I could become very unpopular with other Pagans by saying this, but let’s face it, I’m already unpopular with other Pagans. I don’t truck with the notion that Wicca/Witchcraft/Neo-Paganisms are ancient. I do not believe that there’s an unbroken line from the Paleolithic to modern Witchcraft. And maybe I’m overestimating how many Pagan folk believe the myth of the matriarchy; in my thesis work, skepticism abounded. Material culture: a button reading, “Wicca: Pretending to be an ancient religion since 1957.” Credit where it’s due.
But I’ve also encountered Pagans who see what they want to, a hidden tradition, untouched by time, the refuge of the accused, and a feminist bastion to boot. Invented traditions do that, worm their way in, scattering fig leaves over facts. The Scottish tartan is more ancient than the paleolithic paganisms of Margaret Murray. What bothers me is not the existence of the myth, but its application.
See, it gets used as a primacy claim. It gets used as a way to invent a rosy past, in order to create a mythic age people should want to seek return to. It gets used as a way to trump other faiths in a game of “Nyah-nyah, we were first!” It gets used as a way to legitimize a thing which needs not be legitimized. Its existence is justification enough. Remember Hobsbawm? I mention him on occasion. Tell me, who says the ancient is the only authentic? The Neo-Pagan community represents a living tradition here now, and functions as a legitimate system of meaning-making. Isn’t that the business of religion? A means of making meaning? A means of forming deep connections?
Further, I take issue with the idea of the golden age of the matriarchy. The idea of ancient global mother-goddess worshipers has been basically debunked, but nowhere does it seem to gain so much traction as in the Pagan community. There is no evidence, first. And second, what good does it do to try to invent a better world based on the structures of an imagined past when we can study here now how people work, and labor toward a better world under observations of actual behavior? Just sayin’. Real observations and work help more than trying to return to make-believe golden ages.
I’ll leave respectful fact-ordering to scholars like Ronald Hutton, but I want to point out that every tradition has a beginning. The Catholic Church hasn’t always existed, shrouded in such inventions. Even offerings to the Lares started at some point. There is no mythical magical “always been” for any tradition. They were initiated in a moment, and it was the needs of the human psyche which spurred them. When we lack a tool, we make one. Perhaps Paganism is a postmodern answer to a need for ritual. The issue at hand is its “back story” pulled whole-cloth from bad anthropology and wishful thinking. Let’s not pretend— we can leave that for LARP games— Neo-Paganism is new. I see that as a strength.