Ethan Doyle White has recently published an important new book: Wicca: History, Belief, and Community in Modern Pagan Witchcraft, available on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com, and due for release on 1 November 2015. So I approached him for an interview.DfD: Tell us about yourself, Ethan…
I am a trained archaeologist with a particular interest in the pre-Christian belief systems of Europe and the manner in which they have been reinterpreted and utilised in modern contexts, particularly within the contemporary Pagan movement. I am currently engaged in MPhil/PhD studies in Early Medieval archaeology at University College London (UCL), and run the Albion Calling blog on which I have interviewed such scholars as Ronald Hutton, Sabina Magliocco, and Graham Harvey.
DfD: What prompted you to start researching Wicca?
It was just down to personal interest, quite frankly. Growing up in suburban London, I was born and raised in what Professor Robert Mathiesen called an “esoteric family”, in that my parents were involved in various esoteric movements. In the case of my own household, that esotericism expressed itself as a syncretic blend of Spiritualism, the New Age movement, and (to a lesser extent) Christianity. I’m thus in a fairly unusual position of being an individual who was raised to believe in the fundamental normalness of esoteric ideas; I would come home from school to find séances, Tarot card reading, or reiki healing taking place in the living room, for instance. Quite a few friends and acquaintances have expressed jealousy of that fact.
As a tweenager and teenager I was very interested in religious studies. On a personal level, I experimented with the likes of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Sufism, and developed a great fascination with ritual and the materiality of religion ((of course, at the time I’d never heard of such jargon as the “materiality of religion”, which describes the way in which religiosity is expressed in “material culture”, or to put it more bluntly, it’s all about religious paraphernalia and other “stuff”!). I was also very much interested in mythology, folklore, and the pre-Christian societies of the European continent, in particular those of the North. As I would later find out, these are all common elements reported by those who subsequently convert to forms of contemporary Paganism, thus helping to generate the sensation of conversion being a “homecoming.”
Pretty soon I came upon Wicca through an eclectic ‘Wicca 101’ book, and I found it absolutely fascinating. I certainly flirted with the ‘Teen Witchcraft’ movement, as so many others did at the time. However, within a few years my involvement with the Craft had moved from being that of a teenage spiritual seeker to quite firmly being an “outsider” with no particular desire for practical participation. As I grew into my late teens and early twenties I had lost my faith in many of the esoteric and religious ideas that I was raised with, becoming a great deal more sceptical about the existence of preternatural entities, magic, and all such ‘paranormal’ things which have not had their existence confirmed by scientific enquiry. These days I self-define as a secular humanist, although my strong fascination for religions like Wicca has remained and for that reason I have continued to research the subject and write on it in an academic capacity. I think that I’m quite well placed to do so, being an “outsider” to the religion who at the same time has an awful lot of respect for esoteric and Pagan schools of thought as a result of my own personal background. My work on the subject is therefore not un-critical, but is generally quite sympathetic and is certainly not hostile; I hope therefore that it will satisfy both devout practitioners and ardent critics of the Craft.
DfD: How long did the book take to write?
If I remember correctly, I started to write a book on the subject of Wicca – specifically the history of Wicca – when I was seventeen (so seven years ago now). At the time I had never read an article in a peer-reviewed journal and had absolutely no idea how to write academically. After entering the university system, as well as independently researching and publishing a variety of articles in peer-reviewed journals, I gained a much better grasp of how academic writing is done. For that reason, I largely scrapped my original manuscript and started again when I was nineteen, this time deciding to create a work that would cover all areas of Wicca – history, belief and practice, and sociological and cultural issues – which I felt was probably a lot more useful for people than a book purely dealing with the faith’s history.
By this point, I had realised that while some excellent research on Wicca had been conducted – work by Ronald Hutton, Sabina Magliocco, and Helen Berger jumps to mind – there still wasn’t a single academic book that actually offered an introduction to this new religious movement. There were introductory works on contemporary Paganism as a whole by the likes of Graham Harvey and Margot Adler, and of course there were various ‘Wicca 101’ books authored by practitioners, but these weren’t ideal for the needs of a religious studies student or just a general interested reader who really wanted a good, scholarly, yet in-depth summary of Wicca. I’m not terribly business-minded, but quite simply I saw a gap in the market.
Thus, I would say that the book as it currently exists probably took me five years to write; of course, I had to juggle its production with my university studies, research articles, the Albion Calling blog, paid employment, and of course an all-important social life! So it has been a lengthy process, and a labour of love, but I do hope that it was worth it.
DfD: What was your research methodology?
In this case there wasn’t a research methodology per se. I wasn’t in the position to conduct in-depth ethnographic research – and even if I did it would have been regionally constrained – but rather I wanted to produce a textbook that brought together other scholars’ work and synthesised it all in one place. Most of those with a scholarly interest in Wicca will be aware of the best known book-length academic studies of the subject, but in producing this volume I discovered that there was an awful lot more research on the subject than I had ever realised, with hundreds of academic articles having been published, often in comparatively obscure academic outlets like the World Leisure Journal and Cornish Studies. That’s why my book’s bibliography is 29 pages long!
However, as I was writing the work there were questions that really intrigued me, in particular regarding such issues as the etymology and changing usage of the word “Wicca” within the Pagan community, the origins of the Wiccan Rede, and the life and theology of the British Witch Robert Cochrane, so I undertook historical studies on those particular issues, resulting in articles for peer-reviewed academic journals like The Pomegranate, Correspondences, Folklore, and Magic, Ritual and Witchcraft. These were spin-offs from the book as it were, and helped to give me – as someone too young to possess either a doctorate or professional academic post – the scholarly credibility that I needed to ultimately gain an academic publisher for the volume.
Can you share any of your more surprising findings?
I think that my most surprising findings all arose from my research into the word “Wicca”, which resulted in my very first academic publication, ‘The Meaning of “Wicca”: A Study in Etymology, History and Pagan Politics’, in a 2010 issue of The Pomegranate. It seemed that most people with an interest in the Craft – including myself, initially – were under the impression that Gerald Gardner had either developed the term “Wicca” (based on the Old English wicca) or gained it from the New Forest coven. According to this story, Gardner used the term explicitly to describe his Gardnerian tradition, but in the 1970s and 1980s “eclectic” practitioners adopted it for themselves and stretched it into a far more inclusive term for all forms of contemporary Pagan Witchcraft.
Simply put, a methodical examination of the early texts of the movement showed that that wasn’t the case. Gardner never used the term “Wicca”. What he did use was the term “the Wica”, which contains only one c, not two. However, “the Wica” was not a name for this religion, or even his tradition specifically. Instead it referred to the community of Pagan Witches – a community that he of course believed (or at least, publicly appeared to believe) – represented isolated survivals of a pre-Christian Murrayite witch-cult with its origins in prehistory. Thus, in Gardner’s understanding of the term, “the Wica” comprised not only his own Gardnerians, but also members of the traditions propagated by other Witches like Charles Cardell and Victor Anderson, both of whom he was in contact with.
The historical data shows that the term “Wicca” – as a name for the religion itself – appears in Britain in the early 1960s, where it is use among the early Alexandrians. They don’t use it in an exclusive manner to refer solely to the Gardnerians and Alexandrians, but rather in a far wider, inclusive manner, to refer to all Pagan Witchcraft groups claiming to be the survivals of Murray’s witch-cult. If you read Stewart Farrar’s What Witches Do, an early Alexandrian work, you’ll see him talking of Gardnerian, Alexandrian, Traditional, and Hereditary “Wiccans”, not “Witches”.
Basically, what we see here is that the common conception of the etymology of “Wicca” – that it was originally very exclusive and only later transformed into a wide-ranging inclusive term – is completely wrong. The term was in fact very inclusive from the start, and instead it was practitioners of the Gardnerian-Alexandrian tradition operating in the U.S. who then tried to restrict its usage during the 1970s and 1980s, perhaps as a part of boundary policing at a time when they wished to distance themselves from the growth of the Dianic Wiccans, Feri Wiccans, and self-dedicants who had built their tradition on the published work of Lady Sheba, Paul Huson, Raymond Buckland and the like.
For those Wiccans, and scholars interested in Wicca, who have not necessarily been following all of the latest developments in the study of the subject over the past few years, or even decades, I think that my work will be a bit of an eye opener.
DfD: How do you think Wicca, which was born in the repressive 1950s, and grew up in the “permissive” 60s and 70s, fits in with contemporary culture?
Well, in many ways I think that Wicca is intrinsically counter-cultural – it’s hardly a widely accepted part of mainstream culture to call oneself a “Witch”, venerate a deity other than the Judaeo-Christian God, and proclaim the ability to work magic! It is also marginal in that it holds the adherence of only a very tiny proportion of the overall population in any given country. Thus, I think that – just like other esoteric and Pagan movements – it exists within the “cultic milieu” at the cultural margins of Western society, which is part of what makes it so interesting for me and probably for many of its own participants, but at the same time it is that which makes it vulnerable to prejudice and persecution. I’m personally sceptical regarding the idea that Wicca will ever truly break out of this marginal position and enter the cultural mainstream; to do so I think that you would need to see not only the “western rationalist” scientific establishment embrace the objective validity of magic but also Wicca become a dominant religion with a large minority or even majority of the population professing allegiance to it. I appreciate that there are Wiccans who do believe – or at least hope – that this might eventually happen, but if I’m honest I have to say that I’d very surprised if such a scenario ever came to fruition. Then again, stranger things have happened – how many people living in the Roman Empire during the first-century CE thought that Christianity would come to dominate not only Rome itself but the entirety of Europe ?
DfD: What do you think might be the future for Wicca – both the eclectic varieties and the initiatory traditions?
I think that the short term future – the next fifty years or so – looks quite bright. The established, initiatory traditions are in a fairly stable place right now, at least in the Anglophone Western nations. Even if they aren’t growing at the rapid pace that they once experienced, their membership isn’t in significant decline, they’ve shown their capability to develop good relations with their neighbours, and they’ve established legally-recognised organisations that have helped to provide Wicca with greater visibility and legal protection. While this process of routinization definitely brings benefits for some Wiccan groups, at the same time other practitioners have resisted all of this and retained a fairly anarchic, secretive structure that they are far more comfortable with. To me, this says that Wicca is remarkably flexible and adaptable, able to fit both its participants’ desires and society’s demands, and that will no doubt stand it in good stead, at least over the coming decades.
When it comes to the “eclectic” Wiccans, I think that we will also see things remaining fairly stable in the near future too, with no dramatic surges and no dramatic declines. I have little doubt that while the books of Scott Cunningham and Silver RavenWolf remain readily available, you will still see a trickle of practitioners brought into the fold through them. I’ve noticed that in the past year or so there appears to have been something of a miniature revival of pop culture interest in Wiccan(esque) witchcraft and magic: we have a remake of The Craft coming out, talk of a revival of Charmed, and the girl band Little Mix recently launched a music video that revolved around the idea of four schoolgirls discovering a magic book and using it to advance their own interests. Sound familiar? Furthermore, I’ve noticed a fascinating but rather unexpected interest in Wicca within the queer hip hop scene coming out from the States; an artist called Zebra Katz released a song called “Blk Wiccan”, while one of the most innovative rappers of recent years, Azealia Banks, has talked about Wicca in some widely publicised tweets. I suspect that all of this reflects an embodiment of 90s nostalgia – like myself, these are all individuals who were exposed to Sabrina, The Craft, Buffy, Charmed and the ‘Teen Witchcraft’ movement as they were growing up, and now that they are bursting onto the musical scene they are bringing those formative influences with them. However, it would not surprise me if these factors resulted in a second ‘Teen Witchcraft’ movement, emerging among those consuming this new media, even if this one is not as large or as significant as its late 90s/early 00s predecessor.
As for the longer term, by which I mean the next five hundred to a thousand years (and as an archaeologist I often find myself thinking in those terms), I’m really not sure what will happen to Wicca. I believe that the impulse that many Westerns have – to “revive” in one way or another pre-Christian spiritual systems – will undoubtedly survive and thus I think that modern Pagan religiosity will undoubtedly surface again and again, in either explicitly spiritual or simply artistic and aesthetic forms, just as it has done ever since the Renaissance. Wicca itself, however, has the potential to die out at some point in the far future. Both history and archaeology tell us that most religious groups do eventually succumb to extinction, either by being wiped out or by evolving into something else entirely. Since the 1950s, Wicca has been propelled in part by its counter-cultural chic and its rejection of dominant modes of monotheistic religiosity, but there could come a point where Wicca just feels like an out-of-date irrelevancy for people, and is unable to attract young blood to its cause. It could become an old folks’ religion on the brink of extinction, which is the fate that many (formerly powerful and influential) Christian groups in the West are facing right now. Equally, it could fall victim to serious persecution, or fall by the wayside as humanity is wracked by totalitarianism, epidemics, or war. I appreciate that that might not be a message that many Wiccans want to hear, but I don’t believe that practitioners of the faith should ever think that their religion is somehow immune to the forces of history that have wiped out many belief systems in the past, including those “paganisms” of the ancient world that inspire Wicca’s modern spiritual endeavours. However, even if this pessimistic outlook should be the case, I hope that texts such as my book will have helped to document the existence of this truly fascinating religious movement for posterity.
Thank you very much, Ethan!
Over recent years, Adrian Bott has become widely known for his annual deconstruction of the myth that Eostre or Ostara was a widely worshipped goddess in Northern Europe, and that she was associated with rabbits, hares, and eggs. In the course of his research, he has discovered a number of other interesting things, some of which are explained in his article for The Guardian, The modern myth of the Easter bunny.
So I asked him if he would like to do an interview on the subject of Eostre and Easter.
1. What got you interested in this topic, and returning to it every year?
My interest in festivals, pagan and otherwise, goes all the way back to my earliest involvement with these matters. Like so many others, I absorbed the myths uncritically and welcomed the ammunition they seemed to give against an overarching, oppressive Christianity. Being able to claim ‘we were here first’ is empowering for pagans, especially young ones. Back in those days, there weren’t nearly so many of us as there are now.
As for my interest in debunking the myths surrounding the festivals, well, that comes a lot later in life. I ran an occult bookshop in Manchester for ten years, which put me in a wonderful and enviable position: access to all the literature I could ever want! The more reading I did, the more holes appeared in the popular ‘Eostre’ narrative. I got into the habit of checking sources rather than simply accepting material at face value. It became rapidly apparent that a great many supposed ‘facts’ were nothing of the sort, and were only being repeated because they told people things they wanted to hear.
I wrote a rough-and-ready article for White Dragon magazine back in the early 2000s that started the ball rolling, and since then it’s become a sort of annual tradition to drag it out and get the weary work of debunking going again, because every year you see the same codswallop circulated. In my view, people deserve better.
2. Why do you think it is so important to be historically accurate in the presentation of myth and symbol?
Well, that really depends on the context. I’m not saying that anyone has to be historically accurate (which is hardly achievable, let’s be honest!) in their spirituality. People have an unassailable right to interpret the divine, however they may see that, in their own way. The last thing I want is to be seen as some sort of pompous pagan bureaucrat telling people the figures on their altar don’t properly reflect the latest archaeological or academic discoveries.
But I do think that pagans, of all people, have an ethical obligation to respect the historicity of the stories they tell, especially when they are telling them to one another. I think we have to do more than pay lip service to such things as lore, tradition, and ‘old ways’. That means recognising the boundaries of our knowledge. It’s no shame to say ‘We do not know what the absolute truth of this matter is’. Stories can emerge from the shadows. Where there’s doubt, there’s room to breathe.
As I see it, to say ‘We do not know for sure whether Eostre existed as a figure of worship’ is far more liberating, far more honest and far more empowering than to say ‘There WAS an Eostre, there HAS TO have been, she DID SO exist, and she had a sacred bunny too.’ The problem with the latter approach is that it standardises the myth. It reduces all that cryptic, compelling potential to a mere lump of monolithic propaganda.
The discipline of the historian, as I see it, is something to be treated with reverence, especially by people who purport to be custodians of the past. It’s bitterly ironic that so many pagans depend on the ancestral past for their sense of identity and yet blithely ignore the findings of academic historians in favour of flavoursome lies that they think empower them.
3. Do you think that a certain amount of the spurious notion that “the Christians stole our festivals” (CSOF) has fed into the modern Eostre myth? Do you think this idea is dangerous? Why?
Yes on both counts. I’d go so far as to say that the whole purpose of the modern Eostre myth is to undermine the Christian Easter, for entirely understandable reasons. I don’t think they are good reasons, but they are understandable.
There are many reasons why the idea is dangerous. Firstly, it peddles a facile and diminutising version of pre-Christian history. According to the CSOF line, there was one group of people called The Christians, and another group called The Pagans, and The Pagans had celebrations on the equinoxes and solstices, and these celebrations were usually about Fertility and about Goddesses, and along came The Christians and they forced all The Pagans to convert, and to make this easier they took all The Pagans’ festivals and Christianised them. All this is meant to have happened in some ill-defined but vaguely European space, during some unspecified time period when things were very muddy and bloody.
The second reason the CSOF line of argument is dangerous is that it’s flat out wrong. It treats Gregory’s letter as some sort of absolute rule obeyed by all The Christians at all times and in all places, rather than as the passing notion it actually was. In the particular case of Easter, it’s painfully easy to explain why Christians didn’t ‘steal’ it. The antecedent of Easter is Passover, Christ being seen as the ‘Lamb of God’ and the perfect Passover sacrifice, and the date of Easter was decided by the early Church in reference to that tradition (though there was a good deal of argument as to when the date actually was – google the Synod of Whitby, for example). For this reason, almost all countries call Easter some variant of ‘Pasch’. It’s only in a relatively small part of the world that people called it Easter, and the only reason why so many people call it Easter now is because of the dominance of the English language.
The third reason is that claiming Christian festivals as somehow ‘pagan’ is exactly what certain fundamentalist Christians want to do. In fact, a good deal of the impetus to deem Easter and Christmas essentially ‘pagan’ comes from that quarter.
4. Do you think it is acceptable to present Eostre and her bunnies and eggs as a modern myth, if we don’t claim that it is ancient? Can we still have our chocolate eggs?
Absolutely! Again, the whole intent here is not to demolish anyone’s personal take on the season, or whatever Goddesses they may choose to honour. The provision of meticulously gathered historical research is meant to be a positive thing, not a negative one. I don’t really see myself as a debunker, when it comes down to it. I’d rather be the kind of person who opens the door to the rich possibilities of doubt and uncertainty. Let people see their own faces in the flames and forms in the shadows; let them make their own links with the mythic past and fill in the blanks with their own inspired imagination. We don’t need some standardised bubblegum Eostre, complete with bunny, presented as if it were a fact.
Debunkers in general need to be careful, I think. The late Terry Pratchett, who was a very wise man indeed, wrote a book called Lords and Ladies. In it, the young witch Magrat Garlick encounters a painting of the famous Queen Ynci of Lancre, a Boudica-like warrior woman. She later finds Queen Ynci’s armour and wears it to defend a castle against attacking elves. In doing so, she feels as if the spirit of Ynci is with her, helping her, making her brave. Through Ynci, she is able to do things she normally wouldn’t dare to do.
Later, Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax are talking together, and we learn what Magrat didn’t know: Queen Ynci never existed. She was invented by a former King of Lancre to add a bit of romantic history. He even had the armour made, hammered together from an old tin bath and some saucepans. Granny Weatherwax asks Nanny Ogg ‘But didn’t you think you ought to tell her that?’ and Nanny answers ‘No.’ Enough said, I think.
5. Is there another myth associated with the Spring Equinox that people could create rituals with?
Nowadays, there are an abundance of myths about the Spring Equinox – take your pick! However, we do run into a bit of a problem in that the celebration of the Spring Equinox per se doesn’t have much of a European pagan precedent. You see, Eostre’s festival (if it existed) wouldn’t have been at the Spring Equinox at all. Eosturmonat, as Bede attests, was the FOURTH lunar month of the Anglo-Saxon year, corresponding roughly to April. This is how come the Christian festival of Pasch coincided with it. Pasch is dated from the Spring Equinox, but does not happen at the Spring Equinox; it falls in April more often than not.
The practice of celebrating the Spring Equinox in this context at all owes much more to the Golden Dawn than it does to ancient pagan tradition. Certainly, calling the Equinox ‘Ostara’ is an entirely modern practice. But so long as we’re aware of that, we can celebrate how we like. Easter traditions, whether or not they may be pagan in origin, are not ‘Spring Equinox’ traditions. If the German Ostarmonat and the Old English Eosturmonath do indicate a spring festival, then it is to those months we must look for the folkloric antecedents of Easter, and not to the Equinox in March.
Disclaimers aside, the one Germanic Easter tradition I do find fascinating is the Osterfuchs or Easter Fox. To quote:
Until the mid-20th Century, according to older literature, it was mainly the Easter Fox who was responsible for the eggs in the Easter tradition. Gradually this was then displaced by the Easter Bunny. A note of 1904 from the Schaumburg area states quite specifically that the eggs were laid not from the Easter Bunny, but the Easter fox. Traditionally, on Holy Saturday the children would prepare a cozy nest of hay and moss for the Easter Fox. They also made sure that the Easter Fox was not disturbed during his visit – for example by shutting up pets for the night. Furthermore, the Easter Fox was described in a Westphalian document of 1910. Interestingly, the tradition seemed at the time to have been in a transition period to the Easter Bunny. Thus we read in Scripture that “… it would look as though the Fox might return before the hare. ” Where the Easter fox comes into the story, we can only surmise today. It was considered early on that it is based on the Pentecostal fox. This is an old custom in which people at Pentecost went with a pet fox from house to house to collect donations. Other descriptions suggest the Easter fox harks back to the tradition of Christmas Gebildbrot pastries.
I have no evidence whatsoever that the Easter Fox represents a survival from pre-Christian times. But wouldn’t it be a wonderful myth to work with?
The only reason anyone thinks Eostre had a rabbit (or hare) companion is because of Jacob Grimm, who in Deustsche Mythologie states ‘Probably the hare was the sacred animal of Ostara’ without any direct evidence at all. The notion has become incredibly popular, though, because everyone’s heard of the Easter Bunny, and claiming things everyone’s heard of in the name of Paganism is a tiresomely common activity nowadays.
Bluntly, there’s no more evidence that Eostre/Ostara had a hare companion than a fox companion, and the fox tradition seems to be older, so I think we should give her a fox. My daughter says she’ll be building two moss nests this year, one for the Easter Bunny and one for the Easter Fox. (She assures me she’ll label them so they don’t get confused.)
6. Can you tell us a bit about how you celebrate Spring Equinox (if you do)?
I like to say I’m celebrating the Spring Equinox in exactly the same way as my Pagan ancestors did, namely by ignoring it completely…
7. Can you tell us a bit about your Pagan/magical path?
I rarely ever talk about my own beliefs and practices. This is a consequence of my days running the occult bookshop up in Manchester. If you’re going to deal with all paths impartially, you can’t be seen to be on any given side. The moment you are thought to be part of a given group, people naturally and automatically assume biases and prejudices, whether you have them or not. So I always kept my own beliefs out of the picture.
I don’t really like ‘paths’, as a rule. A path, by definition, is something someone else has walked before you. Unless you’re hacking your own idiosyncratic way through the scrub, it’s not really your path at all, is it? On balance, I think I’d rather have a magical machete than a magical path.
8. Anything else you want to add?
The most pernicious thing about the popular Eostre myth – the whole spring goddess with the egg laying bunny bit – is not its falsity but its homogenity. Its purpose is to recast a globally celebrated Christian festival with secular elements in modern Pagan terms. But if we do that, our paganism is nothing but that same global Christianity with the numbers filed off. To reclaim ‘Santa Claus’ or ‘The Easter Bunny’ is to adopt mass-market icons.
I think we have to reaffirm the importance of the local, the personal, the particular. Don’t just accept the stories you’re told uncritically and circulate them. Embrace the uncertainty and tell your own stories. I have no interest in the rosy-cheeked smiling flowers-and-ribbons choccy-box Eostre with basket of decorated eggs and fluffy rabbit that you see all over the place on the pagan Internet.
But a wild-eyed Eostre, a survivor, young and rangy and half-starved from winter, clawing her way up a barren mountainside with her fox at her heels towards a blood-red Spring dawn, grinning in triumph, alive, unbroken, unbreakable? I’ll drink to her any day.
Articles about the Eostre myth by Adrian Bott
- Cavalorn: Eostre: the making of a myth (part 1)
- Cavalorn: Eostre: the making of a myth (part 2)
- Cavalorn: Hunting the spurious Eostre Hare
- Cavalorn: Eostre, Ostara, and the Easter Fox
- Rational blogs: No, it’s not all about Ishtar. Some mythbusting Easter facts from your friendly pagan sceptic.
Books by Adrian Bott
Adrian has written numerous children’s books.
Many thanks to Adrian for this interview, and for all his research on this topic.