Modern Wicca is blessed with not one, but two heritages. There is our spiritual heritage, including influences from the deep and mystic past that we have adopted and adapted; and our literal heritage, which began when Gerald Gardner synthesized the traditions of Dorothy Clutterbuck and her New Forest Witches with the rituals and rites of the Masonic Order. To deny or downplay either of these heritages would be a mistake, because it downplays the richness of our religion.
Our Spiritual Lineage
Virtually no member of modern Wicca can honesty lay claim to an unbroken tradition going back hundreds of years. Although it is true that there have been Family Tradition or "famtrad" witches of one sort or another through most of history, no two families practiced in the same way and, for many of them, the traditions were just that--pragmatic family traditions that had nothing to do with religion. They used magick because magick worked, Gram taught Mom, who taught daughter, who taught granddaughter but in many cases their magick had little to do with their spiritual life.
Yes, there have been cultures where magick was an intrinsic part of the spiritual life of the people. But magick has also been an intrinsic part of the mundane culture of some peoples; it has been seen as something in which everyone participated, and without participation, had no official place in society. It is the "matter of fact" approach to magick that gives the ancient cultures such immense spiritual clout. Unfortunately those cultures have been overrun time and time again, and other than the words left to us in history (and those often written by the aggressors) we have lost much of the knowledge these people had.
Older simply doesn't mean
For the most part we are recreating what we can of this knowledge as best we can, based on family lore, cultural tradition divorced from its spiritual roots, and from writings of the conquerors about the "quaint and superstitious customs" of their victims. Thus any direct information we have from these cultures was carried forward, not from father to son and mother to daughter, but through successive incarnations, as souls carried their accumulated wisdom from one lifetime to another, to be tapped, used, and built.
To deny that and lay claim to a long unbroken history for the modern Craft that exists primarily in folklore and myth, is to deny one of our greatest strengths. Older simply doesn't mean more sacred. One of the greatest strengths of the modern Wiccan religion is that it is a synthesis, begun by Gerald Gardner and continued over the last 70 years, of the best of spiritual wisdom throughout time and across the planet.
We can call spiritual Mother or Father the first hominid to pick up a stone, see its similarity to human form, and create from it a figure we later came to call the Acheulian Goddess. We can lay claim to the spiritual lineage of Saint Francis of Assisi, who saw the face of his God in nature and her creatures. We can lay claim to heritage from the men and women killed at Salem and during the Inquisitions throughout Europe, even as we acknowledge that many, if not most of those killed were probably not witches in any sense of the word.) We can look to Biddy Early, who defended her community from the cruelty of wealthy landowners, and to the current Dalai Lama, purveyor of some of the greatest wisdom of our time, as sources of inspiration.
Are they our literal, linear ancestors? No. They're not. We have no idea what our hominid predecessor actually thought about the stone figure he or she found, enhanced, carried, and dropped on the planes of Berekhat Ram (in the modern-day Golan Heights region) somewhere between 232,000 and 800,000 years ago. Strong similarities to the much more "manufactured" Goddess of Willendorf of 30,000 years ago in what is now Germany suggest that it was important, but we can only imagine now about its meaning to its originator.
Saint Francis saw the face of his patriarchal, mono-deity in nature. The men and women who died in Salem and at the hands of the Inquisition mostly thought of themselves as Christian. And surely the Dalai Lama would call himself as Buddhist, not pagan or Wiccan.
And yet, whether we acknowledge it or not, each of these has had an influence on Wicca as we know it. And so they are our spiritual ancestors.
Our Historical Lineage
And what of our linear, literal ancestors in Wicca?
While some would lay claim to Old Dorothy, (Gardner's Dorothy Clutterbuck) truly, our religion began somewhere between 1939 and 1954 when Gerald Gardner began to synthesize what he had learned from the New Forest Witches with what he had learned of High Magick and ritual from the Masonic Order. It is difficult for historians to agree on how much of Gardner's Witchcraft was made up or co-opted from other mystic and secret societies, and how much may have come from his association with a person he called Dorothy Clutterbuck, who he said was part of a New Forest coven, and one of his first teachers. Dorothy was the person Gerald credited with initiating him into Witchcraft, though for a time her existence was in question.
The religion--if indeed it was a religion, and not a purely a magickal Craft--that Old Dorothy taught to her initiate, Gerald, was the mother of modern Wicca, but it wasn't the same religion. In 1954 Gardner's new religion was introduced in his book, "Witchcraft Today." That Gardner's book was a synthesis of knowledge and wisdom from several sources and not a literal writing of the oral traditions of one famtrad does not lessen the genius of this work. While it may have contained historical fantasy as a backdrop and a rationalization, Gardner was in the process of giving birth to a new religion a religion that has fed the needs of the 21st century. Over the last half century, Wicca has blossomed and grown, stood the test of time, and has thrived during a period when many other, older religions would seem to be in their death throes. That's nothing we need to cover over, and nothing for which we need to make rationalizations!
Let us, then, embrace both our lineages and celebrate them.