Fifty Years of Modern Paganism
The following article is based on a talk that Silverspear gave in 2017
Exploring the huge variety of pagan paths and their development over fifty years would take more than one average-sized book. This article can only take a brief look at the major influences and a few of the more prominent individuals who have played a major role in the development of paganism during that time. To be pedantic one should really begin with the year 1967, because 1967 + 50 = 2017, which is the year the talk on the topic was given. But 1971 would be a better time to start, because that was when the Pagan Front, later renamed the Pagan Federation, saw the light of day in the UK. Any talk on pagan history would be incomplete without mention of the Pagan Front, because without such an organisation, paganism in Britain, as we know it today, most likely would have taken a different course.
First of all, it was the Wiccans who founded the Pagan Front. The Wiccans decided they needed an organisation to counter the negative attention they had long been receiving from the media. It has to be said that Gerald Gardner himself had played a huge part in promoting Wicca; eager as he was that the media would present to the general public a positive image of witchcraft. This predictably proved to be naïve, as unfolding events confirmed. The tabloids, such as the now defunct News of the World, to name only one newspaper, were constantly on the lookout for sensationalist stories or photographs that would increase their circulation; consequently, and predictably too, headlines about naked, Devil-worshipping perverts abounded. The witchcraft system founded by Alex Sanders a few years earlier, known as the Alexandrian tradition, however, actually thrived on attention and courted publicity like celebrity culture does today.
Sanders was more than willing to give the press what it was looking for. So much so, that he frequently tipped off the newspapers about open-air rituals he was about to conduct. The press would then turn up, hide in the bushes to take photographs, and lo and behold, the results would be all over the Sunday papers. It has been said that Alex and Maxine Sanders probably had the most photographed bums in Britain’. Sanders publicity stunts, however, were certainly productive, because his witchcraft group received a huge number of enquiries from individuals keen to join it; perhaps many for the wrong reasons. However, as one witchy person optimistically said: “If one out of every thousand readers decides to learn something more, the article’s done good”.
The followers of Gerald Gardner, on the other hand, were originally dismissive and critical of Alex Sanders, who had acquired the title ‘King of the Witches’. In fact, certain Gardnerians questioned his claims that he was a genuine witch at all or even that he had been properly initiated into the Craft. Eventually, the conflict and rivalry between Gardnerian witchcraft and Alex Sanders’ tradition was peacefully resolved and both groups, on the whole, became more accepting of each other. Nowadays, some individuals have been initiated into both traditions. However, to counter a lot of the negative publicity witchcraft groups had been receiving, in 1968 the Gardnerians published the first issue of a Pagan Front newsletter called The Wiccan. One of the aims of the newsletter was to provide a network for various covensteads, but an equally important aim, of course, was to produce good PR.
Yet another important witchcraft tradition to have emerged in those days was the one founded by Stewart and Janet Farrar. Stewart Farrar was a journalist and reporter who had been assigned by his magazine to interview Alex Sanders. Apparently, Stewart Farrar, unlike the Gardnerians, was very impressed with Sanders and he and his wife Janet were soon initiated into the Alexandrian tradition. In fact, it was Stewart Farrar who coined the name ‘Alexandrian’, which is a sort of pun on Alex Sanders and Alexandria. Alexandria, of course, was the greatest city of the Hellenistic ancient world. It was renowned for its library and magical associations with Egypt, Greece and Babylon.
Having a journalist like Stewart Farrar on board with his professional tabloid experience was a major bonus. Farrar knew that if witches were to improve their public image, they had to bypass the mainstream media and take control of their own publicity. The result was a seminal book written by Stewart Farrar, and first published in 1971, entitled: “What Witches Do”. The book is certainly a detailed account of the Alexandrian tradition, even if Stewart Farrar, as a fairly new convert at the time, tends in his book to betray an over-admiration for Alex Sanders. Interestingly, in the preface to the third edition of the book in 1991, Stewart Farrar had a slightly more modified view. “I would no longer rank Sanders above Gardner, or alongside Levi or Crowley, as I did on page 167. But for a few turbulent years, he fulfilled a real function in the movement; he set our feet on a path we have never regretted and performed the same function for many others, so we remember him with affection”.
Meanwhile, the Pagan Front decided to draw up a sort of creed: The founders of the Pagan Front felt that new members who joined the organisation should agree with its ethos. Over the years, however, owing to the diversity of pagans who had joined the PF, the creed has been modified, argued over, changed and, as far as I’m aware, is now only retained as advisory. In 2006 two articles arguing the pros and cons of a pagan creed appeared in Pagan Dawn, formerly known as The Wiccan. Owing to the fact that over the years the PF was no longer an organisation representing witchcraft traditions, but had become a federation comprised of Hedgewitches, Northern Tradition groups, Eclectic Pagans, Earth Mysteries groups, Eco-pagans, Druids, Shamans, Goddess groups, and so on, the Pagan Front eventually changed its name to the Pagan Federation. The name-change also served to distinguish it from a British right-wing political group at the time with a similar sounding name: “The National Front”.
Eventually, owing to the variety of groups that were now huddling under the umbrella of “paganism”, Wiccans were becoming somewhat marginalised and eventually Pete Jennings, who was a member of the Northern Tradition, was elected as PF president. The editor of Pagan Dawn, for a while, also belonged to the Northern Tradition. Although the Northern Tradition tends to be associated with masculine values, many women are drawn to it, possibly because of its acceptance of kick-ass attitudes. Dr Jenny Blain, for example, is an anthropologist, lecturer and writer and a well-known expert in Northern Tradition circles and follows the Seidr, which is a form of pre-Christian Norse magic and shamanism. Another female is Freya Aswynn, who was a Wiccan in her early days. Eventually she too felt the call of the Northern gods.
Northern-style ideas also entered the popular market when Brian Bates fictional book “The Way of Wyrd” was published. To reflect the increasing diversity of paganism in the modern world, the PF magazine ‘The Wiccan’ was renamed ‘Pagan Dawn’ in 1994. The Wiccans then decided to publish their own in-house magazine called ‘The New Wiccan’. ‘The New Wiccan’ was only available to members initiated into the Craft to keep its content away from the prying eyes of outsiders.
Despite the Wiccan focus on exclusivity and secrecy, certain initiates were keen to promote Wicca to a wider audience. One individual in particular was Vivianne Crowley. Vivianne Crowley was a former president of the PF and a member of the Alexandrian tradition. She was also a Jungian psychologist and did a lot to promote Wicca less as a spell-casting system and more of a Mystery religion. Vivianne Crowley once said that the most important magic that individuals can do, is the magic that they work upon themselves. Vivianne Crowley’s two most influential books were based on a fusion of Wicca and Jungian ideas. The first was published in 1989 and the second in 1994.
Around the time that Vivianne Crowley’s first book was published, a new threat, imported from America, was looming in Britain: The Satanic Ritual Abuse mania. Possibly owing to the increasing popularity of paganism in the USA during the 1980s, Christian fundamentalist groups on that side of the pond had become alarmed that the Devil was on the march. Religious McCarthyism quickly spread to Britain. To counteract the so-called dangers of the occult, the Christian fundamentalists embarked on their own style of modern-day witch-hunts. In the UK a Christian group known as The Reachout Trust had been set up to reach out to those involved with the occult and rescue them from the clutches of Satan. In 1988 the Reachout Trust began to lobby social workers and the police. One notable ally of the Christians was the Tory MP Geoffrey Dickens, who demanded that the Witchcraft Act be reinstated.
Another individual who took a central role in the so-called Ritual Abuse affair was a child-care worker from Hull who made the extraordinary claim that devil-worshipping groups were raping women to produce babies for human sacrifice. In 1988, at the invitation of American fundamentalists, she embarked on a lecture tour of the USA preaching her gospel of a worldwide satanic conspiracy. Meanwhile, back in the UK children were forcibly taken from their parents, and a shop in Leeds, known as The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, was firebombed. This insane madness continued into the 1990s until certain academics and sceptical journalists began to probe more deeply into the allegations.
Eventually the British government intervened. Finally, after a lengthy and thorough official investigation it was concluded that not a shred of evidence could be found to support the accusations that a network of Devil-worshipping perverts made child abuse a part of their religion. The entire affair had been a scam, which highlights the Biblical warning that the Devil can transform himself into an Angel of Light to fool the Faithful. The PF then published its own booklet, entitled “Something Out of Nothing” on the matter.
Back in the USA, paganism was developing its own individual style. An important example of this was the founding of Seax Wicca by a former Englishman by the name of Raymond Buckland. Although Buckland was originally a Gardnerian, Seax Wicca departed in a number of ways from Gardnerian teachings. The most important departure was a focus on self-dedication, or self-initiation, a practise that remains taboo to the followers of Gardner. A unique feature of American witches that is worth noting, is their tendency to describe themselves as Wiccans, even though most Americans calling themselves Wiccans today are unlikely to have been initiated into Gardnerianism. Strictly speaking Wicca is another name for Gerald Gardner’s tradition, so perhaps he should have taken out a copyright on the use of the title.
Yet another American influence on paganism was the rise of the Goddess movement. The Goddess movement actually emerged in the USA from second-wave feminism and originally focussed on women’s secular rights. One of the early groups, founded in 1968, was known as WITCH, an acronym of Women’s International Conspiracy from Hell. Its manifesto uncritically accepted the myth that witchcraft had been the religion throughout Europe, until the ruling elite, otherwise known as the patriarchy, allegedly decided to wipe it out. Mary Daly and Anthea Dworkin were two of the movement’s most prominent writers. Another leading feminist was Zsuzsanna Budapest. She had been a refugee from Hungary who had settled in the USA in the late 1950s. She founded the Susan B. Anthony Coven No 1 in California in 1971, named after a well-known pioneer of women’s rights. Budapest’s focus was on women only groups, known as Dianic Wicca.
Yet another influential person to arise from the women’s spirituality movement was Miriam Simos, better known as “Starhawk”, whose most famous book is probably “The Spiral Dance”, a book that has inspired possibly millions of women the world over. Professor Ronald Hutton has this to say about Starhawk:
“Starhawk is a writer of remarkable talent … so perfectly are her thoughts expressed and so marked is her genius for aphorism. A clear and melodious prose is enhanced by an underlying passion of feeling, so that her sentences seem to heave with emotion. She showed … how women could be liberated, men re-educated … free of the old gender stereotypes and power structures”.
It is Starhawk’s focus on the perils of hierarchy, however, that singles her out from many others at the forefront of the Goddess movement. Starhawk takes the view that hierarchy is an invention of patriarchy, where power is constantly exercised over another. Against such a backdrop of potential power trips and control dramas, it is unsurprising that many women choose to remain solo and adopt a solitary wise woman approach. As Pete Jennings once put it: “These witches are more concerned with herbalism than Hermeticism”. As to where paganism will find itself after another fifty years is anyone’s guess.