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Back to the Beginnings: Introduction

You hold in your hand a complete Wiccan Book of Shadows. The very words bring strange images to mind. Not a book of the dark, nor quite that of the light, but rather of the in-between, the world of shadows. And that is where magic and ritual operate best.

But this is more than a Book of Shadows. It gives not only teachings and rituals, but what is behind them. With this book you will not only know what to do, but why you do it. The ways of the ancients are laid bare here, and woven into a faith fit for today.

Now to begin with, Wicca is an eclectic religion, with many sources going into its forming. It began in the 1940s, when, inspired by Margaret Murray's theory that the witchcraft trials recorded the suppression of Pagan mystery cults, Gerald Gardner and some friends created Wicca.

In the years since, Wicca has developed a staggering number of varieties. Most have grown from emphasizing certain aspects within Wicca, or from the importation of one or more organizing principles from outside it, or both. An example of the first would be the lack of central authority leading to an emphasis on "do what feels right." The most striking example of the second is feminism, especially in the form of belief in a time when goddesses (or a Goddess) were the primary deities.

One area for new inspiration that has too often been overlooked is the past. This may seem surprising, given Wicca's identity as a Pagan religion, intended to revive the worship of ancient deities, yet it is indeed so. A look through the bibliographies of books on Wicca tells the story - with the growth in the number of such books, it is now possible to write one relying solely on the works of other Neo-Pagans.

The result has been intellectual in-breeding. As with biological in-breeding, both strengths and weaknesses have been reinforced. Information and insights are passed on, each other building on others, but an error can take on a life of its own, as it is repeated from one book to another.

After sixty years of existence it is time for Wicca to look again to its roots. It is time to investigate both ancient Paganism and the goals of Wicca's founders to see if we are still on track. It is time, that is, to go back to the beginnings.

Gerald Gardner, together with Doreen Valiente and others, were attempting to create "a truly native British religion" (Kelly, 1991, p. 30), weaving it together from whatever sources were available. Like Britain itself, there were elements of Celtic religion, Saxon religion, Christianity, folklore, and folk customs. The name "Wicca" (which Gardner spelled "Wica") was Old English for a male witch. As well as Murray, they used other works they or others considered scholarly, in particular James Frazer's The Golden Bough and Robert Graves' The White Goddess.

It is important to note that they did the best they could, relying on the best scholarship available to them. Any mistakes they made were honest ones, arising from sources that were themselves mistaken.

Since the time of Gardner, however, scholarship has advanced. Much of what he and his associates based Wicca on has been discredited. Murray's theories are no longer accepted by scholars, and the idea that there was an organized Pagan mystery religion that was misidentified as Satanism and that has survived till this day can now be seen to have no basis in fact. The evidence is overwhelming that Gardner, or his claimed immediate predecessor, the elusive Dorothy Clutterbuck, first added to British Paganism many of Wicca's most characteristic features - duotheism, reincarnation, magic circles, drawing down the moon, and an eight festival ritual year.

It is time to do again what Gardner and his associates themselves tried to do. Wiccans must look at the past, and ask ourselves what ancient Pagans really did. We must do this without preconception, doing our best to see things as the Paleo-Pagans did rather than as we would like them to be. If we are indeed to draw inspiration from the beliefs of the past, we must first determine what those beliefs were. This will not be accomplished by bringing into the work discredited theories of sacrificed god-kings, Great Mother Goddesses, or peaceful Neolithic matriarchal cultures destroyed by aggressive Indo-European patriarchal invaders. It will only be possible if we are willing to let the ancients tell us what they can in their own way. We must sit down with the evidence and listen.

This will be a hard thing; many of our most cherished beliefs may be found to have little behind them but our own hopes. But if we are to present ourselves to the world as the inheritors of the ancient ways, we can at least take the trouble to swallow hard and learn what those ancient ways were. We owe it to our ancestors. We owe it to our ancestors' gods. We owe it to our gods. The old gods deserve the best understanding and the best worship that we can give them. We owe it to them to find out who they are and how they prefer to be worshiped.

Difficulties arise immediately. The most defining characteristic of Wicca is duotheism, belief in two deities. This is the most brilliant of all of Gardner's innovations. And yet it places great demands on anyone who would wish to gain inspiration from the past.

Any modern form of Paganism that wished to be a perfect recreation of the ancient ways could not be duotheistic for the simple reason that the ancients were polytheistic. But if we accept the "Gardnerian reform" of duotheism, but still wish to look to the past, what should we do?

The demands of duotheism, when combined with the ancient practices and beliefs, cause a certain "collapsing together" of these ancient ways. Stories that were told about different gods become stories told about the God; practices directed at different goddesses become practices directed at the Goddess - not the deities themselves, but the stories.

Having performed such a collapsing together I am of the opinion that once it is accomplished a unity results. There are apparently "creases" along which the ancient ways fold when collapsed together. The result is not chaos but a new structure, one organized along duotheism but carrying within it all the old stories and rituals that were found in polytheism.

Does it matter whether a practice or belief is truly ancient, as long as it works? This is often heard from Neo-Pagans, and it is fine in many ways. But there are aspects to the question that are hidden.

First, from a pragmatic point of view, surely if we are going to call on deities it will be easier if we use the ways they are used to. There's no point trying to call a person on a telephone if what she has is a telegraph. Theologically, if we believe in these deities, it is utter rudeness for us to say that we get to decide how they want to be called.

Worst of all is when a Neo-Pagan practice or belief is being presented as ancient when it isn't. In most cases, this is the result of ignorance; in a few, of fraud. Either can bring disaster, especially for the public image of Paganism. Only when this flaw has been overcome will the rest of the world give us a fair hearing. Only then will we deserve one.

To this end, I will give sources and explanations of the practices and beliefs in this book. Where something is ancient I will say so. Where it is not ancient I will also say so, and say why I have nonetheless included it. There will therefore be many references in the text, which I will give in the common form: the name of the author, the date of the work, and the page on which the information may be found. These will allow my readers not only to check my research but to conduct their own. I have tried to use the most recent work, and have therefore relied heavily on academic journals. These are not easily available, and I apologize for that, but I promise that it is worth the trouble to seek them out. They are where the work of scholarship is carried out.

More than that, though, I wish to go beyond the basics in my commentary into what might be called higher criticism. What is the meaning of the text? Why are these good things to do? What might be expected when they are done? Why these things, and not others? In short, this book will be my contribution to the development of a coherent Wiccan theology. There is great depth to Wicca, and many wonderful discoveries to be made there.

For this reason, I have written both a complete system of Wicca (a Book of Shadows) and a commentary on it. The main text is in bold print, and the commentary in regular print. The commentary gives both sources and discussions of the deeper meanings of the text of the Book of Shadows.

In the process of emphasizing the Pagan sources of Wicca, other sources have been removed. Most prominent of these is ceremonial magic. This provided much of the structure of Wiccan rituals, particularly of the circle casting, the source of which was The Key of Solomon. The writings of Aleister Crowley con-tributed much to the actual words in rituals.

Now, ceremonial magic is not Pagan. It was born of the mix of cultures that made up the ancient Levant: Egyptian, Roman, Greek, Sumerian, Babylonian, Jewish, and Christian, to name some of them. It was the Jewish tradition that came to prevail in the Middle Ages, in the form of the Kabbalah, especially as interpreted by Christians. The Victorian era saw a large influx of influence from Egypt, Hinduism, and Buddhism, but as neither wholly Pagan nor Indo-European, ceremonial magic does not play a role in this version of Wicca.

More surprising, is that I've jettisoned witchcraft. As I said earlier, Margaret Murray was wrong, and although Gardner followed her in good faith, this dependence on her makes him wrong too. The medieval witches, whoever they were, were not the survivors of Pagan mystery cults. (For a quick introduction to the evidence, see MacFarlane (1970) or Hutton (1999).)

With this decision made, the first thing to go had to be the word "witch." Its use always has been essentially a linguistic question, with a historical side to it; namely, what did the word originally mean, and how has its meaning been changed through the years? Linguistic questions entered Neo-Paganism the first time that Gerald Gardner gave the "original" meaning for this word, or rather two original meanings: in The Meaning of Witchcraft (p. 95), he traces it to wag, "idol," plus laer, "learning," while in Witchcraft Today (p. 102), he implied that it meant "the wise people."

I don't know where Gardner came up with these etymologies, but they are simply not true. Perhaps he was confusing "witch" with "wizard," a word descends from a Old English witan, "to know."

The next etymology that was offered appears to have been originated by Starhawk (p. 5), who wrote that "witch" comes from an Anglo-Saxon root meaning "to bend, to shape." By this theory, then, a witch is a bender or shaper of powers.

It is hard to deny the poetic power this etymology possesses. It is, however, a truism among linguists that the more poetic power an etymology possesses, the less likely it is to be true, and that is unfortunately the case with this one. Starhawk was confusing two different but homonymous Proto-Indo-European roots given in the 3rd edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, *weik- 4 and *weik- 2. The first was the one meaning "bend" (source of "wicker" and "weak"), but it was the second that was said to have given us "witch."

Today the accepted etymology is from the Proto-Indo-European root *weg, meaning "be strong, be lively." The word did not arise from the meaning "the strong or lively ones," however, but rather from "one who gives life to the dead," that is to say, a necromancer (The American Heritage Dictionary, 4th ed., p. 2131).

If we take the word much further ahead in time to its Old English version, the question of its "original" meaning becomes clearer. It is in Old English that the word begins to achieve a recognizable shape. There were two basic forms in Old English, "wicca," meaning "male witch", and "wicce," meaning "female witch."

Is there any evidence for the meaning of "witch" among the native speakers of Old English? Yes, there is, and unfortunately for many Wiccans the evidence is not good. Bluntly put, there is no evidence that the word ever meant anything other than what "witch" means to the vast majority of the English-speaking world.

We know the meaning of the word from texts in which versions of it occur in lists of words with similar meanings, or equated with Latin words. These were all, of course, written in a Christian context. However, from their unanimous agreement, together with the etymology, we can be sure that the meaning is the pre-Christian one.

Without exception, these show us a definition of essentially what "witch" has meant throughout history: a practitioner of magic, both beneficial and malevolent, who works usually outside of a social structure (and thus of the prevailing religion), and usually is herself an outcast from society.

In its earliest citation, the Old English Laws of Alfred (890 CE), a witch is a f æmnan ("woman") who practices gealdorcr æftian & scinl æcen,& wiccan ("the use of charms, necromancy, and witchcraft"). And in a gloss (explanation of a word in a manuscript) from around 1100, a witch is translated into Latin as augur uel ariolus, "reader of omens or soothsayer." Later, in 1375, it's equated with enchantore ("spell-caster") and trigetouyre " (literally "juggler," but applied to a low-level stage magician). (These citations are all from the Oxford English Dictionary, 1989.)

All in all, then, the news is not good for those who would see any trace of a positive meaning for "wicca." At no point in the history of the word, prior to Margaret Murray in 1921, was there any belief that witches were members of a Pagan mystery cult. (Although Murray likely based her work on that of other recent scholars.) Rather, they were workers of magic and dangers to society. With the exception of the connection with Satanism (understandable within a Christian context), since its earliest recorded uses the word has meant the same thing. For this reason I have rejected its use.

"Wicca" is another matter. It has no meaning in modern English, having undergone significant change in the transition from Old to Middle English, and will therefore take any meaning we pour into it. Misused and misspelled by Gardner to mean the practitioners of his religion, it has since come to mean the religion itself. It is a short, comfortable word, and I have therefore retained it.

One happy result of the importation of witchcraft customs was the creation of the coven structure. It has proved to be remarkably satisfying, and has provided the opportunity for an individualized form of religion. Wicca is also essentially a mystery religion, and such religions are best practiced in small groups. For these reasons, I have considered the small group to be one of the characteristics of Wicca that it was necessary to retain. However, because of my rejection of the identification with witchcraft, I have rejected the word "coven" to describe such a group. Instead I have used "ordhos," from the root which lies behind the modern word "order."

Although I have removed much from Wicca, then, I have left those things which, while not ancient, I consider to be the uniquely Wiccan traits. The most important of these is duotheism. While individual Wiccans may worship a variety of deities, Wicca itself worships but two, the Goddess and the God. To the extent that Wiccan rituals recognize other deities it is as aspects, manifestations, or titles of the two, or as lesser deities. This alone serves to distinguish Wicca from Paleo-Paganism. Granting that even this was influenced by non-Wiccan ideas, this particular duotheism may nonetheless be said to be Wicca's gift to the religious experience of mankind. My desire to preserve this uniquely Wiccan religious insight has led me at times to retain things that I know are not Paleo-Pagan. The choice had to be made, but I have indicated it where I have made it.

Of the many ancient Pagan religions that could be used for the creation of a kind of Wicca I have chosen to concentrate on two, the Celtic and the Germanic. The use of these two is consistent with Gardner's vision of a British religion, since they are the most important of the Pagan traditions that went into the making of England. (Since American culture is firmly based on English culture, these two traditions are a useful basis for an American religion as well.) The two are not that far apart and require little to reconcile them.

What we know about Celtic and Germanic Paganism comes from five sources, of varying reliability and usefulness. These are:

1. Archaeological evidence. This includes figures of deities, inscriptions, layouts of temples, offerings, burial customs, ritual shafts, and what might be temple equipment. Most of the figures and inscriptions come from Gaul and Britain during the period of the Roman occupation, so their usefulness in determining pre-Roman Celtic and Germanic beliefs is open to question. Further, figures can be ambiguous. Are they deities? Votive offerings? Inscriptions can be misleading. Do two reliefs that look similar but have different names represent two different deities or the same deity under two different names or titles? They may even be deities worshiped by different tribes, deities that would have been equated if their worshippers had ever found out about each other. Whether a structure is a temple or a house is often open to question unless objects of an undoubted religious nature are excavated from it. Interpretations of temple equipment labor under the tendency to assume that if we can't explain it, it must be religious.

2. Contemporary reports by outsiders. These range from the ancient chroniclers such as Caesar, Tacitus, and Strabo, to the medieval Gerald of Wales and Adam of Bremen. These appear very useful, often giving complete accounts of rituals, names of deities, and beliefs. The danger in relying on them, however, is that some of the chroniclers had their own biases. Caesar wished to paint the Celts as vicious and the druids as a political danger. Tacitus wanted to inspire the Romans to recover their ancient principles by comparing Roman decadence with the simple nobility of the Germans. Others may themselves have drawn from unreliable sources. Gerald of Wales, for instance, did not himself witness the coronation ritual he describes. Anyone wishing to ascribe too much value to traveler's tales should remember the accounts in Adam of Bremen of people who hop on one foot.

3. Celtic and Germanic texts. These, such as the Welsh Mabinogi or the Norse Poetic Eddas, were unfortunately recorded/written by Christians. How accurately they reflect pre-Christian belief and practice is a subject of scholarly debate. Their compilers were familiar with classical sources, and that may have influenced them in many ways. For instance, the relatively organized pantheon of the Irish texts does not agree well with the large number of Celtic deity names recovered from inscriptions. Therefore, although they at first glance appear to be excellent sources, they must be used with great caution.

4. Place-names. These often include deity names, so they can give us some indication of the popularity of a deity, or of the range of his cult. They can also give us the names of some otherwise unknown deities. This is useful because it reminds us that a god without a myth (or without a surviving myth) is not necessarily a god without a cult. Unfortunately, it does not tell us what that cult consisted of.

5. Folklore and customs. These have been the sources for many Neo-Pagan rituals, especially the ones celebrating the seasons. As reflections of a natural response to the seasons they are wonderful and possess great possibilities for meaning. As sources for recovering pre-Christian Celtic and Germanic religion, however, they are extremely unreliable. Some customs and tales are almost universal, and may or may not have been recognized in Celtic or Germanic religion. Some are in fact Christian; after all, Christianity has been in place for almost two thousand years, plenty of time to develop its own folklore. The creativity of medieval and Renaissance Christians has been underestimated by Neo-Pagans. The most frustrating cases are those in which folk customs have been modified under the influence of antiquarians who thought they knew better what the truly ancient forms were. Since seasonal festivals leave few archaeological traces that can be identified by season, I have had to rely heavily on folk customs for my seasonal rituals. I have, however, used them in fear and trembling, and I will document my sources so if any are found in the future to be unreliable their influence may be removed.

As can be seen, none of these sources are without problems. Those that are the most reliable, such as archaeological remains or place names, are the least useful; those that seem the most useful, such as mythical accounts or folk customs, are the least reliable. With all we have there are still gaping holes in our knowledge of Pagan northern Europe. How can they be filled?

First we must be careful. The minimum amount of care is to be sure which source is used in each case. The second step is to find the most primary source possible, such as a text or statue. All too often, facts are taken out of context in secondary sources. Even worse are sources that are tertiary or higher; a mistake that creeps into one can be quoted in others until it acquires a life of its own. There are many examples of this in Neo-Paganism; to choose just one, consider the mistaken belief that "Samhain" comes from the name of a Celtic (some sources have begun to say "Aryan") god of the dead.

The third step is to allow the reliable but not particularly useful information to serve as a check for the useful but not particularly reliable. For instance, the evidence from folk customs that seems to show a consistency of religion over a wide area can be compared with the large number of deity names found in inscriptions and place names.

Finally, secondary source material can be useful if the right sources are consulted. Academic journals, which may be found in the libraries of colleges, are a good place to find the most up to date information.

I have tried to use these methods faithfully. If I have failed in any of them, I trust my readers will not be lax in letting me know. I have especially tried to be aware at all times of just what my sources were and of how I was using them. Further, I have tried to pass this information on to my readers so they can decide for themselves how successful I have been.

Even using these methods, there are holes in the evidence. We simply do not know as much about pre-Christian northern European religion as we would like to. How can these holes be filled?

Gardner filled them with witchcraft. On this he had the authority of Murray, the leading expert on witchcraft at the time. Using witchcraft meant he could also use ceremonial magic. Neither of these systems have much to do with the religions of the Celts and Teutons, however.

Another way to fill the holes is with inspiration. In other words, just put in what feels right, see if it works, and throw out what doesn't. There are several problems with this. How do we define what is meant by "works?" It usually ends up being defined as whatever appeals to the experimenter. Not only is the result circular (put in what feels right and see if it feels right), it does not address the important question of whether these things feel right to the gods.

A bigger problem is illuminated when we ask why something doesn't feel right. If we perform a ritual we know to be ancient, and it doesn't feel right, perhaps the fault lies in us rather than in the ritual. We have been raised in a Judeo-Christian culture, which has become increasingly secularized. Perhaps the "rightness" of a ritual to us is based more on our upbringing than on its appropriateness to Paganism or its acceptability to the Pagan gods.

Rather than relying on inspiration to determine what feels right, I have asked for things to fit with what I do not have doubts about. It is like a jigsaw puzzle: if a piece is missing, its shape can be determined by the ones around it.

Where there aren't enough pieces to define the shape of the missing piece, I have looked beyond the Celts and Teutons. This sort of thing is always dangerous. It is hard to resist the urge to include something really neat from an unrelated culture.

To reduce the danger, I have drawn from Indo-European cultures almost exclusively. "Indo-European" was originally applied to the family of languages to which most of the languages of modern Europe belong. As the name implies, this family extends to India, taking in Iran along the way. In ancient times it reached south into Anatolia (Asia Minor) and northeast into China. Although both the Celtic and Germanic cultures were influenced by non-Indo-European cultures, they both trace their ancestry back to the Indo-Europeans.

"Indo-European" is also used in a rough sort of way to refer to the cultural elements shared by the speakers of the various Indo-European languages. These shared elements are presumed to have descended from the culture of the people from whom the languages are descended, the Proto-Indo-Europeans. If we find a ritual in Ireland, India, and Rome, for instance, it can be called Indo-European.

The three cultures I just mentioned are very important. Ireland and India are on the fringes of the Indo-European world, and therefore tended to maintain old customs longer than the cultures in the middle. (This tendency, found in both language and culture, is called "the archaism of the fringe.") The distance between them, and the relative isolation of Ireland, decreases the possibility that the custom traveled from one to the other in a later period.

Although Irish texts are medieval, and frequently affected by Christian and classical influence, the Indian texts are very old. In fact, the Rig Veda contains some of the oldest Indo-European documents we have.

Rome is a special case. In the middle of the Indo-European world, with influences from all sides (including non-Indo-European cultures), it might be expected to have changed a lot. However, although the Romans were not hesitant to adopt customs from the people they conquered, they were very hesitant to discard any of their own customs. As a result, very old customs continued to be practiced in Rome, sometimes long after the reason for them had been forgotten. As a literate culture from a very early period, Rome preserved for us much of its primitive religion.

The archaism of India and Rome may therefore preserve Pagan customs that were practiced in Celtic and Germanic Europe but disappeared with the coming of Christianity. Furthermore, the Roman and Indic customs may shed light on Celtic or Germanic customs, or may provide supporting evidence for otherwise un-trustworthy accounts. For instance, a comparison of a kingly inauguration ritual described by Gerald of Wales in the 12th century, with the Roman October Equus and the Vedic Aśvamedha turns up enough similarities to show his story to be reliable.

Because of these factors, I will often show Roman or Indian parallels as explanation. If evidence from other Indo-European cultures is useful, I will include that as well. Other times I will simply describe a custom as Indo-European, relying on the conclusions of Indo-European scholars.

These are my hole fillers. As research continues, there will be fewer holes to be filled. Maybe in fifty years someone else will sit down to ask the question of how the religions of the Celts and Teutons can be adapted to modern life with more confidence of the answers. I look forward to their work.