Queens of the Wild: Pagan Goddesses in Christian Europe, by Ronald Hutton, (Yale University Press: May 2022), 256 pages.
Gerald Gardner was an old man with a great tuft of white hair on his head and another on his chin. For many years, he and his wife Donna lived in a small village in Herefordshire. He was a staunch supporter of the Conservative Party and a loyal reader of the Daily Telegraph. He was also a witch, or rather a warlock as the male of the species is known.
In 1939, Gardner claimed he was initiated into a witches’ coven based out of the New Forest of Hampshire. This coven, he said, belonged to an unbroken line stretching back to the pagan priestesses of ancient England. Since the Christianization of the British Isles, they’ve celebrated their rites in secret. Now it was Gardner’s mission to restore their lore and ceremony. These he embellished with elements of Freemasonry and Thelema to create the neopagan sect known as Wicca.
Most scholars accept that Gardner either lied or was lied to: either he invented the New Forest coven, or they misled him about their provenance. As Ronald Hutton explains in his new book Queens of the Wild, the “pagan survival” theory of witchcraft is nonsense. In fact, it’s largely the invention of a single woman, a folklorist named Margaret Murray (1863–1963).
Murray spoke of pre-Christian England as a land of happy druids who lived in a matriarchy and practiced “the Old Religion,” her term for the national witch-cult. This cult had three main rites: dancing around bonfires, ritual orgies, and human sacrifice. It was Murray’s contention that most Britons had been pagans well into the Middle Ages. What’s more, the Old Religion endures in the countryside even today—sometimes apart from Christianity, as with the New Woods coven, but mostly alongside it. She believed that most British folk customs, like May Day festivals, were really “living fossils” of paganism.
How did this strange syncretism come to be? According to Murrayites, the Christians tried very hard to stamp out heathenry in the British Isles: hence the spate of witchcraft trials in the Middle Ages. (The witches weren’t actually Satanists, you see. They were goddess-worshippers.) Having failed in their mission to purge the land of paganism, they began to assimilate the old ways into their new faith. The winter solstice, a pagan feast celebrating Earth’s turn from winter to spring, became Christmas, the day the Light of the World pierced the darkness of sin and death.
It’s an argument you’ve heard a hundred times before from Very Online atheists, though proper historians have never taken the “pagan survival” thesis seriously. And that’s quite telling. Popular acclaim drowned out the professionals’ objections so thoroughly that Encyclopedia Britannica invited Murray to write their entry on witchcraft. Almost overnight, her nonsense theories became the new academic orthodoxy. It has also become a mainstay of popular culture, from John Buchan’s novel Witch Woods to the legendary 1973 film The Wicker Man (as well as the regrettable 2006 remake starring Nicolas Cage).
Today, the average Wiccan is a pale, overweight woman in her mid-thirties. A few years ago, newspapers gleefully reported that these “witches” were trying to hex Donald Trump so he would lose the 2020 election and/or die. The appeal of Murray’s myth—the sexy, empowered woman who’s constantly oppressed by a bigoted Christian elite—is obvious. But what about a white, cishet Tory like Gardner?
The answer is surprisingly simple: the Gardnerians thought of themselves as reactionaries. They believed Wicca was their folk-religion. The witch-cult is to England what Shinto is to the Japanese or Dreamtime to the Aborigines. It’s the true faith of the indigenous people of the British Isles. Predictably, then, most of Gardner’s early followers shared his political views as well.
In 1973, a researcher named Frank Smyth published a book-length study of the first Wiccans. For the most part, they were middle-aged and working class. The majority were supporters of Enoch Powell, the British MP known for his opposition to mass immigration. Most Gardnerian covens also barred nonwhites from joining because, as one member put it, teaching magic to “an inferior race” could do “untold harm.”
If these Wiccans believed in matriarchy, it’s only because they thought patriarchy was imposed on their ancestors by Christian invaders. And if they conducted their rites in the nude, it had nothing to do with being transgressive. In fact, according to Smyth, the opposite was true. Their covens met in secret because they were afraid of being inundated with hippies looking to have sex parties in the woods.
If Gardner were alive today, he would undoubtedly be a Trump supporter. His spiritual daughter, the Hufflepuff girlboss, would hate his guts.
Well, speaking of woods, it’s only in the last couple of decades that nature and conservation have come to be associated with “the Left.” Historically, liberals have been concentrated in cities. They were merchants, manufacturers, and white-collar professionals. They had access to education and leisure. They were enlightened. The countryside, meanwhile, was a redoubt of prejudice and superstition—in a word, conservatism. The old English folkways continued uninterrupted from time immemorial.
From there, it’s not a huge leap to the “pagan survival” theory. As a conservative, he would look to the countryside. And if he’d read Margaret Murray, he would believe that the countryside was full of witches. But, of course, that was the problem. Murray’s history was totally wrong, and so Gardner had no idea what England’s folkways actually were.
Another major influence on Gardner was the Romantic movement. Romanticism was itself a reaction against two major forces: the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. Hutton notes, “In 1810, eighty percent of the population of England lived in the countryside and engaged in occupations directly or ultimately based on farming, and in 1910, eighty percent lived in towns and cities, and engaged in occupations directly or indirectly based on commerce or industry.”
The Romantics championed the countryside against the city, the farm against the factory, the Medieval against the Enlightened. Truth is found, not in the mind, but in the soul; not in artifice, but in nature; not in the seen, but in the Unseen. Needless to say, they were right-wingers almost to a man. Sir Walter Scott, William Wordsworth, Robert Southey, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Lord Byron were all conservatives of one stripe or another. Edmund Burke’s essay “On the Sublime and Beautiful” is a landmark text of Romantic aesthetics. And we could go on.
Of course, a few prominent Romantics were quite radical for their day. Percy Bysshe Shelley is one. Charles Swinburne is another. Yet these exceptions prove the rule. If they felt no attachment to the Medieval, it was because they preferred the Old Religions and wrote hymns to the old gods.
So an Englishman of conservative and Romantic sensibilities might well be attracted to paganism. And if he was steeped in Murrayite nonsense, that paganism would probably look a lot like Wicca.
Taken on its own, the whole thing is laughable. That’s just as well, because the pagan revival wasn’t limited to Britain, and its leaders weren’t all as inept as Gardner.
Hitler is the obvious example. Nazi esotericism was grounded in the same weird mixture of Romanticism, popular occultism, and junk history. But in every other respect, they were closer to Shelley and Swinburne. They saw India, Tibet, and Ultima Thule as the spiritual homeland of the Aryan race. They had no attachment to European history—only a bizarre pseudo-prehistory. They were radicals, not reactionaries.
A better parallel would be Julius Evola.
Evola was born in 1898, just four years after Gardner. His parents were middle-class Romans, though he later styled himself as a baron. After fighting in World War I, Evola fell into a deep despair. He toyed with drugs and magic for a while until, at the ripe old age of twenty-three, he began to contemplate suicide. He decided against it after reading a Buddhist text on the doctrine of transcendence, which he defined as “that which is more than life.” He began to develop a new philosophy, which he called Radical Traditionalism.
Evola predicted the coming of the Kali Yuga, a new dark age. The triumph of the bourgeoisie would usher in a period of decadence and dissolution. Their power could only be broken by the return of the Hero, the warrior-priests and “man-Gods” of classical myth. In the meantime, Western civilization would be kept alive by a remnant of spiritual aristocrats. Their duty was to “ride the tiger,” to preserve the perennial philosophy until the Heroes returned and made Il Duce look like Jimmy Carter.
Radical Traditionalism is an odd mixture of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Freemasonry. Evola had sympathies for certain heretical Christian sects, like the Cathars and Rosicrucians. Yet, by his own admission, he was a pagan first and foremost. He believed that the reign of the man-Gods would be based on a doctrine called imperialismo pagano: pagan imperialism. He was quite open about the need to oust Christianity, the cult of “the humble, the abject, and the miserable.” He would restore the Old Religion, the ancestral faith of the Aryo-Roman people.
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Today, Evola is known as the intellectual progenitor of the European far right. He was the main inspiration for Europe’s identitarian movement. Its founder, Dominique Venner, was an ardent Radical Traditionalist and a practicing neopagan. In 2013, he shot himself in the Cathedral of Notre Dame as a protest against France’s new same-sex marriage laws. Evola is also a major inspiration for Aleksandr Dugin, the Putin regime’s chief ideologist. Dugin’s dream is to blend Orthodox Christianity and Slavic neopaganism into a new state cult. Evola has also been cited favorably by Steve Bannon, including (for some reason) at a 2014 summit at the Vatican.
We’re only scratching the surface here. In Europe, neopaganism has always been a driving force behind the far-right, and vice versa. This seems odd to an American, who thinks of neopagans as tree-hugging cat ladies who like to play with crystals. Yet that’s only because Gerald Gardner had such a spectacularly poor grasp of English history. He based his reactionary cult on a vision of old England as a nation of promiscuous, crunchy-granola feminists. When that vision was debunked, there was no one to carry on his legacy except promiscuous, crunchy-granola feminists.
For the most part, though, Gardner and Evola were two peas in a pod. Both sought a return to a pre-modern, pre-Christian order. And that is the essence of neopaganism. From Ásatrú to Rodnovery, the goal is always the same: to expel foreign religions and bring about an ethno-spiritual awakening. It’s racial and regressive by its very nature—more Slytherin than Gryffindor, as our Wiccan friends would say.