Campus & Community

Colloquium attracts scholars, witches

5 min read

Students and practitioners of witchcraft mix it up at folklore and paganism conference

What does the word “witchcraft” mean to you?

If it’s Elizabeth Montgomery’s twitching nose or something some hapless woman in Colonial Salem was put to death for, you’ve got some catching up to do.

Witchcraft is very much of the present, a 21st century religion or philosophy or practice (exactly how to define it is a bit tricky) with plenty of passionate adherents as well as cadres of academics ardently scrutinizing its history, its sociological significance, and its beliefs.

The vitality of witchcraft (or Wicca, as many within the movement prefer to call it) was on display May 3-4 at a colloquium titled “Forging Folklore: Witches, Pagans, and Neo-Tribal Cultures,” sponsored by the Committee on Degrees in Folklore and Mythology.

According to Stephen Mitchell, professor of Scandinavian and folklore and chair of Folklore and Mythology, one of the reasons witchcraft, magic, and paganism fascinate scholars is that their study brings together so many different disciplines.

“Part of what makes the topic so intriguing,” Mitchell said, “is that its proper study is inherently interdisciplinary and calls on a highly discursive skill set. And it is an excellent example of how adjacent disciplines can learn from each other.”

At the Harvard colloquium, academics weren’t the only ones doing the learning, or teaching. Practitioners as well as scholars (and those who combined the two roles) were present in goodly numbers. Although there seemed to be some tensions between the two viewpoints, Mitchell sees the heterogeneity of the group as an advantage.

“What perhaps made this conference a little different was the fact that so many pagans and pagan academics attended, but that may be understood in part as a reflection that these [pagan] groups are among the fastest-growing religions in America today. After all, what would a conference on, say, Buddhism or Islam be that didn’t include people who could provide an ‘emic’ view of things?” (“Emic” is a description of behavior in terms meaningful to the actor as opposed to the observer.)

What was most striking about the colloquium was the variety of forms that witchcraft and paganism have taken and the variety of perspectives from which they have been observed.

On the more traditional side of the spectrum, for example, Matthieu Boyd, a Ph.D. candidate in Harvard’s Department of Celtic Languages and Literatures, discussed the survival of pagan themes and images in Breton folklore. In a very different vein, independent scholar Leslie Roth spoke about “Technopagans, Chaos Magicians, and Postmodern Narratives of the Occult,” while Lindsay Coleman of the University of Melbourne, Australia, discussed “The Faun as Father Surrogate in Guillermo del Toro’s ‘Pan’s Labyrinth.’”

Randy Conner of the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco gave an impassioned defense of “Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches,” an 1899 book by the American Charles Godfrey Leland, which claims to reflect an ancient witchcraft tradition practiced secretly in Tuscany, and which has become a fundamental text of modern Wicca. Conner accused those scholars who have tried to discredit the authenticity of “Aradia” of anti-pagan prejudice.

“If it’s not a medieval work, then it is a living vision of an alternative religion. Why are people so hell-bent to dismantle counter-hegemonic histories of paganism?”

Ronald Hutton of Bristol University in the United Kingdom delivered the keynote address, “Modern Pagan Festivals,” in which he traced the origins of the eight festivals that comprise the wheel of the modern pagan year. Hutton, who has written books on 16th and 17th century British history as well as on witchcraft, magic, and shamanism, argued that these festivals are not of ancient origin, as many of their celebrants claim, but can be traced back to relatively recent sources.

Interest in the pre-Christian religions of the British Isles began, Hutton said, in the mid-18th century when scholars began to study and to speculate about the ancient druids, then mistakenly believed to be the builders of Stonehenge and other megalithic monuments.

One of the most influential authorities was Edward Williams, a Welsh stonemason and antiquarian who called himself by the Welsh name Iolo Morganwg. Williams published large quantities of what he claimed were lost poems written by ancient Welsh bards but which have turned out to be forgeries.

According to Williams, the druids considered the four “quarter days” (corresponding to the solstices and the equinoxes) to be sacred and held religious festivals at these times.

Margaret Murray, a British Egyptologist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who also wrote popular books on witchcraft, added the other four festivals, to which she gave the names Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh, and Samhain. According to Hutton, Murray’s insistence that British witches held festivals on these dates is based on the slimmest of evidence.

The person who did the most to popularize the pagan Wheel of the Year as the centerpiece of modern Wicca, along with the notion that Wicca’s beliefs and rituals had survived in an unbroken line from ancient times, is Gerald Gardner. According to Hutton, however, many of the songs and liturgies Gardner introduced as ancient were actually taken from published sources while others were written by his associate Doreen Valiente.

Since Gardner’s death in 1964, other writers, including Aidan Kelly, Starhawk, and Vivianne and Christopher Crowley, have added to the accumulation of lore and belief that comprises modern Wicca.

According to Hutton, the most striking difference between ancient and modern paganism is the absence among moderns of the idea of sacrifice, of a lesser being trying to propitiate a more powerful one. Instead, modern pagans seek to cultivate a closer bond with the natural world and to cultivate hidden powers in themselves. In this sense, Hutton finds Wicca to be distinctly modern, despite its claims to antiquity.

“It lacks just those aspects of religion which modern critics of religion have found most unpalatable — namely, human weakness and helplessness.”