Historical Authenticity

"The Household Gods" by john William Waterhouse

“The Household Gods” by John William Waterhouse

Neo-Paganism is a contemporary religion which draws upon ancient religious symbols from outside the traditions of the Abrahamic “Religions of the Book” (Islam, Christianity, and Judaism) and employs these symbols in a new way to meet modern spiritual needs (hence the prefix “neo-“). Dennis Carpenter describes Neo-Paganism as a “synthesis of historical inspiration and present-day creativity”.

There are modern reconstructionist Pagan traditions which attempt to reconstruct the religions of ancient pagans from existing sources. In contrast, Neo-Paganism is an eclectic religion which draws freely on many traditions, both ancient and modern, largely without concern for historical authenticity. Paul Chase explains, “Neo-Pagans invent significance to fit their own interpretations and theological needs, claiming that the value of a symbol is not so much its historical reality as its usefulness as a spiritual tool in the present.”

This historical consciousness took longer to spread to more traditional forms of Wicca. In the 1950s, Gerald Garner claimed that Wicca was a survival of an ancient form of paganism. By 1962, Elliot Rose had already identified the origins of Gardnerian witchcraft in modern occultism, “anthropological” novels (i.e., Margaret Murray), and psychoanalysis. Traditionalism received a boost from Doreen Valiente’s identification of Gardner’s “Old Dorothy” in 1980. But in 1991, it sustained a devastating blow with the publication of Aidan Kelly Crafting the Art of Magic which identified Gerald Gardner’s literary sources. Ronald Hutton’s 1999 Triumph of the Moon nailed the coffin lid on Gardnerian claims of historical authenticity as far as most people were concerned, with a few notable exceptions, like Donald Frew and Ben Whitmore.

In contrast to British Traditional Wicca, by the 1970s, Neo-Pagans had largely abandoned attempts to legitimize their beliefs based on romanticist histories and folklore, according to David Waldron. Many turned to Jungian psychology to legitimize their beliefs and ritual practices. By the time of the publication of Drawing Down the Moon in 1979, Margot Adler described a Neo-Paganism that had largely abandoned claims to historical authenticity. Adler quotes Ed Fitch as saying:

“the realization has come around to everyone that its doesn’t matter whether your tradition is forty thousand years old or whether it was created last week. If there is a proper connection between you and the Goddess and the God in the subconscious, and other such forces, then that’s what matters.”

Adler also quotes Alison Harlow:

“It doesn’t matter if the Craft is ancient. What does matter is learning to accept the process of intuition that occurs, that rings a bell. When you are doing a ritual and you suddenly get the feeling that you are experiencing something generations of your forebear[er]s experienced, it’s probably true.”

Related Pages:

Neo-Pagan History

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