Wiccan Polytheism

Sometimes I take it for granted that Pagans are polytheists.

It seems to make sense to assume that, since one of the traditional definitions of the term “pagan” is centers on polytheism. And really, I don’t know that I have met a Pagan who did not at least believe in other gods, even if they didn’t worship them.

Well, except maybe for Wiccans.

I’ve been having issues with Wicca for some time, not because of its modern origins, but because of its Jewish ones. Wicca’s take on divinity is a duotheistic Procrustean bed that crams any and all gods and goddesses into just one god and one goddess, who are both really dual sides of the same divine source, which looks remarkably like the Qabalistic understanding of IHVH. In practice those gods and goddesses can be worked with as an interface for that divine power, but they never seem to amount to much more than archetypes that reflect Qabalistic principles.

And that’s what gets to me. I can’t see Wicca as anything other than a cheap copy of a rather elegant and complex Qabalistic Ceremonialist system that is essentially monotheistic, but pretends to be polytheistic.

And now I know I’m not alone. Apparently the great Gerald Gardener wasn’t too big on the whole polytheism thing himself.

If [Gardener], Edith, and friends were talking about witchcraft during lazy days at the nudist camp in the late 1940s, they had a lot of concepts swirling around, concepts such as these:

  • Witchcraft was merely a collection of psychic abilities available to everyone.
  • It was spells and herbal curing and folklore and whatever, with no clear organization — just a soup of this and that.
  • It was power given to someone after a pact with the Devil.
  • It was power that you were born with, either for good or ill.
  • It is a super-secret Pagan cult that survived 1,000 years of Christianity in western Europe (Margaret Murray’s view).

All of these ideas are swirling around and bumping into each other in Witchcraft Today (1954). But there is not much about deities — for that, Doreen Valiente should get the credit, I suspect.

Given the views om psychism at the time, it is entirely plausible that Gardener and pals were agnostic or even atheist, and viewed magic and witchcraft as a means of activating latent psychic abilities through psychological theater. Gardener himself abandoned his work with Ceremonial Magic relatively easily after a series of embarrassing failures and a snub from the great Crowley, only to suddenly emerge  as an “initiate” of a “secret, ancient cult” that he had been working with forever, because if he didn’t mention his Ceremonialist past no one would remember, and all of the similarities between Wiccan ritual and Ceremonialist ritual is purely coincidental and probably an artifact of the influence of the ancient and universal pre-Christian pagan cult, and certainly not because Gardener simply repackaged the Ceremonialism he know in a shiny new coating. Didn’t seem to have any issues related to adopting or adjusting to new gods at all, or even mention experiences of worship, for that matter.

Heselton writes [in his biography of Gardener], “Indeed, he really didn’t, I think, have any of what we might call ‘spiritual’ feelings: at any rate, he never wrote about any.” Nor, in his assessment, did Gardner believe in spirits or have any success at working magick on his own (640).

Think about that, the chief founder of a new Pagan religion who never had one of those knock-you-down experiences with the gods that convinces you that She, He, or They are really there.

Wow. It really is starting to look like Gardener created Wicca not to develop a religious experience, but as a means of garnering status and justifying his desire to whip naked teenage girls.

But enough Wicca-bashing. It’s too easy, and perhaps a little unfair. I know several people who are devoted Wiccans, and who have a well developed (although somewhat hodgepodge) worship practice. And they get something out of it.

But none of them are Gardenarian Wiccans. They’re all eclectic. Which basically means they took a few elements of Wicca to use as a framework and filled the spaces with whatever took their fancies.

When people not in the know ask about the difference between witchcraft and paganism, what I usually tell them is along the lines of “Witchcraft is a practice or activity, paganism is a religion. Being pagan does not mean you do witchcraft, and doing witchcraft doe snot mean you’re pagan.” Gardener used the terms Witchcraft and Wicca almost interchangeably. So does this mean that Gardenarian Wicca isn’t really a religion?

Back to polytheism. I have always defined paganism as a belief in multiple gods. I can’t think of many pagans who disagree with this, and the ones that do are usually what I think of as “outlyers” – those who aren’t quite pagan but associate with pagans because they do magic of some kind. Paganism as a practice involves some form of devotion, directed at some kind of deity, which usually has some manner of divine associates. And what we’re seeing is that Gardener was pretty much ambivalent to gods as a concrete reality.

Is Wicca a religion? In its current form, absolutely. But it seems to be a religion built on the back of a practice that may not quite have been. And while that practice may accommodate a polytheists worldview fairly well, it does not require or dictate one.

And my conceptual rift between Wicca and Paganism widens.

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20 responses to “Wiccan Polytheism

  1. Pingback: Pagan Polytheism | Blacklight Metaphysics

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  3. Hi,

    I found your article via the reference at Chas Clifton’s blog. Although I agree with a lot of what you said about the influence of ceremonial magick on Wicca’s concept of the divine, from what I understand, for Gardnerian Wiccans there are specific Deities they honor as “the God” and “the Goddess.” The specific names of those Deities is typically considered to be outbound material, so much of the writing that is freely available online and in books does not mention Their names and identities specifically. Terms like “Lord” and “Lady” in reference to these Gods in the outer-court material are used as substitutes for Their secret names. As eclectic Wicca has become more prevalent, many have decided that the Goddess and God of Wicca can be any Deities the practitioner chooses or they are simply an amalgam of facets of various Deities from world mythology. As to whether Gardner himself viewed the Goddess and God of his tradition as unique, independent entities is something we will probably never know.

    As an aside, the correct spelling is Gerald Gardner, not Gardener 🙂

    • Thanks for the correction on the spelling of Gardner’s name. I falsely blame spell-check.

      Gardner followed the disproven theories of Margaret Murry, who believed that all pre-Christian European religion was rooted in the cult of the god Dianus and his consort Diana. It is my understanding that all other gods and goddesses were interpreted as localized manifestations of these two deities. They are the Lord and Lady, and all other names refer to archetypal expressions of them. Thus, Hermes might be worshiped as a name of the God, but is regarded as the God Dianus acting in the role of messenger and psychopomp.

      Obviously, I take issue with this on a personal level. But if it works for someone else, whatevs.

      • Were Murray’s theories already disproven in Gardner’s lifetime? And if they were, how old was he when they generally were? I think that’s an important pair of questions when making statements like “Gardener followed the disproven theories of Margaret Murray.”. At one time, in the 1920s, I believe, Murray was considered enough of an expert on the topic that he “history of witchcraft” was in Encyclopedia Brittanica for a couple of decades, at least until the 1950s.

      • Murray’s Witch-cult theory was not taken very seriously from the beginning. She was known for her work in Egyptology, not in European folklore. Gardner’s interest and reliance on her work helped lend it credibility among folklorists and emerging neo-pagans, but academically the work has always been suspect.

      • You need to read a little more about Wicca. Deerwoman is correct. The idea of gods as archetypes was not Gardner’s. You’re conflating Traditional Wicca and Neo-Wicca. The gods of Traditional Wicca had individual names. You can find them on the internet if your curious.

      • The names Gardner used were taken from Leland, whose own accuracy is suspect. (The Aradia, daughter of Diana, sent to save the witches myth doesn’t seem to have much credence outside of Leland’s work.) Some of the names Valiente used (Cernunnos) have little attestation in archeology either. The substitution for other names for the gods is established in the Gardnerian tradition.

      • @Chirotus Infinitum Actually, two of the leading folklorists of the 1920s, Gomme and Balfour, certainly took Murray’s work on the “witch cult” seriously, in spite of her background, though I’ve no doubt that there were others who did not. On the other hand, just because an idea isn’t taken seriously at first doesn’t mean it’s been immediately discredited. Einstein’s theories weren’t taken seriously by experts in his field, at first, and even upon emigrating to the States, a lot of long-established experts were reluctant to embrace them. Hell, even after testing and retesting supported his ideas, it still took some “experts” years to accept that he was on to something. Faraday, Mendel, and Leavitt all lacked a formal education in the fields they’re most closely associated with, and their theories remain of utmost importance, to this day.

        So, no, it’s not true that Murray wasn’t taken seriously by most experts in the fields relevant to her idea of the “witch cult”, but even if I entertain her contemporary critics, I have to admit that it’s not the same as saying that, even by the 1950s, her theory was thoroughly discredited. Yes, it’s certainly been discredited since at least the 1970s, but considering the fact that Murray herself was influenced by the work of Matilda Gage, and I’ve no doubt that Charles Leland’s ARADIA had an impact on her work, and the earliest serious, anthropological hypotheses about a Paneuropean “witch cult” date to the 18th Century, then clearly not *all* of the experts were quick to dismiss Murray. And as I had previously noted, she was commissioned by Encyclodædia Britannica, the most respected encyclopædia published in the Twentieth Century, to write the entry on “witchcraft”, an entry that remained in the annual from 1929 until 1968 –about the time that anthropologists and folklorists started acknowledging the holes in the witch-cult hypothesis. She didn’t invent the witch-cult hypothesis; she certainly popularised it, but it’s by no means her own.

        It’s thus perfectly plausible that, in the 1940s and 50s, when Gardner laid out the foundations for his books on Wicca, that Murray still had some respect in the field, and that her books on the witch-cult hypothesis were considered the most accessible. Hell, she’s still clearly the most accessible supporter of the witch cult hypothesis –and you’re far from the only person I have encountered who believes she invented it.

      • Murray’s witch-cult thesis wasn’t published until the 30’s. Her Egyptology work was highly regarded, but she never had a decent understanding of methodology in folklore. As for her work for Brittanica, my understanding is that Gardner has some influence in getting her that, and no one else really wanted to write about the topic, but I’d have to find my source for that — I’ve lost it in the moves over the years.

      • Murray’s take on the witch-cult hypothesis wasn’t published until the 1930s? That’s awfully strange, then, cos not only has every online Murray bibliography I’ve found claim it was first published in 1921, but I’ve also recently seen a copy at a used and antiquarian bookshop, in the locked cased, with a card describing it as “Oxford University Press, 1921″. How do you explain this? Time-travel? The most bizarre publishing error in history? Or perhaps you just don’t know and understand the timeline as well as you think you do?

        Furthermore, her Britannica article on”witchcraft” was firt published in the 1929 edition, and if any recommendation at the time influenced that decision, itbwas more likely that of Henry Balfour, who was president of the Folklore Society and the Royal Anthropological Institute at the time, as he was probably her most esteemed supporter.

      • So, let me recap this wing of discussion here: I have to state a fact *three times* before you’ll accept it? Note the two prior times I noted Murray’s version of the witch-cult hypothesis was published in the 1920s.

        I’m going to have fun with this:

        Ruadhán is amazing.

        Ruadhán is amazing.

        Ruadhán is amazing.

        Now you have to believe it, or my hypothesis is flawed. Don’t disappoint me!

  4. Pingback: Your One-Stop-Shop for Pagan-Polytheist Controversy (Updated 1-19-13) | The Allergic Pagan

  5. “I can’t see Wicca as anything other than a cheap copy of a rather elegant and complex Qabalistic Ceremonialist system that is essentially monotheistic, but pretends to be polytheistic.” It’s ironic that you spent half of you post bashing Wicca and the other half demanding respect for your brand of Polytheism.

    You divided Paganism into (Hard) Polytheists, Wiccans, and a miscellaneous category. Anybody with even a passing familiarity with contemporary Paganism(s) would know that that picture is woefully incomplete. It’s a neat rhetorical trick to sideline what may actually be the majority of contemporary Pagans.

    You wrote: ” And really, I don’t know that I have met a Pagan who did not at least believe in other gods, even if they didn’t worship them. … I have always defined paganism as a belief in multiple gods. I can’t think of many pagans who disagree with this, and the ones that do are usually what I think of as “outlyers” – those who aren’t quite pagan but associate with pagans because they do magic of some kind.”

    You really need to broaden the circle of your interaction with Paganism (it’s not hard — try Google) before waxing eloquent about the Paganism writ large. For example, you conflated Polytheism and Reconstructionism, and the two are not the same. There are plenty of non-Recon Polys.

    Also, Wicca and Neopagan Witchcraft have evolved far beyond anything Gardner imagined (as you point out in your second post), so your proxy attack on Wiccans via Gardner (in your first post) is meaningless. You know, as a Recon, you may not realize this, but not all Pagans look backwards to history to define what Paganism is to them today.

    • I address all of these issues. in another post. What that comes later, in which I rethink some of this and explain more if it in detail.

      Me: I was wrong.
      You: But you were wrong!
      Me: I know. I said so, over there …
      You: But you are wrong, and here’s why!
      Me: But over there …
      You: Wrong! Right here! And here! Wrong and dogmatic! Educate yourself! Wrong!
      Dead horse: Please stop whipping me.

      • Correct me if I’m wrong, but the second post where you supposedly rethink things is where you wrote:

        ““Earth-Based Spirituality” is romantic environmentalism under a spiritual sheen; “Goddess worship” in many cases is radical feminist similarly wrapped in a spiritual coating.”

        In my opinion, you’ve still got some work to do.

      • Please read on the Romantic movement and its influence on the 60’s counter-culture and the emergence of neopaganism. Please read your own comments on the conflation of radical feminist politics and Goddess spirituality. I’ve got plenty of work to do, but accepting your political assumptions is not among it.

  6. Pingback: On Being Pagan | Blacklight Metaphysics

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