The Blog of White Dragon Pagan Magazine

Archive for June, 2013

The Great Wicca Hoax

The origins of Gardnerian Wicca – or at least, the story Gardner told of them – are well known. He was supposed to have made contact with a coven of genuine witches in the New Forest, and was initiated by them into the Wicca ‘cult’, as he referred to it. Among these were the old witch Dorothy Clutterbuck, and the young Dafo, who was Gardner’s own High Priestess. It was Dafo who wrote to Gardner late in his life to rebuke him for seeking publicity – a statement taken by many to mean Gardner’s decision to open the Craft up to a wider audience.

Since then, many people have endeavored to find out the truth behind Gardner’s account, most recently Philip Heselton in his book ‘Wiccan Roots’. Heselton seems to take the view that Gardner was telling the absolute truth, and that he really was initiated into a surviving coven; Wiccan Roots is a brave attempt to find facts to fit the theory, and certainly goes much further than any other attempt, though it is somewhat disappointing to find that the diaries of Dorothy Clutterbuck reveal her to have been a perfectly ordinary if nature-loving Christian. The trouble with Gardner’s core story, though, is that if he can be shown to be lying about some of the key elements. With that in mind, I intend to demonstrate once and for all that not only is Wicca a completely modern construct, but to indicate for the first time in print why Gardner invented Wicca in the first place.

The rest of this article by Adrian Bott, which was published in White Dragon at Lughnasa 2001, can be read on the White Dragon website.

The Great Wicca Hoax

The Full English – English traditional music archive online

The Vaughan Williams Memorial Library has made available online its complete digital music archive of the collections made by the great collectors of English traditional music in the early 20th century. Not only the material collected by Vaughan Williams himself, but also that by Cecil Sharp, George Butterworth, Percy Grainger, Sabine Baring-Gould and Herefordshire’s Ella Mary Leather and others.

The materials available to listen to and view include 44,000 records and 58,000 digitised images.

This has to be a Jolly Good Thing as it will make the riches of English traditional and folk music much more accessible to those who currently think that traditional music in the British Isles means Celtic music and that English music doesn’t exist, or at best is nothing more than stuff for morris dancers to prance about and wave hankies to.

The summer solstice and the Rollright Stones

If there is one thing we can say about the summer solstice without fear of contradiction, it’s that there will be more people standing around in stone circles and on hill tops than will be doing so at the winter solstice in a little over 6 months time. Funny that.

Until the late 1990s, Oxfordshire’s Rollright Stones still belonged to the late Pauline Flick whose family had owned that small piece of land for decades. She opened the site each year at Beltane, the summer solstice, Lughnasa and Samhain to the public, manning the box office through the night at the little cabin near the entrance and relieving visitors of 20p or 30p for entry. Given the situation of the stones, right alongside a quiet rural road, the site’s not being officially open wouldn’t have made any difference as visitors would simply have entered anyway, through the hedge if necessary.

For a couple of years, immediately following my arrival in the Midlands, I attended the summer solstice gathering there along with probably a couple of hundred others. Most visitors attended in small groups and sat around their lanterns or jars with a candle in, either in or around the circle itself or over the road by The King Stone on the crest of the ridge with its north-easterly aspect directly towards the sunrise. And all very pleasant it was, even if the actual sunrise was hidden behind the inevitable bank of cloud on the horizon.

In the late 1990s, with Pauline Flick terminally ill, the Stones passed into the ownership and care of The Rollright Trust. There had been earlier attempts by local pagans to persuade Pauline to sell the stones to a pagan-run trust but each time things had looked hopeful she changed her mind. Faced with her own impending death she finally agreed to sell and an appeal was launched within the pagan community to raise the asking price. Pagans being pagans, virtually nobody was willing to actually put their hands in their pockets and the appeal went nowhere until funds were offered by a couple of City bankers with an interest in archaeology. Although the funds were raised, the trust set up and the stones bought, the pagan influence was greatly watered down with a good half of the appointed trustees being business people and archaeologists. Today there appear to be no pagans at all on the board of trustees.

In the years immediately following the stones’ acquisition by the trust, the site remained open to visitors at the usual festivals. A non-denominational, but vaguely wiccan, ceremony was held on or as near as possible to the festival date which all were welcome to attend for the usual payment on the gate because this was found to be the best defence against the various druid orders and other pagan groups all wanting to hold their rituals at the site on the popular dates. On the other festivals the visitors were few, and at the winter solstice and Imbolc they were non-existent. I know this because for several years I wardened the site overnight on these latter two dates, sometimes with one or two others and occasionally on my own. Usually the only visitors in fact were a couple of plods from either Warwickshire Constabulary or Thames Valley Police (the border between the forces runs along the minor road beside the stones) who parked their patrol car in the layby and came in for a coffee and a chat.

So if you are planning to attend an overnight outside gathering this summer solstice, ask yourself whether you will be doing the same in 6 months’ time with 17 or 18 hours of darkness and, quite possibly, a hard frost.

Witchcraft in BBC radio drama

Browsing the BBC Radio 4 schedules today I noticed that the station had recently broadcast a play entitled Ursula and the Boy based on the historical episode of Ursula Kemp who was accused of witchcraft in 1582 and against whom one of the witnesses was her own 8 year old son.

I’ve not yet listened to the play but will try to make time to do so over this weekend.

I’m reminded of an earlier BBC radio play with an historical witchcraft theme – Colin Haydn Evans’s Gaveston which was broadcast originally on 7th June 1993 and then, if memory serves me correctly, on the actual summer solstice in 1994. I was fortunate on the second occasion to record the broadcast for my own personal archive.

Gaveston was based, as one might expect, on Margaret Murray‘s books (I’m very tempted to say novels), The Witch Cult in Western Europe and The Divine King in England. Her thesis was that there was an organised cult of witchcraft in mediaeval and early modern Europe, and that from time to time kings or their appointed substitutes were sacrificed to ensure the health of the realm. She particularly singled out William II, “Rufus”, who died in the New Forest under still unexplained circumstances in 1100, and Piers Gaveston, the youthful favourite of Edward II, as her purported sacrifices.

Now as a piece of drama Gaveston was a jolly decent play – thrilling and atmospheric; but as history, which Murray purported it to be (even if Evans didn’t), it was frankly crap. Even at the time that she published Witch Cult, Murray’s interpretation of history was scorned and ridiculed by academic historians working in the mediaeval and early modern fields, but it did inspire the imagination of Gerald Brosseau Gardner and become the basis of his creation of wicca. When Murray was invited to write the entry on witchcraft for the Encyclopaedia Britannica, her version of history quickly reached the general public and was accordingly accepted by hoi polloi as the last word on the subject. And so it remained until the early 1970s when academic historians began to publish new studies of witchcraft and magic. The first that came to general attention was Keith Thomas‘s Religion and the Decline of Magic in 1973. Through the 1970s and 1980s these new studies appeared, so that by around 1993, when Gaveston was first broadcast, only pagans and the general public still set any store by Murray’s work as history.

What turned the tide for most pagans was the publication during the 1990s of a series of works by Professor Ronald Hutton of the University of Bristol, culminating in The Triumph of the Moon in 1999. There are, undoubtedly, the pagan equivalent of Flat Earthers who cling to Murray’s work, but they become fewer, and ever more desperate, as the years pass. They may eventually die out of their own accord, but it may yet take a comet to finish them off.

So if you ever get a chance to hear Gaveston, do so. It’s a jolly gripping yarn. But, for gods’ sake, don’t believe a word of it. It’s complete cobblers.

Bookselling affiliation schemes

Back in the mid-naughties, when the present website design was launched, WD set up affiliate accounts with both amazon.co.uk and amazon.com, which meant that readers from pretty much anywhere in the world could click through and buy a book they liked the look of. Then Amazon changed the rules, and decided that no longer would they pay commission on amazon.com sales into a UK bank account but only into a US one. Exit amazon.com, stage right.

At some point, the click-through links from the reviews to amazon.co.uk disappeared as well so there has been no commission coming through from there, either. Since all the click-through links from the reviews and from the recommended reading sections will need to be recreated ab initio, the question arises whether it’s worth remaining with Amazon at all, or whether I should be considering other options. Within the UK the most obvious (or maybe only) alternative is Waterstones. Now, Waterstones only sell books while Amazon sell all sorts of other things, so with the latter there’s the possibility of commission arising on all sorts of non-libritudinous sales. On the other hand, Amazon pays no Corporation Tax in the UK and seem fairly keen to keep it that way so there’s a wider ethical issue. Che far?

At the same time, it seems worth revisiting the question of going into an affiliation relationship with a US-based online seller again. The options seem to be Barnes & Noble and Powell’s Books. B&N are big but seem to come in for a lot of criticism over stock in their physical stores (too many toys, not enough books) and customer service; and Powell’s are currently a locally based outsider that have a lot of good reports and are tipped to get a lot bigger. The ideal would be for commission to be paid to WD’s (fully verified) paypal account, but paid direct into WD’s bank account would be fine so long as most of the commission doesn’t disappear in banking charges.

I wish I had a lot more time to investigate the options or think this through, but it needs to fit in with the wider website redesign. Eheu!

Abducted by the Faeries?

They came for Mary Rowlandson at dawn, a wild host that shrieked and yelled. Strong brown arms plucked her from the farm and took her away to their secret places in the wild country. She lay on a bed of dry leaves, watching the black shapes as they danced and sang; then the next day they set her to work, along with the other mortals who had been abducted. They themselves were too proud to work – they knew nothing of the crafts and skills by which ordinary people order their lives. This is hardly surprising. They were the Narragansett Indians, and Mary Rowlandson was a New England settler who had been taken captive in the wars of the 1670s.

Mary was a Puritan through and through. Her narrative of the eleven weeks spent with the Indians is threaded effortlessly with quotations and exhortations from the Bible, the one book she cared about. Fairy tales, one gathers, were not on the reading list. And yet her history corresponds, point for point, with those stories from the old country which tell how a woman was carried off by the fairies. There is the same capricious violence from the strange people, the same stealthy plundering of food and drink from the lonely farms, the same theft of women and children. Captives might be needed to replace Indian children; they might be set to work, or offered up to the Devil – ‘for aye at every seven years, they pay a teind to Hell’. The religious views of the Narragansett are not known, but Mary feared the worst, especially after they had selected one of her fellow-captives to be stripped naked. ‘And when they had sung and danced around her (in their hellish manner) as long as they pleased, they knockt her on head, and the child in her arms with her’ (Turner 1974: 322)

The rest of this article by Jeremy Harte, published in White Dragon at Lughnasa 1999, can be read on the White Dragon website.

Abducted by the Faeries?

A fair wind and a bottle of Primitivo

The book reviews have been categorised. It was in the end a much quicker and more painless process than I dared imagine as all but a small handful fell firmly into one category or another rather than into 2, 3 or 4 as the articles had.

I suppose this is not surprising: an academic study of the Lancashire witches was only ever going to fit into the academic history category, and a Llewellyn mass market paperback almost invariably fell into Wicca – Popular and nowhere else. The main crossover sections proved to be Folklore and Mythology, since there’s a rather fuzzy border between the two, and Sacred Landscapes. I seem to have ended up with 42 categories, some with only one or two books in them. While this means that those one or two books can be readily identified rather than being lost in a larger category, it will no doubt play havoc with the design of the menus and will need to be discussed with Alexa.

While working through them it struck me that some of the reviews can be culled as no longer relevant; in particular a handful of small press booklets and pamphlets, as it’s incredibly unlikely that the reader will ever come across them, and one or two rather strange works of fiction (essentially self-published) that probably shouldn’t have been reviewed in the first place. On the other hand, there are upwards of 40 or more reviews which were never added to the site in the first place and which will need to be incorporated into the redesign work.