anybody then regarded these leafy images as being depictions of a fertility-spirit or a pagan god. We don’t actually have any evidence that dyingand-resurrected gods were part of native, Celtic, or Germanic religion; and certainly there is no evidence for leafy gods here either. The Green Man of the May Day celebrations cannot be traced back further than the eighteenth century. So on the whole the balance of probability seems to be against Lady Raglan’s theory. One can see why she found it so compelling; and why it has proved so popular with modern pagans. But if the Green Man counts as a god (and I suppose he must, because many people worship him) he must be counted not among the most ancient but the most modern of the gods, born of twentieth century intellectuals’ reverence for green nature and their reluctance to relinquish male images of the divine. As for me, if I want to meditate on an image of Nature in human form I don’t bother about the Green Man; the 14
Goddess is all I need. And so it was for the real witches of the Middle Ages, as far as we can tell. There is another mediæval decorative image which has been linked to paganism: the Sheela-na-gig. These represent a woman exposing her yoni, often in a squatting position. Like the Green Man this motif came here from Europe in the twelfth century. Early examples are generally grotesque and seem
designed to caricature the female form. Later ones are often more playful and sometimes serene. Especially in the west of Britain and in Ireland, they are often found on or near the main door of a church or a secular building, as if for protection. Irish folklore does credit such images with the power to scare evil forces away; and grants the same power to a real woman’s yoni when deliberately exposed. It looks as if an sculptural form devised by continental monks who feared and despised the yoni has been adopted by an insular peasantry taking a rather more respectful, even reverential, attitude. We are not far here from tantric yoni- worship, or indeed from witchcraft. Yet the carving of these images seems to have been carried on by people who thought of themselves as Christians; so while Sheelas must necessarily be objects of great interest and indeed reverence to the modern witch, they cannot be considered as evidence for the survival of paganism. Since the mediæval Church came to conflate the ideas of paganism and sorcery, many have thought to find pagan survivals in the grimoires, or magical textbooks of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. I once entertained this hope myself, but a thorough study of the texts in question has left me convinced that there’s nothing much of interest there. The beings supposedly summoned by these rites are either well-known Christian angels and demons or completely made-up little devils with unconvincing names like Sytry and Scox, having nothing in common with the ancient pagan gods and Goddesses. The tedious rituals of the grimoires are all based on the recital of the names and deeds of the Biblical god, in whose name these lesser spirits are commanded. It seems obvious that performance of these rituals would never have produced the desired results; that they were, in fact, composed by con-men for the express purpose of parting fools from their money, just like the trashy spell-books of today. 15
And yet: if one stands back a bit and unfocuses one’s gaze, there are things in the grimoires that look quite good. All those magical symbols, for example: various artful combinations of geometrical patterns like circles, triangles and stars, and sometimes lettering. They look curiously similar to Scandinavian galdra-staves, or Indian yantras: excellent focuses for meditation. The grimoires’ instructions on making ritual robes, private altars and such sacred utensils as wands, chalices and daggers have their parallels in tantra, where such things
are used for meditation and ritual worship of the Goddess. Even the summoning up and conversing with spirits seems rather like the tantric ritual visualization of deities and demons, and imaginary interactions with them. What all this suggests to me is that the authors of the grimoires had a vague idea about what a magical ritual was supposed to be like, based on superficial knowledge of a practice like that of Indian tantra. But these hack-writers didn’t know a lot of the important stuff, such as what the yantras or the ritual implements were actually for, or what to say in the ritual, so they made it up, not very convincingly, in a manner that reflected their own Jewish or Christian world view. It is true that when the grimoires start to appear in Mediæval Europe their immediate source is thought to be the Jews of Spain, citizens of an Islamic empire which had contact with the tantrics of India, so perhaps there was some connexion there. Or perhaps the vaguely-known models for the authors of the grimoires were the practices of real or legendary mystics nearer home, in North Africa or Southern Europe. I don’t know if it’s worth mentioning that – contrary to popular belief – morris dancing isn’t a pagan custom, nor indeed particularly old. It came here from Spain, in the Tudor period, as ‘moorish dancing’ or the moresco: a courtly pastime subsequently taken up by the lower orders for fun and profit. The bizarre costumes of modern morris-men testify to a rather Pythonesque English sense of humour but not to any pagan links. 16
SUMMARY OF THE FIRST PART. So to sum up this section: in the Middle Ages a lot of pagan customs continued, adapted to the needs of a Christian society, but the only real non-Christian religion to survive was the Cult of Diana, which probably died out here in the mid-fourteenth century. Who would have thought that it would ever come back? Yet it has done so indeed, as I’ll tell you in the second part. ___________________________________________________________ 17
II The wiping-out of Goddess-worship probably wasn’t felt as too much of a loss in mediæval England, because people with inclinations toward the worship of the
Divine Feminine were still able to focus their devotion on the Virgin Mary and other female saints. As in Russia and Mediterranean Europe, the Virgin was for many just the old Goddess under a new name. But the radically masculine character of the Reformers’ religion must have left many people unsatisfied. WITCH-HUNTS. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw great witch- hunts in England and Scotland; partly, I suppose, because times were hard and people wanted scapegoats for their misfortunes. But a lot of the Protestant intellectuals had a bee in their bonnets about witchcraft and the necessity to purify the Earth of it in readiness for the Second Coming. The people who died for witchcraft in those years were a mixed bag: some peasant healers, some psychotics, many who were just unpopular – but no pagans, as far as I can tell. The nearest match to a pagan in the trial-records is a guy called Andro Man, tried at Aberdeen in 1597; he’s the one who told his judges about doing homage to the Queen of Elfhame, who could appear old or young as she pleased, lay with anyone she liked and made a king of whoever she chose. All of that sounds authentic enough: real folk-beliefs about the witches’ Goddess. But when one reads more of the trial-records one discovers that, in what looks like a round-up of local folk-healers and unpopular people, Andro was the only one to save himself by turning King’s Evidence. He seems to have been a frightened man, racking his brains to think of something to confess, and remembering all the folklore he knew about the witches and their Goddess. When that didn’t go down too well he went onto the more usual Satanic abominations, and some strange fancies like that about the spirit Christ-Sunday, who appeared in the form of a stag and liked to be kissed on the arse. Twenty18
four people were burnt alive at the end of this trial, but Andro’s imaginative confession saved him from the stake. Was he a real witch? I don’t think so. He just knew a bit about it: folk-beliefs that weren’t quite what his tormentors wanted to hear. But he soon figured out what they did want, and gave it to them. In England the picture is much the same. Witch-hunters had an idea of what kind of thing they wanted the accused to confess, and generally succeeded in making them do so. Most of the victims seem to have been old, confused and
frightened; some were probably crazy; none of them look like pagans. The socalled witches of Pendle do seem to have been using their witchy reputation to scare people into giving them handouts: a dangerous game. But nothing in the records of their trial suggests that they were worshippers of the Goddess. The Lady never figures in English witch-trials, and her patronage of witches seems to have been forgotten here â€“ except by Shakespeare, of course! THE GODDESS & THE POETS. It was poets who kept the memory of the Goddess alive through the long, masculine centuries of British Protestantism. When she had no temples and no rituals of worship in Britain, she still enjoyed acts of inner devotion from such men as Ben Jonson, in his lovely Hymn to Diana: Queen and huntress, chaste and fair, Now the sun is gone to sleep, Seated in thy silver chair, State in wonted manner keep. Hesperus entreats thy light, Goddess excellently bright. Just to read it sensitively casts a spell on the mind. It is a true incantation, summoning the presence of the Goddess. So is Shelleyâ€™s Song of Proserpine: Sacred Goddess, Mother Earth Thou from whose immortal bosom Gods and men and beasts have birth, 19
Leaf and blade and blood and blossom. It sounds like some old peasant chant, such as witches might have sung to accompany their circle-dances. In 1867 Algernon Swinburne wrote my favourite poem ever, Hertha, a long, beautiful and mystical speech by the Goddess. If you read the whole thing slowly and attentively, preferably aloud, it is almost guaranteed to produce Knowledge of the Goddess, especially in conjunction with the judicious use of a certain alkaloid herb. Even better than reading it oneself can be to listen attentively as a woman with a beautiful voice reads it. I am that which began; Out of me the years roll; Out of me, god and man, I am equal and whole; God changes, and man, and the form of them bodily; I am the Soul.... O my sons, O too dutiful Toward Gods not of me, Was I not enough beautiful? Was it hard to be free?
For behold, I am with you, am in you and of you; Look forth now and see. Trying to pick the best bits is impossible because it’s all brilliant. Anyone who’s interested in understanding the Goddess should read it. It really does feel like sitting down at the Lady’s feet and receiving wisdom from her. A lot of Swinburne’s other poetry is beautiful, but often that’s all it is: it feels either empty of thought, or the thought it has isn’t very interesting. But in Hertha he has something to say, and it seems to be channeled direct from the Goddess. He couldn’t have written this poem without the skills he’d developed in writing his other stuff, but equally he couldn’t have done it without an intense mystical experience, the like of which he was never to achieve again. Knowing a little about his disorderly life I suspect the state was induced by sado-masochistic practices or exotic drugs, or quite likely a combination of both. Perhaps he had stumbled onto one of 20
the best-kept secrets of the tantrics, learning in some London brothel or bedroom how ritualized submission to dark and aggressive sexual energy can provoke an egolessness that may, if you are lucky and the cosmos kind, bloom into spiritual ecstasy. (Davies.) Rasputin knew this too; but folk-tradition had given him some powerful rituals for promoting mystical experience, and a coven with whom to perform them. Swinburne was out there on his own with no one to help. He did what he could by writing the poem, preserving an image of his experience for others to contemplate. To me it’s a Sacred Text. THE GOLDEN DAWN. In the last decade of the nineteenth century a few British people started to practice Goddess-worship again, in some of the rituals of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a bizarre offshoot of British Freemasonry, led by a highly eccentric Englishman called Mathers. The order was founded allegedly on the basis of occult information from Germany – which was probably fabricated closer to home. The order’s teachings were a mixture of bad science and bad history. The history was mostly about supposed wonder-workers of the past, like Cagliostro, Christian Rosenkreuz, and Jesus; the science was a mixture of astrology, alchemy, kabbala, and the old renaissance ‘High Magic’, taught by such
philosophers as Pico della Mirandola, who believed that the trained use of the human imagination could make things happen in the real world. Some of the techniques of these high magicians involved meditating on symbols of the planets; and, because the planets had been named after pagan gods and Goddesses, these mages of the renaissance taught practices involving the visualization of such ancient deities. So their disciples learnt to build clear inner images of, among others, the Goddesses Diana and Venus; to speak to them and hear their replies. This is not far from pagan witchcraft. The order promised to give its members both spiritual insights and magical powers. There were a lot of levels, and to advance upward involved the paying of fees. The more you paid out the more powers you got. It sounds to have 21
been a ‘cult’ in the modern sense of being basically a racket, like Scientology, with a half-crazy guru fleecing the gullible. But just as some of the Scientological methods do actually work, so did some of the Golden Dawn’s. Most notably the afore-mentioned technique of intense daydreaming, to which they gave its modern name of ‘pathworking’. Here is a little of a pathworking experience that happened in the head of a pretty young woman called Elaine Simpson on the tenth of November, 1892. After some preliminary visualization of a landscape and of herself flying over it, Miss Simpson found herself on – a marble terrace brilliantly white, and a garden beyond, with flowers, whose
foliage was of a delicate green – Here there appeared a woman – clothed in green, with a jewelled girdle, a crown of stars on her head – She smiled proudly, and as [I] sought her name, replied: ‘I am the mighty Mother Isis; most powerful of all the world. I am she who fights
not, but is always victorious – I am the world’s desire, but few they be who find me. When my secret is told, it is the secret of the Holy Grail.’
So the means of making contact with the Goddess had evidently been reestablished. On the other hand, the initiates of the Golden Dawn had their imaginations systematically stuffed with the bizarre symbol-systems of alchemy, the kabbala, astrology, and anything else of an occult nature that Mathers had come across in his extensive reading; and most of their pathworkings were mere regurgitations of this symbolism, which was of course just what their teachers
wanted to hear from them; and so they got passed on to the next level, and paid more fees, and everyone was happy. Mathers had a respectful attitude towards the old grimoires, and did an edition of the most famous, The Key of Solomon. Surprisingly, he doesnâ€™t seem to have had any interest in witchcraft, although he had rediscovered one of its most powerful techniques, and his order was to be one of the chief models for the covens of twentieth-century Wicca. 22
C.G. LELAND & ARADIA. While the initiates of the Golden Dawn were rediscovering pathworking, the American folklorist C.G. Leland was at work on his most famous book, Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches, published in London in 1899. He was an old guy, born in 1824, but still in love with life and learning about the world. I only know him through his writing, but in that his personality comes across so vividly that I know I would have liked him. He was born in Philadelphia; by turns a student, a soldier, a lawyer, a journalist, and an author of comic poetry; in later life a professional writer, of comfortable enough means to follow his own research into things that interested him and write it up in book-form. His books, beautifully illustrated with his distinctive drawings, dealt mostly with folklore. He was particularly interested in the beliefs and cultures of oppressed groups: Indians, slaves, gypsies, tramps, tinkers, and the like. Something told him that these unregarded, marginal people were guarding mystical, magical secrets that he very much wanted to know. Everywhere he went he sought such people out, won their confidence and learnt from them. The last such people that he researched were the witches of Northern Italy. Leland had read the same sources that I have (or most of them) and had come to similar conclusions about the real nature of ancient and mediĂŚval witchcraft. He thought it had been an age-old peasant cult, empowering to women, and worshipping a Goddess called Diana or Herodias, symbolic of Nature. He thought its group rituals had involved nudity, dancing, feasting and love-making. And as for magic he considered that most of it was susceptible to a rational explanation, like hypnosis or the power of suggestion. Magicians of both sexes were common enough in Italy; what Leland wanted to find were real Dianaworshipping pagans.
In fact he was a couple of centuries too late. Not so long that all folk-memory of real witches had vanished: he could find plenty of stories about the witches and their Goddess, and the firelit orgies in which they worshipped her; but he couldn’t find any real witches. At first, anyway. 23
Maybe it’s not too surprising that when a relatively wealthy, eccentric American is looking for something in a country full of clever poor people, somebody should find it for him. That’s what seems to have happened with Leland. A professional fortune-teller called Maddalena became his chief supplier of supposedly direct information about what witches did. We may reasonably suppose that Maddalena was good at reading her clients and telling them what they wanted to hear. But Leland was a man of the world, and good at reading people too, so it’s hard to believe that he was far wrong in his assessment of her; and he trusted her to do research for him, so I suppose she did actually do some. If I’m right, she wouldn’t have found any real witches at this late date, but she could have found some reasonably accurate stories about them. What she seems to have done is collected all the relevant scraps of folklore that she could find, and then invented what was necessary to stick the scraps together in a way that would please Leland. In fact many of the scraps may have given accurate descriptions of witchcraft, and Leland’s ideas were pretty sound, so the resulting picture may not be much unlike the truth. However that may be, by Maddalena’s account, the witches she knew were poor peasants of the Romagna, who gathered in secluded places on the night of the full moon, when they went naked, danced, feasted and had orgies. In their gatherings they asked the Goddess for whatever they wanted in the sincere expectation of getting it. They worshipped Diana, Goddess of Nature, and her daughter Aradia, who stands in relation to her Mother rather as Jesus does to God the Father; for Aradia is said to have come to earth long ago as a beautiful maiden to teach the anti-Christian religion of witchcraft. She it was who devised their hedonistic rituals. Maddalena gives us a spookily beautiful creation myth which begins: Diana was the first created before all creation; in her were all things; out of herself, the first darkness, she divided herself; into darkness and light she was divided. Though some of Maddalena’s material is impressive, much is not, and the
consensus of scholarly opinion has always been that Leland was either duped by a con-artist or had 24
himself conspired in the deception: so, either way, he had not succeeded in his quest for living pagan witchcraft. The book did not do well: rather a downbeat note for Leland’s life to end on. But Aradia, though a flop in its own day, is still in print: there’s currently a choice of three editions. In a twist that would have delighted Leland, it has become one of the main influences on the modern witchcraft revival. At a time when pagan witchcraft was fading away from the folk-memory, Maddalena caught the last echoes of it; she and Leland together amplified and enhanced those echoes and passed them on to posterity. ALEISTER CROWLEY. Another major influence on modern witchcraft has been the work of the magician and mystic Aleister Crowley, the most famous initiate of the Golden Dawn, who after 1900 struck out on his own to preach the new religion of Thelema. As I have explained in my Witchcraft lecture, Crowley certainly had experienced Knowledge of the Goddess, though his attitude to her was complicated: in some moods he knew the joy of surrendering to her, while at other times he wanted to hang onto his ego, and feel himself separate from her. Symptomatic of this ambiguity is the inclusion in his private pantheon of two male gods, a Father and a Son, loosely modelled on Osiris and Horus. Whenever I read the first Chapter of Crowley’s Book of the Law, apparently received through inspiration in Cairo, in 1904, his channelling of the Goddess sounds pretty good to me. But all the stuff that follows, in the name of the Father and of the Son, just sounds like the rantings of a boastful ego, rather like the stuff one finds in the Koran, or in parts of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra – both of which texts Crowley revered. The Father’s an overbearing bully, and the Son’s an irresponsible rebel without a cause: both seem to represent aspects of Crowley’s ego that he wanted to hang onto. But at least Crowley worshipped the Goddess some of the time, and could teach his disciples to achieve knowledge of her. Through him many of the secrets of Indian tantra were passed to the West. Toward the end of his life, he taught Gerald Gardner, and Gardner taught the modern witches. 25
MARGARET MURRAY. But the greatest single influence on the witchcraft revival has to be Margaret Murray’s book The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, published in 1921. Dr Murray’s conclusions are summarized by Professor Hutton: [Witchcraft] was a fertility cult focused upon a horned god who represented the generative powers of nature and was personified at the rites by a human being, usually male. It was organized in covens of thirteen, run by men or women (the latter being called ‘Queens of the Sabbat’) who owed allegiance to a ‘Grand Master’ controlling several such covens. Covens held meetings, known as – ‘sabbats’ four times a year, at the old quarter days – rites included feasting, ring and processional dances (to promote fertility), acts of magic, sacrifice of animals and children, ritualized sexual intercourse to encourage fertility in humans, and (most important) the paying of homage to the person representing the god. Murray’s thesis is completely out of favour academically, and not without good cause: she was a very bad historian. But not all of this thesis of hers is wrong, I think. That horned god thing is clearly phoney: the truth is that inquisitors got people to confess that they worshipped Satan, and Dr Murray just assumed that when they said the Devil they meant a pagan god of similar appearance. The minor Greek god Pan had enjoyed quite a vogue among intellectuals of the early twentieth century, and it probably seemed reasonable to her that the witches would worship a god with hooves and horns, like him. But in fact when this figure turns up in confessions and accounts of witchcraft he’s always clearly meant to be Satan; and before the Church decided to define witchcraft as Devilworship, the object of the witches’ devotion was said to be a Goddess. There’s no good evidence for the idea of covens of thirteen, either. I expect the size of witch-groups varied considerably. Worshipping the divinity manifest in the body of a naked human being: that sounds absolutely right, and quite in line 26
with the practice of the Khlysty and the tantrics. Thus did the Goddess manifest amid the circle of her worshippers. The thing about the ‘Grand Master’ sounds to me as if it has more to do with
Inquisitorial paranoia than with reality. Likewise human sacrifice. Reports of witches eating people are so widespread that I think it probably did happen; but the usual story is that they ate only those who had died anyway. The archæologist Timothy Taylor has recently suggested that all over the world, eating the dead was the usual thing until the last few millennia; that while special people (such as leaders) were buried, most people were eaten by their friends and family. This theory certainly seems to fit the facts. In many places, however, cannibalism was strongly tabooed by the new sky- god religions. So perhaps for that reason it became a sacrament of belonging to the Old Religion: if you turned up at a witch-feast and partook of human flesh, you were proving that you weren’t afraid to incur the wrath of the sky-god. That took you right outside the pale of respectable society, ‘beyond good and evil’, and meant you were a witch. That seems to be pretty much why the tantrics do it. Murray’s ritual calendar does seem to have something going for it, in that there is certainly plenty of folklore associating witch-meetings with the quarter days: Candlemas, May Day, Lammas and Hallowe’en. But there are also similar links to the Solstices – for example, in the Icelandic stories I mentioned earlier, and the Cornish tradition that witches dance and feast around a bonfire on Midsummer Eve. Murray’s big mistake is to think that witchcraft was still a thriving cult in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Britain, and to take confessions of that date as reliable evidence for things that really happened. That’s why the horned god bulks so large in her picture of witchcraft, and the Goddess hardly figures. Because many of the accused confessed to acts of spell- casting, Murray tends to accept spell-casting as being an important part of what witches did. I think she’s wrong about that: I think real witchcraft was essentially a religious practice aimed at inducing mystical states. Most primitive cultures have made a clear distinction between magic and witchcraft: the first a technique of spell-casting that can in 27
theory be used by anyone, the second a power possessed only by witches, on account of their being witches, to make things happen according to their wishes, spoken or unspoken. The Mediæval Church obscured this distinction, equating magic and witchcraft, but really they were quite different.
GERALD GARDNER. In the 1950s an eccentric old folklorist called Gerald Gardner announced that pagan witchcraft had not only survived here until the seventeenth century, but was still in existence at the present day. He claimed to have made contact with British witches, and learnt their secrets, some of which he passed on in his books, but most of which were taught only to the initiates of the covens which he founded. In fact the evidence strongly suggests that he was lying: that the witchcraft he taught was his own invention, based largely on the work of Dr Murray. So in his rituals and his writings we see the prominence of the horned god, covens of thirteen, and a great deal of spellcasting. From Crowley and the Golden Dawn Gardner took a fair bit of pseudokabbalistic nonsense and a few things that really worked, like pathworking. Working rather along the lines of the dodgy antique-dealers who incorporate parts of a genuine old piece into a modern fake, he took great chunks of verbiage for his rituals from the old grimoires; whence, also the designs and fancy names for magical tools such as the knife, or ‘athame’, and the wand, or ‘baculum’. The pentagram, or five-pointed star, figures in both the grimoires and the rituals of the Golden Dawn. Gardner made it what it had never been before: the emblem of pagan witchcraft. Many other things in Gardner’s rituals were more authentic: firelit nudity, circledancing, repetitive chanting, the worship of a naked priestess temporarily incarnating the Goddess – all of these things can be traced back to ancient times, and still produce profound results on modern people just as they did back then. For all their faults, Gardner’s rituals do work: by which I mean they tend to produce Knowledge of the Goddess in people susceptible to such things, which is most of us. The guy was a liar and often a bad scholar, but he was a real devotee of the Goddess. 28
Gardner’s ritual calendar took on a very satisfying shape, like an eight-spoked wheel, consisting of the solstices and the equinoxes along with the cross-quarter days. I can’t see any way of proving that the witches of pagan times followed this calendar, though all the festivals do seem to be ancient. I can say it’s a good calendar for witches to follow, marking the changes of the seasons with celebration and contemplation.
Throughout the 60s Gardner’s revived version of witchcraft remained a secret cult: a kind of counter-cultural freemasonry. Since the 70s its secrets have been in the public domain, and many people have taken it up. Some are drawn by the hope of attaining magic powers, but others just want to worship the Goddess. WITCHCRAFT TODAY. At the present time, almost all witches derive their beliefs and practices from those of Gardner’s covens, with some modifications. The nudity and sadomasochistic practices of his groups are not often found in modern use. His ‘Horned God’ is frequently replaced by Lady Raglan’s ‘Green Man’ in modern rituals; both figures are, as we have seen, equally inauthentic. There is, if anything, even more emphasis on spell-casting now than there was in Gardner’s day, and liberal use of the techniques of ‘high magic’, such as astrology, numerology, geomancy, and the rather more recent fashion of tarot-reading, along with New Age practices like space-clearing, reiki, and crystal healing – all of which would have astonished the peasant witches of old. Personally I find the most annoying piece of inauthenticity to be modern witches’ obsession with the idea of the four elements: just an inaccurate concept of ancient Greek and mediæval science, without any roots in the traditions of our native paganism – or indeed in the Way Things Are. But alongside all this phoney stuff, there is much in modern witchcraft that’s beautiful and true. The Goddess has more worshippers in Britain now than she’s had for thousands of years; most of them sincere, and some of them profound mystics, finding in the Lady an interface with the Dao, and celebrating her in art, literature and ritual. Both men and women, but particularly women, are being drawn 29
back in increasing numbers to this most ancient of religions, re-learning the old ways of devotion which might have been thought lost for ever. There is a laudable tendency among well-informed modern witches to question and discard the inauthentic elements in Gardnerian witchcraft. Many now worship only the Goddess, without any male god; some are even creating rituals that don’t mention Earth, Air, Fire and Water! The internet has provided a way for information to spread and for like- minded people to make contact across vast distances, and that’s very good for witches.
To say ‘I am a witch’ in contemporary Britain is to invite misunderstanding and ridicule, but no longer prison or the gallows. Witchcraft is back, reinventing itself, and growing stronger year by year. Incredible that this most ancient of cults, so long suppressed and defamed, should have sprung up again in the twentieth century! But, rightly understood, it is the religion most suited to the modern world, where people still crave mystical ecstasy while finding it impossible to believe any longer in supernatural gods and miracles. A reverence for Nature, and for the feminine; mystical techniques that really work; an ethic of easy-going hedonism; a religion without dogmas: isn’t that exactly what the modern world needs? It would be interesting to watch the growth of witchcraft over the next century or two, and see how it comes off in the struggle with sky-god religions like Islam and Christianity, which will inevitably oppose it. My hunch is that it will do very well, and may even become again, as it was in the distant past, the main religion of the world. ___________________________________________________________ CONTACT. Earlier talks in this series, and other interesting stuff, can be found on my friend Mike’s website: www.esoteric- experience.org.uk ,where you’ll also find details of the Alister Hardy Society. I am always interested to hear from my readers by e-mail, at email@example.com. If you search on Myspace for joe_shaktidas you will find my page, with some examples of my devotional artwork. Enjoy! 30
BIBLIOGRAPHY. Baroja, Julio Caro. The World of the Witches. 1964. Cavendish, Richard. The Black Arts. 1969. Cohn, Norman. The Pursuit of the Millennium. 1970. .. .. Europe’s Inner Demons. 1975. Crowley, Aleister. The Book of the Law. 1904. • .. .. The Confessions of Aleister Crowley. 1970. • .. .. Magick. 1973. Davis, Erik. Led Zeppelin IV. 2005. Gardner, Gerald.
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