During 18th century modernism, Enlightenment philosophes and other progressive reformers were largely unconcerned with addressing directly the lower levels of society that constitute the great majority of Europe's population. Once the ruling classes were, swayed to accept enlightened beliefs, it was reasoned, they could institute, centralized policies, above all educational reforms that would serve eventually to raise these people, or at least their children, into the light of modern thought. This process, however, proved far slower and less complete than many optimistic reformers imagined.
Because political power interacted with magic mainly through law code practical effects of change during d 18th century modernism, Enlightenment, were slight. In some cases new laws were introduced that made it a crime for people to accuse others of witchcraft, to claim to be a witch or to have magical powers of any sort themselves. Legal authorities now typically regarded people who continued to assert such claims as committing fraud. Yet by the time such legislation was enacted, most states in Europe had already, for other reasons, cease prosecuting witches in any significant numbers. Moreover, among common people recourse to legal action appears never to have been the initial or principal reaction to suspected witchcraft. Thus the removal of a legal option simply caused people to rely all the more on the traditional resources like counter spells or protective magic.
Also during the Enlightenment, interest in magical or occult practices in fact rose, among the upper levels of European society although it came to be modernized. In the 1770s, the Catholic priest Johann Joseph Gassner (1727-1779) conducted numerous exorcisms and healings of various sorts in southern Germany. As his fame spread, something like a popular religious revival began to sweep through German lands. He aroused considerable opposition, but also garnered support from both secular and ecclesiastical officials, and he sparked tremendous debate, remarkably among Protestant as well as Catholic authorities, about the nature of his activities and the powers he claimed to wield. But it was especially Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815) who had observed Gassner, who enjoyed major successes with his own quasi-occult healing practice. Educated at the University of Vienna, he developed and employed the hypnotic, therapeutic practices that would come to bear his name, mesmerism, first in Vienna and after 1778 in Paris, the capital of enlightened thought. As we have researched in more detail before, Mesmer now called it the theory of animal magnetism, that is, the belief that all living bodies produced and were infused by magnetic energies, and he developed various devices to manipulate this energy for healing purposes. The most elaborate of these was the baquet, a tub filled with water and metal filings, and also fitted with iron bars that patients would touch as they sat around, and sometimes in, these tubs. And while Mesmer typically stressed the medicinal and scientific nature of his treatments, others took his ideas in more overtly magical directions. By the mid-1780s mesmerists operated throughout France, often combining mesmerism with other esoteric spiritual or magical practices. The mesmerist society in Lyon, in particular, had associations with alchemy, Hermetic magic, Kabbalism and especially-- started a new wave of mediums. Other occultist groups also flourished. based on the teachings of Martines de Pasqually (1727-1714),his secretary Jean-Claude de Saint-Martin (1743-1803), help found the Martinist Order, a society dedicated to understanding the spiritual world through a mix of Christian and Kabbalistic mysticism. Later, the Martinists also incorporated other occult systems and techniques, including mesmerism. Another follower of Martines de Pasqually was Jean-Baptiste Willermoz (1730-1824), and he and Saint-Martin were Magical Revival, now renamed Occultism based on the very popular title of a book by A.van Nettesheim, “The Occult Philosophy.”
Case Study: The Magical Revival P.1.
What the continued existence of magical beliefs and practices itself, historically, magical beliefs have never been static but have always responded to larger cultural changes.Thus during the second part of the 19th Century a new form of ritual magic was popularized by Eliphas Levi (1810-1875). Born in 1810 as Alphonse Louis Constant, the son of a shoemaker, he trained to become a Catholic priest, but stopped after attaining only the preliminary-rank of deacon in the late 1830’s. In 1855 he published his major work, Dogme et ritual de la haute magie (translated as Transcendental Magic: Its Doctrine and Ritual).
For Levi, however a female magician was, a revolt the natural order of things. Not surprisingly he also lamented what he considered the decline of the occult sciences amid the spiritualist fad of the 1850s: "The alphabet of the occult sciences is now a dead letter, the Hermetic keys no longer unlock the Arcana of oriental philosophy, the traditional hieroglyphs are without virtue, and the book of Thoth, this traditional testament of ancient Egypt ... abandoned to the grotesque interpretations of street gypsies, is but a thick deck of old cards, to which too much honor is given by calling them Tarots.” ( Paul Chacornac, Eliphas Levi, renovateur de l'occultisme en France, Paris, 1926, p. 140)
Apparently Levi, also was of significant influence on Albert Pike’s, Morals and Dogma of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry. Arthur Waite, a member of the London-based Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn who translated Levi's works into English, wrote that Pike's tome "swarms with passages taken directly from Levi without any acknowledgement" and that it is "in reality a translation in part and a commentary in full ... of and upon the works of Eliphas Levi, from whom all its inspiration is drawn." (Arthur Edward Waite, Devil-Worship in France, with Diana Vaughan and the Question of Modern Palladism, Boston, 2003, 268, 272).
In the second half of the twentieth century, then modern witchcraft, also commonly known, especially by its adherents, as Wicca came to fame. This type of witchcraft initially arose in England primarily through the efforts of Gerald Gardner (1884-1964), who in 1954 published the book that essentially launched the Wiccan movement, Witchcraft Today. Gardner claimed that the witchcraft supposedly existend in his day was no different from, and was in fact a direct continuation of, the witchcraft that had existed in early modern Europe. He asserted that witchcraft was and had always been an ancient, pre-Christian pagan faith surviving through unbroken chains of practice and family traditions down through the ages. Gardner was not himself from a lineage that maintained this ancient tradition. He had been born into a thoroughly modern and well-off family near Liverpool, had entered government service, and had spent most of his career stationed in Asian outposts of the British Empire. In 1936 he retired and moved back to England, settling two years later in the New Forest region on the southern coast near the Isle of Wight. There he became involved in a theater group that staged plays on occult and Rosicrucian themes. Through this group, he claimed to have met a woman he called Old Dorothy, to whom he later ascribed the last name Clutterbuck. She supposedly was a hereditary witch, the inheritor of ancient traditions preserved and handed down through her family, who initiated Gardner as a witch himself in 1939. In fact there was a wealthy lady, Dorothy Fordham, nee Clutterbuck (1880-1951), who lived in this area at the time. According to all independent accounts, however, she was an utterly respectable member of society, profoundly conservative in her deportment and activities. She had no involvement with the somewhat outre Rosicrucian Theater, and portions of her diaries that have been made available for examination present no trace of evidence that she led a secret double life as a witch. The diaries have been examined by Ronald Hutton. (See Hutton, The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modem Pagan Witchcraft, 1999, p. 211).
Rather than "discovering" modern witchcraft, Gardner assembled it from various sources. Already in the Far East, Gardner had been drawn to the study of world religions, and once back in England he pursued amateur anthropological studies, joining the Folk-Lore Society, an important ethnographic group at the time. He was also clearly interested in magical practices and the occult, as his association with the Rosicrucian Theater indicates. He pursued magical studies seriously enough to seek out Aleister Crowley, meeting him in 1947 and being initiated into the Ordo Templi Orientis. Gardner appears to have had some ambition to found an OTO temple himself, yet for unknown reasons his interest ·in established ritual magic traditions had faded by the early 1950’s. He later referred to Crowley as a "charming charlatan." Gardner 's interest in magical systems in general was not fading, however; instead, he focused increasingly on developing his system of modern witchcraft. But from where did Gardner 's idea of witchcraft as a ritualistic magical religion come?
In fact the idea of historical European witchcraft as a pagan religion had gained many adherents by the middle of the twentieth century. The origins of the idea actually lie in nineteenth-century scholarship. Informed by Enlightenment ideals, historians of the nineteenth century typically considered historical belief in witchcraft to have been a delusion fostered mainly by clerical authorities, whom they blamed for promoting the murder of thousands of innocents through witch hunting. In 1828, however, Karl Ernst Jarcke (1801-1852), a young legal scholar at the University of Berlin with pro-clerical leanings, suggested that witchcraft had actually represented the remnants of pre-Christian paganism in Europe. Thus Christian authorities had had at least some real justification for seeking to repress these practices and the people who engaged in them. A well-established historian, Franz Josef Mone (1796-1871), took up this argument in 1839. Then in 1844 the famous philologist and folklorist Jakob Grimm (1785-1863), now best known along with his brother for their collection of fairy tales, but a leading light of the German academic world in the nineteenth century, also supported the notion that some elements of traditional witchcraft were based on pre-Christian Germanic traditions. (Norman Cohn, Europe's Inner Demons: The Demonization of Christians in Medieval Christendom, rev. ed. University of Chicago Press, 2000, pp.148-49).
Only in 1862, however, did the French historian Jules Michelet (1798-1874) argue in his book La sorciere (The Witch, translated into English as Satanism and Witchcraft) that historical witchcraft had been an active pagan religion in the medieval and early modern periods, rather than simply the residue of earlier pagan practices. Michelet was profoundly anticlerical, and his purpose was the opposite of Jarke's: rather than justifying Christian opposition to witchcraft, he sought to depict a cruel and intolerant church using the witch hunts to eradicate a vibrant, popular religion.Serious historians dismissed Michelet's work on witchcraft and it had little impact within academia. He was broadly read by the general public, however, on both sides of the Atlantic. In the United States , his work was cited by one of the founding mothers of the woman suffrage movement, Matilda Joslyn Gage (1826-1898), who saw the witch hunts as a classic example of male repression of women.(Matilda Joslyn Gage, Woman, Church, and State: A Historical Account of the Status of Women through the Christian Ages, New York, 1893).
Michelet also influenced a wealthy American amateur ethnographer, Charles Leland (1824-1903), who was educated in Paris and lived most of his life in Florence. There he met a woman named Maddalena who claimed to practice exactly the sort of witch religion that Michelet described. The roots of her folk religion, she maintained, extended into deep antiquity, even to the pre-Roman Etruscan period. Leland eagerly collected her beliefs and practices, publishing them in 1899 as Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches. In fact, Leland probably worked with Maddalena, or at least strongly encouraged her to construct her beliefs in a certain way. The witchcraft described in Aradia largely mixed Michelet's historical ideas with more recent mythographic notions of the sort promoted by James Frazer (1854-1951) in his famous work The Golden Bough, first published in 1890. (Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, 3rd ed., 12 vols., 1913-1920).
Frazer argued that beneath the myths of various ancient cultures lay an essentially unified religious system focused on natural fertility cycles and on fertility gods and goddesses. In 1921 then, Margaret Murray published The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, a full-blown but poorly researched and argued academic history of witchcraft as an ancient pagan fertility religion opposed by the Christian church in Europe. Although her book was immediately dismissed by historians, Murray was committed to advancing her ideas. In 1929 she wrote the article on witchcraft for the fourteenth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (it remained through subsequent editions until 1968), and in 1931 she published The God of the Witches, presenting her basic theories and claims for a more popular audience. After World War II her theories achieved even further popularity, and remarkably also began to gain some academic acceptance, more so in Europe than in the United States, before being debunked again, this time definitively, by a series of scholars mainly in the 1970’s. (See Cohn, Europe's Inner Demons).
In 1954 Murray made her most farfetched claims in The Divine King of England. Here she presented a vast, premodern conspiracy theory in which every king of England from William the Conqueror in the eleventh century to James I in the seventeenth had been a member of the witches' cult, and many major events in English history were tied to the ritual operations of this secret group. Murray served as the primary historical source for Gerald Gardner. The two had collaborated on an early paper on historical witchcraft for the Folk-Lore Society, and Murray wrote a brief introduction to Gardner ’s Witchcraft Today when it appeared in 1954.
Claiming to have been initiated into a coven of witches whose traditions and practices stretched unbroken back through the centuries, Gardner maintained that these magical rites were ancient. In fact, they blended Rosicrucian, Hermetic, and other ritual magic as practiced by Aleister Crowley and groups like the Golden Dawn, elements of nature worship and fertility ceremonies influenced by Frazerian theories and Gardner's own study of world religions, along with elements purely of Gardner 's creation. By the early 1950s, he had systematized these rites and ceremonies, assembling them into a collection evocatively referred to as the Book of Shadows. This book then went through significant revisions over the course of the decade by Gardner and his chief assistant and high priestess, Doreen Valiente (1922-1999). While Gardner published some extracts from the Book of Shadows, and pirated versions later appeared in print, there has never been a fully official published version. But see Janet Farrar and Stewart Farrar, The Witches' Way: Principles, Rituals, and Beliefs of Modem Witchcraft (London: Hale, 1984).
Valiente thus may have been as important as Gardner himself in the creation and early codifications of Wiccan rites. She particularly disliked the influence of Crowley and his systems of ritual magic on earlier versions of the Book of Shadows and excised many of these passages. She also began to emphasize the central figure of the Goddess in Wiccan belief. Even with Crowley 's influence muted, Wiccan rites remained highly sexualized. Gardner stressed the need for both priests and priestesses as well as male and female practitioners when performing rites so that sexual energies could be exploited. Rites were to be performed nude, and while these did not involve actual ritualized intercourse, Gardner suggested that priests and priestesses might have sex privately before or after the ceremonies to heighten their powers.Aside from creating a new system of belief and ritual structure, Gardner was also a tireless promoter and publicist. An old act against witchcraft and vagrancy made it a crime in Great Britain to claim to be a witch. Parliament finally repealed this act in 1951, and almost immediately Gardner went public with his beliefs, partnering in his early publicity efforts with Cecil Williamson (1909-1999), who had formerly worked in the movie industry and since 1947 had operated a witchcraft museum as a tourist attraction. Using this museum as a base (Gardner was declared to be the "witch in residence"), the promotion of modern witchcraft was achieved mainly through press coverage and Gardner 's own publications, including his necessarily novelized account (since it was first published in 1949, before the repeal of the witchcraft act) High Magic's Aid and then Witchcraft Today. It was in this latter work that Gardner designated modern witchcraft as Wica, now commonly spelled Wicca, from the Anglo-Saxon word for sorcerer or male witch (the female form would be wicce).
Wiccan groups, or covens, spread throughout the 1950s and 1960s, sometimes established by followers of Gardner and sometimes emerging independently. The first documented coven in the United States appeared in 1963. Gardner in no sense controlled these groups, but insofar as they adhered to the rites and practices he established, they can be said to comprise the Gardnerian tradition. There were soon defections from this tradition, however. As early as 1957, Doreen Valiente, Gardner 's chief assistant, grew tired of his dominance, formed her own group, and began to develop her own traditions, although still along essentially Gardnerian lines. In the mid-1960s, Alex Sanders (1926-1988) emerged as a major figure on the English witchcraft. In fact, Sanders drew heavily on Gardner 's Book of Shadows, as well as on earlier systems of ritual magic such as those developed by Eliphas Levi.
Seeking publicity even more assiduously than Gardner , Sanders was soon styling himself the "King of the Witches" in Britain . His Alexandrian tradition became a major rival to the Gardnerian strain of Wicca. Further fragmentation ensued, until by the late 1960s and early 1970’s many Wiccans began claiming that personal experimentation and entirely individualized versions of the Craft (as it was coming to be called) were as valid as any more systematic tradition. Also in this period, the center of modern witchcraft began shifting from England to the United States , where Wicca also became more clearly feminist in nature. In 1968 a group calling itself the Women's International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell (WITCH) formed in New York City , fully appropriating historical witchcraft for the modern women's movement. WITCH issued a manifesto claiming that historical witchcraft had been not just a pagan religion but a proto feminist one, in opposition to patriarchal Christianity. The group also publicized the figure of nine million women dead in the witch hunts, which had been introduced to American feminist thought by Matilda Joslyn Gage in her 1893 work Woman, Church, and State. WITCH soon disbanded, but their use of w~chcraft was taken up by major feminist writers in the 1970s, including Mary Daly in Beyond God the Father (1973) and Gyn/Ecology (1978) and Andrea Dworkin in Woman Hating (1974).See Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women's Liberation (Boston: Beacon, 1973), and Daly, Gyn/Ecology: A Metaethics of Radical Feminism (Boston: Beacon, 1978); Andrea Dworkin, Woman Hating (New York: Dutton, 1974).
Their concern was less with witchcraft as a modern religion than as a supposed counterpoint to the historical dominance of men and an example of the supposedly genocidal horrors men could inflict on women. The witch, in both her historical and modern guises, became a symbol of female empowerment. The fullest incorporation of such ideas into the actual system of Wicca was achieved by the highly influential Californian Wiccan writer Starhawk (born 1951 as Miriam Simos). Her 1979 book The Spiral Dance, a poetic meditation on the meaning of Wicca and its rites, became for many, especially in the United States, the most essential statement of Wiccan beliefs. In this and other works, Starhawk helped to establish the central role of feminism, as well as environmentalism and related political concerns, in Wicca, particularly as it exists in North America .
Starhawk's approach to Wicca was largely philosophical and poetic. She uncritically accepted the myth of witchcraft as a pagan religion popularized by Murray and Gardner, and she repeated the venerable fable of nine million women executed during the witch hunts in The Spiral Dance. The tenth anniversary edition of this work included a note stating that this figure was an estimate that was "probably high," but Starhawk continued to defend her conviction in the essential reality of most of Murray 's theory of historical witchcraft. In the same year as the original publication of The Spiral Dance, however, the journalist and practicing Wiccan Margot Adler (born 1946) published Drawing Down the Moon, which took a serious look at the origins of Wicca and other neopagan movements. She recognized that many of Gerald Gardner's claims about how he gained his knowledge of the rites and ceremonies of modern witchcraft were obviously false, and more basically that the idea of historical witchcraft as a pagan religion was untenable. She also recognized, however, that such facts were irrelevant to Wicca's authenticity or value as a belief system. While some modern witches still cling adamantly to the historical accuracy of their myths about the "burning times," most now recognize that theirs is actually a new religion and a new magical tradition formed from complex roots. But if Wicca's connection to historical witchcraft is not what its founders claimed, its blurring of any distinction between concepts of religion and magic and even its misconceptions and misappropriations of the past very much reflect certain persistent tendencies recurring over the long course of Europe 's magical history.
From its emergence in the 1950s, modern witchcraft has attracted a great deal of attention. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, even the highest estimates assumed that there were no more than around 400,000 Wiccans and other neopagans in the United States (alongside over one and a half million Muslims, nearly four million Jews, and over two hundred million Christians). Their numbers are certainly much smaller in Europe . Yet witches of a more or less Wiccan variety have figured in far more popular movies and television shows than, for example, America 's over 800,000 Unitarians. Especially because of their claims that they practice real and effective magic, modern witches have often been regarded with great interest, but also with fear and suspicion. In particular, they have frequently been branded as Satanists, just as other magicians and occultists throughout the modern period. In fact, as non-Christians, neopagans by definition cannot be Satanists because they do not acknowledge the existence of the Christian devil. Even self-proclaimed Satanist groups like the famous Church of Satan founded in 1966 in San Francisco by Anton Szandor LaVey (1930-1997) do not believe in or worship the Christian devil. Rather, they advocate personal freedom and carnal pleasure, and pursue both through ritual magic in the style of such precursors as Aleister Crowley. Of course, Western authorities have a long tradition of maintaining that people can be guilty of inadvertently or unintentionally summoning and worshiping demons, or more simply of hiding such activity behind claims of innocence. Yet none of the numerous scares over alleged satanic cults that have regularly erupted in modern Europe and the United States, usually centered on the supposed discovery of animal or even infant sacrifices, has ever produced any evidence connecting such practices to occultist or neopagan groups. Indeed, once the initial claims have been examined carefully, there has typically been no credible evidence of such activity at all. Wiccans and neopagans practice magical rites, as do groups of ritual magicians, as do traditional healers and cunning folk. And numerous people who would never think of themselves as practicing magic consult astrologers or psychics, read horoscopes, avoid black cats, or throw salt over their shoulders, all with greater or lesser degrees of seriousness.
But we do not need to treat magic as an objectively definable set of actions that operate, or claim to operate, in some particular way. Rather, we can describe how the ever shifting categories of magic and superstition have been used to label various actions and beliefs at different times. Generally throughout history, religious or secular authorities have labeled as "magic" practices they wish to condemn by casting them as sacrilegious and threats to social order. Increasingly in the modern period, with the threat of legal punishment removed, certain groups have labeled their own actions as magic, often as a way to criticize or challenge established authorities or social structures. Whatever specific conceptions and meanings of magic or superstition prevail in any given period, in general these categories have always had to do with the realm just beyond human beings' clear understanding and straightforward control. They have been used throughout history to construct and to contest the limits of culturally approved belief and socially acceptable action. They have also been used to demarcate the unknowable and to give shape to the known. And the history of magic, both as a source of presumed power and as a source of fear, continues.
For example where before supposed witches could be blamed for personal or societal ills, here modern mentality, switched the cause to conspiracy theories, outside-government agencies, the occult operations of the Council on Foreign Relations or the Trilateral Commission, the evil machinations of all-powerful Yale undergraduates in Skull and Bones and so on. Thus conspiracy theories have taken over the explanatory roles that witches (in their ‘pact with the devil’) once played in the old Europe.
For our general overview of the Occult and the Esoteric today, see: