It is a peculiarity that England – the country to have lead the way more than any other with the contemporary Pagan revival – has in fact no coherent pantheon or ancient mythology of its own. We have a great many pieces of folklore, traditional rites, interesting characters, places and themes, but there has never been – either in Ancient Times or Modern – an attempt to synthesise or unite them in a common set of stories. Countries with a far more vigorously attested ancient mythology – Greece, Iceland, Russia, Italy, Ireland – were all relative latecomers to Paganism. Although there are many good historical reasons why, the problem is that English Paganism has not yet filled this void completely. There is of course a really popular English Pagan myth – that of the Horned God and the Triple Goddess, worshipped by Witches, who are themselves the subject of a myth all their own. And this is the myth I’d like to examine.
I am speaking of course of the myth of the persecution of Europe’s witches by “the Church”, of the fertility cult they enacted and the God and Goddess they worshipped. As myths are wont to, it has captured the imagination of many – but due to its roots in history, rather than mystery, it has had a short-lived efflorescence. Within 20 years of its birth, the “Witch-Cult Hypothesis” was rejected by academe, within 50, it had fallen out of favour in the country of its birth, even amongst Wiccans.
In my view, this myth has boasted other less obvious shortcomings. Firstly, it isn’t truly English. As a “Pan-European” legend, it is not rooted in the rolling hills, grey skies and mirrored waters of this green and pleasant land, but in a much wider ethnoscape – one in which all Christian peoples persecuted by their priests, not just the English, have purchase. As such, it isn’t really the “English” legend that we might like to balance the legends we find in other lands. Rather, it’s the antithesis to the concept of Christendom – a cultural critique of the overarching narrative of a triumphant Roman Christ who liberated our beleaguered continent from itself. Instead, the Witch Cult Hypothesis suggests that the people of Europe aren’t/weren’t truly Christian in their hearts, or that only threats and violence made them so. This may be true in places, but this process was begun and over long before the time when the supposed persecutions were imagined to have taken place, having been more a feature of Christianisation rather than Inquisition.
The other issue I have with the Witch Cult as an English myth is that it owes as much to Victorian conceits of lumping gods and cultures together into ill-conceived, grand categories as it does to ancient history or the worldview of the rural cultures it apes after. Suggesting that all gods are facets of the One, all goddesses are reflections of Her may be a profound spiritual truth, but it’s very bad anthropology. Small-scale, localised societies such as those which make most Pagans misty-eyed often show great interest in particularity; knowing the difference between this and that stream, these and those mushrooms, the season now and the season is given great importance. Gods are not assumed to have universal significance, nor are “our” gods meant to be connected, necessarily, to those of one’s neighbours. Zeus is NOT Thunor is NOT Taranis is NOT Thor is NOT Taran. They are each very different beings, with their own personalities, histories, cultus and spiritus. In this way, the gods are like humans – although emphasising the oneness of Mankind can teach many things, ignoring the fact that we are all different people can have terrible side-effects. Just as I have similarities with other Geminis, so Thunder Gods share certain similarities. In this regard, I see the divine realm as no different to the human.
Another thing that makes me feel a little frustrated with the WCH as a local myth is that it is very limited. In comparison to the huge variety to be found within most traditional cultural worldviews, detail in the WCH is thin on the ground. Two gods. A Great Rite. A single rede. A rumour of genocide, and the promise of grandmother stories. That’s it.
This doesn’t mean that the Witch-Cult Hypothesis and the dimensions of it that modern Wiccans adhere to is bad. It’s only that it’s the beginnings of a tradition, not the whole of one. As for the pseudo-historical witch hunt, it’s certainly not what I’m looking for from Paganism. If I wanted a persecution narrative, I could identify with my sexuality, or my Jewish relatives on my mother’s side. If I wanted one binaristic divinity, there’s plenty of that in Hinduism and Catholicism. What I want is something local.
Now, none of this is to suggest that nobody in England has tried to devise a mythology to go with our homeland. In fact, plenty of people have – but sadly, most (all?) of them aren’t Pagan. C.S. Lewis, despite never setting out to create an English myth, created in Narnia a joyful arcadia that reminds me deeply of my homeland. JK Rowling’s depictions of witches and wizards in the Harry Potter series is – sociologically speaking – sometimes alarmingly similar to the British Pagan community; with batty-named people who all know each other living in secret, keeping the magic alive. Eva Ibbotsen, an Austrian author whose work I devoured as a child, masterfully syncretised all manner of English magical creatures into singular, coherently English bestiaries for her novels. But the two leaders in this field of mythopoeisis are, in my humble opinion, JRR Tolkein and Susannah Clarke.
Notable about their work is the way in which it is designed around the setting, rather than the other way around. Tolkein, whose expressed purpose was to create a myth for the English people, created landscapes, languages, peoples and angelic beings that have proved so captivating that he has literally set the mould into which the majority of contemporary, world-builder fantasy is cast. Unfortunately, though, Tolkein’s work had the weakness (as far as his aim of mythologizing England was concerned) of not being sufficiently rooted in England, its heritage and localities. With my observations about traditional, localised societies in mind, it’s easy to see how Tolkein’s corpus – despite being amazing myth – failed to be an English one. His creativity got the better of him; by re-inventing everything, Tolkein divorced Middle Earth utterly from its roots as a spiritual twin of the country in which he grew up.
Susannah Clarke has not made the same mistake in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell; under her pen, Northern England is a place both otherworldly and immanent. It is not some strange dominion named Menegroth that is guarded by mystical woodland, but the city of Newcastle. It isn’t someone we’ve never heard-of named Theoden who is faced by the Storm Crow, but rather Edward III. She captures the essence of what Pagan spirituality is about – a throbbing animism that enchants body and soul, by tugging you down into the very land you live with – and gives it life within her pages. As Liz Williams remarked to me when I enthused about JS&MN: I found myself wishing very deeply that her invented history of English magic, with its carefully footnoted faux-scholarship, had been the real history.
And yet… England does have a rich and well-documented magical history. It isn’t without good reason that Romanticism flourished here, that The Tempest was written here, that some of the English language’s greatest fantasy writers have worked here, and that Paganism, in modern times, was born here. Great magicians – from Dee to Ashmole – have sweated, strained, and spellcast in some of our greatest institutions. Ancient monuments cover the land, as do funny little stories, with more being made all the time.
Why? Because these hills, springs, woods, and rivers sing. They demand our attention, generation after generation, and insist upon our expressing what we think and feel from living amongst them. And though we have of late wrapped ourselves in the trappings of modern life, that power still has the same grip upon us it always had. All that advanced technology has bought us is the opportunity to put our fingers in our ears, and pretend to each other that we’re not listening. Or, in some cases, write down some sheet music.
With this in mind, I think somebody (probably me), needs to set about fusing that history into a mythos. But rather than be “fake” scholarship, as the previous attempt was, I intend to participate fully as a scholar, and then from there embark upon writing works of fiction, clearly bracketed as such. If Tolkein’s life shows nothing else, it proves that fiction can be just as profound as fact. Indeed, it becomes more so, if fact has inspired it.