Feb 082018

Today is the birthday (1810) of Éliphas Lévi Zahed, born Alphonse Louis Constant, French occult author and ceremonial magician. “Éliphas Lévi”, the name under which he published his books, was his attempt to translate or transliterate his given names “Alphonse Louis” into classical Hebrew. Constant was the son of a shoemaker in Paris. He attended the seminary of Saint Sulpice from 1830, studying to enter the Roman Catholic priesthood. However, while at the seminary he fell in love and left in 1836 without being ordained. He spent the following years among his socialist and Romantic friends, including Henri-François-Alphonse Esquiros and so-called petits romantiques such as Gérard de Nerval and Théophile Gautier. During this time, he turned to a radical socialism that was decisively inspired by the writings of Félicité de Lamennais, the former leader of the influential neo-Catholic movement who had recently broken with Rome and propagated a Christian socialism. When Constant published his first radical writing, La Bible de la liberté (1841, The Bible of Liberty), he was sentenced to an eight-month prison term and a heavy fine. Contemporaries saw in him the most notorious “disciple” of Lamennais, although the two men do not seem to have established a personal contact. In the following years, Constant described his ideology as communisme néo-catholique and published a number of socialist books and pamphlets. Like many socialists, he propagated socialism as “true Christianity” and denounced the various denominations as corruptors of the teachings of Christ.

Key friends at that time include, next to Esquiros, the feminist Flora Tristan, the eccentric socialist mystic Simon Ganneau, and the socialist Charley Fauvety. In the course of the 1840s, Constant developed close ties to the Fourierist movement, publishing in Fourierist publications and praising Fourierism as the “true Christianity” (see https://www.bookofdaystales.com/charles-fourier/ ). Several of his books were published by the Fourierist Librairie phalanstérienne. He also embraced the Catholic traditionalist Joseph de Maistre, whose works were popular in socialist circles. An especially radical pamphlet, “La voix de la famine” (1846, The Voice of Famine), earned Constant another prison sentence that was significantly shortened at the request of his pregnant second wife, Marie-Noémi Cadiot.

In his “Testament de la liberté” (1848), Constant reacted to the atmosphere that produced the February Revolution. In 1848, he was the leader of an especially notorious Montagnard club known for its radicalism. Although it has been claimed that the Testament marked the end of Constant’s socialist ambitions, it has been argued that its content is in fact highly euphoric, announcing the end of the people’s martyrdom and the “resurrection” of Liberty: the perfect universal, socialist order. Like many other socialists, the course of events, especially the massacres of the June Uprising in 1849, left him devastated and disillusioned. As his friend Esquiros recounted, their belief in the peaceful realization of a harmonious universal society had been shattered.

In December 1851, Napoleon III organized a coup that ended the Second Republic and gave rise to the Second Empire. Similar to many other socialists at the time, Constant saw the emperor as the defender of the people and the restorer of public order. In the Moniteur parisien of 1852, Constant praised the new government’s actions as “veritably socialist,” but he soon became disillusioned with the rigid dictatorship and was eventually imprisoned in 1855 for publishing a polemical chanson against the Emperor. What had changed, however, was Constant’s attitude towards “the people.” As early as in La Fête-Dieu and Le livre des larmes from 1845, he had been skeptical of the uneducated people’s ability to emancipate themselves. Similar to the Saint-Simonians, he had adopted the theocratical ideas of Joseph de Maistre in order to call for the establishment of a “spiritual authority” led by an élite class of priests. After the disaster of 1849, he was completely convinced that the “masses” were not able to establish an harmonious order and needed instruction.

Constant’s activities reflect the socialist struggle to come to terms both with the failure of 1848 and the tough repressions by the new government. He contributed to the socialist Revue philosophique et religieuse, founded by his old friend Fauvety, wherein he propagated his “Kabbalistic” ideas, for the first time in public, in 1855-1856 (notably using his civil name). The debates in the Revue do not only show the tensions between the old “Romantic Socialism” of the Saint-Simonians and Fourierists, they also demonstrate how natural it was for a socialist writer to discuss topics like magic, the Kabbalah, or the occult sciences in a socialist journal. Constant developed his ideas about magic in a specific milieu that was marked by the confluence of socialist and magnetistic ideas. Influential authors included Henri Delaage (1825–1882) and Jean du Potet de Sennevoy (1796–1881), who were, to different extents, propagating magnetistic, magical, and kabbalistic ideas as the foundation of a superior form of socialism.

Lévi began to write Histoire de la magie in 1860. The following year, in 1861, he published a sequel to Dogme et rituel, La clef des grands mystères (“The Key to the Great Mysteries”). In 1861 Lévi revisited London. Further magical works by Lévi include Fables et symboles (Stories and Symbols), 1862, Le sorcier de Meudon (The Wizard of Meudon, an extended edition of two novels originally published in 1847) 1861, and La science des esprits (The Science of Spirits), 1865. In 1868, he wrote Le grand arcane, ou l’occultisme Dévoilé (The Great Secret, or Occultism Unveiled),published posthumously in 1898.

Constant resumed the use of openly socialist language after the government had loosened the restrictions against socialist doctrines in 1859. From La clef on, he extensively cited his radical writings, even his infamous Bible de la liberté. He continued to develop his idea of an élite of initiates that would lead the people to its final emancipation. In several passages he explicitly conflated socialism, Catholicism, and occultism.

The magic propagated by Éliphas Lévi became a great success, especially after his death. Spiritualism being popular on both sides of the Atlantic from the 1850s contributed to this success. His magical teachings were free from obvious fanaticisms, even if they remained rather murky; he had nothing to sell, and did not pretend to be the initiate of some ancient or fictitious secret society. He incorporated the Tarot cards into his magical system, and as a result the Tarot has been an important part of the paraphernalia of Western magicians. He had a deep impact on the magic of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and later on the ex-Golden Dawn member Aleister Crowley. He was also the first to declare that a pentagram or five-pointed star with one point down and two points up represents evil, while a pentagram with one point up and two points down represents good. It was largely through the occultists inspired by him that Lévi is remembered as one of the key founders of the 20th-century revival of magic.

Constant not only developed his “occultism” as a direct consequence of his socialist and neo-Catholic ideas, but he continued to propagate the realization of “true socialism” throughout his life. According to the narrative developed by the occultist Papus (Gérard Encausse) and cemented by the occultist biographer Paul Chacornac, Constant’s turn to occultism was the result of an “initiation” by the eccentric Polish expatriate Józef Maria Hoene-Wroński. However, this narrative had been developed before Papus and his companions had any access to reliable information about Constant’s life. Also, a journey to London that Constant made in May 1854 did not cause his preoccupation with magic, although he seems to have been involved in practical magic for the first time. Instead, it was the aforementioned socialist-magnetistic context that formed the background of Constant’s interest in magic. It should also be noted that the relationship between Constant and the novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton was not as intimate as it is often claimed. In fact, Bulwer-Lytton’s famous novel A Strange Story (1862) includes a rather unflattering remark about Constant’s Dogme et ritual.

Lévi’s works are filled with various definitions for magic and the magician. They are also replete with general wisdom which should see great light in my neverendingly humble opinion:

To practice magic is to be a quack; to know magic is to be a sage.

Magic is the divinity of man conquered by science in union with faith; the true Magi are Men-Gods, in virtue of their intimate union with the divine principle.

To be rich is to give; to give nothing is to be poor; to live is to love; to love nothing is to be dead; to be happy is to devote oneself; to exist only for oneself is to damn oneself, and to exile oneself to hell.

He looks on the wicked as invalids whom one must pity and cure; the world, with its errors and vices, is to him God’s hospital, and he wishes to serve in it.

When we love, we see the infinite in the finite. We find the Creator in the creation.

A good teacher must be able to put himself in the place of those who find learning hard.

Judge not; speak hardly at all; love and act.

There is nothing more to controlling demons than to do good and fear nothing.

Lévi believed that physical preparation for deep ritual was vital and diet was a key component. During the process he abstained from meat and ate simply. Being a vegetarian in France or England in the mid-nineteenth century was no easy task. There were, however, advocates of a diet that was supposedly healthier than normal. By modern standards the health benefits are questionable. This recipe is for a vegetarian version of British steamed pudding using mushrooms in place of meat. It comes from the Vegetarian Society of London which was founded in 1847.

Mushroom pudding

One pint of mushrooms, half a pound of bread crumbs, and two ounces of butter. Put the butter in the bread crumbs, adding pepper and salt, and as much water as will moisten the bread; add the mushrooms cut in pieces; line a basin with paste, put in the mixture, cover with paste, tie a cloth over, and boil an hour and a-half. It is equally good baked.

Jan 102018

Today is known as Traditional Day or Fête du Vodoun, a public holiday in Benin that celebrates the nation’s heritage particularly as it relates to the West African practice of vodun. The celebration is held annually on January 10 throughout the country but most notably in the city of Ouidah on the coast. Vodun was officially declared a religion in Benin in 1996 and the festival has attracted thousands of devotees and tourists to Ouidah to participate in the festivities ever since. During Matthew Kerekou’s Marxist/military rule of 18 years which ended in 1991, vodun was suppressed and outlawed in the country. With the exit of Kerekou from power, the practice began to thrive freely again. Following his return to power as a democratic elected president in 1996, Kerekou capitulated to the people’s wish when taking his oath of office by acknowledging the existence of ancestral spirits, and the government declared January 10th as public holiday.

You will read various statistics about the popularity of Vodun. Some observers claim that as much as 60% of the population of Benin practice Vodun, but according to the 2002 census, 42.8% of the population of Benin declared themselves as Christian (27.1% Roman Catholic, 5% Celestial Church of Christ, 3.2% Methodist, 7.5% other Christian denominations), 24.4% as Muslim, and 17.3% as practitioners of Vodun (the rest following various other indigenous religions or having no religious affiliation). I’m not sure that I can say a whole lot about vodun that will be terribly accurate because I’ve never been to West Africa nor studied the local spiritual practices particularly closely, but I’ll do my best. The one thing I can say with no fear of contradiction is that Vodun is grossly misunderstood by outsiders.

Vodun (meaning “spirit” in both Fon and Ewe languages, also spelled Vodon, Vodoun, Vodou, Voudou, Voodoo, etc.) is practiced by the Ewe people of eastern and southern Ghana, and southern and central Togo,the Kabye people, Gen-speaking people, and Fon people of southern and central Togo, and southern and central Benin. It is also practiced by some Gun people of Lagos and Ogun in southwest Nigeria. All these peoples belong to Gbe-speaking ethnic groups of West Africa, except the Kabye. Vodun is distinct from the various traditional African religions in the interiors of these countries and is one source of religions with similar names found among the African diaspora in the Americas, such as Haitian Vodou; Dominican Vudú; Cuban Vodú; Brazilian Vodum; and Louisiana Voodoo. I use the word “voodoo” in my title here, because it is one spelling of the Fon word that is pronounced /vodṹ/  (in IPA transliteration), and because it is more familiar to most Westerners than Vodun. However, it is very important not to confuse Vodun with popular conceptions (or misconceptions) of Voodoo.

Anthropologists class Vodun as a form of magic (differentiating it from religion). This is a technical distinction that causes anthropologists to argue endlessly, and froth at the mouth a lot, so I’ll keep it simple (which probably is a synonym in this case for “wrong” or “misguided”). Anthropologists, going back to James George Frazer and The Golden Bough, have tried to separate supernatural practices into magic and religion, but the differences are not really hard and fast. Ideally, magic takes as a basic assumption that the world is divided into physical and spiritual forces that are deeply entwined, such that everything affects everything. The art to being a good magical practitioner is knowing the rules that govern how actions in one place have results in another place. In some ways magic is akin to physical science, which also believes that everything is connected to everything else. For example, Isaac Newton’s law of universal gravitation (which got superseded by Einstein’s theory of General Relativity), states that EVERYTHING attracts EVERYTHING else in the universe (with a force proportional to their masses, divided by the square of their distance apart). This law applies to planets, stars, galaxies, and sub-atomic particles. In principle, therefore, I exert a force on you, and you exert a force on me. When I see you (in person), light from your body enters my eye and becomes part of my body. Everything influences everything. Magic differs from science in that it posits a spirit world that is also connected to the physical world, whereas science does not. What differentiates magic (and science) from religion, is that magic (and science) works regardless of the intentions of the practitioner, whereas in religious systems, intention is everything. Break a mirror and you get 7 years of bad luck whether you intended to break it or not. That’s magic. If you want to undo the bad luck you must know the magical rules concerned with mirrors, and perform the necessary magic to make things right again.  In a religious system you undo bad fortune through prayer, and your prayer may be granted, but only if you pray with a good heart. Pray with bad intentions and the supernatural world will ignore you, or maybe even do you more harm.

Of course, magic and religion cannot be separated so easily in this way. The big push that led to the Protestant Reformation was the belief, on the part of the likes of Luther and Calvin, that magic had heavily infiltrated Catholicism and perverted it away from “true” religion. Candles, incense, bells, relics, etc. etc., were seen as magical nonsense by the Reformers. Even with the best will in the world, you don’t get rid of magic that easily. Professional baseball players on a long hitting streak may keep doing certain things repeatedly (even ritually) – eating the same breakfast before games, driving the same route to the baseball stadium, for example – even though they have no obvious connexion to the hitting streak. Magic can be reassuring in that way. Why jinx a good thing?

Vodun cosmology centers on the vodun spirits and other elements of divine essence that govern the Earth, a hierarchy that ranges in power from major deities governing the forces of nature and human society to the spirits of individual streams, trees, and rocks, as well as dozens of ethnic vodun, defenders of a certain clan, ethnic group, or nation. The vodun are the center of ritual life, and in some ways appear similar to doctrines such as the intercession of saints and angels within Catholicism that ultimately produced syncretic religions such as Haitian Vodou. Adherents of vodun also emphasize respect for ancestors, and hold that the spirits of the dead live side by side with the world of the living.

Patterns of vodun practice differ considerably within West Africa, and even within Benin. In many traditions, a divine creator, called variously Mawu or Mahu, is a female being who bore seven children and gave each rule over a realm of nature, such as, animals, earth, sea, and so forth. In other traditions, the universe has both female and male aspects, often portrayed as the twin children of the creator, represented cosmologically by the moon (female) and the sun (masculine). Dan, who is the creator’s androgynous son, is represented as a rainbow serpent, and as a go-between between the female and male, and between the supernatural and natural. As the overall mediator between the spirits and the living, Dan maintains balance, order, peace, harmony and communication. All creation is considered divine and therefore contains the power of the divine.

Because all physical objects contain divine power, even mundane items can have spiritual efficacy. Herbs can cure illnesses, not because of their physical properties but because of their divine nature. Even ordinary, everyday objects can be used in ritual because of their inherent spiritual force. Vodun talismans, called “fetishes” in English, are objects such as statues or dried animal or human parts that are sold because of their healing and spiritually rejuvenating properties. Drumming, dancing, singing; the ritual slaughter of goats and chickens; and drinking copious amounts of homemade gin, are all intrinsic parts of festivities in Benin on this date.

A very common street food (as well as home food) for festivals throughout Benin is Atassi or Waakye, which closely resembles beans and rice dishes found throughout Europe and the Americas. The dish is popular during Fête du Vodoun because the two complementary ingredients represent the duality central to vodun, and the dish itself is especially sacred to twins who are held in high honor in many West African cultures because of their resonance with the primordial twins of the creator. Beans and rice are called waakye in Benin because “waakye” is the local Fon word for sorghum, sometimes millet, leaves added to the cooking water to produce a distinctive brown color and subtle flavoring. You do not really need a recipe if you have any experience with beans and rice, especially because the Benin version is very plain.  Here’s a video for you.

Jul 132017

Today is the birthday (1863) of Margaret Alice Murray, an Anglo-Indian Egyptologist, archaeologist, anthropologist, historian, and folklorist. She was the first woman to be appointed as a lecturer in archaeology in the United Kingdom, working at University College London (UCL) from 1898 to 1935. She served as president of the Folklore Society from 1953 to 1955, and published widely over the course of her career.

Murray was born to a wealthy middle-class English family in Calcutta, in British India, and divided her youth between India, Britain, and Germany, training as both a nurse and a social worker. She moved to London in 1894 and began studying Egyptology at UCL, developing a friendship with department head Flinders Petrie, who encouraged her early academic publications and appointed her to a lectureship in 1898. In 1902–03 she took part in Petrie’s excavations at Abydos, Egypt, there discovering the Osireion temple and the following season investigated the Saqqara cemetery, both of which established her reputation in Egyptology

Murray also became closely involved in the first-wave feminist movement, joining the Women’s Social and Political Union and devoting much time to improving women’s status at UCL. Unable to return to Egypt due to the First World War, she focused her research on the witch-cult hypothesis, the theory that the witch trials of early modern Christendom were an attempt to extinguish a surviving pre-Christian, pagan religion devoted to a Horned God. The theory gained widespread attention and proved a significant influence on the emerging new religious movement of Wicca, even though it was thoroughly discredited in academic circles. Let me pause and take a general step back here before I delve the details of Murray and Wicca.

I’ve spoken countless times in these pages about the huge chasm between contemporary popular belief about the survival of a supposed ancient British pagan cult into the modern era via folk customs and actual documentary evidence of such. There is ZERO evidence of such an hypothesis, but it won’t die. If you want to dress up in costumes and dance around Stonehenge on the summer solstice, sing hymns to the sun at dawn on May 1st, or light bonfires on hilltops on Halloween (or whatever) – go right ahead. I’ve done many similar things myself in the past. They can be a lot of fun. As far as I am concerned people can do what they want, but they are not free to assert that what they are doing is a remnant of a pagan past. That assertion lacks any credibility or proof. Of course, they can believe whatever they wish, but in this case their beliefs have no merit.

An analogy might be useful here. Christianity is built on ancient texts written in classical Hebrew and Greek millennia ago. One of those texts is the book of Genesis which recounts at the beginning how God created the universe in 6 days (which by relatively modern calculations is reckoned to have occurred a few thousand years ago).  Some Christians accept this account as the literal truth, but many (perhaps most) see the story as a useful device in the pursuit of a certain kind of faith, but not to be taken as genuine history.  I see the story of Wicca being the survival of an ancient fertility cult centered on a horned god as being of the same order as the Genesis story of creation. Believe it if you want, but it has no basis in credible history.

The witch-cult hypothesis proposes that the witch trials of the early modern period in the West were an attempt to suppress a pre-Christian, pagan religion that had survived the Christianization of Europe. According to its proponents, this witch-cult revolved around the worship of a Horned God of fertility whom the Christian persecutors referred to as the Devil, and whose cult members participated in nocturnal rites at the witches’ Sabbath in which they venerated this deity. The hypothesis was pioneered by German scholars Karl Ernst Jarcke and Franz Josef Mone in the early 19th century, before being adopted by the French historian Jules Michelet, U.S. feminist Matilda Joslyn Gage, and U.S. folklorist Charles Leland later in that century. The hypothesis received its most prominent exposition when adopted by Margaret Murray, who presented her version of it first in The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921), and later in The God of the Witches (1931) and in her contribution to the Encyclopædia Britannica.

Murray’s witch-cult theories provided the blueprint for the contemporary Pagan religion of Wicca, with Murray often being referred to as the “Grandmother of Wicca.” Her narrative was the one around which Wicca built itself in England during the 1940s and 1950s with Wicca claiming to be the survival of this witch-cult.

In The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921) Murray stated that she had restricted her research to Great Britain, although made some recourse to sources from France, Flanders, and New England. She drew a division between what she termed “Operative Witchcraft”, which referred to the performance of charms and spells with any purpose, and “Ritual Witchcraft”, by which she meant “the ancient religion of Western Europe”, a fertility-based faith that she also termed “the Dianic cult.” She claimed that the cult had very probably once been devoted to the worship of both a male deity and a “Mother Goddess” but that “at the time when the cult is recorded the worship of the male deity appears to have superseded that of the female.” In her argument, Murray claimed that the figure referred to as the Devil in the trial accounts was the witches’ god, “manifest and incarnate,” to whom the witches offered their prayers. She claimed that at the witches’ meetings, the god would be personified, usually by a man or at times by a woman or an animal.

According to Murray, members joined the cult either as children or adults through what Murray called “admission ceremonies.” She asserted that applicants had to agree to join of their own free will, and agree to devote themselves to the service of their deity. She also claimed that in some cases, these individuals had to sign a covenant or were baptized into the faith. At the same time, she claimed that the religion was largely passed down hereditary lines. Murray described the religion as being divided into covens containing thirteen members, led by a coven officer who was often termed the “Devil” in the trial accounts, but who was accountable to a “Grand Master.” According to Murray, the records of the coven were kept in a secret book, with the coven also disciplining its members, to the extent of executing those deemed traitors.

Murray called this witch-cult “a joyous religion” claiming that the two primary festivals that it celebrated were on May Eve and November Eve, with other dates of religious observation being 1st February and 1st August, the winter and summer solstices, and Easter. She asserted that the “General Meeting of all members of the religion” were known as Sabbaths, while the more private ritual meetings were known as Esbats. The Esbats, Murray claimed, were nocturnal rites that began at midnight, and were “primarily for business, whereas the Sabbath was purely religious”. At the former, magical rites were performed both for malevolent and benevolent ends. She also asserted that the Sabbath ceremonies involved the witches paying homage to the deity, renewing their “vows of fidelity and obedience” to him, and providing him with accounts of all the magical actions that they have conducted since the previous Sabbath. Once this business had been concluded, admissions to the cult or marriages were conducted, ceremonies and fertility rites took place, and then the Sabbath ended with feasting and dancing.

Murray called Ritual Witchcraft “a fertility cult” and she asserted that many of its rites were designed to ensure fertility and rain-making. She claimed that there were four types of sacrifice performed by the witches: blood-sacrifice, in which the neophyte writes their name in blood, the sacrifice of animals, the sacrifice of a non-Christian child to procure magical powers, and the sacrifice of the witches’ god by fire to ensure fertility. She interpreted accounts of witches’ shapeshifting into various animals as being representative of a rite in which the witches dressed as specific animals which they took to be sacred. She asserted that accounts of familiars were based on the witches’ use of animals, which she divided into “divining familiars” used in divination and “domestic familiars” used in other magic rites.

Murray asserted that a pre-Christian fertility-based religion had survived the Christianization process in Britain, although that it came to be “practised only in certain places and among certain classes of the community.” She believed that folk stories of fairies in Britain were based on a surviving race of “dwarfs” who continued to live on the island up until the early modern period. She asserted that this race followed the same pagan religion as the witches, thus explaining the folkloric connection between the two. In the appendices to the book, she also alleged that Joan of Arc and Gilles de Rais were members of the witch-cult and were executed for it.

In The God of the Witches she began to refer to the witches’ deity as the Horned God, and asserted that it was an entity who had been worshipped in Europe since the Paleolithic. She further asserted that in the Bronze Age, the worship of the deity could be found throughout Europe, Asia, and parts of Africa, claiming that the depiction of various horned figures from these societies proved that. Among the evidence cited were the horned figures found at Mohenjo-Daro, which are often interpreted as depictions of Pashupati, as well as the deities Osiris and Amon in Egypt and the Minotaur of Minoan Crete. Within continental Europe, she claimed that the Horned God was represented by Pan in Greece, Cernunnos in Gaul, and in various Scandinavian rock carvings. Claiming that this divinity had been declared the Devil by the Christian authorities, she nevertheless asserted that his worship was testified in officially Christian societies right through to the modern period, citing folk practices such as the Dorset Ooser and the Puck Fair as evidence of his veneration.

In 1954, she published The Divine King in England, in which she greatly extended on the theory, taking in influence from James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, which made the claim that societies all over the world sacrificed their kings to the deities of nature. In her book, she claimed that this practice had continued into medieval England, and that, for instance, the death of William II was really a ritual sacrifice

Contemporary historian Ronald Hutton has suggested that Murray’s theory was popular in some quarters because it “appealed to so many of the emotional impulses of the age,” including “the notion of the English countryside as a timeless place full of ancient secrets,” the literary popularity of Pan, the widespread belief that the majority of British had remained pagan long after the process of Christianization, and the idea that folk customs represented pagan survivals (my own personal crusade to debunk).

Murray’s theories never received support from experts in the early modern witch trials, nor from folklorists and anthropologists. All her publications are littered with factual errors and methodological problems. She drew sweeping conclusions from limited primary evidence which she carefully selected whilst ignoring anything that disagreed with her thesis, she took data out of cultural context, and she made over general assumptions about the nature of pre-Christian Britain. Pre-Christian Britain was hardly a monolithic culture as she claimed it was. The people spoke a number of different languages and came from widely different backgrounds: Celtic, Germanic, Norse etc. Furthermore, she succumbed to what I call the “folk gap” fallacy, that is, somehow “pagan” practices survived in Britain for 1,000 years from ancient times to the Middle Ages with no documentary evidence whatsoever. These practices were supposedly all guardedly secret and buried deep. You can’t rule this assertion out of course, but I (and all serious scholars) find it hard to believe. It is also hard to believe, as Murray claimed, that the majority of Britons in the Middle Ages remained pagan.

Murray’s work was almost entirely ignored by historians and anthropologists as being too faulty to be worthy of comment. Murray for her part did not respond directly to the criticisms of her work, but believed that her critics were simply acting out of their own Christian prejudices to non-Christian religion. Definitive academic rejection of the witch-cult theory occurred during the 1970s. A variety of scholars across Europe and North America – including Alan Macfarlane, Erik Midelfort, William Monter, Robert Muchembled, Gerhard Schormann, Bente Alver and Bengt Ankarloo – published in-depth studies of the archival records from the witch trials, leaving no doubt that those tried for witchcraft were not practitioners of a surviving pre-Christian religion. Jeffrey B. Russell and Brooks Alexander in 2007 wrote:

That this ‘old religion’ persisted secretly, without leaving any evidence, is, of course, possible, just as it is possible that below the surface of the moon lie extensive deposits of Stilton cheese. Anything is possible. But it is nonsense to assert the existence of something for which no evidence exists. The Murrayites ask us to swallow a most peculiar sandwich: a large piece of the wrong evidence between two thick slices of no evidence at all.

During the 1940s and 1950s in Britain, Wicca emerged claiming to be a survival of Murray’s witch-cult (with some other influences as well). Wicca’s theological structure, revolving around a Horned God and Mother Goddess, was adopted from Murray’s ideas about the ancient witch-cult, and Wiccan groups were named covens and their meetings termed esbats, both words that Murray had popularized. As with Murray’s witch-cult, Wicca’s practitioners entered via an initiation ceremony. Murray’s claims that witches wrote down their spells in a book may have been an influence on Wicca’s Book of Shadows. Wicca’s early system of seasonal festivities was also based on Murray’s framework.

The historian Philip Heselton suggested that the New Forest coven – the oldest alleged Wiccan group – was founded circa 1935 by esotericists aware of Murray’s theory and who may have believed themselves to be reincarnated witch-cult members. It was Gerald Gardner, who claimed to be an initiate of the New Forest coven, who established the tradition of Gardnerian Wicca and popularized the religion. Gardner and Murray knew each other, with Murray writing the foreword to Gardner’s 1954 book Witchcraft Today. Murray’s witch-cult theories were likely also a core influence on the non-Gardnerian Wiccan traditions that were established in Britain and Australia between 1930 and 1970. In San Francisco during the late 1960s, Murray’s writings were among the sources used by Aidan A. Kelly in the creation of his Wiccan tradition, the New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn. In Los Angeles during the early 1970s, they were used by Zsuzsanna Budapest when she was establishing her feminist-oriented tradition of Dianic Wicca.

Members of the Wiccan community gradually became aware of academia’s rejection of the witch-cult theory. Accordingly, belief in its literal truth declined during the 1980s and 1990s, with many Wiccans instead coming to view it as a legend that conveyed metaphorical or symbolic truths. Others insisted that the historical origins of the religion did not matter and that instead Wicca was legitimated by the spiritual experiences it gave to its participants. In 1999 Ronald Hutton wrote The Triumph of the Moon, a historical study exploring Wicca’s early development, and which exerted a strong impact on the British Pagan community, further eroding belief in the Murrayite theory among Wiccans. Conversely, other practitioners clung on to the theory, treating it as an important article of faith and rejecting post-Murrayite scholarship on European witchcraft. Several prominent practitioners continued to insist that Wicca was a religion with origins stretching back to the Paleolithic, while others rejected the validity of historical scholarship and emphasized intuition and emotion as the arbiter of truth.

Contemporary Wiccans are pretty eclectic in their recipe suggestions for special occasions, so I’d be hard put to find anything approaching a signature recipe. If you search online, for example, you’ll find a lot of confusion about what’s Celtic versus what’s Germanic or Norse, and also about the ways in which these cultures historically were both distinct and syncretic. “Celtic” tends to be used as a synonym for “really traditional” or “really old” whereas Celtic cultures have evolved, in the same way that others have (with influences from all over the place), and, furthermore, Irish Celts were Christianized long before the Anglo-Saxons.

For me the genuinely positive aspect of Wicca is its reverence for the earth. This reverence not only means avoiding foods laden with chemicals and pesticides, but also eating seasonally using local products. I’ve been following this pattern my whole life. I don’t eat strawberries in December (in the northern hemisphere) for example. They are for May and June. One of the positive values in Mrs Beeton is her insistence on the seasonality of every dish: eat foods when they are fresh and plentiful LOCALLY. Currently I eat a lot of rice, noodles, and greens with ginger and mushrooms because I live in Mandalay. I’m not going to insist on steak and kidney puddings or fish and chips.

Here’s Mrs Beeton’s suggestions for dinners for July. Take your pick (if you live in England !!!):


  1. Sunday.—1. Salmon trout and parsley-and-butter. 2. Roast fillet of real, boiled bacon-cheek, peas, potatoes. 3. Raspberry-and-currant tart, baked custard pudding.
  2. Monday.—1. Green-pea soup. 2. Roast fowls garnished with water-cresses; gravy, bread sauce; cold veal and salad. 3. Cherry tart.
  3. Tuesday.—1. John dory and lobster sauce. 2. Curried fowl with remains of cold fowls, dish of rice, veal rolls with remains of cold fillet. 3. Strawberry cream.
  4. Wednesday.—1. Roast leg of mutton, vegetable marrow, and potatoes, melted butter. 2. Black-currant pudding.
  5. Thursday.—1. Fried soles, anchovy sauce. 2. Mutton cutlets and tomato sauce, bashed mutton, peas, potatoes. 3. Lemon dumplings.
  6. Friday.—1. Boiled brisket of beef, carrots, turnips, suet dumplings, peas, potatoes. 2. Baked semolina pudding.
  7. Saturday.—1. Cold beef and salad, lamb cutlets and peas. 2. Rolled jam pudding.
Jan 012017


Today is the birthday (1854) of Sir James George Frazer OM FRS FRSE FBA whose evolutionary theories of social anthropology were very influential in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and his work is still popular in some quarters, although it has been thoroughly superseded within the profession. His most famous work, The Golden Bough (1890), documents and details the similarities among magical and religious beliefs around the globe. Frazer posited that human belief progressed through three stages: primitive magic, replaced by religion, in turn replaced by science. The two great weaknesses of Frazer’s work as an anthropologist is that he did no fieldwork, and, hence, was oblivious to the importance of context when assessing social behavior.

Frazer was born in Glasgow, and attended school at Springfield Academy and Larchfield Academy in Helensburgh. Thence he studied at the University of Glasgow and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he took an honours degree in Classics and remained a Classics Fellow all his life. From Trinity, he went on to study law at the Middle Temple, but never practiced.


Frazer was elected 4 times to Trinity’s Title Alpha Fellowship, and was associated with the college for most of his life, except for a year, 1907–1908, spent at the University of Liverpool. He was knighted in 1914, and a public lectureship in social anthropology at the universities of Cambridge, Oxford, Glasgow and Liverpool was established in his honor in 1921. He was, if not blind, then severely visually impaired from 1930 on. He and his wife, Lily, died in Cambridge within a few hours of each other. They are buried at the Ascension Parish Burial Ground in Cambridge, England.

Except for visits to Italy and Greece, Frazer was not widely travelled. His prime sources of data were ancient histories and questionnaires mailed to missionaries and imperial officials all over the world. Frazer’s interest in social anthropology was aroused by reading E. B. Tylor’s Primitive Culture (1871) and encouraged by his friend, the biblical scholar William Robertson Smith, who was comparing elements of the Hebrew Bible with Hebrew folklore.

Frazer was foundational in what became known as the “myth and ritual” school, which was very influential in both social anthropology and Biblical studies for many decades into the 20th century. I have my own issues with the definition of “myth” which I will set aside for the moment. Frazer did at least posit a crucial link between sacred narrative and ritual in culture which is somewhat enduring. His generation’s choice of Darwinian evolution as a social paradigm, interpreted by Frazer as three stages of human progress—magic giving rise to religion, then culminating in science— is entirely bankrupt. All cultures contain all three paradigms at all times, though different cultures place different emphasis on each, as do individuals within those cultures.


The Golden Bough, contains a wealth of data on cultural practices worldwide (of questionable accuracy) with the general sub-text that early Christianity is just one of a number of religions based on the concept of a dying a rising god, with a lot of overlapping details as well. The first edition, in two volumes, was published in 1890. The third edition was finished in 1915 and ran to twelve volumes, with a supplemental thirteenth volume added in 1936. He published a single-volume abridged version, largely compiled by his wife Lady Frazer, in 1922, with some controversial material on Christianity excluded from the text. The work’s influence extended well beyond the conventional bounds of academia, inspiring the new work of psychologists and psychiatrists. Sigmund Freud cited Totemism and Exogamy frequently in his own Totem and Taboo: Resemblances Between the Psychic Lives of Savages and Neurotics. This mostly goes to prove that Freud was just as wrong in this regard as Frazer, every bit as much as Marx was wrong when he relied on the evolutionary theories of Lewis Henry Morgan.

The symbolic cycle of life, death, and rebirth which Frazer found in the sacred stories of many peoples captivated a generation of artists and poets. Perhaps the most notable product of this fascination is T. S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land (1922). Also Jim Morrison in his “Celebration of the Lizard” (finally titled “Not to Touch the Earth” as a song within the Waiting for the Sun album of 1968) included lyrics such as “not to touch the earth, not to see the sun” — sentences which serve as chapter titles in Frazer’s work. More recently, Frazer’s work influenced the ending of Francis Ford Coppola’s film, Apocalypse Now (1979) (a copy of The Golden Bough is shown in one of the final shots).

Frazer was from Glasgow and today is Hogmanay, so a traditional Scots recipe is in order. Here is potted hough, an old favorite of mine. “Hough” is Lowland Scots for “shin” which is a very cheap cut of beef because it is so tough (veal shin is used in ossobucco). Beef shin is very tasty but requires long, slow cooking. Potted hough is served cold, and makes a great dish on a New Year’s Day buffet spread.


Potted Hough


2 lb (1kg) beef shin, bone in
salt and pepper
ground all-spice
beef stock


Put the meat in one piece with the bone and seasonings to taste into a large saucepan. Cover with beef stock and bring to a very gentle simmer. Skim as needed and keep on a gentle simmer for around 6 hours.

Refrigerate overnight with the meat separate from the broth.

In the morning skim off the fat from the broth and return it to the heat. If it did not gel overnight, reduce as you think fit.

Strip the meat from the bone and shred it finely. Add it back to the stock, check the seasonings, then simmer for a few minutes.

Grease a few small moulds or dishes and divide the mixture between them. Pack the meat tightly, then chill to set.

Unmould and serve with bread or toast.