The First Neopagan Heretics

henever mind-altering drugs become common in a culture or subculture, one of the common social repercussions is a renewed interest in matters magical and mystical. I'm speaking of opiates and hallucinogens here, not alcohol, tobacco, caffeine or refined sugar, (which most Americans pretend are not "really" drugs). Drugs of all these varieties are used in many tribal cultures to help train young magicians/ clergy, because they give the trainee a direct appreciation of the magical Law of Infinite Universes (see Real Magic) and the related concept of "multiple levels of reality." Drugs are used as sacraments in many magical and religious systems around the world and an interest in either topic (drugs or magic) can lead to an interest in the other.

So it should have surprised no one that the "hippies" became interested in magic, mysticism, psychic phenomena, and new religious experiences. (For that matter, it should have surprised no one familiar with the history of monotheism that early psychedelic researchers such as Timothy Leary would be treated as horrifically threatening "heretics.")

Although Leary was often referred to as a "drug guru" by the tabloid press, he really had little interest in starting a religion. Others, however, were more enthusiastic (in the original sense of "breathed through by deities"). During the 1960s and 1970s, several new religious groups were started of the sorts that have since become known by their members as "Neopagan" (see Appendix 2). Each attempted to recreate or invent new religions using the Paleopagan polytheistic faiths as guides, but with an Aquarian Age disregard for monotheistic and dualistic assumptions. Gardner's Wicca with its Goddess, Horned God, and other spirits, fit very nicely into this mold. As a result, the followers of Gardner experienced an unexpected and not altogether welcome population explosion as the handful of Gardnerian covens (real and imitation) became a dozen, then a score, then a hundred.

During this period, known then as the "occult boom," members of a variety of Neopagan groups were communicating via the pages of amateur periodicals such as Green Egg, Waxing Moon, Crystal Well, and others (see Adler). Soon it became clear to the members of these groups that the Wic-cans were Neopagans — or "could be with a little work" — and they and their offshoots were called "Neopagan Witches" by the rest of the Neopagan movement.

These Neopagan Witches began to hold conventions and other meetings. At one of the earliest of these, a "Witchmeet" held in Minneapolis, Minnesota on September 2023, 1973, hosted by Llewellyn Publications (later to become the largest publisher of Wiccan and other Neopagan books), three important events for the history of American Wicca took place.

First, Lady Sheba, claiming an Ancient Family Tradition of Witchcraft going back to the mythical Isle of Avalon, attempted to be recognized as the true hereditary Queen of American Witches (because her family had supposedly been the hereditary Queens of all British Witches). Not incidentally, she wanted everyone present to turn over copies of their Books of Shadows to her. As I recall, her intention was to combine them into a single "approved" BOS for all American Witches; much like the event in early Christian history when "authorized" scriptures were approved by a group of bishops and "unauthorized" copies (with inconvenient stories and doctrines) were carefully destroyed. To her chagrin, Lady Sheba was told firmly by the assembled Wiccans that, "We're a democracy in this country — we don't need a Queen!" (I must confess, I believe I was the first person to actually be rude enough to say that out loud.)

Second, the Council of American Witches was created. This short-lived group was to meet the following spring and adopt their Principles of Wiccan Belief, the first consensus document describing the Wiccan religion (see Appendix 4).

Third, I gave a speech titled "The Witch Cult — Fact or Fancy?" based upon an earlier article by myself in Tournaments Illuminated, the journal of the medievalist Society for Creative Anachronism, under the title "Where Hast Thou Been Sister?" It dealt with much of the materials mentioned in this study and came to very similar conclusions about what I rudely referred to as Murray's "Unitarian Universalist White Witch-Cult of Western Theosophical Brittany" and Gardner's supposed revival of it.

Stunned silence, then angry shouting greeted my speech. This escalated into a roar of anger and hostility after the speech was published (sans the bibliography, alas!) in Gnostica News, Llewellyn's in-house magazine that I was later to edit. Thus, as a reward for my attempted scholarship, I became the first universally recognized heretic in the Neopagan movement.

(By that time I had been a priest in the Reformed Druids of North America for four years, and I considered those "Zen Unitarians" to be Neopagans, even if they didn't — see my Druidism: A Concise Guide for details.)

Rebuttals were written and published in Gnostica News, and angry letters poured in to the Neopagan media from all over the country, until slowly, one by one, various Wiccan leaders began to publish letters and articles saying, in essence, "that so-and-so Bonewits is right," though hardly any of them mentioned my name. Instead they talked about the need for honesty in relating the past of Wicca, about the joys of creating new religions, about how their movement could be redefined as a reconstruction from scattered fragments of how the Old Religions (plural now) might have been, etc.

Yet another significant event occurred early into my career as editor of Gnostica News. I was supervising the publication of an article by Aidan Kelly called "Textual Criticism and the Craft Laws," in which he applied the techniques of Biblical textual analysis to compare previously published versions of what Gardner had called the "Ancient Laws of the Craft." Carl Weschke, the owner of Llewellyn Publications, while discussing this article with me in his office, suddenly remembered some documents that had been sent to him by a person claiming to be one of Gardner's early initiates. With an offhand comment that, "Perhaps these might be interesting to you," he handed me a set of papers, which his correspondent had said Gardner himself had mailed to him for comments many years before.

My jaw slowly dropped as I realized that I was holding carbon (and "NCR-paper") copies of documents that had been typed by Gardner himself (I could tell by the characteristic use of the lower case "l" to substitute for his typewriter's broken capital "I"). Furthermore, they appeared to be early drafts of some of the materials that Gardner had always claimed in public were ancient — including the Craft Laws! Quickly, I made duplicates of the documents and, with Weschke's permission, mailed a set to Kelly.

Those papers set Kelly on a path that ended in a complete revision of his theories. He had previously argued for a seventeenth century origin for the Laws. Soon he was writing a book that would circulate in photocopies for nearly twenty years among American Wiccans, arguing that those same methods of textual criticism proved that Gardner had synthesized nearly all of his supposedly ancient writings from previously published materials. In later years, Kelly discovered the document known as Ye Bok [sic] of Ye Art Magical, a hand-bound book in which Gardner wrote, scratched out, and amended the very first drafts of what would eventually become the rituals for his new religion (see Chapter 14).

Kelly became the second Neopagan heretic, even more widely reviled than myself, and his manuscript became the next-to-most famous and influential unpublished book about Wicca, second only to the theoretical "complete" Gardnerian BOS itself. Thus it was all the more tragic that, when the manuscript was finally published as Crafting the Art of Magic, it was so drastically shortened, filled with internal Gard-nerian political arguments, and marred by repeated cheap shots at Gardner's (assumed) sexuality. I felt as if I had watched a friend paint a beautiful mural for twenty years, then throw mud all over it the night before it was revealed to the public.

But even before Kelly published his work, between the two of us and those Pagan scholars who followed, the Wiccan myth of antiquity had been thoroughly discredited. This was due in large part to Margot Adler's discussion of our ideas in her amazing book Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today. Her work made it clear, even to those of us who had been Pagans for years, just how vibrant, creative, varied, and evolutionary our religious creations were and could be.

Drawing Down the Moon became a self-reflective handbook showing us options and resources that many of us had never previously known, combined with gentle warnings of how we could go wrong if we weren't careful. Every Neopagan should own a copy!

The major religious issues fought over by the Wiccan and other Neopagan movements during the latter third of the twentieth century included those of hierarchy vs. autonomy, the related issue of lineage (or "apostolic succession") vs. self-initiation, and the question of sexism and heterosexism in the Craft. Arguments raged over whether "Witch Queens" had any real or even appropriate authority over members of covens descended from them. People fought over whether "only a Witch can make another Witch" or if people could legitimately initiate themselves. Wiccans debated whether the heterosexual erotic imagery of the Goddess' and God's sacramental wedding constituted discrimination against homosexuals — for that matter, if homosexuals were even "allowed" to be Witches. Then they argued whether erotic activity performed in some orthodox Wiccan initiations should be seen as "sexual abuse" of the initiatees by the initiators.

Over the years, disputes over "allowable" or "forbidden" practices that were rooted in the alleged antiquity of the traditions (and Traditions) involved became of interest only to those decreasing numbers of Wiccans who still believed the Founders' tales. Everyone else made their religious decisions about these issues based on their other social, political, and sexual beliefs and practices, which were evolving along with the rest of post-modern culture.

Chapter 10: Sisters Doing It for Themselves ne of the most important influences on the evolution of Witchcraft was the rise of the feminist movement in the 1970s. Many feminists were looking for new sources of spiritual growth, away from the male-dominated "Great Religions of the World." This Women's Spirituality movement became an integral part of feminist consciousness for many women, some of whom, inevitably, ran into Neopagan Witches.

Morning Glory Zell seems to have been the first Neopagan priestess to attend a major feminist event and to attempt to speak about "the Goddess" to the participants. Oddly enough, only one person — a man — showed up to listen to her, though her listing in the program booklet apparently affected many women who had never heard about Wicca previously.

Evidently, the discovery of a Goddess-worshiping religion in the late twentieth century was a delightful shock. Many women felt an immediate resonance, and in ever-increasing numbers had spiritual experiences with this Goddess. Since there were already several Neopagan Witchcraft leaders (of both genders) who considered themselves feminists, an alliance or overlap of the two movements was a natural outgrowth of their meeting.

A few Wiccan denominations had already downplayed the Horned God part of their duotheology almost to the point of removing Him from their religions entirely. Perhaps these traditions to begin with had the highest population of strong women. When politically active feminists (especially lesbians and separatists) entered the Craft and started their own all-women covens, they decided that they could do perfectly well without any male deity at all and began developing "thealogies" (see Appendix 2) focused exclusively on female deities, especially the One Universal Goddess.

Feminist Witchcraft was the result — systems of Wicca that became increasingly different from the Neopagan models, as various women (often with no real knowledge of or contact with the Neopagan movement) formed new sects in which a great deal of experimentation and creativity took place.

Most Feminist Witches soon accepted several dogmas, the majority of which matched those of Neopagan Witchcraft prior to my speech of 1973, although even more extreme: the Universal Goddess Cult covered the entire world, not just Europe; it went back 100,000 years (not just 10,000) and so forth. These dogmas were backed by research that was even sloppier than that done a hundred years earlier. Historical, semi-historical or pseudo-historical statements or theories by any writer (male or female, qualified or not) that bolstered their dogmas were seized upon and inflated. Statements or theories that did not support those dogmas were ignored, minimized as being the products of male (or worse, "maledominated") minds, and/or were denounced as part of a millennia-old sexist conspiracy to suppress the Truth.

As more books were published in mainstream academia regarding the historical non-existence of matriarchies, for example, the definition of "matriarchy" was simply changed to match whatever a speaker or writer wished it to mean. Often the word was replaced by "matrifocal" or "woman-centered" or by various phrases indicating cultures in which the genders were more-or-less politically equal (for which there actually are a few historical examples).

The Feminist Craft grew (and is still growing) at a spectacular rate, and at this writing, members of these groups may very well outnumber those of the Neopagan sects from which they diverged. The number of groups of women who have formed covens completely independently is impossible to surmise and their thealogies are no doubt quite mixed, but feminist revisionist "herstory" is probably common to most or all.

While the Neopagan Witches were slowly ceasing to claim literal truth for their mythic history, the Feminist Witches continued those same myths, and in fact made them more spectacular and rich. It is only in the last decade or so that some Feminist Witches have begun to doubt these dogmas. Perhaps it is finally becoming known that dozens of committed feminist historians, anthropologists and archeologists of both genders have been unable to find a shred of evidence to support the idea that matriarchies ever existed, or that there ever was an organized religion of Witchcraft in Europe, and that the intact transmission of a complex pre-Christian tradition is not at all likely.

I suspect that the feminist movement will continue to produce, as has every other political movement in history, sloppily researched tomes in support of its ideals. There is, after all, no such thing as completely unbiased scholarship (no matter what some professors may claim) and feminists should be allowed to exercise their historical creativity as much as any other political group does.

Within a decade or two, however, Feminist Witchcraft groups may well admit that their various sects are not ancient relics but rather the brilliant and beautiful creations of modern religious visionaries.

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