Name and describe several of the literary sources that contributed to Neo-Paganism in the first quarter of the 20th century, and discuss their impact on its development.
Sir James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough
The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion, as it was titled in its original publication, is a comparative study of mythologies and the religions based on those written by the anthropologist Sir James George Frazer. Though it was originally published in 1890, it was republished as a third edition in the 1900’s spanning over twelve volumes. The work was written for a wide range of people, not just those within the scholastic field. Frazer presented religion as a cultural phenomenon with a natural evolution through three states: “primitive magic, replaced by religion, in turn replaced by science” (Wikipedia Foundation).
In The Golden Bough, Frazer attempts to define shared themes within his theory on the stages of cultural development such as “fertility rites, the dying god, the scapegoat, and many other symbols and practices… “ (Wikipedia Foundation). The thesis he presented was that many of these old religions were “[…] fertility cults that revolved around the worship and periodic sacrifice of a sacred king” (Wikipedia Foundation). This sacred king was merely an incarnation of the “[…] dying and reviving god […]” (Wikipedia Foundation), who was born to and married an earth goddess. Frazer postulated that his birth, life, and death could be seen through the cycle of the agricultural and solar cycles.
Though this piece of literature was written in the 19th century, it was
steamrolled into the developing Neo-Pagan mythologies and religions well
into the 20th and the 21st centuries. In order to see
this, we have to look no further than the main religious mythology that has become
“doctrine” within Wicca and other Pagan traditions. When we look at authors
such as Raven Grimmassi, we can see this belief reflected in their
writings. Grimmassi writes “The Slain
God or Divine King is an integral part of Wiccan Mysteries. He is intimately
connected to the life cycle of the Plant Kingdom and shares the attributes
associated with planting and harvesting” (Grimmassi 227). The unfortunate effect of his theories
is that modern Pagan traditions have latched onto them as the gospel of factual
history, not as the theory of “themes” and “motifs” adapted and appropriated
from many cultures. This, in turn, has given many Neo-Pagan traditions the
illusion they follow an ancient unbroken linage of tradition.
Margaret Murray’s The Witch-Cult in Western Europe and The God of the Witches
Margaret Murray was a very prominent archaeologist and anthropologist in the United Kingdom, with a focus in Egyptology and folklore. She worked at the University College in London and served as the President of the Folklore Society from 1953 to 1955. She was very widely published throughout her career
in on the
topic of Egyptology, as well as what she called the ‘witch-cult’ hypothesis.
The latter is what is of most interest to those studying the history of
Neo-Paganism (Wikipedia Foundation).
Two of the most well known books by Murray, which had a powerful influence on Neo-Paganism, are The Witch-Cult in Western Europe  and The God of the Witches . In these works, we can see the influence of Sir James George Frazer’s theories from The Golden Bough. In her book, The Witch-cult in Western Europe, Murray put forth the idea that “[…] a common pattern of underground pagan resistance to the Christian Church existed across Europe” (Wikipedia Foundation). This theory fills many of the Neo-Pagan’s minds and literature with the misguided idea
that there are many secret, unbroken linages of Witchcraft and Paganism still
around today. This belief is fostered further by those who were influenced by
her book, The God of the Witches,
where Murray claims “[… ] that the witch cult had worshiped a Horned God whose
origins went back to prehistory[…]” and “[…] that the figure referred to as the
Devil in the trial accounts was the witches’ god” (Wikipedia Foundation). While they are
valid paths, it is not hard to see how these faulty theories have shaped much
of what is believed in Wicca and some other Neo-Pagan traditions.
Robert Graves’ White Goddess
Robert Graves was a popular English poet and novelist who lived from 1895-1985. During his life, Graves wrote an impressive collection of works including his own “[…] translations and innovative analysis and interpretations of the Greek myths […] and his speculative study of poetic inspiration, The White Goddess […]” (Wikipedia Foundation). This book is another, which was to become extremely influential to the Wiccan tradition. I think that when we look at this book and its influence, we should look at the full name because that in and of itself should tell us this is not an archaeological or anthropological scholastic work; The White Goddess: a Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth. This book was an essay “… on the nature of poetic myth-making…” (Wikipedia Foundation). Graves does propose the existence of a Five-fold Mother Goddess which he calls the “… White Goddess of Birth, Love, and Death…” (Graves 214). Much of Graves assumptions are made through the belief that “[… ] ‘true’ or ‘pure’ poetry is inextricably linked with the ancient cult-ritual of his proposed White Goddess and her son” (Wikipedia Foundation). The largest issue with this is that Graves’ training is as a fictional novelist and poet, not as a scholar that has a full grasp of actual historical, archaeological, or anthropological process. This body of work has been highly criticized by many. One such critic was Dr. Hilda Ellis Davidson, an English antiquarian and academic expert, who stated “… (Graves having) misled many innocent readers with his eloquent but deceptive statements about a nebulous goddess in early Celtic literature…” (Davidson 11).
Aleister Crowley’s Book of Laws
I would be remiss if I did not mention Aleister Crowley and his most well known book The Book of Law. Much of what we view as metaphysics in the modern Neo-Pagan movement has been taken from the writings of Crowley. But The Book of the Law has shaped the minds of many in a way that few realize. In this book, Crowley writes down the Laws as given to him by a spiritual entity named Aiwass (Crowley). This book was given to Crowley to help explain the universe. One of the most prolific ideas can be found in the III Law – The Law of Thelema which states: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law. Love is the law, love under will. There is no law beyond Do what thou wilt” (Crowley). This is the birth of what was to become the Wiccan Rede. Ask any Wiccan what the Rede is and they will recite by heart “… Eight words the Wiccan Rede fulfill: An ye harm none, do what you will” (UNKNOWN). Again we see how unfounded ‘scholarship’ and knowledge has been used to support the claims that many modern Wiccan and Neo-Pagan traditions are based on ancient knowledge. While the works of Crowley spawned the Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O) and religion of Thelema, it is important to remember where the history of this comes from. Crowley believed he had received authentic knowledge of the Book of Thoth, an ancient Egyptian text lost to time. Much of this work in magic and ritual are based on these communications from the spirit of Aiwass.