The Basic Split in Pagan Witchcraft

Issue 2 of the British newsletter Pentagram, November 1964, price 2s, "for private circulation only."
Issue 2 of the British newsletter Pentagram, November 1964, price 2s, “for private circulation only.”

As I posted earlier, the issue of The Pomegranate now in press has an article about Robert Cochrane, one of the first English witches to use the term “traditional” in opposition to Gerald Gardner’s Wicca, back in the 1960s. In fact, my own current researches are going to force me to grapple with that term and its permutations quite a bit.

The term “traditional” is tossed around a lot more now than in past decades, but the clashes between various forms of revived Witchcraft started quite some time ago — in the 1960s, at least. Some of the infighting appeared in a short-lived publication called Pentagram, arguably the first English-language Pagan zine.  Note the headline, “Before Gardner—What?”

Gerald Gardner himself had died earlier that year, so he could not say anything. There might be a connection with the timing of the article!

The unsigned short article complains, in essence, that Gardner’s version of Witchcraft is getting all the press attention. It continues, “Now as you must know, there are a number of other groups, quite apart from the little group in which I am interested, who practice various forms of Magic and Witchcraft. Now why does the Press make no mention of them . . . ?” and goes on to speak of “hereditary covens” and about Witchcraft is a “complicated and all-embracing way of life.”

There you have one split that has persisted to this day. Against Gardner’s claims of unbroken ancient tradition (which I do not think that any Wiccan leader would advocate today), you have another set of claims: that there are non-Wiccan groups that do not seek publicity (yet are apparently insulted that they do not receive it), that are “hereditary” in some sense, and that are more demanding of their members than some mere Stone Age fertility cult allegedly rediscovered in southern England.

Was that Cochrane writing ? Possibly. He did write for Pentagram under his own name as well. And the use of “sock puppets” predates the Internet. The idea of being more “complicated” sounds like something he might have said.

The appeal to (undocumented) tradition and other logical fallacies are still found  in “Traditional Witchcraft,” but there can be something else as well, something healthy and refreshing. I will return to this topic in the near future.


19 thoughts on “The Basic Split in Pagan Witchcraft

  1. Wouldn’t it be handy to have all these characters at the table today!

    Some random thoughts, for I have a rare, brief moment:
    Our history is rife with fickle humans having all sorts of changing & contradictory stories about themselves. Valiente (whom I still adore), certainly contradicted herself by embracing Cochrane’s variety of Witchcraft & later calling him a charlatan. Then again, she began with Gardner & left him too.
    I have been re-reading Martello lately — he certainly was guilty of the “hereditary” claim whilst griping all day long in the rags about not getting publicity. I do not think he would be above creating a sock puppet, except for the way he rants, the author would be quite apparent. This post recalls what bits I remember from reading the Pickingill Papers — was there a sock puppet in that discussion too?

    People are claiming all varieties of great-great-grandmother-poobah-ness. Given my very recent, very local experiences with charlatans, I now have a knee-jerk response to anyone who feels they even need state their “lineage” or “credentials.” Keep it to your super-secret-self. I just don’t want to hear it. (However, I am still endlessly fascinated by the ongoing research.)

      1. The article will be available online soon, for a price. Equinox Publishing is a for-profit company, and I have nothing to do with the pricing, which is all handled in the Sheffield office.

    1. Certainly Doreen Valiente realized that Cochrane deliberately mystified his coveners about his antecedents or lack thereof, but she did always consider him to be a natural magician. I had to learn that lesson in my life too — someone could be an effective magician, yet you would not want to believe all that they say or trust them with your wallet.

      1. Agreed & in a sheepishly schoolgirl sort of way I confess that were I handed the opportunity to work with Cochrane, I would pounce on it. 😉

        (But I wouldn’t give him any banking information!)

  2. Gardner did not make “claims of unbroken ancient tradition.”

    In fact he rejected such claims explicitly, while also very explicitly acknowledging that “Wica” was influenced by a wide variety of cultures and traditions from many different places and many different historical periods.

    1. The implication of a continuity with the past is everywhere in Chapter 1 of Witchcraft Today. Oh, you may find some “weasel words,” part of his charade of being outside observer rather than a participant.

      See also the very first sentence of Margaret Murray’s foreword: “In this book Dr. [sic] Gardner states that he has found in various parts of England groups of people who still practise the same rites as as the so-called ‘witches’ of the Middle Ages, and that the rites are a true survival and not a mere revival copied out of books.”

      Can’t get much plainer than that.

  3. Medeine Ragana

    Leo Martello! Wow! Forgot about him but now remember him from the 1970s. Brings back memories… 🙂

      1. Medeine Ragana

        I will look for that!! I had old back issues of Pentagram at one time but they have unfortunately succumbed to being sucked into a black hole in this pile of rubble I all my “house”. 🙂

        Had a whole slew of typewritten pages from Raven Grimmasi (spelling?) also from the 1980s. Ah well… entropy rules! 🙂

  4. Medeine Ragana

    I looked up the Pomegranate site. $42 for one issue! Unfortunately that’s way beyond my budget. 🙁 But I would love to have a copy of that article.

      1. Medeine Ragana

        Well, I’m guessing my local college library will be a lot more cooperative than the local library which is run by born-agains.

  5. anon

    I tend to view “traditional witchcraft” as a modern tradition which has it’s root in aboriginal (local) tradition. Tradition here refers to a set which is comprised of components sociological, psychological, metaphysical, and characteristically practical. Traditions of the kind discussed above are not only found in Britain, but can be found extending to the eastern borders of Europe.


    p.s. By the way, I guess not all of us are insulted if we don’t receive attention; I certainly am not.

  6. If you’re a college grad, check and see if your Alma mater provides access to the university library for alums. UVA provides alums with free online lifetime access to scholarly journals. That’s how I get the Pomegranate for free. Wa-hoo-wa!

  7. Wouldn’t it be lovely if the Spirit of healing, herbalism, storytelling and character molding counsel were not relegated to arguments over “tradition” or disciplines of ritual (that I’ve discovered are far more potent when distilled and related through personal / unique dynamic) … at this time and place? That the idea (as I have always been guided to understand is the value of my Ancestors’ spirituality and community building was anchored in) personal awareness and growth in harmony with the environment surrounding them… and evolution is a process that includes our spiritual expressions…. keeping pace with our world as it is … so we may better establish a vision of harmony and good health with life. And especially at this epoch, change the prevailing consciousness through connection and greater healing. Describes a Witch to me….

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