Response by Robert Mathiesen to “Investigating a Grandmother Story”
This guest post by Prof. Mathiesen began as a comment to my earlier review ofThe Rede of the Wiccae, which he wrote with Theitic of the NECTW tradition. With his permission, I have moved his comments here.
Thank you, Chas! That’s a handsome and generous post.
My view of the history is close to yours, and I really like the term “Gardnerian magnet.” What follows are relatively minor points only, just to flesh out the picture you have painted so ably. (And I am writing in haste, too, so please forgive any typos and other infelicities of expression.)
(1) In the 1800s a number of Spiritualists maintained that there was no essential difference between a (Spiritualist) medium and a witch (or, for that matter, a real magician). A small number of mediums actually hinted (rarely) that they regarded themselves as witches, or (even more rarely) risked calling themselves witches as a means of enhancing their power in the public eye. No doubt these witches, like most other Spiritualists at the time, did some of their work in circles. Theirs are not *quite* the same thing as witches’ circles today, but there are similarities, e.g., equal numbers of men and women as an ideal.
Spiritualism (like Freemasonry and New Thought) tended to run in families over generations, so this sort of witch might even truly be doing what her mother and grandmothers did, and they, too, might have called themselves witches. Since Spiritualism is a religion, these women would have been religious witches. The family history of Gundella (Marion Kuclo) might be an example here, to judge by some of the hints in her two published books of ghost stories.
(1a) This school of thought within Spiritualism was rooted in a somewhat earlier theory, held by several Mesmerists and scholars of Mesmerism (often called “animal magnetism” by its proponents), that the historic phenomena of magic and witchcraft could be explained as poorly understood forerunners of Mesmerism itself. The most notable exponent of this view was Baron Du Potet de Sennevoy, whose major work on the subject (La magie devoilée) appeared in English translation in 1927 (Magnetism and Magic). Du Potet was an artist of magic, so to speak, and his book offered much inspiration to any would-be witch who wanted to invent a witchcraft of her own.
(1b) Other Spiritualists adapted the Mesmerists’ viewpoint slightly to their own religious assumptions. Here I should mention particularly Allen Putnam, author of a pamphlet “Mesmerism, Spiritualism, Witchcraft and Miracle” (1858) and “Witchcraft of New England Explained by Modern Spiritualism” (1881). Some opponents of Spiritualism flipped this theory on its head, using it to condemn rather than examine what they regarded as genuine powers possessed by [some] human beings. An example of the latter would be Mary Baker Eddy; early editions of her main work, “Science and Health,” express her views somewhat more bluntly than the later editions.
(2) Once Emile Grillot de Givry’s pictorial album on Witchcraft and Magic had appeared in English translation (1931), any woman who wanted to invent a witchcraft of her own as a means of claiming agency and power had lots of useful material to draw on. She might, for instance, have borrowed or adapted some of the spells Givry included in his book, or used a witches’ knife and called it (as Givry did) her arthamé. (A British pronunciation of that odd word might have been misspelled as athamé or athalmé by any English speaker who knew no better.) Robert Heinlein’s second wife, Leslyn MacDonald, seems to have been a woman who did just that, if the character “Amanda” in Heinlein’s “Magic Inc.” depicts her at all. The same seems to have been true of Shirley Jackson, to judge by conversations I had with the daughter of one of Jackson’s closest friends.
(3) William Seabrook’s book “Witchcraft, Its Power in the World Today,” published in 1940 in the USA and 1941 in the UK, offered a whole range of other, much edgier magical practices to the would-be witch, and anyone who had read Jack London’s novel “The Star Rover” (1915) would already have been familiar with some of these practices and the putative power they offered. Gardner or his immediate teachers were almost certainly familiar with Seabrook’s book, and Jack London’s novel is explicitly cited in the manuscript “Ye Bok of ye Art Magical.” Seabrook’s book, issued by a major publishing house, circulated widely, and Jack London’s novel even more widely.
(4) On the West Coast, in particular, there are old traditions of Pantheism, Nature Religion and the “propless mind-over-matter” magic of New Thought that reach back to the days of Joaquin Miller and John Muir, and even beyond them into last decades of the 19th century. These have been moderately well studied by such scholars as J. Stillson Judah, William Everson and Catherine Albanese. [So far as I know, there are few really clear traces of outright Polytheism on the West Coast during those decades, but I may have overlooked something.]
(5) Although in the early days Margaret Murray’s books were not all that widely circulated in the USA, a small booklet that popularized her results (and even went beyond them a little!) was published in 1926 and had a simply enormous circulation. This was Joseph McCabe’s “New Light on Witchcraft,” which was one of the Julius-Haldeman “Little Blue Books.” Anyone who wanted to invent a witchcraft for herself would have found ample inspiration in this brief work.
None of these points, of course, challenges your claim, which is probably correct, that there is no reason to posit the existence of “a self-consciously polytheistic Pagan religion called Wicca or Witchcraft” before 1951 — much less any sort of unbroken centuries-old tradition of such a thing. I’m just putting a few more highlights and shadows on the picture you have painted. The pre-Gardnerian history of religious witchcraft in the USA is rather more complicated than either the proponents or the opponents of all those “grandmother stories” have imagined.