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Satanism and the History of Wicca

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Subject: Satanism and the History of Wicca
                             by Diane Vera
 Note: The following article should not be taken as implying that
       Wicca is a form of Satanism.  Although this article focusses on
       similarities and historical connections between Wicca and 19th
       century literary Satanism, there are plenty of differences too,
       and even more differences between Wicca and modern (post-LaVey)
       Satanism.  Wicca is an eclectic modern religion which has drawn
       inspiration from many sources, both ancient and modern.  Literary
       Satanism is just one of those many sources.
   In their attempts to dissociate themselves from Satanism, Wiccans
   have tended to distort their own history. Wicca and Satanism are
   indeed very distinct religious categories. But there are some
   intimate historical ties between the two, as even some Wiccan
   scholars are finally starting to admit. See, for example, Aidan
   Kelly's book Crafting the Art of Magic (pp.21-22, 25-26, and
   Wicca is not "the Old Religion", though it does draw inspiration
   from various old religions. Wicca as we now know it is derived
   from 19th-century occult philosophy -- including literary Satanic
   philosophy, among others -- projected onto a non-Christian
   Goddess and God, plus some de-Christianized Golden Dawn style
   ceremonial magick, plus assorted turn-of-the-century British
   folklore, more recently re-shaped by neo-Pagan scholarship and by
   modern feminist and ecological concerns. At least several
   different sides of Wicca's convoluted family tree can be traced
   to 19th-century literary Satanism, some forms of which had more
   in common with present-day Wicca than with present-day Satanism.
   The prime example of literary Satanism that strongly influenced
   Wicca, especially feminist Wicca, is the book La Sorciere by the
   19th-century French historian Jules Michelet (published in
   English by Citadel Press under the title Satanism and
   Witchcraft). Michelet's ideas, as paraphrased by feminist writers
   such as Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English in their booklet
   Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers
   (Feminist Press, 1973), have played an important role today's
   women's health movement. (At least Ehrenreich and English were
   honest enough to list Michelet in their bibliography.) See
   especially Michelet's introduction. Michelet was, as far as I
   know, the literary origin of today's feminist image of the Witch
   as a healer. Among other things, he theorized that the witchhunts
   were used by the emerging male medical profession to wipe out
   their peasant female competition.
   According to Jeffrey B. Russell in A History of Witchcraft,
   pre-feminist classical Wicca also drew lots of inspiration
   indirectly from Michelet. Michelet was a major source of
   inspiration to Margaret Murray, Charles G. Leland, and Sir James
   Frazer, whom most knowledgeable Wiccans do recognize as
   influential. (Russell points this out, yet neglects to inform the
   reader that Michelet's book is full of passionate, sympathetic
   depictions of Satan as well as of the medieval witches. Russell
   too perpetuates the false counter-myth that Wicca Has Nothing To
   Do With Satanism.)
   I'll leave it to folks more scholarly than myself to debate just
   how indebted Murray and Leland were to Michelet. In any case, the
   Italian witch mythology Leland presented in Aradia: Gospel of the
   Witches (originally published 1899), one of Wicca's major
   sources, contains some diabolical-witchcraft elements of its own.
   The very first paragraph reads:
     Diana greatly loved her brother Lucifer, the god of the Sun
     and of the Moon, the god of Light, who was so proud of his
     beauty, and who for his pride was driven from Paradise.

   Wiccans usually argue that "Lucifer" is not the Christian Devil
   but is just "the god of the Sun and of the Moon". (I too
   distinguish between Satan and Lucifer, as do many occultists.)
   Yet the statement that Lucifer was "driven from Paradise" for his
   "pride" is clearly a reference to Christianity's Devil myth.
   Aradia contains a mix of mythologies.
   Wiccans are correct to say that their Horned God is not Satan.
   But it isn't historically true that the Christian image of Satan
   is a re-interpretation of the Wiccan God. On the contrary, the
   modern Wiccan concept of the Horned God has its literary origin
   in a Paganized re-interpretation of medieval Christian Devil
   imagery (as in Margaret Murray's and earlier writings). It's true
   that medieval Christian Devil imagery, in turn, incorporates
   distorted versions of many ancient Gods (not all of whom were
   Horned, e.g. the trident comes from Poseidon/Neptune). But the
   Wiccan image of its Horned God is not a direct continuation of
   any ancient religion, and at least one key aspect does come from
   no source other than the medieval Christian Devil concept as
   manifest in the witchhunts. The idea of a Horned God associated
   specifically with witchcraft is derived from the Christian
   witchhunts, and from no previous source. In pre-Christian
   European religion, there were Goddesses associated with
   witchcraft, e.g. Hecate; but Pan and other horned male Gods were
   not associated with witchcraft, as far as I know. Much of

   Wicca's self-image is based on the Paganized re-interpretation of
   alleged Devil-worship, rather than on actual ancient religion.
   Much of Wicca's terminology and imagery, e.g. the words "witch",
   "coven", and "sabbat", are used because of the Wiccan myth that
   Wicca is the survival of an underground medieval religion that
   was the target of the witchhunts. (Regardless of the linguistic
   origin of the words themselves, this constellation of terms comes
   from the witchhunts.) The related idea that modern Wiccans too
   are in continual danger of being confused with Satanists is at
   least partly a self-fulfilling prophecy. Far fewer people would
   confuse modern Wicca with Satanism if Wicca didn't use so many
   witchhunt-derived words and other trappings popularly associated
   with diabolical witchcraft.
   My point here is not that Wiccans shouldn't use the words
   "witch", "coven", and "sabbat". My point is that if they do use
   these and other diabolical-witchcraft trappings, they should
   accept responsibility for the consequences. For example, when
   explaining that Wicca Is Not Satanism, they should acknowledge
   the main real reason for the confusion: that modern Wiccans have
   chosen to identify with the victims of European witchhunts and
   have chosen their terminology accordingly. Wiccans certainly
   should not blame Satanists for Wicca's own public-relations
   difficulties, as some Wiccans do. It also bothers me when
   Wiccans, in an attempt to distance themselves from Satanism,
   perpetuate popular misconceptions about Satanism, e.g. saying
   "We're not Satanists!" in a tone which implies you think
   Satanists are monsters, or saying "We're not Satanists!" in the
   same breath as saying "We don't sacrifice babies." (The latter
   point can be made separately and is an obvious corollary of the
   Wiccan Rede and/or the Threefold Law.)
   Back to Wicca's history. Besides Murray, Leland, and other
   writers on witchcraft, another of Wicca's main sources is
   Aleister Crowley. Many knowledgeable Wiccans (e.g. the Farrars
   and Doreen Valiente) do realize that Gardner's rituals were
   heavily based on Crowley's rituals, though they tend to overstate
   the "Crowley was not a Satanist" disclaimer.
   Crowley was not a Satanist per se, but he definitely was into
   Satanic symbolism, in addition to the zillion other things he was
   into. In some defensive neo-Pagan writings (e.g. the Church of
   All Worlds booklet "Witchcraft, Satanism, and Occult Crime: Who's
   Who and What's What"), it is claimed that Crowley was neither a
   Satanist nor a Pagan but was just into Judaeo-Christian
   ceremonial magick. In fact, Crowley was very eclectic. Even
   Golden Dawn ceremonial magick included not only Qabalah and the
   medieval Christian grimoires, but also Egyptian deities, Greek
   deities, and Yoga. Crowley emphasized the Egyptian elements,
   downplayed the Christian elements, and added plenty of other
   things to the mix, including Satanic imagery galore (such as his
   invocation of Satan in Liber Samekh, not to mention his constant
   references to himself as "the Beast 666"). Some will insist that
   Crowley's Satanic symbolism was merely a joke; but Crowley's
   attitudes were well within the 19th-century Satanic literary
   tradition. (In most of the more sophisticated forms of Satanism,
   the name "Satan" is understood in an ironic sense.) Others will
   explain that most of Crowley's Satanic symbolism can be
   re-interpreted in Pagan terms, but this too is true of many forms
   of Satanism.
   There's also a possibility that Wicca borrowed ideas from
   writings about actual Satanists living in the late-19th or
   early-20th century. In Crafting the Art of Magic, Aidan Kelly
   says Gerald Gardner drew key concepts from the description of
   Ozark folk witchcraft, including folk Satanism, in the 1947 book
   Ozark Superstition by Vance Randolph. I'll admit that Kelly's
   conclusions have been challenged by other
   historically-knowledgeable Wiccans.
   Of course, if Gardner was influenced by Randolph's account,
   Gardner would probably have assumed that the Satanic folk witches
   were "really" Pagans whom Randolph misrepresented as Satanists.
   But Gardner's assumption wouldn't necessarily have been correct.
   An unlettered folk-witch would be far more likely to be either
   (1) a Satanist or (2) a devout though unorthodox Christian than
   to have preserved an ancient Pagan religion intact. Various Pagan
   customs have certainly survived, but this is very different from
   the intact survival of a Pagan religion, for which there is very
   little evidence. (For a critique of alleged evidence for Pagan
   survival, see A Razor for a Goat by Elliot Rose. Regarding a
   possible medieval witch-cult very different from what Murray
   hypothesized, see The Night Battles by Carlo Ginzburg. Regarding
   contemporary hereditary witches, many of whom are Christian, see
   Bluenose Magic by Helen Creighton. For an example of a decidedly
   non-Pagan grimoire that is very popular among European folk
   witches today, see The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses,
   available in some botanicas.)
   Some forms of Wicca may have been influenced by Satanists more
   directly than via Murray, Leland, Crowley, Ehrenreich/English,
   and possibly Randolph. Two possible examples:
   (1) Historically-knowledgeable Wiccans have debated what role, if
   any, was played in the development of modern Wiccan by a
   19th-century English farm laborer named George Pickingill who was
   reputed to be a witch. Aidan Kelly, who does not believe
   Pickingill contributed anything to Wicca, describes Pickingill as
   "a garden-variety folk-magic witch and a home-grown Satanist."
   The assertion that Pickingill did play a major role was
   originally made by "Lugh" in a newsletter called The Wiccan in
   1974. "Lugh", who claimed to be a hereditary witch, described
   Pickingill as "the world's greatest living authority on
   Witchcraft, Satanism, and Black Magic" (quoted by Doreen Valiente
   in Rebirth of Witchcraft).
   (2) Starhawk was initiated by Victor Anderson, who once belonged
   to a coven whose form of witchcraft included a form of
   "literature-based Satanism" (or at least a religion closely akin
   to "literature-based Satanism"); or so says Kelly, based on
   research by Valerie Voigt.
   Whether or not Kelly is correct about Victor Anderson, and
   whether or not Pickingill had anything to do with Wicca, it
   shouldn't be considered unlikely that some traditions of Wicca
   originated as forms of Satanism and then gradually grew away from
   Satanism. To this day, there are occultists who start out as
   Satanists and eventually become Wiccans or other types of
   neo-Pagans. It would be very odd if such people's understanding
   of Wicca was not at all influenced by their previous experience
   with Satanism.
   Theistic forms of Satanism have a natural tendency to give birth
   to new, non-Satanic religions. If you reject Christian theology
   (as nearly all intelligent Satanists do), but if you nonetheless
   venerate Satan as a real being or force (not just a symbol as in
   LaVey Satanism), then the question inevitably arises: Who and
   what is "Satan"? Different forms of Satanism have different
   answers to this question. One of the easier answers is to
   re-interpret Satan as a pre-Christian deity, usually either Set
   or Pan. However, once you equate Satan with a specific ancient
   deity, you have taken the first step away from Satanism. You are
   no longer venerating Satan per se; you are now venerating a Pagan
   deity with Satanic overtones. And then, once you develop your
   Paganized belief system further, the Satanic overtones will
   eventually seem less and less important. Such has apparently been
   the case with the Temple of Set, an offshoot of LaVey's Church of
   Satan. (Setians disagree on whether to call themselves
   "Satanists".) It seems not at all unlikely that some forms of
   Wicca, with all its diabolical-witchcraft trappings, would have a
   similar origin. A group of theistic Satanists who equated Satan
   with Pan, as some Satanists do, would very likely tend to evolve
   in a Wicca-like direction.
   More about Wicca's diabolical-witchcraft trappings. Wicca's
   self-image is based on the records of witchhunts, re-interpreting
   the alleged activities of accused diabolical witches as the
   worship of a Pagan "Horned God". Wicca thus makes a new use of
   the same source material that Satanists have been using for
   An interesting question is: Why reconstruct an "Old Religion"
   this way, rather than just going back to the records of actual
   old religions? Other forms of neo-Paganism, e.g. Asatru and
   neo-Druidism, which do base themselves more on what's known about
   actual ancient religions, are far less likely than Wicca to be
   confused with Satanism by outsiders. Why do Wiccans insist on
   using words like "witch" and "coven" when they could easily use
   other, more respectable-sounding words?
   Despite Wicca's diabolical-witchcraft trappings, or perhaps
   partly because of those trappings, Wicca has more popular appeal
   than any other form of neo-Paganism. Certainly Wicca's hot-button
   terminology has helped Wicca get lots more publicity than it
   otherwise could. Wiccan spokespeople sometimes bemoan the fact
   that newspapers interview them only at Halloween, but most small
   religious sects don't get nearly so much free publicity at any
   time of the year, not even on Halloween. And, judging by the way
   some Wiccans keep repeating "We're Not Satanists!" far more often
   than they actually get accused of being Satanists, it seems
   logical to suspect that at least some of them are using words and
   images popularly associated with Satanism as a way to attract
   attention, and/or because they themselves enjoy feeling naughty.
   (I've actually heard some Wiccans say that if the word "witch"
   ever became too respectable, it would lose some of its power.)
   Modern Satanists have long felt that the basis of Wicca's appeal
   lies in the paradoxical (some would say hypocritical) combination
   of Wicca's Satanic connotations and the denial of same. Thus,
   Satanists tend to regard Wicca as a ripoff of Satanism.
   I personally don't regard Wicca as a ripoff. In my opinion,
   Wiccans' use of witchhunt-derived trappings is neither more nor
   less legitimate than the use of those same trappings by
   Satanists. And Wicca, as a religion, does have much more
   substance to it than just its deliberately-adopted superficial
   resemblances to diabolical witchcraft.
   But I'm very irritated by those endless "Wicca Has Nothing To Do
   With Satanism!" disclaimers. I wouldn't mind if Wiccans merely
   said that Wicca is not Satanism (at least if they said it without
   repeating it unnecessarily). It's true that Wicca is not
   Satanism, but it isn't historically true that Wicca "has nothing
   to do with" Satanism. Nor is it true that Wicca has nothing in
   common with Satanism. Some forms of Wicca and neo-Paganism have a
   lot in common with (some forms of) Satanism.
   Oddly enough, of the many Wicca-based forms of neo-Paganism, one
   of the most "Satanic" (in terms of 19th-century literary
   Satanism) is feminist Goddess religion, despite its frequent
   omission of even the "Horned God". See, for example, some of Mary
   Daly's writings. When it comes to inverting and parodying
   Christian symbolism, Daly's wordplay does it better than an
   old-fashioned Black Mass. Daly also reclaims and venerates almost
   every demonized female category conceivable, from Furies to Hags.
   And let's not forget the many feminists who venerate Lilith, a
   Jewish folkloric near-equivalent of the Christian Satan. Lilith
   never made it to the status of a full-fledged anti-god, but
   otherwise her myth is almost identical to the Christian Satan
   myth: banished for her pride, she became a dreaded demon and was
   even blamed for people's sins, especially sexual ones. To be
   fair, I should mention that not all feminist Goddess-worshippers
   are into either Mary Daly's writings or the veneration of Lilith.
   But the feminist counterculture, because it is a counterculture,
   tends generally to include an extra dose of demon-reclamation
   beyond what is found in classical Wicca, e.g. magazine titles
   like Sinister Wisdom. All these parallels to Satanism reflect the
   quintessentially Satanic central theme of some forms of feminist
   Goddess religion: self-liberation from a socially-imposed
   mainstream "spiritual" order -- even though Goddess religion is
   in other ways quite "un-Satanic" by the standards of most modern
   One of the earliest feminist writers on religion had a much
   friendlier attitude toward Satanism than is common today. As far
   as I know, the very first feminist writer on witchcraft and
   Goddess religion was 19th-century womens's suffrage leader
   Matilda Joslyn Gage. Her book Woman, Church, and State contains
   an enthusiastic depiction of a medieval peasant Black Mass, based
   on Michelet's account.
   I hope today's Wiccans and feminist Goddess-worshippers will stop
   fearing to recognize that, just as Christianity borrowed heavily
   from Greek mystery religion yet is a very different religion from
   the Greek mysteries, so too Wicca and feminist Goddess religion
   have drawn lots of inspiration from Satanism, though they are
   very different religions. Kelly's honesty is refreshing. If
   today's Satanists are sometimes nasty to Wiccans, well, how would
   you react to a bunch of people who went out of their way to deny
   their own roots, just so they could disown you?
   What's especially annoying is the way many Wiccans claim the word
   "Witchcraft" as a name for their own religion, defining not only
   "Wicca" but also "Witchcraft" as a religion distinct from
   Satanism. Excuse me, but witchcraft is not a religion. There are
   witches all over the world, in many different cultures. They
   don't all belong to one religion. A witch can be any religion.
   One of my great-grandfathers was a "water witch" who told people
   where to dig wells. He was a devout Christian. If a Christian can
   be a witch, then so can a Satanist. There have been both
   Christians and Satanists calling themselves witches long before
   today's Wiccans came along. (See Randolph's and Creighton's
   books, for example.) So I really wish Wiccans would stop using
   the word "witchcraft" as a name for their own specific religion.
   I don't object to Wiccans calling themselves witches, but I do
   object to the idea that all true witches are Wiccan (or at least
   Pagan) and that, therefore, Satanists can't be witches.
   Wiccans are welcome to call their specific religion "Wicca", an
   archaic word that they themselves resurrected. Another good name
   for their specific religion is "Neo-Pagan Witchcraft", a phrase
   suggesting that their religion is a subcategory of witchcraft,
   not witchcraft as a whole. Thus, it's accurate to say, "Neo-Pagan
   Witchcraft is not Satanism", whereas it's misleading to say,
   "witchcraft (in general) is not Satanism".
   It would also be nice if Wiccans would stop making inaccurate
   pronouncements on what Satanism is, such as, "Satanism is a form
   of Christianity" or "To be a Satanist, you must believe in the
   Christian God".
   Diane Vera
   Originally written January 1992.
   Revised January 1994, March 1996.
   Back to my homepage

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