Part of the mystique of magick is that it claims to have its origins in the hidden wisdom of the ancients. The thought of accessing forgotten secrets of magick with a biblical vintage creates an exotic atmosphere of spiritual rebellion as enticing as the promise of the alchemical gold. To some, the antiquity of a magickal reference is almost more important than its efficacy, reaching back across a repressive aeon to an imagined age of potent mages with unimaginable magickal powers accessed by their arcane secret teachings that were verbally communicated in hushed tones in the dead of night to a worthy successor.
Of course as the sources of our modern magickal methods becomes more apparent through study of these so-called ancient books of magick and we realize that it wasn’t the same Solomon that wrote both the Goetia and the Song of Songs. Closer examination of the sources of occult knowledge shows many of them to be relatively recent compilations with a very limited number of contributors. Even an examination of the history of the development modern ceremonial magick soon reveals that the origins owe more to the British Museum than to the Knights Templar or Christian Rosencrutz.
For the most part (in my experience) when practical magicians discover this modernity of magick they generally accept it and move on. After all, I don’t really care if the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus dates to the mythically magickal realm of ancient Khem, I am only concerned with the practicality of its doctrine. The discovery that The Sacred Magick of Abramelin the Mage was a construct of the 18th Century and not the magickal grimior of the 12th Century magician Lamech the Jew doesn’t in any way detract from the effectiveness of the magick squares that it includes.
To the founders of the Golden Dawn the ancient origins of their magickal sources was important because it was prevalent for the secret societies of the day to claim impossibly long and improbably unbroken lineages extending back to the mystical past in Memphis or Thebes. There is little doubt now that the compendium of ceremonies and occult teachings that form the corpus of the Golden Dawn were mostly written by S L MacGregor Mathers (an amazing feat in itself) and modern occultists, for the most part seem to have dispensed with the need for a connection to the wizards of the ancient world.
Recently, a long time fellow student of the occult arts Caroline Tully wrote a scholarly dissertation entitled Researching the Past is a Foreign Country in which she wrote:
A large proportion of Pagans today are unaware of the sources of their religion and do not tend to delve particularly deeply into its origins. Consequently, when they become aware of new academic scholarship— particularly in history and archaeology—which challenges the old scholarship their religion is based on, they can react negatively, perceiving it as threatening to their structure of beliefs and sense of identity. All but a small minority of Pagans resist the findings of such scholarship and cope with its revelations in various ways: one of which involves attempting to inflict the subsequent trauma they feel back on to the academic researchers—the bearers of bad news.1
One of the things that modern witchcraft has in common with ceremonial magick is that much of it was derived from Victorian scholarship which was often used in order to create an ancient connection that had never existed. Just as Mathers had invented a lineage for his Golden Dawn so too did the founders of modern witchcraft look for ways to connect their emergent religion with a pre Christian world as a means of establishing its relevance in the modern setting. Admittedly, the scholars that had inspired this misinterpretation of antiquity did paint a very convincing picture at the time but with advances in our knowledge giving us greater understanding of the true origins of modern magickal practices it seems counterproductive to hang on to an increasingly illusory past.
Intrigued I looked further into the idea that there was, as Caroline puts it a “cognitive dissonance” being created by many people who were confronted with the deconstruction of their spiritual beliefs. Much of the ire seems to be directed at Professor Ron Hutton, who’s book Triumph of the Moon first challenged the accepted history of modern witchcraft and had apparently caused a considerable controversy by questioning most of the basic precepts of the genesis of Gardner’s Wicca, apparently siding with the (unspecified) enemy that sought to belittle the importance of modern witchcraft by pointing out its borrowings from the works of Aleister Crowley and the flimsy evidence of a concealed culture of witchcraft pervading medieval Europe as a remnant of pagan times. Even though he never once questions the validity of the “old Gods” the book earned him the title of pariah in many magick circles.
The most recent volume of the Pomegranite has an article by Hutton that addresses the most popular criticisms of his work which he says are focused on the abandonment, by professional historians, of their traditional attitudes to the survival of Paganism during the Middle Ages and subsequently; attitudes on which the historical claims of late twentieth-century Paganism were based2. In this essay he points out that he has never said that the spiritual beliefs of modern witches aren’t valid merely that the direct connection to the remnants of an underground Paganism that survived the Christian era is unlikely.
I have had the pleasure of corresponding with Professor Hutton and I have found him to be well informed and insightful so it was a surprise to see the venom with which he has been attacked from some quarters. One website in particular called Egregores seemed devoted to crucifying Hutton (and Caroline who’s vocal support of Hutton attracted special attention), not by refuting his argument but by attacking his character. After reading one particularly slanderous remark about Caroline I was given to wondering if the webmaster of Egregores knew that the term Egregor was coined by Eliphas Levi in Le Grand Arcane in which he characterizes them as “terrible beings that crush us without pity because they are unaware of our existence”, or that the concept of an egregore as the spiritual entity generated by a group derives from the Golden Dawn.
I am not particularly concerned with what witches want to believe about their past but their cognitive dissonance is very interesting because it has a consonance among those novices that are drawn to ceremonial magick. In the past couple of years I have become acquainted with a great number of witches, many of them young and inexperienced and many of them have an eclectic interest in magick. The explosion in literature on all things occult means that often people are learning magick that originated with Crowley or the Golden Dawn without ever even hearing of either of these sources or understanding that they are a part of a larger discipline. Poor scholarship abounds in the literature of occultism, just as it did in the past and plagiarizing the classical literature on magick without bothering to cite the sources is a quick and easy (and traditional) way to produce a product that caters to a growing and voracious market. The mythical origins of the Tarot in ancient Egypt and the imaginary cultural persecution of “the Burning Times” (new age speak for the witch trials of the Inquisition) abound because the popular literature on witchcraft continues to espouse it in spite of the weight of evidence that they are no more than attractive fantasies.
Perhaps the allure of the mysterious will always be a part of the path to occult knowledge. If the seekers after the Light were told at the door of the Temple of the Mysteries that their fantasies of magick were based on myth and legend how many would enter into that dark portal? The face that Hermetic magick presents to the world will always be interpreted as the dark arts from an uninitiated standpoint but certainly with the knowledge gained through experience the value of accepting the truth must be seen to override the desire to hang onto a favorite fiction. After all, the objective of all magick, whatever the flavor, is to become enlightened and it would seem that a mind that isn’t willing to consider the mundane truths of history won’t be able to apprehend the Truth that comes with Gnosis.
1. Researching the Past is a Foreign Country: Cognitive Dissonance as a Response by Practitioner Pagans to Academic Research on the History of Pagan Religions, Caroline Jane Tully, The Pomegranate Vol. 13, no. 1
2. Revisionism and Counter-Revisionism in Pagan History, Ronald Hutton, The Pomegranate Vol. 13 no. 2