Fire In the Head

a review by Jenny Gibson

_Fire in the Head_ by Tom Cowan isn't about Witchcraft. It's a well-written, if unhistorical, look at "Celtic shamanism". However in one chapter Cowan touches on Witchcraft at length, claiming that it was the heir of early Celtic shamanic practices. The chapter illustrates a couple disturbing themes in Neo-Pagan histories: being reasonable (rather than reasonably accurate) and what I can only describe as a cultural commitment to bad history.

First, the basics. Almost none of Cowan's statements about Witchcraft are correct. He simply presents Margaret Murray's Witch Cult and Pygmy Fairies as if they really existed, and then points out similarities between them and Celtic folklore. Since Murray's description of Witches and Fairies is wrong on almost every single count, so is Cowan's. Similarities to Celtic beliefs demonstrate what materials Murray was using when she invented her Witches, not the ancient history of Witchcraft.

In addition, Cowan proposes a number of his own theories, like Witches' reputation for killing came from the fact that they helped the sick to pass over painlessly, or that Witches traditionally wore black to aid their escape when their nocturnal rituals were raided by religious or secular officials. And this is where you see the first problem: being reasonable, not reasonably accurate.

Much of Pagan history is written by sharp, logical people -- who don't happen to know a lot of history. As a result, they tend to write "histories" that are sensible and compelling. And completely ahistorical. Much the same thing can be said about these authors' audience. Most readers don't know enough history to tell how well the author is addressing the evidence. So they end up judging the theory on whether or not it sounds reasonable, rather than on whether or not it does a reasonable job of explaining the evidence.

The two examples I gave sound reasonable -- but they're not. Witches were not accused of killing the sick and dying. No one suspected Witchcraft unless a healthy person or animal died unexpectedly, and usually it was the family/owner who initiated the attack on the Witch. Witches were not early hospice workers. They took the blame for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, strokes, and other poorly understood illnesses. Likewise the whole image of black-robed Witches darting through the forest to evade inquisitors is ludicrously unhistorical. No one was out beating the bushes looking for Witches. In all of the Burning Times, there is not one single case where a secular or religious official encountered a coven at their rituals. On one or two occasions neighbors spotted Witches (who, incidentally, weren't wearing black or masks or animal disguises). No Witch hunter ever found odd black robes or masks or animal disguises in any Witch's house. And Witches weren't even associated with the color black (as far as I know) until after the Burning Times. This theory is not history -- it's a rationalization for a modern custom.

You see this a lot in Pagan books, and I place the blame firmly in the authors' laps. I don't expect readers to be able to spot all these things. If they knew that much history they'd be writing the book, not reading it. But Pagan authors don't seem to question our "traditions" and history. We look for ways to rationalize or justify our "lore" rather than doing quality research to find out if our "ancient Witch traditions" are genuinely old. I think that we need to demand more critical thinking, more work and research from our writers.

On to the second problem: our cultural commitment to bad history. That's a strange sounding phrase, but it's the only way I can think to describe an odd phenomenon I see in several of the better Pagan authors. Some Pagan authors will happily spread information they know isn't true. Cowan knows that Murray's research is not accurate. He admits that, in a brief footnote that's easy to overlook. But in the main body of his text (the thing that everyone reads) he presents Murray's Witch Cult as fact, not disproven theory. Starhawk does the same thing in _The Spiral Dance_. She cites Murray frequently and with approval. But if you read her notes, she admits that she knows Murray's works are highly inaccurate.

At first I was boggled by this phenomenon. Why would upstanding, honorable, decent people knowingly spread misinformation? I'd like to hear other people's opinions, but I think that it's because bad history has become traditional in the Neo-Pagan community. We may know a theory is wrong, but we have so many emotional and spiritual ties to it we can't give it up.

Almost all modern Witchcraft traditions are deeply indebted to Margaret Murray. Most Wiccan and Neo-Pagan Witchcraft traditions trace their ancestry back to Gerald Gardner, and Gardner was Murray's biggest fan. Depending on your view of history, he either invented a religion based on Murray's Witch Cult, or he radically modified traditional lore to make it fit Murray's theories. In either case, much of modern Wicca comes straight from Murray, not historical Witchcraft. Therefore criticizing Murray is almost like criticizing Wicca. If we admit that there is no evidence that Witches worshipped a Horned God, then we admit that our rites are modern, not ancient survivals. And for many Wiccans that's asking too much. The myth that we practice a Stone Age religion is too dear to them, too much a part of their self-image. They'd rather be wrong than modern.

I once had a fascinating conversation with a Norse Pagan. I, a Witch, was lamenting the low quality of Wiccan/Witch history, how there were no Wiccan historians I could recommend to a new Witch. He, on the other hand, could give a new Odinist any number of spectacularly researched texts. Why was there such a difference, I wondered?

He had a simple answer: because Asatruar were researching a historical religion and Witches weren't. That may be a polemical way of stating it, but I think he had a point. Norse Pagans work hard to base their religion on their ancestors' faith. Witches don't. We practice a perfectly fine religion, but one that doesn't have too many similarities with historical Witchcraft. Yet our religion claims to be ancient, one of the oldest faiths on the planet. For many Wiccans that aura of antiquity is one of the primary appeals of Witchcraft, what gives them a sense of history and connection to the past. Ironically, this makes good history threatening. Solid research undermines Wicca's claims of antiquity, and so we cling to bad history. It may not be right, but at least it doesn't destroy the myth that drew us to Paganism in the first place.