Jack Dark shares this humourous (and fairly controversial!) history:
Right. Here’s my very, very quick and slightly dodgy history of paganism in the UK.
I’m doing this off the top of my head and without checking sources, so please bear that in mind.
Back at the dawn of time, in the mists of history, everyone was pagan and prayed to the goddess and there were mountains and waterfalls at Glastonbury and dragons flew about everywhere.
Actually, it wasn’t like that at all.
Life was pretty difficult and people made up their own supernatural explanations for the weather and tried to bring meaning to things they couldn’t explain. They did this by anthropomorphising these concepts. Making them like themselves so that they had a face and a voice and could be related to. So gods were born. We might as well call these different gods of nature ‘pagan’. They lived all around, but also in the sky and sea. Some people tried to study these gods, and to learn from or influence them. So religion was born. Different ideas about religion came and went with the people as they moved about and invaded each other.
So, in the UK there were a whole bunch of different pagan religions and gods that we don’t know a massive amount about, before the Romans came along and brought their gods and stole a few of ours. They wrote a little bit about the Druids, whilst killing them, because they were leaders and administrators, of sorts, whom the Romans feared may be the focal point for rebellion.
Just a little bit before they decided to become Christians the Romans left Britain and they left a few of their religious ideas behind, and a few of the pre-existing ones had a bit of a go again, but then the Vikings decided to raid and invade and some settled in the East of the country and they brought their big hairy gods with them too.
Everyone fought each other most of the time and got along some of the time and the land was divided up into different tribal areas, most of which had their own gods.
Then the Romans decided to re-import Christianity and through a series of tribal leaders and later kings turning to Christianity, bits of Britain gradually became more united and also Christian.
William Rufus was supposedly the last pagan king of England, after a few Christian ones, but there are several silly stories about him, which can probably be ignored.
Now, let’s fast forward a few hundred years to a bloke in Wales called Edward Williams, who called himself Iolo Morganwg. He fancied himself as a bit of a poet, so he researched the old bardic traditions, which had a bit of a link to Druidry. Their old tales and stories about the older gods were handed down through an oral bardic tradition, and he got into this and decided to be a Druid and to reinvent Druidry. He wasn’t reeeeaally pagan, though, and most of the prayers that he wrote referred to ‘God’.
Iolo inspired a few Druidic societies and groups to be set up and these did their thing in a fairly Christian way, much like the other friendly societies and mutual savings and pensions groups and drinking clubs that also existed. He did also take some ideas from the bardic sources he found that were vaguely pagan and also spent most of his time off his tits on laudanum and opium.
Okay, that’s enough about Druids for a bit. Back to them later.
Well…in the nineteenth century you had people getting interested in magic and alternatives to Christianity and also getting their kit off in public. The golden dawn and various other magical societies were doing their thing and some intellectuals advocated a return to Roman and Greek values. Things were changing slightly and radical thinkers were getting some of their ideas heard.
You also had stuff like the Wind in the Willows, which was a beautiful pastoral story about animals, which had a chapter where Pan featured as a great horned god.
Aleister Crowley was shagging, snorting or injecting pretty much anything he could and there were all sorts of magical and quasi-magical groups forming.
Then, in the 1920s an academic called Margaret Murray did some research into the witch crazes and witch trials and decided she’d found evidence that the covens of witches mentioned were actually the descendants of an ancient goddess based religion.
So, a few magical groups that were already in existence decided that that’s where their origins must have been, and that they were really witches and had been all along without even knowing about it!
Enter Gerald Gardner.
Gardner had lived in the far east and wrote about things like knives, as he had a bit of a thing for them. He was also involved with various semi-magical groups and masonic type orders, and had acquaintances with people like Aleister Crowley and also Ross Nichols (whom we shall come to shortly).
He met some folk down in the New Forest, who were doing something a bit like witchcraft. So, he decided that he was going to revive what he called ‘The Witch Cult’ along the lines that Margaret Murray laid out, and also bunged in a load of stuff from the New Forest people he’d met. He asked Crowley to write him some rituals (probably) and Crowley asked for some money in return (probably) and so Wicca was born. He also liked getting his kit off, and being tied up and whipped, so these elements made their way into Wicca. Wicca was faaairly pagan at this point, but was still more about angels and classical or magical ideas, instead of what we think of today as paganism.
At the same time as Gardner was inventing Wicca, other people got interested in Witchcraft and also decided that they had their own ancient heritage and version of it. One of these was Robert Cochrane. More on him later too.
Okay, back to Druidry. Since Iolo Thingy, there were plenty of Druidic groups, and a mate of Gerald Gardner’s, Ross Nichols, was a member of a one of them. He loved all that old Welsh poetry stuff, so decided to form a new druid group, the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, which was a bit more like Wicca in that it wasn’t Christian, but took much of its inspiration from Welsh and bardic stuff, including ideas about gods and spirits and heroes from the older stories.
The other druid groups stuck around and are still around, of sorts, but Nichols’ writings and the work he did led to what we know as modern Druidry.
That’ll do about Druidry, I think. OBOD continued and is still going, and other Druid groups decided that they were pagan too. And then they split. And reformed. And got drunk. And fought. And made up. And argued. And got drunk. Repeat ad nauseum.
When in 1951 the Witchcraft Act was repealed, Gardner published a few books about Wicca and its popularity grew, due to the fact people thought they might get a shag out of it, and see some people nekkid, and also because they now wouldn’t be arrested for it.
Gardner went to hang out at the Museum of Witchcraft on the Isle of Man and founded and worked with various covens around the country.
Oh yeah. Doreen.
Doreen Valiente got involved with Wicca after hearing about it in some dodgy magazine or other, and met Gardner and became Wiccan. However, she thought that some of the stuff in there was a bit pants. Mostly Crowley’s stuff, so Gardner let her rewrite it.
The stuff that she put in was a lot more pagan, and also goddess focused. She then fell out with Gardner and met with various other people who said they were witches, including the previously mentioned Robert Cochrane. He turned out to have been talking nonsense about various things too, so she also fell out with him.
Along the way, joining various groups, then falling out with them, Doreen Valiente left with them a lot of writing that was much more pagan and less strictly magical or Crowley-like than they had been.
Then Alex Sanders came along and said his granny initiated him when he was little, but that was nonsense too, but he was actually a Gardnerian, who it was rumoured, Gardner wouldn’t acknowledge because Sanders was a tiny bit gay. So Sanders founded his own tradition and initiated loads of people. That’s Wicca then.
Old Craft comes from various people and groups, like Robert Cochrane’s who might or might not have had some links to pre-existing magicians or magical groups, but they also decided they were pagan on hearing Margaret Murray’s theories.
Then you’ve got the Heathens and Northern Traditions. They didn’t undergo the same kinds of reinventions and changes that the other pagan religions did, and were around in various forms in Scandinavia and Europe until they had their serious revivals in the 1960s and 70s. These revival groups also all fell out with each other and split. And got drunk. And split. And reformed. And got drunk. And fought. And made up. And argued. And got drunk. Etc.
Somewhere along the line people started printing ‘zines and newsletters, so a pagan scene that put people in touch with other pagans became distinct from the occult scene and groups like the Pagan Front were formed, which decided that being open about being pagan was okay, and some kinds of official recognition were needed.
Then they thought that being called the ‘Pagan Front’ sounded a bit confrontational, and calling their magazine ‘The Wiccan’ was a bit exclusionary, so they changed them to the ‘Pagan Federation’ and ‘Pagan Dawn’.
Then the people who started and sorted all this out fell out with each other and split. And got drunk. And split. And reformed. And got drunk. And fought. And made up. And argued. And got drunk.
Somewhere along the way, all this stuff got exported to the USA. Where the Americans did two things. They either became uber-strict about the rules and became quite fundamentalist about their approach to paganism. Or they utterly sanitised and tamed it so that it was hideous and fluffy and nice and super appealing to teenage girls. You also had people like Starhawk and the Dianics who took Murray’s witch cult myth a bit seriously as a feminist political statement.
Then all that stuff was reimported back to the UK. Stuff like Cochrane’s version of witchcraft came back as a strict, fairly hardcore version of what it was, and Wicca became the ‘eclectic’ mess we see today when it got appropriated by horrible New Agers.
Then the Internet happened. And everyone got to be able to find out about paganism. And a few daft films and TV programmes nicked its language and ideals.
Then everyone thought they could be a Druid or a Witch or a Wiccan.
And some people in the UK thought this was great. And some hated it. And they all fell out with each other. And got drunk. And their groups split. And reformed. And got drunk. And fought. And made up. And argued. And got drunk.
And that’s about it, really.
Oh, except they’re still falling out and getting drunk and forming and reforming groups and arguing. Sometimes, amongst all that, some good stuff happens though.
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