Forerunners

The work of setting out the context from which modern pagan witchcraft arose must now be completed, by considering a set of groups and individuals who illustrate different ways in which notions of paganism and magic were put mto practice in the early twentieth century. One of these ways, which has until recendy been hardly studied in this context, was through the medium of woodcraft organizations. All of these, ultimately, took their inspiration from North America, and the work of the Canadian Ernest Thompson Seton. From the end of the nineteenth century, he popularized the idea that the new industrial and urbanized society would be redeemed both in body and spirit if its young people were given the ability to spend regular periods of time living in natural surroundings, learning skills and lore associated with that environment in the manner of tribal peoples. The first and most famous of the British organizations to spring from his example was Baden-Powell's Boy Scout Association, founded in 1908. During the First World War and its aftermath, the increasingly patriotic and militaristic tone of the Scouts produced a series of secessions among their more socialist and pacifist members, to set up alternative bodies which were designed to pursue Thompson Seton's orginal aims within a more radical political and social framework. These were the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry 1916) and the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift (1920), joined in 1924 by the Woodcraft Folk, founded by defectors from the Kibbo Kift who sought formal links with the Labour Movement.

What all these organisations had in common was an element of ritual, especially associated with the lighting of a communal camp fire, and a tendency to view the universe as amrrust, ingested by the importation of native American stories, chants and names through Seton's writings. These traits were weakest in the Boy Scouts, which strove most selfconsciously to preserve a Christian emphasis, although in 1920 the Commissioner for Wolf Cubs, herself a Roman Catholic, protested vehemendy against the prevalence of 'heathen' and pantheist ideas in some troops, and especially at the use of an Omaha prayer (Evans, 1930: 160). The Woodcraft Folk made much more extensive use of native American material, basing their concept of religion upon a Great Spint whom all faiths could revere in common (Evans, 1930: 165-73). This was also the profession of the Kibbo Kift, which employed a large range of prayers and chants drawn from tribal societies with animist beliefs in Australia and Africa, as well as the Americas (Hargrave, 1919,-1927).

For present purposes, by far the most significant of these groups was the Woodcraft Chivalry, which has recendy been made the subject of a pioneering academic study (Edgell, 1992). Its most important formative influence was a naturalist called Ernest Westiake, who was a Quaker by upbringing but came in the course of the 1900s to argue for the need to revive ancient pagan values to redress the shortcomings of Christianity. Among his favourite authors were Frazer, Nietzsche, Harrison and Carpenter. His dream was an England revitalized by the liberation of the forces of creativity and sexuality, and he saw classical Greek religion in particular as the force which might achieve this. He coined the phrase Jone must be a good pagan before one can be a good Christian'. To him the 'trinity of woodcraft' were Pan, Artemis and Dionysos. From 1921 the Order camped annually on land which Wesdake had bought in the New Forest, and he opened its first meeting there with an invocation to Pan; he had considered naming the organization 'the Bacchae', During the 1920s it adopted a set ntual whereby a sacred fire was lit within a circle, consecrated by torchbearers arriving from the cardinal points of ntual magic and beanng the greetings of the guardians of the quarters, from east to north.

Dunng the same decade, also, an acute tension developed within it, between members who had been attracted to it as a pacifist Christian alternative to the Scouts, to which to entrust their children, and those who saw it as a vehicle for libertanan social change. The latter increasingly advocated natunsm and sexual freedom as well as paganism, and some of the adults, at least put these ideals into practice. The most colourful of them was a fiery young Londoner called Harry Bingham, who changed his first name to Dion, an abbreviation of his favourite deity Dionysos, whom he extolled as 'the virile son of the all-Mother. He argued for both social and ritual nudity, and quoted lavishly from his friend, the poet of Pan, Victor Neuburg. This faction was supported by the Wesdake family, led after the death of Ernest in 1922 by his son Aubrey who likewise believed m the need to balance the respective virtues of paganism and Christianity.

The constant wrangling between radicals and conservatives told heavily upon both. In the last four years of the decade membership of the Woodcraft Chivalry fell by two-thirds, and m 1928 the Society of Friends formally withdrew its support as it felt that the Christian identity of the order had been too severely compromised. This did not hand victory to the radicals, who themselves were getting worn out by argument. By 1930 Bingham, had departed to join Vera Pragnell's mystical community in Sussex, the Sanctuary, where he continued to preach and practise paganism and natunsm through the 1930s. Aubrey Wesdake resigned the leadership in 1933 and withdrew the next year, leaving a smaller and calmer organization, dedicated to broad ideals of social and religious harmony, to continue and prosper until the present. For a few years it had almost become the vehicle for a modem pagan revival, but that period of its history was past.

The same kind of flirtation with paganism, ripening at times into a love affair, was found among members of the societies of magicians which sprang out of the disintegration of the Golden Dawn. Two m particular, a woman and a man, were to leave legacies of thought and action to Wicca. The former was Violet Firth, known better by her pen-name of Dion Fortune. After training which included membership of the Theosophical Society and the Alpha and Omega, a successor-group of the Golden Dawn, she founded her own society of occultists, the Inner Light, m 1928. Brought up a Christian Scientist, all through the 1910s and 1920s she remained attached to a devout, if unorthodox and non-denomma-oonal, Christianity. In her writings of those decades she repeatedly expressed her personal affection for Jesus as 'the Master of Masters' and ;the Great Initiator': Her morality was of a piece, as she attacked promiscuity, homosexuality, abortion and racial impunty, while extolling a spiritualized sexuality within mamage. Towards the end of the 1920s she began to accept some ment m ancient Greek and Egyptian religion, but on a lower level to that of Chnst.

Things started to change for her m the 1930s, under the influence of three different people. One was D.H. Lawrence, whose novels, especially The Rainbow, made a deep impression on her. The second was her husband, Thomas Penry Evans, whom she mamed m 1927. By 1933 he was teaching the Inner Light that the 'Pan within' was as important a component of spiritual growth as the 'Christ within'. The third was a recruit to her society, Charles Seymour, who argued like Wesdake that the deficiencies of modern Christianity could be made good by a selective revival of classical paganism. To him the latter had contained vital truths which the faith of Christ lacked, and its deities were timeless forces with whom people could still work.

Under the impact of all three, Fortune's opinions began to buckle. In 1934, m Avalon of the Heart, she declared that both pagan and Christian mystenes had value, but still identified herself with the latter. The following year she published a novel, The Winged Bull, in which she suggested that Christ had presented only one facet of the truth of God In 1936 there came another, The Goat Foot God, m which she changed sides decisively and repeated Seymour's argument that modern society had grown so stilted, artificial, hidebound and rationalist that it could only be redeemed by a reinfusion of paganism (which she termed 'Vitamin P'). 'P' could also stand for 'Pan\ the divine hero of the story, but it was not the god who now seized her imagination but the moon-goddess, whom she identified primarily with Isis. It was this figure who dominated what became her two most famous novels, The Sea Priestess and Moon Magic, the first published at her own expense m 1938 and the second apparendy written m 1939,

Even now she hedged her bets a litde. She suggested that the Virgin Mary was also a face of the Great Goddess, that Nature herself was the self-expression of'God1, and that the Goddess was one aspect of a single 'Initiator'„ Jesus, however, had vanished altogether, and Isis was treated in the plots very much as a divine personality in her own right. Fortune's earlier interest in the magical potential of the sexual polarity between woman and man was developed to the point at which the sublimated erotic current between the male and female protagonists is made the basis of most ntual. The invocations of the moon-goddess which she wrote for these books represented the finest and most celebrated of her poetry, and would be heavily used by Wiccans. There is no doubt that she enacted these or similar rites in real life at this period; Seymour noted the repeated performance in 1938-9 of a ceremony in which she personified Isis.

During 1939, however, the course of her life and thought was altered again, by three developments. First, she became estranged from Seymour, who ceased to work with her. Then her husband suddenly left her, for a younger and prettier woman. Soon after, the Second World War began, giving her an incentive to concentrate more upon patriotic and conventional themes. In one sense she never recovered from these events, for Moon Magic was abandoned, unfinished, and she did not publish another book. In another, she retreated to older and safer ground; her messages in the magazine of her society took on a fervendy Christian tone again, and in the visualization which she prescribed to help defeat Nazi Germany, the Master Jesus was firmly back at the top. She died m 1946, leaving the Inner Light to function as a specifically Christian organization. There is reason to think that m her final year she was starting to turn back towards pagan images, for she approached Aleister Crowley for information about his way of working with them. How she might have used this, if her health had not collapsed, remains an open question (Richardson, 1987; Chapman, 1993).

The case of Dion Fortune show how complex a matter the religious attitudes of a British occultist of that generation could be. The same point is made by a consideration of her most famous male counterpart, Crowley himself. Here, indeed the complexities are even worse. Not only did he live longer and harder than Fortune, and work with many more systems of magic and mysticism, but it is by no means obvious whether much of what he wrote should be taken as revealed truth, metaphor or joke, or a combination of those; Crowley himself may not always have been certain. There is a broad shift in his attitudes, from the years in which he was young, fit, confident, rich, iconoclastic, and eager to horrify and challenge conventional opinion, to those in which he was ageing, troubled by illness, poverty and the consequences of his appalling public reputation, and anxious to appear as a more serious and substantial figure. In both those phases, however, there were many cross-currents, as well as a consistent commitment to preach the reality and importance of ritual magic, to an associated use of sexual polarity much more physical and ommvorous than that of Dion Fortune, and to a sustained assault upon traditional morality.

In many ways his attitude to religion was very similar to his attitude to sexuality; enthusiastic, adventurous, and linked very firmly to magical ends. A single passage in his periodical The Equinox (1911) contains a typical pair of balancing statements. He begins by declaring that 'I hate Christianity as Socialists hate soap', Then, however, he adds a qualification, that 'the best test of a religion is the manhood of its adherents, not its truth', and that he would rather be ranked with Christian heroes such as Livingstone and Gordon of Khartoum than with the mediocrities whom he found m the quasi-pagan world of occultists and Theosophists. The same sort of contrast can be extended across his life. In his younger days he enjoyed contrasting Christianity and Crowleyamty, and a large part of the point of his most cherished single text, The Book of the Law (written 1904) is that the religion of Christ belongs to a former aeon and is now obsolete. In 'The Pans Working' of 1914 Crowley was characterized by his partner Victor Neuburg as a 'fiery arrow'., shot by the true gods m their struggle to regain the earth from the 'slave gods' such as Christ. On the other hand, m Moonclrild (1929) Crowley called the cross !the symbol of Him who gives life through his own death, of the Holy One appointed from the foundation of the world as its redeemer'. Later in the same book he stated that his real quarrel was with modem, bourgeois, Christianity.

It is very hard to tell whether Aleister Crowley truly believed m any deities. The Book of the Law reads like a genuine religious revelation, of a universe dominated by a star-goddess and two gods of the earth. All three, however, could be seen as symbols of cosmic principles. In his most famous public work, Magick ui Theory and Practice (1929), he said that the object of all magical ritual is union with God. He repeated this in his (strictiy private) instruction for the seventh degree of his order of magicians, the ^Ordo Templi Onentis; that the aim of the Order was to find the one true God (King, 1973: 180). In Moonchild he declared that God is a He, but that behind it is the truth of a single Central Spint, a single soul of the universe, a single Sire and Lord of all. The problem here is that a world soul, to which all bemgs belong, and a divine master and lord of all, are actually two different concepts; but Crowley takes no heed of the difficulty.

In the preface to Liber Qz (1941), he states firmly that 'there is no God but man5. This could be linked to his earlier suggestion in Magick, that the ultimate end of the magician is union with God, being a process by which he gradually replaces the human part of himself with a divine equivalent. A similar achievement is one of the ends of Liber Samekh. This does not, however, get us any closer to understanding who or what God or divinity was to Crowley. In magical rites such as 'The Paris Workings'; he invoked specific classical pagan deities as if they were real entities, with individual identities. At such times he was operating as a polytheist, just as at others he talked like an atheist and at yet others like a monotheist. It seems that either he did not make his beliefs clear, or that they were not clear to him.

All this precludes any easy answer to the apparendy simple question of whedier Crowley was a pagan. In his 'autohagiography5, he declared that his mission was :to bring oriental wisdom to Europe and to restore paganism m a purer form' (Crowley, 1969:-839) „.He did. not say, however, what he meant by the latter expression. Perhaps the most revealing statement upon the matter comes in a letter which he wrote to a friend in about 1914 (Symonds, 1971: 194-5):

The time is just right for a natural religion. People like ntes and ceremonies, and they are tired of hypothetical gods. Insist on the real benefits of the Sun, the Mother-Force, the Father-Force, and so on, and show that by celebrating these benefits worthily the worshippers umte themselves more fully with the current of life. Let the religion be Joy, but with a worthy and dignified sorrow m death itself, and treat death as an ordeal, an initiation. ... In short, be the founder of a new and greater Pagan cult.

This was an almost perfect prophecy of the modem pagan revival m general, and of Wicca in particular, but it is noteworthy that Crowley was urging somebody else to undertake the work; in this specific case, a follower called George Cecil Jones, who never showed any inclination to do so. In essence, the master himself was interested m magic, by any effective means and by any effective system, and not in religion. He wanted to make things work, and why they worked was of secondary importance, if that. To say this is not to suggest that he was a dilettante or a lightweight, for as a theorist and pracoctioner of ritual magic he was absolutely the reverse of those. Nor is it to deny the importance of his contribution to Wicca, for the Iatter's use of his invocations and other liturgical forms was to be so heavy that if Margaret Murray can be called its godmother, then Aleister Crowley was its godfather. In both cases, however, the role was unwitting.

What the thought of Fortune and Crowley reveals on the grand scale appears in miniature in the records of lesser figures m the same world of ritual magic. Two examples may suffice to illustrate the point, from the same month (of June) in 1938. One appears in the record of meditations kept by that Charles Seymour who has been cited above. At the summer solstice he 'got the idea of linking the old symbolism of indigenous women's mysteries with the pagan mysteries of England right down to the present day, and tjirough the witchcraft period/ A week later his working partner Christine Campbell Thomson (later better known as Christine Hartley), entered in her own diary a vision of litde pictures of Ishtar worship through the ages, the most common being one of silhouetted witches in pointed hats and ragged skirts dancing round a fire. Then it seemed to focus a litde more steadily and I was aware of the goddess standing before us mistily veiled „ . she stressed again the necessity for Joy in worship and that she was the goddess of Love of Life. (Richardson, 1985: 173-5)

Once again, these were exacdy the sort of images from which Wicca was to arise, but it does not seem as if either wnter did anything to take them out of dreamland. The question of how they finally did break out of the world of the imagination, into that of action, must now at last be addressed.

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