ROBERT W. BROCKWAYTHE ROOTS OF NEW AGE
Although Murray’s theories, as we have said, fell into disrepute among scholars during the 1960s and early 1970s, they are still taken very seriously by esotericists, and especially by the adherents of Wicca. The latter claim to be descendants of the witches and their converts, and, as such, pagans. While it is undoubtedly true that some British families preserved genealogical traditions of witches in their ancestry, there is no evidence that these were actually pagans. It is more likely that they were Christian victims of persecution, tortured and put to death because of alleged pacts with Satan. If such pacts actually were made, which is doubtful, they would have been Satanists, and therefore their beliefs would have been wholly within the context of Christianity, albeit oppositional or, as they were accused of being, heretical. It is more likely that so-called witches were victims of a mass hysteria akin to that which gripped America during the McCarthy Era, and that the accusations were based on deviations of some kind from the norm. All of this is still subject to much conjecture.
In any case, whether or not there actually were witches who made what they believed were pacts with Satan in return for wealth and power, they were not esotericists or occultists per se, although, like the vast majority of medieval and early modern Christians, their Christian beliefs were liberally mixed with esoteric and occult elements. As one peruses the published literature concerning witchcraft in the British Museum or the Bodleian, it is quite apparent that virtually everyone then believed in magic, divination, astrology, alchemy, and other facets of esotericism. Such ideas permeated the classical literature of the times, as in the works of Marlowe, Shakespeare, Spencer, and other great men of literature.
As has been mentioned, and will be frequently again, belief in alchemy, astrology, magic, divination etc. prevailed among the most educated of Europeans, and was not challenged until the Enlightenment. It did not disappear then, nor has it yet. What is not in evidence was the existence of an organized pagan religion which was systematically stamped out during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Gerald Gardner’s Invention
Among the many people who were enchanted by Murray’s theories was a retired colonial official by the name of Gerald Gardner who had served for many years in Malaysia. Much that he had learned there influenced his thinking. In later years, he claimed to have met a “cunning man” by the name of Eglington in a West Country village, and, through him, contacted a coven of witches who still met in the New Forest. From them, he said, he learned the rites and beliefs of the witch cult. In 1958, Parliament dispensed with the Witchcraft Act of 1715, which, despite its name, actually reflected the rationalism of the Enlightenment: it defended those charged with witchcraft from prosecution. Parliament replaced it with an act which regulated fraud among mediums. Gardner maintained that the act of 1715 had suppressed witchcraft (which it had not), and that, after its replacement, the witches emerged from their underground existence. Gardner then revealed his Wicca, which he claimed was the “old religion.”