In the past few years two well-respected scholars have independently advanced essentially the same theory about Wicca's founding. In 1998 Philip G. Davis, a professor of religion at the University of Prince Edward Island, published "Goddess Unmasked: The Rise of Neopagan Feminist Spirituality," which argued that Wicca was the creation of an English civil servant and amateur anthropologist named Gerald B. Gardner (1884-1964). Davis wrote that the origins of the Goddess movement lay in an interest among the German and French Romantics--mostly men--in natural forces, especially those linked with women. Gardner admired the Romantics and belonged to a Rosicrucian society called the Fellowship of Crotona--a group that was influenced by several late-nineteenth-century occultist groups, which in turn were influenced by Freemasonry. In the 1950s Gardner introduced a religion he called (and spelled) Wica. Although Gardner claimed to have learned Wiccan lore from a centuries-old coven of witches who also belonged to the Fellowship of Crotona, Davis wrote that no one had been able to locate the coven and that Gardner had invented the rites he trumpeted, borrowing from rituals created early in the twentieth century by the notorious British occultist Aleister Crowley, among others. Wiccans today, by their own admission, have freely adapted and embellished Gardner's rites.

In 1999 Ronald Hutton, a well-known historian of pagan British religion who teaches at the University of Bristol, published "The Triumph of the Moon." Hutton had conducted detailed research into the known pagan practices of prehistory, had read Gardner's unpublished manuscripts, and had interviewed many of Gardner's surviving contemporaries. Hutton, like Davis, could find no conclusive evidence of the coven from which Gardner said he had learned the Craft, and argued that the "ancient" religion Gardner claimed to have discovered was a mélange of material from relatively modern sources.

Gardner seems to have drawn on the work of two people: Charles Godfrey Leland, a nineteenth-century amateur American folklorist who professed to have found a surviving cult of the goddess Diana in Tuscany, and Margaret Alice Murray, a British Egyptologist who herself drew on Leland's ideas and, beginning in the 1920s, created a detailed framework of ritual and belief. From his own experience Gardner included such Masonic staples as blindfolding, initiation, secrecy, and "degrees" of priesthood. He incorporated various Tarot-like paraphernalia, including wands, chalices, and the five-pointed star, which, enclosed in a circle, is the Wiccan equivalent of the cross.

Gardner also wove in some personal idiosyncrasies. One was a fondness for linguistic archaisms: "thee," "thy," "'tis," "Ye Bok of ye Art Magical." Another was a taste for nudism: Gardner had belonged to a nudist colony in the 1930s, and he prescribed that many Wiccan rituals be carried out "skyclad." This was a rarity even among occultists: no ancient pagan religion is known, or was thought in Gardner's time, to have regularly called for its rites to be conducted in the nude. Some Gardnerian innovations have sexual and even bondage-and-discipline overtones. Ritual sex, which Gardner called "The Great Rite," and which was also largely unknown in antiquity, was part of the liturgy for Beltane and other feasts (although most participants simulated the act with a dagger--another of Gardner's penchants--and a chalice). Other rituals called for the binding and scourging of initiates and for administering "the fivefold kiss" to the feet, knees, "womb" (according to one Wiccan I spoke with, a relatively modest spot above the pubic bone), breasts, and lips.

Hutton effectively demolished the notion, held by Wiccans and others, that fundamentally pagan ancient customs existed beneath medieval Christian practices. His research reveals that outside of a handful of traditions, such as decorating with greenery at Yuletide and celebrating May Day with flowers, no pagan practices--much less the veneration of pagan gods--have survived from antiquity. Hutton found that nearly all the rural seasonal pastimes that folklorists once viewed as "timeless" fertility rituals, including the Maypole dance, actually date from the Middle Ages or even the eighteenth century. There is now widespread consensus among historians that Catholicism thoroughly permeated the mental world of medieval Europe, introducing a robust popular culture of saints' shrines, devotions, and even charms and spells. The idea that medieval revels were pagan in origin is a legacy of the Protestant Reformation.

Hutton has also pointed out a lack of evidence that either the ancient Celts or any other pagan culture celebrated all the "eight feasts of the Wheel" that are central to Wiccan liturgy. "The equinoxes seem to have no native pagan festivals behind them and became significant only to occultists in the nineteenth century," Hutton told me. "There is still no proven pagan feast that stood as ancestor to Easter"--a festival that modern pagans celebrate as Ostara, the vernal equinox.

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