The Ancient Goddess Cult

While Pan and other Greek gods were finding a new home in Romantic literature, goddesses were enjoying attention as well. Eduard Gerhard, a writer of the time, was one of the first to propose that behind all of the goddesses of ancient Greece stood a single great Mother, venerated before history began. This idea caught fire among the Romantics; in 1848 Robert Graves developed the concept of the One Goddess through poetry; he also wrote of the three faces of the Goddess as Maiden, Mother, and Crone.

In 1866 Algernon Swinburne's Poems and Ballads portrayed Christianity as a villain that suppressed the joy and beauty of the natural world. He chose Venus as a foil to this suppression, and spoke of Her as a single deity that lay beneath all others. His work was later quoted by ceremonial magicians and Wiccan founder Gerald Gardner.

Jules Michelet's La Sorciere, published in 1862, was based on his interest in the Inquisition and witch trials but not on very much factual evidence. He considered the witch an archetype of spiritual freedom and the power of women, and wrote that not only had witches existed throughout history, they were responsible for the Renaissance itself. He also proposed that Pan was transformed into Satan in order to make witches seem evil to the public.

In the rational age that followed the witch trials in Europe, the prevailing opinion was that witchcraft was scientifically impossible, which meant that thousands of people were put to death for nothing. This was hard for Europeans to accept, so they began to look for other explanations as to why the trials were so widespread; the ancient Goddess cult provided an alternative. Rather than being real witches with magical powers, those executed were practitioners of an ancient pagan religion.

In 1899, Charles Godfrey Leland's Aradia claimed to be a surviving holy text of this cult, based on the testimony of an Italian witch named Maddalena who claimed to be a priestess. From Aradia we get the very first version of the Charge of the Goddess.

It wasn't until 1901 that archaeology began to back up the Goddess concept. Sir Arthur Evans began excavating the island of Crete, and on it he found manifold symbols and imagery that convinced him there was a single mighty Goddess along with a single God who was her subordinate son and consort. He found images of vultures and bulls, as well as female figures throughout the island; though the evidence was far from conclusive, it fed the imaginations of many who would come later.

One such person was Margaret Murray, an Egyptologist who was the first to do systematic research (much of which has since been discredited) supporting the pagan-survival theory. She used trial records primarily from Scotland, combining them into a uniform religion that survived all across Europe; her religion was a fertility cult that worshiped a horned god in groups of 13. She used terms such as "Sabbat" and "Esbat" to describe the witches' gatherings, and claimed these gatherings involved dancing, feasting, ritual sex, and animal and human sacrifice. Though her research has been relentlessly picked apart by many modern

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archaeologists, her ideas were influential to the ceremonial magical societies that had evolved in Europe since at least the eighteenth century.

(Note: at this time it is not possible to say definitively that Murray's ideas are totally false. The evidence points to many holes in the Great Goddess theory, but it is simply impossible to rule out the chance that there was indeed an ancient Goddess religion of some kind that survived to the present day. There are plenty of people who claim an unbroken line of witches in their families throughout history. Regardless, if such a religion did live through the witch trials and centuries of human hatred, it would probably be vastly different from the Wicca most modern Americans practice.)

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