Investigating a “Grandmother Story”

Robert Mathiesen and Theitic, The Rede of the Wiccae: Adriana Porter, Gwen Thompson and the Birth of a Tradition of Witchcraft (Providence, R.I.: Olympic Press, 2005), 167 pp., $17.95 (paper).Book cover of Rede of the Wiccae

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Gwen Thompson (Craft name of Phyllis Healy), 1928–1986, founded the New England Coven of Traditional Witches in the late 1960s. It went on to have various offshoots.

Central to her position as founder of the NECTW tradition was a “grandmother story.” She claimed to have been taught “the Old Religion” (in Margaret Murray’s sense) by her grandmother, Adriana Porter (1857–1946), an underground Craft teaching that supposedly originated in the West of England, in Somerset. Porter was born in Nova Scotia, married William Healy, a bookkeeper and insurance broker, in 1888, and moved with him first to Rhode Island and then to Melrose, Mass. They had one son, Walter, Gwen’s mother’s first husband.

According to Gwen Thompson, her grandmother’s family “were carriers of a secret tradition of Folk Witchcraft,” although her mother had broken with it upon marrying her second husband. Nevertheless, by then Adriana had initiated her and given her the Craft name of Gwen. When Adriana died, Gwen found some of her papers, which she considered to be a Book of Shadows, and which she copied. But she always “refused to tell her initiates anything about the identity of her living relatives, saying, ‘They don’t want to talk to you!'”

This study of her claims has two authors. One, Robert Mathiesen, never met her. Now retired from the Dept. of Slavic Languages at Brown University, he has “a life-long interest in the history of magical practices and doctrines and alternative religions” Theitic, on the other hand, was Thompson’s student from 1974–78 and is now considered to be the historian of the NECTW tradition.

Mathiesen faced one daunting obstacle — he was not allowed to look at Gwen’s Book, except for a part, the Rede (Old English for “counsel”)  that had been published in the Pagan magazine Green Egg in 1975. Most of the Rede is traditional folk wisdom, such “With the fool no season spend / or be counted as his friend.” Other couplets contain wisdom more appropriate to seamen in the days of sail rather than farmers, which could connect them with a port such as Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.

The collection as published starts and finished with other couplets that sound a great deal like Gerald Gardner or Doreen Valiente. As Mathiesen writes, they “use the false archaism Wiccan and strongly echo Gardner’s form of Wicca.”

Mathisen researched Adriana Porter’s family history extensively, and he notes that when she came to the Boston are in the 1880s, she had the leisure and income to have investigated  Spiritualism, Rosicrucianism, Theosophy, and other esoteric currents in that city. Since this book’s publication, he has found hints that she might have known Paul Foster Case, in the 1920s. Case was a ceremonial magician and founder of the mystery school Builders of the Adytum, which still exists.

But the so-called Old Religion? The authors conclude that between 19 and 21 of the 26 couplets in the Rede might well have been written down by Adriana Porter, or else some other 19th-century person. The rest, those that give it a Wiccan flavor, were added almost certainly by Gwen Thompson.

It is another example of what I call “the Gardnerian magnet.” Because books by Gardner and his associates became available from 1957 on, many people not part of that initiatory lineage “borrowed” from it heavily.

Adriana had opportunities to become well acquainted with various occult and esoteric teachings. But there is nothing to prove that she carried forward a deep ancestral tradition of Witchcraft as an alternative religion.

My own larger conclusion is that I still have seen no credible evidence for anyone practicing a self-consciously polytheistic Pagan religion called Wicca or Witchcraft prior to 1951 in the English-speaking world.* What we find, instead, are cases such as these:

  • A Craft leader drops bits of information about their own or an ancestor’s involvement in an esoteric school, ceremonial magical group, etc. and passes that off as an ancestral tradition. Such may well have been the case with Gwen Thompson.
  • A person’s ancestor knew herbalism, root-working, card-reading or other divination, spell-casting, water-witching, conjuring, astrology, etc. — even in a Christian context — and their descendent describes this involvement as an ancestral tradition of Witchcraft in order to legitimize their own position in the new religion of Pagan Witchcraft.

Research projects such as The Rede of the Wiccae are needed, therefore, to settle some of these historical questions — inasmuch as they can be settled — and free scholarship on contemporary Paganism to view it through other lenses.

* Yes, I include Philip Heselton’s work here, as detailed in this book review.

‘Weird Tales,’ Hex Signs, and Folklore

Joe Laycock examined the mythologies behind True Detective. (I have not seen it, being much the same situation as Jason Pitzl-Waters.)

Religion scholar Philip Jenkins has suggested these two sources—contemporary Satanic Panic and the “weird tales” of pulp horror—are connected. He suggests that it was the weird tales authors of the 1920s, notably Lovecraft and Herbert Gorman, who first introduced the idea of secret, murderous cults into the American consciousness.

¶ Those so-called “hex signs” on Pennsylvania Dutch barns? They have little to do with witches and magic, notes librarian of esotericsm Dan Harms in a book review.

From time to time, I’m asked if The Long-Lost Friend has anything to do with hex signs, those beautiful star and flower figures that decorate the barns across much of eastern Pennsylvania and adjacent areas where German settlers made their homes.  The answer is, “Not really,” with a follow-up about the possibility of a mystical link that might or might not be present.  Hex Signs provides us with answers to these questions, and much more.

¶ Speaking of folklore, Ethan Doyle White notes a free online special issue of the journal Folklore, focusing on folklore and Paganism. Lots of good material there.

Tree Beings, New Age Bodies, and Censored Folklore

Here is the table of contents of the latest Journal of Ethnology and Folkloristics ( vol. 7, no. 1 ), published in Finland, “a multidisciplinary forum for scholars. Addressed to an international scholarly audience, JEF is open to contributions from researchers all over the world. JEF publishes articles in the research areas of ethnology, folkloristics, museology, cultural and social anthropology.”

Links go to PDFs of the articles.

Full Issue

View or download the full issue PDF

Table of Contents

Articles

Folk Religion in Discourse and Practice PDF
James Alexander Kapaló 3-18
Tree Beings in Tibet: Contemporary Popular Concepts of klu and gnyan as a Result of Ecological Change PDF
Jakub Kocurek 19-30
Sowing the Seeds of Faith: A Case Study of an American Missionary in the Russian North PDF
Piret Koosa 31-48
The Body in New Age from the Perspective of the Subtle Body: The Example of the Source Breathwork Community PDF
Katre Koppel 49-64
Immoral Obscenity: Censorship of Folklore Manuscript Collections in Late Stalinist Estonia PDF
Kaisa Kulasalu 65-81
Anthropological Interpretation of the Meaning of Ritual Objects in the Contemporary Urban Wedding in Bulgaria PDF
Rozaliya Guigova 83-104
Places Revisited: Transnational Families and Stories of Belonging PDF
Pihla Maria Siim 105-124
Official Status As a Tool of Language Revival? A Study of the Language Laws in Russia’s Finno-Ugric Republics PDF
Konstantin Zamyatin 125-153

Gendered Rural Spaces PDF
Piret Koosa

On the Science of How Plants Talk to Each Other

Imagine this, a kernal (heh) of truth:

Sound is so fundamental to life that some scientists now think there’s a kernel of truth to folklore that holds humans can commune with plants. And plants may use sound to communicate with one another.

Do beetles eavesdrop on drought-stressed pine trees? Maybe so.

Apotropaic Magic, Size 9

I don’t know if the custom of hiding used shoes and clothing in a house under construction to ward off evil influences ever crossed the pond to North America from Britain. If you know of instances—or of people still doing it—let me know in the comments.

I first learned of this custom at an archaeology conference at the University of Southampton some years back. Archaeologists are delighted with such finds. Often they provide the only samples of ordinary people’s clothing, which otherwise would have been worn until it fell apart.

The custom apparently went to Australia with the convicts and other early settlers, however.

Convict's shirt (BBC).

A few blocks away from the Sydney Harbour Bridge is the imposing, vivid orange structure of the Hyde Park Barracks.

Built to house some 50,000 unfortunate convicts transported from the UK between 1819 and the mid-1840s, the jail was among the first substantial structures constructed in the city.

On the second floor, under the boards of a wooden staircase, workers found a striped prisoner’s shirt.

[Historian Ian] Evans rejects the idea that the shirt could have been put under the stairs by accident. Just like the Harbour Bridge shoe, he believes it was hidden for a purpose.

But if you are renovating an 18th or 19th-century building and find an old shoe under the floor, now you know why it was there—maybe. (And did this custom die out completely, and if so, why?)

Pagans, Folklore, and Dogs

Click over to Pagans for Archaeology, where Yewtree interviews Australian Pagan scholar David Waldron, author of Shock! The Black Dog of Bungay: A Study in Local Folklore, about dogs, folklore, and the Pagan revival.

I think a key issue for me was that transmission of symbols, images and ideas from the pagan past are very fragmentary, complex and ambivalent. People are very quick to throw the “Pagan Survival” label around because they so badly need to feel a connection to the past and a feeling of pastness in what they do. People can also be very quick to deny connection to a Pagan past when debunking. One thing that was really apparent to me when doing my research on the Black Dog of Bungay from a local history perspective, was that it is not a zero sum game. Let’s look at the Black Dog of Bungay for example. There are fragments in the myth from the Celts, Vikings and Romans for example. However, if I was to speak to a 16th century Puritan in Bungay he may not even know what a Celt was and would certainly take offense at the suggestion his view of the attack on St Mary’s church by a Black Dog or “Devile in such a likenesse” was Pagan.

He makes some interesting points about how folklore incorporates outside interpretations, digesting them, and  presenting them as truly indigenous and original. Worth a read.

Little Red Riding Hood is Older than You Think

The story of Little Red Riding Hood, usually dated to the 16th or 17th century, may be much older, says an anthropologist who studied multiple versions from around the world.

Professor Jack Zipes, a retired professor of German at the University of Minnesota who is an expert on fairy tales and their origins, described [Dr. Jamie Tehrani’s] work as “exciting”. He believes folk tales may have helped people to pass on tips for survival to new generations.

He said: “Little Red Riding Hood is about violation or rape, and I suspect that humans were just as violent in 600 BC as they are today, so they will have exchanged tales about all types of violent acts.

“I have tried to show that tales relevant to our adaptation to the environment and survival are stored in our brains and we consistently use them for all kinds of reference points.”

I had heard it argued lot of the classic European fairy tales reflect the social destruction of the Thirty Years War (1618–1648)–disease, fighting, looting.

But apparently “Little Red Riding Hood” counts as ancient Pagan wisdom.

(Via Arts and Letters Daily.)

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The Fairies of Torchwood

I never joined the Doctor Who cult, although I had friends who remembered every episode and could debate whether Peter Davison made a better Doctor than William Hartnell.

At a post-INATS dinner, however, a publisher friend said that I had to see Torchwood, a Doctor Who spin-off. He compared it to the X-Files. Netflix had it, so I ordered Season One (2006).

We-l-l-l. The X-Files it’s not. Underneath the aliens and “time rifts” and occasional goriness, it’s not as dark  — there is not the sense of hopelessness against greater forces and the personal doubts that pervade the world of agents Scully and Mulder.

In fact, every time that I see the four main Torchwood operatives running down the street — they seem to run a lot, for running and frenetic music cover up plot slippages and cheesy special effects — I want to sing along, “Hey, hey, we’re the Monkees.”

But I heartily approved of the episode called “Small Worlds.”

Every time I see someone who gets all mushy about fairies, I want to remind them, “The fairies are not your friends, anymore than the coyotes are your friends.” You can interact with them, but under other circumstances they would eat you. They are a different life form, and they are not All About Us.

Gallimaufry with Bells On

These women know how to dress for an outdoor festival.

¶ Jason links to articles and web sites for new, nontraditional Morris sides. I am not sure if I would call what they are doing “reclaiming” — nor do I know if Jason chose that word for its this-side-of-the-pond connotations. Any folk tradition changes with time, even as its practitioners insist that “we’ve always done it this way” or “we are just going back to the way that the old-timers used to do it.” Lots of good links.

¶ Hecate has a Wiccan landscaping question. I have already contributed my two cents’ worth.

¶ The US Postal Service is piloting a program to make it easier to recycle inkjet cartridges and small electronics. (Via Lupabitch.)