Neo Paganism

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As a result of the Enlightenment, a period of intellectual rationalism (reasoning) that started in seventeenth-century Europe and came to the United States in the eighteenth century, (see Chapter 5), cultural, social, economic, and technological changes continued to push fears of witches into the background. Nevertheless, belief in witchcraft still flourished, particularly among peasant societies in isolated areas of Europe. In the nineteenth century an organized revival of witchcraft, called Wicca, took place in Britain among the Romantics, a social and literary group that rejected the dehumanizing effects of industrialization and tried to recapture a closeness to nature. ("Wicca" is a term for "witch" that has been traced to Germanic words like wik, meaning "to bend," or Old English words such as wiccian, meaning "to cast spells," and witan, or "wise person.") In the early 1900s the British Order of the Druids, who claimed to have roots in pre-Christian Ireland, became one of the first formal movements to declare a revival of witchcraft. According to some scholars, however, the druids of Ireland had actually been teachers and wise men, not witches who engaged in the practice of magic.

The British Order of the Druids, a pagan sect that dates back to the early 1900s, were one of the first groups to declare a revival of witchcraft. Reproduced by permission of Archive Photos, Inc.

1900 Witch Covern

British writers Margaret Murray, Robert Graves, and Gerald B. Gardner also helped renew interest in ancient religions and witchcraft. Murray was an Egyptologist (an archaeologist who studies ancient Egypt) who, in the 1920s, wrote extensively about such practices as goddess worship and introduced the concept of the coven, or group of witches (see box on p. 84). Graves was a novelist and poet who based his work on mythology (the study of traditional stories and myths). In 1947 he wrote The White Goddess, an anthropological and mythological study of the ancient mother goddess who ruled the moon and controlled fertility (the ability of humans, animals, and plants to produce offspring). Graves claimed that poetry originated from the ritual worship of the White Goddess in ancient societies. Whereas Murray and Graves conducted research and wrote books, Gardner set out to revive the actual practice of witchcraft after becoming inspired by Murray's theories (see box). He claimed to have discovered a surviving witches' coven based on an ancient lineage (line of fam ily descendants) that Murray charted in The Witch-Cult in Europe (1921). When anti-witchcraft laws of 1735 were repealed by the British Parliament in 1951, Gardner openly declared himself a witch and started teaching his ideas to an ever-increasing number of students. In 1962 two of his followers, Raymond and Rosemary Buckland, went to the United States to teach "Gardnerian witchcraft." The Gardner-ians were instrumental in initiating Neo-Paganism ("neo," meaning new and "paganism," the belief in a higher power other than God), which spread throughout North America, Great Britain, and Scandinavia.

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